Last Saturday, Israel’s ambassador to Canada announced he was resigning over differences with the new government back home.
Ronen Hoffman has served only about a year in the role. He was appointed by the last government and, before that, had been a Yesh Atid party member of the Knesset under the leadership of former prime minister Yair Lapid. So, Hoffman was a political appointee, which makes his resignation significant but not the bombshell it would have been had he been a career diplomat.
Nevertheless, this was perhaps the most conspicuous example in Canada of ripples of response to what media around the world have taken to calling Israel’s “most right-wing government ever,” which was sworn into office under the once-and-then-again-and-now-again Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu Dec. 29.
Having alienated, via policies or personality, a great number of potential allies on the centre and right, Netanyahu cobbled together a parliamentary coalition that includes some of the most extremist voices in Israeli society. As we mentioned in this space last issue, some of the approaches the new government seems bent on are not merely matters of policy but structural tampering with the fundamental tenets of Israeli democracy, including the courts, definitional foundations of citizenship, possible assaults on LGBTQ+ rights, as well as what appears to be a new bull-in-the-china-shop approach to governance and settlements in the West Bank.
In this issue of the paper alone, two separate Canadian organizations express concern about the impacts that perceptions of the new government in Israel will have on their work here.
Some Diaspora voices have been saying that this is the time for overseas allies to express in whatever ways possible to their Israeli counterparts, family and friends the impacts that certain policy approaches there will have on Jewish people here, and on relations between Jews in both places.
There is no doubt that the people who have made a cottage industry of attacking Israel in the past will continue to do so, using as fuel any evidence that the state of Israel is abandoning its commitments to human equality, democracy and pluralism. Haters gonna hate.
But there is another possibility, a conceivable glimmer of light shining through the cracks of Israeli-Diaspora relations.
There has always been a rhetorical disconnect between “anti-Zionism,” which by definition seeks the elimination of the Jewish state, and “criticism of Israel” or “criticism of particular policies,” which tends to be more nuanced. There has also been a casual accusation that pro-Israel voices are “uncritical” in their support for Israel, that there is a tendency to turn a blind eye toward things taking place in Israel that deserve condemnation.
Recent developments put these various positions in stark contrast.
There are now many issues and policies that probably the vast majority of Jews outside Israel (as well as inside Israel, as enormous protests in recent days have shown) find disagreeable, even abhorrent. For those who support Israel’s right to exist and for those who don’t, these issues and policies present an opportunity.
It is now especially necessary for supporters of Israel and allies to be absolutely clear that it is possible and reasonable to be emphatically, unequivocally supportive of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in the form of the state of Israel while at the same time pointing at very specific policies with which we disagree vehemently.
There has often been far too much vagueness in this discussion, allowing people with unreasonable positions to appear reasonable, to allow people who would like to see Israel wiped off the map claim they are only criticizing “policy.” On the flip side, while there has always been a vibrant discourse among Diaspora Jews on events in Israel, critics have somehow been able to ignore that vibrancy and claim a monolithic Zionist hegemony of ideas. (This is, ironically, a conspiracy theory masquerading as a conspiracy theory.)
As this Israeli government proceeds with its agenda, and recognizing that Israeli voters have the final say, overseas Jews who for generations have supported and helped build the Jewish state have a right to express our opinions. We also have an obligation to be specific. There has perhaps never been a time when it has been easier to be clear: Israel has a right to exist. But efforts to chip away at the foundations of Israel’s judiciary, human rights and citizenship definitions are unacceptable, and it is right for Israelis and their overseas allies to say so in our loudest voices. Criticizing policies and being steadfast defenders of Israel have never been contradictory impulses. Now, more than ever, these are our obligations.
Lance Davis, chief executive officer of JNF Canada (photo from JNF Canada)
Noa Tishby, an Israeli who hit it big in Hollywood as an actor, writer and producer before bursting on the scene as an activist voice for Israel, will be in Vancouver June 29. She is the headliner for the first Negev Dinner in Vancouver since the pandemic.
The Negev Dinner is a tradition of the Jewish National Fund of Canada, with annual dinners taking place for decades in regions across the country.
Michael Sachs, executive director of JNF Pacific region, says that Tishby’s upcoming visit is a response to demand.
“A lot of people in the community really want to hear from her,” said Sachs. “The rising antisemitism, as well as the delegitimization of Israel – these are issues that are forefront in our community.”
Tishby is, he said, “one of the best spokespersons for the state of Israel and for the Jewish community at large.”
With her 2021 book, Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth, the Los Angeles-based Tishby placed herself firmly in the realm of show biz activist, but on a topic that many public figures avoid. (See jewishindependent.ca/tag/noa-tishby.) Her entertainment industry work includes appearances on Nip/Tuck, Big Love and NCIS, and she is the co-executive producer of the HBO series In Treatment, an adaptation of the Israeli series BeTipul.
“To be able to have her in Vancouver, we just couldn’t miss out on it,” said Sachs, adding that this young, dynamic woman has an appeal that can expand the reach of JNF and the Negev event.
“We are also working on student pricing and we want ‘angel’ tickets,” he said. “The idea is to get as many people in our community in front of her so they can hear her message.”
This dinner will not have an honouree like such events have had in the past. Part of that is simply the desire by the organization to try different things but it is also because, with JWest, the redevelopment of the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, and other projects, there are “a lot of asks” in the community right now, said Sachs.
While JNF has sent out “save the date” notices for June 29, the location is not yet set. The organizing committee is co-chaired by husband-and-wife team Mike and Lisa Averbach. The project to which proceeds of the event will be allocated is to be announced in the next few weeks.
While the June event will be the first JNF gala in Vancouver since the pandemic, some took place in other regions last year, said Lance Davis, chief executive officer of JNF Canada. He has witnessed some pent-up demand to celebrate with community again.
“When people get together during cocktails and they haven’t seen each other for such a long time, the hugs and the warmth – it’s wonderful,” he said.
During the pandemic, JNF held Negev “campaigns” – fundraising initiatives that did not involve in-person events. Despite the financial and social impacts of the shutdown, Davis said the organization’s revenues have rebounded to pre-pandemic levels.
“It’s a wonderful news story that we are bouncing back and moving in the right direction,” said Davis, who has been CEO of the national organization since 2017, following five years leading the Toronto region.
JNF Canada, like Jewish and pro-Israel individuals and organizations worldwide, is coming to terms with the changed political dynamic in Israel. Binyamin Netanyahu’s new coalition, frequently referred to as “the most right-wing government” in the country’s history, is shaking up the global discourse on the region. The resignation of Israel’s ambassador to Canada, announced last Saturday, is just one reaction in an uncertain new environment. Davis, like leaders of other organizations, is emphasizing neutrality and independence.
“I just want to state unequivocally that JNF Canada is nonpolitical and nonpartisan and, as such, we are going to continue to do our work regardless of who is in government,” he said. “We are mission-driven and that means simply building the foundations for Israel’s future. We will continue to help the land and the people of Israel as we have done for decades with left, right and centrist governments. Nothing has changed. Our resolve to enhance the lives of Israel’s citizens is not impacted by the current regime and this is the time for Diaspora Jewry to communicate with our extended family in Israel that we are indeed a family and as such we will always be there for them.”
For all the ink spilled on the subject, Davis thinks the supporters of JNF Canada are sophisticated enough to understand the dynamics.
“For those people who say, I can’t be a part of this because I don’t support the government of Israel, I just hope that we can have a conversation with them,” he said. “You need not worry that one penny of that money goes to the government…. It’s only for charitable purposes and I think that if we are given the chance to explain this, people will understand we are nonpolitical and nonpartisan.”
The Israeli political climate may be a new variable, but JNF has not been without its critics over the years, some of whom accuse it of promoting Israeli “colonialism.”
“There is no question that there’s a whole host of anti-Israel parties who are taking an adversarial position,” he said. “I just wish that they would actually look at what we’re doing because is building a PTSD and health centre that serves all citizens, Jewish, Arab, Christian, Muslim, everybody – is that colonialism? Building a home for abused women with nowhere to go? It’s literally a lifesaving asset and, rest assured, Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis will be using this facility – how is this colonialism? What exactly is it that they are protesting against?”
At a Negev Dinner in Vancouver a few years ago, which was raising funds to improve a facility for the most vulnerable sick kids in Israel, Davis saw protesters outside.
“I showed up at the dinner and I said, I wish these people understood what they were protesting against,” he recalled. “Because what you guys are doing is building a resource for the sickest kids, Jewish, Arab, Christian, Muslim – they’re all Israelis, they’re all welcome at this facility. Do they even understand what it is they’re upset about? And shame on them for protesting your efforts to build this facility for the most vulnerable children.”
One new initiative that Davis is particularly excited about is JNF Canada’s Climate Solutions Prize, a competition among Israeli researchers to fund breakthrough research focused on combating climate change.
“We’ve made an effort to raise $1 million a year over the next number of years,” he said. “We have a blue ribbon panel of scientists and engineers and businesspeople who review these researchers’ proposals.”
Last October, they presented the first awards, totaling $1 million US to the leaders of three research teams. Ben-Gurion University’s Prof. Itzhak Mizrahi and his team are working to ameliorate the methane emissions caused by cows. Dr. Malachi Noked of Bar-Ilan University seeks to reduce global emissions by improving ways to store renewable energy safely, efficiently, economically and in quickly accessible forms. Prof. Avner Rothschild of the Technion is working to produce green hydrogen through electrolysis of water.
Recipients are scientists who are well advanced in their work but need a boost in funding to achieve a breakthrough.
“This is the largest climate solutions prize that’s offered in Israel, by a long shot,” said Davis. “There are prizes to encourage green technologies, but in terms of the size and the scope, we are by far and away the largest prize.”
And, at this point, it’s an exclusively Canadian project. He hopes that other JNF organizations – there are about 40 countries with similar national bodies – will jump on board and make the prize a bigger success.
Israelis are renowned for successes in financial technology, cyber- and agri-tech, said Davis. “But, in terms of climate solutions, they really haven’t had a home run yet,” he said. “We felt that we need to give people a little push to get them over the top.”
Jewish National Fund of Canada was formally established in the late 1960s, but the iconic symbol of Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, Jewish National Fund, the pushke, or blue box, has been in Jewish households in Canada and around the world for a century. The tin has been used for collecting coins that were forwarded to local offices around the world and combined to help build the nascent yishuv and then the state of Israel, beginning by planting trees and then expanding into all range of development projects.
Davis explained that JNF Canada is fully independent and not structurally connected with the Israeli organization.
“We are not a subsidiary,” he said. “We are not answerable to any other charity.… We get to decide what projects we take on. Canadians give money to things that they want to support and we bundle all that money from coast to coast and we take on projects.”
JNF Canada works with Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael on some initiatives but works with other charities on a range of undertakings.
“We, the Canadians, decide what we want to do and the Israeli entities are our agents,” he said. “They do the work for us. People often … have it reversed [thinking that] Israelis tell us what we need to do and we just do it. No, it’s the opposite. They work for us and that’s the way it should happen.”
Started in 1948, Negev dinners have taken place, usually annually, in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Windsor, London, Hamilton, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Atlantic Canada. The name comes from the fact that the earliest dinners benefited projects in the Negev Desert. JNF Canada now funds projects throughout Israel, but the name has stuck.
“I think that when Canadians think about JNF a few things come to mind: trees, blue boxes and the Negev Dinner,” said Davis.
Avi Benlolo will screen a film at Beth Israel on Feb. 13. (PR photo)
There is a fundamental disconnect between what is happening in the Middle East and what observers in Europe and North America perceive, according to Avi Benlolo, founder and chairman of the Abraham Global Peace Initiative. He aims to close that gap, and will be in Vancouver next month to bring his message – and a new documentary film – to West Coast audiences.
“Peace is unfolding in the Middle East,” Benlolo told the Independent. “The Abraham Accords have completely revolutionized Israel’s relationship with some of the neighbouring countries like the [United Arab Emirates], Bahrain, Morocco and so on. This new development hasn’t yet registered here in the West.”
On university campuses and in the social movements of Europe and North America, he said, the narrative remains mired in the decades-old conflict and tired rhetoric of “apartheid,” “colonization” and BDS, the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction the state of Israel.
“The truth of the matter is that that rhetoric isn’t rhetoric in the Middle East,” Benlolo said. “In the Middle East, BDS is nonexistent. You now have trade in the billions of dollars between Israel and its Arab neighbours, so clearly BDS has lost.”
The film that Benlolo produced and directed, The Future of Israel and its Defenders, approaches the issues through the lenses of experts, military strategists, entrepreneurial leaders, journalists and current and former political leaders.
“The message I’m trying to transmit,” he said, “is one really of hope for change.… If we are reinforcing that message that this is happening, that will help build on the peace process.”
A growing global realization of Mideast peace will also help reduce antisemitism and empower Jews, especially young people, everywhere, Benlolo hopes.
The film will be screened, and Benlolo will participate in a question-and-answer session, at Congregation Beth Israel Feb. 13, 7 p.m., in a celebration of Israel’s 75th birthday.
Benlolo founded the Abraham Global Peace Initiative after many years of working in the Jewish communal sector, including as chief executive officer of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies. AGPI became a registered charity in late 2021.
While there are many Jewish and Zionist organizations in Canada, Benlolo said his is unique.
“There is no voice for Canadian Jews internationally,” he said. “We are taking the Canadian voice global and working with the United Nations, working with the [European Union], working with multiple leaders around the world. Antisemitism and defamation of Israel is a transnational phenomenon. The swastika that you see painted on a school wall is not just localized, it’s being motivated globally.
“We are also saying, we as Canadians can stand up for ourselves,” Benlolo continued. “Canada itself is an incredible brand globally…. What AGPI is doing is optimizing the Canadian brand and we’re doing it very successfully. Every two minutes – I’m not exaggerating – there is a subscriber onto our website from somewhere on the planet, Italy, Brazil. Every two minutes. That’s because people love the Canadian brand, they love everything that we are saying, so we can be, as Canadians, an international voice with quite tremendous strength.”
While Benlolo is hoping that the Abraham Accords mute some of the condemnation Israel experiences on the world stage, defending Israel’s rights internationally may be entering a new phase, he said. The old tropes are being replaced with the phrase “Israel’s most right-wing government ever,” including in mainstream media sources.
“It’s a challenge, I’m not going to kid you,” said Benlolo. “The thing is, the media is never a fan of Israel, particularly here in Canada, outside of the National Post and maybe the Jewish [community] media. They are using any opportunity to grab hold and to make Israel look bad. They love it.”
The characterization of Israel’s new government clouds the reality, he argued. Israelis who voted for right-wing parties did so mainly on security grounds, he said, because they are deeply concerned about terrorism.
“That has driven them to move to the right,” he said, adding that Israeli society in general “is fairly secular, is not right-wing and is very pro-human rights.” He noted that the new Knesset features the country’s first openly gay speaker.
“Just because you’ve got this government right now that’s made up of a coalition doesn’t mean that it represents Israeli society and it doesn’t mean that it’s everybody in Israel that believes in this. That needs to be articulated as well,” said Benlolo. “Finally, we’re going to put pressure to bear as a Jewish community and friends of Israel, we’re going to continue to pressure Israel to make sure that it stays the course and stays true to tikkun olam.”
More details, and tickets for the event, which is presented by Beth Israel and the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, are available at bethisrael.ca.
A pageant of pandemonium consumed the United States House of Representatives last week as it took 15 votes to confirm Kevin McCarthy as speaker. The chaos was caused by a group of far-right congresspeople representing less than five percent of the total House membership. Eventually, McCarthy triumphed – well, squeaked through – by cutting backroom deals that will empower the extremists and weaken the office of the speaker.
Although the holdouts are on the far-right fringes of American society, personality was a major factor in the weeklong deadlock. The opponents have issues with McCarthy as a person and a politician as much as they have with his policies. To succeed, McCarthy had to agree to concessions and cough up inducements that defile the dignity of his office and put the House of Representatives in jeopardy of being hopelessly deadlocked and dysfunctional.
An analogous situation is unfolding in Israel, where Binyamin Netanyahu has returned to the prime ministership. To do so, he had to make some very grubby deals with some very distasteful people.
Here, too, personalities were at play, as much as policies. There is a swath of centre-right politicians who would have joined a coalition that was not headed by Netanyahu. As a result, to regain power, Netanyahu was forced to make deals with far-right figures who should never have been considered for inclusion in a democratic government.
Both of these situations speak to an unfortunate reality of parliamentary democracy. When a bloc fails to attain a comfortable majority, they can find themselves dependent on the support of narrowly focused, ideologically driven extremists that represent very few voters. In many cases, the extremist tail ends up wagging the dog.
This is regrettable and it is sometimes inevitable. Democracy is by no means without its downsides. In fact, Winston Churchill’s aphorism – “Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried” – resonates here.
The foundational piece of democracy is free elections and the peaceful transition of power, a cornerstone that was attacked on Jan. 6 two years ago at the U.S. Capitol. That cornerstone is now under siege in Brazil, in a striking parallel – as if the supporters of defeated former president Jair Bolsonaro directly stole the playbook of the American Republicans’ “stop the steal” scheme to subvert the 2020 U.S. election.
Violent protesters ransacked Brazilian government buildings this week, stealing weapons and artifacts and vandalizing facilities. Brazil does not have as long a history of democratic infrastructure as Israel or the United States, which could make it more vulnerable to attack. One core difference in the Brazilian case, versus the Israeli or American situation, is that the threats, at this point, are coming from outside the government – the protesters are supporters of a defeated (and possibly self-exiled) former leader. In the United States, the insurgents have an apparent stranglehold on one of the houses of Congress and, in Israel, are fully in charge.
The biggest concern in a democracy comes when the extremist tail that wags the dog not only influences policies but actually begins chipping away at the institutional underpinnings of democracy itself. This is a legitimate concern in Israel, as some partners in the coalition are threatening the judicial system, the functioning of police and the very definition of Israeli citizenship. The vote for U.S. House speaker did not itself represent a threat to democracy, though the final votes poignantly took place on the second anniversary of the insurrection that was the greatest attack on American democracy since the Civil War – a moment from which the country and its democratic foundations still reel. And continued dysfunction in the House portends a difficult road ahead for U.S. democracy as voters tire of do-nothing legislative bodies and what some perceive as broken political systems.
Both Israel and the United States are on unprecedented precipices. (Brazil, ironically, probably less so.) However, in both Israel and the United States, entrenched civil society organizations and strong parliamentary opponents are in place to monitor and bolster the fundamentals of their societies. Those on the (geographical and/or ideological) outside should support in every way we can the movements for democracy, pluralism and tolerance in Israel, the United States and everywhere in the world where these values are threatened, including if we see dangers to them here at home.
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’.
* * *
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.
לאור תוצאות הבחירות הכלליות האחרונות שנערכו בישראל בראשית חודש נובמבר, צפוי שההגירה אל קנדה תגדל. יש ישראלים שיתייאשו מהמצב החדש בישראל, כאשר ממשלת ימין קמה בהשתתפות המפלגה הימנית קיצונית הציונות הדתית, והם מבקשים לעזוב את ישראל. כך ישראלים מתבטאים בפייסבוק
בשנים האחרונות ההגירה מישראל לקנדה נמצאת במגמת עלייה ועתה צפוי שיותר ישראלים יעברו אליה. לפי פייסבוק תומכי בנימין נתניהו, שקראו למתנגדיו “שמאלנים בוגדים” קוראים להם עכשיו “שמאלנים למטוסים”. ואכן יש סברה ישראלים לא מעטים יעזבו לחו”ל. אחד אנשי הימין כתב בפייסבוק: “לאור תוצאות הבחירות אנשי השמאל עוזבים את הארץ ולכן משבר הדיור מגיע לקיצו”. אחר מאלה שרוצים לעזוב שואל באמצעות פייסבוק: “איך עוזבים את ישראל ומהר?” התגובות: “מבקשים מקלט מדיני, משיגים דרכון פורטוגלי, זה הרבה יותר קל ממה שחושבים”. משפחה ישראלית שעברה להליפקס לפני חמש שנים כותבת בפייסבוק לאחר קיום הבחירות: “למדנו לאהוב את החיים כאן בקנדה. את השלווה, את הנופים, את האדיבות ואת השקט. אז נכון שלא הכל מושלם. ולא הכל קל. ולא הכל מרגישים שייכים. אבל בשורה התחתונה, מרגיש שכנראה עשינו את הדבר הנכון. ישראל עומדת היום בצומת דרכים, ואים להסתמך על הבחירות האחרונות, כנראה שאנחנו כבר אחרי הפניה”. תומך נתניהו שואל בפייסבוק היכן הם אלה שטענו כי אם ביבי חוזר הם יעזבו את הארץ?”
כאשר היאוש גבר ולא רואים אופטימיות בטווח הקצר או אפילו הרחוק יותר, וכאשר ערכי הדמוקרטיה של ישראל הולכים ונמסים ולעומתם ערכים ימניים קיצוניים שתופסים מקום מרכזי במדינה, יש כאלה החושבים שהגיע הזמן לעזוב. כאמור קנדה היא אחד היעדים החמים בעולם כיום עבור ישראלים, שלא רוצים לעבור לאירופה או לארצות הברית
חברת דיווידשילד המתמחה במתן שירותי ביטוח עבור ישראלים הגרים בחו”ל, מסבירה מי זו קנדה: מדובר במדינה הצפונית ביותר בצפון אמריקה, המעוררת אצל רבים אסוציאציות של קור ושלג, אבל במציאות מדובר באחת המדינות הנחשקות בעולם להגירה ולרילוקיישן עם אוכלוסייה רב תרבותית, כלכלה יציבה, טבע מרהיב, נופים עוצרי נשימה ואיכות חיים גבוהה. קנדה נחשבת לאחת ממדינות ההגירה הפופולריות ביותר בקרב ישראלים, אם זה בזכות הכלכלה החזקה שלה, אפשרויות התעסוקה הרבות, קשרי המסחר הטובים ואיכות החיים הגבוהה. קנדה נחשבה למדינה ליברלית בעלת חוקי הגירה נוחים מאוד, שמטרתם למשוך אליה כוח עבודה משכיל ומקצועי. במהלך השנים עברה מדיניות ההגירה הקנדית שינויים רבים וכיום היא מתבססת בעיקר על קריטריונים כמו השכלה, גיל, ניסיון מקצועי ושליטה בשפות. המקצועות המבוקשים בקנדה, שעבורם הסיכוי הגדול ביותר לקבל אישור עבודה, הם בתחומים הבאים: רפואה וסיעוד, מחשבים, הנדסה, חינוך לגיל הרך, מרצים באקדמיה, תרגום, פסיכולוגיה וניהול בכיר
קנדה היא מדינה ענקית, השנייה בגודלה בעולם, עם צפיפות אוכלוסייה קטנה יחסית לשטחה הגדול – מה שמהווה אטרקטיביות רבה עבור ישראלים המעוניינים ברילוקיישן. כלכלתה של קנדה נחשבת ליציבה מאוד, שוק העבודה מגוון ושכר העבודה נחשב גבוה ביחס לשעות העבודה
אפשרויות התעסוקה בקנדה עבור מהגרים ישראלים נעות בין עבודות של צעירים, כמו: עבודה בעגלות ובמכירות, עבודת שיפוצים, טיפול בילדים והדרכות נוער בקהילות היהודיות; ועד משרות בחברות ההייטק הגדולות, בתחומים כמו הנדסת תוכנה; כמו כן, משרות בתחומי הסיעוד והרפואה בבתי החולים המתקדמים ביותר בקנדה
ישראלים המעוניינים ברילוקיישן לקנדה צריכים קודם כל למצוא מעסיק חוקי שידאג עבורם לויזת עבודה. החברה המעסיקה צריכה להיות בעלת משרדים הנמצאים בקנדה ועליה לקבל היתר ממשרד העבודה הקנדי להעסקת עובד שאינו קנדי
עם איכות חיים גבוהה, שירותי בריאות טובים, חינוך איכותי, כלכלה יציבה, חברה מקבלת, קהילה יהודית ענפה, שיעור פשיעה נמוך יחסית וטבע מרהיב – החיים בקנדה נחשבים בהחלט לנוחים ומלאי הזדמנויות
מערכת הבריאות בקנדה נחשבת לאחת מהטובות בעולם ומורכבת בעיקרה ממערכת ציבורית, הממומנת על ידי הציבור (בקנדה אין כמעט בכלל רפואה פרטית, כולל בתי החולים). כל אזרח קנדי, מהגר או תושב קבע זכאי לכיסוי רפואי מלא, כלומר כל ביקור רפואי, אשפוז בבית חולים וביצוע בדיקות רפואיות ניתן בחינם ובאופן שוויוני (למעט תרופות וטיפולי שיניים). העובדה כי כל השירותים הרפואיים ניתנים בחינם, אינה גורעת מאיכותם – ההפך: תקציב הבריאות בקנדה הוא גבוה מאוד, מה שמבטיח שירותים רפואיים איכותיים ויחס אישי
הדבר הראשון שעליכם לחשוב עליו כאשר אתם מתכננים מעבר מגורים לקנדה הוא כמובן עניין המגורים. אם אתם נשלחים לרילוקיישן, סביר להניח שהחברה המעסיקה תדאג עבורכם למגורים מסובסדים על חשבונה באזור העבודה. אם אתם עצמאיים או שעליכם למצוא מקום מגורים בכוחות עצמכם, זכרו כי גובה שכר הדירה משתנה בהתאם לאזור המגורים, הביקוש וסוג הדירה. פעמים רבות משתלם יותר לבחור במקום מגורים מעט רחוק מהמרכז ולהשתמש בתחבורה הציבורית היעילה
עניין נוסף שיש לדאוג לגביו כאשר עוברים עם ילדים לקנדה הוא החינוך. קנדה נחשבת למדינה שמשקיעה רבות בחינוך ומערכת החינוך שלה נחשבת לאחת הטובות בעולם. בקנדה יש מבחר גדול של בתי ספר ציבוריים ולצדם בתי ספר פרטיים, חלקם הגדול הוא בתי ספר יהודיים. ההרשמה לבתי הספר נעשית ישירות דרך מוסד הלימודים
הבחירה בין חינוך ציבורי ופרטי תלוי בשיקולים אישיים וכלכליים, אך שתי האופציות יבטיחו לילדכם חינוך איכותי. הלימודים במערכת הציבורית הם ליברלים יותר ויחשפו את ילדיכם למפגשים עם תלמידים ממגוונים אתניים שונים. הלימודים במערכת החינוך היהודית הפרטית אינם זולים וכוללים לצד הלימודים במקצועות הכלליים גם לימודי עברית ויהדות. חשוב לדעת, כי כל תלמיד חדש הנכנס למערכת החינוך הקנדית צריך לעבור מבחן באנגלית ובמתמטיקה כדי לקבוע את רמתו. מומלץ לקבוע מועד לראיון עוד בטרם הגעתכם לקנדה
אם חשובה לכם הקהילתיות, השמירה על הצביון היהודי והקרבה לישראלים נוספים, בקנדה אתם בהחלט תרגישו בבית. יהדות קנדה היא הרביעית בגודלה בעולם (אחרי ארה”ב, צרפת וישראל) וכיום חיים בקנדה למעלה מארבע מאות אלף יהודים. הקהילות היהודיות במדינה נחשבות מפותחות מאוד, בעלות קשרי קהילה חזקים והן מעניקות תמיכה רבה וסיוע למהגרים חדשים. המוקד המרכזי של ישראלים בקנדה היא העיר טורנטו, העיר הגדולה בקנדה ובירת מחוז אונטריו, בה מתגוררת הקהילה היהודית כוללת כמאתיים אלף אלף יהודים. יעד נוסף מרכזי עבור מהגרים ישראלים היא העיר מונטריאול הנמצאת במחוז קוויבק, המחוז הגדול בקנדה. במונטריאול נמצאת הקהילה היהודית השניה בגודלה בקנדה שמונה קרוב לכמאה אלף איש. בערים נוספות שבהן תמצאו קהילות יהודיות הן: ונקובר, ויניפג, אוטווה וקלגרי
מעבר מגורים עם כל המשפחה הוא לא קל אף פעם, אבל כשמדובר במדינה כמו קנדה סביר כי לצד קשיי המעבר, תחוו קליטה נעימה בזכות החברה הקנדית המקבלת והקהילה היהודית והישראלית המחבקת. עם זאת, יש לקחת בחשבון את כל ההשלכות והאתגרים העומדים בפניכם בעת מעבר למדינה רחוקה וקרה כמו קנדה
קושי נוסף עמו אתם צפויים להתמודד הוא מזג האוויר. קנדה היא מדינה קרה מאוד, עם חורף סוער וטמפרטורות שצונחות אל מתחת לאפס, לישראלים המגיעים ממדינה חמה לוקח זמן להתרגל לקור הקנדי. היתרון כאן הוא שכל שנה תזכו לראות שלג, הילדים יוכלו לבנות בובות שלג וללמוד לגלוש
Coalition negotiations continue in Israel after the fifth election in less than four years. And the signs are ominous for the future of Israeli democracy, for women’s equality, for religious pluralism, for LGBTQ+ rights, for peace and for coexistence.
Bezalel Smotrich, head of the Religious Zionist party, will be a major player in the new government, as will the leaders of two parties with whom he ran in an electoral slate: Itamar Ben Gvir, head of Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), and Avi Maoz, head of the religious extremist faction Noam.
Smotrich will apparently have unprecedented influence over the growth and governance of West Bank settlements. The explosive issue of “who is a Jew” – which determines eligibility for immigration under the Law of Return – will fall in part to Maoz, who wants to delegitimize non-Orthodox conversions and narrow the parameters under which an immigrant is permitted under the Law of Return from grandchildren of Jews to those born to Jewish parents. In addition to determining Jewish identity, Maoz has a preoccupation with homosexuality and has promised to ban Pride Parades and oppose equality for gay Israelis. (Netanyahu has said he won’t allow Maoz to diminish gay rights.) Netanyahu has promised to hand Maoz control over a NIS 2 billion budget (about $790 million CDN) for “external programming” in public schools.
Yair Lapid, the outgoing prime minister, railed against this allocation.
“If we don’t stop them, Avi Maoz and his unenlightened gang will put unenlightened, racist, extremist, misogynistic and anti-LGBT content into our children’s schools,” said Lapid.
Ben Gvir and his party call for the expulsion of Arabs they deem disloyal and he has suggested that the anti-Zionist religious sect Neturei Karta should be put “on a train.” Ben Gvir’s party advocates the absorption of the West Bank which, by necessity, would eliminate either the Jewish identity or the democratic nature of Israel – and we do not need to speculate on which Ben Gvir would be willing to discard.
The three horsemen have endorsed banning public transit and sports on Shabbat, eliminating a department that promotes women in the military, and snatching the power to appoint judges from a nonpartisan panel and putting it in the hands of politicians, in addition to a host of other far-right policy fetishes.
“This Israel is not going to be governed by talmudic law,” Netanyahu said in defence after attacks on his coalition agreements. This is precisely the direction his partners are headed, however, and the very fact that he was moved to make such a disclaimer is proof of how dangerously close the new government will be to crossing a religious-secular divide that the pioneers of the state consciously erected.
The jigsaw puzzle parliament is not Netanyahu’s fault – any prime minister was going to have to cobble together a mismatched majority. What is Netanyahu’s fault is the particularly rancid aspects of the coalition. Seeing the unlikelihood of the most hateful and divisive minor parties reaching the electoral threshold in the previous election cycle, Netanyahu personally intervened to urge them to band together to get into the Knesset. An historical precedent is worth reiterating: when the fundamentalist Rabbi Meir Kahane was elected to the Knesset in 1984, the entire chamber stood up and walked out when he spoke. By contrast, when Kahane’s ideological descendants were facing electoral oblivion in 2020, Netanyahu stepped in to help ensure their success. There are many cases in Israel (and other divided parliamentary democracies) where the extremist tail wags the more mainstream dog. In this case, to mix canine metaphors, the ostensibly mainstream leader laid down with dogs and woke up with fleas.
The controversies in Israel have already swept across the ocean. Diaspora Jewish communities are aflame in concern and condemnation. The longstanding divides between Israeli and Diaspora Jews are already being exacerbated – and the new government hasn’t even been sworn in.
The most stalwart voices of Diaspora Zionism are issuing warnings. Abe Foxman, longtime head of the Anti-Defamation League, came out of retirement to harrumph that his support for Israel is not unconditional. The usual suspects in the anti-Israel camp are crowing that their prognostications have proved spot-on. But, more worrying, are middle-of-the-road Jewish and non-Jewish voices who are looking at developments and wondering what it is they defend when they defend Israel. The multi-partisan support Israel has largely enjoyed in the United States, Canada and some other places will be further challenged by Israel’s nationalist, anti-pluralist and generally extremist policies.
In this space, we have repeatedly said that it is up to Israelis alone to determine what defence strategies are necessary to preserve life and limb against terrorist and other threats in Israel. It is Israelis who put their lives and the lives of their children on the line in national defence.
That exclusivity does not extend to policies like teaching homophobia in schools or limiting the role of women in the military – and it certainly doesn’t extend to policies, like the Law of Return, that directly affect Diaspora Jews.
People who care about the pluralist, democratic, inclusive Israel that was dreamed of and built by generations who came before us have a right – an obligation, in fact – to rail against what appears to be on the horizon for the country we care so deeply about, are invested in so much, and count on for Jewish safety and survival.
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.
Vancouverite Eitan Nurick, right, with Aardvark madrich (counselor) Alon. (photo from Aardvark Israel)
“When my siblings came back from their year abroad and couldn’t stop raving about it, I couldn’t help but experience it myself. When the day came and the program started, I was anxious, as expected, but mostly excited,” said Eitan Nurick, 18, who went to King David High School.
Nurick was referring to Aardvark Israel, which offers four-to-10-month gap-year programs in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, specializing in internships; volunteering, partnered with Masa Israel Journey and Israel Volunteering Association; and technology, partnered with the Developers Institute.
“The biggest learning curve was definitely figuring out how to live with four complete strangers,” said Nurick, from Tel Aviv. “I learned that the most important thing to do was to communicate and let your roommates know what you need, eventually coming to a decision that works for everyone.
“Something that I have been especially loving is my internship,” he said. “I work at Inklude, a tattoo studio…. While running the social media, and overall helping out around the studio, I have also been given the opportunity to learn how to tattoo, which ties in perfectly with my love for art. I really feel like I have been welcomed into the workplace and have made meaningful connections with my co-workers. So far, my experience in Israel and with Aardvark Israel has been amazing. I have been able to strengthen my bond with my religion and culture, as well as learn lifelong skills that will stick with me forever.”
Toronto student Lisa Fireman, 18, who attended TanenbaumCHAT high school, also is benefiting from her internship, which is at Eden Gallery in Tel Aviv. She described it as her favourite part of Aardvark.
“I am currently helping plan four events for Art Basel in Miami,” she said. “This has been the experience of a lifetime for me. I love my boss here and feel as if I am being trusted and treated as a real member of the Eden Gallery team. As someone going into art history in university, this could not be a more ideal internship. I love spending my days at the gallery, knowing that this experience will help me in my future path.”
She admitted, “It can be stressful living alone, but I wouldn’t want to do it in any other way. I have gained so much independence, friends I love with my whole heart, and a job that makes me feel so fulfilled.”
Fireman is preparing for her spring semester in Jerusalem.
“A lot of the gap year promotional testimonies write as if gap year is all peaches and sunshine,” she said. “While they aren’t wrong about how much fun it can be, being on Aardvark is so much more than that. My gap year story started last October, when my best friends were considering gap year programs. Out of a fear of going into college without them, I started looking into Aardvark Israel…. I fell so hard for the program that, even when all of my friends eventually decided against gap year, I still committed to spending time on Aardvark. So I went. Absolutely alone. And it was as terrifying as it sounds.”
Fireman had anxiety surrounding making new friends, but put herself out there anyway.
“I did this by asking people to be my ‘bus buddy’ on Tiyul Tuesdays, going to Wednesday night programming, and hosting Shabbat dinners,” she said. “I started to realize that everyone on Aardvark is just as alone as I was. We all had come from around the world and had to create our inner circle … so everyone was open and actively putting themselves into new social situations.”
Last month, Aardvark Israel’s first international trip since COVID took place – five days in the Czech Republic. Both Nurick and Fireman participated. Both students moved to Israel last August.
Prof. Simon Barak of the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, right, is coordinating all the plant biologists and imaging specialists. (photo from CABGU)
Can plants grow in a barren landscape such as the surface of the moon? If so, what types of plants? Could enough plants grow to support a future moon colony? These are the types of questions the Lunaria One consortium has set out to answer.
An experiment proposed by Lunaria One, known as Aleph, was selected by SpaceIL, a nonprofit aerospace organization, to be included as one of the payloads on board their Beresheet2 lander. The Beresheet2 mission, scheduled to launch in mid-2025, will consist of two landers, landing on each side of the moon, and an orbiter that will continue to orbit the moon for up to five years. Aleph will consist of a tray of seeds and dehydrated plants, a device that will water them, heaters and cameras to monitor the plants.
Prof. Simon Barak of the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research (BIDR) at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev is coordinating all the plant biologists and imaging specialists. They include three Australians, one South African and two of his colleagues from BIDR at Ben-Gurion University: Prof. Aaron Fait and Dr. Tarin Paz-Kagan.
“The chosen experiment has enormous value both for our life here on earth and for humanity’s progress in space exploration,” said Shimon Sarid, SpaceIL chief executive officer. “Examining plant growth under extreme conditions will help us as far as food security is concerned. Plant growth in extreme conditions will help humanity in the long run. We are happy to cooperate with Lunaria One and are very excited.”
“The motivation for this mission comes from humanity’s passion to explore and see life thrive in barren landscapes,” explained Barak. “We see the Aleph payload as an important step towards our eventual goal of providing plants for food, medicine, oxygen production, CO₂-scrubbing and general well-being for future astronauts inhabiting the moon and beyond.”
“The central value guiding this project is that space exploration is for everyone; we don’t want a future where only autonomous and remote-controlled machines inhabit realms beyond earth, but where humans can live and thrive,” said Lunaria One director Lauren Fell. “The key to this is to get humans involved and to give them a say in how we get there. The Aleph project aims to open up the science and engineering behind growing life on the moon so that anyone can be involved.”
Growing plants on the moon means overcoming several challenges, such as massive temperature swings on the way to the moon, a water supply for the plants, and high temperatures when growing the plants. The plant types will need to be those that can germinate and grow to an appropriate size for imaging within 72 hours of deployment.
The research team expects their plant selections to be relevant for vertical farming and resource-challenged landscapes here on earth.
The project also has a strong citizen science component. Parallel science experiments will be carried out by amateurs (for example, high school students) and professionals to compare growth to that on the moon.
Additional universities participating in Lunaria One include Queensland University of Technology, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and the Australian National University, in Australia, and the University of Cape Town, in South Africa.
“The earth is finite,” said Barak. “Its resources are finite. So humanity’s future depends upon reaching the stars.”
– Courtesy Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev