It has been a very strange and unusual holiday season though that is certainly not unique to Israel, unfortunately. The interesting question is how this will change things in a long term way. In so many respects. But that could really be the subject of a very long blog. Maybe the next one. This one will be a bit more anecdotal I think. I'll cover some personal reflections about the holidays, Israel's current Covid-19 situation, the Israeli government and anything else that springs to mind before the end of these comments.
The Holy Days - Some Personal Reflections
Rosh Hashana came and went. One initiative in Israel was to have people with Shofars walking around (on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Sunday) and blowing their shofars so that people could get the chance to hear them. In Ra'anana, the City set up various points around the city where there would be shofar blowing at different times. Another initiative was to tell people to go out onto their front lawns, their balconies or their backyards and blow their shofars at 11 a.m. I took part in this one - and noticed at least one neighbour enjoying my attempts to sound like a real shofar blower. I guess I have another year to practice. Makes me wish that I had learned to play the trumpet in school instead of the saxophone.
In any event, it was just our immediate family and we opted for a service in the house rather than joining the various zoom options or finding an outdoor service that was following the rules. But we were lucky to have each other and although we missed the rest of our families, it was still a meaningful New Year commemoration.
For Yom Kippur, we spent a fair bit of time discussing what to do. We usually run a small service in Ra'anana, a satellite service for Kehilla Hod v'Hadar (which is in K'far Saba). In the past, we have not held Kol Nidrei here but have walked to K'far Saba. We usually then have Shacharit, Mussaf, Minhah and Neilah in Ra'anana.
This year, we decided to hold the tefillot outdoors in one of the member family's backyard. It was too hot to hold a morning service there but we ran a Kol Nidrei service and Minhah/Neilah outside. We were all spaced apart, wearing masks and outside. Just between 11-13 of us. I think it was my first time leading Kol Nidrei in about 35 years. So there was a fair bit to prepare. Neilah was a bit easier since I have been leading it for the past 6 or 7 years I think. But it worked out nicely and I am glad we were able to hold this service.
Next up came Sukkot. We put up our Sukkah - and once again - it was just our immediate family having meals inside. The Israeli government has imposed a 500 shekel fine for "attending a meal in a non-family member's sukkah" (defined as someone who doesn't live in the same home). But I think the fine is really viewed as a 500 shekel fine for those who weren't quick enough (or pre-organized enough) to have a reasonable excuse, when asked, to avoid the fine. In any case, we have waved the lulav (the palm branch) and the Etrog (the Citron), sat in the Sukkah and enjoyed some nice wine. After all, it is still the time of "our happiness" and the wine helps.
The Closure, Covid-19 and Israel
Back to the closure. The Israeli government has instituted a form of closure - but it is certainly not "hermetic." In fact, it probably has more holes than a hunk of swiss cheese. So police have set up road blocks all over the place. But they are only stopping random cars - and then there is a very long list of exceptions to the closure. The exceptions include:
- going out to buy a lulav and etrog
-going out to perform the mitzvah of Kapparot (until the end of Sukkot) (i.e. swinging a chicken over your head to get rid of your sins;
-buying groceries, essential household goods, medicine etc.,
-exercising (on your own or with a family member from the same house);
- demonstrating (against or for) the government (within 1 km of your house) (I haven't seen too many demonstrating in favour of the current government);
- attending a synagogue service (outdoors, with less than 25 people, within 1 km of your home);
The list goes on and on. This is just to provide a bit of flavour.
Overall, there is a sense here in Israel that Covid-19 is really out of control. We reached close to 10,000 new cases a day last week, in the aftermath of Rosh Hashanah. We have seen an increasingly high number of seriously ill patients and a growing number of fatalities. Although the government has now imposed a closure as a way to try to deal with it - it is not a well- planned or well thought out response to the pandemic. It is not being accompanied by steps to assist businesses, business owners and workers that will enable them to manage the economic side of the crisis. It is being applied universally, all over the country, even though there are clearly pockets of high infection rate areas that probably warrant a different approach from those areas in which the infection rate is low. It is unclear how this will all play out or what steps the government will take to try and address the situation. But we know that the virus can spread at exponential rates. 10,000 new infections per day is quite frightening and is bound to lead to a great deal of stress on the health care system in Israel, the hospitals and support systems across the country.
The Current Israeli Government
As you may know, the current Israeli government is a coalition government made up of opposing parties, generally quite hostile to each other, who have been unable to follow the coalition agreement that they put together themselves. So, for example, the parties signed an agreement that they would pass a two year budget as one of the first items of business. But Netanyahu reneged and insisted on a one-year budget only (which would be a budget for the period Jan 1, 2020 to December 31, 2020). Blue and White continued to insist on a two year budget. A stalemate resulted and the decision was put off for two or three months. As a result, there is no budget for the current year in place. The government is running on "interim budget measures."
Netanyahu is looking for an opportunity to pull the plug on this current government and call an election. He is hoping that he will be able to piece together a 61+ seat right wing government and get retroactive immunity for himself to clear him of the various criminal charges that he is now facing. But polls have shown that Netanyahu is losing some support - to the "Yamina" (Real Right) party of Naftali Bennett. Netanyahu is concerned that he will lose negotiating power and that he may not be able to get the immunity bill or the government that he wants. So he has now become hesitant to call an election. We therefore have somewhat of a stalemated government that cannot agree on steps to take but is also reluctant to call another election. This cannot continue for too long. It is likely that the government will soon crumble and a new election will be announced - perhaps in December or January.
Meanwhile, there are protesters across Israel, spread out and following the new rules of protesting within 1 km of their homes. For the most part, these protests have not been violent and have simply been made up of a wide range of citizens protesting against various aspects of the operation of this current government under Netanyahu's stewardship. That was not entirely the case on Saturday night in Tel-Aviv, where police on horses and in full riot gear used quite a bit of force to disperse a largely non-violent group of protesters.
A primary concern is that a Prime Minister facing a range of criminal charges, is trying to make various decisions that could directly impact on his own situation. For example, which judges to appoint in the courts, which civilian appointments (chief of police) and what to close versus what to leave open across the country. During the first closure, in March/April, one of Netanyahu's first steps was to close the courts while leaving many other places open - ostensibly so that he would not have to show up for an impending court appearance.
Many other people are protesting the lack of an economic plan, the impact of a closure on so many people without proper support and the general perception that decisions are being made for political reasons primarily rather than reasons based on epidemiological necessity or medical and scientific evidence and requirements.
At the same time and to be fair, it is unclear that this large number of protesters will be able to change the political results at the ballot box whenever the next election is held. In other words, it may well be that they are made up of a large and vocal minority. That remains to be seen.
I must conclude this post with a comment on Schadenfreude.
In Israel, I would not say that mask wearing and physical distancing has been viewed as a "left-wing plot" or confined to left segments of society. In fact, Netanyahu himself has been very clear about wearing a mask, proper steps to distance himself from others and urging Israelis to follow suggested steps to deal with the virus. Of course some of his ministers have not always gone along and have viewed themselves having a special exemption from the rules that everyone else is urged to follow. But it is not necessarily a "right-left" fault line.
In fact one of his ministers is now the subject of a great deal of press coverage. Minister Gila Gamliel went to a shul for Yom Kippur with her father in law - who was under a quarantine order due to exposure to the virus. Some 28 people who attended services at that shul have now been diagnosed as having the virus. There are many other similar stories.
As the virus spread in Israel, many in the ultra-Orthodox community refused to close synagogues, wear masks, follow physical distancing guidelines or close learning institutions. One of the leading ultra-Orthodox rabbis of the Lithuanian ultra-orthodox community, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky had insisted back in March that synagogues and yeshivas remain open since "cancelling Torah study is more dangerous than the virus." He is later reported to have told his followers not to get tested - since positive results would lead to a shut down of their institutions. In any event, at age 92, he has now been diagnosed with Covid-19 although his condition is apparently improving. According to at least one report last week, more than 40% of all cases of covid-19 are in the ultra-orthodox community. Rabbi Kanievsky eventually agreed to issue a press release urging followers to adhere to guidelines. But the virus is rampant now in his community.
Likewise, of course, it is perhaps not surprising that President Trump has also contracted the virus. He has held countless rallies with unmasked supporters, refused (for the most part) to wear a mask himself and belittled those who are taking the virus seriously. When the Israeli delegation flew to Washington to sign a peace deal with the UAE, Trump insisted that the delegation members not wear masks at the ceremony. There was a heated negotiation but the Israelis largely gave in with some exceptions.
Similarly, at Trump's Supreme Court nomination announcement last Saturday, the attendees did not wear masks or follow any physical distancing guidelines. Is it at all surprising that Trump and so many of his colleagues have been infected? While we can all hope for the complete and full recovery of the President, I think we can also all hope (and pray) that the President will change his tune and start urging Americans to follow some common sense guidelines to minimize their chances of getting infected. Maybe instead of attacking Biden for wearing a "huge mask," he'll decide to start wearing one himself. Regularly. Assuming he recovers.
September began with some cautious optimism on my part cheering for some Toronto teams. The Raptors, Maple Leafs and Blue Jays all had a shot to the make the playoffs and I was hoping for an interesting playoff season. The Maple Leafs and Blue Jays exited with barely a whimper. This was especially disappointing for the hockey team which had so much talent and so much promise. But another year is in the books, which means that Toronto has now gone 53 years without winning a hockey championship. Ouch.
The Raptors were hoping to repeat their feat of winning the NBA championship but without their superstar from last year Kawhi Leonard. For the Raptors, it was also a premature and disappointing exit.
So what is a Toronto sports fan to do? Well, the remaining team of interest - which has never one a championship - is the Buffalo Bills (okay, not Toronto but close enough). The Bills are off to a 4-0 start this year and have an excellent young quarterback. So that is very exciting. Worth staying up for here in Israel.
Finally - and I think I got this wrong in an earlier blog - the Israel national soccer (football) team will play Scotland on October 8th for a chance to get to the delayed 2020 Euro championship. If Israel beats Scotland, it will have to play the winner of a Norway-Serbia match on November 12th. So that match will be this coming Thursday - and it really will be one of the biggest soccer matches for the Israeli side in many years. I am not normally a huge soccer fan - but this will be an exciting event to watch.
I wish everyone a Chag Sameach (Happy holiday) and Mo'adim L'Simchah (Enjoy these times joy) and a home that the coming year brings us much better news from all across the world. Keep in touch!