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A Wedding Beckons

Love takes us to Tel Aviv; a place of contradictions, too often at threat of war

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Regina Chaya and Jason are to be married and B4 and Paul are among the fortunate to be invited.

Dear friend Nicky (Miki) Yakubovich and his lovely wife Jane have honored us with an invitation to the wedding of their son, Jason and his fiancé, Regina Chaya Radusky. The gracious invitation is a gift to us; giving us both the opportunity to share in their joy and to experience Israel. It is, to be sure, a destination wedding--that destination being Tel Aviv, Israel.

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B4 has been to Israel but once--thirty years ago, she says--I have not. Having already visited 109 countries on this planet Earth, I've no excuse for having not made it to this vibrant and fascinating place before now. I am excited at the prospect.

Our travel, like our lives and our destination, is complicated. Today I fly MCI-LGA followed by Lyft LGA-JFK to meet B4 who, having left Kansas City two days earlier, arrives from SLC (a board of directors meeting) and LAS (a real estate meeting). We will meet at the Marriott Courtyard JFK--even though my flight is delayed due to weather, I arrive a few hours before she does--to spend the night before leaving tomorrow noon for our overnight flight to Tel Aviv.

We humbly invite you to be our guests through nine planned entries over nine days as true love takes us to a land of--sometimes--violence and even war. SHOULD YOU WISH TO BE UNSUBSCRIBED FROM THIS BLOG, PLEASE DON'T HESITATE TO NOTIFY PAUL AT paul@russraff.com. NO HARD FEELINGS. In addition, please know that we love to receive comments; look for the button should you wish to weigh in. If you know of others who might enjoy reading of our experience, notify Paul so they can be added to the subscribers' list.

A bit of research prior to this journey has given me the sense that Israelis think of rockets overhead as midwesterners think of tornados on the horizon. "Look, there's one. I'll worry about it if it seems to be coming straight at me; otherwise, it's a frequent nuisance about which I am fully aware and not unduly afraid." Another day, another threat; nothing new.IMG_7848.JPGMortarShellsFiredFromGaza.jpg

We shall see.

As a mostly irrelevant side note, it was 62 years ago yesterday that a tornado ripped through my neighborhood in Kansas City's Ruskin Heights neighborhood, killing 44 and injuring 531 but leaving me safe hiding under a heavy table in the basement of the home of my late aunt and uncle. I was a third grader entranced as my Aunt Thelma, huddled next to me, remarked to my Uncle Jim that, "Oh, do you hear that train? Those poor people don't know that there is severe weather about." Warning sirens, watches and warnings had yet to be invented. Little did she--and we--know that the sound we so clearly heard was a fiercely violent funnel cloud momentarily and inexplicably lifting to spare our home. I will never forget that night.

I am hopeful that nothing occurs during the next week to make this trip memorable for anything other than love and joy and peace.

Posted by paulej4 13:55 Archived in USA Comments (9)

600 Rockets Arrived Three Weeks Ago; We Arrive Tomorrow

Israel; just slightly older than I

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We leave the shores of the United States 71 years and two weeks after the State of Israel was established for what is, inexplicably, my first visit. B4 has been to Israel only once before. Yesterday was the first anniversary of the relocation of the United States Embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It is also the anniversary of what the New York Times called, “a bloody mass protest along the Gaza boundary fence, when scores of Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire. Israel said it was defending its border.” On Tuesday, March 26, two months ago, a day after a rocket fired from southern Gaza landed on a house, injuring seven persons, including a toddler. An Israeli police spokesman, Ami Ben-David, called on residents of Mishmeret, Israel, to continue their daily routines—stressing that businesses would open and schools would hold classes. “It is over and it is back to the routine,” he said.

But for B4 and me, our “routine” does not include visiting areas that are targeted by rocket fire. But that we now do. Back in March, I pondered that in eight weeks’ time the two of us would be leaving to visit Tel Aviv, just a bit over twenty miles from Mishmeret—twenty miles closer to the place from which the rocket in question was launched.

It will be long over, I thought, by the time we get there. They will be, as the policeman said, “back to the routine.”

But then, on May 3, nineteen days ago, more rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel—this time an estimated 600 of them. Israel responded with airstrikes against Hamas, the governing body of Gaza. Four Israelis and 23 Palestinians were killed.

The most intense fighting since a 50-day war in 2014—when thousands of rockets were launched—this is occurring just prior to our journey to celebrate not war but love. We are off to a wedding 45 miles north of the launch sites of these weapons of random death.

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As I ponder this, I am reminded of the bumper sticker formerly affixed to the car owned by “T,” our ej4 studio manager, which states simply: “Coexist.” A difficult goal for many in Kansas City and for those all around the Gaza Strip, a seemingly impossible one.

The reports I read say that residents of the Gaza Strip gather every Friday along the Israeli border to protest. Often turning violent as people try to surge across the border into Israel, some are often killed in the mayhem that ensues. In 2007, Israel imposed a blockade upon the Hamas-controlled residents of this area. The economy inside the Strip has been devastated; unemployment is over 50%. Hamas wants the blockade eased. Israel wants things to be peaceful. Neither goal, it is made clear from these recent attacks, is being achieved.

It is in the shadow of this that B4 and I embark—for the first time in our lives, together or apart—for what seems to me to be a war zone. While we are here, we will attempt to better learn why things here make T’s “Coexist” goal seem both naïve and unachievable.

Security on El Al is very different from what to which we are accustomed. Interestingly there is no TSA Precheck--they don't participate. I assume it isn't stringent enough for what many call the world's most security conscious airline. The internet is full of posts that insist there is at least one armed undercover agent aboard every flight. There are armed guards at ticket counters but then, in this day and age, there are armed (heavily armed) guards everywhere you look in New York--particularly at the airports. Every El Al passenger, prior to check-in, is questioned at a separate podium--in person by a security agent--and El Al (reportedly and unapologetically) uses 'profiling' to determine the extent of their 'interrogation.' We are asked about the nature of our 'relationship,' (she said 'partners'; I said 'engaged'), whether or not we have ever traveled together before (Yes), to where that was (India), for what purpose (another wedding), how we got to the airport (hotel shuttle), what hotel we stayed in (Courtyard by Marriott), who packed the bags, whether or not anyone gave us any wedding gifts to take with us, and for how long we would be gone.

After that, we speed through check-in. Then, in another first for me, we pass a Chabad table. Chabad is one of the world's best-known Hasidic movements, particularly for its outreach activities. They offer tefillin, a set of small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah, worn by observant adult Jews (only by males in Orthodox communities) during weekday morning prayers. Offered here is the arm-tefillah, or shel yad, which is placed on the upper arm, with the strap wrapped around the hand and fingers. The Torah has been interpreted to say that tefillin should be worn to serve as a "sign" and "remembrance" that God brought the children of Israel out of Egypt.

Next is secular security. (B4 is no longer accustomed to removing her shoes due to her TSA status but that doesn't matter with El Al)

We make our way to the King David Business Class Lounge where the vibe, for me as a non-Jew, is a stereotypical modern-day "Fiddler on the Roof" from clothing, to speech patterns, to accents, to Hebrew spoken alongside English. There is a mix in the lounge; Orthodox to secular, but all 'fit in' better than do I.

That whole operation took remarkably little time; less than 45 minutes from hotel check out to lounging in the lounge. We have 1.5 hours to do email and phone calls which B4 easily fills. I mostly listen.

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Our El Al flight #4 left JFK at 1:00pm (8:00pm destination time) to deliver us to Tel Aviv Yafo's Ben Gurion International Airport at 6:25 the next morning, an overnight flight of ten-and-a-half hours across seven time zones on a Boeing 747-400. We're in a 27-seat section of business class flat bed seats. Ours are 12H & 12K, and we're thankful that we're not in 12D or F or G because this aircraft is set up in an ancient 2-3-3 configuration. If you're in 12F, you're trapped between D and G--in business class. Unusual. In front of us are eight first class seats and behind us are 34 economy plus seats and an amazing 314 coach seats in a 3-4-3 arrangement. There are 20 more business seats "upstairs."

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To minimize jet lag for a destination that is seven hours ahead, it is my practice to adjust myself to "destination time" as quickly as possible. That means, upon departure, make the mind and body think that it isn't afternoon; it's nighttime. So, somehow hit the Fast Forward button on the body clock and go to sleep after only a couple of hours aboard the aircraft. In that way to get six or seven hours of sleep and awake an hour before landing which is scheduled for 6:25am, local time. (To facilitate that, when I awoke at 6:00am at the JFK hotel, I got up rather than rolling over for more sleep which is what I wanted to do). This is even more difficult for B4 because her body is on Mountain Time. Waking up next to me at 6:00am in New York feels to her like 4:00am Salt Lake City time--when it is actually 1:00pm in Tel Aviv. As I will say many times during the compilation of this blog: It's Complicated.

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Boarding the aging El Al 747 is like going back in time. Old style business class seats and cabin arrangements, dirt, food particles stuck in crevices, no offer of a pre-fight beverage, no wi-fi, tiny TV screens which don’t work, (“We will activate them after the meal service,” said the In-Flight Service Manager) and an unappetizing menu offering unappetizing-sounding food (chicken cubes?); B4 said, “I think I’d rather fly Southwest.” For the record, B4 doesn’t very much like Southwest. We say to each other, almost in unison, “I need an attitude adjustment.” To assist with that, I have a vodka. There are no limes.

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Would expressing much dismay bring the ire of the “Medical & Protective Services” fellow who is talking up passengers across the cabin? I deem it wise to not find out. Our captain indicates a flying time an hour shorter than scheduled; we must be expecting a nice tail wind.

When the food is served, it is better than it sounded. However, I embarrassed myself when I asked if there was any butter for the bread. Keeping kosher (no dairy on board) is not a part of my Irish-American life and my ignorance was duly noted by Katia, our flight attendant. I need to be more careful about such things this week. It has long been my intended practice to not present as the “Ugly American;” this week I shall work hard to not be the “Ignorant Gentile.”

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During the boarding process, by watching the small TV screen on the bulkhead, we saw that there is an El Al “app” called DreamStream. It allows for streaming entertainment onto your own personal device. However, the TV notified us that it must be downloaded prior to door closing. I suspect many on board missed that important information. I was just able to get the app downloaded onto my iPhone before we were told to switch all devices off.

Later, in flight, I opened the app and was greeted with this: “We are sorry. The Wireless In-Flight Entertainment system is currently not available.” OK. Reading further it says, “1. Ensure that DreamStream is available on your flight. 2. Ensure your device is in Flight mode and that Wi-Fi is activated. 3. Try to re-establish a connection with DreamStream. Try Again.” I did. IT WORKED! Wi-fi exists; it just is limited in reach to the inside of this aircraft.

In a “first” for me, I find that there is a Chat Room page. However, “0 users are chatting right now.” “Chat allows you to have an instant messaging conversation, this is a general chat room connecting between all passengers on this flight.” A dialog with someone onboard seems somehow creepy. I ponder a monologue but decide against it.

There is a Map page. “Flight information is currently unavailable. We apologize for the inconvenience.” There is a Read page. You are invited to read the El Al Daily Newspaper. It is available only in Hebrew. And, there is a movie page. Under “NEW” movies, on my phone I can watch Aquaman, Deadpool 2, Love Simon, Ready Player One, The Mule and The Other Story. I note that compared to the aircraft itself, those films are relatively NEW.

I tried and tried to get a movie to play on my phone but the internal wi-fi would drop again and again. I finally asked—after six hours in the air—for help. Katia said, “OK. Well, let me bring you an iPad.” THERE WAS AN IPAD AVAILABLE? GOOD GRIEF!

I see an indication that there is another way to fly to Tel Aviv non-stop. It appears that El Al offers a Boeing 787 Dreamliner flying from EWR (Newark) to Tel Aviv. I don’t know why I didn’t find that when I initially researched this trip. The 787 is a much newer aircraft and El Al has of eight of them, the first delivered less than two years ago.

A short two hours after our 1:00pm departure it is bedtime—10:00pm destination time. I decide my best bet is to attempt sleep. After having gotten three good deep hours, I awake. The men in the center row are standing in prayer. I estimate 4.5 hours to go but I am awake; B4 sleeps beside me. All is well over the Atlantic (even without the map). And then, of course, we arrive.

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Posted by paulej4 22:12 Archived in Israel Comments (2)

The Map

It's Complicated. Really Complicated.

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All of Israel, including the Golan Heights officially claimed just two months ago, measures but a mere 8,500 square miles—slightly smaller than the State of New Jersey. There are fewer than ten million people living here, three quarters of them Jews. One in five is Arab. Fewer than five percent are Christian.

Israel comprises a great portion of “The Holy Lands.” These are of specific importance to Jews, Christians, Muslims, Druze and Bahá'í. The City of Jerusalem is of major importance to the first three groups in particular. After a quick check-in at the Tel Aviv Hilton and an even quicker breakfast, we join a portion of the wedding party for a trip to that very city.

We get an initial overview from Mount Olive.

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Our licensed guide is Arnona Ariely, the aunt of someone who works for Nicky. She's great as she gives us the bird's eye view of the four quarters of the city. Beneath us are tombs of one hundred thousand, many here for a thousand years or more.

Descending into the throng to walk this historic array, we first enter the Jewish Quarter.

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Columns recovered during archeological digs revealing the 17 times this city was destroyed and the 18 times it was rebuilt reveal columns from a Roman Cardo--"a grand main thoroughfare." This one bisected the city from north to south and was the city's main commercial street for five centuries. Nearby a frieze with a touch of whimsey; can you spot the thing that doesn't belong?

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Here, we are standing outside a synagog viewing a mosque in the near background and a Christian church on the far away left. Coexist? Yes; here.

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Soon, we arrive at the Wailing Wall where throngs await their chance for a closer experience. There are many Bar Mitzvahs happening today; these feature men separated from women as the boys join the former. Music reverberates. Closer inspection reveals men in a wide section praying without crowding and women separated into a narrow section jostling for position to do the same. Can you spot B4? She's in a red and white horizontally striped top.

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Moving on to the Moslem quarter we pay respect at a mosque and stop for a typical local luncheon feast. Just outside the restaurant is the Fifth Station of the Cross. We follow the path it is said Jesus walked to his crucifixion ending up at the Church of the Sepulture where many of the faithful anointed themselves or their belongings on the stone that was said to be where Christ was anointed after his crucifixion.

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It is hot; over 100 degrees. It is crowded. B4 is ten time zones removed from where she was working a mere 36 hours ago and is running on very little sleep. It's time to call it a day and return to our hotel. But that's not the only return to be discussed as we think about Israel. We spot many participants in Birthright trips. Wikipedia says it well: "Taglit-Birthright Israel (Hebrew: תגלית‎), also known as Birthright Israel or simply Birthright, is a not-for-profit educational organization that sponsors free ten-day heritage trips to Israel for young adults of Jewish heritage, aged 18–32. Taglit is the Hebrew word for discovery."

The country’s “Law of Return” grants all Jews and those of Jewish ancestry the right to Israeli citizenship. Three quarters of the Jews living here were also born here. Half of Jews here boast ancestors from Europe and the former Soviet Union.

It is a mere 263 miles from the northern border with Lebanon and the southern-most border with Egypt—about the distance from Kansas City to St. Louis. At its widest point, it is 71 miles from Mediterranean Sea to Jordan; at its narrowest it is only 9.3 miles wide from the sea to the West Bank (about the same as B4’s daily commute to work). They drive on the right side of the road and the currency is the Shekel which is divided into 100 agora. One shekel is a little more than 25 U.S. cents. Today's 100+ degree weather is an anomaly. High temperatures in June range around 80; lows just under 70 degrees F. Israel is eight hours ahead of Kansas City time so when it is noon in KC, it is 8:00pm here.

Israel shares national borders with Lebanon on the north, civil-war torn Syria on the northeast, Jordan on the east and Egypt on the southwest. And, of course, in the mix there are the Palestinian territories of the West Bank on the east and Gaza Strip to the west.

At Israel’s southernmost point lies the city of Eilat. One step east is the Jordanian city of Aqaba. One step further south from there is the northeastern corner of Saudi Arabia, home to 33 million people, the majority of whom are under 30 years of age and 13 percent of whom are unemployed. Saudi Arabia’s fiscal health waxes and wanes with the price of oil which is the lifeblood of health for Aramco, the world’s most profitable company. Should the price of oil fall—because of a long-term shift away from fossil fuels perhaps—the fate of Aramco and Saudi Arabia may fall with it.

Next door then is Saudi leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—a seemingly close ally of the U.S. president and his family, the presumed decision maker behind the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and the man who temporarily placed under house arrest hundreds of Saudi businessmen and princes and the man who ordered the arrest of a dozen women for campaigning to gain equal rights to men. That geographic feature, less discussed, impacts Israel’s longer term future as well.

Despite its small size, it boasts the 32nd-largest economy in the world by gross domestic product. It is among the world’s most educated countries and boasts a highly skilled workforce who enjoys the highest standard of living in the Middle East with one of the highest life expectancies anywhere in the world; Israelis live, on average, about three years longer than do we Americans.

The official language is Hebrew and is primarily spoken; Arab residents speak Arabic; Hebrew is taught in Arab schools. English was once the official language here, is taught in Israeli schools and is widely spoken along with Hebrew. You see it on road signs everywhere.

The weather varies widely. Along the Mediterranean, cool rainy winters are bookended with hot summers. From May until September, it rarely rains. There is desert on the south where summer is very hot and winter is mild. There are mountains of nearly 2,500 feet where snow occasionally falls. Lots of sun has led Israelis to be one of the world’s leaders in per capita solar energy use; nearly everybody uses solar for hot water.

The term “Israeli Occupied Territories” is often used. Officially that now includes the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. It recently also included the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem—where 200,000 Israelis already live—but that is no longer true as they have now been fully incorporated into Israel by Israel law. The United Nations Security Council has declared these annexations to be “null and void” and, unlike the United States, still considers both to be occupied territories.

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The Golan Heights, a 500 square mile windswept strategic plateau captured from Syria during the Six Day War of 1967, is home to 20,000 Israelis and 30,000 others, mostly Druze Arabs with Syrian roots. Syria attempted to reclaim this territory by force in 1973 but was defeated in that effort. Prime Minister Netanyahu recently asked his government to approve naming a new Golan Heights Jewish settlement for President Trump. It has been reported that the government wants to increase the population here to 250,000 by 2048, effectively rendering moot any “land for peace” deal that was formerly a decades-long accepted goal for the region.

Still called “Occupied Territories,” are: The West Bank (400,000 Israelis live here now) and The Gaza Strip (7,800 Israelis once lived here but all were evacuated in 2005).

There are four major metropolitan areas: Tel Aviv (Gush Dan) with just under 4 million inhabitants, Jerusalem with 1.25 million, Haifa with just under 1 million and Beersheba with just under 400,000.

We are staying in Tel Aviv at the 167-room Hilton Hotel, snug against the Mediterranean Sea with the beach and parkland just beneath our balcony. It is 15 miles and just under a half-hour from the airport. Later, we will move to Eilat to facilitate a visit to Jordan. More on that later.

One absolute truism for the map—and all other things Israeli: “It’s Complicated.”

Tonight we join the wedding party for the "Welcome: dinner. If we can stay awake.

Posted by paulej4 22:50 Archived in Israel Comments (2)

Background in the midst of hostility

United they stand; divided they stand

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Israel is undeniably surrounded by often hostile neighbors. If I lived there, I might be tempted to, from fear if nothing else, shift to the right toward nationalism. Fear from physical attack is as strong a motivator as one can imagine. At home in the U.S., fear is the motivator for some voters to shift to “America First” nationalism. Their fear, however real or imagined, is economic fear rather than immediate fear of war or daily physical safety. Certainly, fear of immediate security in such a way remains unimaginable to most Americans.

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Simmering constantly in Israel are potential violence with Hezbollah from Lebanon on the north or Hamas on the south or terrorists on the street anywhere at any time. Civil-war-torn Syria is on the northeast—on the far side of the Golan Heights where the political situation just radically changed. President Trump recently reversed decades long American and global policy when he said, “After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty” over the Golan Heights. And, of course, it was less than a year ago that the Trump administration relocated the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, radically changing the political reality of that multi-national, multi-ethnic and multi-religion city.

A brief, almost unbelievable history lesson might help.

1948: The State of Israel is created. Iraq, Egypt, Jordan and Syria invade and are repulsed
1956: The Suez Crisis and war with Egypt
1967: The Six-Day War with Egypt ending in a cease fire that gave de facto control of the former Egyptian Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula and the Syrian Golan Heights and the Jordanian West Bank and East Jerusalem to Israel
1973: Simultaneously, Egypt attacked in the Sinai and Syria attacked in the Golan Heights in what is known as the Yom Kippur War. Israel retained control of both
1978: Israel and Egypt sign the Camp David Accords
1979: Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty is signed
1982: The Israeli Defense Force invaded southern Lebanon in response to Palestine Liberation Organization attacks emanating from there
1991: The Gulf War with Iraq
1993. The Oslo Accord provides for withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank and Gaza Strip to allow for self-government by the Palestinian National Authority
1994. Israel and Jordan sign a peace treaty clarifying their mutual border
2005: Israel disengages from Gaza
2006: Lebanon War in response the Hezbollah attacks
2008: Gaza War
2012: Eight-day response to rocket fire in the Gaza Strip
2014: More airstrikes in Gaza Strip against Hamas

Two Months Ago: A rocket fired from the southern Gaza Strip near Rafah flew over Tel Aviv (and airspace near our hotel) large_a8f96020-7dec-11e9-bccf-498a8ce4e704.JPGbefore hitting and destroying a home in the village of Mishmeret. Hamas said the rocket was fired accidentally. Twelve hours later, Israeli fighter jets bombed dozens of Hamas targets including the office of a Hamas leader.

Young Jews perhaps see life differently than young Americans might. They have grown up with the history just mentioned. They partially make up the Israeli Defense Forces, a conscription force that drafts most Jewish 18-year-olds of both genders for two years or more of compulsory military service.

Try explaining compulsory anything to a young American; they don’t believe something like that is legal or even possible. The eyes of my youthful employees grow wide when I explain that I joined the U.S. Army Reserve in 1970 only because I knew that had I not volunteered I would have been involuntarily conscripted.

Military leaders in Israel are generally looked at with trust, according to many analytical press reports, because they have seen the horror of war and kept Israelis relatively safe along the way.

However, I read that tends to motivate some of them to move to a less hawkish political position because they have more closely seen the horror of war. One former general, Benny Gantz, campaigned and narrowly lost in last month’s election on an almost purely civilian agenda: LGBTQ rights, help for struggling farmers, increased benefits of Israelis with disabilities and efforts to reduce the cost of living. Security was not his primary talking point. Perhaps it was simply assumed; I am not in a position to know.

El Al, the Israeli national airline, was our transportation provider.

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While B4 and I were in New York City over the weekend of April 20-21, I read that the Israeli Ministry of Health released information about an El Al flight attendant who was comatose after contracting the measles on a March 26 flight from NYC to Tel Aviv—the same one we are on. She suffered from the measles-related complication of encephalitis—swelling of the brain which can cause brain damage, deafness and death.

The State of Israel—Ministry of Health reports that there have been 3,900 cases of the measles in Israel in the past year; two of them were fatal. The Ministry’s web site says, “A small number of tourists and travelers had brought the disease to Israel, which later spread among the unvaccinated population.” We have read conflicting reports about how large the unvaccinated population actually is but it was recently reported that 96.5 percent of first graders in Jerusalem had up-to-date vaccination compliance; statistics about adults are harder to come by.

For contrast, in the vastly more populous U.S., 555 cases of measles were confirmed in the first three months of this year.

Since B4 and I flew the same flight, we decided—with the advice of our respective physicians—to get vaccinated—presumably again for both of us—as an overly cautious precaution. The nice Doc at the Minute Clinic took care of us both before dinner and theatre. I last got an MMR booster in July of 1983 prior to a trip to Africa. Call me crazy but my theory is you can’t be too cautious.

Only one thing is beyond debate: “It’s Complicated.”

Posted by paulej4 23:22 Archived in Israel Comments (0)

The Two State Solution

It's Really Complicated

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The Welcome Dinner last night was large and lavish. Nicky and Jane hosted a couple hundred of us--100 or so who have flown here to be with them on this joyous occasion. The bride and groom glow, the champagne flows, food is abundant and the DJ sends out a bass beat that I imagine can be felt by neighbors within a one mile radius. It is wonderful and we enjoy renewing friendships with many whom we have not seen in too long.

We collapse into our Hilton bed at midnight and do not stir until nearly 8:00am when we are greeted by a panoramic view of the Mediterranean beneath us.

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Today (the weather is expected to be much more moderate with a high of only 89 degrees) we meet B4's old friends Aya and Shlomo to renew that relationship as well. While one should not talk politics or religion, the State of Israel holds these two things as their very heartbeat of being. As an example, each sleeping room here at the Tel Aviv Hilton sports a a mezuzah comprising a piece of parchment called a klaf contained in a decorative case and inscribed with specific Hebrew verses from the Torah. Our door at home hosts a mezuzah but seeing one on my hotel room entry is a new experience for me. None here shy from speaking of the history or heritage of this young nation.

In case you need a refresher, here is what we have learned, discussed and digested.

On November 29, 1947, after the defeat of the Nazi holocaust regime, the United Nations voted to establish two states in a partitioned Palestine. David Ben-Gurion and 37 other founding signatories wrote, “it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of he Charter of the United Nations.

The plan was accepted by the “Jewish Agency” and soundly rejected by Arab leaders. Gunfire and warfare erupted there soon after and continued over time making the plan problematic to say the least. The U.S. has been alternatively aggressively and passively working toward creating these two states for forty years. That heretofore failed effort now appears to be, finally, dead.

What is the background of all this? Israel, the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people is also claimed by the Palestinian people. Therefore, a separate state needed to be created for the Palestinians so they could also have a homeland; a state that could and would peacefully live side by side with Israel. How to make this work? Peacemakers have referred to this as the “Two State Solution.” President Clinton worked to make it happen and failed. President Nixon also tried and failed. Both Bushes and Obama got no success.

Over the years, wars happened to upend any desired balance. To ensure their security from attack, Israelis occupied more and more of the territory from which the attacks originated and that would form that future Palestinian state. It was a matter of survival.

But, the general push of the U.S. was to find a homeland for the Palestinian people. One legal reason cited is that Israel took the land in the West Bank by force during the Arab-Israeli War of 1967. This was condemned by the UN and the U.S. as an unlawful seizure then and until now.

The reality of all this is that until and unless the Palestinians are offered a homeland, they will always be displaced people who will pose a threat to Israel and other countries in the region.

Israel has been on both sides of this issue. Early on, most Israelis on both sides of the political aisle agreed that some kind of a two-state solution must happen; they had some level of sympathy for the plight of the Palestinian people. That reportedly changed when Netanyahu first came to power. He built the Israeli economy into one of strength and prosperity; he built up the military so Israel become more capable of repelling those who would seek to destroy it by force; in the name of security—fully justifiable according to many—he built a wall between Israel and the West Bank so that it was easier to turn away from the plight of the Palestinians.

New settlements were built by the Israelis in the occupied territories which would make it impractical and more difficult for Israelis to ever leave those areas. In his first comment after taking office when asked about it, President Trump said, “So, I’m looking at two state and one state and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like.”

Later, he said, “I do like a two-state solution. That’s the one that I think works best. I don’t even have to speak to anybody. That’s my feeling.”

Later still, he said, “We want an agreement that is a great deal for the Israelis and a great deal for the Palestinians.” But then he backed Netanyahu by officially recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moving the U.S. Embassy there. We drove by it yesterday. The status of Jerusalem--where some here point out gives Palestinian residents "all of the benefits with none of the costs" is contested. The Palestinians believe that East Jerusalem is and should be the capital of their state. This change would seem to eliminate that possibility. President Trump also then stopped foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority and to the UN Agency that helps Palestinian refugees and closed the Palestinian Authority’s representatives’ office in Washington. All of that undermined the Palestinian leadership’s authority and legitimacy.

Soon after that, Trump signed a declaration recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, the place over which Israel took control in 1967 to safeguard its security from external threats. Israel had seized this high ground during war for exactly that purpose.

Next, Netanyahu said that he would seize the West Bank as part of Israel which had previously been designated as a part of the Palestinian part of an eventual two-state solution. Popular opinion is that Trump’s latest statements essentially give Netanyahu permission to move ahead with this without American resistance.

Under the Obama administration and before, the U.S. pressured Israel to slow down or halt moves such as this. That has changed under Trump who has a clear affinity for Netanyahu who also has a lengthy relationship with Jarod Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and advisor on Israel.

Last week, the United States ambassador to Israel and President Trumps former bankruptcy lawyer, David M. Friedman, declared Israel was “on the side of God,” describing that “Israel has [being on the side of God] as one secret weapon that not too many countries have.” Couple that with the fact that the United States has made deep cuts in aid to the Palestinians and stopped referring to the West Bank as “occupied,” it is clear that the U.S. is clearly taking sides.

So, after forty years, things have taken an abrupt U-turn. Instead of suppressing Israel’s more aggressive instincts, this administration encourages them. Part of that is probably due to both leaders having a hard-line view regarding Iran and the threat that it represents to both the region and the world. A stronger Israel provides a bulwark against a strong Iran.

However, if the future of Israel rests on the twin beliefs that it be both Jewish and democratic, a future problem presents itself. If you have a one-state solution you have a “greater Israel” where Israel annexes the West Bank and Gaza and becomes one nation with both Palestinians and Jews living inside it. If Israel denies the Palestinian residents of these lands the right to vote because they are not Jews, then it becomes a de-facto apartheid state—something for which the world has in the past expressed disdain. If Israel gives Palestinians the vote, they face, over a decade or so, having the country lose both its Jewish character and its democratic majority at the polls. In essence, under a one-state outcome, they can either be a democratic state or be a Jewish state but not easily be both.

Democracy would then have to be sacrificed to maintain a Jewish state. This is the current situation regarding Palestinians who live on the West Bank because they have no Israeli vote. What happens if today’s “no vote” reality becomes a permanent reality?

Some say that the next U.S. President or the next Israeli Prime Minister or both can simply undo the one-state outcome because both Trump and Netanyahu will be out of power. But there is a problem: Once the new Israeli settlements are built and occupied and the local Israeli government taking control, how does one undo all of the inherent property rights questions that will be created once homes, schools and infrastructure are created? And, who lives in and learns in those structures? Will the Palestinians be a part of that or will a “separate but equal” solution—or not solution at all—be offered?

“It’s Complicated.”

But today was not.

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Aya and Sholmo called for us at 9:30. Aya is B4's friend of 35+ years and it shows. We were off touring north along the Mediterranean coast. Interestingly, our first stop (unintended) was at Acco/Akko/Acre which has been controlled over history by Romans, Ottomans, Crusaders, Mamelukes, Byzantines, and the British. To make a long story short, however, today it is controlled by us holding court at the Uri Buri restaurant. Our fabulous server, Liem, took control and delivered her choices to populate our tasting menu. She excels at choosing wonderful flavors. Coupled with a wonderful bottle of Bat Shlomo (the name made me choose it) sauvignon blanc, the meal was exceeded only by the conversation.

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On the way out of town (hastened because B4 had a conference call participation scheduled back at the hotel at 5:00pm local time) we stopped in to visit the wine cellar at The Efendi Hotel, a trip worth making if only to visit its 900-year-old wine cellar.

It is a joy to watch old friends re-connect and I had that opportunity today.

Tonight, the entire crowd gathered for Shabbat Dinner. Serenaded by a "Greek Chorus" of young men--a surprisingly good idea--we laughed as non-Jews (or others not familiar) struggled with their kippah (men's head covering) and pondered when it was OK to eat the hallah (bread). The nice thing about Jews hosting non-Jews (at least in my experience) is that they are absolutely non-judgmental about cultural unfamiliarity. I cannot say the same about many other religions.

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Typical speeches--although only a couple of them went into areas best left unspoken--highlighted the evening with emotions high. As anyone who knows Nicky and Jane might predict, there was way too much food and wine.

Back to our room at midnight we gazed at Tel Aviv preparing for the sabbath and fell into bed having successfully managed jet lag for yet another day.AfterDark.JPG

Posted by paulej4 00:03 Archived in Israel Comments (3)

The People

It's Complicated

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Slightly fewer than nine million people live in the State of Israel, the world’s only nation with a majority Jewish population: three of four residents are Jews. Densely populated around where we are in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and the Sea of Galilee, the country is more wide open in the Negev Desert and Eliat in the south.

Jerusalem, only recently named as being the capital city, hosts over 1 million in the metropolitan area, much smaller than the economic center of Tel Aviv which is home to nearly 3.5 million.

Of Israeli Jews, just under half describe themselves as “secular” while about 12% self-describe as ultra-Orthodox. The remainder are “religiously” somewhere in between.

Today--beautifully warm and not hot--is Shabbat, the Sabbath, a day of rest, observed from a few minutes before sunset on Friday evening--and last evening's Shabbat Dinner--until the appearance of three stars in the sky tonight, just after sunset (7:38pm). For observers, no work is done and the operation of machinery--including driving automobiles--is forbidden for the religious. Witness the coffee machine in the Vista Lounge at the Hilton Hotel. Rest easy, however, coffee is available from a more typical urn but, admittedly, one must operate a lever on the valve to retrieve it. Or, you can ask one of the many servers here to get it for you.

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Observant Jews should not push the call button on the elevator (they may ride in it) but, no worry; I am told that one "lift" is set to Shabbat mode and runs continuously, stopping on every floor. The Orthodox can enter and exit without forbidden "work."

The population of Jews here who are ultra-Orthodox (we are in contact with no ultra-Orthodox on this journey) and who currently control sixteen seats in the 160-seat Israeli Knesset, is growing rapidly with an average of seven or eight children per family. Nearly 60 percent are 19 or younger. Because of that, voter roles over the next twenty years are in for a significant impact. As evidence, ninety-one-year-old ultra-orthodox Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky is asked in a popular on-line video about secular Jews. “They will have children like that,” he says. Today’s children, everyone agrees, are tomorrow's electorate. Kanievsky knows: those who produce the most voters would seem to control the political destiny of this nation.

But, many of the ultra-Orthodox, according to a recent New York Times piece, “are ambivalent about the Jewish state or reject it outright because they believe it should come into being only after the arrival of the Messiah. And yet, many have pursued secular higher education over the last decade, and more men have joined the work force instead of remaining in seminaries—and on welfare. Several thousand serve in the military.” That is certainly not the majority, however.

Today, my thoughts are far from the military or religion. I am off on a morning walk from the Hilton north along the Mediterranean shore to Jaffa and back; seven miles or so of crowds, paddleball players, Lime and Bird riders, surfers, bikers, bathers, strollers with no security to be seen but promises that they are about. We are told but cannot verify that underwater sensors off the coast alert authorities to unauthorized traffic larger than a medium sized fish.

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Returning to the hotel in the nick of time to clean up, there is a wedding luncheon at the Carlton next door. The weather is sublime (in the shade) and the breeze is perfect. B4 and I enjoy a seat at the family luncheon table on the deck and engage in unrivaled conversations with Nicky, Jane, Nicky's nephew's mother-in-law and Sam, Nicky's brother-in-law. Should you ever have the opportunity to visit with any of these people, take it. You'll be simultaneously enthralled, entertained and educated. Rags to riches is personified among them; against all odds, nothing to something and something to nearly everything in a single generation. To be merely inspired is to miss the point. Nicky came from Russia as a teenager with his entire immediate family; $60 between them. They spoke no English. And yet, against all odds, the Yakubovich family has gained great success. Under our proposed merit system they, like my ancestors and those of B4 would not have been allowed to immigrate at all. Think of what America would have lost.

A wonderful afternoon for us is followed by a night off--which we need before tomorrow's wedding day.

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All of those lunchtime folks live in the U.S. but, if they desired, they could have Israeli passports. (so could B4) The country’s “Law of Return” grants all Jews and those of Jewish ancestry the right to Israeli citizenship. Even so, three quarters of the Jews living here were also born here. Half of Jews here boast ancestors from Europe and the former Soviet Union. Globally, one authoritative source reports that the world over there are only around 14.5 million Jewish people alive today; an estimated 46% of them live in Israel. Please remember that six million were murdered around the time of my birth. (Yesterday, Shlomo lamented the fact that too few American Jews even visit Israel)

The Pew Forum on Religion and Pubic Life estimates that one in four Jewish individuals currently live in a country other than the one in which they were born. One in twenty Christians and one in twenty-five Muslims live in the country of their birth. Jews, therefore, are the planet's “top migrants.” Casual conversations we have held here--an admittedly tiny sample size--indicate that people identify by saying from where they, or their parents, immigrated.

To qualify for citizenship under the “Law of Return,” one must have at least one Jewish grandparent, a Jewish spouse or have undergone a conversion in a recognized Jewish community—not necessarily an Orthodox one. That is different than qualifying as a Jew under “religious law” whereby an individual must have been born to a Jewish mother (it does not matter if she was or is secular or religious) or have undergone an Orthodox conversion. Note that having a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother does not qualify a child as being Jewish. “It’s complicated.”

Daily, 451 babies are born, 124 persons die and twenty-seven people legally migrate here. The population grows by one person every four minutes; that’s 354 each day. As a frame of reference, the much larger United States grows at a much higher number (but a much slower rate) of about 9,000 per day. Israel will most likely be home to 10,000,000 souls by 2024.

Like most of the rest of today’s world of displaced minorities, “illegal” migrant workers have also arrived here. The estimate is that around 200,000 migrant workers from China, Romania and South America are here; 60,000 more come from Africa. Migrants represent about three percent of the population, about the same as is estimated in the U.S.

It’s a youthful country; more than half of the people here are under thirty. My observation confirms that; numerous young people on electric scooters are everywhere, zigging and zagging so as to not run over old people. Life expectancy here is 8th highest in the world (81 for men and 84.5 for women), better than in the United States, Canada, France, Russia and other “highly-developed” nations. (Monaco is far and away the highest at just under 90 while Angola is far and away the lowest at under 39)

Remember that the State of Israel had just been born in 1948 when only 800,000 people—only about 100,000 of them Jewish—lived here. The fact that the total population doubled within a year was due to Jewish migrants flocking to their first homeland. The majority of the early settlers were among the few survivors of the Nazi extermination camps located in Europe. By definition, they arrived with nothing but hope. Simultaneously, 850,000 self-identified Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews either fled or were expelled from Arab countries, Iran and Afghanistan; 680,000 of them to Israel. It wasn’t until 1990 that a great number of Jews arrived from what was then the Soviet Union.

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(Sephardi Jews originated in Spain, Mizrahi Jews from the Middle East. Ashkenazi Jews (B4's ancestors) come from what might be called the Holy Roman Empire and subsequently northern Europe). All Jews trace their ancestry to the Kingdom of Israel in the 720s BCE (Before Common Era or BC—before Christ) and the Kingdom of Judah in 586 BCE. Military defeat of those kingdoms meant disbursement for the people.

In the State of Israel today, the majority Jewish population is growing but at a slower rate than is the minority Muslim population. That trend would indicate that the overwhelming Jewish majority in Israel would decline over time. What that would mean for a “One State Solution” (discussed in an earlier post) is problematic.

Service in the military, the Israeli Defense Force or IDF, is mandatory for all Israeli citizens over the age of 18; two years for women and two years eight months for men. Arab citizens are exempt. Exceptions are made on religious grounds as the “Tal Law” exempts ultra-Orthodox Jews from service. Controversial “Haredim” recruitment centers offer ultra-Orthodox men “women-free and secular-free” recruitment opportunities. Over a third of Israeli women claim religious exemptions. Israel is one of 24 nations around the world that allow openly gay individuals to serve; its first transgender woman served in 2013. Reserve service availability calls for one month’s active duty annually for training and “ongoing military activity” but most people do not perform annual reserve duty. There are no exemptions, however, when reservists are called up in “time of crisis.”

There is a schism among the ultra-Orthodox apparent in the coming showdown over new laws which would subject more yeshiva students to mandatory military service, limiting their current exemption status. (Yeshiva is a Jewish educational institution that focuses on the study of traditional religious texts, primarily the religious texts, the Talmud and the Torah)

Israelis are industrious. The Uzi machine gun was invented here as was drip irrigation and rooftop solar hot-water systems (ubiquitous and obvious as you drive around), USB flash drives, cherry tomatoes and the ubiquitous smartphone apps Waze and Viber. Israeli cows produce 10% more milk than do American cows and 50% more than German cows partly due to air conditioning and “constant monitoring and pedometers to tell when the animals are getting fidgety.” The country is believed to have possessed nuclear weapons since at least 1967. We saw none; nor did we see evidence of the "Iron Dome" missile/rocket defense system.

Primary, Middle and Secondary education in Israel mirrors what occurs in the United States but the school year is much longer: 219 days per year rather than 186 days back home in Kansas or a mere 174 days in Missouri.

Healthcare is “a fundamental right” for citizens but not for “non-tourists that stay in Israel for long periods.” That would include some of the aforementioned migrant workers, mostly from Africa, who entered Israel “illegally.” Otherwise, healthcare is “universal” and participation in one of four not-for-profit medical insurance plans is mandatory. That can and often is supplemented through further optional purchase of more extensive private insurance. The health care system is “ranked fourth in efficiency” among the countries of the world. However, 75% of the population takes out secondary health insurance because of long “waiting lists” for treatments.

Individual income taxes here are "high" with a top rate of 47% on incomes over a half-million dollars and 35% on incomes over a quarter-million. If you earn over $650,000 there is an additional 3% surtax--taking half your income in exchange for government services and national defense. Here, national defense takes on a more urgent status than what most Americans feel on U.S. soil. Social Security taxes claim an additional 3.5 to 12% from employees plus an additional 3.5 to 7.5% from the employer.

Biotech, medical and clinical research is big business here and new pharmaceuticals, medical equipment and treatment therapies originate here. Israel has the second highest number of startup companies in the world (after the United States). IBM, Google, HP, Cisco Systems, Facebook and Motorola all have R&D centers here. Corporate taxes are 23%.

Closer to B4’s sphere of influence and only partially related to the reason we’re here: The Israeli diamond industry is one of the world’s centers for diamond cutting and polishing for very high grade diamonds. Many if not most of her many personal friends here are in the diamond and jewelry industry.

The IDE (Israel Diamond Exchange) located near Tel Aviv consists of four interconnected high-rise buildings that amount to a “virtually impenetrable fortress” where 15,000 people work surrounded by two trading halls, restaurants, and intensive care room and a synagogue. We did not visit. Israelis cut and polish a higher percentage of larger and more expensive stones while the majority of smaller stones are cut and polished primarily in India and to a much lesser degree in China, Botswana, and a few other places. Cut diamonds represent almost a quarter of Israel’s exports and amount to 12% of the world’s total production of mined diamonds.

Over a third of those precious and beautiful exported stones come to the U.S. and some unknown percentage of those amazing gems can be purchased by you at HDS. Come on in and make sure you visit the “Diamond Room” where your socks will be blown off by what you learn from highly trained and knowledgeable HDS diamond professionals.

That won’t be complicated.

Posted by paulej4 12:11 Archived in Israel Comments (2)

The Election

It's Complicated

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This is wedding day. As we spend the day in anticipation of the evening, after lunch we happen to pass by the happy couple getting pre-wedding photographs taken. Here is your unauthorized peek:

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B4 has a "girl's lunch" with Aya along with a visit to her Tel Aviv store. While they gaggle, I again walk beside the sea but this time a few miles to the north, past the "downtown" Sde Dov Airport. On the Mediterranean side of the single runway is a sign that tells me it is in a tsunami zone. The sign is also of interest in another way. Most information signs here are in three languages: Hebrew, Arabic & English. It makes for some pretty busy signage.

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This particular sign offers up less information in English than it does in the two local languages; I wonder what I am missing. We are flying to Eilat tomorrow aboard Arkia-Israeli Airlines on an aircraft such as this one which was landing as I passed by. I look but do not see a terminal or jetways. I think the airport experience tomorrow afternoon will be interesting. BUT, before we get to the wedding and to pass the time, just in case you have questions about the parliamentary elections here held just five weeks ago; I have answers. The short answer, as always: “It’s complicated.”

In the U.S. we mostly heard that U.S. President Donald J. Trump favorite Benjamin Netanyahu, who came out on top, was running neck and neck against his opponent, Benny Gantz.

But Israeli voters did’t vote for individual candidates to fill the 120 seats in the Israeli Knesset, or Parliament, which, in turn, elected the Prime Minister. Instead, they voted for parties to fill the Knesset seats. Those 120 seats were divided proportionally based on the percentage of the total vote garnered by each political party but only as long as it received at least 3.25 percent of the total number of votes cast.

There are many parties. Smaller parties that failed to receive at least that many votes found that they were essentially thrown out because they got no seats. That raised the power of the votes cast for the other parties.

Current Prime Minister Netanyahu is the leader of the right-wing Likud Party. Likud received more than one million votes (29.2%) and was awarded 35 seats outright. General Benny Gantz is the leader of the left-leaning Blue and White Party. Blue and White also received 29.2% of the vote and was also awarded 35 seats outright. So, 70 seats were immediately both won and aligned.

But nine smaller parties won the remaining 50 votes.

At least 61 seats were needed to form a government. Where would Likud or Blue and White find those other 36 needed seats? They must form coalitions with other similarly like-minded parties. Likud would appeal to right-wingers while Blue and White would appeal to left-wingers. Who might they be?

Both the Shas Party (mostly ultra-Ordhodox Sephardic Israelis from the Middle East and North Africa origin--right) and the United Torah Judaism Party (mostly ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi Israelis of European origin--right) each got 6.7% of the vote and won 8 seats each. They think more like Likud except that they also support increased budgets for religious institutions, Orthodox monopoly over marriage and divorce, and restricting public work (like street or railway repairs on the Sabbath). That added up to 51 on the right.

The Hadash – Ta’al Party (left) and the Israeli Labor Party (left) each won 5% of the vote for 6 seats each. They think more like Blue and White (which itself was made up of three smaller parties: the Israel Resistance, the Yesh Atid and a spinoff from Likud). That made 47 on the left.

Next came the Israeli Labor Party with 5% of the vote garnering 6 seats. Those go left so the Blue and White total climbed to 53; ahead of Likud’s 51 by two.

But, the United Right Party (clearly right) and the Yisrael Beiteinu Party (right) both won 4.2% of the vote and got 4 seats each. The right climbed to 59 and was ahead by six but two shy of the needed 61.

Then came the Kulanu Party (center-right) and the Meretz Party (left) and the Ra’am – Balad Parties (left), each barely squeeking in with 3.3% of the vote with each getting 4 seats. That tipped the scale: 59 plus 4 is 63 on the right while 53 plus 4 is only 57 on the left. The right’s 63 tipped the scale. So Gantz, with only 57 seats in his bloc, conceded. Did you get all that?

The remaining parties (Gesher, Magen, New Right, Zehut and “others”) didn’t reach the 3.25 per cent minimum vote threshold and were shut out—even if just barely. Their votes, like Green or Libertarian voters in the U.S., were “wasted.”

And you thought the United States’ Electoral College was complicated and divided the votes in a way that didn’t easily achieve comprehension.

Then, to make it even more confusing, all of the above then caused Israel’s primarily ceremonial President Reuven Rivlin (a member of Likud) to look at all of those probable left and right votes and then approve the Likud Party and Netanyahu to begin to formally attempt to form a coalition government. They had 42 days to get that done. That window actually expired just days ago but they got it done.

It was possible that Likud and Blue and White could have come together to form a “Unity” government but they didn’t. Gantz said early on that he would have no part of that.

What about the Arab citizens of Israel? They represent almost a fifth of the total population (5.8 million) and they have the right to vote. They could have been kingmakers. But, they have never joined a coalition and about 75% of them boycotted the election assuring themselves of having no voice whatsoever. However, it is also reported that a company called Kaizler Inbar placed observers and cameras in Arab polling stations and even said this on Facebook: “Thanks to us placing observers in every polling station, we managed to lower the voter turnout to under 50 percent, the lowest in recent years.”

And, what about the Palestinians who live in the “occupied territories?” They are not Israeli citizens so they—all 4.75 million of them—cannot vote.

This is just the tip of the Israeli iceberg. There are more complications to report but I figured that this was enough to validate the opening thesis: “It’s complicated.”

One more thing: six weeks prior to the election The New York Times reported that Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, announced that he planned to bring an indictment against Netanyahu on charges ranging from bribery to fraud to “breach of trust.” Netanyahu denied any wrongdoing. If those charges are ultimately brought, Netanyahu would be the first sitting Israeli prime minister to face criminal charges. Just under a week ago, Netanyahu loyalists introduced a law to grant all 160 Knesset members "immunity" from crimes allegedly committed during their tenure or before they won their office. The only exception to that would be if a house committee and then the wider body waived their immunity. Another proposed law bars the Israeli Supreme Court from overruling a Knesset passed law.

And one more final thing: two days after the election, Yair Lapid, Mr. Gantz’s Blue & White party partner, said to Likud and Mr. Netanyahu, “We are going to make your lives miserable. We will turn the Knesset into a field of battle. And we will do one more thing: We will show the citizens of Israel how a real, true alternative looks.”

“It’s Complicated.”

We, dressed in black tie and our finest packable frock, board busses for the half-hour ride to the wedding venue: Baya'ar Derech HaRakevet, Hadera, "located on one of the few and most beautiful nature reserves along Israel's Mediterranean coast." I will write about the marriage ceremony of Regina Radusky and Jason Yakubovich, the reason we came to Israel, in the next post.

Posted by paulej4 22:50 Archived in Israel Comments (1)

The Wedding Ceremony

How To Do A Wedding Right

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Having just been at an over-the-top lavish wedding in Mumbai, we could not imagine that we would or could enjoy another wedding as much as we did this one so soon. The Jewish faith knows how to get married. And anybody who knows Nicky knows that he loves to party. And a party it is; an unrestrained celebration of joy and dancing and food and drink and kissing and hugging. If you seek restraint know that it will not be found here.

After all the guests were successfully transported through partially gridlocked traffic to the wedding venue (supposedly 30 minutes north of the hotel but with today's traffic an hour away), cocktails and hors d'ouvres were served and then the atmosphere grew from merely happy to joyful mayhem.

Women Arriving. As befits sophisticated feminity, the women made their entrance into the pre-reception area with grace and elegance. The bride, bride's mother, groom's mother and various female friends and relatives made their way to an elevated platform that provided for them a throne of sorts. Applause and smiles were their greeting from the 200 or so wedding guests.

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Men Arriving. The men entered to much celebratory cacophony. If an atmosphere of sophistication had been previously set, they quickly altered the mood and feel to one of almost adolescent frivolity. They made their way to the women's venue and got--if only for a moment--serious.

Rabbi's Paperwork Ketubah--the Marriage Contract

After that, it was time for everyone to make their way to a lovely garden only a few steps distant where the ceremony would be held.
Jane & Nicky Down the Aisle

Black Tie guests stand to witness the bride's entrance

Cantor and Groom The cantor--Hazzan in Hebrew--wielded star power. His emotion gripped us all and set the tone for what was to come.
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Cantor and Groom He made certain that his enthusiasm did not overshadow the spotlight more correctly focused upon the groom (Chatan in Hebrew or Chossen in Yiddish)

Bride and Groom approach the Huppah The bride--Kallah--is escorted to the Huppah by the groom. The Huppah is a structure where a canopy or Tallit which had served the groom's father's father as well, represents the home the couple will later create together. The Tallit is a fringed garment traditionally worn by religious Jews. Happiness radiated from them to a welcoming congregation.

They're Married The ceremony--Erusin--featured much Hebrew and English explanation and was highlighted as the bride accompanied by her mother and the groom's mother circling the groom seven times representing the seven wedding blessings and seven days of creation, and demonstrating that the groom is the center of her world. The bride's train required quite a bit of management to be certain that no-one would be tripped up.

Smash the Glass At the end of the ceremony, the groom breaks a glass with his right foot, and the guests shout "מזל טוב‎" (mazel tov! 'congratulations').

Men Dancing We move to the reception venue and the party truly begins. I am used to guests arriving and settling into their tables in a period of respite before the bride and groom arrive. There was no respite here as the band started the party without delay. Everyone was dancing and happy to be so doing.

YMCA What wedding could be complete without dancing to YMCA?

More YMCA Dancing to A LOT of YMCA.

The Reception Venue Everyone was blown away by the room; Jane and Bonny made everything perfect. ReceptionVenue.JPG
Our "Perch" We were with friends at Table 15 on a raised portion of the room's rim allowing us a bird's eye view of the joyful madness but giving us a short path the dance floor as well. One takes one's life in one's hands on the dance floor at a Jewish wedding but B4 and I participated without injury. The band was superb, food and wine and champagne plentiful and the bass beat loud enough to last us all for a lifetime. Pity any nearby neighbors. ReceptionTable.JPG

I hope my gentile recollection and recitation of this is accurate. I invite my Jewish friends to post corrections where appropriate.

If it's a party you're after, attend a Jewish wedding. If it's the party of the year you're after; sorry, you just missed it.

Posted by paulej4 03:32 Archived in Israel Comments (2)

Off to Eilat

Our gateway to Petra and Jordan

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Today, we are off to Eilat. Having a travel day allows me to opine and so I shall.

One learns at a young age—hopefully—that the same situation is described differently depending upon from where you view it. It all depends upon, “your point of view.”

I read in an editorial published in Sunday’s Jerusalem Post newspaper, this quote: “President Trump has proven himself worthy of the trust of Americans, whose economy has improved since he entered office. He is very transparent and does not lie.” The editorial says, “…the peace plan he is expected to announce soon should neither be doubted or dismissed.” It also says, “…every single monumental step the president made for Israel must be appreciated and celebrated.”

An op-ed appearing immediately below that item was headlined: “Why Trump’s peace plan is certain to fail” where two reasons are given thusly: Netanyahu’s impending criminal indictments and “Netanyahu’s expected coalition partners, that include far-right religious parties such as the Union of Right-Wing Parties (URP) which [has been] referred to as racist and reprehensible. Such parties are against the dismantlement of any settlements and go as far as advocating for the mass transfer of the Arab population and rebuilding the Third Temple where the Dome of the Rock stands today.”

Disagreements abound, division prevails, distrust is omni-present. This, of course, sounds familiar to many Americans who live in the same philosophical tug-of-war. The problem is that this could be not a game with a rope but a real war with real—even catastrophic—casualties.

The world is a dangerous place and Israel, if not ground zero, is certainly in the neighborhood. Iran threatens and values collide. When parties disagree about basic human values, what hope can there be for trusting compromise?

Our experience is that many Israelis don’t believe in lines, a concern for the “personal space” of others, using headphones when listening to music or speaking discreetly on their mobile phones or inside elevators. It would seem that if I spoke Hebrew I would know more about my neighbors than I might care to. Behavior that we might consider rude or intrusive in the United States is not perceived that way here—at least from our brief experience. To be sure, this is also true in many other parts of the world but we are here now so we notice it here now. There is much kissing and conversation that blocks the path of others as we board the plane; nobody seems to mind this (it would be greeted with scowls at home because it slows the boarding process). Young Israeli women tend to not dress modestly; there is much skin to see—a lot of it adorned with tattoos. As noted earlier, this is a young country.

Under this canopy, B4 and I depart Tel Aviv from the tiny Dov Hoz airport (after what most Americans would describe as an invasion of privacy in the form of a mandatory security screening) en route to the Ramon airport in Eilat. Here, the runway and the taxiway are the same bits of pavement. Our on-time 35-minute Arkia-Israeli Airlines flight 1803 is a mostly clean and tidy Embraer 195 (marred only by an inoperable air vent into which a previous passenger has wedged a bit of paper) which we board from a mobile staircase rather than a jetway. We are in 12A and 12C; I opt for the window—A—because B4 tends to like to work or read (but oftentimes sleep) in flight.

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Conversely, I enjoy looking out the window so as to see whatever it is that I can see. This is particularly true when I am in unfamiliar territory as I certainly am today. Cloud cover is the bane of my travel existence. I know I will pay a price for this seat selection when I am unable, upon arrival, to leap up, open the overhead bin and quickly retrieve our carry-on bag to facilitate disembarking the aircraft.

We board a bus (three busloads fill the no-empty-seats airplane) at the building that serves as a “terminal” here and ride a mile or so to the aircraft which is parked on a tarmac that I had seen from the beach yesterday morning during my walk.

As I look out the window as boarding the flight is winding down, four people pause to chat on their mobile phones before climbing the steps to find their seats so we can get on our way. One family with two small children in a fancy double-stroller take an extraordinary and unselfconscious amount of time gathering themselves and are the last to board. In the U.S., they would be first. Of course, once they finally board, there is no overhead space for their many necessary accoutrements.

All of this is what makes international travel interesting, challenging and, sometimes maddening.

After a beach front takeoff, we bank left over the sea and then 270 degrees to head eastward and inland before turning south over the long and narrow Dead Sea (the saltiest body of water on earth) toward Eilat. From striations along the bank, it would seem that the water level is at a low point. I speculate, but cannot confirm, that by hugging the eastern border we are avoiding airspace above the Gaza Strip. There is much desert below, dotted as it is with irrigated small plots of farmland and later immense more corporate looking fields of green cropland. Farther on, large man-made terraced ponds appear. It would appear to be a desalinization process from above but I cannot imagine what would be done with the enormous amounts of extruded salt that would become the inevitable result. Hills becoming forbidden, barren, parched mountains loom to the east (our left) where lies Jordon, our destination for tomorrow. The motif below is unbroken sandy brown traced by dry creek beds which, I assume, run wild when the rains come—if they ever do.

That which lies below us is an expanse from which most intelligent mammals would surely flee.

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Upon sight of the very modern and large Ramon Airport, we see the tip of the Gulf of Aqaba which leads to the Red Sea and either the Suez Canal or through the Gulf of Aden to the Arabian Sea and then the Indian Ocean.

With carry-on bags only, we exit the terminal into 100 degree heat and search for the Dan Hotel shuttle bus whereupon we are greeted by a surly driver who won’t leave his seat to open the back door so we can stow our bags. I do it. Later, I will tip myself generously.

The landscape is more moonscape interrupted by miles of Doum Palms planted as soldiers in orderly rows. The Doum Palm produces an edible oval fruit along with leaves that are widely used to make baskets. Their presence indicates that ground water is here. B4, as you may know, began her international merchant career in “1978 or so” as a basket buyer for Bambergers, a division of Macy’s. She does not feel right at home, however. Large salt evaporation ponds sit north of Eilat and between Eilat and the airport. The water is pumped here from the Red Sea. Flamingos stop here but left a couple of months ago heading north to Turkey, Iran or Sinai.

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The Dan Hotel feels like a Las Vegas property, only smaller. There is a convention of Israeli lawyers on the property; we won’t mingle. Here, Hebrew predominates and people either do not speak, or prefer not to speak, English. The language barrier makes it difficult to check in. Problems with my name. By way of illustration, to get online I must enter our room number (505) and my name: Pull.

In 2016, The Jerusalem Post reported: “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has strongly backed a plan to build a string of gambling casinos in Eilat to save Israel’s moribund southern gateway from its current economic stagnation as tourism has been in decline for several years. And Eilat hotels and other businesses are eager to cash in.” It appears to have not yet happened.

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I phone the concierge seeking a restaurant recommendation for tonight's meal. Again, language is a problem. Finally reaching someone who speaks English, we are told that Pago Pago is the best choice for fish. The concierge person determines to make a reservation for us which I assume is wise because if the hotel folks aren't good with English-speakers, how might restauranteurs be? In any event, he says he will phone me back with a confirmation in two minutes but doesn't. Perhaps I misunderstood. Eventually, we find our way there and it is quite nice. The service is surly but the sea bream is fine. So is, as B4'S Edward has taught me, the sushi.

Upon our return to the hotel, I am again reminded of what it is to be in a nation based upon--in large part--religion. Not only is there a Shabat Elevator, which means that the elevator automatically stops at every floor during the Sabbath (Friday sundown to Saturday sundown) so 'no work has to be done' by pushing the buttons; the thermostat in Room 505 is a Sabbath Control. Lest we forget.

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Tomorrow we will rise early and depart at 6:45am with our guide to visit Petra, Jordan.

Posted by paulej4 12:29 Archived in Israel Comments (0)

Jordan

It's Less Complicated

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Jordan is the “East Bank” to Israel’s “West Bank.”

The east bank of the Jordan River marks the western boundary of what is technically the “Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.” To the south and east is the mysterious Saudi Arabia. To the northeast is the once and perhaps still war-torn Iraq while civil-war decimated Syria is to the north. And, our home these last few days, Israel, is on the west. It is landlocked save at Aqaba, across the border from Eilat, Israel, where the Jordan River empties into the Gulf of Aqaba (or if you’re Israeli, the Gulf of Eilat) which, in turn, empties into the Red Sea and ultimately into the Indian Ocean.

Amman is the capital city but we cannot visit there; due to time constraints we must save that for a subsequent journey. We come to Jordan to briefly experience Petra, the onetime capital of Nabataea, a thriving kingdom which peaked in the 1st century. Talented stone carvers lived here as evidenced by the famous Al-Khazneh, said to be the burial place of Arab Nabataean King Aretas IV. Romans ultimately conquered Petra.

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Jordan, like Israel, is home to about 10 million and has, since the founding of the State of Israel, hosted refugees. Today, the estimate is that over 2 million Palestinians are here and nearly as many Syrians have fled here from the civil war in their country. Iraqi Christians fleeing ISIS are here as well. Those refugees have come to a “high middle income” country with an advanced healthcare system and a skilled workforce.

Modern Jordan was essentially born only in 1920-21 when Abdullah persuaded tribal leaders to organize and split off from Syria under King Faisal. War after war saw the French and British in control here until the League of Nations agreed to recognize “Transjordan” as a state under British mandate until 1946. In 1948, the Arab-Israeli War saw Jordan invade Palestine and gain control of the West Bank. Abdullah was assassinated in 1951 leading to the rise of King Hussein who took the throne in 1953 when he was but 17 years old. In 1955, today’s Jordan joined the United Nations. Wars discussed earlier in this blog followed.

In 1999, King Abdullah II took the throne upon the death of his father, King Hussein, and undertook an economic revitalization of his country. Foreign investment arrived and has remained even given unrest created by Al-Qaeda’s Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who caused widespread havoc here in 2005. The unrest of the “Arab Spring” in 2011 partially helped to create a new Constitution, greater freedom and elections and the establishment of a parliamentary government. The King still holds both executive and legislative power and is both the head of state and commander-in-chief of the army and ratifies all laws but is subject to a veto by parliament. Even with all of that, according to most sources Jordan is ranked as the freest or mostly freest Arab state but that, reportedly, does not extend all the way to great freedom of the press. Islam is the state religion but other religions are protected under the constitution.

Well known by Americans is Noor Al-Hussein, born as Lisa Najeeb Halaby on August 23, 1951, in Washington, D.C., and is the widow of King Hussein. She was his fourth spouse and queen consort between their marriage in 1978 and his death in 1999. Today, she lives in the United Kingdom, Washington, and Jordan.

Tourism is a large part of the economy but the majority of tourists are not Americans; they are European and Arab. Petra, said to be first settled in 9,000 BC, is the leading tourist destination.

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Our Echo Tour promised pickup time of 6:50am came and went. At our Dan Hotel, a group of eight plus a semi-private group of four French speakers and our group of two became worried. Eventually, fifteen minutes late, we were called for, bussed to a meeting point near the border where we paid balances due, plus border taxes and fees of $125 each in cash. There is a hefty surcharge if you pay by credit card—I had been forewarned.

Walking from Israel to Jordon is intimidating, reminiscent of cold-war no-man’s-land crossing of neutral zones. It felt weird.

A computer-generated photograph was taken and a visa issued; then customs and immigration and then wait. At 8:25, everyone was finally allowed to complete the final few steps into Jordan and, at last, be on our way. There was lots of finger pointing regarding reasons for the delay but, as with most delays, inconvenience is forgotten once you are on your way. “It is in the past.”

We got to Petra by driving two hours and 80 miles north from Eilat and Aqaba on a three-lane asphalt road populated primarily by heavy trucks. Our only turn was made to the left at the one-hour point, onto “King’s Road,” a two-lane twisting affair rising in elevation into the hills, flanked by wild camels, domesticated goats and not much else. A wind farm of 45 generators sits atop the fleet of hills.

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Along the way the terrain—barren terrain—was host to the filming of feature films Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars and The Martian. No set dressing was required.

We pause at Petra View Shop on the mountaintop for a photo and shopping for Dead Sea Bath Salts and Natural Dead Sea Vita Mare Mud Masks (OMG); a palace for a wealthy man sits just above us. His home is flanked with trees; the water to support them comes from ancient wells. The village of Arajif lies a few hundred yards further on.

Neither our driver nor our guide wear seat belts (Justified because culturally that means admitting you are not a very good driver) even as our guide relates that there are many accidents when motorists hit donkeys or camels or goats but that occurs mostly at night when you cannot see them. We came upon an accident that happened just moments earlier; a car was on its roof after a sharp curve. We don’t know if he swerved to avoid something or just lost control on the curve. The only thing certain is that he—or she—was driving too fast.

Heavy trucks are supposed to keep to the right but they don’t because the left lane is less like a washboard than are the middle and right lanes. Lane markers are mostly ignored; our driver straddles lanes most of the time.

We see occasional black tents of Bedouin people scattered here and there. The tents are black to keep the occupant cooler in the hot and warmer in the cold. Our guide, a Bedouin, tells us there are also Syrian Gypsies here but their tents are orange plastic. He clearly doesn’t think much of the Gypsy people.

We pass through the hillside city Wadi Moses, a city of 35,000 (Christians and Muslims who get along quite well—but no Jews, of course) where Prophet Moses led his people, stuck a stick into the ground and got water for the thirsty. From here, they moved on to the promised land.

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At the end of our drive, through the entrance gate to the Petra Ruins Site, approaching through a nearly mile-long gorge, we are greeted by a rose-colored stone edifice which we are told is visited by almost one million people annually. The Treasury. The scene most photographed here, including by us, is the Al Khazneh—the treasury—which is cut directly into a sandstone cliff. Further on is a gigantic theatre—also cut into the stone—with tombs beyond. As recently as 2016, archaeologists using satellite imagery discovered a monumental structure beneath the sands here.

Closer inspection along the downward sloping crevass reveals a sophisticated water conduit system which is remarkable and thought to be the first such system ever conceived. In this desert, here is a man-made oasis where flash floods were controlled by dams and cisterns connected by conduits without which the city could not have persevered.

Due to many factors, this place is considered threatened. I am reminded of Egypt’s Abu Simbel which I visited forty years ago and which was saved only through relocation in 1968 to accommodate the construction of the Aswan High Dam on the Nile. Places such as these have persevered for centuries but today’s political, economic and climactic realities threaten to finally bring their demise.

0af176e0-8159-11e9-a1bb-c7d560709c2d.JPG0b4b7dc0-8159-11e9-a1bb-c7d560709c2d.JPGIt is a mild day, twenty degrees cooler than a few days ago. Even so, we are tired after end of a 10,000 step hike. We opt for donkeys back up to The Treasury and a cart back to the visitor’s center. Discretion is the better part of tourism.

After lunch at the typical tourist restaurant we are off on our two hour ride back to the border. Formalities are easy and we are back in our room by 5:15 to a message that our flight tomorrow has been changed. Rather than a noon departure, we leave at 10:30. We are really glad they called.

Posted by paulej4 08:03 Archived in Jordan Comments (2)

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