Showing posts with label Prime Minister Bennett. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Prime Minister Bennett. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

President Biden's Israel Visit, Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, Fiddler on the Roof in Hebrew and other comments

It has been quite a busy day in Israel for news stations, talk radio and Jerusalem commuters.  President Biden arrived in Israel on Air Force One for his first Presidential visit.  For Israelis, this meant that Highway 1, which connects the airport to Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem, was completely shut down for a good part  of the day.  The President's convoy, alone, would create a traffic jam in Israel.  But with all  of the security concerns, travelling to Jerusalem today was probably not a good idea.  (That is an extreme understatement, almost  comedically so)  So we watched from the comfort of home.

This is President Biden's tenth visit to Israel, though his first as President of the United States.  First on the agenda was a short press conference at the airport.  The president of Israel, Isaac ("Bougie") Herzog, spoke first.  Then  Prime Minister Yair Lapid and finally, President Biden.  No one said anything of great significance as far as I can tell but there were gushing expressions  of friendship and the usual statements about the closeness of the relationship between Israel  and the U.S.

Biden's  next stop was a military stop to look at one of Israel's newest missile defence systems, a project which Israel has apparently developed along with the U.S.  After that, it was off to Yad Vashem, where President  Biden spoke with two Holocaust survivors for more than 10 minutes.

Optically, this has already seemed like a far better visit than President Obama's first visit, even though Biden might ultimately carry some similar messages.  But unlike Obama, Biden has gone out of his way, initially, to stress the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship and to do so with warmth and attention to messaging.  It remains to be seen what follows.

Israeli political leaders  were falling over themselves trying to be photographed with Biden.  Former Prime Minister Bennett inserted himself into a runway walk along the red carpet before officials whisked him away.  Current  Prime Minister Lapid made sure that he had some wonderfully photogenic moments with Biden.  Former Prime Minister and current leader of the opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu made sure that he actually got a warm handshake from Biden  - even though Biden was generally giving fist pumps to  most of the other attendees.  Even Yamina leader Ayelet  Shaked managed to  make her  way over to a position right  next to Biden.  It was actually quite amusing watching all  of this.

In any event, it is a strange visit since not very much is expected.  No  major breakthroughs with the Palestinians are likely to take place and it sounds unlikely that there will be any major deals between Israel and the U.S.   So what  is the purpose of this visit, which was  planned before the current Israeli government  imploded?

There seem to be three answers.  For one, President Biden is  trying to round up support for the American approach to Iran and  its quest for nuclear weapons.  He is flying  from  Israel to Saudi  Arabia, directly (a first) on Friday and will also be discussing  Iran with the Saudis.  So  one objective is to try and bolster support for a potential revival of the Obama orchestrated nuclear deal.  Neither the Israelis nor the  Saudis are too excited about this prospective deal and, in fact, the Iranians have  not even agreed to it. So it is unclear what, if anything, will happen on that  track.

Secondly, President Biden is visiting Saudi Arabia to discuss oil and to see if the Saudis can help the current  U.S. situation by increasing  daily production of oil and, hopefully, lowering  the  prices.   This is something that Americans are deeply concerned about as oil prices have rocketed up recently, as they have all over the world.  

Finally, there  is a geopolitical side to this as well.  Biden is hoping to continue to build on the "Abraham  Accords" by moving  Saudi Arabia and,  possibly other countries, closer to becoming participants.  Saudi Arabia has, to date, indicated that it  seeks a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians as a pre-condition to joining the accords.  At the same time, Saudi Arabia is looking to protect itself against a potential Iranian threat and some  sort of deal with Israel and the  United States would  be quite helpful in that regard.  So it will be very interesting to see what, if anything, is announced in Saudi Arabia about the Saudi relationship with Israel.  Rumours here are that more  airlines from  Israel will be able to overfly Saudi Arabia en route to the far east, which will save Israeli travellers many hours of  travelling time.

President Biden also agreed to a very interesting interview with Channel 12  Israeli reporter Yonit Levy.  She pushed him with some probing questions  about  his plans for  2024 (no comment), his relationship with Netanyahu, the real reasons for this current visit and whether or  not  he would authorize force against Iran  if they won't join a nuclear deal (he said he would as a last resort).  In particular, Levy asked him whether, if Netanyahu gets elected and becomes Prime Minister, there will again be a great "freeze" in the U.S. -Israel relationship.  Biden answered that the relationship is  with the country and not any particular leader - and that he would work with anyone who is elected.  Great answer, I thought.  This is really what Prime Minister Netanyahu should have been saying during the last U.S.  election campaign but of course he  chose to be partisan instead,  almost stumping for Trump's re-election campaign.

Overall, it should be an interesting few days.  President  Biden is scheduled  to attend  the opening ceremonies of the Maccabbi games, which will take place tomorrow at 7 p.m. Israel time. (12 p.m. Eastern).  There are some terrific Israeli musical acts scheduled to perform.  I am really looking forward to watching.   At $500 a ticket, we decided not to attend but I'm sure it will be great on TV.  It would  also be crazy getting in and out  of Jerusalem.  Aside from the opening ceremonies, I am also looking forward to watching my niece compete in the swimming competitions.  

Israeli TV update

Over the past couple of weeks, we watched the Beauty Queen of Jerusalem.  Of all the Israeli shows that I have seen over the past few years, including Fauda, Tehran, Shtisel and  others, this was probably my favourite.  I have always enjoyed historical fiction.  Beauty Queen traces the fictional Ermosa family, a  Sephardic family living in Jerusalem, from pre-World  War I through to the mid 1940s (in the first season at least).  

While at times the show  might seem like  a bit of a soap opera, it is set against the backdrop of life in Jerusalem, mostly in the 30s and 40s.  It deals with the relationship between the Jewish community and the  Ottoman rulers  initially - then subsequently, the British authorities and the tensions  with the Arab community.  The politics of the time also play a role.  There is discussion of the power of the Histadrut (the largest Israeli workers'  union of the time) balanced against the "revisionists"  (the pre-cursers to the modern more free-market Likud party).   The show  also looks at the pre-Independence military organizations in Israel (the  Hagana and "Etzel") and  the different  types  of operations these  groups were carrying out.  This is of course also set against the heavy backdrop of the rise of the Nazis in Germany, the  outbreak of the second World War and initial reports of the Holocaust.   

The first  season of the show was originally aired by YES TV in Israel in 2021 over 44 episodes, each of which are about half  hour in length.  This year, Netflix picked up the series and edited the first 44 episodes into two seasons of 10 episodes each, with English subtitles.  So  we watched the first  10 episodes on Netflix - which covers about 20-22 episodes of the Israeli version.  The rest hasn't yet been released on Netflix.   So we were left hanging....what  to do...

We  found that all 44 episodes are available on but without English  subtitles.  We couldn't resist and watched the 20 or so episodes that are not yet on Netflix.  It was quite compelling - we just  couldn't  stop watching.  Perhaps it is not for everyone.  Some  people have  apparently found  it a bit slow and  it does  flip back and forth between the 1920s  and the 1930s - sometimes you don't know what year you are  in.  But it all  comes  together.  It helps if you are a history  buff, particularly if you enjoy Israeli history.  But  I think that there  is enough in the show to enjoy it even if you are not so keen  on pre-Independence  Israeli  history.  Netflix has the English subtitles.  To watch on Sdarot, you will need fluent Hebrew.

In other Israeli TV news, the fourth season  of Fauda is  now out  - or is being released  weekly.  The first episode was shown  on Israeli TV tonight and  it will run for the next  10 Wednesdays (or so). After that, apparently, it will be released on Netflix worldwide.   So  if you are a big Fauda fan, you will get another round  of Fauda on Netflix this year.  It was action packed, suspenseful and entertaining  but it is too early to comment on the fourth  season  as a whole.

Finally, although this is in a slightly different category, we went  to see Fiddler on the Roof,  in Hebrew, at at the Cultural Centre  in Tel Aviv a theatre in the heart of the city.  I have, of course, seen the play many times in English  in New York  and Toronto.   This was my first time in Hebrew though I had heard the soundtrack.  Overall, it was an excellent production.  The lead character, Tevia (he is named  Tuvia in the Hebrew  Production) was played by Natan Datner and  he did an excellent  job.  He was a very convincing Tevia  with a powerful  voice.  Some  of the other performers were a bit weaker (for example Tevia's wife, Golda) But the Hudel performer was excellent as was Motel the Tailor.  

Even though I have seen the play many times, it is still an emotionally draining  experience, on so many levels.   The complete disappearance  of the Jewish communities of Europe is very real and personal.  It is the story of my  grandparents and great grandparents as it is for some many Jews around the world.  Together with that, the play touches on the challenges of maintaining tradition in the face of post-enlightenment modern realities and that is a also a subject that is very close to home.  What, if any, traditions will our children continue?  And even the subject of intermarriage, which was already a big  challenge for the U.S.  Jewish community when the play was  adapted in the 1960s (from Shalom Aleichem  stories written at the turn of the century) seems  to have an even more  powerful  impact in 2022 when U.S. intermarriage rates are higher than 50% and Canadian rates are not too far behind.  So there is lots to think about as the town of Anatevka is eliminated and the population is expelled.  I won't deny shedding a tear or two (or maybe more than that).  

Quick Political Comment

As you may know, Israel is in the midst of another election campaign with voting to take  place on November 1, 2022. I will write some more detailed election related blogs as the election draws closer.  I will simply say  at this point that it is too close to call.

Former Prime Minister Netanyahu is in the midst of his criminal trial, which is getting lots of  press these days.  He is hoping that  he  can come up with a coalition of  more than 61 seats and get himself back in to the Prime Minister's chair.  So far, polls seem to be indicating that  this is possible but far from certain.  

Former Prime Minister Bennett has announced that he is dropping out of politics.  His party, Yamina, is now being led by Ayalet Shaked and it is not clear that Yamina will  pass the electoral threshhold.  Yamina may well join Likud or some other party before election day.

Current Prime Minister Lapid is polling at anywhere from 22 to 26 seats.  It would be quite a feat for him to stay in power but anything is possible.

There are a  variety of other  political suitors pushing in different  ideological directions.  Should be quite entertaining over the  next two months. I anticipate that there will be all  kinds of mudslinging, underhanded tactics, insults and lies.  Everything  that western political campaigns seem to have these days.

Final  Comment

I couldn't leave this without stating the obvious - that airports are crazy these days and flights between  Toronto and  Tel-Aviv are completely full, incredibly pricey and more  disorganized than ever.  Airport waiting  times are very long.  It can take 2-3 hours to get through all of the security and check-in procedures to leave Israel.  Arriving in Israel is fairly efficient  generally, in contrast to arriving in Toronto  these days, which is a complete disaster.  

With El Al scheduled to discontinue its Canadian service at the end of October, 2022, prices  will  undoubtedly rise sharply, which is unfortunate.  I can't  say that I have been a loyal  supporter of El Al, since the benefits of  flying Air Canada were overwhelmingly superior.  But I know that many Israelis prefer to fly El Al since it "feels like  home."  They will be very disappointed that this option is no longer available to and from Toronto.

I suppose,  soon enough, you will be able to fly Saudi Arabian Airlines to Tel-Aviv from Toronto.  After all, you can already fly  Emirates, though I haven't tried it yet.  However, you might want to get  here, Israel will be happy to welcome you.

And with that I will sign off on this one and  wish you  all the best until next time.


Sunday, March 20, 2022

March 2022: Kanievsky Funeral, Prime Minister Bennett, Wineries and More

It has been a while since I have written.  Certainly there is no shortage of events to write about but I have been quite busy professionally and with many other things going on.  So I thought I would  do a bit of a smorgasbord of topics that hopefully fit with the theme of this blog, as indiscernible as that might sometimes appear.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky Z"L

Today was a huge event for hundreds of thousands of Israelis and for many more Ultra-Orthodox and  Orthodox Jews around the  world.  Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky died on Friday and his funeral was held today in B'nei Brak.   Estimates for the  number of attendees range from 500,000 to 800,000 people.  Much of the centre of the country was  closed  down.  Bus routes, highways, trains all ground to a halt so that public transportation could be diverted for the purpose of taking people to and from the funeral.

Rabbi Kanievsky was considered a great leader for the Ultra-Orthdox community in Israel and worldwide.  He gained quite a bit of attention speaking in March 2020 about the need to keep Yeshivas open even while everything else was being shut down during Covid - but he eventually endorsed the idea of following Israeli health guidelines and called for all of the members of his community to be vaccinated.  He himself wound up sick with Covid-19 but recovered from it last year.

Among some of his rulings cited in Wikipedia are a ruling that medical cannabis is kosher for passover (as long as it is legal) and that sexual abuse within the Haredi community should also be reported to civil authorities (many leaders previously had  argued that it should be kept within the community). Obviously, he has ruled on hundreds, if not thousands of other  issues, but I am not about to research his catalogue of halachic decisions.  

At his funeral, various rabbis spoke about his greatness, his dedication to Torah study and his willingness to speak to anyone who wanted to come and speak with him.  One of his sons spoke about how he would study Torah for at  least 17 hours every day.  When it was time to come and eat - he would arrive at the table.  If the food wasn't ready (his wife, of course, was normally the one preparing it), he would pick up a book and keep reading so that he would not waste any valuable time until the food was ready and until his wife was ready to sit down and  eat with him.

In any event, I can't say that I personally knew too much about him or  that I even considered going to join the hundreds of thousands of  people at his funeral.  Maybe I just don't like being trampled or, at least, the risk of being trampled.  Or maybe it's because I have no connection to Ultra-Orthodox Judaism and my politics and beliefs are diametrically opposed to those of their community on a wide range of issues, including gender equality, secular studies and state vs religion divisions.  In fact, watching these tens of thousands of young men, sporting their black jackets and hats, I couldn't help but feeling that they should all be  conscripted to the Israeli army like the vast majority of other people that age.  But that topic is for another  day.  As an historical event, it was, nevertheless, something quite interesting to watch on TV.  I can be, after all, quite a news junkie and this was certainly a newsworthy event.    

Prime Minister Bennett and the Russian Invasion of Ukraine   

Ukranian President  Volodymir Zelenskyy is scheduled to speak to the Israeli Knesset tonight at 6 p.m.  But the Knesset is being renovated so it sounds like the event  will primarily be on Zoom.  It is also unclear how many of the Knesset members will attend.  Some of the Knesset members, particularly on the right side of the spectrum, seem to be somewhat more sympathetic to Putin than other Israelis on the centre and left of the spectrum.

From what I hear, it seems to me that a significant majority of Israelis are supportive of Ukraine and are doing many different  things to try and help the  Ukranians.  Israel has sent field hospitals to be set up at different borders in Poland and in Moldova.  Israelis have been sending food, money, supplies of all different types and all kinds of other assistance to Ukranians.  Israel has been accepting Ukranian refugees and making plans to house and shelter large numbers of them either temporarily or, in many cases, permanently.  

At the same time, Israel, under the previous leadership of Prime Minister Netanyahu maintained close connections with Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Israel has been coordinating sorties over Syria to destroy Iranian weapons shipments to Hezbollah and has been careful not to turn Russia into an active enemy combattant, especially since Russia is now in effective control of Syria (one  of the legacies of the Trump administration).  Prime Minister Bennett has been placed in a very difficult spot.

On the one hand, his mandate, as the Prime Minister of Israel is to act in the best interest of  Israel, a country that consistently faces existential threats, the most current being the  possibility of a nuclear war with Iran.  Prime Minister Bennett must also be concerned about the hundreds of thousands of Jews in Ukraine and in Russia as well as actions that Russia might take if he pushes things too far on behalf of  Ukraine.

At the same time, for the Jewish community and for people who ask "where was the world?" during the Holocaust, we are in a situation that  is eerily reminiscent of 1939.  We are watching one country invade, destroy and  decimate another country, murder thousands of civilians, use all kinds of banned  weaponry and generally threaten  all of Europe.  The U.S and NATO to their credit, have taken some  very significant actions including economic sanctions, supply of  military weaponry and other steps.  It doesn't seem to be enough as Ukraine seems unlikely to be able to withstand the Russian  forces for too much longer  even though  the Ukranian army has lasted a lot  longer than many  anticipated.  Even Turkiye, which is trying to remain somewhat neutral, has been supplying Ukraine with some  very advanced fighter  drones.

But  thus far, Israel has refrained from supplying  Ukraine with military supplies and assistance and has been very careful to avoid criticizing  Putin too harshly.  As a result, Prime Minister Bennett has been selected by Putin and Zelenskyy as one of the "acceptable" figures to try and  negotiate a resolution.

At this point, it is hard to see that he is getting anywhere, though at least we can say he is trying.  Russia is continuing to destroy Ukraine, thousands are dying, tens of thousands are starving and there does not not seem to be an end in sight.  It is truly heartbreaking.  But at the same time, I think many are feeling anger that the world is just not doing enough.

Many Israelis are going out of their way to help Ukranian refugees in so many different ways including  housing some  of them temporarily.   But I can't say that Bennett's positions, at least  those that are being publicly reported,  are particularly comforting.

As an update, I just finished listening to Zelenskyy's speech, with a translation to Hebrew.  One  of the most  important lines - he said -  and I am paraphrasing somewhat - "it is one thing to act as a mediator between two countries with different interests.  It is quite another thing to refuse to take a side when faced with a choice  between good and evil.  I leave it for you to reflect on what kind of decisions you are making as a country."

In reaction to the speech - one Israeli commentator said that although Zelenskyy's speech was short - "he held up a mirror right to our face - and I didn't like what I saw."

Covid and Travel

Israel has eliminated all pre-flight testing requirements for  Israelis  coming to Israel.  All  that  is needed is a PCR test, on arrival, taken  at the  airport.  For the most  part, the  mask mandates have  been lifted and many people are no longer wearing masks in different places.  Non-Israelis are required to show a PCR test taken within 72 hours of the flight departure time and proof of medical insurance that covers Covid-19.  They are also required to take a PCR test on arrival at the airport.

Purim 2022

We returned to shul for Purim this year - having only conducted Megillah  readings by Zoom in 2020 and 2021.  Our shul was fairly crowded though it definitely felt less crowded than some peak years.  I managed to read my  usual chapter 8 (video available on demand by private request...).  We also had nice enough weather to hold a Purim Seudah on Purim day (Thursday March 17, 2022) and tried to do our part to fulfill the mitzvot of eating and  drinking in sufficient quantity.  (Not usually a problem in this house as many of  you know).

Pesach is Coming    

Less than a month to go until Pesach (Passover).  I am planning to be in Toronto for a few weeks before the holiday - so perhaps, ironically, I will look around and buy some Kosher for Passover products in Toronto that you can't normally find in Israel.  Some examples might be Matzah ball soup mix (I know, we  can make it from scratch...), cake meal, and a few other items.   Another example would be Israeli wine.  Some Israeli wines can be purchased in Toronto at prices that are far less than what they sell for in Israel.  Yes, you read that correctly.  As crazy as it sounds, it is true.

We are looking to see if we can host a Ukranian refugee family or  two for our Seder so we have a few weeks to get that organized.  We hope and pray that by then, this war will be over.

Oscar Watch

Watching the annual Academy Awards is something we enjoy but it requires an all-nighter here in Israel.  Our clocks will change on Thursday the 24th  at night - and the time difference will go back to 7 hours.  That means that the Oscars will be on in the middle of the night on Sunday night/ Monday morning.  Some years we try to stay up and watch although this year I may be able to watch at a more reasonable time in Toronto.

We have been making our way through the list of best picture nominees.  We greatly enjoyed Coda which is apparently one  of the top 3 or 4 frontrunners.  I can't say the same about The Power of the Dog which, in our view, was extremely slow.  I wasn't thrilled about Licorice Pizza either.  I found King Richard, the story of Venus and Serena Williams and their Dad, Richard Williams, quite compelling and thought Will Smith was wonderful.  We also  saw Westside Story.  I had really been looking forward to it but in the end, I'm just not sure that it added much to the  original.  So we have about 5 left to watch in the coming days.  Not sure we will get to all of them in this final week before the awards show but I guess we will see.

Prices, Prices

Like everywhere else, I'm sure, prices here of  just about everything have been going through the roof.  I think gas was at about $3.00 cdn per  litre (which is probably close to $12 US per gallon for my American readers who think gas prices are high in the U.S....).

Other food items have also been increasingly high priced with lots of  blame to go around - Covid-19, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the quasi-monopoly in the food industry in Israel and anything else you can think of.  One item that is cheap - is juice oranges - which can  be purchased for 1.99 shekels a kilo - which is less than $0.40 per pound (Cdn).  Let's say $0.32 a pound U.S.  So we have been making some freshly squeezed  orange juice.  Just don't add a pineapple - which can cost $20-$30 for one....a very small one.  

Wineries and Other Day Trip Ideas

Despite all that has been going on, we still managed to get in a few field trips over the past month.  In particular, we managed to visit three wineries, an  olive oil plant and a coffee roastery, all of  which are trips that I would recommend  for anyone visiting or  for those who live here but haven't been to these places.

Earlier this month, we went to the Kitron Winery.  We have been there before and I think I may have written about it.  It is a beautiful winery that is described as one of a handful of fully "gravitational wineries" in the world.  This means that the winery relies  on forces of gravity to move  the wine from place to place during production.   The grapes start on the top level of the winery and move down by levels  without pumps.  According  to the vintners, this means that Kitron does not need to add sulphites.  They claim that the Kitron red wines do not give people headaches the same way that other red wines might.  Kitron is a Kosher winery that is observing the  Shmittah year in the most stringent  way possible - it's field are lying  fallow this harvest year (since it is a sabbatical year) and  no wine  will be made from this year's  grapes.  Kitron  offers a terrific tasting  experience  with some  great cheeses, a variety of wines, breads, jams, olives, peppers and even some coffee and halvah  for  dessert.

We also visited the Odem Winery this month, which is near Kiryat  Shemona in the very northern part of Israel.   The  Odem Winery uses grapes grown in volcanic soil for most of  its wines and there can be a volcanic taste in some of the wines.  However, they are quite good.  We particularly enjoyed the reserve Shiraz/Syrah.  The people were very friendly, the visitors' centre is quite nice and the cheeses were tasty.  We have  also visited this winery more than once and we have  enjoyed  it each time.

Near the Odem Winery, we stopped at Eretz Geshur, an olive oil factory.  Here you can taste 12 different types of olive oil, ranging from oils that are light tasting to those that are full bodied, spicy and even a bit bitter.   You might  not have realized that there is such a big difference from one olive oil to the next until you taste them side by side.  We also  watched a movie about olive oil production, which was fascinating.   Eretz Geshur uses a full automated system for  picking the olives and then has a number of different machines including crushers and  centrifuges for automating the process to the greatest extent possible.  The factory is strictly kosher  and  is a fun place to visit.

Just last week, we visited one additional winery, Flam, which is not too far from Beit Shemesh in the centre of Israel.  The visitors' centre was a bit more of a "do it yourself" place though it was reasonably nice.  The wine was tasty but not earth shattering.  The most  popular wines were the most expensive, one of them close to 350 Shequels a bottle (about $140 Cdn) so we didn't buy any.

Not far from Flam,  we  stopped off at Agro Cafe also near Beit Shemesh and had some really nice coffees.  Agro Cafe imports coffee beans from various locations around the world and roasts all its own coffees.  The site  conducts workshops on how to make coffee in 5 or 6 different ways, information about the history and production of coffee and about some of the issues facing coffee growers and the workers in the industry.  Another highly recommended spot to stop for a visit.

Final Comments

In case you might be thinking that I live a life of leisure and luxury, just running  around  visiting  wineries, that is decidedly incorrect.  I have actually been quite busy, working remotely, meeting with clients by Zoom and even attending  at Zoom mediations, and court appearances.  It does happen that being in central Israel means that you are less than 90 minutes away from about 300 wineries - so where we have the chance on Sundays or on other days, earlier in the day, it  is a fun activity.   My workday, when I'm in Israel, normally starts at about 4 p.m. and goes  until 12  or 1 a.m.  so it is a strange schedule

The weather is starting  to get  nicer here - and I imagine that very soon it will be extremely warm - usually starting in late April.   We were  blessed to have some wonderful visitors in February and are looking forward to other visitors in May, June and July.  We are always  happy to see friends and family from Canada, the U.S.  and other places and you can go through some of my past blogs for some destination suggestions.

That's about it for now - I wish everyone all the best - the best of health - and peace early in this war-torn year of 2022.