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Can Afghan Warlords Take a Joke?

October 6th, 2015
Afghan Onion, an English-language satirical website, has taken aim at the country’s top political figures, including Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former warlord. (Shah Marai / AFP/Getty Images)

Afghan Onion, an English-language satirical website, has taken aim at the country’s top political figures, including Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former warlord. (Shah Marai / AFP/Getty Images)

By Ali M. Latifi /

They have referred to First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, a feared former Afghan militia commander with a reputation for enjoying his alcohol, as the “Vodka General.”

They called Mohammad Mohaqeq, another ex-militia commander accused of human rights abuses during the civil war of the 1990s, the nation’s “fifth vice president.” It was a dig both at Mohaqeq — whose actual title is second deputy to the chief executive — and at the unwieldiness of Afghanistan’s unity government.

In little more than a month since its launch, the writers behind Afghan Onion, an English-language satirical website, have spared few of the country’s top political figures.

Political satire is nothing new in Afghanistan, especially as the flourishing of independent media has been seen as one of the more evident successes of the 14 years since the U.S.-led military invasion. Still, new spoof websites and social media accounts are coming up at a precarious time, with President Ashraf Ghani’s year-old administration battling both political dissent and the stubborn Taliban insurgency.

The catalyst for the Afghan Onion was last year’s highly divisive election. Tainted by widespread allegations of government-assisted fraud, the election finally ended with an internationally backed deal making Ghani president of a large unity government. Many Afghans, especially first-time voters, believe their ballots were nullified by the U.S.-brokered compromise.

“The election turned out to be a funny joke. It became a theater for foreign meddling,” one of the site’s two founders, who maintain anonymity because of the fear of retaliation, said in an interview in Kabul. The other founder is an Afghan living abroad.

“Deep down, Afghans were seething due to the mess, which left a void for satire, and thus we began to be comical for a much-needed respite amid the usual political tension.”

When they launched the site, the two young men, neither of whom had much experience in satire and comedy writing, looked for inspiration to the Onion, “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and the Comedy Central show “Tosh.0.”

The writers say they have already received an “indirect threat” from Gen. Mohammad Ayub Salangi, the rotund former Kabul police chief, after tweeting a picture of him in a hospital bed with the message: “Thanks for all the warm wishes. It was a C-section. Both mother and baby are doing great. With love.”

The government’s Interior Ministry responded Wednesday on Twitter, saying it “strongly rejects a claim in @latimes that Gen Salangi … has indirectly threatened Afg Onion’s writer.”

Sites such as Afghan Onion and Kabul Taxi, a Dari-language Facebook page, are taking risks by poking fun at high-profile politicians and civil society leaders. In August, the National Directorate of Security, the Afghan intelligence agency, called in the editor of a local newspaper for questioning, reportedly because of the belief that he is the writer behind Kabul Taxi.

The summons came after Kabul Taxi published a post about Mohammad Hanif Atmar, Ghani’s national security advisor, and what the site called his “kid” advisors. That’s a reference to the coterie of young men and women who work for Atmar and are widely seen as having secured their positions through family connections.

Although many defend Kabul Taxi’s right to free expression, others said Afghanistan is not yet ready for such heated political criticism when the stability of the government has been repeatedly called into question.

According to a Human Rights Watch report, eight journalists were killed last year, a 63% increase in such slayings.

“You have to take a certain risk to make your point,” the Kabul-based writer said.

Some critics have contended that the site is being funded by foreign governments, including Washington. The owners deny that.

With more than 11,380 likes on Facebook, the Afghan Onion has struck a nerve with Afghans and foreigners alike. India’s ambassador to Kabul, Amar Sinha, has praised the “unadulterated fun and great satire” of the site, which often targets New Delhi’s rival, Pakistan, long accused of aiding Afghan militant groups.

The Afghan Onion’s writers, who include a small cadre of volunteers, also have taken aim at the European Union, the British Embassy, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and the former head of the Pakistani intelligence agency.

Even the Taliban is not safe from ridicule.

The Onion writers say they write primarily in English because they believe too much of the global narrative surrounding Afghanistan is shaped by foreign journalists based in Kabul.

They also criticized Afghan reporters who demanded access to the government’s security plans, calling them “Curious George.”

Yet they worry that even avid readers are afraid to share the site’s more controversial content. Their posts get relatively few retweets and Facebook “likes,” though in private, they say, many people are supportive.

“We’ve been in social settings where people bring up the Afghan Onion and their appreciation of it,” the Kabul-based writer said, “but it still seems like people are afraid to engage with our content in a manner that would be seen as too direct or supportive.”

Rebuttal to Chief Rabbis’ Besmirch of Christian Embassy

October 4th, 2015
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)

By Isi Leibler \ Op-Ed to The Jerusalem Post on 09/21/2015

Isi Leibler

Isi Leibler

It is regrettable that on Yom Kippur eve, our chief rabbis have again uttered offensive remarks, this time besmirching one of Israel’s most dedicated allies and ardent supporters.

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau and his Sephardi counterpart, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, have issued an extraordinary condemnation against the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem (ICEJ), accusing it of missionary activities and calling on Jews to boycott its 36th annual global Succot gathering in Jerusalem. The pro-Israel ICEJ was established in 1980 and is an extension of the Evangelical branch of Christianity.

Over the past half century, we have witnessed an exponential intensification in the Evangelical movement’s attachment to the Jewish people and Israel. This has coincided with the dramatic erosion of support for Israel from the Left and liberal sources.

Needless to say, Evangelicals are far from being a monolithic group and include a small minority whose primary interest in Jews is to proselytize them. Jews cannot countenance any relationship with such groups.

There are also some fringe elements whose philo-Semitism is motivated by premillennial dispensationalism – a belief that the End of Days and the second coming of the messiah can only take place when Jews have returned to the Land of Israel.

However, the majority of Evangelicals are God-fearing Christians who share an unconditional love for the Jews as God’s chosen people, pray for our welfare and passionately support Israel. They regard Judaism as the foundation of Christianity and reject Protestant replacement theology, which says the New Testament supersedes the historical role of the Jews as God’s chosen people. They base their belief on biblical passages such as Genesis 12:3: “And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.”

Most believe that God always intended Israel as a Jewish homeland and regard support for Israel as a way of honoring God. These feelings nurtured the early 19th century Christian Zionists and subsequently motivated people like Lord Balfour and Orde Wingate – who helped create the Haganah – and many others. These sentiments, rather than proselytism, were the major factors whereby Evangelicals developed into passionate Christian Zionists.

The Christian Embassy has approximately 50 dedicated representatives in Israel who liaise with branches in over 80 countries. It has an impressive record of major charitable contributions to Jewish, principally Israeli, causes. Most of the funds for these projects originate from $50 to $100 donations from churchgoing Christians who consider support for the Jewish people as a righteous cause.

The ICEJ has sponsored the aliya of over 120,000 Jews to Israel and provided seed money for the creation of Nefesh B’Nefesh. It contributes to the integration of immigrants and numerous social welfare projects in Israel, including a home for needy Holocaust survivors in Haifa, support for former Gush Katif residents and the funding of bomb shelters for settlements in the Gaza border region.

In the public arena, it canvasses support for Israel among parliaments throughout the world, and even created a Christian counterpart to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in support of Israel and against anti-Semitism. Passionate Evangelical support contributed substantially toward the surge of popularity for Israel in the United States and the good standing Israel currently enjoys in Congress. In some respects, Evangelical political influence has been as important as that of the pro-Israeli lobby.

The Christian Embassy works closely with the Foreign Ministry, the Tourism Ministry, the Jewish Agency and Yad Vashem. Last year’s Succot celebrations, which took place just after the Gaza war, attracted the largest number of participants in many years (over 5,000).

This year’s expression of solidarity with Israel will again celebrate the “recognition of the hand of God in Israel’s modern-day restoration and the need to work with what God is doing and bless it.”

In stark contrast to the traditional anti-Semitic church doctrine and current anti-Israel hostility manifested by most Protestant churches, the Christian Embassy and its supporters are genuine lovers of Zion. Evangelical support has never been conditional on a quid pro quo.

Yet the Chief Rabbinate shamefully proclaimed that the ICEJ’s objective is to convert “all the inhabitants of the world to Christianity” and, in particular, “to change the religion of Jews from the religion of Israel and to bring them under the wings of Christianity.” The chief rabbis urged Jews not to have any contact with them whatsoever, declaring that Jewish participation was prohibited by the Torah.

There are small groups of Orthodox Jews who remain convinced that all Christians are anti-Semites and their friendly gestures are only a ruse to proselytize us.

Extremist fringe elements like the xenophobic Lehava organization exhibit vile bigotry and poisonous hatred, and a handful are pathological and guilty of despicable acts of vandalism against churches.

But the majority of anti-Evangelical agitators, like Yad L’achim, are naïve and misguided zealots who accuse the Christian Embassy of missionary activity.

They obviously succeeded in convincing the chief rabbis to issue this condemnation without adequately checking the facts.

Over the years I have worked closely with the ICEJ.

It and its staff are indeed genuine friends of the Jewish people, and are righteous gentiles. I attended their Israel Guest Night on Succot and have been invited as a commentator on many of their broadcasts directed toward Christians throughout the world. I never once encountered even the slightest hint of missionary intent and I admire their integrity and innate decency.

I have never engaged in theological dialogue with them and see no merit in discussing our religious differences. I do recognize the common roots of our Judeo-Christian heritage, which obliges us to reject moral relativism and differentiate between good and evil.

For decades, in its charitable work throughout Israel, the Christian Embassy obliges every Israeli individual or institution that receives any aid from it to sign a statement confirming that there has been no attempt on its part to proselytize.

The week-long Feast of Tabernacles event is essentially a Christian gathering restricted to those who have regularly attended church services for at least six months.

It also holds a parade in Jerusalem where thousands of followers from all corners of the world proclaim their support and solidarity with Israel.

One activity, designated Israeli Guest Night, is open to the Israeli public. The program is extraordinarily sensitive to ensure that there is no missionary content, and it concentrates on expressing solidarity with the Jewish people.

Last year’s Israel Guest Night paid tribute to soldiers and survivors of terrorist attacks, and honored 300 Jewish, Christian and Druse paratroopers who served in Gaza. It was addressed by President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

This year, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein will be the keynote speaker.

It is disgraceful that the Chief Rabbinate failed to verify the false allegations made against the Christian Embassy and slandered those who represent Israel’s greatest friends in the world. The chief rabbis’ churlish action shames the Jewish people, and they should apologize and withdraw their scurrilous accusations.

In the meantime, I have every confidence that Israelis will continue to welcome our Christian friends and express appreciation for their support. Succot is traditionally recognized as the festival on which gentiles are invited to Jerusalem, and we should be gratified that during these difficult times, Christians from all over the world will gather here to express their solidarity.

Indeed, we should echo the sentiments expressed by then-chief rabbi Shlomo Goren who, in 1981, blessed the Christian Embassy Succot gathering with “Bruchim habaim b’shem Adonai” – “may all of you who have come here be blessed in the name of God.”

Israel to Fire on Stone-throwers

September 25th, 2015

By Daniel Estrin / Associated Press

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel on Thursday (9-24-15) approved harsher measures to combat the practice of stone-throwing amid a recent surge in Palestinian violence, widening the rules of engagement for police and vowing to raise minimum penalties for offenders to four years’ imprisonment.

The measures, approved by the Security Cabinet, allow police officers to fire live ammunition when there is an “immediate and concrete danger to police or civilians,” according to a government statement.

The development came as a Palestinian man died on Thursday from his wounds after being shot by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank [Judea and Samaria] last week.

According to the measures, officers will also be permitted to fire from .22-caliber Ruger rifles, an American-made firearm that police said uses a smaller bullet and would offer a quicker response against those throwing stones or firebombs or lighting fireworks. The rifle was not allowed previously, the police said.

“We intend to change the norm that has become established here, that the state of Israel allows these deadly and murderous objects to be thrown without response and without being thwarted,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to a statement from his office.

In recent months, stone-throwing has become a near daily occurrence in some neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem, the section of the city captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war and claimed by the Palestinians as their capital. But after an Israeli motorist was killed last week when his car crashed after being pelted with stones on the eve of the Jewish New Year, the Israeli government pledged to crack down on the practice.

The Cabinet also decided to advance legislation to impose a minimum penalty of four years’ imprisonment for those throwing rocks, according to the statement.

It said steps would be taken to jail and fine stone-throwing minors aged 14-18 and even their parents, who could also face various fines.

Netanyahu’s government has been pushing for tougher rules of engagement for police and tougher minimum sentences for offenders, though Israel’s attorney general said this week he opposed such changes and insisted the existing regulations were sufficient.

Tensions have been rising in Jerusalem following last week’s deadly rock-throwing incident, along with days of clashes at Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site. Since the beginning of last week, Israeli police said that 137 suspects, including 61 minors, were arrested over “public disturbances.”

Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the newly approved regulations meant that “police officers have further tools that can be used in life-threatening situations only.”

The main source of tension is the situation at the hilltop compound in Jerusalem known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, which is also home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

The site is sacred to both Jews and Muslims. Calls by a group of religious Jews to visit the site on the eve of the Jewish New Year sparked rumors among Palestinians that Israel was planning to disrupt the delicate status quo governing the site and take it over.

Muslim demonstrators armed with rocks and firecrackers holed up in the Al-Aqsa Mosque and clashed with police for three consecutive days.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas blamed Israel for the clashes in particularly harsh language, and insisted that none of Jerusalem’s holy sites belonged to Israel. “They are all ours and we will not let them desecrate it with their filthy feet,” he said.

Netanyahu has repeated his insistence that Israel would uphold the status quo and called on Abbas’s Palestinian Authority to “stop the wild incitement.”

“All remarks regarding the intention to harm the Islamic holy places are utter nonsense. It is not we who are changing the status quo,” he said. “It is those who bring firebombs and explosives into the mosques who are changing the status quo.”

Israeli police barred all non-Muslims from entering the holy site Thursday during a major Muslim holiday.

On Thursday, a Palestinian man died from his wounds after being shot by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank last week, the man’s brother said. He said his brother was deaf and unable to speak. Israeli army said it shot at a group of Palestinians hurling a firebomb at a passing car on a road between Jewish settlements, hitting one.

Russian Buildup in Syria Worries U.S.

September 17th, 2015

By Dion Nissenbaum and Philip Shishkin / The Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON — Russian forces have delivered a half-dozen tanks to a base in Syria, a marked escalation and the strongest indication yet that Moscow is preparing to transform a coastal airfield into a new military hub to help President Bashar al-Assad, U.S. officials said Monday.

Over the weekend, U.S. officials said, the six T-90 Russian tanks arrived at the airfield south of Latakia, Syria, where Russia’s military has embarked on an intensive buildup.

Along with the tanks, Russia has sent three dozen armored personnel carriers, about 15 new artillery pieces, and housing that could accommodate as many as 1,500 people, the officials said.

Russia is now flying an average of two cargo flights a day and the planes are using a new air route over Iraq, after Bulgaria rejected a request from Moscow last week to fly the cargo over its airspace, U.S. officials said.

The uptick in military deliveries, especially the tanks, has led to a shift in thinking at the U.S. Defense Department, where there is a growing consensus that Russia is preparing to play a much more intensive role in the Syrian conflict.

“Tanks are more offensive in nature, and this exceeds what we would consider as force protection for a base,” said one U.S. military official.

Russia has played down the importance of the military deliveries and cast them as part of its long-standing support for Mr. Assad. But U.S. officials are increasingly concerned about Moscow’s intentions.

President Barack Obama last week warned Russia that it was making a mistake in aiding Mr. Assad. Secretary of State John Kerry has called Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to express America’s concerns. Officials at the Russian embassy in Washington didn’t immediately respond to questions Monday.

Russia has been one of Mr. Assad’s strongest international supporters, and Moscow will play a central role in steering the course of the conflict toward a potential diplomatic deal or a more deadly conflict.

In Syria’s multifaceted civil war, Washington has sought to isolate the Assad regime diplomatically while developing Syrian rebel forces that have so far proved largely ineffective on the battlefield.

On Monday, Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said the U.S. would welcome Russia’s direct involvement in battling Islamic State extremists in Syria, but not if done in coordination with Mr. Assad.

“We welcome Russia participating in the global anti-ISIL efforts, but to do that via the Assad regime is unhelpful and potentially destabilizing,” he said.

A principal concern for the U.S. is the risk of accidental clashes or other mishaps in a Syrian airspace where the U.S. and its allies are flying round-the-clock surveillance and bombing missions against Islamic State forces.

Trust between U.S. and Russian defense establishments has broken down in acrimony over the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine, leaving Washington and Moscow without a reliable channel for what military planners call “de-confliction.”

In one clear sign of the breakdown, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, who took over the Pentagon job in February, hasn’t yet spoken to his Russian counterpart, Sergey Shoygu.

Last week Bulgaria denied Russia overflight rights for Syria transit, and the Russians have been using an alternate air route through Iraqi airspace, officials said.

In their Syria airlift, the Russians have followed established civil-aviation routes, making it harder for the U.S. to exert any over pressure either directly on Moscow or on the overflight countries.

“We’ve been in touch with all of our allies, partners and friends in the area to encourage them to ask hard questions about who and what is flying through their airspace,” Capt. Davis said.

Isabel’s confession of faith – video

September 8th, 2015

A young Akko shopkeeper and nominal Christian listened to To The Jew First team members Todd Baker and August Rosado explain God’s plan of salvation. As her heart accepted God’s gift of eternal life because Yeshua died for her sins, she reported feeling renewed and joyfully free from depression. Hear Isabel’s happy confession of faith in the video below:

Welcome, sister-in-Christ Isabel, to the born-again forever family of of God!

“It can be done”: Recalling the Rosh Hashanah 1943 Holocaust Escape of Danish Jews

September 3rd, 2015

By Rafael Medoff /

As the final minutes of Rosh Hashanah ticked away, 13-year-old Leo Goldberger was hiding, along with his parents and three brothers, in the thick brush along the shore of Dragor, a small fishing village south of Copenhagen. The year was 1943, and the Goldbergers, like thousands of other Danish Jews, were desperately trying to escape an imminent Nazi roundup.

“Finally, after what seemed like an excruciatingly long wait, we saw our signal offshore,” Goldberger later recalled. His family “strode straight into the ocean and waded through three or four feet of icy water until we were hauled aboard a fishing boat” and covered themselves “with smelly canvases.” Shivering and frightened, but grateful, the Goldberger family soon found itself in the safety and freedom of neighboring Sweden.

For years, the Allied leaders had insisted that nothing could be done to rescue Jews from the Nazis except to win the war. But in one extraordinary night, 72 years ago this month, the Danish people exploded that myth and changed history.

When the Nazis occupied Denmark during the Holocaust in 1940, the Danes put up little resistance. As a result, the German authorities agreed to let the Danish government continue functioning with greater autonomy than other occupied countries. They also postponed taking steps against Denmark’s 8,000 Jewish citizens.

In the late summer of 1943, amid rising tensions between the occupation regime and the Danish government, the Nazis declared martial law and decided the time had come to deport Danish Jews to the death camps. But Georg Duckwitz, a German diplomat in Denmark, leaked the information to Danish friends. Duckwitz was later honored by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. As word of the Germans’ plans spread, the Danish public responded with a spontaneous nationwide grassroots effort to help the Jews.

This cartoon by Arie Navon appeared in the Hebrew-language daily newspaper Davar on Oct. 13, 1943. Navon contrasted the rescue of Denmark's Jews with the farcical refugee conference that the Allies staged earlier that year in Bermuda. The title of the cartoon is a Hebrew word that means both “lifeguards” and “rescuers.” The lifeguards, one smoking a Churchill-style cigar and wearing a Union Flag swimsuit, and the other wearing Roosevelt-style glasses and a Stars-and-Stripes swimsuit, are standing next to an unused life preserver labeled “Bermuda.” The scrawny man diving into the swastika-infested ocean to rescue a drowning person is labeled “Sweden.”  Credit: From the forthcoming book “Cartoonists Against the Holocaust,” by Rafael Medoff and Craig Yoe.

This cartoon by Arie Navon appeared in the Hebrew-language daily newspaper Davar on Oct. 13, 1943. Navon contrasted the rescue of Denmark’s Jews with the farcical refugee conference that the Allies staged earlier that year in Bermuda. The title of the cartoon is a Hebrew word that means both “lifeguards” and “rescuers.” The lifeguards, one smoking a Churchill-style cigar and wearing a Union Flag swimsuit, and the other wearing Roosevelt-style glasses and a Stars-and-Stripes swimsuit, are standing next to an unused life preserver labeled “Bermuda.” The scrawny man diving into the swastika-infested ocean to rescue a drowning person is labeled “Sweden.” Credit: From the forthcoming book “Cartoonists Against the Holocaust,” by Rafael Medoff and Craig Yoe.

The Danes’ remarkable response gave rise to the legend that King Christian X himself rode through the streets of Copenhagen on horseback, wearing a yellow Star of David, and that the citizens of the city likewise donned the star in solidarity with the Jews.

The story may have had its origins in a political cartoon that appeared in a Swedish newspaper in 1942. It showed King Christian pointing to a Star of David and declaring that if the Nazis imposed it upon the Jews of Demark, “then we must all wear the star.” Leon Uris’s novel Exodus, and the movie based on that book, helped spread the legend. But subsequent investigations by historians have concluded that the story is a myth.

A midnight escape

On Rosh Hashanah—which fell on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 in 1943—and the days that followed, numerous Danish Christian families hid Jews from Holocaust persecution in their homes or farms, and then smuggled them to the seashore late at night. From there, fishermen took them across the Kattegat Straits to neighboring Sweden. This three-week operation had the strong support of Danish church leaders, who used their pulpits to urge aid to the Jews, as well as Danish universities, which shut down so that students could assist the smugglers. More than 7,000 Danish Jews reached Sweden and were sheltered there until the end of the war.

Esther Finkler, a young newlywed, was hidden, together with her husband and their mothers, in a greenhouse. “At night, we saw the [German] searchlights sweeping back and forth throughout the neighborhood,” as the Nazis hunted for Jews, Esther later recalled. One evening, a member of the Danish Underground arrived and drove the four “through streets saturated with Nazi stormtroopers,” to a point near the shore.

There they hid in an underground shelter, and then in the attic of a bakery, until finally they were brought to a beach, where they boarded a small fishing vessel together with other Jewish refugees. “There were nine of us, lying down on the deck or the floor,” Esther said. “The captain covered us with fishing nets. When everyone had been properly concealed, the fishermen started the boat, and as the motor started to run, so did my pent-up tears.”

Then, suddenly, trouble. “The captain began to sing and whistle nonchalantly, which puzzled us. Soon we heard him shouting in German toward a passing Nazi patrol boat: ‘Wollen sie einen beer haben?’ (Would you like a beer?)—a clever gimmick designed to avoid the Germans’ suspicions. After three tense hours at sea, we heard shouting: ‘Get up! Get up! And welcome to Sweden!’ It was hard to believe, but we were now safe. We cried and the Swedes cried with us as they escorted as ashore. The nightmare was over,” Esther recalled.

‘It can be done’

The implications of the Danish rescue operation resonated strongly in the United States. The Roosevelt administration had long insisted that rescue of Jews from the Nazis was not possible. The refugee advocates known as the Bergson Group began citing the escape of Denmark’s Jews as evidence that if the Allies were sufficiently interested, ways could be found to save many European Jews.

The Bergson Group sponsored a series of full-page newspaper advertisements about the Danish-Swedish effort, headlined “It Can Be Done!” On Oct. 31, thousands of New Yorkers jammed Carnegie Hall for the Bergson Group’s “Salute to Sweden and Denmark” rally.

Keynote speakers included members of Congress, Danish and Swedish diplomats, and one of the biggest names in Hollywood—Orson Welles, director of “Citizen Kane” and “The War of the Worlds.” In another coup for the Bergson Group, one of the speakers was Leon Henderson, one of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s own former economic advisers (Henderson had headed the White House’s Office of Price Administration).

In blunt language that summed up the tragedy—and the hope—Henderson declared: “The Allied Governments have been guilty of moral cowardice. The issue of saving the Jewish people of Europe has been avoided, submerged, played down, hushed up, resisted with all the forms of political force that are available… Sweden and Denmark have proved the tragedy of Allied indecision… The Danes and Swedes have shown us the way… If this be a war for civilization, then most surely this is the time to be civilized!”

Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, D.C. His latest book is “FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith.”

Update on Pastor Saeed Abedini

September 3rd, 2015

By Sean Savage/

Pastor Saeed Abedini

Pastor Saeed Abedini

Pastor Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-American Christian pastor who has been detained in Iran since 2012, has become the international face of the brutal persecution of Christians by the Islamic Republic.

Abedini was arrested by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps while visiting relatives and building an orphanage in the city of Rasht. Initially placed under house arrest, he was transferred to Iran’s notorious Evin Prison and later to Rajai Shahr Prison.

“[Evin Prison is] known to be one of the most brutal prisons inside of Iran and has one of the highest execution rates. Traditionally, it was the place where they kept their highest-security prisoners,” said Tiffany Barrans—international legal director at the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a law firm and social activism organization that has represented Abedini and his family since shortly after his arrest. “Originally, he was housed with those convicted of murder. Now he is housed with the political prisoners.”

“Saeed is anything but political. He really truly was there building an orphanage and doing humanitarian work,” Barrans added.

According to the ACLJ, Rajai Shahr Prison is “even more dangerous” than Evin Prison.

In addition to Abedini, three other American citizens are believed to be held in Iran. This includes former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, 32, who was arrested by Iran during a purported family visit in 2011 and is serving a 10-year prison sentence; Jason Rezaian, 39, the Washington Post’s Tehran correspondent who is currently on trial for espionage and hostile acts; and Robert Levinson, 67, a Jewish former FBI agent who disappeared on Iran’s Kish island eight years ago.

According to Barrans, Abedini has been forced to live in horrid conditions inside the Iranian prison.

“Physically, this is about as bad as you can imagine,” she said. “He has been given no protein, no clean water, has sanitary issues, and lives in extremely overcrowded conditions in a room built for 20 people that houses 80 people. … He described how they all share one toilet, and that it is difficult to clean because feces and urine leak from the ceiling above.”

Barrans added that Abedini is suffering from two medical conditions that doctors have said he needs surgery for, but Iran has refused treatment.

In early June, the families of the four American prisoners testified on behalf of Abedini in front of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee. Naghmeh Abedini, Saeed’s wife, described how her husband is suffering in an Iranian jail because of the fact that he is a former Muslim who converted to Christianity, which is illegal under Iranian law.

“The Iranian government has repeatedly told Saeed that he holds the key to his freedom — but this key would be to deny his faith and return to Islam,” Naghmeh said. “Yet, Saeed has refused to deny his faith in Jesus Christ even in the face of torture and abuse.”

While Abedini’s case has drawn considerable attention in the U.S., many Christian converts in Iran have faced extreme persecution as part of a Iranian government crackdown on the fledgling underground house-church movement.

According to Open Doors USA, a non-profit Christian human rights group, Iran ranks seventh on the list of countries “where Christians face the most persecution,” and the magnitude of that persecution rates as “extreme.”

“According to the Iranian state, only Armenians and Assyrians can be Christian. Ethnic Persians are by definition Muslim, and ethnic Persian Christians are considered apostates,” Open Doors USA said.

“This makes almost all Christian activity illegal, especially when it occurs in Persian languages, from evangelism to Bible training, to publishing Scripture and Christian books, or preaching in Farsi,” the group added. “In 2014, at least 75 Christians were arrested. More Christians were sentenced to prison and pressure on those detained increased, including physical and mental abuse.”

David Brog, executive director of Christians United For Israel (CUFI) — the largest pro-Israel organization in the U.S. with more than 2 million members — said that while CUFI normally focuses on building Christian support for Israel, the group is increasingly prioritizing the plight of Middle Eastern Christians and sees the situation as “one of the greatest human rights tragedies of our day.”

“With Pastor Abedini, what we are trying to stress is that it’s not about one man. It is a reflection of the [Iranian] regime, a regime that will hang people just because they are gay, a regime that will put people in prison just because they are Christian,” Brog said.

Israeli Baseball Player Selected in MLB Draft for 1st Time

September 2nd, 2015

By Aron Heller /

PETAH TIKVA, Israel — On the mound, Dean Kremer looks just like any other top-rated baseball prospect, whipping 90 mph fastballs and snapping nasty curves.

When the 19-year-old pitcher greets his teammates in the dugout after striking out the side, however, he sounds different. Kremer is speaking Hebrew, not English.

Israel baseball team pitcher Dean Kremer

Israel baseball team pitcher Dean Kremer

The 6’2″ Kremer is the golden boy of Israeli baseball, the first citizen to be selected in the Major League Baseball (MLB) draft and the country’s greatest hope of lifting the sport from its decades-long second-class status.

Though he was born and raised in Stockton, California, and is also an American citizen, the son of Israeli parents identifies strongly as Israeli himself, spends his summers in the Jewish State and is fluent in Hebrew. He’s the ace of Israel’s national team and sent local pride skyrocketing when the San Diego Padres selected him in the 38th round of the draft in June. After deciding instead to play college ball, his stock is only expected to rise.

“(I’m) definitely honored. I like to represent my country in any way possible,” Kremer said before practice at the country’s only regulation baseball field: in the Baptist Village in central Israel. “I’d love to be the person to get Israel baseball on the map.”

Baseball has historically been the most popular sport among American Jews, and there are currently about 15 playing in the major leagues, including All-Stars Ryan Braun and Ian Kinsler. But in sports-mad Israel, soccer and basketball reign supreme while baseball is still mostly a curiosity. For decades, it was the domain of a small but loyal group of American imports and failed to catch on with the rough-and-tumble native-born Israelis who, when it came to imported American sports, took more of a liking to the hard-hitting nature of football.

In 2007, a group of American supporters launched the Israel Baseball League, a professional league comprising almost entirely foreign players that folded after just one season. For the 2013 World Baseball Classic, Israel fielded a qualifying team that was similarly staffed by top-notch American Jews who were eligible to play for Israel under a “heritage” clause that allowed players with the even loosest of ties to join the teams. The team was coached by Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus and included former all-star Shawn Green, recently-waived Oakland A’s slugger Nate Freiman, and Joc Pederson, a Los Angeles Dodgers rookie who made this year’s National League all-star team and finished second in the Home Run Derby.

But Kremer, who enrolls at the University of Nevada Las Vegas on a baseball scholarship this fall, has deeper roots in Israel. He’s been part of its baseball program since he was 14 and grew up speaking Hebrew at home. His great-uncle is the American-Israeli billionaire businessman and big-time political contributor Haim Saban, though most of Kremer’s extended family still lives in Israel.

“Half my family–I can tell you that they still don’t know what baseball is. They don’t understand the game,” he said with a smile. “Israeli guys like upbeat-tempo things where they can’t get bored … People are aggressive here.”

However, the sport has made great strides since the arrival two years ago of Nate Fish as the Israel Association of Baseball’s first paid full-time national director. Fish said that there are currently about 800 players in Israel in all age groups, and he’s hopeful that some will go on to play college ball in the States.

Fish, who has played with several major leaguers, said Kremer would have been a much higher pick had he not already committed to UNLV. Regardless, he said, it means a lot to the status of baseball in Israel, and he envisions a bright future for his current teammate on Team Israel, the 22nd-ranked squad in the world.

“We are obviously proud of it. We want the world to know that we have a guy who was just selected,” he said. “It’s tough to say what is going to happen with the guy, but he has all the things you need to be successful at that level and get to the major leagues.”

Kremer–a righty who also throws a slider, curve, and splitter–gets the most attention in Israel for his fastball. His manager, Richard Kania, says Kremer “touches the low-90s,” and no one has ever seen that kind of velocity around here. On a recent day, kids lined the gates to watch him warm up, awed by the sound of his fastball snapping against the catcher’s mitt.

Kremer himself seems to be enjoying the ride, bilingually joking around with veteran teammates and also giving tips to aspiring youngsters.

“Here it’s not as competitive, but it is still a high level and it’s definitely developing,” he said. “I did get a lot of questions from the kids in the camp the past two weeks asking me questions about the draft, asking me like how to get better, and I feel like watching my progress will help inspire them.”

Israeli Paratroopers Train in 1957 — video

September 1st, 2015

After the success of Israel’s paratroopers corps in the 1956 Sinai Campaign, IDF officers learned to parachute

By Ramona Tausz /

In this screenshot from the video, an Israeli IDF soldier undergoes parachute training

In this screenshot from the video, an Israeli IDF soldier undergoes parachute training

Soldiers leap from planes and parachutes plummet through the air as IDF men and women undergo intensive parachute training in this newsreel from 1957.

According to the video’s voice-over, “The idea arose out of the Sinai Campaign, when Israeli paratroops landed 200 miles behind the Egyptian lines and disorganized most of their [the Egyptian military’s] communications.”

The IDF Paratroopers Brigade has existed since 1951.

After the Mitla Pass Jump triumph during the Sinai Campaign, the brigade went on to achieve many more military successes for Israel — including liberating the Old City of Jerusalem and the Western Wall during the Six-Days War.

(The Associated Press and Movietone News recently released their vast video archives on YouTube, allowing the public to freely access a million minutes worth of historical news clips dating back to 1895 — including many iconic scenes from Israel’s history featured in this Times of Israel series.)

Rosh Hashanah and the Jewish Months

September 1st, 2015

Torah scroll

Torah scroll

“In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you are to have a holy convocation; do not do any kind of ordinary work; it is a day of blowing the shofar for you” (Numbers 29:1). Those are the words in the Torah that tell us to observe Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Something is missing from that verse, since there is nothing about a new year. Besides, does a year start on the first day of the seventh month? Apparently it does.

Passover begins in the month of Nissan, but according to the Book of Deuteronomy, it begins in the month of Aviv. Aviv is Hebrew for “spring,” as in the name of the city Tel Aviv (hill of spring). Nowadays, Nissan is the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, if we count the months beginning with Rosh Hashanah. But if Rosh Hashanah takes place in the seventh month, then Aviv – now called Nissan – is the first month.

The Bet Alfa synagogue in Israel was built in the sixth century A.D. One of its mosaics has a circular panel with the signs of the Zodiac. There are Zodiac representations in synagogues all over the world, including the Eldridge Street Synagogue, now a museum, in New York City. According to a congregant at a synagogue in Tel Aviv, the Zodiac symbols there represent the twelve tribes. Since there are twelve months and twelve tribes, turning the symbols from Zodiac signs into representations of the tribes is a way to reconcile the symbols with Jewish tradition.

The Zodiac was part of the Babylonian calendar; so, Jewish traditions involving these symbols may have been borrowed during the Babylonian exile. However, the Babylonian year began with the month of Nissan.

The language spoken on the island of Sardinia is considered a separate language and not a dialect of Italian. The month of September in Sardinian is caputanni – caput means “head” and anni means “of the year.” Thus, caputanni is a perfect, direct translation of Rosh Hashanah, “head of the year.” There is a possibility that the name reflects a pre-Roman calendar that began the year with September. It is also possible, and probably more likely, that the name goes back to the year 19 A.D., when the Jews were expelled from Rome and 4,000 young Jews were condemned to forced labor on Sardinia. Twelve years later, when the order was rescinded, the Jews had the choice of going back to Rome or remaining where they were. A Jewish population remained in Sardinia until 1492, when the island belonged to Spain and the Jews were expelled. There is a second word in Sardinian that appears to be of Jewish origin: cenabura, pronounced [kenabura], meaning “Friday,” and coming from cena (feast) and pura (pure), suggesting the Sabbath meal. These words remained in Sardinian after the expulsion of the Jews.

And then there’s September, from Latin septem meaning “seven,” with what is probably an adjectival suffix -ber. September, October, November, and December mean 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th. Yet they are the 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th months of the year. In the days before the Roman Republic existed, there were 51 winter days that were not part of any month. Around the year 713 A.D., King Numa Pompilius introduced two months into the winter season — Januarius and Februarius — and designated them as the first two months of the year. Julius Caesar renamed the fifth month, Quintilis, after himself, calling it Julius (July in English). Augustus Caesar named the eighth month, Sextilis, after himself, calling it Augustus (August in English).

And so the Jewish calendar begins with a month originally called the seventh, which occurs in September, a name meaning “seventh.”

Shanah tovah … Happy New Year!

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