Sunday, January 25, 2015

Toronto to Tel-Aviv: Air Canada - Business Class Dreamliner

Business Class Seat View 1
I have previously written about the various changes that Air Canada has made to its "Altitude" program - which have made it harder and harder to earn a high level status.  Up until two years ago, I was earning one mile for each flight, regardless of the cost of the air fare.  This also applied for flights on United Airlines and a number of other Star Alliance partners.  Now, Air Canada is only providing half the air miles for most of the lower end fares.  Some fares don't earn any points.  As a result, to qualify for "altitude 100k" (formerly "super-elite") status, you would need to fly 8 1/2 times between Israel and Toronto, at the much higher priced "flex" fares.  These fares can cost anywhere from $200 to $800 more on a round trip flight than a discounted "Tango" fare.  Same seats, same food, same plane.  Just a lower air miles reward (only about 2,850 each way instead of 5700).  So it is probably quite unlikely that I will qualify for "Super 100k" status again.  But I still have the status until February 28, 2015. So I decided to try and use it before it expires.

I booked a flight from Toronto to Tel-Aviv on an Air Canada flex fare.  This meant that I would be eligible for a free upgrade to business class, if the space was available.  If not, I could be upgraded to premium economy.  Since I had the upgrade points and I still had the status, I decided that it would be worthwhile (especially during low season) to take my chances.

I arrived at the airport and inquired about the likelihood of an upgrade.  I was told that there were three other people ahead of me and only two spots.  Oh well, I figured, at least I can probably fly "premium economy" which would get me a bit more leg room.

About an hour before the flight, I checked with very helpful lounge staff.  They told me that I had been upgraded and was seated in I was all set.

Air Canada is now using 787 "Dreamliners" on its flights between Tel-Aviv and Toronto.  These are very new planes.  Apparently, they fly at a cruising speed of about 60 km/h faster, so the flight time is reduced by about half hour to forty-five minutes.  I have to say that the planes are also quite smooth and much less noisy than many other planes.  Beyond that, the seats in the economy class seem to be as crowded, if not more so, than other planes.

But for this flight, I was quite fortunate.

Business Class Seat View 2
I was seated in an aisle seat in business class.  Unlike the previous planes that Air Canada used for flights to Israel, this plane has a separate entrance into the business class section.  Economy class passengers cannot pass through and gawk at the personal cabin-type seats.

Business class seats include a fully reclining, extra-wide seat and a large sized personal screen.  They also include a side table, a storage compartment and a handy electronic remote control that controls the seat, the TV, the entertainment and can even call for flight attendants.  The seat was very comfortable though I did  not use the down comforter that was also provided.

At the start of the flight, the attendants come around and offered a choice of orange juice (freshly squeezed) or sparkling wine.  Since I had already been in the lounge for a couple of hours, I declined these drinks.

Air Canada Vegetable Platter
I found it interesting that in such a fancy new plane, there were no overhead compartments for the aisle seats in the middle in rows 4, 5 and 6.  There was plenty of overhead storage room elsewhere, but it seems bizarre that they built the plane without overhead compartments for some of the business class rows.

Our flight left on time and the attendants came around with the menu.  I had pre-ordered an Asian vegetarian meal but was still given the choice of one of the business class options.  I went with a cod dish, which was served with wild rice and vegetables.

Fruit Platter
The appetizer was a plate of grilled vegetables, including asparagus, zucchini, artichoke and red pepper.  It was quite tasty and the plate was quite attractive.  Shortly afterwards, the attendants delivered a fresh fruit plate including pineapple, watermelon, kiwi, strawberries and grapes.  Sublime.

The main course was reasonably tasty - cod served with wild rice, fennel and carrots.  Not particularly memorable but edible and served with a reasonably artistic flair.

Main Course

Meanwhile, I managed to sample some of the different wines that were being offered.  A California Meritage, a Spanish wine and a French wine.  None of the wines were particularly enticing but I preferred the California selection.  The flight attendants were quite eager to help me find a wine that was most suitable to my palate.  They insisted that I try each of the wines until I find one that I really liked....

Cheese Platter

After the meal, a cheese platter was delivered.  I was getting a bit worried about the caloric size of this meal, so I passed on the chocolate mousse which was also offered.  Instead I opted for some Courvoisier VSOP Cognac to accompany the cheese platter.

During the meal, I watched the movie Transcendence, which started off as an interesting concept but fizzled.  I also watched a few episodes of The Big Bang Theory.

By the time the movie ended and the dishes were cleared, I enjoyed one last drink - a decaf coffee.  I then reclined the seat-bed fully - and tried to go to sleep.  Next thing I knew, I was hearing an announcement that we were less than two hours away from Tel-Aviv and that a hot breakfast would soon be served.  I really wasn't that hungry at this point.  The flight attendants came around with a choice of pancakes or quiche, both served with chicken sausages.  I would not have eaten either dish and would have had my Asian vegetarian breakfast.  But instead, I had a yogurt and a coffee and I was fine.

Overall, this was certainly one of the more enjoyable flights that I have had between Toronto and Tel-Aviv.  I really don't think I would spend the $5,000 to buy a regular priced business class ticket - and I am not even sure I would pay the $500 cost to upgrade from "flex" class to business class that Air Canada is now charging its passengers (other than Altitude 100K passengers).  But I took advantage of this rare opportunity and enjoyed the free upgrade knowing that it is probably unlikely that I will have too many similar chances in the near future.

On hearing about my flight, a number of people, here in Israel, told me that I probably didn't want to get off the plane...

Well, as nice as the flight was, I can't really go that far.  After all, I arrived to a sunny 22C day, having left the -3C temperature of Toronto.  Winter? In Israel?  Maybe for a few days - but even the roughest winter days here would be like early fall in Canada, unless you happen to live in Jerusalem or way up north, in which case you might get a few odd days of snow.  Of course, it might feel like winter inside the homes since most homes are built without insulation.  But you can always step outside and enjoy the sun.

And now that January has almost come to an end, there are likely to be very few "wintry"days left in Israel - and even fewer when measured by Canadian standards.  Of course, that all makes sense, since the holiday of Tu B'Shevat, the "New Year of the Trees" is quickly approaching and the weather should be nice enough to allow us to plant some new trees.

Hopefully, on my return to Toronto I will hear that the groundhog has delivered some good news about the Toronto forecast.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Je Suis Yoav

Je ne suis pas Charlie.  Je suis Yoav.

Who is Yoav?  Yoav Hattab is one of the four French Jews murdered by terrorists at at the Hyper Cache market in Paris on Friday January 9, 2015.  Mr. Hattab Z"L was not the first French Jewish victim of terrorism in France.  Unfortunately, there have been a number of incidents including a 2012 attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse in which 4 people were killed, including three children.  If the only terrorist incident on Friday had been the attack on the Kosher supermarket, the item would probably not have garnered anywhere near the press coverage that this series of attacks has attracted.

With the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo, the condemnations of Jihadist terrorism were near universal.  I have heard very few suggestions that we should investigate "root causes" or "deal with the underlying problem."  Of course, there will be some who will say that the press should not publish images of the prophet Mohammad or that the press should always take care to ensure that nothing printed offends Muslim sensibilities in any way. There are those who were not too concerned about the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.  But, fortunately, these voices are in the small minority.  Far more commentators and political leaders have spoken in favour of free speech and freedom of expression.

But with respect to the murderous attack on Hyper Cache, some of the responses tell a very different story.  For example, as reported by YNet News, BBC Reporter Tim Wilcox compared the hostage taking at the supermarket to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.  Really Tim?  Seriously?  He later issued a mild apology.  CNN minimized its initial reports of the fact that a Jewish establishment was targeted.  Even so, it became apparent that the terrorist had clearly stated that his intention was to kill Jews.

When terrorist attacks on Jewish civilians occur, many quickly try to take a "balanced" approach and "condemn all forms of terrorism" in their response or speak about root causes.  But what are the root causes of the murder of a group of Jews?  How is it any less outrageous than Charlie Hebdo to see an attack in which Jewish worshipers are murdered while at prayer in a synagogue, because they are Jews?  Just because it takes place in Israel?  Or an attack on Jewish shoppers in a Kosher supermarket?  Atlantic magazine correspondent sent out this spot-on tweet on Friday:  "Selling kosher food is a provocative and vulgar act, sure to arouse the hostility of aggrieved extremists."

There is no way to link Israel's issues with the Palestinians to the murder of Jewish civilians, other than for the sickest of minds.  And by the way, Turkish Recep Erdogan does qualify in this category.  He apparently attacked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for attending the French protests on Saturday and tried to draw a parallel between the Paris attacks and the Israeli war with Hamas terrorists in Gaza.  Even Hamas apparently issued a mild condemnation of the attack on Charlie Hebdo but was eerily silent, if not supportive of the murder of some Jewish Parisians.

When news of the attack at Hyper Cache emerged, French leader Francois Hollande initially called the attack "an appalling anti-Semitic attack."  Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper called these French attacks "barbaric."  But when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu indicated his attention to attend the French rally, Hollande told him not to show up.  Defiantly, Prime Minister Netanyahu eventually decided to come anyways, leading Hollande to invite Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to provide some "balance."  God forbid Hollande should politicize this situation.  After all, even though he can bring himself to say that this was an appalling anti-Semitic attack, he would not want to be seen suggesting that there is any comparison between this attack and the murder of Jewish worshipers in a Jerusalem Synagogue.  Or the countless other terrorist attacks that Israel faces on its civilians.  Or attacks on Jews in other parts of the world.

It is about time that France and other countries, worldwide, show the same type of indignation and determination with respect to attacks on Jews that they have shown with respect to Charlie Hebdo.  Terrorism must be universally condemned, whether it is an attack on the Twin Towers, an attack on Charlie Hebdo or an attack on a group of Jews, wherever in the world they might be.  They should recognize what the leaders of Israel have, unfortunately, understood for far too long.  That terrorist attacks carried out by ISIS, ISIL, Al Qaeda, Hamas the PLO and other terrorist organizations  are all in the some category.  All of it should be condemned vociferously.

There is nothing wrong with a button that says "Je Suis Charlie."  But an equal number of people ought to be wearing buttons that say "Je suis Yoav."  An attack on Jews because they are Jews is as egregious as an attack on free speech.  Or as an attack on any other fundamental aspect of a civil society.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Catch the Jew - by Tuvia Tenenbom - A Review

I had some time as I was travelling back from Israel to Toronto and decided to check out a relatively new book that has been selling well in Israel - "Catch the Jew" by Tuvia Tenenbom.  The book was written in Hebrew but I went for the English version.

Tenenbom has quite an interesting resume.  In his introduction, he describes himself as having been born and raised in an ultra-Orthodox, anti-Zionist home, groomed to be the next in a family lineage of rabbis.  His mother was a Holocaust survivor and he had an extensive ultra-Orthodox religious education.  He left that world completely and went to study in the United States, accumulating degrees in computer science, math, theater and literature.  From the book, it is apparent that he speaks English, Arabic, German, Yiddish and Hebrew.

In 2012, he published "I Sleep in Hitler's Room," a book in which he detailed his travels across German in the summer of 2010, exposing outrageously high levels of German anti-Semitism, as he saw it.  Now, Tenenbom was recruited, as he puts it, to travel across Israel and write a book about his travels.  Catch the Jew is a collection of chapters that summarize Tenenbom's interactions, observations and discussions with a very wide range of Israeli and Palestinian characters across Israel.  It is witty, irreverent, satirical, and well written. 

Although I had a sense that this would be somewhat like Amos Oz's landmark 1993 book "Here and There in the Land of Israel," there were significant differences.  Tenenbom's book probably covers a wider range of territory, is significantly more cynical than Oz's and is even more pessimistic.  But it is also funnier.

Given Tenenbom's educational and linguistic background, he was able to disguise his identity, somewhat, to gain access to a wider range of subjects, who were apparently somewhat disarmed by the persona that he adopted.  So, while travelling throughout the Palestinian Territories and among Israeli-Arab communities in Israel, Tenenbom claimed to be "Toby the German" and spoke only English and German.  For other interviews, he could put on a kippah and attend a Friday night dinner with some ultra-Orthodox hosts, using his own real name, Tuvia Tenenbom. At other times, he would simply be Toby or Tobias the German reporter, to gain access to prominent Israeli officials, including members of Israel's Knesset, Palestinian Authority leaders and other writers and well known personalities.

Tenenbom delights in posing difficult questions to his subjects, many of which are apparently quite unexpected.  Although purporting to be a German reporter, highly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, he still manages to ask Palestinian leaders some very uncomfortable questions about the "facts" that they provide him in the course of interviews and discussions.  Similarly, he asks pro-Palestinian NGOs all kinds of questions about the work they are doing, the claims they are making and their underlying motives and the answers are often quite fascinating.

Along the way, Tenenbom covers quite a wide variety of ground.  He spends some time with anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Rabbis and asks them about many different subjects. He interviews Israeli prostitutes and winds up asking them about their views about Sudanese refugees.  He spends some time with Israeli soldiers, wounded Syrians being treated in Israeli hospitals, Bedouins, Palestinians in Ramallah and Jenin and settlers in isolated West Bank settlements.  He also speaks to quite a number of Israeli MKs including parliamentarians from several different parties.

Ultimately, Tenenbom offers some very pessimistic predictions for the future of Israel and its society. But along the way, the book includes some very interesting sections.

One of Tenenbom's major targets is the whole range of left-leaning pro-Palestinian NGOs, often funded by German and other European countries as well as American donors.  He details the sources of the funds, the types of people working in these organizations and the rampant anti-Semitism that so often permeates these organizations.  His targets include the IRC (International Red Cross and Red Crescent), Doctors Without Borders, the New Israel Fund, Adalah and many others.  He exposes examples of falsified facts, doctored photographs and videos, hypocrisy, and other ways in which many of these organizations seem to be on a mission to delegitimize Israel. In one shocking example, he follows an Israeli born tour guide named Itamar taking a group of European "fact-finders" on a tour of Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum, at the expense of the EU.  The tour guide uses the museum entirely for the purpose of trying to draw parallels between the Holocaust and modern day Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.  Tenenbom has nothing but scorn and outrage after debunking this type of ridiculous and baseless propaganda.

Tenenbom also attacks what he describes as self-hating Israelis, particularly those who, in his view, spend more time working to benefit the Palestinians than they do trying to improve their own lives.  He uses a number of exchanges with some of these leftists to demonstrate their lack of historical and/or biblical knowledge, or the difficulties with a black and white approach that they take to problems that are often far more complex.  Some of his harshest attacks are aimed at Israel's major left wing newspaper, Haaretz and some specifically named writers.  Another two page missive is aimed at Israeli writer Shlomo Sand.  (I reviewed one of Sand's book's on this site here in 2011).

It is worth highlighting this section for a moment.  Sand had recently published a book entitled "When and How I stopped being a Jew."  Tenenbom attended a gathering with Sand along with a number of left wing Israelis.  I couldn't help but include the last few lines of that section of Tenenbom's assessment:

"If you're a self-hater, if you have no capacity to love even yourself, how can you love anybody else? There ain't no room for love in your heart, man, and you had better start living with it.  As I sit here and watch these self-haters, I hear a voice within me asking: Is there anybody out there who is brainwashing these Jews to hate themselves?  Good question."

Some of Tenenbom's exchanges with Israeli MKs are quite amusing.  He ridicules Labor MK Merav Michaeli for a stream of drivel that comes out of her mouth when he asks her to speak about Israeli challenges and her vision for the future of society.  He is apparently much more impressed by Ayelet Shaked of "Habayit Hayehudi" party, who, in fairness, is far more coherent than Michaeli in these interviews.  Tenenbom's descriptions of meetings with other MKs, including Yitzhak Cohen of Shas and MK Meir Porush of Torah Judaism, are biting and derisive.

There are several themes that appear throughout the book even though this is not an essay or a polemic.  One theme involves the type of anti-Semitism to which Tenenbom is exposed as a German reporter when he is with Palestinians and European funded NGOs.  He details numerous pro-Nazi comments, and many other exchanges that are targeted far more at Jews as Jews than at any political issues.  Tenenbom also raises the very same  type of question that Israeli MK Avigdor Lieberman has been asking for years.  Why is it that in a Palestinian state - there should no Jews whatsoever (like in some other present day Arab states), whereas the state of Israel should accept and absorb even more Palestinian refugees in its half of the two state solution?  Why is a Zionist state "racist" but Muslim states and Christian states are not?  Tenenbom raises these questions with Palestinians, NGO workers and others but is not provided with any reasonable answers.

Another of Tenenbom's recurring themes is the enormous resources invested by Germany and other EU countries as well as investments by German donors to fund anti-Israel NGOs, anti-Zionist and anti-Israel films and all kinds of other anti-Israeli activities under the guise of "peace."   Tenenbom wonders about where else in the world the Germans and other Europeans are so involved in such activities and poses these questions.  He does not receive any reasonable answers.

These themes are strung together with many others in a collection of interviews that cannot be easily portrayed as "right" or "left" wing.  There are targets on both sides of the spectrum, right and left, Israeli and Palestinian, religious and secular.

Over the course of his adventures, Tenenbom writes repeatedly about his enjoyment of food, both Israeli and Palestinian.  Wherever he goes, he offers comments about the meals that he is served, and even nicer comments if it is accompanied by good whiskey or strong coffee.  Certainly in this area, it sounds like he would be a fun guest to have over for a meal, despite his incessant, self-described chain smoking.

But having read the entire book, I am hard pressed to think of very many positive things that he has had to say about any Israelis, on any part of the spectrum.  Some of his kindest words are for some hijab-wearing Palestinian women that he met.  He also seems to have quite a bit of admiration for Jirbril Rajoub, a Palestinian political and militant figure.  Tenenbom admires the fact that Rajoub has acted, unwaveringly, in support of his people.  It is precisely this characteristic that Tenenbom finds so sorely lacking among Israeli leftists.

If that were really his viewpoint, one might have thought he could find some centrist, or slightly right of centre Israelis that he could present favourably.  But those interviews are sorely lacking. 

So ultimately the book is far more negative than positive, in its coverage of just about everything other than the beautiful Israeli landscapes, the food and, perhaps, the ancient history.  Although Tenenbom seems to be able to present a reasonably disarming nature to people he meets such that he is able to make friends and gain access, his condescending assessment of just about everyone he meets must ultimately leave readers wondering about the type of person Tenenbom really is.

When Amos Oz wrote his book, as biting as it was in parts, it was written by a person dedicated to working on the various challenges that Israel faces, as difficult as these challenges might seem.  While many Israelis might disagree with Oz on a whole range of issues, I would find it quite a stretch to describe Oz with language that is anywhere near "self-hating."  Not that Tenenbom says that about Oz, specifically.  But it is Tenenbom's general characterization of the Israeli left.

On the other hand, it is far easier to criticize everyone you meet as an outsider.  And then to leave and go back to New York or Germany and continue to pose as Toby the German, Toby the Christian or just Toby;  anything other than Tuvia the Jew or Tuvia the Israeli.

After finishing the book and considering the themes, as well as Tenenbom's self-described introductory background, I can't help but wonder whether the "self-hating" description is most aptly applied to Tenenbom himself rather than many of the subjects he interviewed.  Hard to say.  I tend to agree with his arguments regarding many of the subjects.  But the "self-hating" description is applied so liberally, to so many, that I started to wonder.