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News at a Glance

March 4, 2005

Palestinians in Nablus fired at a police station, wounding three people. At least 13 men began shooting at the police station Friday. The gunmen were identified as members of Awda, a militant group affiliated with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party, and was a response to police efforts to arrest a member who had driven a stolen car and may have been beaten in police custody.

Israeli troops have been outfitted with tiny video screens on their wrist. The screens display video shot by unmanned airplanes, and helps troops identify and strike targets. The technology has been used for about a year, but was kept secret until the company that developed it, Elisra Group's Tadiran Electronic Systems and Tadiran Spectralink companies, spoke to reporters about it this week. The videos are said to be used for "targeted killing" of Palestinian terrorist leaders. Israel said last month it would halt the killings, but is reconsidering the decision in the wake of last week's suicide bombing in Tel Aviv.

Max Fisher, an elder statesman of the U.S. Jewish community, died Thursday in Detroit at 96. Considered the dean of Jewish Republicans, Fisher advised every Republican president since Eisenhower, according to the Republican Jewish Coalition, of which he was founder and chairman emeritus. Fisher was president of the Detroit Jewish federation from 1959 to 1964. He also served stints as president and national chairman of the United Jewish Appeal, president of the Council of Jewish Federations and chairman of the United Israel Appeal. He was also the founding chairman of the board of governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel and led many other Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Committee and B’nai B’rith International. Fisher was instrumental in the airlift of U.S. arms to Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. More recently, he also helped finance the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Max M. Fisher Music Center, known as “The Max.” Listed as the oldest member of the Forbes 400, Fisher made his wealth in oil and real estate.

Palestinian terrorists tried to bomb Israeli troops operating in the West Bank. No one was hurt in Thursday’s attacks around Nablus, but Israeli media quoted military commanders as saying tougher Palestinian Authority crackdowns were required in the West Bank for a nearly month-old cease-fire to survive. In one incident, a bomb went off just after Jewish worshipers arrived under army guard to pray at Joseph’s Tomb. In the nearby Balata refugee camp, two explosive devices were detonated as troops carried out searches. In an apparent move to calm Israeli concerns, the Palestinian Authority said its security forces had arrested several Islamic Jihad terrorists elsewhere in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in connection with last week’s Tel Aviv suicide bombing.

The Likud Central Committee in Israel voted overwhelmingly Thursday to urge the party’s lawmakers to demand a referendum on the Gaza withdrawal plan. But Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pledged to resist the call. “The Cabinet and Parliament made decisions and these decisions will be carried out,” Sharon said over catcalls from the crowd, referring to withdrawals from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank slated to begin July 20. “I have never yielded to threats, and there is no reason or possibility that I will begin doing so now,” he said. “I will not let the extreme fringes dictate the way forward.” The vote was expected to have little political impact, given the lack of support for a referendum among Knesset members.

Students and teachers at a Jewish college in Moscow clashed with local officials. The clash occurred Thursday after officials ordered the occupants of the Maimonides Academy to vacate the premises within 24 hours. The space was to have been given over to a foundation headed by the wife of Moscow’s mayor. About two dozen students barricaded themselves inside the building after a local district housing official arrived to inform the school of the decision. Maimonides Academy, a 13-year-old state-funded university level college, has been using the building for its Jewish and linguistics department for nine years, department dean Mikhail Chlenov, a veteran Russian Jewish leader, said. The incident involved a fistfight between officials and faculty members. Chlenov told JTA that officials revoked the initial order but the fate of the school remains unclear.

Natan Sharansky will highlight a forum at Columbia University on anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism on college campuses. Sunday’s program comes amid ongoing controversy over the issues of anti-Israel bias and academic freedom at the New York City university. The event is being sponsored by a pro-Israel faculty group, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, and three student organizations.

Most Israelis believe Ariel Sharon is sincere in arguing that withdrawals from some Palestinian areas are in the country’s best interest, a poll found. According to the Ha’aretz survey published Thursday, almost 68 percent of Israelis think their prime minister came up with the “disengagement plan” out of a strategic understanding that continuing to rule Gaza endangered the Jewish state. Respondents who saw an ulterior motive were in the minority. Around 12 percent said they thought Sharon initiated the withdrawals in order to garner cross-partisan support in the Knesset and save his government, while an equal number accused the prime minister of trying to distract the public from funding scandals that have dogged him and his sons.

Michael Chertoff was sworn in as the second U.S. homeland security secretary. The rabbi’s son was sworn in Thursday by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in Washington, and President Bush said he had given the former federal judge “an ambitious agenda.” “Our task now is to advance the exceptional achievements of the first two years of this department, to meet and manage the threats of today, and to prepare to confront the risks of the future,” Chertoff said. “Our mission is no less than this: protect America, while fostering the values of liberty, privacy and opportunity we all hold dear.” Chertoff, 51, becomes Bush’s second Cabinet-level Jewish appointment; Josh Bolten has run the Office of Management and Budget since 2003.

Jewish organizations and Republican lawmakers criticized Sen. Robert Byrd for comparing Republican Party tactics to Hitler. The Anti-Defamation League called the Democratic senator from West Viriginia’s comments, in which he compared a Senate rule cutting off debate on nominations to Hitler’s actions in the German Reischstag, “hideous, outrageous and offensive.” Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director, said, “The senator shows a profound lack of understanding as to who Hitler was and what he and his regime represented.” Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) also criticized Byrd, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan. “Nowhere in Senator Byrd’s remarks does he compare the Republican Party or any of its members to Adolf Hitler,” Byrd’s office said in a statement, saying he was quoting historian Alan Bullock, who wrote “Hitler: A Study in Tyranny.”

American Jewish attachment to Israel has decreased during the past two years, according to a new poll. Some 26 percent of respondents to the poll conducted for the Jewish Agency for Israel said they were very attached to Israel, down from 31 percent in 2002. The poll was reported in this week’s issue of the Forward. Those who had donated to an Israel-related charity decreased to 40 percent from 49 percent and those who had attended an Israel-related program dropped to 22 percent from 27 percent.

Four Israelis are suspected of attacking a French comedian known for his anti-Semitic views. Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala was assaulted Wednesday while talking to reporters in the French island of Martinique, a day after the High Court of Appeals in Paris condemned his "obsessive anti-Semitism." The Israeli Embassy said it would not be involved in the case because the suspects are also French nationals.

A French court rejected an appeal by Maurice Papon, who was fined for wearing a prestigious French service award. Papon was stripped of his decorations after he was convicted of Nazi-era crimes. Now 94, Papon was sentenced in 1998 to 10 years for his role in the deportation of some 1,500 Jews from southwest France to Nazi death camps in 1942, when he was a Vichy France official. In 2002, he was released from prison on medical grounds.

The Knesset will vote on Israel’s 2005 budget on March 17. Getting the $61 billion austerity package passed is crucial for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the summer’s planned Israeli withdrawals from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank. As of Thursday, Sharon could count on only 53 votes in the 120-seat Knesset, but political analysts said he would likely gain more in the coming two weeks. The prime minister has been courting religious factions with offers of funding for their causes, knowing that rival factions, such as the secular Shinui Party, are unlikely to cast protest votes against the budget because they want to see the withdrawal plan succeed.

Thousands of Hadassah members across the United States advocated for stem cell research and funding legislation. Some 2,000 women lobbied state legislators as part of a “SOS State of Stem Cell” initiative sponsored by Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, in two dozen states, including Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Arizona and Maryland. In 2003, President Bush issued an executive order banning all federal funding for new stem cell lines created after 2001. But that decision was not binding on the states, and several are now considering stem cell research legislation.

An Orthodox rabbinic group took a stand on a controversial circumcision practice. The Rabbinical Council of America, the rabbinic arm of centrist Orthodoxy, recommended against the ancient practice of metzitzah b’peh, in which the mohel places his mouth directly on the wound. The procedure has been in the news lately because New York City health officials believe it to be the way in which three New York-area newborns got herpes; one of the babies died. The council says that when the blood is sucked from the wound when a brit is performed on a baby boy, it should be done through a sterile pipette. The RCA says the less direct method fills the religious requirement and is “not only permissible, but is preferred.”

A European Jewish official criticized U.S. Jewish groups for harming French Jewry’s ability to combat anti-Semitism. French philanthropist Pierre Besnainou, treasurer of the European Jewish Congress, said that when the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee and American Israel Public Affairs Committee have become involved in French affairs, “their manner has come across as presumptuous and somewhat patronizing, placing us in a delicate situation.” Besnainou expressed his views in a letter sent Feb. 7 to Roger Cukierman, president of the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jews. “Four years ago, when anti-Semitic acts once again began to taint the honor of the Republic and increased the concerns of our community, the American Jewish organizations began a constant, obstinate and aggressive campaign of ‘crying wolf.’” The executive director of the AJCommittee took issue with Besnainou’s views. “As far as the American Jewish Committee is concerned, his views are simply ill-informed and totally erroneous,” David Harris told JTA. “From the beginning we consulted closely, if not intimately, with the leadership of CRIF and other leading French Jewish personalities.”

An organization dedicated to helping French Jews immigrate to Israel was launched. The Ami Fund was founded by French Jewish philanthropist Pierre Besnainou, who donated $1.5 million to start it. Ami Fund representatives said at a news conference in Jerusalem on Thursday that they hoped to help as many as 30,000 new French immigrants in the next five years. Like Nefesh B’Nefesh, the North American organization that helps facilitate aliyah in partnership with the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Ami Fund plans to help immigrants both financially and professionally as they make their transition into Israeli society. According to research presented at the news conference, more than 75 percent of French teenagers who visited Israel in 2004 do not see their future in France. In part because of rising anti-Semitism, 7,000 Jews have emigrated from France to Israel during the past three years.

A visiting U.S. Jewish leader invited Russia’s top Muslim cleric to visit the United States as an envoy of moderate Islam. Jack Rosen, the chairman of the American Jewish Congress, invited Ravil Gainutdin, the head of the Russian Council of Muftis, at a meeting in Moscow on Thursday, Russian news agencies reported. “The head of the Russian Muslims will present an example of the moderate and constructive Islam that denounces extremism and lives in peace with other ethnic groups and confessions,” said one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, Berel Lazar, who attended the meeting. Gainutdin said Russian Muslims fully recognize and support the right of the Jewish people to peaceful and safe existence in the Middle East.

Russia’s foreign minister said Syria should withdraw its troops from Lebanon. “Syria should withdraw from Lebanon, but we all have to make sure that this withdrawal does not violate the very fragile balance which we still have in Lebanon, which is a very difficult country ethnically,” Sergei Lavrov told the BBC on Wednesday. Russia has been an ally of Syria. In recent months, Moscow has been building up ties with Syria, and has recently agreed to sell Damascus short-range anti-aircraft missiles. The sale was criticized by Israel and the United States, who fear it would create more instability in the Middle East and could put Israel at risk.

A leading Florida politician criticized an ad by a Republican Jewish group attacking Howard Dean’s views on Israel. In a half-page ad appearing in the Palm Beach Jewish Journal, Wahid Mahmood, a Bangladeshi-born Muslim who is chairman of the Palm Beach County’s Democratic Party, said the Republican Jewish Coalition’s recent ad “in characteristically Republican right-wing extremist fashion, takes Dr. Dean’s comments out of context to mislead our citizens about the Democratic Party’s commitment to Israel.” Dean was recently elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Sid Dinerstein, chairman of the county’s Republican Party and an RJC member, rejected Mahmood’s charges, saying, “If Dean was in charge, Saddam Hussein would still be in office and the families of suicide bombers would still be getting paid.” The RJC’s ad highlighted statements Dean made during the Democratic presidential primary that suggested the United States should take a more “even-handed” approach to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and called members of Hamas “soldiers in a war.”

The Skirball Foundation established an endowment fund supporting the Center for Jewish Studies at the City University of New York. The foundation donated $1.5 million to start the Jack H. Skirball Fund for the Center for Jewish Studies, which is meant to help secure the center’s financial stability and help it recruit a prestigious director. Jack Skirball was a rabbi who became a motion-picture distributor and Academy Award-winning film producer. The Skirball family has funded many Jewish, cultural, medical and other causes.

© JTA (Reproduction or redistribution of these stories without permission is prohibited.)

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