Thursday, December 30, 2021

End of 2021 Wrap Up

I haven't written very much the past few months.  I think my last few articles were reviews of different books about Bibi (both of which were actually quite interesting).  I have been back and forth a few times and I am now back in Ra'anana for some period of time.  So I thought I would write about a few things that come to mind as we conclude 2021.  

Since my blog is not the most regular blog out there, I try not to make it a news service generally, other than when there is an election or some other really big event.  Otherwise, it is more likely to be observational commentary or discussion of different topics that  have caught my attention.

Israeli Politics - a few short comments

First of all,  I might as well hit on Israeli  politics.  I don't have that much to say at this point (very surprising I'm sure for those who know me well).  In general, the current government under the leadership of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is continuing to remain in power and looks to be reasonably likely to do so for at least the next several months.  As you may know, it is a government made up of some very divergent voices.  It includes members of the fairly far right and members of the fairly far left as well as some centrists and an Arab nationalist party.  It is actually incredible that this group has been able to hold things together but in my view, there is a general shared commitment to trying to do things that will benefit the country and the people living in it.

The government has presented and  passed several pieces of legislation and is intent on bringing about refreshing reforms in a wide range of areas including some issues that involve religion and the state.  No government is  perfect (or even close) and certainly this government has made several mistakes.  But so far,  it seems to be holding on to the support that it had and probably represents, cumulatively, just  over 50% of the Israeli voting population.  It will be interesting to see whether the government goes ahead with the planned rotation and turns  power over to Yair Lapid, as scheduled, in July 2022.  I am not the only one with doubts that this will occur but it seems likely that we  will  avoid an election at least until some time after that date.

Meanwhile, the trial of former Prime Minister Netanyahu continues (on various charges of bribery, breach of public trust and related issues).  It is hard to say how that is going though it certainly hasn't "collapsed" as Netanyahu predicted it would.  Legal commentators that I have heard have suggested that it is not going particularly well for Netanyahu.  For what it is worth, I maintain that he will cut a  deal at some point in time before a verdict though it is hard to say when that will be.

As you may have read, the leader of the ultra-religious Shas party, Aryeh Deri, a formerly convicted fraudster, has apparently agreed on a plea bargain deal to address his current criminal charges.  Interestingly, he will only be required to pay back some  of the money that he allegedly acquired (improperly).  He will also stay on as leader of the Shas  party for now, though he will do so from outside the Knesset.  Apparently that is a thing.   This way he can earn money from different sources  and not face the constricting reporting rules of the Knesset,  which bar work that might create conflicts of interest.  

The leader of the  other ultra-orthodox party, Litzman, is also rumoured to be  negotiating a plea bargain deal for  his pending criminal charges though nothing has been finalized yet.

Of course once  we have  completed these plea bargain deals, Israel will be totally free of  corrupt politicians....Sarcasm aside, it is a  start.  We, in Israel, take comfort these  days in comparing what is now going on here to what has been going on the U.S. (and many other parts of the world) the past  few years and really don't feel as badly as we used to.  

December Holidays, here  and there

I happened to be in Toronto for a chunk of  November and December, which reinforced my minority status in Toronto and reminded me of one of the great benefits of  being in Israel.  

For  example, I enjoy grabbing a coffee at the Second Cup (Wilson location) before heading to my office.  I guess they decided  to turn their radio to CHFI and start  playing Christmas music right after Halloween.  So for the entire months of November and December, it was Christmas music  all the time.  I guess the equivalent in Israel is seeing donuts appear in the  bakeries about two months  before  Chanukah each year.

I have nothing against Christmas music and I am glad that people  enjoy it. But I wonder whether even people that  enjoy  the music want to hear it  non-stop  for  two full months.  

It seemed to me there were  more articles than usual this year on the North American Jewish tradition of ordering Chinese food on December 24th or 25th, which supposedly started  in New  York.  I guess  Jewish and Chinese places were the only types of places open on Dec 24th and 25th, so the Jewish community developed a  "tradition"  of having  Chinese food on these  days.  

In Israel that is not really a tradition of any kind.   In fact, for most people in Israel, Christmas is a regular work day.  Everything is open, there are few  decorations and  although we  have many "pan-Asian" retaurants (mostly stir free dishes and sushi), there are very few strictly Chinese restaurants, so there is no tradition of ordering Chinese  food on Christmas.

There are areas with significant Christian populations - in Haifa, Nazareth and other places.   And there are certainly Israelis, even Israeli Jews, who go  to take photos  in front of the trees and the beautiful Christmas decorations.  But for the most part, in Ra'anana and so many other cities across Israel, Christmas is one of those times where Jews genuinely feel at home in contrast to the experience  in so many other parts of the world.

Certainly there are a large number of expatriate Russians celebrating "Novigod" and putting up trees, christmas decorations  etc.,  More so in some cities than in others. But to this point, it is still very much a minority practice.

Travelling Back

As you might  know, Canada and the U.S. have  been classified as "red" countries now by Israel which means that  Israelis are officially forbidden  from travelling to those places without special  permission.  Israelis who were out  of the country before  the ban came into place can travel back to the country.

So  for  now, this also means that non-Israelis cannot come to Israel without special  permission. And Israelis cannot  leave  to go to  "red" countries.

I have many friends planning  trips to Israel for festive occasions or other reasons and it looks like all  of those  plans will be up in the air  for  now.  Hopefully we will soon see a big change though it is impossible to predict when that will happen.

In order to come  back to Israel this time, I had to make  sure  to have  lots of ducks in a row.

Air  Canada  cancelled  all of its direct flights so I was routed  through Frankfurt.

First  on the  agenda is making sure to complete the  Israeli entry form - within 48 hours of departure from the  connecting city.   In other words,  it had  to be  within 48 hours of  the connection time in Frankfurt  not the  Toronto  departure. We had a two hour delay in Toronto because some dufus was refusing to comply with the mask wearing requirement.  He was removed from the plane by security but we were two hours late. So I had to redo the form in Frankfurt before Lufthansa would allow me to board the plane.

Next, I had to arrange  a Covid test.  If you have  been  vaccinated three  times (or  received your second dose within  the past six  months), you can get a rapid antigen test within 24 hours of the flight time (the time of the flight leaving Toronto, even if you are transiting).  Now just a  couple  of  months ago, these tests were going for $25-$35 in contrast  to the PCR tests which are about $120 in Toronto.  So I  thought I would  save quite a  bit.  But many of the Toronto labs  have raised the costs to about  $60-$65. Still cheaper but the gap is closing.

I also had to arrange (pre-pay for)  a PCR test on landing in Israel.  That was 80 Shekels (about $32Cdn).  If you don't pre-pay, I believe it is  about 120 Shekels when you land at the airport ($48Cdn).

After all that, on landing in Israel from  a "red" country, you must stay  in isolation for 7 days.  If you test negative  on day 1 and  day 7, you can get released on the 7th day once you receive  back test results.   If you don't do the second test, you have to remain in isolation for  14 days.

The airport was quite empty.  Israeli customs uses a random inspection self-declaration system,  much like many places in Europe.  So as you pass  Israeli customs, they randomly pull over people and put their luggage into an x-ray machine to look for any improperly imported or undeclared items.  Since I often have a decent amount of luggage, I am pulled over with some frequency.   This time since the  aiport was quite quiet, I was probably a pretty enticing target with my overloaded baggage  cart.  But even though I was pulled over, had my bags put through the x-ray machine and underwent an additional manual inspection, the disappointed customs officers still  couldn't  find anything that was problematic.  And I was released and left to repack my violated luggage.  

As I understand it, they are mainly looking for fruits and vegetables, drugs, undeclared electronics and undeclared  commercial goods.  And alcohol  that is  over the limit.  Overall, it was simply a  minor inconvenience and  not a problem  of any kind.  But if you do bring something into Israel that you were supposed to declare but didn't, you can face a fine equal to  double the duty/tax on the item.  So for example, someone caught smuggling a $1,000 cell phone could have to pay about $360 if caught and  possibly as much as $540.  People tend to try and negotiate these fines with varying degrees of success.  Generally, I do my best to avoid these problems.

So here I am in "isolation" in Ra'anana.  The police have been sending me automated "check-in" messages several times a day to verify that the  phone and the person in isolation are  both where they are supposed to be.  I am not overly concerned about  this "invasion of my privacy"  if that is what it takes to try and control the spread of the virus.

Animal News

In animal news, we were in Haifa last month and actually saw familes of wild boars wandering the streets in residential  areas. They were very large.   I am  not sure that  I have the pictures - I will look for them but it was quite a site.  

As you may have read recently, Israeli is facing a huge  bird flu problem  which has killed thousands of European cranes.  Israeli  farmers have also had to cull more than 600,000 chickens. So we may see an egg shortage in the  coming  months.   Hopefully  this won't continue to develop into  something more  complicated.


As I have  written on other occasions, I am not really a follower of any Israeli sports except for international competitions.  As a Canadian, hockey is the number one sport, though I also enjoy NFL football.  

With NHL hockey, while in Israel, that usually means watching  between 2 and 5  a.m. or similar hours. NFL games are mostly more  reasonable since they start at 1 p.m.  and  4 p.m. EST on Sundays which means being able to watch at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. here.

NHL hockey is facing all kinds  of challenges with Covid as you may know and has suspended several games.  The world junior  hockey tournament (which is one of my favourite  sports events in any calendar year) was cancelled after only a few nights of games since there was such a  wide spread of the virus  So I am not sure when I will be back to watching hockey and  I am not as  excited in any event about the regular season. I really enjoy the playoffs.

That  leaves NFL which seems to be determined to finish its season no matter what.  For geographic reasons, primarily, my team is the  Buffalo  Bills and they are poised to make a playoff run.   So the next several weeks should see some really exciting football games.   It will mean staying  up very late on Sunday nights - and some Saturday nights - but NFL  playoff football is worth it for  me.  Not sure that I have many others to watch with so  I might  have to text and  email my friends  and  family members while watching.

In case you are wondering, the  weather forecast is about  15-20C for  most days over the next few weeks.  I like spending time here in January  where I can get a 25-35 degree temperature differential.  I do enjoy some nice winter weather but -20 to  -30C is not that fun.  Between 0 and -10 can be quite nice, especially if it is sunny, though that might be  something that only a true  Canadian would say.

So that is my round up for the end of 2021.  I am grateful to have spent some time this year  with friends and family on both sides  of the  ocean - and  hope that 2022 will be a healthy, joyous and happy year for everyone.  Hopefully we will all soon see some semblence of a return to normalcy.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Bibi - the Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu

At the risk of being labelled a "Bibiphile," I recently read a second biography of Bibi, this one  written by Anshel Pfeffer, a columnist for  Haaretz.  In case you didn't get a chance to read my earlier blog, in September, I reviewed Ben Caspit's book The Netanyahu YearsCaspit is a columnist for Maariv, a paper that is somewhat more to the right than Haaretz.

These books are written in quite a different style, though much of the ground covered is similar.  Pfeffer's book has references, footnotes, and, is seemingly, somewhat less speculative.  One gets the impression that he has been much more careful with his research and his sources even though that might be unfair to Caspit.  Since Pfeffer wrote in English, the writing is somewhat more enjoyable and fluent as one might expect.

Bibi reads a bit more like an historian's work with an overriding theme that Bibi's legacy is one that is all about political self-preservation and self-aggrandizement at just about any cost.  In that respect, there may not be that much daylight between this book and Caspit's.  But Pfeffer arrives at that conclusion in a different manner.  Overall, I would say that I enjoyed this book quite a bit and found it to be somewhat more balanced, as harsh as its conclusion might be.

Pfeffer's book examines Netanyahu's family history and covers the contributions to Zionism by his father and grandfather.  He circles back quite a bit to his father's career path, his unfulfilled aspirations to play a significant  role in the Zionist enterprise and, strikingly, the disconnect between his father's staunchly revisionist politics and his ultimate decision to spend most of his professional career in the United States.

Pfeffer also spends a great deal of time discussing Netanyahu's mixed attitudes towards the United States.  On the one hand, he  points out on several occasions that Bibi developed American style  capitalist views at an early age.  Netanyahu is characterized as scornful and dismissive of the centrist, liberal views of  so much of the American Jewish community and described as viewing "progressive" attitudes as weak.  He has always been contemptful of the Israeli Liberal-Zionist leaders who founded Israel as a socialist influenced state.  In another life, he might have liked to take a run at the U.S.  presidency, suggested at least one commentator. 

On the other hand, Netanyahu has always been an avid  Zionist with a strong interest in the Jewish people and a tireless  dedication to strengthening and preserving the State of Israel, in a way that he has best seen fit, especially if he is able to make all or most of the decisions.  And yet, at the same time, he has always enjoyed the "good life," including fine cigars, high-end restaurants, first class hotels and world travel.  For many Israelis, he has been viewed has having American taste and sensibilities and being completely detached from life for the average Israeli.

Bibi spends some time dealing with the tragic history of Bibi's late brother, Yoni Netanyahu, who was killed in the Israeli special operations  raid on Entebbe to free a plane-load of kidnapped hostages.  Pfeffer references some of the historical work that his been done and concludes that Bibi and his family exaggerated and amplified Yoni's involvement and dealth in the operation into the "Yoni Myth" for political purposes.  Incidentally, he asserts that Shimon Peres and some other politicians were also complicit in this process for their own political gains.  This is not an attack on Yoni Netanyahu but rather an examination of the way some politicians used his death for cynical political purposes, while downplaying the role of so many other heroes who planned and carried out the operation with Yoni.  Bibi is  portrayed as the chief architect and primary beneficiary of this cynical approach.

Perhaps Pfeffer uses this as an early example of Bibi being prone to exaggeration, prevarication and constant political deception.  Some sordid stuff, one might say, but well supported by the historical record according to many observers who have written about him.

Pfeffer does not downplay Bibi's intelligence, drive, focus or the meteoric nature of his rise to the top in Israeli politics.  He reviews Bibi's outstanding academic record, his tremendous talent in front of a camera and his knack for understanding the big picture and analysing situations.  He acknowledges that Bibi did a "brilliant job" as  Israel's ambassador to the U.N. in the early part of his career, though he also points out that he only managed to convince those who were already convinced.

Ultimately, Bibi's subsequent political history is one of divide and conquer.  Over the course his years in politics, Bibi's conduct led countless Likud members, trusted advisors, friends and colleagues to separate themselves from him, and in many cases, become bitter enemies, often forming opposing parties.  In fact, Israel's current Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, is a one-time Netanyahu protege.  Of course, this may be common in the Israeli political world, which is painted as a cesspool of backroom dealmaking, backstabbing and an environment generally devoid of trust.

At times, Pfeffer seems to pick up on the language of Israeli professor Avishai Ben Haim, who constantly rails on tv about the "second Israel"  - the "non-elite" who have, so often, been excluded from the corridors of power.  Bibi was about as "elite" as one could be in this regard, having been educated  at Yale, and having grown up in reasonably affluent circumstances.  Nevertheless, and perhaps ironically, he built up his voter base to consist of working class Israelis, the Mizrahi community, and other sectors of Israeli society that Ben-Haim describes as forming part of the "second Israel."  Unlike Ben-Haim, Pfeffer is not prepared to give Bibi a pass for his misdeeds on this basis and would prefer to hold him accountable irrespective of which constituency he might have been representing.

Bibi spends a fair bit of time looking at the relationship between Israel's leaders and the various U.S. Presidents over the years.  Bibi was certainly not the first Israeli Prime Minister to have disagreements with various U.S. presidents.  Pfeffer reminds the readers of various issues and disagreements that Israeli leaders had with Nixon, Bush Sr., Reagan, Clinton and others.  Bibi was no different than Shamir, Begin or, at times, even Golda Meir, in their willingness to fight for Israel's security and interests, even at the expense of their immediate political relationship with the U.S.  With respect to Obama, Pfeffer is somewhat easier on Obama than Caspit and seems to lay more of the blame for the failed relationship at Bibi's feet.

Although, like Caspit, Pfeffer decries Obama's decision to visit Egypt and Jordan early in his presidency but skip Israel, Pfeffer nevertheless concludes that "contrary to the “throwing Israel under the bus” narrative pushed by Netanyahu’s people in Jerusalem in Washington, Obama authorized taking the intelligence-sharing and operational coordination between the two countries to unprecedented levels.”  Pfeffer also notes that Obama authorized a 10 year $38 Billion military aid package on October 15, 2015, before leaving office.  This despite the fact that Netanyahu put everything he could into fighting Obama's Iran deal at all costs and waging an all-out political war against Obama  Overall, this is described as a failed policy that did not succeed in stopping the deal and did not help Israel politically.

In some ways, Netanyahu revelled in this characterization and sold himself around the world as “...the leader  of a small country who  had  brazenly defied two presidents of the United States and emerged  unscathed.”  Perhaps, viewed from some other angles, there were elements of success to Bibi's approach.

Pfeffer also suggests that Israel's stated intention of attacking Iran to destroy the nuclear program might have been a bluff to put pressure on the U.S. to deal with the situation.  Perhaps Bibi knew that Israel couldn't really launch this type of attack given the potential consequences.  Or perhaps he was hoping to convince the United States to go along and at least threaten the possible use of military action against Iran, even as a bluff to get a better nuclear deal.  None of this is to say that Pfeffer was convinced that the eventual Iran deal authored by Obama was a good deal - but his suggestion is that Israel might have been able to push for a better deal if Israel had cooperated with the U.S. adminstration rather than antagonizing it endlessly.

The book does not give other Israeli politicians, even opponents of  Bibi on the left, a free ride and is particurly harsh in its assessment of Ehud Barak, Shimon Peres, and even Tsipi Livini, who is described as thoroughly incapable.  There is also a discussion of the role that the late Lubavitch Rebbe Schneerson played in ensuring that his supporters helped deliver at least one electoral victory to Netanyahu, in exchange for dubious and sometimes opaque concessions.  Other Ultra-Orthodox and right wing extremist leaders are targeted as well. 

The book was written before Trump became President, or very early on in his presidency, so there is very little analysis of Trump's policies and actions.  However, Pfeffer does conclude that Trump's policies made a complete mess of Syria and ceded control to Russian and Iranian influence, while ousting the U.S. Pfeffer's comment here is that Bibi kept quiet and was largely uncritical of Trump's actions.  If it had been Obama or another Democratic president, Bibi would have acted very differently.

Like Caspit, Pfeffer touches on Bibi's three marriages, his history of infidelity and his strange relationship with his current wife, Sara Netanyahu, who has played a very active role in so much of Bibi's political life, particularly after Bibi was caught cheating on her.  The descriptions of Sara, along with the descriptions of her various legal troubles, allegations of corruption, employee abuse and her penchant for being treated like royalty, all contrast with the admiring descriptions of Bibi's previous two wives.  Incidentally, the book was published before Sara Netanyahu actually filed a guilty plea to several allegations  of corruption in the Israeli courts as part of a plea bargain deal.

Pfeffer leaves the book with hints of Bibi's pending legal troubles, a story that has developed to a much greater extent since the book was released.  That being said, over the course of the book, Pfeffer touches on a number of other scandals and corruption allegations that were closed before rising to the level of criminal charges.

Overall, it is not a flattering biography, but it is quite an interesting read.  There are few genuine political accomplishments that Pfeffer can cite over the course of Bibi's career, other than finding a way to remain in power.  In fairness, Pfeffer gives Bibi some credit for his work as Israel's finance minister. He also notes that Bibi has presided over a period of relatively few military casualties in comparison to other Israeli Prime Ministers, which he acknowledges.  There has been economic progress on some fronts, but Pfeffer also reviews contributions made to that progress under previous Israeli regimes.  But Bibi's overall legacy is to have left a deeply divided country with a festering Palestinian issue to address and some other potential powder-keg issues, while at the same  time damaging the American-Israeli relationship and causing it to become significantly less bi-partisan. And all of that is without any conclusions on the three sets of criminal charges for various forms of corruption, bribery and breach of trust that Bibi is now fighting.

Whereas Caspit's conclusion about Bibi is that his stewardship was one  of "wasted potential," Pfeffer seems more inclined to the view that this is precisely the legacy that Bibi wanted to leave and therein lies the problem.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Rosh Hashanah 2021 - Update Blog

Shana Tova.  I haven't written too much lately but this is a "two for the price of one" day - or in Israel, as they say a "1+1."  I have already written an article about Ben Caspit's book, The Netanyahu Years and I am adding this more general article about a few other topics.


First of all, a bit on travelling.  I wrote two blogs earlier this year about my trip to Canada and then return to Israel  during  Covid restrictions.  Those blogs both need to be updated  as things have changed but here is the short version, based on my most recent experience.  When  flying to Canada now, if you are double vaccinated, with one of the "acceptable vaccines" (which does not include the Russian Sputnik vaccination or the Sinovax from China), you only need a test in the departing country (a PCR test) and proof of your two vaccinations.  You can put this all in the ArriveCan app (which you can download from the  Android Play store or the Apple store) and, unless you are selected at random for an additional test, you can waltz through the border by showing the required items to a customers officer.  I have my doubts that this policy will  remain in place, especially as infection numbers  continue  to rise - but I guess we will see.  I should note that to leave Israel, travellers are required to get "exit permission" by completing an online form that provides information about testing, vaccination  status and current symptoms.  It is fairly quick and easy.

Arriving in Israel, things are continuing to change rapidly.  As of Friday  September 3, 2021, if you are triple vaxed, you do not need to go into quarantine on arriving in Israel as long as you test negative on arrival.  Everyone, including the triple vaxed, must do an airport PCR test, which costs 80 Shequels (about $33 Cdn) and you get results within a day or so.  If you are negative and triple vaxed, you are then free to go.  I was only double so I was in a different category,  If you are only double vaxed, you still require a one week quarantine period, even if you test negative on arrival.  You can get released by going for a test on your 6th day after arrival and then you are officially released on day 7, without any official further notification from  the Ministry of Health. My results from the airport test came back within  about  10 hours but that didn't change my status.  I'll go do my test on Wednesday night after Rosh Hashana ends and I'll get my third shot on Thursday (assuming my test results are negative).

As far as I understand it, only Israelis  or those with immediate family in Israel can come to Israel.  Israel has not yet opened its borders to tourists and other categories of travellers.  


Meanwhile the Covid  numbers in all categories in Israel are quite high.  The number of people testing positive has been over 10,000 a day and has just now started to decline, which some are attributing to the rollout of the booster shot.  The number of seriously ill  patients, who are hospitalized is hovering around at around 600 and there have been 10-20 deaths a day.  These are gruesome numbers for a country that, at one point, had under 10 new cases a day and almost no daily deaths.  Percentage-wise, it is still a far greater share of the unvaccinated population that is testing positive and becoming seriously ill.   But there are many hospitalized patients who had received  two doses, mostly more than 6 months ago.


I don't have too much to say at this point about Israel's current political situation other than there seems to be some sense of relative stability and motivation on the part of the constituent governing parties to keep the government together.  A budget has been proposed  and passed through cabinet and  has now passed through a first reading in the Knesset.  We  haven't had a budget passed since 2019 so this marks a very different change in direction from that which was taking place under Netanyahu's stewardship.  The current government is putting forward many different proposals,  some  of which are  more popular than others.  It is a government made up of a wide range of voices, ideologies and aspirations but there seems to be a sense, for now, that these MKs are committed to working together for the good of the country.   In my view, it is refreshing and I am reasonably optimistic, at  least in the short to medium term, that we will have a measure of stability.


If you are in Israel, the big sport is usually football (soccer as some of us might say) and of course the big tournament is the upcoming 2022 World Cup.  The Israeli  national team won a huge game yesterday - beating the Austrian national team 5-2 in a key qualifying match.  Israel sits second in its 6 team group after playing its first 5 matches.  It still has  5  games to play but it is off to a good start.  The next game is huge - a game against Switzerland on Tuesday night (the second Erev Rosh Hashana).  After that, Israel will play twice in October and twice in November.  If it manages to catch and pass Switzerland and  finish  first in the group (which is highly unlikely), it would make it into the World Cup  automatically.  If not, the 8 teams with the next best records will all be put into a group and four of them will make it after playing a "home and  home"  series against their designated opponent.  Israel has only made it to the World  Cup once in the history of its national team.  It is still far too  early to start ordering flags but with this huge victory over Austria, the prospect of a berth is still real.

Yamim Nora'im and Chaggim

It is yet  another unusual year for the celebration of key holidays  Technically, I am in "isolation" until Wednesday night, so that means no in-person live attendance at any shul - though I'm not entirely sure  I would have gone in-person  in any event.  For Rosh Hashanah, one option will be to conduct our own, in-home, Rosh Hashanah service,  without a minyan (at least 10 adults), which is what  we did last year.  We have a shofar and most other items  (we don't have a Torah scroll).  Another option would be to join an online service.  We  could join a local service, such as  the broadcast from our shul, Hod vehadar, or we could join  the broadcast from one of  many other shuls across  Israel that are steaming their services.  In fact, we could sleep in and start services at 4 p.m., by watching a streamed  service from Toronto (Beth Tikvah Synagogue  would be our choice), New York (Park Avenue, perhaps?) or we could stay in bed  until 5 p.m.  and then watch a service from St. Louis.   Unless we have had way too  much wine on Erev Rosh Hashanah, I doubt anyone  will be  sleeping in until 4 p.m., even with the jet lag.  And we generally don't use computers or tvs on Rosh Hashanah.  So I guess we have a day or two to decide what to do....

For Yom Kippur, we gathered in a friend's backyard last  year in Ra'anana and conducted the service.  There were only about  12 or 13 of us and some may not be available this year.  So I'm not sure  what we are  going to do.  We still have a week or so to decide, though if I am going to lead Kol  Nidrei and Neilah again, I will have to do some serious practising....

Music and Entertainment

Israel's "Rising Star" music competition ended this week.   The  winner, American-Israeli Tamir Grinberg, won by a significant margin.  It seemed clear to the judges the  first  time they heard him sing that he would probably win, much like when Kelly Clarkson first appeared on American Idol or Eden Alena appeared two years  ago in Israel's "A Star is Born"  competition.   There are some contestants, that come along  every once in a while, who are so good that it seems that it will be impossible to beat them no matter who shows up as the challengers.  I have included a YouTube clip with Grinberg singing from a few weeks ago with the eventual runner up contestant, so you can  judge for  yourself.

Over the past couple of weeks, I watched  the 9 episodes of Hit and Run, the new "thriller" starring Lior Raz of Fauda fame.  It wasn't Fauda but it was fun to watch, reasonably intense and contained lots  of twists  and  turns.  The dialogue is in Hebrew (with subtitles) and English and the movie was shot in Israel and New York.  There is a fair bit of violence, at times graphic.  But I guess that is the genre.

I also watched Ted  Lasso, which has nothing  to do with this blog, Israel or any of the other topics that I usually cover.  If I really stretch things, I could point out that I mentioned the Israeli national football team earlier in my blog and the  show is about a British fictional Premier league  football team....coached by an American football coach with no knowledge of soccer....but I'm not sure that creates a real tie-in.   I was a bit skeptical about  Ted Lasso for the first couple of episodes but since then, I have really enjoyed it.  

So there it is - that is my shmorgasbord blog for today - just before the Jewish New Year - covering a few  selected topics that I thought you might find interesting.  I would like to wish everyone a happy and healthy new year  - and I hope that I will have the chance to see  or speak to many of you soon.

One of my favourite social media postings recently - was this one (I don't take the credit for it but I'm not sure who posted it) - "as we approach Rosh Hashanah and  think of both asking for forgiveness and repentance, we should heed the wise words of Rabbi Led of Zeppelin, who sang, "yes there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run, there's still time to change the  road you're on."  If you are too  old, too young, or too musically disconnected to get the reference, send me a note and I'll explain.  

Shana Tova!

The Netanyahu Years by Ben Caspit: A review


Over the past week, I read Ben Caspit's book on former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, The Netanyhau Years.  It was a quick and interesting read, primarily covering the time period between 1999 and 2015.

Caspit is an Israeli journalist who writes for Ma'ariv, a slightly right of centre publication.  The book was translated by Ora Cummings.  I would say that the translation was quite choppy at times and probably needs a number of edits.

This is not a classic historian's biography with footnotes, references and details of sources.  Rather there are a great deal of unattributed quotes, anonymous sources and even references to "rumours" and "urban legends."   For  example, after Netanyahu was caught cheating on his current wife, Sara (his third wife), he and Sara lawyered up and reached an agreement on how they would continue their relationship.  According to some sources, there is a written agreement that spells out in detail how everything is supposed to work.  Caspit refers to the existence of the document as an "urban legend,"  though in this case, his assumption is that the document exists. No further sources or details are provided. 

I should also note that the book only covers the period up to the end of the Obama presidency.  There are a good few chapters to write about Netanyahu during the Trump years  and about  the developments with Netanyahu's criminal charges and about Netanyahu's political moves all since 2017, the time of the book's original publication in Hebrew.  

Overall, as someone who avidly follows politics and history, I enjoyed reading the book.  It was at times repetitive, and the organization was a bit disjointed.  Some of it was written chronologically and other parts were written thematically.  So the last two parts of the book include a section on Netanyahu's dealings with the Palestinians and his dealings with Iran.   Earlier, the book flows in a more chronological manner, covering a year or two at a time.  

Caspit covers some of Netanyahu's background growing up, his relationship with his parents, particularly his father, his move to Israel and the devastating  loss of his older  brother Yoni, who was killed in the Israeli raid on Entebbe.  He also covers some of the details of Netanyahu's relationships with his three wives and the impact that  each of these women had on his career, his circle of friends, his motivation and goals.  These parts of the book flowed well and provided quite a bit of interesting background information.

But the majority of the book deals with Netanyahu's relationship with political rivals and friends, at home and abroad and Netanyahu's decision making processes over the years.  Caspit  covers the relationships that Bibi built up with wealthy American and Israeli donors over the years, his close relationship to U.S. republican politicians and influencers, his battles with fellow Likud members over the years and Netanyahu's primary goal of remaining in power at all costs, which is, more or less, one of the themes of the book.

A great deal of Caspit's focus is lost opportunity.  He asserts that Netanyahu had so much popularity for  a period of time, that he could have advanced a joint Israeli-U.S. peace process  with the Palestinians that would have created a  period of medium to long term stablity for Israel vis-a-vis the Palestinians.  Caspit also lays a fair bit of blame at the feet of Abbas, the Palestinian leader, for the failure of the peace process, so it remains unclear how, even if Bibi had made certain decisions, Abbas would have agreed.  Caspit outlines several "secret" tracks of negotiation that were taking place - the Peres-Abbas track, which he maintains was very close to a deal, the "London Track" which was also close to a deal and some other secret initiatives.  On balance, however, his conclusion seems to be that Netanyahu could have made a deal if he had really wanted to do so.  I'm not sure that this is accurate.

Caspit also maintains that if Bibi had taken a different approach with then President Obama, Netanyahu could have partnered with the U.S. to negotiate a much better Iranian deal.   Caspit's thesis here seems  to be that the U.S. was not prepared to create any sort of realistic military option, either its own, or an Israeli option as an alternative to the negotiated nuclear deal with Iran, especially since Israel was not willing to show any flexibility on other policy issues, such as peace initiatives with the Palestinians.  Therefore, the  U.S. was ultimately negotiating from a position of weakness and gave in, unnecessarily, to several Iranian demands  that saw the deal allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons over a period of 10 years.  Caspit partially blames Bibi for this, since, he asserts, that rather than working with Obama, Netanyahu decided to attack the President at  every opportunity, support the Republicans, even publicly, and make it a mission to try and prevent Obama from winning a second term.  This was obviously a failed strategy in Caspit's view.

That is not to say that Caspit  blames  Netanyahu entirely.  With respect to Obama's mideastern policy, I think it is fair to say that there is little here that is very complimentary of Obama  and his team.  From the beginning of his presidency, Obama sent a very hostile message to Israel by visiting Egypt and Jordan and skipping Israel.  This right away limited U.S. credibility for a country trying to broker a peace deal by being a partial guarantor of Israel's security.  After that, over the course of an 8 year period, there were several snubs, humiliations and questionable political  moves, going both ways. Caspit details many of them. 

With respect to Israel, Caspit has some harsh  words for several U.S. and Israeli diplomats and politicians, including George Mitchell, Hillary Clinton, Martin Indyk, Rahm Emanuel from the U.S. side, Ron  Dermer, Gideon Sa'ar, and a number of others from the Israeli side.  I think it is fair to say that some of his harshest criticism is reserved for Sara Netanyahu.  Given her guilty plea to state criminal charges, her record of scandals and flare ups, much of this may be warranted.  But Caspit spends a fair bit of time covering mistakes and misteps by many political actors, not just  Bibi, that caused such a deterioration in the Obama-Netanyahu relationship, the disintegration of the peace  process and other outcomes.   Overall, there is "lots of blame to go around" and some of Caspit's analysis seems, perhaps, intended to justify some of the positions that Netanyahu took to ward off antagonistic or mistaken policies and proposals advanced by the U.S. that were not in Israel's long term interest.  

Despite these efforts at "balance," Caspit is extremely critical of a number of Netanyahu's moves over the Obama years.  Netanyahu's decision to accept a speaking invitation at the Capitol at the behest of the congressional Republicans and to go ahead and make a presentation there without even informing President Obama in advance was unprecedented and a serious violation of diplomatic protocol.  Netanyahu's decision to announce new settlements just as then Vice-President Biden was arriving in Israel for a  key visit was also quite a poke in the eye.  And the fact that Netanyahu kept President Obama and/or Vice Biden waiting for very lengthy periods for a several meetings was another example of Netanyahu's conduct that  bolster Caspit's conclusion  that Netanyahu went out of his way, on several occasions to try and humiliate Obama and Biden in a manner that was highly unstatesmanlike at best, and thoroughly inappropriate.  

Caspit does a great deal of editorializing.  He tries to write about what Netanyahu must have been thinking, his political and personal calculations, his massive ego, his messianic complex and his enormous sense of self-entitlement.  Those who are supportive of Netanyahu might view much of this as overblown, unsupported and much conjecture.  But since the writing of the book, with political events that  have taken place in Israel since 2017, including developments in Netanyahu's criminal trial, it seems to me that a great deal of  what Caspit has to say is probably not so far off the mark.

Here is Caspit's ultimate conclusion, which is, more or less, the thesis of the book:

"Netanyahu's story  is one of miserably missed opportunity.  Ever since David Ben-Gurion...Israel has never had a leader with the kind of unlimited credit given to Netanyahu....he could have done anything he wanted...."

"As time went by, the real objective of the Netanyahu regime was molded: to remain in power.  He failed to block Iran, he destroyed the peace process, contributed to the growing delegitimizing of Israel in the world, and was forever striving to the right, in a never ending chase  after the mythical electoral "base" that will enable him to remain in power one more  term, another year, longer and  longer...."

"Netanyahu could have gone down in history as a leader who influenced the future of his people, who brought Israel to a new place and burst  through the cul-de-sac into which the Jewish state was forced in the seventh decade of its life.  Instead...he...left behind nothing at all."

Now that last part may be excessively harsh.  There will certainly be those who will argue that Israel's  economy is in a better state than it was  when Netanyahu took office, that foreign relations have improved, especially with peace treaties with some  of Israel's neighbours (although these came into effect after the  book was written) and that there were other successes.  But in other ways, the final four years of Netanyahu's premiership, after the book was written would bolster Caspit's thesis even further.

Between 2017 and 2021, it is quite arguable that Netanyahu's  sole objective was to stay in power and avoid his criminal proceedings.  He was responsible for bringing Israel to the polls on four consecutive occasions and refused to propose or pass a state budget for  more than 2 years.  Few legistlative initiatives were passed or even proposed, other than those that would somehow help or assist  Bibi with his  ongoing issues.  The pursuit of legislated immunity from criminal proceedings seemed to be Bibi's overriding objective, but despite his four attempts, he couldn't seem to muster the majority require to implement it.  By contrast, since  the current  government has taken power, there have been a rash of legislative initiatives in areas including public transportation, the environment,  agriculture and a host of other areas.  

Ultimately,  if and when Caspit decides to update the book and add in a few more chapters, there seems to be very little that has taken place in Israeli  politics that will cause Caspit to change his thesis very much, if at all.  In fact, as the Netanyahu criminal trial continues, and evidence continues to emerge about Netanyahu's involvement in a wide range of very questionable activities, Caspit will probably double down on his thesis.

I plan to read Anshel  Pfeffer's  book as well - Bibi - The Turbulent  Life and Times of Benjamin  Netanyahu.  I would be suprised if Pfeffer's ultimate conclusions are  very different  but  I'm sure it will bring a different perspective.  Stay tuned for my "compare and contrast" blog once I have read that book.   

Sunday, July 18, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yad VaShem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Day Trip Up North in Israel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beach Bar, Caesaria

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

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

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

Idan Raichel

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, June 28, 2021

Trip from Toronto to Tel-Aviv During Covid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The online check in was  then simply the normal process.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Montreal Hockey Fans

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

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

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