Morning Read 4/25: Sicily’s Jews Reclaim Lost History, 500 Years Later

The city of Palermo in Sicily, whose great Piazza is seen here, will have its first synagogue in more than 500 years [Russell James Smith]
The city of Palermo in Sicily, whose great Piazza is seen here, will have its first synagogue in more than 500 years [Russell James Smith]

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LOCKED AND LOADED: N. Korea reportedly stages large live-fire drills

North Korea on Tuesday reportedly conducted a huge live-fire drill that involved up to 400 artillery pieces, which may have been supervised by the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, citing an unnamed government source, reported that Pyongyang appeared to have deployed a number of long-range artillery units in the region of Wonsan, which is a coastal North Korean area.

South Korea’s military did not confirm the report, but told the news outlet that it is “firmly maintaining readiness.”

There was speculation that the North might carry out another nuclear or missile test.

News of the live-fire drill comes after the USS Michigan, a nuclear powered Ohio class submarine, pulled into the South Korean port of Busan for a hull check.

The Ohio class submarine will later join the USS Vinson aircraft carrier strike group for exercises in the Sea of Japan.

According to senior U.S. defense officials, the USS Vinson aircraft carrier strike group is in the Philippine Sea in waters south of Japan.

When asked about the USS Michigan, Lieutenant commander Matt Knight with U.S. Pacific Fleet told Fox News in a statement the submarine was on “routine deployment.” [FOXNEWS]

Russian Hackers Who Targeted Clinton Appear to Attack France’s Macron

The campaign of the French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron has been targeted by what appear to be the same Russian operatives responsible for hacks of Democratic campaign officials before last year’s American presidential election, a cybersecurity firm warns in a new report.

The report has heightened concerns that Russia may turn its playbook on France in an effort to harm Mr. Macron’s candidacy and bolster that of Mr. Macron’s rival, the National Front leader Marine Le Pen, in the final weeks of the French presidential campaign.

Security researchers at the cybersecurity firm, Trend Micro, said that on March 15 they spotted a hacking group they believe to be a Russian intelligence unit turn its weapons on Mr. Macron’s campaign — sending emails to campaign officials and others with links to fake websites designed to bait them into turning over passwords.

The group began registering several decoy internet addresses last month and as recently as April 15, naming one and another to mimic the name of Mr. Macron’s political party, En Marche.

Those websites were registered to a block of web addresses that Trend Micro’s researchers say belong to the Russian intelligence unit they refer to as Pawn Storm, but is alternatively known as Fancy Bear, APT 28 or the Sofacy Group. American and European intelligence agencies and American private security researchers determined that the group was responsible for hacking the Democratic National Committee last year.

On Tuesday, Trend Micro’s researchers plan to release their report detailing cyberattacks in recent weeks against Mr. Macron’s campaign — as well as members of Germany’s Konrad-Adenauer Stiftung, a political foundation linked to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s political party — in what appears to be the latest Russian effort to influence political outcomes in the West. [NYT]

U.S. Sanctions Syrians in Chemical Weapons Program

WASHINGTON—The Trump administration on Monday blacklisted 271 employees of the Syrian government agency involved in developing and producing chemical weapons, the Treasury department said.

Officials said the move is among the largest sanctions action in history and is in response to a chemical weapons attack in Idlib province earlier this month that killed at least 85 people.

“The United States is sending a strong message with this action that we will hold the entire Assad regime accountable for these blatant human rights violations in order to deter the spread of these types of barbaric chemical weapons,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

He added “We take Syria’s disregard for innocent human life very seriously, and will relentlessly pursue and shut down the financial networks of all individuals involved with the production of chemical weapons used to commit these atrocities.”

The sanctions targeting employees of Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center also follow a U.S. military strike on a Syrian air base a few days after the chemical attack, which President Donald Trump ordered in response to the deadly chemical attacks.

The Syrian officials sanctioned Monday have chemical expertise or have worked on the chemical weapons program, a senior administration official said. [WSJ]

German minister says Netanyahu ultimatum ‘regrettable,’ won’t cancel plans

Visiting German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said Tuesday morning that it would be “regrettable” if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were to refuse to meet him due to his planned meeting with groups critical of the Israeli army, but insisted that he will not change his plans.

“It’s difficult for me to imagine that the meeting will be canceled, because this would be very regrettable,” he said.

“I don’t want to make a drama about it,” he said in a television interview, but added that it would be “exceptional” if the Israeli prime minister were to boycott him.

Speaking to German national television ZDF from Jerusalem, Gabriel said it was usual for him during trips abroad to speak with civil society organizations, even if they were critical of the government.

“In no country in the world can you get a reasonable and comprehensive impression if you only meet with government representatives. You have to meet, as we did yesterday, with writers, with artists and students, and also with critical organizations,” he said.

Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem are organizations that are very critical of Israel’s policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians, Gabriel allowed.

He said he only heard of Netanyahu’s ultimatum through the media, though an Israeli official told The Times of Israel Monday that “the message was clearly conveyed to the Germans.”

German officials on Tuesday morning reiterated that Gabriel does not intend to change his schedule, indicating that he will go ahead and meet Breaking the Silence and another leftist NGO, B’Tselem, later on Tuesday. [ToI]


Obama makes no mention of Trump in first major post-presidential appearance

Barack Obama, making his first major appearance since leaving the White House, made no mention on Monday of his successor, Donald Trump, but urged young people to get more involved in their communities at a time of stark political divides.

“What’s been going on since I’ve been gone?” joked the former Democratic president as he moderated an event at the University of Chicago in the city where he began his political career and which will be the site of his presidential library.

Obama has largely stayed out of the public eye since leaving office in January despite efforts by Trump and the Republican-led Congress to undo much of his legacy, including on healthcare and the environment.

Trump, a Republican, has said he “inherited a mess” and accused Obama in March, without providing evidence, of wiretapping his 2016 presidential campaign. Obama has denied the charge and FBI Director James Comey told a congressional hearing he had seen no evidence to support the allegation.
Obama was not asked about Trump by the students and he took no questions from reporters. [REUTERS]

Anti-Semitic acts spiked since Trump election win

Anti-Semitic incidents, from bomb threats and cemetery desecration to assaults and bullying, have surged in the United States since the election of President Donald Trump, and a “heightened political atmosphere” played a role in the rise, the Anti-Defamation League said on Monday.

A sharp increase in the harassment of American Jews, including double the incidents of bullying of schoolchildren and vandalism at non-denominational grade schools, was cited in the ADL’s “Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents.”

Overall, the number of acts targeting Jews and Jewish institutions rose 34 percent in 2016 to 1,266 in 2016 and jumped 86 percent in the first quarter of 2017, the ADL said.

“The 2016 presidential election and the heightened political atmosphere played a role in the increase,” the ADL concluded in its report.

White House spokesman Michael Short said Trump consistently called for an end to anti-Semitism, as recently as Sunday in a speech on Yom HaShoah, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“We must stamp out prejudice and anti-Semitism everywhere it is found,” Trump told the World Jewish Congress Plenary Assembly in New York. [REUTERS]

Middle Class Contracted in U.S. Over 2 Decades, Study Finds

Middle-class Americans have fared worse in many ways than their counterparts in economically advanced countries in Western Europe in recent decades, according to a study released Monday by the Pew Research Center.

“Compared with the Western European experience, the adult population in the U.S. is more economically divided,” said Rakesh Kochhar, associate director for research at Pew. “It is more hollowed out in the middle. This speaks to the higher level of income inequality in the United States.”

For example, between 1991 and 2010, the proportion of adults in middle-income households fell to 59 percent from 62 percent, while it rose to 67 percent from 61 percent over the same period in Britain and to 74 percent from 72 percent in France.

Households that earned from two-thirds to double the national median income were defined as middle income in the Pew study; in the United States that translated into annual income of $35,294 to $105,881, after taxes, in 2010.

A shrinking middle class is not necessarily cause for alarm, if the reason for the contraction is that more people are moving up the income ladder, said David Autor, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The proportion at the top did rise, but so did the proportion at the bottom, rising to 26 percent from 25 percent. That is much more worrisome, said Mr. Autor, who was not involved with the Pew study.

And incomes in the middle rose faster in Europe than they did in the United States, according to Pew. Median incomes in the middle tier grew by 9 percent in the United States between 1991 and 2010, compared with a 25 percent gain in Denmark and a 35 percent increase in Britain.

“Financially, the U.S. remains well ahead of the countries in Europe,” Mr. Kochhar said. “The difference is how incomes have evolved, and they are catching up.” [NYT]

New Hampshire treats overdoses as crime scenes, targets drug dealers

Dakota Kilburn was just 23-years-old when a dose of heroin claimed his life. The young father was found unresponsive in his parent’s Manchester, Vermont home on November 18th, 2015.

His heartbroken parents remember a young man filled with potential until addiction took hold.

Intent on finding Dakota’s supplier, police followed the clues to neighboring New Hampshire where two men were charged under a statute that aims to hold those who sell drugs with a ‘death resulting’ responsible for the loss of life.

Francis Mayhle, 25, a childhood friend, was sentenced to a year in prison. Daniel Fogg, 27, who sold Mayhle the fatal drug, which he provided to Dakota, got 6 1/2 to 14 years.

“They are literally selling poison, killing people with that poison and for them, they need to face a punishment,” said Ben Agati, a senior assistant attorney general in New Hampshire. “They need to face some measure of justice.”

The previously little used-charge carries up to life in prison.

“We were dealing with just an influx of overdoses, overdose deaths, misery,” laments Jon DeLena, the Assistant Special Agent in Charge for the Drug Enforcement Administration, Manchester District.

Facing a rising death toll, hit hard by the opioid crisis wracking the nation, the DEA and the Attorney General’s office in New Hampshire and law-enforcement across the state have launched a collaborative program that trains officers and prosecutors to treat overdoses as crime scenes. [FOXNEWS]


New York City spending $1.8M on new trucks to clean sidewalks

Mayor de Blasio is ready for some spring cleaning.

The mayor will announce plans to spend $1.8 million on 14 new sidewalk-cleaning trucks as part of his executive budget, set to be rolled out on Wednesday.

The trucks help the city’s Economic Development Corporation spray down dirty walkways along major commercial corridors — and each one in the city will get a deep clean once a year, the mayor’s office said. The trucks can each clean up to 10,000 square feet of sidewalks a day, and are part of the mayor’s CleaNYC program. It’s part of the EDC’s Quality of Life Program, which also runs anti-graffiti efforts.

The trucks cost $125,000 to $130,000 each, have already been ordered and are expected to hit sidewalks this fall. They’re custom-built and will be mounted to a fleet of Ford F-450 trucks that will bring them from neighborhood to neighborhood, where they’ll roll off and get to work — resembling a zamboni going over an ice rink, City Hall says.

CleaNYC will hire 32 people to run the trucks with the help of the Doe Fund, which helps employ formerly homeless people. [DN]

De Blasio announces plan to extend pre-K to 3-year-olds

Mayor de Blasio on Monday doubled down on one of his administration’s signature issues — universal pre-k for 4-year-olds – announcing plans to expand the full-day program to 3-year-olds by September 2021.

The program will be piloted in two districts in the coming school year — one in the south Bronx and one in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn — at a cost of $36 million.

When fully implemented, the program will cost $877 million a year.

Officials said the city is committing to $177 million and counting on the state and federal governments to pitch in with the remaining $700 million.

“It’s time to reach children earlier…because we know if we reach them even earlier we will have a much greater impact,” de Blasio said at PS 1 in The Bronx.

“We have proven through the growth of pre-k that it can be done and it can be done quickly.” [NYP]

Protesters swarm house of ex-Nazi concentration camp guard

A crowd of yeshiva students protested Monday outside the Queens home of Jakiw Palij — the last known Nazi concentration camp guard living in the United States — as they commemorated Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Scores of young people standing shoulder-to-shoulder held signs saying, “Your neighbor is a Nazi!” and “Germany, he’s your problem!” while the 92-year-old Palij stayed inside.

The demonstration outside Palij’s Jackson Heights home was organized by the Rambam Mesivta-Maimonides HS of Lawrence, LI.

Palij, who has claimed in the past that he was forced into the Nazi regime, moved to the United States in 1949.

Despite the outrage over his residency, neighbors have described him as “feeble old man” who isn’t a threat to anyone. [NYP]


Senate gives limited resources to Russia election-meddling probe

The Senate’s main investigation into allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election is equipped with a much smaller staff than previous high-profile intelligence and scandal probes in Congress, which could potentially affect its progress, according to sources and a Reuters review of public records.

With only seven staff members initially assigned to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s three-month-old investigation, progress has been sluggish and minimal, said two sources with direct knowledge of the matter, who requested anonymity.

A committee aide, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said two more staff members were being added and a few others were involved less formally.

While some directly involved in the investigation disputed characterizations of the probe as off track, the appearance of a weak Senate investigation could renew calls by some Democrats and other Trump critics for a commission independent of the Republican-led Congress to investigate the allegations.

The intelligence committees of the Senate and House of Representatives have taken the lead in Congress in examining whether Russia tried to influence the election in Republican Trump’s favor, mostly by hacking Democratic operatives’ emails and releasing embarrassing information, or possibly by colluding with Trump associates. Russia has denied such meddling.

With the House intelligence panel’s investigation for weeks stymied by partisan squabbles, the Senate committee’s parallel probe had appeared to be the more serious of the two, with Republican Chairman Richard Burr and top Democrat Mark Warner promising a thorough and bipartisan effort.

Burr, a member of Congress since 1995, last month called the Russia probe one of the biggest investigations undertaken in Congress during his tenure. [REUTERS]

White House says vote on healthcare plan may not come for weeks

A congressional vote on a Republican healthcare plan may not come for weeks as leaders in the House of Representatives and the Senate continue negotiations over possible proposals, the White House said on Monday.

Any vote on healthcare legislation would be determined by Republican congressional leaders and when they have enough votes to pass a plan, White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters at a daily news briefing after U.S. President Donald Trump last week said he was in no rush for a vote. [REUTERS]

Christie gives Trump a ‘B,’ says WH staff need to ‘get their act together’

Washington (CNN)With a few days left of his first 100 days in office, President Donald Trump’s friend Gov. Chris Christie graded his performance so far as a “B.”

“The reason I’d give him a B is first and foremost because of (Supreme Court Justice) Neil Gorsuch,” the New Jersey governor said on CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper.”

Christie, a Republican Trump supporter, said the impact of the successful Supreme Court nomination would survive Trump’s presidency “no matter how many years he serves.”

Christie’s criticism landed largely on White House staff.

“I think with some of the implementation and some of the ways that his staff has served him has not been extraordinarily good,” Christie said. “They’ve got to get their act together in that regard and serve the President better.”

Christie cited the failed March attempt to pass a major health care reform bill as an example of something that wasn’t handled in an “exemplary” fashion, although he added that he wished Republicans “the best of luck” as they continue to try to negotiate a bill that would repeal and replace Obamacare. [CNN]

Trump: Chinese president ‘likes me a lot’

President Trump on Monday cheered his relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“I like him and I believe he likes me a lot,” he said at a White House reception for conservative media outlets, according to The Washington Examiner.

Trump added that he is reluctant to challenge China for its currency manipulation, adding he needs Xi’s “real power” over North Korea to cool tensions in Asia.

“It’s really tough,” he said of criticizing Xi. “I spoke to him last night for an hour, it’s really tough to be saying, ‘Thanks, by the way you’re a currency manipulator.’

“How can I do it when they are helping us with a potentially horrific conflict? It’s supposed to be art of the deal, that’s not the art of the deal.”

Xi reportedly told Trump during a Monday phone call that China desires restraint in dealing with North Korea.

“[China hopes] the parties concerned will exercise restraint and avoid actions that aggravate tensions on the Peninsula,” the state-run Xinhua news agency reported of the call.

“Xi noted that if the parties shoulder their due responsibilities and meet each other halfway, they can solve the nuclear issue of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.” [THEHILL]

State removes post highlighting Trump Mar-a-Lago resort

A State Department website has removed a blog post about President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort following criticism over ethical concerns.

The blog, initially posted on ShareAmerica, a State Department platform used for sharing what it describes as “compelling stories” detailed the history of Trump’s “Winter White House.”

It immediately led to concerns that the U.S. government was promoting Trump’s private resort.

“The intention of the article was to inform the public about where the President has been hosting world leaders,” the web page now reads. “We regret any misperception and have removed the post.”

Ethics groups have warned about the potential conflict of interest presented by the private Florida resort. [THEHILL]

Trump Willing to Hold Off on Border-Wall Funding

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is open to waiting until later this year to secure funding for a wall along the border with Mexico, White House officials said Monday night, in a shift that could clear the way for lawmakers to strike a deal to avoid a government shutdown on Saturday.

Mr. Trump and top administration officials previously indicated the president wanted to include money to begin building a wall along the southern border in the bill to keep the government running after its current funding expires at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, which is also the president’s 100th day in office.

The president addressed the issue at a reception with conservative media at the White House on Monday night. The president’s new flexibility over whether the wall is funded in this spending bill or one that will be needed in late September could remove one of the last remaining hurdles facing congressional Democrats and Republicans hammering out the five-month bill they must pass this week to avoid a partial government shutdown.

Without the debate over the border wall, lawmakers may be able to come to an agreement on the spending bill relatively quickly. Both Democrats and Republicans had signaled they were willing to increase money for the military and for broader border security before administration officials last week indicated that Mr. Trump would press for money to begin building the wall. [WSJ]

Trump Wants Tax Plan to Cut Corporate Rate to 15%

WASHINGTON—President Donald Trump has ordered White House aides to draft a tax plan that slashes the corporate tax rate to 15%, even if that means a loss of revenue and exacerbating the procedural and partisan hurdles he faces in search of his first major legislative victory, according to people familiar with the directive.

During a meeting inside the Oval Office last week, Mr. Trump told staff he wants a massive tax cut to sell to the American public, these people said. He told aides it was less important to him that such a plan could add to the federal budget deficit, though that may make it more difficult to pass through Congress. Mr. Trump told his team to “get it done,” in time to release a plan by Wednesday.

Mr. Trump’s push for a 15% corporate tax rate would prioritize steep rate cuts over attempts to prevent deficits from running higher. That choice could make it much harder to pass tax cuts that are permanent because Republicans plan on using a procedural tool that allows legislation to pass with a 51-vote majority in the Senate. Under those rules, changes can’t add to deficits beyond a decade. [WSJ]


500 Years After Expulsion, Sicily’s Jews Reclaim a Lost History

PALERMO, Sicily — Sicily’s Jews were banished from this island in 1492, the victims of a Spanish edict that forced thousands to leave and others to convert to Roman Catholicism.

More than 500 years later, a nascent Jewish community is planting fresh roots in the Sicilian capital, reclaiming a lost, often painful, history, this time with the aid of the local diocese.

Palermo’s archbishop, Corrado Lorefice, has granted the emerging community the use of an unused oratory, to be transformed into Palermo’s first stable synagogue in five centuries.

And for many, it’s about time.

“The Jewish community is a part of Palermo, part of its history; Jews were here for 15 centuries,” said Evelyne Aouate, an Algerian-born, Parisian-raised transplant whose deepening exploration of her own roots drove the efforts to find the community a home.

The new synagogue — on the Vicolo Meschita, part of an area once occupied by Palermo’s Great Synagogue — will be housed in a former Baroque oratory known as Santa Maria del Sabato, or Holy Mary of Saturday.

It is an unusual name for a church, noted Luciana Pepi, who teaches Hebrew language, culture and philosophy at the University of Palermo, and is also a convert and active member of the local Jewish community.

“Some scholars have hypothesized that the name might be related to the memory of the celebration of Shabbat,” the weekly Jewish day of rest, she said.

For many years “history books skipped over the city’s Jewish presence, as if trying to cancel it,” Ms. Ancona said. Ms. Pepi added: “Palermo didn’t know its own history.”

That has been changing, mostly as a result of Ms. Aouate and a small group of enthusiasts, including Catholics, who 25 years ago founded the Sicilian Institute for Jewish Studies, dedicated to recovering the island’s Jewish identity.

Documents show that Jews were in Sicily at least since the first century A.D., and remained on the island until the 1492 edict. At one point, there were 51 communities here, Palermo being the largest and most important.

Historians say the edict affected at least 35,000 Sicilian Jews, including at least 5,000 in Palermo. Some Jews decided to stay, converting to Catholicism against their will. Some — known here as Marranos — continued to practice Judaism in secret.

Palermo’s municipal archives — whose late-19th-century grand hall may have been inspired by the Great Synagogue — recently exhibited mementos of more recent affronts to Sicily’s Jews. [NYT]


Trump Administration Plans to Impose 20% Tariff on Canadian Softwood-Lumber Imports

The Trump administration is taking retaliatory action against Canada over a decades-old trade dispute, moving to impose a 20% tariff on softwood lumber that is typically used to build single-family homes, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said Monday in an interview.

Mr. Ross said the tariff would be applied retroactively and imposed on Canadian exports to the U.S. of about $5 billion a year. He said the dispute centers on Canadian provinces that have been allegedly allowing loggers to cut trees down at improperly subsidized costs and sell them at lower prices.

The decision is preliminary and the Commerce Department will need to make a final determination. After that, the U.S. International Trade Commission will also need to find that the U.S. industry has suffered injury before any tariff is levied. But even a preliminary decision has immediate real-world consequences, by discouraging importers from buying lumber from Canada.

In the lead-up to the decision on lumber duties, U.S.-Canada trade watchers said the Trump administration’s move on timber could serve as an opening gambit in laying out what he wants Canada to put on the table as part of the North American Free Trade Agreement renegotiations, which have yet to begin in earnest. [WSJ]

US mortgage rate drop could cause spike in home sales

U.S. mortgage rates fell below 4 percent last week, which may encourage a rush of home buyers.

Last week, the average rate on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage was 3.9 percent, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing data released by Freddie Mac. It’s the first time rates have dropped below 4 percent since November. A week earlier, the rate was 4.08 percent and in mid-March it was 4.3 percent, according to the Journal.

Mortgage rates jumped following Donald Trump’s presidential win, after hovering slightly above 3.5 percent for the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage for most of 2016. The Federal Reserve raised interest rates last month, and officials have foreshadowed two more rate raises this year.

However, Treasury yields came close to a five-month low last week, driven by investor concerns about unrest in Syria and North Korea, and because of little development on tax reform.

Economists say a mortgage rate decline could drive more home buyers towards investing, as lower rates mean reduced mortgage repayments. [TRD]

T-Mobile quarterly profit up, new subscribers top estimates

T-Mobile US Inc said on Monday it added more subscribers than expected in the first quarter as promotional offers helped the No. 3 wireless carrier win over customers despite new unlimited data plans from competitors.

T-Mobile’s net income rose to $698 million, or 80 cents per share, in the quarter ended March 31, from $479 million, or 56 cents per share, a year earlier.

Total adjusted revenue rose nearly 11 percent to $9.61 billion.

T-Mobile said it added 914,000 branded postpaid subscribers, who pay bills monthly, on a net basis, during the period. Analysts on average had expected net additions of 847,000, according to market research firm FactSet StreetAccount.

Churn, or customer defections, was 1.18 percent, compared with the average analyst estimate of 1.27 percent according to FactSet.

The company also raised its 2017 forecast for branded postpaid net additions to a range of 2.8 million to 3.5 million, from 2.4 million to 3.4 million previously. [REUTERS]

04/25/2017 10:31 AM by David Kinzer
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