US State Department slams Israeli stagnation on religious freedom reform

Annual report homes in on hot-button areas of Western Wall pluralism, conversion and who has the right to pray at the country’s holiest sites

Jewish men pray during the holiday of Tisha B'Av at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, on August 1, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Jewish men pray during the holiday of Tisha B’Av at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, on August 1, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The US State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2016, released last week and compiled before the government suspended a deal on a permanent pluralistic prayer area at the Western Wall, diplomatically pans the lack of progress by the Israeli government toward increased religious freedom.

To chart the religious-ethnic teetering balance that is Israel, the report uses a tit-for-tat formulation highlighting positives, and often more negatives, that unfolded in the area of religious freedom in 2016. Of note, the word “continued” appears almost 70 times, an apt signal of the scant reforms implemented in the past year.

Likewise, the report stated, “The government and non-Orthodox activists reached a compromise in January to accommodate ‘egalitarian prayer,’ i.e., Reform and Conservative Jewish services, near the Western Wall, but the government did not implement it.”

According to Zionist Union MK Ksenia Svetlova, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union who is a well-known activist on behalf of the separation of church and state, “The US State department report clearly indicates that the Israeli government is not implementing its own decisions and thus compromises religious pluralism in Israel. I call on the government to serve all Israelis, and not only specific pressure ultra-Orthodox pressure groups.”

Zionist Union MK Ksenia Svetlova speaks during a press conference, February 22, 2015. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Zionist Union MK Ksenia Svetlova speaks during a press conference, February 22, 2015. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Written in diplomatic language and covering a massive scope of religions and their accompanied strife, there are trivia gems in the report — “The government continued to allow Christians and individuals who spoke Aramaic to register with their national or ethnic group listed as Aramean instead of Arab” — as well as depressingly grim statistics on those killed or persecuted due to the “strained” relations among religious and ethnic groups. “There continued to be reports of Haredi men spitting at non-Haredi Jews and persons of other faiths, including those wearing Christian clerical clothing,” it stated.

Interestingly, among other facts and figures, it tracked the total budget allocated by the government for religious purposes (NIS 828 million or $215.57 million for religious services for Jewish communities and NIS 121 million or $31.5 million for religious minorities), and discussed inequality in religious education.

In reading the report, one cannot help but think of the famous biblical adage about nothing new being found under the sun. However, according to Rabbi Uri Regev, a lawyer and the head of NGO Hiddush: Freedom of Religion for Israel, “One cannot over-exaggerate the importance of this report being unique in its systematic monitoring and scope of coverage.” Regev applauded the report’s comprehensive attention to detail and its annual nature which aids in tracing “trends and progress over the course of years.”

‘One cannot over-exaggerate the importance of this report being unique in its systematic monitoring and scope of coverage’

Additionally, noted Regev, the report “reflects the US government’s strong focus on and value attached to religious freedom.”

Unfortunately, however, said Regev, the report “underrates the breaches of religious freedom on a number of issues.”

As examples, he cited the inattention paid to the lack of freedom of marriage, civil burial and the many assorted issues surrounding the Western Wall, “which are more geared against Jews than against Christians and Muslims.”

Lawyers Rabbi Uri Regev (far right) and Edna Meyrav with their client from Elad at a Supreme Court hearing in 2014. (courtesy Hiddush)

Lawyers Rabbi Uri Regev (far right) and Edna Meyrav with their client from Elad at a Supreme Court hearing in 2014. (courtesy Hiddush)

“These abuses of religious freedom are a clear indication of the wide gap between Israel and other enlightened Western democracies, such as the USA, which are considered the gold standard for religious freedom,” said Regev.

That being said, the report did touch on a series of hot button issues of concern to the American people, including the Western Wall plaza, conversion outside of the Orthodox chief rabbinate, and Jewish prayer at the Temple Mount and its restrictions for security reasons.

The Western Wall

The now-frozen plan for the pluralistic section, shaded in blue, was for it to double in size to nearly 10,000 sq. ft (929 sq m). The Orthodox section, shaded in purple, takes up some 21,500 sq. ft. (nearly 2,000 sq. m.). The area in back of the Orthodox section is meant for national ceremonies. (JTA)

The now-frozen plan for the pluralistic section, shaded in blue, was for it to double in size to nearly 10,000 sq. ft (929 sq m). The Orthodox section, shaded in purple, takes up some 21,500 sq. ft. (nearly 2,000 sq. m.). The area in back of the Orthodox section is meant for national ceremonies. (JTA)

In a section discussing the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews are allowed to pray, the report factually stated that all faiths are permitted to pray there. It highlighted, however, that the rabbi of the Western Wall “continued to set the guidelines for religious observance mandating separation of women and men, with the women’s section being less than half the size of the men’s section, and the government continued to enforce these rules.”

A four-pronged diplomatic slam, that statement underlined the fact of separation between the sexes, the discrepancy between the sizes of the two genders’ prayer sections, the inability for pluralistic denominations to have a vote on guidelines of observance, and finally, the government of Israel’s complicity with all of the above. Four huge strikes.

Further, the report stated the prohibitions against bringing in privately owned Torah scrolls to the Western Wall plaza, and on women from “accessing the public Torah scrolls or giving priestly blessings at the site.” Again, huge problems in egalitarian, democratic eyes.

Conversion

In the section on conversion, the State Department report described the trend of Modern Orthodox rabbis who have begun to set up their own conversion courts to push back against the lengthy and unwieldy process offered by the Israeli chief rabbinate.

Called Giyur Ka’halacha (or in idiomatic English, Conversion the Correct Way, by Jewish Law), the group of respected rabbis and thinkers have already converted hundreds of Israelis — many children — who were classified as “of no religion,” a growing group of some 400,000 citizens.

Efrat's Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin officiates at a conversion examination for the Giyur Kahalacha private conversion court, November 2015. (courtesy)

Efrat’s Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin officiates at a conversion examination for the Giyur Kahalacha private conversion court, November 2015. (courtesy)

“A ruling by the Supreme Court on March 31 expanded immigration rights under the Law of Return to those who completed private (non-Rabbinate) Orthodox conversions in the country. The Chief Rabbinate continued not to recognize non-Orthodox converts to Judaism as Jews, although they continued to be accepted for the purpose of immigration under the Law of Return,” stated the report.

A founder of Giyur Ka’halacha, Rabbi Seth Farber, the head of NGO Itim, which aids Israelis in navigating the religious institutions, responded favorably to the report’s depiction.

Giyur KaHalacha's Rabbi Seth Farber (left), Eli Cohen, director, and convert David at the Knesset's Aliya Committee meeting on March 8, 2016. (Michael Shapochnic, Giyur KaHalacha)

Giyur KaHalacha’s Rabbi Seth Farber (left), Eli Cohen, director, and convert David at the Knesset’s Aliya Committee meeting on March 8, 2016. (Michael Shapochnic, Giyur KaHalacha)

“The discussion of Giyur Ka’halacha in the state department report is further recognition of the significance of this initiative on the international scene,” Farber told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

“Giyur Ka’halacha had gradually increased its client base following the Supreme Court ruling that ITIM was part of which took the monopoly of conversion recognition on Israel away from the rabbinate,” said Farber.

‘The discussion of Giyur Ka’halacha in the state department report is further recognition of the significance of this initiative on the international scene’

He noted, however that the “legal successes of 2016” have since led to proposed new restrictive legislation, such as the Conversion Bill that was brought to the Knesset and is currently shelved, “which was reactionary” and would have made the chief rabbinate the sole legal authority for Israeli conversions.

Also on the theme of conversion, the report emphasized that “in four incidents during the year, the Chief Rabbinate also refused to recognize conversions approved by the chief presiding rabbinical judge of the Rabbinical Council of America (Orthodox)” — cases which have roused American Jewish congregations.

Prayer and restrictions on the Temple Mount

Traditionally, Orthodox rabbis have been against prayer on the Temple Mount for a number of reasons, including fear of stepping where the Holy of Holies may have stood — a clear prohibition.

As recorded in the report, however, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau stated in June 2016 “he would like to see a Third Temple built on the site without demolishing Muslim structures.” Likewise, “increasing numbers of the self-identified ‘national religious’ Zionist community stated they found meaning in setting foot on the site.”

 On a tour of the Temple Mount, Yehuda Glick shows religious Jews a diagram of the Jewish temple, which once stood where the golden Dome of the Rock stands today on Sepetember 17, 2013 in Jerusalem Israel. (Photo by Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images via JTA)

On a tour of the Temple Mount, Yehuda Glick shows religious Jews a diagram of the Jewish temple, which once stood where the golden Dome of the Rock stands today on Sepetember 17, 2013 in Jerusalem Israel. (Photo by Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images via JTA)

As another example of this trend of increased Jewish presence on the Temple Mount, the report cited the November 2016 creation of a Temple Mount lobby by ruling party Likud MK Yehuda Glick, who also held an annual Temple Mount conference in the Knesset.

The State Department also reported that the Waqf, the Jordanian Muslim religious authorities which maintain the Temple Mount, “continued to restrict non-Muslims from entering the Dome of the Rock shrine and the Al-Aqsa Mosque and prohibited individuals from wearing non-Muslim religious symbols on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.”

Israeli authorities also restricted movement on the Temple Mount. In addition to restricting Muslim access according to ages during heightened security situations, it “in some instances barred specific individuals from the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site, including Jewish activists believed to have violated rules against non-Muslim prayer, Muslims believed to have acted violently against non-Muslim visitors to the site, and public figures, including members of the Knesset, whose presence authorities feared would inflame tensions.”

Sarah Lurcat and Tom Nisani wed on the Temple Mount despite rules forbidding Jewish rituals from being conducted at the holy site. (Facebook)

Sarah Lurcat and Tom Nisani wed on the Temple Mount despite rules forbidding Jewish rituals from being conducted at the holy site. (Facebook)

The issues of Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount and at the Western Wall have common threads, said Regev.

“From the perspective of religious freedom, there is a direct line connecting the Jewish aspirations to be able to pray on the Temple Mount and the Women of the Wall and non-Orthodox attempts to pray at the traditional Kotel [Western Wall] plaza, and both should fall under the protection of religious freedom,” said Regev, who in addition to his law career and heading Hiddush, is an ordained Reform rabbi and former leader in the movement.

“The difference being overweighing security considerations. Whereas the Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount is likely to result in wide spread extremist Muslim-perpetrated violence and potential escalating conflict with 200 million Muslims around the world, the non-Orthodox and women’s prayer at the Kotel is threatened by ultra-Orthodox violence and political extortion,” said Regev.

Women of the Wall head Anat Hoffman (holding Torah scroll) at the Western Wall, July 24, 2017. (Hila Shiloni)

Women of the Wall head Anat Hoffman (holding Torah scroll) at the Western Wall, July 24, 2017. (Hila Shiloni)

He said that while the decision not to allow Jewish worship on the Temple Mount “can be justified and upheld for security reasons, using these reasons or political extortion to prevent non-Orthodox or women’s prayer at the Kotel is a shanda [a scandal] in every respect, and should be declared illegal and unconstitutional.”

The State Department report, however, does not delve into the philosophy behind prayer restrictions. As it states dryly, “The law grants the government, not the courts, the authority to decide the scope of the right to worship at certain religious sites, and the Supreme Court has upheld this governmental authority.”

Israeli poll observer shocked by Spanish police violence during Catalonia vote

Zionist Union MK Ksenia Svetlova is part of an international delegation invited by Catalan government to observe independence referendum

Ksenia Svetlova of the Zionist Union party seen during an introduction day for new Knesset members on March 29, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Ksenia Svetlova of the Zionist Union party seen during an introduction day for new Knesset members on March 29, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

A Zionist Union MK observing Catalonia’s independence referendum said she was shocked by the use of rubber bullets by Spanish police against crowds of unarmed protesters on Sunday.

Ksenia Svetlova, who is part of a delegation of about 30 people from other countries invited by Catalan regional officials to observe the voting process, told a reporter for the Sky News TV channel that the bullets used by police “can squash somebody’s head.” She said she she saw people bleeding and injured on the scene, and that she hadn’t expected to see such tactics used in Europe.

“We did expect a normal democratic process. We knew that a lot of police were here but still, you know, there should be a respect for the will of the people to vote regardless of what you think of the referendum,” Svetlova said.

The freshman Israeli lawmaker also tweeted that ballot boxes had been confiscated and that there were “major problems with the internet.”

At least 91 people were injured in Catalonia on Sunday as police and protesters clashed over a banned independence referendum in the wealthy northeastern region of Spain, the Catalan government said.

Spanish riot police fired rubber bullets and forced their way into activist-held polling stations in Catalonia on Sunday as thousands flooded the streets to vote in the referendum.

Scuffles broke out as police moved in to seal off polling stations and seize ballot boxes to prevent people from voting across the wealthy northeastern region where more than 5.3 million people have been called upon to have their say on independence from Spain.

The drama unfolded after a night of tension in which thousands of people, both nervous and excited, had gathered outside polling stations before dawn.

Catalan television broadcast footage of crowds in towns and villages all over region ahead of the referendum, which has triggered one of the worst political crises in Spain in decades.

Although the region is divided over independence, most people want to vote on the matter in a legal, binding plebiscite.

 נפגעים ראשונים בברצלונה. כדורי גומי  

KNESSET MEMBER OBSERVING CATALAN ELECTION CAUGHT IN POLITICAL CROSSFIRE

 OCTOBER 1, 2017
 jpost.com

“Spanish politicians who criticize Israel should look at what’s going on in their home,” MK Svetlova said.

MK Ksenia Svetlova with a rubber bullet in Barcelona as observer in the Catalonian election, October

MK Ksenia Svetlova with a rubber bullet in Barcelona as observer in the Catalonian election, October 1, 2017.. (photo credit:MK KSENIA SVETLOVA)

“We saw a group of people who weren’t being allowed to vote. So they sat in the middle of the road and sang the Catalan anthem and other patriotic songs,” she said.
“Without any warning or provocation, the police started shooting rubber bullets. I was right in the middle of it with other parliamentarians.
“I saw a rubber bullet on the ground right near me. I saw people, young and old, being beaten with clubs,” she said, recounting the scene in Barcelona at about 10 a.m.

A Catalan man injured by a rubber bullet (credit: MK Ksenia Svetlova) A Catalan man injured by a rubber bullet (credit: MK Ksenia Svetlova) 

Svetlova used her experience as a veteran journalist to stay out of danger.

“I entered a building and kept out of the way so I wouldn’t be beaten with a club. One MP from a Scandinavian country had never experienced anything like this and was very close to where the police went crazy. If you don’t know how to find cover in these situations, you could end up beaten or shot.”

Svetlova, who was invited by the Catalonian government to be an impartial observer, said she did not have an opinion as to whether the region should be independent from Spain.

Earlier in the morning, the international parliamentary delegation observed several polling places, only one of which was able to hold a vote.

In other places, police had already confiscated equipment.

The MK said she did not anticipate the violence.

“I thought there might be problems, like that the government might try to take the ballots away so votes couldn’t be counted or that the Internet might be cut off in some places.

“Many Spaniards, not just Catalans, are in shock at the National Police’s behavior. No one expected it to be so brutal,” she said, adding that “people feel like the democratic process has been harmed.”

“Even people who planned to vote against [independence] are upset that they didn’t have the right to express their opinion.”

Svetlova said she found it jarring that this took place in a European Union country: “We’re talking about Europe, European values of democracy and freedom of expression. How do these things go together?” The Zionist Union MK expressed concerns that “the processes Europe is undergoing will have ramifications for us [in Israel]” and said she spoke to Spanish parliamentarians, accusing them of hypocrisy when it comes to Israel.

“I told them: ‘You criticize us, our democracy and use of force when things happen – sometimes justifiably – but first you should look at what’s happening at home,’” she said.

CATALONIA VS SPAIN: DEMOCRACY TESTED

BY KSENIA SVETLOVA
 OCTOBER 4, 2017

The state doesn’t exist independently of its people. The state is the people, who can demand more rights, more power and even secession.

jpost.com

Students in Catalonia march in support of the region's independence, September 2017

Students in Catalonia march in support of the region’s independence, September 2017. (photo credit:JON NAZCA/ REUTERS)

Anyone who wants to understand the essence of last week’s dramatic events in Catalonia, to acknowledge what the referendum on independence was really about, should come to see the Eternal Flame in the Gothic quarter of Barcelona.

The Fossar de los Moreres is a memorial square, situated close to the Maria del Mar basilica. The monument was built after a communal grave of the defenders of the city, slaughtered following the Siege of Barcelona at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714, was discovered. 300 years later the memory is still alive, and fresh flowers are laid there every day.

Two days prior to the referendum, a huge rally took place at Montjuïc. Many thousands of Catalans, Spaniards and Europeans were there to support the referendum and each other, singing hymns of Catalonia and patriotic songs. Many of these songs had connotations of the Frankist period, when the Catalonian language was forbidden and those who tried to spread knowledge about Catalonian history and heritage were persecuted. The grandfather of a friend who lives in Barcelona was fined for speaking Catalonian on the phone sometime during the sixties.

The historical memory of injustice and persecution runs deep in Catalonians, regardless of their support for or objection to separation from Spain. The brutal force that was used by Spanish police against the voters who came to the polling stations was just another link in this historical chain.

On Sunday morning, October 1, I found myself in the midst of a violent and bloody event that felt much more like something that would happen in the Middle East than in Europe. As a part of an international parliamentary delegation of observers on the referendum, I visited a few polling stations in Barcelona, Terragona, Valls and other Catalonian cities.

By 10 a.m. we had already witnessed the Guarida Civil – the national police force – confiscating ballot boxes and other voting equipment, dispersing voters by force, shuttering schools doors and windows.

Then the shooting begun and rubber bullets started to fly. Later these bullets were picked up by plainclothes policeman.

One minute prior to the shooting the young people holding hands and sitting together on the ground were singing beautifully, the next moment they were screaming in pain and horror. Older people around us said that it brought up bad memories from Spain’s recent authoritarian past; the young ones, who grew up believing that human rights and freedom of expression are sacred, were speechless.

Over 850 Spanish citizens were wounded during the day of the referendum, when placards with words “Mes Democracia” decorate the exquisite buildings of Barcelona. Those who beat and shot them were Spanish citizens, too. Blood was spilled in the heart of Europe with very few voices inside the EU condemning the excessive use of violence.

What was being tested there was not only Spanish democracy, but the European way of life, respect for freedom of expression, human rights and the belief that people have the right to self-determination. One must remember that the same EU leaders and officials who suddenly became silent in the face of the violence in Catalonia are usually very vocal when similar misdeeds occur in the Middle East. It’s always curious when one sees the mote in one’s brother’s eye but not see the beam in one’s own.

Today it’s quite clear though that at some point Europe will have to react, as the situation in Catalonia will continue to develop rapidly. The leaders of Europe probably understand today that they can’t hide behind the debate on the legality of the referendum. The state doesn’t exist independently of its people. The state is the people, who can demand more rights, more power and even secession. Many atrocities and wrongdoings in the world were and are still legal, many democratic processes – such as the American Revolution – were labeled illegal in the beginning. When millions of European citizens demand to be heard, Europe – and the world – should listen, otherwise what is the value of such high words as “democracy,” “human rights” and “self-determination”? What should be happening between Barcelona and Madrid today is a political dialogue. Too much blood was spilled in the past over the issues of independence and separation. Neither Spain nor Europe can afford more violence on their soil. After all, this is what Europe is trying to promote in the Middle East – political dialogue, moderation and climb-downs. If Europe cannot successfully meet this challenge in its own home, the world will suffer the consequences.

The author is a member of the Knesset for the Zionist Union and an expert on Middle East affairs.

Why Israel supports Kurdish referendum (and why the rest of the world should follow suit)

09/25/2017 03:04 am ET

Today the women and men of Kurdistan will answer the most

important question of their lives. Should Kurdistan break away from

Iraq to pursue its independence, or should it preserve a status quo of

unstable co-existence under the rule of the Iraqi state.

The Kurds in Iraq approach this fateful day with their homework being

done. Since 1991, they have practiced self-rule. They have elected a

parliament, written a constitution, built national institutions, engaged

in a deadly war against ISIS, pushed back the murderous

organization and defended their borders However, upon the historical

decision to hold a referendum for their independence, which will then

lead to negotiations with Iraq’s central government, the Kurds have

awakened to the shortcomings of their efforts. At this crucial point in

time, the Kurds have found themselves abandoned and standing

there practically alone.

Surprisingly, the U.S superpower, which gained its own independence

following a fateful decision to unilaterally break away from the British

Empire, “strongly opposes” the Kurdish vote on independence, and

“urges the KRG to engage in negotiations with Iraq”.

If my memory serves me correctly, soon after writing the declaration

of Independence, America’s founding fathers voted on proclaiming

Independence, to the demise of the British, who strongly opposed

this audacious act.

Was American democracy in 1776 perfect? It certainly was not.

Neither is the current Kurdish democracy. This doesn’t mean, of

course, that the Kurds are not ready or eligible to their independence.

It is quite clear why the respective Iranian, Turkish and Iraqi

governments are trying to intimidate and threaten Kurds with military

invasion, blockade and other deterring measures. It is astonishing,

however, why the US seems to be accommodating these countries

interests rather than supporting its trusted allies in their legitimate

quest for independence.

Thus far, the only country to openly declare its support of Kurdish

independence has been Israel. It is no secret that Israel has

maintained close relations with the Barazani family in Kurdistan over

the years, and that many Kurds identify their own suffering with that

of persecuted Jews. There are numerous reasons why many Israelis

express support for the Kurdish cause. I will count few of them.

The first reason stems from morality. The Middle East is home to

roughly 30 million Kurds, who reside in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.

They have remained the largest ethnic group to seek independence

for many years.

In spite of the Kurds efforts, the world has shown little interest in their

cause, and has stood idly by as they suffered ethnic cleansing, poison gas and torture.

Like the Jewish people, who hoped and prayed for world support in

1947, the Kurds are now seeking global support. Nearly 70 years ago

the U.S claimed Israel’s declaration of Independence was premature

as well.

However, based on their own experience, both the US and Israel can

confirm that there is no time like the present for independence. It is

important to stress that some Israelis who all together support the

Kurds and at the same time object the Palestinian pursuit of

independence, are contradicting themselves. They apply the same

rhetoric vis-à- vis the Palestinians that Iran, Turkey and Iraq use vis-

à- vis the Kurds. The circumstances are different, the conflicts are

long and entangled, yet the quest of independence and the right for

self-determination is of course similar.

The second reason concerns Middle East alliances. Israel was

isolated from its neighboring countries for decades, as a result of

deep animosity, wars and conflicts. Looking for allies and partners

Israel reached out to the Kurdish people, Iran, Turkey and Sudan, in

an attempt to form a so-called “periphery alliance”.

Some of these alliances were doomed to fall. Domestic changes in

Iran, Turkey and Sudan put an end to this move. Islamic Republic of

Iran became Israel’s archenemy, ties with Sudan were cut and

relations with Turkey became weaker. The alliance between the

Kurds and Israel, however, has proven to be the exception. The

alliance is strategic, and not merely tactical, as Israel and the Kurds

join forces in fighting various forms of Sunni and Shia Islamic

radicalism, with the hope of building a prosperous, democratic and

secure state.

To date, America’s “One Iraq” strategy has backfired, damaging both

American and Israeli interests. Iran has largely spread its influence in

Iraq and aims to achieve territorial continuity, so that it may rule over

the vast territory between Tehran and Quneitra (Syria). Today, the

Kurd’s autonomous region is nearly the only obstacle to fulfilling

Iran’s plans.

If Iraqi Kurdistan becomes an independent state, Iran’s dream of

extending hegemony over the Kurdish region will be ruined.

hegemony over the Kurdish region will be ruined. Hence, supporting

the Kurds is not only morally justified. Independent Kurdish state will

without doubt stand in the way of Iran’s imperial ambitions in the

Middle East.

It is obvious that the time for Kurdish independence is now. The

Kurds have suffered and struggled long enough for that. Their

oppressors are dangerous to world’s order, stability in the region and

democracy. Today the world must work with the Kurds to prevent

bloodshed, ethnic cleansing, or, heaven forbid, another genocide.

Ksenia Svetlova is a member of the Israeli Knesset for the Zionist Union party,

and serves as the head of the Knesset pro-Kurdish lobby.

LOOKING FOR A NEW EQUATION IN GAZA

BY KSENIA SVETLOVA
 JUNE 7, 2017 21:46

jpost.com

Israel and the world should think outside the box

A WOMAN looks out a window in the Gaza Strip.

A few days into the new regional disarray, the Americans, as well as the Kuwaitis and Omanis, are already looking for solution that will allow the re-creation of the façade of unity among the Arab Gulf countries. It’s still early to tell when the expected sulha (truce) will take place, however it’s quite obvious that Qatar – the enfant terrible of the Gulf – will have to give up something. Its support of Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and other terrorist organizations can be one of these concessions, and the expulsion of Hamas leaders from Qatar might be an indication of a move in this direction.

It seems that since US President Donald Trump’s visit to the region the position of Hamas became significantly worse. Hamas leaders complain to their interlocutors that they lose ground quickly in the Arab world and that financially they’ve never been worse off. Egypt destroyed most of the tunnels between Sinai and Gaza and stopped the smuggling of money, weapons and goods almost entirely. Arab donors are tired of Hamas and do not act on their financial obligations to Gaza. In fact, the only major route of supplies to Gaza is the Kerem Shalom crossing in Israel.

The number of trucks that make their way to Gaza through Kerem Shalom grew from 38,000 in 2010 to 178,000 in 2016. According to army sources, every sack of cement, every package of sugar, every grain of rice and every erg of electricity serves the Hamas regime. The Islamists are subjecting the impoverished population to heavy taxes – all merchandise that goes through Kerem Shalom is subject to taxation, and in many cases the cement intended for the rebuilding of civilian houses ends up in new tunnels under the Gaza-Israel border.

Hospitals in Gaza lack electricity, but Hamas has enough (most of it provided by Israel) to supply the tunnels and its military bases.

So attitudes toward Hamas in the region and in world have changed significantly, and the organization has become a lonely pariah, lacking funds and support. Israel is de facto responsible for Hamas’s survival.

This absurd situation must come to an end. The window of opportunity in the region is open now, and the equation in Gaza has to change to exclude Hamas. It’s quite obvious that as long as Hamas clings to power in Gaza, the probability of new round of fighting will grow and the chances of any future agreement between Israelis and Palestinians will decline. The organization, responsible for hundreds of terrorist attacks, including suicide bombings and rocket attacks, never fulfilled the three demands of the Middle East Quartet in 2006 that focused on ending the military struggle, recognition of Israel and recognition of agreements previously signed between Israel and the PLO.

So in order for any future negotiations to succeed, Hamas should be ousted in Gaza and replaced by the Palestinian Authority. No crossing with Gaza should be controlled by Hamas, so that not even one dollar will end at its leaders’ pockets.

Until now it seemed that PA leaders were quite reluctant about getting the control over Gaza back.

However, in the past few weeks it seems that the tone in Ramallah has changed. PA President Mahmoud Abbas has been trying very hard to distance himself from Hamas. In one of his latest decisions he ordered payment for Gaza’s electricity to stop. In order to prevent an escalation, Israel continued to support Hamas with electricity, despite the knowledge that this is exactly what Hamas needs to survive. A few weeks ago, during another electricity crisis angry Gazans were starting to pour into the streets, and a few demonstrations against Hamas took place.

Unfortunately, Hamas is too strong today to be toppled from within.

Considering its dire condition, strong economic pressure and isolation of Hamas leadership by all parties – the Arab world, the international community and Israel – can force it into so-much-needed concessions. Relinquish control of border crossings, agree to the return of the PA without any fictitious “reconciliation” agreement and only then will Gaza receive generous aid to allow rehabilitation and prosperity.

I believe that this move should coincide with a return to the negotiation table with the PA to work out the agreement that will allow the Israelis to set secured borders that will be recognized by the whole world and to separate itself from over four million Palestinians, who will be able to build their state. The Arab Peace Initiative can serve as a base (although some of its chapters should be adapted to create a framework that is suitable to 2017) which will allow many of the Arab countries to support the agreement.

Should Hamas stay in power in Gaza (it’s important to remember that it only got there through a coup d’etat in June 2017), the peace process will remain stuck as it is today, regardless of the international or local efforts, the people of Gaza will continue to suffer since the humanitarian crisis is ongoing, and a new round of hostilities will be inevitable.

Israel and the world should think outside the box and use the favorable regional situation to promote the common interest for all parties who seek agreement and peace advancement in the region. Without solving the issue of Gaza such an advancement will be impossible.

MK Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Union) is a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. She is an expert in Middle East Affairs and served as a correspondent and analyst on the Middle East prior to joining the Knesset.

Middle East. Personally. Yours.

To date, the region’s prospects are not promising.

huffingtonpost.com

05/24/2017 01:55 am ET Updated May 25, 2017

GETTY IMAGES
Trump in Saudi Arabia with king Salman

 

The United States President, Donald Trump, was all smiles as he strode down the red carpet in Al-Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. He clearly enjoyed the royal welcome, the gold, the glitter, the huge weapon deal and the generous donation made to Ivanka Trump’s new fund for women entrepreneurs.

And so, the idea promoted years ago by former U.S Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, of creating an alliance between Arab states, Israel and the United States against Iran, was brought back to the table. Saudi Arabia assumed a leading role in the alliance, namely, to combat Islamist terrorism worldwide.

It is no secret that to this very day Saudi Arabia invests vast sums of money in spreading Wahhabism – the most puritan and radical of all Islamic Sunni streams – in many countries in African and Southeast Asia, thereby nurturing future generations of jihadist terrorists. One may also recall that shortly before President Trump’s visit to Al-Riyadh, the Saudis effectively blocked a proposal made by the Trump administration to impose sanctions on a Saudi branch of ISIS.

The motion to add the Islamic State’s Saudi affiliate to a list of terrorist groups in the UN Security Council was sabotaged by Trump’s newly acquired best friends. It seems the Saudis did not wish to acknowledge the existence of an ISIS branch in their Kingdom, despite evidence to show otherwise. This was quite a peculiar move for a country that intends on playing a vital role in a newly formed anti-terror alliance. However, this doesn’t seem to bother Donald Trump.

Furthermore, the new American agenda for the Middle East, as presented by President Trump, will greatly impact the region’s ability to attain stability, or otherwise collapse. To date, the region’s prospects are not promising. The conditions that led to the rise of the Arab Spring have remained as they were, including unemployment, frustration, despair, and sparse opportunities for the younger generation, which make up a majority of the population. Top that off with corruption, a failing economy, and incompetent ailing Arab monarchs, presidents and prime ministers, who were forever supported by the United States, and occasionally Europe, and you have an estimate as to how well prepared the region is to face the challenges of the 21st century.

Nearly one hundred years ago, the Ottoman Empire was nicknamed “The Sick Man of Europe”. Today, most countries in the Middle East, excluding Israel and perhaps Tunisia, fall under a similar category. The wave of revolutions in 2011 was sparked from what were possibly the most personal stories in the history of humankind, with figures such as the Egyptian blogger Khaled Saeed, and the Tunisian vegetable seller, Mohamed Bouazizi. People easily identified with their personal suffering and took to the streets in mass protests. However, it appears the leaders of the Arab states, followed by their Western friends, continue to turn a blind eye to the individual needs of their people. They have yet to take a close and careful look at the region and shape their policy vis-à-vis the Middle East.

Meanwhile, the Middle East isn’t only suffering from bloodshed. It is also suffering from insufficient medical care, meagre wages, unemployment, power outages, rising costs of basic staples, rampant corruption, and a constant threat to people’s personal safety. If no one addresses these issues, or takes notice of the next Mohamed Bouazizi or Khaled Saeed, we will find ourselves back at square one. We will witness the chaos that serves the precise dark powers of extremism, which Donald Trump has promised to fight.

Is the Middle East capable of evading such a gruesome fate? The answer can’t be summed up with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but rather a ‘perhaps’. Perhaps with sufficient combined efforts, cooperation and critical thinking that address the region’s problems, a suitable Marshall Plan can be devised for the Middle East.

Perhaps if the American President refrains from sweeping the human and individual rights of the region under the rug and takes a closer look at what’s really going on, the situation will improve. The young people of the Middle East deserve his time, efforts and close attention, so that he truly sees them. A good deal in the Middle East must benefit actual people, real women and men. It must include and apply to individuals. In the words of the Godfather: “It’s all personal, every bit of the business”.

Why Israel supports Kurdish referendum (and why the rest of the world should follow suit)

huffingtonpost.com

09/25/2017 03:04 am ET

Today the women and men of Kurdistan will answer the most

important question of their lives. Should Kurdistan break away from

Iraq to pursue its independence, or should it preserve a status quo of

unstable co-existence under the rule of the Iraqi state.

The Kurds in Iraq approach this fateful day with their homework being

done. Since 1991, they have practiced self-rule. They have elected a

parliament, written a constitution, built national institutions, engaged

in a deadly war against ISIS, pushed back the murderous

organization and defended their borders However, upon the historical

decision to hold a referendum for their independence, which will then

lead to negotiations with Iraq’s central government, the Kurds have

awakened to the shortcomings of their efforts. At this crucial point in

time, the Kurds have found themselves abandoned and standing

there practically alone.

Surprisingly, the U.S superpower, which gained its own independence

following a fateful decision to unilaterally break away from the British

Empire, “strongly opposes” the Kurdish vote on independence, and

“urges the KRG to engage in negotiations with Iraq”.

If my memory serves me correctly, soon after writing the declaration

of Independence, America’s founding fathers voted on proclaiming

Independence, to the demise of the British, who strongly opposed

this audacious act.

Was American democracy in 1776 perfect? It certainly was not.

Neither is the current Kurdish democracy. This doesn’t mean, of

course, that the Kurds are not ready or eligible to their independence.

It is quite clear why the respective Iranian, Turkish and Iraqi

governments are trying to intimidate and threaten Kurds with military

invasion, blockade and other deterring measures. It is astonishing,

however, why the US seems to be accommodating these countries

interests rather than supporting its trusted allies in their legitimate

quest for independence.

Thus far, the only country to openly declare its support of Kurdish

independence has been Israel. It is no secret that Israel has

maintained close relations with the Barazani family in Kurdistan over

the years, and that many Kurds identify their own suffering with that

of persecuted Jews. There are numerous reasons why many Israelis

express support for the Kurdish cause. I will count few of them.

The first reason stems from morality. The Middle East is home to

roughly 30 million Kurds, who reside in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.

They have remained the largest ethnic group to seek independence

for many years.

In spite of the Kurds efforts, the world has shown little interest in their

cause, and has stood idly by as they suffered ethnic cleansing,

poison gas and torture.

Like the Jewish people, who hoped and prayed for world support in

1947, the Kurds are now seeking global support. Nearly 70 years ago

the U.S claimed Israel’s declaration of Independence was premature

as well.

However, based on their own experience, both the US and Israel can

confirm that there is no time like the present for independence. It is

important to stress that some Israelis who all together support the

Kurds and at the same time object the Palestinian pursuit of

independence, are contradicting themselves. They apply the same

rhetoric vis-à- vis the Palestinians that Iran, Turkey and Iraq use vis-

à- vis the Kurds. The circumstances are different, the conflicts are

long and entangled, yet the quest of independence and the right for

self-determination is of course similar.

The second reason concerns Middle East alliances. Israel was

isolated from its neighboring countries for decades, as a result of

deep animosity, wars and conflicts. Looking for allies and partners

Israel reached out to the Kurdish people, Iran, Turkey and Sudan, in

an attempt to form a so-called “periphery alliance”.

Some of these alliances were doomed to fall. Domestic changes in

Iran, Turkey and Sudan put an end to this move. Islamic Republic of

Iran became Israel’s archenemy, ties with Sudan were cut and

relations with Turkey became weaker. The alliance between the

Kurds and Israel, however, has proven to be the exception. The

alliance is strategic, and not merely tactical, as Israel and the Kurds

join forces in fighting various forms of Sunni and Shia Islamic

radicalism, with the hope of building a prosperous, democratic and

secure state.

To date, America’s “One Iraq” strategy has backfired, damaging both

American and Israeli interests. Iran has largely spread its influence in

Iraq and aims to achieve territorial continuity, so that it may rule over

the vast territory between Tehran and Quneitra (Syria). Today, the

Kurd’s autonomous region is nearly the only obstacle to fulfilling

Iran’s plans.

If Iraqi Kurdistan becomes an independent state, Iran’s dream of

extending hegemony over the Kurdish region will be ruined.

hegemony over the Kurdish region will be ruined. Hence, supporting

the Kurds is not only morally justified. Independent Kurdish state will

without doubt stand in the way of Iran’s imperial ambitions in the

Middle East.

It is obvious that the time for Kurdish independence is now. The

Kurds have suffered and struggled long enough for that. Their

oppressors are dangerous to world’s order, stability in the region and

democracy. Today the world must work with the Kurds to prevent

bloodshed, ethnic cleansing, or, heaven forbid, another genocide.

Ksenia Svetlova is a member of the Israeli Knesset for the Zionist Union party,

and serves as the head of the Knesset pro-Kurdish lobby.

ARABIC’S FUTURE AS AN OFFICIAL LANGUAGE IN ISRAEL AT RISK, LEGISLATORS WARN

BY BEN LYNFIELD

JULY 12, 2017 01:54

Arab Mks say that should a bill proposing to eliminate Arabic’s official status in the country pass, it will be a “nakba of our language.”

A road sign in English, Hebrew, and Arabic points to the Israeli settlement of Susiya

 A road sign in English, Hebrew, and Arabic points to the Israeli settlement of Susiya. (photo credit:AFP PHOTO)
Elimination of Arabic’s status as an official language as is being proposed in a draft of a bill recently approved by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation would constitute “another nakba [catastrophe]” for Arabs, MK Yousef Jabareen (Joint List) said on Tuesday.
“It will be another nakba, the nakba of our language,” he said, using the Arabic term that refers to the mass displacement of Palestinians during the War of Independence.

“It would allow more degradation of Arabic in the public sphere and its disappearance from the public sphere, affecting our identity and status,” Jabareen added.

He made the remarks during Arabic Language Day in the Knesset, which he organized in order to combat the bill and strengthen Arabic’s status together with NGOs seeking to advance equality, including Sikkuy, the Abraham Fund and Mosawa.

In mixed hometown of slain Druse officer, stun grenades thrown at mosques

As part of the day’s events, the Knesset education committee discussed how Arabic is taught in Jewish schools and the economics committee’s subcommittee on public transportation addressed issues related to posting signs in Arabic. The main event was a roundtable discussion of MKs and NGO representatives on “language, identity, and equality.” Only a few Jewish MKs attended the discussion, including Anat Berko (Likud), who came late, made brief remarks on the importance of Arabic study and then left.

Since the state’s inception Arabic has held official language status although in practice it is not treated equally to Hebrew or even English, which is not an official language, said Yonatan Mendel, director of the Center for Jewish-Arab relations at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. Arabic “is treated as inferior,” he said.

Mendel added: “English is a mandatory subject for school matriculation, while Arabic is not mandatory. Many official services are not in Arabic as well as many websites. It’s official on paper only. Israel understands its being official in a narrow way. Its status is fragile and weak.”

Canceling Arabic’s official status might accentuate the problem of government offices not using the language or having it on their websites, Mendel said. “But its worst implications are political and moral. For Arabs the erasure of Arabic will be parallel to erasure of their status as equal citizens. They might understand it as a step toward taking away their citizenship rights. It will not contribute to relations between Jews and Arabs.”

MK Oren Hazan (Likud), who supports ending Arabic’s official status, told The Jerusalem Post there is room for only one official language – Hebrew.

“We need a framework that will safeguard Jewish identity and the [Hebrew] language. The State of Israel is the state of the Jewish people and Hebrew has to be safeguarded as the only official language.” He said he supports Arabic having a “special status” without being official and is promoting legislation that would require the teaching of spoken Arabic in Jewish schools from first grade.

The Ministerial Committee on Legislation in May approved a new version of the “nation-state bill” that states “the national language is Hebrew” and demotes Arabic from being official to having a “special status.”

The bill says Arabic speakers have the right to linguistically accessible state services.

Education Committee chairman Ya’acov Margi (Shas) declined to say whether he would support the change of status. “When I get the bill I will formulate my stance,” he said.

MK Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Union) said a committee had been formed chaired by MK Amir Ohana (Likud) to advance the bill in coordination with coalition partners.

“We are concerned the final version will harm the status of Arabic and that this will be a humiliation for Arab citizens,” she said.

Svetlova addressed the roundtable discussion in fluent Modern Standard Arabic, which she learned 20 years ago as a student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

She recalled being asked by a university staffer at the time why she did not study a European language instead.

“We are in the Middle East, all the neighbors speak Arabic, not Italian. The goal is that each child speak the two languages. This will advance peace,” she said.

Referring to Arabic literary luminaries, Svetlova added: “It is not the language of terrorism; it is the language of love and culture; the language of Yusuf Idris, Najib Mahfouz, Emile Habiby and Mahmoud Darwish.”

jpost.com

Middle East. Personally. Yours.

05/24/2017 01:55 am ET | Updated 26 minutes ago

GETTY IMAGES
Trump in Saudi Arabia with king Salman

The United States President, Donald Trump, was all smiles as he strode down the red carpet in Al-Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. He clearly enjoyed the royal welcome, the gold, the glitter, the huge weapon deal and the generous donation made to Ivanka Trump’s new fund for women entrepreneurs. And so, the idea promoted years ago by former U.S Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, of creating an alliance between Arab states, Israel and the United States against Iran, was brought back to the table. Saudi Arabia assumed a leading role in the alliance, namely, to combat Islamist terrorism worldwide. It is no secret that to this very day Saudi Arabia invests vast sums of money in spreading Wahhabism – the most puritan and radical of all Islamic Sunni streams – in many countries in African and Southeast Asia, thereby nurturing future generations of jihadist terrorists. One may also recall that shortly before President Trump’s visit to Al-Riyadh, the Saudis effectively blocked a proposal made by the Trump administration to impose sanctions on a Saudi branch of ISIS. The motion to add the Islamic State’s Saudi affiliate to a list of terrorist groups in the UN Security Council was sabotaged by Trump’s newly acquired best friends. It seems the Saudis did not wish to acknowledge the existence of an ISIS branch in their Kingdom, despite evidence to show otherwise. This was quite a peculiar move for a country that intends on playing a vital role in a newly formed anti-terror alliance. However, this doesn’t seem to bother Donald Trump.

Furthermore, the new American agenda for the Middle East, as presented by President Trump, will greatly impact the region’s ability to attain stability, or otherwise collapse. To date, the region’s prospects are not promising. The conditions that led to the rise of the Arab Spring have remained as they were, including unemployment, frustration, despair, and sparse opportunities for the younger generation, which make up a majority of the population. Top that off with corruption, a failing economy, and incompetent ailing Arab monarchs, presidents and prime ministers, who were forever supported by the United States, and occasionally Europe, and you have an estimate as to how well prepared the region is to face the challenges of the 21st century.

Nearly one hundred years ago, the Ottoman Empire was nicknamed “The Sick Man of Europe”. Today, most countries in the Middle East, excluding Israel and perhaps Tunisia, fall under a similar category. The wave of revolutions in 2011 was sparked from what were possibly the most personal stories in the history of humankind, with figures such as the Egyptian blogger Khaled Saeed, and the Tunisian vegetable seller, Mohamed Bouazizi. People easily identified with their personal suffering and took to the streets in mass protests. However, it appears the leaders of the Arab states, followed by their Western friends, continue to turn a blind eye to the individual needs of their people. They have yet to take a close and careful look at the region and shape their policy vis-à-vis the Middle East. Meanwhile, the Middle East isn’t only suffering from bloodshed. It is also suffering from insufficient medical care, meagre wages, unemployment, power outages, rising costs of basic staples, rampant corruption, and a constant threat to people’s personal safety. If no one addresses these issues, or takes notice of the next Mohamed Bouazizi or Khaled Saeed, we will find ourselves back at square one. We will witness the chaos that serves the precise dark powers of extremism, which Donald Trump has promised to fight.

Is the Middle East capable of evading such a gruesome fate? The answer can’t be summed up with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but rather a ‘perhaps’. Perhaps with sufficient combined efforts, cooperation and critical thinking that address the region’s problems, a suitable Marshall Plan can be devised for the Middle East. Perhaps if the American President refrains from sweeping the human and individual rights of the region under the rug and takes a closer look at what’s really going on, the situation will improve. The young people of the Middle East deserve his time, efforts and close attention, so that he truly sees them. A good deal in the Middle East must benefit actual people, real women and men. It must include and apply to individuals. In the words of the Godfather: “It’s all personal, every bit of the business”.