Saturday, 31 May 2014

Time for the Government to Offload the CBC From Taxpayers

Recently, I received an e-mail from the Conservative Party complaining against CBC media bias against them and asking for a donation.  I do agree that the CBC has a left-wing bias and I don't like it one bit.  The CBC is funded by all Canadian tax payers of all political stripes to the tune of around one billion dollars a year, so when I see my tax dollars used by the public broadcaster to shore up the cheerleading squad for Justin Trudeau's Liberals, it drives me nuts.  That being said, I think the CBC's bias is simply a product of human nature.  The folks in the corporation know who supports them and who doesn't, so its only natural that they would support the Liberals and sometimes the NDP, because they know that with either of these parties in power, their budget will likely grow.  They also know that under a Conservative government, their budget will shrink, as it already has under the current government.  It's simply a matter of CBC staff trying to protect their jobs, and I certainly can't blame them for that.

Don't get me wrong, I actually like the CBC, or at least some of its programming.  I love Hockey Night in Canada and I'm a regular viewer of The National.  I also love watching Kevin O'Leary on Dragon's Den as well as the occasional documentary program.  And we all know how good CBC documentaries can be.  The problem is that the best days of the CBC are long gone.  The public broadcaster suffers from low ratings and has just recently been hit with the biggest bombshell of all: the impending loss of its hockey revenue after Rogers bought the rights to all of Canada's hockey broadcasts.  Without hockey, it is very unlikely that the CBC can survive, let alone thrive, unless it receives additional financial support from taxpayers.  But inasmuch as I and many others admire what the CBC does, I believe that our hard-earned tax dollars can be better spent elsewhere.

I just think that the CBC's estimated billion dollar budget should go towards more important things, like health care and education.  A billion dollars can buy a lot of great things, like hospital beds and MRI machines.  It could pay the salaries of more family doctors, which are hard to find nowadays.  Or perhaps we could use the money to help more university and college students pay their tuition.  Basically, what I'm saying is that the federal government should spend our tax dollars on things like schools and hospitals, instead of George Stromboulopoulos and Heartland.

But what should be done with the CBC if the feds decide at some point to offload it in favour of bigger priorities?  The first thought that comes to mind is privatization.  The government would surely get a big, one-time financial boon for selling the public broadcaster, and I'm sure that the big boys at Rogers and Bell Media would be more than interested (as if our media isn't concentrated enough already).  But outright privatization isn't the only option.  Another way for the government to offload the CBC is to have the corporation adopt a PBS-style model in which the broadcaster would rely on donations from its viewers to keep it afloat.  I kind of like this idea because it will force supporters of Canadian broadcasting to put their money where their mouths are and pony up for the programming that they feel so passionate about without making the rest of us taxpayers do so.

The CBC is indeed a national institution, but it has run its course in its current form, and it is ludicrous for the folks in the federal government to keep telling voters that they can't afford to help the provinces pay for things like prescription drugs and financial assistance for indebted students because they need to keep paying Peter Mansbridge's salary.  Whether the CBC is privatized or left to its supporters to pay for, the feds should offload the public broadcaster from the backs of Canadian taxpayers as soon as possible. 

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Ontario Election 2014. I'm Declining My Ballot, And So Should You

Election Day in Ontario is fast approaching.  As with other elections in Canada, our choices are uninspiring to say the least.  So whom should you vote for?  Well, let's first narrow our choices down to the only three parties and leaders who have any chance of winning this election.  There's our current Premier, Kathleen Wynne, and her Liberal Party, Tim Hudak's Progressive Conservatives and Andrea Horwath's New Democratic Party.  Do these parties and their leaders differ on how they would run the Province of Ontario?  Certainly, but is one better than the other?  Nope.  In fact, for this election, I'm voting for none of the above.  Here's why:

Let's start with our incumbent premier.  She took the reins of power after her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, decided to pack it in, leaving a legacy of scandals, reckless spending and soaring debt.  The jury's still out on how much Wynne had to do with the decisions that have turned Ontario from a have to a have-not province, but she was part of McGuinty's government, hence she is at least guilty by association.  Re-electing her and her party will no doubt lead to more of the same.  You know, sky-high hydro rates, ballooning deficits, record debt, and billions of our hard-earned tax dollars spent on damage control for scandals like the gas plant cancellation, Ehealth and Ornge.  There will be benefits for some folks if the Wynne Liberals are re-elected, most notably the public sector unions and CEOs.  So we can expect more happy union bosses and more senior civil servants making $100,000 or more a year.  For the rest of us, however, it will mean less money in our pockets.  Clearly, Ontarians deserve better.

Okay then, how about the alternatives?  Tim Hudak and his Progressive Conservatives are promising to end the Liberals' drunken spending spree and bring order to Ontario's finances.  Sounds good, right?  Not so fast.  Unfortunately, Hudak and the PCs view Ontario simply as one giant balance sheet and nothing more.  So they have no qualms over balancing the books on the backs of Ontario's most vulnerable.  Electing Hudak and the PCs would likely mean higher tuition for university and college students, bigger class sizes and less help for seniors who want to stay in their homes (see: Tim Hudak targets students, seniors, teachers for budget cuts).  For those of you who remember the slash-and-burn years of Mike Harris, Tim Hudak is basically the sequel in waiting.

This leaves us with the last of the three fat-cats, Andrea Horwath and the NDP.  But if you're going to vote NDP, you might as well be voting Liberal as it's become increasingly difficult to differentiate between the two parties.  In fact, sometimes I don't know which of the two is the real standard-bearer of big government and union rule.  Even Horwath herself seems to have trouble distinguishing herself and her party from Wynne and the Liberals.  It's no wonder then that some have speculated about the possibility of the Liberals and NDP forming a coalition to govern Ontario should no party win a majority in the upcoming vote.  But of course, this is what we've had since the last election.  In other words, nothing would change.

To make a long story short, I can't bring myself to vote for any of the major parties because it seems to me that no matter which of them win, we all lose.  But what other options are there?  Voting for the Green Party?  Voting for one of the fringe parties or candidates?  Either way, you're throwing your vote away.  So should you just stay home on election day?  Perhaps.  A low voter participation rate does send a strong message about the shortcomings of our politics.  However, I and many others believe that voting is a civic duty and a fundamental democratic right that we should all exercise.  Besides, there is a better way to send a message to our politicians.  We can just decline our ballots.

There is a little-known part of Ontario's election law that permits voters to decline their ballots, essentially voting for none of the above (see: How Ontarians can make their vote count when their choice is "none of the above").  This provision allows such votes to be recorded differently than if a voter simply spoiled their ballot.  Declining your ballot sends a message that while you would like to participate in the electoral process, you do not believe that any candidate or party deserves your vote.  And this, I believe, is the message that our politicians need to hear loud and clear.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Why I Hate Flying

I recently returned from a trip to Italy with my father and brother.  It was an excellent trip, although it did have its negative aspects.  For me, the biggest negative aspect of this trip was what is usually the biggest negative aspect of most of my trips: getting there and back, or more specifically flying there and back, because I don't like flying at all. 

Long ago, it used to take months to get from one side of the world to the other in the old sailing ships, which were the only means of circumventing the globe until the steamship came into use in the early 18th century and cut the time it took to travel the globe from months to days.  The emergence of air travel came around two centuries later and by the mid-20th century, jet propulsion became commonplace.  Today, the sky is crowded with commercial passenger jets that move multitudes of people across the world every day.  I am very grateful that unlike our ancestors, we don't have to wait days, weeks or months to get from one part of the world to the other.  That being said, I still hate flying for a number of reasons which I will outline here by going through the typical air traveller's experience.

A lot of what I hate about flying is not flying itself, but all the things you have to go through when you fly.  First, you arrive at the airport for your flight.  In the post-9/11 world, this often means showing up at least three hours before your flight takes off.  Waiting for you at the airport is often a long, seemingly never-ending lineup at the check-in counters, although thankfully there is now the option of checking in online, which can speed up the check-in process.  But of course, you still have to check your luggage at the counter.  When it's finally your turn to check your baggage, you may be in for a rude surprise.  Your bag is overweight, which means you're automatically charged an extra fee.  Got more than one bag?  Well mister, that's gonna be another few dollars out of your pocket.  In fact, you will soon be paying just to check in one bag on one notable airline (see: http://www.thestar.com/business/2014/05/05/porter_to_charge_25_checked_bag_fee_on_flights_in_canada.html)
Want to pick your own seat on the plane?  Pony-up, buddy.  I could go on about the extra fees that you have to pay in addition to your flight ticket itself, but I'm wagering that most of you reading this know the routine already, especially if you happen to be travelling out of Pearson airport, where the fees are so high that some folks drive down to the airport in Buffalo in order to avoid the insane extra charges in Toronto.

Once you've finally checked your bags, you get to stand in another long lineup at customs where the folks in charge yell at you and herd you like cattle into separate lines at each scanning machine.  When you get to the scanning machine, you may have to spend some time removing a bunch of things from both your carry-on bags and yourself.  Got a laptop?  You may have to take that out and put it in a bin to go through the scanner separately.  The same goes for your phone and any other electronic device.  Travelling in or to the U.S.?  You will probably be removing your belt and your shoes too.  Remember, this is the post 9/11 world and we can't take any chances, which means more inconveniences and longer waits in line.  Eventually though, you do pass customs, so what comes next?  Well, for most people, it's sitting and waiting until your flight is ready to board.  And if it's a busy day, good luck even finding a seat in the waiting area by the boarding gates.  If you're in a good airport, you may be able to find something to eat or drink in a nearby cafe or airport restaurant, but if not, you're going hungry and thirsty.  You should also note the time and energy that you may spend walking in an airport terminal.  Depending on what kind of shape you're in and how the terminal is built, you may feel like you've just run a marathon after finally getting to the boarding gate.

Okay, it's finally time to board the aircraft, which means that you get to stand in another long lineup as passengers queue up for boarding.  In some airports, boarding can be a more inconvenient experience than in others, especially if the airport is not designed for aircraft to be boarded immediately at the gate.  In this case, you'll be shown onto a bus, where you'll be packed like a sardine with the rest of the general, unwashed public just as if you were on a Toronto subway during rush hour.  This bus will take you on a short trip to your airplane, where you'll have to climb up a flight of stairs to get aboard.  I pity the older, less healthy folks who have to do this and aren't entitled to assistance.

Finally, you're out of the airport and on your plane ready to go - sort of anyway.  For various reasons, you may be stuck on the ground for a significant amount of time for things like refuelling, de-icing (think of flying during the winter in Canada), or just waiting for your plane's turn to take off.  While you're waiting to get airborne, you may be sweating your butt off since an airplane can get really hot until it's in the air and the cabin pressure system is activated.  But of course, you will eventually take off and be cruising in the air shortly afterward.  Then it's just a matter of waiting to get to your destination.

While you're waiting to get where you're going, you'll likely be sitting in an airplane seat where you can barely move and must inevitably disturb the person next to you whenever you want to get up and go to the bathroom, unless of course you're one of those more privileged people in first class, where the airlines treat people like human beings rather than sardines.  There's a very stark irony about travelling on airplanes.  When you take a dog on an aircraft, the regulations usually state that the dog needs to be in a crate where it has room to stand, turn around and lie down whereas a human passenger on an airplane is lucky if he can cross his legs in his seat.  In a few cases, the lack of room in airplane seats can be fatal (see: http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/dvt/travel.html). Here's a pointer for those of you who want to avoid being stuck in an airplane seat without room to move: try to reserve a seat next to one of the plane's emergency exits where you'll have all the leg room you want.  My brother and I did this on our way to and from Italy.  As I said before, however, you will pay more to do this.  You'll also likely need to show up at the airport earlier to beat someone else to your ideal seat, which of course means more time sitting in the airport waiting for your flight.

On most short-haul flights, like the one I took from Toronto to Florida a couple of years ago, if you want to eat but don't have any money on you, chances are that you'll be going hungry because the nickel-and-diming airlines stopped feeding us for free on short flights a long time ago.  If you're on a long flight, you will probably get fed without having to pay.  Ah, airplane food.  You should have no trouble knowing when they're bringing the food out because you can smell the fetid stench a mile away.  Yes, for those of you who have a lot of air travel experience, you know that airplane food has a smell that can make anyone nauseous.  If you have a weak stomach, I would avoid eating airplane food altogether, if possible.  I have a pretty strong stomach myself, but it didn't stop me from throwing up on my recent flight to Italy after eating the beef served at dinner.  At least I wasn't feeling sick afterwards.

Aside from the airplane food, I would say the worst thing about flying is just waiting to get to your destination.  As I mentioned in the beginning, people started off travelling for months on sailing ships to travel around the world, then the steamship cut those months to days, and finally we invented air travel, which allowed us to circumvent the globe in the space of hours.  The problem is that since the use of jet propulsion became widespread, we aren't going much faster on passenger planes than when we started using jet engines on them about a half century ago.  My recent flight to Italy was just over eight hours and the flight back over nine hours.  I don't understand why we can make a computer that is many times faster and more powerful than a computer built just five years earlier, but we can't make planes that can take you from New York City to Tokyo in less than three hours and that are cost effective.  There was of course the Concorde, which was significantly faster than conventional passenger aircraft, but it was shelved for safety reasons shortly after a crash killed over 100 people, leaving us with the same subsonic, tube-shaped airplanes that we use today and that haven't changed much in decades.  I truly hope to see the day where I can go from one side of the world to the other in less than three hours.  I would love to be able to fly to Europe, spend the day, and then go back to Toronto on the same day I left.  But for now all I can do is dream about it.

Actually, I wish I could do some dreaming when I fly because it would make the wait more bearable.  Unfortunately, I can almost never fall asleep on an airplane.  Of course, no matter how long you have to wait, chances are that you will reach your destination safely, because inasmuch as I hate flying, the fact is that, in the words of Superman, "statistically speaking, it is still the safest way to travel."  When you finally do land, you will likely spend at least another few minutes waiting to get off, and a few more minutes actually getting off.  And again, if you're in one of those poorly-designed airports, you may be packed like a sardine onto a bus again to take you to the terminal.  You may also be taking another long walk to customs where, depending on the airport's efficiency, you may be waiting a fair amount of time.  Pearson Airport was once notorious for its poor management of customs.  I came off a flight last year to find myself in a huge lineup at customs.  The big problem at that time was that there weren't even separate lines for Canadian citizens and non-Canadians, so everyone stood and waited in the same line.  And God help you if a visitor or new immigrant had a problem with their documents, because then you were in for a big time delay.  Fortunately, Pearson now does have a separate line for Canadian citizens, equipped with self-serve machines that scan your passport and let you go in less than a minute.  Unfortunately, they're still making us fill out those damned annoying customs cards when we come back to Canada.  I once got some verbal abuse from an Air Canada flight attendant for not having a pen to fill it out.  For some reason, whenever I go to Israel, where security is the number one priority, I don't have to fill out any stupid customs card, so I wonder, if one of the most security-savvy countries in the world doesn't need people to fill out these kinds of cards, why does Canada, or any other country for that matter?  I would also add that in Israel's main international airport, they've had separate lines for Israeli citizens and non-Israelis for a long time while folks coming home to Canada were still standing in the same line with visitors and new immigrants.

Your journey through the trials and tribulations of air travel ends with collecting your luggage, and for those of you who have had the misfortune of having your luggage lost by the airlines, I don't have to tell you how aggravating it can be.  My father once waited about a month for a suitcase to be returned to him after the airline misplaced it.  And of course, losing your luggage isn't the only big mishap an air traveller can go through.  I haven't even mentioned the other big headaches, like getting bumped from a flight or your flight being cancelled.  I haven't mentioned these things because I wanted to demonstrate to those of you who are reading this the fact that even if your air travel experience goes smoothly, without you losing your luggage, getting bumped from your flight, or having some other major problem occur, flying and all the things that go with it can still drive a person nuts, which is why I hate it.  Unfortunately, unless we end up being able to beam ourselves from place to place, like on Star Trek, or some other revolutionary invention comes along, we will likely have to spend more time putting up with air travel if we want to get to far off places.    

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Jewish in the Diaspora, But Not in the State of Israel. It's Time for Religious Equality

Last week, I read an article about swastikas scrawled on a Conservative synagogue in Israel (see: http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4519275,00.html).  Many people's first instinct would be to blame this heinous act of vandalism on Israel-haters and antisemites.  But they would be wrong.  As the article implies, the culprits were likely fellow Jews who don't approve of the way the folks who attend this particular synagogue practice Judaism.  It wouldn't be the first time that something like this has happened in Israel, for inasmuch as Israel depends on the moral, financial and political support of fellow Jews in the Diaspora for its existence, many Israelis refuse to tolerate the way most Diaspora Jews practice the Jewish religion.

Israel has never made a legal distinction between different streams of Judaism and for most of the country's history, Israeli Jews have all been considered Orthodox by default.  But in the latter part of the state's 66 years of existence, alternative forms of Judaism, such as the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements have made inroads into the country and there has been a growing demand, both by adherents of non-Orthodox congregations in the Diaspora, as well as the growing number of Israelis associating with non-Orthodox movements, for an end to the Orthodox monopoly on religious affairs in Israel.  The fact that Israel neither respects nor recognizes the way most Jews in the Diaspora practice their religion hits a raw nerve with some.  I can remember how upset my grandmother used to get when she talked about how the Reform Judaism practiced in the synagogue to which she belonged was not considered to be Judaism in Israel.  I myself am not a member of a synagogue, but I still resent the fact that while Israeli leaders always travel around the world telling Jews in Diaspora communities how grateful Israel is for their support, they are still unwilling to recognize the way most of these Jews practice Judaism.  And although non-Orthodox Jews who immigrate to Israel are generally recognized as Jews, heaven forbid if they try to get married by a non-Orthodox rabbi, because their marriage will not be recognized by the state.  Oh, and for those of you who converted to Judaism under the auspices of a non-orthodox rabbi; sorry, but the State of Israel says you're still not Jewish, so you'll have to go through the entire conversion process all over again under the supervision of the country's Orthodox monopoly.  Pathetic, isn't it?  It's also just plain unfair.

So how should Diaspora Jews respond to the fact that the nation-state of the Jewish people refuses to recognize their ways of practicing Judaism?  Should they withhold support for Israel until the country agrees to treat their alternative forms of Judaism equally and fairly?  If we were any other people, my answer would be yes.  But we're not any other people.  We're the Jewish people and Israel is our best and only chance of preventing another Holocaust, so abandoning our support for it is not an option. Okay then, what other options are there?  At this point not many, I'm afraid.  The only piece of advice that I can give is to keep reminding Israel's leaders that since Diaspora Jews give them so much, the least they could do is give the millions of non-Orthodox Jews around the world religious equality in the Jewish homeland.      

   

Why Canadian Politics Is So Pathetic

I've been into politics and current events since my early teen years, but despite several attempts to get involved in Canadian politics since I was a teenager, it just hasn't happened for me.  Why?  Because politics in this country is just plain pathetic.  In fact, I don't know any other society in a modern, democratic country that is more averse to political change than that of Canada.  But of course, Canada's dull political scene is one of the reasons that this country attracts so many people from abroad, who want to get away from the maddening politics in their countries of origin.  In my case, however, if my choosing of places to live was based solely on how a country's politics is conducted, I'd leave Canada in a second, because too many folks in this country wouldn't know real politics if it hit them in the face.  I find almost everything about Canadian politics, from its excessive party discipline to its antiquated and unfair electoral system, to be revolting.  And unfortunately, I don't see it changing any time soon.

Any changes to politics in this country seem almost impossible to make.  Take for example the recent Supreme Court ruling that constitutional change was necessary to reform or abolish our oh-so-hated, patronage-based Senate.  Unfortunately, the folks who wrote Canada's constitution made it almost impossible to change.  Just ask former Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney.  Ever since he failed to change the constitution with the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, no politician has dared to open up that can of worms again.  But as I said, that's Canada for you.  And anyway, why would politicians want to change anything about the politics in this country when they're benefiting so much from it?

Why, for example, would the leaders of this country's big, monolithic parties want to give up their power to rule their backbenchers like medieval kings?  Canada's kind of ironclad party discipline is almost unheard of in other parts of the modern, democratic world.  Just look at what happened to some of the backbenchers who decided not to tow the party line:

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/svend-robinson-has-been-benched-1.183777

http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2013/06/06/alberta_mp_brent_rathgeber_blasts_conservatives_as_he_quits_party.html

http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/nunziata-expelled-from-liberal-caucus/

Do you get the picture yet?  If not, then allow me to mention another facet of this country's politics that makes changes to it almost impossible: our electoral system.  Let's forget for a moment, the fact that all Western democracies, except Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. have abandoned the antiquated and unfair first-past-the-post, winner-take-all system that has allowed one-party dictatorships to flourish in this country.  Instead, let's talk about the specific fact that the current federal government has a majority of the seats in the House of Commons and 100% of the power, while only receiving 36.9% of the vote in the last federal election.  Take into consideration the number of eligible voters that didn't vote, 38.9%, and the percentage of people who actually decided the fate of this country for the next four years is actually much lower (see: http://www.sfu.ca/~aheard/elections/results.html).  And for those of you who happened to not vote for the winning candidate in your riding; well, sorry, but your vote didn't count for anything.  Our ridiculous electoral system has done nothing but keep the same kin of people in power, and as long as this system isn't reformed (which it likely won't be), the same folks from the same parties will continue to hold our elected offices.

It's no wonder then, that I came across a slogan in Toronto's Kensington Market that read, "If voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal."  Not that I agree with this.  Voting does change things in this country, just not the way our politics works.  This slogan was likely written by folks who are shut out of the political process and have no hope of ever getting their views and concerns represented on Parliament Hill.  You know, young people, poor people and anyone else who doesn't share views in the centre of the political spectrum.

The last major attempt to change Canadian politics was the Reform Party, which espoused ideas like an elected Senate and allowing backbenchers to vote of their own accord in the House of Commons, instead of having to vote the way the leaders tell them to.  But as we all know, the Reform Party ultimately ceased to exist when it merged with the Progressive Conservatives and gave up many of the principles that would have changed Canadian politics for the better.  What was the reason for this?  Well, both parties knew that if they continued to split the right wing vote, the Liberals would keep winning elections.  Unfortunately, neither party bothered to stop and think about changing the electoral system that allowed this kind of vote splitting to happen in the first place.

Ever since I was a teenager, I dreamed of being an elected politician.  I don't have that dream anymore though, because even if I were able to play the stupid game that is Canadian politics, I wouldn't be able to do anything to effect change because my party would likely kick me out.  Hence, I will never strive for elected office, at least in this country.  Besides, some of the most important harbingers of change from Karl Marx to Martin Luther King Jr. never held political office, so ironically, the best way I can help bring change may be not to get involved in Canada's political process.  I'll still vote though, because I believe that even though voting may not change the way we conduct our politics in this country, it can help change a lot of other things.  But for those people that don't vote, I can't say I blame them, especially with the crop of uninspiring politicians we have to choose from.  In fact, for those people that do vote, it's very likely that they'll be voting against someone rather than for someone, because that's the cynicism that surrounds politics in Canada.  What a shame for a country regarded by many as the best place in the world to live.  

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Israel's Citizenship Laws: It's Time for a Change

Canada and Israel are very different countries, but they have a few things in common.  One of them is the fact that they are both nation-states founded and built by immigrants.  The Dominion of Canada was founded by the British Empire, whereas Israel was founded by Jews who immigrated to Palestine, which coincidentally was also controlled by the British Empire.  But of course, I would not make an exact comparison between the Europeans who colonized what became Canada and the Jews who immigrated to Palestine, because it's not like Jews were going to a place they had never been.  They were actually returning to the land that has always been their ancestral homeland: the Land of Israel, unlike the first European settlers in North America, who did not have any historical roots to the land that they had colonized.  The words "return" and "returning" in Zionist ideology are synonymous with Jews coming to Israel.  Zionism uses this terminology in order to emphasize the fact that Jewish immigration to Israel is not like regular immigration where someone goes to live in a country where neither he nor any member of his family, past or present, has ever been before.  In fact, one of Israel's most important laws is called the Law of Return.  This law gives any Jew, wherever he or she may reside, the right to live in Israel.  It is a testament to the fact that the State of Israel was created to restore the Jewish people's independence as a nation-state and to give Jews from around the world a safe place of refuge - the kind of refuge that was not available to the Jews during the Holocaust.  As an adamant supporter of Israel, I do believe that every Jewish person, wherever he or she may live, has the right to return to the land of their forefathers, so I have no problem with the Law of Return.  I do, however, have a problem with the entitlement that a person immigrating to Israel under the Law of Return has - that entitlement being Israeli citizenship.

Contrary to popular belief, the Law of Return does not accord Jews with immediate Israeli citizenship.  It is rather Israel's Nationality Law that gives Jews the automatic right to citizenship upon arrival in the country.  In other words, a Jewish person who just got off the plane at Ben Gurion International Airport, Israel's main air travel hub near Tel Aviv, can not only claim the right to stay in the country, but also the right to Israeli citizenship and all the rights it entails, including the right to vote in Israel's elections.  Neither I, nor any self-respecting Zionist would refuse entry to any Jewish person into Israel, unless of course he or she was a danger to the country (thankfully, the Nationality Law does preclude granting status to such people).  But I do resent the fact that any Jewish person who just got off a plane from another country could theoretically go and vote in an Israeli election the next day and therefore having a say in how Israel is governed.  I believe that although residing in Israel may be a Jewish birthright, Israeli citizenship is not.  In a modern, democratic country, citizenship is something that has to be earned.  The only generally agreed-upon exception to this rule is when the citizen of any given country has children, those children are automatically entitled to the citizenship(s) of their parents.  Ironically, Israel's Nationality Law has a different set of rules for people who immigrate to the country but are not Jewish.  Any non-Jewish person who wants to become an Israeli citizen has to be in the country for at least three years.  As I said before, I do believe that Israel, as the nation-state of the Jewish people, should accord Jews the special right to live in the country, but I also believe that everyone in Israel, Jewish or not, should have an equal path to citizenship.

This path to citizenship should be similar the ones taken by immigrants in other modern, democratic countries.  Many countries, like Canada and the U.S. require, for example, that would-be citizens take a citizenship exam that tests a person's knowledge of the country's history, culture, laws and institutions.  In some countries, one is required to pass a separate language exam that measures a person's ability to speak, read, write and comprehend a country's official language(s).  Hence, I believe that before anyone, Jewish or not, can become a citizen of Israel and be entitled to all the rights, privileges and duties that come with being an Israeli citizen, he or she should have to pass an exam that tests his or her knowledge of Israel's history, its laws, its culture, and its institutions.  He or she should also have to pass an exam that determines competency in one of Israel's two official languages.

Israel cannot be a truly modern and democratic state unless it stops giving automatic citizenship to people based solely on their Jewishness, because giving Jews a fast track to citizenship while making everyone else wait three years, as is the case today, goes against the fundamental democratic principle of equality before the law.  Instead, Israel must enact a new nationality law that allows everyone who is permitted entry into the country and who wants to become a citizen an equal opportunity to do so.     

Friday, 16 May 2014

Israel is a Jewish State. Okay, Now Tell Us Something We Don't Know.

Anyone who knows anything about Israel surely knows that it was intended to be a Jewish state; the national homeland of the Jewish people.  Its Declaration of Independence proclaims it to be a Jewish state.  Its flag is a Jewish flag, its coat of arms is a Jewish coat of arms, and its national anthem is a Jewish anthem.  Furthermore, whenever the media refers to Israel, they frequently refer to it as the Jewish state.  Yes, I know that Israel is the only Jewish state in the entire world.  Then again, Estonia is the only Estonian state in the entire world, so why doesn't the press ever refer to it as "the Estonian state".  Okay, maybe Estonia doesn't get a lot of press time, but Japan certainly does since it's the world third biggest economy and it's the only Japanese state in the world.  But of course, no one in today's media call it "the Japanese state".  I honestly wish the press would stop referring to Israel as "the Jewish state" because it's just another way of singling us out, and usually when Jews are singled out (by other people, rather than by G-d), it doesn't bode well for them.  I can't really blame the media for this, however, because it's Jewish leaders, both inside and outside Israel, that encourage the use of the term "Jewish state" by the media and everyone else that talks about Israel, instead of just using the country's name as they would do if they were talking about any other nation-state.  You would think that with everyone always referring to Israel as "the Jewish state" and with all of Israel's state symbols being Jewish, Israel would be secure in its Jewish identity.  But you would be wrong.

       

In fact, the Israeli government has recently put forward a new bill that would define Israel as a Jewish state.  And for those of you who follow what seems like the never-ending saga that is the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, you know that Israel's government has demanded that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.  Clearly, Israel has a real complex about its Jewish identity.  I'm not surprised, however, because anyone who knows Jewish history knows that Jews have always been under threat.  Indeed, being paranoid about keeping one's national identity is a characteristic associated with all nations or members of those nations who feel under threat.  Just take a look at Quebec.  Ever since the fall of New France, the Quebecois have always made a fuss about protecting their French identity, no more so than in the latter half of the 20th century up until today.  They have endured a history of oppression at the hands of English-speakers and continue to feel threatened by the fact that they are an island of French language and culture in a sea of anglophones.  These are the facts that drive all forms of Quebec nationalism, from the independence movement to the province's strict language laws.  There is one major difference, however, between the Quebecois' struggle to keep their identity and that of the Jewish people.  No one today talks openly of wiping Quebec and its people off the map.  In contrast, some world leaders to this day talk of wiping Israel from the face of the Earth and slaughtering its people.  In other words, Israel faces an existential threat while Quebec does not.  In fact, the Jewish people are the only people in the world today whose nation-state faces an existential threat.  And with the Holocaust still fresh in the psyche of the Jewish people, it's no wonder that Jews do not feel secure about their identity.  That being said, Jews both inside and outside of Israel have failed to make any distinction between the physical threat to Israel and the threat to Jewish identity, and this is something that I think has to change.

Perhaps right now you're thinking, "how can you separate the physical threat to Israel and the threat to its Jewish identity?  You can't have one without the other!"  That's absolutely correct.  Obviously, Israel cannot maintain its Jewish identity if it is destroyed.  Hence, Israel must do everything necessary to ensure the security of its borders and the safety of its people.  But what Israel does to ensure the physical security for herself and her people has to be distinguished from what measures are taken within Israeli society to preserve the country's Jewish identity.  I believe that Israel should take measures to protect its Jewish identity within its own society, but I also believe that for the most part, these measures have already been taken.  As I already mentioned, we have Jewish national symbols that the vast majority of Israelis are proud of.  We have also managed to revive Hebrew, the Jews' national language, as a modern vernacular, and finally, Israel's cultural and religious institutions have succeeded in reviving the Jewish existence that was nearly lost in the Holocaust.  But most recent attempts to reinforce the country's Jewish identity have crossed the line between what is rational and what is overkill.  These attempts include the current government's decision to put forward a bill strictly defining Israel as a Jewish state.  Such a law, I believe, is not only redundant, but a waste of time and energy.  As I said before, I think we and the rest of the world know who we are by now.

What is worse is when the cause of preserving Israel's Jewish identity serves a pretext to exclude Israel's non-Jews.  Some politicians on the far-right, for example, have proposed that Arabic be eliminated as an official language in Israel.  Contrary to what these fascists believe, eliminating rights and privileges for minorities does not make Israel any more Jewish.  Quite the contrary, it drives us further away from Jewish values.  Our Talmud, for example, states: "What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary. Go and study it." (Talmud Shabbat 31a).  Indeed, the premise of treating others as you would want them to treat you is a value beholden not only to Judaism, but to other religions and philosophies as well.  Based on this premise, I would contend that to make Israel more Jewish is to do our best to provide reasonable accommodation to our non-Jewish citizens and to do our best to include them in Israeli society and its national narrative rather than taking measures to exclude them.

On the subject of the Palestinians recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, I believe that this is also a useless requirement designed to exclude the Palestinian people from any right to the land that is as sacred to them as it is to us.  What I do think should be required of the Palestinians is not a concrete declaration by them that Israel is a Jewish state, but rather a promise by them that they accept the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in the State of Israel and that they will not attempt to compromise Jewish independence in any way.  Such a declaration would enable the Palestinians to claim certain rights in the State of Israel, but not the right to flood Israel with Palestinian refugees so as to change the demographic make-up of the country and compromise Jewish independence.

Indeed, preserving Jewish independence is what I think should be the goal of any measure to promote Israel's Jewishness.  In other words, Israeli leaders need to ask themselves, "is what I'm trying to do necessary to preserve the independence of the Jewish people?"  And unless they can answer this question in the affirmative, chances are that whatever measure they are thinking of taking to preserve Israel's Jewish identity, it is probably overkill and not necessary.