Stopping America’s next hate-crime killers on social media is no easy task

By Sarah N. Lynch and Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON/LONDON (Reuters) – The pattern is clear: Hate-filled manifestos posted on websites populated by white supremacists, followed by gun attacks against blacks, Jews, Muslims, or Latin American immigrants.

In some cases, the killers use their internet posts to praise previous attacks by other white nationalists. And after new assaults, the manifestos get passed around, feeding the cycle of propaganda and violence.

Following the racially-motivated attack that killed 22 people at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, President Donald Trump said he wants police to do more to stop extremists who are active online before they can turn to murder.

But identifying and stopping the extremists who plan to launch an attack is much easier said than done.

Law enforcement experts say that the constitutional right of free speech means police cannot arrest someone simply on the basis of extremist rants online, unless they make a specific threat.

“You couldn’t just open a case on the words,” said Dave Gomez, a retired FBI agent who has worked on cases of both international and domestic terrorism.

“Posting something like that on the internet doesn’t harm anybody,” he said, adding that police can only successfully investigate a white supremacist when you can “connect his words to an overt act.”

The White House will discuss violent extremism online with representatives from a number of internet and technology companies on Friday, according to a White House spokesman.

Social media companies are reluctant to spy on or censor their users, though increasingly they are responding to demands that they take down obvious incitements to violence. And civil rights groups warn that tighter monitoring can lead to unconstitutional abuses of power

Another former FBI agent, who asked not to be identified, said closer monitoring of extremists’ websites would anyway be unlikely to prevent new mass shootings.

“There is not enough manpower. There is not enough technology to properly monitor the internet,” he said. “This is the number one thing we always say in law enforcement: ‘You can’t stop crazy. You can’t even predict crazy.’”

Trump said after the mass shootings last weekend in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, that he would ask the Justice Department to work with local, state and federal agencies as well as social media companies “to develop tools that can detect mass shooters before they strike.”

Even before those attacks, The FBI in early July requested bids for a contractor to help it detect national security threats by trawling through social media sites.

“The use of social media platforms by terrorist groups, domestic threats, foreign intelligence services, and criminal organizations to further their illegal activity creates a demonstrated need for tools to properly identify the activity and react appropriately,” the FBI said in its request.

PRESSURE

Top law enforcement and domestic security officials from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand met with leading social media and internet companies in London last week, and pushed them to help authorities track suspicious users.

The government officials noted in an agenda paper for the meeting that some companies “deliberately design their systems in a way that precludes any form of access to content, even in cases of the most serious crimes.”

“Tech companies should include mechanisms in the design of their encrypted products and services whereby governments, acting with appropriate legal authority, can obtain access to data in a readable and usable format,” the agenda paper said.

A final statement from the meeting said little about encryption, however, and neither company nor government officials talked about what was discussed.

Facebook and Microsoft confirmed they attended but Google, which was invited, did not respond to a request for comment. Other attendees included Roblox, Snap and Twitter, the statement said.

FBI agents say that broad surveillance powers enacted by Congress in the wake of the Sept., 11, 2001 attacks helped them track international terrorist groups and stop people with links to foreign groups like al Qaeda and Islamic State before they could carry out crimes.

But they key law criminalizing “material support” for terrorism does not apply to investigations or prosecutions of domestic terrorists, such as violent white supremacists, that commit hate crimes.

This week, the FBI Agents Association called on Congress to make domestic terrorism a federal crime in order to give agents more tools.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which promotes internet civil liberties, said the sheer amount of users posting aggressive content online makes it almost impossible to identify and track the people who pose an actual threat.

“Even though it seems like there is another mass shooting every week, if you are looking at the number of mass shooters versus the total population, it’s still a tiny, tiny number which means this is still a very rare event,” said Jeremy Gillula, the group’s tech products director. “It’s like trying to predict where lightning is going to strike.”

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Remains of hundreds of Jews unearthed in Nazi-era mass grave in Belarus

A soldier from a special "search battalion" of Belarus Defence Ministry takes part in the exhumation of a mass grave containing the remains of about 730 prisoners of a former Jewish ghetto, discovered at a construction site in the centre of Brest, Belarus February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

BREST, Belarus (Reuters) – Soldiers in Belarus have unearthed the bones of hundreds of people shot during World War Two from a mass grave discovered at the site of a ghetto where Jews lived under the Nazis.

The grave was uncovered by chance last month on a construction site in a residential area in the center of Brest near the Polish border.

A soldier from a special "search battalion" of Belarus Defence Ministry takes part in the exhumation of a mass grave containing the remains of about 730 prisoners of a former Jewish ghetto, discovered at a construction site in the centre of Brest, Belarus February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

A soldier from a special “search battalion” of Belarus Defence Ministry takes part in the exhumation of a mass grave containing the remains of about 730 prisoners of a former Jewish ghetto, discovered at a construction site in the centre of Brest, Belarus February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

Soldiers wearing white masks on Tuesday sifted through the site with spades, trowels and their gloved hands to collect the bones. They also found items such as leather shoes that had not rotted.

Dmitry Kaminsky, a soldier leading the unit, said they had exhumed 730 bodies so far, but could not be sure how many more would be found.

“It’s possible they go further under the road. We have to cut open the tarmac road. Then we’ll know,” he said.

Some of the skulls bore bullet holes, he said, suggesting the victims had been executed by a shot to the back of the head.

Belarus, a former Soviet republic, was occupied by Nazi Germany during World War Two and tens of thousands of its Jews were killed by the Nazis.

The site of the mass grave served from December 1941 to October 1942 as part of a ghetto, areas created by the Nazis to segregate Jews and sometimes other minorities from other city dwellers. Brest was part of Poland before the war.

The remains were discovered when builders began to lay the foundations for an apartment block.

Local authorities want to bury the bodies in a ceremony at a cemetery in the north of the city.

“We want to be sure that there are no more mass graves here,” said Alla Kondak, a local culture official.

(Reporting by Reuters TV; writing by Tom Balmforth; editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Two tales of a city: Jerusalem tour guided by a Palestinian and an Israeli

Tourists take part in the Dual Narrative tour lead by tour guides, Noor Awad, a Palestinian from Bethlehem, and Lana Zilberman Soloway, a Jewish seminary student, stand next to the Dome of the Rock on the compound known to Jews as Temple Mount and to Muslims as The Noble Sanctuary, in Jerusalem's Old City, February 4, 2019. Picture taken February 4, 2019. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

By Rami Ayyub and Stephen Farrell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – On a Jerusalem plaza looking up at the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock, a crowd gathers in front of two guides, listening attentively, a common sight in a city packed with pilgrims and tourists visiting its religious landmarks.

What is unusual is that one of the guides is Palestinian, one is Israeli, and they are taking turns to give their perspectives on the city known to Jews as Yerushalayim and to Arabs as al-Quds..

“We are in Jerusalem, which is the capital of the Jewish state. We are in one of the holiest places in the world for Christianity. And the keys are held by Muslim families,” said Israeli guide Lana Zilberman Soloway, who spoke first as the group reached the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where Jesus is believed to be buried. “And all three coexist at the same time.”

Her counterpart, Noor Awad, from Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank just a few km (miles) away, took a different view of the status quo, noting that Muslims and Christians from the West Bank or Gaza need Israeli travel permits to worship here.

“For Palestinians, this is the capital of Palestine and the capital of their country,” said Awad, 28. “If you don’t get that permission, you can’t come actually here to pray. So the place is being used, and plays a lot into the two narratives and the conflict we have today.”

The two guides heard each other out politely, with the occasional quip or raised eyebrow. Two dozen tourists, mainly foreigners living in the city, peppered them with questions.

The company, MEJDI Tours, says its “Dual Narrative” tour was “created in partnership by Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs, and Jews”. The weekly tours have been underway since last October.

Israel considers all of Jerusalem its capital. The Old City and holy sites lie in the mainly Arab eastern half, captured by Israel in a 1967 war and annexed in a move not recognized internationally. Palestinians say the eastern half is occupied land and must become the capital of a future Palestinian state.

At the heart of Old City, the tour came to the hill known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.

“Where the Dome of the Rock today is standing, the Prophet Muhammad ascended to Heaven to talk to God,” Awad told the tour party, describing what Muslims consider the holiest spot on earth outside of the two Arabian cities Muhammad called home.

“That’s a very central event, somehow similar to the story of Moses talking to God from Mount Sinai.”

For Jews, it is the site of the biblical temple, destroyed by Babylonian conquerors, rebuilt and razed again under the Romans. The Western Wall, a restraint for the foundations built by Herod the Great 2000 years ago, is a sacred place of prayer.

“All the way down deep underground, underneath the golden dome, 5779 years ago, God created the world. 4,000 years ago we believe Abraham came to bind Isaac on that exact spot,” Zilberman Soloway said.

Dave Yedid, 26, a Jewish seminary student from Long Island, New York who came on the tour, said: “exactly what differs in the sort of Jewish Zionist narrative versus the Palestinian narrative is something I’ll take home with me.”

“I wanted to see those two side by side.”

(Reporting by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Peter Graff)

Israeli team scanning Danube river for remains of Holocaust victims

Volunteers of Israeli rescue and recovery organisation ZAKA survey images transmitted by an underwater sonar during a search for the remains of Holocaust victims murdered on the banks of the Danube river in 1944 in Budapest, Hungary January 15, 2019. REUTERS/Tamas Kaszas

BUDAPEST (Reuters) – An Israel recovery team began mapping out the floor of the Danube in Budapest on Tuesday in search of the remains of Holocaust victims murdered on the riverbank in 1944 and 1945.

Israel’s Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem estimates that 565,000 Hungarian Jews were killed in the Holocaust, the majority of them deported to the Auschwitz death camp between May and July 1944.

In October of that year, when the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross party took power in Hungary, thousands of Jews from Budapest were murdered on the banks of the Danube, according to Yad Vashem.

A volunteer of Israeli rescue and recovery organisation ZAKA pulls an underwater sonar from the Danube river during a search for the remains of Holocaust victims murdered on the banks of the river in 1944 in Budapest, Hungary January 15, 2019. REUTERS/Tamas Kaszas

A volunteer of Israeli rescue and recovery organisation ZAKA pulls an underwater sonar from the Danube river during a search for the remains of Holocaust victims murdered on the banks of the river in 1944 in Budapest, Hungary January 15, 2019. REUTERS/Tamas Kaszas

Israeli Interior Minister Arye Deri said on Monday Hungarian counterpart Sandor Pinter had agreed to his request to provide special equipment to forensic experts from the Israeli volunteer group ZAKA who traveled with him to Budapest.

The Hungarian Interior Ministry has yet to respond to emailed questions seeking comment.

On Tuesday ZAKA divers began scanning the bottom of the Danube with an underwater sonar near a Budapest bridge where some remains were recovered several years ago.

“I think it is a triumph, it is after all these years we come to this work, this holy work on Hungarian ground,” Ilan Berkovich, leader of the ZAKA team, told Reuters.

“For me, I am basically Hungarian, my parents, my grandparents, all my family actually were from here. It is kind of a closure, so emotionally it is amazing, actually.”

ZAKA director Yehuda Meshi-Zahav told Reuters it remained unclear where any remains recovered would be buried. “That has yet to be determined. There is some sensitivity in Hungary about this matter,” he said.

Hungarian Jews have voiced concern at the right-wing nationalism of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has praised a Hungarian wartime leader who was an ally of Hitler and used an image of Jewish U.S. financier George Soros in an anti-immigration billboard campaign.

On a visit to Jerusalem last July, Orban said Jews should feel safe under his government. Right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who praised Orban, has found common cause with him on Soros and the U.S. billionaire’s support for critics of their governments’ policies.

More divers are expected in Budapest at the end of February to recover as much as possible of the Holocaust victims’ remains in a mission estimated to cost more than one million euros.

“For us it is very important to give respect for the people who died, even after 70 or something years, and we do the best we can to find as many as we can,” ZAKA diver Ilan Levy said.

(Reporting by Krisztina Fenyo in Budapest with additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Gergely Szakacs; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Britain’s Prince William, in Jerusalem, honors Holocaust victims, meets Netanyahu

Britain's Prince William pays his respects during a ceremony commemorating the six million Jews killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust, in the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, June 26, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prince William honoured Holocaust victims and met descendants of Jews hidden from the Nazis by his great-grandmother, in a somber start on Tuesday to the first official British royal visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

Wearing a black skullcap, William laid a wreath in the Hall of Remembrance at Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, where an eternal flame flickers and the names of extermination and concentration camps are engraved in the floor.

“Terrifying,” William said, viewing a display at the memorial’s museum of shoes taken by the Nazis from Jews at Majdanek death camp. “(I’m) trying to comprehend the scale.”

Britain's Prince William speaks with officials as he arrives to the residence of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem, June 26, 2018. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

Britain’s Prince William speaks with officials as he arrives to the residence of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem, June 26, 2018. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

Tens of thousands of Jews and other victims were killed at the camp, near Lublin in what is now Poland.

After the tour, the prince – second in line to the British throne – was greeted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, at their official residence in Jerusalem against the backdrop of British and Israeli flags.

At the residence, the prince met relatives of the late Rachel Cohen, who was hidden from the Gestapo, along with two of her five children, by Princess Alice, the mother of Britain’s 97-year-old Prince Philip, in her palace in Greece.

The Greek royal family – Princess Alice was married to Prince Andrew of Greece – had been acquainted with Cohen’s late husband, Haimaki, a former member of Greece’s parliament.

“You must be very proud of your great-grandmother, who saved defenseless Jews,” Netanyahu told William.

Princess Alice was recognized as one of the “righteous among nations”, gentiles who rescued Jews, by Yad Vashem in 1993. A devout Christian, she is buried on the slopes of Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives. William is due to visit her tomb on Thursday.

At a meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, the prince, on a visit described by Britain as non-political, said he hoped “peace in the area can be achieved”. Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed in 2014.

During the four-day visit, William is also scheduled to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian youngsters in the occupied West Bank.

“I had a very moving tour around Yad Vashem this morning, which really taught me quite a lot more than I thought I already knew about the true horrors of what happened to the Jews

over the war,” William said at the meeting with Rivlin.

The prince also spoke at Yad Vashem with two men who survived the Nazi genocide through British intervention.

Henry Foner, 86, and Paul Alexander, 80, were among thousands of Jewish children taken in by Britain as part of the 1930s “Kindertransport” from a continental Europe that was falling to German conquest.

“I said to his Royal Highness that this is a unique opportunity for me to express my thanks to the British people for opening their homes to me and to the other 10,000 children who came,” Alexander said.

Later in the day, William, sporting sunglasses, strolled along the Tel Aviv shore, chatting with beach-goers and quipping, “I should have brought my swimming trunks”. At a youth soccer event in nearby Jaffa, he admonished journalists crowding around the youngsters to move back.

“Guys, will you give us some space, there are children here,” said the prince, who from his earliest years experienced crowds of journalists and photographs hounding his mother, the late Diana, Princess of Wales. She died in a car crash in Paris in 1997 as paparazzi chased her vehicle.

William’s trip is at the behest of the British government. Until now it had been British policy not to make an official royal visit until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was resolved. British officials have given no detailed explanation for the change in policy.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Jews and Muslims celebrate unusual coexistence in Tunisia’s Djerba

Two Tunisian Muslim women chat with a Jewish man at Ghriba, the oldest Jewish synagogue in Africa, during an annual pilgrimage in Djerba, Tunisia May 2, 2018. Picture taken May 2, 2018. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

By Tarek Amara and Ahmed Jadallah

DJERBA, Tunisia (Reuters) – Cyrine Ben Said, a Tunisian Muslim, carried candles and wrote her hopes for the future on an egg in religious ceremony at a synagogue on the southern island of Djerba.

She wanted to share the rituals with her Jewish friends because, for her, Tunisia is a country of tolerance, coexistence and freedom of belief.

“I’m here to share rituals with my Jewish friends in new Tunisia of tolerance, coexistence and freedom of belief … Every one has his religion, but we have many common points; the flag, love and peace,” Ben Said.

Tunisia is home to one of North Africa’s largest Jewish communities. Jews have lived in Tunisia since Roman times, and the community once numbered 100,000.

But fear, poverty and discrimination prompted several waves of emigration after the creation of Israel in 1948. Many left after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, most going to France or Israel.

They now number about 2,000, with more than 1,200 in Djerba.

Ben Said is one of dozens of Muslims who participated in the Jewish religious ceremonies in the oldest synagogue in Africa, Ghriba, during an annual celebration held this month. The eggs, covered in people’s ambitions for love and prosperity, are stored in a cellar.

The event is a powerful sign of mutual tolerance in Djerba, where the two communities have long coexisted.

“The Jews and the Muslims of Djerba are all Tunisian citizens, so there is no difference between us,” said Perez Trabelsi, a Jewish community leader. He added that despite their small number Jewish people have a strong presence in economic life, including tourism, restaurants and the jewelry trade.

“NO DIFFERENCE”

Each year, Muslim religious leaders and politicians from the Mufti to the head of the government take the chance to go to Ghriba to promote the message of interreligious tolerance.

“This is a peaceful island that embraces its Jews and Muslims in harmony, giving a message to the world that we must abandon hatred and hostility,” said Tunisian Imam Hassen Chalghoumi, as he shook hands with one of the rabbis.

Cyrine Ben Said (L) and Amnia Ben Khalif, Muslim Tunisians, light candles during a religious ceremony at Ghriba, the oldest Jewish synagogue in Africa, during an annual pilgrimage in Djerba, Tunisia May 2, 2018. Picture taken May 2, 2018. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

Cyrine Ben Said (L) and Amnia Ben Khalif, Muslim Tunisians, light candles during a religious ceremony at Ghriba, the oldest Jewish synagogue in Africa, during an annual pilgrimage in Djerba, Tunisia May 2, 2018. Picture taken May 2, 2018. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

Ghriba synagogue was hit by an al Qaeda truck bombing in 2002 that killed 21 people, most of them German visitors.

At the entrance to the synagogue, a young Muslim, Makrem Gaagaa, welcomes visitors with a broad smile and presents headscarves to those who need one.

“It’s my job and my livelihood,” he said. “My relationship with everyone who visits this place is good, they have their religion and I have my religion,” added the guard, who has worked in the synagogue since seven years.

Most Jews in Djerba live in Hara Kbira neighborhood, their homes next to Muslim homes, where they exchange visits and gifts at religious events and weddings.

“Here, there is no difference between Jews and a Muslims,” says Jewish resident Georgina, who gave only her first name. “We are good neighbors, some of them we visit all the time. They offer us food, and we give them food, too.”

Despite the peaceful atmosphere, security is still tight. This year, during protests against government austerity measures in January, assailants threw petrol bombs at a small synagogue in Djerba, causing shock but no casualties.

In Djerba’s old medina, Jewish tailor Mgissis Chabeh has worked for four decades sewing “jebba”, a traditional Muslim dress.

Tunisian Jews and Muslims attend a ceremony at Ghriba, the oldest Jewish synagogue in Africa, during an annual pilgrimage in Djerba, Tunisia May 2, 2018. Picture taken May 2, 2018. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

Tunisian Jews and Muslims attend a ceremony at Ghriba, the oldest Jewish synagogue in Africa, during an annual pilgrimage in Djerba, Tunisia May 2, 2018. Picture taken May 2, 2018. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

“All my customers are Muslims and they love my work,” 70-year-old Chabeh said from behind his sewing machine, in between jokes with a Muslim gold trader friend.

The old medina in Djerba is full of jewelry shops, most of which are run by Jews who have controlled the trade in Djerba for decades.

Nearby, a popular Jewish restaurant has a sign written in Arabic and Hebrew.

“In the old city there are many Jews,” said Jewish chef Gabriel Yahich. “We cook meals for them that are compatible with the Jewish religion, but we also offer traditional meals accepted by the Muslims.”

“For me the important thing is that trade is good, the rest is details.”

(Editing by Aidan Lewis and Alison Williams)

Palestinian leader Abbas offers apology for remarks on Jews

FILE PHOTO - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas heads a Palestinian cabinet meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah July 28, 2013. REUTERS/Issam Rimawi/Pool/File Photo

By Stephen Farrell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday offered an apology after he was accused of anti-Semitism for suggesting that historic persecution of European Jews had been caused by their conduct, not by their religion.

Abbas condemned anti-Semitism and called the Holocaust the “most heinous crime in history” in a statement issued by his office in Ramallah after a four-day meeting of the Palestinian National Council (PNC), at which he had made the remarks.

“If people were offended by my statement in front of the PNC, especially people of the Jewish faith, I apologize to them,” Abbas said in the statement.

“I would like to assure everyone that it was not my intention to do so, and to reiterate my full respect for the Jewish faith, as well as other monotheistic faiths.”

Abbas, 82, was excoriated by Israeli and Jewish leaders and diplomats who accused him of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial for his remarks on Monday during his opening speech to the PNC, the de facto parliament of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

He said that Jews living in Europe had suffered massacres “every 10 to 15 years in some country since the 11th century and until the Holocaust”.

Citing books written by various authors, Abbas said: “They say hatred against Jews was not because of their religion, it was because of their social profession. So the Jewish issue that had spread against the Jews across Europe was not because of their religion, it was because of usury and banks.”

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman swiftly rejected Abbas’ apology. He wrote on Twitter: “Abu Mazen is a wretched Holocaust denier, who wrote a doctorate of Holocaust denial and later also published a book on Holocaust denial. That is how he should be treated. His apologies are not accepted.”

Reacting to the speech, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday accused Abbas of grave anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. Rabbis Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper of the U.S.-based Jewish human rights organization the Simon Wiesenthal Center said Abbas’ words were those of “a classic anti-Semite”.

U.N. Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov called Abbas’ comments “deeply disturbing”.

PREVIOUS COMMENTS

A veteran member of Fatah, the PLO’s dominant faction, Abbas served for decades as a loyal deputy of his predecessor, Yasser Arafat. He assumed the leadership of Fatah, the PLO and the Palestinian Authority after Arafat died in 2004, and was re-elected as chairman of the PLO’s Executive Committee on Friday.

In 1982 Abbas obtained a doctorate in history at the Moscow Institute of Orientalism in the then-Soviet Union. His dissertation, entitled “The Secret Relationship between Nazism and the Zionist Movement” – to which Lieberman referred – drew widespread criticism from Jewish groups.

The following year the Simon Wiesenthal Center released translated quotations from the book, including one excerpt about World War Two in which, according to the center’s translation, Abbas wrote:

“Following the war…word was spread that six million Jews were amongst the victims and that a war of extermination was aimed primarily at the Jews…The truth is that no one can either confirm or deny this figure. In other words, it is possible that the number of Jewish victims reached six million, but at the same time it is possible that the figure is much smaller – below one million.”

After Abbas’ speech on Monday, Hier and Cooper said: “The world can now see that see that, for Palestinian Authority President Abbas, nothing has changed in the 45 years since his doctoral dissertation was first published.”

But in his apology on Friday, Abbas said: “I would also like to reiterate our long held condemnation of the Holocaust, as the most heinous crime in history, and express our sympathy with its victims.

“Likewise, we condemn anti-Semitism in all its forms, and confirm our commitment to the two-state solution, and to live side by side in peace and security,” he said, referring to an eventual resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

(Reporting by Stephen Farrell; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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)

Netanyahu accuses Palestinian leader of anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem April 15, 2018. Gali Tibbon/Pool via Reuters/File Photo

By Stephen Farrell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Mahmoud Abbas of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial on Wednesday after the Palestinian leader suggested in a speech that historic persecution of European Jews had been caused by their conduct.

Jewish groups also condemned Abbas’ comments, made in a speech on Monday to the Palestinian National Council, that Jews had suffered historically not because of their religion but because they had served as bankers and money lenders.

“It would appear that, once a Holocaust denier, always a Holocaust denier,” Netanyahu said on Twitter.

“I call upon the international community to condemn the grave anti-Semitism of Abu Mazen (Abbas), which should have long since passed from this world.”

Abbas said in his speech that Jews living in Europe had suffered massacres “every 10 to 15 years in some country since the 11th century and until the Holocaust”.

Citing books written by various authors, Abbas argued: “They say hatred against Jews was not because of their religion, it was because of their social profession. So the Jewish issue that had spread against the Jews across Europe was not because of their religion, it was because of usury and banks.”

“CLASSIC ANTI-SEMITE”

Netanyahu’s criticism was echoed by Jewish leaders around the world.

“Abbas’ speech in Ramallah are the words of a classic anti-Semite,” said Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper of the U.S.-based Jewish human rights organization the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

“Instead of blaming the Jews, he should look in his own backyard to the role played by the Grand Mufti in supporting Adolf Hitler’s Final Solution,” they added.

They were referring to Muslim Grand Mufti Haj Amin Husseini, a World War Two ally of Adolf Hitler, whose “Final Solution” led to the killing of six million Jews in Europe.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman tweeted that Abbas had “reached a new low in attributing the cause of massacres of Jewish people over the years to their ‘social behavior'”.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and the foreign service of the European Union, the biggest donor of aid to the Palestinians, also condemned the comments.

“We reject any relativisation of the Holocaust,” Maas told Die Welt daily.

“Germany bears responsibility for the most atrocious crime of human history,” he said, adding the memory of the Holocaust was a constant reminder to tackle any form of anti-Semitism.

The European External Action Service in Brussels said in a statement: “Such rhetoric (about the Jews) will only play into the hands of those who do not want a two-state solution, which President Abbas has repeatedly advocated.”

Abbas’ spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah declined comment on the criticism.

Abbas, 82, made his remarks in the West Bank city of Ramallah at a rare meeting of the Palestinian National Council, the de facto parliament of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which Abbas heads.

A veteran member of Fatah, the dominant faction of the PLO, Abbas served for decades as a loyal deputy of his predecessor, Yasser Arafat. He assumed the leadership of Fatah, the PLO and the Palestinian Authority after Arafat died in 2004.

Abbas was born in 1935 in Safat, a town in the north of what was then British-ruled Palestine. His family became refugees in 1948, fleeing across the border to Syria as violence intensified between Jews and Arabs, culminating in war between the newly created State of Israel and its Arab neighbors in May 1948.

In 1982 Abbas obtained a doctorate in history at the Moscow Institute of Orientalism in the then-Soviet Union. His dissertation, entitled “The Secret Relationship between Nazism and the Zionist Movement”, drew widespread criticism from Jewish groups, who accused him of Holocaust denial.

(Additional reporting by Berlin and Brussels bureaus; Reporting by Stephen Farrell, Nidal al-Mughrabi, Ali Sawfta, Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Israel abandons plan to forcibly deport African migrants

FILE PHOTO: A boy takes part in a protest against the Israeli government’s plan to deport African migrants, in Tel Aviv, Israel March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Corinna Kern/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The Israeli government said on Tuesday it had abandoned a plan to forcibly deport African migrants who entered the country illegally after failing to find a willing country to take in the migrants.

The government had been working for months on an arrangement to expel thousands of mostly Eritrean and Sudanese men who crossed into Israel through Egypt’s Sinai desert.

“At this stage, the possibility of carrying out an unwilling deportation to a third country is not on the agenda,” the government wrote in a response to Israel’s Supreme Court, which has been examining the case.

The migrants will again be able to renew residency permits every 60 days, as they were before the deportation push, the government said.

The migrants and rights groups say they are seeking asylum and are fleeing war and persecution. The government says they are job seekers and that it has every right to protect its borders.

Despite Tuesday’s climbdown, the government said immigration authorities would still try to deport migrants voluntarily, drawing criticism from rights group Amnesty International.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later said that after failing to reach agreement with any country to take them in, he would try to draft legislation that would allow the reopening of detention centers in Israel for the migrants.

The Supreme Court has previously struck down legislation that permits such detention and ordered the facilities shut.

“I’M THRILLED”

The government’s U-turn was welcomed by those targeted for expulsion.

“I’m thrilled. I’m speechless. I was so scared every day. If I can stay here it will be good, I’ve lived here so long – I have a job, I have Israeli friends. I am used to the place,” said Ristom Haliesilase, a 34-year-old Eritrean who lives in Tel Aviv, working as a carer for the elderly.

The fate of some 37,000 Africans in Israel has posed a moral dilemma for a state founded as a haven for Jews from persecution and a national home.

Around 4,000 migrants have left Israel for Rwanda and Uganda since 2013 under a voluntary program, but Netanyahu has come under pressure from his right-wing voter base to expel thousands more.

After pulling out of a U.N.-backed relocation plan a few weeks ago, Israel shifted efforts toward finalizing an arrangement to send the migrants against their will to Uganda.

A number of migrant rights groups then petitioned the Supreme Court to block any such policy.

Amnesty also welcomed Tuesday’s decision but criticized Israel’s plan to continue with voluntary deportations.

“… in reality there is nothing voluntary about them. Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers agree to them under pressure. Israel remains under the obligation not to transfer anyone to a country” where they would be unsafe, said Magdalena Mughrabi, Amnesty deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.

Amnesty will closely monitor the deportations, it said.

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell and Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Gareth Jones)