Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Pesach 2016 תשע"ו

It is Pesach (Passover) in Israel (and around the world) and it is a very important and widely celebrated holiday here.  There are laws that prohibit stores and restaurants from selling bread and other Hametz for the whole holiday.  Students are off for more than two weeks.  Many others have taken a week or two off or are working at a half-time pace.  Even many soldiers are off....

Although Pesach is also called Hag Ha-Aviv - the "Spring Holiday," it certainly feels more like summer.  Temperatures are in the 30s throughout the country.  Combine all of these things and what do you get?  Thousands of Israelis travelling - out of the country and all over the country itself.  There are traffic jams everywhere.  National parks across the country are filled with people and the beaches are packed.
Hexagonal Pool Trail
We decided to join the crowds and take a day trip yesterday.  We drove up north, just past the Kinneret to a national park featuring the "Hexagonal Pool."  From Central Israel, this is about a two hour drive.  We left early to try and beat the traffic but it wasn't quite early enough. We faced our share of highway congestion.
Hexagonal Pool Israel
We still managed to arrive before the park was completely jam- packed.  The site entrance is right near "Had Ness" a small community north of the Kinneret.  On entering the park, you have a choice of taking a five hour hike, a 2-3 hour hike or 1 to 1.5 hour trip.  These are all the suggested times.  We chose the medium length path.  This is essentially a downhill hike through a winding path (at times involving moderately difficult climbing).  The trail is about 2.5 km - with the option of adding on about another kilometre.

At the bottom of the hike - Nirvana.  A beautiful Hexagonal pool serving as the base of a waterfall and the collecting pool for water from the Jordan river.  The water was about 18C - quite cool and refreshing.  The pool reaches a depth of 17 metres at parts.  But when it is 35-36C outside and you have just hiked down a 3 km trail, 18C water is incredible.
Hexagonal Pool, Israel

When the swimming is over, the fun starts.  Time to walk back up the trail - 2.5 km of uphill path.  The trail is reasonably steep and includes some very rocky areas and some real climbing.  In mid-day summer heat, after having walked 3 km down - this type of activity offers some challenge for people like me....but it was well worth it.

Golan Heights Winery
We got back to the car and considered other possible activities.  Amazing how Google can help with suggestions.  As it turns out, we were only about 10 minutes away from the Golan Heights Winery so we decided to make a quick stop.  I had been there before several years ago - but it is quite a nice place to visit.  We did not have time to do the tour and tasting though we browsed in the gift shop for a few minutes.  The prices were simply the same as one would find all over the rest of Israel though they had some wine selections that are hard to find.

We decided to find something to eat.  Since it was Pesach, we had, of course, brought along lots of food, featuring delicious Pesach rolls.  But no one really wanted another one of those rolls.  So we decided to look for a Kosher for Pesach Restaurant.  This can be a bit tricky.  Many restaurants are closed for the holiday.  We couldn't find anything suitable in nearby Katzrin - so we decided to drive down to Teveria (Tiberias) and find a place there.  We settled on a South American meat restaurant that was "Kosher l'Mehadrin" but, for kitniyot eaters of course.  We decided to eat there anyways and told them to hold the kitniyot.  They get lots of requests for this, apparently, so we were fine.

The whole kitniyot thing on Pesach is still confounding us.  Although the Conservative movement in North American opted to permit Conservative Jews to eat kitniyot this year - and many Israeli rabbis (Orthodox Ashkenazi included among them) have made that same decree in the past, we have continued to stick with the traditional Ashkenazi mode of avoiding rice, corn, beans and other legumes during Pesach.  This is particularly challenging if one wants to eat out.  We see restaurants across the country open for Pesach serving corn flour bread and rolls - and other kitynot-based bread substitutes.  But after 50 years of doing things a certain way, it is difficult to make the leap to switch over and start eating all of those other things on Pesach.  It is also creates an even bigger gap between Israeli and non-Israeli Jews.  So we skipped the tehina and humus and ate our skewers with matzah, cabbage and some other vegetables.

Today the temperature in Israel was even hotter - a veritable heat wave.  But there are predictions that things will cool off to "reasonable" by Friday, the last official day of Pesach in Israel this year.  Of course, Pesach will actually continue for those who observe it until Saturday night - since there would be no time between the end of Pesach and Shabbat to change over dishes, buy back Hametz, etc.,

So now we have a few days to find a Moroccan friend who is hosting a Maymuna (an end of Pesach celebration).  But until then we still have time to enjoy matzah brie, matzah lasagne, matzah rolls and other delicacies.  Chag Sameach to everyone - and make sure to eat lots of prunes.



Monday, March 21, 2016

Austrian Airlines - with Stopover in Vienna

It was about time to try a different route from Toronto to Israel so I decided to give Austrian Airlines another chance - and spend a day travelling around Vienna.  I have transferred through the Vienna Airport a few times but have never left the airport to spend the day touring.  So this was a first.

I had previous written a blog on transferring through Vienna from Toronto to Tel-Aviv back in September 2011 here.  But there were a number of points to update.

I booked this flight through FlightHub - which was quite reasonable these days and it was "low season" in any event.  I managed to get a flight with one way via Vienna and the way back direct on Air Canada.  So it really wasn't a bad way to spend a day in Vienna and it worked with my schedule.

Austrian Airlines has some quirky policies.  For example, in economy class you can only book a seat in advance if you want to pay.  Otherwise, you can reserve a seat when you check in 36 hours before departure.  It is not that you get a special seat for booking in advance - just a regular seat.  Even having special status on the Star Alliance system does not help.  I took my chances and booked my seats 36 hours before check-in - and the seats were fine.  There were many good seats available.  So I guess you just have to make sure to go online exactly 36 hours or so before your flight and book the seats.

The flight itself from Toronto to Vienna was fine.  It was a 2-3-2 configuration - so reasonably roomy seats compared to the new Airbus planes that Air Canada is using.  With a 3-3-3 configuration, those seats are quite cramped.

Austrian has updated its planes somewhat. So there is now a reasonably modern entertainment system with a decent selection of new movies as well as games, TV programs etc.,  I watched one movie and tried to sleep for as much of the flight as I could.

I ordered an Asian Vegetarian meal (which usually means curried chick peas and/or tofu on rice).  It was a much more substantial meal than I get on Air Canada and it was fine.  The Austrian flight attendants are highly visible, wearing hideous bright red outfits with white aprons.  But they walk up and down the aisles all flight.  They are constantly coming around with beverages, which is quite a contrast with, for example, El Al.

The flight arrived in Vienna at about 8:30 a.m.  My baggage was checked though so it was just a matter of walking through immigration and then heading out to see the city.  There is a luggage storage facility at one end of the Terminal (upstairs).  For 4 Euros a day per bag, you can check whatever you like.  So I left my carry on items there, other then essentials, and headed out.

The Vienna airport is connected to the train system.  You have a few choices.  You can take a higher speed express train from the airport to downtown Vienna for 14 Euros each way - and the ride takes about 16 minutes.  Or you can use the regular train system in which case the train makes a few stops and takes about 26 minutes.  I bought an all day transit pass - which cost 7 Euros.  There was a 2 Euro supplement to take the train from the airport but I was all set.  The trains do not come every few minutes - it is more like two or three per hour.  So my next train was not until 9:45, arriving at 10:15 or so in Vienna. The "express train" was not operating more frequently so the difference would have been negligible.

In any case, I took the train to the main Vienna station "Wien Mitte."  From there, I changed trains and headed over to "Stephensplatz" a very centrally located station for walking tours.

Vienna is a very historic city with interesting buildings, palaces, statues and museums throughout the city.  Just wandering around the streets is certainly an experience.

Holocaust Memorial - Vienna
I decided to start off in the old Jewish Ghetto.  I saw the Holocaust memorial and went into the first of two Jewish museums.  I really wouldn't say that there was anything particularly fascinating about the museum.  In fact, if anything, the history of the Viennese Jewish community is quite a sordid one.  Both museums note that Vienna had one of the largest, most vibrant Jewish communities in the world as early as 1150-1200 C.E.  In 1420, the entire community was expelled, massacred and/or converted (but mostly expelled and massacred as far as I can determine...).

 After about 100 years or so, the Jewish community took advantage of Austrian "tolerance" and began to return to Vienna.  The community faced many challenges until its eventual "emancipation," hundreds of years later.  Of course, not so long after the emancipation, there was Hitler, the anschluss and we all know the rest of the story.  After wandering through these two Jewish museums, one is simply left with the question of how any Jew could consider living in Austria given the history of that country.  Yet there is Jewish community now (albeit a small one) with a Jewish Community Centre and some other facilities.

For a taste of Austrian culture and cuisine, I decided to visit an Austrian Coffee House. I went to Cafe Central, which is quite a well known place.  I tried the house specialty - Viennese Cafe Melange, which was basically a cappuccino.  I also tried a coffee with Apricot liqueur which was tasty.  It was a fairly formal atmosphere - service from waiters wearing tuxedos with white aprons.  There is a newspaper gallery so that patrons can pick up a newspaper and enjoy a leisurely read with their coffee.

I left the coffee house and decided to wander the streets of Vienna and see the palaces, sculptures and churches.  I was getting quite tired but the weather was fairly decent and the city was reasonably manageable by foot.  I didn't bother taking the train even though I had an all day pass.  Instead I walked from place to place.


I didn't actually go inside and take the inner tour of any of the churches or palaces.  Partially, this was simply timing but it was also due to the fact that preferred to wander around outside.

By 4:00 p.m. or so, I was sufficiently tired out. I took the train back to the airport, picked up my checked luggage, hit the duty free shop and made my way over to the lounge.  I should note that the duty free prices in Vienna for whisky were quite reasonable - especially compared to the prices in Israel or Canada.  For example, a bottle of Glenmorangie Duthac (a splendid whisky in my view) was 70 Euros for a one litre bottle. That same whisky sells for $130 USD at the Israeli duty free shop...

The lounge was decent.  It had some food, drinks, comfortable seats and free wi-fi.  So I had some rest and relaxation time for a few hours until the flight.

The flight from Vienna to Tel-Aviv is only about 3 1/2 hours.  It is a Airbus plane with very cramped seats and no entertainment of any sort.  The flight was jam packed but it was a short flight, on time and uneventful.  The only problem was that it arrived in Israel at 12:40 a.m., which is a really lousy time to arrive somewhere.

All in all, I guess I can say I have had a small taste of Vienna.  Nothing that I saw while wandering around or that I read about in the travel book that I had with me is calling me to spend another day.  In fact, I would probably pay a fair bit more to avoid the connection time and skip another day in Vienna. This is quite a contrast with the day I spend in Amsterdam - which left me feeling that I could easily spend another week there....

In any event, it is nice to be back in Israel in time to practice Megillah reading, get everyone's costumes ready, cook up some treats and prepare for the Purim celebrations.

More on other topics soon....





Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Latest Terrorist Attacks in Israel and Pew Study Link

We have been enjoying some unseasonably warm weather in Israel while dealing with a spate of Palestinian terror attacks.

Yonatan Azarihab, who was stabbed in a terror attack in Petah Tikvah on March 8, 2016, speaks from the hospital (Channel 2 screenshot)
Yonatan Azarihab
Yesterday, as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was visiting Israel, Israelis fought back three different terrorist attacks in three different areas.  One attack occurred in Petah Tikvah.  The victim, Yonatan Azarihab, was stabbed several times in the shoulder and neck by a Palestinian attacker.  Though seriously injured, Azarihab pulled the knife out of his shoulder and used the knife to fight off the attacker.  The attacker, a 20 year old Palestinian, died of his wounds.  Azarihab is being treated at an Israeli hospital.


In another attack in Jaffa, a 21 year old Palestinian man ran down a a beach promenade stabbing several people in his path.  He injured twelve people and killed one.  Six of the injured were hospitalized, at least one of whom is in critical condition.  A local busker sprang to action by using his guitar to hit the attacker and slow him down before police arrived on the scene and shot the attacker.  The attacker killed an American student, Taylor Force, a U.S. military veteran, who was visiting Israel.  The Fatah website, which represents one of the strongest factions of the Palestinian authority, praised the attack as the work of a "martyr."

In a third attack, a Palestinian on a motorcycle opened fire on a police vehicle near the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem.  One officer was killed in the attack and a second was seriously injured.  Police eventually caught up to the terrorist and killed him.

The current wave of attacks has been ongoing since September 2015.  Hundreds of Palestinians have attacked Israelis across Israel. Although many of the attacks have been knife attacks, there have also been shootings, car attacks (where the attacker purposely drives into a group of civilians) and other incidents.  Many of the attackers have been killed by nearby bystanders, police forces or others arriving at the scene to fight off the attacks.

The attacks have generally not been condemned by the Palestinian leadership or even by Israeli Arab Knesset members.  Many of the attacks have been celebrated and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has praised several of the attackers as "Martyrs."

One has to wonder about the end game for the Palestinians.  If they are of the view that the use of this type of violence will push Israel to make significant peace concessions, that would seem to be a mistaken assumption.  If anything, the Israeli political landscape has been shifting to the right as a result of these attacks.

A Pew Research Center study released this week reported that close to 50% of Israelis would now support a policy of transferring Israeli Arabs out of Israel.  To where?   Well maybe that is a corollary of the Palestinian position that the Palestinian state as part of a "two-state solution" should be emptied of its Jews.  If a "two-state solution" means that each people gets its own state, many interesting questions arise.  If each state has a minority of the other state's people - and provides full rights for that minority (as Israel now does for the Palestinian population), then it seems doubtful that many Israelis would push too hard for the expulsion or transfer from Israel of the Palestinians to the nascent Palestinian state.

But if it is a negotiated condition of a two state solution that Israel uproot any Jewish communities in the territory earmarked for the new Palestinian state and provide the Palestinian state with territory completely free of any Jewish residents, it is understandable that many would view the corollary to be a logical extension of the same premise. 

This is the position taken by Israeli Knesset Member Avigdor Lieberman of the "Yisrael Beitenu" party, which is currently not part of the governing coalition.  Lieberman would argue that this is what President Obama has referred to as "land swaps" where Israel would trade areas within Israel that have primarily Arab populations for areas of the West Bank that have primarily Jewish populations.

Funny enough, the Palestinian Authority view is that Israel should empty the West Bank of Jews as part of a territorial compromise and agree to accept Palestinian refugees into Israel itself rather than their new proposed homeland.  Obviously this makes no sense at all.  The whole purpose of a "two-state solution" would be that the Palestinians could resolve, completely, the issue of refugees within the borders of their new state.  Netanyahu and Lieberman have been criticized for taking this position as racist and intransigent.  But it is neither to accept that a two state solution means two states for two peoples.

Some 50% of Israelis apparently reject the premise of a "transfer," according to the study.  After all, Israeli Arabs comprise some 20% of Israel's population and are involved in all facets of Israeli life.  It is probably also incorrect to interpret the poll result as suggesting that Israelis who claimed to support a transfer would want to deport Arab Israeli citizens, proactively, outside of some type of political deal that created two ethnic nation states with a negotiated population exchange mechanism.

But this latest round of violence has impacted Israeli opinion. As the number of terrorist incidents on civilians within Israel continues to increase, Israeli attitudes towards Palestinians, Israeli and non-Israeli, continue to change for the worse.

Perhaps Palestinian leader Abbas figures that this is the way to force Israel into a deal and to gain international support.  But it seems to me that the current round of Palestinian violence has pushed things in the opposite direction. 


Monday, October 26, 2015

Comments about Israel: Recent Events and Issues Oct 2015

Although Israel has no shortage of difficult days of commemoration on its calendar, today's anniversary is particularly difficult.  It is the anniversary of the assassination of the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin Z"l.  He was murdered by a Jewish religious extremist who maintained that Rabin must be killed to prevent Israel from reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians.  Twenty years have passed since  Rabin's murder.  Unfortunately, Israel is no closer to peace with the Palestinians than it was while he was alive.  If anything, the notion that there might be peace any time soon is one that, regrettably, seems shared by fewer and fewer Israelis these days.  I would imagine most Palestinians feel the same way.

As we commemorate this horrific and murderous act in Israel, I wanted to write about some of the things that have been going on here over the past several weeks.  I have not had the opportunity to write as frequently over the past few months.  This is certainly not for lack of material.  In fact, there have been so many incidents recently, that some bloggers and twitter users are releasing tweets and articles several times a day.

There is not necessarily a theme to connect the various incidents that I have picked out - but it is mixed bag of events and other items that I wanted to highlight.

1.  Terrorist Knife Attacks:

On September 30, 2015, Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Authority spoke at the U.N..  He had said he was going to drop a  "bombshell" prior to his speech.  While it remains unclear which bombshell was actually dropped, it appears that his intention was to kick off a new "intifadah" by raising the specter of an Israeli takeover of the Dome of the Rock - the Al Aqsa Mosque.  Abbas claimed that the mosque was under siege and that the Israeli government was plotting to take over the mosque and change the status quo.  As Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu confirmed at his speech to the UN days later, this was all completely false and fabricated.  Israel has always protected and supported the rights of Muslims to control, visit and worship at the mosque, just as it has done the same thing for Christians with respect to Christian holy sites in Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, since Abbas' incendiary address, there has been a wave of terrorist incidents across Israel. According to Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there have been (as of October 25, 2015), 43 stabbings, 4 shootings and 5 car rammings.  These attacks have killed 10 Israelis and injured 112, 12 of whom were very seriously injured.  The vast majority of the victims have been Israeli civilians.  Most of the attackers have been young Palestinian-Israelis, residents of East Jerusalem, primarily.  They have claimed that their attacks are motivated by their determination to "protect the mosque."

Many of the attacks have been against Israelis civilians, including children and senior citizens, at bus stops, street corners or other public places.  Two of the stabbing attacks were very close to home, taking place in Ra'anana. 

It is hard to imagine how anyone can draw a connection between the perceived danger to the political status of the mosque in Jerusalem and the act of attacking civilians across Israel.  It is also hard to understand why Abbas seems to believe that this type of terrorism will further the Palestinian cause.  If anything, these actions seem destined to cause Israelis to harden their resolve and move to the political right.  Abbas has refused to condemn the attacks and in several cases has described the attackers as martyrs.  Moreover, he has distorted some of the events and lied about others to further incite the Palestinian people.  Perhaps, he has been buoyed by the notoriously outrageous coverage of these incidents by some of the world media, notably the BBC and NBC news to name a couple.  Both organizations have distorted reports of incidents to suggest that Israeli soldiers and/or police were at fault in cases in which they were defending against knife wielding attackers.

2.  Killing the Perpetrators and Collateral Damage

These types of stabbing attacks against civilians have caused a high level of vigilance, tension and stress among many Israelis, as well as outright anger.  Certainly these are all the intended consequences.

With respect to the attackers, there has been a vigorous public debate about whether the attackers should be killed if at all possible or whether they should only be "neutralized."  Of course the Palestinian Authority has claimed that Palestinian attackers are being "executed" even while Abbas refuses to condemn the stabbing attacks in the first place.  Some international media organizations have gone along with these accusations.

There is little doubt, in my view, that Israeli civilians, police and military forces, must take all appropriate steps to defend against these attacks.  In many cases, that will certainly result in the death of the attackers and that is probably the most appropriate result.  I have no moral difficulty with the argument that it is completely justifiable to kill someone who is trying to stab you to death.

Nevertheless, some prominent Israeli rabbis, like Rabbi Stav, have warned against excessive force and reprisals.  Rabbi Stav argued that Israelis should not murder "neutralized terrorists" who no longer pose a threat.  He also argued that Israelis should refrain from taking any "reprisal actions," especially against those who had nothing to do with the attacks in the first place.  In both cases, Rabbi Stav has urged Israelis not to abandon the moral high ground by acting like "our enemies."  Other prominent rabbis have disagreed with Rabbi Stav and have argued that it may even be a moral imperative to "finish the job" and ensure that the attacker will not be able to harm anyone else.

Certainly this wave of terror attacks has created a great deal of anger and frustration in Israel. There have been some vigilante attacks and some attacks against completely innocent Arabs.  Moreover, in one tragic incident in Beers Sheva, an Eritrean refugee was beaten to death just after a terrorist attack.  Those who beat him to death wrongly believed that he had been involved in the attack.

There is no justification for attacking innocent people, whether at the time of the attacks (i.e. those who are wrongly associated with the attacks) or attacking other Arabs who had nothing to do with the attacks as a form of reprisal.  However, with respect to events that occur in the midst of an attack, it is hard to judge the actions of those who are fighting for their lives or fighting to protect the lives of others. While there may be an argument that we should not "execute" completely neutralized terrorists (after all, Israel does not even have capital punishment), there is no reason to think that police, soldiers and attack victims should try, in any way, to avoid harming these terrorists, even fatally, in defending against these attacks.  Even so, we have had many bizarre situations where the terrorists remain alive after the attacks and are treated in the same hospital as their Israeli victims.

3. Rescuing Syrian Refugees

With everything going on in Israel, you might have missed a story of rescue.  An Israeli yacht crew was boating off the coast of Greece last Sunday (October 18, 2015).  They suddenly saw some people in the water and sprang into action.  They rescued 12 Syrian and Iraqi refugees and took all appropriate steps to treat them and then bring them to Greek authorities.  The crew members were certain that none of these refugees would have survived if they had not been pulled out of the water by the Israeli rescuers.  Hundreds of refugees have drowned in these waters this year.  When the crew members told the rescued refugees that they were Jews from Israel, they say that they received nothing but thanks, hugs and gratitude.  I don't think I have heard Mahmoud Abbas speak about this incident but this is the real face of Israel.  Just as Israeli hospitals have treated hundreds (if not thousands) of injured Syrians near the Israeli-Syrian border, these Israeli boaters did not think twice about rescuing refugees, even those who were fleeing from an enemy country.


4.  Prime Minister Netanyahu's Invocation of the Holocaust

In a speech last week, Prime Minister Netanyahu suggested that Haj Amin Al Husseini, in the early 1940s, was the one to suggest to Hitler that the Nazis should build mass crematoria.  Netanyahu's speech has attracted a great deal of criticism and condemnation.  It appears to be the type of hyperbole and historical distortion that he routinely accuses Israel's enemies of employing.

That being said, I enjoyed this article by a University of Maryland Professor about the actual historical record:

Netanyahu, Husseini and the Historians

However, even if there is more accuracy to Netanyahu's comments that most critics would concede, there was  little to be gained in making such statements other than as a means of incitement.  Moreover, some of the comments, according to many historians, were thoroughly wrong.  It is a disservice to Israel for the Prime Minister to distort the Holocaust in this fashion, even while he might be understandably frustrated by the recent events taking place in Israel (at the behest of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who has used lies to foment the current crisis).

5. Putin, Russia, Hezbollah and Assad

As if there weren't enough things to worry about in our neck of the woods, Russian President Putin stated that he was going "all in" on Syria.  That has meant that he is sending Russian soldiers, pilots, tanks, planes and other army support to his besieged ally in Syria.

I couldn't help but think of the famous scene from Fiddler on the Roof in a discussion with some friends in Israel recently:

Is there a Jewish blessing for the President of Russia?  (In the movie, the Czar...)

Of course there is.  May the Lord bless Putin and keep him far away from us....

Well, he is a lot closer now then he was recently.  He has suggested that he will protect Assad loyalists - which can often include Hezbollah and their supporters.  Will he try to prevent Israel from halting military shipments sent from Syria to Hezbollah?  If so, how far will he go?  Will he shoot down Israeli planes (or try to do so?).  Will he lose some planes himself in these efforts?

Unfortunately, all three of Israel's neighbours to the north and the east seem to part of a huge powder keg.  The inferno is already burning in Syria but Lebanon and Jordan may soon be drawn in.  Israel will have no choice but to protect its national interests, however that might best be done.

6. Visiting Entertainers  The Real Artists and the Pretenders...

On a lighter note, I must salute those artists who have stood up to the international pressure and insisted on going ahead with peformances in Israel.  Last year, it was the Rolling Stones, Cyndi Lauper and others who came to perform before appreciative crowds.

Recently, Israeli welcomed two well known acts.  In the first show, Kanye West delivered a performance that was universally panned.  It was a short concert and, apparently, pre-taped.  In other words, mostly lip syncing.  Sure it is true that thousands of fans were only too happy to lay out lots of shekels to attend the spectacle.  But it doesn't sound like the performance delivered quite what the fans were expecting.  I wasn't there, so I can't say for sure.  (After all, for those who know me, you could probably imagine how unlikely it is that you would ever find me at a Kanye West concert...)

On the other hand, Bon Jovi performed not too long after Kanye West.  This concert received some really great reviews.  The band was apparently quite enthusiastic, entertaining and very much live.  It probably would have been fun, though I couldn't justify the cost.

Israel gets its share of concerts though there are many artists who refuse to perform here.  Pink Floyd leader Roger Waters has been a one-man BDS campaign in the music industry sending out threatening letters and issuing public statements wherever he can to ostracize Israel and try to convince fellow performers to boycott the country in its entirety.

Fortunately there are many other artists who have been willing to ignore him - or even better, artists who have been willing to stand up in support of Israel and to publicly declare that they will not give in to boycotts.

7. The Canadian Election and Israel 

I suppose that this type of update article would not be complete without some mention of the Canadian election.  As you know, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper lost the recent Canadian election quite decisively to Prime Minister Elect Justin Trudeau.  A detailed analysis of the election is well beyond the scope of this blog article.

However, it is worth mentioning that the outgoing Prime Minister was one of the best friends that Israel ever had on the international stage.  Some of the outgoing government's senior ministers were also extremely supportive.  One such minister is Jason Kenney who held different ministerial portfolios over the course of this government's mandate.

The Honourable Minister Kenney has been an extremely active and vocal supporter of Israel, a supporter of the Jewish people and a staunch ally of Jewish people, across the world, on a range of issues of Jewish interest.  He has spoken at numerous Holocaust commemoration events. He has spoken at events across the world, about the dangers of anti-Semitism, even before very unwelcoming crowds.  Minister Kenney has truly demonstrated that he cares about the Jewish people and we will miss having such a tremendous friend.

At the same time, we will  have to hope that the Liberals have some strong allies for us in their ranks as well.  Certainly, there will be some Jewish voices in the the new government, like Michael Levitt, the newly elected York Centre MP and Anthony Housefather, who was elected in Mount Royal.  But how the Liberal government deals with its Israel issues portfolio is still something that remains up in the air for now.  After all, Canada's Prime Minister has many other priorities if he is to fulfill the huge number of promises that he made over the course of the lengthy election campaign.

Although much of this is not necessarily connected, I thought you might enjoy a bit of a wide ranging update type blog.  As usual, feel free to join the discussion and add in some comments. 












Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Rosh Hashana 2015 - Saving Syrian Refugees?

Shana Tova!  It has been a while since I have had the chance to write a blog post but I thought I would take advantage of the opportunity today.

For starters, I managed to "shep some naches" this holiday.  I guess that can be translated to "deriving pleasure" (or something like that).  Usually from your kids.  In my case, I had the distinct pleasure of seeing all three of our kids read from the Torah on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.  Although the reading is a challenging one, the story of the Binding of Isaac (Akeidat Yitzhak), the trop is so poignantly matched to the narrative, that it is quite the emotional reading.  This was the first year that all three children were eligible to read, so it was quite an exciting event.

The Torah readings on the two days of Rosh Hashanah are both difficult readings that raise more questions than they answer.  On the first day, we read the story of the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael by Avraham, at Sarah's behest.  On the second day, we read the story of the binding of Isaac, at God's behest.  Many of us are left wondering about Avraham's value system after the two of these events.  But the Jewish tradition has always been to question, discuss, examine and consider these stories from many different angles.

So, as Rosh Hashanah was approaching, we began discussing the first reading in particular and whether it could have anything to say about Syrian refugees.  For someone with connections to Canada and Israel, the issue has significant implications for both countries.  Judaism has always been concerned with how we treat our neighbours - not just Jewish neighbours - all neighbours.  So it is a multi-layered issue.

I thought I would start by poking around with some Israelis.  I asked different people if they thought Israel should shelter Syrian refugees - and if so, how many?  This is a very complicated issue with no easy answers.

For one thing, Israel is still not at peace with Syria.  The Israeli government has no alternative but to view Syria as an enemy country - one which could be at active war with Israel at any time.  Which country would be willing to take refugees from an enemy country?  Spies could use "refugee status" as an opportunity to enter Israel for all kinds of nefarious purposes.  Moreover, those entering Israeli could decide after coming to the country to begin taking action against Israel from within the country.  As well, with all of the demographic challenges that Israel faces in trying to sustain a "Jewish state," the notion of bringing a large number of Muslim refugees to Israel could further threaten the character of the state.  Finally, there is the risk that openly sheltering Syrians in Israel could provoke the Syrians into taking aggressive action against Israel.

Despite all of these concerns, which have been shared by many Israelis publicly, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, we also consider our imperative obligations as Jews to help others.  If there is a way that Israel could help some number of refugees, whatever that number is, wouldn't that be a great example for so many other countries in the world?  The Israeli intelligence apparatus is sufficiently competent to minimize the risk in assessing which refugees can be accepted.  The number of refugees could be modest enough that it would not raise demographic challenges.  And the other issues could be addressed as well.  Some people I spoke to suggested that Druze refugees, in particular, would be welcome since they would be most likely to act loyally towards Israel.  I am not writing to make suggestions as to which refugees the country could or could not absorb.  But in discussing the issue with one person - I said "we can probably both agree that the country could not absorb 100,000 Syrian refugees.  But we could also both agree that it could easily absorb more than 5....so let's have a discussion about what the number could be..."  It is a difficult challenge for Israel, perhaps even more so than for most other countries.  But Israel has demonstrated, on so many occasions, in Haiti, the Philippines, Cambodia and in so many other places that it is willing to save lives of people in need, whether they are Jewish or not.  Israel has been saving Syrian lives throughout this civil war, as reported in many different news stories, by providing ongoing medical attention to injured Syrians.  And perhaps refugees are being sheltered by Israel, but quietly, to avoid provoking the Syrians.  The point here is that saving Syrian lives, at least some, is something that Israel ought to try and do (and certainly has been doing).  That could include sheltering some refugees.

Moving to Canada, the challenges are quite different. Canada has the capacity to absorb a much higher number of Syrian refugees.  But Canada also has some very legitimate concerns.  Would the refugees be properly vetted so that Canada is not sheltering war criminals and terrorists?  Both sides of the Syrian civil war have been involved in utterly despicable and criminal acts.  While Canada can and should save innocent Syrians from peril, it is not unreasonable to ensure that an appropriate vetting system is in place.  Canada can and should have legitimate security concerns.  Canada also has reasonable demographic concerns.  While the country could easily absorb 10,000 or 20,000 Syrian refugees without threatening its cultural fabric, the absorption of hundreds of thousands of refugees, as proposed by some, could have some very significant repercussions.  One need only look at the challenges that France and other European countries are facing by being unable to absorb large numbers of immigrants.

Interestingly, recent graphic pictures of two dead Syrian children led the NDP and the Liberals to turn the issue of Syrian refugees into a political issue for the current Canadian federal election campaign.  The parties began falling over each other to demonstrate which party would be willing to immediately accept a greater number of refugees and to attack the incumbent Conservatives for failing to do enough.  While it is certainly admirable that Canadians want to help (as they always do), there are legitimate issues to consider in developing the best possible approach.

For Canada and Israel - as well as so many other countries, there are a range of additional issues to consider aside from their own potential capacities and abilities to absorb refugees.

The first and foremost issue is figuring out how to end this conflict, stop the flow of refugees and allow people to return to their homes or to rebuild their lives in their own country.  This is obviously the main issue that the UN and other world bodies should address.

The second issue is pushing many other countries to accept refugees - including countries like Saudia Arabia, the UAR, Russia (which is probably one of the root causes of the war in the first place).  The onus of saving Syrian lives should not fall only on Canada, the US, Israel, Jordan, Turkey and a number of European countries.  It should be distributed among most, if not all of the UN member nations.

Getting back to the religious source of some wisdom on this issue, the Talmud teaches us that saving one life is like saving an entire world.  And we know, as a people who suffered through the Holocaust, that we look back with such disappointment on all of the countries that failed to save Jewish people when those countries had the chance.  So logically, religiously and historically, we know that we must take action to save Syrian lives even as we face different challenges in doing so.

Shana Tova to everyone - and hoping for a peaceful year.


 






Friday, July 10, 2015

Current Government: Religious Issues and Some Predictions

Chief Rabbs Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau
Does it look like Iran?  It's not.  It's Israel and here are a couple of Israel's major power brokers (under the current government) - the two chief Rabbis of Israel.

The rabbis and their supporters have had a busy week, filled with lots of newsworthy items.

Last Sunday, they were successful in rolling back a conversion initiative that was intended to make it easier for people to convert to Judaism in Israel.  This was rolled back at the behest of the Shas and Degel HaTorah parties which are major partners in the current governing coalition.  The rollback has widely been viewed as an effort to consolidate power over religious affairs in Israel back to the Ultra-Religious and away from the Zionist religious (i.e. the "modern Orthodox").

On Tuesday, a woman from Colorado, Linda Siegel Richman, was ordered to leave the Kotel (the "Western Wall) in Jerusalem because she was wearing a kippah (a skullcap or yarmulke).  The Western Wall ushers told her that she did not belong and asked her to leave the area.  She had come from the U.S. to study at the Conservative Yeshiva in Israel and was at the Kotel to pray and to place notes in the wall. The notes had been given to her by her students at a Denver school.  The incident attracted enormous public attention.  The next day, Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch issued a half-hearted apology in which he noted that it was not clear that the incident had actually even occurred.  Rabbi Rabinovitch has, of course, made concerted efforts over the past few years to prevent women from having access to Torah scrolls at the Kotel, from praying out loud and from wearing tallithot.  So it is really no surprise that a woman wearing a kippah encountered such difficulties under his watch.

On Wednesday, the Israeli Minister for Religious Affairs, David Azoulai, (of the Shas party), lashed out at Reform Jews and stated that he did not even consider them to be Jews.  He had other choice comments for Reform and Conservative Jews that were along the same lines.  Prime Minister Netanyahu swiftly issued a condemnation of these remarks and called them "hurtful." Education Minster Naftali Bennett also condemned the remarks in no uncertain terms and stated that all Jews are Jews.  Bennett went on to say the home for all Jews, including Reform and Conservative, is in Israel.

Is all of this related?  Well, the current government includes 7 Shas members and 6 Degel HaTorah members as part of its 61 seat bloc, which gives the government the slimmest possible majority in the Knesset, facing 59 opposition Knesset members.  Prime Minister Netanyahu paid an enormous price to enlist these Ultra-Religious parties into the governing coalition.  Both parties were granted a range of powerful political portfolios as as significant policy and financial concessions. 

This is in marked contrast to the previous government.  After the 2013 Israeli elections, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid had won 19 seats.  His party insisted that it would not join a government that would make so many concessions to to the Ultra-Religious parties.  Lapid held out and an Israeli government was formed without the Ultra-Religious parties - for the first time in quite a while.  As a result, the previous government began to make certain changes.  These included mandatory military enlistment for the Ultra-Orthodox, reducing government grants for non-working Yeshiva students, ensuring that secular subjects like math and science are mandatory for everyone and numerous other changes.  Many of these changes as well as other proposed changes that were in the pipeline were quite popular among secular and other non-ultra-Orthodox Israelis.

But when it came time to negotiate a coalition agreement this time around after the 2015 election, Prime Minister Netanyahu simply gave away everything.  He agree to roll back all of the changes that had been made or proposed in the last government and to go beyond that by providing additional monetary incentives for the Ultra-Orthodox to join the government.  The disappointing aspect of all of that is that Moshe Kahlon and his allegedly centrist Kulanu party simply agreed to all of these terms and conditions.  This was in marked contrast to Yair Lapid in 2013 who had retained some principles during the previous round of coalition building negotiations.

As the Ultra-Religious establishment increases its power during the current mandate, many Israelis are becoming more and more disaffected with this turn of events.  This will cause many Israeli voters to turn away from Kahlon and Netanyahu in the next election.  Who will benefit?  Bennett will be the winner among religious and more conservative voters and will take away some seats from Netanyahu and/or Kahlon on the right.  But the big winner is likely to be Lapid.  If he stays the course and continues to fight as an opposition member, Israelis will view him as one of the few principled politicians who is willing to stand up to the Ultra-Orthodox.

It is a fairly common viewpoint that the Labour party, Zionist Camp or other name that it might run under would be as willing as the Likud party to court the support of Shas and/or Degel HaTorah by making similar concessions in order to form a government.  Only Yair Lapid and, perhaps, Tsipi Livni, have shown that they would be willing to hold out against these demands.  It will be clear to Israeli voters that Kahlon will simply agree to anything in order to get a cabinet seat.

While there are many Israelis who simply do not care about many of these secular-religious issues or other issues of religious pluralism, more and more Israelis are starting to pay attention.  Many Israelis are looking for alternatives to Orthodox weddings, which currently have a monopoly in Israel.  Opening the door to civil marriage ceremonies could lead to widespread change and could also open the door to same sex marriages in Israel.  Easing the conversion laws could benefit a large number of Israelis including thousands of immigrants whose religious status as Jews has been called into question. Still other Israelis would like to see public transportation on Shabbat, demonopolization of Kashrut authority, or more liberal laws in other areas affecting personal status.

The more that the current government acts in a fashion that is viewed as extremist, the greater the resentment will be among centrist Israelis.  This may all lead to a large shift of voters from Kahlon and Netanyahu to Lapid and others.

The Shas and Degel HaTorah voters will not change.  Those parties will continue to attract similar numbers in any given election.  Their elected officials are doing a good job in advocating for policies that they support.

But the Israeli political landscape has a large number of undecided centrist voters who are mobile.  These voters have swung around over the past number of years, from the Kadima party, to Tsipi Livni and Yair Lapid and now to Moshe Kahlon and Kulanu.  Lapid and the Yesh Atid party make a strong case that the centrist voters should shift back to him and his party and that they are the only party that will stick to some principled positions on certain issues.

The current coalition is very tenuous.  It is hanging on by a thread and Prime Minister Netanyahu's government even lost its first legislative vote this week, although that vote was not a "non-confidence" vote.  We will probably see another election in Israel sooner rather than later.  And if the current trend continues, Lapid and his Yesh Atid party are likely to be the big winners.
       

 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Kahlon: Key Reversal Announced Not Long After Bad Coalition Deal

Kulanu leader - Moshe Kahlon
It is two for one day on my blog.  Aside from my article about the FIFA scandal and the pending vote over suspending Israel, I couldn't resist adding a second blog.

I wrote about Israeli election results and the "Haredi Coalition" that was formed on May 6, 2015.  As you might recall, I was particularly disappointed with Moshe Kahlon.  Before the election, Kahlon had formed a new party - "Kulanu" ("all of us"), which was dedicated, primarily, to economic issues in Israel.  Its mandate was to lower the cost of living for Israels, break up monopolies and find ways to make Israel more livable.  Kahlon had taken credit for lowering cell phone prices in Israel and was promising to do the same for housing.  Sounds great so far.

But with all of these great ideas, Kahlon's first act was to sign on to a government that was promising to waste billions of shekels - adding cabinet ministers, providing huge payouts to the UTJ and other ultra-religious parties - and pledging funds to a wide range of other expensive programs demanded by the new coalition partners.  The stench was significant.  One was left wondering whether Kahlon was incompetent (i.e. a poor negotiator), stupid or corrupt.  I suggested that just the act alone of joining a government that was prepared to make so many monetary concessions to the ultra-religious would strip Kahlon of the credibility that he had built up.

Now some really interesting news emerged about Kahlon yesterday.  Prior to the Israeli elections, Kahlon had promised to break up the monopoly in Israel over the Tamar gas field, 30% of which is owned by Isramco.  Kahlon is good friends with Kobi Maimon, one of the major shareholders in Isramco.  When asked about this exact issue before the election, Kahlon said that his personal relationship with Maimon was irrelevant and that breaking up the monopoly was in Israel's best interest and that he would do it, irrespective of any friendships he had.

Yesterday, Kahlon stated that he would not be involved in any way in breaking up the gas monopoly in Israel, even though, as Minister of Finance, this would be within his bailiwick.  Instead, he indicated that he was punting the issue over to Prime Minister Netanyahu.  But, in explaining his decision, he noted that he was putting the issue on the back burner specifically because of his friendship with Maimon.  News agencies across Israel were juxtaposing Kahlon's pre-election statements with his diametrically opposite pronouncements made yesterday.  Not surprisingly, many colourful adjectives are being thrown around...

Some of Kahlon's supporters are arguing that it is still way to early to judge his performance and that he is a seasoned politician who knows how to get things done.  They argue that he will fulfill several of his pre-election promises and that over time, these preliminary issues will look very minor.  Perhaps that is true.  I suppose we will have to wait and see.

But I am inclined to be concerned about a pattern that seems far more unsavoury.  Between Kahlon's agreement to dole out billions of shekels to the ultra-religious - and now his reversal on the issue of breaking up the gas monopoly, I would suggest that Kahlon's support across Israeli public opinion is likely to plummet very quickly, which will be good news for Israel's centrists in the next election (which I still believe will be sooner rather than later).