News and Views

Religious

Few countries treat religion in the same neutral way found in the United States. Even among liberal democracies, governments often play favorites by giving support to some religions and restricting minority religions. As a result, only one-in-five people around the globe live in a country that treats all religions equally. This statistic is based on work by Jonathan Fox from Bar Ilan University. His Religion and State Project has combed through constitutions around the world, taking note of the scores of ways that governments support or restrict religion. — RNS, 7/22/2015

There are about 2.87 million people in India who do not subscribe to any religion. In a country that has given birth to some of the world’s major religions, that’s 0.24 percent of the total population of 1.2 billion, as per the latest estimate given by the 2011 Indian Census. This is the first time that the Indian Census has included a “non-faith” category.
Interestingly, a majority (about 57 percent) of those who told census officials that they do not have faith in any organized religion belong to the country’s rural areas. A much higher percentage of women appear to have no faith in religion. According to latest estimates, there are 940 women for every 1000 men in India. — Huffington Post, 8/31/2015
Despite American roots that reach back to the 19th century, megachurches abroad now have a higher average
attendance, even though the vast majority of megachurches are still in the United States. While there are 230 to 500
such churches elsewhere in the world, the Hartford Institute estimates that there are about three times more megachurches in the United States. In the United States, the median weekly attendance is about 2750, while the median weekly attendance in world megachurches is nearly 6000. — Washington Post, 7/24/2015

ISIS terrorists beheaded the chief archaeologist of Palmyra after interrogating him for more than a month. The venerated scholar, 82-year old Khaled Asa’ad, had worked for more than 50 years as the head of antiquities in the ancient city which the terrorist group captured from Syrian government troops in May. Asa’ad was known for several scholarly works published in international archaeological journals on Palmyra. The site flourished in antiquity as an important trading hub along the Silk Road. The site includes Roman tombs and the Temple of Bel. — Jewish Press, 8/19/2015

Social

Harrowing video from southern Russia shows swarms of locusts blanketing parts of the country, wiping out whole fields of crops and persisting in the face of government attempts at eradication.  CNN reported that the invasion is on a scale that local officials say has not been seen in more than 30 years. Farmers, stuck with fields of crops chewed to stubs by the pests, are frustrated that the government has been unable to provide relief. The Ministry of Agriculture has declared a state of emergency and pesticide-spraying planes have made passes over affected areas with little result, a failure authorities attribute to unusually high temperatures. The swarms, they say, are also highly mobile, moving quickly to new areas as they gobble up the local food supply. — The Slate, 8/4/2015

Israeli scientists are working with international organizations to eradicate cancer at the cellular level. One Israeli scientist at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT has identified which of the 20,000 genes are essential to particular cancer cells, and Olsteen Megachurch are therefore weak spots to target with treatments.

An International team, including researchers from Tel Aviv University and Israel’s Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences (IUI), has discovered that fluorescent pigments in Eilat’s rainbow coral are ideal for use as biomedical markers for tracking cancer cells. Staying inside the brain, Israeli biotech Pharma Two B has announced positive results in its trials of P2B001 for the treatment of early stage Parkinson’s disease. — Michael Ordman blog,
7/24/2015

Food banks are struggling to meet the demand as they expect to give away about 4 billion pounds of food in 2015, more than double the amount provided a decade ago, according to Feeding America, the nation’s primary food bank network. Reliance on food banks exploded in 2008 when the economy tanked, yet despite the number of people who have found jobs since, many are working part-time for low wages while others have stopped looking for work. — AP, 8/14/2015

California, though it’s suffering a severe drought, is still better off than Puerto Rico. The U.S. territory
has been enduring a similar lack of rainfall, but lacks the water-related infrastructure that helps mitigate California’s shortages — and is also involved in a crisis over $73 billion in public debt it says it can’t pay. Things have only gotten worse as the summer has gone on, and households that had been getting running water every three days are now down to getting it only twice a week. From ThinkProgress: In July, usually one of the wettest months, the island got just 4 centimeters of rain. Now, 2.8 million residents live in a part of the country suffering either an “extreme” or “severe” drought, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. — The Slate, 8/11/2015

The American Beverage Association (ABA) is suing the city of San Francisco over mandatory labeling warnings on soda advertisements. The legislation requires that all sugar-sweetened beverages include a warning about “harmful health effects” of sugared beverages. The ABA states the required warning labels do not cite the dietary recommendations which say that sugar-sweetened beverages may be consumed as part of a healthy diet. It also says that the requirement singles out beverages while ignoring other foods that contain sugar. — Food Navigator, 7/29/2015

A drone carrying drugs and other contraband dropped its payload over a yard of inmates at the Mansfield Correctional Institution in Ohio recently. Further investigation revealed the drone dropped off a package intended for an inmate. The package’s contents included tobacco, marijuana, and heroin.  The delivery was thwarted by the prison guards when a fight broke out in the yard as the drone dropped its payload. — Mansfield (OH) News Journal, 8/4/2015

Political

Social Security uses a 75-year window to forecast its finances so that it covers the life expectancy of every worker paying into the system. Over the next 75 years, Social Security is projected to pay out $159 trillion more in benefits than it will collect in taxes, according to agency data. — AP, 8/14/2015

A season of deadly attacks by insurgents in Egypt — including those backed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria group (ISIS) — underscores an escalating insurgency that the Egyptian state is struggling to suppress. The surge in violence began in late June when Egypt’s chief prosecutor was killed in a car bombing in daylight in an upscale Cairo neighborhood. Two days later, the ISIS-affiliated militants launched a massive assault on military positions in north Sinai, attempting to seize control of a small chunk of territory in Egypt.  At least 17 Egyptian soldiers died, although some reports placed the death toll much higher. — Time 7/23/2015
The Obama administration is increasingly shifting its attention toward supporting an existing force to fight ISIS: the 50,000-strong Popular Protection Units, better known by their Kurdish initials YPG. The Syrian Kurdish militia has been “the most effective fighting force in Syria,” according to one U.S. official, wrestling almost a dozen towns out of
ISIS’s hands, including the hard-fought victory at Kobani last year. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the U.S. military and the YPG are coordinating “air and ground operations through a joint command center in northern Iraq. And in two new centers in Syria’s Kobani and Jazeera regions, YPG commanders are in direct contact with U.S. commanders.” The YPG is the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, the Marxist-nationalist guerilla group that has been fighting the Turkish government for decades and has been on the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organizations list since 1997 for its attacks in Turkey and on Turkish interests abroad, including kidnappings and suicide bombings. — The Slate, 8/11/2015

The death bed confessions of a former Nazi soldier revealed the whereabouts of the “Nazi train” which remained hidden for decades in tunnels in Poland and is thought to contain gold, art and other valuables. The former soldier, who was said to have participated in burying the train 70 years ago, gave directions to finding the 100-meter, armored train near Walbrzych, close to the Wroclaw-Walbrzych  line (now part of Poland, in 1945 Walbrzych was the German city of Waldenberg). Walbrzych, in the Owl Mountains, became the site of various tunnels built by slave labor and used by the Nazis to smuggle and hide valuables. — Jnimedia, 8/31/2015

Queen Elizabeth II has reached a major milestone by becoming the longest-reigning monarch in Britain’s history. She passed Queen Victoria, who was on the throne for 63 years and 7 months. — AP, 9/8/2015

Financial

More student-loan borrowers are signing up for income-driven repayment programs, allowing them to pay a fraction of what they would otherwise owe. That’s been making their debt more affordable each month but also longer-lasting. Balances can eventually be forgiven, in some cases after 20 years.  The repayment slowdown is filtering into the bond market, where credit graders are now considering downgrades on almost $40 billion of securities tied to government-backed loans because the bonds might not pay off by their promised maturities. The average new payment by student-loan borrowers in most of the $1.2 trillion student loan bond portfolio is about 20 percent of the amount scheduled under full repayment, according to Deutsche Bank analysts. — Bloomberg, 7/29/2015

Looser monetary policy in Russia is aimed at combating that country’s first recession in six years amid a slump in oil prices and U.S. and European sanctions over Russia’s support for rebels in Ukraine. Last year’s ruble collapse, the worst since 1998, spurred inflation to the fastest in 13 years and devastated consumer demand, a mainstay of Russia’s economic recovery since the 2008-2009 crisis. — Bloomberg, 7/29/2015

An international web of hackers and traders made $100 million on Wall Street by stealing a look at corporate press releases before they went out and then trading on that information ahead of others. Authorities said it was the biggest scheme of its kind ever prosecuted, and one that demonstrated the alarming vulnerability in the financial system which depends more and more on cyber technology. The hackers gained access to more than 150,000 press releases that were about  to be issued by the three major distribution services. The releases contained corporate earnings figures and other corporate information. — AP, 8/12/2015

China has devalued its currency to weaken the yuan against other major currencies in an attempt to make its exchange rate more market-oriented.  A cheaper currency makes China’s exports less expensive overseas. The move comes in reaction to a slowdown in the Chinese economy, which depends heavily on export for its growth. — AP, 8/12/2015

Israel

Aviya Fraenkel, a 29-year-old doctoral student in Assyriology and Bible studies at Bar-Ilan University, is part of a new revival movement sweeping Israel’s national religious community defying a centuries old rabbinical ban on entering the 35-acre Temple Mount compound. “I’ve made a decision that my Judaism isn’t just about the past, it’s an expectation for the future,” she said. “I’m tired of apologizing about this. If others want to apologize, they’re free to do so.” Fraenkel is not alone. According to data provided to Israeli daily Makor Rishon, the number of Jewish Israelis visiting Temple Mount annually has significantly climbed in recent years: from 6,568 visits in 2009 to 8,528 in 2013 to 10,906 in 2014.

Following the Six Day War, Israel was wary of extending full sovereignty over the holy mountain. Ten days later, a new status quo was fixed. Jews would be allowed to enter Temple Mount as tourists, but not as worshipers.

The Temple Mount Heritage Foundation published a guidebook for visitors to the plaza titled “Arise and Ascend.” Delivered in person to Netanyahu last week, the booklet features endorsements from Efrat rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Turkish author Adnan Oktar and Methodist pastor Keith Johnson, as well as from Minister of Jerusalem Affairs Ze’ev Elkin. Currently available in English and Russian, the booklet will be translated into Hebrew next month.
— Times of Israel, 8/31/2015

As anti-Semitism rises in France, Israelis have been hearing more and more French on the street over the past few years. Since 2010, some 20,000 French Jews have moved to Israel — and officials predict that 2015 will end up being a second straight record year for French aliyah. Parisians have filled the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and coastal cities like Netanya and Ashdod. Israelis already are feeling their effect; shwarma stands, for example, now offer the signature Israeli lamb dish in a baguette as well as a pita. — JTA, 9/3/2015

The European Union has long been Israel’s top trading partner and the United States its strongest ally. Those things are unlikely to change anytime soon, but the past year has seen Israel look to the East also. India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, wants to strengthen ties with Israel. He intends to visit Israel. He will be the first Indian head of state to do so, and has friendly words for Netanyahu. Israel, meanwhile, is looking to increase its trade with China. In 2015, Chinese investments in Israel reached $6 billion. Israel and China are looking to establish a free-trade zone between them. — JTA, 9/3/2015

Advanced technology has enabled researchers from the Israel Antiquities Authority to decipher parts of a burnt scroll unearthed in 1970 at the ancient Ein Gedi synagogue, dated to the late sixth century C.E.  The deciphered verses are from the beginning of the Book of Leviticus, making it the most ancient Torah scroll found since the Dead Sea scrolls and the most ancient ever found in a synagogue. The synagogue, along with the entire Ein Gedi settlement, was destroyed by fire in the sixth century, toward the end of the Byzantine Era. The residents left the Torah scroll, a bronze menorah, a collection of 3,500 coins and other relics. The synagogue was excavated in
the 1960s. — Haaretz, 7/25/2015

Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement vowing to destroy Israel, emerges as one of the biggest beneficiaries of the nuclear deal reached between Iran and the world powers. Hamas now seeks to reap the fruits by tightening its grip on the Gaza Strip with the help of Iran. This is bad news for the Palestinian Authority (PA), as well as all those who still believe in the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. The nuclear deal has driven Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Muslim countries to restore relations with Hamas, to entice Hamas and its patrons in the Muslim Brotherhood to become part of an anti-Iran Sunni coalition in the Arab world.  Hamas is trying to have it both ways: to restore its ties with the major Arab countries while, improving its relations with Iran. — Gatestone Institute, 7/20/2015

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