News from March 1 to March 7

ICC war crimes probe, Israeli supreme court rules on conversion, and honorable mentions

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ICC opens Israeli and Palestinian war crimes probe:

Background: As you may recall, the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has been evaluating whether to open a formal war crimes investigation of Israel. Last year, Bensouda announced that she had enough evidence to begin a formal inquiry into alleged war crimes, but she first requested a ruling from a pre-trial chamber of the ICC to decide whether the ICC had jurisdiction in the case. The pre-trial chamber was tasked with determining if the ICC could investigate Israel, even though it is not a party to the Rome Statute, and whether the ICC could rule on issues related to Palestine since many countries do not recognize its sovereignty. Ultimately, the ICC pre-trial chamber determined that the ICC does have jurisdiction in a 2-1 decision. The pre-trial chamber’s decision established a legal foundation for Bensouda to open a formal investigation.

What happened? Precisely that: Bensouda decided to open a formal investigation into Israeli and Palestinian war crimes. Although many expected the decision, Bensouda’s announcement comes just months before her recently named successor, Karim Khan, will replace her in June. It is unclear if Khan will continue the investigation when he takes office.

ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda. Source: Stephan Rohl.

What will the probe investigate? The investigation will focus on events that happened after June 13, 2014, a date which some Israelis believe is politically motivated since the 2014 Gaza War started after a Hamas militant kidnapped and killed three Israeli teenagers on June 12, 2014. Specifically, the probe is expected to cover the 2014 Gaza war, settlement activity, and Israel’s actions during the 2018 Great March of Return protests. Palestinian behavior, including Hamas’ indiscriminate rocket fire toward Israel, will also be investigated. 

What does this mean? Israel has 30 days to respond to the ICC’s announcement, and many expect Israel to argue that the ICC does not have jurisdiction in Israel or Palestine. Still, Israel must decide whether it wants to cooperate with the investigation. On the one hand, by cooperating, Israel can make its case and affect the probe, perhaps achieving a preferable result. On the other hand, by not cooperating, Israel can paint the investigation as illegitimate, outright denying any potential findings. Some have suggested that Israel will choose a middle ground, providing some materials but withholding full cooperation. While in the short-term, an investigation will not have tangible effects on Israel, in the long-term, arrest warrants could be issued for senior Israeli leaders.

How have people reacted? Here are some of the notable reactions:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: "The decision of the International Court to open an investigation against Israel today for war crimes is absurd. It's undiluted antisemitism and the height of hypocrisy...This court, that was established to prevent the repetition of the Nazi horrific crimes committed against the Jewish people, is now turning its guns against the one and only state of the Jewish people. It's targeting Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East. But of course it turns a blind eye to Iran, Syria and the other dictatorships that are committing real war crimes left and right. We will never stop fighting this injustice. We will speak the truth in every forum, in every country, on every stage until this outrageous decision is reversed and becomes null and void."

United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken: “The United States firmly opposes and is deeply disappointed by this decision. The I.C.C. has no jurisdiction over this matter. We will continue to uphold our strong commitment to Israel and its security, including by opposing actions that seek to target Israel unfairly.” Still, Blinken said, “the United States remains deeply committed to ensuring justice and accountability for international atrocity crimes.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas: “The Palestinian Presidency expresses its great appreciation for the [ICC] prosecutor’s decision regarding the opening of a criminal investigation into the situation in Palestine, which includes the Gaza war, settlements, and the issue of prisoners in the Israeli occupation’s jails.”

Hamas Spokesman Hazem Qasim: “We consider this courageous decision an important step to achieve justice and fairness for our people, in addition to punishing the occupation’s leaders for their crimes.” 

Israeli MK Nitzan Horowitz: “I say this with great sadness, there were grounds for the decision. I don’t want Israel to face these situations… but Israel needs to ask itself what it needs to do to prevent that.” (In response to his comment, several anti-Netanyahu right-wing parties said they would not sit in a coalition with Horowitz’s left-wing Meretz party, potentially complicating post-election coalition math)

Further reading:https://www.jpost.com/breaking-news/icc-prosecutor-announces-formal-investigation-into-israeli-war-crimes-660818

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Israeli Supreme Court rules that non-Orthodox converts can claim Israeli citizenship:

What happened? Last week, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that reform and conservative Jewish converts can become Israeli citizens. In the past, only Orthodox conversions were recognized as the basis for citizenship, but the new ruling will expand the number of Jews who will be eligible.

Is this a big deal? In practice, the decision will only affect the roughly 30-40 foreigners who convert to reform or conservative Judaism in Israel each year. However, the decision is highly symbolic for how it affects the balance between the secular and religious camps in Israel. There is no distinct separation between church and state in Israel, and religious entities control many state institutions like marriage. However, religious control over national institutions is highly polarizing because many Israelis believe the civil government should manage them. Still, since ultra-orthodox political parties have been a part of governing coalitions for decades, they have retained political power to oppose significant changes to the status quo. Thus, the court’s decision is significant–and controversial. In fact, knowing the decision would be contentious, the court delayed the ruling hoping that the Knesset would resolve the matter without the court’s intervention.

It’s also notable because it addresses a question central to Israel’s character as a Jewish, democratic state: Who is a Jew? That is obviously a big question, so the fact that the court has ruled on it is noteworthy. You can expect to see some political backlash from right-wing political parties who are closely associated with the religious parties and already believe the Israeli Supreme Court is too activist in its rulings.

How have people reacted? Here are some notable reactions:

Israeli Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef: “What is Reform conversion? It isn’t Jewish. If a Reform convert comes before me after marrying a Jewish woman, I’ll send her away without a divorce. She doesn’t need a divorce, the marriage is invalid. They have nothing, no mitzvahs and nothing else.”

Israeli Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs: The ruling “was years in the making and reflects the diversity and vibrancy of Jewish life in Israel and around the world. The Court has affirmed the reality that the Jewish people are stronger because of the contributions of Reform and Conservative Movements and their commitment to bringing more Jews into the Jewish People. We hope this ruling establishes a precedent that will lead to further recognition of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel.”

Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau: Those who undergo Reform or Conservative conversions “are not Jews. No High Court decision will change this fact.”

Conservative Movement’s Rabbinic Body: “This was a very long time coming. Not swift justice, but sweet and righteous just the same. We call on all parties in Israel to respect the decision of the Court and to proactively protest attempts to legislate against religious freedom in Israel, as well as Jewish communities abroad.”

Further reading: I highly, highly encourage you to read this excellent piece about the decision by Ben Sales (JTA): https://www.jta.org/2021/03/04/israel/orthodox-and-secular-israelis-are-fighting-over-jewish-conversion-why

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Honorable Mentions:

Is Naftali Bennett Israel’s next kingmaker?” by Amy Spiro (Jewish Insider)

Tel Aviv ranks among world’s top six culinary destinations” by Assaf Golan (Israel Hayom)

Shira Haas to Play Golda Meir in a TV Show Produced by Barbra Streisand. Wow!” by Lio Zaltzman (Kveller)

For Jake Tapper, being the rabbi of TV news comes easy” by Ron Kampeas (JTA)

Charles Barkley jokes about losing weight to dance the hora at daughter’s Jewish wedding” by Gabe Friedman (JTA)

On Fox News, Netanyahu calls Biden a friend, but highlights disagreement on Iran" by Jacob Kornbluh (Forward)

Study finds increase in anti-Israel bias, anti-Semitism in Turkish school curriculum” (JNS)

A Tufts student government fight shows what’s wrong with the Israel-Palestine debate” by Maya Schwayder

How Jewish Students Are Combatting Anti-Semitism on Campus: A Panel” by Judy Gruen (Jewish Journal)

Rejoining the Iran Nuclear Deal Is Not Enough” by Peter Beinart (Jewish Currents) (Beinart’s polarizing piece has been getting a bit of buzz lately)

This Jewish Astronomer Is the First Woman to Have an Observatory Named After Her” by Arielle Kaplan (Kveller)

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