Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Pre Purim Blog 2021 - Chag Purim Sameach

It is just a couple of days before Purim, so I thought it was time to squeeze in another blog.  I have written some blogs  in the past about celebrating Purim in Israel.  It is normally quite a raucous holiday since everyone is commanded to get drunk.  The streets are normally filled with "Adloyada" parades (adloyada translates to "until you are no longer aware...").  Normally people are wandering the streets in costumes, going to Purim parties, bringing each other gift baskets and,  in many cases, going to synagogue to hear the reading of Megillat Esther (the Book of Esther).  It is celebrated with particular abandon in Israel's high schools.  We have some of the photo evidence from past years.

This year, for the second consecutive time, Purim will be quite different.  Even though there is cause for optimism in Israel as the number of vaccinated Israelis has been increasing and the spread of the virus has been decreasing, there is still too much concern about the rampant virus to return to normalcy.  Perhaps by next Purim.  

So the first question is how people can hear the Megillah.  According to Jewish law, we are supposed to hear it live, in person,  read from an actual parchment scroll rather than a book.  Many synagogues are organizing outdoor readings, throughout the evening on Thursday night and Friday morning - so that people can come in smaller groups and hear it.

Others are of the opinion that hearing the scroll read by Zoom is halachically acceptable, as long as it is read from a parchment scroll.   I normally read chapter 8 - and sometimes 8-10 - in Synagogue.  This year, I guess we are going with the more lenient approach, so I will be reading on Zoom from an actual scroll as part of our shul's reading.  If you want the link for it - please let me know and I'll be happy to send it.  I think we will start at about 6:30 p.m. Israel time (11:30 a.m. EST) on Thursday Feb 24, 2021.  

My other project is to try and make hamentaschen (Haman's ears in Hebrew; Haman pockets in Yiddish) - which are triangular pastries filled with different fillings.  I would say that poppy seed, prune and  chocolate are the most common fillings, though there are many others.  I never really liked the poppy seed filling even though I love poppy seed  bagels.  I'm thinking about apricot, strawberry, dates and chocolate as four options.   Lemon is another idea since it would add some nice colour.  I guess I could add Kiwi as well and then I could have some green ones.  Sure it is easy enough just to go out and buy some - since every bakery in Israel is selling them now - but I would rather have some fun with this.  (We also prefer making our own latkes on Chanukah and our own blintzes on Shavuot).  We'll see how they come out.

We have had some very strange news stories in Israel over the past couple of weeks.

Firstly, an Israeli woman "accidentally" wandered into Syria.  Now how anyone accidentally wanders into Syria I have no idea.  There are Israeli military forces, Syrian military forces and even some UN forces throughout the area.  Much of the border is heavily guarded though I suppose there are some areas that aren't.   In any event, she was picked up by the Syrian forces and interrogated.  Israel and Syria then negotiated a deal through Putin, acting as an intermediary, whereby Israel would get her back, give up two Syrian shepherds that Israel was holding - and one additional bizarre piece.  Israel would agree to pay for $1M USD worth of Russian-made Sputnik-V Coronavirus vaccines - to be delivered to the Syrians.  Very strange deal.  Is Syria that strapped for cash that it had to get Israel to buy some Russian vaccines for it?  Or did Putin want to extract the money from Israel to exert a show of power over Netanyahu?  Or maybe he just wanted the chance to inject a bunch of Syrian leaders and military officials with Sputnik-V.  Netanyahu initially tried to keep the terms of the deal confidential but they leaked out.  So he held a press conference and talked about the deal he was able to negotiate with his friend Putin...The whole thing happened very quickly.  Curiously, this all just weeks before an Israeli election.  

We also had some snow in Israel.  Apparently, it snows, on average, about once every five years in Jerusalem.  The snow doesn't stick around for very long but people try and come from all over the country to see it - and if they can, to throw snowballs at each other.  The traffic getting in and out of Jerusalem was reportedly atrocious (we didn't go) and it all melted by the next day.  But people referred to it as a "Snow Holiday" and revelled in the excitement.  

Snow falls in Israel more regularly in the north, up in the Golan Heights, at Mount Hermon where there is even a  ski site.  Much of the snow for the site is artificial but it does tend to snow at least a  few times there most winters.

Needless to say, my North American family and friends are not nearly as excited when it snows.  For me, this may be my first winter ever of not seeing any snow.  I kind of miss it.  Winter in Israel has consisted of a handful of rainy, windy days, spread over the past few months.  The sunny days in between are wonderful and are sometimes beach-worthy, though the water is too cold for a swim.  We can use the barbecue year round. But if the rainy days were snowy days instead - I think that would be more fun.

You may have also heard that we had a major ecological disaster.  There was a huge oil spill somewhere off the cost of Israel last week.  This has caused massive damage.  A dead 17-meter baby fin whale washed up on the beach a few days ago - covered in oil - and many other sea creatures have perished or struggled to deal with these adverse conditions.  Thousands of Israelis have been volunteering to go to the beaches and help clean up tar from the coast but it could take years to clean up this mess.  As of now, it is unclear what happened, though the Times of Israel is reporting that it was a Greek owned vessel, the Minerva Helen.  The investigation continues.

The Israeli government is still in a state of flux, awaiting the next elections on March 23, 2021.  The government does not know how to handle the airport.  It is trying to keep out the "mutations."  For a while, this meant ensuring that everyone had to go to a state-selected isolation hotel on arrival.  But it leaked out that people were able to pay a fine voluntarily, of about 5,000 Sheqels ($2,000 Cdn) and then they could isolate at home, even though the government was no longer enforcing the home quarantines.  So the government decided to stop flights to Israel...with, of course, some exceptions.  At  first it was 2,000 passengers a day, that could arrive pursuant to a lottery system, based in part on urgent humanitarian considerations.  Now that number is supposedly being reduced to 200 per day, at least until March 6, 2021.  

Just in time for the Purim holiday, the Israeli government has reopened shopping malls, most schools and many other places that were closed up until now.  The government has also been rolling out a  "Green Passport."  People who have received both doses of the vaccine and waited a further ten days are able to get an official Green Passport through a government sponsored phone app or website.  This passport is tied to people's personal "National Identity" number so people can prove that they have been vaccinated.  The government would now like to open up restaurants, travel, gyms, pools, hotels, etc., only to those who have been vaccinated or can prove that they had Covid-19 and recovered.  (Instead of a Vaccination Certificate, you can get a Recovered Covid-19 Patient Certificate).

You probably know where this is going but some enterprising, tech-savvy Israeli entrepreneurs decided that for a mere 1,000 shq (about $400 Cdn), they could offer the public forged vaccination certificates.  News of these businesses quickly spread - to the point where a few of these enterprising criminals were on tv news this week (disguised of course) speaking about their wonderful business idea.  So the government has ramped up the penalties for those making or using fraudulent vaccination certificates and has also ramped up enforcement  efforts.  For the record, our certificates are real.  Whether or not they are actually effective, and how long they will last - well these are different questions.  

Some other countries are reviewing Israel's use of these certificates.  In Canada and the U.S., as well as many other countries, there are privacy considerations, issues concerning medical disclosure, and larger numbers of people who refuse to be coerced into getting the vaccine.  In  Israel, there is talk of rolling out legislation to make the vaccine mandatory in certain workplace sectors, including, for example, healthcare, restaurants, hotels and other public-engaging enterprises.  

There are certainly those in Israel who oppose the vaccine rollout and refuse to be vaccinated.  Numbers are especially high  among the Ultra-Orthodox, in some Arab towns and among other sectors.  But as the vaccine is rolled out and its efficacy becomes more and  more demonstrable, it will be less defensible for vaccine refusers to put themselves and others at risk.

I've kept the Israeli politics to a minimum this time as we still have a month  to go before the Israeli elections.  I will try to put together a pre-election primer a week or so before the election date and then some post-election reports.

Wishing everyone a Happy  Purim and, of course, the enjoyable thought that we are only a month away from the start of  Spring.    As the Hebrew song goes - "Great joy, Great joy, Spring has arrived and Passover (Pesach) is coming."  For all of those who change over their kitchens and host  Passover Seders, joy may not be the only emotion that comes up when we anticipate the arrival of the holiday.  

Perhaps I'm getting a bit ahead  of myself but Passover is only about 5 weeks away.  For now, still time to enjoy Purim and the remainder of winter.

Best of health to everyone.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

February 2021: Covid Update, Election Preview and...

We didn't have Groundhog Day in Israel but we had "Tu Be'Shvat" about a week ago - where we marked the "New Year of the Trees."  People plant trees, eat a variety of dried fruits and, of course, have a bit of wine, to mark this minor holiday, which has made a major comeback in Jewish life since the founding of the State of  Israel in 1948.  Many synagogues and even some  secular organizations hold variants of a Tu B'Shvat Seder - a meal during which a variety of different fruits are eaten, a variety of wines are consumed and there is lots of discussion about the environment as well as other contemporary Israeli issues.  I actually attended two different Zoom events with participants from all over the  world.  A different way to celebrate than most years.   But a nice holiday concept.

So here we are in February 2021, and I thought I would cover a few different topics, which will be familiar to the readers of this blog.  I'll try and think of a few different things to add at the end.

Covid-19 Developments

This type of update could probably take up a whole blog but I will try to keep it relatively short.   As you may know, Israel has been vaccinating its residents at a blazing pace (compared to many other countries).  At its peak, the inoculation rate was up to about 200,000 shots a day.  For a population of 9.5 million, that is a very promising rate.

In fact, Prime Minister Netanyahu held a press conference about a month ago, where he promised Israelis that they would all be able to get  together with their extended families for Passover Seders in person this year.

In the  meantime, however, he warned that the virus was spreading at an alarming rate and the country needed a full shutdown.  So Israeli instituted a lockdown including a shutdown of the airport until the vaccination program could be closer to completion.

Weeks later, the virus is still spreading in Israel at an extraordinary rate.  54 people died over the weekend.  It is hard to project when things will really improve.  Experts are predicting that Netanyahu's Passover promise will not likely come to fruition and it may be a second consecutive year of Zoom Seders.  We will soon start to cook the virtual brisket.

According to some studies, the vaccinations are dramatically reducing the rate of infections for people over 60, of whom approximately 75% have been vaccinated.  But the virus is spreading rapidly among younger people, especially some of the mutated  versions of it.

On the good  news side, the Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv reported that it had developed a treatment that was successful in treating 29 of 31 seriously ill patients.  The hospital has requested approval to roll  out a wider test group and is confident that this relatively inexpensive treatment may be a very positive development.

At the same time, as the rate of vaccination continues to increase, Israel expects that the infection rate will begin to drop dramatically. It remains to be seen how long it will take to approach herd immunity or anything close to it.  Some commentators have estimated that it may not be until June or July 2021, even with the high rate of vaccination.

Despite all of this, including the high infection rate as of the time of writing, the government is reopening a  significant  part of the economy today - including many stores, hair salons, take out restaurants (up until now it was delivery only), and many schools.  There is an anticipation that there will be an increased infection rate over the coming weeks though the government is hoping that the vaccination rate will offset that.  I guess we may still wind up with a 4th closure.

Political Developments

As you might know, Israel has an election scheduled for March 23, 2021, the 4th election in the past 2 1/2 years.  This past Thursday was the deadline for the official entry of parties and  their respective slates.  A few newly formed  parties dropped out and there was also an amalgamation.  As of now, there are 14 different parties running.

The largest party is still Netanyahu's governing "Likud" party, a right wing nationalist party that is running at estimates of between 28 and 32 seats in the 120 seat Knesset.  There are also two ultra-orthodox parties that will almost certainly support  Netanyahu and they are estimated at having between 13 and 16 seats.  There is a newly merged ultra-right nationalist party running that is polling at between 0 and 5 seats.  It could be zero because the cut-off is 4 seats.  If a party  winds up with less than 3.5% of the popular vote, it does not make it into the Knesset and its votes are dispersed proportionately.  Netanyahu is hoping that this "Otzma-Noam" coalition makes it into the Knesset, since it would almost certainly support him.  So in this "Pro-Netanyahu" camp, early predictions put his potential coalition at between 41 and 53.  There are still more than 6 weeks to go, so a great deal can change.

Of course, Netanyahu would still need between 8 and 20 seats to put together a  coalition based on these numbers.  Where would that come from?  There are two more  right wing parties.

"Yamina" is a right wing party led by Naftali Bennett.  Yamina has been trying to outflank Netanyahu on the right.  It is crowded territory since it is also occupied by two other parties.  From interviews that I have seen, Yamina does not rule out joining a Netanyahu-led coalition, even though Bennett has Prime-Ministerial aspirations himself.  Nevertheless, they are predicted to get between 10 and 13 seats.  If they were to join Netanyahu, that could  get Likud to between 51 and 66.  Depending on actual numbers, that could be enough to form a very right wing government.

The other right wing party running is Gideon Saar's "New Hope" party which is a split-off from the  Likud.  This is the first election in which New Hope will be running.  Its leader has vowed not to enter a coalition with Netanyahu and has signed a live televised pledge to confirm his intentions.  But, of course, Israelis all remember the last election.  The previous  leader of the Labour party, Amir Peretz had vowed that he would  not join Netanyahu.  He had a large bushy  moustache that  was his trademark image.  He shaved  it as part of a "read my lips" promise not to join Netanyahu.  But shortly after the election, he joined in exchange for a cabinet position....He is now no longer the leader of the Labour party - or even a member.  

Saar is a very different candidate and has much more support  than Peretz had.  But ultimately, his agenda is very similar to Netanyahu's - much closer to Netanyahu than Peretz was.  He supports a continued expansion of the  settlements.  He is happy to enter a  coalition with the ultra-Orthodox.  He has, at times, defended  Netanyahu against some of Netanyahu's criminal charges.  In short, the only real difference is that he claims that is "not-corrupt" and is willing to put the country's needs ahead of his own.  Saarry but I have a hard time seeing it.  I believe that if Saar's only hope of being in the government is with a Netanyahu led coalition, he will make that decision even though he may negotiate a better deal than Gantz signed.  Saar's party is running at between 11 and 16 estimated seats, though I sense that their support could decrease between now and the election.

So at this  point, it looks like Netanyahu could have potential coalition members of between 62 and 80 assuming that he can leverage Yamina and Saar against each other, or get them both to join.  One of these options seems likely.

All that being said, the numbers can still change quite a bit.  These are, after all, only polls.

The leader of the opposition group is now Yair Lapid, still heading the Yesh Atid ("there is a Future") party.   Lapid's party seems to have some increasing momentum and is running at between 14 and 17 seats.   The party still has room to grow but there is a great deal of antagonism towards Lapid, especially among the Ultra-Orthodox and even many in the Orthodox sector.  For the last election, Lapid ran with Benny Gantz of the Blue and White Party.  Together, the two parties  received more than 30 seats.  But Gantz's half  of the party cut a deal with Netanyahu, joined the government and left the merged party.  As a result, the remaining part of Blue and White, led by Gantz, is polling at between 0 and 5 seats down from about 15.  They have been eviscerated since Gantz went against his whole raison d'etre and  joined Netanyahu.  Lapid, who refused to join Bibi and will continue to refuse, has kept his party's support.  He has also retained much more support from the public than Gantz.

The right wing secular party Yisrael Beitenu, led by Avigdor Lieberman is polling at 6-8 seats.  This party could  join Lapid or Saar but has said it will not join a Netanyahu  government.  It has held out  now for 3 elections so there is no reason to assume that they will fold.

Two left wing parties, Labour and Meretz are running at between 10 and 14 seats total.   Labour has had a resurgence. It has elected a woman as its  leader, the only Israeli party with a woman at the helm.  Merav Michaeli promptly held democratic elections for  the Labour slate and staked  out more traditional Labour-supported positions.  Under her leadership, the party has been growing and could rise much higher than its current polling numbers of 5 to 9 seats.  Labour will certainly not join Netanyahu but could  join Lapid or Saar if either have viable options to cobble a governing coalition together, provided  that  the Labour party can extract a reasonable  price for its support.

Meretz is a left wing secular party with focus on equality.  It has remained constant at about 5 seats and would also be willing to join Lapid or Saar  under the right conditions.  Meretz will definitely not join a Netanyahu led government.

Adding all of these numbers up, as of now, it appears that a centre-left coalition could cobble together between 35 and 40 seats.  If they were to add in the "New Hope Party" that could get them to between 50 and 55 seats.  Still short of being able to form a government. 

Rounding out the list of parties - we now have a fracture in the Arab parties.  In the last three elections, they ran as a coalition and received as many as 16 seats.  They have now splintered into two camps - one with estimates of 0-4 seats, the other with estimate of between 8 and 12.  The real issue is whether the Arab parties could  join the left-Centre coalition to string  together more than 61 and block Netanyahu.  Hard to say, though it is possible with the current  numbers.  It may all depend on what Saar wants to do with his New Hope.

Netanyahu has been courting the 4 seat Arab bloc and has met with its leader on several occasions.  He may even be hoping that these 4 will support his far right wing coalition bloc and enable him to get to 61 with Arab support.  This would be an incredibly cynical position to take since Netanyahu railed against the possibility of a left-centre coalition after the last election, which would have required the support of the  Arab parties.  Netanyahu called this type of government illegitimate, since it didn't have a "Jewish majority."  

There is one more centrist party called the "Economic Party" which is also running as an anti-Bibi party.  But they are currently not projected to pass the minimum threshold.  Led by three economics professors, they are confident that they will get between 5 and 8 seats and hope to focus on fixing the Israeli economy.  Hard to predict where they will wind up.

In short, after the next election, Saar may face the same choice that Benny Gantz had - either  make a deal with the Arab parties and somehow get to more than 61, make a deal with Netanyahu or call  yet another election.  Given that Saar is somewhat more to the right politically  than Gantz, it seems to me unlikely that he would enter a coalition deal with the Arab parties.  Much more likely that he would enter  an agreement with Netanyahu, despite his written pledge - if Netanyahu can get to 61 or more with his support.   

I have written more  than I planned about this, but it is all still premature.  We will have to watch polling numbers and see if anything changes between  now and March 23, 2021.  If the election were  held today, based on current numbers, I think Netanyahu would be  able to form another  government.  But things  could change drastically so the  next 7 weeks or so will be very interesting, especially if the economic party  and/or the Labour party can pick up seats at expense of Likud support.

Netanyahu's Trial

A short note to mention that Netanyahu's criminal trial is scheduled to resume tomorrow.  He is facing a variety of charges including bribery, corruption and breach of trust.  The trial has been delayed several times at Netanyahu's request for a variety of reasons - including the change of legal counsel, the political situation, Covid-19 and any number of other reasons.  His team has indicated that he will ask for another delay of the  trial  until after the  coming election. Of course, Netanyahu  is hoping that he can delay the matter until after the election and form a right wing coalition that will agree to a retroactive immunity bill.  There is a chance that a government made up of Likud, Yamina, Otzma and the two ultra religious parties would agree to this request but it is not clear at all, as of today, that this group alone could get to 61 seats and form a government.

If the trial does proceed, it will be a  fascinating legal and political event.  It is bound to be heated, dramatic and thoroughly entertaining - quite a spectacle.  From a legal perspective, I am very much looking forward to it. That being said, I doubt that it will ever take place - or at least, that it will not be completed.  In my view, it is likely to end  in one  of three ways - politically - with the retroactive immunity bill; legally with some type of plea-bargain deal; or hybrid politically/legally with a pre-emptive pardon from the President of Israel as part of a political/legal deal.  Based on the content of the various charges and Netanyahu's defences, it seems to me highly unlikely that he would take his chances with the defences he has put forward all the way through a trial.  But I guess we will find out soon enough - or perhaps over the next few years if Netanyahu's defence team can continue to drag things out as long as possible.

Other Notes

It is also Super Bowl Sunday today.  That means watching the game from 1:30 a.m. to about 5 a.m. Israel time.  I am up for it  - since it could be a fantastic game.   Two  very exciting teams.   Not too many people are interested in joining me at that time - and especially in the midst of  a pandemic - even though many of us have been vaccinated.  I'll be lucky if one or two other family members stay awake.  Also doubtful that there would be anywhere  to order a pizza from at that time - or that anyone would want to eat pizza at that time anyways, especially Israeli pizza, which for the most part is not particularly good.  In fairness, there are some decent places nearby that we have discovered during this lockdown year - so I guess pizza is still an option, as long as we order early and reheat it at half time.

We watched the Toronto Maple Leafs play last night.  That also started at about  2 a.m. Israel time.  The Leafs are off to an exciting start and have made some great line-up  changes.  They are  only playing other Canadian teams this year - so the competition level is not that high.    It is quite a challenge  to follow ice hockey here in Israel but every now and then I stay up to watch a game.  More so during the playoffs.

Overall, I haven't really been watching that much in the way of sports this year - other than  football, which will officially end today for a while.   I have no real interest in Israeli soccer or basketball - other than international competitions in which the Israeli national team is participating.  

Ben Gurion Airport is officially closed to most  travel until at least February 28th.  Air Canada has indicated that it is now only scheduling flights starting again on March 6, 2021.  These dates could still change.   But with the combination of new Canadian travel restrictions  and Israeli airport restrictions, it looks like those  of us who spend time in both Canada and Israel will be grounded for the foreseeable future.  

I wish everyone the best of health and will probably put together at least one more blog before the end of the month.