The Jewish year in review: #MeToo, the embassy move, and a growing gap between Israel and the Diaspora

August 31, 2018

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(JTA)—For North American Jews, the Jewish year 5778 began with tensions between Israel and the Diaspora over egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall and ended with more tension over a controversial nationality law. In between, North American Jews grappled with the impact of the #MeToo movement, the Trump administration relocated the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv and actress Natalie Portman made headlines for turning down a chance to collect a top prize in Israel.

September 2017

A survey finds that American Jews overwhelmingly disapprove of President Donald Trump’s performance. The poll, conducted by the American Jewish Committee, shows that 77 percent view Trump’s performance unfavorably and 21 percent view it favorably – figures considerably worse than Trump’s performance in polls of the general population conducted at the same time.

Edie Windsor, whose landmark Supreme Court case paved the way for gay marriage in the United States, dies at 88. Windsor’s 2013 lawsuit resulted in the court’s overturning part of the Defense of Marriage Act that had defined marriage for federal purposes as the union between a man and a woman.

Disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner is sentenced to 21 months in prison for transferring obscene material to a teenage girl. The former House of Representatives member from New York had pleaded guilty in the case, which followed multiple instances of sharing sexually explicit material online.

A French Jewish leader and his family are assaulted in their home near Paris amid a spate of violent break-ins, including deadly ones, targeting Jewish victims, according to authorities.

October 2017

The United States announces its intention to withdraw from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization over its anti-Israel bias. The decision, which will go into effect at the end of 2019, reflects concerns about the general need for reform of the organization as well as “continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO,” the State Department says.

Harvey Weinstein is fired from the film production company he founded in the wake of multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against him. Weinstein, who co-founded Miramax (later The Weinstein Company) with his brother Bob, also is expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization that awards the Oscars. The Weinstein revelations spur similar allegations against numerous powerful men, leading to the #MeToo movement.

S.I. Newhouse Jr., the billionaire media mogul who ran dozens of magazines and newspapers, dies at 89 in New York. The grandson of Russian immigrants, whose initials stand for Samuel Irving, since 1975 had run the magazine division of Advance Publications, known as Conde Nast, which publishes Vogue, GQ, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker.

Monty Hall, host of the long-running television game show Let’s Make a Deal, dies at 96 in Los Angeles. Born Monte Halperin in Winnipeg, Canada, Hall hosted thousands of episodes of the show over more than two decades.

November 2017

Alex Bregman stars as his Houston Astros win their first World Series championship. The Jewish infielder hits two home runs and in Game 5 becomes the first Jewish player to win a  Series game with a walk-off hit. On the losing side, outfielder Joc Pederson of the Los Angeles Dodgers breaks the record for most homers in a Series by a Jewish player with three, beating the mark of two set by Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg in 1934. Eight months later, Bregman is named the All-Star Game MVP for slugging the tie-breaking homer in the American League’s victory.

The umbrella group of North American Jewish federations demands Israel reverse its “divisive and damaging” steps to freeze an agreement on egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, warning that ignoring the concerns of non-Orthodox Jews could undermine the Zionist vision. A resolution slamming Israel’s moves on pluralism is adopted by the board of trustees of the Jewish Federations of North America at its annual General Assembly in Los Angeles.

Israeli actress Gal Gadot is named GQ magazine’s 2017 Woman of the Year. Gadot soared to international celebrity as the star of the blockbuster film Wonder Woman.

The U.S. Department of Justice begins distributing $772.5 million in recovered funds to some victims of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. The sum, which was returned eight years after the Jewish investment adviser pleaded guilty to committing one of the largest fraud schemes in U.S. history, represents only a fraction of the more than $4 billion in assets that U.S. law enforcement is able to recover for Madoff’s victims.

Actress Natalie Portman is named winner of the 2018 Genesis Prize. The award, dubbed the “Jewish Nobel,” honors individual Jews of outstanding professional achievement and commitment to Jewish values. The award comes with a $1 million prize.

Canadian Jews take issue with a government report showing a decline of 56 percent in the country’s Jewish population between 2011 and 2016. Statistics Canada says the number of Canadian Jews dropped to 143,665 in 2016 from 329,500 in 2011.

December 2017

Sen. Al Franken announces he will resign from Congress following accusations of sexual misconduct by several women. The Minnesota Democrat had faced increasing calls to step down by leading members of his own party.

Trump signs a proclamation recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and directing the State Department to begin planning for a U.S. Embassy in the city. Soon after, the president signs a waiver delaying the embassy move for another six months.

A Brooklyn woman and three of her children are killed in a house fire sparked by a Hanukkah menorah. Aliza Azan, 39, and children Moshe, 11; Yitzah, 7; and Henrietta, 3, are buried in Israel. Yosi, three other children and a cousin sustain injuries in the blaze.

A Syrian asylum seeker breaks into a kosher restaurant in Amsterdam while waving a Palestinian flag as police officers look on. His sentence of 52 days in jail and absence of hate crime charges in his indictment anger Dutch Jews.

January 2018

The Reconstructionist movement announces that its rabbinical school and congregational umbrella will change their names to Reconstructing Judaism and the College for Reconstructing Judaism, respectively.

A Pew Research Center poll finds that the split between Democrats and Republicans over Israel is the greatest since 1978. The survey reports that 79 percent of Republicans and 27 percent of Democrats sympathize with Israel over the Palestinians.

Singer Neil Diamond announces he will cease touring following a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. The Jewish singer and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee has 10 No. 1 singles to his credit and starred in the 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer, in which he played a synagogue cantor who pursues a pop music career.

A photograph of former President Barack Obama with the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan surfaces, prompting the Anti-Defamation League to ask Obama to again denounce Farrakhan, who has drawn regular criticism for anti-Semitic rhetoric. The photo was taken in 2005 during a Congressional Black Caucus meeting in Washington, D.C., when Obama was a senator representing Illinois.

Poland’s parliament passes a controversial law that criminalizes blaming the Polish nation for Nazi crimes. The law triggers a diplomatic row with Israel, prompting the law’s amendment to remove criminal charges against would-be offenders.

Anti-Semitic incidents reach a record high in Britain and Ukraine.

February 2018

Malcolm Hoenlein announces he will step aside as executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations after more than three decades at the helm.

The Anti-Defamation League reports a spike in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2017. The 1,986 acts recorded in the U.S. that year represents a 57 percent increase over the 1,267 in 2016, representing the largest one-year rise ever. The ADL says the jump is due in part to an increase in people reporting incidents of anti-Semitism.

Ten Jewish organizations urge the Trump administration not to reinstate a question about citizenship in the 2020 Census, saying it will raise fears among immigrants. Among the signers of a letter sent to Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross are the Anti-Defamation League, the Union for Reform Judaism, Jewish Federations of North America, Hadassah and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

March 2018

Two senior Jewish members of the Trump administration—Gary Cohen and David Shulkin—leave their posts. Cohen resigns as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors. He reportedly had been considering leaving the previous year following President Trump’s equivocal response to the violence surrounding a white supremacist rally in Virginia. Shulkin is fired as Veterans Affairs secretary after becoming embroiled in scandals, including overspending on travel and infighting with senior White House officials.

The president of the World Jewish Congress issues a rare rebuke of Israeli government policies. In an op-ed in the New York Times, Ronald Lauder excoriates Israeli actions that threaten the two-state solution and enshrine Orthodox control of various aspects of Israeli life, including marriage and organized prayer at the Western Wall.

The Canadian House of Commons unanimously passes legislation establishing the month of May as Canadian Jewish Heritage Month. The bill had previously passed the Senate.

The heads of 139 Jewish day schools sign an open letter urging Trump and federal and state legislators to take action on gun violence following a deadly shooting at a Florida high school. The letter calls for “common sense legislation that addresses all factors contributing to a safe and secure educational community, including restrictions and safeguards related to guns.”

Tens of thousands of Gaza demonstrators approach the Israeli border in the so-called March of Return, launching months of protests on successive Fridays that turn violent and result in the deaths of some 156 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier shot dead by a sniper. In one protest in May, 62 protesters are killed; Hamas claims 50 as members. Israel’s actions prompt international outrage, with the U.N. General Assembly condemning Israel for an “excessive use of force.” Gaza Palestinians later turn to sending incendiary airborne objects into Israel, resulting in the destruction of thousands of acres of farmland and natural forest.

April 2018

B’nai Brith Canada reports a record number of anti-Semitic incidents in 2017. Its annual audit shows 1,752 incidents of harassment, vandalism and violence, which is a 1.4 percent increase over the 1,728 from the previous year.

Natalie Portman says she won’t attend the Genesis Prize ceremony in Jerusalem because she does not want to appear to endorse Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In response, the Genesis Prize Foundation announces it is canceling the award ceremony and the Jewish actress will not get to distribute the prize money to charity, but the group declines to rescind the honor outright.

Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, publicly advises Jews to avoid wearing kippahs in some urban settings following the assault of an Arab-Israeli man who is trying to prove to his friend that wearing a yarmulke is safe in Germany.

May 2018

In a speech he deems a “history lesson,” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas says that Jews caused the Holocaust with their “social behavior,” including money lending, prompting swift condemnation from both liberal and conservative groups in Israel and across the Diaspora.

President Trump declares he will not waive sanctions on Iran, effectively pulling out of the 2015 nuclear deal reached by his predecessor, Barack Obama. Israel had been pressing Trump to withdraw from the agreement, which trades the removal of economic sanctions for a rollback of Iran’s nuclear program. Germany, France and the United Kingdom all urge Trump to remain in the deal.

Philip Roth, the towering literary figure and legendary chronicler of the American Jewish experience, dies at 85 in New York. An immensely celebrated novelist, Roth won virtually every major literary accolade, including two National Book Awards, two National Book Critics Circle awards, three PEN/Faulkner Awards, a Pulitzer Prize and the Man Booker International Prize.

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens resigns after facing months of scandal stemming from an extramarital affair and other alleged misdeeds. A former Navy SEAL and the state’s first Jewish governor, Greitens had been considered a rising star in the Republican Party.

Israel wins the Eurovision song contest, with the song Toy by Netta Barzilai securing the victory in the finals in Portugal.

The United States dedicates its newly established embassy in Jerusalem in a high-profile ceremony attended by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. The embassy move, mandated by a 1995 law but delayed on national security grounds by successive presidential administrations, is widely condemned by other world leaders.

Rabbi Aaron Panken, the president of the Reform movement’s rabbinical seminary, dies while piloting a small aircraft in upstate New York. Panken, a licensed commercial pilot, was 53 and had led the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion since 2014.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman resigns hours after the publication of a report detailing allegations of physical abuse by four women. In a statement, Schneiderman denies he had ever assaulted anyone or engaged in nonconsensual sexual activity.

Ken Livingstone, a former mayor of London and harsh critic of Israel, resigns from Britian’s Labour Party amid a review of his claims that Adolf Hitler supported Zionism. Livingstone’s membership exposed the party to allegations that it tolerates anti-Semitism under the leadership of its hard-left leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

June 2018

Twenty-six Jewish groups sign a letter calling the U.S. policy of separating children from their migrant parents “unconscionable.” The signatories included three major Jewish religious movements—Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist—as well as the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, HIAS, Jewish Women’s International, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice organization.

The Band’s Visit, a musical based on an Israeli film about an Egyptian band stranded in a hardscrabble Negev town, dominates the 72nd annual Tony Awards, winning 10 awards, including best musical. The play also takes home trophies for best actor in a musical, best direction of a musical and best original score.

An Israeli court convicts a 19-year-old American Israeli of making hundreds of bomb threats against Jewish community centers and schools across the United States. Michael Kadar is convicted on several counts, including extortion, conspiracy to commit a crime, money laundering and assaulting a police officer. Kadar’s threats in the first three months of 2017—along with eight made by a St. Louis man—had forced widespread evacuations of American Jewish institutions and sparked fear of  resurgent anti-Semitism.

The United States withdraws from the U.N. Human Rights Council, citing the body’s bias against Israel. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, says the council is “not worthy of its name” and that the decision to withdraw had come after a “good faith” effort to reform the body had failed.

Czech President Milos Zeman announces that he will work to move his country’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem—the first such public pledge by a European head of state.

July 2018

Continued incendiary kites and balloons launched from Gaza by Palestinian protesters ignite countless fires in Israel, with one of the largest burning in southern Israel’s Kibbutz Or Haner.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu travels to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The leaders discuss Syria, Iran, Israel’s security needs—and the 2018 World Cup.

The Knesset passes a controversial nationality law that cements Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people” and recognizes Hebrew as the sole official language, among other  proclamations. The measure prompts anger from Jewish and Arab groups in Israel and Jewish groups in the Diaspora that view the bill as discriminatory.

– by Ben Harris

Letter to the Editor