During coalition building negotiations, Binyamin Netanyahu had to consider lists of demands that would make even the pious cringe. (photo from president.gov.ua)
So, my mom doesn’t have to worry about me anymore. Ever since I moved to Israel, she’s been concerned about my safety. Well, Israel is now one of the five safest countries in the world to visit, according to Swiftest, an American travel insurance website. From homicide rates to natural disasters to rode carnage, Israel rounds out the top five safest places, just after Singapore, Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland. The most dangerous country to visit is South Africa. Canada was ranked the 21st safest country, so now I’ll have to start worrying about my mom’s safety. Just sayin’.
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During coalition building negotiations, United Torah Judaism (UTJ) – holding seven seats Binyamin Netanyahu required to build his government – presented a list of demands that would make even the pious cringe. This included affirmative action for ultra-Orthodox job seekers in state-owned companies. More religious studies in secular schools. Less secular studies in religious schools, like science, arithmetic and English. More gender segregated beaches. (How often do the Orthodox go to the beach? Do they need additional beachfront real estate?) Legislation permitting yeshivah students to continue Torah studies and defer army service. And, are you ready for this? A demand to stop energy generation on Shabbat. Does this reek of theocracy-building or what? And it costs the Israeli taxpayer – about which the UTJ constituency knows little – about nine billion bucks a year!
Not to be outdone in chutzpah, Religious Zionist Member of the Knesset Orit Struk is reportedly a strong advocate of a government amendment enabling private businesses to refuse to provide services based on religious beliefs. But only if the same “widget” is available elsewhere at similar terms. Good thing she clarified that. Seriously! So a business owner can now deny selling to people of colour, to LGBTQ+ people, to Arabs and to others, Jews and non-Jews. If it’s justified by religious beliefs and becomes even more outlandish. Doctors could also decide who to operate on. Yes, bearers of the “hypocritic” oath: “I’m not operating on that guy. He’s homosexual.” OMG!
I’m not just sayin’, I’m shoutin’! Bring in some sanity!
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Speaking of the Haridim, according to a new research study from the Hebrew University, Philip Morris spent more than $1 million on advertising to attract the ultra-Orthodox. Now what makes this demographic so influenced by cigarette advertising? Is this related to that sector’s education, or lack thereof, in the sciences and the deadly impact tobacco products have on health? Maybe the incoming government should introduce more secular education in the religious schools. Make Israel a more educated and healthier country.
And talking about education – in a survey by the education platform Erudera, Israel is the fifth most educated country in the world. More than 50% of Israelis hold a higher education degree. This despite Rabbi Yitzchak Godknofp, the United Torah Judaism’s party chairman, claiming that math and English studies have no effect on Israel’s economy in his lame attempt to defend these core subjects not being taught in Orthodox schools. Really, no effect?!
By the way, Canada was in top spot, with almost 60% of Canucks holding a tertiary degree. And in Canada all schools teach the three Rs.
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Tel Aviv made the UBS Global Real Estate 2022 Bubble list, being in the top 10 cities with a severe housing bubble. Given Tel Aviv’s 2021 rank as the most expensive city, according to The Economist magazine and my wallet, this is really no surprise. To wit, housing prices increased threefold between 2001 and 2017. And, during 2022, climbed another 18%. This bubble was not only in Tel Aviv but throughout our tiny shtetl. Also included in the list of top 10 severe housing bubble cities are Toronto and Vancouver; Winnipeg – my home city – is not on the list.
Towards the end of 2022, Tel Aviv fortunately lost its place as the world’s most expensive city. It moved to third place, behind Singapore and New York. Coming in last were Damascus, Syria, and Tripoli, Libya. All things considered, I’d rather be living in one of the most expensive cities.
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Not all is bleak. According to The Economist, Israel was the fourth best performing economy within the OECD during 2022. Metrics included GDP growth rate, annual inflation and share prices. Greece ranked first, the U.S. ranked 20th and Germany 30th. As a top world economy, shouldn’t prices be more reasonable in Tel Aviv? Just askin’.
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Somewhat belated happy Hanukkah thoughts. Sufganiyot – Israeli jelly-filled donuts doused in oil – shouted out from every bread counter in the country. It made me more whimsical and homesick for the donuts of my Canadian youth, Tim Hortons – Tim Hortons bakes ’em. I’m all for celebrating the Maccabees’ triumph over the Syrian-Greek Seleucids’ empire in Judea – yes, Hanukkah is mainly about victory – and their eight-day oil-based menorah-lighting miracle. Just didn’t want my sufganiyot tasting like they had been sitting in oil for eight days. Just sayin’. Belated wishes for a happy Gregorian new year.
Bruce Brown is a Canadian and an Israeli. He made aliyah … a long time ago. He works in Israel’s high-tech sector by day and, in spurts, is a somewhat inspired writer by night. Brown is the winner of the 2019 AJPA Rockower Award for excellence in writing, and wrote the 1998 satire An Israeli is…. Brown reflects on life in Israel – political, social, economic and personal.
Flame Towers, in the capital city Baku, reflect the forward-looking economy and the ancient Zoroastrian roots of the Azerbaijani people. (photo by Pat Johnson)
It is a Muslim-majority country where Jews proudly draw visitors’ attention to the fact that their synagogues and day schools receive government funding and require no security. It is a majority-Shiite country with a primarily Turkic population, where Turkish flags wave alongside Azerbaijani standards. Yet, among its closest allies is Israel, which a survey indicates is the second most admired country among its citizens. It provides 40% of Israel’s oil and receives vital security and defence cooperation from the Jewish state. One of the country’s greatest modern heroes is a Jewish soldier who died defending the country in 1992.
Azerbaijan is an enigma that defies assumptions, especially when it comes to its Jewish citizens, who have experienced almost nothing but neighbourliness from their Azerbaijani compatriots for two millennia.
Along with a small number of other Canadian journalists and community activists, I was a guest last month of the Network of Azerbaijani Canadians during an intensive weeklong immersion in the country, including its Jewish present and past.
I won’t pretend I didn’t have to Google Azerbaijan to place it alongside its Caucasus neighbours Armenia and Georgia, between the Black and Caspian seas, inauspiciously bordered by two rogue nations, Iran and Russia. Like many people, my knowledge of Azerbaijan was limited to its 30-plus-year conflict with Armenia over the disputed Karabakh region, a conflict that has led to allegations of war crimes, ethnic cleansing and atrocities on both sides.
We traveled to Karabakh, a place of ghostly, abandoned, war-destroyed cities and countrysides plagued by an estimated million landmines. Helmeted workers pace slowly through what were once farms in the almost unimaginably Sisyphean task of demining a half-billion square metres of land. (Israeli drones and artificial intelligence are helping the process.) We visited cemeteries and monuments, drove highways lined for kilometres with portraits of war dead.
In a distinct counterpoint to this carnage, we visited the country’s Jewish residents and learned of the history of Jews and non-Jews in this place, a story of almost unprecedented fraternity unusual for any country, not least a majority Muslim society in a place where ethnic and territorial conflicts, and the ebb and flow of empires, has conspired against peace.
A history of diversity
Azerbaijan was a deviation on the standard Silk Road route, and so people were long familiar with those from the west and the east. But its economy exploded in the latter half of the 19th century, when oil was discovered. By 1901, the region, part of the Russian Empire, was producing fully half of the world’s oil.
This ancient and modern history brought waves of Jews, beginning in biblical times. The oldest communities of Jews in Azerbaijan are known as Mountain Jews, or Kavkazi Jews, whose Persian-Jewish language is called Juhuri. Neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi, the Mountain Jews maintain some Mizrahi traditions and their practices are heavily influenced by kabbalah. They trace their presence back to the Babylonian exile following the destruction of the First Temple, in 586 BCE, but these ancient communities have been joined in more recent times by other migrants.
Jews from neighbouring Georgia, where communities have also lived since the Babylonian exile, migrated to Azerbaijan during the first oil boom, in the late 19th century. After the 1903 and 1905 Kishinev pogroms sent terrified Jews from across the Russian Empire fleeing to the New World and elsewhere, a group of Ashkenazim moved from throughout the empire to Azerbaijan, drawn by its reputation for intercultural harmony.
Today, Mountain Jews make up about two-thirds of the country’s Jewish population. (Ballpark estimates are that there are 30,000 Jews in Azerbaijan.) Most Mountain Jews – 100,000 to 140,000 – now live in Israel and there is a significant population in the United States. Those who remain, however, deflect questions about why they have not made aliyah or migrated to Western countries.
“This is my homeland. Why should I leave?” asked Arif Babayev, the leader of the Jewish community in the city of Ganja, adding: “I don’t know what antisemitism is. I’ve never experienced it.”
The community of Qırmızı Qəsəbə, or Red Town, has been known as “Jerusalem of the Caucasus” and also as “the last shtetl in Europe.” It is said to be the only all-Jewish (or almost-all-Jewish community) outside Israel. The streets of the mountain village, in the northeast region called Quba, were quiet on a November Sunday. Many of the people who call the village home actually spend most of the year working in the capital city Baku, returning in summer to what amount to summer homes. The older community members and a few families stay year-round.
Three synagogues in the town survived the Soviet years – two still operating as congregations and one transformed into an excellent museum with original artifacts and in-depth exploration available on interactive screens where congregants once davened. The two synagogues, active on Shabbat and holidays, are intimate, magnificent structures. The Six Dome Synagogue, dating to 1888, was used as a warehouse and as a shmatte factory during the Soviet period and was restored and reopened for use in 2005.
Throughout history, the Jews of the area worked in viticulture (their Muslim neighbours were ostensibly forbidden from alcohol-related tasks, though this is not a country with a large strictly observant religious population), tobacco growing, hide tanning, shoemaking, carpet weaving, fishing and the cultivation of the dry root of the madder plant, which is used in dyeing textiles and leather.
In the 1930s, there was a Stalinist crackdown on Judaism, but circumcision, kosher slaughter and underground Torah study survived. Since the end of the Soviet era and the dawn of independence, in 1991, Jewish life has both thrived and shrunk – many emigrated, but those who remained have revivified their cultural and religious roots.
In wealthy and modern Baku, signs of a flourishing Jewish community are found at two government-funded Jewish schools, each with about 100 students. They follow a government-created Jewish studies curriculum that includes Hebrew, Jewish history and tradition, as well as the official curriculum of the Azerbaijani education ministry. Like so many other places throughout the country, the school is festooned with photographs of the current president and his late father and predecessor.
The school’s leadership note that there is no security outside the institution, unlike in France or even Israel. The school is in a complex that includes a non-Jewish school and the students compete together in intermurals. Jewish and non-Jewish students celebrate the Jewish holidays together.
Nearby, the Sephardi Georgian congregation and the Ashkenazi synagogue share a building that was funded by the national government. The two sanctuaries are on different floors, each with their distinctive internal architecture and warm, inviting sanctuaries.
George Deek was the youngest ambassador in Israel’s history when appointed to head the embassy in Baku, in 2018. An Arab-Christian from a prominent Eastern Orthodox family in Jaffa, Deek was a Fulbright scholar at Georgetown University and held previous posts at Israeli missions in Nigeria and Norway. He is also, he noted, the Israeli diplomat geographically closest to Tehran.
The ambassador sees parallels between Azerbaijan and Israel, which are both young countries made up of people who are used to being bullied by their neighbours. Both peoples understand what it is to be small and to struggle to preserve one’s own culture, he said.
In addition to the large swath of Israel’s oil supply that comes from Azerbaijan, there is growing trade and cooperation between the countries across a range of sectors. In addition to strategic partnerships, they are sharing agriculture and water technologies in conjunction with the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, in southern Israel. An Israeli company is building a Caspian desalinization plant and Israeli drip irrigation technology is being applied to Azerbaijani farms.
Tourism is a growing sector and Israel is a significant market: by next year, there will be eight flights weekly between Baku and Tel Aviv on the Azerbaijani state carrier, as well as regularly scheduled tourist flights on Israir.
Deek shared the results of a survey that seemed to provide proof of the historical and anecdotal things we had been hearing about the Azerbaijani connection not only to their Jewish neighbours but to the Jewish state. In a poll measuring Azerbaijanis’ positive opinions about other countries, Turkey came first and Israel second.
Despite all this upbeat news, and despite the fact that Israel has had an embassy in Baku almost since Azerbaijan gained independence, the diplomatic mission was not reciprocated, even as trade and person-to-person connections expanded. There is a range of geopolitical explanations for the lack of an Azerbaijani embassy in Israel and Deek told our group he hoped that Azerbaijan would soon be able to open one there. And, just a few minutes after we left our meeting with the ambassador, our guide received a phone call – Azerbaijan’s parliament had just approved a resolution to open an embassy in Israel.
The decision, after all this time, is due to a confluence of events. There had been fear of an Iranian backlash to more overt relations between Azerbaijan and Israel, but global disgust over the Iranian regime’s crackdown on anti-government protesters may have diminished Azerbaijani concerns. The close relationship between Azerbaijan and Turkey was probably another factor. With Turkish-Israeli relations back on a somewhat even keel after a chilly period, the time may have seemed right. With the long-simmering Karabakh conflict now concluded, as far as Azerbaijan is concerned, by the 2020 war that returned the region to Azerbaijani control, the country may be less wary of making waves among Muslim allies. That fear would likely be additionally assuaged by the Abraham Accords, which make warm Azerbaijani-Israeli relations less remarkable than they might have been just a few years ago. (Azerbaijan’s anti-Israel voting record at the United Nations is still a disappointment that some observers hope changes as ties grow.)
The tight relationship between Azerbaijan and Israel is, of course, viewed by Iran as a Zionist plot. Iran has both internal demographic and external security concerns about Azerbaijan. There are almost twice as many ethnic Azerbaijanis within the borders of Iran – about 15 million – than there are in the country of Azerbaijan, and the Islamic revolutionary regime doesn’t want any nationalist rumblings. Beyond this, the very existence of a secular, pluralist Azerbaijan stands as an affront to Iran. Azerbaijan is a majority Shi’ite country, like Iran. It is geographically and demographically small and, in the imagination of Iranian fundamentalists, it should be the next domino in the ayatollahs’ plan for regional domination. Instead, despite the familial ties across the Azerbaijani-Iranian border, intergovernmental relations are frigid.
What is it about Azerbaijan?
A new embassy. Burgeoning trade and tourism with Israel. Centuries of good relations between Jews and non-Jews. A level of comfort and security unknown to Jews in almost any other country, certainly any Muslim-majority place. What is it about Azerbaijan?
I asked a few people – religious leaders, a member of parliament, Jews and non-Jews – what the secret sauce is for the Azerbaijanis’ exceptional relations with their Jewish neighbours. No one had a pat answer.
It was people-to-people contact, one person told me. There was never a ghetto; Jews were integrated and part of a larger multicultural society. One theory is that, more recently, there have been lots of Jewish teachers in the school system, so Azerbaijanis get to know and respect Jewish people growing up. Another explanation is that Azerbaijanis view their national identity above their religious or other particular identities, so religious differences are not as divisive as in many places – a factor probably accentuated by decades of Soviet official atheism.
Rabbi Zamir Isayev, who leads the Georgian Jewish congregation in Baku, doesn’t have a simple explanation for why Azerbaijan, among the countries of the world, seems to be so good for the Jews. It’s simply in the nature of the Azerbaijani people, he says.
Azerbaijani history celebrates a number of notable Jews. The Caspian Black Sea Oil Company, which was central to the creation of the region’s dominant resource sector, was founded by Alphonse Rothschild, a French Jew, and other Jews have been involved in a range of resource and other sectors over the years.
In the short-lived government of the first independent republic of Azerbaijan, 1918 to 1920, the minister of health was a Jewish pediatrician, Dr. Yevsey Gindes. That government was also the first democracy in the Muslim world and among the first in the world to grant women the franchise. Like many countries that emerged from the collapse of the Russian Empire, Azerbaijan was quickly subsumed into the new Soviet Union.
Lev Landau, Azerbaijan’s 1962 Nobel Prize winner in physics, is widely fêted. Garry Kasparov, considered by some the greatest chess player of all time, is a (patrilineal) Jew from Azerbaijan. A long list of academics, athletes, musicians and business innovators have risen to the top of their fields in the country and abroad and are celebrated both as Azerbaijanis and as Jews. A hero from recent times seems to elicit an especially emotional connection.
The conflict with Armenia, which began in the late 1980s and culminated most recently in a 2020 war, remains understandably fresh in the national consciousness. Highways and villages display thousands of portraits of war dead and the Alley of Martyrs in the heart of Baku is the final resting place of 15,000 Azerbaijanis, many from the final throes of Soviet domination and the two wars with Armenia. Among the most visited graves at the sprawling memorial park is that of Albert Agarunov.
Agarunov was a young Jewish Azerbaijani who volunteered with his country’s defence forces and was a tank commander during the Armenian capture of the strategic Karabakh town of Shusha on May 8, 1992. The 23-year-old, already apparently such a legendary figure that the Armenians had put a bounty on his head, stepped out of his tank to retrieve bodies of slain Azerbaijani soldiers from the road when he was killed by sniper fire. Agarunov was posthumously named National Hero of Azerbaijan and was buried at the solemn national monument, in a service attended by both imams and rabbis. Today, Jews place stones on his grave and others place flowers.
In terms of Azerbaijani-Israeli relations, the large number of Azerbaijani-descended Jews who live in Israel create natural familial ties between the two places. Jewish remittances from Azerbaijani oil wealth helped purchase land in Palestine, an early portent of a connection between the two places. According to one museum piece, Jewish horse wranglers from the Caucasus made aliyah and became protectors of early kibbutzim and moshavim and helped put down the 1929 Hebron massacre, although I cannot find reference to this role online.
Whether that last detail is factual or not, what seems undeniable is that the story of Jews in Azerbaijan stands out as a model of coexistence and good neighbourliness in a world that has not always been so kind. This is a story that deserves to be told more widely.
In an email briefing this week, the English-language news platform Times of Israel declared: “UN releases 2nd damning report on Israel; real estate soars.”
These were two unrelated stories. The United Nations had unveiled another in its persistent condemnations of the Jewish state and, on a completely different issue, it reported that Israeli housing prices have spiked 19% this year over last – the largest jump in recorded history.
As curious as this combination of stories was, it could hardly compete with an adjacent mashup about two of Israel’s leading far-right politicians, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, the latter of whom, in an apparent effort at humanizing himself, appeared on a cooking program: “Ben-Gvir stuffs peppers and Smotrich proposes legal reforms.”
But, returning to the first items. The connection between UN condemnation of Israel and soaring real estate prices in Israel may be remote but perhaps not random. In any country, high real estate prices indicate a demand for housing that is larger than the supply, a situation due in part to rising economic prosperity (which is not generally shared equally, it should be said, and is too complex to fully discuss in this space).
The larger issues, for our purposes, are the curious parallels between this fact and the accompanying story, about yet another of the UN’s broadsides against Israel. Late last week, a report by the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory declared that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is illegal. Not a surprise considering the commission’s mandate, to say the least. Leaving aside whatever legitimacy that investment of resources may or may not have on the ground, it is safe to say it will have little impact on most Israelis beyond a déjà vu. UN condemnations against Israel come fast and furious.
In their 2009 book Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, Dan Senor and Saul Singer argue that Israel’s economic miracle is not despite the external and internal challenges the country and its people have faced but, to a large extent, because of them. Political and economic isolation bred a degree of self-sufficiency. Military and terrorist threats demand enormous investments, which have had the largely unintended consequence of building a range of high-tech and other industry sectors. The imposition on young adults just out of high school with life-and-death decision-making authority accounts in part for the risk-taking that drives Israel’s entrepreneurship.
On a daily basis, Israelis may not make the connection between their broad economic successes and the incessant rhetorical assaults it receives from the UN and self-appointed arbiters of righteousness worldwide. Even in times of war and other existential threats, Israelis have traditionally continued building their individual and collective futures. What is more, they are consistently ranked in surveys and studies as among the world’s happiest people.
Fighting inflation and inequality, resolving the ongoing conflict, addressing infringements of human rights and all of the other challenges facing Israel must be addressed – and, in the seemingly endless successions of national elections the country is mired, there is no shortage of inventive and outlandish suggestions for resolving every issue.
There is a saying: living well is the best revenge. The world, including the world’s ostensible parliament, can rail all it likes. We should not ignore criticism. But we should celebrate the achievements that others ignore or defame. The arrows aimed at Israel, whether we or the slings that shot them like it or not, seem to strengthen rather than weaken the resolve of its people.
Imagine an interview where the interviewer wanders around the office, conducting work while asking intrusive personal questions. The interviewee trails behind. An hour-long appointment stretches into two. Things get further off track. The potential employee, apologizing profusely, gets herself out of the building and into the safety of her car. Cheeks burning, she drives herself home, wondering, “What the heck was that?” Days later, she fields phone calls from the interviewer, asking why she won’t accept an offer that is a dollar or two more than minimum wage. The amount would not likely cover the gas, taxes, work clothes and household/childcare coverage it would take to do the job. Advanced degrees and experience don’t matter, she hears. This is the going rate.
Meanwhile, at home, the same potential employee “works” at the numerous tasks that pop up every day. She self-drafts a clothing pattern, because a kid needs pyjamas of the right size and the pattern she has doesn’t fit. She mends a favourite pair of school pants. She prepares multiple meals in advance, baking bread ahead, too. These tasks are lined up for quick moments to spare amid managing homework and extracurricular activities. She contacts tradespeople to see if they can provide affordable repair quotes, responds to school emails and fits in applying for other jobs or doing her current work as she can. She is sadly behind in keeping up with her friends and family, but doesn’t know when to fit that in.
In between, she walks the dog, meets the kids at the school bus, takes them to medical appointments, or pays bills. She politely tries to get out of volunteer commitments that moms “should” do for the school and community organizations.
This might sound familiar to parents, mostly mothers. It’s all the work that goes unnoticed and is uncompensated in our society. Daring to seek compensation for some of these skills is seen as selfish. After all, these parents (usually mothers) are told, “If you expect to earn anything for your experience or education, you’re mistaken. You ‘chose’ not to stay consistently in the full-time workforce. You chose to have children/get married/study a less-lucrative topic in university….” The list goes on.
Our society functions in many ways because of the unpaid labour. It’s most often women’s physical, emotional, social labour done behind the scenes. It feels new and unfair in every generation, I suspect, even as some things change for women slowly over time.
As I study Ketubot, which is a Babylonian talmudic tractate dedicated, at least in theory, to marriage contracts, I’ve had competing demands on my time. It’s forced me to read aspects of the text differently. When the rabbis debated these issues (1,600 to 2,100 years ago, give or take), women’s roles were more circumscribed. However, some of the basic arguments seem to arise in ways that don’t surprise me.
Some of the takeaway nuggets from this tractate…. When a woman marries, her husband is owed her labour and the fruit from her properties. Even if she brings servants into the marriage, there are certain tasks she must do herself. Her virtue and loyalty are worth a monetary value in the marriage.
There are surprises though. If the husband dies, the woman is owed the price of her marriage contract, or the husband’s heirs must take care of her upkeep. She (or her representatives) may write obligations into the marriage contract that the husband will be required to honour. For instance, if she brings a daughter from a previous marriage with her, she can obligate the new husband to pay for the daughter’s physical support in the contract. (Ketubot 102)
Long story short, smart women can sometimes find ways to protect themselves. This is true even in a rabbinic system that isn’t designed necessarily for them. In these texts, women – and their families – both look out for one another and treat each other unfairly.
What can we draw from all this? I feel less alone when considering that expectations may have changed a bit in 2,000 years, but that many of our sometimes truly overwhelming expectations and commitments remain. Further, clever people have protected themselves whenever they can, throughout the centuries. It’s not new to look out for one’s own interests and avoid being taken advantage of by creating some safe boundaries.
Studying these texts at this point in my life offers me a level of maturity that I didn’t have the first time I went through a bad interview. More than once, I was offered a job that took a lot of skill but offered only a low wage. I remember feeling torn up about these experiences, wondering if I was worth so little. It was also a feeling of desperation. I needed a certain amount to live, and this offer wouldn’t provide it.
One privilege of being older is that women who value themselves aren’t embarrassed to ask for what they’re worth. Earning less than what we need doesn’t do us or our families any favours but, of course, in financial desperation, many women must take those jobs anyway. This is what fuels the cycle of low wage work in the first place.
We aren’t all experts in everything. Drafting a sewing pattern doesn’t make one a professional fashion designer. Finding the right document in a bunch of storage boxes is like finding a needle in a haystack, but it doesn’t make me an archivist or a research librarian. We all have our areas of true expertise. Also, just as the rabbis debated the value of one’s roles and responsibilities in marriage, we do the same. Is our work worth something? Heck, yes.
Tractate Ketubot’s messages about the value of a woman or a wife sometimes seem mercenary, but this, too, is Torah. Sometimes, being mercenary is the way to have our work be seen, valued or compensated appropriately.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
The Consulate General of Israel in Toronto and Western Canada marked World Water Day on March 22 with a webinar entitled “Squeezing Water from a Stone.” Dr. Alex Furman of Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and Dr. Roy Brouwer of the University of Waterloo focused on Israeli and Canadian perspectives of water conservation and management.
Furman, director of the Stephen and Nancy Grand Water Research Institute at Technion, provided an overview of water management in Israel, describing how a land that is 60% desert – and uses more than 100% of its water – still has water left for use.
“The issue of water scarcity in the future is going to grow as the population grows and we need more water to feed people and for agriculture,” Furman said.
Israel’s population, which has expanded tenfold in the past 75 years, continues to climb. Further, its Western standard of living, including such things as daily showers, presents a further strain on the country’s water supply.
Israel recognized the need for innovation in this area several decades ago. Starting in the 1980s, it began treating wastewater for reuse in agriculture and, in the 2000s, the country started major desalination projects. Desalinated water now constitutes a large amount of the water consumed in Israel, but is not a completely win-win scenario. For example, a detrimental consequence of desalination is that the process also removes essential minerals, such as magnesium.
Another area where Israel is taking the lead is in water-saving technology, such as drip irrigation. Agricultural use of water in Israel has decreased in the past 30 years, a period over which agricultural production increased.
“Instead of irrigating the land, we irrigate the plant. Drip irrigation is providing water for what the plant needs. It’s not the amount of water that is important but the precision in how water is applied,” Furman said.
Concurrently, Furman added, Israelis are doing more to reduce water usage in the home, and the country has developed educational campaigns to inform its citizenry on ways to minimize water consumption.
“We are a very fast-growing country that requires a lot of water and requires the development of new water resources at all times,” Furman said.
Brouwer, an economics professor with an academic interest in water resources, highlighted the broader need for collective international partnership in looking at solutions for water issues through interdisciplinary cooperation, policy expertise and innovation.
“Water disregards boundaries and so must we,” he said, employing the motto of his department at the University of Waterloo.
The working definitions of water security, as put forward by the United Nations, Brouwer explained, are to have stable, peaceful and reliable access to adequate quantities and acceptable quality water. This, in turn, should sustain livelihoods, human well-being, socioeconomic development, protection from pollution and other water disasters, and preservation of ecosystems.
“From an economic point of view,” he said, “we need water to produce all kinds of things.”
As examples, Brouwer showed how much water is needed for basic clothing items: 10,000 litres of water are used to produce a kilogram of cotton, which, therefore, means 2,500 litres are required to make a 250-gram T-shirt and 8,000 litres for an 800-gram pair of blue jeans. For a morning cup of coffee, the equivalent of 1,000 cups of water are needed – from growing the bean, processing it and transporting it to the consumer.
Pressures on the international water supply are further exacerbated as countries such as China, Brazil and India achieve a higher standard of living and demand more goods like Western clothing and coffee.
“We expect that water stress will continue into the future,” Brouwer said, noting that two billion people in the world currently live in areas where water is scarce, including in the Middle East and in Northern Africa.
Global demand for water is, according to Brouwer, expected to grow one percent per year until 2050. By that time, 45% of global output would come from countries experiencing water scarcity. Tel Aviv, along with Sao Paulo, Cape Town and Karachi, is among the cities in the world most at risk of experiencing water shortages.
In a chart, Brouwer showed the skewed distribution of water usage around the world – from the average American, who uses 156 gallons per day to a French person who uses 76, an Indian at 38 and a Malian at three. Canada is the second-largest consumer of water per capita in the world. The average Israeli consumes 40% less water than their Canadian counterpart.
In his final remarks, Brouwer said the widely held view of water abundance in Canada may be a misperception when water quality and access to clean and safe drinking water are taken into consideration.
He concluded that water has value, but that its price is not reflective of its true value. Attention, he said, should be paid to both increasing water supply and policies that reduce water demand, and that water pricing is one way to raise awareness for essential water services.
Technion Canada partnered with the consulate on the World Water Day initiative.
Sam Margolis has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
The good diplomatic news keeps coming. Morocco and Israel have announced that they will begin normalizing bilateral relations. This comes on the heels of similar announcements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan. There are rumours of more announcements to come.
More than 10% of Israel’s population has family roots in Morocco, adding to the emotional impact of the latest announcement.
In a year that has strained credulity in so many ways – few of them cheery – these diplomatic moves have been a bright spot. Even some longtime international observers and commentators are dumbfounded by the speed of the developments. For decades, the conventional wisdom of Middle East watchers has been that Arab recognition of and peace with Israel rests on a resolution of the Palestinian issue. Bypassing that step is a massive about-face for the countries that have made nice with Israel, and it is galling to the Palestinians and their representatives.
In most cases, the thaw in relations is a de jure recognition of de facto relations that have been in progress for years. Under-the-radar visits and economic ties have existed between Israel and some of these states long before they were officially acknowledged and celebrated. Bringing these relations out in the open was eased by a little self-interest, with a degree of cajoling and likely backroom dealing from the U.S. president and his administration.
The incentives for Arab and Muslim states to warm the cold shoulders they have given Israel include realities of geopolitics – countering the regional designs of Iran and Turkey – as well as the basket of inducements presented by the Americans. For example, the latest announcement – between Morocco and Israel – involves American recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over disputed territories of Western Sahara and American promises of billions of dollars of investments in the Moroccan economy.
Similarly, the American-brokered relationship between Israel and Sudan hinged on Sudan’s removal from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism (contingent on Sudan’s provision of $335 million in compensation for victims of the Sudanese-related terrorist bombings against American interests and citizens).
The UAE and Bahrain agreements also had carrots attached. In exchange for their acquiescence, the UAE may obtain valuable American F-35 fighter jets.
All the states launching fresh relations with Israel open the opportunity for potentially lucrative deals with Israeli businesses and investors. In other words, the diplomatic thaw is not a consequence of a sudden awakening to the benign presence of what has been known by most of these states until recently as the “Zionist entity.” The trading of economic and military incentives – as well as the seemingly nonchalant abrogation of self-determination for the people of Western Sahara – suggest as much self-interest as affection for Israel.
The diplomatic isolation of Israel that began at the moment of its rebirth in 1948 was founded primarily on the rejection of the idea of Jewish self-determination – at least in the Jewish people’s ancient and modern homeland. The opposition to Israel’s existence was not premised on economic or diplomatic reasoning but, to a much greater extent, on anti-Jewish animus.
Israel’s isolation represented an abandonment of self-interest on the part of Arab and Muslim countries. Ghettoizing their own economies from the economic powerhouse of the region has been harmful to all people in the region. None have been harmed more than the Palestinians themselves, who have something to gain materially from good neighbourliness with Israel.
The series of announcements on diplomatic relations are not a result of any altruism. At least in part, they came about through old-fashioned horse-trading, including some morally questionable trade-offs, such as the forgiveness of terrorism and an internationally contentious occupation of a foreign territory, and weapons sales.
After 72 years of nearly universal rejection of Israel by its neighbours, a thaw motivated by self-interest is still a thaw. And it’s something about which to be cautiously optimistic. But it’s only a start, and there is much to be done to build the region into one that’s united in peace. It might be naive, but we still cling to the hope of Isaiah that all those weapons will eventually be exchanged for ploughshares and pruning hooks that, one day, the world over, “nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war anymore.”
Pamela Jeffery, founder of the Prosperity Project. (screenshot)
Pamela Jeffery, the driving force behind the Prosperity Project, led an Oct. 7 webinar entitled When Women Succeed, We all Prosper – Don’t Let COVID-19 Hold Us Back, which was part of a National Council of Jewish Women of Canada series on women and justice.
Launched on May 21 of this year, the Prosperity Project hopes to ensure that gains made by women in the workplace and elsewhere are not set back permanently by the pandemic. In July, a Royal Bank of Canada report showed that women’s participation in the labour force had decreased to its lowest level in 30 years. Women, according to RBC, have been disproportionately affected by the overall decline in work hours since March, and this has been exacerbated by the household and childcare responsibilities for which women take on a greater share than men, particularly when children are not learning in school.
“We all know that the women’s movement is unfinished,” said Jeffery. “This is why our leadership is necessary – no matter what our age or our gender. It is up to all of us to ensure that men and women have equal opportunity, which is at the heart of the Prosperity Project.”
She stressed, “There is a clear focus on making sure that the progress made over the last 60 years on gender equality is not rolled back. That is why the Prosperity Project exists.”
Jeffery spoke of three essential themes to advancing the movement: resourcefulness, relationships and risk. “Each of us has the power to bring an idea forward. We can take a calculated risk and draw on our resourcefulness and relationships to make things happen,” she said.
The Prosperity Project has several initiatives it hopes will safeguard the progress by women in the past few decades and propel it further. Among them is a “matching initiative” for nonprofit organizations whose mission is geared towards helping women with training, employment pathways, crisis counseling and mental and physical health. The initiative introduces women and men in the private sector with specific skill sets to the staff and existing boards of these nonprofits for extended volunteer assignments.
Jeffery pointed out the importance of role models and mentors for women. “A good mentor pushes someone outside of their comfort zone. Women are less likely to have mentors than men, which can explain our different career trajectories,” she said.
The Prosperity Project also plans to research and share practical solutions that will provide insights to employers and policy-makers on how to improve gender equality. Furthermore, it will enable women to learn from one another, to increase their employment income and well-being.
Jeffery cited a 2017 study by McKinsey & Co., reporting the overall societal benefits of advancing women’s equality. By addressing this issue, McKinsey found that Canada could “add $150 billion in incremental GDP in 2026 or see a 0.6% increase of annual GDP growth.”
The Prosperity Project also plans to create a modern-day Rosie the Riveter campaign, inspired by the iconic image used in advertising materials to encourage women to do factory work during the Second World War. The modern-day objective is to increase the labour force participation rate of women and, at the same time, encourage partners to share household responsibilities equally and motivate employers to bolster advancement opportunities and achieve gender parity at all levels of an enterprise.
The Prosperity Project has thus far brought on board 62 diverse female leaders from across the country, such as Enterprise Canada chief executive officer Barbara Fox, Sleep Country co-founder Christine Magee and former B.C. premier Christy Clark.
Jeffery’s own biography is one of enterprise, determination and success. An MBA graduate from Western University, in Ontario, she is the founder of the Women’s Executive Network and Canadian Board Diversity Council. She has served on the board of numerous organizations and has been a frequent contributor to the Globe and Mail and National Post.
“I am optimistic about the situation we find ourselves in, in 2020. I remind myself of how far we have come,” she said. “Back in 2003, six percent of FP500 board seats were held by women. Now, it is over 25%. I am confident we are going to be able to work together to make sure that COVID-19 does not bring us back.”
The webinar was serendipitously scheduled for an hour before the American vice-presidential debate between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence.
“We are doing quite a lot, but there is so much more to be done,” Jeffery concluded.
Premier John Horgan sent Selina Robinson a message: “A mensch is a good thing, right?”
Robinson, the NDP government’s minister of municipal affairs and housing, is seeking reelection in the riding of Coquitlam-Maillardville. She sees herself as the Jewish maven around the cabinet table.
“I said yes, who called you a mensch?” Robinson recalled. “He just wanted to double-check.”
As she and other New Democrats campaign toward the Oct. 24 provincial election, Robinson and fellow cabinet member George Heyman spoke with the Jewish Independent. (In this issue, we also speak with Jewish candidates and spokespeople for other parties.)
As minister of housing, Robinson takes pride in the development of a major initiative called Homes for B.C.: A 30-Point Plan for Housing Affordability in British Columbia. Her ministry engaged with housing groups, renters, developers, economists, local government officials, planners and other thinkers. Then they convened people in a “World Café,” an engagement exercise in which people from different perspectives sit at a table and must come to agreed-upon recommendations on a topic.
“It was from that that we picked the best ideas and so it really came from all sides of the housing sector rather than pitting them against each other,” she said, acknowledging that she had to convince some to buy into the process because bureaucracy is not always amenable to novel approaches.
She cited two particular areas that she wants to “kvell about.” BC Housing, the agency that develops, manages and administers a range of subsidized housing in the province, is building housing on First Nations land.
“The feds, I don’t think, are building a lot of Indigenous housing and they’re supposed to,” she said. “No other province has stepped up to do that.… You’re a British Columbian and you need housing … if it’s land on reserve, it’s land on reserve – we’ll build housing.”
By providing housing in First Nations communities, it also helps people remain at home, rather than moving to the city, where housing is even more expensive and possibly precarious, she said.
“I’m very proud of that,” Robinson said.
The other point of pride is, Robinson admitted, “a geeky piece of legislation.” When she stepped into the role as the government’s lead on housing availability and affordability, she recognized that there is no data on what kind of housing exists and what’s needed.
“Local governments are responsible for land-use planning and deciding what kind of housing goes where – this is going to be multifamily, this is going to be single-family – but, if you were to ask them, how much do you have, how much more multifamily do you need, they couldn’t tell you, because nobody was collecting the data.”
She brought forward legislation that mandated local governments to do a housing needs assessment every five years to identify whether more housing options are needed for different age groups and types of families.
She also cited the government’s development of social housing, through the allocation of $7 billion over 10 years to build 39,000 units. So far, 25,000 units are either open, in construction or going through the municipal development process.
“My biggest worry is that the Liberals [if they are elected] will cancel all of those that are still in the development stage because they did that in 2001 when they formed government,” she said. “We’re so far behind the eight ball because they did that. I’m not saying it would have fixed everything, but, if there were another 5,000 units of housing out there, it wouldn’t be as bad as it is because there would be another 5,000 units.”
Every Friday, Robinson lights Shabbat candles and then shares a reflection on social media about her week.
“Lighting the Shabbat candles just grounds me in my identity,” she said. “I make myself take 10 minutes on a Friday at sundown to stop and to clear my head and to remind myself why I do the work. It’s not for the pay. It’s not for any of that; it’s not worth it. It’s who I am, what are my values and what’s important to me? What did I hear this week that reminds me of why this work is important?”
Robinson admitted she’s being partisan in saying that she believes NDP values are Jewish values.
“From my perspective, taking care of the world – whether it’s the environment, the people and all that’s within it – is our collective responsibility,” she said, adding with a laugh: “I think all Jews are New Democrats who just don’t know it yet.”
* * *
George Heyman, minister of environment and climate change strategy, is seeking reelection in the riding of Vancouver-Fairview. He is a son of Holocaust refugees, who escaped the Nazis with the help of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat in Lithuania who illegally issued visas to about 6,000 Jews, many of whose descendants now live in Vancouver.
In 2019, Heyman took a family trip to Poland, which broadened his awareness of his family’s history and where he met family members he never knew he had. The Independent will run that story in an upcoming issue.
Speaking of his record in government, Heyman expressed pride in bringing in CleanBC, which he calls “a very detailed, independently modeled set of measures to get us to our 2030 target and beyond.”
He also said the government “completely revamped the province’s Environmental Assessment Act, incorporating the principles of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
Collaborating with the First Nations Leadership Council, the government adapted the legislation to bring in affected local communities at the beginning of a project, before a proponent spends millions of dollars then has to go back to the drawing board due to local concerns.
“We’ve been investing in clean technology, we’ve approved transit plans that were stalled for years that the mayors of Metro Vancouver thought were critically important,” Heyman added. “We’re going to see the Broadway [SkyTrain] line commence to relieve the tremendous congestion on the Broadway corridor, both on buses and on the roads. And we’ll be working on ultimately being able to work with UBC and the city and the federal government to extend that to UBC.”
The government, he said, updated the Residential Tenancy Act to address tenants who were being threatened with eviction for suspect renovations and that saw people getting notices of rent increases as high as 40% because of loopholes in the act.
“We closed those loopholes, we held rent increases to the cost of living unless there is a legitimate demonstrated need to do renovation and repair and it’s fair to receive some compensation rent to pay for that,” he said.
Like Robinson, Heyman cited the construction of affordable housing, as well as supportive housing, to get homeless people off the street and provide them with services they need. He said the government has created 20,000 childcare spaces in the province “with significant fee reductions for families as we work our way toward a $10-a-day program.” Increased staffing in schools, mandated by a Supreme Court decision during the previous regime, is also an accomplishment, he said, as well as adding more investments in new schools for seismic upgrades, fire safety and heating and ventilation systems.
On the opioid crisis, Heyman acknowledged a surge in deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. “While there is much more to do, we managed to flatten the level of deaths up until COVID hit,” he said.
Also parallel to the pandemic was a realization of “the terrible state of many of our long-term-care homes.”
“We saw that deteriorate under the previous government,” he said. “With COVID, we saw the results of that. We saw people dying because workers were having to go to two or three different care homes, increasing the risk of infection, simply to cobble together a living. We took measures to allow our healthcare workers to work in one institution without suffering the loss of pay and we’re also investing in more beds and more equipment for long-term-care homes.”
New Democrats have been governing in a minority situation with the support of the Green party since 2017. Horgan called the snap election on Sept. 21, facing criticism for breaking fixed election date legislation and going to the polls during a state of emergency.
Rachael Segal is media spokesperson for the BC Liberals. (photo from BC Liberals)
Facing a campaign unlike any other, with shaking hands and kissing babies prohibited by social distancing protocols, all parties needed to reimagine how they would reach voters. Rachael Segal, media spokesperson for the BC Liberals, had to figure out how to get her party’s message to British Columbians.
“We can’t have a media bus, so, as the person responsible for media relations, how I connect with media now is very different than how I would do it in a normal campaign,” she said. “I’d be on the bus, I’d be with the leader.”
Instead, the leader is often driving himself to the modest-sized events that typify the 2020 campaign. Instead of facing a phalanx of TV cameras and radio mics, party leader
Andrew Wilkinson speaks to a pooled camera, with his message then shared among the media consortium. It’s an experience all parties are dealing with. But the leaders, as well as candidates in 87 ridings across the province, still have to communicate their positions.
“Obviously, Andrew still needs to get out there and get his message out there,” said Segal. “We’re making announcements daily, just like we would on a campaign normally, they’re just different.”
Wilkinson, a medical doctor as well as a lawyer, is particularly sensitive to the health risks and safety of his team, Segal said.
Segal, who grew up in Kerrisdale, is the official campaign spokesperson for the party during the election and is second-in-command at party headquarters when in non-campaign mode. As senior director of the party, her role is a loosely defined collection of responsibilities that she describes as “basically whatever hole is there, I try and fix it.”
One of her primary responsibilities is stakeholder relations, which means meeting with particular community groups and connecting them with the leader and other members of the legislature.
“Andrew and I have done Shabbat dinners, we’ve done Rosh Hashanah meals, we’ve done tons of Jewish community events,” Segal said by way of example. She also hosts the party’s podcast and started a young professional women’s group “to try to engage the 30-to-50-year-old women demographic, which is the largest swing demographic in British Columbia.”
Segal came to the role in April 2019. She already had a long resumé in education, politics and media.
She attended Vancouver Talmud Torah elementary and Magee high school and received her undergraduate degree at the University of Victoria, where she was the first president of the Jewish student organization when Hillel House opened there. She served as national president of the Canadian Federation of Jewish Students before graduating from UVic in 2005. She then went to the University of Leicester, in the United Kingdom, for a law degree, followed by a master of laws from Osgoode Hall, in Toronto.
She worked on Parliament Hill for Conservative MPs David Sweet and Scott Reid, as well as Senator Linda Frum, and was a senior policy advisor overseeing corrections and the parole board for then-minister of public safety Steven Blaney.
While studying in Toronto, Segal worked full time as an on-air legal and policy correspondent for Sun News, until that network shut down. She worked in criminal law and then civil litigation for a time but found it not her speed and returned to media, joining Toronto’s Bell Media radio station News Talk 1010. She returned to Vancouver in 2018 and covered as maternity leave replacement for the B.C. regional director of the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee. She joined the BC Liberal party staff three days after that position ended.
“This election is really about who British Columbians can trust to lead them through economic recovery,” said Segal. “When we think about the ballot question, that’s really what British Columbians are voting on. Who do they trust to lead them through the next stage of this pandemic from an economic perspective? We have an incredible team who are all very experienced. We have former ministers, we have doctors, we have lawyers, we have just a really diverse and interesting team of very smart people.”
Given significant turnover – seven cabinet ministers have opted not to seek reelection – Segal questioned who would be on the frontbenches of a reelected NDP government.
“The question is, what does an NDP cabinet look like in the next government and do they have the bench strength to be the best party to lead this province economically?” she said.
Segal takes seriously her position as one of the few Jewish individuals on the campaign team.
“It’s a real privilege to be able to represent the community within this political sphere and it’s something I take very not lightly,” she said.
Of her job on the campaign and her slightly less hectic role the rest of the time, she added: “My job is pretty different, wild, fun. Every day is a new adventure. It’s pretty great. And we have such an incredible team, so they make it all even better.”
Maayan Kreitzman said the Green party knew it was getting the “full package” when they tapped her as their candidate in the provincial election for the riding of Vancouver-False Creek. There are schisms in the environmental movement between those who see value in direct action protests and those who endorse electoral politics. Kreitzman backs both.
Kreitzman is a leading member of the Vancouver chapter of Extinction Rebellion, a global movement that practises civil disobedience to draw attention to the climate and ecological crisis, she said, based on “a theory of change that learns from many movements in the past that have basically put their bodies in the way of injustice.” She cited as models the U.S. civil rights movement, the Indian independence movement and the suffragists.
The group shut down the Burrard Street Bridge last year and is currently involved, with other groups, in a camp in Burnaby that is physically blocking the construction of the TMX pipeline.
But Kreitzman has harsh words for the environmental movement and its limited impacts.
“The environmental movement over the last 30 years has won some battles but we’re obviously losing the war because the climate and ecological catastrophe continues unabated essentially,” she said.
While she believes in blockades, she also believes in ballots.
“I definitely believe in both,” she said. “I think when the Green party chose me as a candidate they knew that they were getting the full package. They were getting somebody who believes in direct action, who believes in doing things that are illegal when they are ethical and the right thing to do. There are other people in the Green party that believe that, too. [Former federal Green leader] Elizabeth May got arrested on Burnaby Mountain in 2018. I’m certainly not alone in that.”
Beyond the shortcomings of the environmental movement, she excoriated the political system’s status quo.
“It’s utterly failing. It’s not fit for purpose. It has not delivered the systemic changes to our economy that we need to see in order to actually have a sustainable life and future on this planet,” she said.
Above a range of policy topics she champions, Kreitzman wants to create a citizens’ assembly on climate and ecological justice – this parliament of ordinary people selected to reflect demography “would devolve power from elected government to a more representative and radically democratic form of government.”
“Citizens’ assemblies go through a very rigorous and well-facilitated deliberative process where they have access to experts and all the best information and then they are empowered to make either decisions or recommendations, depending how their terms of reference are set up,” she explained. “The citizens’ assemblies are able to make way better, faster and more radical decisions on issues that are totally intractable for elected politicians because elected politicians operate on such short cycles and they have such perverse incentives. It’s very hard and we’ve seen how totally incapable elected politicians around the world are of making the kinds of decisions that we need in order to survive on this planet.”
Kreitzman has been thrown into politics mere days after completion of her PhD in resources, environment and sustainability at the University of British Columbia. Her research specialized in sustainable agricultural systems and, more specifically, perennial agriculture.
She was born in Vancouver to a Canadian father and an Israeli-Canadian mother, attended Vancouver Talmud Torah and Eric Hamber high school and was active in Hillel at UBC, as well as in the Graduate Students Society.
She wants to win the election – but winning isn’t everything.
“This race is not just about that,” she said. “It’s also about telling the truth and just giving a platform to a sustainability scientist, a youngish person and somebody who is willing to talk very openly about the failures of our current government systems. Not just our current government and the NDP, but our current government system and their lack of democracy, and the failures of the environmental movement itself, because neither have been effective and so far nothing has really been effective.”
While she is critical of government generally, she has harsh words for the NDP government particularly.
“This government’s record on the environment has been a total loss, it’s a complete failure,” Kreitzman said. “They’ve embraced the oil and gas industry even more than the BC Liberals have and I never thought I would say those words, that the NDP government has actually been worse for climate change and the environment than the BC Liberals have been. It’s shocking, but it’s true.”
She referenced a report from Stand.Earth, which outlines subsidies to fracking and indicates that the oil and gas industry receives four times as much in provincial government subsidies than it produces in royalties to the province.
As the candidate in Vancouver-False Creek, she is sounding the alarm that sea-level rise will make parts of the most densely populated neighbourhoods of Vancouver uninhabitable.
* * *
Kreitzman’s colleague Scott Bernstein is running for the Greens in Vancouver-Kingsway. He sees it as an ideal opportunity to contrast NDP policy with his ideas because he is facing off against Adrian Dix, the minister of health.
Bernstein is director of policy at the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, which is based in the faculty of health sciences at Simon Fraser University. While he has a graduate degree in environmental studies, his career has shifted to drug policy. He was a junior co-counsel on the landmark 2011 Insite case at the Supreme Court of Canada, which found that the federal government’s failure to grant an exemption allowing users to consume illicit drugs at the Vancouver safe consumption site breached the Charter of Rights because it undermined the “maintenance and promotion of public health and safety.”
He also worked at Pivot Legal Society in the Downtown Eastside and operated a private practice for a time as well, before coming to the drug coalition about three-and-a-half years ago. He has worked for George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, in New York, focusing on drug policy at the UN level and in Africa, and he spent two years with the U.S. Peace Corps in Uzbekistan.
The record-breaking recent months of opioid deaths contrasts, Bernstein said, with the response to COVID.
“There are a lot of structural problems with how the government is dealing with the overdose crisis and it really was highlighted when we had another public health crisis and, all of a sudden, we saw how the government could sort of snap to attention, dedicate funding, have information flow, have protocols and guidelines and resources available to address COVID where, in reality, the overdose crisis is now in the fifth year since it was declared a public health emergency in B.C. and we’ve never seen the response that we saw with COVID, that materialized in a few weeks,” he said. He credited retiring Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy as “a wonderful and caring person,” but added: “they also didn’t give her sufficient resources to deal with the problem and she doesn’t have a lot of power in the cabinet.”
* * *
Ian Goldman, the Green candidate in Vancouver-Fairview, grew up in Toronto and moved west in 1988 to attend law school at UBC. He later did a master’s in international relations, also at UBC, and has practised immigration law in private practice since 1998.
The first-time candidate is up against George Heyman, the NDP minister of environment and climate change strategy.
“It’s unfortunate that, in my area, the NDP have really strong support in the sense that he’s not really feeling pressure, I don’t think,” Goldman said. “Hopefully, I can make him feel some pressure. That’s the most important thing for me.”
The New Democrats have taken climate change more seriously than previous Liberal governments, he said, “But I think they’re more of a status quo party. They say they’re taking it seriously but then their actions show them out to be more status quo, no serious climate action, really.”
COVID is a serious issue, he said, but it has allowed governments at all levels to push environmental issues and climate change to the back burner, he argued.
“As soon as the pandemic’s over, people will wake up and say, oh my God, we’ve got a really serious issue here again,” said Goldman. “That’s why I joined the Green party. I’ve always been interested in environmental issues. My kids and I and my wife go for a lot of outdoor trips, we go hiking, a lot of outdoor activities we do together. That’s where my interest in the environment comes from.”
He added: “If people are really serious about tackling this issue, they should at least consider the Green party.”
* * *
Michael Barkusky, an economist and certified public accountant, is in a rematch with Andrew Wilkinson, now the leader of the Liberal party, in the riding of Vancouver-Quilchena. He acknowledged it’s an uphill battle in the Liberal stronghold.
“What I’m trying to do is strengthen the Green party in general,” he said. But it is also an opportunity to press the party leader on environmental issues.
“I think the BC Liberals need to improve their green credentials substantially to be relevant in the long term,” said Barkusky, who came to Canada from South Africa in 1980. (More about his background and career is in our story from the last election, at jewishindependent.ca/apartheid-impacted-views.) He said former premier Gordon Campbell was innovative on a range of policies, including the carbon tax. He said Campbell’s successor, Christy Clark, backtracked on Campbell’s environmental policies.
The Liberal party is, Barkusky said, a “broad church with some very conservative elements and [Wilkinson] probably can’t do a lot of things that he would do if he had a completely free hand. I think the pressure needs to be kept up on them as much as it has to be kept up on the NDP.”
As he campaigns, Barkusky said, voters tell him they think the NDP ran a good government in part because of the Green party’s influence.
“And now they [the NDP] are trying to say they’ll do a better job without us,” he said. “I can’t buy that.… Quite a lot of voters in the riding agree with me. They feel that we had good government in the last three years and they credit the Green party with being an element of it being good.”
While he disagrees with the Liberals’ promise to eliminate the provincial sales tax for a year, he said changing it could be justifiable. Reducing it from seven percent on most items, or changing the number of items it covers, is a discussion worth considering, he said. But he sees the promise as akin to the NDP’s promise in the last election to eliminate tolls on bridges.
“It’s just kind of instant popularity,” he said. “A relatively bad policy that will resonate well with a certain constituency.”
Barkusky finds it interesting that there are four Green candidates in Vancouver who are Jewish, and noted that the federal Green party just elected a Jewish woman to lead it.
“That’s a lot of tikkun olam consciousness,” he said.
Note: This article has been amended to reflect that Maayan Kreitzman is a leading member of the Vancouver chapter of Extinction Rebellion, not of the British Columbia chapter, as originally stated.