Monday, 20 July 2015

Are Jews and Arabs Really So Different?

I think it's ironic that Jews and Arabs currently find themselves in such a divisive conflict, because the truth is that we're not that different from one another.  In fact, we share several attributes in common, starting with our origins.  For those of you who know your Bible, you're probably familiar with the story of Abraham, which is found in the Book of Genesis.  Abraham is considered a patriarchal figure by both Jews and Arabs.  Why?  Because both Arabs and Jews are descendants of Abraham's offspring.  The Arabs are the direct descendants of Ishmael, Abraham's first born son.  The Jews are the direct descendants of Jacob, whose father was Isaac, Abraham's second born son.  Hence, the Jews and Arabs are cousins.

It is probably no coincidence then, that Jews and Arabs have similar languages.  Any linguistics expert who is familiar with the languages of Africa and the Middle East will tell you that Hebrew and Arabic are both in the same family of languages - the Semitic family.  And as someone who has studied both Hebrew and Arabic, I can tell you that the two languages are very often quite similar to each other.  Many of the words are either the same or at least somewhat similar.  I can still remember how much easier it was for me to learn Arabic than it was for the others I studied it with since I already had a working knowledge of Hebrew at the time.  I also had a work colleague from Egypt who said that she took a Hebrew course and achieved a grade in the high 90s because, as she told me, the two languages are very similar and knowing one makes it a lot easier to learn the other.  Those of you who have studied languages probably know that studying a new language is a whole lot easier if you already know a language of the same linguistic family.

So Jews and Arabs clearly have commonalities in both origins and language, but our similarities don't stop there.  Jews and Arabs also share various cultural traits and values.  For example, both Jews and Arabs in general have the frequent tendency to use hand gestures to communicate.  This is a cultural trait that is common not just amongst Jews and Arabs, but amongst all Mediterranean cultures, including the Italians, Maltese and Greeks.  Jews and Arabs also share another commonality with other Mediterranean cultures in that both peoples have a very special relationship with food.  If you've ever been to a meal in a Jewish or Arab home, you'll understand what I mean.  Indeed, if you do get the opportunity to be hosted by a Jewish or Arab family, you'll quickly find out that food is big part of our common tradition of hospitality.  Now of course, being hospitable is not something distinct to Jews and Arabs, but I would say that the two peoples are more well-known for it than others.  Jews and Arabs also both have a long tradition of being very family-oriented.  I can tell you from personal experience that for many Jews and Arabs, the family is the number one priority.

The fact of the matter is that Jews and Arabs have more similarities than they do differences.  Unfortunately, it is the differences between the two peoples that the Arab-Israeli conflict has magnified.  These differences are mainly political, though there is one other important factor that has divided the children of Abraham: The fact that while the Arabs have remained in their homeland, we the Jews were largely exiled from ours for approximately two thousand years.  Why is this important?  Well, a lot can happen to a people when they are dispersed and largely absent from their original homeland for two millennia.  One thing that happen was that the Jewish people, particularly those of us who lived in the Western world, went through cultural, linguistic and even racial changes.  We were also exposed to modern, Western ideas that had largely not yet made their way to the Middle East.  Hence, by the time we Jews began returning to the Land of Israel, we and our Arab cousins didn't recognize each other anymore.  The Arabs looked at us and saw just another wave of European colonizers, while we looked at them and saw a primitive people who had no grasp of modern civilization as it was understood in the eyes of Europeans.  So what should have been a joyful family reunion instead became the beginning of a long and bitter family feud - a feud that I hope will soon come to a peaceful end. 

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Building a True Peace Between Israel and its Arab Neighbours

In my last blog post, Iran Nuclear Deal is Bad, Bad, Bad!, I concluded that now is the time for Israel and the Arab world to bury the hatchet for the sake of collective security against an Islamic Republic of Iran that will surely emerge much stronger and much more dangerous after sanctions are lifted.  So how can the decades-old Israeli-Arab conflict be brought to an end?  Most people who have at least a general understanding of politics in the Middle East will probably say that the key to resolving the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbours lies in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  I do agree that without an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab states is unachievable, but I also believe that even if and when such an agreement is reached, there will still not be true peace between Jews and Arabs.  What do I mean by "true peace"?  I mean a peace in which Jews and Arabs respect not just their mutual borders, but also each other.

Right now only two Arab states, Egypt and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, have peace agreements with Israel and have since established diplomatic and economic relations.  But it is a cold peace at best.  The fact of the matter is that Israel is still viewed as the enemy by the general public in both Egypt and Jordan just as it is in the other Arab states that do not recognize Israel.  Ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may bring peace between the Israeli and Arab governments, but it won't immediately bring peace between the Jewish and Arab peoples.  For Jews and Arabs to be at peace with each other, both peoples will have to change how they see each other.

Promotion of Discriminatory and Racist Attitudes Must End

Unless you've been living under a rock, you probably know that Jews and Arabs in the Middle East don't view each other very fondly.  In the Arab world, for example, it is quite easy to get a hold of anti-Jewish writings, such as Hitler's Mein Kampf or the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  Holocaust denial in the Arab world is also rampant.  Television and newspapers in the Arab states are full of anti-Jewish stereotypes.  Worse still, it is not uncommon for Arab media outlets to promote and encourage the killing of Israelis and Jews in general.  The amount of Jew-hatred in the Arab world is actually ironic since very few Jews now live in the Arab states where there were once hundreds of thousands of them.  The reason for this?  Repeated campaigns in various Arab countries to murder Jews, expel them and seize their property.  Indeed, the Jewish exodus from the Arab states following the creation of the State of Israel is just as worthy of attention as the plight of Palestinian refugees, if not more so.  Unfortunately, the international community doesn't see it that way.

Anti-Arab racism certainly exists in Israel, but not to the extent that Jew-hatred exists in the Arab world.  Whereas those who advocate expelling Arabs from Israel or killing them just because they are Arabs are on the margins of Israeli society, those who advocate killing Jews and Israelis and wiping Israel off the map are considered mainstream in the Arab world.  Hence, although Israel does have to make more of an effort to root out racism amongst its people, the Arab states have a far greater task in erasing Jew-hatred from the minds of their citizens.  Until now, unfortunately, the governments in the Arab states have only been fueling Jew-hatred, and this has to end if Arabs are ever to view their Jewish cousins with respect.

Historical Narratives Must be Respected

Both the Jews and the Arabs have a different view of history in regards to the creation of Israel and the Israeli-Arab conflict.  For example, Jews view the creation of Israel as the fulfillment of the Zionist enterprise to restore Jewish independence for the first time in two thousand years.  The Arabs, in contrast, view the creation of the State of Israel as a tragedy, or Nakba, in which hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs were expelled from their homes and made into refugees.  The fact is that although ethnic cleansing was certainly not the agenda of the leaders of the new State of Israel, expulsions did take place, crimes were committed against the Palestinian Arab population and much of their property was seized.  It is also true that throughout Israeli history, different Israeli governments have sought to erase the country's Arab heritage through various means.  Many Palestinian villages were destroyed and replaced with Jewish communities.  More recently, some Israeli politicians have sought to prevent Palestinian Arab citizens in Israel from commemorating what they view as the Nakba. 

Meanwhile, the Arab world still refuses to recognize any modern Jewish connection to what they call Palestine.  Many Arabs, for instance, refuse to acknowledge that the holy Jewish temple that once housed the Ark of the Covenant once stood on the grounds where the Muslim Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosque are now.  And whereas Israel has accepted the principle of compensation for Palestinian refugees, I have yet to hear even one statement from a leader in the Arab world acknowledging the crimes committed against hundreds of thousands of Jews in Arab countries who were murdered, expelled and/or deprived of their property, let alone talk of compensation for these people.

For a true peace between Arabs and Jews to exist, both peoples must acknowledge the crimes that they have committed against each other.  In fact, if and when Israel does establish relations with the Arab states, both sides should look to set up a truth and reconciliation commission similar to that of post-Apartheid South Africa, so that witnesses can come and testify as to the crimes allegedly committed against them, and the alleged perpetrators can acknowledge their wrongdoings without fear of prosecution.  There must also be fair compensation and/or restitution not just for the Palestinian refugees, but also for the Jews who were expelled from Arab countries and deprived of their land and possessions.

Both Arabs and Jews must also stop trying to negate the heritage of one another in the Holy Land.  For the Arabs, this means recognizing that the Jewish people have the right to self-determination in their ancestral homeland and that the State of Israel is the embodiment of that right.  It also means acknowledging the historical legacy of Jews in the Arab states, including the future state of Palestine.  For Jews, it means making efforts to acknowledge the history of the Palestinian Arabs in parts of Israel where they are no longer present.  For example, it would be a good idea for Israel to create a memorial at the site where the village of Deir Yassin used to be in order to acknowledge the existence of the previous Palestinian Arab inhabitants and the massacre that occurred there at the hands of Zionist militia.

I believe that the Jewish and Arab peoples both have the right to their own perspectives on history, especially as it concerns the Israeli-Arab conflict.  So if, for example, the Arabs want to view the creation of the State of Israel as an event that brought misery to the Palestinian people, then they should be entitled to this opinion, just as much as Jews should be entitled to view Israel's creation as a positive event in their history.  The Arabs cannot and must not, however, use the way they see Israel's creation as pretext to delegitimize the existence of the state, for it is the embodiment of the Jewish people's inalienable right to self-determination.  They also cannot and must not deny historical fact, which includes but is not necessarily limited to denying the fact that the Holocaust did take place.  In the same respect, Jews cannot and must not deny that crimes were committed against the Palestinian Arabs during efforts to create and maintain the State of Israel.  The fact of the matter is that there can only be true peace between the children of Abraham once Jews and Arabs are prepared to respect and tolerate the way each of them perceives their history.

When True Peace Between Jew and Arab Comes, so will Collective Security

Creating an environment in which Jews and Arabs view each other with respect will allow Israel and the Arab states to form a strategic alliance against the terrorist menace that is the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Such an alliance is vital as Iran presents an existential threat to all the independent states of the Middle East region.  It is my hope that upon ending their conflict once and for all, Israel and its Arab neighbours, or at least those not under the proxy control of Iran, will unite to form this alliance - a military alliance similar to NATO.  One that obligates each of its members to defend one another from external threats, whether those threats come from Iran or anywhere else.  If the countries of the Middle East can put aside their differences and create this strategic military pact, it will be much harder for the Islamist regime in Iran to achieve the dominance of the region that it seeks.  If they fail to do so, however, the Iranians can start picking off each independent Middle Eastern state one by one, and before you know it, the flags of Iran's Islamo-fascist rulers will be flying over the capitals of Baghdad, Riyadh, Jerusalem and so forth.  So I sincerely hope that the leaders of the Middle East will choose to pursue unity over division.
          

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Iran Nuclear Deal is Bad, Bad, Bad!

So it turns out that U.S. President Barack Obama is the 21st century's Neville Chamberlain after all, just as I said he was.  He's going to go down in history as the man who opened Pandora's Box by signing an agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran that basically gives them a free pass to continue its efforts to dominate the entire Middle East.  This is an agreement that as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly said does not prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons, but rather paves the way for them to the bomb.  Actually, it does even worse than that.

I won't go into details about the agreement itself, but you can get a better idea of why it is an epic mistake by clicking here.  Now just to be fair, the agreement on Iran's nuclear program that was just signed in Vienna is not all Obama's doing.  He was joined by the leaders of five of the world's other most powerful countries, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.  They all must be patting themselves on the back right now, believing that they have brought "peace in our time."  Sorry, but all you appeasement-lovers brought upon the world is fear and terror.

Yes, it's true that Iran's big market will open up once sanctions are lifted so that folks around the world can start striking those billion dollar oil deals that they've been dreaming about since the talks with Iran started.  And what do you think the regime in Iran will use the billions more in revenue that it stands to gain once they are no longer curtailed by sanctions?  Will the ayatollahs use the extra money to benefit their people?  Nope.  They'll use it to buy more missiles for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip so that they can rain fire on millions of Israeli civilians.  They'll use it to strengthen their military back home to prepare for the day when they can conquer their neighbours; countries like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.  Heck, even with the sanctions still in force, they've managed to take control of much of Iraq (whatever parts are not controlled by the Islamic State and the Kurds) and most of Yemen.  Just think of what they'll be able to do once they don't have any economic sanctions stopping them.  Their latest deal with Russia to buy advanced anti-air missiles is just the beginning.  There will be more arms deals to come, I can assure you.  Unfortunately, none of these aforementioned arguments, whether they are put forth by me or even by a world leader as intelligent and experienced as Prime Minister Netanyahu, seem to matter to the leaders of the big powers, which is why they fell right into Iran's trap and signed off on the worst agreement since the one Chamberlain made with Hitler in 1938.

Believe it or not, however, there could be one good thing that comes out of this agreement, though it won't come from the agreement itself.  The Iran nuclear deal gives Israel and the Sunni Arab states a golden opportunity to make arrangements amongst themselves that will strengthen their collective security.  The reality is that Israel is not the only country in the Middle East that views this agreement with immense skepticism.  Most of the Sunni Arab states, especially those in the Persian Gulf region, like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates are extremely skeptical if not fearful of what the Iran nuclear agreement will mean for them.  And I believe that their fears are well-founded, because contrary to what many may assume, Israel isn't the only country that Iran's regime wants to wipe off the map.  Indeed, Iran's ayatollahs yearn for the destruction of all the Sunni regimes in the Middle East as much as they yearn for Israel's demise.  Hence, Israel and the Sunni Arab states have a common enemy in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and you know how the old saying goes: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

What needs to happen now is that Israel and the Sunni Arab states need to make peace with each other and do it as soon as possible.  I understand that this is easier said than done since the Israeli-Arab conflict has dragged on for almost seventy years.  But it can be done and it must be done, because Iran poses a bigger threat to both Israel and the Sunni Arab states than they pose to each other.    

Monday, 13 July 2015

Capitalism Needs a Makeover

For better or for worse, capitalism has allowed us to achieve the level of civilization that we find ourselves at today, because it has allowed us to use one of the most inherent elements of human nature - greed - in order to produce better products and better ways of doing things that ultimately benefit multitudes of people - and make someone very wealthy.  Try to ask yourself if many of the products and services that you use today would exist if not for capitalism.  For example, would many of us be carrying iPhones if the folks at Apple thought they couldn't make a fortune selling them all over the world?  How about the car you drive, the soda you drink, or the food that you eat?  The fact is that these things and many others would not exist if the people who invented them didn't think they could get rich off their creations.  Unfortunately, I can't really think of any example of someone creating something so innovative that it changed the world without first asking himself or herself, "What's in it for me?"  The truth is that capitalism and the greed upon which it is based is the key driver of civilization.  It is ironic then that what is driving our civilization is also destroying it.

Indeed, it is capitalism that is causing us to destroy our environment and fight wars over increasingly scarce resources.  So what do we do about it?  Do we ditch capitalism in favour of some other alternative?  Well, for those you who know your history, you'll know that we've tried to ditch capitalism before - and failed miserably.  In the last century, a large part of the world embraced the ideology of communism because they thought it was the path to a utopian society where everyone was equal and poverty didn't exist.  But of course, the communist experiment failed because the masses had no incentive to create or innovate when they knew that whatever they produced would ultimately become the property of the state.  After all, what's the point of creating something new or making something that already exists better when you know that the communist party bosses are going to reap all the benefits anyway?

Okay, so communism was a flop.  Any other bright ideas?  Maybe we don't need an alternative to capitalism.  Maybe we just need to make capitalism better.  But how do we do that?  Well, let's start by asking ourselves, what's wrong with capitalism today?  If I ask a bunch of people this question, I think I can predict what some of the answers will be.  Someone might say to me, for example, that it's unfair that such a tiny percentage of people control the vast majority of the wealth in any given economy.  Another person might mention the fact that there are a few tycoons out there zipping around the world in private jets while billions of people don't even have enough food to eat.  And perhaps someone else will tell me that it's wrong for big company bosses to be raking in millions or even billions while their rank-and-file employees struggle to get by on what passes for a minimum wage.  But of course, all of these people would be referring to the same problem, and if they wanted to, they could just tell me what the problem is in one word: inequality.

Yes, the fact of the matter is that although capitalism's rising tide may lift all boats, it doesn't lift many of them enough and it lifts a few of them so high that they ultimately drown the poor folks in the boats below them.  Now don't get me wrong.  I'm actually a very staunch capitalist.  I firmly believe that people who work harder or smarter should get more than those who don't work as hard or are not as smart in the way they work.  However, I do not believe in the kind of capitalism that creates a world in which people must choose between feeding the kids or paying the rent, or worse, a world where one's very survival is threatened by simply not having enough food to eat.

As I've already said, we do not need to find an alternative to capitalism.  We just need to make it better, just like any good capitalist who wants to get rich makes a product that already exists better.  The capitalism that I espouse is one in which people can still get rich, but not to the extent that they can accumulate so much wealth that they inhibit the ability of democratically-elected governments to ensure that people who are not rich can at least have enough food to eat, a safe home, a good education and all the rest of the social and economic rights that everyone is supposed to be entitled to.

There are already countries in the industrialized world that have made great strides towards the kind of capitalism that I'm talking about.  But it is not enough for just some countries to move towards a more humane, socially just capitalism, because their ability to maintain it will always be curtailed by having to compete with economies that do not strive for more equality.  So for example, as long as there are countries like China and India, where workers are not paid a living wage, it will be very difficult for workers in developed countries like the U.S. and Canada to acquire a living wage when the businesses that would have to pay that wage can just pick up and move to a country where workers aren't paid what they deserve.  Hence, for a more just capitalism to permanently take hold anywhere, it must take hold everywhere.    

    

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Is Jewishness Possible Without Judaism?

One thing I don't understand is why so many Jews think that in order to be Jewish, you have to be Jewish from a religious perspective.  Here in Canada, there are a lot of Jews, including many members of my family, who think it is necessary to at least be members of a synagogue.  I think the reason for this is that many Jews living in Canada or elsewhere in the Diaspora believe that if they don't join a synagogue and attend services at least on the so-called High Holidays, they'll forget they're Jewish.  Personally, I think this is silly.  Moreover, I believe that it is possible to be Jewish and have little or nothing to do with Judaism.  I understand that although the Jewish people and Judaism are heavily intertwined, they are not synonymous.

In fact, Jews from ancient times right up until today have remained Jews with precarious ties to Judaism, or none at all.  In ancient Israel, for example, it was not uncommon for Israelites to worship pagan gods in addition to the God of Israel.  One interesting tidbit from Biblical times is that King Solomon, one of the most significant figures in Jewish history, both from a political and religious perspective, was not as strict about intermarriage as many Jews are today, which is why he had no problem marrying the daughter of an Egyptian pharaoh, even though the Egyptians at that time worshiped pagan gods.  Fast forward to the 19th century CE and you'll find one Jew who wanted nothing to do with Judaism or any religion for that matter: Karl Marx, the founding father of communism.  And he would not be the first Jewish person to swear off his religion while remaining aware of their Jewish identity.  Indeed, Jews have historically been very well-represented in communist movements, from the days of Karl Marx to the days of Leon Trotsky.   

I would also contend that Israel exists today because someone, namely Theodor Herzl, believed that the Jews were a people, not simply a religious denomination.  Had Herzl interpreted Jewishness as being something solely attached to Jewish religiosity, he probably would not have founded the nationalist movement that we call Zionism, and we wouldn't have a State of Israel today.  I also think that if Herzl could see the State of Israel today, he would be quite upset at the kind of power and influence that the narrow-minded religious establishment has therein.  After all, he wanted Jews to have a country that kept its rabbis in their synagogues just as much as he wanted one that kept its army in their barracks.  I believe, therefore, that if he were alive in Israel today, he would probably be one of those Israeli citizens who, like me, would like to see the Chief Rabbinate and other state-religious institutions abolished so that Israelis could do things like take a bus on Shabbat and marry whomever they please regardless of their national or religious identity.

Now I hope that while you're reading this, you don't think that I hate people who consider themselves to be observant or religious Jews.  On the contrary, I respect the right of all Jews to live as they please, regardless of how they choose to observe Judaism, or not observe it.  In fact, I especially admire the people that call themselves religious Zionists because even though they are strongly committed to their Judaism, they are just as strongly committed to the State of Israel, and they contribute significantly to the state's defense and prosperity.  What I resent is the fact that some Jews try to impose their version of Judaism onto me and anyone else who would prefer to maintain a Jewish identity that is more cultural than religious.

Why does being Jewish always have to do with synagogue and prayer?  It doesn't.  It is just as possible to be culturally Jewish as it is to be religiously Jewish.  Take our holidays, for example.  Many of them have just as many historical and cultural roots as they do religious roots.  Passover, for instance, is as much about celebrating our ancestors' freedom from bondage and freedom in general as it is about God's covenant with Moses and the divine events that led to the liberation of the Israelites.  Shavuoth, which falls not too long after Passover, actually has its roots in a harvest festival, hence its significance is not solely related to when God gave the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel.  How about Rosh Hashana?  Although it is considered one of the so-called High Holidays, there's no reason it can't be celebrated as a secular holiday, the same way as New Year's Day is celebrated in much of the rest of the world.  My point is that Jews can choose how they celebrate their Jewish heritage.  They can choose to celebrate it culturally, religiously or both.  Why should Jewishness only be measured by one's commitment to Judaism?  My answer is that it shouldn't and that we as Jews ought to broaden our perspective on what being Jewish means.

      

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Fat and Proud!

I'm being honest when I tell you that I don't live a very healthy lifestyle.  I'm overweight, I exercise very little and I don't eat very healthy.  But you know what?  I don't give a damn!  You know why?  Because it's my life and my choice.  And quite frankly, I'm sick and tired of people telling me how to live and trying to impose a certain lifestyle on me.

I have my reasons, of course, for why I choose to be fat.  First of all, I like to eat and I like to eat things that taste good, which means plenty of fatty foods and plenty of calories.  Why don't I eat more healthy stuff, like fruits and vegetables?  Because healthy food tastes like crap!  Experts are always debating why people don't eat healthier.  They usually point to things like not being taught to make healthy choices when we're young.  Did it ever occur to these "experts" that people, especially children, don't eat healthy because healthy food doesn't taste as good as unhealthy food?  Seriously.  When you give a 10 year old a choice between some salad and a nice, juicy cheeseburger, what do you think he or she is going to choose?  The fact of the matter is that we grow up learning to eat unhealthy, not because our parents didn't teach us any better, but because our taste buds tell us that the unhealthier food just tastes better.

Now some people will tell me that if I don't want to eat healthy, I should at least exercise.  But of course, I have my reasons for not doing that, too.  My biggest reason?  Exercise is just plain boring and tedious.  A lot of people like to brag about how often they go to the gym.  Personally, I won't set foot in a gym.  I honestly don't even know how other people can stand it.  If I want to be in a place where a bunch of people are sweating and stinking all over the place, I'll just take the subway during rush hour.  At least on the subway I usually don't have to listen to the crappy music that they often pump into the gyms these days.  I do know that you don't have to necessarily go to a gym to exercise, but I've never been too into sports or any other outdoor activities, and I'm not going to apologize for that.  I've gone through stints in the past where I exercised and even went to the gym, but I never felt good about it, so I didn't continue.  By the way, for those of you who think you feel good after a workout, you're deluding yourself.  You're just making yourself think you feel good after exercising, because that's what the hacks in the health and fitness industry want you to think.  And they're raking in tons of money making you think that way. 

I'm not against exercise itself.  It's just that there are other things I would rather be doing with my time.  And clearly, there are a lot of people who feel the same way, otherwise we wouldn't be bombarded with one study after another saying that we're too fat and don't exercise enough.  The truth is that many of us would rather play Call of Duty, surf the web, or chat with our Facebook friends simply because we find doing these things a lot more fun than exercising.  Plus, aren't our lives stressful enough that we have to add the sweat and pain of exercise to them?  Believe me, many people who've just come home after a long day at the office just want to sit on the couch and relax.  And I don't blame them one bit.

Now I hear a lot of folks, including the people who criticize my lifestyle on a regular basis, saying that I'm on the fast-track to an early death.  Yes, one would think that the people who live a healthier lifestyle will outlive the ones who don't, but this isn't necessarily the case.  It is true that a healthy diet and lots of exercise might help, and even I have my limits as to how unhealthy I'm prepared to be.  For instance, I'm not about to eat one of those donut burgers that they sell at the Exhibition.  But personally, I think that our fates are ultimately decided by our genes, which means that if your DNA is a recipe for dying young, then there may be very little you can do about it other than try your best to live life to its fullest.  I've heard of plenty of cases where people who were living a lot healthier than I do now suddenly pass away because they just drew a bad hand when it came to their genetics.  I've also heard of and even witnessed cases of people who didn't live very healthy lifestyles, yet they lived well into their 80s. 

I understand that nowadays it's very trendy to live a healthy lifestyle, which is why I see a lot of people who do so bragging about it.  Let them brag.  If they want to be fit and proud, that's fine, because I'm fat and proud!

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Israel Must Abolish Its State Religious Institutions

The Israeli government has just struck down reforms put in place by the previous government that were supposed to make conversion to Judaism easier.  This isn't a surprise since cancelling the reforms was part of the coalition agreement that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made with the two Haredi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism (see: Government strikes down conversions reform).  What I want to know is, why should the state be involved in regulating conversions in the first place?      

The State of Israel is the embodiment of the Zionist ideal that the Jews are a people rather than simply a religious group.  Yet Israel's government seems to be more preoccupied with safeguarding Jewish religiosity, or at least a certain narrow-minded view of it, rather than Jewish nationhood.  Yes, I understand that Jews and Judaism are significantly intertwined, but they are not synonymous.  The role of the state in Israel should be to protect the Jews as a people, not a religious denomination.  The state should only intervene in Jewish religious affairs in order to ensure that adherents of Judaism continue to have access to their holy sites and can practice their Judaism in any way they please.  Therefore, I would argue for the immediate abolition of the Chief Rabbinate, the rabbinical courts and all other religious institutions or regulatory bodies controlled by the state.  The Jewish community in Israel should be able to conduct its religious affairs privately, without state interference or sponsorship, just as Jewish communities do in other democratic countries.  I would also advocate dismantling the state-sanctioned institutions of Israel's other religious groups.

Abolishing Israel's state religious institutions and regulatory bodies would of course open the door to what many non-religious Israelis have wanted for decades: freedom from religious coercion, especially in regards to matters of personal status, such as marriage and divorce, which are now the exclusive domain of state-backed religious authorities, such as the Chief Rabbinate.  I don't know about you, but I don't want some rabbi dictating to me how to be Jewish or telling me who I can and cannot marry, and I'm betting that many Israelis feel the same way.               

Friday, 3 July 2015

Want Better Transit? You'll Have to Pay for It

The people of metropolitan Vancouver have voted in a referendum on a proposal to add an extra half a percent to the provincial sales tax in order to fund transit upgrades throughout the Vancouver region.  The results are now in.  The proposal was rejected by approximately 62% of voters, so now the region's local politicians along with their provincial counterparts will have to find another way to fund mass public transit - a service that everyone wants to see improve, but not willing to pay more for.  Here's the grim reality: If people living in big cities like Vancouver or Toronto want more and better transit, they're going to have to pay for it.  How they pay for it, whether it's an increase in sales taxes, a hike in property taxes, or that two-word phrase that no one who drives a car in a big city wants to hear - road tolls - is subject to debate, but make no mistake.  If you live in a vast metropolis and you want public transit that will move you from point A to point B faster and more conveniently, you're going to have to pay up.

Now I understand that no one wants to pay more taxes, especially when they think their tax dollars won't be spent wisely.  Indeed, according to the article that appeared on the front page of The Globe and Mail today (see: Voters reject sales-tax hike to fund transit), voters in the Vancouver region may have been influenced by the bad publicity that the regional transit authority, TransLink, has received in recent years for its alleged mismanagement of taxpayers' funds.  The criticism that TransLink has faced is not too dissimilar from that faced by Metrolinx, the regional transit authority created by the Province of Ontario to plan and oversee public transit in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.  It's just an unfortunate fact that we don't have very much trust in our elected politicians and the bureaucrats they appoint to manage our mass transit systems the way they should be.  But of course, this is ultimately our fault because we're the ones who put the bums in office in the first place.  We're just going to have to get better at electing the right people and hope that better would-be leaders step up to help us do that.

There is always the alternative of allowing private interests build and operate mass transit systems in our big cities, which I mentioned in a past blog on transit in Toronto (see: Abolish the TTC Monopoly on Public Mass Transit in Toronto, Because Competition is "The Better Way").  But even if Canada's large cities did choose the path of competition, there would still be the need for more public funding, meaning funding from taxpayers like you and I.  After all, when have you ever heard of big private companies participating in massive public works projects without government funding?  I haven't.

So if you're tired of overcrowded buses, subways and streetcars, and you want less cars on the road so that traffic can move more smoothly, don't expect not to pay.  In fact, even if you're not tired of inefficient public transit and increasing gridlock, you and every other taxpayer are going to pay anyway, since traffic delays cost the economy billions of dollars every year, not to mention the pollution that we're all breathing in from all those cars that are on the roads because transit just doesn't work the way it should.  Gas mask, anyone?   

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

What Makes Canada Great?

Usually I use this blog to complain about something.  I don't call my blog a rant for nothing after all.  And oftentimes I complain about things that I think need to change in Canada.  But since today is Canada Day, I thought I would take the opportunity to talk about what makes Canada great.  So what is it about this country that makes people so proud and grateful to be Canadian?  Perhaps I should begin with the country itself.  Canada is the second biggest country in the world, and within this vast landmass that Canadians call home are many varied and majestic landscapes.  In fact, as I write this, I'm sitting right in front of one of Canada's many lakes in Ontario's cottage country.  And believe me, sometimes looking at the lake and surrounding landscape while listening to the sounds of wild animals makes me want to sing O Canada.  But of course, the land that we call Canada is more than just something to look at.  It's also teeming with natural resources.  Many if not most countries in the world would give almost anything to have the natural resources that Canada does.  This country has everything including oil, lumber, precious metals, fish and game, and lots of fresh water.  But of all the resources that Canada has, I think the most important resource is its people.

Canada has around 35 million people living within its borders; people of every race, culture and creed.  Indeed, Canada has always been a place of many cultures, even before the first Europeans set foot on this land.  As we all should know, the people we call Native Canadians or Aboriginals were the first human beings to settle in this land.  Their various cultures and civilizations have had an everlasting imprint on this country.  Even the name Canada, which literally means, "village", is derived from one of this country's many Aboriginal languages.

Today's Canada is a nation of immigrants that have come from every corner of the world.  One just has to walk a few blocks in the streets of downtown Toronto to hear countless languages and see restaurants offering a multitude of international cuisines.  In fact, I would say that one of the greatest things about this country is that anybody can become a Canadian regardless of where they come from, so long as they respect and uphold Canada's values.  But what are Canada's values?

When I think of the values that make us Canadian, I usually think of the ideals that are consistent with all mature democracies.  Things like freedom of expression, freedom of religion, the right to vote and equality before the law.  These are the kinds of ideals that drive many people to immigrate to this country.  I would also say, however, that Canada attracts newcomers because of its economic prosperity.  After all, it's not just the United States that has spawned rags to riches stories.  Many immigrants to Canada, including members of my own family, came to this country with almost nothing, yet they were able to prosper and become upstanding members of Canadian society.

We should also remember that many people have chosen to make Canada home in order to escape the troubles in their countries of origin.  Members of my family, for example, came here to get away from the war and persecution that they endured in Europe.  After all, Canada is a peaceful society and has been for quite a long time.  We've had our wars, of course, but since Confederation in 1867, the vast majority of our armed struggles have not been on Canadian soil.  Instead, Canada has been a significant contributor to the fight for freedom in the world, from the First World War up until today.  For although Canada is a peace-loving country, Canadians have always been willing to join in the fight for freedom against aggression and oppression wherever it may be taking place.

Canada does of course have problems, just like any other country; problems like crime, poverty, inequality and racism.  We are by no means a utopian society.  But I think it's fair to say that compared to many other nation-states around the world, Canada is a pretty good place to live, so despite its shortcomings, I am very grateful to call this country home.