Canada, Israel, Politics

A valuable and desirable passport

In the winter of 2004 while travelling in Israel, I was robbed in a taxi in Jerusalem. I tell people that it happened at gunpoint, though I can’t be certain because I never got a good look at what the driver was pulling out of the glove compartment before I bailed on the car. But I tell people this because it makes for a more dramatic story. It also has the added effect of making me appear bad-ass, a character trait that I assume isn’t normally assigned to me.

In any event, as I explained in broken Hebrew to the police that night, then again to the Canadian Embassy in Tel Aviv, and repeatedly to friends and family in the days following, I wasn’t entirely sure why I was robbed. I looked like a worn out traveler at the time, certainly with nothing of great monetary value on me.

Except my passport.

If it was clear to the driver that I wasn’t from Israel – and the fact that I asked him to take me to the airport may have had something to do with it – then he likely assumed that I had a foreign passport on me. And that is desirable and valuable.

I share this story now not because I particularly enjoy reminiscing about how I spent four days at the mercy of the Canadian Embassy in Tel Aviv. I don’t. And while we’re at it, the word “Embassy” is a stretch to begin with, since Canada’s pied-a-terre in the Holy Land consists of a few floors of fluorescent-lit office space in a Tel Aviv high-rise.

I share this story as a reminder of the value of a passport – a document with great literal and figurative power and privilege contained in its pages.

So it was with great delight when I read today of the Liberal Party’s proposed higher education initiative, dubbed the “Learning Passport.” In short, the proposed program would automatically give every Canadian high school graduate $1,000 per year to use towards their university or college education. And it would give $1,500 per year to students from low-income families.

That this is the first policy set forth from the new Liberal platform is impressive. That it’s not a partisan vote-buying gimmick is more-so. That in setting it forth, the Liberals have also budgeted the funds for the program is most impressive.

Where would the money come from to fund the Learning Passport? It would be fully funded by rolling back corporate tax cuts that were extended by the Conservatives. Say what you will about fiscal responsibility, but even Harper admits out of one side of his mouth that we’re weathering the global economic crisis well. As the Globe and Mail notes in their editorial:

“Higher education is the single best guarantee of higher earnings and future success; now is a good time, as other countries struggle with crippling debt loads, to make further investments in people…”

What continues to strike me most – beyond the honourable subastance of the program – is the title the Liberals gave the program. It drives strong and meaningful points home: higher education gets you somewhere. Like a passport, it lets you cross otherwise impenetrable barriers. And like carrying the woven bilingual pages in your pocket, a uniquely Canadian pride and privilege comes with attending a Canadian university or college.

For those keeping track, this already addresses one of the items on my personal party platform. So, well done, Grits!

Canada, Judaism - General, Judaism - Pluralism, Politics

Steven Harper could learn a lot at Yeshiva

To those who, in the upcoming election, might be compelled to base their vote on their religious affiliation:  If you are intent again to use a theo-political issue to trump your vote. (certainly, the Tories have done and are doing everything they can to convince you that this is a good idea), perhaps, first study some Midrash:

“Moses said: ‘I know that the Israelites are malcontents. Therefore, I will audit the entire construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle)’. He began making an accounting: ‘These are the records of the Mishkan’ and he began reporting everything, the gold, silver and bronze, and the silver of the public census… He continued reckoning each item in the Mishkan in order, but forgot 1575 shekels from which the hooks on the pillars were fashioned, but which were not generally visible. He stood bewildered and said: ‘Now they will lay their hands on me, saying that I took it’, and he went back to recalculate. Immediately, God opened Moses’ eyes and showed him that the silver was used in the hooks on the pillars. He began to reply to them, saying: ‘and 1575 were fashioned into pillar hooks’ and the Israelites were immediately appeased. What enabled this? The fact that he sat and made an accounting…

…But why did he make an accounting?… It is only because he heard the cynics talking behind his back, as it says ‘And when Moshe left…they looked back at Moshe’. What did they say? R. Yitzhak said that people spoke positively. Then others would chime in: ‘Imbecile! He’s the one who controlled the entire enterprise of the Mishkan… gold and silver that were not counted, weighed, or numbered! Wouldn’t you expect that he be rich?’ When Moshe heard this, he said: ‘My word! When the Mishkan is completed, I will make an accounting’, as it says ‘These are the records of the Mishkan.’”

-Midrash Tanchuma, Pekudei 7

What’s going on here?

In short, the Midrash is teaching us that the fiscal cost of the Tabernacle – as a public project funded by the taxes of the Israelites – must be entirely accounted for in an open, transparent, and accessible way.

It’s also teaching us that Moses – as leader of the people – is answerable to the people. Even Moses, who speaks to God face-to-face in a way that no others do, must still face the people.

In a broader sense, it speaks about the virtue of transparency among leaders and the need to be open and answerable to the public.

Stephen Harper could learn a lot from Moses.

An egregious lack of transparency and accountability related to the purchase of military aircraft is exactly what led the Conservatives to be censured for Contempt of Parliament this past week. Of course, anyone with their finger on the pulse of Canadian politics knows that this specific issue is part and parcel of a greater patten of behaviour on part of the Tories; one that paved the way to the landmark ruling by (famed non-partisan) Speaker of the House Peter Milliken.

Certainly if we Jews acknowledge that Moses was expected to be held accountable to the people and to act transparently, we should bestow the same criteria upon Mr. Harper. Certainly if our Midrash teaches us the virtues of un-opaque leadership, we should value that in our national leader as well.

It is challenging for me to view how Harper and the Conservatives can be painted as an honest, transparent, accountable, and open government. Sure, there have been individual instances when they acted reasonable on these grounds. But the story of the Tories – as any learned political observer will tell you – is one of secrecy, opacity, avoidance of responsibility, centralized power, and tight-lipped relations with the Canadian people.

So to the Jews who will likely vote for the Conservatives on the grounds of their supposed dominance of the “support for Israel” (whatever that means) issue: if you value our rabbinic instructions as much as you value the Conservative’s platform (which, remember, didn’t exist when you voted last time…), perhaps you should reconsider the value of your vote.

P.S.: Not convinced that the Tories have a national Jewish-vote buying strategy in place? It isn’t just happening in Thornhill, it’s also taking place down the 401 in Montreal’s Mount-Royal riding.

Canada, Politics

You’re invited to join the Jesse Party

While I’m a paying member of a certain Canadian political party, and while my personal political ideology is firmly grounded, I think it’s appropriate and responsible to not just blindly vote from the gut. As the election starts, I’m going to lay out the issues upon which I will evaluate the candidates and parties to decide my vote. Call it the political platform of the Jesse Party. I’m also including detrimental political tactics that I don’t want the parties to engage in. As election day approaches, I’ll do some sort of formal evaluation here, which will help determine which party I’m going to vote for.

And here we go:

1. Integrity and Ethics
Transparency. Respect for the institution of Parliament. Aversion to proroguing. Strong leadership skills among MPs. Respect for truth and justice.

2. Environmental & Energy Policy
Formulating a strong and reasonable policy on reducing carbon emissions. Instituting a carbon tax. Transitioning to renewable and low emission energy sources.

3. Health Care
Investing in new medical facilities, attracting doctors and health professionals to Canada, reducing wait times. Not privatizing the system.

4. Domestic Economic Policy
Combating poverty. Tax-cuts for the lowest income earners. Reasonably and proportionally increasing taxes for the wealthiest earners and businesses.

5. Investment in Education
Funding universities and colleges. Reducing tuition fees. Investing in curricular materials in public schools. Creating a National Day Care program.

6. Investment in Arts & Culture
See here, here, and here.

7. Foreign Policy
A mediated and strategic end to combat duty in Afghanistan. Fostering bipartisan peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, including encouraging an end to settlement building by Israel and a strong dismantling of terrorist infrastructure and enforcement of civil law by the Palestinians. Strict standards as to who we ally ourself with and when we interfere in foreign domestic conflicts.

* * *

And these are the tactics I hope not to see. If a party engages in them, it will make it harder for me to vote for them:

1. Labeling a potential coalition as an evil, illegal, or otherwise bad thing

2. Ethnic vote buying

3. Ad-hominem attacks where inappropriate (sometimes it’s absolutely legitimate to call into question a candidate’s character when it comes to leadership skills, but I am put-off by otherwise personal attacks on a candidate)

4. Referring to the NDP pejoratively as “socialists,” as if we’re living in 1950s America

5. Pretending that the economy is Canadians’ #1 issue, when polling clearly indicates it is not

6. Ignoring or hiding from the fact that the Conservatives are the first government to be found in contempt of Parliament

Canada, Politics

You should choose your words carefully, Mr. Harper

Harper’s first words to the public after being found in contempt of Parliament:

“The global economy remains fragile. The economic recovery in Canada is strong, but it must remain our priority. That is what why the economy is and will continue to be my top priority as Prime Minister… that is what Canadians expect of us in Parliament…”

Except that this is not true. Extensive polling shows that Canadians’ priority is Health Care.

See here and here and here and here for proof…

Canada, Politics

Contempt

Right now, as I watch live on tv, the Canadian Government is falling. It is the first time in Canadian history that a sitting government has been found in contempt of Parliament, to be toppled during the vote of non-confidence that is taking place now.

Votes of non-confidence are themselves extremely rare. But in a few moments, Canadian history will be made when the Conservative’s minority government will be the first ever found to have contemptuously flouted the will of Parliament.

Right now, as I watch, the majority of elected Members of Parliament are rising to vote their non-confidence in the minority government.

This is historical in its uniqueness.
This is exciting in its reinforcement of the democratic process.
This is serious in its implications.

Flowing under all of the political machinations are the public statements of the parties’ leaders, most notably the leader of the party in power – Stephen Harper.

Harper and the Tories have tried to spin this event, accusing the Grits of contemptuously flouting the will of Canadians (?), labeling the opposition parties as being members of an evil coalition (?), and making light of the entire situation (?).

I am left wondering what is more troubling – that the Conservative government has repeatedly thumbed its nose at the majority of Canadians and has now been found in contempt of Parliament, or that they do not recognize the extreme seriousness of this.

This has never happened before. It is not a political game. It is not a minor inconvenience. Yet the cheering and jeering in the House of Commons and  snide remarks during scrums are treating this like it’s no big deal.

It is a big deal. It’s a very big deal.

Canada, Politics

We’ve just got to work on putting the budget in the net

Jim Flaherty’s soundbite comments in support of the upcoming budget, delivered while purchasing his budget day shoes, sound more like what you hear from hockey players during intermission than a comment on federal policy by a parliamentarian:

“One of the goals of the budget is to make sure we stay on course, that maintains the fiscal track…[so] we can move back to balanced budgets… At the same time make some investments to promote economic growth and jobs.”

I know this is Canada and we’ve got that hockey thing going on, but can’t we hear something a little more substantial? Isn’t that the goal of all budgets?

Canada, Politics

Seven Questions for Stephen Harper

http://www.thestar.com/searchresults?AssetType=image&stype=genSearch&r=FullCategory:%22/Opinion/EditorialCartoon%22
Courtesy of, and adapted from Seth Godin’s recent post on Seven Questions for Leaders, I thought I would imagine what Stephen Harper’s answers to these questions might be, with links to recent stories that seem to support my guesses.

1. Do you let the facts get in the way of a good story?
Yes.

2. What do you do with people who disagree with you… do you call them names in order to shut them down?
Call them names in order to shut them down.

3. Are you open to multiple points of view or you demand compliance and uniformity?
The Harper Government is a well-documented fortress of demanded compliance and uniformity. Apparently, you even need to know the secret password question to get information out of them.

4. Is it okay if someone else gets the credit?
Apparently not. Bev Oda isn’t even allowed to speak for something which the party probably doesn’t want the credit for.

5. How often are you able to change your position?
Given that the Harper Government hasn’t done much substantial legislating, it’s tough to say. So I’ll defer to Yann Martel on this one to say that Harper’s not the most open guy.

6. Do you have a goal that can be reached in multiple ways?
Remember during the last election when the Conservative Party’s platform was released like, the day before voting day?

7. If someone else can get us there faster, are you willing to let them?
Remember when Harper shut down Parliament and slandered the opposition parties who were on the verge of forming a (legal) coalition?

– – –

And that’s about how I feel about Mr. Haper’s leadership. Not the most academic survey, but certainly a valid and frightening one, I would say.

Israel, Peace, Politics

As the old saying goes…

Dotan Harpak (past shaliach to the URJ Youth Division) has written an excellent analysis of the current situation in Israel over at RJ Blog. And when I say current situation in Israel, I mean the situation this week, because heaven knows it’s going to change tomorrow. It’s largely spurred by Bibi’s visit to New Orleans for the Jewish FederationsGeneral Assembly.

While you’re there, check out my response in the comments.

I happen to be in Israel right now confronting many of the issues Dotan speaks about, so it was serendipitous that Dotan would write about the things I’m seeing.

BTW – If you haven’t read yet, shit went down at the GA. Some appalling behaviour that is quite typical of the character of much of institutional Judaism these days vis a vis Israel. Please read and learn and keep an open mind.

Politics

Is Obama a Muslim?

Brilliant insight from Jeffrey Goldberg:

Such a ridiculous question, is Obama a Muslim? Of course he’s not. He’s a Druid. But a Reform Druid. Meaning he only worships shrubbery.

I can’t believe this question is still being posed. Or that it was posed at all. Or that people seem to be missing the subtext of the question which is that being a Muslim is a bad, bad thing.

So 20% of Americans think Obama’s a Muslim? 20% of Americans also believe in UFOs and think that 9/11 was an inside job.

People will always believe in dumb and irrational things for the sake of the sensationalism that comes with “standing out”.

Enough, already. Let’s move on.

Israel, Life, Peace, Politics

We both have truths, are yours the same as mine?

Yesterday, I responded to B’nai Brith Canada’s claim that they were in possession of “The truth” vis a vis the Israel/Palestine/Jewish/Muslim/Arab/Middle-East peace process, and that an anonymous “They” was trying to subvert access to this “truth.”

So let’s talk about “The Truth.”

In 2005, I was invited to speak at the URJ Biennial in Houston as a member of a panel on Israel Engagement. I was representing the university age group, and I was supposed to talk about Israel advocacy, Reform Zionism, and combating anti-Israel sentiments on campus.

Coming out of the Israel/Palestine/Jewish/Muslim/Arab/Middle-East climate at York University heavily affected my perspective. The topic was a particularly divisive one at York, and I had grown tired of the vitriol from both “sides” of the debate.

So the thesis of my panel presentation went something like this:

“If you’re going to talk about Israel on campus, you need to root yourself solidly and almost exclusively in factual truths. You need to avoid the emotionalization of the debate, and stay away from the impassioned yelling fits.”

Because that’s what the debate had become – a perpetual round of who-can-scream-louder-than-the-other-“side”.

Having just returned from Israel where I had some unique opportunities to engage with the Israeli Arab community, I find more than ever that the truth might actually be at the root of the problem – both in the Middle East and abroad.

Keeping your debate to truths is all fine and good, and may indeed circumvent some of the yelling and screaming and red faces and holier-than-thou shouting, but there’s just one problem…

Both “sides” have equally valid truths.

I’ll pause for a moment and explain the copious use of quotation marks around “sides”.

There really aren’t two sides to this issue, each with their own opposing history… it’s one large story, with intertwined narratives, facts, and truths. This is not Jew vs. Muslim, Arab vs. Non-Arab, Israeli vs. Palestinian, or any other false dichotomy. The longer we continue to view this as a polarized issue, the longer it will remain that way – polarized and unsolved. Certainly, at this point in world history, it’s clear that if you want to talk about Israel/Palestine/Jewish/Muslim/Arab/Middle-East, you should understand that it’s one vastly complex narrative, not two separate storybooks.

Back to the Truth… in this one, complex story, there are a number of equally valid truths. For example:

– It’s true that years of terrorism have led to Israel needing to take strong security measures.
– It’s true that the State of Israel has a long and valid connection to the Land of Israel.
– It’s true that many Palestinians were displaced because of the forming of the State of Israel.
– It’s true that life for non-Jewish Israelis is often much harder than life for Jewish Israelis.
– It’s true that Israel needs to defend itself against internal and external threats.
– It’s true that Israel bears responsibility for the actions it takes in the West Bank.
And so on…

It’s very convenient and easy for much of the pro-Israel community to just focus on the truths from the Israeli “side” of the narrative, because it makes it look like Israel is justified in all of its actions. Unfortunately, that leaves out half of the story.

The pro-Israel community as a whole needs to work on being less myopic, and start looking at the bigger picture, not just Israel’s “side” of it. This is why I’m so fond of J Street. Not because they’re “liberal,” “progressive,” or “pro-peace,” but because they engage in a holistic viewing of the situation Israel faces.

Compare their perspective with B’nai Brith Canada’s. When B’nai Brith claims to be in possession of the “Truth,” what they’re essentially doing is delegitimizing anyone whom they deem as being opposed to their view of the “Truth.” So the reality of daily life for non-Jewish Israelis is irrelevant, the reality of daily life for Palestinians is irrelevant, the future demographic realities Israel will face are irrelevant, and the realities that President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu are willing to confront are irrelevant because they are not “the Truth.”

The “truth” is all fine and good, but only if you’re open to other people’s truths as well.