Thursday, March 31, 2011

Israeli Football Team to Join FIFA's Mideast Division

The Israeli national football (soccer) team could find itself playing 2014 World Cup qualifying matches in Saudi Arabia, Jordan or even Ramallah. FIFA President Joseph Blatter announced yesterday that FIFA was realigning its divisions to ensure geographic consistency. As part of that move, Israel will be moved officially from the European Division to the Asian Division.

At a press conference at FIFA headquarters in Zurich Switzerland, Mr. Blatter explained the rationale for the move. “We believe that International Football transcends politics. Over the past few years, we have seen a move towards improved political relations between countries in the Middle East. For example, it no longer makes sense to have Israel travel to Europe for qualifying matches when they could be playing against their neighbours in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Turkey, among other countries.”

At the news conference, Blatter cited the example of India playing Pakistan in World Cricket. If India can play Pakistan in world cricket – and if all of the world’s countries can play against each other in the Olympics – FIFA should “embrace that approach of putting sport above politics.”

Blatter explained that on a personal level, he was very optimistic about the changes sweeping Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and other Middle Eastern countries. He speculated that together with regime change or increased openness and press freedom, these countries are likely to reject the anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiments that have to date prevented this kind of move. He also suggested that he had spoken to American, EU and other world politicians, including Canadian officials, who were involved behind the scenes in pushing for this change.

Blatter acknowledged that scheduling matches between Israel and some of its neighbours such as Iran, Syria, Yemen, Palestine and even Iraq may require some creativity on the part of FIFA. “We are prepared to have these matches played in nearby neutral countries such as Cyprus – but FIFA members will have to rise above politics and play the assigned matches to avoid disqualification. At the same time, we will take all appropriate measures to ensure security together with sportsmanship.”

FIFA’s move is likely to greatly increase Israel’s chances of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. While Israel is currently ranked 58th in the world, it has faced very difficult qualifying conditions due to its placement in the European division. For the 2010 World Cup, Israel was in a pool with Switzerland, Greece and Latvia, all very strong sides. The Asian division includes some strong sides but also includes all of the other Middle Eastern countries, many of which are much weaker than Israel’s current national team.

Israel’s coach Luis Fernandez was quite enthusiastic about the announcement. “Israel is prepared to play against any country in the world – even Iran or Syria. We are football players, not politicians – and we just want to have a chance to compete against the best players in the world – on fair terms.” He went on to explain that they would, of course, rely on and work with the Israeli government to ensure that all appropriate security precautions are taken and that they are given the green light to travel to some of these countries.

Mokhtar Tlili, the Tunisian coach of the Palestinian national football team was hesitant to speak about FIFA’s latest announcement. However, he was willing to explain that if his Palestinian team had to travel to Ramat Gan (outside of Tel-Aviv) to play against Israel, he would then expect that the Israeli team would have to play matches in the Palestinian team’s upgraded stadium in Al-Ram, in the West Bank.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas gave mixed messages about the change in a television interview with Al-Jazeera. He regretted that this change might soften the political pressure on Israel to resolve the situation in the West Bank and Gaza. However, Abbas also explained that the process of “normalization” of attitudes between the various Arab countries and Israel was the only real way to bring about true peace. “Why not start with Football – a game that breaks down barriers and instils passion for sport in people across the world? If Israelis and Palestinians “humanize” each other, even if only on the Football pitch, that will be great step forward for everyone in our region.”

Besieged Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad could not be reached for comment.

The first qualifying matches under the new alignment are likely to take place in the fall of 2012.

Blog Entry written for April 1, 2011 – Happy AFD.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Bar Mitzvah Experience at the Kotel

We attended a very special Bar Mitzvah yesterday – one of those events that reminds us how lucky we are to be in Israel – and have the chance to celebrate this type of occasion here.

The Bar Mitzvah was organized and run by Liran Levi – an Israeli with a company that specializes in conducting Bar/Bat Mitzvah trips to Jerusalem. Liran, who during his army service was in an elite combat unit, is also a trained cantor, tour guide and teacher. His told us that his goal (with the help of his four person crew) was to provide a unique, once in a lifetime experience – a day filled with happiness and excitement for the bar-mitzvah boy – and I have to say he met the goal.

We started out in Ra’anana – getting on a full sized bus around 8 a.m. The bus stopped at a few different points on the way to Jerusalem – picking up waiting friends and family members to join in the festivities. Though we had a bit of rain along the way – and some fairly nasty traffic jams – everyone was optimistic that things would still work out well.

Our first stop was Neve Shalom/Wahat Al Salam (“Oasis of Peace” – in Hebrew and Arabic) – a unique Israeli settlement – dedicated to the coexistence of Jews and Arabs in Israel. People from different backgrounds live there ( We were there for a breakfast along the way – a fairly quick stop – but with enough time for bourekas, salad and coffee – before starting the real part of our trip.

As we left Neve Shalom, the festivities began. Liran and his crew turned on the speaker system – and pulled out Middle Eastern drums. For the next 40 minutes or so – the bus became a mixture of a party – and a Jerusalem tour. Liran gave explanations about the history of Jerusalem – from ancient times until today. He challenged the guests with interesting questions. But he also got people singing – and – yes – dancing on the bus. Sounds crazy - but it was a riot. He went up and down the aisles with the microphone finding people willing to take a turn singing. He had the bar mitzvah boy and his parents at the front of the bus jumping up and down (not during the sharp turns) – and he had the drummer banging away to keep the beat. Other guests were dancing in the aisles – as the bus drove up through the mountains towards Jerusalem.

As we got closer – the excitement level continued to increase. There was a unique sense of mission – and history. We were told all about the modern history of Jerusalem. Liran, of course, highlighted the fact that Jordan had held the Old City of Jerusalem between 1948 and 1967 – and Jews simply weren’t allowed to visit the Jewish religious sites during those years. Since 1967 – Israel has reunited Jerusalem – and ensured full access to the various religious sites – not only for Jews but for Christians and Muslims as well – to their holy sites.

The bus let us off at one of the gates to the walled Old City of Jerusalem. The crew pulled out the Shofars (rams horns), took the drums – and put up a mini Chuppah (overhead canopy) – held up by four guests over the bar mitzvah boy’s head – for a procession from the gate to the Kotel – the western wall. By now it was raining – but that didn’t really seem to bother anyone.

As we began walking through the old City, our guide led us in singing a whole series of songs about Jerusalem as well as other traditional Hebrew melodies. The amazing thing was that people who were walking by – entirely unrelated to the affair – joined us in singing and dancing. One small group of about 8 or 10 – joined our group and everyone started dancing a Hora. Some of the passers-by were religious – and probably Israelis. Others were clearly tourists – some secular Jews – some not Jewish. It didn’t matter. Liran invited people to join the dancing – and many did. This really got crazy when we ran into a Birthright type group – of about 100 or so – young adults – 18-23 – doing their own tour of Jerusalem. Liran went over to them and started signing – and invited them to join us. About ½ the group did – and before you know it – we had a huge group – singing and dancing together – even putting the Bar Mitzvah boy high up in the air.

We continued along towards the Kotel – stopping for explanations of different parts of the Old City.

By now it was still raining – so we had to have the Bar Mitzvah ceremony itself – in the enclosed area of the Western Wall – at the end of the Men’s section. We went inside – where there are a series of wooden Arks – housing a variety of Torah Scrolls – suitable for different types of congregations. The women’s section is up in the balcony – behind one-way glass. So the women could watch everything taking place – but the men couldn’t see the women. To ensure that they could hear everything – the women were all given wireless headphones – and the bar mitzvah boy was given a microphone. This is certainly not ideal for families used to attending Conservative or Reformed Synagogues – with mixed seating – but it is par for the course for an Orthodox Synagogue.

Since it was now afternoon (too late for the morning service – Shacharit) – there was a very abbreviated service – a chance for the Bar Mitzvah boy and his father to put on Tefillin – and the main event – the reading of the Torah by the Bar Mitzvah boy. The service was reasonably quick – the Bar Mitzvah boy completed the main part of the day – (that he had spent many months preparing for) and we even had time to squeeze in a full but very fast Minhah (afternoon) service.

After all of that – it was off to have lunch in Emek Refaim, Jeruselem – a new City area lined with galleries, cafes and upscale restaurants. We ate at La Bocca – a Kosher, Latin style restaurant. The food was terrific – a variety of chicken, steak and vegetable dishes – prepared and presented beautifully. Over lunch – the singing and dancing continued – led by Liran and his crew. The music was mostly Israeli religious music – with an Eastern flavour to it – though Liran apparently tries to cater the music to the style that the guests are likely to appreciate. The guests sang along – got up and danced – and generally seemed to have quite a good time. Liran continued to be full of energy – running around trying to involve as many people as he could – in singing, dancing – or at least hand clapping.

When lunch was over – it was time for the bus ride back – and most people were exhausted. But the event was really unique. With the bus rides – the explanations – the singing and dancing – it was really a quintessential Zionist and Jewish experience – with a pilgrimage- like feeling. Travelling together - to the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem – the Western Wall – for a day filled with prayer, song and happiness – and even involving complete strangers along the way in singing and dancing – well – it was quite an experience.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Ice Hockey in Jerusalem, Israel

I played ice hockey again in Israel – but this time in Jerusalem! Sounds impossible? After all, there is no ice rink in Jerusalem. While that’s generally true, this year the city tried something a bit different. It opened an outdoor ice rink at Kikar Safra – Jerusalem city hall square – from March 10 to April 14, 2011.

The ice is a stated size of about 200 square metres – much smaller than an official hockey rink. Because it is makeshift – there are low boards – which are rather flimsy. The surface can’t support a Zamboni – so everyone has to pitch in – scraping snow off the ice before and after usage.

But despite the limitations – the Israeli Recreational Ice Hockey association organized a series of shinny games – over the time span – on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday evenings.

You have to book in advance to play – a total of about 8 players per team – 3 and a “goalie” on each shift. This is shinny hockey – so no raising the puck – and most players came with only a stick and skates – a few with gloves. The City has skates available for rental for pleasure skating during the day.

The whole ice area was enclosed in a giant tent – which has kept it quite cool – and usable – though somewhat choppy and uneven. Despite its limitations – it gave the players the chance to come play ice hockey somewhere much closer than Metullah for players from central Israel and Jerusalem. The choppy ice and the pick-up type game gave the players a feeling of old fashioned outdoor ice – which is a very rare experience here in Israel.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Ishmael Khaldi and "Israel Apartheid Week"

I had the privilege this morning of hearing Ishmael Khaldi speak at Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Toronto. Mr. Khaldi is a Bedouin, Muslim Israeli who has held high ranking positions in the Israeli army and foreign ministry. For the first 8 years of his life, he grew up in a tent in a Bedouin village. He later attended a predominantly Muslim high school in the Haifa area. After high school, he served in the Israeli Defence Forces and eventually accepted a position with Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

Mr. Khaldi has been on worldwide tour – which has included stops in Canada, the United States, various European countries and South Africa. His tour is timed to coincide with the odious “Israel Apartheid Week” – but his message is entirely different. Mr. Khaldi is travelling the world to speak about the Israel that he knows and loves – a country that offers equality of opportunity, democracy, freedom and respect for people of all different religious and ethnic backgrounds.

The campaign to delegitimize Israel by framing it as an “apartheid” regime is disingenuous if not outright anti-Semitic. There is little doubt that Israel faces a difficult political challenge of trying to negotiate a lasting arrangement with the Palestinians. The current situation in Gaza and the West Bank is untenable and begs for a political agreement. But unfortunately, this historically complicated situation is not answered by one dimensional call to “return” to 1967 borders – which themselves were the product of a 1948 war. Jerusalem, for example, was scheduled to be an “international city” but was simply taken over and controlled by Jordan between 1948 and 1967. Today’s Jerusalem guarantees and preserves religious sites for three major faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – which certainly was not the case between 1948 and 1967.

Because there has not been a political solution – the status of residents in Gaza and the West Bank is not legally clear. Israel has not annexed these areas and does not view the citizens of Gaza and the West Bank as its citizens. If these people ultimately have their own state – is it problematic that there would be a separation between these people and the people living in Israel? Is it problematic that each group would have the opportunity to address their own cultural and national aspirations within their own borders?

Within Israel, citizens are all entitled to equality under the law. All citizens, Muslims, Christians and Jews can access an independent Court system and are entitled to full protection of the law. Mr. Khaldi’s message was that a Bedouin, a Muslim, growing up in Israel – has full access to opportunity and to be treated as an equal in Israeli society. Although he acknowledged that things are not perfect and that Israel faces an array of political challenges – his overriding message was that he was happy and proud to be an Israeli – even as a member of a minority religious group.

This commitment to equality - along with the fact that Israel is the only Jewish state in the world – is what separates Israel from the vast majority of its predominantly Muslim neighbours. It is Israel that protects these rights while serving as a homeland for the Jewish people. It is the other countries – Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Libya – to name a few – that are characterized by xenophobia, misogyny and religious intolerance. The singling out of Israel in light of the reality of the Middle East is what makes “Israel Apartheid week” such a hypocritical and cancerous hate-fest. While this has been recognized by the current Canadian government – let’s hope that friends of democracy and tolerance around the world come to the same realization.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Austrian Airlines - Toronto-Tel-Aviv

I tried a different way of travelling between Tel-Aviv and Toronto - and flew Austrian Airlines for a change. Part of the schedule suited my needs - and the available ticket was about $500 less than an Air Canada seat - while still providing Aeroplan points (at 1/2 the normal accumulation rate).

The flight between Tel-Aviv and Vienna is a 3 1/2 hour flight - on a relatively new looking remodeled interior Airbus plane. The seats are paper-thin - which means that you wind up with a bit more leg room - even though the plane was extremely full. Otherwise, the seats are not particularly comfortable. The plane was equipped with overhead screens used for showing some silent films - no music or headphone jacks - since the flight was so short. Overall, the flight was probably a bit more comfortable than the comparative Lufthansa flight between Frankfurt and Tel-Aviv.

One of the difficulties - if you are not staying in Europe - is the timing. The flight leaves at 6:30 a.m. from Tel-Aviv - so you have to be at the airport between 4 and 4:30 a.m. This is bound to throw your schedule off completely if you are continuing on to North America.

On arrival in Vienna - the gate for travelling to Toronto was right next to the arrival gate - almost as though they are purposely trying to get the Toronto-Tel-Aviv traffic.

At Israeli duty free- I had been told that European airports were now allowing passengers to take duty free items through to Canada and other places (still not the U.S.). So I picked up a bottle of wine in Israel. When I got to Vienna and had to pass through personal security - I was told I could not take the bottle. It was in a sealed duty free bag - stapled shut - and I had just come off a plane from Israel - with some of the world's highest security. Nevertheless - they said - only duty free purchases from other EU countries could be taken on the plane. Imagine - right behind me was a guy from Poland - who was flying LOT Air. He gets to take his bottle on board - but I can't take mine - after coming through Israeli Airport security (which I'm sure must be at least as thorough as Polish security...) Ultimately - under the guise of security - the EU is using this as a way of forcing transferring passengers to buy from European duty free shops - rather than elsewhere. It is simply a trade embargo/tariff mechanism rather than a security measure.

I guess I have to mention that the prices for Scotch and some other liquors were quite good in the Vienna duty free shops - somewhere around 1/2 the price of equivalent products in Canadian or Israeli duty free shops...I guess that could be the good side of a stopover - but since you are really only allowed one bottle anyways - it's really small consolation.

Getting on the plane in Austria was reminiscent of boarding in Israel - a complete "balagan" - as they say in Hebrew - a mess. No organized line ups - just an overcrowded waiting area - with hoards of travellers thronging towards the boarding gate. I've heard people complain about EL Al flights but really this was no better.

The plane itself was a 767 - with an interior that looked like it was circa 1970s. Each seat was equipped with a video screen/ music entertainment system including games - but the game selection included Space Invaders and Mini-Golf - that seemed like 1st or 2nd generation video games. The seat upholstery was a horrible shade of green - and also looked like it hadn't been updated since the plane came into service.

I had ordered a kosher meal - and have to say that it was among the worst I have had. It was prepared in Vienna - and included some type of chicken - or at least something purporting to be chicken - with mashed potatoes. The accompanying bread roll was frozen - as was the chocolate dessert. The other stuff was inedible.

About 2 hours before the end of the flight - they served another meal. Again the roll was frozen. There was no hot component to the meal. Just some chopped tomato and cucumber - with Humus. Really lame.

Since the flight was an all day-time flight - just about 9 1/2 hours - it was quite long. In fairness - it was smooth and uneventful - announcements were all made in German and in English - but the combination of the Vienna airport, the original departure time of 6:30 a.m. - and the general feel of the flight - make this a fairly challenging experience.

I think I will do my best to stick to Air Canada, US Air - or even EL Al (which as the best flight times) - rather than doing this too often. There is definitely benefit to avoiding a change over in a European airport - and to having better departure times - though sometimes a huge price savings can be a significant factor.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Jacobs Dairy and Recanati Winery - Wine and Cheese in Central Israel

It was a beautiful sunny March day - about 23 C - so we decided to try a wine and cheese combination in the nearby Sharon Valley in central Israel.

Our first stop was Jacob's Dairy - a dairy farm featuring cow, goat and sheep products. The Dairy is a family run dairy, originally established in 1936. It is located in K'far Haroeh - about 20 minutes north of Ra'anana, right off of Highway 4 - at the Haroeh Intersection.

The store offers a wide variety of cheeses for tasting. We sampled some goat camembert, sheep roquefort, and a few other specialty cheeses. The dairy sells these cheeses by weight along with cream cheese products, yoghurts and some fruit and nut spreads. The cheeses were delicious.

The dairy shares the premises with Agadat HaLechem - the "Bread Legend" - which produces a fine selection of oven fresh breads and rolls, emphasizing whole grain and multi-grain products. Perfect accompaniment for the cheeses...

Jacob's Dairy is an ideal starting place for a wine and cheese trip - or to gather some of the ingredients for a picnic at one of the nearby hotspots in the Sharon Valley. K'Far Haroe, Hefer Valley. All of the products are Kosher.

From the dairy, it is about a five minute drive - one intersection north on Highway 4 - to get to the Recanati Winery. The signs to the winery are not well marked. The Visitors Center does not look like it has been set up to attract a high volume of traffic. The main winery sign is obscured - and entry to the center is by way of intercom buzzer.

However - Recanati produces some great wines. Established in 2000, Recanati is a growing winery that has been making highly acclaimed wines. The winery is rated as a four star winery by Israeli wine critic Daniel Rogov, signifying consistently high quality wines. It currently produces more than 900,000 bottles of wine a year and continues to grow.

At the visitors center, we were greeted by a friendly host who was happy to offer freshly opened samples of almost anything we wanted. We tasted the winery's high end wine - the Special Reserve 2007 - a blend of primarily Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. We also tried a number of 2008 Reserve wines including the Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petite Syrah-Zinfandel blend. All of the wines were quite good - though we particularly enjoyed the Cab Franc and the Cab Sauvignon.

The winery does not offer spectacular deals - the prices were competitive with specialty wine stores and other Israeli wine sellers - with only a 5% discount offered for purchases of 6 bottles or more. In fact, some of the wines are much cheaper at the Israeli duty free shop at the Ben Gurion Airport - which typically runs a "buy 3 get 1 free" special. Of course, that doesn't help much if you are limited to two bottles at your destination. Israeli residents are able to buy 4 - take two along - and leave 2 at the duty free shop for pick up on return.

The Recanati Winery is located at 217 Gesher Haetz Street in Emek Hefer, Israel. The wines are all Kosher - though mainly not Mevushal - for those who might be concerned. Generally, quite a number of Israeli wines are produced under Kosher supervision though very few of the higher calibre wines are Mevushal - a par-boiling process that renders them fit for broader use within the very observant community.

These two stops can provide all the necessary ingredients for a great picnic - bread, cheese, spreads, great wine - all that is missing are some of the great fruit that are readily available at small booths along the way.