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Top 10 Jewish stories of 2019

NEW YORK — As the year draws to a close, the Jewish community continues to grapple with the rise of global anti-Semitism. Israel is caught in the grip of political paralysis following two fruitless elections, with a prime minister facing prosecution for corruption. In the US, a president was impeached and a bitter presidential election next year looms.

These are the Jewish stories that most captured our attention in 2019, whose reverberations are likely to be felt well into the next ride around the sun.

The impeachment of President Donald Trump

Jewish faces were prominent in the third impeachment of a president in American history, beginning with President Zelensky of Urkaine, whose phone call with Trump prompted the Democratic call for and vote on impeachment.

In the impeachment hearings in the House, both were led by Jews, Adam Schiff of the Intelligence Committee and Jerry Nadler of the Judiciary Committee.

One of the two leading figures in a trial in the Senate would be Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY).

The New Jersey kosher store and Poway synagogue shootings

In December, two shooters opened fire in a kosher store in Jersey City, NJ, and killed three people, including the proprietor of the store, a Jewish customer therein and a non-Jewish worker who lost his life while saving the life of a Jewish customer. Both shooters were killed in a gunfight with police. Earlier, the shooters had killed a policeman in a nearby cemetery.

The scene outside the site of a deadly shooting at kosher supermarket in Jersey, City, Dec. 10, 2019.

The major of Jersey City declared the shooting a hate crime. The shooters, who were not white supremacists, complicated the widely held view in the American Jewish committee that murderous anti-Semitic attacks were perpetrated from within white supremacist circles.

In April, on the last day of Passover, a gunman opened fire at a Chabad synagogue in the San Diego suburb of Poway, killing one person and injuring three. The accused gunman told a 911 dispatcher that he did it because “Jewish people are destroying the white race.”

The New Jersey and Poway attacks shook the American Jewish community, which was still reeling from the shooting attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh that killed 11 worshippers at Shabbat services.

As the one-year anniversary of the shooting approached last October, the community held a number of memorial events that made it clear the aftershocks were still being felt.

“I live with Oct. 27 every minute of every hour of every day, and I will for the rest of my life,” Rabbi Jeffrey Myers said.

Two killed in Yom Kippur attack on German synagogue

As 51 people gathered for Yom Kippur services in the German city of Halle, Stephan Balliet, clad in combat gear and wearing a head-mounted camera, tried to blast his way inside.

Visitors at the synagogue in Halle the day after it was targeted by a gunman, Oct. 10, 2019. (Jens Schlueter/Getty)

When the synagogue’s fortified doors kept him out, he turned and shot Jana Lange, who had reprimanded him for making too much noise. Then Balliet proceeded to a nearby kebab shop, where he shot and killed a man identified only as Kevin S. Balliet later told police he was motivated by anti-Semitism.

Worshippers remained in the synagogue for hours before they were evacuated by police to a nearby hospital, where they continued their holiday services.

“It was intense and emotional,” one participant said.

The shooting sent shock waves through the tiny Jewish community of Halle, which numbers about 500 people.

It also sparked outrage from leaders of German Jewry, who demanded to know why the synagogue was left unguarded on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.

Josef Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, called the failure “scandalous,” and said if police had been present they could have disarmed the gunman before he harmed anyone.

Israelis vote twice and still don’t have a prime minister

In April, national elections resulted in a tie between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and his principal challenger, the Blue and White party led by former general Benny Gantz.

Benny Gantz, left, and Benjamin Netanyahu. (Wikimedia Commons)

Benny Gantz, left, and Benjamin Netanyahu. (Wikimedia Commons)

Netanyahu failed to form a government, so Israelis went back to the polls in September and again delivered no clear winner: 33 seats for Blue and White, 32 for Likud.

First Netanyahu tried to form a government, then Gantz. Neither succeeded.

Israel has now entered uncharted territory: It is headed for a third election, to take place in March. The only thing Israelis probably agree on right now is how unpalatable another election will be. Most fear another stalemate.

Netanyahu faces corruption charges

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was indicted in November on multiple charges of corruption, including bribery and breach of public trust.

The most serious case alleges that Netanyahu traded political favors to the largest shareholder of the telecommunications giant Bezeq in exchange for favorable news coverage.

Netanyahu also was accused of accepting gifts totaling $200,000 from Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan in exchange for political assistance, and of seeking positive coverage from the daily newspaper Yediot Acharonot in exchange for advancing a law that would have hurt a competitor.

Netanyahu has decried the indictment as a “witch hunt” and an attempted coup.

Israeli law allows him to maintain his postion as caretaker prime minister, but not his other ministerial positions.

A leading anti-Semite in Britain, Jeremy Corbyn, was trounced in an election

Around the world, law enforcement and community organizations found that hate crimes continued to rise, with Jews often the most common targets.

The most pervasive anti-Semitic expressions were found in Britain’s Labour Party, led by a man, Jeremy Corbyn, long dogged by accusations of anti-Semitism.

Jeremy Corbyn launches his campaign in the Battersea neighborhood of London, Oct. 31, 2019. (Dan Kitwood/Getty)

His party was long a political home for most British Jews, but in recent years became tolerant of almost uncountable expressions of anti-Semitism in its ranks. Many long-time Jewish members and leaders of the party resigned.

Concern over Corbyn reached a fever pitch in the months prior to the Dec. 12 vote. In early November, Britain’s oldest Jewish newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle, published a front-page editorial pleading with Britons not to support Corbyn, noting a recent poll suggesting that approximately half of Jews would consider emigrating if he were elected.

Weeks later, in an unprecedented intervention, British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis wrote of British Jewry’s justified anxiety at the prospect of a Corbyn premiership in a Times of London op-ed, warning that “the very soul of our nation is at stake.”

On Dec. 12, the Labour Party scored its poorest showing since 1935 in a resounding electoral defeat. Corbyn said he would resign as head of the party.

All this inspired a significant collective Jewish sigh of relief.

Hate crimes against Jews and anti-Semitic expression are spiking around the world

In April, the ADL reported that 1,879 anti-Semitic incidents occurred in 2018, the third-highest tally in the four decades the ADL has been conducting annual audits.

In July, the Canadian government reported that Jews were the most targeted minority group for the third straight year, even as hate crimes against other groups fell.

In August, the British Jewish community’s anti-Semitism watchdog reported the highest number of anti-Semitic incidents ever in the first six months of 2019.

Violent attacks on Brooklyn Jews have been increasing in recent years. Then, a series of violent attacks against visibly Jewish victims caused particular alarm. Three were reported in one week in August alone. The situation led the city to create a new Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes and install Devorah Lauter, a former ADL official, at its helm.

Israel becomes a wedge issue, with Rep. Omar, President Trump, and Jewish Republicans and Democrats weighing in

This year saw serious cracks in what has long been a cherished feature of the US-Israel relationship: bipartisanship.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar (Laura Adkins/JTA/Getty)

In February, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., came under fire for a series of controversial tweets, including one charging — falsely — that AIPAC pays politicians to be pro-Israel. Omar drew quick rebukes from leading Democrats and subsequently apologized, in part.

The following month, President Donald Trump called the Democrats the “anti-Jewish” party. In August, Trump said that anyone who voted for a Democrat was guilty of “disloyalty,” a comment that drew condemnation from critics who said it evoked classic anti-Semitic tropes.

Meanwhile, Democratic politicians were trending leftward on Israel, with some candidates for the presidential nomination saying they were prepared to use American aid as leverage to pressure Israel.

The shifting center of gravity on Israel prompted pushback from the party’s so-called moderate wing and prompted the creation of a new organization, the Democratic Majority for Israel, dedicated to cultivating support for the Jewish state in the party.

Both sides were preparing to spend heavily on the Israel issue in the coming presidential election.

The #MeToo movement hits the Jewish community

Michael Steinhardt, the Jewish billionare and megadonor who helped found Birthright Israel and heavily supports a wide range of Jewish institutions, was accused of a pattern of extremely inappropriate remarks to women.

 

According to an investigation conducted by The New York Times and Pro-Publica, the journalism nonprofit, seven women alleged that Steinhardt made sexual requests of them while they were seeking his financial support.

Steinhardt denied the accusations, but acknowledged a pattern of comments “that were boorish, disrespectful, and just plain dumb.”

The accusations against Steinhardt had a negative effect on some of his pet causes, such as the organized Jewish community’s longtime focus on encouraging endogamy and child rearing.

A measles outbreak hits the Orthodox community

A measles outbreak that began with a trickle in haredi Orthodox communities in Israel and New York last year exploded into a public health crisis in 2019. Hundreds of cases were reported in New York and thousands in Israel.

A sign warns people of measles in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on April 10, 2019. (Spencer Platt/Getty)

A sign warns people of measles in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on April 10, 2019. (Spencer Platt/Getty)

New York officials took aggressive measures to contain the outbreak, declaring a public health emergency and ordering that unvaccinated people living in four heavily Orthodox zip codes in Brooklyn be vaccinated or pay fines up to $1,000.

The state also banned religious exemptions for vaccines and at least 10 Jewish schools in New York City were shuttered for admitting unvaccinated students.

At least three fatalities were attributed to the disease in Israel, one of them a 43-year-old El Al flight attendant who contracted the disease on a flight from New York.

By September, New York had declared the epidemic over.



JTA

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