Sunday, June 8, 2014

Upcoming Israeli Presidential Elections 2014 and Other Random Comments...

The temperature has cooled down somewhat in Israel but the political atmosphere has been heating up.  While Israelis are now enjoying seasonal temperatures in the 27-30 C range, I would imagine that it is quite a bit hotter inside the Knesset.

On Tuesday, Israeli MKs (Member of the Knesset - the Israeli Parliament) will hold a closed-ballot election for the position of President of Israel.  The MKs will select a replacement for outgoing President Shimon Peres.  The campaign for a new president has been mired in scandal with various allegations surfacing over the course of the campaign against different candidates.

The most recent casualty was Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, the candidate favoured by many Labour party members.  He withdrew from the race after being questioned about financial improprieties relating to his purchase of an apartment and the source of the funds.  Another candidate, Sivan Shalom, dropped out of the race earlier after 15 year old allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced.  The allegations were not substantiated and the Shalom was vindicated but the damage had been done.  Other allegations were made against some of the remaining candidates but so far they have remained in the race.

The position of President in Israel is largely a figurehead position, much like the position of Governor General in Canada.  The President has the power to ask a party to form a government after an election (by building a majority coalition)  though by convention, it is generally the part with the largest number of seats in the Knesset.  If that party cannot form a government, the President can ask another party to try if the President believes that the party can put together a coalition.  The President also attends various state ceremonies and has certain powers to pardon convicted criminals.

Former Israeli President Moshe Katzav was convicted of sexual assault and is now serving time in prison.  His successor, the current incumbent President Shimon Peres, has seemingly restored dignity to the office and has been a very popular president.  A recent poll of Israelis indicated that more than 63% felt that Peres has done a good job.  Many would probably prefer that he continue to serve in the role.  However, as indefatigable as the 90 year old Peres might be, he is limited to one term by Israel's "Basic Law." 

Peres has been a tireless promoter of peace and of Israeli goodwill worldwide.  He has met with leaders across the world and has sought to build bridges and create mutual understanding.  Tonight, President Peres will be in the Vatican along with the Pope and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.  The three will be participating in a multi-faith prayer ceremony for peace - with prayers in English, Hebrew, Arabic and Italian.  The prayers will include Jewish, Christian and Muslim prayers, focusing on peace.  While no one expects that these prayers will have any immediate political impact, the symbolism on Peres' part, as one of his last big gestures as the Israeli President, demonstrates his desire for peace and his hope that his participation will be seen as a representation of the yearning of the Israeli people for a peaceful solution to the problems of the Middle East.

Whomever is elected on Tuesday as Peres' successor will have big boots to fill.  Meanwhile, in light of the most recent withdrawal from the race of Ben-Eliezer, some Knesset members, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, are reportedly making efforts to delay the vote by a week or two.  Perhaps the thinking is that this would given them more time to try to find other potential candidates - or to decide who they should support from the remaining field.   It is hard to see how a two week delay would change very much in this race - though perhaps further scandals will emerge and the field of candidates will be narrowed even further. 

Meanwhile, Sivan Shalom, who is no longer a presidential candidate, was a strong advocate of making Sundays a day off in Israel.  His push for a five day week seems to have lost some steam recently and Israelis continue to enjoy a six-day work week (even though many Israelis do not work on Fridays).  Our kids continue to "enjoy" a six day school week.  I note this simply to point out that although next Sunday is Father's Day in Canada and the United States, there is no such holiday in Israel.  On the third Sunday in June, the kids will be in school just as they are on any other Sunday.  Those who are serving in the army will be at their bases as they would be on any other Sunday. 

How does this all tie in to the Israeli presidential elections?  It probably doesn't.  But here's hoping that whichever candidate is elected as Israel's next President will serve the State with dignity and honour and continue along the path of outgoing President Shimon Peres in spreading Israeli goodwill throughout the world.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Shavuot 2014 - the Rolling Stones, the Heat Wave and Reform Conversions in Israel

The Jewish festival of Shavuot has drawn to a close in Israel.  The holiday is celebrated for one day in Israel though it is celebrated for two days outside of the Jewish state in Orthodox and Conservative communities.
Across the country, many Israelis joined evening study sessions - "tikkuns," of all different types.  Some were more traditional, focusing on the study of the Torah and accompanying commentaries.  Other study sessions featured discussions and lectures on current political events, issues facing Israel and contentious issues facing the Jewish people.  In recent years, the number of Israelis participating in tikkuns has dramatically increased, even though many of these events are not religious in nature.

Many Israelis also enjoyed the custom of eating dairy on the holiday of Shavuot - cheese blintzes (known as blintches in Israel) are a particularly popular food item.  Cheese cake and other cheese dishes are also ubiquitous.

Israelis woke up this morning to an extreme heat wave.  Record temperatures of 44C in Beersheba (for this date) and 41C in K'far Saba (where are our shul is located) were reached.  Fortunately our shul air conditioning seemed to be working  This meant that I could read the fourth aliyah (the recitation of the 10 commandments) without sweating too much...

The big event in Israel this apres-Shavuot evening was the Rolling Stones concert in Park Yarkon in Tel-Aviv.  Attendance for the concert was estimated at 44,000, with ticket prices ranging from 700 to 1800 N.I.S. ($225 to $575, approximately).  It was the first ever Rolling Stones concert in Israel.  The Stones went ahead with the concert as planned despite a great deal of pressure from the anti-Israel BDS movement, which called on the Stones to boycott Israel.  The Stones rejected calls from vocal anti-Israel activists including members of Pink Floyd and went ahead with the concert and their mini-tour of Israel, much to the delight of many Israelis. Band members were seen at different historic sites in Israel earlier today including Caesaria and the Old City of Jerusalem.

Kol Hakavod to Mick Jagger and the Stones for performing in Israel.  Having seen them a number of years ago, I was not interested in laying out that kind of money for a relatively short (15 to 17 song set), general admission concert with 44,000 of my best pals.  But it certainly was a "happening" in Israel and that is great for those who attended.

Finally, on an issue that is somewhat related to the holiday of Shavuot, I thought it would be interesting to mention that, earlier this week, the Israeli High Court began hearing a case involving the issue of whether or not the State of Israel should recognize Reform (and Conservative) conversions in Israel.  The case involves a Colombian born man who married an Israeli and underwent a Reform conversion to Judaism in Israel.  Under current Israeli law, non-Orthodox conversions that are performed outside of Israel are recognized for purposes of the Law of Return, even for Israeli residents who leave the country to convert.  However, non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel have not been recognized.

The issue has generated a great deal of controversy in Israel, which continues to grant a monopoly to Orthodox Jewish institutions over a whole range of personal status issues in Israel including marriages, burials, conversions and divorces.  For example, Israelis looking to marry in Israel are forced to have their weddings officiated by Orthodox rabbis if they wish to have their marriages recognized under Israeli law.  Many Israelis choose to leave Israel and marry elsewhere rather than agree to this state-enforced monopoly.

While there had been some hope among many Israelis that Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and his party would succeed in changing some of these laws and introducing alternatives for Israelis, progress has been slow on this issue.  The issue is particularly relevant on the holiday of Shavuot since we read the Megillah of Ruth, the story of Ruth a convert to Judaism.  Many commentators have pointed out that it was far easier for Ruth to join the Jewish people than it has become for someone to convert to Judaism under current Israeli law.
Nevertheless, there are still many prominent, secular Israeli commentators and broadcasters who seem willing to continue the current status quo.  Often, it is a case of "the shul that I don't go to should be an Orthodox one....if I were ever to attend..."

So how does this all tie together?  I am certainly not making any suggestion that Mick Jagger or Keith Richards will attempt a Reform conversion to Judaism while in Israel (highly doubtful) nor do I have any idea whether or not they will manage to sample some cheese blintzes in honour of the holiday of Shavuot.  I do know that they will experience some stifling Israeli heat even though their limos, hotel rooms and private jets are well air conditioned - and the concert stage features giant air conditioners to keep them singing "start me up" without passing out.  That's about the best I can do in terms of tying together a few different Shavuot related notes.

Chag Sameach to all.