Thursday, August 21, 2014

10 reasons I will never be offered an ambassadorial post

Last night I went to hear the Israeli Ambassador to Canada, Rafael Barak, speak. I really didn't want to go because I knew there was going to be a lot of other speakers who were going to say things that would surely upset me. But my mother really wanted me to join her, so since I am leaving Canada in less than a week, I felt accommodating.

According to the most recent statistics I could find (that's not saying much), there are approximately 1500 Jews in Halifax, a city of approximately 350,000. I did a quick count last night and less than 100 showed up to hear the ambassador speak. So, as you can imagine, when one of the hosts for the evening stood up and said "we stand with Israel", I couldn't help but wonder who "we" were. And then, when he said that "we" are going through a very difficult time right now in the history of the Jewish people, I heard myself say almost out loud: "who is he talking about?' The "we" who are are living in Israel under regular missile attacks from Hamas or the more than 90% of the Halifax Jewish "we" who are so concerned about Israel that they didn't even bother to show up last night.

I told myself that I had to sit quietly in my seat and pay attention, no matter what was said. I promised myself that I would not grimace (tougher than expected), nor roll my eyes (almost impossible) nor stand up and leave (my feet almost betrayed me more than once). In the end I was glad that I stayed.

The ambassador spoke beautifully and appropriately. I am not going to review his remarks; if you want to read them, call the embassy and ask for a copy. What I will say is that he was a true diplomat at heart. I really don't know how he does it and here are 10 reasons why I could never do his job, which is unfortunate because on paper it looks really interesting.

10. Let's get all the obvious stuff out of the way first. I do not speak four languages fluently. (I don't even speak two languages fluently -- although my Hebrew wins the admiration of 3-year olds all over my neighbourhood). Second, I have not taken the foreign service exams nor done all the jobs required to climb the foreign service ladder.

9. I would never be able to stand in front of such a small audience and make them feel good about their almost non-existent commitment to Israel. (Yes, as always there are a few who do a lot and almost everyone else does absolutely nothing). I would have been guilting them anyway I could.

8. I could never keep a straight face while I talked about how good a friend Canada is to Israel. I know this ambassadorial post is considered prestigious, I just can't figure out why. Yes, the prime minister is a huge supporter of Israel (thank heavens) but the Canadian people ... ah, I don't think so. I guess the ambassador doesn't read all the comments following pro-Israel articles in Canadian newspapers.

7. How he made 88 people feel like 880 people is beyond me.

6. He managed to smile and nod politely through a performance of Hava Nagila -- a song I have not heard sung even once since I moved to Israel. I could have sworn I was at an NHL hockey game -- Hava Nagila gets a lot of play time during hockey games. Who picked the song list? So many good choices were available and not one of them made the final list.

5. I don't have the generic "diplomat face" thing under control -- and I doubt I could ever learn it. He did not roll his eyes even once while the other speakers tried to discuss how "we" are all in this Gaza war together and "we" are all experiencing this difficult time. The self control of a saint, I tell you.

4. He also displayed remarkable self control while speaking to a reporter on the 5:00 TV news prior to the stimulating program I attended. Of course, since approximately 15% of the local population is now Muslim, it might have been his survival instincts shifting into action.

3. He stayed around for a few minutes afterwards and let many people practice their Hebrew on him. In all fairness, if they had tried that on me, it would have been a wasted effort.

2. He let me squeeze in next to him and take a selfie of us for my friends at home. And then he said: "Oh, a selfie" as if he takes them daily.

1. He seemed like a very charming and genuinely nice man. He's wrangled with the PA and the EEU, and yet, he still had the energy to tolerate last night.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Out of Israel

I have now been out of Israel for one week now. One very, very, very long week feeling totally disconnected from my life at such critical juncture in time.

I've been thinking about it a lot as I watch the local and national Canadian news; as I shop in stores where people don't even know where Israel is. As I go through daily routines without meaning.

It really hit me this morning as I sat in synagogue -- not my synagogue for sure. Approximately 60 people (compared to the approximately 500 I am used to spending my Shabbat with) were there and when the rabbi got up to give his morning sermon I suddenly realized the extent of the disconnect between my life and that of the Jews where I am right now. The rabbi, a very obvious Israeli export, was discussing this week's Torah portion in relation to the current situation. He talked about being a soldier in the IDF from a personal perspective and then he talked about the current Israel-Gaza war vis-a-vis the congregation.

It was a great sermon. But when I scanned the sanctuary I am pretty sure that almost no one was listening. He might as well have been speaking to a wall. Actually he was; a human wall.

Next the rabbi talked about how local Jews should deal with all the hatred swirling around them right now. He acknowledged the population imbalance -- the fact that 15% of the local population is Muslim while only .8% is Jewish - and how disconcerting that must be. (Gee, that must be sooo difficult.) He suggested that they take the opportunity to speak casually and non-confrontationally to the non-Jews with whom they interact everyday. It was a completely natural way to present the Israeli position and hopefully it would be food for thought for the odd person. Seemed like a plan to me.

Yet not an ounce of acknowledgement came from the crowd. No one nodded in agreement. No one turned to their neighbour to discuss it. (When there are only 60 people in a sanctuary that easily holds 500, it is easy to see who is doing what.) I have seen more activity in a graveyard.... on a day when no one was visiting. In our synagogue in Ra'anana we have more conversation than that during the silent meditation prayer.

I left the synagogue feeling really down and very alone.

Hours later, when I turned my computer on after Shabbat, there was an email from one of my friends in Ra'anana about how all the boys from our community who spent the past few weeks in Gaza, were all home and in shul -- and how wonderful it was. I was so envious that I was not there, I could have screamed.  I wanted to see them too. I wanted to say thank you and tell them how glad I was that they were all okay. I wanted to be part of something that really mattered.

Then it dawned on me that none of that morning's congregants were capable of presenting the Israeli position because not one of them actually understands what Israel's position is. And therein lies the disconnect. If there is one thing that Israelis do not suffer from, it is surely a lack of opinions on this (and any other Israel-related situation) and the reason why, sooner or later, there will be very little Jewish life out of Israel.

I really have to get home.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Israeli war

I am old enough now to have watched my fair share of wars on television. I don't have a very clear recollection of Vietnam, but I have some TV-visual memories of all the big blow-ups since then. Unfortunately there have been many of them. Too many. But the one thing I am pretty sure of is that no country conducts its wars like the State of Israel and its governing overlords -- regular Israeli citizens (you thought I was going to say the USA didn't you?).

In the past day the army has issued several requests through television and radio news bulletins requesting civilians (they would say "demanded" but that would surely have the opposite effect) to stop visiting the military zone. Personally I don't even know exactly where that is, but apparently I am part of a very small minority, hence the problem.

The fact that the army has had to re-issue this statement several times tells you how effective they are at getting their message across to regular Israeli citizens. Civilians here seem to think it is their G-d given right to be on the physical edge of a major war, way too close to Gaza, giving encouragement to the soldiers.

The whole idea of supporting the soldiers cannot be argued. I am not even going to state the obvious. Every Israeli, with very few exceptions, is personally invested in this war. Our sons are fighting in Gaza; our countrymen in the South live in constant fear and danger; our very existence is being threatened. It is our war in every possible way. The most recent Israeli polls show that approval ratings for the war effort are at least 90%. Those are the kind of numbers any politician would kill to get.

That does not mean, however, that we should be dropping by the war zone. The last thing Benny Gantz needs right now is visiting delegations of ..... everyone.

The problem is that doing just that has become the norm. "Going to ______ (fill in the blank with your preferred dangerous location)" has become a daily activity for many people. No one even blinks if you tell them you were there that day. I think I am one of the few people I know who has not been near or at a Staging Area since the war began. Of course, if my son was in Gaza right now, you can rest assured I would be right in there with all the other worried Israeli parents and yes, not even the General Chief of Staff would be able to stop me.

I doubt that the Israeli mind understands this, but one can actually be effective outside the official military zone. Apparently the public request for underwear was so well received by the Israeli and non-Israeli Jewish public that the soldiers now have enough pairs of clean undies to last them five years. The same probably holds true for toiletries as well. And I will not even begin to discuss the food.

All of this is what makes this country wonderful. And all of this is giving the army an extra headache.

Here's a snippet of a discussion that took place in my house last night:

Person X (so no one has to deny this conversation later): "I just got a call from D. that the army doesn't want you to drive down to the Staging Area tomorrow. You are going to be in the way. The army cannot do its job if you are in the way."

Person Y (same logic as above): "I didn't hear that."

Person X: "Well, it was on the news more than once today."

Person Y: "I don't believe it. I just spoke to O (a reserved soldier at the border) and he doesn't think it is a problem."

Person X: "Did you speak to Benny Gantz?"

Person Y: "No, but O said it was fine."

Person X: "The army doesn't want you there. What isn't clear about that?"

Person Y: "A and D still want to go so I'm still going. Worst case scenario, you won't need so much fish for dinner tonight."