‘It’s not about the Benjamins,’ Netanyahu says of U.S. support for Israel

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands as Netanyahu departs the White House in Washington, March 25, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis/File Photo

TEL AVIV (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said “it’s not about the Benjamins” as he hit back on Tuesday against any suggestion that U.S. politicians are paid to support Israel.

A tweet in February by Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar, a freshman legislator from Minnesota, was widely seen as echoing an anti-Semitic slur that Jews influence governments through money.

“It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” Omar wrote, using a slang term for $100 bills. She subsequently apologized, saying she was grateful for “Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history” of anti-Semitic epithets.

Netanyahu, addressing a Washington convention of the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC, said via satellite from Tel Aviv: “Some people will just never get it. They’ll never understand why the vast majority of Americans – Jews and non-Jews alike – support Israel.”

He did not mention Omar by name.

“Take it from this Benjamin: it’s not about the Benjamins,” Netanyahu said. “The reason the people of America support Israel is not because they want our money, it’s because they share our values.”

Netanyahu had been due to address AIPAC in person, but he returned to Israel on Tuesday, two days ahead of schedule, after a rocket attack from Gaza wounded seven people in a village north of Tel Aviv.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

With Jews largely gone from Iraq, memories survive in Baghdad and Israel

A Jewish holy scroll is seen on display at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda, Israel, April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Maher Chmaytelli, Jeffrey Heller and Stephen Farrell

BAGHDAD/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Behind the high concrete walls of Baghdad’s Jewish cemetery, Violette Saul lies at rest under a weathered and cracked tombstone, one of the last memorials to an ancient community that is now all but extinct.

The Iraqi nurse was buried a decade ago alongside thousands of others in the sands of a country where her community thrived for more than 2,500 years.

Drive west to the shores of the Mediterranean – just a day’s journey geographically but a world away politically – and there is a lament inscribed at the entrance to the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Centre in Israel – “The Jewish community in Iraq is no more”.

It is no accident that such a somber epitaph to Iraq’s Jews should be found in Israel, where tens of thousands of them fled after 1948 amid the violent spasms that accompanied the birth of that state.

That transplanting of an educated, vibrant and creative community unquestionably enriched Israel, which celebrates its 70th anniversary on Wednesday.

But it also denuded Iraq of a minority that had long contributed to its political, economic and cultural identity.

In 1947, a year before Israel’s birth, Iraq’s Jewish community numbered around 150,000. Now their numbers are in single figures. And they are missed.

Ziyad al-Bayati, an Iraqi Muslim who looks after the rarely visited graveyard near the East Baghdad neighborhood Sadr City, said his father used to reminisce about an Iraq in which ethnic communities lived together.

It was a time, Bayati said, that predated the turmoil around Israel’s creation, the wars of later years, and the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and unleashed years of sectarian bloodshed.

“My father used to say it was the good times when people lived peacefully side by side,’ said Bayati, 48. “There is no concern shown for the cemetery, (even if) the culture of people here is to respect the dead and their graves.”

The chronology of Jews in Iraq stretches back some 4,000 years to the biblical patriarch Abraham of Ur, and to the Babylonian monarch Nebuchadnezzar, who sent Jews into exile there more than 2,500 years ago.

OLD LAND TO NEW LAND

The creation of Israel in 1948 and its successive defeats of Arab armies caused further bursts of popular anger and violence against Jews, an episode of history that is written in graves n the cemetery, where five Iraqi Jews accused of spying for Israel now lie side by side.

Between 1950 and 1952 about 125,000 Iraqi Jews were airlifted to Israel. Each came with one suitcase, and all had to give up their Iraqi citizenship.

Aharon Ben Hur, 84, who immigrated from Iraq to Israel in 1951, is seen in his house in Rehovot, Israel, April 16, 2018. Picture taken April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Aharon Ben Hur, 84, who immigrated from Iraq to Israel in 1951, is seen in his house in Rehovot, Israel, April 16, 2018. Picture taken April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

For one of them, Aharon Ben Hur, memories of Iraq are bitter. Now 84 and the owner of two falafel restaurants in Tel Aviv, he recalled the 1941 Farhud pogrom that killed more than 180 Jews during the Jewish festival of Shavuot. His father and younger brother were among them.

“They were thrown from the second floor. My father died ten days later and the boy almost immediately. He held him in his hands, and they threw them down 100 stairs. I was saved,” Ben Hur said.

He left early, in 1951. Some hung on much longer. Emad Levy, 52, was the last of Baghdad’s Jews to immigrate to Israel, in 2010.

“We kept our tradition, the holidays, the synagogue,” he told Reuters during the build-up to Israel’s Independence Day. “But it’s not the joy you feel here during a holiday, walking down the street where most people are Jewish.”

Levy is among perhaps 600,000 Israelis, out of a population of some 8.8 million, who can claim a measure of Iraqi ancestry, according to the heritage center in the town of Or Yehuda near Tel Aviv.

Inside a building built in the style of a traditional two-story Jewish home in Baghdad, there are displays of religious and cultural artefacts of Jewish life in Iraq through the centuries. Visitors walk through the reconstructed crooked alleys of Baghdad’s Jewish quarter and view a scaled-down replica of the city’s Great Synagogue.

Exhibits at the museum depict a hard landing for the Iraqi immigrants in the early years of Israel, where Ashkenazim, or Jews of European descent, were the ruling elite and Sephardim, Jews with roots in the Middle East, faced prejudice.

One photo shows Iraqi newcomers being sprayed with DDT pesticide. A tent has been erected on the floor, showing how the immigrants were initially housed.

But it also records how Iraqi Jews have gone on to become generals in the Israeli military, cabinet ministers, legislators, business executives, entertainers and celebrated writers.

Few expect ever to go back, amid the violent turmoil that still envelops Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and other countries which once had thriving Jewish communities.

An Iraqi man walks inside a Jewish cemetery in the Sadr City district of Baghdad, Iraq April 1, 2018. Picture taken April 1, 2018. REUTERS/Wissm Al-Okili

An Iraqi man walks inside a Jewish cemetery in the Sadr City district of Baghdad, Iraq April 1, 2018. Picture taken April 1, 2018. REUTERS/Wissm Al-Okili

Now aged 90, Zevulun Hareli joined a Jewish self-defense underground movement in Iraq, and recalls the fate of some of his fellow Zionists in 1948.

“They were children, 14 or 15. They were tortured. They were hanged. Their genitals were burned,” said Hareli, who immigrated to Israel in 1949. “Iraq said Zionism is a crime.”

Some still harbor more positive sentiments. Edwin Shuker, who was born in Iraq, has made several visits to the Baghdad cemetery in recent years, sometimes bringing people who want to say Kaddish – the Jewish prayer for the dead – over the graves.

He says he is welcomed by Iraqis when he goes back, and encounters nostalgia for a time when Iraq included a “mosaic” of minorities.

“No-one is going to move back,” concedes Shuker, 62, who had to escape Iraq in 1971. “However there are many who would be very receptive to visiting their shrines and where there ancestors are buried. The Iraqi Jewish community is the most ardent Jewish community, probably anywhere, that is so attached to its birthplace, because of its history.”

(Writing by Maher Chmaytelli and Jeffrey Heller; Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Israel changes law to make it harder to cede Jerusalem control

An Israeli flag is seen near the Dome of the Rock, located in Jerusalem's Old City on the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount December 6, 2017.

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s parliament passed an amendment on Tuesday that would make it harder for it to cede control over parts of Jerusalem in any peace deal with the Palestinians, who condemned the move as undermining any chance to revive talks on statehood.

The legislation, sponsored by the far-right Jewish Home coalition party, raises to 80 from 61 the number of votes required in the 120-seat Knesset to approve any proposal to hand over part of the city to “a foreign party”.

Last month U.S. President Donald Trump angered the Palestinians, Middle East leaders and world powers by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

As home to major Muslim, Jewish and Christian holy sites, Jerusalem’s status is one of the most sensitive issues in the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump’s Dec. 6 decision sparked regional protests and prompted the Palestinians to rule out Washington as a peace broker in any future talks.

Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, described Trump’s policy shift on Jerusalem and the passage of the amendment as “a declaration of war against the Palestinian people”.

“The vote clearly shows that the Israeli side has officially declared an end to the so-called political process,” Abu Rdainah said, referring to U.S.-sponsored talks on Palestinian statehood that collapsed in 2014.

Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it in a move not recognized internationally. It says the entire city is its “eternal and indivisible” capital.

Palestinians seek to make East Jerusalem the capital of a state they seek to establish in the occupied West Bank and in the Gaza Strip.

The amendment, long in the legislative pipeline, was passed with 64 lawmakers voting in favor and 52 against.

Opposition head Isaac Herzog said Jewish Home was leading Israel “toward a terrible disaster”. Jewish Home’s leader, Naftali Bennett, said the vote showed that Israel would keep control of all of Jerusalem forever.

“There will be no more political skulduggery that will allow our capital to be torn apart,” Bennett said on Twitter.

A bid to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations led by the president’s adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has so far shown no progress.

On Sunday, Netanyahu’s Likud party unanimously urged legislators in a non-binding resolution to effectively annex Israeli settlements built in the West Bank.

Political commentators said Likud’s decision might bolster right-wing support for Netanyahu, who could seek a public mandate in an early election while he awaits possible criminal indictments against him on corruption suspicions. He denies wrongdoing.

Parliamentary elections are not due until November 2019 but the police investigations in two cases of alleged corruption against Netanyahu and tensions among coalition partners in his government could hasten a poll.

Some commentators, pointing to an existing law that already sets a similar high threshold for handing over territory in a land-for-peace deal, have said Jewish Home was essentially competing with Likud for support among the right-wing base.

(This version of the story refiles to remove extraneous word in paragraph 14.)

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell, additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Raissa Kasolowsky)

‘Religious left’ emerging as U.S. political force in Trump era

By Scott Malone

(Reuters) – Since President Donald Trump’s election, monthly lectures on social justice at the 600-seat Gothic chapel of New York’s Union Theological Seminary have been filled to capacity with crowds three times what they usually draw.

In January, the 181-year-old Upper Manhattan graduate school, whose architecture evokes London’s Westminster Abbey, turned away about 1,000 people from a lecture on mass incarceration. In the nine years that Reverend Serene Jones has served as its president, she has never seen such crowds.

“The election of Trump has been a clarion call to progressives in the Protestant and Catholic churches in America to move out of a place of primarily professing progressive policies to really taking action,” she said.

Although not as powerful as the religious right, which has been credited with helping elect Republican presidents and boasts well-known leaders such as Christian Broadcasting Network founder Pat Robertson, the “religious left” is now slowly coming together as a force in U.S. politics.

This disparate group, traditionally seen as lacking clout, has been propelled into political activism by Trump’s policies on immigration, healthcare and social welfare, according to clergy members, activists and academics. A key test will be how well it will be able to translate its mobilization into votes in the 2018 midterm congressional elections.

“It’s one of the dirty little secrets of American politics that there has been a religious left all along and it just hasn’t done a good job of organizing,” said J. Patrick Hornbeck II, chairman of the theology department at Fordham University, a Jesuit school in New York.

“It has taken a crisis, or perceived crisis, like Trump’s election to cause folks on the religious left to really own their religion in the public square,” Hornbeck said.

Religious progressive activism has been part of American history. Religious leaders and their followers played key roles in campaigns to abolish slavery, promote civil rights and end the Vietnam War, among others. The latest upwelling of left-leaning religious activism has accompanied the dawn of the Trump presidency.

Some in the religious left are inspired by Pope Francis, the Roman Catholic leader who has been an outspoken critic of anti-immigrant policies and a champion of helping the needy.

Although support for the religious left is difficult to measure, leaders point to several examples, such as a surge of congregations offering to provide sanctuary to immigrants seeking asylum, churches urging Republicans to reconsider repealing the Obamacare health law and calls to preserve federal spending on foreign aid.

The number of churches volunteering to offer sanctuary to asylum seekers doubled to 800 in 45 of the 50 U.S. states after the election, said the Elkhart, Indiana-based Church World Service, a coalition of Christian denominations which helps refugees settle in the United States – and the number of new churches offering help has grown so quickly that the group has lost count.

“The religious community, the religious left is getting out, hitting the streets, taking action, raising their voices,” said Reverend Noel Anderson, its national grassroots coordinator.

In one well-publicized case, a Quaker church in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on March 14 took in a Honduran woman who has been living illegally in the United States for 25 years and feared she would be targeted for deportation.

‘NEVER SEEN’ THIS

Leaders of Faith in Public Life, a progressive policy group, were astounded when 300 clergy members turned out at a January rally at the U.S. Senate attempting to block confirmation of Trump’s attorney general nominee, Jeff Sessions, because of his history of controversial statements on race.

“I’ve never seen hundreds of clergy turning up like that to oppose a Cabinet nominee,” said Reverend Jennifer Butler, the group’s chief executive.

The group on Wednesday convened a Capitol Hill rally of hundreds of pastors from as far away as Ohio, North Carolina and Texas to urge Congress to ensure that no people lose their health insurance as a result of a vote to repeal Obamacare.

Financial support is also picking up. Donations to the Christian activist group Sojourners have picked up by 30 percent since Trump’s election, the group said.

But some observers were skeptical that the religious left could equal the religious right politically any time soon.

“It really took decades of activism for the religious right to become the force that it is today,” said Peter Ubertaccio, chairman of the political science department at Stonehill College, a Catholic school outside Boston.

But the power potential of the “religious left” is not negligible. The “Moral Mondays” movement, launched in 2013 by the North Carolina NAACP’s Reverend William Barber, is credited with contributing to last year’s election defeat of Republican Governor Pat McCrory by Democrat Roy Cooper.

The new political climate is also spurring new alliances, with churches, synagogues and mosques speaking out against the recent spike in bias incidents, including threats against mosques and Jewish community centers.

The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, which encourages alliances between Jewish and Muslim women, has tripled its number of U.S. chapters to nearly 170 since November, said founder Sheryl Olitzky.

“This is not about partisanship, but about vulnerable populations who need protection, whether it’s the LGBT community, the refugee community, the undocumented community,” said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, using the acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

More than 1,000 people have already signed up for the center’s annual Washington meeting on political activism, about three times as many as normal, Pesner said.

Leaders of the religious right who supported Trump say they see him delivering on his promises and welcomed plans to defund Planned Parenthood, whose healthcare services for women include abortion, through the proposed repeal of Obamacare.

“We have not seen any policy proposals that run counter to our faith,” said Lance Lemmonds, a spokesman for the Faith & Freedom Coalition, a nonprofit group based in Duluth, Georgia.

(Reporting by Scott Malone in Boston; Additional reporting by Laila Kearney in New York; Editing by Dina Kyriakidou Jonathan Oatis)

Montana lawmakers denounce plans for neo-Nazi rally

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Representative Ryan Zinke (R-MT) arrives for a meeting with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York City, U.S.

By Eric M. Johnson and Keith Coffman

(Reuters) – Top Montana Democratic and Republican lawmakers on Tuesday warned neo-Nazis they would find “no safe haven” for a rally that could include guns planned for next month in a mountain town where white nationalists have threatened Jewish residents.

The lawmakers include both Democrats and U.S. Representative Ryan Zinke, recently picked by Republican President-elect Donald Trump to be interior secretary.

“We say to those few who seek to publicize anti-Semitic views that they shall find no safe haven here,” Zinke wrote in an open letter also signed by Democratic Montana Governor Steve Bullock, U.S. senators Republican Steve Daines and Democrat Jon Tester, and Republican Attorney General Tim Fox.

Neo-Nazis plan to march in January in the mountain ski town of Whitefish in Montana’s remote and rugged northwestern reaches. The march is to support the mother of white nationalist leader Richard Spencer. Sherry Spencer is facing pressure from community members to sell a building she owns in Whitefish because of its ties to her son and disavow her son’s beliefs.

Community members held a vigil and a protest earlier this month in front of the building.

As pressure mounted against the building, the neo-Nazi and white supremacist website “Daily Stormer” urged its readers in an article to “take action” against Jews in the Whitefish area.

In its article, the “Daily Stormer” called for an “old fashioned Troll Storm” against community members and published their names and phone numbers along with yellow Jewish stars superimposed over their photographs. It also said that because of gun laws in Montana, “we can easily march through the center of the town carrying high-powered rifles.”

The website contains many anti-Semitic descriptions and images of Jews, but said it does not endorse violence.

Spencer is the president of the National Policy Institute, a think tank within the alt-right movement, which includes neo-Nazis and white supremacists. In a video posted online by the Atlantic Monthly magazine, some institute members could be seen hailing Trump’s election victory with Nazi-era salutes after Spencer addressed the group at its conference last month in Washington, D.C.

Spencer has said on Twitter he might pursue Zinke’s House of Representatives seat if Zinke is confirmed as Trump’s interior secretary.

Whitefish Police Chief Bill Dial told Reuters in a phone interview last week that his department had assigned extra patrols to the homes and businesses of the residents identified in the article. However, Dial said there had been no reports of harassment or intimidation of the Jewish community that rose to the level of a crime.

Dial also said Federal Bureau of Investigation officials told him they interviewed Spencer and that he denounced the “Daily Stormer” postings.

In a statement to Reuters, Spencer’s father said he and his wife “love our son, but do not agree with his polemics, societal desires or his extreme political leanings.”

(Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Writing and additional reporting by Eric M. Johnson from Seattle; Editing by Ben Klayman and Lisa Shumaker)

In Jerusalem’s cramped Old City, Christians feel the squeeze

Christian man sitting in Jerusalem's Old City

By Sleiman Jad

JERUSALEM, June 21 (Reuters) – – When hundreds of Jewish nationalists marched through the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City this month, waving banners and chanting songs in what has become an annual ritual, it wasn’t only Muslims watching warily. Christians were, too.

Religious tension is nothing new in a city that has been the home of three faiths for centuries. But the outlook for the Christian minority, squeezed inside the ancient walls of the Old City and caught in the midst of a months-long wave of violence involving Muslims targeting Jews, has seldom looked tougher.

While the Muslim population rises steadily, now making up 75 percent of the 38,000 residents in the city’s alleys, and the Jews increasingly make their presence felt via the annual march and their settlements beyond the Jewish Quarter, the number of Christians has not risen in 50 years, hovering around 7,000.

“If a thousand Muslims leave Jerusalem, that’s one thing,” said Jamal Khader, head of the Latin Patriarchate Seminary near Bethlehem. “But if a thousand Christians leave, you threaten the identity of Jerusalem as a city of multiple faiths.”

That concern is clear to Basil Saed, 28, the owner of a gym in the Christian Quarter. After an attempted stabbing by a Muslim in the Old City several weeks ago, Saed came face-to-face with an Israeli military policeman hunting for the suspect.

“He was trembling he was so terrified,” said Saed, a prize-winning weightlifter who wears a large gold cross around his neck. “In an instant he could have shot and killed me.”

To Saed, both Israel’s tight security and the Muslim unrest make him uneasy, and raise questions for his community.

“If we weren’t strong, we’d all be gone by now,” he said.

SQUEEZED OUT

In the narrow, cobbled streets of their quarter, Christian families have been running arts and souvenir shops for generations, earning money from the steady flow of religious and other tourists who flock to sites like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site where Jesus is believed to have been buried.

With the surge in violence that Jerusalem and surrounding areas have experienced since last October, tourism has become more erratic. Anecdotally, locals and tour guides say visitor numbers have dropped off sharply, hurting trade.

Residents like Youseph Shbeita, 35, the third generation owner of a religious icon shop near the Holy Sepulchre, are determined to hang on, seeing no option. But they can understand why younger Christians would want to leave.

“When you’re in the minority, you have to go with the flow,” he said, expressing a sense of responsibility for trying to preserve a Christian presence in the city where Jesus preached. “We just hope for calm, always for calm.”

Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer and activist who closely follows the community, said he feared it was being squeezed out by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with its tendency to focus on the Jewish and Muslim narratives.

“Since much of the epicenter of this round of violence has been in and around the Old City, it has increased their vulnerability,” he said, pointing to the lack of political and social institutions for Christians to depend on.

“I think it’s safe to say there are more Christian Palestinians in Chicago today than there are in Jerusalem.”

Most of the Christians in Jerusalem are Palestinians. Historically, the community has played a prominent role in the opposition to Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, putting it at odds with Israel.

Inside the walls of the Old City, however, there is still a degree of mutual dependence – Muslim merchants run stores on land owned by the Christian church, and Israeli Jews stop to buy fruit or a felafel from Muslim and Christian stallkeepers.

Even so, Saed, the weightlifter, doesn’t feel confident.

“For now, the Muslims and Jews are fighting each other,” he said. “But when they stop they’ll both look at us.”

(Reporting by Jad Sleiman; Editing by Luke Baker/Mark Heinrich)