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Archive for August, 2010

“Israel bears no animosity towards the Iranian people. We have deep respect and aspire to cooperate with them to bring about a better reality in the region. The problem is intrinsic to the Iranian regime and its conduct, particularly regarding the nuclear issue. This is a regime that calls for ‘Death to the United States, Great Britain and Israel’. The Iranian regime spreads instability, supports terror, and oppresses its own people. It is impossible to accept atomic weapons in the hands of such a regime.”

Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon recently addressed the people of Iran on Kol Yisrael Persian radio. Read more about his address here.

This is a guest post by Joel Weiner

I was on my weekend off from Yeshiva in northern Israel this weekend, and spent it in Jerusalem. Last night I went to the big rally for Gilad Shalit outside the Prime Minister’s house to mark Gilad’s fifth birthday in captivity. It was very moving, seeing so many Israelis coming from all over the country to mark the occassion. The Shalit family had organised coaches from just about every city in Israel.  Attendance was easily in the thousands.

To tell you the truth though, I’m not really a supporter of the campaign. That sounds like an awful thing to say, and makes me look like a hypocrite, since I did go to the rally last night. I went for the experience, which was a wonderful one: everyone singing Hatikvah together, everyone coming out to support our soldiers.

But at the same time, I find it difficult to believe that Gilad’s continuing captivity is the Prime Minister’s fault. In truth, last night wasn’t just a rally- it was a protest. All the speeches were addressed to the Prime Minister, and all of them made a point of saying that he should be doing more. But in actual fact, Bibi Netanyahu isn’t the one holding Gilad Shalit – Hamas is. And every time a new campaign is launched to bring Gilad home, every time Israelis turn out to put pressure on the Government to do more, Hamas looks on with glee – and raises the price of his release. To put pressure on Bibi is to play directly into the hands of the Hamas terrorists. This is just what they want.

And what happens if we do make a deal now? 800 terrorists for Gilad? 1,000 terrorists for Gilad? I’m not saying he wouldn’t be worth it -  the life of a human being is priceless – but there are two issues with this. Firstly, how would the release of 1,000 terrorists make the families of those killed in terrorist attacks feel? And how can we justify putting 1,000 more terrorists on the streets to their next victims?

And secondly – and this, I feel, is the biggest issue – what kind of precedent would it set? If Hamas et al see that their lawless and merciless strategy of kidnapping innocent Israelis works, and leads to their terrorists being freed from Israeli jails, then what is holding them back from kidnapping another handful of border patrol soldiers? It was easy enough for them last time, so what’s stopping them from doing it again?

But take note, I certainly do not mean to say we should leave Gilad Shalit to rot in the hands of his cruel abductors. That is not the Jewish way, not the Israeli way, and not the human way. There is an alternative. Gilad is in captivity and we’re angry about it. But we’re complaining to the wrong people. As I’ve already said, he’s not being held by Bibi Netanyahu; he’s being held by Hamas. This has to be Hamas’s problem, not Israel’s. So let’s make it their problem.

One of the main criticisms aimed at Israel is at its record on human rights. Now, those who do criticise Israel’s human rights are clearly misinformed, misguided, willful manipulators, or all three. We’re talking about ‘pro-Palestinian’ campaigners, Guardian readers/writers, Amnesty International and the like. The Stop the War Coalition, Socialist Workers’ Party… the list goes on. So this should be our strategy: every time we’re criticised on the grounds of human rights, we say, “I can’t even have this conversation with you whilst Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit is held in captivity in an undisclosed location, with no contact from the outside world or even the Red Cross. Every Palestinian prisoner in Israeli prisons is granted those basic human rights, as well as the right to a fair trial and even legal representation, all of which Gilad Shalit is denied.

“He hasn’t been allowed to have so much as a conversation with anyone other than his captors for more than four years. You talk about human rights? This is an abomination. Once Gilad Shalit is freed, only then can we start to question Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, which may not be faultless but is miles away from that afforded to Shalit.”

The Gilad Shalit issue should be their problem. It should be a burden not just for Hamas and its cronies but for Israel’s critics everywhere. They have to know that they cannot be criticising Israel’s record on human rights whilst their own is far, far worse. They should be made to feel bad that their side is so clearly in the wrong.

And the second part of our strategy should be pressure, not on Israel, but on Hamas, via the international community. I’m not talking about making measly statements such as the British Foreign Office issued yesterday; that potentially worsens the problem by, again, allowing Hamas to raise the price. No, we need to be more decisive than that. Every year, the US and the UN – and no doubt, the UK too – jointly give millions of pounds to Gaza in aid. Why aren’t they considering the option of making that aid dependent on Shalit’s release? The US and UN know as well as we do that Gilad Shalit’s continuing captivity is a stain on the face of the Middle East peace process. Let’s make this issue a real problem for Hamas. Their choice, effectively, will be either to free Shalit or for Gaza to be financially crippled.

So let’s make it clear. The Shalit issue is a big problem. But by making it Bibi Netanyahu’s problem, the dillemma is only augmented. By making it the problem of Hamas and Israel’s critics, we may actually get somewhere and, with God’s help, Gilad might finally be allowed home.

Saturday 28 August is Gilad Shalit’s 24th birthday. As many of you already know, Gilad was kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists in a cross border raid from the Gaza Strip in June 2006. He has been held hostage by Hamas ever since with almost no contact with the outside world. He is also denied visits from the International Red Cross, which would ensure his good health.

You can read more about Gilad’s case, and find out how to help, here. I also encourage you to read about and remember the two IDF soldiers killed during his abduction. Read about Lt. Hanan Barak here, and Staff-Sgt. Pavel Slutzker here.

During my recent trip to Israel I visited the protest tent which Gilad’s parents have established outside the home of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. I spoke with Gilad’s father Noam, and some of the other activists. I am writing my next Jewish News column about that experience, and I will post the column here next week. In the meantime, I pray for Gilad’s swift release.

On a lighter note, I am quoted in today’s New York Post about Simon Cowell and the ‘auto-tuning scandal’. I am also interviewed in the Globe & Mail, a Canadian newspaper, about the Penguin Canada edition of my Justin Bieber biography. I’ve got a few of the usual BBC Radio London slots this week, too. Also some on Canadian radio. I’ll add the exact times below this post once they’re finalised, in case anyone wants to listen in!

I was overseas when the controversy over the so-called ‘Ground Zero mosque’ began to erupt. So I only glimpsed the headlines at first. Once I began to investigate it, I was surprised to find that the plans are not half as contentious as the fuss suggested. For instance, far from there being any suggestion of erecting a huge mosque right next to Ground Zero, the plan is for a relatively small building, a full two blocks away.

Language is important. We’ve seen how opponents of Israel describe the security fence as a ‘wall’ even though less than 10 percent of it is actually a wall. Likewise, people are calling this project the ‘Ground Zero mosque’, even though it is misleading to describe it thus.

As I have written before, the 9/11 attacks shook me to such an extent that I seriously re-evaluated my view of the world. The first time I visited Ground Zero, I was struck by the enormity of what had happened and what had been lost. I also remember that the site was surrounded by people trying to make a buck out of the tragedy by selling memorabilia. Much of the memorabilia was of dubious authenticity and taste, but things like that happen in a free country.

Nicholas D. Kristof wrote in the New York Times last week about the shame we will one day feel for our intolerance. Indeed. The only opposition to the mosque I have any degree of sympathy with is that which is expressed by some of the 9/11 victims (though some victims are in favour of it). There’s a good reason why we do not allow the victim of a crime to determine the response to it. If someone harmed a member of my family, I would, quite naturally, wish terrible things on them. Likewise my wishes would, quite rightly, be ignored.

I am not particularly a fan of Barack Obama, but when he said that America’s “commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable”, I think he was absolutely right. To that end he and America can look towards Israel, and particularly Jerusalem, as an example of how the freedom and dignity of all faiths can be ensured. Do we want Manhattan to become more like Israel in its approach to religious freedom, or more like Saudi Arabia?

Concern about extremist Islam around the world is often well-founded. Sometimes, though, people set their aim too widely. Sometimes there is a nasty hint of bullying in the air. I am also increasingly concerned that some of the people who purport to be friends of Israel – particularly in the non-Jewish camp – are not true friends. They are backing Israel as another way of waging a hateful war against Islam.

It might be tempting to overlook these people’s motivations and simply feel grateful for any support. But before we know it we then find members of the ghastly English Defence League (EDL) demonstrating alongside genuine friends of Israel on the streets of London. No excuses or other defensive responses can ever make such an alliance acceptable.

We overlook the bigots in our midst at our peril, be they well-educated speakers or street rabble. Our opponents will quickly notice those on our side who have a wider, more sinister agenda, and will make a lot of noise about it. It’s not good enough for us to point out the obvious hypocrisy: that for years ‘pro-Palestinian’ campaigners have themselves marched alongside the very worst hate-mongers.

We have to do better. Defending Israel is a tough fight and we can only occasionally win the bigger battles. However, there is one battle we can win every day: we must not be dragged down to the level of our opponents.

Israel recently tied with Canada for eighth place in a major Gallup survey to find the happiest people on earth. It’s wonderful Israel finished so high in the rankings, especially when you consider what its people have to contend with from their neighbours.

In other uplifting news, Arab-Israeli football star Beram Kayal recently spoke about his experiences in Israeli football and society. “The life between the Jews and the Arabs is very good,” he smiled. “I’m an Arab and my agent is Jewish but we’re like family…Maccabi Haifa has seven or eight Arab players and that’s normal. The only difference is their religion, but there’s no conflict.”

Finally, and speaking of football, Hapoel Tel Aviv striker Itay Shechter had a very special way of celebrating when he scored in the Uefa Champions League this week. Like!

…but you can’t take Israel out of the (Oy Va) Goy. Here is my latest column for Jewish News:

I recently returned from a 10-day, all-expenses paid trip to Israel. I was treated like royalty throughout, and interviewed by countless Israeli television channels and newspapers. I returned with a relaxed, warm glow, a cracking sun tan and an army of new blog readers from the Promised Land. I sense you’re not exactly bursting with sympathy.

The trip, called Once In A Lifetime, brought four bloggers from round the world to visit Israel on an all-expenses-paid visit. I was one of the four, joining two American bloggers and one from China. The venture was the brainchild of a group of 24 students from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. All are members of Stand With Us, the international organisation which educates the world about Israel.

It was inspiring to be part of this trip and to witness the genius of those who had taken the idea from a mere concept to a magical reality. It’s amazing what you can achieve if you act on an impulse. People in Britain often criticise Israel’s PR efforts, but it’s so easy to criticise from your armchair. Few of these critics are doing anything constructive themselves.

Indeed, the disappointment felt in Israel about the meekness of Brits is palpable. I too have tired of those here who talk the talk when it comes to defending Israel, but never walk the walk. Even worse, many don’t even do the talking part.

The Once In A Lifetime trip was a marvellous contribution to the hasbara effort. Over the 10 days we saw the social, cultural, religious and political highlights of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. We met with fascinating people including MKs Zeev Bielski and Anastassia Michaeli, IDF spokeswoman Avital Leibovich, and the extraordinary Abu Gosh monk Brother Olivier.

“Our goal is to create a better understanding of what Israel is all about – culture, night life, cuisine, music, history and the delicate fabric of life here,” Shiri Cohen, one of the organisers explained. They succeeded. They also gave us a wonderful trip. From floating in the Dead Sea to partying in Tel Aviv and planting trees in Jerusalem, we had a ball. We also volunteered at the Mahane Yehuda market, hiked the Judean Hills and drove electric cars, which Israel is at the forefront of developing.

The picture of Israel that emerged even surprised me, a longstanding and informed fan of the Jewish state. Among the new things I learned is that while the contrast between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is undoubtedly profound, the two cities have more in common socially than many outside Israel believe. If you know where to look you can find a social scene in the capital that rivals anything Tel Aviv has to offer.

On a personal note it was the religious parts of the trip which moved me most. From my poignant hour at the Kotel, to a Friday night synagogue visit and my conversations with Chabadniks and Breslovs, I had amazing experiences. Indeed, the only downside to the trip was the widespread negativity I encountered among ordinary Israelis towards the more religious Jews who live there.

I am well aware of the controversies surrounding the Haredim in Israel, and the reasons for those controversies. But I feel the criticism has become unjustifiably harsh. Besides, Israel is a country full of miracles and these are not occurring coincidentally. We should be nicer to those who do all that praying.

And let’s also take our hats off to Stand With Us for arranging this trip. As MK Bielski said, us four bloggers should be considered pioneers for many similar ventures in the future. I hope those with deep pockets can help with funding.

One of the most profound experiences I had in Israel was meeting with Noam Shalit, father of Gilad. I will write about that meeting in my next column.

The latest media coverage of the Once In A Lifetime trip comes on the Jerusalem Post online video channel.

I love food. I love talking about food. I love talking about talking about food. So, in the aftermath of my Once In A Lifetime trip, let’s talk about Israeli food.

During my 10 days there I ate some glorious nosh. The trip began with a visit to the International Arts & Crafts Festival at Khutsot Hayotser in Jerusalem. There, myself and my fellow blogger Dan went on a shawarma hunt in the food village of the event. We were jubilant as we located, ordered and devoured some chicken shawarma in laffa. Look at the quiet satisfaction on my face. I also had fine shawarma at Agenda (near Dizengoff Mall in Tel Aviv) and other places.

I am not normally a fan of tapas, but the Israelis seem to do it so much better than most. Tapas1 (27 Ahad Ha’am Street) is currently one of the hottest places in Tel Aviv. You need to book weeks in advance and it’s no surprise. The food is astonishingly nice, as you would expect given that chef Jonathan Roshfeld is one of Israel’s finest.

The atmosphere is positively electric and the decor is at once hip and relaxing. Also, I couldn’t help but notice, one of the waiters is breathtakingly hot. Like, seriously. So get over there, sip the sangria, eat the food and take in the visuals. Speaking of Tapas, the atmosphere at the Vicky Cristina tapas bar in Neve Tzedek is also fine, though in a more relaxed, watching-the-sun-set way.

An even more relaxed vibe can be found back in Jerusalem at Hashlosha Restaurant (68 Agripas Street), which is just round the corner from the Mahane Yehuda Market. Here, the authentic home food includes many fine Iraqi and Kurdish dishes such as kubeh. You’ll feel at home instantly in this place, and the range of dips, dishes and breads on offer is fascinating as well as filling. We also visited the Arab village of Abu Gosh, where the hummus is legendary. Perhaps because it had been over-hyped I was mildly disappointed by the hummus, but it was certainly very nice.

If you like pizza – of course you do, who doesn’t? – then I insist that you visit Dona Fresca, (Rehov Shlomzion Hamalka 1, Jerusalem). This is an eaterie with numerous time-related decorations including clocks and bells on the walls. The pizza is freshly constructed in front of you, as you choose from a series of sauce and topping options. For dessert you can also choose your own filling for your freshly-made profiterole. I chose halva and so enjoyed it the observant waiter quickly pressed into my hand a plastic glass full of the halva sauce, on the house. Beteavon? You bet!

For fine theatre as well as food, visitors to Jerusalem should head to Mahane Yuda restaurant (10 Bet Yaakov St). The on-show chefs row about football, laugh heartily, dance and also spontaneously drum along to the music with their saucepans with wooden spoons. The food, much of which is sourced from the nearby Mahane Yehuda market, keeps coming to the table at a rate of delicious knots. Sometimes, for dessert, the waiters cover the table with foil and simply dollop the pudding straight onto the foil.

It’s all great fun, as is the restaurant’s sister bar across the narrow road. People dance between the two venues and the air is full of music and laughter. So much so that an elderly resident has grown so tired of the noise that she has been known to throw eggs at revellers. I secretly hoped she would launch such an attack while I was there but it was not to be, though a clothes peg did randomly bounce off my head at one point. On a more serious note, I do feel sorry for the lady. I hope some sort of resolution to her satisfaction is found soon, as it cannot be much fun for her being kept up at night.

The Kedma Restaurant, located above the new Mamilla Mall in Jerusalem, is a more classy affair. As you sit on the open air roof you can see the walls of the Old City. I had chopped liver (a posh take on the classic dish), and then a Corned Beef sandwich (good, but not a patch on the NYC classics). We also ‘ate in’ a few times, including a marvellous shabbat dinner at our Rehavia apartment and a wonderful Moroccan/Jewish dinner the following night with a family in Ein Karem. Spicy fish – surprisingly nice. Dan accidentally threw hot tea over me after the meal, but nobody ever said life is perfect.

Although it comes close to perfect when you have an Aroma iced coffee in your hand. These are hideously addictive things, as I’ve written before. I also tried iced coffee in other Israeli cafes including Tmol Shilshom in Jerusalem (lovely), Cafe Ne’eman (above average) and in the Old City’s Austrian Hospice (nearly as nice as Aroma). Boker tov, boulder!

The biggest culinary revelation of the trip only happened by chance. One of the organisers – the wonderful Sharon Elgay – was trying to find us the best shawarma place in Jaffa. But then we got pushed for time and ended up going to Dr Shakshuka (3 Beit Eshel, Jaffa). There she recommended I try a Jewish-Libyan dish called Mafrum, which I can best describe as a huge beef sandwich with the tangiest of sauce. This became a firm favourite and was the food highlight of the Once In A Lifetime trip.

What is your favourite Israeli food – and where do you go to get it?

The latest media coverage of my Once In A Lifetime trip to Israel. Can anyone translate?

© Copyright Chas Newkey-Burden. All Rights Reserved. Thanks to Chris Morris.