5776: The Year in Review

By Ben Harris

NEW YORK (JTA) — A stabbing and car-ramming epidemic in Israel that some called a third intifada was among the most dominant Jewish stories of the past year. But 5776 was also notable for the release of spy Jonathan Pollard after 30 years in prison, the communal fallout from the Iran nuclear deal, a historic (and unfinished) agreement on egalitarian worship at the Western Wall and continuing clashes between pro-Israel students and the BDS movement on college campuses.

Below is a timeline of the Jewish year’s major events — the good, the bad and, in the case of the deaths of some Jewish giants, the very sad.

September 2015

Some 53 major American Jewish groups issue a call for unity and recommitment to American and Israeli security following the Sept. 17 deadline for Congress to reject the Iran nuclear deal. Overall, 19 of 28 Jewish members of Congress support the deal, which is vigorously opposed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College reverses a longstanding ban on accepting rabbinical students with non-Jewish partners. The move proves to be controversial, leading seven rabbis and one Florida synagogue to quit the movement in January in response.

The Palestinian flag is raised at U.N. headquarters in New York for the first time. The move follows a 119-8 vote of the General Assembly on Sept. 10 to allow the flag at the headquarters. Israel and the United States are among the dissenters, along with Canada and Australia.

October 2015

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs calls on Jewish groups to lobby for official American recognition of the Armenian genocide. Though most historians say the killing or deportation of 1.5 million Armenians by Turkish forces during World War I constitutes a genocide, many American Jewish groups – including the Anti-Defamation League and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee – had previously declined to do so for fear of harming Israel’s alliance with Turkey. In May, the ADL’s new chief, Jonathan Greenblatt, writes in a blog postthat the massacre of Armenians was “unequivocally genocide.”

An Israeli couple is killed in the West Bank while driving with four of their six children. Eitam and Naama Henkin, both in their 30s, are killed while returning to their home settlement of Neria. Their children are unharmed. In June, four Palestinians are sentenced to life in prison for the killings.

Pope Francis meets Jewish leaders in Rome to mark the 50th anniversary of the Nostra Aetate, the landmark declaration that rejected collective Jewish guilt for the killing of Christ and paved the way for improved Jewish-Catholic relations. In the meeting in St. Peter’s Square, Francis declares: “Yes to the rediscovery of the Jewish roots of Christianity. No to anti-Semitism.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu draws fire for claiming the mufti of Jerusalem gave Hitler the idea to exterminate the Jews at a 1941 meeting. “Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time; he wanted to expel the Jews. And Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said, ‘If you expel them, they’ll all come here,’” Netanyahu said. Amid an outcry, Netanyahu modifies his statement, emphasizing that Hitler bore responsibility for the Holocaust.

Palestinian rioters set fire to Joseph’s Tomb, a Jewish holy site in the West Bank, amid continuing Israeli-Palestinian unrest. The violence began in September following an Israeli raid on the Temple Mount that uncovered a cache of weapons, which led to clashes that spread to the West Bank.

Portuguese officials approve the naturalization of a Panamanian descendant of Sephardic Jews, the first individual to receive Portuguese citizenship under a 2013 law that entitled such individuals to repatriation. Days earlier, Spain approved the granting of citizenship to 4,302 descendants of Spanish Jews exiled during the Spanish Inquisition under a similar law.

November 2015

Jonathan Pollard, the former American Naval intelligence analyst convicted of spying for Israel, is freed from federal prison after 30 years. Under the terms of his parole, Pollard is prohibited from traveling to Israel, though he offers to renounce his American citizenship in order to live there.

New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is found guilty of corruption. An Orthodox Jew who wielded vast power as one of the New York state government’s proverbial “three men in a room,” Silver was convicted of using his position to win millions through various kickback schemes and no-show jobs. Silver is sentenced to 12 years in jail in May.

Two Jewish teens are found guilty of the murder of Mohammad Abu Khdeir, a Palestinian teenager who was abducted and burned to death in the Jerusalem Forest in 2014. The teens are not identified because they were minors at the time of the crime.

American yeshiva student Ezra Schwartz, 18, is killed in a shooting in the West Bank. Schwartz, of Sharon, Massachusetts, is memorialized by the New England Patriots, his favorite team, with a moment of silence prior to their Nov. 23 game against the Buffalo Bills.

F. Glenn Miller Jr., the white supremacist found guilty of killing three people at two suburban Kansas City Jewish institutions, is sentenced to death. Miller was convicted of capital murder in September.

The European Union approves guidelines for the labeling of products from West Bank settlements. Under the guidelines, goods produced in the West Bank, eastern Jerusalem or the Golan Heights must be labeled. Israel’s Foreign Ministry condemns the move.

The Anti-Defamation League reports a 30 percent jump in anti-Israel activity on American college campuses. According to the report, over 150 “explicitly anti-Israel programs” have either taken place or are scheduled to take place on American campuses, an increase from 105 the year before.

The Rabbinical Council of America adopts a policy prohibiting the ordination or hiring of women rabbis. The policy, the result of a vote of the main Orthodox rabbinical group’s membership, proscribes the usage of any title implying rabbinic status, specifically naming “maharat” – an acronym meaning “female spiritual, legal and Torah leader” used by Yeshivat Maharat, a New York school ordaining Orthodox women as clergy.

Six men are sentenced for their roles in a plot to violently coerce a man to grant his wife a religious divorce; most are given prison terms. In December, two rabbis involved in the scheme are sentenced to jail time, including 70-year-old Mendel Epstein, who receives a 10-year term. In all, 10 people, three of them rabbis, are convicted for their roles in kidnapping and torturing recalcitrant husbands for a fee.

December 2015

Israel arrests several suspects in connection with a July firebombing in the West Bank town of Duma that killed three members of a Palestinian family, including an 18-month-old baby. The suspects later allege they were tortured by the Israeli security agency Shin Bet, which denies the claim. Weeks later, video emerges showing friends of the suspects celebrating the killings at a wedding in Jerusalem, drawing condemnations from across the political spectrum.

The United Nations recognizes Yom Kippur as an official holiday. Starting in 2016, no official meetings will take place on the Jewish Day of Atonement at the international body’s New York headquarters, and Jewish employees there will be able to miss work without using vacation hours. Other religious holidays that enjoy the same status are Christmas, Good Friday, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.

An Orthodox gay conversion group is ordered by a New Jersey court to cease operations. Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, or JONAH, must cease operations within 30 days, the state Superior Court rules. In a lawsuit filed in 2012, the group, which claims to be able to eliminate homosexual urges, was found to be in violation of New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act.

Violinist Itzhak Perlman is named the third recipient of the Genesis Prize. The annual $1 million prize, dubbed the “Jewish Nobel,” is funded by a group of Russian philanthropists to honor individuals who have achieved international renown in their professional fields and serve as role models through their commitment to Jewish values.

Brazil refuses to confirm Dani Dayan, a former West Bank settler leader, as Israeli ambassador to the country because of his support for the settlements. Following a months-long standoff Dayan, a native of Argentina, isreassigned as consul general in New York.

Samuel “Sandy” Berger, who served as President Bill Clinton’s national security adviser, dies at 70, succumbing to cancer. Berger was a prominent player at the 2000 Camp David summit.

January 2016

In response to unspecified complaints that products produced in the West Bank are mislabeled as originating in Israel, the U.S. customs agency reiterates its policy that any goods originating in the West Bank or Gaza Strip be labeled as such.

After decades of squabbling, the Israeli government approves a compromise to expand the non-Orthodox Jewish prayer section of the Western Wall. Under terms of the deal, the size of the non-Orthodox section of the Western Wall will double to nearly 10,000 square feet and both areas will be accessible by a single entrance.

The Brown University chapter of the historically Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi separates from the international organization over biases against non-Jewish members as well as its handling of sexual assault. In an op-ed in the Brown student newspaper, chapter president Ben Owens says the group objected to the “demeaning way that some representatives of AEPi National treated our non-Jewish brothers.”

The Cleveland Cavaliers fire Israeli-American head coach David Blatt, who led the team to the NBA Finals in 2015. Blatt releases a statement saying he was “grateful” for the chance to serve as coach. Led by LeBron James, the Cavaliers go on to win their first NBA championship under Blatt’s successor, Tyronn Lue.

Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, an influential thinker in Reform Judaism, dies at 91. A longtime faculty member at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Borowitz was the author of 19 books and hundreds of articles on Jewish thought.

The Mount Freedom Jewish Center in New Jersey announces it has hired a woman using the title “rabbi.” Lila Kagedan, a graduate of New York’s Yeshivat Maharat, was ordained in June as an Orthodox clergywoman. The school permits graduates to choose their title; Kagedan is the first to choose rabbi.

Hundreds of protesters at a gay conference in Chicago, charging “pinkwashing” of Israeli misdeeds, disrupt a reception for Israeli LGBT activists, forcing the event to shut down. The disruption is strongly condemned days later by several leading gay activists, including former Rep. Barney Frank and Edie Windsor, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that led to the legalization of gay marriage.

February 2016

Sen. Bernie Sanders wins the New Hampshire primary, becoming the first Jewish candidate in American history to win a presidential primary. The Vermont Independent, seeking the Democratic nomination, handily defeats former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, commanding 60 percent of the vote to Clinton’s 38 percent.

The Hungarian Holocaust drama “Son of Saul” wins an Oscar for best foreign language film. Other Jewish winners at the 2016 Academy Awards are “Amy,” the documentary about the late Jewish singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse, and Michael Sugar, who wins for best picture as co-producer of “Spotlight,” the story of the Boston Globe investigative team led by Jewish editor Marty Baron that exposed sex scandals in the Catholic Church.

The Canadian Parliament formally condemns the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, saying it “promotes the demonization and delegitimization of the State of Israel.” Passed by a vote of 229-51, the motion was introduced by the opposition Conservative Party but won support from the ruling Liberal Party as well.

The Jewish Theological Seminary announces the sale of $96 million worth of real estate assets and its intention to use the funds to upgrade its New York facility. The seminary, considered the flagship institution of the Conservative movement, says it intends to build a state-of-the-art library, auditorium and conference facilities, and a new 150-bed residence hall on its main campus.

Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump disavows the support of David Duke after earlier claiming he knew nothing about the former Ku Klux Klan leader’s views. In response, the Anti-Defamation League announces it will be providing all presidential candidates with information about hate groups so they can better determine which endorsements to accept and reject.

March 2016

Jewish comedian Garry Shandling dies in Los Angeles at 66. Shandling wrote for several sitcoms before starring in his own shows, including “The Larry Sanders Show,” which aired on HBO in the 1990s and earned Shandling 18 Emmy Award nominations.

Venice launches a yearlong commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the world’s first official Jewish ghetto. Among the many events scheduled for the anniversary is an appearance by Jewish U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who presides over a mock trial of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender character from Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.”

Microsoft pulls its artificial intelligence tweeting robot after it posts several anti-Semitic comments. The software company had launched the so-called chatbot as an experiment but quickly paused the endeavor after the controversial tweets, several of which expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler.

A Pew study of Israelis finds that 48 percent of the country’s Jews agree that Arabs should be “expelled or transferred” out of the country. The finding, the most shocking in a wide-ranging study of Israeli attitudes, is based on interviews with 5,600 Israelis conducted between October 2014 and May 2015.

Israeli leaders condemn the actions of a solider caught on video shooting an apparently incapacitated Palestinian lying on the ground. “What happened today in Hebron does not represent the values of the IDF,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says following the release of the video, shot by the human rights group B’Tselem. The soldier is charged with manslaughter in May and later goes on trial.

Thousands of delegates attend the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference in Washington featuring appearances by most contenders for the presidency — most controversially Donald Trump, who sparks much talk of protests and walkouts in the days leading up to the conclave. Speaking the morning after Trump’s address to the gathering, AIPAC President Lillian Pinkus issues a rare apology for Trump’s attacks on President Barack Obama, saying the group is “deeply disappointed that so many people applauded a sentiment that we neither agree with or condone.” Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz and John Kasich also address the conference, while Bernie Sanders issues a written statement to the group from the campaign trail.

Merrick Garland, the chief of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, is nominated to replace Antonin Scalia, who died in February, on the Supreme Court. In his acceptance speech, Garland emotionally recalls his grandparents who had fled anti-Semitism for better lives in the United States. Republicans vow not to consider his nomination during President Obama’s last year in office.

Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder and CEO of Facebook, is the world’s richest Jew, according to Forbes. The magazine’s annual list of the world’s billionaires shows Zuckerberg surpassing Oracle CEO Larry Ellison to claim the top spot among Jews.

April 2016

Days ahead of the New York primary, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton engage in a heated exchange over Israel at a debate in Brooklyn, with the Vermont senator accusing the former secretary of state of neglecting the Palestinians and reiterating his charge that Israel used disproportionate force in Gaza in 2014. Clinton says she worked hard to bring peace to the region as secretary of state. Clinton won the primary in New York, home to the country’s largest Jewish population, 58-42 percent.

A majority of professors at Oberlin College sign a letter condemning the “anti-Semitic Facebook posts” by a fellow faculty member. The letter, signed by 174 professors, does not name Joy Karega, the rhetoric and composition professor whose posts, including one accusing Israel and “Rothschild-led bankers” of responsibility for downing an airliner over Ukraine in 2014, drew widespread attention.

Bernie Sanders suspends his Jewish outreach director after revelations of social media posts that used profanity to describe Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Simone Zimmerman, a former activist with J Street, reportedly called Netanyahu a “manipulative asshole,” though she later changed the expletive to “politician.”

The first same-sex Jewish wedding ceremony in Latin America is held at a synagogue in Argentina. Some 300 guests attend the wedding of Victoria Escobar and Romina Charur at the NCI Emanu El Temple in Buenos Aires.

May 2016

Bernie Sanders names three prominent critics of Israel to the committee charged with formulating the Democratic Party platform: Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the first Muslim elected to Congress; James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute; and Cornel West, a philosopher and supporter of the BDS movement. Days later, Sanders releases a statement emphasizing that while he supports Israel’s right to live in peace, lasting peace will not come without “fair and respectful treatment of the Palestinian people.”

In an announcement timed to the annual independence celebrations in Israel, the nation’s Central Bureau of Statistics reports the population has risen to 8.52 million residents, a tenfold increase over the 806,000 in 1948 at the time of Israel’s founding.

Britain’s Labour Party launches an investigation into anti-Semitism within the party one day after the suspension of former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, who said Adolf Hitler was a Zionist because he advocated moving Europe’s Jews to Israel.

Morley Safer, a 46-year veteran of the CBS newsmagazine “60 Minutes,” dies at 84 a week after retiring from the show. Safer, the winner of 12 Emmy Awards, helped turn American public opinion against the Vietnam War with his coverage of U.S. atrocities.

Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate and major backer of Republican candidates, endorses Donald Trump for the presidency. In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Adelson cites Trump’s executive experience and the threat of a “third term” for President Obama if Hillary Clinton is elected. Adelson plans to spend more than ever on the 2016 presidential election, even in excess of $100 million, The New York Times reports.

Julia Ioffe, a reporter who wrote a critical profile of Donald Trump’s wife, Melania, is deluged with anti-Semitic phone calls and messages on social media, including a cartoon of a Jew being executed. Ioffe files a police complaint about the threats.

An 11-minute video showing what appears to be a Hasidic school principal sexually abusing a young boy refocuses attention on sex abuse in the haredi Orthodox community. The video, which prompts an investigation by state police, was filmed secretly from an overhead camera and posted on social media before being removed.

June 2016

Rabbi Maurice Lamm, the author of “The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning” and several other notable Jewish books, dies. First issued in 1969, the book is considered a seminal work on the topic of Jewish death and mourning rituals.

British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, already under fire over allegations of rampant anti-Semitism in his party, draws more criticism for seeming to compare Israel and the Islamic State terrorist group. “Our Jewish friends are no more responsible for the actions of Israel or the Netanyahu government than our Muslim friends are for those of various self-styled Islamic states or organizations,” Corbyn said in remarks following the release of a report on anti-Semitism within Labour. The report found the party is not overrun by anti-Semitism but that there is an “occasionally toxic atmosphere.

Hallel Yaffa Ariel, 13, is stabbed to death while sleeping in her bed in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba by a Palestinian teenager. The attacker, Muhammad Nasser Tarayrah, had jumped the settlement fence and entered the sleeping girl’s bedroom. He later is shot and killed by civilian guards.

Israel and Turkey sign a reconciliation agreement six years after relations were cut off following an Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship attempting to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Nine Turkish citizens were killed in the raid. Under the agreement, Israel will create a $20 million humanitarian fund as compensation to the families of the Mavi Marmara victims, which would not be released until Turkey passes legislation closing claims against the Israeli military for the deaths.

Anti-Semitic incidents on American college campuses nearly doubled in 2015, the Anti-Defamation League reports. A total of 90 incidents were reported on 60 college campuses in 2015, compared with 47 incidents on 43 campuses in 2014. The ADL audit records a total of 941 anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2015, an increase of 3 percent over the previous year.

July 2016

Pope Francis visits Auschwitz, where he prays in silent contemplation and meets with Holocaust survivors. Francis also visits the cell of Polish priest and saint Maximilian Kolbe, who died at Auschwitz after taking the place of a condemned man. Francis is the third pope to visit the camp, following the Polish-born John Paul II in 1979 and Pope Benedict XVI in 2006.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz steps down as leader of the Democratic National Committee following the emergence of emails showing senior DNC staffers sought to undercut the campaign of Jewish presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders. One email, from Chief Financial Officer Brad Marshall, alleges that Sanders is an atheist and that it could be used against him. Marshall resigns in August.

Bernie Sanders, the first Jew to win a major party presidential primary, endorses Hillary Clinton for president. At a rally in New Hampshire, Sanders said he would work with Clinton to keep Donald Trump from being elected.

Goldie Michelson of Worcester, Massachusetts, the oldest living American, dies at home at the age of 113 and 11 months. Michelson, the daughter of Russian Jewish parents, immigrated with her family to Worcester when she was 2.

Jared Kushner defends his father-in-law, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, from charges of anti-Semitism following the elder Trump’s tweeting of an image of Hillary Clinton with a six-pointed star reminiscent of a Star of David over a background of dollar bills. The tweet is later deleted. “I know that Donald does not at all subscribe to any racist or anti-Semitic thinking,” Kushner said.

Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, author, activist and Holocaust survivor, dies at 87 of natural causes. Wiesel, who wrote “Night” and “The Jews of Silence,” was well-known internationally for his books and as a leading voice of conscience.

Israel’s highest rabbinical court rejects a conversion performed by a prominent American rabbi, Haskel Lookstein. The conversion had been rejected originally in April by a court in the Tel Aviv suburb of Petach Tikvah. Lookstein, the former rabbi of Kehilath Jeshurun, a tony modern Orthodox synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, performed the conversion of Ivanka Trump, the daughter of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

August 2016

Esther Jungreis, a pioneer in the Jewish outreach movement and founder of the organization Hineni, dies at 80.

American gymnast Aly Raisman wins three medals at the Rio Olympics, a gold for the overall U.S. women’s team and two individual silvers. Israel takes home two medals at the games, both bronze in judo, while American Jewish swimmer Anthony Ervin at 35 becomes the oldest person to win a gold medal in an individual swimming event. The Rio games also pay tribute to the 11 Israelis killed at the Munich Olympics in 1972.

Fyvush Finkel, an Emmy Award-winning actor who began his career performing in the Yiddish theater, dies at 93.

The Movement for Black Lives adopts a platform describing Israel as an “apartheid state” and claims it perpetrates “genocide” against the Palestinian people. The group, a coalition of 50 organizations that emerged from the Black Lives Matter movement, is harshly criticized by Jewish organizations.

Gene Wilder, a comedic actor who played the title characters in the films “Young Frankenstein” and “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” and also starred in the Mel Brooks’ Western spoof “Blazing Saddles,” dies at 83.

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