We are quickly approaching the High Holy days - Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur - and I haven't written anything in about two months. So I figured that it was about time to provide some comments - not necessarily connected about things going on here in Israel. I have actually been here for quite a stretch now - given Covid-19 - but I have still been quite busy professionally. After all, my line of work is a busy one these days. So this blog will be a bit of a stream of consciousness - about a few different topics. We'll see how that works out.
As you may know, Israel was one of the early leaders in keeping a lid on Covid-19. The country was virtually shut down for a period of time in March/April - including airports, malls and most everything else commercially other than essential services. Israel managed to get the number of new Covid cases down to less than 10 a day. It looked like the virus would disappear.
But the government did not accompany that closure with a support plan for affected businesses or furloughed employees (although many employees were eligible to collect Employment Insurance and will now be able to do so until June 2021). It was a quick, complete and probably half-baked closure plan. Soon enough, many sectors of the economy tanked and the pressure on the Israeli government to reopen was tremendous. As a result, the government (which itself was in quite a bit of political turmoil) implemented an equally half-baked re-opening plan and opened just about everything very quickly. Before you could say "Russian vaccine," there were 500 people at weddings and planeloads of infected people arriving on international flights, primarily from the U.S. The numbers began to climb rapidly. But the government had expended its political capital on its initial closure plan - and on its haphazard opening plan. I think it is fair to say that it lost the public trust (if it ever really had it). The numbers climbed drastically and Israel has now hit numbers in the range of 3,000 new infections a day, while at the same time having reduced the number of tests. The government is internally divided and has not really come up with any plan to combat the every increasing spread of the virus.
The latest plan announced on Wednesday night is an impending closure of 30 "red" cities in Israel - due to come into effect on Monday. (Heaven forbid you should implement it immediately - that would interfere with the enjoyment of Shabbat - or in the case of the Arab towns and cities - the enjoyment of Friday...). As of the writing of this blog, I don't think anyone can assume that the proposed closure will definitely go ahead. We may not know for sure until Sunday night. But stay tuned.
The Chaggim / Yamim Nora'im
As mentioned, the Holy Day season is quickly approaching. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are only weeks away. This is the time of year when synagogues are usually packed with wall to wall worshippers. If the infection rate for Covid-19 is still this high, the Holydays could be real "super-spreader" events and we could see the numbers rise to tens of thousands of new infections a day. The Israeli government is torn in trying to figure out how to deal with this.
On the one hand, the scientific advisors to the government, including the special "Covid-19 Project Manager" are urging the government to shut down or dramatically limit synagogues to no more than 10 or 20 worshippers and to hold services outside as much as possible. But the current Israeli government includes a large number of ultra-religious members of Knesset. They are urging the government to permit full worship in synagogues. I guess it is fair to say that many of them figure that whether or not they get the virus is a decision made from above, rather than one affected by actions they might take here on earth. And given the general lack of trust that the Israeli government has engendered through its earlier mishandling of closures and openings, I would imagine that the ultra-orthodox community will simply disregard any government orders that affect worship for the High Holydays.
Even for those of us who are more moderate in our approach to observance, figuring out the Holydays is a real challenge. Our synagogue is planning to conduct a few different services - some inside and some outside to keep the number of worshippers really limited - and to allow for physical distancing. But we have still been wrestling with whether it sounds safe to go. We normally play a significant role in these tefillot, our family reads from the Torah (all three of our "children" - they can't really be called "children" now), and participates in leading the services. I have lead Musaf on Rosh Hashanah and for other services. So I guess we have a short window to decide what to do.
For Yom Kippur, we usually run a satellite service in Ra'anana. Sometimes it has even been at our house, though the past few years, we have used the facilities of another synagogue in Ra'anana. But this year, we have a range of opinions and issues. How to keep the numbers down to 20, where to hold the services and other issues. Things to deal with in the coming weeks I guess. But some of this falls on yours truly as one of the organizers of these services. So something to think about in the coming weeks (while working on preparations for leading Kol Nidrei and Neilah).
The Peace Deal with the UAE
Israelis are quite happy with the recent announcement that Israel would establish full diplomatic relations with the UAE. What's not to like? Israel has apparently been working on relations with the UAE going back to 2010. There have been many unreported exchanges so for some it is not a surprise.
Interestingly, the current Israeli government did not put the proposed peace deal to a vote in the Knesset or even in its own cabinet. In fact, Netanyahu apparently kept his Blue and White coalition partners in the dark about the deal.
It certainly looks like the terms of the deal included an agreement by the U.S. to sell F-35s to the UAE, an agreement by Israel to cancel its proposed unilateral annexation of parts of the disputed territories and, in exchange, full diplomatic relations including active tourism, scientific, academic and cultural exchanges and ramped up economic trade. I doubt that the Israeli government would have opposed the deal although, in a democracy, the deal probably should have been presented to the government for approval.
As you know, President Trump sent Secretary of State Pompeo on a whirlwind tour of other countries in the Middle East to try and convince them follow the UAE. Israel is hoping to reach peace deals with Bahrain, Oman, Sudan, Morocco and, eventually, Saudi Arabia. But these countries apparently made it clear that they will only agree to peace with Israel if there is a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. Both Netanyahu and Trump seem to be helping each other and trying to bolster their respective electoral prospects even though a new election has not yet been announced in Israel. I can imagine that if Israel were to announce peace deals with four or five countries between now and November, even without resolving the Palestinian issue, this would still give Trump and Netanyahu significant boosts. On the other hand, if the UAE is the only country to agree, the deal may not affect the political landscape in either place.
Meanwhile, many Israelis are already planning their flights to Dubai. With permission to fly over Saudi Arabia having been granted, the flight will take only 3 1/2 hours. UAE hotels have already announced that they are planning to offer Kosher food. And the UAE is looking to support the opening of a number of synagogues. This is all very exciting. If Israel could find a way to reach peace deals like this with a number of other countries in the region, the world would really start to look like a better place.
In the meantime, the UAE may decide to take a more active role in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Perhaps the Palestinians will take a new look at their "bottom line" demands as they realize that more and more countries in the region are about to make peace with Israel. Likewise, the Israeli government may be willing to make some concessions if the concessions are tied to a broader Middle Eastern peace agreement. The obstacles today, aside from the Palestinian Authority, seem to be Turkey, Iran, Syria and perhaps Qatar along with Hezbollah, Hamas and other extremist movements. One never knows what the future brings but there is reason to believe that, overall, the UAE deal is a hopeful development and the first of many steps to come.
The Israeli Government
The current Israeli government is a very unstable one - made up of a coalition of various political enemies. Every few weeks, there is a threat the government will fall and new elections will be called. The latest threat came as a result of the budget. Netanyahu's Likud party had signed a deal calling for a two-year budget as part of the coalition agreement that it entered into with the Blue and White party. But, Netanyahu soon saw that his political support was rising after he eviscerated the Blue and White party in coalition negotiations. He is still hopeful that he can win a new election outright and get a "retroactive immunity deal" that would eliminate his current ongoing criminal proceedings. He became worried that a two year budget might mean no new elections for two years. So he announced that "circumstances had changed" and the government needed a budget for one year only (just until the end of 2020). Of course the Blue and White party called foul and claimed that this was a violation of the coalition deal. It certainly was. But Netanyahu pressed ahead. In the end, Blue and White partially conceded and the parties agreed that they would put off deciding anything for another two months. So the Israeli government carries on without a budget and without any immediate plans to implement one. And no election will be called for at least the next two months. Some commentators have ruminated that Trump asked Netanyahu to hold off on having another election until after the U.S. elections in November. But I haven't seen anything concrete to back up that rumour.
Either way, we have no budget, an ongoing coalition made up of political enemies and no definitive plans to do anything. But no plans to change these circumstances. Go figure.
Some Sports Comments
I couldn't let this blog pass without commenting on the Leafs and the Raptors. Watching North American sports is a bit challenging in Israel for a few reasons. The games aren't shown on most channels and with the time difference, it can mean watching big games from 2 to 5 a.m.
But some of us here were up to the task, especially since I have no real interest in watching Israeli soccer or basketball. Of course it was tremendously disappointing to watch the Toronto Maple Leafs make their annual early exit. For those of you who have no idea what I am talking about - or don't really care - the Toronto Maple Leafs have not won an NHL ice hockey championship since 1967. So being a fan of the Leafs is a recurrently painful undertaking.
The Toronto Raptors, on the other hand, are the defending world champions, having won their first NBA basketball championship last year. Although this year they are now without their former team superstar Kawhi Leonard, who signed as free agent to go play for the LA Clippers. This year, the Raptors won their first round of their title defence but were losing 2-0 in the second round to the Boston Celtics. Last night, we had the good fortune of watching the Raptors win by one point with no time on the clock and a three-point buzzer beater. Very exciting. So they are still alive.
In case you are wondering, we are using a Virtual Private Network to be able to watch Canadian channels....Israeli channel 59 (On Yes) shows some games but certainly not all of them. Previously we subscribed to Fox Sports Israel. But it stopped broadcasting in Israel last year. So watching NHL, NBA and NFL games in Israel has become an even bigger challenge.
In other sports news, football news to be exact, the Israeli national team is playing against Scotland tonight in a playoff game that could see Israel make it into the next Euro championship. It is one of the most meaningful soccer games that the Israeli national team has played in many years. If they win tonight, they have game on Monday night that will decide whether or not they advance. The problem of course is that tonight's game conflicts with Shabbat...
It has been unseasonably hot here the past few days - mid to upper 30s C (high 90s for those of you on the F scale). When you combine that level of heat with a mask - it becomes very uncomfortable to be outside for very long. Though we can get to the beach for an early morning walk in less than 15 minutes and at that time of day, it is still very nice. We are hoping to do something fun over the Labour Day Weekend. (It's not really Labour Day or even a long weekend here in Israel, but since my schedule is a Canadian work schedule, we might as well enjoy).
Shabbat Shalom to everyone and all in the best in preparing for the coming holidays. And enjoy the long weekend - the "last weekend of summer" in Canada and many parts of the U.S. Here we probably have at least two more months of really nice weather coming up until we get that "horrible" winter weather - 15-20 C and occasional showers. Best regards and stay in touch!