Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Blowing Winds in Israel - of Different Kinds

There are lots of different kinds of winds blowing these days in Israel and the rest of the Middle East.

At the most literal level, Israel is currently enjoying wind gusts of between 40 and 60 km per hour. Blowing winds in Ra'anana just a few moments ago were measured in the range of 50 km an hour. Coupled with on and off rain, it's quite the outdoor experience. Snow is expected to arrive today or tomorrow in Israel's northern-most regions.

Friendlier winds blew in from California just a couple of days ago. At the Academy Award ceremonies on Sunday night, the Israeli director and two of the stars of the film "Footnote," which had been nominated for an Oscar, met with the Iranian delegation, which was there on behalf of the Oscar winning film, "The Separation." Unfortunately, it is not that often these days that Iranian and Israeli delegations have the chance to meet anywhere under cordial conditions. For example, on July 25, 2011, an Iranian swimmer backed out of a swim meet rather than swim in a 100 metre breast stroke race in which an Israeli swimmer was competing. There are many other examples. Perhaps filmmakers see themselves as more independent than professional athletes. In any case, as reported in Haaretz, the Israeli filmmakers were quite happy to have had the opportunity to chat with their Iranian counterparts and the feeling seems to have been mutual.

Different types of winds are headed towards Washington next week as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu sets off to meet with President Obama to discuss Iran and its nuclear threats against Israel. On this issue, information of every kind is swirling around, ranging from rumours of an imminent Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities to alleged reports from Wikileaks that Israel was already involved in extensive covert operations to destroy Iranian facilities on the ground. These winds could soon develop into a much bigger storm though that remains to be seen.

There were some very foul smelling winds in Hebron over the weekend. Apparently a riot broke out while a funeral was taking place. Clashes occurred between Palestinians and Israelis, which resulted in the IDF using "the skunk" to disperse the crowd. "The skunk" is a non-lethal, foul smelling substance that Israeli forces have been using for a couple of years now to disperse demonstrators in certain situations. Given the variety of legal proceedings that some acting and former Israeli politicians have faced, the weapon may well have been developed accidentally by capturing the essence of some inappropriate Ministerial activity...but let's not go there.

Finally, the lethal and very hot winds of Syria have, fortunately, not reached Israel despite the close proximity between the two countries. While Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad continues to use deadly force against rebel forces (primarily Sunni Muslims, according to a recent article in the New York Times) and anyone else who might be in the way, the world continues to sit quietly, even in the face of the apparent killing of large numbers of civilians. While the U.S. has raised some concerns and that very credible world body, the UN Human Rights Council, has also thrown its voice into the mix, the world response to Assad to this point appears to be nothing but a puff of smoke. This too could turn into a much larger fire that could spread to Iraq and other neighbouring countries given the sectarian nature of much of the fighting. For now, Israel's public engagement in this matter has been very limited.

Overall, while there is usually quite a bit of hot air blowing around in the Middle East, it is not always accompanied by such of variety of winds. But I suppose that is what keeps life interesting.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Buses in Tel-Aviv? Ultra-Orthodox to go to the Army? More on Secular-Religious Tensions in Israel

On February 13, 2012, I wrote about some issues of religious-secular tension in Israel. There have been some further developments and I thought I would comment.

Last week, the Tel-Aviv Municipal Council voted 13-7 to ask the Israeli Ministry of Transportation to permit buses to run in Tel-Aviv on Shabbat (Saturday). As I have discussed, buses do not run in most of Israel on Shabbat, which is the national day of rest. There are some exceptions. For example, Haifa, one of Israel's largest cities, does have bus service on Shabbat. At this point, the Ministry of Transportation has indicated that it will refuse the request and will maintain the "Status Quo."

The "Status Quo" in Israel denotes the agreement entered into between religious and non-religious parties at the time of the founding of the State of Israel. The then-future founding Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion, wrote a letter in which he set out certain principles that the State of Israel would follow. Though the State would be democratic and would provide for freedom of thought and expression, it would recognize certain religious principles that would form part of the national law of the fledgling state. Included in this "Status Quo" was the idea that Shabbat would be a national day of rest and that all public institutions would have Kosher kitchens.

There was also an agreement that a certain number of highly observant Ultra-Orthdox Jews would be exempt from military service so that they could devote their full time and attention to furthering their religious studies. It was anticipated that this would be a very small number of students and would therefore be tolerable for the State to allow this exception to an otherwise universal system of military conscription.

Recently, this "Status Quo" has come under fire in different ways. Secular Israelis have perceived an increasing level of Ultra-Orthodox religious observance in certain public areas. For example, there has been a proliferation of gender-segregated buses (particularly in Jerusalem), Ultra-Orthdox opposition to women singing in the army (something women have done, without complaint, since the Israeli army began), other issues of the exclusion of women in billboard advertising, public state-sanctioned ceremonies and other fora. This attempt to set increasingly stringent boundaries by certain Ultra-Orthodox groups has led to a series of public protests, many of which have been organized by the "Yisrael Hofshit" ("Be Free Israel") Movement.

Perhaps, partially in response to these perceived attacks on the Status Quo by Ultra-Orthodox and some Orthodox Israelis, secular Israelis have felt emboldened to raise their own concerns about the Status Quo and to take steps to challenge it. One area of such concern has been the issue of public transportation, particularly in the Tel-Aviv area. As members of the Tel-Aviv Municipal Council have suggested, Tel-Aviv does not generally bar people from driving on Shabbat nor does it prevent taxis from running or even public passenger mini-buses. It is only large buses and trains that do not run. Mayor Ron Huldai and those who support him have argued that it is unfair that those who have the money to own a car or pay for a cab are free to do whatever they want on Shabbat whereas those who cannot afford car or cab fare, particularly students, soldiers and seniors, but including many other Tel-Aviv residents as well, are all "grounded" each Shabbat. Those who oppose the Tel-Aviv Municipality's request for Shabbat bus service have argued in favour of the Status Quo which has been in existence now for more than 60 years. They argue that it will further erode the Jewish character of the State and will commercialize Shabbat and negatively impact the quality of life in Israel.

The other "Status Quo" issue that is being publicly debated is the issue of military exemption for Ultra-Religious Israelis. A few weeks ago, the Supreme Court of Israel ruled that the exemption is now unconstitutional and cannot be continued. Israel's High Court held that the law created inequality in Israel. An article in Haaretz on February 23, 2012 noted that there now 62,000 Ultra-Orthodox Israelis taking advantage of the Tal Law to avoid military service. Israel's Supreme Court held by a 6-3 majority that this situation could not continue.

The move to eliminate, wholly or partially, the exemption from military service for Ultra-Orthodox and the movement to institute public transportation in many other areas of Israel are both signs that the long standing Status Quo is being challenged. There are certainly other challenges on the horizon including the challenge to the existing system whereby Jewish weddings, burials, conversions and ritual circumcisions are all within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Israeli Orthodox Rabbinical authorities.

All of these challenges are related to the issue of where to draw the line between democracy and freedom and the Jewish character of the State of Israel. These issues are likely to lead to continued considerable debate in the future as religious and secular Israelis seek to find a manageable compromise that will be workable for both sides.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Son of Hamas by Mosab Hassan Yousef - A Review

Mosab Hassan Yousef is a former Hamas member who began working for Israel while living in Ramallah. He eventually converted to Christianity and left Israel to seek political asylum in the United States. He is now living in California.

Yousef's book Son of Hamas is an autobiographical account of his life growing up in Ramallah. Yousef's father, Sheikh Hassan Yousef, was one of the founders of Hamas. Yousef, the oldest child, with five brothers and three sisters, traces his life growing up in Ramallah. He provides a detailed discussion of a very observant Muslim lifestyle in which he was raised. His book, written years after these events, is highly critical of Islam and, in particular, as Yousef sees it, of the propensity for violence that is taught and expected of children, even from a very young age.

Arrested as early as age 10 by Israelis for throwing rocks at settlers, Yousef became increasingly radicalized as he grew older. He was arrested by age 18 after purchasing guns that he intended to use in some type of operation against Israelis. During the first part of the book, he is highly critical of Israel and of the manner in which Israel treated his community. He justifies his early activities and details his arrest and alleged abuse at the hands of Israeli soldiers and officials.

As the book progresses, Yousef details the increasingly violent and dangerous escalation of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians between 1986 and 1997. He begins to question some of the Palestinian tactics and is particularly upset at the Palestinian decision to support Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in 1990. He details the corruption and moral bankruptcy of the PLO leadership and Arafat and describes how Arafat, in particular, was concerned more with lining his pockets than of advancing the cause of the Palestinians. He writes about the PLO's covert but direct support for terrorist attacks against Israel, even while the PLO was publicly renouncing violence. And he describes the horrific Hamas suicide bombing attacks that were carried out in Israel, killing large groups of civilians.

Yousef's father was in and out of Israeli prisons for his own role in inciting or participating in terrorist activities. Yousef himself was a senior member of Hamas. Yousef claims that he began to have doubts about Islam and about Hamas as he watched Hamas carry out these horrible attacks against civilians. He was also troubled by Hamas' brutal vigilante justice against any perceived traitors, many of whom were often innocent.

Yousef claims that in 1997, he agreed to work for the Shin Bet, and become an informant. Known secretly as the "Green Prince," Yousef details how he provided information to Israel that led to the prevention of suicide bombings and assassination attempts. He claims that he provided information to Israelis only if they agreed to arrest rather than kill those about whom he provided information. According to Yousef's account, he seems to have been instrumental in almost every single Israeli counter-terrorism operation between 1997 and 2005. One gets the sense that his account is somewhat exaggerated. Yet he claims it was all with the goal of reducing violence in the region and had nothing to do with the significant sums of money he was paid.

By 2000, Yousef, had been introduced to Christianity, to which he converted by 2005. In the process of converting and ultimately revealing his collaboration with Israel, Yousef's father disowned him. Yousef was eventually granted political asylum in the United States, with the evidentiary support in court of the Shin Bet agent who had worked with him over a number of years while he was in Ramallah and with whom he remained friends after these events. Much of the later part of Yousef's book is filled with his description of the oversimplified version of Christian religious dogma that he came to accept and embrace.

Yousef's story is an interesting one and there is certainly a great deal of information of about Hamas, its activities and the activities of the PLO that make for fascinating reading. It is at times highly critical of Israel and challenges Islam repeatedly. The earlier sections of the book provide a thoughtful description and Palestinian viewpoint of day to day life in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

At the same time, something just doesn't sit right about Yousef's account.

At times, he appears to suggest that his activities were all related to his conversion to Christianity. He finally saw the light and decided to adopt non-violence as a political viewpoint. According to Yousef, it seems, if all of the Jews and Muslims would simply convert to Christianity, there would be peace across the Middle East. Of course that doesn't sound very realistic. One wonders if Yousef's change, and his eventual conversion, has much more to do with finding a way to escape from his overbearing, fanatically religious father.

Certainly, Yousef's story is not a model for bringing peace to the region. One would hope that Muslims and Jews, without the fanciful prerequisite of being required to renounce their families and religious affiliations, could find ways to sit down and negotiate a peaceful co-existence. Maybe this is just as a unlikely as Yousef's proposed solution, but we have to remain optimistic.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Religious-Secular Tensions in Israel

Israel faces many different types of issues, some of which are distinctly more problematic than those with which other countries have to contend. There is the ongoing threat from Iran of a nuclear attack; Threats of missile attacks from Hezbollah to the north and from Gaza to the southwest; and the uncertain impact of events in Egypt, Syria and other surrounding countries. Internally, Israel has had to deal with a variety of criminal charges against various politicians and is constantly threatened by or actually paralyzed by (even if only for a short time) general strikes.

But bubbling beneath these issues, some of which are genuinely existential in nature, Israel is still grappling with another crucial issue - the balance between being a Jewish state and a democracy and the need for people of diverse religious viewpoints to find a way to get along.

Two incidents over the weekend in Israel caught my attention in different ways. The issues are very different but they are clearly related.

On Shabbat (the Sabbath), in Kiryat Yovel, YNET news reports that some people put up posters of naked or semi-naked women, depicted in well known art. One poster was Sandro Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus," reproduced above. The other was "Tahitian Women" by Paul Gauguain. Both posters were apparently labelled the "beautification of women." In Hebrew, the wording would be very similar to the "exclusion of women," an issue which has been in the public spotlight in Israel for many months now.

Kiryat Yovel is a neighbourhood with an increasingly Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population. Yet it is not an exclusively ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood like Mea Shearim or B'nai Brak. It still has a sizable population of secular residents.

At first blush, it sounds like a needless provocation. The posters are not connected to some upcoming event, for example an art exhibit. Nor does there appear to be any real purpose to putting them up other than to strike back at the perception of increasing Haredi influence in this Jerusalem community.

On the other hand, the context is more complex. This incident comes after reports of some companies removing women (even modestly clad women) from advertising posters in Jerusalem, as a result of Haredi pressure, in some cases where the very same photos were used with the women included in other parts of Israel. The poster incident comes in a city in which there have been some very public disputes taking place over the issue of gender-segregated buses and even gender segregated streets. Viewed in light of many of the incidents that have occurred, while the incident may be provocative, it is also responsive. Much like the Scandinavian Muhammad cartoons, in some ways, the posters can be seen as a free speech statement by some who view gender equality as very much under attack. Ultimately, I'm not sure that this is the best way to deal with Haredi threats to freedom and gender equality, but it certainly made an interesting point.

On the same Shabbat, in Tel-Aviv, a group of protesters from the "Be Free Israel" movement gathered to protest the lack of public transportation on Shabbat and Jewish religious holy days. This is also a fairly complicated issue. The "Yisrael Hofshit" (Be Free Israel) movement has held a number of rallies around the country protesting the exclusion of women. They have invited women to sing and have pushed back against a number of public incidents in which women were shunned. Of course the movement received overwhelming support from the majority of Israelis for its stance on this issue. But now the movement has looked to expand the range of its attacks on perceived religious coercion by railing against publicly supported religious laws.

As a Jewish State, Israel has many public manifestations of Jewish influenced law. The State holiday calendar revolves around the Jewish calendar with the addition of certain national Israeli holidays. Saturday is the official day of rest and in many areas, all of the shops and restaurants are closed. In many areas, there is no public transportation or other public services. You certainly won't find any cars on the road on Yom Kippur, even in the most stridently secular neighborhoods.

Some argue that these state-supported Jewish laws are unfair and should be changed. One source of argument is that the "democratic and free" nature of Israel should trump the Jewish nature of the State. Given that the majority of the population is secular, these people argue that the ban on public transportation is an imposition of minority religious values on a non-religious public. It is a form of religious coercion in that it forces people to observe the Sabbath on some level.

Others argue that the ban on public transportation in many areas of Israel disproportionately affects the poor, the youth, students and soldiers. Since there is no general restriction on driving a car, taking a cab or using a large mini-van or mini-bus on Shabbat in Israel, the lack of public transportation primarily impacts those without the means to use these other forms of transportation.

There is certainly merit to both of these arguments but there are other points to consider as well.

Some have argued that the country's bus drivers have the most to lose and will now be forced to work while much of the rest of the country continues to take a day off. Even if they are paid overtime rates or given an option, this will still impact Shabbat for many drivers, some of whom may feel that they have no choice but to accept Shabbat shifts.

Others look to the balance between democracy and a Jewish State. Trying to balance these two values has necessarily involved certain compromises. In Ra'anana, for example, all of the stores and restaurants on the main street are closed on Shabbat. At the far end of the city, there is a small commercial area with a number of restaurants and shops that are open on Shabbat. For now, the city seems to manage well with this compromise.

The general operation of buses throughout Israel on Shabbat will have a significant effect on the Jewish character of the state, even though there are already many cars on the road. It will likely lead to many more stores and restaurants opening up, a significant increase in commercial activity and a decrease in the number of Israelis who are able to enjoy a day of rest each week. In some ways, it will mirror what has occurred throughout North America as shops have opened up on Sundays and vastly increased the general commercialization of society. But North America is a different case. Since it is not predicated on the religious values of one group, the impact of having Sunday closings was simply unfair in a society which claimed to treat all religious groups equally.

Israel must grapple with different issues than those in North America. Since it is trying to continue to define itself as a "Jewish State," it makes sense that there will be some public laws that reflect the Jewish character of the State. It is tricky to find the right balance. There are certainly many areas in which it would now be prudent to take away monopolistic power from the religious authorities - in areas such as marriage, divorce, funerals, conversions and even Kashruth (Kosher certification laws). It may also make sense to expand public transportation in areas that are overwhelmingly secular. But at the same time, the only way that the State will continue to be a "Jewish State" is if there are at least some aspects of that Jewish character that are publicly promoted.

As I have argued in other blog posting on this point, one thing that would certainly assist Israelis across the spectrum from religious to non-religious would be the move to a two day weekend with Sundays as a general non-working day. Buses would run and stores would be open but Israelis would be able to enjoy a much needed second day of rest with no restrictions.

In any case, the challenge presented by both of these incidents is to continue to look for a balance and a compromise and ways for religious and non-religious communities to find common ground despite their often diametrically opposite points of view.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Where's the Beef? Israel's Purloined Sirloin...

Where’s the beef? That’s what some cattle farmers in Israel are asking. More importantly, where’s the beef from? That’s what Israeli consumers should apparently be asking.

Earlier this week, Haaretz reported that a truck packed with 70 calves was hijacked at gunpoint on Tuesday February 7, 2012. The cattle, which had been imported to Israel from Australia, were being taken from Eilat to the Golan Heights to be fattened up. Instead, the driver was ordered to drive the cargo to Ramallah. Most of the cattle were apparently slaughtered in Ramallah and Nablus. Palestinian police recovered 17 of them and returned them to their Israeli owners. The remaining purloined sirloins were apparently not recovered. The driver was released by the thieves and the truck was located near Nablus.

Haaretz also reported that more than 2,400 sheep and cattle were stolen from Israeli ranches in 2011. Most of these animals were slaughtered in the Palestinian territories and the meat was then smuggled back into Israel and sold to butchers across the country at very low prices, according to the article. This incident and the many others over the past few years raise serious questions about the regulation and quality of beef in Israel. One would have thought that with such pervasive Kosher regulation of much of the meat industry in Israel, it would be very difficult to trade in uninspected tref beef.

It is worth noting that there are many non-Kosher purveyors of meat products across Israel. The supermarket chain Tiv Ta’am is the largest. With 32 locations across Israel, it is Israel’s largest producer and supplier of non-Kosher meat. I’m not suggesting that there is a link between these incidents and that particular chain although one might think it would be easier to sell uninspected beef to non-Kosher resellers. There are many other non-Kosher butcher shops across the country.

Even on the Kosher side of things, there is the oft-repeated joke that if you pay a mashgiach (a Kosher food inspector) enough, you can Kosher a pig. Although I’m not suggesting that this is what is occurring, there must be a compromised link somewhere along the chain if beef that was slaughtered in Ramallah and Nablus is regularly being sold in Israel, particularly if is labelled as Kosher.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Brussels Air and Air Canada: Tel-Aviv to Toronto

In my never ending search to find the best way to fly back and forth between Tel-Aviv and Toronto, I tried something different. Using Expedia, I put together a mix and match flight. I flew from Tel-Aviv to Toronto via Brussels, with a direct flight back to Tel-Aviv on Air Canada.

As I have explained previously, Air Canada only offers three flights a week from Tel-Aviv to Toronto. All three flights leave around 12:30 p.m. and arrive in Toronto around 6:30 p.m. That means 12 1/2 hours of daytime flying time on route back. Secondly, they currently fly on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays. For me, that leaves Monday or Thursday, neither of which are particularly appealing. It would be much better if they were to fly direct on Saturday and Sunday night from Israel to Canada. But the only Star Alliance partners to offer this alternative are Continental and US Air, and the fares for these flights are often significantly higher.

So I took this crazy flight. It left Tel-Aviv on a Saturday night around 1:20 a.m. That part of it was fine. We arrived in Brussels at about 5:10 a.m. The plane was comparable to Austrian Air's service between Tel-Aviv and Vienna. They had wafer thin chairs cramped closely together. No in-flight entertainment of any kind. And of course, since airlines are now charging for baggage, the passengers all tried to cram as much luggage as they possibly could into the passenger compartment.

I had ordered a Kosher meal and I was served a sandwich of questionable origin and unidentifiable content. But I wasn't particularly hungry at 2:30 a.m. anyways, so it wasn't a big deal. The flight was uneventful and arrived slightly early in Brussels.

I have to say that I enjoyed the Brussels airport. I found it to have a "warmer" feel than the airports in Frankfurt or Vienna. There was a decent lounge, equipped with a nice espresso machine and a selection of croissants. The staff were quite friendly and ensured that I had internet access and the right adapter for the electrical sockets. The difficulty was that the lay over time between flights was 5 hours. So I wound up having to spend about 4 hours in the Brussels airport lounge and the various duty free shops.

On a positive note, the prices in the duty free shops were quite reasonable. They had some great chocolate and a nice selection of single malts. But 5 hours is an excessive time to have to wait for a connection.

The flight back to Toronto was an Air Canada flight which left Brussels at about 10:20 a.m. Its route included a stop in Montreal, which added yet another irritating layer to this flight schedule.

I was lucky enough to get an upgrade so I managed to sleep for a while during the course of this 8 1/2 hour flight. The only complaint I have about this part of things relates to the food.

I had ordered the Kosher meal. This was singularly the most horrible airplane meal I have ever ever had the misfortune of receiving. First, the staff brought out a tray with three small plastic containers, each with an aluminum seal. The first container was a tuna fish compound. I have no idea what was mixed with the tuna or how long ago the atrocity took place. It came with three large crackers. I had a quick sniff and tasted a tiny flake of it. There was no way I was going to eat this stuff.

The second container was labeled tapioca. It was easily as offensive and even less edible than the first container. So now I'm 0 for 2.

Container number three contained red, super sweet, apple sauce. Perhaps it had been mixed with raspberry flavouring or maybe it was just red dye. I"ll never know. I only know that it was not something anyone other than a three month old baby would really want to consider eating.

Finally, the piece de resistance arrived, the hot component of the meal. Lucky me, I was finally going to get something to eat. When I opened the multi-layered aluminum sealant, I found something that resembled a big square hunk of meat loaf. But it didn't look or feel like beef. It might have been chicken... though it had the texture of tofu. In any case, it was simply rancid.

I note that I had asked the staff if there was any chance of getting the regular European Sea Bass meal - or the vegetarian lasagna. Both were sold out and I couldn't eat the chicken or beef alternatives. So I was left struggling with this grotesque culinary faux-pas.

With about two hours left in the flight, the attendant came around and served, believe it or not, a second helping of the entire first meal, minus the simulated meat loaf. Great way to lose some weight.

On arriving in Montreal, we had to take everything off the plane, collect luggage, pass through immigration and customs and then wait for about another hour and a half to get back onto the plane. I finally arrived in Toronto at about 3:20 p.m., having left for the airport in Tel-Aviv approximately 24 hours earlier.

Overall, this was less than an ideal way to fly, though it was certainly inexpensive. And despite the length of the flight, it was probably still more enjoyable then flying through Vienna or Frankfurt, both of which mean getting to the airport in Tel-Aviv at 3:30 a.m. and still arrive in Toronto at about the same time.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Israeli Chief Rabbinate Rules: Häagen Dazs No Longer Kosher in Israel

I'm a little behind (2 or 3 weeks or so) on writing about this one but I couldn't resist. As reported in the Jerusalem Post on January 10, 2012, The Israeli Chief Rabbinate has issued a ruling stating that Häagen-Dazs ice cream is no longer Kosher in Israel. The ruling states that if stores and outlets with Kosher certification carry the products, they could risk losing their Kosher certification. As a result, many stores, including major Israeli supermarket chain "Shopersol," have pulled their Häagen-Dazs products in compliance with this edict.

I have to point out that I have been trying to eat very limited quantities of ice cream (not for any Kosher-related reasons...). If I do feel like some super premium ice cream, I would probably rather have some of Ben and Jerry's New York Super Fudge Chunk or Cherry Garcia. But others might prefer Häagen-Dazs, which is not only supervised by the OU - the largest American Kosher certification body - but has been sold in Israel for many years, as Kosher, without any difficulties.

The Rabbinate's Kosher department claims that since the milk used in Häagen-Dazs ice cream is real milk and it is not supervised at all times by Jews, there is a risk that other impermissible products (such as pig's milk or other additives) might have been added to the milk. Yet the OU and most other authorities accept the fact that with very stringent government regulation of milk in the United States, Häagen-Dazs only uses pure cow's milk. Further, this ice cream has been sold in Israel for years, while being manufactured the very same way. Strangely enough, the Israeli Rabbinate is fine with the use of powdered milk rather than real milk, which, for some inexplicable reason, does not create the risk of the same problem.

What is this really about? Who knows. Perhaps there was some dispute between General Mills and the Israeli Rabbinate over fees. Or perhaps some large Israeli dairies and ice cream producers got to the Rabbinate and "suggested" this ban. Or it could simply be part of a trend of the radicalization of Rabbinical rulings in Israel in a number of different areas, ranging from women's singing, to green vegetables to conversions.

Tellingly, when asked what Häagen-Dazs ice cream lovers in Israel should do if they crave their favourite ice cream, Rabbi Rafi Yochai of the Kosher departement responded that Israelis should "love God more than ice cream." What he really should have said is that Israelis should be willing to love the Chief Rabbinate of Israel more than ice cream - to jump whenever they say jump and to ask "how high?." After all, there is really nothing to suggest that God has suddenly developed a problem with Häagen-Dazs.

In my view, this is related to the type of stringencies that other communities have put in place regarding green vegetables as covered so nicely in David Kraemer's book, Jewish Eating and Identity Through the Ages. It is a further effort by the Chief Rabbinate to extend its authority and control over a wider range of Israeli society.

If the ice cream is deemed to be Kosher but not "mehadrin" or some higher level of Kosher, Israeli consumers should be left to make their own determination as to whether "Kosher" is good enough. The product can be sold as Kosher but not "Chalav Yisroel" as it is in other places. But this is apparently not good enough for the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.

What is needed in Israel to prevent this type of abuse of authority is competition. For one thing, Israel should disband the office of the Chief Rabbinate as a government arm. This should apply to the regulation of weddings (where the Chief Rabbinate also currently enjoys a monopoly), funerals, brit Milah, divorces and other areas, including conversion. Secondly, Israel should allow for competing Kosher certifying bodies which can set their own appropriately strict standards. Those consumers who only wish to buy ingredients that are under the highest level of supervision and the strictest possible interpretation can make all of their purchases in Mea She'arim or B'nei Brak. The rest of us should be free to purchase reasonably supervised Kosher products throughout Israel. Leave it to us to decide whether we have to agree with some rabbi's latest, strictest possible, newly dreamt up basis for banning a currently available food item.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Tali School Ra'anana - Opening Ceremony

Ra’anana celebrated a wonderful occasion on Sunday January 29, 2012, the opening of the city’s first stand-alone elementary Tali school. Tali (a Hebrew acronym for enriched Jewish education) is a unique program which combines a secular education, as mandated by Israel’s Ministry of Education, with a program of modern Jewish studies. Tali’s stated mandate is to provide a love and respect for Jewish learning in a pluralistic environment.

The Tali program was established in Ra’anana in September 1998. Until last week, it was housed within a secular public school, Meged Elementary School. On Sunday, the Frankel Tali Ra’anana School opened with the support of a primary benefactor, Mr. Stanley Frankel.

This new school, which is beautiful, functional and modern, was the product of enormous efforts by a group of parental volunteers, the City of Ra’anana, the Ministry of Education and many other groups and individuals. But the official opening ceremony for the school was simply incredible.

It actually began a few days earlier with a ceremony at the Meged School at which Tali expressed its appreciation and thanks to Meged for hosting Tali for so many years.

On Sunday afternoon, the official opening ceremony began with the gathering of all of the Tali students at a park in Ra’anana. Dressed in white shirts and blue pants, some carrying flags, the students formed a procession by class to accompany the school’s Torah through the streets of Ra’anana to the new school. The procession was led by the principal, who played his guitar and sang along with the children as the group meandered along. At the front of the procession were some grade 5 students who were accompanying the Torah scroll which was being carried along under a canopy (a Chupa).

It is of course no coincidence that the Torah was at the beginning of the line. Given that Judaism and Jewish tradition is based on the Torah, it was most fitting for a Tali school that the Torah, representing Jewish education, Jewish values, commitment and tradition would be the centre of the festivities.

When the procession arrived at the school, parents and guests took their places in the brand new Beit Midrash (a combination auditorium, synagogue, hall etc.,). The Tali choir took its place at the front of the stage, first only the younger members of the choir. The students filed in. Then with most of the students in the room already, the remaining students entered the room with the Torah and placed it in the Aron Hakodesh (the Ark). Everyone said the special “shehechiyanu” prayer and the choir began to sing. It was very emotional, particularly to see the tearful excitement of the parents who had worked so hard to bring this project to fruition.

There were many dignitaries on hand including the Mayor of Ra’anana, a representative from the Ministry of Education and the American ambassador to Israel. The speakers offered different words of congratulation to Tali on the opening of the school. But a common theme, which was highlighted by the American ambassador, was the importance of Tali as a pluralistic, tolerant example for other educational institutions in Israel.

Most of the public schools in Israel are either “religious” or “secular.” The secular schools offer very little in the way of Jewish education. The religious schools often downplay the importance of secular studies and separate the boys from the girls with differences in the respective curricula. Tali aims to combine these two opposites by providing a full and challenging, Ministry approved secular education, while also providing a wide ranging, engaging Jewish curriculum.

As the various speakers finished their presentations, the senior Tali choir sang a number of songs. Once the ceremony concluded, the children were freed for the first time, along with their parents, to roam the three storied school and get a good view of the new facilities.

The new facility is truly magnificent, perhaps one of the nicest elementary schools in Israel. But the ceremony, the Torah, and the Tali children’s choir all signified that the educational content will be far more important than the building.

Israeli Kosher Wine Festival - Jerusalem - Jan 30 and 31, 2012

I attended a Kosher Israeli wine festival in Jerusalem on January 30, 2012. It was touted as the first entirely Kosher wine festival in Israel. Although there are more than 250 wineries in Israel, many are not certified as Kosher. As a result, most Israeli wine festivals feature a mixture of Kosher certified and non-Kosher certified wines. There are very high quality Israeli wineries in both categories, though all of Israel’s largest wineries have Kosher certification. Often it is seen as too expensive for the smaller wineries to make arrangements to get official certification.

The festival was held at Binyanei Ha-umah – the Jerusalem International Convention Centre. Running from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. for two days, the exhibition featured booths from more than 30 wineries, all Israeli. With a relatively modest admission fee of approximately $20 (or $10 in advance) guests were given a Spiegelau red wine glass (that they could keep afterwards). We are able to wander around tasting 2 to 5 wines from each of the different represented wineries. It is of course crucial to either take public transit to this kind of event or spit out most of the wine. We opted for the former, since the location was right next to the Central Jerusalem bus station and I would hate to have to spit out all of that tasty wine.

Most of the wineries were not hesitant to provide tasting samples of some of their best wines. For example, Recanati was offering tastes of its award winning “Special Reserve” that sells for approximately $50 a bottle. Golan, Dalton, Carmel and others were also pouring some very nice wines.

I particularly enjoyed visiting with the folks from Ben Haim and Sagol wineries and sampling some of the delicious wines while chatting with the friendly vintners. Ben Haim was pouring a 2003 reserve Merlot…which was quite enjoyable.

One winery, Rimon, was offering sweet dessert and port style pomegranate wines. I have had Rimon’s dry pomegranate wine and quite enjoyed it. These dessert wines were a bit too sweet for my general consumption.

Wines were available for purchase at a discount, with a larger discount being offered for much larger purchases. There were also some food booths outside the exhibition centre including sushi, bread and cheese plates, and some other offerings.

The crowd was interesting. Since this was a Kosher festival, it drew a wide range of guests from the secular to the religious and even ultra-religious, all of whom were able to enjoy the same wine.

I won’t write extensively now about the real differences between Kosher certified and non-Kosher certified wine but we did witness an incident at one of the booths. An observant Orthodox woman reached over to pick up and look at a bottle of wine. The Mashgiach at the booth announced that since she had touched the bottle, he had to declare it “traif” and could no longer serve at. I won’t get into all the details of this now, though there actually were some women at some of the booths serving wine.

Overall, the facility was very nicely arranged and the booths were quite attractive. We enjoyed it quite a bit, though to quote one of my favourite cousins, I was probably somewhat “overserved.”