Hag Sukkot and the Hajj: Mourn 700, Celebrate 70

Sukkot prayers at the Western Wall holding the lulav, the etrog, the myrtle branches and willow branches (CC BY 2.5 Pikiwikisrael via Wikimedia Commons)

ברוך דיין אמת.

700 dead on a pilgrimage is a tragedy for all people. For religion, it’s horrifying, since they clearly were going there to merely fulfill an obligation and to have a major spiritual experience.

There’s no mockery in my voice. There’s no schadenfreude in my words here. Just days ahead of Sukkot, a holiday known in Jewish history and law for its universal themes, this is a particular tragedy to mark. This time of year, Sukkot especially, is considered the pinpoint of joint Jewish and non-Jewish worship at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

In Judaism, a pilgrimage is called a Hagg – the exact term used in Islam, the Hajj. Judaism requires three pilgrimages a year to the Temple, while Islam requires the Hajj be performed once in a lifetime.

It’s a prophecy of the Prophet Zechariah that in the future, after great trials and tribulations, that the peoples of the world will make pilgrimage just like the people of Israel – the Jewish people – precisely on Sukkot. Not on the other major Jewish pilgrimages of Passover and Shavuot, but on Sukkot.

The reasons Rabbis have given over the centuries for that are all kind of fluffy to be honest. There is a peculiar number of bulls that have to be sacrificed over the seven-day festival, 70 (Number 29:12-18), which corresponds to the number of nations the Torah recounts existed in the aftermath of the Great Flood. Seventy stands in as a symbol for ‘everything,’ but the great Rabbi Eliezer mentioned in the Talmud says the number definitely refers to the other peoples of the world (Tractate Sukkah 55b). He is almost undoubtedly piggybacking off Zechariah’s prophecy, but his simple one-sentence metaphor has fed hundreds of holiday speeches on the idea of Sukkot being a universal holiday. Sukkot is a time to invite everyone into the literal and proverbial tabernacle we build outside our home, outside our comfort zones, and party to great food and music and tidings for a peaceful future.

Sukkot prayers at the Western Wall holding the lulav, the etrog, the myrtle branches and willow branches (CC BY 2.5 Pikiwikisrael via Wikimedia Commons)

Sukkot prayers at the Western Wall holding the lulav, the etrog, the myrtle branches and willow branches (CC BY 2.5 Pikiwikisrael via Wikimedia Commons)

It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that the imbroglio of illustrating this prophetic peace is the job of the religious leaders who are the most in tune with their congregants’ emotions and passions. Jews and Muslims are not at peace with each other despite all those rhetorical similarities. But let’s cut back on these token qualifiers and “buts” for a moment. We know all this shit is difficult. Forget it for a second.

As an Orthodox Jew aspiring to reinstate the annual trio of pilgrimages to Jerusalem, it is a pain to see 700 people fulfilling the exact same obligation die while doing it for no other reason other than some terrible accident of planning. I want Zechariah’s prophecy to mean something in this day and age. Sukkot’s redemptive power is a universal one, as the sacrifices brought tie in with a season of redemption on the heals of Yom Kippur but extending the forgiveness toward Jews through a network to atone for all the peoples of the world.

If I want Muslims to relate to my holiday of Sukkot for its universal redemption and for God’s atonement of all other peoples, in order to appreciate where I am coming from when I pray for the restoration of the Holy Temple in a disputed spot, then I must not ignore the tragedy of 700 pious people dying simply performing something they too recognize has restorative spiritual implications for the entire world.

It is simply the wrong kind of wailing to hear at such a holy occasion.

Thousands of Muslims perform the Hajj in Mecca (CC BY SA 2.0 Al Jazeera English via Wikimedia Commons)

Thousands of Muslims perform the Hajj in Mecca (CC BY SA 2.0 Al Jazeera English via Wikimedia Commons)

As Jews linger and wait for the chance to make their trek back to the Temple, there is a sense of awe I have at hearing so many people make such a trip to Saudi Arabia. If only we could appreciate that what we aspire to do for ourselves is just the same what our cousins aspire to do for themselves, we could all be that much closer to a real and not fantasized peace.

There was one study in 2008 that wrote what was probably obvious for a lot of Muslims: the feeling of openness, euphoria and release from the Hajj carries over into how Hajjis view other people when they return home. There is a hint of something new, a calm to be desired that they see as being implementable throughout the world, that Muslims and non-Muslims can live together in harmony. The stories of a universal Sukkot and global harmony are not a fantasy – they are happening in Mecca. They will happen in Jerusalem. For Jews, the future of Sukkot as a holiday of peace will happen. There will be open arms. We will see it soon through divine action or our own hands to make it happen.

May we merit a Sukkot where we see a bright light ahead, where we see the glory of God’s splendor radiating from Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem for Israel and all peoples. May the aftermath of tragedy at this year’s Hajj not obscure the awakening 2 million Muslims experienced. May we all merit the day we celebrate together, pray for rain together, sing and eat dates together (since, you know, fruit is less complicated than having kosher and hallal meat at the same table). A Happy Sukkot to all. May we all complete our pilgrimages as God has demanded of us, very soon and in our lifetimes.

The Iran Deal: It’s not the nukes, dude

Distorted images of John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif (CC BY 2.0 DonkeyHotey via Flickr)

Assuming the Iran deal holds among the P5+1, including the US (it’s a foregone conclusion it will hold in the other countries, nearly impenetrable in the US), then what is Israel’s strategy going forward?

The biggest problem with this deal is not the legitimacy of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Nukes, if you haven’t noticed, tend not to be used. They have been used twice in combat in history and countries have avoided using them ever since. The more time that passes, the less of a chance one will be used. They enter strategic calculus however, in that military strategists cannot afford the luxury of the assessment I just gave: basically, there is always the possibility a country might use a nuke, so we have to be careful engaging the enemy.

Most importantly, countries with Mike’s know their enemies are suddenly going to be careful not to provoke or respond to military maneuvers. THAT’S WHAT’S IMPORTANT ABOUT THE DEAL. Iran might not have a weapon, but they wouldn’t need much work to get one. So, for all intents and purposes, Iran is ALREADY a nuclear power because many assume that even if a small war broke out between the US and Iran for noncompliance, their entire nuclear program couldn’t be destroyed, giving some unknown facility the go-ahead to make a bomb.

This is a theoretical scenario that now affects Iran’s own strategy. They now have the world’s caution in their backpocket. It could possibly be the reason Iran got such a generous deal, that the world powers calculated that Iran was virtually a nuclear power and that Iran already felt they could act with global caution hesitating to prevent Iranian military policy in Iraq or its support for Syria and Hezbollah.

That is what is dangerous about the deal, but even Israel might not argue on that aspect if indeed the strategic calculus was sound that Iran was already a virtual nuclear power with too much leverage. That’s what people would call “one thing.”

That doesn’t explain the lifting of sanctions though. Iran can threaten to become more aggressive with military policy and support for hostilities against Israel and other groups in the Middle East, but it still wouldn’t force Western hands to end sanctions. The West could have launched more sanctions, forcing the Iranians to give in on something more.

The fact is that Iran has a freer and now more resource-laden hand to act in the Middle East and possibly beyond. John Kerry’s promise that sanction relief is not allowed to be used to support terrorism or Iranian military policy is stupid – there’s no other word for it – because with the freed funds going into economic investment, other finances can be simply rebudgeted to offensive activities. Basically, Kerry’s argument is not an argument and is kind of pathetic as far as propaganda goes (and living in Israel, I’ve seen a lot of pathetic propaganda).

There’s more to this deal for sure, but just remember it’s not the potential nukes that are the problem at this point. It’s Iran’s strategic depth.

Iran Deal Scenario that Endangers Israel: Stronger Hezbollah

The economic relief here lets Iran divert resources to defense spending, including relieving the pressure on its proxy Hezbollah and declining ally, Bashar al-Assad. Right now, the Syrian Civil War is a problem for Israel, but less so with Hezbollah and Syria’s losses of late.

There is an assumption that there must be one, single regime ruling in Syria to create stability. This is evident in some policy recommendations that urge the White House to prevent the breakup of Syria and Iraq because, for some reason, that would mean instability for the world. Never mind the fact that a single, solitary regime that crushed its opponents is the primary reason for the creation of a Pandora’s box in Syria to begin with. Whatever.

Based on that, there is an assumption Iran is a potential partner to defeat ISIS and other Sunni groups in the region. Just read Trita Parsi’s endorsement of the deal. He is swimming in the idea of an intense if not covert military alliance between the United States and Iran to fight the enemies of the Syrian and Iraqi governments (who are strongly influenced by Iran).

Hezbollah is drained in terms of morale, but a whole bunch of money might change that, particularly for better weapons and armor. The same might go for the Syrian army to some extent.

Reinvigorated, Hezbollah would be able to stymie renewed pressure to withdraw from Syria and disarm. A disarmed Hezbollah means a quiet Israeli-Lebanese border. But Hezbollah with resources is interested in conflict, since its primary justification to be armed is to wage war with an imaginary occupying enemy called Israel.

The end of Hezbollah would also mean the end of the most significant proxy force in the world. It would also allow Israel to re-rebrand itself from being a proxy force to an independent one again. Right now, Israel’s power status is reduced by their virtual defanging in the diplomatic realm, having no influence on deals like the one in question when they previously did.

Consolidating Israel’s Ministries

Party supporters celebrate the unprecedented success of the centrist Yesh Atid party. (CC BY SA 2.0 by The Israel Project via Wikimedia Commons)

All this talk of numbers is distracting. 18 ministers. 4 deputy ministers. 22 ministers. 6 deputy ministers. It’s kind of irrelevant how many ministers Israel has, at least compared to how useful they are.

Making someone a minister is a matter of prestige, but I fail to understand the prestige in a ministry that has absolutely no function. I suppose it makes a bit more sense than the classic “Minister without Portfolio” that was a favorite of Prime Ministers past. It’s also cynical to think the opposition (well, outside Yesh Atid which has been consistent about the issue the last two years) is going to care much about this issue if it finds itself in the government. Eitan Cabel called the idea of reinstating it wasteful, even though he used to be a Minister without Portfolio. But hey, Miri Regev talks like she voted against the Disengagement and she voted in favor, so who cares right? Continue reading

Expanding the Number of Ministries Makes Israel Look Stupid

The 4th Israeli government has 13 members back in 1952.

There are plenty of decent, logical, sensical, rational, good, perfect arguments to prevent the expansion of the Israeli government cabinet to include more ministers, deputy ministers and new ministries. Seriously, the list would be overwhelming. The best in my mind though would be an argument that undermines the reason this expansion is happening in the first place. Likud politicians want to advance their careers with prestigious titles on their Knesset resumes. Yet their resumes will not be helped by the bestowing of stupid, useless, redundant, absurd, fake ministries that are an even bigger waste of time for Israelis than they are a waste of money. Continue reading

Israel’s Survival, Golden Age and Future: Interview with Shalom Salomon Wald

Israeli Air Force (IAF) jets fly by Tel Aviv on Israel's 63rd Independence Day (CC BY 3.0 IDF via Wikimedia Commons)

(This interview was originally published in three installments at Arutz 7: Part I & Part II & Part III.)

THE RISE AND FALL AND SURVIVAL OF JEWISH CIVILIZATION

Shalom Salomon Wald was born in Italy but moved to Switzerland ahead of World War II. He can recall the aerial battles that took place just across the border from Basel.  He worked with the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) for 38 years, primarily in science and technology policy where he eventually became the Head of the OECD/DSTI Biotechnology Unit.

“I was always interested in history. I did study history in Basel but didn’t graduate in it. It’s a part of my life and I was affected by the Shoah,” says Wald. “I remember the B-17s flying over Basel at the border to bomb Germany.”

Recently, Wald completed a five-years-long work in the study of the rise and fall of nations with a special focus on the future of Israel. The book, Rise and Decline of Civilizations: Lessons for the Jewish People, was supported by the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI). Continue reading

Israel’s Message to Israeli and other Arab Christians is Lacking

Easter Parade in Yafo, Israel (2011) (CC BY 3.0 Ilan Costica via Wikimedia Commons)

(This interview was originally published in Arutz 7)

One of the often overlooked parts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the role that minorities play in Palestinian cities. Area A is made up of eight major cities, including: Ramallah, Hevron, Jenin, Shechem (Nablus), Qalqilya, Tulkarm and Jericho. The eighth is Bethlehem, whose significance to Christians is unforgettable for Westerners. The city had retained a large Christian majority for centuries, but that has changed in recent years.

Since the Second Intifada especially, there has been a mass exodus out of the city to Western countries. Some may be moving to Bethlehem’s suburbs in Beit Jala or Beit Sahour. Israel has received a lot of international flack for this, but that blame would be entirely inconsistent with the general mass Christian exodus in the Middle East prompted by Islamist movements in Iraq and Syria. Continue reading

Israeli Wine Industry Leaving France and Italy in the Dust

Mt. Tabor with Vineyard in the foreground, CC BY 2.5 PikiwikiIsrael via Wikimedia Commons

Jerusalem Wine Club CEO Eli Poch says Israel has advantages that are allowing for unparalleled growth.

(This article was originally published in Arutz 7.)

In 1987, the Golan Heights Winery won Israeli wines their first major international award in competition with the 1986 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon 1984 at the International Wines & Spirits Competition in London. Eli Poch, the Founder and CEO of the Jerusalem Wine Club and proprietor of the Club’s full-service wine shop in Efrat, says the industry has never looked back.

In the nearly 30 years since the industry was revitalized by that one award, the number of wineries has gone from a handful to between 250 and 400. Mr. Poch said he could not give an exact number because new wineries on preparing to open their doors all the time.

Mr. Poch got involved in wines at a young age in Toronto, pairing up with a local wine shop as part of a pre-Passover fundraiser when he was in 9th grade. He later got a warehouse job with that business and then took his enthusiasm further when he started exploring the emerging industry in Israel.

“There is even an International Ambassador for Israeli Wines. There is also the consortium in Israel with Machon HaYayin whose entire focus is to specifically to aid in export capabilities and monitor levels of pH and alcohol levels in product.”

“Israel’s reputation has become much more world-renown. There is a focus on rebranding Israeli wines and pulling them out of the ‘kosher section’ and making sure they are mentioned with the likes of the Spanish, the French and Italians.”

As far as concerns about international boycotts, Poch says he has not heard anything about the idea in the wine circles he frequents, even in France or Spain.

Israeli Wine and Geography

But why has the industry expanded so rapidly? Poch notes that unlike other rapid expansions that might sacrifice production quality, it is the quality itself of Israel’s wines that have made expansion possible in the first place. As a result, traditional centers of the global wine industry like France, Spain and Italy are actually seeing Israel begin to corner elements of the market.

Blended wines are just one segment of that international market that Israel tackles better than other industrial centers. Given the example Bordeaux blends, which require a mix of five different types of grapes, Israel consistently uses high quality versions of each grape that challenge countries that might excel in one breed of vine but not the others.

The main reason is scientific. No country on the Mediterranean coast or in the northern regions of Europe has the diverse climate that Israel does contained in a single area.

“We’re very, very much different in the capabilities of what’s in our soil and how that produces more varieties, duplicates them or does both those things together.”

Within a small space, the Golan Heights contrast with the beaches of Eilat, the sea-level regions along the coast are complemented by the Judean Hills and Jerusalem’s valleys, and so forth. Even the composition of soil is extremely different place to place, including volcanic soil in the Golan, limestone, Terra Rosa (clay), basalt and sandy regions in the Negev.

“I can literally go to Kadesh Barnea and the sand will fall through fingers as if I were standing on the beach. We grow grapes in this! Each soil has different combinations of minerals that give different flavors to Israeli grapes.”

The soil variations themselves are enough to make the same breed of grape taste different depending on the ground in which it grows.

That variation is behind the idea of the Jerusalem Wine Club. Paid membership gets members between two and four bottles of wine per month – including from boutique wineries – that they might not otherwise have had the chance to taste with the popularity of the bigger wineries’ products.

Israel’s other advantages rest in its particular cultural and religious background. Israel’s gathering of Jewish exiles from France, Italy, Spain, the United States, South Africa, Australia and other locations means that winemakers trained and experienced in very different wine-growing climates can consult with each other. Asked why this was a challenge for say, French and Italians, he said that each industry can isolate themselves.

“It’s a matter of ego sometimes. In Israel, because the high-quality version of the industry is so young, people realize they will either sink or sail together in the same boat.”

Israel’s climate is also consistent. While rain might vary during the winter, the rain in the actual growth season from March through Rosh Hashanah is actually consistently nothing. As a result, Israel’s drip irrigation is the only water source for the vineyards, giving Israeli winemakers the counterintuitive advantage of being able to control exactly how much water will be used for their vineyards.

“With too much rain you might end up with grapes that are over-diluted, which waters down the taste. If it is too sunny, there might be extra sugar and high alcohol content. Zero rainfall during the growth season and drip irrigation allow growers to monitor the exact amount of water going into the vines.”

He says that the reliance on technology has been a blessing in disguise. It is at the point that the Golan Heights Winery has machinery that will monitor the amount of evaporation off of any leaf on any vine in any of its vineyards. It is a scientific precision that other wine-growing centers are nowhere near matching.

What Poch felt was of note was along the lines of the oft-cited idea that Israel’s greening reflects the Biblical prophecies that foresee a country that experiences its own rebirth when the Jews of the world return. He says that one section of the Torah implicates the wine industry is an even better indicator of this:

“If you look at Yaakov Avinu’s brachah to Yehudah in Genesis 49:11-12, he blesses him with so much wine that ‘he will wash his clothes in wine and his robe in the blood of grapes; red-eyed from wine and white-toothed by milk.’ Yehudah’s descendants will prosper by the vine. We are seeing that in the richness of Israel’s wine industry. It is a literal blessing.”

The Jerusalem Wine Club store is located in Efrat, Gush Etzion. You can contact them at their website www.jerusalemwineclub.com or at 02.625.2896.

Facing Elimination: 3 Parties Could Be Knocked Out of Israeli Elections on Tuesday

Chart of all 2015 Israeli Election Polls (made by Gedalyah Reback)

Just so everyone knows, if they care, there are three parties that are facing elimination in the elections that have consistently polled awfully. There are only 11 political factions with a realistic shot of getting into the Knesset with this week’s Israeli elections. If all three of these brink parties are eliminated, it would completely change the dynamics of Israeli politics.

In the previous Knesset, you only needed 2% of the general vote to qualify for the Knesset. Now, you need 3.25%. As a result, the minimum number of seats a party would have has in the Knesset of 2 has changed to 4. Three parties have polled this number several times. A fourth party polled it one time – Shas. Continue reading

Stabilizing Israel’s Coalition Government

Party supporters celebrate the unprecedented success of the centrist Yesh Atid party. (CC BY SA 2.0 by The Israel Project via Wikimedia Commons)

How should Israel deal with the problem of building a coalition government?

For anyone who thinks this is boring, I’ll admit it kind of is. I mean, unless you are obsessed with politics like me. Then it’s endlessly interesting.

It also costs Israel about 2 BILLION SHEKELS to run an election, so it’s kind of important not to have so many of them (or to make them cheaper, if that is even possible). Continue reading