The past year has been difficult for everyone. Holidays, birthdays and anniversaries have all been scaled back because of the pandemic. People have searched everywhere for hope. Then in December, the first COVID-19 vaccine was administered in the United States. Finally we could see light at the end of the tunnel and every day the light has grown stronger.
Unfortunately, people are always ready to take advantage of good news. Last year I wrote a blog called “COVID-19 Senior Scams: Yes It Can Get Lower,” outlining how seniors during the pandemic are more susceptible to scams. Currently, we are racing to vaccinate everyone, and seniors rightfully have been one of the first in line. While this is great news, vaccinations have created opportunities for scams. For example, scammers are approaching older Americans offering early access to the vaccine, requesting payment for access and claiming they can send the vaccine directly to their homes. Seniors should be aware that these “claims” and “offers” are signs of scams. Also, scams are being furthered through text messages, social media platforms, house visits and phone calls.
Over the past couple of months, government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have all issued warnings advising people of COVID-19 vaccine scams. On Feb. 19 the CDC released guidance called “What Older Adults Need to Know about COVID-19 Vaccines” that stated, “If anyone asks you to pay for access to vaccine, you can bet it’s a scam. Don’t share your personal or financial information if someone calls, texts or emails you promising access to the vaccine for an extra fee.”
In Maine, the state’s CDC reported people have been impersonating agency employees claiming to be contacting them about contact tracing or to double-check vaccine appointments to fraudulently request Social Security numbers. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maine released a statement in January that scammers were trying to use the vaccine as an excuse to get access to people’s money, Social Security numbers and other personal identifying information.
“These scammers are ruthless and relentless, and everyone needs to have their guard up,” said U.S. Attorney Halsey Frank. “People here in Maine, particularly the elderly, are desperate to get vaccinated as quickly as possible, and the con artists are exploiting that desperation to get access to their money and personal information.”
At B’nai B’rith, our training programs have provided information on scam awareness. For example, during the pandemic we relayed and explained government guidance from various federal agencies on scams associated with the vaccine, stimulus payments, contact tracing and testing. As a sponsor of Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) senior housing across the country it’s important we communicate the most updated information to buildings for the betterment of residents.
Hopefully, sooner than later everyone can get back to spending time with family and friends. However, in the meantime let’s all be vigilant against people who are taking advantage of the pandemic, especially now with our country taking a turn for the better. Plus, it can never hurt to call your senior loved ones and remind them to be a little more aware of what’s going on.
Like Alice in Wonderland, New York photographer Vincent Giordano discovered a very special place right in his own backyard.
During one of his strolls through the Lower East Side in 1999, he was invited into Kehila Kedosha Janina, a little synagogue on Broome Street that had been home to the city’s Greek Romaniote Jewish congregation for over 72 years. From that moment, Giordano was compelled to capture with his camera the rituals, traditions and spirit of the people who worshipped there.
Set apart from Sephardi Jews, the founders of Kehila Kedosha Janina spoke Judeo-Greek, an ancient dialect that incorporates Greek, Hebrew and Turkish words and expressions. While Romaniote religious ritual was carried out in Hebrew, many special prayers, poems and songs were composed and recited in Romaniote. Jews from Ioannina, Greece who immigrated to the United States formed their own congregation in 1906. One of scores of small synagogues that dotted the streets of the Lower East Side in the early decades of the 20th century, their house of worship, built in 1927, still conducts services.
Giordano had studied comparative religion in college, but he did not know any Jews of Greek descent before his visit to the synagogue. The photographer, who had literally found his labor of love, embarked on an odyssey that would take him from Broome Street all the way to the original Romaniote synagogue of the congregation founders, located in the city of Ioannina (Janina), in northwestern Greece. Eventually, his choice and depiction of this subject matter was determined by guidance from scholars in religion, history, anthropology and language. He amassed a body of work that would encompass not just photography, but many hours of audio and video, including interviews conducted with synagogue members. When Giordano tragically died at the age of 58 in 2010, his multimedia legacy was left behind.
The next chapter begins in 2019, when Giordano’s widow donated his work to the Hellenic American Project (HAP), and the Benjamin S. Rosenthal Library’s Special Collections and Archives at Queens College. In January 2021, the Project mounted its first online exhibit of Giordano’s photos, in partnership with the College’s Center for Jewish Studies and the Rosenthal Library, “Romaniote Memories, a Jewish Journey from Ioannina, Greece, to Manhattan: Photographs by Vincent Giordano.” The show was curated by Dr. Samuel Gruber, whose own organization, the International Survey of Jewish Monuments (ISJM), sponsored Giordano’s work while he was engaged with the Romaniote community.
Integral to the exhibits are the educational texts that introduce each part of the show, which comprises over 100 photographs organized by theme and includes pictures of Kehila Kedosha’s own Judaica collection, as well as architecture, religious rites and celebrations such as those shot during the High Holidays in Ioannina, Greece in 2006.
There is much to see and to learn from the show, which many will find helpful for its content on Romaniote Jewish history, synagogue architecture, and the nature and symbolism of Jewish life cycle rites and holidays.
Far from elegiac, the photos reveal the vivacity of the people of all ages whose identities are tied to their religion and traditions. Their personalities are revealed in both photographic portraits and a series of group shots that illustrate the spiritual and familial love marking the celebratory and communal elements of their faith. Channeling Giordano’s own sensibility, the viewer is never detached, but conversely is physically propelled into the center of the action, sharing in its transformative experience.
Even as it exists today, Giordano’s unfinished film, “Before the Flame Goes Out,” is still critical to preserving and studying Romaniote culture. Over 80% of Greece’s Jewish population perished in the Holocaust, which decimated the country’s historic Romaniote communities. Of the 1,960 Jews who were deported to Auschwitz from Ioannina, 110 survived. A small population of Greek Jews live in the country today; a fraction of these people read and speak Romaniote. As the late photographer himself wrote, his unplanned encounter with the congregants of Kehila Kedosha Janina:
“…was transformed into an incredible personal journey of discovery, filled with wonderful people, interesting experiences and fascinating places. As I explored and probed deeper, I discovered this story is much larger than the synagogue on Broome Street, that it reaches far into the past…to the rich history of the Jews in ancient Greece and the Byzantine Empire…and the devastation of the Holocaust.”
For Extra Content: Hear a conversation recorded on Oct. 22, 2020 with B’nai B’rith CEO Daniel S. Mariaschin and curators Dr. Samuel Gruber and Renee Pappas, who outlined the history of the Romaniote Jews in the United States and Greece, and who traced the journey of Giordano’s photos themselves, from his own studio and their display at the Greek Consulate General in New York City and the Embassy of Greece in Washington, D.C. to their present home at Queens College.
On Feb. 18, Israelis woke up to the first reports of a new source for concern: 1,000 tons of crude oil had washed up on Israel’s Mediterranean coast, polluting nearly its entire 190 kilometers of shoreline in one of the country’s worst ecological disasters to date. A heavy storm and unusually high waves prevented an early detection of the approaching tar and its removal at sea. All of Israel's beaches were closed as a result of the pollution and a call was made to not go swimming or play sports on the beach. Experts predict it will take months or even years to clean the beaches from the tar that has killed and injured wildlife on the coast, including birds and turtles. Thousands, including members of the diplomatic community, volunteered in the cleanup effort.
When I joined a World Zionist Organization (WZO) delegation about two weeks later, the beach area we were designated to clear in the city of Bat Yam was full of pebble to golf ball size globs of tar that had already worked their way into the sand. Working with pasta strainers, it was a painstaking job to separate the tar from the sand and quickly seemed like a Sisyphean task. Tar was a mainstay of the Israeli shoreline when I was younger, and every authorized beach had its ubiquitous canister with kerosene and a brush to remove the sticky substance from the soles of feet and shoes. These disappeared in recent years as the beaches became cleaner but will undoubtedly have to be reintroduced until cleanup is complete.
Whereas the environmental impact of the oil spill once it hit land is a glaring physical challenge that will have to be reversed over time, other aspects of the incident are less obvious. First, what preparedness measures did Israel have in order to head off the blight and second, who is the culprit and what was the motivation for releasing pollutants at a point at sea that would undoubtedly bring it to our shores?
Protecting Israel against sea infiltration and keeping the Mediterranean (and other) shipping lanes open has been a priority for the State of Israel—whose land borders are for all intents and purposes locked by enemy and frenemy countries that surround it—since its founding. Today, the Mediterranean plays an even greater economic and strategic role after Israel expanded its Exclusive Economic Zone, discovered large deposits of natural gas and built a string of desalination plants that provide some 80% of Israel’s potable water—all of which could be affected by how the government manages its response to any future ecological disaster.
Writing in the Jerusalem Post early this month, retired Admiral Prof. Shaul Chorev, director of the Maritime Policy and Strategy Research Center at the University of Haifa who held positions as Head of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, Assistant to the Minister of Defense for Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defense and Deputy Chief of Naval Operations, argued that the incident has shown Israel’s inattention to the civilian maritime domain.
“Israel has failed to establish the necessary legal framework for its maritime domain or even to define the responsibilities of various governmental agencies that will have to be addressed in order to avert another maritime disaster,” Chorev wrote. “Ignoring or downplaying the non-military issues of the maritime domain, as the current ecological disaster highlights, is the major source of Israel’s maritime domain blindness.”
As for the culprit of this outrage and its motivations, Israel’s Minister of Environmental Affairs Gila Gamliel accused Iran of deliberately releasing the pollutants in order to damage Israel's marine ecosystem. After some speculation that the offending ship was Greek—a prospect that could have had damaged the close relationship between the two countries—and the lifting of a court-imposed gag order on any details regarding the ship responsible for the spill, Gamliel announced on March 3 that, following an intensive two-week investigation, the culprit had been identified: a Libyan-owned, Panamanian-flagged tanker, “Emerald,” illegally transporting 12,000 tons of crude oil from Iran to Syria. The oil spill occurred between Feb. 1 and 2, within Israel’s economic waters, close to the Israeli coastline, and the prevailing sea stream brought it to shore two weeks later.
Fingering Iran directly (an accusation the defense establishment reportedly would not endorse), Gamliel said: “Iran is waging terrorism not only by trying to arm itself with nuclear weapons or trying to establish a basis near our borders. Iran is waging terrorism by harming the environment. Our battle on behalf of nature and animals must be a cross-border one. Together, we will bring to justice those responsible for the environmental terrorism, those who committed this crime against humanity.”
The minister also responded to criticism that her ministry was negligent in failing to identify the oil spill while it was still at sea. “It should be noted that no source had prior information about a suspicious stain in the Mediterranean that led to the pollution incident, which was only discovered when lumps of tar began washing ashore onto Israeli beaches on Feb. 17. Therefore, all analyses of the event were retrospective, using tracking of ship data and satellite imagery,” Gamliel said.
Suspicion that the ship had nefarious intentions increased when it became clear that while it was in Israel’s territorial waters on Feb. 1-2, its trackable devices were turned off and turned on only when Emerald reached Syrian waters. Latest reports indicate that the ship is anchored again at Kharg Island in Iran.
This week the plot thickened: According to a Wall Street Journal article quoting U.S. and regional officials, Israel has attacked at least a dozen Iranian vessels or those carrying Iranian cargo bound for Syria—mostly carrying Iranian oil—since late 2019 out of concern that petroleum profits are funding extremism in the Middle East. (Iran has continued its oil trade with Syria, shipping millions of barrels and contravening U.S. sanctions against Iran and international sanctions against Syria.)
The unconfirmed Israeli attacks against Iranian tankers, the release of crude oil to damage Israel’s shore, the Feb. 26 attack against the Israeli-owned MV Helios Ray giant cargo ship attributed to Iran and the March 10 attack on the Iranian-owned Shahr e Kord all point to a growing naval conflict taking shape over the past three years in the Eastern Mediterranean and Arabian Gulf. Israel’s alleged sea offensive is part of a much larger campaign—which has included a reported 1,500 airstrikes in Syria since 2017—designed to prevent the radical Iranian axis from building up its military and terrorist power in the region, but doing so with an invisible footprint and plausible deniability to gingerly avoid regional war.
Notwithstanding Iran’s growing malign behavior in the region against Israel and other countries, recent reports suggest that the United States is concerned the conflict in the maritime domain could spoil its attempts to negotiate a new nuclear agreement with Tehran. Seth J. Frantzman, senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post and a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum, believes that these and other recent incidents, such as the reported Iranian cyberattack against Israel last year, could mean that the Islamic Republic is using every asymmetric means of attack at its disposal, including the environment. If this is the case, Israel will have to be very nimble as it predicts and forestalls Iran’s next nefarious contrivance.
In December 2019, the chief prosecutor at the Hague, Fatou Bensouda, announced that a basis exists to investigate the “situation in Palestine” and whether Israel committed “war crimes” during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, as well as the Gaza border conflict of 2018-2019, and settlement activity in the West Bank and Jewish building in east Jerusalem since 2014. The alarm was sounded then, but it is now on full blast since earlier this month, when the chief prosecutor decided to move forward with a criminal investigation--this coming after a February Pre-Trial Chamber ruled 2-1 that the court had jurisdiction to investigate.
At the end of 2019, the ICC also gave the green light for Bensouda to open an investigation of alleged war crimes committed by American servicemen during the United States’ war with Afghanistan. If it sounds worrisome, that’s because it is. Israel and the U.S. are not members of the ICC and did not ratify the court’s founding Rome Treaty, precisely because both countries feared it was a structurally biased institution and would become the politicized body it has. The ICC does not try states, but individuals. That means although the U.S. and Israel are not parties to the Rome Treaty, their citizens, leaders and soldiers are not immune from indictment, prosecution and arrest warrants in countries that are parties to the treaty (and there are 123 member countries of the ICC).
The International Criminal Court was created in 2002 to prosecute individuals for international crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The institution was meant to function as a “court of last resort," which means it should step in when rogue nations do not hold ostensible perpetrators of war crimes accountable. In this sense, the ICC is a powerful resource to maintain law and order around the globe and to serve as a deterrent to tyrants from committing grave crimes. However, as we have witnessed another international body, the United Nations Human Rights Council, stray from their noble cause into a political farce, so too has the International Criminal Court.
The United States and Israel both have vibrant democracies, each with some of the world’s most respected judicial systems that investigate alleged wrongdoings by their militaries. The notion that the ICC would open inquiries into both countries is truly obscene. The U.S. and Israel currently view the court as a politicized and illegitimate institution. Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the most recent ruling on Afghanistan a “truly breathtaking action by an unaccountable, political institution masquerading as a legal body,” and former Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon referred to the investigation of Operation Protective Edge as “diplomatic terrorism.”
For years, the Palestinian Authority (PA) along with several Palestinian NGOs, backed by thousands of euros from European governments, has threatened to open a probe of war crimes against Israel. In 2015, the PA joined the Rome Statute and several countries recognized Palestine as an independent state. However, the fact remains that Palestine is still not a sovereign state according to the Vienna Convention, upon which the Rome Statute is based. Therefore, Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has argued that “only sovereign states can delegate criminal jurisdiction to the International Criminal Court. The PA does not meet the criteria.” It’s quite straightforward. The ICC has no jurisdiction to investigate the PA’s request, and it certainly has no jurisdiction over Israel, which is not a party to the institution.
However with February’s decision, the Pre-Trial Chamber ruled that the court does have jurisdiction. It is basing this decision on the Palestinian de facto status of non-member state, which allows the PA to sign U.N. treaties and statutes—in this case the Rome Statute. The Pre-Trial Chamber of the ICC has thus determined for this case, the “State of Palestine” is independent and therefore the court has jurisdiction to open the investigation to Israeli—and Palestinian— war crimes that occurred since June 13, 2014, Operation Protective Edge.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said of the February ruling: “The ICC violated the right of democracies to defend themselves against terrorism and played into the hands of those who undermine efforts to expand the circle of peace. We will continue to protect our citizens and soldiers in every way from legal persecution.”
In over two decades, the ICC has only ever convicted three people in trials of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Given the last decade and the atrocities out of Syria or human rights abuses out of Iran, let alone the nearly daily war crimes committed by Hamas, e.g. sending incendiary balloons across the Gaza border to land in school yards, that there has been little interest in prosecuting such crimes speaks volumes about the political agenda and anti-Israel bias of the court.
Israel's short history has been consumed by Palestinian warfare since before the state’s creation, from terrorism to the battlefield, to the media and the BDS and delegitimization campaign and now through lawfare. We shouldn’t underestimate the use of lawfare as a weapon against the Jewish State and dismiss it as mere politics. Unlike some of the anti-Israel resolutions in the General Assembly and other U.N. agencies, the ICC legal position carries operative provisions.
For example, if an Israeli former military leader is convicted and refuses to submit to interrogation by the ICC prosecutor and travels to an ICC member state like Germany or England (as well as much of the rest of Europe, South America and Africa), that person could theoretically be arrested as soon as their plane lands on foreign soil. This could potentially bring lawsuits against Israeli top leaders like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and the former Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, as well other top Israeli leaders, and individual commanders and soldiers. This scenario would lead to an international scandal of epic proportions, causing severe diplomatic rifts—rifts Israel cannot afford--not to mention serious policy and security challenges. A ruling could also tie Israel’s hands in regards to its self-defense in any future war. Further worrisome, the ICC will look at settlement activity in the West Bank and Jewish building in east Jerusalem, and it may determine any activity after 2014 a war crime.
There is some hope though, in that after nine years Chief Prosecutor Bensouda will step down this coming June to be proceeded by British barrister Karim Khan. Khan will have to decide next steps on the probe into war crimes in Afghanistan and whether the court will continue its investigation of Israel and Hamas. We hope that Khan will shy away from politicization and perhaps even restore some level of integrity to the court.
But as Israel’s allies we cannot take anything for granted and we must continue to mount a multilayered defense blitz against this delegitimization. For years, we have made the case that Israel continues to be subjected to unequal footing and outright systemic bias within the international community. The latest moves by the ICC add it to the growing list of anti-Israel, arguably anti-Semitic, international bodies—it is truly politicization of a multilateral body on steroids. The good news is there has been an outpouring of support and condemnation of the investigation from the United States, Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria, Uganda, Brazil, Australia and Canada, and we expect more.
The real tragedy here is that victims of actual crimes against humanity may never see justice because a pervasive international obsession with the one Jewish State trumps all else.
Just over a year ago, an extraordinary series of violent attacks against local Jews hit the New York area—by far the largest Jewish population center in the diaspora. In response, one large rally was organized to call out the acts of hate. Months before the killing of George Floyd had prompted mass demonstrations against racism around the country, the protesters seemed overwhelmingly to be members of the Jewish community itself, with a few exceptions. One such exception stood out to me: a young person holding a hand-written sign that read, “Asians Against Anti-Semitism.” That one demonstrator’s solidarity meant a lot to me, as surely it did to others present.
Sadly, but unmistakably, it is now time to reciprocate the solidarity.
As a country and an international community, we now mark one year since an epidemic, first detected in east Asia, quickly became a global pandemic, the first of its kind in a century. Over the course of the year, people of Asian descent have suffered two-fold: first, the health, emotional and economic implications of the pandemic like virtually everyone else, but also a spate of assaults, harassment and stigmatization that has again intensified recently even as COVID-19 vaccines have provided hope in an eventual end to the coronavirus-related disruption.
In the United States alone, there were 2,800 reported attacks against Asian-Americans from the start of the pandemic through the end of 2020. Last year, in just the New York City area, an astonishing 867% increase in such attacks was logged. People of Asian ancestry have publicly and without provocation been accosted, shoved, slashed, spit at, told to “go home” and blamed for the public health crisis.
And this may well not tell the full story. Undoubtedly, some people may not have reported their victimization out of shame, fear, a sense that criminal behavior could not or would not be effectively prosecuted or not knowing where to turn. Even among those not targeted but whose ethnic origin cannot be concealed, a sense of trauma risks taking root. It has not helped that even some media outlets have spoken of victims as “Asians” as if most or all weren’t fellow citizens, that those of disparate Asian backgrounds have sometimes been lumped together outside the Asian community, that rhetoric like that concerning a “kung flu” has been spouted by public figures and that it has proven difficult to support hate-crime charges without elusive evidence of victims’ targeting specifically on account of their ethnicity.
Of course, the pervasive nature of the pandemic and its effects has also created for some members of Asian diasporic communities a feeling of being under siege or at least acutely vulnerable, and with suddenness, even as wider awareness of this feeling is limited. Before face coverings became far more commonplace, some community members reported discontinuing mask-wearing precisely so they might not stand out or be suspect as diseased, thus putting their own health at greater risk.
Fortunately, a growing coalition of groups and an increasing number of elected officials are standing up to denounce prejudice against and animosity toward neighbors of Asian descent. As with the fight against anti-Semitism and against racism, our societies will only be free of violent xenophobia when those who are subjected to incitement and abuse are joined in common cause by those who, at least at the moment, are not. The Jewish community knows particularly well that bigotry and discrimination are viruses not likely to be contained to any one population.
Let it be clear: We stand resolutely with our friends of Asian heritage—and for their right to equality, safety and dignity.
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