Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) called on the Biden administration on Thursday to address a range of issues in addition to Iran’s nuclear program in its negotiations with Tehran during a virtual event with the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.
Schumer emphasized that he opposed both the 2015 nuclear deal when it was signed as well as the Trump administration’s withdrawal from it three years later, which he said “isolated the U.S., instead of Iran.”
“Today Iran has a greater ability — they’re closer to producing a nuclear weapon — than they were the day Trump pulled out of the agreement or the day Obama signed the agreement,” Schumer said.
The longtime New York senator indicated that he would like to see a broader deal with Iran addressing a range of issues including terrorism, ballistic missiles, human rights and hostage-taking, rather than focusing on the nuclear issue alone.
“I understand why the current administration is in negotiations and I don’t have any problem with them sitting down and talking, but I also believe… we have to follow through on all of these issues,” Schumer said. “It’s not that we shouldn’t sit down, because if we don’t sit down, Iran could just go forward and produce a nuclear weapon… but when we do sit down we have to make sure there are a lot of issues on the table.”
“I wanted $360 [million]. I was only minority leader in December. I got it doubled to $180 [million], now we’re going to try to get the full $360 [million] a year, which is very much needed and has broad support, so I’m very optimistic,” Schumer said.
Last week, a group of House members — roughly one-third of the legislative body — expressed support for $360 million in NSGP funding for 2022, which is also the target amount for a number of Jewish community organizations lobbying on the issue.
In recent weeks, however, several senators who had been vocal supporters of the NSGP program declined to provide to JI a specific target level for 2022 NSGP funding.
Earlier on Thursday, Schumer paid a shiva call to the family of Pinchas Menachem Knoblowitz, who died in the stampede at a Lag B’Omer gathering at Israel’s Mount Meron last weekend that killed 45 people. Schumer told the family he has “a deep faith in Hashem.”
“I have a Jewish heart — a neshamah,” Schumer said. “I have a deep faith in God. If I didn’t I wouldn’t be in this job.”
Also Thursday, the New York senator stopped by Junior’s in Times Square, digging into a slice of the restaurant’s famous cheesecake, to celebrate the location’s reopening.
“If there’s an iconic place on the planet that tells the toil of COVID, it’s Times Square,” Schumer said. “All of Times Square is coming back. And we’re here to say now that in Times Square there is light, there is liveliness, and there is cheesecake.”
Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-NV) left politics nearly a decade ago. In that time, she has seen antisemitism increasingly consume elements of the political right — and is concerned that the same thing could happen in her own party. In her new role as the co-chair of the Jewish Federations of North America’s security and antisemitism committee, she wants to address the issue head-on.
“If you look at the right, they are as antisemitic as the Nazis,” Berkley, who represented Nevada’s first congressional district from 1999 to 2013, remarked in an interview with Jewish Insider on Thursday. “When you look to the left, there are Democrats on the far left that are just as hateful and antisemitic as on the right.”
“It upsets and angers me that there is a segment of the Democratic Party that is not only anti-Israel, but from their rhetoric there is no other conclusion than they are antisemitic,” she said. “It worries me on the left that mainstream Democrats are not taking a stand against the antisemitic, pro-BDS rhetoric coming out of the left,” she said, referring to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that targets Israel.
Candidates aligned with the Democratic Socialists of America, which supports BDS, recently won control of the Democratic Party apparatus in Berkley’s home state.
As co-chair of the JFNA committee that leads the federations’ advocacy, education and training efforts fighting antisemitism and securing Jewish institutions, Berkley is attuned to the growing threats facing the community.
Berkley said she plans to actively oppose legislation like a recent bill from Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) that would place restrictions on U.S. aid and any BDS initiatives, as well as to support the National Security Grant Program and bills promoting Holocaust education.
“These issues are very important to me,” Berkley said, adding that she sees her new position with JFNA as a complement to her job as the chief executive officer and senior provost of Touro University’s Western Division.
As a legislator, Berkley was actively involved in Jewish community issues and was known as one of the most prominent pro-Israel members of Congress. Berkley left the House for an unsuccessful bid for Senate, later joining Touro.
Berkley said that right-wing antisemitism “once was a fringe” but is “becoming far more mainstream on the right,” pointing to incidents like the January 6 Capitol riot and the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va.
“Now, members of the Republican [Party in] Congress do not want to investigate that insurrection. The only conclusion is that they agree with it,” Berkley said, “or they would be far more anxious to get to the bottom of how that happened and ensure it never happens again.”
Berkley also reflected on the legacy of another major figure in Nevada and pro-Israel politics, Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson, who died earlier this year.
Berkley and Adelson had a long and complicated relationship — she was a high-ranking lawyer for the casino mogul in the ‘90s, but the two split over a union dispute, and Adelson ultimately dedicated significant resources to her political opponents. A 2012 Politico article during Berkley’s Senate run described the two as “mortal foes.”
“One must give credit where credit is due. Some of the issues that came to the forefront under the Trump administration — moving the embassy to Jerusalem, which I have always supported, and initiating the Abraham Accords — I suspect came from Sheldon,” Berkley said. “Sheldon and Trump were very close allies. And I know that Sheldon had Trump’s ear. So I applaud those initiatives.”
Berkley praised the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and several Arab states, as “a miraculous step forward,” which she hopes is expanded further.
“Imagine that region in the world if there was cooperation… Everyone will be better off for it,” Berkley said. “It makes absolutely no sense to continue these petty hatreds and refuse to recognize Israel’s right to exist. I don’t want to shock anybody in the Arab world, but Israel exists and it’s flourishing.”
The former congresswoman said she has confidence that President Joe Biden and his foreign policy team will continue to support the U.S.’s close alliance with Israel and create opportunities for Middle East peace.
“President Biden has been in public office at the forefront of foreign affairs for his entire career and almost his entire life… He has assembled a great foreign policy team,” she said. “As our most reliable ally and the only democracy in the Middle East, it is essential that Israel remain strong. And while they are certainly self-sustaining, it is the most important alliance in the world, the American-Israeli relationship.”
Seth Siegel has been many things in his life: a CEO, a Broadway and television producer, an author.
Now he’s taking on a new role: chief sustainability officer at N-Drip, the manufacturer of a pioneering gravity-powered Israeli irrigation system.
It’s the natural next step for Siegel, 67, who has spent the last six years entrenched in the world of water sustainability, with an eye toward Israel’s progress on the issue.
Siegel is a veteran of the branding world and a serial entrepreneur, known until a handful of years ago for not only his business acumen, but also his activism and philanthropy. A Cornell University graduate, he chaired the university Hillel’s board of trustees, and was a board member of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School, a pluralistic day school in Manhattan, for more than 30 years. His activism with AIPAC brought him to Israel many times.
“In the process of trying to become really expert about Israel, you can’t really do that without understanding the geography and the environmental challenges of the region,” Siegel told Jewish Insider. “And that led me to becoming smart about water scarcity, and that in turn led me to spend a lot of deep reading about water scarcity globally.”
Siegel, who is based in New York, interviewed more than 200 people for his first book, Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World, released in 2015. One of them was Uri Shani, a Hebrew University professor and a former head of Israel’s Water Authority.
Siegel and Shani crossed paths again after the book’s release, when both were speaking at an event in Milwaukee. Shani tried to pitch him on an idea for his next book. “[Shani] says, ‘I’ve invented something that’s gonna change the world.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s pretty good. That’s a big statement,’” Siegel recalled.
Israel has long been a global leader in drip-water irrigation, the technological innovation that revolutionized farming in arid and drought-plagued regions. But it is not without its downsides; namely, the significant expense of installation, as well as the amount of energy used in order to power the systems. Because Shani’s systems instead rely on gravity, they are more energy efficient and can cover larger expanses of land, providing a higher yield for the work.
Siegel first joined Shani’s N-Drip as an investor. His relationship with the company evolved to a point of daily communication with N-Drip executives, giving advice and facilitating connections made originally during his years of research for his books. When he was offered the opportunity to come on board as an employee, Siegel was unsure how to proceed.
“Now first of all, I’m kind of at retirement age,” he said. “Second of all, last time I had an employer, I was 27 or 28 years old. So now it’s been a while since I had a boss. And third of all, you know, it’s seven time zones away from where I live.”
After giving more thought to the idea, Siegel eventually put aside his reservations and signed on.
N-Drip may well change the world, and if it does, some of the credit will go to Siegel, who now facilitates meetings with government officials, multilateral organizations and global corporations in an effort to scale up the company’s work around the globe. N-Drip has already set up gravity-powered irrigation systems in Australia, Israel, the U.S. and the southern African nation of eSwatini (Swaziland).
For someone who admits to be approaching retirement age, Siegel shows no sign of considering a typical retirement. After the success of his first two books (the second, Troubled Water: What’s Wrong with What We Drink, was released in 2019), both focused on water and technology, he wrote a third book, one that is markedly different from his prior writings but has been in the works for many years. That book, Other People’s Words: Wisdom for an Inspired and Productive Life, hit stores this week.
When Siegel was a teenager, he began collecting notable quotations wherever he saw them: in books or in the text of news articles, scribbled or posted on walls. What started as a collection of scraps of paper with a few sentences scribbled down and shoved into a drawer morphed into a collection, typed onto index cards, of thousands of thoughts, words of advice and ruminations.
The book itself is a collection broken down by category: the chapter “Taking Charge,” for example, includes quotes from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (“In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible”) and Princess Diana (“I want to do, not just to be”), while the “Arts and Entertainment” chapter features such voices as tennis legend Billie Jean King (“Champions keep playing until they get it right”) and Alexandre Dumas (“I have finished my play, now all I have to do is write it down”).
Owing to Siegel’s personal interests, the chapter titled “Our Fragile World” includes sections on technology, water and the environment. There are also a number of quotes from Jewish and Israeli figures, including the Baal Shem Tov, Menachem Begin and Golda Meir. Siegel is considering future editions, including one focused on Jewish speakers and quotes.
“It’s an intellectual biography in a strange way, because these are the quotations that have formed the basis, the DNA of my worldview, and propelled me and what I’ve done in life,” he said. “It’s a way of looking at who I am as well, and not just for others, but for myself, [I can] look back and think, well, I remember when I clicked on this quotation, how it impacted me, I remember how it helped shape my thinking about things, or how it helped me to look at the world in a different way.”
Ohio Senate hopeful looks to jump-start campaign with help from pro-Israel stalwarts including former U.S. Amb. to Israel David Friedman
Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call via AP
In this 2016 photo, Ohio Republican Senate candidate Josh Mandel, the current state treasurer, makes a stop on his "Noble County Commit to Mitt Early Vote Express Bus Tour Stop" at the courthouse in Caldwell.
Josh Mandel, a Republican Senate candidate in Ohio, is holding a high-profile virtual fundraising event on Monday alongside several pro-Israel heavyweights including former U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, billed as a “special guest” on the invitation for the May 10 event.
Elan Carr, the Trump administration’s special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, who is one of 15 hosts, shared the invite in a Wednesday morning tweet. “Amb. Friedman and I, with leaders from across the country, are proud to support front-running US Senate candidate Josh Mandel,” Carr wrote. “48th Treasurer of Ohio, US Marine, Iraq War veteran, and my good friend, Josh is a true patriot and great leader for our country.”
Other hosts include Sandy Perl, a partner at Kirkland & Ellis LLP in Chicago; Jon Diamond, president of Safe Auto Insurance in Columbus; former AIPAC President Howard Friedman; Michael Tuchin, a partner at KTBS Law LLP in Los Angeles; author and businessman Seth “Yossi” Siegel; and Phil Rosen, a partner at Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP in New York.
The fundraiser suggests that Mandel is likely to receive some significant support from prominent members of the pro-Israel community as he struggles to gain traction in the crowded field of candidates vying to succeed outgoing moderate Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH). Former GOP state party chair Jane Timken, tech executive Bernie Moreno and businessman Mike Gibbons have entered the race in recent months, and more are expected to join as election season heats up.
“Josh is a proud American, Marine, Jew and Zionist,” Scott Guthrie, a spokesman for Mandel, told Jewish Insider on Wednesday when asked about the upcoming benefit. “He is grateful to have the support of so many American patriots who have fought for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. He also feels blessed to have evangelical Christian Zionists across Ohio supporting his campaign for U.S. Senate.”
Still, Mandel appears to have had some trouble courting contributors, despite early favorable polling from the conservative Club for Growth, which endorsed him. Recent filings from the Federal Election Commission revealed that Mandel’s campaign lost money in the first quarter of the year. In April, sources told Axios, Mandel crashed a Palm Beach donor retreat hosted by the Republican National Committee, but was escorted from the event because his name was not on the invitation list.
Mandel has emerged as a polarizing figure as he seeks to channel former President Donald Trump, who remains popular among Republican voters in Ohio and has yet to make an endorsement in the race. In March, Mandel’s Twitter account was briefly suspended after he posted an inflammatory poll asking whether “Muslim Terrorists” or “Mexican Gangbangers” would be “more likely to commit crimes.”
The tweet drew widespread condemnation, including from a Jewish community member in Columbus who, in a Cleveland.com guest column, castigated Mandel’s “reprehensible rhetoric” as “no different than the way people used to talk about Jews.”
Recently, Mandel has somewhat softened his rhetoric, presenting himself as a more traditionally conservative man of faith in his first TV ad, released at the end of March during Passover.
“This time of year we celebrate that God is always in control,” Mandel said in the 30-second spot over soft piano accompaniment. “I’m Josh Mandel, and I personally know that’s true. You see, my grandma was saved from the Nazis by a network of courageous Christians who risked their lives to save hers. Without their faith, I’m not here today.”
“I’m Josh Mandel and I approve this message, because in dark times like this past year, faith is our brightest light,” he concluded.
Mandel ran unsuccessfully against Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) in 2012. He mounted a second challenge in 2018 but withdrew from the race. From 2011 to 2019, he served as Ohio’s state treasurer, overseeing record investments in Israeli bonds.
In a February interview with JI, shortly after he announced his candidacy, Mandel emphasized a deep personal connection with the Jewish state.
“I’m raising my three kids to be proud Americans, proud Jews and proud Zionists,” he said, adding: “I’m also proud to have many cousins who live throughout Judea and Samaria, and I believe that Jews have the biblical right to live, build and prosper in every corner of Judea, Samaria and the entirety of Israel.”
Justice Democrats launched an early warning shot into Middle Tennessee last month when it backed Nashville activist Odessa Kelly in her bid to unseat a House Democrat with deep establishment ties at the state and national levels. As the first primary challenger of the 2022 cycle to have earned an endorsement from Justice Democrats, Kelly is hoping an imprimatur from one of the nation’s leading progressive groups will lend some initial momentum to her fledgling campaign.
“I didn’t want to be one of those people that was just running to get their name out there and have a moral victory,” Kelly, 39, told Jewish Insider in a recent interview. “I want to win this race.”
So far, Kelly’s decision to jump in well ahead of next year’s August primary seems to have paid off, at least financially. Within 36 hours of announcing her candidacy, the nonprofit leader and former civil servant reported that she had raised more than $100,000 for her insurgent campaign to take down Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN), the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrat whose legislative record is in many ways anathema to the party’s far-left flank.
Waleed Shahid, a spokesperson for Justice Democrats, drew a sharp contrast with the moderate congressman while emphasizing Kelly’s grassroots credentials. “Odessa had a long track record in community organizing and delivering results for working families,” he said. “There were so many people in the Nashville area who felt she had the kind of grassroots organizer and coalition-builder approach to politics that they felt like Cooper had never brought to the office.”
Kelly is nevertheless in for a tough fight. Cooper — who has held his current seat since 2003 and previously served in Congress from 1983 to 1995 — remains a fixture in the district and throughout Tennessee. His late father, Prentice, was the state’s governor, and his brother, John, is the mayor of Nashville. While Kelly has never sought public office, Cooper is “a very shrewd campaigner and will likely have significantly more in his campaign coffers,” said Vaughn May, a political scientist at Belmont University in Nashville.
Still, Cooper has shown occasional signs of vulnerability. Just last cycle, he faced a separate challenger, Keeda Haynes, who notably pulled in 40% of the vote in her effort to become Tennessee’s first Black congresswoman — an impressive result despite Cooper’s victory by a relatively comfortable margin of 17 points.
Kelly believes she is better poised to close that gap. “The difference between me and Keeda Haynes is that, first of all, I’m a Nashville native,” said Kelly, who would be the first openly gay Black woman in the House. “I have more name visibility, and I have a long-standing reputation in several communities here in Nashville. People know what I stand for, what I’m about and what I’m going to push for.”
Irwin Venick, a local Jewish activist who worked with Kelly on a poverty reduction initiative in Nashville, agreed with that assessment. “Odessa Kelly is probably better known in the community,” he observed. “I think that she is going to be a formidable opponent.”
The congressional hopeful began her career as a city employee with Nashville’s department of parks and recreation, where she worked for 14 years before pivoting to the nonprofit world. “I got paid to play with people all day,” she said. “We were the one part of the government people were happy to see.”
But the job was also dispiriting for Kelly. “I dealt with people every day who were just struggling,” she recalled. It was an experience that drew her into activism with an interfaith coalition called Nashville Organized for Action and Hope. Working on housing issues with local faith leaders, Kelly recalled witnessing the ways in which development, for better or worse, was reshaping Nashville, which is among the fastest growing cities in the country.
When the pandemic hit, laying bare a broad array of inequalities, Kelly pondered whether she could direct her experience to shape public policy. “How do you keep expanding on being a better civil servant?” she recalled wondering. “I decided to run for Congress.”
“Every city, every metropolitanized area, is going through the same issues,” said Kelly, going on to list some of the problems that motivated her House bid. Bemoaning what she described as a “corporate takeover of the state,” Kelly warned of the influx of tech giants like Oracle, which recently received approval for a major development plan in East Nashville. “That’s going to have large implications on gentrification and jobs and who’s going to be able to actually get these jobs and work them,” said Kelly.
Her platform includes several popular proposals in the progressive policy agenda, like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. Police reform, a subject of intense debate among House Democrats, is another area of concern for the Nashville native, though she avoided direct references to defunding the police when asked for her stance on the matter.
“When it comes to police, we definitely have to rethink what safety is. It’s definitely not working for Black people, how we define it today. But I think it’s more nuanced than that. At the same time, I pay tax dollars, too,” she said. “If we do call the police, they need to come and protect and serve in the same way as they do in any other community.”
As for matters of international interest, Kelly underscored that foreign policy isn’t her “top issue” at the moment, while adding: “I’ll approach any issue, anything dealing with foreign policy, through a human rights lens. I support freedom and justice for people here in the United States just as I do across the world.”
That frame, she suggested, influences her belief that the United States should condition aid to Israel — a view that is also held by two other progressivechallengers who have earned endorsements from Justice Democrats this year. “I would be in favor of conditioning aid for the reason that I believe that no U.S. dollars should go toward infringing on anyone’s human rights,” she said, without going into specifics. “That’s anywhere that U.S. dollars are going, not just in Israel but Saudi Arabia and other places as well.”
Kelly says she is in favor of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and opposes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. She has never been to Israel but said she would be eager to go if elected. “I would like to see the holy sites there,” said Kelly, who notes on her campaign website that she is a member of Nashville’s historic Mount Zion Baptist Church. “I am Christian, but I’m not a holy roller like my mom,” she explained. “I’m a typical Southern girl.”
Despite a locally focused campaign, Kelly’s congressional bid has drawn national attention — and with it added scrutiny — thanks to her affiliation with Justice Democrats. Shortly after she announced her candidacy, Fox News, having combed through Kelly’s old social media posts, dug up a potentially damaging finding: that she had attended a speech by Louis Farrakhan, the antisemitic Nation of Islam leader. “Currently @ Jefferson St. Baptist Church, waiting to hear Louis Farrakhan speak,” Kelly wrote in an April 2012 Facebook post that is no longer publicly available. “These bros in the bowties#BIG TIME SWAG! WE ARE A BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE.”
But Kelly, who claims Fox’s reporting was “distorted,” says she has no affinity for Farrakhan, who railed against accusations of his antisemitism at the church event, according to an account published in The Final Call, the Nation of Islam’s official newspaper. Kelly said she was unaware that Farrakhan would be speaking at the gathering she had assumed was a rally for Trayvon Martin, whose fatal shooting a month or so earlier had spurred a series of nationwide demonstrations. “The next thing I know, Farrakhan is crossing my path,” Kelly recalled.
“Since that time, I’ve started paying more attention to political figures and becoming more politically engaged,” Kelly told JI. “The murder of Trayvon Martin triggered that for a lot of people in my age group, and that’s when I started paying more attention to the things that Farrakhan was saying. I’ve learned about a lot of the antisemitic things that he’s saying, and I in no way condone that whatsoever. As a gay woman, he [goes] hard on gay people 24/7. So I understand how people have sensitivity there.”
With the primary season still in its early stages, Kelly remains the only other candidate in the race as she works to build out her campaign infrastructure and solicit donations. “I’m not independently wealthy,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that I run a real race.”
But because Cooper faced something of a formidable challenger last cycle, it is possible that another contender, sensing opportunity, will jump into the race, syphoning support from Kelly. “The assumption is that she’s going to have a free ride,” said Bruce Oppenheimer, a professor emeritus of political science at Vanderbilt University. “I think if she does not look like a strong candidate, someone else will jump in.”
For his part, Cooper welcomed such challengers in a statement to JI. “Competition is good,” he said. “During the last election six months ago, I got a record 250,000 votes and I am grateful for the support of the community.”
As the city emerges from the throes of a devastating pandemic, Cooper is casting himself as an old hand capable of delivering on the promises of the Biden administration.
“My work in Congress is not done,” he told JI. “We are making real progress under the Biden administration, bringing home huge dollars for everyone in the Nashville area, rolling out vaccines and even starting to cut childhood poverty in half. I am helping Nashville’s schools and businesses reopen safely. And Speaker Pelosi just gave me the high honor of a seat on the Intelligence Committee, where I protect our nation’s secrets and help keep our country safe. I continue to serve on the House Armed Services Committee, helping ensure we give support to our allies worldwide.”
Fred Zimmerman, a pro-Israel advocate in Nashville, has known Cooper for decades and described him as an attentive leader in the district. “He’s a known quantity, and people generally like and respect him. He’s not a flashy attention-getter. I guess you’d call him the classic policy wonk,” Zimmerman told JI. “As far as the issues that are important to the Jewish community, Jim has always been terrific. He really has.”
Avi Poster, a Jewish community leader and activist in Nashville, echoed that view. “Jim has supported the issues that I’m most concerned with,” Poster told JI. “He’s been a strong supporter of Israel, he’s been a friend of the Jewish community, and I think Jim’s social values and progressive values have been consistent with those of the Jewish community.”
But while Poster said he has enjoyed his relationship with Cooper, he also reserved praise for Kelly, with whom he has worked closely on a number of social justice issues throughout the years.
“What we now have is another candidate who has spent her entire life focused on the needs of those people who have less,” Poster said. “Adding her to our conversation will bring light to issues we should be talking about in Nashville.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a coalition before the midnight deadline last night and returned the mandate to President Reuven Rivlin. The president is holding consultations this morning with party leaders before making a new recommendation, though he is expected to task Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid with the next shot.
Blame game: In a statement announcing that he was returning the mandate — without requesting an extension — Netanyahu’s Likud Party blamed Yamina leader Naftali Bennett for his failure to build a coalition: “Due to Bennett’s refusal to commit to a right-wing government… Netanyahu has returned the mandate to the president.” Earlier this week, Netanyahu publicly offered Bennett to go first in a rotation deal for prime minister, but Bennett rejected the proposition as political spin. Even with Bennett’s backing, Netanyahu did not have enough support without the Islamist Party Ra’am.
Next up: Rivlin will now have up to three days to decide who should next receive the mandate and attempt to build a minimum 61-seat coalition. The president began holding meetings Wednesday morning with some party leaders to gather new recommendations for the next candidate. Lapid, whose Yesh Atid Party is the second-largest in the new Knesset, met with Rivlin and requested he be handed the mandate next. Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope Party — which did not recommend a candidate the first time around — told Rivlin it was backing Lapid, as did Blue and White, Labor, Yisrael Beytenu and Meretz. But Bennett reiterated to the president his request to receive the mandate himself to form the next government. Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism and the National Religious Party recommended that Rivlin hand the mandate straight to the Knesset.
Bumpy road: If Lapid is given the next shot, he will face an uphill battle to unite the many disparate anti-Netanyahu factions in order to form a government. If he is unable to do so, Israel is expected to hold yet another national election sometime this fall. Yamina MK Amichai Chikli informed Bennett this morning that he opposes joining in a government with Lapid, dealing a blow to the possibility such a coalition could be formed. Likud insiders are expected to lobby other Yamina MKs to also oppose joining such a coalition. Meanwhile, Bennett and Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas — who would likely both be needed to form a government without Netanyahu — have met multiple times over the past week to discuss potential cooperation.
Bill brouhaha: Earlier in the day on Tuesday, Likud MK Miki Zohar, chairman of the Knesset Arrangements Committee, pulled a bill that would establish a direct prime ministerial election from the committee’s agenda at the last minute — when it was clear that it would not have a majority. The legislation was brought forward as part of a slate of controversial bills — including instituting the death penalty for terrorists and legalizing several West Bank outposts — in part to force right-wing parties to take a public stance on them amid complex coalition negotiations.
The long-running battle has historically faced pushback from segments of the U.S. Jewish community, Holocaust survivors and the insurance lobby
In this, Monday, Oct. 7, 2019 photo, David Mermelstein, right, president of Miami-Dade Holocaust Survivors (and vice president of the Holocaust Survivors Foundation USA (HSF), speaks during an interview with David Schaecter, rear, President of HSF, in Aventura, Fla. (Credit: Wilfredo Lee/AP)
A small, bipartisan group of congressional lawmakers has introduced the latest attempt to give Holocaust survivors new opportunities to recoup unpaid pre-Holocaust insurance policies, wading for the sixth time into a fiery, long-running debate among survivors, members of the Jewish community and insurance lobbyists.
The bill, spearheaded in the Senate by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), joined by Sens. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Rick Scott (R-FL), Ben Sasse (R-NE), Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Kevin Cramer (R-ND), would permit beneficiaries of Holocaust-era insurance policies to sue the insurers in U.S. courts to recover unpaid policies. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) introduced a companion bill in the House of Representatives.
The Senate bill is the latest step in a legislative effort that has dragged on for more than a decade; Rubio first introduced legislation with former Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) in 2011, and has reintroduced it four times since then. Similar legislation has been introduced in the House five times previously, in 2008, 2010, 2011, 2016 and 2017. The legislation has failed to gain significant backing as it faced opposition from the insurance industry, influential Jewish community organizations and figures and some Holocaust survivors.
The legislation addresses a long, complicated and divisive battle between Holocaust survivors and major European insurance companies. Before the Holocaust, many European Jewish families took out insurance policies, but were unable to collect on them afterward, in many cases because they had lost their paperwork when deported to concentration camps. In other cases, European Jews were forced to prematurely liquidate their policies to pay taxes and fees imposed by the German government.
Insurance claims were previously adjudicated by the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC), an international organization established through a 1998 memorandum of understanding among European insurance companies, U.S. insurance regulators, the Israeli government, member organizations of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and the World Jewish Restitution Organization.
In theory, through ICHEIC, survivors and their descendants could submit claims under relaxed standards of proof. The insurance companies were responsible for searching their records to create a database of potential policyholders to match to these claims. Ultimately, ICHEIC offered a total of $306 million to 48,000 claimants — although 31,300 were offered only $1,000 “humanitarian” payments — before ICHEIC ceased operations in 2007. It also allocated $169 million for other survivor support efforts and Holocaust education and remembrance.
The Senate bill is part of a long-running effort among some U.S. officials to provide an alternative to ICHEIC, which has faced criticism for undercalculating the total value of unpaid claims. Some critics have argued that the total value of unpaid claims is anywhere between $17 billion and $200 billion — far exceeding the amount paid out by the organization.
“I applied to ICHEIC. They said they could not find my father’s name. They sent a check for $1,000 as a ‘humanitarian payment,’” Holocaust survivor David Mermelstein said in testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2019. ”Survivors deeply resent the idea of a ‘humanitarian payment’ instead of the funds we know our parents set aside in case of a disaster. The whole thing was an insult to survivors, and it still is.”
Mermelstein is the president of Holocaust Survivors of Miami-Dade and vice president of Holocaust Survivors Foundation USA.
Others, like attorney Sam Dubbin, a Holocaust survivors’ rights advocate, put the conflict in even starker terms, calling the ICHEIC process “a fraud from start to finish,” and claiming that the insurance companies operated in a deceitful manner.
“The companies got away with murder here,” Dubbin told JI.
Supporters of the Senate legislation also argue that survivors were not adequately represented in the negotiations that formed ICHEIC, and some would not have supported such a system.
“These were negotiated not by [the survivors], they were negotiated on behalf of a class by lawyers on the part of the United States government and others,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, director of global social action at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Further, federal courts ruled that survivors cannot, under current U.S. law, sue insurance companies over unpaid policies in U.S. courts, meaning an act of Congress is necessary to reopen this option.
“This is a disgrace and only you can help us have our rights and dignity restored,” Mermelstein said of these rulings in his testimony. “Survivors are in shock that the U.S. government took away our rights to go to American courts to make our claims. Remember, these are contracts — not charity.”
Past attempts to introduce this legislation have failed in part due to concerted opposition from insurance giants, according to advocates for the legislation.
“It is not an easy bill to pass because there are powerful economic interests against it becoming law,” former Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who repeatedly introduced House legislation on this issue during her time in Congress, told JI. “All that survivors want is an opportunity to have their cases heard in court, but because of the flawed system that was put in place, they are denied their day in court. This is profoundly unfair.”
Cooper laid out the issue in more explicit terms.
“If you want to talk about pressure, it may come from insurance companies and foreign governments and others that are going to say… ‘This is unfair, we acted in good faith,’” Cooper said. “These are all companies and entities that have their… lobbyists on Capitol Hill to make their feelings heard.”
Supporters of the legislation argue that failing to pass it is tantamount to allowing the insurance companies to steal from Holocaust survivors.
“It is the victims of the Holocaust and their families who should be the heirs to unpaid policies that were set aside for times of trouble — not the insurance companies,” Wasserman Schultz said in a statement announcing the bill. “Preventing Holocaust survivors and their families from collecting on documented policies is truly tragic, but allowing these global insurance corporations to hold onto this unjust enrichment is an offensive re-victimization that cannot stand.”
But insurance companies are not the only players opposed to the legislation. Some major Jewish groups involved in negotiations that created ICHEIC, such as the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International, the Anti-Defamation League, the World Jewish Congress, the Claims Conference and the World Jewish Restitution Organization have also historically opposed it, as have prominent figures in Holocaust restitution negotiations, like Stuart Eizenstat. They argue that changes could undermine restitution agreements and could ultimately disappoint survivors.
This time around, opposition from some groups appears to be less fervent than in prior years.
Kenneth Bandler, a spokesperson for the American Jewish Committee, said that in the past, the organization was “concerned that such legislation threatened to upend delicate negotiations at the time between the German government and the Claims Conference that would provide hundreds of millions of Euros to benefit needy Holocaust survivors worldwide,” but added that AJC has not taken a position on the re-introduced legislation.
A spokesperson for B’nai B’rith International also did not express a specific position on the latest bill, commenting, “Our primary concern is justice for Holocaust survivors, and we are reviewing policy options for achieving that.”
Holocaust survivors themselves diverge on the issue. Roman Kent, a leader of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, as well as the chairman of the International Auschwitz Committee, told JI he is “firmly against” the legislation.
“While the proposed legislation is well-intentioned, it is also misguided — which is why it has been reintroduced over and over without any ensuing actions,” Kent said. “[Holocaust survivor leaders] are… aware of the burden of proof in lawsuits — which is a much higher standard. Lastly, they are aware of the jeopardy this creates with current agreements and negotiations with governments around the world. If we do not keep our word on one agreement, who is to say about the next one and the next one.”
“If I felt this legislation was the correct path then I would be the first one testifying and fighting for it,” Kent added. “I can assure you that, while the intention is commendable, this legislation will hurt, not help, Holocaust survivors.”
Kent’s argument — that the standard of proof required in U.S. courts would essentially be insurmountable for most Holocaust survivors, and that this legislation would only set survivors up for disappointment — is a common one among the bill’s opponents.
Cooper argues that survivors should have the opportunity to sue anyway.
“That’s a decision that they should have been allowed to make,” Cooper said. “The legislation is meant to give the little guy who has a direct connection back to those crimes in the Shoah that opportunity — whether that would ever bring them a dime, who knows?”
With the fifth re-introduction of this legislation, advocates argue that its passage is more urgent than ever as time progresses further from the Holocaust.
Asked why Rubio has continued to reintroduce this legislation in the face of opposition from prominent Jewish community organizations, a Rubio spokesperson told JI, “Senator Rubio continues to work with multiple stakeholders in good faith to pass his bipartisan Holocaust Insurance Accountability Act this Congress. His commitment for supporting the courageous Holocaust survivors remains firm.”
“Part of [the difficulty in passing it] may be the dimming of the collective memory, and of collective outrage,” Cooper told JI. “That is still felt by families, but maybe not felt as intensely anymore by society as a whole.”
Time is also running short for many of the remaining Holocaust survivors.
“Restoring Holocaust survivors’ rights takes on new urgency with every year that passes without justice,” Rosen said in a statement announcing the bill.
The revered Manhattan restaurant Eleven Madison Park took the fine-dining world by surprise on Monday when it announced that it would no longer serve meat or seafood upon reopening in June. The restaurant, which frequently ranks among the best in the world, is well-known for its decadent offerings such as lavender honey-glazed duck and butter-poached lobster — dishes that chef and owner Daniel Humm acknowledged would be difficult to replace.
But having navigated the uncertainty of the pandemic, Humm emphasized that it was “time to redefine luxury as an experience that serves a higher purpose,” as he put it in a statement. “A restaurant experience is about more than what’s on the plate,” Humm said. “We are thrilled to share the incredible possibilities of plant-based cuisine while deepening our connection to our homes: both our city and our planet.”
In the Jewish community, the restaurant was applauded for its newfound commitment to sustainable cooking. “As a vegetarian I was just pleased to see the trend,” Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, a Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles, told Jewish Insider. “May their kind increase!”
Though not everyone was excited that Eleven Madison Park would continue charging exorbitant prices for vegan food. “It’s sad to me that one of America’s true temples of gastronomy would succumb to the new era of wokeness and capitulate by removing meat and seafood from their menu,” lamented Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Still another group, however, saw room for Eleven Madison Park to go a step further and make its kitchen kosher. The restaurant will continue serving milk and honey with tea and coffee, Humm has noted, but will otherwise be entirely vegan — obviating the possibility that meat and dairy will intermingle, which is forbidden by Jewish dietary law, and making it simpler to achieve kosher status.
“If 11 Madison Park wanted to go fully hechshered, that’d be AMAZING,” Seffi Kogen, global director of young leadership for the American Jewish Committee, wrote in an enthusiastic email, using a colloquialism for kosher. “But even if they’re not going all the way, they could become an option for Orthodox Jews like me by blow torching and boiling their ovens, appliances and utensils to kasher their kitchen back to a ‘neutral’ kosher status before switching to their plant-based menu.”
The restaurant did not respond to a request for comment about any plans for kosher certification — a process that includes “lots of requirements,” according to Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the Orthodox Union’s kosher division.
Some vegan food establishments in New York have opted for kosher certification through the International Kosher Council overseen by Rabbi Zev Schwartz, including Blossom Du Jour and By Chloe. But if Eleven Madison Park were to go kosher it would represent a significant step for New York’s fine-dining scene.
“My immediate thought is that there is a robust tradition of kosher dairy restaurants and this place could become a new version of that because of the decision they’ve made,” said Roger Horowitz, the author of Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food.
Kosher dairy restaurants, so named because they do not serve meat, were once an integral component of Jewish culinary life in New York, though they have since faded as the Jewish population has assimilated and new generations have sought other opportunities. B&H Dairy in the East Village, one of few remaining kosher dairy restaurants in the city, has struggled to survive the pandemic but is still hanging on.
While Eleven Madison Park is in a separate class of restaurants, thanks in part to its three Michelin stars and prohibitive price tag, kosher certification would likely attract a valuable and previously untapped clientele as it emerges from a pandemic that has devastated the restaurant industry.
“There’s a huge market in New York City for people who will only eat at a kosher restaurant,” Horowitz said. “They will increase their possible consumer base if they become kosher, no doubt about it.”
Stu Loeser, a modern Orthodox political consultant in New York, seemed to confirm that view when asked if he was holding out hope that Eleven Madison Park would opt to go kosher, though he appeared doubtful that it would happen.
“Since all the reservations for a month already sell out in a matter of hours, it’s not clear that Eleven Madison Park could even handle the same bump in business that Curry Hill vegetarian joints a block over get from being kosher,” he told JI. “But on the other hand, can you imagine how great the Shabbos specials takeout would be?”