Consul General Galit Baram was in Vancouver last month. (photo from Consulate of Israel)
Galit Baram, consul general of Israel to Toronto and Western Canada, was in Vancouver last month.
“The visit was very good,” she told the Independent in a phone interview. “It included some political meetings and an academic meeting and I addressed the Jewish community and I attended the Negev Dinner of the JNF…. I had the opportunity to see the city, which is beautiful, and the weather was nice.”
Baram will be returning to Vancouver in November, when the late Dirk Pieter and Klaasje Kalkman will be honoured as Righteous Among the Nations for the assistance they provided to Jews during the Holocaust. The ceremony will be held in conjunction with Yad Vashem Canada and the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver.
Baram’s June meetings explored the opportunities of expanding cooperation between Israel and British Columbia in innovation and entrepreneurship.
“I believe that there is great potential in economic cooperation between Israel and British Columbia,” she said.
The provincial government, she said, “is making its initial steps now…. There is interest, there is curiosity, there is awareness of what Israel has to offer in innovation, in the medical field. When it comes to pharma, when it comes to cybersecurity, Israel is a leading country in the international arena in many of these fields.
“We had very good relations with the previous government and we hosted a mission … in November of 2016, a mission that was led by then-minister of finance [Michael] de Jong; there were representatives of different business sectors in British Columbia…. [It] is our intention to work very closely with the current government as well.”
The change in the federal government in 2015 also hasn’t affected Canada-Israel cooperation. On May 28, in Montreal, François-Phillippe Champagne, minister of international trade, and Eli Cohen, Israel’s minister of the economy and industry, announced the signing of the modernized Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement.
Cohen spent two days in Canada, said Baram, adding, “I hope that Minister Champagne will soon reciprocate and visit Israel as well.
“I believe this is very important to have visits on such a high level … because I believe that governments can contribute greatly to bringing countries together. But we have to remember that, at a certain point, governments have to take a step back and leave it up to the business sector and the private sector to build bridges and to bring the countries together, but, as governments on both sides, Israel and Canada, we do as much as we can in order to strengthen and broaden our bilateral relations.”
Baram also sees the possibility of building a groundwork for peace in Israel through business and trade.
“I believe that economic mobility plays an integral role in bringing communities together,” she said, “and we are watching with pride the growing high-tech sector in the Israeli-Arab community, especially in the Greater Haifa area, in cities such as Nazareth…. We would like to see more Israeli-Arab students concentrating on science, concentrating on business, in business management and innovation and entrepreneurship.
“When it comes to building social bridges between Israelis and Palestinians, not necessarily Jews and Arabs, there are many activities that concentrate on that … and they are conducted by civil societies in Israel and it is heartwarming to see that. I would like to mention the activity of an organization such as Save a Child’s Heart … [which] brings children to Israel [for cardiac care] from Arab countries, from the Middle East, from Muslim countries in general, and they do wonderful, wonderful things in building bridges…. Another example I can give you is the upcoming visit of Dr. Yossi Leshem, one of Israel’s greatest experts on bird migration – he is going to be in Vancouver towards the end of August and he will be accompanied by his friends from [elsewhere in] the Middle East, and they are going to present beautiful regional projects in a conference that will be held in Vancouver…. Two other organizations that I would like to mention … are Ultimate Peace, that organizes Frisbee tournaments for youth … and another project, by Danny Hakim – Budo for Peace – teaches martial arts to Israeli Jews and Arabs, Palestinians, Jordanians and others, and they have instructors coming to Israel from Japan and from other countries…. I believe that such organizations can do so much good for Israeli society in general, for the Palestinians and for neighbouring countries in the Middle East.”
Of course, there are significant obstacles to peace, not the least of which are the ongoing altercations at the Gaza border.
“When it comes to the situation on the Gaza border, we are facing some very serious challenges,” admitted Baram. “It is an uphill battle. We see that there is sometimes a deterioration, sometimes the situation stabilizes a little bit and then there is another deterioration, the situation changes constantly.
“There are many, many challenges on a daily basis that are facing not only IDF [Israel Defence Forces] soldiers and the Palestinian civilian populations, but also the civilian population on the Israeli side of the border. Sometimes there is a tendency to forget about them but there are families, there are entire communities, that raise their children on the Israeli side of the border and because of this intifada of burning kites and balloons, they have to deal with arson cases on a daily basis, with a loss of crops and forest in the south of Israel, and it’s heartbreaking to see that because so much work has been put into making the desert bloom, especially in those regions.”
She added, “The one very disappointing thing for me to see as a former director of the department for Palestinian affairs was the fact that the Kerem Shalom border crossing that was built in the first place to enable trucks to enter Gaza was burned down by Hamas activists and by other terrorists and it’s a shame to see that because so much money was invested in that, so much effort was done in order to make trade between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and especially Gaza, easier and simpler for us but especially for the civilian population in Gaza. And it’s difficult to see a civilian population that is being held captive by a terror organization…. Of course, there is awareness of the situation in Israel and understanding that the main enemy that has to be dealt with is definitely Hamas and not the people of Gaza.”
As for the Canadian government’s initial statements after the violent March of Return protests – in which Canada admonished Israel, saying its “use of excessive force and live ammunition is inexcusable,” and called “for an immediate independent investigation to thoroughly examine the facts on the ground” – Baram said, “I would like to mention that, after Hamas started attacking Israel, [with] renewed rocket attacks to the south of Israel, there were statements that were released by Prime Minister [Justin] Trudeau and by Minister of Foreign Affairs [Chrystia] Freeland condemning Hamas for this activity and I believe we should concentrate on these statements.”
And Canada’s reluctance to move its embassy to Jerusalem?
“When it comes to Jerusalem,” said Baram, “we believe that all countries should move their embassies to the capital of Israel and the capital of Israel is Jerusalem. Every sovereign country has the right of defining and choosing its own capital and we believe that we don’t have to prove over and over again the story connecting the people of Israel and the land of Israel, between the people of Israel and its eternal capital, Jerusalem.”
With respect to the almost 40,000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel, Baram said, “We have to remember that the first Western country that these people from Africa, from Eritrea, from Sudan, asylum seekers, work migrants – define them as you wish – the first Western country they encounter is Israel. And, several years ago, many of them came to Israel…. This is never an easy issue to deal with because the personal stories are very emotional and very difficult, and these people, many of them have been through terrible ordeals, until they reached Israel.
“The issue of migration in general … is an issue that is dealt with in Europe and in other parts of the world,” she said. “In the Middle East, for example, the issue of Syrian refugees is a very big issue that many countries deal with and, now, Syrian refugees, for example, are coming knocking on the doors of European countries, as well, but this is a problem that many Middle Eastern countries have dealt with for quite awhile, a long time now.
“With the African refugees or asylum seekers or work migrants, definitely a solution must be found in order to protect them, protect their rights. On the other hand, we have to keep the sovereignty of the state of Israel and we cannot allow floods of refugees entering Israel because we have to think about our population and … providing an answer that would satisfy all parties involved. This is not easy,” she said.
And neither is Israel’s relationship with Diaspora Jews always easy.
“When you look at Israeli society, you see that the public debate in Israel is very heated and emotional,” said Baram. “This is how we do things in Israel. People are very opinionated … they don’t hide their views and opinions, and I think this is wonderful. This is the strength of Israeli democracy.”
She recalled a statement made by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin about a year ago. “He talked about the four tribes of Israeli society, and he referred to secular Jews, to Orthodox Zionists Jews, to the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel and to Israeli Arabs…. And he called for these four tribes to join hands to discuss the future of Israeli society for the benefit of the country. Later on, he added the fifth tribe … and I believe this is very important to mention that the fifth tribe is Diaspora Jews because Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people…. I am actually very encouraged when I visit Jewish communities throughout Canada and people ask me sometimes challenging questions … about the nature of Israel and about the nature of Israeli society, and what should be done and what is done correctly, or what should be corrected in Israel. I encourage that and I welcome it, because it shows love and devotion and interest in Israel.
“And I encourage people to come visit Israel and express their opinions and to keep us Israeli diplomats on our toes … and I thank Jewish communities for participating in this ongoing discussion. I think this is vital not only for Israel by the way – this ongoing discussion is vital for Diaspora Jews as well.”