Showing posts with label Ukraine. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ukraine. Show all posts

Monday, May 6, 2024

Yom Hashoah v'Hagvurah 2024 - Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day and other comments

On this day of Yom Hashoah v'Hagvurah (Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day), there are many things to write about.  I was planning to limit this blog to a focus on the Holocaust.  But in light of all of the events taking place in Israel, I had to add some additional comments and discussion. 

Possible Ceasefire Deal?

A few minutes ago, the Israeli press began reporting that Hamas has advised negotiators that it has "accepted" the latest Qatari-Egyptian-U.S. proposal for a three-staged cease fire.  It is unclear whether this will actually go ahead.  But here are, among other things, a few events that took place today.  First of all, Hamas announced earlier that it was leaving negotiations and that it could not trust the Egyptians to broker a deal.  Israel announced that it was asking 100,000-200,000 civilians in Rafiah, Gaza to leave the area so that it could conduct operations in that area (the last remaining stronghold for Hamas military divisions).  

It is noteworthy that Israel did not announce a major call up of its reserves in preparation for this telegraphed incursion.  Nevertheless, hours later, Hamas announced "officially" that it was accepting the cease fire terms.

I do not have the detailed document here - but among other things - this is what is apparently included:

1. 33 kidnapped live Israelis would be returned over a period of 40 days - mainly including women, the elderly and some injured captives. In exchange, Israel would release approximately 100 convicted Hamas murderers and 600 other Hamas prisoners.

2. After the 40 days, Hamas would release additional hostages including soldiers and other civilians in exchange for further releases of Hamas prisoners from Israeli jails.  

3.  There is a third stage of agreeing to the rehabilitation of Gaza, the full exchange of other prisoners and remains of dead civilians and soldiers and an extended five year period of non-hostilities.

Reports are that Israel has not agreed to the third stage and that it has only agreed to the second stage conditionally.  Israel has maintained that it has the right to resume operations until its war aims are met.  However, Hamas has announced that it is accepting the deal on the basis of U.S. guarantees that steps 2 and 3 will take place - even without formal Israeli acquiescence.   

This "deal" will create quite a bit of division in Israel.  The deal will leave Hamas in power and in place to rebuild and try to carry out another similar attack.  It will allow Hamas and its leader Yehia Sinwar to claim a form of victory (or stalemate at least).  And it will not bolster any hopes for having a non-Hamas - peace oriented Palestinian leadership in control of Gaza.  In other words, the people of Gaza will continue to be stuck under  the thumb of a brutal Hamas military dictatorship - even if many of them actually chose or supported that type of rule in Gaza.

On the other hand, if Israel does not find a way to release as many hostages as possible immediately, it will be risking the lives of all of these people - and failing in its most basic obligation to its citizenry to protect Israelis and to redeem them when they are taken hostage or held captive somewhere.

I have listened to many different sides of this debate from an Israeli perspective. I am torn.  I am very concerned that we will continue to face the same ongoing cycle of violence from Hamas - and this deal will risk the lives of many Israelis in the future - who will face attacks from a large number of released murderers.

But, on balance, I believe that we must release anyone who is still alive at this point.  If Israel refuses and proceeds with an invasion of Rafiah - that will involve the potential loss of hundreds of our soldiers.  We may not get any of the hostages back.  We are unlikely to be able to fully destroy Hamas.  We will wind up with thousands of Palestinian casualties, many  of whom will be innocent civilians.  And perhaps, most significantly, we will face massive world pressure, especially from the U.S., the EU  and other places - which may have a devastating cost for Israel in terms of world support, economic pressure and general isolation.

It is quite clear to me that Prime Minister Netanyahu does not want a deal now - and certainly not this one.  If the deal goes ahead, his government may well face a day of reckoning.  Israel may wind up with an election sooner than anticipated.  However, even though Netanyahu himself may not survive an election, the Israeli public could shift even further to the right as a result of all of the events since October 7th, 2023.  

It is also worth noting that there is no deal with Hezbollah in the north yet - and tens of thousands of Israelis who have been evacuated from their homes are still waiting to return.  Many Israeli commentators have indicated that this will only take place after a major war with Hezbollah and Lebanon on Israel's northern border.  I am hopeful that if there is a deal with Hamas, Hezbollah will also agree to some sort of deal - but so far, that is unclear.

As a postscript - while I write this blog - some Israeli officials are saying that Hamas has accepted a "new deal" put together by Qatar and Egypt that Israel has not yet even seen.  Other announcements are that it was the same deal that Israel approved but the U.S. added additional assurances to Hamas that the war would not continue after the 40 days.  I can't really tell you at this point what will happen - and there seems to be quite a mix of opinion from Israeli newscasters and commentators - some of whom think there will be a deal - and many who do not.  At least not at this time.

Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day

Yom  Hashoah v'Hagvurah is one of the most poignant and difficult days on the Israeli calendar.  Israelis attend at remembrance ceremonies across the country on the evening before.  All restaurants and stores are closed from about 6 p.m.  All Israeli television stations and radio stations are dedicated to Holocaust programming.  There are documentaries, interviews, movies and other programs on all night.  

We attended the ceremony in Ra'anana, which focused on the Jews of Kovel, Ukraine this year. Kovel was a town that had 20,000 Jews before World War II, the vast majority of whom were murdered by the Nazis between August and October 1941.  Many were held in the city's large synagogue while knowing that they were about to be murdered.  Some of them wrote their personal stories and prayers on the walls of the synagogue in their own blood, hours before being murdered.  This was obviously a gut wrenching and difficult ceremony to attend.

Afterwards, we watched different Holocaust programming on TV including the National  Remembrance Ceremony from Jerusalem and some other programs featuring the testimony of survivors along with interviews with their children and grandchildren.

One of the most  moving pieces that I watched was an interview with former Israeli Chief Justice Aharon Barak.  Barak is now 87. When he was 5 years old, he miraculously escaped the Ghetto by being hidden in a basket of soldiers' uniforms, along with his mother.  He was hidden by a nearby Lithuanian farmer and his family for a short period of time - and then had to leave.  Another farmer family, Jonas Mozuraitis and his wife Ona, took him and his mother (as well as a few others) and kept them all hidden for almost three years.  The farmer built a double wall with a four foot space in between.  Barak, his mother and the others, were hidden between the walls for entire days and allowed to come out only at night - where they would then spend time with the farmer's family including his children.  Barak eventually came to Israel, studied law, became the Dean at the Hebrew University Law School and eventually the Chief Justice of the Israeli Supreme Court.  The story is nothing short of incredible.

Years later, Barak was asked to meet with Lithuanian officials to provide advice on putting together a constitution - he accepted the invitation on condition that he could meet with the family that had hid him.  Only the farmer's children were still alive.  Barak had a question for them.  "Why did you save us and risk your  lives? he asked.  "If the Nazis had discovered us they would have killed you."  One of the children responded to Barak.  "I don't understand your question.  For us it wasn't a question.  We were religious Catholics.  We believe in our obligation to our fellow human beings, especially those in need.  We saw people who needed help and we knew we had to help  We believe you would do the same."  Barak said the answer has kept him awake every night.  "Would I have the courage and the moral clarity to do the same thing?" He has asked himself repeatedly.  One of  Barak's family members said - the answer is "absolutely."  But Barak was crying while giving this explanation.

Barak, as you might recall, is the Israeli representative on the International Criminal Court which has been hearing the case brought by South Africa alleging that Israel has been carrying out a genocide.  The case is simply outrageous and Barak spoke a bit about it (to the extent that he was able to do so).  Israeli soldiers have been fighting back against  Hamas in a war that Hamas declared on October 7th.  While there have been a large number of civilian Palestinian casualties, the Israeli army has taken extraordinary steps to minimize those casualties.  Israel is fighting an enemy that has set up bases in hospitals, mosques and dense residential areas.  Hamas has transported its fighters in UNRWA vehicles and red cross ambulances.  Sometimes they wear press badges.  Hamas has fired missiles and then hidden underground in tunnels while exposing the civilian population to Israeli responses to the missile fire in those very same areas.

On the other hand, the October 7, 2023 attacks by Hamas were deliberate attacks involving  massacres of civilians - including torture, burning victims alive, rape and all kinds of other atrocities.  The notion that Israel would be charged with genocide for attacking Hamas in response to these crimes against humanity is ludicrous.

All of this context was explored this year during Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day by a wide range of speakers - who also sounded warning bells about the massive worldwide increase in antisemitisms and anti-Semitic attacks.  A special focus has been on U.S. university campuses and some of the completely unacceptable responses by these universities to the targeting of Jewish students on campuses.  Columbia University has, of course, been singled out as one of the worst offenders though the situation across the U.S. is quite grim, especially as viewed through the eyes of Jewish Israelis.  

Of course Canada is not much better.  The University of Toronto is continuing to allow a pro-Hamas encampment on its property - which is actively trying to prevent Jews from entering the area.  Is this 2024?  

Anti-Jewish attacks, rallies and other public antisemitic acts and comments, can all remind us, anytime, but especially on Holocaust Remembrance Day, how things that start like this can quickly descend into much much worse scenarios.

Lighter Note

On a lighter note (compared to everything that is going on here), I stayed up on Saturday night to watch the Maple Leafs blow yet another 7 game series and bow out of the playoffs in the  first round - even with a team loaded with highly paid superstars.  Once again, a tremendous, yet perhaps predictable  disappointment for a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey fan.  At least I saved some money on playoff tickets - though I was looking forward to being back in Toronto for Round 3 or Round 4 - even at an insane cost of $750 per ticket for my lowly purple seats if the Leafs had made it to the finals.  

Here in Israel, the Yes Cable system was showing Leafs' playoff games on Sports 5+ - channel 59 - at 3 a.m.  But wouldn't you know it - they showed games 1 to 6 but not game 7. So I had to stream the CBC using a VPN.  That wound up working out fine.  Unfortunately, no one wanted to stay up and watch with me - so I had to keep from falling asleep on my own.  With overtime, I think the game ended around 6 a.m. on Sunday morning.

My other light note - is that Israel is getting a few days of  unseasonal rain.  The weather forecaster called it the "return of winter" - even though the temperature has not dipped much below 20C.  Some winter...(says the Canadian...)

I will try to write more in the coming days as we have Yom Hazikaron (Israel Remembrance Day for  Soldiers and Victims of Terror), Yom Haatzmaut (Israel Independence Day), the Eurovision Festival, and the pending invasion of Rafiah, Gaza or a possible cease fire deal.  Lots to discuss.

I wish everyone the best of health - and  peace.


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.