Israel began a controversial dig in the Western Wall Plaza. Bulldozers from the Antiquities Authority broke ground Tuesday near a ramp connecting the plaza to the Temple Mount, with officials saying the aim was to search for historical artifacts before fixing weather damage to the structure. Footage relayed live on Middle East television stations prompted Arab leaders to accuse Israel of trying to undermine the Al-Aksa Mosque and another major Muslim shrine on the Temple Mount.
"I appeal to all our Palestinian people to be united and to rise up together to protect Al-Aksa," Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said. The Antiquities Authority's director of excavations, Gideon Avni, denied that such a threat existed.
"Nothing in the work touches the wall of the Temple Mount," he told reporters. Israeli police went on high alert for possible riots and restricted Palestinian access to the site.
Adelson Gives $25 Million to Birthright
Billionaire Sheldon Adelson pledged $25 million to Birthright Israel. The money will allow the organization to double the number of free trips to Israel that it offers Jewish youth this summer, bringing the total to 20,000. The gift is being made by the Adelson Family Charitable Foundation, founded recently by the majority owner of the Las Vegas Sands Corp., and his wife, Dr. Miriam Adelson.
According to a Birthright spokesman, the foundation anticipates making similar $25 million gifts for the next several years. In December, the Adelson foundation gave $5 million to Birthright to pay for 2,000 free trips for Jews aged 18 to 26. Adelson, whose net worth was estimated in September at $20.5 billion, is America's third wealthiest man behind Bill Gates and Warren Buffet.
"The Birthright Israel program is one of the best ideas our time has seen because it has the greatest potential for establishing Jewish continuity," Adelson said.
Jewish Groups Urge Budget Fight
A coalition of Jewish groups urged Congress to fight President Bush's budget cuts.
"We urge you to fight cuts that would be harmful to the vulnerable populations we advocate on behalf of," said the letter sent Monday to every member of Congress and signed by 16 national groups and 62 local and state groups.
It identified programs such as the Social Services Block Grant, the Community Services Block Grant, Food Stamps, State Children's Health Insurance Program and the Low Income Heating Energy Assistance Program as "critical to the elderly, refugees, children and persons with disabilities. Please keep these populations in mind as Congress develops its budget resolution."
The letter was spearheaded by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs; signatories include the American Jewish Committee, United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group, and the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform streams. Programs favored by the Jewish community that face significant cuts in the president's budget released Monday include Medicaid and Medicare; a Housing Department program that funds independent living for the elderly; and block grants to states for social services that pay for adoption services, refugee assistance and other programs.
British Jews Urge 'Independent' Stand on Israel
A group of Anglo-Jewish notables urged Jews to take a more "independent" stance on Israel than do mainstream community groups. In a statement posted Monday on a Web site linked to Britain's Guardian newspaper, the left-leaning group Independent Jewish Voices called for equitable treatment of Israelis and Palestinians, and deplored anti-Arab bigotry as akin to anti-Semitism.
The group, comprised of dozens of Jewish intellectuals and celebrities including actor Stephen Fry and film director Mike Leigh, hinted that it sought to break from the umbrella Board of Deputies of British Jews, which has backed Israel in its recent conflicts with Hezbollah and the Palestinians.
Anti-Semitism Monitor Gets Top Radio Post
A scholar known for his work monitoring anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli activity in Europe was named president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Jeffrey Gedmin starts in March, according to a statement released last Friday by the congressionally funded pro-American radio network. In a 2004 interview Gedmin, who has headed the Berlin office of the influential Aspen Institute since 2001, said anti-Israel sentiment in Europe was rooted in the continent's anti-Semitic past.
Group Mounts Bone-Marrow Drive
Ezer Mizion will hold a nationwide bone-marrow testing drive in Israel on Feb. 14. The largest Jewish bone-marrow testing registry is looking for a match for an 8-year-old Jewish leukemia patient. The Brooklyn-based organization hopes to screen some 20,000 people at dozens of testing stations around Israel. For information, call (718) 853-8400.
Israel, U.S. Back Gays at U.N.
Israel and the United States were among a minority at the United Nations in favor of accrediting a gay-rights group. The Coalition of Gays and Lesbians of Quebec applied this month for registration with the United Nations Committee on Nongovernmental Organizations, but was rejected by a majority vote of mostly Muslim countries. Voting in favor were Israel, the United States and four other countries. A motion to admit a second gay advocacy group, the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights, was deferred by the NGO committee.
Agudah Rabbis Call for Pollard's Release
Agudath Israel of America's rabbinical councils called on "all caring Jews" to appeal to President Bush to free convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, who was sentenced to life in 1987 for spying for Israel.
"Mr. Pollard's life sentence -- a penalty far more severe than that imposed upon others who committed similar or even more serious crimes -- is difficult to comprehend," said the statement issued Monday by the fervently Orthodox group's Council of Torah Sages, Rabbinic Presidium and nearly 100 signatories from its Conference of Synagogue Rabbis.
"At this time, it appears that all legal avenues through the judicial system have been shut off. Only the president of the United States, by granting Mr. Pollard executive clemency, can save him from spending the rest of his life behind bars."
Agudath Israel says it will join other Jewish organizations in asking its members to phone the White House daily between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. EST until Passover.
The phone-in is primarily organized by the National Council of Young Israel.
Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency