Conservative, religious Jews gathered at the Western Wall on Friday in an attempt to stop a group of liberal Jewish women from praying at the wall. The women were wearing prayer garbs traditionally worn by men. Police had to keep the two groups apart and arrested some conservative men for throwing things at the praying women.
The Israeli Supreme Court recently struck down gender segregation at the Wall, a direct result of protests by Jewish women’s groups. Many in the more conservative community resented this ruling and showed up in force to protest it. Some scholars see this as only one piece of Jewish news indicative of religious Jews’ decline of influence in Israeli life. Recently, politicians have moved to limit religious influence on the laws of marriage and divorce. They have also tried to limit army exceptions on the basis of religious study and cut back on subsiding larger families through welfare. The Western Wall could well be a proxy issue in the larger fight over public influence.
People in the religious community vowed to keep fighting for segregation at the Wall, but it is unlikely the court will review the issue anytime soon. Other groups have vowed to continue to forge a compromise on the gender issue at the Western Wall.
Israel deployed missiles and warplanes over the weekend to destroy targets in Syria. Although Israel has neither confirmed nor denied these claims, it is widely believed the strike was aimed at destroying Iranian missile bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon. Syria has vowed to retaliate but has not been specific about what action it would take. This is the third Jewish news story of a strike into Syria this year with the goal of destroying weapons leaving the country.
Although the strike was against government targets, it is not widely believed the attack will shift the balance of the conflict. Recent days have seen increased tension as the conflict grows and Syria’s stock of weapons becomes harder to secure. It is believed, though not confirmed, that Syria has already used chemical weapons against the rebels. The attack adds another unpredictable element to the mix of sectarianism and war already engulfing Syria. Many view the attack as an action against Iran more than Syria: Iran has supported the Shiite government of Assad which it views as one of its few regional allies.
The United States has said little, other than it supports Israel’s right to defend itself. Many worry this strike could draw Israel and Iran into a greater regional standoff.
Israel recently ranked 6th in Bloomberg’s rating of the healthiest countries in the world. The study looks at factors like infant mortality, the prevalence of disease, average weight and other factors. What makes Israel so healthy? What factors are preventing it from rising to number one?
Israel has many factors in its favor when it comes to good health. The Mediterranean diet, heavy in vegetables and olive oil, has long been linked to good health. Many Israelis practice such a diet without even knowing it. Compulsory military service exposed young people to potential harm but also helps reduce the rates of obesity and heart disease. Use of drugs and alcohol remains low when compared with other developed nations. Israel’s national health care system is among the best in the world.
There are, however, a few large negative factors. Smoking remains prevalent, especially among young people. This is seen as the greatest public health risk and one that many experts believe is not being aggressively pursued. Although hard to quantify, the collective stress of constant conflict may be shortening the lives of some. Drug and alcohol use, though relatively low, has been climbing in recent years. Some see it as an unfortunate side effect of globalization while others see it as a serious public health problem.
Israeli airline workers may go on strike this Sunday, April 21st to protest the Open Skies initiative. Open Skies was proposed a few years ago with the aim of deregulating and merging air travel in Israel and Europe. Although Open Skies is an international program, Israel has only recently entered into it. It is based of free-market completion, non-interference by the state, more liberalized rules governing flights, and cooperating to create more security.
The Histadrut Trades Union Federation has come out strongly against the plan and has organized the protest. They claim that Israel has little to benefit from the treaty and that would potentially lead to job losses and lower wages for Israeli workers. They did not issue statements regarding how long the strike would last or what kind of compromise they would be willing to accept. Supporters of Open Skies note that it would reduce air fare and create more direct flights between Israel and Europe.
By announcing the strike today, the Histradrut Union hopes to put pressure on airlines and aviation bodies to negotiate. Many people are sympathetic to labors’ plights because unions have lost many high profile battles in recent year, which the Jewish news has covered.
Israel is preparing for its third annual India in Israel festival. This multicultural festival includes Jewish songs, dance and culture alongside traditional Indian festivities and arts. Many of the program’s events are a result of an active collaboration between Israeli artists and Indian artists. The celebration is hugely popular according to the Indian cultural attaché to Israel. Some in the international community are wondering, why India?
India has been a hugely popular travel destination for young Israelis in the past decade. Many Israelis backpack in India for months, even years, after their army service. For many youths, these trips are a life changing experience. Many come back with a taste for Indian culture. Yoga classes, meditation, even Indian fashion has become popular in Israel.
The goal of the festival is to highlight the similarities between Israel and India and to build a better, broader understanding of India in Israel. The festivities are taking place in every major Israeli city, occupying theaters, concert halls and public spaces. A large exhibit of Indian traditional garb is also touring the nation.
Although India remains the premier location for Israeli backpackers, Thailand and other Southeast Asian nations are gaining ground fast. It may not be long before Thailand’s artists are invited to Israel for a cultural celebration.
Israel is known on the world stage for its development and adoption of new technologies. Israel leads in biotechnology but has also recently made strides in other high-tech fields. Now Israel is taking steps to apply some of those technological advancements practically. Israel announced last week it is launching a national biometric database.
Although the move has been the butt of some Orwellian Jewish humor at home and abroad, the system is, for the time being, strictly voluntary. Users submit to fingerprints and a facial scan which can then be used to identify them for reasons of taxation, record keeping and fraud prevention. The system’s ability will likely grow with time, if the public accepts the system. The biometric database is a two year pilot program. The Israeli government is trying to determine the usefulness, viability and public opinion of the system. Although some people fear the system may encroach on their privacy, others are pleased with the idea of a highly accurate and hard-to-defraud database. Israel is not known to be particularly rife with pension or tax fraud but such crimes are notoriously hard to track.
Israel’s Ministry of the Interior is behind the program and the public relations campaign to get Israeli citizens to use it.
Obama’s recent trip to Israel, which was designed to boost his approval rating among Israelis and American Jews and to discuss Middle East policy, appears to have been a success Jewish news sources say, at least in boosting opinions of Obama in the Israeli public. Polls suggest that the number of Israelis who view Obama as pro-Palestine over pro-Israel fell by 20% since Obama’s visit.
Whether Obama made any progress on the policy front remains to be seen. Israel’s recent move to strengthen relations with Turkey was seen as partially a product of Obama’s visit. It is also possible the news was simply timed to coincide with the visit. Obama’s visit also quelled concerns in the United States that he was giving Israel the cold shoulder. Iran seemed to be the main topic of conversation, though the future of Palestine was also given some attention. Some Palestinians felt that Obama shortchanged their cause by not devoting more time to meeting with the Palestinian leader or visiting the grave of Yasser Arafat.
Obama is now back in the United States with a significant amount of goodwill built up along the way. This is his second trip to Israel, the first occurred during his first term. Barring any crisis, this will likely be his last trip to Israel as a US President.
Israel will be hosting US President Barack Obama for a three day trip this week. President Obama is billing the journey as a “listening trip” in which he will hear concerns be Israelis and Palestinians. Obama stressed that no decision making regarding the issues of the Middle East will be made yet.
The trip comes at an important time in the Middle East. The UN just issued a condemnation of Israel’s continued settlements in disputed territories. Both the US and Israeli governments are concerned about political upheaval in Egypt and civil war in Syria. Although the region is rich in strife, a recent poll conducted in the US found the highest support for Israel among the general public since the 1970s, with 64% of respondents supporting Israel, 12% supporting Palestine and 24% undecided. It’s not just the US and Middle East that is changing. Israel is settling into its new government landscape on the heels of its recent election. The trip may decide US-Israel policy on important issues like Iran and terrorism for the next four years. Jewish news sources will be watching the trip closely, though most expect to be kept at arm’s length by officials from both nations.
Passover will be here shortly and Jews around the world are preparing to celebrate the festivities. How big is your Passover table? Your immediate family? Extended family? Family and friends? Jewish holidays can get big fast. Still, your Passover probably can’t hold a candle to the Seder on Top of the World. The Seder on Top of the World is the largest Passover celebration on Earth and includes as many as 2,000+ participants.
The annual celebration is held in Katmandu, which boasts an altitude of over 4,500 feet above sea level. The Seder draws young Israelis traveling after their army service, as well as general Jewish travels and even some locals. The Seder originated in the 1980s specifically to cater to Jews traveling in Nepal after the army. The Seder itself is not unlike your typical Passover, just bigger. Food and wine are supplied by Jewish charities around the world. People eat, sing Jewish songs, dance, have wine and retell the Passover story. Every year the celebration grows larger, and it may soon top 3,000 annual participants.
If you ever find yourself in Nepal this time of year, you should attend the Seder on Top of the World, especially if you are used to large Passover parties! Although this one might seem a little more “epic.”
Many prominent pro-Israel lobbying organizations have expressed a quiet disappointment over the nomination of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Organizations that typically avoid partisan politics are wondering if maybe they should get more involved in future confirmation fights in which they feel they have a stake. Others believe there is nothing the Israel lobby could have done and taking on the fight would be a waste of their political capital.
Jewish news was rocked with reports of anti-Semitic comments made by Hagel. These later turned out to be false rumors, but some of Hagel’s policies worry people in the pro-Israel community. Namely he wants to save money by cutting foreign military aid to Israel and to all nations. Hagel was brought on board by Obama to oversee cuts in the military as two long wars begin to wind down. Hagel faced stiff opposition from many Republicans over his stance towards Israel, but many political observers believe the GOP was trying to gin up their base and embarrass Obama. It is highly uncommon for a president to not get his choice for his cabinet.
Although they are not thrilled with the outcome many pro-Israel groups felt it would damage their reputation to do work not explicitly related to promoting Israel, especially on such a partisan issues.