Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Final Blog of 2021 - Covid, Elections, Sports and a Few Other Items

As 2020 draws to a close (good riddance), I thought I would squeeze in one more blog - a pot pourri of  selected issues related to Israel, on some of the topics that I have been writing regularly.  There are many things to discuss but I don't want to be too repetitive.  So here goes...

Covid-19

In some ways,  I think it is fair to say that Israel is in the midst of a good news/bad news period in dealing with the pandemic.  On the one hand, the virus has been spreading rapidly, including the "British mutation," the "South African mutation" and now the "Indian mutation."  There have been more than 3,500 new cases a day recently  and 10-15 people have been dying daily, if not more.   This is all, of course, the bad news side of things.  

As a result, the Israeli government instituted a 3 week partial lockdown starting on December 21, 2020.  Unlike the first lockdown, public schools have remained open.  Non-essential retail establishments are closed and restaurants are permitted "delivery only" but no take-out service.  The airport has remained open and Israel has not instituted testing for all arrivals.  The government attempted to institute a mandatory quarantine plan in government-sponsored hotels but that soon fell apart.  It is fairly clear that at least some of the out of control spread of the virus has been the result of travellers arriving back in Israel and failing to follow any proper quarantine rules.  This has been the case since the initial outbreak in March, 2020 and the government has been unwilling to take necessary steps to stop it, largely for political  reasons.

On the good news side of the ledger, the Israeli government has ramped up its vaccination program to the tune of more than 120,000 vaccines a day.  For now, Israelis who are over 60 years of age, front line health care workers and those with extremely serious medical conditions are the only ones being vaccinated.  

Israel, as you may know, has a public  health care system.  It is somewhat like the Canadian system,  though instead of one "OHIP" - there are a few different Health Care organizations - and Israelis can choose which one they wish to join.  They are all under the umbrella of the Ministry of Health, so they are each funded by the government.   There are additional user fees and optional enhanced plans - though these tend to be priced quite reasonably.  

So it is these health care providers - Maccabi, Clalit, Leumit and Meuhedet, that have set up stations across the country and are using smart phone apps, web sites, and their computerized systems to arrange appointments and roll out the vaccines as quickly as possible.  By all accounts, it seems to be working quite efficiently.  The providers have set aside the second vaccination dose for each person that receives the shot and have booked a second date automatically 21 days after the first dose.  

Government estimates are that more than 80% of Israelis in these higher risk groups will have received their second dose by mid-February 2021.  The general population is expected to start receiving the vaccine within the next week or two, with the government currently hoping to have close to 50% of all Israelis fully vaccinated by the end of March, 2021.  It sounds optimistic, but given that the providers are managing to vaccinate more than 120,000 people a day, it seems quite possible.  

It remains to be seen whether the vaccine is as effective as touted, how it will deal with new mutations and how long the inoculation will last.  We also don't know yet whether the vaccine will prevent people from spreading the virus to others.  But there is certainly a feeling in Israel that we are nearing the end, even though there are still some very difficult months ahead.

Politics

As you may know and as I mentioned in my last post, Israel is heading to the polls for the 4th time in the past 2 years on March 23, 2021, just a few days before Pesach (Passover).  

If I were to try to cover all of the different political developments, I think I would need to write several columns a week, if not daily.  New political parties are sprouting up like weeds and it is far too difficult to try and make any predictions at this point.

But here are a  few of the highlights.

One of Likud's most senior members, Gideon Saar has formed a new party called "New Hope" and he has taken several Likud members with him.  Reported polls have estimated between 15 and 20 seats for New  Hope though I think it is far too early to start counting these  votes.  Saar has staked out his ground as a "solid right wing" alternative to the Likud led by  Netanyahu.  As far as I can tell, this seems to mean just about all of the same policies as the Likud without the alleged corruption.  Saar has vowed that he will not form a government with Bibi but we have heard that before from the Blue and White Party.  I'm skeptical.

Saar joins "Yamina" - the "Right," led by Naftali Bennett in a reasonably crowded field of right-wing nationalist parties.  

It is probably fair to include the Blue and White party in that camp as well, since the left and centrist members of that party split away when Blue and White entered into a coalition government with Likud in March 2020.  Yesterday Ganz announced that he will remain on as party leader and that he is  not giving up.  Polls show that the Blue and White party is running at about 5 seats and is flirting with coming in below the minimum electoral threshold.  Most commentators seem to agree that Gantz was thoroughly humiliated by Netanyahu but, for now, Gantz has elected to stay on.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai

In another development yesterday, the mayor of Tel-Aviv, Ron Huldai, also held a press conference and unveiled his new party called "The Israelis."  Huldai's party is intended to offer a bit more of a left-centre approach than Blue and White.  Politically, it would probably fall somewhere between Yesh Atid and Meretz, though it remains to be seen how Huldai's party differentiates itself from those other two left-centre parties.  I have not yet seen any poll predictions as to how many seats The Israelis would get but they might make things interesting.

There are other developments as well, including key politicians leaving different parties and joining some of these new ones but I am not going to get into all of the details.

The long and the short of it is that Bibi is facing several challenges from the right, the centre and left.  Most of these challengers have stated, quite unequivocally, that they will not agree to an "immunity bill" that gets Bibi out of his legal problems.  They have also stated that they will not enter a coalition agreement with Bibi and his Likud party but I think the election results will really determine whether that promise can be upheld.

All of that being said, there is lots of time between now and the cut off date for new parties to enter the election campaign, which does not occur until mid-February I believe.   So the only thing that seems reasonably certain is that there will be many new developments between now and the election.  As of now, it looks likely that Israel will elect a fairly right wing government, with or without Bibi, but a lot can change in a few months.  It does, however, seem like quite a long shot that Bibi will be able to get a "Get out of Jail Free" Card in the form of an immunity law.  In the meantime, his criminal trial is scheduled to continue in February 2021.

Sports

There are a few interesting sports stories that are worth mentioning.

One of the big sports stories in Israel in 2020 is in NBA basketball.  The Washington Wizards drafted Danny Avdija 9th overall in this year's NBA draft.  This was huge news in Israel since 6 foot 9 inch Avdija was born in Israel on Kibbutz Beit Zera.  Very few Israeli basketball players have made the NBA and he is the highest drafted Israeli ever.

Many people have been staying up until the wee hours to watch Washington Wizard games even though cheering for the pitiful Wizards has been a disconcerting proposition to date.  Through four games, all losses, Avdija has averaged 7.5  points a game and 5 rebounds.  Not earth shattering but it is early.  I confess that I jumped on the bandwagon and watched the first game but since I am not a huge basketball fan, I have only done this  once.  If I were to watch middle of the night basketball in Israel, it would probably be my home town Raptors, though I understand they are also off to an equally dismal start.  Generally, I tend to save the basketball watching  for the playoffs, if at all.  

A second big sports story is in the world of soccer, or football, depending on your preference.  As you might have seen, UAE Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan bought 50% of the Beitar Jerusalem Football Club.  The deal was announced soon after the peace deal between the UAE and Israel.

This is really quite fascinating.  Beitar is known for having  a very right wing fan base, who have, at times, chanted anti-Arab slogans at football matches.  They sing several vulgar songs at Beitar matches and have also been known to show up at pro-Bibi political rallies.  For years, Beitar had  no Muslim players on its side unlike many of the other teams in the Israeli league.  So it is quite remarkable that of all teams, the Sheikh has decided to purchase and rehabilitate this team, in the spirit of "Muslim-Jewish cooperation" as he puts it.  It will be really interesting to see how the fans react and how this all works out.


Lastly, on the sports side - is the world of ice hockey.  One of my friends sent me a link to an article that referred to a recent UAE-Israeli ice hockey match played  between the UAE Mighty Camels and the Bat Yam Chiefs.  I don't really recall seeing anything about it in the Israeli news but there is always hope that hockey will attract  more fans and  participants over time, especially with the relatively recent opening of a full size arena near Netanya.  And of course, it is nice to see yet another sign that the peace between Israel and the UAE may develop into the warmest peace deal yet between Israel and its Arab neighbours.   I guess we could say that the ice was broken quickly between these new peace partners.

As far as hockey goes, I have been staying up late to watch the World Junior Ice Hockey tournament.  These games have been on somewhere between 1 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. Israel time.  Three games, three big wins for Canada so far.   Canada has not faced stiff opposition yet so I look forward to seeing how they will play against Finland tomorrow night - and then in the  playoff round starting next week.  The World Junior Tournament is one of my favourite sports events to watch since you get to see so many future ice hockey stars trying to impress NHL scouts.  I am quite thankful to have a working VPN and streaming set-up.  It does take a toll on my sleeping patterns though.

Holidays

As I discussed in my last post, Chanuka is not a really big deal here, other than the ubiquitous donuts, and once Chanuka ends, everything is pretty much back to its normal schedule.

I thought  about the time-honoured tradition for American (and some Canadian)  Jews of eating Chinese food on Christmas Eve.  But it is really not a thing in Israel for several reasons.  For one, it is not a holiday here so everyone is simply on a regular schedule and does not have the time to get together that they have in North America, where everything is closed for the holiday.  

Secondly, and more challenging here is the difficulty of finding decent Chinese food. Although Israel has many different types of cuisine - including sushi and "pan-Asian" restaurants all over the country, there are very few decent Chinese restaurants and even fewer that are Kosher.  

That hasn't stopped me from trying to fill the void every now and then.  My hot and  sour  soup is pretty decent and I have made a range of other dishes.  But I think Chinese food is something that  is sorely lacking in Israel.  Perhaps an opportunity for a budding post-virus restauranteur?  Not me, that's for sure.

New Year's Eve here is known as "Silvester," named after Pope Silvester I.  Many Israelis celebrate with parties and festivities, though it is not an official holiday in Israel so everything is open as normal on New Year's Day.  Not sure what people will do this year in the midst of the pandemic but we happen to have some champagne choices on hand in case we want to go crazy...  

Food Developments

I couldn't let the year pass without commenting on something really interesting.  An Israeli company,  Aleph Farms, has been producing cell based meat grown from animal cells in a lab.  The company has been producing steaks and burgers.  No animal slaughter required.  

Another company, "Redefine Meat" has been producing 3D printed steaks which are made using digital models and food formulations but no actual animal products.  The steaks apparently have a very authentic taste. 

There are several other Israeli start ups also working in the meat alternative industry,  which is rapidly growing.  

Aleph Farms Alternative Meat
Many observant Jews are examining whether these products are to be considered Kosher, and if so whether they are meat, dairy or "pareve."  Questions also include what kind of supervision might be  required, and  whether the original cells have transformed into something else in the course of growth and production, such that they are no longer "meat."  Needless to say, these debates are likely to provide Rabbis and Yeshiva students across Israel and the Jewish world with a great deal of food for thought.


There's lots more to say but I will have to save some of it for 2021.  This has probably already been too long but I hope that you have found some of it to be interesting reading.

Best wishes for a happy and healthy 2021.





Monday, December 21, 2020

Post-Chanuka, Vaccinations Starting, 2020 On the Way Out

 

It has been a crazy year - not only in Israel, of course, but around the world.  But perhaps there is a sign of light at the end of the tunnel.  On Saturday night, Prime Minister Netanyahu took one for the team - and presented himself to be the first person vaccinated in Israel with the Pfizer vaccine.  The vaccination was shown live on prime TV at 8 p.m.  

After a lengthy broadcast of all of the preparations for the big event, various medical personnel and security personnel were shown preparing the area for the big event.  The podium was polished and the microphone was carefully cleaned.  At 8 p.m. exactly, the Prime Minister showed up, gave a short speech (as did Likud Minister Yuli Edelstein) and then Netanyahu sat down for his vaccination.  Interestingly, his personal doctor administered the vaccine rather than the nurse who mixed it (which is apparently a breach of the hospital's rules).  In fact, three different medical personnel were seen on live tv handling the vaccine - two of whom weren't wearing gloves - before passing it to the gloveless doctor - seen in the photo.  Not sure if they will also broadcast  Netanyahu's return to the hospital in 21 days for his second dose but perhaps they will pay a bit more attention to hospital protocol for the second dose.

Admittedly, this is all a digression.  The good news, as reported by the  Israeli government and in various news outlets, is that Israel has begun vaccinating its citizens actively as of yesterday.  Medical stations, equipped with appropriate freezers, have been set up across the country and estimates are that Israel will be able to administer 60,000 vaccinations per day.  Israel has apparently purchased 8 million doses from Pfizer and several million more from Moderna.  At this rate, close to 2 million Israelis may be able to receive their first dose by the end of January.  If things continue at this pace and there are no snafus, it is quite conceivable that Israel will have vaccinated the majority of its residents by mid 2021.  I suppose it remains to be seen whether the vaccine actually works and whether that will effectively end the problem, at least in this country.

In the meantime, some commentators have characterized the atmosphere in Israel, in some sectors as "end of course" or "end of semester."  The idea is that often at the end of a school year (or some other type of course, perhaps an army training course) once all the hard work has been done - people become very lackadaisical about doing anything more (like, in this case, wearing masks, refraining from having parties etc.,).  But this is quite dangerous.  The vaccine is only being rolled out now and it will take months until it is administered fully.

At the same time, the current infection rate in Israel is very high with more than 2,000 new infections being reported daily.  The government has been debating various responses to the growing spread including shutting down the airport completely, shutting down all commerce other than "essential services" and sealing "red zones."  Yesterday, two flights arrived in Israel from Great Britain.   The passengers were all sent to government-arranged quarantine hotel accommodations.  At least 25 passengers refused and were sent back to Great Britain.  The concern apparently related to the latest mutation of Covid-19 which has been spreading in Great Britain.

Several weeks ago, Israel had designated the UAE a "green" country and decided to allow travel without quarantine back and forth between Israel and UAE.  Cynics among us might say that  this was partially intended to bolster the  nascent peace deal between the  UAE and Israel.  In any event, this resulted in thousands of Israelis flocking to Dubai - to attend parties, weddings and other gatherings all without wearing masks or taking other precautions.  Some groups of Israelis flew whole wedding parties to Dubai where they could hold "normal" weddings without any restrictions.  Others, like Israeli singer Eyal Golan, flew to Dubai just for some fun and partying.  Golan actually came back and was diagnosed as having Covid-19, though he is apparently doing fine now.  Still others, according to media reports, have been travelling to UAE for another well known purpose - sex tourism.  I suppose Covid-19 might be the least of the problems for some of these travellers.

In any event, Israel has now determined that there are no "green countries" and that all travellers will now be required to quarantine on return to Israel, even those coming from the UAE, despite any political ramifications, real or imagined.  It will apparently take effect three days from now - so I suppose there is still time for a quick whirlwind UAE simcha or some other type of equally rapturous event.  I think we will stay home, thanks.

In other news, and maybe I sound like a broken record here, if you have read my past columns, the current Israeli government is on the brink of collapse.   A vote on a non-confidence motion is expected either tonight or tomorrow.  If the government falls, there is talk of a March 23, 2021 election date, though that remains to be finalized.  Under Israeli law,  the 2020 budget  must  be passed by December 23, 2020, a date that was already moved back with previous legislation.  Since there is still no budget in place, either for 2020 or 2021, the government is set to collapse even without a non-confidence motion.  

There has been significant negotiation between Netanyahu's Likud party and Gantz's Blue and White party to reach a compromise, delay the date once again and keep this government alive with some urgent political CPR.   Over the weekend, there were reports that a deal was reached to resolve the crisis.  However, the concessions made by Gantz to Netanyahu to avoid an election were apparently too much to stomach for some of Gantz's Blue and White party members and it does not look like Gantz will be  able to get the full support of his party to keep the coalition together.

On the other side of the aisle, a long serving, high ranking Likud member, Gideon Saar, recently announced that he was leaving the Likud party and setting up his own party called "New Hope."  Does this sound familiar?  It is a very recurrent theme in Israeli politics.  In any case, Saar has been able to take a bunch  of Likud members with him and is running at 15-20  potential seats in the Knesset according to some polls.  Saar describes himself as a right wing politician, fully committed to most, if not all of Netanyahu's policies, other than, perhaps, those  dealing with the rule of law, on which Saar states that he is committed fully to the fight against corruption and the rule of law.  Saar has stated that he is not prepared to join a government led by Netanyahu following the next election.  I think I remember Gantz saying very similar things....

In any event, polls suggest that Netanyahu may now have a difficult time forming a government after the next election, but I wouldn't rule him out.  The Covid-19 vaccine is being rolled out, the economy may start to improve - and Netanyahu will figure out what kind of campaign is likely to work best against his latest foe.  Netanyahu  is a seasoned politician who  knows how to tackle difficult challenges.  His nickname is "the magician" so we will see if he can pull yet  another election win out of his hatful of tricks.

Netanyahu has refused to agree to pass state budgets for 2020 or 2021 because the coalition deal that he signed with Gantz stated that if the government were to fall for any reason, Gantz would become interim Prime Minister.  The one exception was if the government were to fall because of a budget disagreement, in which case Netanyahu would continue to be the Prime Minister until the next government was formed.  So once Netanyahu decided that this government wasn't working to his satisfaction the only choice he had for bringing down the government was one related to the budget - so that he will remain on as the interim Prime Minister throughout the next election campaign. 

Netanyahu's criminal proceedings are scheduled to continue now  in early February, having been delayed several times.  He is facing charges of breach of trust, corruption and bribery.  If convicted, he could face a lengthy prison term.   Given the past  pattern, it is likely that  Netanyahu will seek  a further adjournment, perhaps until after the pending election, though it is not clear that it will be granted  by the court this time.  He is still hoping for the "big win" in the election that would get him a coalition government with a retroactive immunity bill to end all of his legal troubles.  That does not look like a probable outcome at this juncture, even if Netanyahu wins the election and is able to piece together another government.

Chanuka has come and gone.  In Israel, the big culinary emphasis around  Chanuka time is donuts rather than latkes.  

Bakeries try to come up with all sorts of eye-catching designs.  Many of the donuts are jelly filled but I saw a really wide variety of options  - pistachio-crème, chocolate mousse, lemon, strawberry and even tehina (sesame paste) filled calorie bombs.  Fortunately, I don't really have a weakness for donuts.   We picked up a few for the first night of Chanuka but they looked better than they tasted.  

On the other hand - I do have a weakness for homemade potato latkes, especially the way both of my grandmothers and my mom used to make them.  Just good old fashioned ingredients, potato, onion, eggs,  salt, pepper and maybe a bit of baking powder and flour (too hard to find matzah meal in Israel when it is not Passover time).  I tried to learn a bit from all three teachers.  I also made some homemade applesauce to accompany the  latkes with our Friday night dinner.  And one night we ate a dairy meal and had a few with sour cream.  The latkes probably did more damage than the donuts - but it has not turned  out to be a lasting problem, thankfully.  

It was nice to be here for the full Chanuka holiday this year, even though there were few of the normal festivities due to the pandemic. But the weather has been fairly moderate, low 20s C (high 60sF) with some rain here  and there.  One of the nice things about being in Israel, for someone who is Jewish, is the almost complete absence of Christmas this  time of year.  I don't say that in a way that is intended to offend anyone - but December is always the time that I felt the least Canadian and most like an outsider.  

From early November (if not sooner), in Canada, the radio stations play non-stop Christmas music, malls and stores are filled with it everywhere - and everything revolves around Christmas until it ends.  Many other Canadian immigrant and minority groups have just  accepted all of this as the trappings of being "Canadian" and assimilated into the Christmas culture.   Many Jewish Canadians, however, have not and have remained among the few groups of Canadians who do not celebrate Christmas.  Sure, many Jewish Canadians go out for Chinese food on Christmas Eve or go to a movie - or even a "Matzah Ball" - or other social event.  Others have left the country by Christmas for a vacation in Florida or some other warm destination, maybe even Israel.  And most who have remained enjoy the day off.   But for the most part, many Jewish Canadians are simply reminded at this  one time of year - of what differentiates them from other Canadians.

Here in Israel, there are certainly people  who celebrate  Christmas.  You can see Christmas lights and  trees in Jaffa, Haifa, Bethlehem, Nazareth and other places - and there are Christian Israelis who celebrate the holiday fully.  But since it is a majoritarian Jewish country, everything is open on Christmas, there are no decorations in the malls and there is no Christmas music on the radio or in the schools.

I have nothing against people celebrating the holiday - whether here, in Canada or anywhere else.  Quite the opposite - I wish everyone all the best in celebrating all of the holidays that they might observe, whether that is Christmas, Diwali, Eid Al Fitr or other holidays.  In fact, I have been honoured to attend a few Christmas dinners with some of my best friends in Canada as well as celebrations of other holidays.

But here in Israel, it is a very special time of year  -  where we can celebrate Chanuka - a holiday that is uniquely ours - and enjoy one of those benefits of being in a majority Jewish culture.  

Chanuka, as you might know, is a "minor" holiday on the Jewish calendar.  Businesses are open and there are no real restrictions on day to day activity.  It is not nearly as important a holiday  as our fall holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot nor is it as significant as Pesach (Passover).  At the same time, it is widely observed, which in Israel means lighting the Chanukiah and eating a bunch of donuts - and maybe some latkes.  

In any event, Chanuka has ended and I think it is fair to say that the main thing people in Israel are now thinking about is when they will be able to get vaccinated - and when things will return to normal.  Whether inspired by Chanuka, Christmas or Diwali, all of which have a  significant theme of light, I think are all hoping to see some bright light at the end of this long period of darkness.

Wishing everyone a happy and healthy holiday season and all the best for 2021!

  

 

  



 


  

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Chanuka Approaching 2020: Virus Not Leaving Yet: Update from Israel

 

Chanuka is quickly approaching - only two days until the first candle - so I thought it was time to write an update about a few things going on here in Israel - and maybe some other comments, connected or not.

The photo shown is a random store on Ahuza street in Ra'anana with a table display of a variety of  Chanukiot (the 8-candle Menorahs that we light on Chanuka).  This is only one of many stores that has this kind  of display.   Retailers all  over Israel are selling Chanukiot, bakeries are selling sufganyot (jelly filled  donuts, usually) and caterers are offering latke specials.  So you could say that Chanuka is in the air, though it is not the only thing circulating.

To mark the holiday, the Israeli government, in its infinite wisdom, has decided on a two step plan to combat the  spread of Covid-19.  On the one hand, there will be an evening curfew for a period of two weeks.  Just about everything will be  closed, apparently, and  people will  be prohibited from travelling between cities, at night.  Remaining details are still to be announced if the "Corona Cabinet" can agree.  To complement this evening curfew plan, the government has decided to fully reopen all  malls,  across the country, during the daytime.   A few shopping malls in "red zones" will be the exception and will remain closed.  Now I may not be an expert but  I am scratching my head trying to figure out how this plan makes any sense at all.   Infection numbers have been rising in Israel  - and we seem to be in the range of 700 to 1000 new cases per  day.  Some government ministers have stated in interviews that they expect that the numbers will rise significantly by January 1 - and we will then have a full closure (the "3rd closure") for several weeks in January.  Really, I'm not making this stuff up.  That is the plan.  (Added new update - sounds like the Israeli courts have indicated that this plan would not fly so the "night curfew" is now unlikely to come into effect).

Speaking of the Israeli government, you may have heard that it is on  the verge of dissolution - maybe.  The Knesset has passed the first reading of a bill that would dissolve the current government and set an election date.  By law, if an agreement is not reached to stop the dissolution and pass a budget, the Knesset will automatically dissolve on December 23, 2020.  This would lead to Israel's 4th election in a span of 2 years. The dissolution bill would normally require two more  readings before it is passed - but  there could be an automatic dissolution as an alternative.  Or there could still be a last minute compromise.

Netanyahu's Likud party entered into a coalition agreement with Benny Gantz's Blue and White party following the March 2020 election.  One of the terms of the agreement was that the coalition would pass budgets for 2020 and 2021 in the Knesset.  But the coalition agreement also included a term that  stated if the government fell for any reason - other than a disagreement over the budget - Gantz would become the "interim Prime Minister" until after the election.  If the government were to fall because of a disagreement over the budget, then Netanyahu would continue to be the Prime Minister until the next government is formed.

Netanyahu was  not happy with this coalition from the  start, since it was not willing to grant him the retroactive immunity bill that he has been seeking to extricate himself from all of his legal troubles.  So he has been biding his time, waiting for his poll numbers to rise, and looking for an opportunity to call another election when conditions are more favourable in the  hope that he can piece together a right-wing coalition that will  give him  the  immunity that he has long sought.  He has refused to pass budgets either for 2020 or for 2021, since passing a budget would leave him vulnerable to losing his position, even on an interim basis.

Covid-19 has continued to hamper Netanyahu's plans.  His criminal  trial  has been delayed by a month and is scheduled to continue in early February 2021.  So he is really hoping  that an election can be  called before then, that he can delay the trial due to the election and that he can win the election and  pass an immunity bill.

Can he do all of this?   Well, Netanyahu now has a plan.  The Israeli government has  been buying  massive quantities  of vaccine, from Pfizer and Moderna as well as any other company that might have vaccinations to sell.  Okay, maybe not the Russian vaccine though there have apparently been some tests of that  one in Israel. Nyet, thanks.  In any event,  according to some reports, Israel will have more than 4 million vaccines available by late December or  early January, from Pfizer and Moderna, enough to vaccinate almost half of the population.

I read yesterday that Canada was getting ready to roll out  350,000 vaccines for a population of more than 30 million.  That number sounded very low.   Contrast that to Israel's plan to vaccinate a  huge percentage of the population by mid to late winter.  Maybe the numbers were way off. 

If the vaccine has been rolled out before the next Israeli election and it seems to be working - and the economy starts to improve - it is quite imaginable that Netanyahu will get the win he wants and get his "get out of jail free" card.  Of course the opposition is trying to schedule the election as quickly as possible, while the numbers show some possibility that Netanyahu may not win.  But it looks like it will be hard to bet against Netanyahu, especially if the vaccine works and the economy begins to pick up again.

Travel

One of the big accomplishments for the current Israel government has been the establishment of peace deals with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan.  The UAE has indicated that it is very interested in a "warm peace" with wide-ranging cooperation in technological, medical, agricultural, pharmaceutical and military areas as well as  tourism.  Israeli and UAE airlines are now able to overfly Saudi Arabia and get to Dubai in about 3 hours.  To foster this tourism, the UAE has been  designated as a "green" destination, which means that 14 day isolation is not required for returning tourists.   Kosher food is available in Dubai for those who want it and Israelis are being  encouraged to visit and are being welcomed warmly.  I haven't heard of anyone visiting Bahrain or Sudan but thousands of Israelis, even in the  midst of this pandemic, are visiting Dubai.  Some Israeli ultra-religious groups have held weddings in Dubai - bringing the whole entourage there to ensure a restriction-free wedding.  Others are going to the UAE just to be able to go somewhere and get out of Israel for a bit.  

For those of us looking to fly to Canada, that still involves a 14 day quarantine - in both directions - which seems a bit impractical.  Maybe I'll manage to get an early vaccine  and that will help things.  Or maybe we'll go with the herd and visit the UAE.  Not too likely at this point.

TV

Over the past few month, we have watched some excellent TV series.  Most recently, we watched the Israeli-produced series "Valley  of Tears"  ("Sha'at Ne'ilah" in Hebrew) - about the 1973 Yom Kippur war.  The series aired over 8 weeks beginning in mid-October.  It is a 10 part series but double episodes were shown at the beginning and the end.  The final episode was last night.   It was very intense.  Excellent acting and very powerful.   The series follows two particular units, an intelligence unit and a tank unit and delves into the personal stories of many of the combatants, on the Israeli side.  It is a shocking reminder of the horrors of the Yom Kippur war and, really the horrors of any war.  At  times, it is graphic and  difficult to watch and it is quite stressful.  

After each episode, the Israel TV station had a panel discussion with surviving soldiers who had fought in the battle and discussed their experiences, their comments on the series, and the impact on their lives.  These discussions were as moving and emotionally draining as the show itself.  

Although there  were some unrealistic parts, in some of the early episodes in particular, the series has received favourable reviews.  Veterans have commented that the  last two episodes were incredibly realistic and have generally been grateful that the series has raised the consciousness of so many people about the Yom Kippur War.  Valley of Tears is now showing on HBO  Max, though I am not sure how Canadians can watch it.  Sderot.tv is probably an option.

A few months earlier, we watched the Israeli series Tehran about an Israeli agent, sent to disable the Iranian central electrical system to assist Israel with a strike on the Iranian nuclear reactors.   This was also fascinating.  Although much of it seemed much less realistic and believable than other TV series, it did seem reasonably balanced and had many parts that seemed very plausible.   Tehran is showing on Apple TV in North America.

We also watched "The  Queen's Gambit" recently, which is probably less related to this blog - though all three of us thought it was amazing (there were only 3 in the house at the time...).  I think it is on Netflix everywhere.  With its range of themes including gender equality (in the chess world and otherwise), addiction, competition and the power of chess, it is quite an impressive production.

Cooking

My ongoing  quest to make the perfect Humus continues.  I think I have been doing a pretty good job.  Recipe available on request.  For a while we were buying humus from a local humus shop.  While it was quite good and reasonably priced - I felt it had too much cumin in it for my taste.  So I decided to see if I could get my own homemade humus to compete for the hearts and taste buds of our family members.  Last  Friday's humus was probably our best batch yet, made with extra large chick peas, soaked over night - and then peeled individually after boiling.  Sure it was labour intensive  but very creamy and smooth.  

To  go with the humus, I have also been making Zhoug, a  Yemenite-Israeli hot sauce that combines hot peppers with fresh cilantro leaves and a  range of spices in small quantities - ground coriander, cumin, cardamon, cloves, black pepper and  maybe  even  a touch of  cinnamon.   This has also been a big hit - even among the hard to please Yemenite critics who have sampled it.

Next up of course will be latkes for Chanuka though I expect that we will just make the classic traditional type.  It's only once a year - a few latkes can't be that bad, can they?


On  the purely random side, I thought I would  add in this picture that I took in Tel-Aviv last week.  This bird was so close and so interested in posing that I had to oblige.

We were right near Rabin Square.   The nearby park area was filled with people  even in the midst of the pandemic.   Apparently, restaurants are serving "take-out packages" that include a blanket, a basket and everything you need to take the meal and go sit in the park and eat it.  Apparently  you return the blanket  and basket etc., when you are  done.  People are constantly coming up with ways to try and  do "normal" things in these pandemic times.

For my last  note,  I couldn't  resist including  this picture of a coffee cup that I saw in a small store.  As you may be able to see, there is a Hebrew blessing written on the mug.

You might be familiar with a blessing called "she'hechyanu"  - which is recited on festive holydays, joyous life cycle events - and other occasions.  It essentially thanks God for "giving us life, sustaining us  and  enabling us to reach this moment."  This coffee  cup changed the blessing a bit to give thanks for "giving us life, sustaining us and  enabling us to reach coffee time."  It is a very applicable blessing for many of my good friends, family members and completely unrelated readers who  love a good cup of coffee.

Here's hoping that the bright lights of the holiday season  - whether the candles we will soon light on Chanukah - or the Christmas lights for those celebrating later this month - will bring us all some real brightness, warmth and joy - and hopefully usher in a much better 2021!

Best of health to everyone.



Thursday, November 12, 2020

Hula Valley Nature Reserve and Har Odem Winery

Hula Valley Nature Reserve

Hula Valley Nature Reserve

One of the distinct advantages of being in Israel  this time of year is  the weather.  While we may hit some  rainy weather  soon, for the most part we have continued to enjoy very comfortable temperatures, mostly in the mid 20s (C) or 70s if you prefer Fahrenheit.  There are many national parks in Israel, most of which are within a one to two hour drive from Ra'anana.  So there are numerous opportunities to go for a hike, a swim or a combination of both.  We are also only about 15 minutes away from the beach, so that is always another option.

Of course this year has been a very different year all around the world and Israel is no exception.  Most of the national parks have been closed for much of the time since the initial Covid-19 outbreak in early March, 2020.  So we haven't really been able to travel around to all of these wonderful sites.

Over the past few weeks, Israel has moved to a version of "phase 2 reopening" which has included the opening of national parks.  So we decided to take a Sunday trip and visit one of the most incredible sites in Israel - the Hula Valley Nature Reserve.  In short, the Reserve is a bird sanctuary, acting as a major stopover  for birds migrating between Africa, Europe and Asia.  One estimate is that 500 million birds pass through the area each year.

The prime season for seeing the  birds is between late October and mid-March, during which time there are hundreds of thousands of birds in the park each day.  

You can visit the park in a number of different ways.  The main park route is a path that is about 8 km long.  You can walk the trail, rent bicycles (single bikes or multi-person  bikes) or you can rent a golf cart.  If you explore the park on your own, you can see several different birds, especially if you are visiting close to sunrise or sunset hours.

We had visited the park previously a few years ago and rented a group  bicycle for five of us.  But we were there in the middle of the day (little did we know). Although we saw some birds, we were  a bit disappointed.

This time we arranged to take the "Sunset Treasures Tour."  This is a one hour group tour on a big tractor-pulled wagon - that looks like it can seat about 40-50 people normally.  During these Covid-19 times, we were all spaced out and grouped in "capsules" with 3 seats separating each group.  Everyone had to wear a mask.

But this tour was simply extraordinary.  The tractor is able to enter areas that are normally off-limits and drive right alongside flocks of birds without scaring the birds away -  because the tractor is the same type  as the park's feeding  tractors.  As you can see from the photos above, we drove right up to enormous flocks of birds, turned off the engine and sat quietly watching  them.  Hundreds, if not thousands of birds ascended and descended as we watched.  

We had an outstanding tour guide who was well equipped with very high powered  binoculars.  She was able to point out a wide range of  birds including spoonbills, pelicans, herons and many others.  The vast majority of the birds in the park are common cranes.  While they may not be the world's most beautiful bird, it is quite  incredible to see  so many of them chirping  and squawking in one place.

Before taking the sunset tour, we made our way through the park.  We didn't  see  nearly as many birds but we still had some great views.  Our guide recommended trying the "sunrise magic" tour as well, which means getting to the park at about 5 a.m. - for a pre-booked tour.  Sounds tempting and we might try it one  day but the Sunset Treasures tour at about 5 p.m. is somewhat more manageable.  This was so fantastic that we might even do it again before  the end of the season.   

The Hula Valley Reserve is located in northern Israel not too far from Kiryat Shemona - which is at the border between Israel and Lebanon.  It is about a one and a half hour drive from Ra'anana or other parts of central Israel.  For anyone in Israel between November and March, this is really a special experience.

Har Odem (Odem Mountain) Winery

Before arriving at the Hula Valley Reserve, we looked for a winery to visit that we hadn't yet toured.  Pickings were  slim these days because of Covid-19 and most wineries were not open for the full tasting experience.  Some, however, have their wine stores and gift shops open.  

We decided to visit the Har Odem Winery (Odem Mountain Winery), which is located in the  Golan Heights, in northern Israel.  It  is about  25 minutes away  from  the Hula Valley Reserve.  Odem is a winery that was founded in 2003 by the Alfasi family.  It is described as the "northern most winery in Israel" with grapes growing at an elevation of between 1100 and 1200 metres above sea level.  

The grapes are grown on volcanic soil and the vineyards are snow covered for much of the winter.  The weather in the spring and summer is quite nice.  A variety of different grapes are grown.

Because of Covid-19, we were not able to arrange a full wine tasting.  But we were able to buy a bottle of Nebbiolo-Syrah and drink it outside.  Nebbiolo is not a commonly grown grape in Israel so this is a unique blended wine.  There were a few tables set up so the four of us chose one and enjoyed  this rich tasting wine along with some perfect weather.   The winery representative, Erez, I believe, was knowledgeable, friendly, funny and helpful.  He brought us a nice platter of cheese and bread to go with the wine (all local goat cheeses and local breads) (and all kosher) and spoke to us about the full range of Odem wines.  We quite enjoyed the unique wine that we tasted, though it was a bit on the pricey side at 180 shequels (about $72 Cdn).  But this was one of their higher end wines.  Since we bought a few, we received a discount so the price worked out to be better than full retail.  The winery also has a few white wines, a range of red wines starting with the winery's basic cabernet and some other varietals at about 69 shq ($28 Cdn).  The winery store also sells locally produced olive oil, jams and locally made ceramics.  It was quite a nice store and quite a nice winery to visit.  We did also pick up some of the olive oil and a delicious cherry jam.  

Forni Stone Fired Pizza in Rosh Pina

By the time we finished the sunset tour, made a pit stop and left the Hula Reserve, we were getting hungry.  And it was probably close to 8 p.m.  So we drove to the nearby town of Rosh Pina and set out to find something to eat.  All the restaurants were only running take out services due to Covid-19 so we were going to have to eat outside or in our car.

We managed to come across Forni Stone Fired Pizza - a strictly Kosher pizza place ("Kosher l'Mehadrin").  We thought about it for a bit and then decided to order.  The pizza was thin crusted Italian style pizza.  We picked our toppings, placed our order and waited.

The service was prompt and friendly and the pizza was ready quite quickly.  It was reasonably priced and very tasty. 

We are hard to please when it comes to pizza since as a general rule, the pizza in Israel is not great.  This is probably due in part to the lack of really good mozzarella and other hard cheeses.  Sometimes the pizza sauces are also quite bland.  In Ra'anana, for example, there are just aren't many pizza places that I would recommend.  

But Forni pizza was quite good.  One of our foursome said that it was the "best pizza she had eaten in Israel."  We have had some good pizza over the years, in Jerusalem, in K'far Saba and maybe  even at one or two of the places in Ra'anana.   So that is a pretty good compliment.  This crust was done really well.  The sauce was tangy and the cheese was tasty.   All of us enjoyed it.  So next time we are in Rosh Pina and hungry, we have a place to go.  Not that we are in Rosh Pina that often but you never know.  

In fact, whenever I think of Rosh Pina, with its estimated population of about 3,000, I think of a song written by Natan Zach Z"L who died this past week.  The song was sung by Israeli singer Nurit Galron, called "Pizmon Hozer" ("Repeating Chorus").  I first heard it in the mid-1980s.  It starts off with the words:

I went to Kiryat Shemona - but I had nothing to do there.

I continued to Rosh Pina - but I had no one to talk to there....

In fairness to Rosh Pina, the lyricist continues on, sung soulfully by Galron, to mention other places where there was nothing going on  - including Haifa, Holon and Ashdod and ultimately, the sea.  But the first verse always seemed to stick out in my head - that there was nothing to do in the small town of Rosh Pina.  My association is reinforced by the memory of being stuck in Rosh Pina in 1986 on a Friday afternoon after the last bus had left the town just  after 2:00 p.m. with no way to get back to Jerusalem.   

But now I know there is at least one thing to do there - I can get some pretty decent pizza to eat.  So I now have a new association in my head when "Rosh Pina" pops up.  And it's a tasty one. 

Shabbat Shalom and best of health to everyone. 







Wednesday, November 11, 2020

U.S. Elections, Israeli Politics and Remembrance Day 2020

It is Remembrance Day, 2020, eight days after the U.S. election.  Amidst the ongoing turmoil in the U.S. and the almost equally tenuous situation in Israel, a blog post is overdue.  On Remembrance Day, we reflect on the high price that we have paid to fight for freedom and democracy - the millions of civilians and soldiers who lost their lives to ensure a better  future for everyone else.  And of course, we often think of what might have been if the Allies had not emerged victorious by the end of the Second World War.

I haven't provided this introduction to be overly dramatic.  But there are very real concerns facing democracy in the United States and in Israel and I think some context and discussion is relevant.

As  of the writing of this blog, the U.S. is really at a crossroads.  We await the "official" results even as most major U.S. networks, including pro-Trump networks like Fox News, have called the election in favour of Joe Biden.  

On the one hand, I accept that either candidate is entitled to ensure that full and final results are tabulated and certified.  Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina have still not been called.  The margins are very slim and there are still many votes left to be counted.  North Carolina seems highly likely to go to Trump.  It is within the realm of possibility that Arizona or  Georgia or  both could be flipped as a result of lawful counting.  But even if Trump managed to take both Arizona and Georgia, which seems unlikely but possible, that would still leave him behind 279-259.  

What next?  Again, on the legal side, it is possible that a legitimate recount of Wisconsin could flip the state.  The margin is very small.  However, this seems unlikely.  Trump won Wisconsin by a very small margin in 2016 but the result was upheld.  There is no reason to believe that the Wisconsin ballot counters are off by so many votes.  They seem to know how to oversee closely contested elections.  

Winning and flipping Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin would be highly improbable  but if the votes bring those results legitimately, it would not be undemocratic or improper.  On the contrary, it would be entirely democratic and appropriate if that  was what the actual votes showed.  

But assuming that Trump loses at least one of those three states, there is no real path to re-election for Trump other than the use of the judicial system to mount a large-scale attack on the U.S. voting process - in states that Trump has lost.   This is where things become frightening. 

The margin in Pennsylvania is more than 40,000 votes and is likely to wind up being more than 70,000-80,000 votes.  As of the writing of this blog, no evidence has been presented that would come close to invalidating that many legal votes.  But Trump seems to be convinced that if he can bring any argument at all to the Supreme Court of the United States (even if he is defeated at lower court levels), his battalion of three newly appointed justices will combine with two or three of the existing right-wing judges on the Supreme Court and uphold any argument that he puts forward, even one which disenfranchises more than 40,000 voters.

I am hopeful that we will not get close to  this scenario, but it is a terrifying one.  This type of ruling, if it were to occur, could only be characterized as a court-sanctioned coup.  We have already seen the U.S. Supreme Court tilt an election to the Republicans in a ridiculously partisan 5-4 decision in Bush v. Gore.  We can only take solace in the notion that Florida in 2000 was unclear in any event and a decision  in Gore's favour at that  time may not have resulted in a Democratic victory.  If the Supreme Court were to side with Trump in the present circumstances, it would be a very different situation, by orders of magnitude. 

You might be wondering how this all relates to my blog.  I think there are a few different responses.

First of all, Israel and its leadership are watching the U.S. results as closely as any other country in the world, if not more so.  Prime Minister Netanyahu has invested a great deal in his personal relationship with Trump.  In the last Israeli election, Netanyahu posted billboards all over the country with giant pictures of him and Trump posing together with the message that only Netanyahu could continue the special relationship with President Trump and the United States.  Netanyahu has placed most, if not all, of his eggs in the Republican basket.  He has cooperated with Trump to try and shift support for Israel to a partisan idea in the U.S. in the hopes of moving voters to the Republican party.  

Although President Obama took some actions that were viewed as hostile to Israel's interests, the Obama administration was very supportive of Israel in many other ways.  The U.S fully supported Israel during the  Gaza war, improved military and technological cooperation and handed off a very strong U.S. - Israel relationship to Trump.  There are some real questions about the Iran nuclear deal that was signed under Obama.  Additionally, it is unfortunate the Obama snubbed Israel at the beginning of his administration and refused to visit while he was "in the neighbourhood."  His support for an anti-Israel U.N. resolution on the way out the door at the end of his second term was odious.  But it is very misleading to conclude that the Democratic party has gone along with Trump's efforts to make Israel a partisan issue.  There are many leading Democrats who are very supportive of Israel and if Biden wins the election and takes office, it will be very important for Netanyahu and Israel to work with Biden constructively.  

At the same time, Trump deserves credit for moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, for cutting off funding to Palestinians until they agree to end the "pay for slay" program and for advancing peace agreements between Israel and other countries in the region.   A Biden administration may reverse some of these policies and that may not bring the region any closer to peace.  Hopefully Biden will be more supportive of Israel than Obama was in some areas.  Indications are that this is likely.

All of this has put Netanyahu in a quandary.  He has invested so much energy and political capital in mobilizing support for the Republicans that he found himself in an awkward situation staring at a likely Biden victory.  Even as news networks across the U.S. were calling the election in Biden's favour, Netanyahu resisted recognizing his  buddy's  election loss.  While leaders of several other countries congratulated Biden, Netanyahu held out for more than 12 hours after which he finally felt forced to offer his best wishes.  Unlike the leaders of Russia, China, Turkey, Brazil and a few others, Netanyahu recognized that he would have to say something.  Notably, he has avoided calling Biden "President-elect" but he has sent at least one lukewarm message.  

This is not  Netanyahu's first awkward moment resulting from his pro-Republican partisanship. Weeks before the election, in a conference call with world leaders, Trump asked Netanyahu to confirm that "sleepy Joe" wouldn't have been able to bring about these peace deals with UAE, Bahrain and  Sudan.  After a long pause, Netanyahu demurred and  mumbled that Israel is happy to get the support of any  U.S. leaders who can provide assistance.  Trump's face told the whole story.  He  was  quite displeased with Netanyahu's response.  

Following the election,  Netanyahu was again faced with the question of how to keep Trump happy while not damaging Israel's political interests with a new U.S.  administration.

Netanyahu himself is in a very questionable situation.  He remained in power after the March 2020 elections by cobbling together a coalition with the biggest opposition party - Blue and White - which then promptly fractured into two parts, only one of which joined Netanyahu's coalition.  Key terms of that coalition deal included a two year budget (until the end of 2021) and a rotation agreement under which coalition partner Benny Gantz would become the Prime Minister in September 2021.  

Eight months have passed and no budget has been presented.  Netanyahu has taken the position that times have changed and the government should now only pass a budget that  covers 2020.  That would leave him something to argue about and a reason to break apart the coalition and  call a new election in early 2021.  Needless to say, the Blue and White party have demanded that Netanyahu honour the coalition deal and agree to a two-year budget.  The matter is headed for a showdown by the end  of November at which time the government will fall if a budget agreement is not reached.

Netanyahu is still holding out hope that he can win an election and put together a  right wing coalition.  His criminal trial is scheduled to resume in January 2021.  He is facing three different sets of charges for bribery, breach of trust and corruption.  Over the past three elections, he has been hoping that he can put together a coalition that would agree to legislation that would retroactively eliminate his criminal problems.  This would be a shockingly anti-democratic move but he  seems to have quite a large number  of Israel Knesset members who would be prepared to support this type of bill, though not he has not yet been able to get more than half the Knesset to sign on.

Unlike the U.S. President, the Prime Minister of Israel does  not have the power to pardon people (or himself).  He can seek a pardon from the President of Israel, who holds an otherwise largely ceremonial figurehead role, much like the Queen in England or the Governor General in Canada.  So Netanyahu will require a Knesset majority of some sort if he hopes to get his legal troubles to vanish.  On the other hand, I am quite convinced that if Trump eventually relinquishes his office (or is forced to do so), he will pardon himself and many many others, including family members and friends just before leaving office.  It remains to be  seen whether the U.S. Supreme Court will uphold this use of a self-pardon.  Certainly there appear  to be 3 or 4 judges would almost certainly side with Trump.  I suppose that Gorsuch, Coney Barrett and Roberts will be the real decision makers,  though I am beginning to feel more confident that Roberts would not go along.

In short, looking at all of this, we are facing some very real tests of democracy in both the U.S. and Israel.  The fight in the U.S. may extend into January as various court challenges, recounts and other steps are all addressed.  I offer my hope that honesty, fairness and integrity will prevail in both the recounts and any judicial decisions.  In Israel, things may not be decided any time soon.  There may be an election in the coming months but it may be followed by still more elections if Netanyahu is unable to win and rid himself of his criminal charges.  

In both cases, democracy  and freedom will only prevail if the eventual election results reflect the actual votes of the people and if the voices of the people are heard, upheld and implemented.  In assessing recent actions taken by Trump, including the spread of demonstrably false claims, and the efforts to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of  voters, we should remember the history lessons that we think of, especially today.  And remember how easily a vibrant democracy can quickly slide into totalitarianism.  




Sunday, October 18, 2020

Mid October 2020: Partial Opening After 2nd Wave in Israel


Israel began to reopen today after a month of extensive Covid-19 closures.  Not everything re-opened but the national parks and the beaches opened their doors.  It is probably fair to say that the  beaches were never really closed.  People were attending regularly and, for the most part, police were staying away.  There was an exception that permitted people to go to the beach (but not enter the water) for purposes of "exercising."  So where the police did happen to show up at the beach - groups of backgammon playing bong-smokers suddenly became super active - doing jumping jacks, push-ups and other exercises in the sand.  While the police officers watched and waited...

Another restriction that ended today prevented people from travelling more than  one  kilometer from their  homes.  Except for grocery shopping, drug store purchases, household  necessities, buying a lulav and  etrog, moving, helping a senior family member and a host of other reasons.  So the question here was not whether people were following the restriction but which of the many exceptions they could quickly come up with if stopped by the police at a roadblock.  Failure to come up with a legitimate reason quickly enough could result in a significant  fine.

Schools also opened up from JK to grade 6 across the country, even in "red" areas.  It seems unlikely that this will last for more than a week or two but I guess we will see.  The government opted to open everywhere rather than selectively for fear of acting in discriminatory fashion.  Many of the "red zones" are ultra-Orthodox ("Haredi") areas and the government did  not want to upset the Haredi members of its coalition.  So schools opened up everywhere.  This is likely to lead to a widespread increase in the infection rate which is now running at about 2,000 new infections per day.

Despite these rules limiting openings to elementary schools, the Haredim announced that they would open everything up, through grade 12 as well as Yeshivas for post-grade 12 age students.  They simply announced that they would not follow the rules and so far, the government has not taken any  official action to close these institutions.  We essentially have a "state within a state" in many parts of the country.

Mass demonstrations against the Prime Minister also resumed this week.  There were large scale  demonstrations near the official Prime Minister's residence on Saturday night as well as in Tel-Aviv. While many  of the protesters have been wearing masks, they certainly do not appear to be following social  distancing rules.  Last night, there were several accounts of violent attacks from pro-Netanyahu anti-protesters who showed up at the demonstrations to disrupt and beat anti-Netanyahu protesters.  As  of the writing of this blog, I have no concrete information about who is organizing the counterdemonstrations.  Hmmm....

I should mention, coincidentally of course, that one of Netanyahu's most senior cabinet ministers, Miki Zohar, the Deputy Prime Minister was the subject of a frightening radio interview this week.  Earlier in the week, some audio recordings had been mysteriously released.  The recordings contained discussions with the sitting Attorney General of Israel, Avihai Mandelblit, from many years earlier   The recordings had nothing to do with the current criminal charges against Netanyahu.  In the interview broadcast this week - Zohar threatened that several additional recordings would be  released and there would be an "earthquake of information" released about the current Attorney General if he did not drop all charges against Netanyahu.  When asked if he was making a threat he said "no I'm  making  a promise."   Now I may not be a criminal lawyer, but that certainly sounded like about as open and shut a  case of blackmail/extortion as one could possibly dream up.

In other news, how about some political polls?

On the home front, some new Israeli polls have shown a sudden and  dramatic drop in support  for  Netanyahu.  Current polls put him at about 27 seats (he currently as 36) and put Naftali Bennett at 24.  Overall, the right in Israel is still in position to win an election and form a government.  But there are suddenly options that this would be a different kind of government with substantially reduced power for Netanyahu.  In fact, there are options for a government to be formed that would exclude Netanyahu and the Likud party.  This is the first poll in several years that has shown that  as a real possibility.  At the same time, there is no election currently scheduled and we do not know when one will be called.  So it is all very hypothetical.  I remain skeptical but there are at least some signs that the landscape here may be changing.

In another poll, Israelis were asked about the upcoming U.S. election.  Apparently, 73% of Israelis indicated that they would  prefer Trump.   Among Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Israelis, the percentage  swelled to over 90%.  But when Israelis who self-identified as "centrists" or "leftists" were asked, they favoured Biden 55-45%.  So if the President loses on November 3, 2020 as some now expect, he might consider coming to Israel.   After all, Trump just said at a rally last week that he might "leave the country" if he  loses the election.  Maybe if he  loses, he will pardon himself and  come build a new golf course and hotel  complex  near Netanyahu's home in Caesarea.  The challenge for  Netanyahu is that unlike Trump he can't grant himself a pardon.   If Netanyahu loses the next Israeli election, he may have to spend a great deal of time somewhere other than on one of Trump's  golf  courses.   Say, a more confined location.

The weather  is still quite nice here.  So now that  national parks have opened up, a trip to one of them one day this week sounds like a really attractive idea.   We are anxiously awaiting the start of strawberry season over the next few weeks.  As you may know, fruit and vegetables are very seasonal and very local here.  The strawberries are fantastic but it is a fleeting season, lasting from  November through April, or maybe May.  But there are several different types of strawberries - juicy, very sweet and  quite unlike others that I have had, even  at the peak of the farmer's market in mid-summer in Toronto.  Jerusalem Artichokes (See photo above) are now in season so I tried making some soup this week with  a  bunch  of them and it was fantastic.  Recipes available on request.  And there are also some enormous and delicious mangos in season.  Or, of course, you can pick up a $25 pineapple...(ouch!).  

To round  out things, shopping malls, most other "non-essential" stores and restaurants, including outdoor patios, all remain closed even though the airport has reopened.  Travellers to Israel are required to quarantine for 2 weeks unless they are coming from "green countries."  But only travellers holding citizenship or having certain categories of family in Israel can enter the country in any event - and then only with advance permission.  That being said, some countries are  apparently willing to accept Israeli tourists - so there are flights leaving Israel for leisure purposes to Greece, Bulgaria and some other destinations.  No plans to join any of these flights any time soon.

Wishing everyone a wonderful week and the best of health.



Monday, October 5, 2020

October 2020 Update

We are now in the midst of the holiday of Sukkot - also known as "the time of our  happiness," the "holiday of  booths," and the time for travelling and trips abroad for many Israelis.  Not this year, generally.  At least not the travelling part.  Israel is in the midst of a nation-wide shut-down of sorts so travelling is fairly limited.  But Sukkot (booths) are still everywhere - and people are celebrating the holiday.  

It has been a very strange and unusual holiday season though that is certainly  not unique to Israel, unfortunately.   The interesting question is how this will change things in a long term way.  In so many respects.  But that could  really be the subject of a very long blog.  Maybe the next one.  This one will be a bit more anecdotal I think.  I'll cover some personal reflections about the holidays, Israel's current Covid-19 situation, the Israeli government and anything else that springs to mind before the end of these comments.

The Holy Days - Some Personal Reflections

Rosh Hashana came and went.  One initiative in Israel was to have people with Shofars walking  around (on the  second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Sunday) and blowing their shofars so that people could get the chance to hear them.  In Ra'anana, the City set up various points around the city where there would be shofar blowing at different times.  Another  initiative was to tell people to go out onto their front lawns, their balconies or their backyards and blow  their shofars at 11 a.m.  I took part in this one - and noticed at least one neighbour enjoying my attempts to sound like a real shofar blower.  I guess I have another year to practice.   Makes me wish that I had learned to play the trumpet in school instead of the saxophone.  

In any event, it was just our immediate family and we opted for a service  in the house rather than joining the various zoom options or finding an outdoor service that was following the rules.  But we were lucky to have each other and although we missed the rest of our families, it was still a meaningful New Year commemoration.

For  Yom Kippur, we spent a fair bit of time discussing what to do.  We usually run  a small service in Ra'anana, a satellite service for Kehilla Hod v'Hadar (which is in K'far Saba).   In the past, we have not held Kol Nidrei here but have walked to K'far Saba.  We usually then have Shacharit, Mussaf, Minhah and  Neilah in Ra'anana.  

This year, we decided to hold the tefillot outdoors in one of the member family's backyard.  It was too hot to hold a morning service there but we ran a Kol Nidrei service and Minhah/Neilah outside.  We  were all spaced apart, wearing masks and outside.  Just between 11-13 of us.  I think it was my first time leading Kol Nidrei in about 35 years.  So there was a fair bit to prepare.  Neilah was a bit easier since I have been leading it for the past 6 or 7 years I think.  But it worked out  nicely and I am glad we were able to hold this service.

Next up came Sukkot.  We put up our Sukkah - and once again - it was just our immediate family  having meals inside.  The Israeli government has imposed a 500 shekel fine for "attending a meal in a non-family member's sukkah" (defined as someone who doesn't live in the same home).  But I think the fine is really viewed as a 500 shekel fine for those who weren't quick enough (or pre-organized enough) to have a reasonable excuse, when asked, to avoid the fine.  In any case, we have waved the lulav (the palm branch) and the Etrog (the Citron), sat in the Sukkah and enjoyed some nice wine.  After all, it is still the time of "our happiness" and the wine helps.  

The Closure, Covid-19 and Israel

Back to the closure.  The Israeli government has instituted a form of closure - but it is certainly not "hermetic."  In fact, it probably has more holes than a  hunk of swiss cheese.  So police have set  up road blocks all over the place.  But they are only stopping random cars - and then there is a very long list of exceptions to the closure.  The exceptions include:

- going out to buy a lulav and etrog

-going out to perform the mitzvah of Kapparot (until the end of Sukkot) (i.e. swinging a chicken over your head to get rid of your sins;

-buying groceries, essential household goods, medicine etc.,

-exercising (on your own or with a family member from the same house);

- demonstrating (against or for) the government (within 1 km of your house) (I haven't seen too many demonstrating in favour of the current government);

- attending a synagogue service (outdoors, with less than 25 people, within 1 km of your home);

The list goes on and on.  This is just to provide a bit of flavour.  

Overall, there is a sense here in Israel that Covid-19 is really out of control.  We reached close to 10,000 new cases a day last week, in the aftermath of Rosh Hashanah.  We have seen an increasingly high number of seriously ill patients and  a growing number  of fatalities.  Although the government has now imposed a closure as a way to try to deal with it - it is not a well- planned or well thought out response to the pandemic.  It is not being accompanied by steps to assist businesses, business owners and workers that will enable them to manage the economic side of the crisis.  It is being applied universally, all over the country, even though there are clearly pockets of high infection rate areas that probably warrant a different approach from those areas in which the infection rate is low.  It is unclear how this will all play out or what steps the  government will take to try and address the situation.  But we know that the virus can spread at exponential rates.  10,000 new infections per day is quite frightening and is  bound to lead to a great deal of stress on the health care system in Israel, the hospitals and support  systems across the country.  

The Current Israeli Government   

As you may know, the current Israeli government is a coalition government made up of opposing parties, generally quite hostile to each other,  who have been unable to follow the coalition agreement that they put  together themselves.  So, for example, the parties signed an agreement that they would pass a two year budget as one of the first items of business.  But Netanyahu reneged and insisted on a one-year budget only (which would be a budget for the period Jan 1, 2020 to December 31, 2020).  Blue and White continued to insist on a two year  budget.  A stalemate resulted and the decision was put off for two or three months.  As a result, there is no budget for the current year in place.  The government is running on "interim budget measures."  

Netanyahu is looking for an opportunity to pull the plug on this current government and  call an election.  He is hoping that he will be able to piece together a 61+ seat right wing government and get retroactive immunity for himself to clear him of the various criminal charges that he is now facing.  But polls have shown that Netanyahu is losing some support - to the "Yamina" (Real Right) party of Naftali Bennett.  Netanyahu is concerned that he will lose negotiating power and that he may not be able to get the immunity bill or the government that he wants.  So he has now become hesitant to call an election. We therefore have somewhat of a stalemated government that cannot agree on steps to take but is also reluctant to call another election.  This cannot continue for too long.  It is likely that the government will soon crumble and a new election will be announced - perhaps in December or January.

Meanwhile, there are protesters across Israel, spread out and following the new rules of protesting within  1 km of  their  homes.  For the most part, these protests have not been violent and have simply been made up of a wide range of citizens protesting against various aspects  of the operation of this current government under Netanyahu's stewardship.  That was  not  entirely the case on Saturday night in Tel-Aviv, where police on horses and in full riot gear used quite a bit of force to disperse a largely non-violent group of protesters.  

A primary concern is that a Prime Minister facing a range of criminal charges, is trying to make various decisions that could directly impact on his own situation.  For example, which judges to appoint in the courts, which civilian appointments (chief of police) and what to  close versus what to leave open across the country.  During the first closure, in March/April, one of Netanyahu's first steps was to close the courts while leaving many other places open - ostensibly so that he would not have to show up for an impending court appearance.

Many  other  people are protesting the lack of an economic plan, the impact of a closure on so many people without proper support and  the general perception that decisions are being made for political reasons  primarily rather than reasons based on epidemiological necessity or medical and scientific evidence and requirements.

At the same time and to be fair, it is unclear that this large number of protesters will be able to change the political results at the ballot box whenever the next election is held.  In other words, it may well be that they are made up of a large and  vocal minority.  That remains to be seen.

Schadenfreude

I must conclude this post with a comment on Schadenfreude.  

In Israel, I would not say that mask wearing and physical distancing has been viewed as a "left-wing plot" or confined to left segments of society.  In fact, Netanyahu himself has been very clear about wearing a mask,   proper steps to distance himself from others and urging Israelis to follow suggested steps to deal with the virus.  Of course some  of his ministers have not always gone along and  have viewed themselves having a special exemption from the rules that everyone else is urged to follow.  But it is not necessarily a "right-left" fault line. 

In fact one of his ministers is  now the subject of a great deal of press coverage.  Minister Gila Gamliel went to a shul  for Yom Kippur with her father in law - who was under a quarantine order due to exposure to the virus.  Some 28 people who attended services at that shul have now been diagnosed as having the virus.  There are many other similar stories.

As the virus spread in Israel, many in the ultra-Orthodox community refused to close synagogues, wear masks, follow physical distancing guidelines or close learning institutions.  One of the leading ultra-Orthodox rabbis of the Lithuanian ultra-orthodox community, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky had insisted back in March that synagogues and yeshivas remain open since "cancelling Torah study is more dangerous than the virus."  He is later reported to have told his followers  not to get tested - since positive results would lead to a shut down of their institutions.  In any event, at age 92, he has now been diagnosed with Covid-19 although his condition is apparently improving.   According  to at least one report last week,  more than 40% of all cases of covid-19 are in the ultra-orthodox community.   Rabbi Kanievsky eventually agreed to issue a press release urging followers to adhere to guidelines.  But the virus is rampant  now in his community.

Likewise, of course, it is perhaps not surprising that President Trump has also contracted the virus.  He has held countless rallies  with unmasked supporters, refused (for the most part) to wear a mask himself and belittled those  who are taking the virus seriously.  When the Israeli  delegation flew to Washington to sign a peace deal with the UAE, Trump insisted that the delegation members not wear masks at the ceremony.  There was a heated negotiation but the Israelis largely gave in with some exceptions.  

Similarly, at Trump's Supreme Court nomination announcement last Saturday, the attendees did not wear masks or follow any physical distancing guidelines.  Is it at all surprising that Trump and  so many of his colleagues have been infected?  While we can all hope for the complete and  full recovery of the  President, I think we can also all hope (and pray) that the President will change his tune and start urging Americans to follow some common sense guidelines to minimize their chances of getting infected.  Maybe instead of attacking Biden for wearing a "huge mask," he'll decide to start wearing one  himself.  Regularly.  Assuming he recovers.

Sports Comment

September began with some  cautious optimism on my part cheering for some Toronto  teams.  The Raptors, Maple Leafs and Blue  Jays all had a shot to the make the playoffs and I was hoping for an interesting playoff season.   The Maple Leafs and Blue Jays exited with barely a whimper.  This was especially disappointing for the hockey team which had so much talent and so much promise.  But another year is in the books, which means that Toronto has  now gone 53  years without winning a hockey championship.  Ouch.

The Raptors were hoping to repeat their feat of  winning the NBA championship but without their superstar from last year Kawhi Leonard.  For the Raptors, it was also a premature and disappointing exit.

So what is a Toronto sports fan to do?  Well, the remaining team of interest - which has never one a championship - is the Buffalo Bills (okay, not Toronto but close  enough).   The  Bills are off to a 4-0 start this year and have an excellent young quarterback.  So that is very exciting.  Worth staying up for here in Israel.

Finally - and I think I got this wrong in an earlier blog - the Israel national soccer (football) team will play Scotland on October 8th for a chance to get to the delayed 2020 Euro championship.  If Israel beats Scotland, it will have to play the winner of a Norway-Serbia match on November 12th.  So that match will be this coming Thursday - and it really will be one of the biggest soccer matches for the Israeli side in many years.  I am not normally a huge soccer fan - but this will be an exciting event to watch.

I wish everyone a Chag Sameach (Happy holiday) and Mo'adim L'Simchah (Enjoy these times joy) and a home that the coming year brings us much better news from all across the world.  Keep in touch!