Monday, November 20, 2017

Memories After My Death: The Story of My Father, Joseph "Tommy" Lapid - by Yair Lapid - A Review

It has been a while since I have had the chance to put together a new post.  Things have been quite hectic, I suppose.  I'm not complaining about that.

I have been meaning to write a review for a while - about Memories After My Death: The Story of My Father, Joseph "Tommy" Lapid, by Yair Lapid.  This was quite an interesting read.

The book as written as an autobiography, yet it was written by Yair Lapid after the death of his father Tommy Lapid.  As Yair Lapid indicates in the acknowledgements, much of the material came from a series of interviews conducted by Amnon Dankner with Tommy Lapid in the last years of his life.

Tommy Lapid was a remarkable figure.  His story of survival from the Holocaust is powerful and chilling.  The book details the incredible sacrifices his parents made and their efforts to keep Tommy alive as the situation became grimmer and grimmer for the Jews of Hungary.  Lapid and his mother were rescued by Raoul Wallenberg and moved to Israel in 1948, while Lapid's father was murdered in a concentration camp.  

The book also traces Lapid's immigration to Israel and the astounding challenges that he faced along with all of the other new immigrants as they moved one from one existential struggle to another.  Through it all, Lapid became a lawyer, a journalist, a politician and a writer.  He wrote for a Hungarian language newspaper in Israel but later became a journalist with Maariv, director of the Israeli Public Broadcasting Authority, founder of the magazine "At" (a women's magazine), a Knesset member and, eventually, chair of Yad Vashem.

The book is an often intimate look at Lapid's life and those around him.  He doesn't shy away from telling stories of romantic and other sexual encounters - along with various stories of his travels and escapades.  From eating shark-fin soup in Hong Kong to meeting royalty in England, Lapid certainly managed to come into contact with many influential figures.  He covered the Eichmann trial as a journalist, he rubbed elbows with Arnon Milchan, Robert Maxwell (for whom he worked) and Ehud Olmert.  Interesting group of characters.  In fairness, he was also close with Ariel Sharon.

Lapid is a controversial figure in Israeli politics.  He was avowedly secular and dedicated to fostering an increased separation between shul and state in Israel.  This caused him to be a lightning rod for ultra-orthodox anger.  Yet, as Yair Lapid tells it, Tommy Lapid's vision for Israel was a considered one.  Here, for example, are some thoughts about his rift with the Ultra-Orthodox:

"a democratic society is not founded merely on rights but on obligations as well.  I have no problem whatsoever with an Ultra-Orthodox Jew who serves in the army, goes off to work in the morning, then studies Torah all night if he wants.  That man is my brother and I love him better than any non-Jew in the world.  He was there with me in the ghetto and on the rickety boat that brought me to Israel, he sat with me on a boulder facing a ruined synagogue on the island of Rhodes when I sobbed at the memory of 500 Jews led from the building by the Nazis and drowned at sea in an Italian ship."

And he goes on:

"The fact that a man wears a shtreimel on his head and grows a beard does not absolve him from the responsibilities carried out by all the other citizens of the state.  It was not with ultra-Orthodoxy that I have a complaint but with the fact that the Ultra-Orthodox turned it into a permit for ignoring all the chores were are obliged to carry out on a daily basis..."

These excerpts provide a window into the ideology of Lapid as well as his son Yair.  While Tommy pushed for the Israeli government to make changes to laws in Israel that define the religious-secular divide, it was Yair Lapid who was actually able to institute some key changes for a fleeting period of two years during which he was Israel's Finance Minister.  Once Yair Lapid was excluded from the government, the changes that had been made were reversed and the religious-secular landscape has shifted considerably with ever greater power accruing to the ultra-religious and the nationalist religious in Israel.

While I agree with Yair Lapid's past approach to these issues, an approach that was more nuanced that that of his father, I felt that little other philosophical ground was covered in this book.  That is an ongoing criticism of Yair Lapid in Israel - that he is shallow and often seems more concerned with who he is meeting, where is speaking and how he looks - than the policy content that he advocates.

I was not able to conclude from this book that I had a solid understanding of Tommy Lapid's goals for the country, his aspirations or his dreams.  Certainly I understood that he was successful, bright, engaging and often acerbic and determined.  He enjoyed fine wine, high quality food and many other trappings of his self-described bourgeois life.

Yet I came away feeling that I had missed out on his real goals.  Sure, Lapid was an ardent Zionist who was committed, unconditionally, to the survival of the State of Israel and to doing whatever he could to help it flourish.  I have little doubt that his son Yair shares those aspirations, just as he seems to share, for the most part, Tommy Lapid's outlook on the Ultra-Religious and the religious-secular fault line in Israel.

But beyond that, this book provides little from which one might discern a further understanding of the real aspirations of either the father or the son.  And perhaps that is by design.  Simply a genuine reflection of reality.  That shallowness, if you will, for lack of a better term, may well doom Yair Lapid to a comparable political fate.

      

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Doomed To Succeed by Dennis Ross - A Review

I took the suggestion of one of my favourite rabbis and picked up a copy of Doomed to Succeed by Dennis Ross.  The book is subtitled "The U.S. - Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama" and that about sums it up.  Ross has served in senior roles in several U.S. administrations and has played an active part in Arab-Israeli negotiations.  The book traces the U.S.-Israeli relationship at the highest levels from the beginning of Israeli statehood through to just prior to the end of the Obama presidency.  Ross provides an insider's look at the history of the relationship, often through the lens of significant Israeli and Mideastern events.

Ross explains how some American Presidents and their administrations have sought to distance U.S. policy from Israel.  Included in this category would be Eisenhower, Carter, Nixon, Bush Sr. and Obama, as well as others to a lesser extent. Ostensibly, the goal of those administrations was to avoid upsetting the various Arab governments in the region.  Ross also explains that some of those administrations held the belief that if they would only pressure Israel, that would lead to Mideast peace.

Along the way, Ross canvasses some key aspects of those policies.  The Eisenhower administration's refusal to provide military equipment to Israel even in the face of Soviet supply of Israel's enemies. Nixon's refusal to supply Israel with weapons even in the face of an existential crisis during the 1973 Yom Kippur War (until it was almost too late).  Reagan's decision to supply Saudi Arabia with some of the most sophisticated weaponry available, even where that weaponry could be used against Israel. And of course, Obama's decision to skip Israel on his Mideast tour at the start of his presidency to send a message to Israel about the "new Middle East."

There are many other examples and discussions of these various incidents and events.

By way of contrast, Ross looks at the efforts of other Presidents, including Clinton and Bush Jr., who were generally more sympathetic to Israel's concerns and advanced the Israel-U.S. relationship in significant ways.  Some presidents like Truman, Reagan and even President Obama are portrayed has having a mixed record.

Ultimately, Ross suggests that those presidents and administrations who have sought, primarily, to distance Israel from the U.S. have made it more difficult to advance the cause of peace.  If the U.S.suggests that it is prepared to guarantee Israeli security and international standing as part of a peace deal, it is logical to assume that the U.S. would demonstrate to Israel that Israel can count on that guarantee. Otherwise, asking Israel to take significant security risks without appropriate assurances would be suicidal for Israel.

Perhaps Carter was the exception here, in that he managed to arrange a peace deal even while distancing the U.S. from Israel.  To this point, Ross seems to suggest that the Israeli-Egyptian peace deal may have happened with or without Carter, given the significant role that both Sadat and Begin played. While he acknowledges the significant efforts made by Carter and does not downplay that role, he does seem to suggest that Carter may have been able to do more with the other parts of the conflict if he had built up more confidence with the Israeli administration.

Ross also challenges the notion that it has been Israeli intransigence that has caused the lack of a peace deal. He repeatedly cites Arafat and Abbas' espousals of only "maximalist" bargaining positions and their failure to compromise to get a deal.  Even President Clinton, who built up the confidence of the Israeli administration and extracted significant concessions from the Israeli side was unable to obtain sufficiently reciprocal concessions from the Palestinian side.

That is not to suggest that Ross lays all of the blame on the Palestinians.  He suggests in no uncertain terms that Israel would need to agree to a Palestinian state to resolve the current conflict.  He suggests that Israel should refrain from building in those areas of the territories which are not likely to be held by Israel as part of a future peace agreement.  But he also suggests that the Palestinian side has quite a number of issues to address itself.  Those include recognizing that the Palestinians will only be able to solve their refugee problem within their own future state; that they will need to stop inciting and paying for terror attacks; and that they will need to build a culture of peace rather than a culture of animosity if a two state solution is ever to become a reality.

Reviewing the major historical events over the course of Israel's statehood, as Ross has presented it, one is left with the clear understanding that only Israel has been able to guarantee and take responsibility for its own security.  From the early wars of 1948 and 1956, in which Israel scrambled to find weapons suppliers, through the 1973 War, Israel has had to rely on itself, first and foremost.  Even decisions which were opposed by U.S. administrations, from the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor to the bombing of the Syrian nuclear reactor seem, in retrospect, to have been both important and successful for Israel.  In this respect, Begin, Netanyahu and even Shamir are all portrayed sympathetically, at times.

Ross's coverage of the 1973 War may be exceptional here.  His analysis implies that Nixon intended to hold back on resupplying Israel for long enough to ensure that the Arab attackers caused sufficient damage to Israel to restore the "Arab dignity" after their disastrous war loss in 1967.  But Ross's version ignores other historical accounts which suggest that the U.S. only began to resupply Israel after Gold Meir made significant military threats against Cairo in which Israel would use all appropriate means to defend itself.   This account, if accurate, would fit in more appropriately with Israel's record of, ultimately, defending its own interests without really being able to rely on the U.S.

That is not to say that the book does not criticize Israel.  The 1982 Lebanon War is largely characterized as a debacle.  In later years, some of Netanyahu's interactions with Obama and others are roundly criticized. Other Israeli actions are also assessed critically. 

But I think it is fair to say that Ross strongly prefers the view of those who would advocate for a special relationship between Israel and the U.S.  Given that Israel is the only real democracy in the Middle East, that it is one of the only countries, if not the only one, with a truly independent judiciary, a respect for the rule of law, and protection for its religious, ethnic and other minorities, Ross argues that it is very much in the U.S. national interest to foster a close relationship with Israel.  He also argues that there is no evidence that a close U.S.-Israel relationship has damaged the U.S. relationship with its Arab allies.  On the contrary, Ross argues that Obama's efforts to tilt towards Iran and away from Israel and some other traditional Arab allies of the U.S. had significant and detrimental consequences to the U.S. relationship with its Arab allies.  Ross argues that Obama tilted back towards Israel later in his presidency, though the book seems to have been completed before the misguided U.N. resolution at the conclusion of the Obama presidency.

Ultimately, I suppose one must be skeptical about some of what Ross has written.  It is after all the view of someone who was very much involved in the process and there is a natural inclination to smooth over one's own shortcomings.  You would probably need to cobble together at least two or three different accounts of many of the historical events to be able to come to conclusions about what really occurred.  But Ross tries to be reasonably objective and, at times, cites areas of disagreement between himself and others.  In that respect, the book seems to have a reasonable degree of balance.

Overall, as someone with an interest in Middle Eastern history (and history in general), I enjoyed the book. It covers a great deal of ground (disputed territory mostly) and provides much to consider.  We can only hope that the title was chosen for dramatic effect rather than as a statement about the likelihood of a future with a more peaceful Middle East.










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Sunday, July 9, 2017

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. By Yuval Harari

Displaying IMG_20170710_054017.jpgI enjoyed Yuval Harari's first book, Sapiens (reviewed here), so much that I had to get hold of his second book Homo Deus as quickly as I could.  I finished reading it recently on my plane ride back to Toronto from Tel-Aviv.

Harari's first book, Sapiens, is subtitled "A Brief History of Humankind." It is a broad strokes, wide-sweeping tour de force, which covers thousands of years in a relatively short work.  Homo Deus is quite different.  Subtitled "A Brief History of Tomorrow," this is much more of an essay or even a polemic than a history book.  But it is filled with big, challenging ideas and concepts and provides enough discussion material for a seemingly unlimited amount of time.

Of course, as Harari might point out, we may not have that time.  Things are moving at a lightning pace.  Artificial Intelligence is developing at incredible speed.  Humankind is on the precipice of enormous and dramatic change.  Harari tries to sketch out some of these directions and changes and considers their implications.

The book is not really prescriptive.  It is far more descriptive.  While Harari speculates about future direction in belief, scientific development, genetics, artificial intelligence and other areas, Harari does not propose a belief system or moral framework for these changes.  Far from it.  This book is more concerned with trying to sketch out the what, how and why than to deal with questions of "whether."

Much of the first half of the book is somewhat historical.  It traces different aspects of human history to lay the foundations for the discussions of future trends.  Some of these discussions are covered in the first book.

One area of overlap is religion.  Harari's discussion of religion is fascinating.  He is quite adamant that there is little or no historical basis to most of the world's main religions and is very dismissive of any type of literal or truth-based approach to religious belief.  For Harari, since the world's large religions were developed and gained prominence so many years ago, they are necessarily ill-equipped to deal with the scientific challenges of an entirely different world.  What could agricultural based religions possibly have to say about modern genome discoveries?  or space exploration? Or artificial intelligence?  In some cases, if age old religious dogma is based on demonstrably false conceptions (for example, the case of gender equality or the religious belief in gender inequality), then these religious ideas are clearly outmoded and obsolete.

Yet Harari also acknowledges that the power of myth and religion has served a tremendous function. It is the shared belief in religious concepts that, historically, facilitated mass cooperation and even led, ironically enough, to scientific development.  Call this cognitive dissonance, says Harari, but religions have served an important purpose, even if the underlying basis for most of the beliefs is demonstrably false.

Harari argues that true religious belief died a few hundred years ago, and gave way to versions of Humanism. He describes different versions of Humanism and concludes that Humanism, like Deism, is destined to run its course.  Humans have no "soul" or purpose and are really a collection of algorithms, he argues.  In fact, he provides a detailed argument as to why humans may not even really have free will.  Their decisions are based on genetics, randomness or particular stimuli.  I'm not going to elaborate on these arguments further at this point - you will have to read the book if you are interested in these discussions.

The most interesting part of the book is the final third in which Harari discusses alternate new belief systems and ideas around which sapiens are likely to coalesce in the future if they are not already doing so.  Chief among these concepts is "dataism" - the recognition of the importance of data accumulation, analysis and application.

I could not possibly attempt to summarize the book and its various concepts in such a short review. But I wanted to set out just a few of the types of ideas that are raised to provide a flavour of the discussion.  Hopefully the reader will have sense of the types of topics that are covered from my discussion above.

By way of another example, one section discusses the future of various professions as one looks ahead 20 or 30 years from now - or more.  Harari suggests that a significant majority of the professions that people practice today and the jobs that people have will be obsolete.  Computers and artificial intelligence will do many of today's jobs more efficiently, accurately and economically.  Harari also examines topics like AI creation of art and music; the ever increasing use and significance of DNA research; the worldwide drive towards self-driven vehicles; and many other issues.

By the conclusion of the book, the predictions are somewhat grim.  For example, "humans will lose their economic and military usefulness."  But Harari has not put forward his predictions and analysis without careful thought and analysis of current scientific discoveries and trends.  He draws from a variety of disciplines but comes, fundamentally, from a scientific perspective.  This means that he is prepared to point out areas in which we are not able to draw conclusions at the present time.

Like with the first book, that is what makes Harari's books so readable and engaging.  He approaches most questions with a degree of scientific humility.  We may not know the answers to certain things - but we know, almost certainly, which things are wrong, even demonstrably wrong.  We also have theories about what might be right and some of them are very compelling.  Others are less developed.  But the idea is to raise the topics, provide information and context about where we are and then use that to suggest where we are heading.

There are certainly many ideas here that would face quite a bit of resistance.  I can't say that I agreed with everything in the book.  But that is really what makes the book so interesting.  The arguments are well constructed and they develop controversial but stimulating discussion points.  Anyone who reads this book honestly will certainly have a great deal to think about.  Some of the arguments are not easily refutable and some may be unsolvable.  Some are issues about which different people may never agree.  But all of that, for Harari, is almost certainly the measure of  his success.


Air Transat Review - Tel-Aviv-Toronto Part 2

Image result for air transatIn my last blog, I provided a review of my first flight on Air Transat between Toronto and Tel-Aviv. I also discussed some of the engaging conversations I had on that flight.  You can read the previous blog here.

I thought I would add some information about the return flight to complete the circle.  It was much less eventful but if you are thinking about trying Air Transat, there is some more information that you might want to know.

As I mentioned previously, I had paid a relatively nominal additional amount to buy "Option Plus." This provided me with an additional baggage allowance (a second bag of 30 kg) as well as some other perqs.  It was also supposed to include "priority boarding."  However, as with most airlines, other than perhaps, Air Canada, there is no such thing as "priority boarding" when leaving Ben Gurion airport.  The Air Transat crew did not even bother to pretend that there was an orderly boarding system.  They simply announced that it was "boarding time" and the inevitable chaos ensued.

I also note that Air Transat was not able to provide me with boarding passes or baggage check all the way through to Toronto, even though everything was confirmed.  I could not check in online for both legs of the flight.  I later discovered that I wasn't the only one - it must be a glitch that hasn't yet been worked out.  So I was only able to get an advance boarding pass from Tel-Aviv to Montreal and had to get the second boarding pass on arrival in Montreal for the flight to Toronto.  Somewhat inconvenient.

The Tel-Aviv to Montreal flight leaves at about 9:30 a.m., though I think we were delayed by about an hour. The flight was about 11.5 hours total and was relatively uneventful.  The crew were excellent.  Friendly, readily available and attentive.  Many of them were trilingual, speaking French, English and Hebrew.  They were offering to help passengers with their Canadian customs forms and they were very social with the passengers.

There were quite a number of Ultra-Orthodox passengers, including many Lubavitch who must have been returning after their proselytizing tours of Israel.  However, unlike the Toronto to Tel-Aviv leg, I only saw one Chabad guy making his way up and down the aisles looking for potential Tefillin  layers.  He didn't come to me or anyone else in my row.  Maybe he had read my last blog.

On the other hand, there were a number of Chabad women, walking up and down the aisles, handing out books of Tehilim (psalms) to any women travelling with children and trying to get them to read a psalm or two.  I was sitting across from a secular Israeli woman who was travelling with twins (and her husband) and she willingly agreed to accept the book of Tehilim and start reading.  So I suppose Chabad felt that it must have saved  at least one soul on this flight.

Air Transat flies an Airbus 330 to Israel - so there were personal screens with movies, TV shows and other entertainment.  Headphones cost $9 so you probably want to bring your own.  Blankets are also $9 and you get to keep them and take them off the plane at the end of the flight.  They seem to be new.  They also sell blow- up neck protectors for $9.  Since I had Option Plus, I received all of these high end gifts for free as well as the eye mask that was thrown in.

I ordered an Asian vegetarian meal which was fine.  The crew came around and served sandwiches mid-flight, which were all kosher (smoked turkey or feta cheese sandwiches).  There was a third meal about an hour and a half before arrival in Montreal.

The transfer in Montreal was not particularly convenient or fun.  You must collect your luggage, pass through customs and then drop off your baggage.  In my case, I also had to go to an Air Transat counter after passing through customs to get a boarding pass and baggage tag.  The seat that I had pre-booked had vanished somehow, so I was given a seat at the back of the plane for the flight to Toronto - though it is only a 50 minute flight.

You also have to go through personal security again.  I note that you are allowed to bring duty free items that you may have bought in Israel if they are in one of those sealed duty free bags.  If the bag is not sealed - or the goods are not in the bag, you cannot take them through security if they include liquids or gels.  I actually did not have any duty free goods with me this time, partially since I did not know if I would be able to bring them on the flight from Montreal to Toronto.

I then had to walk across the entire airport from the arrival gate to the Air Transat departure gate for Toronto.  I had about 2.5 hours to wait for the next flight but there was free wi-fi in the Montreal airport. We were delayed by about an hour but I will assume that was not Air Transat's fault.

The flight from Montreal to Toronto is short and easy.  On arrival in Toronto, there are no customs to clear since you have already cleared them in Montreal.  But, again, we had to cross the entire airport from the arrival gate to the baggage claim area.  Then it took quite a while to actually get the bags, but I eventually got my suitcase and left.

Overall, the flight was fine.  It was a better flying experience than some other airlines but certainly not as good as the better ones.  The key is that the price was fantastic.  Air Transat was selling high season summer round trip tickets for about $1,000 Cdn all inclusive, which was less than half the cost of available Air Canada tickets and significantly less than El Al as well.  You don't get any reward points and have no chance of getting upgraded to "business class" or "premium economy."  But you can save quite a bit of money and enjoy a reasonable flying experience getting to Israel.  I certainly see no reason to avoid it.




Sunday, July 2, 2017

Air Transat Review - Toronto to Tel-Aviv and Gender Equality Issues in Judaism...

I tried something a bit different this time.  I flew Air Transat for my latest trip between Toronto and Tel-Aviv.  Air Transat is a charter airline that has been around for about 30 years.  But it just opened up service to Tel-Aviv direct from Montreal in June.  It flies twice a week - and offers flights at a price than can be less than half of comparable fares on Air Canada or El Al.  Sounded like it would be worth a try.

The airline currently flies on Sundays and Wednesdays from Montreal to Tel-Aviv and flies back on Mondays and Thursdays.  They offer connecting flights between Toronto and Montreal though the connections include medium length wait times - a few hours.

The base price ticket, like some other airlines these days, includes very little.  For "economy" passengers to Tel-Aviv, one 30 kg suitcase is included.  But headphones, a blanket, an advance seat, a glass of wine, etc., are all $7 each.  However, the airline offers an "Option Plus" package that you can buy at the time of booking.  It was quite reasonable.  It included an extra suitcase (30 kg), priority check-in, an advance seat, free blanket, headphones. wine etc.,  Even with the Option Plus, the fare was still about half of the available Air Canada fare.  So I spoiled myself and bought it.

The flight from Toronto left at about 11 a.m.  It was a Boeing 737 and it was completely full. Nothing to report really.  It was a standard, uneventful, one hour flight.  We arrived in Montreal and had about two hours until the next flight.

The convenient thing, compared to some other connections, is that we did not have to go through security a second time.  We remained in the gate area of the terminal.  If you fly from Toronto and change planes almost anywhere else on the way to Tel-Aviv, you generally have to clear security a second time at the connecting airport.

There is some special security at the gate for Israeli flights but it is nothing cumbersome.

Our flight was delayed by about two hours, though I have no information about the reasons for the delay so I will give Air Transat the benefit of the doubt.

Boarding was reasonably smooth - especially for me since I had purchased the Option Plus.  There is no real "business class" or "first class" on the plane - so the economy seats run right up to the front of the plane. They are quite narrow.  I have to say that I felt squished, even compared to seats on the Air Canada 787s.  You might simply tell me I should lose some weight - and I'm working on it - but I still felt squished.

I had originally picked out an aisle seat.  But since I had Option Plus, they moved me to a more desirable exit row seat.  This meant almost unlimited leg room.  But it also meant being in an area that would serve as the congregating area for people who want to get together and stretch, chat, pray, or rabble rouse.  I would happily refuse the extra leg room next time to avoid being in this area.

The airline was packed with Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox passengers as well as many secular Israelis. As far as I could tell, there were relatively few Canadian tourists.  Air Transat flies Airbus 330s, so it was a fairly large plane. There are personal screens with a selection of movies, games, music and other entertainment. There were not that many newer films but I managed to find a movie or two to watch.

The far more interesting aspect of this particular flight was the discussions that I wound up having with a variety of passengers.  On my right, across the aisle, was a retired Israeli officer, secular, but self-described as "traditional." He was flying his whole extended family to Israel for a Bar Mitzvah - more than 20 people - and was interested in telling a group of us all about his experiences in the army and his life story.

To my left, a Russian-Israeli immigrant, who had also served in the Israeli army, worked for a while as a lawyer in Israel and was now living in Ottawa.  Although not particularly religious, he told a group of us that he had become actively involved in Chabad in the Ottawa area, though he only mentioned that near the end of the flight.  I'll come back to that...

Next to him was a secular but also self-described  "religiously respectful" woman who had traveled to Canada from Ra'anana for a tour of eastern Canada.  She was on her way back home.

The plane was filled with a large group of Chabad emissaries who were determined to ensure that every male on the plane put on tefillin during the course of the flight.  They were using the congregating area - near my seat - to have strategy meetings and decide who to approach and to track their progress.

These young Chabad men were walking up and down the aisles, asking people to put on tefillin. They arrived at our row.  The guy on my right, the retired officer, said "no thanks."  He said that he doesn't appreciate this kind of thing and had no interest.  The guy on my left said that he had already put on tefillin today - so he said no thanks.  I simply said no thanks, as well.  So these guys continued up and down the aisles and found quite a number of willing participants from what I could see.

Then they came back.  "Are you now ready to put on tefillin?"  I said "no thanks."  He said "what's the matter, don't you believe in the Moshiach?"  I said whether or not I believe in the Mashiach is not really related - but I'm fairly sure that your former Rabbi, who is now in a grave in New York, was NOT the Mashiach..."  He walked away....

This sparked a whole conversation between the four of us in the row.  The woman on the left said that this was all "coercive and embarrassing" and that they should leave people alone.  The guy next to her, to my left, defended the Chabad delegate and spoke about how he also used to work in door to door sales, so he knew how hard it was to get people to do things and he empathized with them.  He didn't tell us at this point that he had any involvement with Chabad.  The guy on my right spoke passionately about how it upsets him that the Ultra-Orthodox do not go to the army and collect large amounts of Israeli state funds while not defending the country.

The four of us continued on to a conversation about the state, the place of religion, gender equality and some other issues.  It became quite an active discussion and attracted the participation of a few other passengers in front and in back of our row.

The Chabad guys returned.  This time, one of the guys was a bit more forceful, pushing me to agree to put on tefillin.  So I finally said to him - "I'll tell you what - if you will agree to put the tefillin on the woman two seats away from me (she was fine with this), then I'll agree to put them on..."  He mumbled something about women and walked away...

This brought out the heavy artillery.  The senior rabbi of the delegation overheard the discussion and came wandering over, with an entourage in tow.  The entourage included his wife and two other young Chabad emissaries.  The senior rabbi was apparently the head of a large Borough Park Yeshiva in New York and someone who works closely with renowned Rabbi Firer.

At first, he said, I was "correct" to say that women are able to put on tefillin and that he would have accepted my challenge if he had been the one speaking to me.  He noted the example of Rashi's daughter.  However, he then began to speak about "Masoret" (tradition) and "Tzniut" (modesty).  He explained that women are exempted from many of these Mitzvot and that was simply the tradition. He noted that his own daughter is a physician - so he is not against educating women or limiting them  - however Jewish tradition is something different.

So we began discussing the issue of gender equality and Judaism more seriously.  All three of the other passengers near me were also involved in the conversation as well as some others.  It became quite animated.  The Rabbi's wife made her way across the aisle to run interference with the only other woman involved in the conversation (i.e. to take her away from participating directly with the Rabbi).

So I asked the senior Rabbi to explain, where in the Torah it is written that women cannot read Torah or that a man cannot hear a woman's voice singing in public.  He said "well that has always been part of our tradition, for thousands of years."  I said "can you point to anything that says that?"  He said - "well, the Rambam codified it."  I asked him when that was....(sometime in the 12th century, CE).  He argued that the Rambam was only codifying something that had been around for thousands of years.

So I said to him - "well - you just said it was part of our tradition for thousands of years.  But doesn't it say, in the Torah, that Miriam took a tambourine and began to sing when the Israelites were crossing the Reed Sea?"  He said - "well she took all the women and went to an area that was women only and then started to sing."  I said "where does it say that?"  He said "that is how it has always been interpreted..."  He said that everyone knows that when it says "b'nai Yisrael" ("children of Israel") in the Torah, it is referring to males only...I challenged him on that.

This discussion became even more heated - with more passengers joining in - including a discussion about the latest controversy over access to the Kotel and the Israeli government's recent decision to give in to the Ultra-Orthodox and roll back access to the Kotel for pluralistic prayer and for the Women of the Wall.

At some point, this Rabbi decided to call it a day and returned to his area, with his entourage.  Neither side claimed victory and no one was convinced of the other's position.

But with only two hours remaining in the flight - the former army officer sitting to the right of me decided to agree to put on tefillin and to take a bunch of selfies with the Chabad emissaries.  So despite all that he had said, he was either eventually convinced - or became tired of resisting.  I found it quite surprising especially after all he had said about Chabad, the Ultra-Orthodox and religious coercion generally.  The guy to the left of me opened up and explained how he was very active in a Chabad shul in Ottawa and that most of his family members in Israel were involved in Chabad.  So he was quite supportive of everything Chabad was doing, even though he didn't tell us during our initial discussions.

Speaking with these two "secular" Israelis on either side of me, I thought to myself, that is exactly what happens in Israel when it comes to issues of state and religion.  The secular majority becomes weary or disinterested and simply gives in on many issues including those relating to funding of Yeshiva students, mandatory military service or access to the Kotel for non-Orthodox groups.  The Ultra-Orthodox keep pushing and they eventually get their way on so many of these issues.

With all of these conversations, the flight went by fairly quickly.  I did not manage to sleep very much and only watched one movie.

I had ordered an Asian vegetarian meal.  It was quite lame compared to what I usually get on Air Canada or Lufthansa - just a bunch of noodles with some onion and mushrooms.  I also had one glass of wine, which was also nothing great.

Overall, the flight was fine.  Comparable to other airlines.  It was not as nice as flying Air Canada or Lufthansa but was probably better than flying El Al or United.  And the price was fantastic.  The layover in Montreal was a bit inconvenient but, overall, I would probably do this again.  I would try to sit in a different section of the plane - away from the mass congregation area.  Even if this meant missing out on the opportunity to debate important issues with a few rows of fellow passengers...




Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Jerusalem: The Kotel and the Old City after 50 Years: A Schechter Institute Symposium



It has been 50 years since the State of Israel liberated Jerusalem and returned some of the holiest Jewish religious sites to Jewish control.  In honour and commemoration of the anniversary, the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem held a forum on June 6, 2017.  The program was entitled:  "Jerusalem: The Western Wall and the Old City In Perspective after 50 Years."  We were privileged to attend.

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Women of the Wall - from CNN site
I should note that this was not a broad political program designed to look at the Arab-Israeli conflict or the role of Jerusalem as part of that conflict.  Rather the program centred on the role of the Kotel (the "Western Wall") in Israeli and Jewish life and issues to be addressed going forward.

The evening featured an initial group of four academic lectures, which were intended to run about 20-30 minutes each.  Then the evening got really interesting and animated with a diverse panel discussing the issue of pluralistic prayer at the Kotel.

We first arrived to hear Dr. Noa Yuval-Hacham trace 50 years of historical development in the area of the Kotel and the Old City.  She provided some fascinating historical information about events that have transpired since 1967.  She was followed by Dr. Shira Wolkoff, who spoke about the historical struggle between designating the Kotel site as a part of the Israeli national parks and historic sites portfolio versus handing over complete control to the Ministry of Religious Affairs.   Her lecture was subtitled "An (Un)holy View..."

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The Kotel and Temple Mount from Wikepedia
The third presenter, Dr. Kobi Cohen-HaTav, looked at the Kotel as an Israeli national symbol.  He discussed the evolution of the Kotel from a part Zionist national symbol and part religious site to one that has come to represent Israeli national religious society and has  come to be viewed in a much different light over the 50 years since the 1967 war.

Finally, Professor Alona Nitzan Chieftan spoke about the various archaeological issues that have been addressed over the 50 years including ongoing struggles over how to design the Kotel plaza and all of the various considerations and challenges that various committees and governments have faced in doing so.

For us, the final event was the most interesting.  It was a panel discussion moderated by Yair Sheleg, a reporter, on the topic of the State of the Kotel Compromise: Risk or Opportunity?

I have written blogs about this issue in the past.  This article was written in early 2012:  Woman Arrested for Wearing a Tallit at the Kotel.  I updated the issue in October 2012 here: Latest Arrests.
I provided a further update in May 2013: Latest Developments.  In a nutshell, as you might recall, the Kotel is currently operated as, essentially, an Orthodox synagogue.  There is a women's section and a men's section (the men's section is much larger).  Women's groups have been forbidden from praying out loud in the women's section, from reading from the Torah, putting on Tallitot and from wearing Tefillin.  The organization "Women of the Wall" has challenged this state of affairs, as have various other religious and pluralistic groups in Israel.  This has lead to a number of court cases, which have reached the Israeli Supreme Court.  There have also been ongoing political discussions and negotiations.  As you might know, a compromise deal was reached in January 2015 which would have allowed for a designated area of pluralistic prayer at the Kotel, the entry to which would be at the same location as the general Kotel entry.

However, the government that had authorized the plan collapsed and elections were called. Following the elections, a new government took charge in Israel in 2015. The plan was never implemented and court challenges ensued.  The Israeli Supreme Court has made some decisions but has held off making any final status decisions on the issue and things have been left in a state of legal limbo.

The symposium panel featured three different speakers, each with a different perspective.  All three were lawyers. The moderator began with each panelist by asking a very provocative question.  Gloves came off and sparks began to fly.

First off was Ms Rickie Shapira-Rosenberg, a lawyer and member of the management committee of the group "Women of the Wall."  The moderator's questions asked her to respond to the suggestion that Women of the Wall are simply a provocative, feminist group who lack any real authenticity or relevance.

In response, Ms Shapira-Rosenberg described herself as an Orthodox Jew and spoke about the personal importance of having a voice in Judaism at the Kotel and in her religious life generally.  She offered a spirited and powerful description of the struggle that women have faced to pray together, aloud at the Kotel as well as at other communal institutions.  She described the history of the Women of the Wall and emphasized how meaningful it is for women to have access to religious equality.

The second speaker was Yizhar Hess, the current Executive Director and CEO of the Conservative ("Masorti") movement in Israel.  He was challenged with a similarly provocative question, targeting the legitimacy of "liberal" religious groups in Israel.  Mr. Hess spoke primarily about the negotiations themselves, the process of reaching a compromise and the need to recognize and dignify all of the various stakeholders.  He emphasized that the Masorti movement had made quite a number of concessions to reach the compromise as ultimately agreed upon. However, given that it was never implemented, he has been left to second guess the correctness of the decision.  He seems resigned to the notion that the Israeli courts will ultimately be required to decide the issue.

The final speaker was Ultra-Orthodox representative and lawyer, Dov Halbertal.  The moderator asked him whether there would actually ever be any possibility of compromise with these Ultra-Religious groups.

Mr. Halbertal used his time to attack the Women of the Wall, the Masorti, Reform and other "liberal" movements and to malign their motives.  His comments included derisive personal attacks on Ms Shapira-Rosenberg as well as the Women of the Wall generally.  He characterized the group as a bunch of publicity seekers who were completely outside of any definition of normative Judaism.  He asked the rhetorical question - whether we should also permit a group to come along claiming they are the "Adam and Eve Garden Group" who wish to pray at the Kotel naked with a Torah.  He argued that the idea of a group of women wanting to pray out loud, put on tallitot, wear tefillin or read from the Torah is as ridiculous as a group of women who wish to pray at the Kotel naked.  He attacked Conservative and Reform Judaism and argued that these movements are the direct cause of assimilation in the United States. Judaism will disappear because of women like Ms Shapira Rosenberg and the Women of the Kotel, he submitted.  He characterized "liberal Jewish groups" as "worse than the Holocaust" for the Jewish people.

He also noted (to the chuckling but shocked amusement of the audience) that he felt particularly proud, as a Jew, when he watched Donald Trump go the Western Wall, wearing a kippah, on the men's side of the Kotel without his wife and daughter who, obediently and honourably, went to the women's side.  He described that scene as far more respectful and authentic than the Women of the Wall, since Melania and Ivanka knew how to dress and how to behave at the Kotel.

When he was finally finished attacking his fellow panelists and most of the audience members (I assume), there was an opportunity for some further exchange.  To her credit, Ms Shapira Rosenberg chose not to take the bait and refrained from returning with an equally divisive response.  She responded to some of the points but in a more dignified manner.  Mr. Hess was similarly restrained. Perhaps it was because they both wanted to avoid having Mr. Halbertal get up and leave.  After all, his first comments were essentially an apology for agreeing to appear - and a statement that he has already been called out by at least one of his colleagues for appearing at a Schechter Center event.

There was one other special speaker in the audience.  A member of the sub-group, the Original Women of the Wall.  She spoke about her concerns about the political compromise that Mr. Hess had been instrumental in negotiating.  She argued that the negotiators had abandoned the Women of the Wall, who would be forbidden, under the compromise from praying out loud in the Orthodox women's section and would be required to do so in the pluralistic prayer section.  She noted that her group has always recognized the importance of women being able to pray together as women in a separate section of the Kotel.

A few of the audience members (including someone you might know quite well) were less charitable to Mr. Halbertal and attacked his horrible analogy more directly.  I should note that the whole evening was, of course, in Hebrew.  Although I understand everything quite well, I didn't feel comfortable enough linguistically to jump into the fray.  Though I certainly would have enjoyed taking some shots at Mr. Halbertal and his own motives.

As the debate become more heated, the moderator wisely jumped in and concluded the panel at an opportune time.  Although nothing was resolved, the vigorous discussion certainly highlighted the wide gap between the various stakeholders over the issue of how the Kotel should be treated by the State of Israel and more general religious issues.  What type of prayer should occur at the Kotel and who should be allowed to access it?  What should the State's role be in regulating religious sites? More significantly, what will the future bring for the development of religious life for Jewish women in Israeli society?

The discussion ended with the hope that some of these issues would be resolved favourably in time for the next Jerusalem symposium in 2018.  בשנה בשנה הבאה.  (To quote a well known song - B'shana b'shana habah - Next year....)


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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Weapon Wizards: A Review

I recently read The Weapon Wizards: How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower by Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot.  I suppose that my timing was particularly appropriate given that I had a daughter completing her military service and a son just beginning.  Might as well read a reasonably optimistic assessment of the Israeli Defence Forces and some of its key technological accomplishments.


I am not generally an avid reader of military histories.  But I would not really put this book in that category.  While I was concerned that the book might be on the dry side, it certainly was not.  Rather than a military history, per se, the book looks at some key areas in which Israel has developed leading edge technology. It examines some of the leading Israeli figures who have had the vision to push forward major technological initiatives and it provides stories about how those leaders brought forward some ideas from the realm of the "impossible" to reality.

The Weapon Wizards is not a straight linear history.  It traces different developments - of the Israeli Air Force, the development of a drone program, the nuclear program, the satellite program, the missile defence systems and cyber warfare to name a few.  It provides surprisingly detailed accounts of some key successes of these different programs and it also emphasizes how some of these programs were started on shoe-string budgets.

I say "surprisingly" because I was often left wondering if all of this information was really declassified at this time and whether it could or should be circulated in this fashion.  There are accounts of how Israel used cyber attacks to wreak havoc on the Iranian centrifuge system; what transpired when Israel sold high-end drones to the Republic of Georgia; how Israel managed to get a deal for nuclear material in the first place; and many other stories. Some of them are told anecdotally in a style that is interesting and, at times, even gripping. Knowing that the authors are both Israeli residents and journalists, I assumed that the information provided had been carefully vetted, though that may not be obvious to the reader.

A central theme is the urgent Israeli need to ensure a qualitative technological advantage over its numerous neighbourhood adversaries and how Israel has managed to do that with a limited budget and a variety of extremely challenging obstacles, including international political realities, limited availability of personnel and diplomatic minefields..  Among a number of personalities that it examines, the book highlights the incredible accomplishments and vision of Shimon Peres who played a key role in ensuring the development of the Israeli nuclear program, the air force and even many of the later technological achievements.  Here is a brief excerpt on Peres:

"If there was one Israeli who had seen it all, it was Peres.  He was at Ben-Gurion's side throughout the War of Independence and was later the fledgling state's key arms buyer.  It was Peres who persuaded Al Schwimmer to move to Israel and establish Israel Aerospace Industries, and it was again Peres who crafted Israel's strategic relationship with France, which culminated in the founding of the country's highly secretive nuclear program....In government, he served in almost every ministry-transportation, defense, finance and foreign...."

Is is Peres who serves, for this book, as the type of personality that has led to these incredible technological advances.  Chutzpadik, visionary, persistent and committed.  These are the qualities that the authors have found in many architects of Israel's technological successes.

The Weapon Wizards also addresses the manner in which Israel has used the global arms trade to push for improved diplomatic relationships with a wide range of countries.     One might feel jaded about Israel's role in the global arms trade, which the authors implicitly suggest is an "ends justifies the means" approach to financing Israel's own military needs.  The book does not shy away from covering some questionable sales escapades that have led to internationally embarrassing incidents.

Overall, the tone of the book is optimistic.  While there is a recognition that Israel will continue to face and address a range of military challenges, some of which may impact Israel quite severely in future battles, the authors exude a confidence that Israeli ingenuity will enable Israel to face these existential challenges successfully.  Many readers will probably arrive at a similar conclusion after reading about some of the incredible successes that have been achieved to date and that are chronicled in this book..