Sunday, July 18, 2021

Tisha B'Av 2021 - Is "Baseless Hatred" an appropriate answer?

Last night  and today we observed Tisha B'Av, a Jewish holy day of mourning, fasting and sadness.  Tisha B'av commemorates the destruction  of the  first and second Temples in Jerusalem, in 586 b.c.e and 70  c.e. respectively.  Over the centuries since then, many other horribly devastating events are said to have taken place  or started on Tisha B'Av, including events connected with the Spanish Inquisition and Expulsion of  Jews in 1492, the Chmielniki  Massacres of Jews in 1648 in Poland Lithuania  and events of the Holocaust, particularly in 1942.  Tisha B'Av is the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, although the Israeli-observed days of Yom Hazakaron (Day of Remembrance of Soldiers and Victims of Terror) and Yom Hoshoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) are also very difficult days of loss and remembrance.  

Unlike other Jewish "holy days," Tisha B'av does not prohibit "working" or doing the various things that are normally prohibited on Shabbat.  But it is a day of  mourning, fasting and many other prohibitions.

I thought I would write a few of my own reflections on the day and how I observed it this year.  

I didn't grow up in a home that observed Tisha B'Av.  After my Bar-Mitzvah, I began to take an interest in the various holy days in the Jewish calendar, especially some of the ones that our  family did not  observe.   We had always  observed the major holidays - Yom Kippur,  Rosh  Hashanah, Pesach and the "minor" holidays of Chanukah and Purim.  But we were less observant of  others.  On a USY trip to Israel in 1982, our group observed Tisha B'Av fully and since then,  more or less, I have been observing the holy day, though not necessarily in the strictest and most traditional way.

The holy  day, like all Jewish holy days begins  the night before, just before sunset.  We eat a pre-fast meal before sunset and try to drink a reasonable amount of water.  Those who observe Tisha B'Av traditionally  do not eat meat (or chicken) for nine days before the holy day other than on Shabbat.  So normally, the meal before the fast is vegetarian - often lentil soup, a hard boiled egg, some vegetables and other vegetarian food.  Although spicy food is not normally recommended before a fast, we had lots of homemade Indian food left over from Shabbat and most of it was  vegetarian.  So I wound up having a pre-fast home cooked Indian  buffet.  It worked out fine.  After that, of course, it would be no food or water for about 26 hours.

I debated going to religious services in person in the evening but decided to join my shul's Zoom service.  The evening service ("Maariv") includes the reading of the  book of Lamentations (Eichah) one of the five  Megilloth (scrolls) that are part of the collection of Jewish  holy books.  After that, we had a study session discussing the classic Jewish commentators' explanation of why the temples were destroyed.  Our presenter (thanks Shoshana) selected five different parables from our sources to provide the answer.  And the answer, in short, is..."intra-community baseless hatred."  Yes, that is the traditional answer to the Jewish question of these horrible tragedies.  How do we reconcile the concept of  an omni-benevolent,  omni-powerful, omi-present and omni-prescient God with such terrible suffering?  For the destruction of these two great Temples and the societies that housed them, our sages have concluded that the  answer was "baseless hatred" among the Jews - the hatred  of one another which destroyed the fabric of our society internally and led to destruction.  This internal strife led to our demise,  the murder of tens of thousands of Jews and our exile from the land of  Israel (for almost 2,000 years)  - in short, a very severe punishment.

Yet, I, for one, have never really found this answer satisfying.  Can we really blame ourselves for being invaded and conquered by a foreign  army, much stronger than us?  Is that what consoles us and causes us to renew our faith in God  - that essentially, "we deserved it?"  I find that  hard to take and not very persuasive.  Our Rabbis will argue that this answer compels us to try and act more appropriately with one another  - that it is a challenge  to our behaviour that demands ongoing vigilence and response.  That may be something worth striving for, certainly, but  it  does not seem to explain or excuse these events, certainly not to me. Nevertheless, in the spirit of inquiry, we raise these questions  and argue about them  over this  time period.  Jewish holy days are always filled with topics to question, discuss and argue about.  

So after the Synagogue  study  session, we decided to check out some of the Tisha B'Av programming on Israeli TV.  Now this is probably not something that many of traditional  Tisha B'Av observers would do, even though the use of electricity is not strictly prohibited on Tisha B'Av, but there were  some really fantastic programs on that wrestled with many of these issues.  Indeed one of the big  advantages of being in Israel on any day of importance on the Jewish calendar is releavant and interesting tv programming.

Of the many different choices, we chose a program on Israeli channel 11 called "Question and Answer."  The program was an eight-part series - each episode involving a dialogue between two  people.  In each case, one of the people  was  a person who was born and raised in a very religious (observant)  family and  later became secular.  These people are known in Israel as people  who "returned to a life of  questioning" (from the Hebrew "Hozer l'sheilah").   The other person in each episode was a person who was raised secular and later  become religious, known  in Israel as a person who "returned to the answers" (from the Hebrew "Hozer b'Tshuvah").  The idea was to match people  up who would make for  interesting  conversations with some  shared interests - and then  to  hold animated but respectful conversations of about 45 minutes.  In these discussions, the participants wrestled with their  life stories, their change  from one  religious  viewpoint to another - and various texts, sources, poems and songs that inspired them, while contrasting the conclusions that they arrived at with those of their co-participant.  The series was created as a  Tisha B'Av series -  to bring  people together with different  viewpoints but to overcome  "baseless  hatred" and find some  common ground.  In many of the episodes, this worked out quite nicely.   This is the link to all of the episodes but it is in Hebrew and I am not sure that a translation is available yet.  We have watched 6 of the 8 episodes and really enjoyed it.

Some of the participants are very well known.  For example, one episode featured the author Yochi Brandeis, who is a Torah and Talmud scholar who grew up in a very observant home but is now  no longer a "halachic" Jew. She writes fictional  novels based on characters of the Bible.   I should say that she sometimes attends our shul Hod VeHadar in Kfar Saba.  She was matched up with an author who had grown up secular but was now a member of the Breslev Ultra-Orthodox community.  Another episode featured Rabbi Kalman Samuels, who grew  up as a secular Jew in Vancouver, Canada.  He came to Israel, became observant and eventually founded "Shalva" an  organization dedicated to helping people with disabilities in Israel.  As an educator, Rabbi Samuels was paired up with another educator, the principal of a secular high school in Israel, who had grown up in a very observant family but become secular.  

This was not the kind of TV program that one sees every day.  It was quite philosophical, with lots of food for thought, even on a fast day where eating is prohibited.  After most of the episodes, I thought that I woud really enjoy sitting and chatting  with one or both of the participants.   Through the various episodes, there was lots of discussion on some of the most challenging theological issues.   For example, how do observant Jews deal with and  explain tragedy and  disaster?  Of course no one had any conclusive answers to this question but the exchanges were  fascinating.  A very relevant  question of course, especially on Tisha B'Av.   

One episode featured quite a bit of dialogue about the role of women in observant Jewish life, especially Orthodox Judaism versus the secular life that one of the women moved to - and the  other abandoned.  This was probably one of the common themes, even in episodes that involved discussions between two men - the different  approaches to women and women's rights between the "observant" and the  "secular" and what effect that  had on the lives of each of the participants.  No one, ultimately, had any answers to these questions but the discussions were very thought provoking.  I will leave this topic for another blog.

Although the series was called  "question and answer," I would not say that it set out to provide any "answers."  The main purpose was to bring people together, explore differences and watch them  leave the discussion room together recognizing that people can have differences but still live together  in the same country, work things out and  respect each other.  A very important  lesson these  days, not only in Israel with its intense and gaping political chasm but of course in many other countries as well.

Tisha B'Av morning services are a bit different than other Jewish holy day services.  Since it is not considered a "Yom Tov," it is a day where observant Jews put on Tefillin and a Tallit.  But since it is such a sad day, and we are occupied with mourning, we do not put these on in the morning (like most other days - other than Shabbat and holy days).  Instead, we sit on the floor, in the dark and read "kinot" at the morning  services, which are essentially sad poems, written throughout the centuries, mourning the  destruction of Jerusalem in different ways.

Yad VaShem

As I said, we tend to do things a bit differently, though we are not the only ones.  When I am in Israel on Tisha B'Av (I am often  in Toronto this time of year), we try to go to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial  Museum  in Jerusalem, Israel.   Many Israelis have the same idea.  The Museum was quite full today - or  at least up to its Covid capacity.  You must book in advance but there is no charge to visit.

Yad Vashem is a very difficult place.  Its multi-media exhibits trace the rise of the Nazi party in Germany from 1933 (and  preceding events) and include increasingly horrifying exhibit rooms with pictures, movies, testimonial videos from survivors and Holocaust era items.  You move  from the the initial pogroms and  kristallnacht in 1938, a date on which synagogues and  Jewish owned shops across German were  vandalized and destroyed,  Jews were attacked and killed and  books were  burned  - to the development of Jewish Ghettos, Nazi  concentration  camps and ultimately the history, development  and  operation of the death  camp system. It is graphic, shocking, upsetting and brutal, no matter  how many times you see it.  It is simply unfathomable that the Germans set up a whole system  of  death camps, crematoria, railway lines, ghettos, a whole  industry and process for the systematic murder and incineration of six million Jews  while the world was silent - and most  countries outright refused to accept any refugees or Jewish emigrants that would have dramatically lowered the number of murdered Jews.

Yad Vashem approaches the Holocaust, in general, from a particularist rather than a universalist viewpoint.  It is very much focused on the history of the Jewish people, before during and after the Holocaust, who helped save Jews and who didn't  and what can be  done, in particular for the Jewish people to ensure that this does not happen again.  It may be  no surprise, since Yad Vashem is located in Israel, that the Yad Vashem  answer, ulimately, is that  only a strong Israel can ensure that the Jews are protected from a recurrence.  I won't get into this now in great detail, but this does contrast with the much more  universalist message of the Washington D.C.  Holocaust Memorial Museum which focuses on universal tolerance as the answer to the question of  how to avoid  and prevent genocides.   Although I have been very impressed by the  Washington  museum (I have visited it three  times), I have felt that it de-emphasizes that  Jewish aspect of the Holocaust, excessively in my view.

But getting back to the tie-in and the question of why visit a Holocaust museum on Tisha B'av - the theme that I return to - the most theologically challenging - is the same  theme that we contemplate on Tisha B'Av.  Why did this happen?   How could it happen?  Can we answer it by saying "baseless hatred" and live with that  answer?  That sounds all too easy to me,  on the one hand, and on the other hand it sounds like it blames these six million people for the fate that befell  them at the hands  of murderous external forces.  Can we really say that the  Jews of the Temple period were massacred by the Roman army because of "baseless hatred" within the Jewish community?  And  can we say that  the  European Jews were murdered en mass  by the  Germans and their collaborators because of "baseless hatred?"  That sounds like a very lame answer to me.   I think it is one of the paramount challenges to faith for Jews  everywhere.  What kind of God  would let this happen  if there was a such thing as an "interventionist" God?

This is one side of the equation but for many Jews, there is a another side as well.   The Jews, this group of people, which numbered  somewhere around 15 million just  before the second World War, had survived the exile from the land  of  of Israel and remained a people for more than 2,000 years, albeit a people spread out across the world.  Hitler's goal was to  annhilate and destroy the Jews everywhere - our  books, our  traditions, our  Torahs and ritual  objects and our philosophy and religious beliefs.  For some survivors, descendants of  survivors and  other family members, the Holocaust and the six million murdered Jews meant that "God was  dead" and they couldn't imagine continuing to be Jewish or believe in anything after these  events.   They could not fathom that any type of traditionally conceived God would allow such events to take place.  From some conversations with one of my grandfathers, Yerachmiel (Z"L), I would say that he was, at least  partially in this camp.  His parents were murdered in August 1942 by Lithuanian Nazi collaborators - who happened to be the children of some their neighbours in Kamajai, Lithuania.

For others, and this is the other side of the equation, there has been a sense that so many Jews were murdered because of their heritage and a very rich bundle  of  tradition, philosophy, religious practice, scholarship, liturgy, community and  music - as well as so many other things.  How can we just abandon this inheritance that  has been passed on to us from generation to generation, over more than 2,000 years?   Don't we owe it to our ancestors to stand  up and say - "we are still here" and to honour at least  some of the legacy that they passed along to us?   And what does it mean to preserve, honour and continue these traditions without genuine belief?  Or are there ways to redefine God and Godliness that still preserves the notion that humankind is subservient to a higher purpose?  Such difficult questions.  For the many of you  who know me well, of course it is not a surprise that I am in the latter  of these camps.   And I have at least one cousin and a number of friends as well in the same camp.  But it is something to wrestle with all the time and especially on days like Tisha B'Av.

Perhaps I should add that there are some in Israel, and around the  world, particlarly many who are very observant, who believe that the rebirth of the land of Israel was a divine miracle and that the answer is that we simply don't understand or  can't comprehend God's overall plan.  So they may not say "baseless hatred" is the explanation for the Holocaust but in their view, God gets a free pass since we mere mortals do not understand the overall plan.  I think that this can be viewed as extremely disrespectful to the many who were murdered but I'll leave it at that for now.

In case you are wondering, Yom Kippur, coming up in less than 6 weeks, is much easier,  emotionally.  It is not really a "sad" day.  It is one of solemnity and observance that involves fasting.   But is is also a day of singing, prayers, discussion and togetherness that often brings people more  towards renewal and hope than sad days like Tisha B'Av that leave us searching for answers to horrific events.  

We concluded Tisha B'Av  by attending  Minhah (early evening service) and Ma'ariv (last evening service)  in person at the shul and then came home to  eat.   We  actually watched two of the 8 episodes  of "Question Answer" after the holy day ended and  we have two  left.  

But as I have tried to illustrate - the TV episodes each covered the struggle between a religious and a secular person, trying to make sense of what it means to be Jewish, on Tisha B'Av, while wrestling with these pentultimate questions that are particularly poignant  some 76 years after the end  of the Holocaust and the end of  World War II.   Perhaps I liked it so much because I saw different  sides of my own personality and philosophy engaged in a live  debate over the  course of 6 different  episodes.  I may not have related to a few of the characters but of the 12  participants that we have seen  so far, I would probably say that at  least 8 of them had things to say that resonated deeply.  

And so, ultimately, "Questions and Answers," the name of a TV series, is also an apt title for  Tisha B'Av as it is for many Jewish holy days.  Many questions and perhaps, not enough answers.  But lots of engagement and vibrancy.  And that is what challenges us, gives us pause and engages us in thinking about so many of these all consuming topics.

Lots more to  write about - the current Covid Delta outbreak in Israel and everywhere, the Israeli political situation and some other Israeli news items. But I have to leave myself material for future blogs.  As always, I  hope that you have enjoyed reading this and wish everyone the best  of health.  

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Day Trip Up North in Israel

So it is time for a distracting blog as opposed to one about  the  ongoing political situation or the battle with the Covid virus and its mutations.  After quite a long time of not travelling very much in the country, I thought I would write about a day trip that we took this past Sunday and a few of the highlights.  Call it a bit of a distraction - but maybe also some ideas for next time you are in Israel.  We had tickets for an evening concert up north, so we decided to make a day of it.

We set out in the morning to the Dalyat Al Carmel market, outside of Haifa. That is about and hour and 20 mintues from Ra'anana in decent traffic conditions  Apparently, the big day for the market is Saturday but that is not something that we would do on Shabbat - so we went on a Sunday.  This market is a market run by Druze Israelis.  The Druze are an Arab speaking minority group in Israel, who number about 100,000.  They do not identify as Muslims.  They serve in the IDF and participate in all facets of Israeli public life.  The market is quite similar to other Arab markets in Israeli including the market in the Old City of Jerusalem.   We wandered around in a variety of shops in the market area.  The shopkeepers were very friendly and welcoming.  We were offered coffee. We chatted with them.  They spoke about how difficult it has been over the past year and a half with the lack tourism.  We felt like we should buy something but weren't really looking for anything in particular.  In the end, we bought a few seat cushions that we could take to the concert we were going to later at a Roman ampitheatre.  More about that shortly.  

We went to another place about twenty minutes away called the Bethlehem Spice Farm.  We were hoping for a bit of a tour and explanation but these days, with the lack of tourists, that is only available for tour groups of at least 10 or so that book in advance.  Instead, we wandered around the enormous spice store which featured bulk spices of every possible kind, mostly grown on site, apparently.  We sat and had a coffee at the coffee bar, which was quite tasty, accompanied by a pecan pie that was reasonably good - not overly sweet like many can be.  

After that, we decided to look for someplace to eat that would be reasonably close to our eventual destination the "Shoni Ampitheatre in Benyamina."  We found a restaurant called Taj - a Kosher Indian restaurant in Or Akiva (under the supervision of the Or Akiva Rabbinate).

Taj is not exactly gourmet dining.  It is a small, family run Indian restaurant with a relatively short menu.  But the food was quite good and tasted quite authentic.  There was outdoor seating with a capacity of, perhaps, 15.  I understand that they do quite a bit of takeout business.  There was a mildly operational fan cooling us off a bit - though I have to say it was still quite warm.  

We ordered a vegetable Thali dish which came with a roti, a curried zucchini dish, dal (in this case, yellow lentils), rice and a variety of chutneys.  We also ordered a curried salmon dish and some large samosas.  The roti was quite good and really not too far off from the delicious rotis that I used to enjoy at the home of one of my very good friends, growing up in Toronto.  The prices were moderate.  The service was friendly and  prompt.  This was much more like one of the fairly fast storefront Indian restaurants, so abundant in Toronto, especially in the Leslieville area (Gerrard and Greenwood) than a sit-down full-service restaurant.  But then again, there really aren't that many options for Indian food in Israel and even fewer for Kosher Indian food.  A one-time Kosher Indian restaurant  in Jerusalem, that was situated in the Crown Plaza Hotel, has since closed.  The Tandoori chain, with a branch in Herzliah, is not particularly authentic tasting and is not Kosher.  There is a decent restaurant in Ashdod, called Namaste that is Kosher and serves good food.  It is a bit out of the way for those in central Israel but we have been there a few times.  All things considered, we enjoyed Taj and would be happy to go back at some point, especially if we are in the area. 

Caesaria, Israel
We were quite full when we left, which is usually the case when you leave an Indian restaurant (in my experience) even though we really didn't order that many dishes.  We still had a few hours until our concert so we decided to head over to the ancient ruins at Caesaria and wander around there for a bit.  It was only about 10 minutes away from the restaurant.  We have been there many times and it is a great place to visit.  This time we were looking to take a short walk at the beach and then sit somewhere, have a drink and watch the sea for a bit.  We decided on the Beach Bar where we found just what we were looking for.  

Beach Bar, Caesaria

The Beach Bar is an aptly named spot that spans a fairly large area with some seats very close to the water and others further away but with a nice view.  We found some seats in the shade and looked for something very cold to drink.  Unfortunately, we were told, it was "too early" for the ice drinks - which only come out at  night.  Go figure.  So we went for some lemonade.  My highlight of the day was the drink menu, which featured a drink called  a "Crazy Trump" made with mango and passion fruit juice.  It was tempting but we took a pass.  We sat and enjoyed the  sounds of waves crashing against the shore barrier and watching the  sun slowly set, though we were still an hour or two away from actual sunset time.

Our last stop was the concert venue itself.  We were off to the Shoni Ampitheatre in Binyamina, which is about 15 minutes away from Caesaria.   We were going to see Idan Raichel, a popular Israeli performer.  He often performs with a full 7-9 piece group but he is now doing a series of concerts by himself over the next few months at this outdoor ampitheatre.  He plays  piano, guitar, accordian (though he didn't play any accordian this time) and a variety of other instruments.  Many of his songs are fairly sombre, soulful and emotional.  

The venue was first come first serve seating.  We thought we were going to be seated on the stone seats that fill the ampitheatre (hence the need for the pillows that we bought at the market). Instead, we

Idan Raichel

wound  up with second row seats on uncomfortable plastic chairs.  Raichel was great.  He told lots of stories in between songs, some of them were quite interesting.  For example, he said his 5 year old daughter asks him why so many people want to take a picture of him so often when they are walking around in the city.  He told his daughter that it is because he writes songs that people like to listen to.  So his daughter answered - if it is the music that people like - what use would they have for a picture?

He played for about an hour and a half with a couple of encore songs.  It was the first time that I had seen him live.  From the live videos I have seen, it would probably be better to see him with his full band - the "Idan Raichel Project" but this was still quite enjoyable.

I am going to save most of the political comments for another blog.  I don't have that much to say at this point.  The nascent Israeli government is still working out the kinks and the Bibi-led opposition is trying everything that it can to topple the government and re-install Bibi.  I have a reasonable level of confidence that this current Bennett-led government, as precarious as it is, will ride things out and stick around for a reasonable time period.

I have been staying up late (or getting up early, if you prefer) to watch  the NHL hockey playoffs.  It was a shocking but welcome surprise to see the Montreal Canadiens make it to the Stanley Cup finals, in a bid to become the first Canadian team to win the Cup since 1993 (when Montreal last won it).  Montreal barely squeezed its way into the playoffs and was a heavy underdog in every series it played.  Somehow it won the first three series and made it to the finals against the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning.  I didn't have very high hopes - but maybe there would be another miracle.  Well, after the first three games, Montreal was down 3-0 and I couldn't bring myself to stay up all night last night with the prospect of watching Tampa take the Cup.  So I woke up this morning with the pleasant  news that Montreal had managed to extend the series.  I think only 2 or  3 teams in the history of the NHL (that spans more than 100 years) have managed to come back from a 3-0 deficit so the odds are heavily stacked  against Montreal.   But maybe I'll take my chances and see if they can extend the series once more on Wednesday night.  Miracles sometimes happen, don't they?

Israel is wrestling with a rapid spread of the Delta variant of Covid and the government is contemplating different restrictions, including bringing back the use of a "vaccination passport."  For now it is all talk as the government waits to see how many of the "positive" people actually become very sick.  For now, fortunately, the numbers of people  who have become very ill are still quite low and that is a positive sign, not only for Israel, but for every country that has managed to vaccinate a high percentage of the population as well as for those countries that are still hoping to do so.

Wishing everyone the best of health and enjoyment of the hot summer weather.  


Monday, June 28, 2021

Trip from Toronto to Tel-Aviv During Covid

Leaving Toronto
In an earlier blog, I wrote about my trip from Tel-Aviv, Israel to Toronto, Canada during Covid-19 and the various requirements.  I returned to Israel on June 23, 2021 so I thought I would write about  some of the details of travelling this route  in case you are thinking of trying it - we love  visitors!

First of all, Israel is still generally closed to "tourists" right now - other than certain group tours.  So in order to come  to Israel, you either need an Israeli passport, a work visa, or an advance authorization from the Israeli Ministry of the Interior - for example to visit a parent, child or other close relative.  I am really not sure about all of the requirements for non-Israeli visitors - so you would have to look that up.  I'm also not sure when this might change.  Israel has seen a recent surge in the Delta variant of Covid-19, which has even infected some people who had been vaccinated.  So there is some real concern about the need to take proper  measures to contain it.  

I chose to fly Air Canada.  I usually fly Star Alliance since I can collect  and  use the Aeroplan points.  I don't think El Al has resumed direct flights to Toronto in any event, so Air Canada was the only option for a direct flight.  The prices were still "reasonable" by comparison to other years.  You could get a round trip flight for between $850 and $1,100 Cdn.  which is still fairly low for this time of year due, of course, to the current situation.  The flights have been leaving at about 8 p.m. which means they arrive in Israel about 1:30 p.m. local  time.   I actually like that timing quite a bit.  Over the past few years -  Air Canada had been leaving Toronto at 5:30 p.m. and arriving in Israel at about 11 a.m.  I didn't mind that  timing - but  the return  flights were leaving Israel at  about noon - and getting  in to Toronto at 6 p.m. EST.  I really dislike those all day flights especially since the flight from Israel to Toronto, against the wind, can take close to 12 hours if not longer sometimes.

Inside FHS Labs
Anyways, the first order of business was to get a PCR test done in Toronto.  PCR tests are not being provided for free unless you meet one of the conditions for requiring one.   For example, if you have symptoms or you have been exposed to someone with Covid.  Otherwise, you have to arrange a private
test.  These seem to range in price from about  $159 plus tax to about  $300.  I used FHS labs.  I was able to book it on line for 8 a.m. two days before my flight.   The cost was $159 plus tax - about $180 total.  FHS was prompt, quick and easy and the results came  quickly as promised.  I would happily recommend using  them  unless you can find something much cheaper.  No one was there early on a Sunday morning as you can see from the photo.

Next came the Israeli government's "permission" form.  Within 24 hours of a flight  to Israel,  you have to fill in and submit an online form called a "Request to Entry Form." I have included the link in case you need it.  Here you have to provide  personal details - passport information etc.,  You  also have to indicate which countries you have visited while out of Israel and whether you have any symptoms.  Of course you also have to acknowledge that you can face severe fines for answering falsely.  Once you fill in the form and submit it online - you get a response back from the Israeli government fairly quickly.   You must print out the "approval" and bring it to the airport.  You will need it on check in at the counter in Canada and then again in Israel when you land.

I also had to book an arrival Covid test through the Israeli company Check2Fly - which administers these tests in Israel at the airport.  It is cheaper to book in advance and you avoid extra line-ups.  I think it was 80 Shequels (about $32 Cdn).  Much more reasonable  than the cost of leaving Canada - but I have heard that  Israel is planning on increasing the costs  shortly.  So I booked the test and printed that  out and had that with me for the airport as well.  I think Check2Fly also has an app that you can install on your  phone.

Then I checked  in with Air Canada.  There was another form to complete before checking in - a health attestation - that I didn't have any symptoms, wasn't with someone who had Covid etc.,  This form didn't take too long but I completed that and then I was finally ready for the regular check in process.

The online check in was  then simply the normal process.

On flight day, I was worried that things would take longer than usual  so I got to the airport fairly early.  As it turns out, it wasn't that crowded.  I guess there aren't that many people flying, which makes sense in the circumstances.  I normally go to the priority check-in counter because  of my Aeroplan status - which is at the front end of the terminal.  This time, I was offered the services of the concierge.  The concierge was super friendly.  He  went  through all of the different paperwork and requirements, checked everything and then told me I could leave everything with him.   He gave  me the baggage tags and wished me a good  flight.  That was the easiest and most helpful  check-in I have had in years.  Sorry that I don't  have the concierge's name but he was terrific.

Since the flight load is so much smaller these days, all of the security for international and domestic  flights is being done in the same place.  This means that once you get through security, you have about a twenty minute walk over to the international departures section.  There are shuttles for people who need them.   This area is normally closed off but they have set up a path to go from one area to the other.  The international lounge is also closed - but you can use the domestic lounge if you have access.  The lounge is operating on an "order-only" basis meaning you have to ask for food items  and they provide them to you directly to ensure that you aren't picking up food items that have been touched by hundreds of other lounge-goers.  There wasn't much of a selection.  I just had a bottle of water  and caught up on some emails.  I had to leave the lounge early enough to allow for the 20 minute walk over the international gates.

Boarding was pretty standard and on-time and I was off  for my 10 1/2 hour flight to Israel.  Fortunately, I was able to get an upgrade and sit in Business Class. Most of the business class services have been depleted these days  due to Covid.  There is much less food, a smaller selection of drinks,  fewer snacks etc.,  But of course the main attraction of the Business Class section on Air Canada for this type of flight (on a 787) is that the seats fold back completely to beds.  You are provided with a newly  cleaned sheet and blanket in a sealed, inspected bag along with a special sealed bag of personal and cleaning supplies.  In non-Covid  times, the staff members come around and  set up your  sheet and  blanket etc.,  These days, you are on your own but it is still all the same stuff once you get  it out of the sealed plastic bag.

Frozen Kosher Food
I ordered the Kosher meal in advance.  The hot part of the meal was okay - a less than memorable dish of chicken thighs in sauce.  But it also came with a sealed "cold tray" which included fruit that was too frozen to eat, frozen couscous and some other frozen items.  I probably didn't need to eat most of that anyways - but is is not very nice to be served a frozen meal - especially for the people who are paying real money for these  business class seats.

I picked out one movie and watched "Across the Universe" a vehicle for Beatles music from a few years ago.  I enjoyed it.  Tried to sleep after that and next thing I knew, it was time for breakfast.

The breakfast was a bit strange.  It  was an omelette but made with chick peas  in a cumin sauce.  I guess  the caterer figured that since we are on the way to Israel, we might as well start eating Mideastern spices early on.  I don't think  I have ever had a cumin-chick pea omelette in Israel - the breakfast food is usually more  influenced  by Greek or Italian flavours.  Mushrooms, tomatoes and feta?  Sure.  Chick peas? Not usually.   The "cold" part of the meal was  either stale or  frozen so I stayed away from it.   Air Canada is not serving real milk  with the breakfast coffee due to  Covid (don't ask...).  I'm not really sure how that is related and I didn't really feel like ingesting  some of that non-dairy creamer.  So the coffee was going to have to wait until after I landed.

Israel from Above
Once we arrived in Israel, things seemed reasonably normal.  No one came on to the plane or stood at the gate checking people as they got off.  However, they had set up an early passport check area.  So I was able to go through passport security quite quickly.  I believe that the Request to Entry Form had already been connected to my passport - so that whole system allowed for a quick  entry process.

After that, it was off to collect luggage, which was also quite normal.  Once I had collected my bags, and walked through the Green  customs line-up (nothing to declare, of course), I then had to get in line for a Covid test.   There was  line-up for those who hadn't yet  paid and a much shorter line up for those who had.  I  really didn't have to wait more than 5 minutes and probably even less than that.  My test was administered, I was given  a wrist band  to wear while in the airport and that was that.  I was free to go.  My test results came the next day, and thankfully, I was negative once again.

It was quite a bit easier to arrive in Israel than it was to arrive in Toronto and frankly, the process made much more  sense.  

Montreal Hockey Fans

Israel is now dealing with a wave of the Delta variant and the new government is trying to determine the best measures to take.  I guess we will see shortly whether Israel imposes new restrictions.

And so I was back in Israel - just in time to get up in the middle of the night a few times and watch the Montreal Canadiens miraculously defeat the heavily favoured  Las Vegas Golden Knights - for the Habs' first berth in a Stanley Cup final since 1993.  I am very excited about that - which will mean a definitely crazy sleep pattern over the next two weeks (or until the series ends).  Tonight is game one - about 3 a.m. Israel time.

That's about it for  now - no politics in this article - perhaps I'll write some more soon.  Wishing everyone the best of health.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

New Sheriff In Town - Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is Israel's New Prime Minister

It is a very historic day for Israel.   After 12 years under the leadership of Prime Minister Netanyahu, Israel is swearing in a new government - a "change coalition" made up of 8 different political parties - with members ranging from the far right to the far left.  The different parties all signed off on a coalition deal on Friday afternoon, clearing the way for today's swearing in ceremony.

The first order of business for the Knesset was to hear speeches from a range  of speakers - the leaders of the different parties - of both the outgoing government and the incoming administration.  The designated order was that Naftali Bennett, the incoming Prime Minister would speak first, followed by Prime Minister Netanyahu, the outgoing Prime Minister.

Bennett was invited to go first.  He had prepared a very carefully written speech - professional, conciliatory, stately and dignified.  But Netanyahu's supporters had other plans.  They had apparently decided that they would use every possible method to disrupt the  speech.  They hurled insults, abusive language and consistently disrupted the speech.  The House Speaker, who himself is a handpicked Netanyahu designate, had no choice but to start warning Knesset members that he would throw them out of the Knesset if they continued.  Soon he had to start ordering the removal of various Knesset members from the Religious Zionist Party, the Likud Party and the Ultra-Religious parties.  Frankly, it was embarrassing, childish and highly inappropriate.  At least 5 or 6 Knesset members had to be forcibly removed because they couldn't follow the basic decorum of listening to a speech from a political opponent.  One Israeli commentator said that it was as if those who had stormed the Capital in the U.S.  were actually the congress members and senators inside the Knesset.  It was simply disgraceful.

Bennett's speech was disrupted several times but he still managed to give it.  He thanked Netanyahu for his years of service and for many positive accomplishments.  But he also spoke about the  urgency of doing things differently, of working with people with opposing viewpoints, and of addressing many urgent issues facing the country.  He promised to try and work on behalf of all Israelis, even those who opposed him.  He mentioned that Israel may have disagreements with the United States on some issues - but he promised to work with the United States administration respectfully and work to return to a situation where support for Israel is bi-partisan in the U.S.  rather than partisan.  He laid out some of the government's proposed platforms and he introduced by name all of the incoming cabinet members.  He ended his speech by reciting the "prayer for the State of Israel" which is recited in synagogues around the world.  It was an emotional moment.

Yair Lapid was supposed to speak next.  After watching all of the disruption, he  decided to cut his speech short.  He stood up and said that he had  brought his 87 year old mother to Jerusalem (she rarely comes to Jerusalem) to see how a peaceful transition of power works in Israel, a country that did not exist when she was born.  He said she told him that she was simply embarrassed by the behaviour of the opposition Knesset members but she also said  - that this conduct by Netanyahu's supporters in the Knesset demonstrated why a change of government was so urgently needed.  Lapid said that was all  he was going to say at this time and he sat down.

Next it was Netanyahu's turn.  He was allotted the longest time  period as the outgoing Prime Minister.  Netanyahu began his speech, shockingly, by quoting the  lead prosecutor  in the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann  and claiming that he was standing here on behalf of the "millions" (in Netanyahu's case - the "millions" who had voted for him but would not have him as a leader).  This was an outrageous misuse of historical context - to suggest that the incoming government was a horrible and tragic event on the scale of the Holocaust.  

Netanyahu then proceeded with a review of the many accomplishments of his government, for which he took all of the credit personally.  Some  of this review was partially accurate, some was slanted and some was outright misleading.  For example, he noted that Israel is in a far better security situation today than it was 12 years ago.  That is probably true.  He claimed that his government had dramatically decreased the "gaps" and "inequalities" in Israeli society.  That is patently false.  He claimed that his government did more than any previous Israeli government to support the Arab Israeli community.  That is questionable and probably not accurate, even though at times the Netanyahu government invested significant amounts in certain Arab communities.  His tone was combative, irascible and condescending.  This was only the first part of the speech and just the beginning.   

For the second part, Netanyahu switched to a litany of attacks on the incoming government and, in particular, on Bennett personally.  This part of the speech was simply a page from the Trump playbook.  He insulted, derided and castigated his political opponents and this deal to create the new government in particular.  He used nicknames to make fun of certain Knesset members.  He stated that "unlike what has taken place in some places, he is not challenging the legitimacy of the actual ballots - they were counted properly."  But he is challenging the fraudulent misuse of the ballots by Bennett - who took right wing ballots and turned them improperly into a left wing government. He quoted Arnold Scwarznegger stating "I'll be back" and promised that it would be a lot quicker than anyone  expects.  He did not wish the new government success or provide any kind words for the incoming government or any of its members.  Instead, he simply promised to bring down the government as quickly as possible, with "God's help."  I can't say this speech was unexpected though I think some were a bit surprised at the complete lack of any hint of statesmanship or professionalism.  

There was then a break for a few hours.  During this time, the tv commentators reviewed and assessed both speeches.  Even the right wing commentators were somewhat taken aback at the conduct of the disruptive Knesset members during Bennett's speech.  In the meantime, Bennett announced plans to go to the Kotel for a special blessing after being sworn in.  At the same time, the Religious Zionist party and the Ultra Orthodox parties announced organized demonstrations at the Kotel and special prayers for the "downfall of the government."  We can clearly see that there will be rocky times ahead and it will be fascinating to see if this new government can hold things together.

There are definitely several concerns about the new government.  It is comprised of far right wing parties, far left wing parties, centrist parties along with an Arab Israeli party.  They will have lots of disagreements and they only have a razor thin margin of 61-59 to run the country.  If two Knesset members defect, the government will collapse.

Furthermore, there are genuine and legitimate complaints about the incoming Prime Minister Bennett.  His party only had 6 seats.  He had promised his voters, in writing, that he would not join a government with Lapid, even a rotation government.  He also promised that he would not sit in a government that worked with the Arab parties.  Many of his supporters are understandably upset and I can see that there was no reason that he should have been so unequivocal with his promises if he had no intention of keeping them.  In short, it is true that he  deceived his voters.

At the same time, most politicians tend to make all sorts of promises that they are often unable to keep.  Netanyahu also made a list of promises and broke many of them.  Bennett has insisted that, overall, the deal he has made involves a variety of compromises, all with a view to the best interests of the country at this point in time.  I think many Israelis will be prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, at least for some period of time.

Changing Of the Speaker of the House

After a significant delay, the Knesset was recalled for the next order of business - the vote for a new speaker of the house.  The vote was held and Mickey Levy of the Yesh Atid party won with 67  votes (61 required for a majority).  For a bit, the outcome was uncertain, but in the end  the candidate of the change coalition was elected the new speaker of the house.  The outgoing speaker, Yariv Levine, in contrast to Netanyahu, was statesmanlike and professional.  He wished Levy the best of luck, shook his hand and said a few words about his own departure.  It was a welcome change of tone.

Voting in the New Government

Shortly afterwards, the full Knesset was invited to vote on the new government.  There was some tension since the government is being implemented with a  61-59 majority.   No wiggle room at all.  As the votes came in, there were 3 initial abstentions.  The vote sat at 60-56.   The speaker, of  course, only votes in the event of a tie.  The speaker asked if there were any missing votes.  Three Arab members changed their votes from "abstain" to against and the vote was now 60-59.  But that was it.  The vote was called and the speaker announced that Naftali Bennett is Israel's new Prime Minister.

Swearing In of the Ministers

The final step was the swearing in of the Prime Minister and the cabinet ministers.  Each person comes up and repeats, according to a set formula - which starts with "I, (full name), the son or daughter of (full name) and then either "may he/she live many more years in good health" or "of blessed memory" followed by the other parent's name.  It is incredibly emotional.  Some of the ministers were lucky to have parents and family members in attendance.  Others thought of their deceased parent or other family members as they took the oath and mentioned their names.  The cabinet features a wide range of members from 8 different parties.  Some of these parties have not been a part of any Israeli government for many years.  It was quite a sight.

Conclusions for Now

In some parts of Israel, people are celebrating, especially in Tel-Aviv.  There are many Israelis hoping that this new government will usher in a wide range of changes in many different areas.  Other Israelis are extremely upset and are planning to hold demonstrations, prayer gatherings and other events calling for the end to this government.

This  new government contains a large number of "right wing" members.  I don't expect things to change very much with respect to relations with the Palestinians in the very near future.  I would say that there is somewhat of a consensus on some of the issues in dispute - and  some of the policies that Netanyahu has promulgated.  For example, no Israeli government is going to be interested in negotiating the status of Jerusalem, discussing the settlement of Palestinian refugees in Israel or even negotiating a Palestinian state in the current climate.  There may, however, be more of an openness to meet and try to restart some negotiations on these and other issues with a view to trying to resolve some or all of the ongoing conflict with Palestinians.

The real change, however, is that this government is  the first one in a number of years without the two ultra-orthodox parties.  That may well prove to be the biggest element of change in the "change" government  Suddenly, the  budget might change and religious educational institutions that do not support mandatory military recruitment may start finding themselves with significantly reduced budgets.  Bennett promised to take away the monopoly over Kashrut from the Ultra-Orthodox and provide a wider range of options for Kashrut observers.  There may well be a range of positive changes in Israeli society that affect gender equality, education, the environment and many other areas, all of which can be tackled without having to appease ultra-religious interests.  

I really can't predict whether this government will be  able to hold up and if so, how long it might last.  The deal has been signed as a four year deal.  But with a such a thin margin, it seems unlikely that this government will make it through the full four year term.  But I suppose that is going to depend on what kind of priorities the government tackles and whether its actions are viewed favourably by the Israeli public, or at least a large part of it.

I do maintain and believe that there is a significant likelihood that we will see a much higher level of public discourse, respect within the government, cooperation, trust and a resolve to act in the public interest - all of which will be very different from the legacy that Netanyahu is leaving behind, particularly over the course of his final few years of this term in office.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Are We There Yet? Is Israel About to Have a Change of Government? Perhaps.

When I was younger, we would frequently take long family trips in the car, visiting our grandparents who lived in different cities.  Even as I got older, our lengthy car  trips continued with my sister moving to a city 13 hours away from Toronto (on a good drive).   As anyone who has taken these long car trips knows, the most frequently asked questions  from young  children (and even not-so-young "children") are  - "are we there yet?" and "when will get there?"  You know where this is going....

Israel Political Update

About a month ago, in Israel, Prime Minister  Netanyahu's "mandate" to try and form a  government expired as he was unable to form a 61 member coalition that is required to form a government.  He made various efforts to come up with a coalition but he was short by at least 2 seats in the 120  seat Knesset and could not seem to find the missing pieces anywhere.  So when the mandate expired, the President of Israel, Rueben Rivlin, turned the mandate over to the head of the opposition party Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid.  Lapid was given 28 days to try and piece together a government. These 28 days ended at midnight tonight (June  2, 2021), Israel time.

Coalition negotiations were tense, difficult and tiring.  Lapid was trying to put together a coalition made up of a range of very strange bedfellows.  The potential coalition included a far right religious party (Yamina - "the Right"), another fairly far right less religious party (Tikvah Hadashah) ("New Hope"), the centrist Yesh Atid party, the centrist Blue and White party (which had been Netanyahu's reluctant governing partner since March 2020), the Labour Party (left-centre), the left wing secularist Meretz party and an Arab Islamist party - Ra'am, led by Monsour Abbas.  Frankly, it sounds unfathomable.  What would hold such a diverse range of parties together in a coaltion deal?  They could pretty much all agree that Israel needed to oust Netanyahu.  And perhaps most of these parties could also agree that they would rather have a government without  the two ultra-Orthodox parties.  But otherwise, at first glance, it seemed hard to imagine what else they could agree on.

Despite these difficulties, just before the recent fighting with Gaza broke out, Lapid and Bennett were about to announce that they were forming a "change government" and Netanyahu would be ousted.  Shortly after the war broke out, Bennett announced that he was giving up on the idea of this change  government and that he would go back to negotiating with Netanyahu to form a "true right wing government."  The problem was that Netanyahu's mandate had expired and, in any event, even with Bennett, Bibi could not get past 59 seats.

So after the Gaza fighting ended, Lapid set out to restart efforts to put together this change coalition, without Bennett.  He negotiated with all of the different parties and then brought back his offer to agree on a rotation government back to Bennett under which Bennett would go first as Prime Minister or the first two years.  At first Bennett held out and continued to state that  he would not go along.  But after some further delays, Bennett made an announcement that he would now seek to enter into a coalition to form a "change government" since it was clear that Netanyahu could not form one.  It was either going to be a new government or another election.

Since Bennett's decision, the different parties have held marathon talks trying to piece together a  deal.  The deadline was midnight tonight.  As of yesterday, it was really 50-50 whether the parties were going to reach a deal.  Yamina's number 2, Ayalet Shaked, announced last night that she wanted a key seat on the judical appointments committee.  Not just any seat - she wanted to take the one that had been promised to the leader of the Labour party - Merav Michaeli as part of the newly negotiated coalition deal.  Shaked stated last night - that if she didn't get her way - there would be no "change government."  Shaked had been hoping to get the Minister of Justice portfolio but the other coalition members refused.  Her goal is to appoint a benchful of exclusively right wing judges - who can act, more or less, act as another branch of a right wing government, rather than as an independent body.  While serving as  a Minister in a past government under Netanyahu, she was involved in the appointment of a large number of such judges.  She constantly attacks and criticizes the courts when rulings are issued with which she disagrees.   As the deadline approached today - Shaked and her demand remained as one of two outstanding issues.  The other issue involved Monsour Abbas and the Raam party.

Lapid had been hoping to conclude an agreement by 11 a.m. this morning.  If that had happened, the new government could have been sworn in as early as Monday June 8, 2021.  But talks could not be completed.  The deadline came and went and there was no deal.  The next deadline was midnight tonight.  

As  a political  junkie, I had to flip on the three  Israeli channels (I'm using a streaming  device in case you are wondering)  and check in with channels 11, 12, and 13.  It was almost as exciting as a sporting event.  Would there be an agreement  by midnight or would the time expire - leaving Netanyahu to live another day politically?  In other words - are we there yet?  When will we get there?  And the additional question - will we get there?

By 10 p.m., there was still no deal.  One hold out  issue had been resolved - issues involving Monsour Abbas, and for the first time in Israel's history, an Arab party had agreed to be part of a government coalition agreement.  Now that was exciting - a true watershed - but it didn't mean that a deal had been reached.  Shaked and other members of Yamina were still holding out.  Apparently, members of Gideon Saar's New Hope party were also refusing to sign.

Netanyahu and his supporters were involved in all kinds of behind the scenes activities.  Netanyahu himself called Abbas and told him that he would get a better deal with Netanyahu (though Netanyahu had no actual government to offer him).  Netanyahu supporters sent death threats to Shaked, Bennett and other members of the Yamina party - as well as other party leaders of this coalition.  All were assigned additional bodyguards.  One Yamina member was told that if he supported the agreement - his house in Petach Tikvah would be burned down.  

Just after 11 p.m. Israel time, Lapid and Bennett  announced that a deal had been struck and all parties had signed off.  Michaeli agreed to a compromise resolution which mostly favoured Shaked.  Lapid and Bennett informed the President who offered his congratulations.  But it may take 11 days until the official "swearing-in" ceremony will take place.  Between now and then, Netanyahu will still try everything he can to retain power.  His party has been exerting extreme pressure on the members  of the two right wing parties - Yamina and and New Hope - trying to  convince them that it would be a sell-out to leave him and join a "leftist coalition."  Members of these parties have been called "traitors," "liars," "promise breakers" and lots of other names.  The rhetoric is extreme, heated and dangerous.  Given Israel's history and the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin Z"L, there is a serious threat of political violence.   It is concerning.  Are we there yet?  Not yet.  Will we get there?  Unclear.

So it is still a bit premature to offer a political eulogy for Netanyahu. He is known  as the "magician" and over the next 11 days, he and his supporters will try every possible trick to abort this in vitro government before it can come to life.  Even if the government is sworn in, it will face enormous pressure  trying to hold together such a diverse range of political actors. But I will say that both Lapid and, to a lesser extent, Bennett, have exuded a certain sense of calm, a need for compromise, dedication and professionalism that suggests that it may well happen.

Political commentators on the right wing of the spectrum are dumbstruck and remain filled with disbelief - and  some  hope that the  coalition will be stopped.  They were convinced that Netanyahu would not let this happen.  One leading TV commentator, Amit Segal, railed against the formation of this coalition on Israeli national  TV.  Another right wing commentator and outspoken Bibi supporter, Avishai Ben Haim, called it "one of the darkest days in Israel's history."

On the other hand, Lapid and Bennett have gone to incredible lengths to build a compromise coalition government that includes a wide range of voices and is based on decency, respect, service to the country and an interest in doing things differently.  I do believe that if the government is sworn in and is  able to last, it is likely to be one of the best governments that Israel has had in many years, if not  ever.   Will we get there?  I think there is a good chance that we will, though there are many obstacles and it is hard to say how long it will last.

Israeli Presidency

The Israeli Knesset also voted today to elect a new President.  The presidency is largely a figurehead
position - much like a monarch or the Governor General position in Canada.  There were only two candidates  - Yitzhak  "bougie" Hertzog and Miriam Peretz, an educator and public speaker who lost two sons  to the IDF.  

Herzog has quite the pedigree for this role.  His father, Chaim Herzog, was Israel's 6th President.  His paternal grandfather was the Chief Rabbi of Ireland from 1922 to 1935 and then the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel from 1936 to 1959.  Herzog completed a law degree and worked in his father's firm for a number of years.  Even though he came from the left wing Labour party, Hertzog was viewed as an acceptable candidate across the political spectrum.  Even the Ultra-Orthodox parties were happy to vote for him, partially, it seems, out of respect for his late grandfather.  Suprisingly, the Likud party did not promote or actively support any particular candidate.

I heard an interview today with one Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi from the Torah Judaism party  who stated that Herzog was a Levi (part of the Jewish Priestly caste) and therefore he must be an acceptable candidate.  Perhaps, he went on to say, that this could be the start of a reimplementation of the Priestly class in leadership roles in politics throughout Israel.  

In any event, Herzog received 87 votes in the 120 seat Knesset and won  handily.  He will be sworn in at the end of President Rivlin's term over the summer.

Hockey Update

Since arriving back in Toronto,  I have been able to watch some hockey at sane hours.  Watching NHL hockey in Israel normally means watching at 2:30 or 3 a.m. This is quite disruptful to sleeping patterns.  

As a long time Toronto Maple Leaf season ticket holder - I have the same questions that I have been applying to my discussion of Israeli politics.  Are we there yet?  When will we get there?  Will we ever get there?

Over the past number of years, the Maple Leafs have opened up the vault and signed a number of very expensive players - our "superstars."  Toronto forward Auston Matthews led the league this year in goals scored.  The Leafs were heavily favoured against the Montreal Canadiens, who had barely made it into the playoffs.  

And yet, like in so many past years, the Toronto Maple  Leafs expired in the first round, beaten by Montreal in a 7 game series with nothing to show for that massive payroll.  It was enormously disappointing.  But then again, being a Leaf fan is always enormously disappointing.  The Leafs last won the Stanley Cup in 1967.  That drought does not look like it is about to end any time soon.  Are were there yet?  Certainly not.  Will we get there?  Who knows.  I would love to see a Toronto Maple Leaf Stanley Cup championship win - but I'm really not sure that I will ever see it.

Toronto and Covid Update

My final comments on my own trip to Toronto.  I wrote about it more extensively in my previous blog.  Since arriving in Toronto on May 27th, I have been using the "ArriveCan" phone app to check in and confirm that I am still healthy.  I have also received a bunch of robocalls.  Sample questions:  "Are you aware that you not allowed to have visitors or entertain people at your home?  Press 1 for yes, 2 for no.  Are you planning to have visitors or entertain people at your home during your quarantine period?  Press 1 for yes, 2 for no."  I'm not making this stuff up.  In any event, I'm getting to day 8, where I will have a zoom call with a nurse who will watch me complete my "day 8 Covid test."  After that, just 6 more  days to go.  Time flies when there is so much going on....

Sorry if I have bored you  with all of the Israeli politics - but, as you probably know from reading  some  of my previous blogs, it is one of my favourite topics - especially when there is so much going on.  It is so volatile, that everything I have written may change by the time you are reading this.   But hopefully my analysis will still be relevant.

I'm officially finished my quarantine on June 9, 2021, so looking forward to seeing whoever I am  able to see while in Toronto.  Best of health to everyone.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

In Quarantine - and a Political Comment or Two

As you  might recall from my last blog (if you read it), I arrived on an Air Canada flight early Thursday a.m. and headed off to the Marriott Airport Hotel in Toronto for my "up to three day quarantine."  I took my Covid test on Thursay morning at about 6:00 a.m. or so.  After that, I headed off to the hotel on the Hotel Shuttle Bus - which was about a half hour wait.  I was put on a  "Covid floor" at the Marriott - where you are not supposed to leave your room - and meals are delivered three times a day.  Thankfully the internet service was decent.

Urban Kosher Lunch

I had ordered Kosher food and the meals were supplied by Urban Kosher, which is part of L'Chaim Catering.  The food was fine.  Breakfast both days was an omelet, grilled tomatoes, hashbrowns, a fruit cup and a muffin (one day blueberry, one day cranberry, in case you are wondering...).  The fruit cup was quite good with fresh berries, pineapple, dragonfruit, and some other fresh fruit.  Lunch on thursday was two sandwiches - one of cold grilled chicken, the other of cold roast beef.  It also came with a big chocolate cup cake, some celery and some carrots.  The lunch was, perhaps, the "weak link."  Dinner on Thursday was a grilled chicken breast in a terryaki sauce with mashed potatoes and a giant piece of chocolate cake along with a Caesar salad (pareve of course).  I appreciate that the Marriott arranged these  meals without any additional cost (unlike some of the other hotels that I called) and the food quality was fine, better than an airplane meal for sure.  My only criticism is that the caterer is apparently a meat and pareve caterer - so there are no dairy meals.  I would have prefered them to use a dairy caterer for the breakfast so that they could provide yogurt, cheese etc.,  But for a relatively short stay,  that is not a huge complaint.  Breakfast and dinner were served warm and the food was tasty.  Kol  Hakavod to Urban Kosher.
Lunch  Sandwiches

The Marriott provides some coupons for some cappucinos.  So I was able to call room service and order cappucinos.  I asked them to use the coupons to cover the cost of the coffees and they were happy to do so.  The coffee was pretty good - Illy coffee - so I had  two nice cappucinos with breakfast each day.

By 10:30 a.m. on Friday, I received my results, negative of course (since I have been vaccinated twice), and I was free to leave.  I still had a work meeting so I couldn't leave until about 1 p.m.  But at the time  I received the test results, I also received a message from the ArriveCan app asking me to confirm that I was "leaving the Hotel" and to confirm "where I would be spending the rest of my quarantine." 

Chocolate Layer Cake

In other words - these three are working together - ArriveCan,  and the hotels.  They want to get you the results within one  day - and then ensure that you leave the hotel asap.   They know, in advance, that is how things will work but still insist that you buy a three day, pre-paid, non refundable hotel stay.  I tried asking at the hotel desk if there was anything they could do - but they were resolute and hid behind the Canadian government ("the Canadian government insists that it be a  three day non-refundable rate - we can't do anything about it.").  I have heard that some of the hotels are offering some refund if you leave early - but I'm not sure which.  I wanted to ensure that I had the Kosher  food - so I didn't find any of these hotels that were offering a partial refund.  Perhaps I will write to the Marriott as well but I doubt I will get anywhere.

It seems to me that a class action lawsuit against the  government of Canada would probably succeed. Under the Canadian Constitution - the Charter - the government could probably show that there was a "pressing and substanial need" due to the pandamic - to override the rights of Canadians.  That is  fine.  But under section 1 of the Charter, the government is also required to show that it infringed on people's rights to the minimum extent possible.  Here, I think they would have a big problem.  Given that people could drive across the border and not go to these hotels - it makes no sense to insist that only air travellers have to pay $1,200 extra or so to buy a "three day prepaid non-refundable" stay whereas those who fly to the U.S.  and take a cab back to Canada can circumvent the  process.  Especially since the government knows and expects that in 95% of the cases, travellers will test negative and will be able to leave within 24 hours.  They could have made it a 24 hour stay - and pushed to get the results within that time frame.  Or they could have insisted that everyone - land travellers and air travellers - stay the full three days.  This would have been drastic - but it would have been equal and fair to everyone.  There are probably many other possible solutions as well.  The point here is that a three day mandatory, non-refundable, stay is a significant overreach and  is not likely to meet a proportionality test, in my view.  Then again, I'm only an employment lawyer, so what do I know?

I expect that in the coming weeks, this policy will be abandoned and the government will start recognizing vaccination certificates.  I don't plan on bringing the class action lawsuit myself - but  I'm quite sure that a properly framed suit would have a very good chance of success.  Maybe someone else will decide to take this on.  

Israeli Political Update

Naftali Bennett
Sitting here in Toronto - I flipped on Israeli news channel 12 to watch two back-to-back press conferences - one by Naftali Bennett and  one by Benjamin Netanyahu.  It was fascinating to watch.  The Israeli public is really divided and there are protesters outside everywhere across the country - rallying either in favour of this new potential "change government" that Bennett is trying to form with Lapid or in support  of  Netanyahu and against the Bennett-Lapid plans.

Bennett spoke first. I actually thought it was quite a good speech.  He appealed to Israelis from across the political spectrum to make some compromises, form a stable government and avoid a 5th election.  He noted that he  had made extensive efforts to form a purely right wing government with Netanyahu but they were short of the votes - and it wasn't going to happen.  He stated that his government would not be a "left"  government - but one made up of left and right wing politicians and that it would involve compromises.  He said that some of its members would be "more right wing" than those in the current Netanyahu government.  He prommised that  he was going to make every effort over the coming 48 hours to form such a government - even though his second in command - Ayelet Shaked was not beside him and has not yet fully committed to this plan.  Bennett did not take any  questions.  He will spend the next 48 hours - until Lapid's mandate ends - trying everything he can to finalize arrangements and  take over the government from Netanyahu.

After a short TV break, Netanyahu spoke from a different location.  He was disturbed and unhinged.  He levelled every kind of personal insult at Bennett and repeatedly called Bennett a liar, a flip-flopper and someone who was  forming a left wing government despite the overwhelming support that he enjoyed from the country as the preferred choice for Prime Minister.  He attacked, in personal terms, the leaders and members of the left and centre parties that would make up the potential government - including Lapid, Michaeli, Horowitz and Zandberg.  He warned that this "change" government would be a danger to national security, to the army, to Israel's interests worldwide.  He compared Bennett's plan to take over - to the way governments are run in Syria, Iran and Turkey - governments that are formed, in his view, against the overwhelming national will and electoral preferences.  He said  Bennett was putting himself above the national  interest - and endangering everyone so that he could become the Prime Minister.  Isn't all this quite rich for someone who has dragged the country into four consecutive elections becauses of his personal legal troubles?  The language was Trump-esque - "only I can be the Prime Minister and ensure national security."  This despite the fact that if  Bennett succeeds in forming a government, it will be one that is made up of more than 50% support of the Israeli voting public.

Netanyahu's speech was aimed at members of the Yamina party, especially Shaked, who may not be happy about joining a compromise government.   It was also aimed at Gideon Saar's "New Hope" party - in an effort to try to get some of that party's members to cross the aisle.  As well, it was aimed at Netanyahu's base - and was a call to action for protests, name calling, threats and whatever else over the coming 48 hours.  

It is unclear what will  happen.  I don't think we can rule out the possibility that Netanyahu will somehow suceed in blocking this change government by doing something drastic over the next 48 hours.  He is pulling out  all the stops and exerting the maximum pressure that he can on as many people as possible.  Some of his supporters are calling Bennett and Saar "traitors" and using very extreme language and rhetoric to attack their opponents.  For Netanyahu, if he cannot  block the transfer of power, it will a devastating loss with significant personal ramifactions since he will now have no effective way of slowing, stopping or manipulating his ongoing corruption trial.  

It will be really interesting to see if Bennett and Shaked can withstand all of this pressure and form a change government.  The next 48 hours may  be one  of the most fascinating time periods in Israeli political history.  Hopefully, however things work out, it will all be done peacefully.  

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Trip To Toronto from Tel-Aviv, Israel

Hi.  Well this will be a bit of a different blog.  After about 14 months - I decided to try coming back to Toronto for a short trip.  I thought I would cover off all the things you need to do these days to travel from Israel to Toronto.  This will all probably change over the next few months - though hard to say exactly when.  Much of this will apply if you are coming from some other  country and arriving in Canada.

So here goes....

First of all - Air Canada is currently flying direct between Tel-Aviv and Toronto.  When I moved my reservation, they told me it was  once a week - but now it looks like twice a week.  The good news (from my point of view) is that they have changed the flight times.  They are now leaving Israel at 12:10 a.m. at night and arriving at 5:10 a.m.  I much prefer this over the 11:20 a.m. departure from Israel that they had been using for the past few years.  Travelling from Toronto to Israel, Air Canada is now leaving at about 9:30 p.m. and arriving in Israel 3:30 p.m. or so the next day.  This also preferable - though I didn't mind the  5:30 p.m. departure times.  I'd rather fly overnight  in general, especially if I am able to get an upgrade - which happens occasionally.

For people making new bookings and travelling from Canada to Israel - Air Canada is apparently offering insurance (including Covid coverage) with all reservations - and is allowing for flexible changes.  The tickets still seem to be moderately priced - and have not yet gone up to the traditional summer rates of $2,000+ per ticket - as far as I can see.  You should still be able to get a round trip ticket for between $850 and $1,200 Cdn. (As of the time I'm writing this - May 25-27, 2021).

As the travel date approaches, you must take a Covid-19 test at an acceptable provider within 72 hours of your flight departure time - which specifies your passport and flight information on the test in English.  So  I went last night (May 24, 2021) to the "Check2Fly" airport location, located at Terminal 3 of Ben Gurion Airport (in the  arrivals area, near Gate 2).  It costs 44 Shekels (about $18 CDN) for the "slow" test which is supposed to take up to 17 hours.  If you are in more of a rush, you can buy the 4 hour test, which has a higher fee.  You can either use the drive-through location at the airport (which we couldn't find due to lack of signage, despite circling the airport  twice) or the terminal location.  It took about 15 minutes to go through the line, get tested etc.,  My appointment was for 1:45 a.m. last night -  but we showed up at about 10 p.m.  (As typical Israelis, we didn't pay any attention to the actual appointment time).  No questions asked.  Just had to show proof of advance purchase and the other required documentation.  By 9 a.m. this morning, I had the results back - negative, thankfully.  (Not that I was expecting anything else, having received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine, like most Israelis).  Incidentally, the "drive-through" is apparently located in the  "cargo exit area" as you are coming up to Terminal 3.  But it is very poorly marked and hard to find.

Next I had to download the Canadian government cellphone application called ArriveCan and fill it out with all of my information, my "quarantine plan" for the next two weeks, height, weight, vital signs, sexual orientation, etc., Okay some of this was not required but it was pretty comprehensive.  There is a website option as well - that you can find here.  Once that was completed, I received a confirmation email from the Canadian Government with a bar code  that I will have to show on entry into Canada.

The most painful part of all of this - I had to book a "GAA" ("Government Approved Accomodation") hotel.  This can only be booked using the Canadian government site link (or calling the particular hotel directly) and it is really quite a scam.  At a minimum, you have to book and pre-pay for 3 days - even though you are allowed to leave the hotel as soon as you receive a negative result from your Covid test on arrival in Canada.  No refund of any kind if you leave early - even though everyone knows that 90% of the people or more will test negative and be able to leave - especially those coming from Israel who have been vaccinated.  Moreover, some of the eligible hotels  have normal rates as low as $65 per night - but you must use the "GAA" rate and pay $350 a night.  I guess at least $100 to $150 of that per night is a direct political contribution from the Liberal Party of Canada to the Hotel Industry but I digress.  Okay, the rate includes 3 meals a day - but I am quite sure they are not serving $200-$250 worth of food - even at hotel rates.  And since such a high percentage of people will leave after only a day or two - it is like those coupon sellers that rely on people to buy the coupons and never actually use them.  

I should note that you can't use third party websites - such as expedia, travelocity etc., - so I was not able to use American Express Travel - which would have given me a $200 credit against the outrageous hotel fee.  I tried - but the Amex representative looked into it and told me there was no way to do it.

I phoned a bunch of these hotels and asked about Kosher food.  Even though the Government site says that they are required to provide it - most said that they couldn't.  Some said you could order it at your own expense and pay for it.  Others said they just couldn't accommodate it.   The Sheraton said that they would include the Kosher food - but I would have to pay an additional charge of $45 per day for "delivery."  The Marriott Hotel on Dixon Road said that you could arrange Kosher food at no extra cost- if you request it with 24 hours advance notice.  So I did.  We will see what happens.

Next is the Israeli Exit application....This must be filled in within 24 hours of the departure.  I guess I can't fill this one out until late tonight - so we will see what's on it.  

I'm back.  I completed this form.  I tried to complete it 24 hours before the flight, as requested.  The flight is scheduled for 12:20 a.m.  But the website is apparently not set up with a live time function - so it would not allow me to complete the form on the 26th (early a.m.) for a flight leaving on the 27th early a.m.  In any case, this form asks for ID, contact information and declearations relating to your health - specifically that you are not currently diagnosed as a covid-19 patient, have not been in isolation over the past 2 weeks and have do not have symptoms.  It also asks you to agree that you understand that it is a criminal offence to make misrepresentations on the form.  Once you have completed it - you submit it online and  it sends you  back an authorization form and number that can be presented at the Israeli airport.  The form is available in English, Hebrew and several other languages.

Flight Day:

Checked  to see that the flight was in time - it is.  Current recommendation is to arrive at the airport four hours (*gasp*) ahead of the flight time.  Judging from the line-ups we saw on Monday night - when I came for the Covid test - this sounded like it might be needed.  So I showed up at 8:30 p.m. for a 12:30 a.m. flight.  Not a soul around.   Okay there were a handful of people but not many.

First stop was an outside checkpoint - before you can be let into the terminal.  This was a stop to check passports, covid tests and tickets.  It was quick - and they are giving passengers a  green bracelet to show that you can now wander around in the terminal.  Like entering an amusement park - including the three hour waits for some of the rides.

Becauase there were so few people, I zipped through the Israeli security line up, the baggage check line-up and passport control (which is now all automated).  By 9:00 p.m., I was through everything and ready to visit the deserted duty free shops.  Many of them were closed but of course the main duty free with alcohol  and perfume etc., was open.  Not many shoppers.  I guess since it has been a slow year, they decided to increase the prices.  There were very few decent sales, very high prices and a limited selection.  I still picked up a  gift for someone - since I found something that you can't find at the LCBO in Toronto but the price wasn't earth shattering.

I wandered through the terminal a bit but I would say that quite a high percentage of stores were closed.  The clothing stores, gift boutiques and a range of other shops were all closed.  The book store was open -  Steimatzky's - so I browsed a bit there.  Of course the Chabad Lubavitch stand was set up and active - trying to encourage Jewish men to come and  put on tefillin - in exchange, perhaps, for a small donation and maybe a reserved spot in the heavenly afterlife.  I didn't stop to chat with these folks so I guess I will have to continue to worry about the current trajectory of my soul.  Hopefully there is still time.

The Flight

My flight was on time as scheduled.  I arrived at the gate.  There were quite a small number of people waiting to board compared to the usual crowd.  Air Canada decided to do away with priority boarding and opted for the Israel "free for all" style boarding  process.  It wasn't so bad since there were only a small number of people.  I  overheard one crew member saying that there were 100 passgengers.

I managed to get an upgrade so I was sitting in business class, which is always nice.  The seats fold back completely into beds.  Unlike  the usual business class trip - there was no offer of fresh orange juice or champagne.  In fact, the alcohol for the entire trip was limited to only wine and beer.  They didn't even have  milk for  coffee if you wanted it.  I usually earn at least half of the cost of the fare by sampling the various wines, having a whisky and perhaps a cognac or two.  But no such luck this flight. I had a bit of wine with dinner but it was nothing memorable.

Everything was double wrapped in plastic with a certified clean stamp on it - including the blankets, the pillows, the travel kit, etc.,  So I unpacked everything and set up my "bed" to prepare for a  nice snooze.

The flight was uneventful,  smooth and only 11 hours long (in the air).  I remember the older planes taking closer to 13 hours to fly from Tel-Aviv to Toronto so this was quite nice.  

I had to deal with a crying, shrieking baby - who interrupted  everyone's  sleep.  I  guess their parents were  opting for the "let her cry herself  out" approach -  even if that meant disrupting the  sleep of the rest of the plane.   Once she finally calmed  down, an alarm  clock went off from someone's  phone a few seats over.  He couldn't be bothered to wake up and shut  it  off.   Seems like it buzzed forever. Finally he decided to  attend to it.  Most of the time, business class  is  fairly serene but today's  flight was certainly an exception.

I ordered the Kosher meal service.  About an hour or so into the flight, I was presented with a big box, hermetically sealed with the culinary offerings.  It was a chicken dish with some vegetables.  Not bad actually.  There was a fruit plate on the side with pineapple, watermelon, cantaloupe and apple.   A small piece of chocolate cake, a salad and a dinner roll (which I stayed away from) were all on the plate as well.   Nothing  like the fancy meals that  are usually served in business class but it was fine.  If you are thinking of travelling business class primarily to experience the food - maybe wait until things are back to normal.

Arrival In Canada

We arrived early at about 5:10 a.m.  It seems like they landed the plane at the furthest possible gate from civilization - I guess to give everyone a bit of exercise after the 12  1/2  hours on the plane (including boarding, taxiing etc.,).  

After the marathon hike to the customs area, I headed over to the Nexus lineup to check  in.  Normally, when you arrive with Nexus - you simply hand over the completed form and away you go.   This  time - I had to face the extensive questioning from the customs agent.  I had to show my proof of test taken in Israel, my hotel reservation and my confirmation that I had filled out all of the information using the ArriveCan app.  Since I had all of my ducks in order, I really wasn't hassled that  much.  The usual questions about  how long I had been out of the country, purpose of travel, how many bags I was bringing etc.,  But I was released reasonably quickly.

I should note that as I was  standing in line - I could overhear a few people who were exercising their right to "civil disobedience."  One person insisted  he was not going to stay in the mandatory quarantine hotel or even agree to be checked for Covid.  After a short shouting match, the officer called over a supervisor - who told him that he would be fined.  He said fine - or "fine away," I suppose.  There are a number of Facebook postings where people are claiming that  Canadian judges  will throw out  these fines if you challenge them as violations of Charter rights.  I have no idea whether that is correct (especially since the Charter includes section 1 which allows the government to prove that the steps are necessary - and the government may get some slack when there is a global pandamic.)  In any case, I am not about to find out.  I think they have upped the fines to $5,000 and I am simply not interested in paying that.  Frankly, I don't see why the government even offers that as an option.  In my view, if someone doesn't want to be tested - they should be sent to the government's two week mandatory quarantine hotel if they are a Canadian citizen and fined - an amount high enough to cover the  two week cost.   If they are not a citizen - and refuse to take a test, they should be put on a plane and sent back to wherever they came from.

Another person stated that they had not downloaded the "ArriveCan" app and were not going to use  it.  Another shouting  match with an officer - who asked "why did you decide you just don't have to comply with the rules?"  No intelligible answer that  I could  discern.

Just after customs, there was a big slow moving line-up.  It looked like everyone was stopping there but it turns out this was only for people who did  not have a proper Covid test to show the authorities.  Not sure how they left the country without one - but fortunately, I did not have to wait in this line.  A  bunch of people mistakenly started waiting there - until they were told they did not have to unless they had been sent there.

Off to pick up the luggage -  which was just the usual process, as was leaving the arrivals hall.

But as soon  as you leave the arrivals hall, you are directed to another area for your Covid  testing, run by ""  I had pre-loaded the Switch app (as suggested on Canadian government sites) so I did not have to wait long here.  Had to go to one desk to check my passport.  They handed me a sealed kit and asked me to make sure that the sticker matched the kit and my ID.   Then it was down another hall to actually have the test done - a nasal swab only (unlike the Israeli tests which include nasal and throat swabs).  After that, I was given a kit with instructions for the  second test on Day 8.

Free to go?  Not yet.   Now I was directed to the various  hotel shuttle lineups.   I should note that  Toronto International  Airport does feel like a bit of a prison.   The various exit doors are closed and there are guards everywhere.  I went to wait for the Marriott shuttle - and hung around there for about half hour until it  came at 6:30 a.m.

Check in  at the Marriott was reasonably easy, though I wouldn't say that anyone was particularly friendly.  I had the feeling that they know they are scamming everyone by taking more than $1,000 for a three day say (probably almost three times their normal rate) and I suspect many of them even feel guilty about it.  They can hide  behind the government  and claim that it is a "government approved rate."  Doesn't make anyone feel any better but  I guess the Hotel employees can claim that they are not responsible.

They had a room ready for me and by 7 a.m. I was in my designated cell - sorry room - until I receive my negative test results, inshallah.  Apparently there are designated times when you can leave the room for exercise.  If you are a smoker, you can call down to pre-arrange a security-accompanied smoke break.  Not an issue for me - but in case you were  wondering.

I had pre-ordered Kosher food.  This was one of the few hotels which offered it - at no extra cost - even though the government of Canada web site stated that it would be available at all of the hotels.  Halal and vegetarian  - yes - at most hotels -  but Kosher - no.  Here is the first Kosher breakfast - it actually arrived hot... from Urban Kosher (under COR in case you are concerned about the hashgacha level).

That's about it.  I included lots of detail for those people who are thinking of doing this.  I suppose the main government purpose is to discourage travel as much as possible to limit the possible spread.  I don't really have a problem  with that purpose given the situation that  Canada has been in.  But this whole hotel program seems like a political boondoggle.   Especially the fact that  all of the hotels are charging a fully prepaid, non-refundable, exorbitant fee, even while knowing that most people  will leave after a day or two.

In any case, once I am cleared with a negative test - I will be  able  to go on to the second part of my isolation for the remaining time.   I will have to do a second test on Day 8 - which will be Thursday June 3, 2021.  Should be released on June 9th, assuming all goes well.  So hopefully I can see some friends and family members, whether  outside or at a nearby supermarket - after June 9th.

On the way back to Israel, all Israelis and Foreign Nationals must complete an "Inbound Passenger Clearance Form" which can  be found here.  But I guess I won't need that one or write about it until my trip back, whenever that will be.

Best of health and best regards to everyone.