Good News Friday

In the spirit of my previous post, what better way to finish the week than with another Good News Friday post.

Let’s start with some excellent news from Israel’s biomedical sector. Israeli researchers have engineered a new substance that can better measure glucose levels for diabetics:

People with diabetes must continually check their glucose to make sure their insulin levels do not jump too high or dip too low. Research from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev could make the process easier and more accurate.

Measuring glucose levels for diabetics

The BGU team has engineered a new “super enzyme” that can detect the glucose level in the blood. This super enzyme improves on the standard method of checking glucose levels, where a protein is mixed with a drop of blood to cause a chemical reaction. The reaction oxidizes the glucose and turns it into a different molecule. The process then sends electrons to an electrode and the current is interpreted as glucose level.

Sound complicated? It is. And it’s prone to inaccurate readings: Other substances in the blood, including vitamins or painkillers, can raise the electrical current level and mislead glucose measurements.

The super enzyme, by contrast, detects glucose but is not sensitive to other substances, and returns much quicker responses. That lowers test-taking time and stands to improve patient compliance.

The research was conducted by Profs. Lital Alfonta and Raz Zarivach along with students Itai Algov and Jennifer Grushka from the Department of Life Sciences at BGU.

This is an excellent discovery, one which has the potential to help thousands, if not millions of diabetics throughout the world. Kol hakavod to all the researchers from Ben Gurion University.

An even more exciting discovery is a potential cure for the devastating ALS (or motor neurone or Lou Gehrig’s) disease. This Israeli development doesn’t just slow down the symptoms of ALS, but can actually reverse them:

Current treatments are able to slow ALS’ progression but fail to maintain or restore motor movement. Now, multiple clinical trials conducted by an Israeli firm, Brainstorm Cell Therapeutics, show a first-ever reversal in expected decline for patients, likely to transform how we treat ALS.

Brainstorm, researching a cure for ALS

“We showed a very strong improvement when we compare pre-treatment to post-treatment in the patients that were treated,” said Chaim Lebovits, CEO of Brainstorm, referring to the company’s advanced stem cell therapy treatment. “It means that it’s not even a slowdown of the disease, or a halt, but it’s a reversal of it. It’s unheard of in ALS, if we replicate this in a third trial.”

BrainStorm announced on Monday that its first patients had enrolled in a phase three clinical trial for its treatment of ALS at two American hospitals. The research will occur at Massachusetts General Hospital, UC Irvine Medical Center in California and the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota — and it will include some 200 patients, half of whom will be given a placebo.

The company expects that if the stage three trial goes well, that the US Food and Drug Administration may give regulatory approval for mass use among doctors and patients. The trial will be measured by the ALSFR-S score responder analysis and final data is expected by 2019.

“This is unprecedented, I’m not aware of another treatment program where the potential to alter or improve ALS is as great. We’re very encouraged by the promising results seen so far, and the changes in biomarkers that measure the building blocks of the brain — they suggest that the delivery of these substances is having an effect… we’re confident that we’re on the right track,” said Ralph Kern, MD, Brainstorm’s Chief Operating Officer and Chief Medical Officer.

For patients suffering from ALS, the disease affects the brain’s motor system, or what controls muscle movement and muscle contraction. Patients who are diagnosed with ALS have, on average, some 30 months to live, and famed British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking who suffers from the disease has been an outlier when it comes to longevity.

What an incredible development! Let us pray that the clinical trials are a success and that this treatment goes into effect very quickly. Kol hakavod to the whole team at Brainstorm. May they go on to even greater success.

Changing the subject now to #BDSFails, Austrian university students overwhelmingly condemned the BDS movement as antisemitic:

The Austrian National Union of Students on Friday condemned the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement against Israel as antisemitic, and urged for it to not be given funds or event space.

The resolution received near unanimous support, with no votes against it and one abstention.

The union also adopted a version of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, which includes “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination.”

The Austrian Union of Jewish Students applauded the passage of the resolution, saying in a statement on Friday, “This has been a big step in the fight against antisemitism and we are very happy that after our lobbying effort almost all factions have supported the motion.”

The group extended a “special thanks” to the Greens and Alternative Students (GRAS) for “their continuing support in the fight against all antisemitism.

In its own statement, the GRAS group condemned “the antisemitic BDS campaign and its spread in higher education,” and committed to speaking out against antisemitism.

In August 2016, the student council at Gemany’s prestigious Leipzig University — one of the oldest universities in the world — passed a resolution denouncing the BDS movement, saying its objective “fits seamlessly with the antisemitic campaigns of past centuries, and explicitly with that of the National Socialism; Nazi slogan ‘Don’t Buy From the Jews’ is once again being expressed here.”

This is exceptionally good news as Austria is not exactly famed for its warm feelings towards Jews and/or Israel. Kol hakavod to the student unions that stood up for good versus evil, and voted with their consciences.

And on a similar them, here is Arab-Israeli activist Dema Taya, strongly denouncing accusations of apartheid in Israel, as she stoutly defends her country, calling it the best place to live:

 

Kol hakavod to Dema and to all her Arab colleagues who stand together defending Israel and promoting its democracy. As the number of such pro-Israel Arabs grows, Israeli society will be ever stronger, and maybe peace will indeed blossom.

And now before I go, I want to wish hearty mazal tov to my younger brother Mark and all his family on Yaniv’s barmitzvah this Shabbat. We are really looking forward to celebrating with you with all the family together. May you have lots of nachat from Yaniv and his siblings! מזל טוב ושתזכו לעוד הרבה שמחות עד 120.

I wish you all Chodesh tov and Shabbat Shalom.

Posted in Boycotts and BDS, Israel news, support Israel, Technology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

My 40th Aliya anniversary!

Today, exactly 40 years ago, on the Thursday between Bereishit and Noach, I made aliya from England. (The exact date was 13th October 1977, Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan 5738).

In the beginning…

I fell in love with Israel long before I ever saw it, though I cannot explain how or why that happened. Certainly my upbringing played a crucial part in this love story, and my family connections in Israel added to the plot.

My first memories to do with Israel are connected with my grandparents’ first trip to Israel, back in the mid 1960s, when they met up with their siblings who had escaped the Shoah and reached Israel one way or the other. My grandparents came back with stories about Israel that fired my childish imagination, and brought back photos that filled me with a longing that I couldn’t describe at the time, and even now it is hard to understand.

My parents were the next ones in the family to visit Israel, leaving us children behind with cousins – and I was so jealous of my little brother (RRW here’s looking at you!) who went along with them because he was too little to be left behind. My mother described how disappointed she was when she landed in Israel. She said she had been expecting an Arabian Nights type of landscape, with small domed buildings, palm trees and camels. But what she found, already in the 1960s, were bustling, busy (and dirty!) cities.

Not quite camels and domes. Tel Aviv circa 1972

But again, the stories of family visits, and the photos and cine film of their visit ignited within me an intense longing to see this beloved country for myself.

First visit

I finally got my chance in 1972 when we came on a family visit for the summer. My grandfather had by then bought a flat in Petach Tikva to be near my aunt, but summers were too hot for him, so the flat was empty, just waiting for us.

My first impression of Israel was the heat! In those days there was no “sleeve” from the aircraft to the airport building. You had to descend a flight of stairs and push your way onto a bus, where you hung on for dear life as the bus careered across the tarmac to the building. The heat as we left the plane felt like a hot wet blanket across my face. Coming from soggy dull England I was amazed!

We stayed in that apartment for 6 weeks, living like Israelis, going to the corner makolet (grocery store), travelling by noisy, smelly buses (no air-conditioning in those days!), and of course visiting our family. My parents were determined that we should get to know the country properly, so we went on trips all over Israel, sometimes visiting more cousins, and sometimes simply sight-seeing.

Kever Rachel in 1972. Security? Who needed security back then?

Me’arat HaMachpela in 1972. Almost no security back then

That summer was when my love for Israel solidified into something more concrete. I loved the open, relaxed way of life. I loved the scenery, the holy sites, the beaches, the mountains.

I can hardly describe my excitement on our first trip to Jerusalem, a few days into our visit. I felt the excitement building up as the bus crawled up the steep hills (no Route 1 in those days either) and as the scenery changed from the coastal plains to the foothills of Jerusalem. As we approached the Kotel I could hardly contain my emotions. This was the epicenter of my identity, my religion, my whole being. I have never managed to recreate that initial overwhelming emotion, but I have never forgotten it either.

More than anything I was overcome by the fact that almost everyone in Israel was Jewish! From the bus drivers to the shop-keepers to the street cleaners, the guy selling ice-creams or renting deckchairs on the beach, the beggars on the corner – they were all Jewish. When I mentioned this, my mother admitted that she was horrified at this. But I felt that this proved Israel’s normalcy, in line with Ben Gurion’s famous dictum that Israel would become a normal country when its thieves and prostitutes were Jewish too.  Of course that is not an ideal to aspire to, but the reality that I saw didn’t upset me. On the contrary, I felt at home, as if I belonged, and this was a feeling that was never to go away, and 45 years after that first visit, I still feel the same.

Returning back to dull old England I was determined that I would make Aliya at the first possible moment. My work as a madricha (youth counsellor) in Ezra, my hobbies, all were centered around Israel. We returned to Israel several more times to that same apartment every summer, and I also joined a machane avoda (work camp, though not in the gulag sense! – it was volunteer work as a group) in Kibbutz Shaalvim where I had a blast of a time with my friends.

Aliya! Finally!

And at the grand old age of 19, one year out of high school, I went and did it. I got on that plane and flew to Israel- with my parents’ blessing but quite a few misgivings I must add, from leaving my good friends behind, to missing my family, and all the worries about how I was going to manage. But I already had a job lined up, as the secretary to the hospital engineer of the new Shaare Zedek hospital, where the buildings opposite Mt. Herzl were just starting to go up, so at least on one front I was sorted. I settled in to work, finding a flat and friends pretty quickly, which in the words of my uncle, the late Rabbi Yissachar Meir זצק”ל, I saw as a סימן ברכה  – a sign of blessing, that I had chosen the right path.

An Only in Israel moment at Misrad Hapnim

Let me interrupt this story with an Only in Israel moment. I had been living here on a tourist visa for over 2 years because I didn’t want to use up my “zchuyot Olim” (the aliya benefits for immigrants) before I was married with a home of my own. But the Misrad Hapnim started making noises when I turned up to renew my visa yet again.  After 2½ years I decided enough was enough, and on my next visit to the Misrad Hapnim, when the clerk said “Oh, it’s you again!”, I told him I wanted to change my status to an Olah.

Well, the change in the man was quite dramatic! His stern sour face turned into a beaming ray of joy! He opened a cupboard under his desk and took out: a bottle of wine, a packet of biscuits and a small vase with a plastic flower! 😀   He then shouted out “Mazal Tov!”, and entered the waiting room where he poured everyone little cups of wine and a biscuit. It was simply too funny! But so heartwarming.  ❤

The story continues:

Very shortly afterwards I met my husband. He turned out to be almost the boy next door from London, a friend of my brother, but we had to travel 2,000 miles to Israel to meet! We got married in the Holy Land Hotel (alav hashalom, no thanks to Ehud Olmert 😦    ) with the beautiful landscape of Jerusalem as a backdrop to our Chuppah.

Our chuppah at the Holy Land with the view of Jerusalem in the background

My love story with Israel

What does Israel mean for me after all these years?

Well, first of all it means family. I am both proud and humbled at the fact that we have a whole tribe of children and grandchildren living around the country, settling the land that our forefathers built, the Land that Hashem promised us and which for millenia was but a mirage, a far-off dream for our ancestors.

My family, Sabras all ☺

I am delighted that my parents and siblings and in-laws made aliya over the last 20-25 years, meaning that our families are now strongly established with firm roots in the soil of our promised land.

I love living by the Jewish calendar. I love that the country is run on Jewish time, so that for example Friday afternoons workplaces are closed, the streets quieten down, and a wonderful peace descends on the country. I love that as the chagim approach, I hear songs and music related to that festival being played over the sound systems in the supermarkets and shopping malls. I love that doughnuts appear as soon as Sukkot is over, and hamantaschen appears in the shops as soon as Chanukah is over! I love that Christmas passes by unnoticed and unmarked in most places in Israel (with no offence to my Christian friends), but Christians are still free to celebrate their festivals as they please.

I am so proud of our crazy little country which mere decades ago could hardly stand on its own two feet, and now sends aid to disaster zones all over the world, from Haiti to Nepal to Florida and even Houston, Texas.

I love my country for being a world leader in biomedical science and in hi-tech, producing some of the world’s leading drugs, medical devices and technological developments. This is just mere years after having to wait years for a telephone land-line! And not being able to buy decent coffee here!

I am even prouder of our brave little country that extends medical help and aid to our Syrian neighbours, even though Syria is still in a state of war with us and is one of our bitterest enemies. Through our humanitarian assistance we are making friends and good neighbours in a place where we could not have imagined just a few years ago.

I love Israel for the way it treats its enemies, despite what the anti-Semites say. Our IDF is the most moral fighting force in the world today, and no one can change that fact with lies.

I love Israelis for their caring attitude towards each other in times of emergency and crisis, whether on a national scale or on a personal level. They might try to trample you in the queue for the supermarket checkout but they will sit you down and bring you water, and help you to the car if you fall over. They might try to run you down as you cross the road, but you will never be left alone if you trip in the road, or have an actual car accident G-d forbid.

I love living in a Jewish country where I feel that I belong, that I am not just tolerated by a benign host but that I am welcomed here, that I am living and contributing and strengthening my own country.

In Israel I feel that I am part of something much bigger than me. I am living history, creating history in this country.

My son Zvi suggested half-jokingly that my 40 years in Israel are a tikkun (a “correction”) for the sin of the Israelite spies in the desert who reported back to Moses on how bad the Land of Israel was, how dangerous and frightening. The Children of Israel burst into tears and did not want to continue. As a result Hashem punished them with 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.

Maybe Zvi had a point. I remember learning about the sin of the spies in school, and our teacher, Mr. Grunfeld z”l made a great impression on me when he taught us about the absolute “issur” (forbidden-ness) of הוצאת דיבה על הארץ – spreading bad news about Israel. It became a kind of beacon guiding my life after that, and my blog is in fact based on this principle, whether consciously or unconsciously.

But really, to sum my entire Aliya story, I just want to say…

I am home.

Posted in Family, History, Israel news, Slice of Israeli life | Tagged , , , | 26 Comments

Trump decertifies the Iran deal

After the festivals were over we were greeted with the very good news that President Donald Trump had announced that he was not going to recertify the JCPOA – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as “the Iran deal”. Instead he intended to create a new strategy on Iran. The blog War Sclerotic brings us the full text of Trump’s speech, plus the highlights:

“It is time for the entire world to join us in demanding that Iran’s government end its pursuit of death and destruction.” – President Donald J. Trump

President Donald J. Trump, in consultation with his national security team, has approved a new strategy for Iran. It is the culmination of nine months of deliberation with Congress and our allies on how to best protect American security.

HIGHLIGHTS

Core Elements of the President’s New Iran Strategy

• The United States’ new Iran strategy focuses on neutralizing the Government of Iran’s destabilizing influence and constraining its aggression, particularly its support for terrorism and militants.

• We will revitalize our traditional alliances and regional partnerships as bulwarks against Iranian subversion and restore a more stable balance of power in the region.

• We will work to deny the Iranian regime – and especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – funding for its malign activities, and oppose IRGC activities that extort the wealth of the Iranian people.

• We will counter threats to the United States and our allies from ballistic missiles and other asymmetric weapons.

• We will rally the international community to condemn the IRGC’s gross violations of human rights and its unjust detention of American citizens and other foreigners on specious charges.

• Most importantly, we will deny the Iranian regime all paths to a nuclear weapon.

You can read the entire text at the link, and you can watch the video of Trump’s speech here:

In Israel, we all breathed a huge sigh of relief at Trump’s announcement, though there is still a long way between declarations and enforcement.

Binyamin Netanyahu said that Trump made a historic, bold decision on Iran:

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu lauded President Donald Trump’s announcement Friday that he would not recertify Iran’s compliance with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal.

On Sunday, Netanyahu told Fox News that Trump had taken a “historic and bold” step towards preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons; part of what he called the broader challenge presented by the Tehran regime.

“Iran is the foremost terrorist state of our time,” said Netanyahu.

“It hangs gays, jails journalists, subjugates women, foments terrorism throughout the world. To have a regime like this, whose economy is 30 times the size of North Korea – to have a rogue regime like that acquire an arsenal of nuclear weapons in 10 years’ time, which is what the Iran agreement now provides for Iran to do, is a terrible folly.”

“So I commend the president for taking an historic and bold decision to avert this danger in time. He could have kicked the can down the road; he could have said ‘it’s not going to happen on my watch, so I’ll just let it go’. But he didn’t, and he faced up to this danger.”

Quoting President Trump, Netanyahu called upon the signatories of the JCPOA to “fix it – or nix it, because it could be very, very, dangerous if it just went through.”

While Prime Minister Netanyahu was a staunch opponent of the JCPOA prior to its passage two years ago, he suggested he would be satisfied with alterations to the deal.

“I’m focused on the goal. The goal is to prevent Iran from ever acquiring nuclear weapons. And you can achieve it either by fixing this bad deal or by nixing it. I don’t particularly care which one.”

The Prime Minister then laid out his criteria for an acceptable nuclear deal with Tehran.

“There are several key things that you want to make sure. One is that you don’t remove restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program just by changing the calendar. You want to see a real change in Iran’s behavior – that’s eliminated the so-called automatic ‘sunset clause’ on restrictions. The second thing is prevent Iran from developing intercontinental ballistic missiles that are only useful for nuclear weapons – and you can do that. And the third thing is… to have real inspections. Right now, Iran doesn’t allow you to inspect military sites. It lets you inspect everywhere else – but where do you think they’re going to hide these things?”

Speaking with CBS on Sunday, Netanyahu noted the wide consensus in the region, in a rare example of Arab-Israel unity, for tougher conditions on Iran aimed at blunting its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.

“I mean, it’s not just Israel that is supporting the president. It’s key Arab states like Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. And I suggest that, you know, when Israel and the key Arab states agree on something, you know, you should pay attention. We’re close with our ears to the ground. We live right here next to Iran. We see what it’s doing. And I think that what the president has done is created now space to prevent a very bad deal from materializing and to fix it. Everybody should join forces in doing just that.”

Watch Netanyahu’s interview on Fox News after Trump’s announcement:

Former Senator and Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Joe Lieberman strongly backed Trump’s decision as he outlined the flaws in the Iran deal:

Reactions in the liberal political sphere were less admiring, full of warnings of gloom and doom about Trump’s decision. But Tim Stanley, writing in the Telegraph, asks “How can people not see that on foreign policy Trump is right?” (via HDK via BP):

The fate of the Iran nuclear deal is a good example of how the Trump doctrine differs from Obama’s. At first glance the deal, agreed in 2015, looked marvellous: the world lifted sanctions in exchange for Tehran abandoning a nuclear energy programme that could have been converted to military use.

The UK Foreign Office says that Iran has given up 95 per cent of its uranium stockpile. Despite this, Trump has refused to recertify it and has asked Congress to review it. How can Trump be right and so many brilliant people all over the world be wrong?

The thing is that foreign policy – like economics – is capable of stagnating into orthodoxy. It was received opinion in the Seventies, for instance, that the best way to handle the arms race between America and the Soviet Union was to set agreed limits on nuclear stockpiles while expanding trade in oil and grain. Sound familiar?

American politicians scored a diplomatic coup that won them votes at home, but the communists were playing a longer game. Détente gave the Soviets vital economic boosts while, under the cover of cooperation with the West, they expanded revolutionary struggle into Africa, Asia and the Americas. Disarmament wasn’t the goal. It never is for rogue regimes.

Obama’s foreign policy was based upon a similar premise of buying peace for a limited time. The Iran deal was predicted to give Tehran access to over $100 billion in frozen assets and allow it to sell oil abroad. The mullahs are now in the money, and, I’m sad to have to tell you, they’ve not given it all to CND.

Stanley offers a pop-psychology opinion on how and why Trump manages to get under people’s skin even as he acts in America’s best interests:

Why is it that Trump can see the folly of this deal and others can’t? A recent interview with Forbes magazine, one of the few to take him seriously, noted that Trump was never the kind of entrepreneur who creates a business that satisfies several stakeholders at once. He was a dealmaker, working on the assumption that for one party to do well, the other must get screwed.

That’s why he’s a bad president when it comes to issues such as global warming or free trade: he cannot accept the idea that America making a sacrifice helps the world – and that this can help America, too. But his doctrine of aggressive self-interest does inject a welcome dose of cynicism into relations with dictators who are even more cynical than Donald J Trump.

The UN was reportedly horrified by Trump’s blunt speech. Bravo. One of the best things about the new president is that he pierces the decades-old crust of polite hypocrisy that surrounds global politics.

The UN is full of envoys who praise human rights and peace while, back home, their rulers export terrorism and execute their opponents. The West should avoid war with them, yes, but good for Trump for not pretending they are angels or backing deals that throw fanatics a lifeline.

Indeed Donald Trump is not everyone’s cup of tea, and his undiplomatic, sometimes even undignified behavior grates on the polite diplomatic world. But sometimes we need a rough diamond to shake up the hypocrisy and fake politesse of political circles and the diplomatic world in order to bring back a semblance of sanity to Western civilization.

Now we need to wait and see what the renegotiated deal looks like and how it will be implemented.

Posted in Defence and Military, International relations, Iran, Mideast news | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Good News Friday

The chagim are finally over and it’s back to normal programming at last, so I’m happy to post my first “regular” Good News Friday installment for this year.

Since the latest news concerned the US withdrawal from UNESCO, signifying support for Israel, I thought it fitting to post a couple of items on the same subject.

Israellycool has a fantastic recording of an Australian reporter’s “life-changing visit to Israel”.  Just listen to Sydney Live Producer Zac McLean on his trip (click the orange arrow at the top left of the image below):

Kol hakavod to the Mr. McLean’s honesty and openness to hear different views, allowing him to receive a true picture of the reality in Israel. If only other journalists would follow his example.

Diliman Abdulkader

A similar report by a man who visited Israel with an open mind appeared in the Jerusalem Post in August, but I have only just now got around to posting this. It is an extraordinary account by Diliman Abdulkader, an Iraqi Kurd who came to Israel curious to find out about the hostility expressed towards Israel. He was honest enough to describe “Israel: It is not what you see on TV”:

My first interaction with an Israeli was with a taxi driver driving me to my hotel. His conversations were animated, his politics realistic. He said he doesn’t care what religion one believes in, he just wants to live in peace. I tested the waters and told him I was Kurdish and he was very excited.

His eyes lit up and he immediately called for establishing a Kurdistan without my prodding. “That was easy,” I said to myself.

My time in Tel Aviv was brief, a little over a week. But what the city offered was unprecedented to me, especially in the Middle East. It is modern, filled will young Israelis enjoying life at the beaches, nightlife spots, restaurants. It is also historical and diverse. I witnessed Muslims and Jews intermingling, mosques calling for prayer, Arab families enjoying their time together on the beaches after breaking their fast. No one bothered others; everyone minded their own business. I tried hard to discover instances of negative interactions between the two peoples, but they even smoked hookah together at the local café.

I thought that maybe Tel Aviv is in its own little bubble, distant from the reality we witness every day in the media, so together with my class, we took a bus ride to Jerusalem.

I was excited, having heard so much about the ancient city – from the time when the Kurdish sultan Saladin Ayubi conquered the Old City from the Crusaders to the current Arab-Israeli conflict.

After a short ride, we checked into our dorms and got a tour of Hebrew University, where we would be studying for the rest of the trip. Hebrew University has a beautiful campus situated on a hill overlooking the Old City. Without having any knowledge of the school, I assumed there would be only Israelis studying there, but again I was wrong. Young college students included Jews, Muslims, women with and without headscarves all together at this institution. I was still struggling to find the picture that the Arab world and the mainstream media have painted.

Throughout my time in Jerusalem I had the opportunity to speak with locals and elected officials, Arabs and Israelis at cafés, restaurants, bars, in the Muslim quarter, the Knesset, the shuk (outdoor bazaar) and so on. My interactions with Palestinians took place in the Muslim quarter, at the local restaurants and tea houses – all men, as talking with the women was looked down upon.

I also visited the walls built around the Palestinian territories.

My feelings were mixed, but having personally experienced war and refugee camps from Arab governments, Syrian President Bashar Assad and former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, a Palestinian ally, I thought although it is not the ideal solution for either side – safety and security are better than terrorism.

One conversation that would stick with me was with a uniformed IDF soldier in his early 20s. I approached him while he was sitting alone having lunch, and began to slowly move past small talk. He was proud to serve his nation and was ready to defend it both literally and verbally.

He wasn’t a “tough guy,” he simply loved his nation.

He mentioned although it is mandatory for him to serve in the IDF, he would have done it regardless. He was also curious where I was from. When I replied Kurdistan, he shook his head in sadness, acknowledging that we are without a state and thanked me for our people fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

Read it all. What a wonderful description of Israel this is. Kol hakavod to Diliman Abdulkader on his open-mindedness, his curiosity, his honesty and above all his courage in visiting Israel and writing about his experience.

In the diplomatic sphere, a delegation of 27 parliamentarians from around the world came to visit Kever Rachel, Rachel’s Tomb, over Sukkot, and they expressed unreserved support for Israel and its presence in all of Judea and Samaria (via Reality). In the words of Repulican Representative for South Carolina, Alan Clemmons, “A Jew cannot be an illegal occupier in Judea“:

Clemmons is taking part in the 6th annual Israel Allies Foundation Jerusalem Chairman’s Conference, which focuses on the 50th anniversary of the liberation and unification of Jerusalem and on instituting a new definition of anti-Semitism to include Anti-Zionism, in countries around the world.

Clemmons has attained world-wide attention due to his particularly unabashed support for Israel’s “right and duty to determine the destiny of her own God-given lands in Judea, Samaria and eastern Jerusalem without pressure from the United States.”

“We believe that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel, and we call for moving the American embassy to Israel. We believe that’s the right thing to do and, as a Republican, that’s part of our Republican platform. We look forward to that eventuality occurring under President Trump,” he stressed.

“Some would call this ‘the West Bank,’” said Clemmons regarding Judea and Samaria, “but in reality this is the heartland of Israel. This is where Israel in ancient times first came when they entered into the Promised Land.”

He rejected the notion that Israel could be described as an “occupier” in Judea and Samaria.

“A popular lie told throughout the world is that Israel is an ‘illegal occupier’ of Judea and Samaria, and I have a simple response to that,” said Clemmons. “I don’t understand how a Jew can be an illegal occupier of Judea any more than an Arab can be an illegal occupier of Arabia.”

“Jews are here in their homeland,” he stressed. “This is the Jewish homeland and we are standing in the heartland of the Jewish world. There have been periods of forced separation, but for the last 100 years there was an effort to return the land of Israel to its rightful owner, the rightful owner reflected back in the oldest deed known to mankind. That deed is recorded in the Bible. A deed from God to Abraham, of this land upon which we’re standing as an eternal inheritance for the people of Israel.”

Watch Rep. Clemmons as he expresses his support for Israel:

Kol hakavod to Mr. Clemmons and all the other politicians who were courageous enough to accompany him on this visit of support to Israel. May their important message spread far and wide, and may others learn from their example.

May all these messages of support for Israel and the Jewish people be the harbinger of much more good news in the coming year.

And on this note I wish you all Shabbat Shalom!

Posted in Media and journalism, support Israel | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Great news! US to withdraw from UNESCO, Israel to follow suit

Anti-Israel UNESCO

Great news to start the year! What better news to greet us after Simchat Torah than the Trump Administration announcing its plans to withdraw from UNESCO! The reasons were both financial and because of UNESCO’s anti-Israel bias (which I have blogged about many times on this blog). From the ToI:

The United States announced Thursday that it is withdrawing from the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), citing financial considerations, the need for reform and the organization’s “continuing anti-Israel bias.”

In a statement, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said that the decision was “not taken lightly and reflects US concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform within the organization and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO.”

Nauert said Washington would establish an “observer mission” to replace its representation at the Paris-based agency.

The withdrawal will take effect on December 31, 2018.

The head of UNESCO Irina Bokova voiced “profound regret” over the decision, which she called a “loss to multilateralism.”

Israel’s Ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, said UNESCO has become a forum for Israel-bashing and had forgotten its original purpose. It was now “paying the price” for the “shameful” decisions it has adopted against Israel, he said, citing “a new era” dawning at the UN in which “anti-Israel discrimination” has consequences.

According to a Foreign Policy magazine report on Wednesday, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made the decision to withdraw several weeks ago at the UN General Assembly, but the State Department urged Washington to remain in the organization until a new director-general is voted in the coming weeks.

The US pulled out of UNESCO in the 1980s because Washington viewed it as mismanaged and used for political reasons, then rejoined it in 2003.

The current head of UNESCO, Irina Bukova, is in fact quite neutral and even fair-minded when it comes to Israel. The trouble is that the votes don’t necessarily follow her moderate way of thinking, and the automatic Arab and Muslim anti-Israel majority always outvote both Israel and the US with more and more absurd resolutions, like denying any Jewish connection to Jerusalem or calling Hebron a Palestinian heritage site. Therefore even if the new chief is also neutral on the issue of Israel, there does not seem to be any likelihood of major change in UNESCO’s automatic anti-Israel direction.

You will probably be surprised – I know I was – to learn that UNESCO passed more anti-Israel resolutions than the Human Rights Council! Hillel Neuer tweeted:

After the United States’ UNESCO bombshell,  US Ambassador Nikki Haley warned the UN that its other agencies will also come under scrutiny:

In a statement later Thursday, Ambassador Haley recalled that, “In July, when UNESCO made its latest outrageous and politically based decision, designating the Old City of Hebron and the Tomb of the Patriarchs as part of Palestinian territory, the United States clearly stated that this decision would negatively affect our evaluation of our level of engagement with the organization.” Thursday’s decision to withdraw from UNESCO, she indicated, represented the result of that evaluation.

President Donald Trump and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley

Furthermore, she warned, “The United States will continue to evaluate all agencies within the United Nations system through the same lens.”

Haley added that, “The purpose of UNESCO is a good one. Unfortunately, its extreme politicization has become a chronic embarrassment. The Tomb of the Patriarchs decision was just the latest in a long line of foolish actions, which includes keeping Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad on a UNESCO human rights committee even after his murderous crackdown on peaceful protestors. Just as we said in 1984 when President Reagan withdrew from UNESCO, US taxpayers should no longer be on the hook to pay for policies that are hostile to our values and make a mockery of justice and common sense.”

In June, ahead of a trip to Israel, Haley said the US could withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council unless it carried out reforms, including by removing its built-in procedural mechanism to bash Israel.

Haley said the Council’s “relentless, pathological campaign” against a state with a strong human rights record “makes a mockery not of Israel, but of the Council itself.”

In a speech to the Graduate Institute of Geneva, Haley said that if the Human Rights Council failed to make the required changes, the US would consider quitting the body and looking for ways to promote human rights in different frameworks.

The Council, she said, needs to abolish the infamous Agenda Item 7 (“the human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories”), which singles out Israel for perpetual censure. “There is no legitimate human rights reason for this agenda item to exist,” Haley said. “It is the central flaw that turns the Human Rights Council from an organization that can be a force for universal good, into an organization that is overwhelmed by a political agenda.”

“The Council is no more justified in having a separate agenda item on Israel than it is on having one for the United States, or Canada, or France, or the United Kingdom. More appropriate would be to have an agenda item on North Korea, Iran, and Syria, the world’s leading violators of human rights,” she said.

“These changes are the minimum necessary to resuscitate the Council as a respected advocate of universal human rights,” she went on. The US “will not sit quietly while this body, supposedly dedicated to human rights, continues to damage the cause of human rights,” she warned.

Since the Human Rights Council was created, it has passed more than 70 resolutions criticizing Israel but only seven on Iran, Haley said. “This relentless, pathological campaign against a country that actually has a strong human rights record makes a mockery not of Israel, but of the Council itself.”

In that same speech in June, Haley also slammed the effort to create a blacklist of Israel companies that operate in the settlements.

Ambassador Haley should be applauded for her strong stance against the hypocrisy and bias inherent in all UN institutions by virtue of the one-country one-vote system, whereby the multitudes of dictatorships and tyrannies vastly outnumber Israel, the US and other civilized democracies.

As soon as the Trump Administration announced its intention of leaving UNESCO, Israel promptly followed suit, announcing its own plans to withdraw:

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced Thursday night that Israel will be exiting the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) over the organization’s anti-Israeli bias, following a similar announcement by the Trump administration.

UNESCO’s board is set to meet next week and had announced that the anti-Israel resolutions it had intended to bring to a vote would be postponed for six months. This is seen by sources as a possbile attempt to stave off the actions of the US and Israel.

Netanyahu’s statement came just hours after the US State Department declared that the US would be leaving UNESCO by 2019 due to its anti-Israel bias.

The leading contender for the post of head of UNESCO is a Qatari delegate. The Simon Wiesenthal Center protested the choice, writing that candidate Hamad bin Abdulaziz Al-Kawari has repeatedly endorsed anti-Semitic works and denied Jewish connection to Jerusalem.

..

The Prime Minister’s Office revealed that Netanyahu had already called on his country’s diplomats to prepare for Israel’s departure from UNESCO.

“The Prime Minister instructed the Foreign Ministry to prepare Israel’s withdrawal from the organization alongside the United States,” the statement by the Prime Minister’s Office read.

Netanyahu added that he “welcomes the decision by President Trump to withdraw from UNESCO. This is a courageous and moral decision because UNESCO has become the theater of the absurd and because instead of preserving history it distorts it.”

Netanyahu’s decision was bolstered by Israel’s Ambassador to UNESCO, Carmel Shama-Hacohen:

Earlier Thursday, Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, said his personal recommendation to Netanyahu would be to “immediately withdraw” from the organization.

Israeli Ambassdor to UNESCO, Carmel Shama-Hacohen and UNESCO head Irina Bukova

Shama-Hacohen said that in recent years UNESCO has become “an absurd organization that has lost its way in favor of the political considerations of certain countries” and that his “personal recommendation to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is to follow suit and immediately withdraw [from UNESCO].”

In my opinion it would have been better if Israel had been the first to withdraw from UNESCO, rather than following the US like a junior partner. Although it is understandable that Israel was concerned about the diplomatic backlash it might have faced, by following the US so closely it makes Israel appear as a vassal state of the US rather than a sovereign independent-minded country.

Nevertheless, the decision to withdraw from UNESCO by both countries is an excellent position and has been a long time, maybe too long, in coming. Now let’s see how long it takes us to withdraw from the Human Rights Wrongs Council.

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Simchat Torah 5778 – Chag Same’ach!

Simchat Torah

The marathon of Jewish holidays is almost over. as the last and most joyous festival of the holiday season approaches– Sukkot finishes tonight and Simchat Torah begins.

But before that, today, the last day of Sukkot, is known as Hoshana Raba, which despite the happy nature of Sukkot is a serious day, the last day on whcih we can repent before G-d seals the Book of Life for the coming year. Special selichot prayers and the Hoshanot tefila – a circling of the synagogue 7 times while holding the Lulav and Etrog – take place in the synagogues.

Hoshana Raba Tefilot at the Kotel

Arutz Sheva has a great photo essay of the prayer service at the Kotel early this morning, attended by thousands, and this video compilation of some of the prayers:

I can’t help always feeling a twinge of sadness as we leave the Sukkah and return to our home. The Israeli journalist and Jewish thinker Sivan Rahav-Meir has an interesting point to make:

A short idea before leaving the Succah: every year on Succot I am reminded of one of the first Divrei Torah (“vorts”, ideas related to the Torah) that I heard in my life. It was when I was 15, at the end of some meal in some educational meeting of teenagers, and a girl named Daphna declared: “It can’t be that we eat here without saying a vort, even just a small one”. I did not know what vort meant, but she immediately continued: “There is a strong connection between Succot and Passover. These two holidays teach us to appreciate the most basic things in life. In Passover we learn to appreciate bread when we have to do without it for a whole week; on Succot we learn to appreciate our home, when we have to do without it for a whole week”.
Every year anew I am reminded of her, of Passover and of Succot. It is a short, simple idea, but also a very deep one: when you feel the lack of something, when you leave your comfortable permanent house – you appreciate your daily life even more.

And now on to Simchat Torah, which in Israel is combined with Shemini Atzeret. As I wrote in previous years:

Simchat Torah (Rejoicing of the Torah). It is a day that is combined with Shemini Atzeret (lit: 8th day of Assembly) in Israel, whereas outside Israel it is celebrated over 2 days, with Shemini Atzeret first, and Simchat Torah on the next day, for reasons to be found here.

Simchat Torah

The festival is almost schizophrenic in character because its two parts are so completely different.  Shemini Atzeret is festive yet serious, with the Yizkor (memorial for the dead) prayer and Tefilat Geshem, the prayer for rain, (more on that here).

Simchat Torah on the other hand is pure joy, and in Israel, with the festival being celebrated all on one day, it always feels very strange to me to make the sudden switch from all the happiness and jollity of Simchat Torah to the serious prayers of Shemini Atzeret during the Musaf prayers.

But such is the reality of Jewish life I suppose, with seriousness and joy and celebration all rolled together.

So tonight we will all be gathering in shul to start the celebrations,  and the excitement of the day is something I still remember from my own childhood. All the Torah scrolls will be removed from the Aron Hakodesh  and distributed to congregants. Then the singing and dancing commences, with the Torah scrolls being danced round the shul in 7 hakafot; between each hakafah the Torahs are handed to other members. During the dancing sweets are handed out to the children who dance with their fathers holding flags (and bags to hold the sweets!).

Tomorrow morning, after morning services, the dancing with the Torah scrolls will be repeated, followed by the reading of the last chapters of the Torah: Zot Habracha (“This is the Blessing”), the blessing given by Moshe to the Children of Israel just before his death. The portion is read over and over (and over!) until every single member of the shul has been given an aliya. At that stage all the children are called up under a Chuppah, and they recite the Hamalach Hagoel prayer together with Shema Yisrael. It is an extremely exciting yet moving experience and I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

There are several other customs on Simchat Torah: one person is nominated to be Chatan Torah, another to be Chatan Bereishit.

At the end of all the Torah readings, the Chatan Bereishit starts the Torah reading right from the beginning by reading the first chapters of Bereishit, to show how happy we are to begin the cycle again.

Once all these festivities are over, the atmosphere takes a sudden turn to the serious, and we say Yizkor, followed by Tefilat Geshem.  This year the first rains began slightly early and several sukkot were washed out or the lights fused by the sudden rain. However you will never hear anyone complaining about the rain in Israel. At the first droplets you hear children shouting in joy “Geshem!” (Rain!). It’s such an exciting experience after 6 or more dry months.  In the Torah, the rainfall in Israel is so closely connected to our behaviour and keeping the mitzvot that it is a positive relief, even to the secular amongst us, to see the rain arrive in the right time.

When Simchat Torah finishes tomorrow night, it has become an Israeli tradition to launch into second Hakafot, a second round of dancing with the Torah, but since it is no longer chag, we can use loudspeakers and have live music. It is a wonderful, uniting experience and it started as a sign of solidarity with our Diaspora brothers who celebrate Simchat Torah on the second day.

I wish you all a pitka taba, or a guten kvittel (a good note) for Hoshana Raba, and wish you all a wonderful chag same’ach for this last day of yomtov.

!חג שמח

Posted in Israel news, Judaism, Slice of Israeli life | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments