Monday, May 28, 2012

African Migrants in South-Tel-Aviv: Some Recent Issues

For Jewish people, Passover marks the beginning of a 50 day time period between two Jewish holidays. The holiday of Passover - Pesach - commemorates the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the eventual land of Israel. 50 days later, Jews celebrate the holiday of Shavuoth, which marks the receipt of the Torah. On Shavuoth, the Torah reading that is read out loud in synagogues across the world includes the Ten Commandments. The two holidays, Shavuoth and Pesach, are linked by the idea that with freedom comes responsibility; that it is the rule of law that brings order and justice to a community.

As Jews in Israel celebrated their freedom and independence this year, marking not only the holidays of Pesach and Shavuoth but other national holidays that fall within that same 50-day time period including Israeli Independence Day (Yom Haatzmauth) and Israel's Memorial Day (Yom Hazikaron), Israelis were also forced to wrestle with the issue of freedom for a different group of people - African migrants who have made their way to Israel from Sudan, South Sudan and Eritrea.

What are the legal and moral obligations of western democracies with respect to refugee claims? Are countries obligated to receive and provide shelter for all those who arrive from war-torn or famine-torn countries? If so, if that is something intended by the UN, does the U.N. and its constituent countries have any obligations to help settle, disperse or absorb these refugees and migrants? Or is it just a matter of requiring the nearest country to absorb whatever numbers arrive?

Over the past few years, Israel has seen a very large number of migrants from different African countries, particularly Sudan, South Sudan and Eritrea enter the country. (Eritrea borders Sudan and Ethiopia - see map). Many of these migrants walk through Egypt on a perilous journey to make it to Israel's border, where they cross illegally and enter Israel. Along they way, they are often aided by Bedouins, some of whom provide helpful support. But many are not as lucky and face all kinds of difficulties crossing through Egypt where they can wind up being jailed, attacked or even shot to death by Egyptians including Egyptian military officials or police.

Until recently, Israel's border with Egypt was not very secure. Migrant Africans have been crossing into Israel in all different ways, other than through the official border crossing stations. The Israeli government is now in the process of building a giant wall along the border to control immigration access, primarily as a reaction to this flood of illegal immigration.

Some monitoring groups have put the estimated number of African migrants reaching Israel at 1,500 to 2,000 per month, with estimates of a total of 60,000 now living in Israel, a country with a total population of approximately 7,800,000 of whom, close to 6 million are Jewish.

Many of the African migrants have congregated in the South Tel-Aviv neighbourhood of Hatikvah. According to Israeli law, the children of the migrants are able to attend school and many have been doing so. But since the parents are not legal immigrants, they are not given ID numbers and are therefore not entitled to work in Israel legally. They are not being treated as landed immigrants - though a few hundred have been treated as such. As a result, they are currently living in slum like conditions amidst a population that is very concerned about the threats to its public safety, security and its financial capacity to provide support to this growing number of newly arrived migrant Africans. As difficult as these conditions are for the African migrants who arrive, the migrants are also aware that Israel treats them much better than any of the surrounding Middle Eastern countries, though many would prefer to make it to Italy or France.

This issue has created a great deal of discussion and controversy recently in Israel, particularly after a few highly publicized incidents of criminal conduct involving migrant Africans and at least two brutal sexual assaults. The issue has occupied many of the news headlines, the airwaves on radio talk shows and political discussions, particularly, after some highly publicized crimes.

Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu got the ball rolling by noting that 60,000 could soon turn into 600,000 and that could "threaten our existence as a Jewish and Democratic State." A few days later, Likud MK (Member of Knesset - the Israeli Parliament) Miri Regev called the Sudanese migrants "a cancer in our body." The Israeli Minister of the Interior Eli Yishai called for the detention and expulsion of all asylum seekers. The Attorney General, Yehudah Weinstein has asked for a court order to permit large scale deportation. So far, his request has been rejected though Israeli courts are still hearing these petitions.

Not surprisingly, some of these provocative, racially laced statements fostered an environment in which a group of 1,000 Israeli protesters turned up in the Hatikvah neighbourhood on Wednesday night May 23, 2012 to demand that the Africans be expelled. Some Sudanese and Eritreans were beaten up by some of the protesters. 17 Israeli were arrested. Protesters held viciously worded banners directed at illegal African immigrants.

This violence and hatred was roundly condemned by Prime Minister Netanyahu. But the underlying issues are quite difficult. Israel cannot be expected to absorb hundreds of thousands of migrant Africans merely because they arrived at Israel's borders. At the same time, Israel is not about to send people back to places where they face a high risk of death because of political or military-civilian strife. Even if the main issue is starvation or disastrous economic conditions, rather than political fighting, civil war, or threatened genocide, there is still a compelling case to be made that a significant number of these migrants should be allowed to stay in Israel, even if only temporarily, until the African strife is resolved.

After all, many Israels know their history well and know that no country wanted to accept Jewish refugees who were trying to flee Europe in search of safety. Many Israelis feel that it is incumbent on Jewish people to demonstrate that they can address this type of issue more appropriately. Some other Israelis have responded by arguing that the current wave of migrant Africans are economic refugees who are seeking a better life - and that this is a very different category from people fleeing genocide. Moreover, they argue the UN and other international agencies, bodies and states must share this challenge and find a way to resettle these African migrants if they cannot be repatriated.

Israeli courts are hearing and adjudicating applications to deport or expel large numbers of these migrants. Some Knesset members have been calling for the full and immediate expulsion of all illegal migrants. But the source countries each present their own difficulties. Whether it is extremely dangerous conditions (as in the case of Eritrea) or countries that do not have diplomatic relationships with Israel (Sudan), it is simply not feasible to expect that Israel will
be able to carry out that type of mass repatriation (or expulsion).

Moreover, even if Israel could expel all of these migrants, there are a growing number of voices calling for Israel to find a way to absorb at least a significant number.

The additional goal with which Israel must contend is to ensure that Israel, as a Jewish state, continues to serve as a homeland, a haven and a place of refuge for Jewish people from around the world. Israel has absorbed Jewish refugees, in large numbers from Ethiopia, Yemen, the former Soviet Republic and other places. Israel has also absorbed and sheltered non-Jewish refugees from countries including Cambodia and others. But demographically, culturally and religiously, Israel is not in a position to grant hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish migrants landed immigrant status.

So how does Israeli reconcile the "freedom" for the people of Israel with the freedom sought by the African migrants? This has not yet been answered. There have been many different ideas thrown about, including the idea of running large refugee type camps in southern Israel or caravan housing communities until the problems in African blow over somewhat - but that could be generations and could require enormous financial contributions on Israel's part; or simply absorbing and dispersing a certain number of migrants throughout the country rather than see them concentrated in one area. The key challenge will be to absorb at least a certain number in a way that allows them to get decent education, housing and healthcare and to truly become Israelis, while cognizant of the "mission statement" of the country of Israel to serve as a homeland for the Jewish people. And even significant absorption would still means tens of thousands of African migrants who Israel will not be able to absorb. The other countries of the world will have to assist with creative solutions to help the fleeing people of Africa. Even though Israel is closer to Africa than most European countries, it is a very small country and cannot be expected to address a disproportionately large share of this challenging problem.

Hopefully, sooner rather than later, the world and the African countries will tackle the real problem and will find a way to improve the situation in Africa and reduce or eliminate the need for so many people to flee.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Peter Beinart: The Crisis of Zionism - A Review

After reading and reviewing the wonderfully optimistic book Start-Up Nation, I decided to "balance" it by reading Peter Beinart's The Crisis of Zionism. Beinart is a self-described liberal Zionist with a serious interest in Judaism and in the future of Israel. His book is an attack on Israeli policies with respect to the disputed territories and a call for action in the form of a boycott of West Bank products. Unlike other members of the anti-Israel left, Beinart calls for those boycotting West Bank products to make an equally vigorous effort to buy products and patronize companies from within Israel's "green line." This, he proposes, is intended to offset the idea that boycotting the West Bank is "anti-Israel."

Beinart's book is well written and interesting but ultimately, somewhat flawed. His view of Israel's role in its ongoing dispute with the Palestinians is either naive or willfully blind in that he seems to place the blame for just about everything squarely on Israel's shoulders. There is little discussion in the book of Palestinian extremism, nor is there any real discussion of a legitimate compromise proposal for ending the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Moreover, throughout the book, Palestinian acts of terrorism are minimized or downplayed. Beinart even finds a way to blame the failure of Camp David and the subsequent 2nd Intifada on Israel, even though he concedes that Arafat does not even appear to have made a genuine counter-proposal in response to the huge concessions that were proposed by the Israelis. Nevertheless, Beinart's focus on the urgent need to reach a peace deal with a two state solution is intended to benefit Palestinians and Israelis and is laudable.

His chapter entitled "The Crisis in Israel," focuses on the discrepancy between Israeli democracy and equality of rights within the "green line" area and the current situation in the disputed territories. There is nothing new here about the idea that Israel is facing an increasingly difficult challenge in trying to reconcile the idea of a "Jewish State" with the goal of a liberal, democratic State, while trying to find a way to resolve the issue of the territories. The current status quo threatens not only the lives and living conditions of the Palestinians but also threatens Israel's condition as a viable liberal democracy. It is hard to disagree with this part of Beinart's analysis and many Israelis, on the left and in the centre of the Israeli political landscape would agree.

Beinart then switches over to the United States, where he paints a grim picture of American Jewry. Characterizing the vast majority of Jews as liberal democrats, Beinart rails against "America's major Jewish organizations" as having lurched to the right. A particular focus of his attacks is Abe Foxman, National Director of the ADL, who is "beholden to no one but the philanthropic dollar." Beinart attacks the ADL and the AJC (American Jewish Committee) for supporting the policies of the Israeli government and for failing to "challenge the occupation." He even manages to defend former President Jimmy Carter, despite the overwhelming evidence that Allan Dershowitz has put forward with respect to Carter's ill-will towards Israel.

In a chapter entitled "Is the Occupation Israel's Fault?," Beinart minimizes the security threat to Israel that an immediate withdrawal from the territories would entail by arguing that Israel is already within rocket range of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. He suggests that Israel should rely on its "credible deterrent." Of course, this is not been a great success with respect to Gaza from which Israel has faced numerous rocket attacks after withdrawing its forces. Beinart then runs through the peace deals offered by former Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert and concludes that these offers were rightly rejected by the Palestinians as insufficient, even though, he concedes, "there is a dispute about whether Arafat made any offer at all." While there were (and still are) clearly disputed issues, including the future of Jerusalem (in particular the Temple Mount), the issue of Palestinian refugees and the exact nature of the land swap envisioned, Beinart seems to suggest that Israel should have fully conceded its position on each of these issues. Moreover, despite the fact that the issue of "land swaps" was supposedly negotiated down to a difference of 4% of the total area of the West Bank (the Israelis proposing to keep 6% and the Palestinians proposing 2%), Beinart also lays the blame for this failure on the Israeli side. From Beinart's viewpoint, the dispute comes down to the disputed West Bank city of Ariel, which Israel refused to agree to dismantle.

Beinart goes on to describe subsequent events when former President Bill Clinton outlined parameters that "went well beyond Barak's proposal at Camp David": "Arafat accepted the Clinton parameters in principle, but then offered reservations that rendered his acceptance virtually meaningless." Beinart paints former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to withdraw from Gaza as part of a "hidden agenda" to allow Israel to continue to hold the rest of the West Bank. By way of contrast, on the Palestinian side, even Hamas gets off lightly. Its charter, calling for Israel's destruction is downplayed and Beinart justifies Hamas' decision to fire missiles into Israel. Again, he concedes that "Hamas had been killing Israelis since the 1990s," but somehow makes the case that if Israel had just lifted its blockade against Hamas and ceased any attacks (including retaliatory attacks), everything would have been wonderful and the Hamas rocket attacks would have ceased. None of this is intended, on my part, to argue that the situation in Gaza is very good. However, I think it is fair to say that if the Palestinian leadership took a different tactic following Israel's unilateral withdrawal, there could have been significant economic cooperation between Israel and Gaza that would have greatly improved the situation for Gaza's Palestinians. Instead, Gaza's leadership focused on amassing weapons, firing rockets and public relations exercises instead of working towards an arrangement with Israel that would have ameliorated conditions for Gazans.

In a chapter entitled "the Jewish President," Beinart reviews President Obama's credentials as a liberal, philo-Semitic president, whose own daughters attended a Solomon Schecter Day School in the Chicago era. Describing Obama as having been influenced by the late influential Conservative Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (who marched with Martin Luther King Jr.), Beinart also describes the connection between Rabbi Arnold Wolf of Chicago's Temple Solel, who was one of Obama's "earliest and most prominent supporters." Overall, Beinart describes Obama as sharing a liberal Zionist view of Israel with a range of influential Jewish friends. According to Beinart's description, this would include pressuring Israel to make concessions with respect to the occupied territories, but in the name of preserving a liberal Zionist vision of Israel rather than as a way of attacking Israel.

As much as Obama is described in the book as a supporter of everything that is good about Israel, Netanyahu is no doubt, in Beinart's view, the devil incarnate. Describing Netanyahu as an heir to the chauvinistic Jabotinsky school of right wing Zionism, Beinart traces Netanyahu's political lineage from Jabotinsky to Benzion Netanyahu (Prime Minister Netanyahu's late father) to Netanyahu himself. Along the way, he suggests that Netanyahu is a racist, advocates a policy of physically transferring Palestinians out of Israel and the West Bank, and sprinkles in selective quotes from Netanyahu's 1993 book, A Place Among Nations, and its 2000 reprint, A Durable Peace. Overall he describes Netanyahu as a monist Zionist, who "subordinates external moral considerations to Zionism itself." He also reviews Netanyahu's close connections with AIPAC and wonders about the source of Netanyahu's electoral campaign funding. While Beinart may ultimately be accurate in his description of Netanyahu's reluctance to agree to the type of peace deal that Netanyahu's predecessors were being pressured to sign (if only the Palestinians would have also agreed), Beinart omits the massive swing in Israeli popular sentiment that followed the collapse of the peace talks and the onset of a new wave of violence. In a sense, Beinart's book advocates boycotting Netanyahu as much as any given policy. Ultimately, with the recent change to Netanyahu's coalition to now include the Kadima party, it remains to be seen whether there is any accuracy to Beinart's description.

Beinart's antipathy towards Netanyahu comes through even more clearly as Beinart describes the public clashes between President Obama and Netanyahu. Noting that Obama received 78% of the Jewish vote in the 2008 Presidential election, Beinart argues that he and many others were hopeful that Obama could lead a shift in U.S. policy to bolster the liberal Zionist vision of Israel that they shared and bring about an end to the Israeli occupation of the territories. But Beinart goes on to describe a series of confrontations between Obama and Netanyahu and concludes that Obama was completely "humbled" as a result of pressure from AIPAC and other powerful, sometimes unnamed, Jewish and fundamentalist Christian sources. Ultimately, Obama was forced, as Beinart describes it, to back down from insisting on a complete settlement freeze and was publicly embarrassed and humiliated in the process. Of course, another possibility is that Obama began to rethink some of his policies with respect to Israel but that wouldn't fit too well with Beinart's thesis.

Beinart's chapter on the future of American Jewry hits closer to home since his description is also somewhat applicable to Canadian Jewry - and even Israeli Jewry. Jewish families who send their children to Jewish day schools are the ones who are continuing to carry on Jewish traditions and minimize the likelihood of intermarriage and assimilation. These families, especially in the United States, but in other areas as well are predominantly Orthodox. This means, in Beinart's view, that the number of actively involved, liberal, non-Orthodox Jews is steadily declining, relative to the overall population of committed Jews. Since these liberal Jews are the people who would share Beinart's view of a liberal Israel, their influence is steadily waning in the Jewish community. I have to note that this is also the case in Israel, which provides full state support for Orthodox schools but does not have a sufficient number of liberal, Jewish schools in which children can learn about and practice liberal Judaism. For Beinart, the net result is a prediction that the major American Jewish organizations will come to be dominated increasingly by Orthodox Jews with an illiberal agenda. This type of change is also occurring in Israel and has led to many different challenges pitting Orthodox Jews against others who advocate an egalitarian, democratic agenda. The ultimate result, if Israel does not save itself now, according to Beinart, would be a lurch towards a non-liberal version of Jewish Zionism at the expense of the liberal Zionist vision that many of the founders of Israel originally shared, and which included principles of democracy and equality for all Israeli citizens.

Beinart's solution to all of this is to propose a modified version of the "Boycott, Divest from and Sanction" ("BDS") campaign. He calls for people to refer to Israel as being divided into two parts - "democratic Israel" and "non-democratic Israel." He also calls for a boycott of settlers and their products while tempering that with an "equally vigorous embrace of the people and products of democratic Israel." He proposes that East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights not be included in the definition of "non-democratic Israel" since the Palestinians in those areas can actually obtain full Israeli citizenship.

If the only existential issue that Israel faced was dealing with the territories, Beinart's analysis might make some sense. But he dramatically minimizes that true existential threats to Israel. He barely mentions the 2006 war with Lebanon, the Iranian nuclear threat, the ongoing missile attacks from Gaza and the other threats that Israel faces. In short, he has a very rosy picture of how Israel might defend itself from attacks that would emanate from very close range following a full withdrawal from the territories. Moreover, given the fact that he has shifted the blame for the failure to reach a peace deal to Israel, almost entirely, he implicitly absolves the world from the need to pressure the Palestinians equally.

With the two sides, according to Beinart, having come as close to a deal as he describes, one would think that it would make sense to pressure both sides. For example, it seems quite unrealistic to expect that Israel will accept a "right to return" for the Palestinian refugees. Most Jews living in surrounding Arab countries left or were expelled following the establishment of Israel. Moreover, one state was designated as a Jewish state and the other as a Palestinian state. Sure, the Palestinian state should be entitled to offer an unlimited right of return for Palestinians from anywhere in the world who wish to return to the area and live in the Palestinian state. But to this point, even as Beinart describes it, the Palestinians appear to be demanding the right to have refugees return to and live in Israel, while having a Palestinian state that is virtually, if not completely, free of Jews.

Many in Israel, on the left and even the centre of the political spectrum will agree with Beinart's overriding thesis that Israel cannot continue as a liberal democratic country without reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians. And many would like to see that deal concluded as soon as possible and believe that Israel should be willing to make significant concessions to reach a deal. Yet many in Israel, even those on the centre and the left, have real concerns, based on experience from the last go-round, that the Palestinians are not prepared or are not politically able to make corresponding concessions that will be required to reach a deal. The central flaw of Beinart's book is that he downplays this possibility and places virtually all of the blame on Israel, which allows him to advocate joining the BDS crowd, with a modifying twist. A more balanced recount of historical events might have led Beinart to advocate pressuring (or boycotting) both sides in an effort to reach a lasting deal.

Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle

Many of the readers of this blog may have already read Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle,” since it was released in 2009. By I only had the chance to read it recently, and I thought I would add some short comments to my blog.

Written by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, Start-Up Nation is an essay-style book about the factors that have led to Israeli success, primarily in the high tech area. It is a fairly quick read, filled with interesting facts and information. The authors interviewed quite a number of people in putting together their report-style work, including Israeli business leaders, entrepreneurs, politicians and others.

Senor and Singer run through some of the aspects of Israeli society that have contributed to Israel’s unique success in some high tech areas. They highlight the mandatory military service that all Israelis are required to perform and write extensively about the positive benefits of that service. In particular, they highlight Israeli military culture, which is much “flatter” and less hierarchical than most other militaries. According to Senor and Singer, Israeli recruits and serving members of the armed forces have a great deal of independence and autonomy. They are encouraged to question their superiors and make crucial decisions themselves. Unlike the U.S. slogan of “salute the rank, not the person,” Israeli soldiers are taught to pay more attention to the decisions the person is making. This culture of individual responsibility and questioning of authority continues after military service into workplaces across the country. A CEO might face abrupt questioning from a very junior employee and that is viewed as very helpful for corporate development.

The authors also discuss a number of other factors including the impact of massive immigration to Israel from the former Soviet Union and from Ethiopia; the adaptation of technology from the military to the private sector in so many areas; the participation by the government and government-related organizations in funding start-up business; a sea change in the way the Israeli government has regulated economic policy in Israel since the mid ‘90s; and a general cultural idea that it is okay to fail in business – the first time or even the first few times.

Along the way, a fascinating history of Israel’s economic development is presented. This is not an all-encompassing look at the history of Israel nor is it a political essay. The authors briefly touch on the need to address issues involving Israeli-Palestinian tensions, secular-religious tensions and other issues that might threaten the continued success of Israel’s economy. But above all, this is an optimistic and fascinating look at the massive growth of the Israeli economy – with an effort to suggest how some other countries might emulate some of Israel’s key strategies.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Jerusalem Day 2012 - In Jerusalem and Ra'anana

April and May are filled with various holidays and days of commemoration in Israel. Yesterday, Israel celebrated Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day), marking the 45th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem.

In many ways, Jerusalem is really the heart and centre of Israel and of the Zionist enterprise. The historical link of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is visible for all to see at the archaeological ruins at the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem. The epicentre of the story is the tunnels that have been excavated next to the Kotel (the Western Wall) where visitors can travel underground through history to see the multiple layers that have been built and rebuilt on the site where the two great temples once stood and the surrounding plaza area.

Today, the Dome of the Rock, the large golden domed mosque, which was built in 691 CE, some 620 years after the destruction of the second Temple, sits on exactly the spot where the Temple once stood. It is little wonder then that the Old City of Jerusalem is so hotly contested.

According the original U.N. partition plan in 1947, Jerusalem was to be an "International City" with full access to all to the religious sites that are holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians. During Israel's Independence War in 1948, Jordan gained control of much of Jerusalem and the Old City in particular, including the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock and other sites that are holy to three of the world's major religions. Israel held the western half of Jerusalem, where the Israeli parliament (the "Knesset") was established. Jerusalem was named the capital of Israel though, to this day, only a few countries have recognized it as such. Most others have insisted in putting their embassies and consulates in Tel-Aviv.

Between 1948 and 1967, Jews were denied access to Jerusalem's Old City. Many of the religious sites were destroyed and desecrated. Ruins were removed. The city was divided with part held by Jordan and the other part held by Israel.

In June 1967, during the six-day war, Israel took control of the Old City of Jerusalem. The Israeli government later declared that it had annexed Jerusalem, reunited it and “liberated” the City. Jerusalem's holy sites are now open and accessible to all. The Dome of the Rock is managed by Muslim religious authorities and is fully accessible to Muslims. Similarly the Christian religious sites are open and accessible to all. Since 1967, Israel has excavated, restored and rebuilt much of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. Old synagogues have been reopened. The plaza area of the Kotel has been expanded and is clearly the religious heart of the country. Jews from all over Israel (and all over the world) visit the Kotel for holiday celebrations, bar mitzvahs and, in the case of tourists, as one of the most important highlights of a trip to Israel.

Jerusalem is also at the centre of the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians. Both sides lay claims to the very same piece of land on which the Dome of the Rock now stands and on which two Temples once stood. The Old City of Jerusalem and East Jerusalem have significant Arab populations and the Palestinians would like to make Jerusalem the capital of their eventual state. While some Israeli negotiators have been willing to make some concessions with respect to Jerusalem, none of these concessions were viewed as sufficient by the Palestinians. The Bill Clinton brokered peace talks apparently collapsed over this very issue. Now the political climate in Israel has shifted somewhat and there is little appetite for any deal that might give up control over East Jerusalem and certainly not the walled Old City, which includes Judaism’s holiest site.

It might be fair to say that Jerusalem Day is marked most fervently by Orthodox Jews and in particular by those on the right of political spectrum. Yesterday, for example, a group of observant Jews went to conduct prayer services on the grounds of the Dome of the Rock, since this was the exact spot on which the Temple once stood. Though this is somewhat provocative, it is a site that is holy to different groups and ought to be accessible as such.

Jerusalem celebrations took place across the country. Here in Ra’anana, at the centre of the city, Yad L’Banim, a communal sing-a-long was organized where participants were invited to join in singing songs about Jerusalem.

I decided to wander over to the festivities which were about ten minutes walking distance from my place. The evening featured well known counter-tenor David D’Or along with a group of symphony musicians. It also featured a group of singers known as “Kolot Min Hashamayim” – “Voices from the Heavens” from the Melachim School. The Mayor of Ra’anana, Nahum Hofri, was invited to the stage and led the singing of one of Israel’s most iconic songs, Yerushalayim Shel Zahav (“Jerusalem of Gold”).

But after watching the performances for a little while, I couldn’t help but notice that there were no women singers. Kolot Min Hashamayim is a religious choir which uses prepubescent boys to sing the female parts. I was standing and listening to some well- known pieces of music that feature some wonderful female vocal parts which were all being sung by young boys. While this is common in Orthodox Synagogues, singing liturgical pieces, it has certainly never been a major part of public Israeli national celebrations. In fact, one of the great things that Israel has produced has been music, sung by men and women together. Here, from looking at the program, there were no "mixed" performances scheduled and no women vocalists. Standing and watching these performances, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of "Sharia creep" – the idea that the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox were expanding their influence beyond synagogues to include public celebrations. As I have written in other blogs, the issue of public performances by female vocalists has been attracting a great deal of attention as ultra-orthodox groups have been trying to limit or eliminate these performances. Feeling that I was participating in something that was edging closer to Iran, I couldn’t help but leave before the evening ended.

Is there a tie in between the fervent celebration of Jerusalem Day and the issue of Sharia creep, barring women from singing publicly? Perhaps not, though it is probably fair to say that those on the political and religious left are much less inclined to celebrate Jerusalem Day as fervently. For many on that end of the spectrum, Jerusalem Day is a reminder that there is a still a great deal of unfinished business – that the need to reach a peace deal or an arrangement with the Palestinians is urgent and that Jerusalem is still at the heart of the dispute. Even so, there is probably still a broad national consensus supporting the current Israeli political position that the Old City of Jerusalem can never again be divided, which is at least some cause for commemoration and celebration by all those who support that view.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Lag B'Omer in Israel: National "Bonfire Day"

For Israeli kids, Lag B'Omer is one of the most exciting holidays of the year. It takes place on the 18th day of the Hebrew month of Iyar. This year, that was the 10th of May, 2012. The holiday marks the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a great Mishnah-era rabbi. There are many religious aspects to the celebration of the holiday, primarily observed by the Orthodox and ultra-Orthdox communities. For example, many Orthodox families only cut their son's hair for the first time when he turns 3 years of age - at the first Lag B'Omer after the third birthday.

For most other Israelis, the holiday is bonfire day. People across Israel celebrate the holiday after sundown the previous evening by getting together and lighting huge bonfires. If you were to fly over Israel at 9 or 10 p.m., or even 12:00 a.m. on Lag B'Omer, it would probably look like the country had been attacked. Huge fires everywhere and billows of smoke.

Israelis gather around these bonfires and roast marshmallows, sing songs and enjoy barbecued food while making the bonfire as big as possible. From just after Pesach (Passover), you can see young kids walking along streets and sidewalks pulling wagon loads of wood that they have found to store and prepare for the big day.

The remarkable thing, in typically Israeli style, is the emphasis on independence and relatively minimal supevision for teens as young as 13. Often, groups of kids, 13-18, gather together for bonfires and barbecues without any adults or adult supervision. It seems incredible that some of these fires don't get completely out of hand but children in Israel are often given a great deal of independence and responsibility from an early age.

Many of the older kids stay out all night and Lag B'Omer is a school holiday. For parents, particularly parents of teenagers, it can be stressful worrying about the safety of some of these bonfires. Is your child going to be the foolish one who tries to show everyone that he or she can jump through the bonfire, unscathed? (Don't think I'm making that up...) But for the kids, Lag B'Omer really is a highlight of the year. Most are well behaved and there are relatively few incidents reported each year. Israeli culture has taken a holiday that was religious in origin and turned it, largely, into a secular fire festival, accessible to and celebrated by Israelis across the spectrum from the religious and ultra-religious to the avowedly secular and atheist.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Shirat Machar Musical Group Releases New CD

Shirat Machar ("Tomorrow's song") held a CD launch concert last night at Beit Barbur in Tel-Aviv. The concert was attended by several hundred people and was a great musical success.

Shirat Machar is an Israeli vocal group, something like a Glee-type show choir, but with much less extravagant production. The group is comprised of teenagers from all over Israel who are part of the Noam youth movement. The executive producer of the group is Dror Alexander, a well known Israeli musical producer who has produced Dudu Fisher's performances and has been involved in major broadway productions that have been staged in Israel.

Potential members audition for the group each year as the older members graduate high school and begin compulsory military service. This year, Shirat Machar was made up of 11 young men and women, all in high school from grades 9 to 12. Led by Amishar Frutkoff, the group practised weekly (and sometimes more often) to prepare for a number of different performances that it held during the year and to record Shirat Machar's 4th CD. Group members travelled from different places to attend practice sessions in Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv or, sometimes, at members' homes in different locations.

As part of Noam (Israel's Conservative Jewish youth movement), Shirat Machar members are all involved in Noam, whether as counselors, educational staff, camp staff or coordinators. Somewhat of a blend between Scouts and USY (United Synagogue Youth - the North American Conservative Jewish youth movement), Noam runs weekly programs all over Israel. It also organizes a number of annual trips ("tiyulim") which can include desert or mountain hikes, camping, and water activities. The highlight of its calendar is a summer camp program that runs annually in July. Noam's events always include educational activities and egalitarian religious (Conservative) services. Noam emphasizes egalitarianism, Jewish heritage and tradition, Zionism, and, most importantly - "tikkun olam" - making the world a better place. This can mean becoming involved in community activities, social welfare projects or other programs that allow Noam members to help others and to build a better world.

Shirat Machar was established four years ago to be the musical ambassador of Noam. It performs at most major nationwide NOAM events and has also performed in the United States and at the annual national Masorti movement assembly in Israel. This year, Shirat Machar performed at a dinner at the latter event, which was attended by Israeli President Shimon Peres. As President Peres began his speech, just after a Noam musical number, he commented about how proud he was to see young women and men singing together in this type of group after recent media reports of attempts by ultra-orthodox Jews to prevent women from singing in public.

Shirat Machar's new CD is entitled "B'Shir v'Kol Todah" - "In Song and in Voice - Thank You." The CD includes 11 tracks. Some are versions of liturgical music - Zamru, Ivdu et Hashem. Other tracks include meddlies of songs by well known Israel singers Shlomo Artzi and Eyal Golan. The CD also includes the Noam theme song.

Like any organization, Shirat Machar is not without its challenges. The group has been funded by Noam and by the Masorti movement in Israel. Masorti Israel has been facing significant financial challenges and as a result, it has had to cut some programs. At this point, the Masorti movement has announced that it will not be able to continue funding Shirat Machar, which could mean that this would be its final year.

The annual funding required is approximately $18,000 (Canadian - or U.S. -the difference is minimal these days...). While members each pay an annual fee, the $18,000 has historically been provided by the Masorti movement and Israel. At this point, Shira Machar is looking for sources (or even just one source) for funding for the coming year (2012-13). Interested sponsors in Canada can donate money to the Centre for Masorti Judaism and can earrmark the money for Shirat Machar. Sponsors from the United States can do that same at Full tax receipts are provided by both sites.

While my blog is generally not a fund raising vehicle - and in fact - it currently does not include any advertisements - it seems to me that this is a very important project with a relatively modest funding request. Music is such an important part of Jewish tradition. Getting young people involved musically is often a path to continued and increase involvement in a range of areas. With Shirat Machar's emphasis on music and on Noam values, the members of Shirat Machar are ambassadors of the Conservative movement in Israel and worldwide. The group touches Noam members throughout Israel who see and hear them perform and it also helps further the values of egalitarianism, Judaism and tikkun olam.

Please pass this along to anyone you know who might be in a position to make a contribution or who might have a suggeston. Shirat Machar is a non-profit choir. We hope that its name, "Tomorrow's Song" will ring true and that Shirat Machar will continue in the coming years.

For more information or to see pictures and video clips, please visit the web page...

Monday, May 14, 2012

Delectable Lie: A Liberal Repudiation of Multiculturalism by Salim Mansur - Review

Is multiculturalism in a liberal democratic country a flawed policy? Salim Mansur makes that argument in his recent book Delectable Lie: A Liberal Repudiation of Multiculturalism. The book is thought provoking and contains a considered review of the works of many different writers and thinkers in a broad range of disciplines, including, primarily, philosophers and political scientists. Ultimately, however, the attack fails unless you accept Mansur’s definition of multiculturalism. Otherwise, Mansur’s book can be read as sounding the warning bell about a number of different issues that justifiably need to be addressed. But if the reader does not accept Mansur’s initial all-encompassing definition of multiculturalism, the rest of Mansur’s argument falls short.

Mansur begins with a definition of multiculturalism as the idea that “all cultures are equal and deserving of equal treatment in a liberal democracy.” With this definition, he asserts that multicultural societies, by definition, accept that any practice, by any cultural group, should be protected and promoted. He further claims that multiculturalism “assaults liberal democracy” by recognizing group identity and by causing the country to adapt to the requirements and values of other cultural groups. If this is what multiculturalism really meant, then perhaps Mansur might be right. But I do not believe that most inhabitants of multicultural countries really believe that this is a correct summary of a multicultural mission statement.

Mansur’s primary argument is that individual freedom is the primary hallmark of a truly free society and that any imposition of equality rights cuts into true “freedom.” Perhaps tellingly, he starts with the idea that “all men are created equal.” So who is really free under that vision of freedom? Men only? White men only? Struggling to get around this problem, he posits a “correction” to this liberal theory and notes that both the emancipation of women and the elimination of slavery and black/white discrimination were “corrections” to the principle of liberty that was defined originally but had otherwise fallen somewhat short.

In providing a list of truly free countries in the world today, Mansur includes the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, countries of Western Europe and Israel. What makes these countries so free? On the one hand, Mansur is correct that they value fundamental freedoms including freedom of speech, religion, a free judiciary and other freedoms. On the other hand, these countries also aim to protect and promote equality, including equality of opportunity, regardless of skin colour, gender, religious or cultural heritage, background or other characteristics. In some ways, it can be argued that these countries are truly “free” because they are multicultural. Anyone, regardless of his or her religious or cultural background, gender, colour or other personal characteristics, whether shared with a group or not, can participate equally in a truly free society.

Interestingly, Mansur includes a quote from the late former Prime Minister of Canada, Pierre Trudeau citing one of the purposes of multiculturalism:

“to assist members of all cultural groups to overcame barriers to full participation in Canadian society”

This does not really seem that objectionable. Yet Mansur argues that the recognition of the importance of any group or collective rights is “flawed.” Does that mean that all minority religious practices should be banned? Mansur does not propose this, though it might be the logical conclusion to his line of argument.

As the book develops, Mansur turns his attention to those who would take advantage of multiculturalism and use it to destroy a multicultural society. He argues that “host countries in the West readily provide welfare to those, such as radical Muslim priests and Islamists who brazenly ridicule and preach hatred for liberal democracy and the culture of freedom that separates the West from the cultures of the East and, in particular, the world of Islam.” This is certainly an issue that all of the “free” countries listed by Mansur must grapple with, especially those with significant immigrant populations. However, it is not answered by the idea that free countries should simply eliminate their tolerance of different minority practices. Countries like Canada can and do draw lines, even where the placement of the line is contentious.

Mansur discusses the paramount nature of free speech in a democratic country with references to various writers from Mills to Rawls. In discussing some of the threats to free speech and the abuses of it, Mansur writes about the “insidious threats” that freedom of speech faces. Specifically he refers to the 2007 U.N. resolution to combat the “defamation of religion” and prohibit “blasphemy.” Or the Danish cartoon incidents. Or the fatwas over Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. He also cites the trial of Geert Wilder for his documentary Fitna, the human rights commissions’ battles involving Ezra Levant and the use of human rights legislation and mechanisms by the Canadian Islamic Congress to attack Mark Steyn’s writing.

These are all frightening examples of the use of free speech or limitations on free speech by those who would limit many other freedoms. But this is not a general problem of multiculturalism, which strives to accept a range of diverse cultural practices within a liberal democracy. These are extreme threats. To fight these threats does not mean that countries must abandon multiculturalism.

Canadian courts, including the Supreme Court of Canada, have issued decisions in a number of areas that support multiculturalism. To name a few, Canadian courts have permitted observant Jews to put up Sukkoth (temporary huts) during the festival of Sukkoth in condominium units that prohibit balcony structures; they have permitted Sikhs to wear turbans as police officers; they have upheld the right of seventh day Adventists and other Sabbath observers not to work on their Sabbath. There are many other examples. All of these decisions would likely be viewed by Mansur as promoting and supporting multiculturalism. Yet, they are aimed at ensuring that Canadians from different backgrounds can participate fully in society. There is nothing “insidious” about that.

Mansur’s real target is fundamentalist Islam, not multiculturalism, though he disguises it. He attacks the “root cause” apologists for 9/11 such as Noam Chomsky and Linda McQuaig, who he argues “shift responsibility for the Islamist terrorists to the socio-economics of capitalist-imperialism.” He cites Muslim authors who call for Jihad and rail against certain western values like gender equality. He attacks Sharia law and the possibility of any western countries incorporating components of Sharia law into their systems and the dangers that might present. “Espousing acceptance of other cultures, irrespective of how such acceptance diminishes liberal democracy’s unique set of values” will destroy liberal democracies, he argues. Mansur is certainly correct that many tenets of Islam, as he describes it, such as gender inequality, Jihad, and discriminatory treatment of non-Muslims clash with liberal democratic values. But that does not lead to the conclusion that free countries should simply become intolerant of Muslims or of all Muslim practices.

Along the way, Mansur denounces dual citizens, liberal academics who blame the west for the state of the less developed non-European countries and any restrictions on free speech. But he backtracks slightly at the end of his book, arguing that there is no basis for ethnocentric prejudice by the majority population and no need to reject the cultural norms of their minorities. However, if any such practices collide with the core values of a liberal democracy then that aspect needs to be reformed or rejected accordingly. Mansur does not explain what he would do about the practices or beliefs of the Catholic Church, many Christian fundamentalist groups or others who would not accept his self-defined “core values of a liberal democracy.”

Ultimately, while Mansur demonstrates convincingly that free countries must carefully consider where they draw the line over which cultural practices to accept and which to prohibit, he fails to prove that countries should simply adopt intolerance of multiculturalism as the only appropriate means of remaining free.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman - A Review

I had the chance to read Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman recently. This autobiographical memoir tells the story of a woman growing up in the ultra-orthodox Satmar Chassidic community in Williamsburg, New York and her eventual escape from that community.

Feldman's book is a fairly quick read. The prose is fairly simple and at times choppy. It is written in a first person, present tense style, so that events that occurred many years ago are described as though they are current events.

On hearing about the book, I was quite interested to read it. I came away with a bit more of a mixed feeling.

On the one hand, I was quite moved by Feldman's vivid description of the oppressive nature of Satmar society, particularly with respect to women. The book is filled with incidents throughout Feldman's childhood that demonstrate the ways in which women and their aspirations are suppressed. From a very young age, it is only boys that are introduced to and taught to learn from high level Jewish religious texts. Through the use of Tzniut ("modesty") rules, girls are kept covered up and hidden away. Even their voices are not to be heard in public. Decisions are made for them throughout their lives. Feldman describes how she was transferred from the rules of her grandfather (she was living with her grandparents) to a husband who was selected for her and to a hope that her new husband would not be too "strict."

There is a description of a Simchat Torah celebration that I felt was particularly poignant. All of the women are up in the balcony waiting to watch, through a small slat, as the Satmar Rebbe enters the synagogue and dances the Torah. The women are confined to the role of outsiders and do not really participate in the celebration other than as spectators. Sadly, this is not only case in Satmar communities but applies to most other Orthodox religious institutions. In fact, a friend of mine was telling me about her celebration of Simchat Torah a couple of years ago in an Orthodox shul and she described it in a very similar way.

Feldman also devotes much of her book to her feelings of being an outsider. Inspired by the writings of authors such as Roald Dahl, in particular his book Matilda, as well as a range of other books, Feldman describes her resistance to accepting everything that she was being taught. I could really relate to this theme of the book, as Feldman, the self-described trouble maker, rails against abuses of authority, whether by teachers, or other authority figures. She applies this not only to questioning the gender discrimination aspects of Satmar society that are mandated, but other rules and issues and even the very existence of God, or at least the nature of God and the truth of many of the rules that have been instilled as God given law. This is very rebellious for a girl in an ultra-religious school.

A great deal of time is also spent discussing sexuality. Feldman describes the suppressive rules that are maintained throughout adolesence and then she provides a very detailed account of very personal experiences including her first time in the Mikvah (ritual bath), her wedding night and her own experiences with her husband. I began to wonder whether there was too much information here and how difficult it must be for her ex-husband to see so much written about his intimate life with his former wife published in this type of book.

There is an unpolished, at times juvenile feel to the book, written by an author who is not yet 25, presenting an autobiography. The book, as one might expect, has generated a great deal of controversy. Some have asserted that chunks of the book are fabricated or fictitious. Someone has even created a website dedicated to attacking parts of the book ( Feldman's introductory remarks do not dispel concerns a reader might have that the events in the book may not have occurred. A sense of credibility and authenticity slowly melts away as the book progresses. Towards the end of the book Feldman describes herself, now having taken up smoking, sitting in a non-Kosher restaurant and eating all of the foods that were previously forbidden to her by the rules of Kashrut. Yes, she has fully rebelled, but I couldn't help but feel a certain lack of credibility or feel that a humility of purpose had been compromised by the end of the book. As a result, the later parts of the book resonated less with me and caused me to wonder about some of the earlier parts.

Overall, however, I think the theme of the suppression of women that Feldman describes is genuine, whether or not every aspect of the book is factual. Israel has been wrestling with this issue in its ultra-orthodox communities as I have described in a number of other blog articles. Gender discrimination is an issue that even squarely challenges mainstream Orthdox Judaism, a religion that continues to insist on gender-based rules while most other aspects of liberal democratic societies have moved or are moving towards gender equality. I have also written about this in many other blog articles and perhaps that is why I was so drawn to reading the book.