IM Issue 150 – January 2021 – End of an Era

Editorial – Closing the door . . .

With this, the 150th edition of Israel Matters!, your editor has decided that now is the appropriate time to suspend publication. It has not been an easy decision to make. At an average of 11 issues per year (July/August is a single edition of the Bulletin), not including special and website only editions, simple arithmetic means I have been the primary editor of the publication for more than 13 years. To put that number into perspective, a child born when I started would likely be having her/his Bat/Bar Mitzvah this year.

Since that day long ago when I was approached by then-president Stuart Katz to form an Israel Affairs Committee for Temple Beth Sholom, I considered monthly dissemination of relevant information about Israel to be of critical importance. I am proud to say that with the exception of extraordinarily few instances when it was beyond my control, publication has been continuous. Along the way, I have endeavored to provide articles covering wars, intifadas, terrorism, and regional challenges. As well, I have tried to demonstrate the brighter side of life in Israel, such as the progress it has made on the road to regional peace (as I write this, Morocco has just agreed to normalization with Israel, joining Bahrain, the UAE, and Sudan with more apparently on the way), how it has become a marvel for technical innovation, vastly increased tourism, and the overall quality of life, to name but a few.
I have also reported on the highs and lows of the US-Israel relationship. The single most difficult path I have had to tread was when addressing the political component. Critically, I am not unmindful of the deep political schism that exists within and among the members of the Temple Beth Sholom congregation. By all objective measures, I view the congregation as heavily skewed to the Democratic/liberal end of the scale. Consequently, it has required a delicate balance in the choice of articles that related to the political interactions between the countries so as not to be seen as catering singularly to the liberals or conservatives among us. Doing so has not been an easy dance.
It was most difficult, for example, to avoid the antipathy shown by the Obama administration to Israel, and most notoriously to Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister. It was a similar challenge to avoid praising the Trump administration, with the latter being widely perceived as the more supportive to Israel of the two – especially in Israel. Nonetheless, I tried, perhaps at times more successfully than others.
Along the way, I have been – to be polite – “challenged” by folks from the liberal side of the scale when I have shown the temerity to tread the tripwire of expressing support for the Trump administration’s relationship with Israel. It is not an exaggeration to write that teeth have been bared at me for stating the obvious, which is that it would be fatuous of me to ignore the positive actions of the current administration in its support of the US-Israel relationship.
So why stop now? Simply put, after 13 years, and the milestone of the 150th issue, the start of a new and hopefully better year, and the inauguration of a new American president, it feels like the right time.
Before I leave, I would be remiss if I didn’t express my sincere thanks and appreciation to Steve Salinger, the editor of the TBS Bulletin, for his support and occasional forbearance on those occasions when I needed to have additional time to prepare Israel Matters!. Appreciation also goes out to George Alexander for his assistance with getting the publication onto the TBS website. And, finally, my most sincere expression of gratitude goes to my wife for her constant support and superb editing skills.
Ed Berns

Kosher Hotels and Authoritarianism: Israelis See Attraction in Easy UAE Travel, But Some Have Concerns

The UAE, a small and wealthy nation just over three hours away from Tel Aviv by air, is hoping to be the next hot tourist destination for Israelis. The two countries signed a normalization agreement on the White House lawn this year that allowed full diplomatic relations and trade between the countries. The treaty was a historic breakthrough in Israel’s decades-long quest for relations with the Arab world.
For ordinary Israelis, perhaps the biggest change is the added destination to their itineraries. Because Israel is so small, international travel is common, and Israelis love to take advantage of cheap flights to nearby Europe and elsewhere. Young Israelis recently discharged from the army often take longer trips to far-off places like India or South America.
The UAE hopes to market itself as a cheap and easy option for a weekend get-away, especially as Israelis chafe from months of being cooped up at home. Israeli airlines have already registered significant interest from would-be travelers, and airlines are exploring the potential of the UAE as a spot for corporate retreats, group tours, and package deals. An agreement waiving visa requirements between the two countries was signed in October, making it easier for Israelis to travel to the UAE than to the United States.
The first planeload of Israeli tourists arrived in Dubai in early November. Recently, El Al, Israel’s national carrier, announced that it would be offering 14 flights to the UAE every week starting in December. Other airlines also plan to launch flights between the two countries beginning in December.
“The people seem to be warm and friendly and [the] sights well worth seeing,” said Rona Michelson, an Israeli tour guide. “The Emirates look as if they have lots to offer.” Michelson said she is already planning a tour there but did not offer a detailed itinerary.
Any tour would likely include the city’s major sightseeing and retail attractions, such as the Burj Khalifa, the Louvre Abu Dhabi art museum, the indoor Warner Bros. World theme park and the Dubai Mall, which boasts some 1,300 stores. Tourists may also visit the Palm Jumeirah archipelago, a chain of artificial islands.
But some Israelis are wary of patronizing a constitutional monarchy known for its repression of civil liberties. According to a report this year by Human Rights Watch, freedom of expression in the UAE is limited and “especially in cases related to state security, individuals were at serious risk of arbitrary and incommunicado detention, torture, and ill-treatment, prolonged solitary confinement, and denial of access to legal assistance.”
“Israelis do not understand that Emirati people are not like the Palestinian or Egyptian people they’ve come into contact with,” said Claire Blumenthal, a Jewish American who has lived in both countries for extended periods. “Drinking is not illegal, but if you’re in the street you cannot act as if you’ve had a drink. You’ll be fined and jailed.” Penalties for smoking weed can be even more severe, she said. “This is not Sinai,” she said, referencing the Egyptian desert adjacent to Israel where Israelis have long traveled to get high. “This is Dubai. You’ll get jail for life. While Dubai is a major party scene, you cannot do anything out in the open, and I need Israelis to know and understand the place they are going to.”
Traveling to the country may also pose a danger to women. In 2016, a British woman was arrested after reporting being raped by two of her countrymen while on vacation in Dubai. According to Human Rights Watch, “women who report rape can find themselves prosecuted for consensual sex instead” under an article of the UAE penal code that prohibits “indecent assault.”
“Dubai struggles to maintain its promoted reputation of being tolerant, modern, progressive and focused on happiness and positivity, while it regularly victimizes women for reporting crime,” Radha Stirling, the founder of the advocacy group Detained in Dubai, wrote in the Independent, a British newspaper, in 2016.
Thani AlShirawi, a founding member of the recently established UAE-Israel Business Council, said the UAE is making an effort to teach its citizens “indoctrinated tolerance” toward foreign visitors, including Israelis. AlShirawi believes Israelis will feel even more comfortable visiting his country than Egypt and Jordan, neighboring states with whom Israel has been at peace for decades, because Israel and the Emirates have never fought a war. “We have to give a lot of credit to our leadership because they have indoctrinated tolerance and to accept everybody,” he said.
Members of the Jewish community in Dubai, which has remained mostly under the radar until recently and which is composed of expats from around the world, are also excited about the potential influx of Israelis. According to estimates, up to 1,500 Jews live in the UAE. “I think what we’ve done up until now is build the basic structure for Jewish communal life, but in the future the structure will be used to create a fully fledged and mature community,” Ross Kriel, president of the Jewish Council of the Emirates, said in August. “We imagine schools, a vibrant community center, multiple places of worship, kosher restaurants and all the dimensions of vibrant communal life.”
Regardless of what the country offers, and when exactly they’ll be able to go, some Israelis are thrilled simply at the prospect of being able to travel to another country that is so close but had been closed off until this year.“I’m extremely excited about it [and] will fly at the first opportunity,” Yoni Mann, an American immigrant living in Jerusalem, told JTA. “It’s exciting to finally see what looks like a warm peace brewing with our Arab cousins.” []