👋 Good Monday morning!
In today’s Daily Kickoff, we interview Israel’s Diaspora Minister Amichai Chikli, and look into Rep. George Santos’ latest claims of Jewish heritage. Also in today’s Daily Kickoff: Gov. Kathy Hochul, Luciana Berger and Gene Simmons.
The anticipated “Day of Hate” that had put the American Jewish community on high alert over the weekend thankfully fell short of any predicted violence, with no reported attacks against Jewish individuals or institutions amid an increased police presence at synagogues around the country.
But tensions flared in Israel, where on Sunday two Jewish brothers — 19-year-old Yagel Yaakov Yaniv and 21-year-old Hillel Menachem Yaniv — were killed when the car they were traveling in came under fire by Palestinian militants near the West Bank town of Huwara. Hours after the attack, Israeli settlers set Palestinian homes and cars in Huwara on fire, and at least one Palestinian was killed by gunfire, but it remains unclear who shot him.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli President Isaac Herzog issued statements last night, both warning Israelis not to “take the law into one’s own hands.” U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price tweeted a condemnation of both the killings of the Jewish men and the attacks in Huwara.
The deputy head of the Samaria Regional Council, Davidi Ben Zion, tweeted soon after the terror attack, “Here in Hawara the blood of our children has been shed, residents of Shomron who were killed here an hour ago. Hawara should be wiped out today. Enough with talk of building and strengthening the settlements, deterrence must be restored immediately, there’s no room for mercy.”
The post, which was liked by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who also holds a position in the Defense Ministry, has since been deleted, and Ben Zion appeared to walk back his comments this morning, clarifying that he is “against anarchy and taking the law into one’s own hands.” Smotrich released a similar statement. But Otzma Yehudit MK Zvika Fogel supported the attacks in a radio interview today.
Netanyahu, who was set to speak at the Global Coalition 4 Israel’s gathering in Jerusalem on Sunday evening, canceled his appearance, sending video remarks instead.
The three-day gathering at the Inbal in Jerusalem included an appearance this morning by Israeli Foreign Ministry Director-General Ronen Levy, and sessions on Iran and global delegitimization. The gathering, smaller than in years past, is bringing together 30 participants from Israel, 30 from the U.S. and 30 from other countries.
The Huwara flare-up occurred on the same day as a summit in Aqaba, Jordan, with high-level officials from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the U.S., Egypt and Jordan. In a statement, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan called the meeting “a starting point,” while noting “that there is much work to do over the coming weeks and months to build a stable and prosperous future for Israelis and Palestinians alike.”
“Implementation,” Sullivan continued, “will be critical.”
Israel’s new diaspora affairs minister readies for battle against BDS movement
In early February, days after a Palestinian terrorist opened fire in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Neve Yaakov, killing seven Israeli Jews, Israel’s newly appointed Minister of Diaspora Affairs Amichai Chikli ordered his staff to put together a primer showing how Palestinian schools in the West Bank and Gaza Strip celebrated the attack. The four-page report, which was filled with images of Palestinian schoolchildren from Hebron in the West Bank to Rafah in the Gaza Strip proudly displaying photographs of the assailant in celebratory ceremonies, was sent out to a long list of foreign ambassadors and dignitaries based in Israel with the aim of highlighting how the Palestinian leadership encourages the murder of innocent Jews. “They need to be named and shamed,” Chikli told Jewish Insider’s Ruth Marks Eglash in a wide-ranging interview last week.
BDS battle: “The Palestinians are the ones who need to be banned, they are the ones who need to be divested from, they are the ones who need to be delegitimized – it’s ridiculous that we need to even explain this.” Tackling the worldwide Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) efforts against Israel was added to the Diaspora Affairs Ministry’s portfolio when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set up his new government two months ago, and Chikli, who also serves as minister of social equality in that government, said he is determined to flip the approach in an attempt to defeat what he calls the most “antisemitic movement on the face of earth.” “The goal is to move to their side of the playing field, to stop being defensive and to go on the offensive,” he told JI. “It is the Palestinian Authority that must be delegitimized, they are the ones who need to be banned.”
Background: Chikli, 41, first made national headlines in 2021 as a firebrand instigator in the then-incoming government of former Prime Ministers Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid. Newly elected to the Knesset as part of Bennett’s right-wing Yamina party, Chikli declared that he would not support the new coalition, which was made up of a broad range of political parties, including, for the first time, an Arab faction, because he said the move contradicted campaign promises. His constant opposition to multiple policies and proposals over the first year, was what, in part, led to the government’s eventual downfall.
Reforming his approach: Ousted from Bennett’s party and initially banned from running for a Knesset seat in the last election, Chikli sought refuge in Netanyahu’s Likud party. His resistance had gained him admiration in right-wing circles, and Netanyahu eventually rewarded him by appointing him to head the ministry that engages and liaises with the Diaspora, despite Chikli’s having expressed hardline views against Reform Judaism in the past and also having made clear his support for controversial and sensitive reforms to the Law of Return – the immigration legislation that grants anyone with a single Jewish grandparent the right to seek Israeli citizenship. Chikli’s past criticism of Reform Jews in Israel appears to have softened slightly. During his short time in office, he has met with a wide array of Jewish American community leaders, including the head of the Reform movement in the U.S., Rabbi Rick Jacobs.
Criticism of Israel: On Saturday night, Jacobs became the first Diaspora Jewish leader to address Israel’s anti-government, anti-judicial reform protesters in Tel Aviv, saying that Diaspora Jews “are with you to fight the threats to Israel’s democracy.” His comments followed a similar sentiment expressed last week in an open letter sent to the Israeli government by the Jewish Federations of North America, which also expressed concern that the government’s plans might harm Israeli democracy. “Criticism is OK,” Chikli said. “I don’t think that these letters are negative. We are reading them all and listening to the voices, but in the end, unlike the grandchild clause in the Law of Return, it is eventually an inner political debate.” Chikli, however, was not so generous with his patience in his response to U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, who said in a recent interview that the Biden administration had been urging Netanyahu to “pump the brakes” on efforts to reform the judiciary. “The ambassador is not the federation, that is diplomacy,” explained the minister, who publicly chided Nides in a national radio interview last week.
on the hill
Rand Paul takes over as ranking member of Senate Homeland Security Committee
Despite past disagreements with the Jewish community — most recently in 2021 over Iron Dome funding — Kentucky Jewish leaders expressed hope to Jewish Insider‘s Marc Rod that Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) will support efforts to combat antisemitism as the new ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
History: Rabbi Shlomo Litvin, the chairman of the Kentucky Jewish Council, told JI “that there have been many times where Dr. Paul supported our community” in response to antisemitic incidents, noting specifically that the senator was one of the first lawmakers to speak out out following an attack on pro-Israel students at Duke University, Paul’s medical school alma mater. “The fact that he’s willing to speak out on those issues, I think, is tremendously valuable,” Litvin said. “I think unfortunately a lot of people get caught up on the issues that we disagree on.”
Founding values: In response to emailed questions from JI about his plans for combating antisemitism as ranking member on the committee, Paul referenced America’s founding values. “George Washington provided perhaps the most inspirational statement on religious freedom in America and wrote that all possess alike liberty of conscience and that our government gives to bigotry no sanction,” Paul said in a statement. “As Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, I will continue my work to protect religious freedom. Ensuring Americans across Kentucky and the nation are safe in their right to worship remains of utmost importance.”
Moving forward: It’s unclear whether Paul — who was outspoken last year against legislation supported by the Jewish community to combat domestic terror threats — would support new legislation to combat antisemitic threats and help secure community institutions. “We would probably disagree that we need more funding towards things like hate crimes legislation,” Melanie Maron Pell, the American Jewish Committee’s chief field operations officer, who lives in Kentucky, said. “I think he would see that as unnecessary and we think more resources need to be directed toward this. We think more resources need to be directed towards protecting Jewish communities and Jewish institutions.”
Iran angle: In an area of greater friction with the Jewish community, Paul blocked a resolution expressing support for Iranian anti-regime protesters from passing by a fast-track process in the Senate late last year. The resolution also called on the U.S. to work with European allies to crack down on malign activities being operated out of Iranian diplomatic missions, with the aim of shutting them down. Litvin said he hadn’t had a specific meeting with Paul about the Iran legislation, but said that Paul has broadly “not always been supportive of the idea of sanctions and the success of sanctions” in past conversations about Iran policy.
Experts dismiss Santos’s latest defense of claims of Jewish refugee grandparents
In a wide-ranging television interview with Piers Morgan last week, Rep. George Santos (R-NY) floated a new claim to defend the widely debunked story he has told about his maternal grandparents, who, he insists, escaped Europe during World War II and settled in South America as Jewish refugees. Despite evidence to the contrary, Santos, 34, now maintains that this account holds up because his grandparents had, apparently unbeknown to immigration officials at the time, “falsified a lot of their documents to claim they were born” in Brazil after fleeing Nazi-occupied Belgium in 1940 or 1941, he said on “Piers Morgan Uncensored.” “We are talking about a time in history where this was a very common occurrence in the name of survival,” the embattled congressman proclaimed, introducing a previously uncited twist to the dubious immigration tale he sold to voters ahead of the midterms, Jewish Insider’s Matthew Kassel reports.
Rare cases: Presented with Santos’ latest assertion, meanwhile, Fábio Koifman, a historian who specializes in the entry of foreigners into Brazil during World War II, dismissed the suggestion that using falsified documents to find refuge abroad had in any way been widespread, particularly at a time when immigration to South America’s largest country was strictly controlled by an authoritarian regime. Koifman, an associate professor at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro, said in an email to JI that he was only aware, for example, of a “single foreigner” who had arrived in Brazil with an invented name between 1937 and 1945, which coincided with a short-lived dictatorship known as the “Estado Novo.”
What’s in a name: In more than 25 years “studying cases exactly at this time,” said Koifman, a leading expert on the era, he has also found records of “German Jews with purchased passports” from Haiti and other countries, as well as falsified visas, all including real names. “They tried without much success” and “were soon discovered,” he told JI, citing a heightened “concern for ‘communist infiltration’ or with criminals and scammers” from the fascist-leaning government. If Santos’ grandparents had in fact claimed citizenship with forged papers, then the real or imagined names they used on their travel documents to leave Belgium would be readily searchable, Koifman averred, noting the difficulties associated with changing such information once in Brazil. “If they did not enter their own names,” asked Koifman, who carefully reconstructed Santos’ maternal lineage in December, “what names did they use?”
Genealogical work: Renee Steinig, a veteran genealogist on Long Island who has also closely examined Santos’ family tree, agreed that there is no compelling reason to believe Santos’ maternal grandparents hadn’t simply been natives of Brazil. Usually, she said, “forged records don’t make their way into government archives.” In a recent email exchange with JI, Steinig, who has worked with a group of genealogists in recent months to poke several holes in Santos’ biography, shared a link to what she characterized with near-certainty as the birth record of Santos’ grandmother, Rosalina Caruso Horta Devolder. The document, which has not previously been reported, is written in Portuguese and listed on FamilySearch, a free genealogical reference site maintained by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The digital record confirms that Rosalina was born in Niterói, a suburb of Rio de Janeiro, in July 1927, as other sources have shown.
DNA drive: Santos has continued to claim Jewish ancestry on his mother’s side, most recently in his hour-long conversation with Piers Morgan a week ago. “This is the one that I will battle to my grave to the point that I’ve already ordered those DNA test kits,” he said. “I have done four of them so far, and I’m just waiting for their returns. And I’m very curious to share those with everybody.” Whatever their results, however, such tests would not explain how Santos’ grandparents could possibly have immigrated to Brazil from Europe, not least in possession of documents that he contends were deliberately forged. In the final accounting, there were “very few people who in that time managed to travel with false documents, unfortunately,” Koifman told JI. “If it were easy and worked,” the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust “would have been a few hundred smaller.”
From Cleveland to Jerusalem, autotech startup helps dealers build sales
Aharon Horwitz, an immigrant to Israel from Cleveland, thought he had a terrific startup idea that would give small- and medium-sized businesses the types of data tools used by global operations like Pizza Hut to track customers and build sales, Brian Blum reports for The Circuit. The Jerusalem-based company, dubbed 40 Nuggets, had moderate success with clients ranging from Israeli homebuilders to newsletter publishers, but Horwitz ultimately burned through his cash reserves. After a venture capital investor advised Horwitz to pivot back to the U.S. and focus on car dealerships, the business soon took off. Israel was far from his target market.
Raising funds: Rebranding the company as AutoLeadStar with the mission to “upend digital marketing” in the car industry, Horwitz has since raised $57 million and racked up close to 1,000 dealers in cities across the country from Manchester, N.H., to Tacoma, Wash. He has doubled revenue for each of the last three years. “No one wanted to talk to a company overseas,” Horwitz told The Circuit. “I got on a plane, flew to Cleveland, where I used family connections to get introductions. I essentially started volunteering. It was like I was interning at these car dealerships.”
Competitors ailing: Horwitz’s business is making money and attracting investment at a time that others in the industry are struggling. The online automotive retailer Carvana, for example, saw its valuation plunge 98% in the last 18 months. One of its competitors in the U.S. market, Jerusalem-based Vroom, was trading at $1 a share in recent trading, a far cry from $65 in 2020. AutoLeadStar, on the other hand, managed to raise $40 million as recently as November, at a time when investment has been drying up for startups both in Israel and the U.S., forcing many companies to lay off employees and others to shut down entirely.
Torrents of data: Horwitz never planned to get into the car business – he studied political science at Columbia University – and knew little about it when his key investor, PICO CEO Elie Wurtman, suggested in 2015 that his customer engagement software could fill a gap in the $1.5 trillion auto industry. The systems developed originally by 40 Nuggets were able to help smaller car dealers compete with the majors in compiling torrents of customer data, massaging it through artificial intelligence and automation tools, and generating the leads that produce repeat sales – now and years in the future. “It became quickly apparent that what we were developing was exactly what they were looking for,” Horwitz said in an interview at his office in Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood, which is filled with repair shops and auto parts stores alongside higher-end shopping malls. Over time, he said, he “fell in love with the industry and with the potential there.”
🧕 Protest Movement: The New York Times’ Farnaz Fassihi spotlights women in Iran who are refusing to wear a hijab, in protest of the country’s modesty rules. “Women are suddenly flaunting their hair: left long and flowing in the malls; tied in a bun on the streets; styled into bobs on public transportation; and pulled into ponytails at schools and on university campuses, according to interviews with women in Iran as well as photographs and videos online. While these acts of defiance are rarer in more conservative areas, they are increasingly being seen in towns and cities. ‘I have not worn a scarf for months — I don’t even carry it with me any more,’ said Kimia, 23, a graduate student in the Kurdish city of Sanandaj, in western Iran, who, like other women interviewed for this article, asked that her surname not be used for fear of retribution.” [NYTimes]
💵 ESG Opposition:The Wall Street Journal’s Julie Bykowicz and Angel Au-Yeung look at the looming battle in Washington over environmental, social and corporate-governance (ESG) investing. “Opposition to ESG is about to get more national attention. The Republican-led House of Representatives plans hearings to highlight what the conservative groups and some GOP members view as the politicization of investments. And already, potential GOP presidential candidates, including former Vice President Mike Pence and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, are talking about how Democrats have forced their agenda on companies through ESG requirements… The current ESG model has critics across the political spectrum. Some investment managers who had embraced ESG say they still believe it is a good idea in theory but that it has failed to live up to its promises. A former BlackRock executive wrote a book arguing that ESG has proved to be neither a reliable generator of returns nor a real catalyst for change. There is also growing concern about what companies might do to ‘greenwash,’ or make themselves look more environmentally friendly than they really are. Some question the accuracy of the ESG scores that ratings firms give companies.” [WSJ]
☢️ Behind the Scenes: In Foreign Affairs, Dalia Dassa Kaye suggests how Washington could approach tensions between Israel and Iran. “The bet in Washington is that the confrontation with Iran can remain low grade and that a wider bilateral or regional conflict can be avoided. The U.S. government also believes that deterrence is necessary to prevent and slow Tehran’s military and nuclear advances in the absence of diplomacy. The prevailing Israeli calculation is that Iran’s domestic vulnerabilities and regional isolation, as well as coordinated Israeli and American military deterrence measures, will limit Iran’s responses. But the ongoing geopolitical shakeup could challenge those prevailing views.” [ForeignAffairs]
🙇 Idol Ideas: In The New York Times, Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren considers the role of idolatry in a modern context. “Idolatry may also seem far removed from modern life, conjuring images of ancient peoples bowing to golden statues. But we should understand that those who bowed before images did so because they believed they could persuade or manipulate the gods to give them what they longed for — fertility, rain, abundant harvests, victory, happiness, security and safety. We may use different means today, but modern people are driven by the same motivations. We also seek, in our own ways, to control our world and to wrest from it what we need and desire.” [NYTimes]
Around the Web
📄 Staying Put: Rep. John James (R-MI), filed paperwork for his reelection, forgoing a Senate bid following the announcement that Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) will retire at the end of 2024.
🎭 Power of Play: After attending a showing of Tom Stoppard’s Broadway play “Leopoldstadt,” New York Gov. Kathy Hochul tweeted that the show, which follows a Jewish family in Austria before and after the Holocaust, “Speaks of the history of antisemitism and serves as an important, urgent reminder of the need to continue the fight against hate today.”
📚 Book Shelf: The New York Times’ Sadie Stein spotlights Brazilian publisher Luis Schwarcz’s memoir The Absent Moon, which focuses on his struggle with clinical depression.
👩 Berger’s Back: Former U.K. Member of Parliament Luciana Berger rejoined the Labour party four years after leaving over the party’s handling of antisemitism accusations, following an apology from party leader Keir Starmer.
❌ Dark Side of the Main: The German city of Frankfurt canceled an upcoming performance by Roger Waters over the Pink Floyd frontman’s past use of antisemitic imagery, support for the BDS movement and interactions with the media arm of Hamas.
🇵🇬 Coming Soon: Papua New Guinea will open an embassy in Jerusalem later this year.
💰 Money Matters: Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf countries are withholding billions of dollars of investment into Egypt until they see that the country has substantial economic reforms.
🇷🇺🇮🇷 Axis of Evil: National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said that Russia and Iran are escalating their military partnership, with Russia poised to provide Iran with fighter jets and other military equipment.
🪙 Rial Rut: The Iranian rial hit a new low on Sunday, following months of protests in the country.
🚀 Missile Missive: In a Friday television broadcast, an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander said that Iran has successfully developed a long-range cruise missile.
🕯️ Remembering: Robert Hébras, the last survivor of a 1944 French massacre in which Nazis killed over 600 people, died at 97.
Pic of the Day
Kiss bassist Gene Simmons poses yesterday with former Miss Iraq Sarah Idan and Jeannie Opdyke Smith in front of a mural of Opdyke Smith’s mother, Irene Gut Opdyke, a Polish nurse who saved a dozen Jews during the Holocaust. The mural, in the downtown Los Angeles arts district, was painted by L.A.-based artist Andrew Hem as part of Artists 4 Israel’s Righteous Among the Nations Global Mural Project, which honors non-Jewish individuals for their acts of bravery during the Holocaust.
Speaking at Sunday’s event, Simmons introduced himself by saying, “In the language of my forefathers and a culture that goes back 6,000 years, hashem sheli Chayim, v’ani noladti b’Haifa [My name is Chayim, and I was born in Haifa].”
Chief baseball officer for the Boston Red Sox, Chaim Bloom turns 40…
Performance artist and filmmaker, Eleanor Antin turns 88… Writer and illustrator of children’s books, Uri Shulevitz turns 88… William Drykos… Investor and trader, chair of Julliard, vice chair of Lincoln Center and on the Board of the Metropolitan Opera, Bruce Kovner turns 78… Haverford, Pennsylvania-based attorney, mediator and arbitrator, Judith Meyer… NYC-based real estate developer, Michael Gervis… Professor of physics at MIT, Alan Harvey Guth turns 76… Member of the British House of Lords, she is a retired rabbi and the chair of University College London Hospitals, Baroness Julia Neuberger turns 73… Historian, syndicated columnist, investigative journalist and talk show host, Edwin Black turns 73… U.S. Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) turns 65… Actor who starred as FBI Agent Stan Beeman on the FX series “The Americans,” Noah Emmerich turns 58… Stand-up comedian, Wendy Liebman turns 62… Suzanne “Suzy” Appelbaum… President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, David S. Waren… Founder of Spanx and a part owner of the Atlanta Hawks, Sara Blakely turns 52… Founder and executive director of Toldot Yisrael, Aryeh Halivni turns 50… Director of Georgetown University’s journalism program, Rebecca Sinderbrand… Singer-songwriter, composer and prayer leader, Sam Benjamin “Shir Yaakov” Feinstein-Feit turns 45… Finance minister of Israel, he is the leader of the Religious Zionist party, Bezalel Smotrich turns 43… Massachusetts state senator until earlier this year, one of the originators of the White House Seder, Eric P. Lesser turns 38… Alana Berkowitz…