Israel’s Earth Shot

This article currently features in Lay of the Land: https://layoftheland.online/2020/10/15/israels-earth-shot/

Tiny in size – giant in efforts to protect the environment, Israel is leading by example

Israel is this extraordinary geographical dichotomy of sprawling desert beauty and snow-capped mountains, with forests and coastline and so much more packed into a tiny piece of land barely the size of New Jersey. Whether you are looking to snorkel or ski, the Israeli landscape has everything you want.

Israelis are imbued with a great love of the land and a sense of responsibility for it.

Fertile Future. Under the stewardship of the JNF (Jewish National Fund), Israel’s landscape had been transformed from parched earth to carpets of green forests.

Saving the planet and what we all can contribute to this effort has been the subject of a lot of discussion and coverage over the last few weeks. Global treasure, Sir David Attenborough, he of the dulcet narrative tones and exceptional commitment to conservation, released his documentary “A Life on this Planet” which is currently on streaming giant, Netflix. Described as his witness testament to the state of our planet, Attenborough not only shares the alarming truth of the destruction wreaked on our natural world but offers practical solutions to what can be done to fix the problems.  HRH, Prince William, released his documentary, “A Planet for Us All” which echoes the call for everyone to be involved in helping to heal Mother Earth and followed this up with his Earthshot Prize. The Earthshot Prize, aims to find solutions from around the world to help – and comes with hefty financial prizes for those who find solutions in the stated categories. The categories are:

protect and restore nature, clean our air, revive our oceans, build a waste free world and fix our climate. https://www.youtube.com/embed/mFbwTRMwBAc?enablejsapi=1&autoplay=0&cc_load_policy=0&iv_load_policy=1&loop=0&modestbranding=1&rel=1&fs=1&playsinline=0&autohide=2&theme=dark&color=red&controls=1&

Modelled on JFK’s Moonshot which aimed (and achieved!) putting a man on the moon, this necessary and ambitious endeavor, aims to inspire the same dedication and ingenuity

What is seldom discussed is how Israel is a leader in the fields of conservation and environment protection. With signature start-up prowess coupled with understanding of our limited resources and a deep love for our environment, Israel has made extraordinary strides in these fields.  Below are a few small snapshots of some Israel’s projects and achievements. https://www.youtube.com/embed/bymiMNa6QJk?enablejsapi=1&autoplay=0&cc_load_policy=0&iv_load_policy=1&loop=0&modestbranding=1&rel=1&fs=1&playsinline=0&autohide=2&theme=dark&color=red&controls=1&

Greening the Desert

Did you know that today Israel has the rare honour of being one of the only countries (if not the only one) that has more trees today than when the country was founded in 1948? By the early 20th century, Israel’s indigenous forests had been almost totally destroyed by centuries of continuous grazing and cutting of trees. When Israel was established in 1948, there were fewer than 5 million trees in the entire area. Today, over 200 million trees have been planted in an active reforestation programme spearheaded by the Jewish National Fund (JNF). Many of us remember putting money in the ubiquitous “Blue Box” that helped raise the funds to plant these forests.

 Field of Dreams. While farming is not an easy task, Israel offers creative techniques to make the task easier and the desert bloom.

Evergreens have been planted in the hillier parts of the country and eucalyptus in the south.  Today there is more species diversification and forests feature a wide variety of species: oaks and carobs, terebinths and cypresses, eucalyptus, Judas trees, acacias, olive, almond, and many more. Many of these species harken back to biblical references.

Preserving Species

Rhinoceros are not a species that you would associate with Israel. More suited to the vast savannahs of Africa, these almost prehistoric looking beasts are finding a new lease on life in the Holy Land. Rhinos are on the list of endangered species because they are being mercilessly poached for their horns. Israel is successfully breeding rhinos in captivity. The Ramat Gan Safari Park just outside Tel Aviv, started their rhino conservation programme in 1974 and to date, an estimated 31 calves have been born in captivity. The first baby rhino, born in September 1978 was a girl named “Shalom”. The birth of this little calf coincided with the signing of the Camp David Accords – the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt.

Africa in the Heart of Israel. Rhinos basking “safe and secure” under the Israeli sun at the Ramat Gan Safari Park outside of Tel Aviv.

In recent years, the park has celebrated the birth of baby Terkel, Tupak, Tashi and Timor, all rare white rhinos born to their South African immigrant mother, Tanda.  Calves have also been born to Keren Peles, another rhino who was named after Israel’s singer-songwriter.

Celebrations have also been conducted for babies Rami, Kipenzi and many more!

This rhino breeding programme is part of a global conservation effort to increase rhino populations and world renowned South African conservationist, Braam Malherbe, lauded the efforts being made by the Park and believes it is a model that should be implemented globally. In the quite sanctity of the Ramat Gan Safari Park, they are assured that the only place a horn belongs – is on a rhino!

A Birder’s Paradise

Israel is a birder’s paradise. Every year, thousands of tourists “flock” (pun intended) to Israel’s north to watch the millions of birds migrating. Like a magnificent feathered, sky born ballet, it a feast for the eyes for anyone who wants to observe the different species and flight patterns. As much as Israel is engaged in protecting animals or the endangered species list, this also extends to birds, and specifically raptors. Although fully protected by the law, Israel’s raptor population has severely declined in the last 50 years, because of poaching, continued use of pesticides, and extensive loss of habitat. 

Israel for the Birds. Tens of Thousands of cranes seen in the Hula Valley, northern Israel on February 28, 2014, Tens of thousands of cranes stay in the reserve on their way to Northern Europe. photo by Edi Israel/Flash90.

There is a concerted effort by conservationists to protect Israel’s birds of prey and this entails preserving nesting and foraging habitats, increasing wild populations of endangered raptors by breeding and releasing, establishing supplementary feeding stations for scavenger species like vultures where food is more scarce and increasing awareness and education with the citizens of the country.

Israel has successfully managed to increase the populations of Griffon Vultures, Lesser Kestrels and is making great strides with the Spotted Eagle, the Imperial Eagle and the Black Vulture.

On the ground and in the sky, Israel is answering the call of the wild.

Genetic Conservation of Plants

Feed the world! It is not just Israel’s animal and bird species that are being preserved but agricultural plants as well.

Israel’s location in the Mideast heartland of genetic diversity for many major agricultural crops and its geographical and climatic diversity has created a particularly rich ensemble of habitats and plant species. Tiny but mighty, Israel includes one of the largest and most accessible collections of wild wheat, barley, oat, and legumes in the world, as well as a smorgasbord of wild fruits and other important crops.

The importance of preserving Israel’s exceptionally rich plant genetic resources for the improvement of growth, yield, nutrition and disease, pest, drought and salt tolerance of major crop varieties has long been recognized. As early as 1909, Aaron Aaronson of the Jewish Agricultural Experiment Station in Haifa, who discovered wild emmer wheat in the Galilee, began collaborating with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on research for plants, particularly wheat varieties that could be introduced into the United States. Israel’s landmark studies on conservation in wild wheat populations have continued to draw considerable international attention.

The collected plant species that are indigenous to Israel are largely concentrated in the Israeli Gene Bank for Agricultural Crops which was set up in 1979. Scientists from government, academia and Israel’s seed industry have joined forces in the gene bank to ensure that Israel’s native varieties – its genetic heritage – are not lost to future generations. Could this be a possible solution to challenges posed by lack of food security?

Saluting the Sun

Israel’s sunny climate is not just great for beach sports and being outdoors but our greatest natural resource, the sun, is proving invaluable in helping the country to become more reliant on solar energy thus reducing costs and promoting renewable energy. Some experts estimate that by 2030, Israel could be fully reliant on renewable energy. In 2019, the largest solar powered energy field was inaugurated in the Negev Desert.

Israel is a Powerhouse. The Tower of Power energy project in Ashalim in Israel’s Negev Desert.. (courtesy of BrightSource Energy)

Environmental Minister at the time, Yuval Steinitz said:

Since I assumed office, I have used every possible means to increase the scope of renewable energy production, and by doing so, I expect to meet the government goal of 10% by the end of 2020. I believe that alongside natural gas, renewable energy is of paramount importance in reducing air pollution for the benefit of the health of all of us, and this policy is reflected in the “Plan 2030” that we are leading in order to stop the dependence of Israel on polluting fuels. The breakthrough in this field enables us, in addition to stopping the use of coal, to significantly promote the renewability goal for 2030.”

A Country of the Future

There is hardly a day that goes by without newspaper articles sharing the latest innovations from Israeli super brains. Whether it is meat grown in a lab that tastes exactly like the most mouth-watering steak which helps in the decrease of cattle consumption or piloting rechargeable roads to reduce carbon emissions, saving wildlife, reducing dependency on fossil fuels, reforestation, de-salination and recycling sewage for clean water, creating water from air and a myriad of other daily inventions, Israel is a country firmly focused on the future.

The examples above are just a fraction of the work that Israelis are doing in various fields. As the global conversation centres more and more on what we can be doing to help repair the planet, Israel is in the vanguard to ensure that future generations inherit a healthier environment. The opportunity presented by the Earthshot Prize for the global community to share their ingenuity is audacious and remarkable. This is like catnip to Israeli innovators! Challenges are what drive Israelis to achieve.  This, coupled with the most noble mission, to repair our planet is where we thrive.

I think that Sir David Attenborough and Prince William will approve. https://www.youtube.com/embed/64R2MYUt394?version=3&rel=1&fs=1&autohide=2&showsearch=0&showinfo=1&iv_load_policy=1&wmode=transparent David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet | Official Trailer | Netflix In this unique feature documentary, titled David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet, the celebrated naturalist reflects upon both the defining moments of his lifetime and the devastating changes he has seen.

Zoom Says No to Terror

This is featured in Lay of the Land:https://layoftheland.online/2020/10/06/zoom-says-no-to-terror/

Virtual meeting giant puts the kibosh on webinar featuring terrorist

One of the few silver linings coming out of the Covid-19 global pandemic is that even though we are all responsibly social distancing (well most of us!), we have been able to connect with each other using technology platforms like Zoom. With the aid of Zoom, which is a meeting platform, we have been able to take virtual tours, listen to lectures from experts, attend weddings and sadly funerals and more.

Zoom happy hour. Everyone is using Zoom.

Unfortunately, this has also created a gathering place for the many that use social media as an opportunity to disseminate hate.  The various platforms have created communities intent on galvanising hatred. At a time when the world is seemingly distracted by the global pandemic and its effect on economies and societies, so these types of groups find opportunity to come together, to plan, to recruit and to potentially mobilise. The opportunity presented by social media to connect all of us, no matter where we are, is appreciated as borders are still mostly closed. Just as many of us “use our powers for good” so others see this as prime time to do the opposite.

Recently, San Francisco State University planned to host a webinar featuring Leila Khaled. Khaled is known far less for any speaking prowess than she is for being an arch terrorist.  A member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Khaled is more famous for her part in two plane hijackings in 1969 and 1970. She infamously threatened to blow up one of the planes with a grenade and today takes a perverse pleasure in still being allowed to fly. She is also a favoured poster child for the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), often trotted out for their fundraising events. Hardly Brené  Brown or Tony Robbins!

The panel would have featured a Who’s Who of the anti-Israel establishment, including former South African Minister of Intelligence, Ronnie Kasrils, who is well known for supporting the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement. He is famous for this quote, “BDS represents three words that will help bring about the defeat of Zionist Israel and victory for Palestine.” Decked in de rigeur keffiyehs, the accessory of choice for most self-respecting anti-Zionists, it did not take a genius to figure out that the event touted as a discussion on “gender, justice and resistance” would fast descend into what these kinds of forums often do – an excuse to spout some of the most vile antisemitic invective.

News of the impending webinar drew fire from advocacy groups such as the Lawfare Project, which argued that Zoom could face legal liability for hosting it because the US has labeled Khaled’s group, the PFLP, a terrorist organization. The Lawfare Project argued that the event violated Zoom’s terms of service for that very reason. Zoom took these arguments very seriously and effectively and informed the organisers that they could not use Zoom to host their event.

In light of the speaker’s reported affiliation or membership in a US designated foreign terrorist organization, and SFSU’s inability to confirm otherwise, we determined the meeting is in violation of Zoom’s Terms of Service and told SFSU they may not use Zoom for this particular event,”a Zoom spokesperson said in a statement, adding that the firm is“committed to supporting the open exchange of ideas and conversations.”

The organisers, more than a little ticked off, decided to then move the event to other platforms. Facebook denied them immediately and removed the listening for the event because it went against a company policy “prohibiting praise, support and representation for dangerous organizations”. YouTube removed the video of Khaled’s talk after 20 minutes, saying that it violated its terms of service. Most recently, YouTube has banned arch-antisemite Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam for hate speech.

Some have asked the question – where is the line between hate speech and the freedom of speech? Hate speech is often defined as that kind of rhetoric that leads to a violent action or harm against a person or a group of people and Leila Khaled firmly fits into that category.

Associate Dean and Director of Global Social Action Agenda at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Rabbi Abraham Cooper said, “No matter how many layers of whitewash academics apply to Leila Khaled, she remains a terrorist who continues to promote hate, violence and terrorism.”

SFSU spokesperson Kent Bravo said in a statement to the Jewish Journal that just because Khaled is speaking at a university Zoom event doesn’t mean the university endorses her views.

Higher education and the college experience are an opportunity to hear divergent ideas, viewpoints and accounts of life experiences,” Bravo said. “An important outcome of the college experience is to learn to think critically and come to independent, personal conclusions about events of local and global importance. A university is a marketplace of ideas and San Francisco State University supports the rights of all individuals to express their viewpoints and other speech protected by law, even when those viewpoints may be controversial. We also strive to be a welcoming and nurturing campus for students from a variety of ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. We recognize that the exercise of free speech and academic freedom can result in discomfort or pain for others. We have systems in place to support our students, including our Division of Diversity and Community Inclusion.”

With antisemitism rising to alarming levels around the world and university campuses becoming battlegrounds of hatred against Jewish students, it has become incumbent on faculty to be more careful and much more aware of who they invite – and terrorists are surely not proponents of free speech and open debate.

After years of campaigns by many to warn social media platforms about the dangers of allowing hate speech, they are finally waking up and taking action and the answer to those wishing to share their hateful speech is “not on our platform!”

It is time for universities and other forums to pull up the welcome mat and say that while in the pursuit of mutually respectful discourse, divergent opinion is encouraged – hate speech and avowed terrorists are not.

The Right Kind of Notorious

This article currently features on Lay of the Land:

A tribute to the extraordinary Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg

It has been said that if someone passes away during the High Holy days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they must have been a righteous soul.  This past weekend, US Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, died at the age of 87 due to complications from pancreatic cancer. It was first day of Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year.

(Illustration Credit :Casey Wood ’23/The Hawk)

Ruth Bader Ginsberg or Kiki, as she was affectionately called; was one of the most loved and respected public figures in the United States. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, the promising young lawyer earned her Bachelor’s degree at Cornell University before studying law at the prestigious Harvard University. One of 9 women in her class of 500; she had married Martin D. Ginsberg and became a mother and balanced all of this with her studies. Theirs was a love story for the ages, and the jurist often referred to her falling for her husband because he valued her for her brain. Ginsburg transferred to Columbia Law School, where she graduated joint first in her class. After law school, Ginsburg entered academia, becoming a professor at Rutgers Law School and Columbia Law School, teaching civil procedure as one of the few women in her field.

Apart from her stellar academic record, Bader Ginsburg  was a trailblazer for women’s rights, having spent much of her legal career as an advocate for gender equality and winning many arguments before the Supreme Court. She was famous for saying, “women belong in all places where decisions are made” and certainly made sure that women were represented – not merely token placements. Five of the most significant gender based laws that she  helped pass include employers cannot discriminate against workers based on reproductive choices, state-funded schools must include women, the right for women to have financial independence and equal benefits, men being entitled to the same caregiving and social security rights as women and juries to include women.

These were landmark cases and earned Bader Ginsberg the respect and support not only of her colleagues and peers but civil rights activists around the world. A feminist who supported not only gender equality, LGBTQ+ and civil rights, Bader Ginsburg was called a new nickname from the one she grew up with – Notorious RGB.  This was a reference to the late Brooklyn-born rapper The Notorious B.I.G., and she later embraced the moniker. RNG was the right kind of “Notorious”!

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was appointed to the Supreme Court during the Clinton administration, becoming the second woman and first Jew to serve on this most esteemed body. Her Jewish heritage was something the jurist was extremely proud of and had a clear bearing on her career and decisions.

“I had the good fortune to be a Jew born and raised in the U.S.A. My father left Odessa bound for the New World in 1909, at age 13; my mother was first in her large family to be born here, in 1903, just a few months after her parents and older siblings landed in New York. What is the difference between a bookkeeper in New York’s garment district and a Supreme Court Justice? Just one generation, my mother’s life and mine bear witness. Where else but America could that happen?

My heritage as a Jew and my occupation as a judge fit together symmetrically. The demand for justice runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition. I take pride in and draw strength from my heritage, as signs in my chambers attest: a large silver mezuzah on my door post, [a] gift from the Shulamith School for Girls in Brooklyn; on three walls, in artists’ renditions of Hebrew letters, the command from Deuteronomy: “Zedek, zedek, tirdof” — “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” Those words are ever-present reminders of what judges must do that they “may thrive.”

More recently this famous self-confessed dissenter expressed her outrage that Jewish women who are Zionist were told that they could not be both Zionists and Feminists. “That is simply not true”, the indignant RBG told Zioness, a movement founded in response to this ridiculous accusation.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg will become the first woman to lie in state until her funeral. This is testament to her massive legacy and extraordinary reputation and level of respect she commanded.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s passing leaves a gaping hole in the continued global feminist movement.  She joins the great women of Jewish history who  left an indelible mark on the world. She was more than notorious, she was righteous.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg (RBG) with Israeli Chief Justice, Esther Hayut

The Holocaust is NOT Entertainment!

This article appears in Lay of the Land:

“Trauma Porn” is the sickening new trend surfacing on social media

By  Rolene Marks

Social media once the place of vacuous status updates and shameless selfies has fast morphed into something more insidious. While social media can be a very powerful tool for sharing information and educating people, it is often used by many to push a more nefarious agenda and the competition for “likes” and “follows” often prompts some to share some really questionable content.

An example of antisemitic content spread through TikTok.(photo credit: screenshot)

Social media platform giants, Facebook and Twitter have faced increased criticism over their perceived leniency on antisemitic posts.  Facebook is currently targeted in a campaign from several organisations and well known personalities that calls on CEO’s to suspend their advertising because of online hate and several weeks ago, Jews and their allies embarked on a Twitter “walkout”. For 48 hours, a silent protest was held in objection to twitter’s failure to block or remove anti-Semitic posts. Since then, there has been a lot more attention – and action paid to posts that may be offensive. https://platform.twitter.com/embed/index.html?creatorScreenName=LayOfTheLand5&dnt=true&embedId=twitter-widget-0&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1295471035286945794&lang=en&origin=https%3A%2F%2Flayoftheland.online%2F2020%2F09%2F09%2Fthe-holocaust-is-not-entertainment%2F&theme=light&widgetsVersion=219d021%3A1598982042171&width=550px

But social media is like the proverbial head of Medusa. Do away with one serpent; another one takes its place. The most recent iteration is Tik Tok. Most famous for being a platform for Quarantine dance offs, TikTok has become the platform for something truly appalling – “trauma porn”.

According to experts, TikTok users may be exploiting some of history’s biggest atrocities in videos due to a morbid fascination with traumatic events.

A far-right TikTok user account. (Photo credit: Screenshot)

“It’s easier to go viral on TikTok than it is any other platform,” explains leading social media expert Unsah Malik, author of Slashed It. “Users are clearly attempting just about anything, no matter how offensive the subject matter, to end up on the ‘For You’ page and get a higher engagement rate.”

One of these subjects of “morbid fascination” is the Holocaust. The genocide of over 6 million Jews at the hands of the Nazis as well as the Roma, Sinti, LGBTQ and any others, the murderous regime deemed undesirable, has become fodder for “likes” on this social media platform. https://platform.twitter.com/embed/index.html?creatorScreenName=LayOfTheLand5&dnt=true&embedId=twitter-widget-1&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1295786707392950272&lang=en&origin=https%3A%2F%2Flayoftheland.online%2F2020%2F09%2F09%2Fthe-holocaust-is-not-entertainment%2F&theme=light&widgetsVersion=219d021%3A1598982042171&width=550px

Young people are taking to TikTok to “reenact” scenes of videos of themselves with fake injuries or the appearance of suffering the effects of starvation – and then talk about being murdered in the Holocaust, claiming that they are now in heaven. Some are even re-enactments of scenes inside gas chambers. This profoundly offensive trauma porn is unfortunately, garnering views and likes in the hundreds of thousands. They are even accompanied by a soundtrack.

While the videos do not appear to be comedic, they are often accompanied by the song “Locked Out of Heaven” by Bruno Mars.

TikTok is swamped with shocking antisemitic content.

The Auschwitz Museum has also weighed in on this saying:

“The trend visible on TikTok can be indeed hurtful and even considered offensive,” the museum said in a statement posted on Twitter. “Some of the examples online are dangerously close or are already beyond the border of trivialisation of history and being disrespectful to the victims.”

Some of the videos were created not to commemorate anyone, but to become part of an online trend. This is very painful,” the museum added.    The ‘victims’ trend on TikTok can be hurtful and offensive. Some videos are dangerously close or already beyond the border of trivialisation of history.

 But we should discuss this not to shame & attack young people whose motivation seem very diverse. It’s an educational challenge. https://platform.twitter.com/embed/index.html?creatorScreenName=LayOfTheLand5&dnt=true&embedId=twitter-widget-2&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1300460657800744960&lang=en&origin=https%3A%2F%2Flayoftheland.online%2F2020%2F09%2F09%2Fthe-holocaust-is-not-entertainment%2F&theme=light&widgetsVersion=219d021%3A1598982042171&width=550px

And a challenge it is.

There is an important distinction to be made between movies and documentaries that exist for the preservation of memory and education – not videos for likes and shares. Although it is not just the Holocaust that is the subject of these TikTok videos (some have “reenacted” what they would imagine being a victim of serial killer, Ted Bundy, or killed in the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York must have been like), the Holocaust has become trivialised by many seeking to either compare Coronavirus restrictions to the singling out of Jews for persecution or used to justify flouting mask rules. No; wearing a mask to prevent the spread of a potentially deadly virus and save lives is NOT akin to having to wear a yellow star that labels you as an inferior race!

TikTok is rife with racist, antisemitic content. (Photo credit: Screenshot)

It is more than evident that Holocaust awareness and education is sorely needed. The lessons that we should be learning from one of the grossest examples of man’s inhumanity to man and genocide of the Holocaust is how important it is to educate future generations. As time marches on, so we lose our precious survivors – and firsthand eyewitness accounts.

The onus is on us to ensure that we continue to bear witness by educating responsibly to ensure that genocide is widely understood and that perhaps the worst example of it in human history  – the Holocaust –  is neither trivialised or ever happens again.

https://www.youtube.com/embed/L53CBiaQfao?version=3&rel=1&fs=1&autohide=2&showsearch=0&showinfo=1&iv_load_policy=1&wmode=transparent

Remembering Munich

This article appears on Lay of the Land: https://layoftheland.online/2020/09/03/remembering-munich/

Survivors recall the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

By Rolene Marks and Yair Chelouche

“They’re all gone”.

They were the words that reverberated around the world. Television viewers across the globe were glued to Jim McKay, who anchored ABC’s coverage of the unfolding terrorist attack in Munich during the 1972 Olympics. The words are seared into our conscience. We can never forget that moment when we heard that 11 members of the Israeli Olympic Team had been murdered by Black September terrorists. Germany, once emblematic of painful memories for the Jewish people, had become a place where Jews were targeted for murder yet again.

Proud Presence. The Israeli delegation at the opening ceremony in Munich. (Credit: Agence France-Presse-Getty Images)

On the 5th of September, we will remember how these terrorists first killed two members of the Israeli delegation and held another 9 hostage, until they too, were slaughtered.  Israelis are far too familiar with terrorism, having endured attacks from terror groups since the birth of the modern state; but for it to happen like this on foreign soil, at the Olympic Games, the very essence and symbol of brotherhood and the human spirit, made the pain that much more acute.

Several weeks ago, history was made when the Israeli Airforce entered German airspace for the first time to train with the country’s Luftwaffe.  Apart from practicing complex maneuvers, the premise of the joint exercise was to strengthen ties – and pay tribute to the past. Sharing the commitment to fight antisemitism and declaring “Never Again” the two allied forces flew over the Dachau Concentration Camp in tribute to victims and survivors of the Holocaust as well as those who were murdered on that tragic day in September, 1972.

Yehuda Weinstain has often been called the “Flying Fencer”.  Weinstain was just 17 when he participated in the Olympics as a Fencer.  He recalls the excitement of being in the Olympic Village, sharing the camaraderie with his team, being a bit star struck at seeing the famous athletes and practicing with intense focus. It was the Olympics after all! The Olympics symbolise the best of the sporting world and the very spirit of international goodwill, devoid of the partisan politics that plague global discourse. This was shattered with the attack on the Israeli team.

“Flying Fencer”. Future Israeli pilot, Yehuda Weinstain  was just 17 when he participated in the 1972 Munich Olympics as a Fencer. 

Yehuda Weinstain recalls how it was a twist of fate that saved his life. Having visited the city to acclimate so that when it came to choosing his accommodation, he chose the same room that was in between that of the coaches and other team members. This decision would prove lifesaving.

The sportsmen were assigned a room in a complex with three bedrooms, with two in each room.

Touché. Israeli fencer Yehuda Weinstain (right) scores a hit in a fencing bout in the 1972 Munich Olympics before the massacre.

When the terrorists started their deadly attack, they went to the rooms on either side of Weinstain and roommate, Dan Alon; but not theirs. They heard the shots that killed wrestling coach, Moshe Weinberg. They knew that something horrific had occurred. Weinstain remembers seeing a blood puddle at the place where Weinberg’s body lay as he peered through the window.

“It could’ve been me,” he says, “Because the terrorists, passed by my window twice and didn’t come in. Later on we believed that the terrorists’ omission on our door was a deliberate act by Moshe Weinberg who wanted that the people who will face the terrorists are those, he thought, could resist stronger. So it was my luck”.

Desperate Situation. Held hostage, fencing coach Andre Spitzer(right) and marksmanship coach Kehat Shorr(left) negotiating with the German police.

He recalls making the decision to run to safety. “I ran about seven metres around the corner. It felt longer. I had the feeling that someone could shoot me in the small of my back”, he says. It was Alon’s turn, then some of the others to make the run for safety and he, Weinstain and the remaining survivors were taken to safety by German police and isolated before being sent home to their worried families in Israel.

40 years later (2012) – “The 11th Day” – Munich ’72 massacre survivors.

Yehuda Weinstain, Olympic athlete for Fencing enlisted in the army as is required of Israeli citizens and became Lt Col Weinstain, a combat pilot in the IAF, flying many important missions for the Jewish state.

 His latest mission was addressing the delegation from the IAF that participated in the training exercise in Germany – a poignant and important moment.

As Young fencerAvishay Jakobovich at the Munich Olympic village
Dr Avishay Jakobovich

Dr Avishay Jakobovich was also at those fateful games – albeit in a different role. Host country Germany, wanted to show the world that it had moved forward from its Nazi past and invited all participating countries to send separate delegations  of youth under 21 that would serve as cultural and social Ambassadors. In retrospect, many would criticize the lack of police presence and security. Jakobovich, delighted to be part of the Israeli delegation, remembers the incredible happy and inclusive vibe, with dancing and singing amongst the different global representatives and enjoying the games as a spectator.

Israel’s Young Ambassadors. Avishay Jakobovich (left) as a member of the Israeli youth social ambassador’s delegation to the Munich Olympics.

This was until the massacre of the Israeli coaches and athletes. “We were quickly removed from where we were staying and isolated. I called my parents to let them know I was okay. The hardest parts were when we represented the State of Israel at the main memorial held by the Olympic committee the day after the massacre and accompanying the coffins of the victims and the flight was difficult and emotional, knowing the bodies of those murdered were underneath us, in the belly of the plane. I sat next to Ankie Spitzer, now the widow of Andre Spitzer the Fencing coach. Very hard,” he recalls.

Dr Jakobovich served as Chief Gynaecologist for the IDF and is a leader in his field today.

This and every September, we remember them – the 11 coaches and athletes, slaughtered in their prime in one of the most nefarious and infamous terror attacks in recent history. The recent IAF-Luftwaffe flyover may have been history in the making and a great tribute to remember and heal wounds but it is the message of that auspicious occasion that we take heed of – NEVER AGAIN!

Munich Olympics Opening Ceremony. Israeli Delegation enters the Olympic stadium onr the 26/08/1972 (left). The ceremony (centre). Ending the opening ceremony by freeing pigeons of peace (right).
Murdered in Munich. The 11 Israeli sportsmen killed at the Munich Olympics on the 05/09/1972
Right handed fencer. Co-writer Rolene Marks (L) with the “Flying Fencer” Yehuda Weinstain (R), Sept. 2020

Fortune Favours the Bold

This article currently appears in Lay of the Land:

Fortune Favours the Bold

The historical peace agreement between Israel and the UAE ushers in new era

Blessed are the peacemakers. Mabruk and Mazal Tov”. Many can agree with this sentiment expressed by US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo that describes a truly momentous occasion – the signing of a peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

The Deal Makers. Israel, UAE reach historic peace deal (left-right): Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed, US President Donald Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
(photo credit: REUTERS)

The Abraham Accords, which is what this historical agreement is called, is a game changer for the region. This is not just a bringing together of the descendants of Abraham but is a signal to other regional countries and the world that the time has come to transcend the divisions and ancient hatred and work together towards a better future for the Middle East.

Any country that is willing to hold its hand out in peace to Israel will find a willing partner. The Abraham Accord is not necessarily a peace agreement because the two countries have not regarded each other as enemy entities, but rather a recognition of normalisation. This word is very important at a time when various entities that include the BDS (Boycott Divestment and Sanctions) movement’s rally call against normalisation.

Read All About It! A man reads a copy of the United Arab Emirates-based The National newspaper near the Burj Khalifa in the Gulf emirate of Dubai on Aug 14, 2020. (Photo by GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images.)

The Middle East is a region facing not just the impact that the Corona Virus pandemic has caused on our economies; but we face a collective threat in the form of hegemonic regime, Iran and their proxies, Hezbollah, Hamas and other terror groups. This agreement sends a clear message that the people of the region grow weary of terror sponsors and tyranny – we want change in the form of recognition, economic cooperation and a better future for us and the generations to come.

Sign of the Times. Tel Aviv City Hall is lit up with the flag of the United Arab Emirates on Aug. 13, 2020, as the UAE and Israel announced they would be establishing full diplomatic ties. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, File)

The gains for both countries will be tremendous. Apart from diplomatic, economic, innovative and other forms of cooperation, the Abraham Accords paves the way for other Arab states to follow. In another historical first, Israel’s Foreign Minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, spoke to his Omani counterpart who reiterated support for peace with the Palestinians and also hailed the agreement with the UAE. US officials have said that Oman, Bahrain and likely Morocco and even Saudi Arabia could normalize relations with the Jewish state. The real surprise was Lebanese President, Michel Aou, who  in an interview with French BFM TV news, claimed he didn’t rule out the possibility of peace with Israel. When asked if Lebanon would consider peace with Israel, Aoun stated, “That depends. We have problems with Israel, and we have to resolve them first.”

Streetwise. Israeli and United Arab Emirates flags line a road in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya after the two countries agreed to normalise ties. ( JACK GUEZ AFP)

There are those who are naysayers. Iran as expected has expressed its predictable rage, claiming that the UAE will be “consumed by the fires of Zionism”.

Oh dear! They do seem a bit put out!

Kuwait has claimed to be the last to normalize and sadly the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. The Palestinian Authority immediately withdrew their ambassador and recently announced that they will be boycotting the Global World Expo that will be held in Dubai in 2021. Hamas have expressed their fury and umbrage. Obstinacy and belligerence has doing nothing to further the Palestinian cause in the last 70 years. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, infamous for his propensity to engage in sabre rattling rhetoric against Israel, has threatened to suspend ties with the UAE. This is what millennials would call an epic face palm moment as Turkey and Israel have bilateral relations.

There are those among the Israeli right who are disappointed that any plans of application of sovereignty or annexation as some prefer to call it, are suspended. Was normalisation the carrot dangled by the UAE the reason for this? One thing is for sure, well over 80% of Israelis are thrilled with the result, happily embracing the opportunities on offer.

In the past, normalisation with Arab states was contingent on peace with the Palestinians. Today, Arab states grow increasingly frustrated with their lack of willingness to come to the party and negotiate. The ever looming threat of Iran means that alliances have to be found elsewhere and a strong partner has been found in Israel.

Predictable Paranoia. Palestinians burn cutouts depicting US President Donald Trump, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a protest against the United Arab Emirates’ deal with Israel to normalise relations, in Nablus in the West Bank August 14, 2020. (photo credit: REUTERS/RANEEN SAWAFTA)

If the Palestinians are sincere about peace, they would see the positives of normalisation and the role that Arab countries can play in helping to negotiate. In a region where the rules of engagement, culture and honour are different to Western countries, perhaps the opportunity for regional powers to play more of a diplomatic role in helping to bring about peace and a state for the Palestinians may be more successful.

Flying High. Post Corona, Israelis will be flocking to the UAE as Israel look forward to welcome tourists from the Gulf.

A famous Latin proverb once intoned that “fortune favours the bold”. The winds of change are blowing in the Middle East, sweeping away historic divisions and barriers and bringing with it a bright future, filled with opportunity. The bold will find favour and fortune, the naysayers and rejectionists will flounder on the garbage pile of bitterness and hatred.

 

No Safe Space for Jew Hate!

This is published on Lay of the Land:

No Safe Space for Jew Hate

It would appear Twitter has an antisemitism problem – and also a penchant for double standards. The social media platform has become a cesspit of antisemitic hatred. In just 280 characters, users are able to communicate some of the most vile invective, conspiracy theories and caricatures. Many of the “twits” who tweet, invariably hide behind avatars or their twitter handles, failing to provide proper profile pictures and names. Cowards.

Over the last few weeks, Twitter has given a tailwind to a new breed of hater – the celebrity. Not content to sit in their mansions and virtue signal on issues ranging from the environment to social justice, it seems that quite a few have decided to parlay their “talent” to Twitter and other social media. Rapper Ice Cube, comedienne Chelsea Handler, football player Desaun Jackson, former America’s Got Talent host Nick Cannon, and even Madonna (is she still relevant?) have espoused anti-Semitic rhetoric. Some like Nick Cannon, Desaun Jackson and more recently, Ice Cube, have apologized and offered to engage and learn about Judaism. But there are others who have not.

Enter British rapper, Wiley. Born Richard Kylea Cowie Jr, the rapper went on a tirade against Jews that included accusations that would not have been out of place had Nazi propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels written them himself. In a rant lasting nearly 24 hours, the hate included comments like “Israel is ours,” you cannot “challenge the Jewish community” without losing your job, the Jews were equivalent to the Ku Klux Klan, and that he was “not antisemitic, I am anti-slippery people.”

“I don’t care about Hitler, I care about black people,” he commented, adding of Jews, “Do you know what these people do to the world?”

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This raised the ire of many, not just the Jewish community. It also brought to light the horrific abuse that Jews are facing online. In the last two weeks, Twitter has faced a barrage of criticism – first for allowing white supremacists to persist with the hashtag  #JewishPrivilege and the second, controversy over the symbol of the Jewish people, the Star of David. The extraordinary activist, Hen Mazzig, led a campaign to take back the hashtag and soon Jews were sharing their agonizing stories of experiencing antisemitism. We then turned it on its head and started celebrating the things we feel makes us proud to be Jewish. This was followed in quick succession by the banning of the Star of David as a “hateful image”. After a massive outcry, Twitter apologized and rectified but the Wiley tweets were just the straw that finally broke the proverbial camel’s back.

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“Antisemitic? Are u stupid? Do you know what these people do to the world?” British rapper Wiley wrote.

After Wiley’s tirade, Twitter was inundated with complaints and calls to shut his account down. Wiley was banned from Twitter (as well as Instagram and Facebook) for a week. This was not suitable punishment – just a mere slap on the wrist.

This prompted Jewish organisations that were joined of prominent figures and organisations in the United Kingdom and around the world to boycott Twitter and Instagram for 48 hours starting on Monday morning in response to antisemitism on the social media platforms.

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Those taking part in the 48-hour Twitter boycott include MPs David Lammy and Rosena Allin-Khan, singer Sophie Ellis-Bextor, actor Jason Isaacs, broadcasters Rachel Riley and Maajid Nawaz, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, and entrepreneur Lord Sugar. (REUTERS/GETTY IMAGES/BBC)

The boycott was promoted under the hashtag #NoSafeSpaceForJewHate, which participants shared on their social media pages along with an image that called out Twitter’s “inaction on anti-Jewish racism”. Israelis, Americans, Australians and many others took a stand against online hate. What was particularly heartening was to see allies from the Muslim and black communities joining their Jewish brothers and sisters. Lawmakers, celebrities and more also went Twitter radio silent.

The expectation was not to shut down Twitter but to raise awareness and the alarm against growing online Jew hatred. And so far it has succeeded with that mission – and also sent a clear message that when it comes to antisemitism, Jews will no longer be passive. We will shout as loud as we can or sometimes resort to silence – which can be deafening. Sometimes the silent protests achieve the loudest results. Wiley has now been permanently banned from Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

Jews should not have to resort to protests to raise the alarm against antisemitism. One hopes that Twitter will wake up and realise that they cannot have a double standard either.

The social media platform announced yesterday they had withdrawn a video retweeted by US President Donald Trump in which doctors made allegedly false claims about the coronavirus pandemic, after Facebook took similar action.

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“Tweets with the video are in violation of our COVID-19 misinformation policy. We are taking action in line with our policy,” a Twitter spokesperson says, declining to give details on how many people had watched the video.

Like or loathe President Trump, it appears that when the US President tweets, he is sanctioned almost immediately but arch antisemites like Nation of Islam leader, Louis Farrakhan and the Iranian Ayatollah Al Khamenei who have tweeted appalling hatred that has included calls for Israel to be eradicated or referred to Jews as “cancers” are allowed.

Words have meaning and consequences. Over the last few years, Jews have been the victims of violence and in a number of cases; hate crime murders. The message was clear – there can be no safe space for Jew hate, no matter how famous you are. We hope that Twitter received the message. Loud and clear.


 

 

 

Feature picture: The Twitter logo superimposed on antisemitic tweets (photo credit: SCREENSHOT/JTA)

 

 

Love Thy Neighbour

This article appears in Lay of the Land:

Love Thy Neighbour

Imagine for a moment, what it would feel like for a small child to taste ice cream for the first time, to feel the soft, comforting hug of a giant teddy bear. Imagine as a parent, being able to sit and enjoy a quiet cup of coffee while your child plays safely. These are small, everyday gestures that we take for granted but for those many thousands affected by civil war in Syria, they are miracles.

Civil war broke out in Syria in 2001, affecting millions of civilians. This is a war that still continues.  My Lay of the Land colleague, Yair Chelouche, and I recently had the pleasure of travelling to the Golan Heights (responsibly masked of course!) to meet with Lt Col (Res) Eyal Dror, commander of the “Good Neighbor” directorate, under the IDF’s Northern Command.

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Close Encounters. Lt Col (Res) Dror and Lay of the Land’s Rolene Marks at a lookout point with Syria mere metres behind them.

We meet Lt Col (Res) Dror at a lookout point that gives us a clear view of Syria, the surrounding hills and the old city of Quneitra. The landscape is dotted with apple orchards and cherry trees and seems peaceful. Deceptively peaceful.

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Golan Heights. Deceptively peaceful landscape

To understand the tremendous security threat that Israel faces on the border, we have to look at the topography of the landscape. From our vantage point, just 500m from the border with Syria, we gain a better understanding just how close terror groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS are to Israel. The ever present threat posed by Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah is not too far away and the IDF need to be ever vigilant.

We also cannot forget that there is still an ongoing civil war in Syria.

The impact of civil war on a civilian population is tragic beyond belief. Civilians are not only caught in the crossfire but are often used as pawns between warring factions, women raped and children severely traumatized. Information about what was happening to Syria’s civilians reached the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) and Lt Col (Res)

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Safe and Secure. Away from the Syrian civil war, this young Syrian child clutches his teddy bear while receiving treatment inside an Israeli hospital.

Dror, who had previously served in coordination and liaison units with the Palestinians, was approached to form a unit that would carry out an extremely important mission – helping to save the lives of Syrian civilians by enabling them to receive medical and humanitarian care in Israel.

The result was “Operation Good Neighbor”, which started in 2016 and was forced to come to an end in 2018, following the return of the Assad government’s control of southern Syria along the border with Israel.

Over 700 missions were carried out and nearly 5000 civilians brought into Israel. A field clinic was also set up with the aid of a Christian organisation near the border and this allowed for the treatment of 8000 Syrians. The IDF also opened up a maternity ward next to the field clinc and one of the greatest achievement of “Operation Good Neighbor”, was welcoming 1000 babies into the world!

First of all, I always remember that my mission is to create security – to create good neighbourly relations on both sides of the border. We do this, perhaps, in the noblest way possible,” says Lt Col (Res) Dror commander of the “Good Neighbor” Administration. “It is a great privilege for me to command a unit whose mission it is, in this place and at this time. We have been given the opportunity to influence reality, and with a lot of will and good people – I believe we will continue to do the best we can.”

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Help on the Heights. A Syrian child plays inside an Israeli hospital as part of the IDF’s ‘Operation Good Neighbor’ project, which helped thousands of Syrians before Syrian dictator Bashar Assad regained control of the area bordering the Golan Heights. (Israel Defense Forces)

Looking out at the ruins of the old city of Quneitra and surrounding landscape, I tried to imagine what it must have been like for the brave soldiers of the IDF, who endured immensely difficult and dangerous conditions, to rescue these equally courageous civilians. I imagined heavy fire exchanges between Assad’s forces and rebels, frightened civilians and extremely alert IDF soldiers, with an ever present awareness that they were helping to rescue civilians from an enemy country and that very territory was fraught with terror entities. The IDF soldiers knew that they were carrying out a sacred mission, in line with the ethos and moral code of the army – the sanctity of protecting civilian life.

“Aid operations take place almost every night, at high intensity and in all weather,” says the commander of the 77th Battalion, Lt Col (Res) Shaul Israeli, whose battalion performs operational employment on the Syrian border. “Sometimes it is about transferring food to children, sometimes with medicines and sometimes also real medical equipment. The most exciting action of all is the transfer of children to medical care in the country – patients, the disabled and those who do not have access to appropriate medical care in Syria, find in us light and hope for a better life for them.”

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Israel To The Rescue. It is estimated that Israel through ‘Operation Good Neighbor’ provided Syrians with 1,700 tons of food, 1.1 million liters of fuel, 26,000 cases of medical supplies, 20 generators, 40 vehicles, 630 tents, 8,200 boxes of diapers, 49,000 cases of baby food, and 700,000 lbs of clothing. (Israel Defense Forces)

From our vantage point, we can see the enormous United Nations compound, where peacekeeping forces are stationed. I asked Lt Col (Res) Dror if the UN or any other counterparts like the EU (European Union) had any part to play in “Operation Good Neighbor”. He explicitly replied that they did not. It would appear that neither major international body (who are often prone to great criticism of Israel) was interested in helping in any way.  The IDF was also responsible for the rescue of 400 Syrian civilians who were members of the ‘White Helmets’, a civil defense volunteer organization and their families.

But this mission was all about the civilians. The individual stories grip your heart. Listening to Lt Col (Res) Dror, the tears welled in my eyes.

What is important to understand, is that this wasn’t simply a case of bringing people in, patching up their wounds and then sending them home. It was not a “band aid” approach.

Many civilians required long term care and were dispatched to various hospitals.

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Saving Syrians. Israeli soldiers carried injured and ill Syrians to be treated in Israeli hospitals in the northern Israeli cities of Nehariya, Tiberias and Safed, though Lt Col (Res) Dror explains that hospitals all across the country participated too, welcoming Syrian citizens for life-saving care.

“Imagine what it was like to come to a country that you are taught is the devil and receive care from an Arab doctor or a Druze nurse, speaking to you in Arabic. Those making it possible were Israeli soldiers in uniform. They see that Israel is made up lots of different people”, says Dror. I asked him if the IDF was ever acknowledged and his reply was that they didn’t need it but having received the smiles, the pictures drawn for them by children and just the knowledge that generations of Syrians will grow up with a positive understanding of Israel was thanks enough.

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Rescuing Rescue Workers. IDF soldiers offering water to Syrian rescue workers White Helmets’ and their families whom Israel transported from Syria into Jordan, as they fled the Assad regime on July 22, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

Lt Col (Res) Dror, recalls how he asked one little boy what he wanted to be when he grew up. His question was met with silence. To this sweet little boy, who had seen his closest friend killed, the idea of reaching adulthood, let alone contemplating a career was something he could not fathom.  After a while he remarked that he could now have hope that at least maybe he could grow up to reach adulthood.

The gift of hope is priceless!

The soldiers who served on this mission have a lifetime of memories from the individual stories of the people they helped.

Lt Col (Res) Dror is visibly moved when he shares two stories. A little girl was brought into Israel, her leg completely crushed. In such cases, she would have had her leg amputated and sent back to where she came from. Doctors who treated her however, decided that she would stay in Israel for several months for rehabilitation after being fitted with an expensive Ilizarov external fixator, the cost covered by Israel. The IDF and her team of doctors and caregivers made sure that she would have everything she needed to improve her quality of life.

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Lifesaver. How many Syrian babies will grow up to be adults thanks to the Israeli army that saved them from diseases and injuries?

Lt Col (Res) Dror shares a lovely picture of an Israeli flag. This story is very special to him. Another little girl was safely brought in for medical care. Suffering severely from diabetes, doctors remarked that if she had not been brought to them for care and treatment, she would have been dead within hours. Her palate had virtually disintegrated as a result of her illness. Doctors and surgeons treated her, reconstructed her mouth and sent her home with a year’s supply of insulin and medicine. Medicine for diabetes is hard to find in Syria and is prohibitively expensive.

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Another Side to Israel-Syria Relations. Lt Col (Res) Eyal Dror proudly displays a picture of an Israeli flag drawn for him by a young Syrian girl (To Abu-Ya’akub from Wiham).

The stories are endless and so moving. Children were able to play for the first time without fear, taste the simple pleasure of ice cream while their parents can enjoy moments of respite from war. It is hard to imagine the courage that it took for these

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Thanks to Israel. A letter from a southern Syrian civil defense group thanking the IDF for its ‘Operation Good Neighbor’ project, which helped thousands of Syrians. (Israel Defense Forces)

civilians to risk their lives to receive care from an army and country that they once perceived as the ultimate enemy. It is even harder to imagine their life under constant threat of war.  For the soldiers of the IDF who participated in “Operation Good Neighbor”, the ultimate ‘Thank You’ was evident in the hope that they helped instill, the improvement in the health and quality of life for thousands, and the massive barrier of distrust and hate that came crumbling down under the force of humanity and care.

The IDF proved that in a time of strife, you can still love thy neighbour.

 

Warning: This video clip might contain imagery not suitable for sensitive viewers
Operation Good Neighbor is a mission of compassion for those in need and of hope for a better, more secure border between Israel and Syria. Over the past six years, we’ve seen war destroy the lives of Syrian civilians. We couldn’t stand by and watch. While carrying out Operation Good Neighbor, we’ve had the honour of meeting our neighbours and hearing their stories. #OperationGoodNeighbor #IDFOperations

 

 

Cancelling “Cancel Culture”

This article appears in Lay of the Land Cancelling Cancel Culture

Whatever happened to the art of conversation and polite debate? There used to be a time when we could engage in robust, often passionate discussion and if we had divergent opinions, we would politely agree to disagree and then move on. No friendships were ended. No ties were cut. Nobody was “cancelled”.

Cancel culture is an ugly new phenomenon and lately it seems to be gaining a stronger tailwind than ever before. One only has to visit the social media platforms of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to see how anyone with a different opinion from the “woke” norm, are summarily subjected to online abuse and then cast aside. Cancelled. Persona non grata. You will never work in this town again!

Cancelling “Cancel Culture”2

It would appear that the first casualty of this is nuance. Understanding the complexities of issues is important if we are to find middle ground – and tolerance. Somewhere and nobody is certain when we lost our ability to politely and respectfully debate, discuss and engage in discourse.  Having an opinion today can get you into serious trouble. As the momentum from Black Lives Matter protests grows around the world so to increasing extremism of some elements within the ranks that are pushing an agenda.  One of the issues of this agenda is erasing those parts of history that explain the injustices of the past because they don’t support a narrative that the movement would like to promote. Statues, movies such as the classic “Gone with the Wind”, product branding and even great literary works like “To kill a Mockingbird” seem to have no place in current society because there may be references to inequality and racism.

From New York to South Carolina, and from London to Liverpool, statues are being pulled down off their respective plinths. The war on history and culture has started. But will cancelling important historical narratives really bring about racial equality or justice?

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Cancelling Columbus. A group of protesters pulled down a statue of Italian explorer Christopher Columbus in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

 

The only way to move forward, to teach tolerance and help to heal and understand the injustices and hurts of the past so that we can all do better is to have nuanced, robust and even painful conversations.

When Apartheid fell in South Africa, there were hearings conducted between victims and perpetrators of the racist system. The intention was to try and heal some of the terrible pain of the past and to help each side understand each other’s experience. Perhaps this is needed in other parts of the world so that the perpetrators can understand and learn, and we can all work towards a better, more just and tolerant society.

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Tackling Truth. Maybe the world could follow the South African example following the fall of Apartheid when hearings were conducted between victims and perpetrators of the heinous racist system.

It is not just around issues of race where cancel culture is flourishing. Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling, created a storm that had muggles on social media channeling their inner Voldemort. All jokes (and bad references to the wizarding world) aside, Rowling’s attempts to explain her position regarding the transgender community. The row began after Rowling responded to a headline on an online article discussing “people who menstruate” by writing in a tweet: “I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”

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Critics accused her of being transphobic, but Rowling said she stood by her comments, saying it “isn’t hate to speak the truth”. Rowling took umbrage to the definition of women as “people who menstruate” and in an impassioned essay warned of the erosion of the identity of women.

Rowling was summarily called a “TERF” – transgender exclusionary radical feminist and cancelled across social media. Even the stars of her movies, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint, whose careers were effectively birthed by the series, criticized Rowling. Was this because they honestly took offense or because they themselves were fearful of being cancelled should they be seen NOT to take a stand?

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Storm on Social Media. Famed British author of the Harry Potter fantasy series has dared to challenge the cancel culture narrative.

Cancel culture which is favoured by the far left is the most illiberal form of liberalism. There is nothing progressive about killing debate – or careers.

There is also a difference between cancel culture and holding someone accountable for their actions. By removing debate and discussion, the ability to teach the importance of taking accountability and the relevant consequences falls by the wayside.

The one area where cancel culture seems to have disappeared is around antisemitism. This ancient hatred is allowed to go unchecked. It is quite unbelievable that while the world holds important and necessary discussions around race, the rising discrimination and hatred targeted at Jews is roundly ignored.  Those of us active in the fight against antisemitism are routinely told “don’t make it about you”. This is an appalling double standard. Jews are paying with their lives having been killed in synagogues, museums, grocery stores and in their homes from Pittsburgh to Paris. The time for silence is over.

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Antisemitism Neglected. A reminder of the unending hatred of Jews, a person pauses in front of Stars of David with the names of those killed in a deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, in Pittsburgh in October 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The only way to fight racism is to deal with all forms of hatred and prejudice. Fighting racism effectively should not be done at the expense of promoting another form of prejudice, including antisemitism.

Cancel culture is dangerous.  At a time when the world has become more and more polarized, we can ill afford more divisions, let alone shutting down conversation and people entirely. The dangers of this kind of extremism supported by the far left are that eventually the pendulum will swing in the opposite direction and give a tailwind to the alt-right.

The only way forward is to seek middle ground and engage in discourse and education.

Perhaps the time has come to cancel this cancel culture?

 

 

 

The Business of Antisemitism

This article appears on Lay of the Land The Business of Antisemitism

I was asked recently if it would be possible to appear on an international news channel and be a “neutral” commentator on the announcement by the United Nations Human Rights Council of a blacklist of 112 companies doing business “related to settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” which for the UN includes the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem. This is an issue that defies neutrality for so many reasons. As Israel’s President, Reuven Rivlin said, it recalled one of the darkest periods of our history, a time just before the outbreak of World War II, when Jews were forced to wear yellow stars, denoting us as different – and Jewish owned business boycotted, looted or destroyed.

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It defies all rationale when countries like Sudan, Venezuela, Algeria, Bahrain, Bolivia, Chad, Cuba, Djibouti, Ecuador, Egypt, Libya and others form part of the bloc that sponsored the March 2016 resolution that led to the publishing of the blacklist. After all, these are not countries that enjoy good records on human rights.

There must be many victims of conflict wondering why their cries fall on deaf ears.  The United Nations prove time and again that when it comes to Israel, they have a focus that has become an obsession. Resolution after resolution time and again, single Israel out for opprobrium but gross human rights violations like those in Iran, Venezuela, Syria and many other places barely elicit a response.

 

The publishing of this blacklist also plays right into the hands of the BDS (Boycott Divestment and sanctions) movement whose desired end goal is for Israel to not exist, a desire expressed clearly on their website and in their rhetoric. BDS is anti-normalisation – they are against any discourse and interaction between Israelis and Palestinians.  For many who believe that peace will be built from the interaction between ordinary people and the provision of jobs and opportunities, a campaign like this deals a decisive blow to any efforts towards sustainable peace.

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According to NGO Monitor, an organisation that monitors the often murky activities of non-governmental organisations, many of whom are associated with the BDS movement, not only was this list made in conjunction with pro-BDS and PFLP-linked NGOs, but these companies have done nothing wrong and many are involved in providing goods and services to Palestinians pursuant to the Oslo Accords.

These companies help create employment and opportunity for many Palestinians, who stand to lose the most. The decision to create a blacklist of companies not only threatens Palestinian employment opportunities but blocks access to the much needed humanitarian aid and infrastructure that these companies provide. The blacklist also hearkens back to times when Jews were singled out and put on exclusionary lists and today, the growing practice of labelling products manufactured in the West Bank is tantamount to wearing a modern day yellow star. Why is Israel singled out for this treatment but other countries with conflict situations are not?

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(photo credit: REUTERS,JPOST STAFF)

 

A few weeks ago, I attended a conference where the CEO of SodaStream, Daniel Birenbaum, was a featured speaker. SodaStream is a well-known Israeli brand, sold to PepsiCo for a whopping $3.2billion, faces threats by BDS because their factory was situated in the West Bank.  Birenbaum addressed the discriminatory practice of labelling goods produced in the West Bank by saying “if they want labels, we will give them labels” and promptly displayed the label found on all on SodaStream products.

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SodaStream CEO Daniel Birenbaum addresses a conference the issue of labelling.

Perhaps it would behoove the UN to learn from examples of co-existence and not pander to campaigns that are anti-Semitic and fall into the trap of questioning Israel’s legitimacy as a sovereign state. Blacklists, boycotts and labelling campaigns are harmful to sincere peace building efforts.

The timing of this could not be more bizarre. The release of the blacklist comes against the background of the release of the Trump Peace Plan. Although the Palestinians have roundly refused to even look at the plan, it has been endorsed by countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt and other Arab countries.

The Arab world is slowly opening up to the realization that recognition of Israel and the potential mutual business potential only bode well for the people of the region – and helps stave off the massive threat posed by Iran, a country not exactly lauded for its record on human rights.

This move by the United Nations Human Rights Council is a dark day for the institution, for Israel and the Palestinians and gives a tailwind to anti-Semites. It is a failure of the power of an agency charged with the mandate of protecting global human rights.

For the United Nations that is fast losing credibility and the regard the institution once held, the publishing of this blacklist, coupled with the obsessive focus on Israel at the expense of other conflicts and human rights issues around the world prove that or this once venerable body, antisemitism is just business as usual.