Sunday, December 23, 2012

Niqabs in Canadian courtrooms? Sometimes...maybe...says Supreme Court

Woman in Niqab - courtesy of The Guardian
The Supreme Court of Canada has issued an important and controversial ruling tackling the issue of the right a witness to wear a niqab (with a face covering, showing only the eyes of the wearer) in a criminal trial.  In the case of R v. N.S., seven judges participated in the decision.  The Court issued three different sets of reasons.  The majority decision, supported by four of the seven judges, held that a woman may be asked to remove a niqab in certain specified circumstances, but may be able to wear it otherwise.   Two of the judges would have ordered that women testifying in court must always remove their niqabs.  One judge would have permitted the wearing of a niqab in almost all cases other than where identity is at issue.

The majority decision is written by Canada's Chief Justice McLachlin.  The decision is balanced and thoughtful.  It tries to weigh two competing interests - religious tolerance and the right to a fair and open trial in a criminal proceeding.  It sets out rules for adjudicating cases in which these two sets of rights come into play.

Canada's Supreme Court has developed a strong tradition of emphasizing the acceptance and accomodation of religious minorities. Its decisions have recognized that accommodating minority religious belief and practice is integral to Canadian values as a welcoming multicultural country with a diverse population. 

However, these rights are not unlimited.  Chief Justice McLachlin discusses the importance in Canada of a fair and open trial for the accused and the need to be vigilant in protecting against the possibility of an unfair trial.  This right to a fair trial comes into a direct clash with freedom of religious practice in this case and the Court must find a way to address this challenge.  All seven judges recognize the need to resolve this clash.

The majority runs into difficulties in trying to apply these principles and balance the two rights without coming down clearly on one side or the other.  In this case, the witness was the alleged victim of sexual assaults. She was to be a key witness in the trial.  There is little doubt that two competing rights are fully engaged.  Yet, the majority decides that the case should be sent back to the trial judge to determine whether the witness was "sincere" about her religious belief of the need to wear the niqab.  The majority also suggests that the trial judge should consider how important it is to the accused that the accused be able to see the face of the witness during disputed evidence.  Chief Justice McLachlin sets out a test for dealing with these matters.  But ultimately, any reasonable application of the majority's test, based on everything the Chief Justice writes elsewhere in her decision, will lead to the removal of the niqab in most cases involving a criminal trial.  While the court's attempted sensitivity is admirable, the decision muddles the matter and creates some extra layers of judicial uncertainty where the results will be predictable most of the time based on the principles set out by the Court. 

Two of the Supreme Court's judges, Justices LeBel J. and Rothstein J. issued a dissenting set of reasons in which they would have adapted a clear rule that a niqab can never be worn in a court room.  Their decision suggests that any manifestation of religious practice is unwelcome if it clashes with "Canadian values" and seems to depart markedly from the more sensitive accomodation-oriented wording that is found in the majority decision and that has characterized other Supreme Court decisions in freedom of religion cases.  For these judges, the rights of the accused always trump freedom of religion.  They would not have allowed a woman to wear a niqab in a court, even where the evidence to be given is uncontroversial, irrespective of the consquences for the woman and her religious beliefs.

Justice Abella issued a lone dissenting opinion.   Her decision would have permitted women to wear niqabs in Canadian court rooms in all cases other than where identity is at issue.  Like the majority decision, Justice Abella's  decision considers this to be a case of a clash between two sets of competing rights.  However, Justice Abella is not convinced that a witness must always show her full face for there to be a fair trial.  She cites the examples of the use of interpreters, child evidence behind screens and other recognized exceptions.  Moreover, she is concerned about the possibility that women who have been assaulted will not come forward to testify because they would face the requirement to violate their religious practices.  As a result, she would have departed from the majority and would have required women to remove niqabs only
where identity is at issue.

The case addresses an issue that is extremely important for every democratic, multicultural country.  How should courts reconcile competing constitutional rights?  Do the rights of the accused always trump the right to religious freedom?  Is there a way to try to accomodate these competing rights?  The Court did not even consider the notion of whether equality rights also come into play.  That is another issue that courts worldwide will face with increasing regularity.

While the decision of Canada's Supreme Court is a valiant and well-meaning effort, it fails to set out clear guidelines.  If the court intended to ban the niqab in most cases, other than where the evidence is "uncontested" it should have said that clearly and ended the matter.  This seems to be the way that this decision will be interpreted most of the time.

In this case however, the Court chose to send the matter back to the trial judge to examine the witness's sincerity.  As Justice Abella concludes, this is probably unnecessary.  In most cases, sincerity will not be in issue.  However, it should be largely irrelevant and near impossible to discern.  The Court needs to set out guidelines for when a witness can or cannot wear a niqab in a criminal trial, assuming sincerity and assuming that the evidence is contested.  I suspect this type of case will wind up back at the Supreme Court in a reasonably short period of time and the Court will be required to issue a more definitive decision.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Tanami Humus Bar - Ra'anana

With a very special visiting relative in town, we decided that a visit wouldn't be complete without an authentic Israeli humus experience.  Since I have already written about Abu Hassan and I wasn't entirely sure that it was the right place for this particular guest...we decided to try out Tanami Humus Bar in Ra'anana on Ahuza Street.

Tanami is a small but very popular humus bar.  Over the years we have been living in Ra'anana, we have often picked up humus to take home from Tanami but I have only sat down to eat here once or twice.

Tanami is Kosher and vegetarian.  It has a fairly limited menu featuring, as you might imagine, humus.  You can order it with an extra scoop of hot chick peas, hot grilled mushrooms, or fried eggpant.  With any of  these choices, it is prepared in a large bowl with fresh garlic, olive oil and parsley or coriander leaves.  The humus is served with a side of raw onions and some green olives.  You can order regular or whole wheat pita breads which are heated up on an open flame.  (Tanami does not usually have whole wheat pita bread on Fridays, for some reason).

The prices are quite reasonable.  A large bowl of humus, with one of the listed toppings, costs 27 N.I.S. (about $7).  Pitas are 1 N.I.S. each  You can also order Shakshuka (a middle eastern speciality made with tomatoes, red peppers and eggs), Hamshouka (a mixture of humus and shakshuka) or you can get falafel balls and french fries.  But most people are here to order one of the humus dishes with some pitas.  The humus serving is quite generous.  It seems to me that two people could easily share one of these dishes most of the time.

During the week, particularly around meal times, Tanami is extremely crowded.  On Fridays, the line-ups are out the door with people enjoying the patio, the friendly service and, of course, the humus.

Personally, I haven't totally figured out the attraction.  While Tanami makes great humus, it doesn't feel like a satisfying meal to me.  I haven't yet figured out how to enjoy a raw onion with my humus.  I've always thought of humus as an appetizer or part of a meal.  So I find it very interesting to watch people sitting around, enjoying a large bowl of creamy humus, as what seems to be their main course.  Nevertheless, compared to many other types of humus, Tanami humus is quite good.  Garlicky and reasonably thick, it has a unique and fresh taste.  I can't say that it is the best humus I have ever had but it is quite tasty.

Unlike Abu Hassan, there are reasonably comfortable tables and chairs - and napkins...
It is somewhat more orderly and certainly quite a bit cleaner.

I would call it a worthwhile experience for someone who wants to enjoy a bowl of humus as a social event and as a snack or appetizer.  Of course, it is quite easy to fill yourself up on fresh, hot pita breads and you could always order a few falafel balls if this is going to be your whole meal.

But as a meal experience - to me there is still something missing, though maybe not from the Tanami humus itself.  I suppose you can always complete the meal by heading off to Lavan for a frozen yogurt next door.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Canada and Israel Issues: Conservative Support and the National Post

Canada's National Post printed two interesting articles about Israel on Saturday.  I had the chance to review them on Sunday on my flight back.  Both have certainly generated some online controversy.  At the same time, both illustrate a certain pro-Israel viewpoint that is increasingly rare in much of the rest of the world.

One article by Kathryn Blaze Carlson, "No Better Friend" describes the close nature of the relationship between Canada's current Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  The article looks at Prime Minister Harper's motivation for standing by Israel in difficult situations, even in the face of withering criticism from many other countries.  It is certainly true, especially here in Israel, that all of the policies of Prime Minister Netanyahu are not synonomous with Israel and Israel's interests.  In other words, there is plenty of room for Israel to have good friends who do not necessarily agree with all of the policies of any particular Israeli administration.

However, the article discusses the ideas, suggested by some critics of the Conservatives, that Canada used to be viewed as an "honest broker" by much of the Arab world.  But these days, as the world is watching many Arab countries shift towards Islamicization, peace loving western democracies cannot be "honest brokers."  The  article suggests that Prime Minister Harper is one of the few western leaders to truly recognize the importance of the struggle that Israel faces, as a democratic country situated in sea of repressive, anti-democratic regimes.  The conclusion is that Prime Minister Harper and the current Conservative government support Israel as a matter of principle not as part of quest to win a handful of Canadian electoral ridings that happen to have large Jewish populations.  Given the tireless efforts of Conservative Minister Jason Kenney in supporting Israel but also in fighting anti-Semitism worldwide, it is clear that the current Conservative government has been a tremendous ally for Canadian Jews and for Jews everywhere around the world.  This has been the case even in the face of an overwhelmingly hostile world.  Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has also demonstrated recently that Canada will continue to support Israel even when it is unpopular to do so.

The National Post also printed an article by Conrad Black, "A Better Two State Solution" proposing what would effectively be an unilateral Israeli withdrawal from certain territories, a unilateral demarcation of acceptable borders and an extremely aggressive military response to the types of rocket attacks that Israel recently faced and which it would likely face from other areas if it were to cede certain territories.  Yet the policy is probably close to one which was favoured by former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and may not be that far removed from current Prime Minesterial candidate Avigdor Lieberman.   There is little doubt that many Israelis would prefer a negotiated long term settlement with a neighbour that would be interested in a truly peaceful resolution. But the indications over the recent weeks from a range of Palestinian leaders, whether Khaled Meshal of Hamas or Mahmood Abbas of the Palestinian Authority are that the only real long term policy on the part of the Palestinians is a long term commitment to the destruction of Israel.  This concern is buttressed by the unsettling events over that past few years that have been occurring in Syria, Egypt, Iran and Turkey, among others, all of which suggest that Israel is facing an increasingly hostile existential threat.  Conrad Black's proposal may not lead to short or even long term peace.  But Israel may be pushed towards unilateral disengagement as a means of countering unilateral Palestinian initiatives.  Israel could recognize a Palestinian State within borders that Israel deems acceptable, and under conditions that Israel deems acceptable if these matters cannot be properly addressed through negotiation.

It is unclear which Israeli Prime Ministerial candidate, if any, would be best suited to address these matters though it seems clear to a majority of the Israeli electorate, according to recent Israeli news reports, that Prime Minister Netanyahu will win the coming election quite handily.  We can only hope that the winds will change and there will be movement from all sides toward a much peaceful future.  Unfortunately, recent events do not suggest that there is currently a basis for optimism.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Shirat Machar Chanukah Video

Here's the latest video from Shirat Machar the Israeli musical group made up of Noam members.  Great musical video just in time for Chanukah, which starts on Saturday night.

I'll try to have some updates over the coming week with some interesting aspects of celebrating Chanukah in Israel.

Wishing everyone a happy Chanukah and a Shabbat Shalom.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Superelite - Toronto-Tel-Aviv Route: Review and Comments

Leaving Israel Nov 2012
This past year, I have taken advantage of Air Canada "Superelite" status, which I managed to acquire by travelling back and forth between Toronto, Canada and Tel-Aviv, Israel.  This status is achieved by flying back and forth on this route 8.5 times (17 one way trips).  An advantage of Air Canada is that it is part of the "Star Alliance," so you can also accumulate points, for this route, on United, U.S Air, Lufthansa, Austrian Air and Swiss as well as some other airlines.  (Though I have to say, I am simply not interested in flying to Israel on Turkish Airlines...).  It is worth mentioning that Lufthansa and Austrian do not always provide full Aeroplan points accumulation.  For some fares, Austrian does not provide any points.  So if you are close to the borderline of making a status goal - it can be quite costly to take a trip with the wrong airline or ar the wrong airfare...

One of the big advantages of being Superelite is that you can collect Air Canada upgrade points and then use the points to try to upgrade into an Executive First Class seat.  Although you can also do this with Elite status, it is harder to get the upgrades.   Air Canada gives out 15 upgrade points for each 20,000 miles flown but then charges 17 points for upgrades on this route.  You also get an initial alotment at the beginning of the year.  If you have the upgrade points, you can phone Air Canada or log on to the website one week before the flight (to the minute) and request an upgrade.  Superelite flyers will often be upgraded during the week.  Most others trying to get an upgrade will have to show up at the airport and hope for the best.

The biggest advantage of flying in the Executive First Cabin is that the seats recline completely flat into beds.  For the flight from Toronto to Tel-Aviv, this is terrific.  Since the flight leaves Toronto at abou 5:30 p.m., the timing is perfect.  You can have a meal and then go to sleep and wake up about 7 or 8 hours later just in time to arrive.  The flight back is a different story.  Air Canada only flies from Tel-Aviv to Toronto during the day - leaving at about 12:45 p.m. and arriving in Toronto at 6:20.  This is the most significant drawback of flying Air Canada.  The flight is almost 13 hours long, all during the day.  Even with a reclining seat, this is still a dreadfully long flight.

Air Canada offers some very nice menu options on its Executive First Service.  I would describe my eating habits as "liberal kosher," which means that I will eat dairy and fish out of the house, though our house is strictly kosher.  I have tried ordering kosher meals (for much of the time that I have been commuting) but they are simply horrible.  Mainly carbohydrates and beef.  Nothing is fresh.  And due to the various banned ingredients by different rabbis, including many vegetables, the meals seem to be less and less healthy.  So I have also tried vegetarian, asian vegetarian, Indian vegetarian...and other vegetarian meals.  But when flying on Air Canada Executive First, they offer a fish option and that is suitable for me.

Main Course - Salmon on wild rice with asparagus
This is a bit of a risky strategy since the fish can run out.  If that happens - and you can't eat the chicken or beef - you can go hungry.  But the helpful Air Canada staff are then usually able to find an extra Kosher meal on this route from the economy class cabin so there is something to eat.  Of course, superelite flyers get their choice of meals first (supposedly), so when I have been upgraded, I have almost always been able to get a fish dinner.  Here is the salmon dish, served on  wild rice with asparagus.  Quite a good meal for airplane food - in my experience.
Cheese Platter

After the main course, there are usually some different dessert options.  While this may not be a great choice for watching calories, every now and then I can't resist a cheese platter...I might try to eat the cheese without the crackers to save a handful of calories...and the grapes are pretty healthy..Since I am not doing this that often, might as well enjoy the offering along with a glass (or two) of a big oaky California Cabernet...

Fruit Platter
The cheese platter is not the only dessert.  There is usually a subsequent choice of either a three-scoop ice cream platter...or a fruit platter.  (If you are really trying to take advantage of the occasion, you can request both and sometimes get it...not that I would ever know about this kind of gluttonic request).  So, as you have probably guessed, of course, I went with the fruit platter to wash away all of those cheese calories.  I'm not sure that it really works that way...  I am refusing to answer any questions about whether or not I also had the ice cream platter and I certainly do not have any pictures of chocolate, mocha and vanilla ice cream to post on this blog.  Nor do I have any photos of the Remy Martin VSOP Cognac, which is a great finish for this type of meal.

As I mentioned earlier, this would have all been great as a dinner.  However, this was the meal served at abou 2 p.m., near the beginning of a 13 hour flight.  Hard to sleep after that, even after all of these calories.

I try to read, get some work done or watch a few movies.  As it gets later, the sun starts to set and there are some great views from the window.  The Air Canada movies selection is not as varied as the selection offered by United Airlines.  But there were some interesting movies.  I watched The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Little Shop of Horrors.  I hadn't seen either of these movies in years, so it was quite fun to go back to these two bizarre flics.

Finally, as the flight approached Toronto, about two hours out, there was a second meal service.  For the second meal, the choices are only meat choices.  But I had requested, early on, that the crew save me a vegetarian meal and they agreed to do so.  So I had this vegetarian pasta dish, which was quite light in comparison to everything that I had eaten earlier in the day... I believe that it was made with eggplant and zucchini, though I could be wrong.

If you are thinking of trying something like my completely insane commuting schedule, you should have a careful look at Air Canada's 2013 Aeroplan changes.  Essentially, Air Canada has scaled the benefits back dramatically for most categories of frequent flyers.  It will be much harder to achieve Superelite status on this type of route and the benefits will be reduced.  A few examples:

1.  The cheapest fares - "Tango" will now be treated as a lower class between Toronto and Tel-Aviv and will only allow for 50% mileage accumulation.  If you fly
Tango fares, you would need 17 round-trip flights in a year to get Superelite designation.

2.  Less upgrade points will be awarded for every 20,000 miles flown.

3.  Other categories of Air Canada frequent flyers will lose many different benefits.  The most significant impact will be on the "Elite" members who, up until 2012, enjoyed most of the benefits of the Superelite flyers, with some minor distinctions.  That will change dramatically. 

For me, it looks like I will barely make it to Superelite for 2013 but it is now much less likely that I will be upgraded as often as I was in 2012.  Even so, for this route between Toronto and Tel-Aviv, Star Alliance still seems to offer a much better package of services than the alternative of flying El-Al.