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Not another Israeli election!

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Israel

English-Jewish actor/comedian Sacha Baron Cohen was asked by an Israeli television outlet if he knew Israel was headed for another election. His reply summed up the feeling of more than 60% of Israelis who are eligible to vote.

“You’re voting again?! Enough already!” Baron Cohen exclaimed. “It’s like Passover: why is this election different to all others?”

And that’s just the point – it isn’t.

Last December, when the previous Israeli government collapsed, the reality of a fourth election in just two years became uncannily inevitable. But nothing’s changed. Whereas the previous three elections revolved largely around the question of whether or not voters wanted Benjamin Netanyahu as their prime minister, that question, this time around, is even more pressing.

In the previous elections there might have been some mention, albeit on the periphery, of issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the settlements, and military service for ultra-Orthodox men. But during this election campaign, those issues aren’t even being brought up. It’s a contest between “Only Bibi [Netanyahu]” and “anyone but Bibi”.

And it has divided the country. For months now, protestors have been gathering outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem and at intersections throughout the country, waving flags and banners, and demanding that he step down. Their hatred of Netanyahu seems to sometimes border on obsession. Protestors complain about his stinginess and sponging off wealthy acquaintances and the state, his troubled relations with employees, and his inclination to manipulate facts well before the term “fake news” was popularised by former American President Donald Trump.

But that isn’t the only parallel that can be drawn between the two leaders. Political advisors working during last November’s American presidential election for then Democratic contender Joe Biden, focused on Trump the personality and stayed away from issues.

They were successful. According to a Pew poll, 56% of Biden’s voters said that the main reason they voted for him was because he was not President Trump. Only 9% said their vote had to do with Biden’s positions.

Some of those same advisors have been working in Israel, trying to steer voters away from issues and reinforcing the “anybody but Bibi” camp that has been steadily gaining momentum over recent years.

But like Trump, Netanyahu has his stalwarts who consistently blame the media, judiciary, and “left-wingers” for telling lies and conspiring towards his downfall.

It’s not as though there are no issues in Israel to discuss ahead of these elections. But they are all overshadowed by personalities. For example, Israel has administered more than 7.6 million COVID-19 vaccination doses, making its rollout the fastest in the world. This is something that Netanyahu takes personal credit for.

As he does the fact that – with the help of the Trump administration – he delivered deals to establish diplomatic relations with four formerly hostile Arab countries over the past four months. He also boasts that his administrations have led the country through years of relative security and stability.

Still, it doesn’t change the numbers in his support base. Netanyahu’s advocates merely argue that these things prove he is the best leader for Israel, while his detractors maintain that he has politicised the coronavirus rollout, the economy has shrunk, and the airport is closed.

There is no real reason to think, nor are the polls indicating that Israelis are going to change their voting patterns dramatically come 23 March. A Netanyahu critic isn’t all of a sudden going to cast a ballot for him; and a left-wing voter won’t suddenly support a right-wing party. By and large, the candidates are the same as the last election, which suggests the result will also be.

There’s no guarantee that a fifth election isn’t around the corner. In fact, the feeling in Israel is that it’s all but inevitable.

The public is exhausted by this seemingly endless cycle of ballots. Voters are feeling increasingly apathetic, and many are wondering if this isn’t a case of too much democracy.

Already two years ago, Israelis were complaining of election fatigue; now add people’s weariness with coronavirus and constant lockdowns to the mood, and it’s no surprise that a recent Tel Aviv University study warned of a growing mental-health problem in the country. It found that Israelis are sleeping more, performing less exercise, and are more unhappy.

Still, it’s worth pointing out that in spite of predictions of low turnout because of voter fatigue and concerns about coronavirus, the last elections held exactly a year ago attracted the highest number of voters – 71% – in five years. It goes to show that only fools predict Israeli elections; nobody can know at this stage how the next one will end up.

But if there’s one reason why this month’s election will be different from previous ones, it’s because it will be fought overwhelmingly on the right wing of the Israeli political spectrum. Most of the centre-left and centre parties are expected to decline in support or vanish.

It has spurred some right-wing politicians – Netanyahu among them – to start courting Arab voters, particularly those who have been left jobless and desperate by the pandemic. Netanyahu claims he will win two to three seats from the Arab public, especially after the Joint List, a mainly Arab grouping that secured the biggest-ever vote share in last year’s election, broke up last month.

So maybe it will be Bibi. Or maybe it won’t. Maybe there’ll be a fifth election. Maybe there won’t. It is said that the only predictable thing in the Middle East is that the region is ridiculously unpredictable. Israel is no exception. A joke circulating at the moment: no matter the results, all Israelis will get what they want. No more annoying, nonstop SMS messages.

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Israel

Commonwealth Jewish Council calls for release of ‘Nigeria three’

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All Rudy Rochman wanted to do was to shine a light on unknown, disconnected, and re-emerging Jewish communities around the world, but something went horribly wrong.

The charismatic 27-year-old Israeli activist, who has more than 97 000 followers on Instagram, was working on a new documentary series titled, We Were Never Lost, which focused on these “lost tribes”. At the beginning of July, he and his team travelled to Nigeria to film their first episode.

However, Rochman, filmmaker Andrew Noam Leibman, and French-Israeli journalist Edouard David Benaym were arrested by Nigerian security services when the three presented a Torah scroll to a local community. They remain in custody, haven’t been charged, and haven’t been given legal representation. Organisations and individuals around the world are working desperately to get them released.

“Our first season is set in Africa, and we are filming our first episode on the Jews of Nigeria,” Rochman’s team wrote on Facebook on 8 July. “There are many Jews in Nigeria, Igbos included, and we are here only to help local practising and observing Jewish communities, to provide them with resources, and to document their lives, experiences, and aspirations. We don’t take any position on political movements as we aren’t here as politicians nor as a part of any government delegation.”

But the next day, they were arrested, supposedly for supporting “separatist activists”. Commonwealth Jewish Council (CJC) Chief Executive Clive Lawton is one of the many people working behind the scenes. Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from his home in the United Kingdom, he says he is alarmed that the men have been held in detention for more than a week without being charged. “That would indicate it’s only an investigation, but they still have no legal representation, and how can such an investigation take more than a week?”

He says the CJC has written to the Nigerian high commissioner to the Commonwealth, His Excellency Sarafa Tunji Isola, urging him to pressure his government to release them soon. “They are being detained on the flimsiest of pretexts. I’m sure the Nigerian government wouldn’t want to cultivate an image that foreign visitors can be snatched up on spurious accusations,” says Lawton.

He has also written to the secretary general of the Commonwealth of Nations, Baroness Patricia Scotland. “In this family of nations, the quality of relationships and expectations of decency carry a lot of weight. It’s shocking that Nigeria might continue to hobnob with other heads of governments while treating foreigners like this. It should be seen as shameful. Yes, they might need to investigate something, but that doesn’t take 10 days. This isn’t just an investigation. It’s intimidation. Acting without due process is against Commonwealth principles,” he says.

He hopes that the less formal relationships between Commonwealth countries will make an impact. “At the very least, they should be released to go home. But more desirable would be that they be allowed to return to their cultural activity of making a documentary.”

Lawton says his organisation seeks to build relationships between Jews from around the world. More than 40 countries, including South Africa, are members.

Although the media reported that “three Israelis” were arrested, it’s unclear if all three have Israeli citizenship.

Lawton says Rochman and Leibman entered Nigeria on their American passports, and Benaym on his French passport. “We knew that they planned to make this documentary and were in the first stages of filming. They went to south-east Nigeria to visit a community. Like anyone making such a visit, they wanted to bring artefacts or objects to present to them. In this instance, they very generously brought a Sefer Torah.”

Two weeks ago, Rochman wrote on Instagram about how his team had “just acquired a beautiful Torah that survived the Holocaust and is believed to have come from an old community in Ukraine about 200 years ago”.

“The scribal experts our team spoke to stated that the ktav [writing] had since gone extinct, and they couldn’t believe their eyes when we sent them pictures of the scroll.

“We will be bringing the Torah and gifting it to the youth movement of Igbo Jewish communities of Nigeria for them to have access to our nation’s holy text.”

“It would seem that some separatist activists wrote Facebook messages along the lines of ‘welcoming this act of solidarity’”, Lawton says. “But in fact the filmmakers categorically stated that they had no interest in political issues and were there for a cultural reason – to make a film.

“They arrived on a Thursday, and visited a synagogue,” he says. “That was when Nigerian security services entered the synagogue and arrested them, taking them to the capital, Abuja. On the Friday, the men’s embassies were alerted, and sought to get involved. Chabad in Abuja has managed to organise provision of kosher food for them, which the security services agreed to allow. They also agreed for Benaym to be transported to the French embassy for medical attention, as long as he was returned to detention, and that is what was done. Israel has no ‘formal locus’ to help as they didn’t enter on Israeli passports, but it has sought to engage government and services.”

He believes that they are being held in some kind of “detention circumstances”, but cannot say what these conditions are like, if they are separated, or if they are being held with others. But he says that the fact that the French embassy was willing to return Benaym suggests it was “probably not extreme”.

A member of the Igbo community, speaking to the SA Jewish Report on condition of anonymity, says, “Our information is that Rudy and co. came here to do a documentary on the connection of the Igbo people to Biblical Israelites. Many Igbos are reviving the practices of their ancestors and returning to Judaism. This is what Rudy and his team wanted to do – to hear our story as told by our people. But sadly, some local people hijacked the original intention of Rudy and began to make political capital out of it. The team was bringing a Sefer Torah to be donated to our community. We were very happy that many Israelis would get to know about our Israelite heritage and know that we are brethren.

“Our people are very saddened by the arrest, but we don’t want to heighten tension by making utterances as the matter is being handled. We keep praying for their safety. We believe they will be released because their visit was for religious reasons. We don’t believe they came here to undermine the security of Nigeria. In our synagogues, we don’t entertain separatist activities. We are very sad about their plight. We see it as someone getting into unforeseen trouble while in search of a long lost brother.”

The most recent update on the We Were Never Lost Instagram page is that, “Rudy, Noam, and David are still in custody, but are ok. Their spirits remain high. Three embassies are working diligently towards a resolution. No other action is necessary from the community at this stage, but thank you all for the care and support.”

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Israel

Diaspora minister expresses concern and support after riots

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The newly elected Israeli minister of diaspora affairs this week sent a heartfelt message of support to the South African Jewish community following last week’s devastating protests and riots.

Dr Nachman Shai this week expressed his “warmest regards and personal blessing” in a letter to the community.

“All of us in Israel have watched the recent events in the KwaZulu-Natal region and around South Africa with deep concern. We stand with you in solidarity, and are particularly thinking about the Durban and Johannesburg Jewish communities during this challenging time.”

He said it was also a difficult moment for Jewish communities around the world. “In South Africa, we witnessed the rise of antisemitism following Operation Guardian of the Walls, which challenged your safety and sense of security.”

His ministry is a partner in ensuring the resilience of the community, and engaging actors within Israel to understand how its military actions had a direct impact on the Jewish world, Shai said.

“Our ability as a Jewish people to take on our shared challenges depends on our ability to engage effectively with one another.”

Shai said he was sure that his upcoming meeting with the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) and leadership would be the first of many “as we develop an ongoing conversation between us”.

“The secret of Jewish resilience rests in our sense of shared responsibility towards each other. With this frame, I look forward to working hand in hand with all of you to live up to our potential as both a diverse and unified Jewish people.”

He said the South African Jewish community had long been “a thriving epicentre of Jewish life and a true friend of Israel”, and as Israel’s new diaspora affairs minister, he looked forward to finding opportunities to further strengthen the relationship between South African Jewry and the state and people of Israel in the coming months.

Rowan Polovin, the national chairperson of the SAZF, said he appreciated Shai’s heartfelt message.

“The past few months have been an extremely challenging and difficult time for South African Jewry. Our connection as Jews living in the diaspora remains vitally important as a continued source of comfort and strength at all times, but particularly in times of hardship.”

He said the SAZF looked forward to further engagement with the minister on “developing and building upon the crucial relationship and bond between the state of Israel and the South African Jewish community”.

Shai was in South Africa in August 2017, when he led a delegation of five members of the Israeli Knesset to “promote dialogue, understanding, and co-operation”.

The delegation met leaders across the South African political spectrum, including Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, former President Kgalema Motlanthe, former Johannesburg Executive Mayor Herman Mashaba, and former Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Mmusi Maimane. It held meetings in parliament, and met members of the DA, Congress of the People, African Christian Democratic Party, Inkatha Freedom Party, and Freedom Front Plus. The delegation, a product of co-operation between the Israeli Knesset, the Israeli foreign affairs ministry, and the Jewish Agency, also met leaders of the Jewish community and engaged with the key figures in the Christian and business communities, where it reiterated Israel’s commitment to sharing expertise and experience in agriculture, water, and hi-tech.

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Israel

Transforming a rubbish dump into an oasis

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After greening the desert with fruit and vegetables, Israelis looked elsewhere to make improvements. The country’s latest environmental achievement is to turn the Hiriya rubbish dump between Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion Airport into a park.

This former dump has been transformed into the largest green area in the Middle East, with more than 8 000 dunams (8km2) of parkland.

The Hiriya dump (Hiriya in Arabic means good in the sense of goodness and blessing in the past) was an eyesore and a rather smelly one at that, accumulating the majority of garbage from the greater Tel Aviv area.

The vision to convert this dumping ground into a green space came from the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He was also the general who, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, led his soldiers and tanks behind the Egyptian Third Army and surrounded them, cutting them off from mainland Egypt in the heat of the Sinai.

Today, the luscious green park has little lakes, dams, and revitalised rivers, with a huge variety of plants, bushes, and trees. Aptly, it has been named the Ariel Sharon Park. Venture to the edge of it, and you see a spectacular view of Tel Aviv.

The gas released by the landfill is being collected and rerouted underground, past the Shapirim Stream and Route #1 (the main Tel Aviv – Jerusalem highway) to a textile plant in Azur, where the gas is converted into green energy.

According to Shlomit Doten Gissin from the department of environment and sustainability at the park, the number of bird species has risen from only 80 to more than 200 species, with bird hides everywhere for visitors to watch birds in silence.

Gissin says the vegetation in the park was specifically planted to encourage low-flying birds so as not to interfere with the flight path to Ben Gurion Airport. Hundreds of indigenous plants, trees, and shrubs have been planted among fresh water ponds.

Some plants have been planted diagonally on the slopes to allow easy movements of butterflies so they don’t hit a “wall” of plants. There are also tiny animals to be found, even jackals and smaller cats.

This park is one of the wonders of unusable space being converted into flourishing public spaces in Israel. Completion should take about another year, but it’s already being enjoyed by many.

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