Sunday, June 16, 2024

June 2024 Blog - Shavuot and Beyond


These are challenging times to write this kind of blog.  Israel is in a very difficult period - facing challenges of all sorts.  We are in the midst of one of Israel's most difficult wars - with Hamas, Hezbollah and, primarily, Iran (even though an active Israel-Iran war has not yet broken out directly).  We have more than 120 hostages still being held by Hamas and its partners. We do not know for sure how many of these hostages are still alive. 

Tens of thousands of Israelis have been displaced and have still not returned to their homes since  October 7, 2023.  Many cities along Israel's northern border and south of those areas are virtual ghost towns with only the military present. Many cities and towns near the Gaza border are also uninhabited. There are rocket, missile and drone attacks from Hezbollah in the north daily - and many have been lethal - for soldiers and for civilians.  Many soldiers are dying and still more are being injured each day.  The situation in Gaza itself is awful for Gazans, though that is somewhat predictable when you launch an all out war.  We also have our fair share of political disarray with no clearly defined direction for how to proceed with this war, what the "end game" is and how long all of this might take.  

Despite all of this, I am still covering a few different areas in my blog - since ultimately, life is like that.  There are difficult and challenging events - even horrible occurrences - and sometimes - alongside those events - other happy, even joyous occasions.  There are many serious things to write about - and if I were a news journalist - I suppose I would simply fill my blog with those topics.  But my intent is to cover some news highlights and commentary and some other observations, comments and thoughts about life in Israel or related topics - sometimes only tangentially related. Despite the ongoing war - and the fact that I could fill the blog with war news, I would rather continue writing this blog the way I have for the past 15 years or so.  So here are a few different items which may or may not be connected.

Travelling Back to Israel

It is still hit or miss as to which international  airlines have restored their service to Toronto.  Air Canada had indicated that it would resume flights to Israel in August (and some people that I spoke to last night sounded hopeful about this).  But Air Canada has postponed or cancelled its resumption of flights to Israel a few times now.   I don't really believe that they will restore service until the war is "over" or there is some semblance of a cease fire in place.  And I am really not sure when that will be. 

El Al, as you might recall, cancelled its direct service to Toronto some time ago  - unrelated to the war.  So there are no options for direct flights from Toronto to Tel-Aviv currently.

I have written in past blogs about some of the routes that I have taken since October 7 2023.  I have combined Air Canada and El Al transferring through Europe in Amsterdam (awful), Rome (much better) and London (big hassle).  I have also travelled the whole way or with partner connections on KLM (awful), Delta (not bad) and Air France (great between Israel and Paris - but not so nice between Paris and Toronto).  Overall, it has been a big hassle and has made travel much more tiring and challenging.   

Just before Shavuot, I was finally able to get a fully integrated Star Alliance flight - with a connection and this was certainly the best flight I have had since October.  The check-in and security in Terminal 1 at Pearson Airport are so much easier than what goes on at Terminal 3.  For my most recent flight - it took me a total of about 12 minutes from the time I got to the airport until the time I was at the international lounge - including baggage  drop off and security.  For this type of trip - that is, as we say in Yiddish, a "mechayeh." (something very pleasing).

I was very happy to be back on Air Canada - which is a step above many other airlines  in terms of boarding process, amenities on board, etc.,  especially when compared to Air France, KLM or El Al. The connection in Vienna was very easy.  We arrived at the gate and were let out through a connections area  right into the departure gates area.  No supplementary security or passport security  - like in Paris or Amsterdam.  The Israel gate was right nearby.  My connection time was only 1 hour and 50 minutes - but I had more than an hour to go to the lounge in Vienna (and have some pretty decent coffee).

So hopefully my next few flights will be connections with Air Canada through Vienna, Frankfurt or Zurich so I can stay with the Star Alliance partners and get the benefit of a relatively seamless connection.  Of course it is very difficult to predict whether all of these airlines will continue to fly to Israel and what might happen.

If you are planning to come here and do not want to risk things - your best bet is probably a European connection to an El Al flight - even  if that is not the most comfortable or economical.  It is likely to be secure and reliable.


I did not leave myself too much time between arriving and the  start of Shavuot - which is only one day in Israel.  Like so many other Jewish holidays, Shavuot is associated with food - in this case dairy - especially cheese blintzes and cheesecake.  So I did manage to make some blintzes.  A shout out to Tori Avey and her wonderful website - which has so many great Jewish recipes.  This cheese blintz recipe is just like the recipe that I had from my grandmother z"l, though my grandmother used to add raisins as well.  I have made several other dishes using recipes from Tori Avey's site including a delicious apple honey cake, some lemon bars and a few other items - and they have all been great.  One of my favourite sites.

Ultimately, Shavuot is not just  about the food - we do commemorate our receipt of the Torah - and it is customary to study all night on Erev Shavuot.  At my former shul in Toronto, there used to be an amazing Shavuot program.  We would study for about 45 minutes to an hour, take a short break, then sing for 30-45 minutes, then eat.  We would repeat this all night - until it was time for an early Shacharit service at 6 a.m.  During each break, there would be a different food item. One break might be ice cream sundaes.  Another break might be a selection of wraps.  Maybe one break would be just fruit.  I have managed to find a few different all night study sessions here in Israel over the years - but nothing that was nearly as fun or stimulating.  This year I was too jet lagged.  So it was a dairy dinner with the family and some discussion about everything going on here - but no all night study session.

The "Situation"

I mentioned some of what we are dealing with above.  Yesterday was one of those disastrous days  - 10 soldiers were killed in Gaza - 8 of them when an RPG hit their "Tiger" vehicle.  Their ages ranged from 19 to 49.  Unfortunately, reports like this have become all too commonplace.  These soldiers are mostly recruits - people from all walks of life who perform their mandatory military service - either during the three year period between the ages of 19 and 22 - or as "reserve" soldiers - called to duty afterwards.

Since October 7, 2023, 659 soldiers have been killed and close to 4,000 injured according to the Israeli government site.  

As you know, there is all kinds of world pressure on Israel - from Europe, the U.S. and many other places to end the war - but Hamas has not agreed to any kind of cease fire arrangement that would be acceptable to Israel (or even to the U.S.) and so the war continues.   Meanwhile, there is no indication that a deal with Hezbollah in the north is close - and there is a great deal of talk - that Israel will soon be in a full blown war with Hezbollah/Lebanon/Iran in the north.  That is not to say that we are not in a war right now - we most certainly are.  However, it has not become an all out full blown war - perhaps due to world pressure.  The situation is untenable for Israel.  People cannot return to their homes.  Hezbollah is launching attacks daily - using drones, missiles and RPGs and has set several places on fire.  Although Israel has been attacking sites in different places in Lebanon and Syria (according to news reports), it has not yet taken the kind of action that would be needed to make the northern border safe for return for  Israeli residents.

Meanwhile, the destruction in Gaza is undoubtedly immense but Hamas has not yet been defeated nor has it shown a  willingness to release the hostages and end the war.  Declaring a "Palestinian State" like some countries have done (see Ireland, Spain and Norway) does not seem like a practical way to deal with these issues.  Does that mean recognizing Hamas to run the state?  Will it be demilitarized?  Israel does need to work with the world and the Palestinians to come up with different potential solutions for Gaza - but solutions that will not involve ongoing military and terrorist attacks by Hamas.

Some Knesset members in the current government like Ben-Gvir and Smotrich seem to want to occupy Gaza completely and run it like the West Bank  - with Israeli settlements throughout.  This was the proposal of a former  Knesset member, Moshe Feiglin, on TV last night.

But years ago, even the hawkish Ariel Sharon, came to the conclusion that it was untenable for Israel to continue to run Gaza.  Many  on the right are now blaming his policies for the "Hamasization" of Gaza - but most of what has developed in Gaza has taken place over the past 15-20 years - while Israel has had right wing governments (mainly).  I cannot accept the idea that occupying Gaza and building settlements throughout will bring Israel long term peace  or security.

Of course at the same time, I heard someone from the Israeli "centre-left" yesterday say that many people in Israel in the centre and even some on the "left" have come to the conclusion, post October 7, 2023, that it is "either us or them."  

I am not sure that anyone really has a solution right now - one that would work for Israelis and Palestinians.  Maybe there isn't one.  But we will have to try and find one.  Surely that will be better for both sides than spending the next 100 years killing each other - and perhaps even more time than that.

The Government

Israel continues to be government by an elected 64-56 seat coalition (with 64 seats in a Knesset of 120 members) which is made up of the Likud party (Netanyahu's party), two ultra-religious ("Haredi") parties - one Ashkenazi, one Sephardi and a collection of ultra-nationalist religious parties.  None of these coalition members seem ready to cause the government to fall - irrespective of how popular the government  may or may not be currently.  It can continue to govern until October 2026 if nothing changes.

One of the priorities of this government is to keep its ultra-orthodox coalition members happy.  So even though Israel is talking about a manpower shortage in the army - and floating the idea of extending military service for recruits and calling up more reserves - the government also put a bill through first reading in the Knesset this week to bolster the exemption from military service for the ultra-orthodox.  

Many Israelis are infuriated - even many who support Netanyahu's party.  It seems incredibly tone deaf for Netanyahu to read reports of soldiers being killed and injured - and on the very same day - be seem smiling with the Ultra-Orthodox Knesset members while they pass a bill to have their constituency evade the draft.  This may well be an issue that will spell big trouble for this governing coalition when there is an eventual election.

The Heat

All of this, of course, comes at a time when we are entering peak summer weather season.  I heard a forecast on the radio the other day.  They didn't give any actual temperatures - just said that it was going to be between "very hot and extremely hot."  They also said it would be "hotter than seasonal."  I don't know what that actually meant - but reading the reports - it was between 35 and 40c.  It must be unbearable for our soldiers these days - with all of their equipment - in the southern parts of Israel.


I don't have too much in the way of Sports news to mention here.  Israelis are all excited about watching the 2024 Euros which kicked off on Friday.  Israel did not make it in.  Israelis are also looking forward to watching the Israeli football (soccer) team participate in the Paris Olympics.  Israel has rarely qualified previously so this will be exciting.

Personally, as you might recall, I am much more of an ice hockey fan.  So I was up watching the Edmonton Oilers play at 3 a.m.  Israel time yesterday.  The last Canada-based team. Edmonton was losing 3-0 in the series - and it was looking likely that they would simply go out quietly.  But they roared back and won the game 8-1 - setting up another elimination game in Florida on Tuesday night at which the Stanley Cup could be presented if Florida wins the game.  Chat (Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto) graduate Zach Hyman is leading the playoffs in goal scoring with 14 goals.  I  haven't looked that up to check - but it might be the highest goal total for a Jewish player ever in one NHL playoff season.

My other comment for the non-hockey fans - is that we are also watching one of the greatest hockey players ever - Connor McDavid.  During this year's playoffs - he has 38 points - which is the 5th highest total in one season's playoffs ever.  The record holder is, of course, Wayne Gretzky, with 47.  So it would still take a minor miracle for McDavid to get 9 or 10 more points - since that would probably also mean helping his team to come back and win three games in a row - after being down 3-0.  (Something that is almost impossible in hockey).

How does this related to my blog?  Israeli singer Hanan Ben-Ari wrote a song a few years ago called "Our life is strawberries."  The first part of the song was a litany of complaints about how difficult life is in Israel - the cost of living, the military situation, the traffic etc.,  But towards the end of the song - he switched to thankfulness for all of the great things in life.  As an observant Orthodox Jew, he mentioned Shabbat - and of course, family, friends, togetherness.  And - the "privilege of being able to watch Lionel  Messi play."  So I am not as excited about Messi - (since I am less of a soccer fan) - but the privilege of being able to watch McDavid play (and players like him) is an amazing thing.  

Canada Comments

I was in Canada over the past few weeks and there are lots of crazy things going on connected to Israel and the Jewish community.  There have been several attacks on synagogues across the country - vandalism, attempted arson etc., There is an ongoing "encampment" on the University of Toronto grounds that has still not been cleared out.  And a bunch of protesters were cleared out by police using tear gas in Montreal - after taking over the president's office at McGill University in Montreal. Very few Canadian political leaders are speaking out in support of the Canadian Jewish community with some notable exceptions - including Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre and a few others.  On the other hand - the Prime Minister has been moving Canada's Israel policies closer and closer to those of countries like Ireland, Spain and Norway.  The leader of the NDP, Jagmit Singh, has been spouting all kinds of anti-Israel diatribes.  And for some reason, union leaders across the country  have been  at the forefront of anti-Israeli activism - even though they are much more likely to find common cause with Israelis than with Hamas supporters - on a whole range of issues - from social equality, gender equality, worker rights  - to freedom of expression and other issues.

Toronto's annual Walk for Israel was a bright spot for the Jewish diaspora, with estimates ranging up to 50,000 people attending.  There were counter-protesters - who showed up wearing face masks and keffiyehs. Some of these "protesters" arranged to meet in Jewish neighbourhoods in Toronto and tried to follow participants of the Walk back to their homes. Fortunately, the Toronto police were in full force  and managed to prevent the situation from deteriorating.   There are videos of these interactions - on links provided by the National Post and other publications.

The Mayor of Toronto, Olivia Chow, elected to avoid the event - and instead, she attended a "Grill Cheese Festival" in Etobicoke.  Mayor Chow is not a big supporter of the Toronto Jewish community, to say the least.  And the current Canadian Prime Minister, Trudeau, is probably the least supportive Canadian Prime Minister that we have seen in many  years - perhaps since his late father, Pierre Trudeau.

To change to another positive note - I understand that a group of Toronto lawyers are planning a solidarity trip to Israel in September - and are hoping to have 25-30 participants.  They plan to visit the areas of the October 7, 2023 attacks, meet with politicians, families of hostages, and others.  I could provide a link to further information on request if anyone is interested in attending.

So even though Israelis living in Canada and other members of the Jewish community are being threatened all over the country (and in many places around the world), there are some positive and hopeful events.   

I cannot say that things look that positive from here right now but I don't think we have any choice but to do whatever we can to try and improve things - to hope that there is some sort of feasible, peaceful solution that can be reached and that we can restore things soon to some level of sanity.  All while sharing information with people about what is really going on here. 

With that, I wish everyone all the best and welcome any comments or thoughts you might have.

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