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Ice-skating Rink, Airport Terminals, Disneyland: The New Vaccination Hubs

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Ice-skating Rink, Airport Terminals, Disneyland: The New Vaccination Hubs

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Across the world the goal is the same: Inoculate a maximum amount of people as fast as possible.

In Berlin, the process of transforming large, now unused public spaces into mass vaccination hubs started weeks before a vaccine was approved.

Albrecht Broemme, the project manager in charge of setting up six of them, began laying out Lego models of six mass vaccination sites in November. Working with the staff of the Federal Agency for Technical Relief – he used to be the president of the agency and retired from it in 2019 – he turned his colorful plastic mock-ups into real-life facilities capable of churning out thousands of jabs a day. The goal was setting up sites that Berliners could file through like IKEA shoppers.

Among the first mass vaccination centers is the Arena Berlin, a bus-depot-turned-event space built in the 1920s. The building now has 80 vaccination booths numbered and separated by white metallic panels, capable of delivering 4,000 doses a day. Together, the six Berlin sites are expected to cost between $70 million and $95 million according to the Washington Post.

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Albrecht Broemme displays the floor plan of Berlin’s Treptow Arena events hall as it’s transformed into a center for mass Covid-19 vaccinations in December. Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images Europe

Across the world the goal is the same: Inoculate a maximum amount of people as fast as possible. More than 50 countries are racing to vaccinate their populations to fend off the rising death toll of a third wave of infections. To supplement the existing network of hospitals, medical clinics, pharmacies and other healthcare facilities, many are establishing mass vaccination sites capable of processing crowds – often sports arenas, convention centers and stadiums, but also parking lots and deserted shopping malls.

“To move beyond vaccinating people in hospitals and long-term care facilities, vaccination sites must be established where large groups of people can be vaccinated quickly,” Eric Toner, senior scholar at the John Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Bloomberg CityLab in an email. “This requires very large facilities. These are expensive to set up and operate, but can be very efficient.”

So far, Germany, the U.K. and the U.S., and also Israel, have been at the forefront of this mass vaccination building boom. In Berlin, authorities have designated an ice-skating rink, a velodrome, two airport terminals, and a trade-fair hall to deliver shots. In the U.K., the Epsom Downs Racecourse south of London is one of seven hubs that opened in January, operated by various trusts of the National Health Service (NHS); the U.K. government recently added 10 more sites to its list, including Blackburn Cathedral in Lancashire. In Bristol, the crowds of Bristol Bears supporters at Ashton Gate Stadium have been replaced by NHS personnel: The military helped turn the 27,00-seat venue into a vaccination center in December.

In the U.S., mass vaccinations facilities are being assembled in New York City’s Citi Field, Boston’s Fenway Park, and outside California’s Disneyland. President Joe Biden, who pledged to deliver 100 million shots in his first 100 days in office, released a 200-page national strategy document on Thursday that outlined a range of efforts to speed production and distribution, including a pledge to “create as many venues for vaccination as needed in communities and settings that people trust.” Some experts say an even more torrid vaccination pace will be needed, since the current vaccines’ two-shot regime would fully inoculate only 50 million people by April. According the Centers for Disease Control, state and local vaccine centers are administering as few as 46% of the doses that are being shipped to them. To break the pandemic’s grip, the vaccine effort will have to go big, fast. 

When it comes to conducting this kind of public health mobilization, the U.S. is sorely out of practice, and so are other nations that haven’t had to vaccinate large swaths of the population in recent memory. The vaccination campaign that conquered polio from the U.S., for example, launched in 1955 – the disease caused 57,000 cases in 1952, at the U.S. outbreak’s peak. That effort also faced setbacks due to serious production and distribution problems, and took several years to complete. 

The last mass vaccination effort Western countries conducted was during the 2009 H1N1 “swine flu” outbreak. “The 2009 H1N1 pandemic is, I think, the closest example that jurisdictions have had to real-world mass vaccination in their communities,” said Divya Hosangadi, senior analyst at the John Hopkins Center for Health Security. “But it was a different scenario, and the level of urgency for the Covid-19 pandemic is a lot higher, and there are a lot more operational challenges as well to a greater scale.”

The H1N1 vaccination campaign was laborious: Between October 2009, when the vaccine started being distributed, and May 2010, only 27% of Americans over 6 months old got vaccinated. Shortages and ill-defined priority groups led to confusion; confidence and interest in the vaccine eroded as it came too late, after a second wave had passed, Healthline reported. The effort led to a wave of research evaluating U.S. preparedness for emergency mass vaccination. In a 2020 paper she co-authored with five colleagues, Hosangadi concluded that the U.S. was poorly prepared for emergency mass vaccination – and the rocky start of the Covid-19 vaccine distribution shows that some of those problems remain.

In particular, overstressed state, county, and city health departments have, in the absence of federal help, shouldered most of the burden of the vaccination campaign. “In the U.S., some of the challenges have been compounded by a longstanding lack of funding to state and local health departments,” Hosangadi said. “Funding packages and different measures that are being implemented today help to alleviate that, but it takes time to set up that infrastructure, and for years and years now, in the U.S., the public health structure has been underfunded.”

Covid-19 comes with its own set of challenges that make building mass vaccination sites more complex: The airborne, highly contagious disease necessitates a host of space and ventilation countermeasures to protect staff and clients, and the vaccines themselves require demanding “cold chains”: The vaccines that have been approved so far have short shelf lives, and the Pfizer/BioNTech one must be stored in ultra-cold freezers that can reach -94 degrees Fahrenheit.

Mass vaccination centers enable important economies of scale, as there is much more to the process than just getting an injection. Those getting inoculated must be provided with vaccine information and sign consent forms, and they require time and space to recover. (In the U.S., this recovery period must last 15 minutes.) Staffing needs go beyond finding trained vaccinators. Volunteers are needed to help guide people through the structures, including translators. 

In Germany, when Broemme was sketching out his plans for vaccine centers, security was also a concern. “With the centers it’s indeed possible that people opposed to vaccination or others willing to use violence might say, ‘Let’s set this on fire because we think vaccinations are stupid,'” he told AP. Vaccine supplies are being carefully watched and kept in locked freezers to avoid theft and resale on the black market. Cybersecurity threats have also become salient, as all super-coolers are equipped with a trove of technological apparatus, including GPS trackers and Bluetooth sensors. 

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“Subtle changes in design are often overlooked. People think that if you build it, people are going to come. And it’s not really the case.”

“A major challenge with getting the population vaccinated is dealing with logistics,” said Mitesh Patel, director of Penn Medicine’s Nudge Unit, a behavioral design team applying behavioral economics to influence patients’ decision-making process. “There are many more doses of vaccines that have been distributed than have been given. And a large part of that is just that you have to schedule people, they’ve got to come in, and there are only so many people you can vaccinate in a day.”

That’s why sports facilities make such appealing host sites for mass vaccinations: Built to collect and process vast crowds, they are large enough to allow for social-distancing, are often transit accessible, and typically boast ample parking capacity. Sports venues can have psychological advantages as well, Patel says. “If you can associate memories to sports stadiums where you used to support your favorite team, or somewhere where you saw some kind of show or performance, there maybe be some more familiarity and comfort with going to that place to get the vaccination,” he said. “Sentiment is very important, and subtle changes in design are often overlooked. People think that if you build it, people are going to come. And it’s not really the case.”

Overcoming vaccine resistance with design is a hallmark of Italy’s vaccination effort: In December, the government announced a plan to create a network of 1,500 vaccination pavilions sited in town squares. The temporary wood-and-fabric structures, designed by architect Stefano Boeri and decorated with images of primrose blooms, are meant to “convey a symbol of serenity and regeneration.” Other Italian inoculation centers leverage the nation’s vast cultural resources. In the city of Turin, plans are afoot to convert a portion of the 10th-century Castello di Rivoli, now a museum of contemporary art, into a vaccination clinic. A similar effort is underway at the London Science Museum. “Art has always helped, healed, and cured – indeed, some of the first museums in the world were hospitals,” Castello di Rivoli director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev said in a statement, according to Artforum. “Now we are repaying the favor.” 

But most inoculation infrastructure is far more mundane – think parking lots. Drive-through Covid testing clinics have been common throughout the U.S., but adapting them for vaccination involves a different layout: They need multiple stations for clients to check in, sign consent forms and get inoculated, plus a parking lot for recovery.

Ali Asgary, an associate professor at York University in Ontario, Canada, is the associate director of its Advanced Disaster, Emergency and Rapid Response Simulation. His work right now consists in optimizing the layout of vaccination drive-through clinics and mass vaccination sites, given a number of constraints provided to him by hospitals and local jurisdictions, who ask him for help in organizing the campaign.

Instead of Legos, Asgary uses simulation software called AnyLogic to model drive-through Covid clinics. The interface allows him to adjusts several variables: How many lanes? How many people in the cars? What’s the staffing? With every additional of piece of data he gets, he is able to refine his simulations, and the software provides a rendering of what the site and its throughput would look like. He’s developed an application to facilitate it, too.

Not all public health experts are convinced that building mass vaccination sites is the best way to accelerate the inoculation campaign. In the U.K., some doctors have complained that the government centers are “white elephants” that channel too much funding and attention, not leaving enough for general practitioners and local pharmacies and clinics that already have vaccination capabilities. Centralizing doses in a small number of large sites can force people to travel far away from where they live. If poorly set up or run, big vaccine centers can be confusing and lead to hours of waiting and potential disappointment, hampering rather than helping the distribution process. 

“There are stories of people who will wait for hours to find out that this day supplies of vaccines have run out,” Patel said. “And that’s very unfortunate. That person who waited for hours and then didn’t get it might be very frustrated and not go back for another chance to get the vaccine. The same way they create logistical efficiency, they also create some logistical problems.”

“People are basically asked to put the tires on the car while the car is moving,” Patel added. “You have to figure things out, and that is a challenge.”

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)

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US Does Not Support Taiwan Independence, Says President Joe Biden

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US Does Not Support Taiwan Independence, Says President Joe Biden
President Joe Biden. Getty Images

US President Joe Biden said on Saturday (Jan 13) that the United States does not support the independence of Taiwan, after Taiwanese voters rebuffed China and gave the ruling party a third presidential term.

Earlier in the day, the Taiwanese ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) presidential candidate William Lai Ching-te came to power, strongly rejecting Chinese pressure to spurn him, and pledged both to stand up to Beijing and seek talks.

“We do not support independence,” Biden said, when asked for a reaction to Saturday’s elections.

The United States switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979 and has long said it does not support a formal declaration of independence by Taiwan.

It maintains unofficial relations with the self-governed island and remains its most important backer and arms supplier.

Beijing, which has never renounced the use of force to bring Taiwan under its control, fears that Lai could declare the establishment of a Republic of Taiwan, which Lai has said he will not do.

Biden has previously upset the Chinese government with comments that appeared to suggest the United States would defend the island if it were attacked, a deviation from a long-held US position of “strategic ambiguity”.

His comments on Saturday appear to be an effort to reassure Beijing.

Even so, Washington warned just hours ahead of the polls opening that “it would be unacceptable” for any country to interfere in the election.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken congratulated Lai on his victory and said the United States “is committed to maintaining cross-strait peace and stability, and the peaceful resolution of differences, free from coercion and pressure”.

He said the US looks forward to working with Lai and leaders of all parties in Taiwan to advance their “longstanding unofficial relationship, consistent with the US’ One China policy”.

The Biden administration has feared that the election, transition and new administration would escalate conflict with Beijing.

Biden has worked to smooth relations with China, including agreeing to talk through differences on security matters at a California summit with President Xi Jinping in November.

Taiwan’s government expects China to attempt to put pressure on its incoming president after the vote, including staging military manoeuvres near the island this spring, two senior government officials said.

Former US National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and former Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg will arrive in Taipei on Sunday for post-election meetings with Taiwanese politicians, the de facto US embassy in Taipei said.

The delegation sent by Biden’s administration will hold talks with “a range of leading political figures” on Monday, the American Institute in Taiwan said in a statement.

China was angered in 2016 when then-president-elect Donald Trump spoke by phone with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, the first such conversation between US and Taiwan leaders since president Jimmy Carter switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979.

 

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Orthodox Mark Christmas, But The Celebration is Overshadowed for Many by Conflict

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Orthodox Mark Christmas, But The Celebration is Overshadowed for Many by Conflict
People burn dried oak branches, the Yule log symbol for the Orthodox Christmas Eve, in front of St. Sava church in Belgrade, Serbia, Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024. Orthodox believers in Serbia celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7, according to the Julian calendar. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

Orthodox Christians packed churches Saturday night for Christmas Eve services, a holiday overshadowed for many believers by conflict.

Traditions vary, but typically the main worship service for Orthodox Christians takes place the night before Christmas, which is Jan. 7.

Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, the world’s largest Orthodox denomination, led elaborate and well-attended services at Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral. In ornately decorated vestments, dozens of priests and officiants took part, swinging smoking incense censers and chanting the liturgy.

In his Christmas message, broadcast just before the service Saturday night, Kirill spoke on the theme of sacrificial love, noting that Jesus Christ “saved us from the wrong path in life, from the wrong life orientation.” He also called for prayers for Russia, so that “no alien evil will could disrupt the peaceful flow of life.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin was joined by families of military personnel who have died in the war in Ukraine at Christmas Eve services at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence, in the western suburbs of Moscow.

In a statement congratulating Orthodox Christians, Putin highlighted the “efforts of religious organizations aimed at supporting our heroes — participants in the special military operation,” as the Kremlin refers to Russia’s efforts in Ukraine.

Officials said about a million people were expected to go to church in the Russian capital. But nighttime services were canceled in the Russian border city of Belgorod due to the “operational situation,” Mayor Valentin Demidov said.

Ukrainian attacks in Belgorod on Dec. 30 killed 25 people, officials there said, making it one of the deadliest strikes on Russian soil since the start of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine nearly 23 months ago. Rocket and drone attacks on the city continued throughout this week.

Russians and Orthodox in some other countries observe Christmas on Jan. 7.

But Ukraine, which is a predominantly Orthodox country, officially observed Christmas this year as a public holiday on Dec. 25. The change, enacted in legislation signed by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in July, reflects Ukrainians’ dismay with the nearly 23-month-old Russian invasion and their assertion of a national identity.

In neighboring Belarus, Christmas is officially celebrated with public holidays on both Dec. 25 and on Jan. 7. About 80% of believers are Orthodox, belonging to the Russian Orthodox Church, while around 14% are Catholics, living mainly in the west, north and center of the country.

President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 30 years, calls himself an “Orthodox atheist.” He usually attends Christmas Eve services and lights a candle in an Orthodox church.

He wished Orthodox Christians a happy Christmas, saying in a statement that he is “convinced that by preserving the Orthodox traditions of mercy and moral purity, together we will create the best future for our native Belarus.”

Orthodox believers in Serbia marked the day by burning oak branches at services outside churches and temples, including hundreds who gathered at the St. Sava Temple — the biggest Orthodox church in the Balkans.

The young oak tree symbolizes Christ and his entry into the world, with the centuries-old tradition led by Serbian Orthodox church priests. As the fire was lit, dozens of people of all ages threw small branches of dried oak into the large bonfire.

“In these hard times, we need to come together in unity and to nurture peace, love, and respect towards each other,” Belgrade resident Mica Jovanovic told The Associated Press.

Celebrations in the Middle East were darkened by another conflict: the Israel-Hamas war.

In Bethlehem, where Orthodox Christmas Eve normally draws tens of thousands of tourists to visit the traditional birthplace of Jesus, roughly 100 observers milled about in Manger Square. They were nearly outnumbered by police officers and clergymen.

Christmas festivities were canceled in the West Bank town after the heads of major churches in Jerusalem asked their congregations to “forgo any unnecessarily festive activities” in light of the fighting in Gaza. The majority of Christians in the region are Palestinians, and Christian leaders have called upon observers to spend the holidays praying for peace and an end to the war.

Despite the cancellation of festivities, church leaders still gathered to welcome the arrival of patriarchs from different Orthodox churches — Greek, Coptic and Ethiopian — and a customary procession of Boy Scouts proceeded through Bethlehem, though without the usual fanfare. A midnight Mass was planned.

Samir Qumseyeh, a Palestinian Christian and founder of a Christian TV channel, has been filming the celebrations since 1996. He said this year’s observance was even more muted than at the height of the second intifada, when Israeli forces locked down parts of the West Bank in response to Palestinians carrying out suicide bombings and other attacks that killed Israeli civilians.

“Even during the intifada, still the festivals and the joy were there,” Qumseyeh said. “But this year, I am feeling very, very, very sad. But I understand why the church leaders had to do this. You cannot show joy when the people of Gaza are suffering.”

In Iraq, many Christians canceled Christmas and New Year’s celebrations in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, as well as in an act of continued mourning for the victims of a deadly fire that killed more than 100 people at a wedding in the predominantly Christian Hamdaniya area of northern Iraq in September.

Dozens of Iraqi Armenian Orthodox Christians attended Christmas Eve Mass in Baghdad but the celebration was limited to Christmas prayers and rituals.

“In 2023, we went through many crises, including the Hamdaniya tragedy which the entire world learned about, as well as to Gaza and our brothers in Palestine,” Gebre Kashikian, pastor of the Armenian Church in Baghdad, said at the Mass.

In Istanbul, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I presided over the Blessing of the Waters ceremony on the Golden Horn. The tradition sees the patriarch toss a wooden cross into the inlet, which this year nearly 50 swimmers competed to recover.

Kostas Kypros, from Alexandroupoli in Greece, emerged from the water clutching the crucifix. “I am very happy. I wish the best for everyone. I was lucky and I pulled out the cross,” Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency reported him as saying.

Earlier, members of Istanbul’s tiny Greek Orthodox community and visitors from neighboring Greece attended an Epiphany service led by Bartholomew I at the Patriarchal Church of St George in Istanbul’s Fener district.

Bartholomew I is regarded as the “first among equals” among patriarchs in Eastern Orthodoxy and the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians. The patriarchate dates from the 1,100-year Orthodox Greek Byzantine Empire, which ended in 1453 when the Muslim Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople, today’s Istanbul.

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AP

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In a Year of Conflict, the Future of War Looks Very Similar to Its Past

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In a Year of Conflict, the Future of War Looks Very Similar to Its Past
Local militiaman Valery, 37, carries a child as he helps a fleeing family across a bridge destroyed by artillery, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, March 2. Emilio Morenatti/AP

Even well into 2022, long after the war in Ukraine had started, the media were still “reporting the last war,” so to speak. The New Yorker headlined a report on the Bayraktar TB2 drone that was widely considered to have won the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, “The Turkish Drone That Changed the Nature of Warfare.”

Little wonder, because the TB2 had proved formidable beyond its size, an unmanned drone that carried laser-guided bombs. Throughout the six-week war, Azerbaijan used the TB2 to startling effect, blowing up tanks and troops and then broadcasting video of the attacks. For a fraction of the cost of conventional fighter jets, Azerbaijan was able to dominate the airspace above Nagorno-Karabakh and win a swift victory.

The rest of the world noticed and militaries began to reassess what role small, cheap drones might play in future wars. When the Ukraine war started, the Ukrainian military used the TB2s to devastating effect, taking out Russian tanks, trains and even ships – and gleefully posting the footage to social media. A new era of war had begun, where a drone costing just a few million dollars could prove highly effective against one of the world’s most powerful militaries. The financial asymmetry was frightening.

Yet the two major wars of this year have shown that, while such asymmetry exists, the future of war is much more similar to its past.

Drones have fallen away from the Ukrainian battlefield, as Russia’s initially chaotic invasion has entrenched itself into defensive positions and its air defenses have adapted. Ukraine’s much vaunted counteroffensive has stalled – stalemated or defeated, depending on who you ask. All along Russia’s vast defensive lines in eastern Ukraine, Kyiv’s troops are bogged down, unable to punch holes through the lines.

Video taken recently of Ukrainian soldiers pinned down in a field outside Bakhmut looks like something straight out of World War I: the same bleak, treeless landscape, the sound of artillery slamming into fields while troops take cover in muddy ditches, the screams of the wounded. Ukraine’s war is brutal and grinding, its effect on people and landscapes unknown in recent wars.

That is, until the Gaza war. Just as the conflict started with a burst of new technology as Hamas used drones to disable surveillance systems, so it eventually ossified into a war from another century. Vast parts of Gaza were flattened by aerial bombardment and Israeli troops faced street by street battles. As in Ukraine, the civilian toll has been enormous.

That is because, at its heart, war hasn’t really changed, and perhaps can’t. Yes, there have been short, swift wars – the first Gulf war, for example. But war in general is a continuation of political persuasion by other means, and that means that war invariably affects the entire population, often as a method for persuading the politicians.

What has changed with Ukraine and Gaza is that these wars are now fought in full view of the world, and of a watching Western audience. The scale of the destruction is different, but the nature of it is not.

The devastation in Gaza or the ruination of Bakhmut are not new. This is what war looks like, and always has; it’s just that in the West, audiences have so rarely been confronted by its reality. These two wars have played out across the media for opposite reasons – in Ukraine, to persuade Western audiences to accept the choices of their politicians; and in Gaza to persuade them to oppose them. In both cases, the reality on television and phone screens has been a wake-up call to an audience thankfully unused to what real conflict looks like up close.

Just as the future of war hasn’t changed that much, nor has the nature of war, which is ultimately an extension of politics. What hasn’t changed in Ukraine or Gaza is the ultimate importance of what happens off the battlefield.

Those who wage wars easily forget that the purpose of war is not to keep fighting, but to bring the fighting to an end. Politicians, too easily lulled by the glory and rhetoric of war, forget this too.

In Ukraine, the initial idea of arming the Ukrainians was not to allow them to fight a years-long war, but to give them the ability to stalemate the Russians and bring them to the negotiating table. In Gaza, it was – or should have been – to destroy Hamas’ militant structure, not to punish the whole exclave.

In both cases, the longer the brutal war has gone on, the harder it has become for the politicians who are ordering the wars to find ways off the battlefield. A long war has bolstered the commitment of Ukrainians to fight, especially after so much loss of human life. The same is true on the Russian side, at least as regards political commitment: Vladimir Putin can’t back down from this very public fight. The exact same dynamic is on show in Gaza, with Israeli politicians using stronger and more forceful rhetoric, even as the war’s initial aims retreat further away.

This year of conflict has shown that the old wars don’t die away; new technology, new enmities and new political leaders simply emerge to fight the same old wars, the same old way, often again and again.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. X: @FaisalAlYafai

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The Hidden Dangers of Antisemitism and the Free Speech Debate

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The Hidden Dangers of Antisemitism and the Free Speech Debate
People gather at Harvard University to show their support for Palestinians in Gaza at a rally in Cambridge, Mass., on Oct.14, 2023. | Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty images

Jewish history is full of cautionary examples of failed emancipation. For millennia, Jews have often been perceived as the “other” in their host societies, a status that continues to this day despite appearances to the contrary in some countries. While the past century has witnessed various efforts to achieve civil and political rights for Jews, including religious initiatives like Reform Judaism and political movements like Zionism, these have not fully addressed the underlying issues.

Following the Holocaust, Zionism succeeded in establishing the state of Israel, but it did not resolve the fundamental issue of Jewish emancipation. That’s because the state is not secure or, in many ways, viable. Israel’s lack of internationally recognized borders and its ongoing inability or unwillingness to establish a lasting peace with the indigenous Palestinian population have exacerbated the idea that the country is not secure.

Rather than mitigating these challenges, Israel has spent substantial resources to build a vast military occupation to control virtually every facet of the lives of Palestinians. The resources required for this herculean task of domination largely come from abroad in the form of military aid and diplomatic cover from the United States. 

The dependence of a secular Jewish state on a predominantly Christian nation like the US is cause for concern, given the historical hostility between Christian societies and Jews. This stands in contrast to the narrative pushed by Israel’s current public relations campaigns, which don’t dwell on that dark history but instead argues that it is Muslims that have exhibited more hostility toward Jews. Throughout history, numerous Christian societies have exercised animosity toward Jews, on a scale far greater than their Muslim counterparts. Hostility, demonization, subjugation, and violence blighted the history of Jewish populations in Europe.

While the US is not a religious state, it is a majority Christian country that has witnessed a hard rightward shift in politics, marked by extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric in recent years. It seems inevitable that a savvy populist American politician will eventually raise questions about the loyalty of American Jews and the nature of the US’s special relationship with Israel. In fact, former President Donald Trump has already made such insinuations through comments about American Jews and his remarks calling Nazi marchers in Charlottesville “very fine people.” This is deeply disturbing but unsurprising from the perspective of Jewish history, which is marked with many episodes of such shifts. 

The recent uproar surrounding how American universities address antisemitism in the wake of Hamas’s October 7 attack could mark another turning point. The focus is on how institutions like Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania handle the increasingly heated debate over Israel and Palestine. Last month, the presidents of these universities were called before Congress to address these issues, leading to a hearing reminiscent of the McCarthy era. Republican members of Congress grilled these university leaders over the use of the phrase “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” by pro-Palestine activists.

This phrase, used by Palestinians for decades, calls for their freedom and equality from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. However, the Israeli government and pro-Israel activists argue that it is a veiled call for the elimination of Israel and the Jewish presence in the Middle East. They tend to overlook the fact that Israeli settlers have also employed a similar phrase in their propaganda, and Israeli textbooks have frequently omitted any reference to Palestine on their maps. In 2013, the Guardian reported that 76 percent of maps used to educate Israeli children did not delineate boundaries between Palestinian territories and Israel, with Palestinian areas left unlabeled.

During the congressional hearing, a Republican lawmaker, who has previously advocated for the removal of “woke agenda” from American universities, questioned Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay, about whether “calling for the genocide of Jews violates Harvard’s rules on bullying and harassment.” Gay responded that it depends on the context, which the New Yorker notes was the correct response since “any responsible determination of a policy violation is context-dependent.” After the hearing, the president of the University of Pennsylvania lost her job, and a new chapter in the debate about American freedom of speech began. 

The Israel-Palestine debate has now become a platform to discuss broader free speech issues in the US. While such discussions can facilitate real change, they are cause for concern in this case because the intellectual foundations of the debate seem weak. For instance, using a chant to advocate for Palestinian rights is not equivalent to advocating genocide, and attempts to link the two often rely on outdated PR talking points from Israel.

The more significant concern lies in how this debate could further fuel discontent among a growing number of Americans regarding the influence of Israeli politics on US discourse. Given the numerous pressing issues facing the average American, Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and its international public relations may not be at the forefront.

American politicians are able to see this opening for their campaigns. Donald Trump is the most obvious example, but others are bound to follow. Ironically, pro-Israel activists driven by a desire to fight antisemitism might well be flaming its fires through the blind adoption of Israeli talking points. If history serves as a guide, there may be consequences for this perceived overreach, which would almost certainly be unfavorable for the Jews.

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Joseph Dana is a writer based in South Africa and the Middle East. He has reported from Jerusalem, Ramallah, Cairo, Istanbul, and Abu Dhabi. He was formerly editor-in-chief of emerge85, a media project based in Abu Dhabi exploring change in emerging markets. Twitter: @ibnezra

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Megawati Soekarnoputri Meet Pope Francis Discusses Global Challenges For Human Fraternity

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Megawati Soekarnoputri Meet Pope Francis Discusses Global Challenges For Human Fraternity
Pope Francis on Monday received in audience members of the jury for the 2024 edition of the Zayed Prize. AP

Pope Francis, head of the Catholic Church, urged the advancement of human fraternity in all places and in all fields as a response to pressing global challenges, during a meeting with the Zayed Award for Human Fraternity 2024 judging committee at the Vatican on Monday.

Pope Francis encouraged the judging committee members – who collectively represent Africa, Asia, Europe, and North and South America – to further the values of human fraternity, both through the award and through their respective fields.

An honorary recipient of the award, Pope Francis said: “Human fraternity is imperative for our contemporary world, especially in the midst of ongoing conflicts. In wars, everyone loses, and it is the innocent who pay the price.” The Pope further urged the judging committee members to persist in promoting the values of human fraternity within their respective fields and domains.

For their part, the judging committee members expressed their gratitude to Pope Francis for His Holiness’ promotion of human fraternity values – including solidarity, environmental protection, and equality – through his pontificate.

They commended Pope Francis, as well as Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb, for coming together in 2019 to sign the historic Document on Human Fraternity, and affirmed that the values outlined in the Document on Human Fraternity serve as a compass in their selection process of the 2024 honoree(s).

The members of the independent judging committee are former president of Indonesia Megawati Sukarnoputri; Prefect Emeritus of the Holy See Dicastery for Oriental Churches His Eminence Cardinal Leonardo Sandri; Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Rebeca Grynspan Mayufis; U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Chair Rabbi Abraham Cooper; former Director-General of UNESCO and former Bulgarian minister Irina Bokova; and Secretary-General of the Zayed Award for Human Fraternity, Judge Mohamed Abdelsalam.

On behalf of the committee, Judge Mohamed Abdelsalam said: “Ahead of the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar signing the historic Document on Human Fraternity, we truly appreciate today’s meeting and inspiring conversation with Pope Francis, who has strengthened our resolve to carry out the values of human fraternity in our work together and apart.”

Megawati Sukarnoputri said: “It was an honor to meet with His Holiness Pope Francis today and discuss not only common concerns for the state of humanity, but also how we as a judging committee can contribute to addressing them.”

Cardinal Sandri said: “Following our discussion with His Holiness Pope Francis, as a judging committee we are reminded of our shared responsibility to recognise individuals and entities who are spreading the values outlined in the historic Document on Human Fraternity.”

Rabbi Abraham Cooper said: “The meeting with Pope Francis is a source of motivation in forging ahead with our efforts as a judging committee to select an awardee whose commitment to better humankind will inspire people the world over.”
Irina Bokova said: “I am pleased that the members of the judging committee share a common approach and understanding of the values of the Zayed Award for Human Fraternity, which aims to honor everyday heroes of human fraternity, compassion, and empathy, while also inspiring others to follow in their footsteps toward a more peaceful world.”

During their time in Rome, the 2024 judging committee will continue reviewing nominations to select the 2024 award honoree(s) – to be announced in February, in tandem with the UN-recognized International Day of Human Fraternity.
The award – which includes a USD $1 million prize – was established in 2019 following the signing of the historic Document on Human Fraternity by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Since the award’s inception humanitarian organizations, activists, and leaders from around the world have been honored including: Pope Francis (honorary recipient); the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb (honorary recipient); UN Secretary-General António Guterres; activist against extremism Latifa Ibn Ziaten; His Majesty King Abdullah II bin Al Hussein and Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan; Haitian humanitarian organization the Foundation for Knowledge and Liberty (FOKAL); the Community of Sant’Egidio organisation; and Kenyan peacebuilder Shamsa Abubakar Fadhil.

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Israeli Forces Attack Church Compound In Gaza Just Days Before Christmas

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Israeli Forces Attack Church Compound In Gaza Just Days Before Christmas
Israeli armoured vehicles take part in a drill in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, near the border. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP)

The Israeli military is accused of attacking a church compound in Gaza just one week before Christmas, killing two Christian women and displacing dozens of disabled Palestinians.

On Saturday, an Israeli sniper “shot in cold blood” mother Nahida Anton and daughter Samar Anton while they were walking to the Sister’s Convent inside the Holy Family Parish in Gaza, according to a statement from the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

Many Christian families in Gaza have been taking refuge inside the church compound since Israel began its heavy bombardment on the Palestinian enclave. Since Oct. 7, Israel’s destruction of Gaza has led to more than 18,700 Palestinians dead and thousands more buried under rubble, the Gaza Health Ministry said Thursday before the territory experienced a communications blackout that has since been partially restored.

Hours before the sniper attack, the patriarchate said that rockets fired from an Israeli tank hit the Convent of the Sisters of Mother Theresa, which is part of the church compound and home to 54 disabled people. The first rocket destroyed the building’s fuel sources and generator ― the convent’s only source of electricity ― and caused an explosion and massive fire that damaged the house. Two subsequent rockets on the convent rendered the home uninhabitable, according to the patriarchate.

Layla Moran, a member of British Parliament, said that she has several family members sheltering inside the same church compound. On Saturday, the lawmaker said that military forces had taken over a building opposite to the church and that “there are snipers at every window pointing to the church.”

Pope Francis, who has repeatedly spoken out against the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, expressed concern on Sunday about Israel’s church attacks, which he described as “terrorism.”

“I continue to receive very grave and painful news from Gaza,” he said during his weekly blessing. “Unarmed civilians are the objects of bombings and shootings. And this happened even inside the Holy Family parish complex, where there are no terrorists, but families, children, people who are sick or disabled, nuns.”

Pope Francis delivers his blessing during the Angelus noon prayer from the window of his studio overlooking St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican on Sunday. The pope spoke out during his blessing about the Israeli military's attack on Saturday against a church compound in Gaza, killing two women and displacing dozens of disabled people.
Pope Francis delivers his blessing during the Angelus noon prayer from the window of his studio overlooking St. Peter’s Square, at the Vatican on Sunday. The pope spoke out during his blessing about the Israeli military’s attack on Saturday against a church compound in Gaza, killing two women and displacing dozens of disabled people.
Alessandra Tarantino via Associated Press

The Israeli Defense Force told HuffPost that it is conducting a “thorough review” of the attack, claiming without evidence that soldiers were targeting a Hamas-related “threat that they identified in the area of the church.”

“The IDF takes claims regarding harm to sensitive sites with the utmost seriousness ― especially churches ― considering that Christian communities are a minority group in the Middle East,” the IDF said, maintaining its stance that soldiers only target terrorists and not civilians, despite the massive civilian death toll.

The IDF also said it received a letter on Saturday from the patriarchate describing the attack on the Holy Family Parish, but claimed that church representatives did not raise such concerns during a conversation hours earlier.

“Together in prayer with the whole Christian community, we express our closeness and condolences to the families affected by this senseless tragedy,” the patriarchate said. “At the same time, we cannot but express that we are at a loss to comprehend how such an attack could be carried out, even more so as the whole Church prepares for Christmas.”

The region is home to some of the world’s oldest Christian communities, with the Palestinian Christian population in Gaza dating back to the first century. Palestinian cities like Bethlehem, Ramallah and Nazareth hold annual Christmas parades and celebrate the holiday in churches across the area.

“Christmas celebrations are canceled this year, for it’s impossible to celebrate Christmas when our people in Gaza are going through a genocide,” Munther Ishaq, a pastor for Bethlehem’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, told Al Jazeera.

This year, Ishaq’s church set up its nativity scene depicting baby Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem, surrounded by rubble and wrapped in a Palestinian scarf called a keffiyeh.

 

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