Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Auntie's Money Bag

Canada has just taken a bold, unilateral step by announcing it will no longer fund the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). This move will undoubtedly draw the ire of Palestinian supporters who consider such financial aid essential and sacrosanct. Nevertheless, UNRWA has drawn criticism for decades, and at the very least, the organization has needed a shake-up for a long time.

Canada, it should be remembered, was present at UNRWA’s birth in December 1949; indeed, the agency’s first director was a Canadian*. That Canada should be the first major donor to pull out of UNRWA funding is significant at many levels, and the move will undoubtedly affect G8 support of the organization.

The real challenge, however, may be the present Conservative government's ability to survive long enough to see any change. Many expect the Conservatives, whose draconian domestic policies have ruffled feathers across Canada's left-leaning populace, to lose the next Federal election. Support for the Conservatives, which presently rules with a minority government, has been falling. A recent poll shows them essentially tied with the Liberals who, if in power, would almost certainly reverse the UNRWA decision.

* "Canada subsequently voted for the establishment of the Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA) in the General Assembly resolution of 8 December 1949 whose first director was General Howard Kennedy of Canada. ..." (Zachariah Kay, The Diplomacy of Prudence: Canada and Israel, 1948-1958 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996): 24-28.)

The National Post has an editorial on the decision here.

In this still from a Reuters video, terrorists are seen
loading weapons into a UN ambulance.

Here are a few articles for background information on UNRWA's controversial history.

How UNRWA became a barrier to peace

Jerusalem Post
By Jonathan Spyer, 27 May 2008

Gaza Bedfellows UNRWA And Hamas
Forbes Magazine
by Claudia Rosett, 08 January 2009
How they keep each other in business.

Ex-UNRWA official blasts agency for politicizing Palestinian refugee issue
by Natasha Mozgovaya, 08 February 2009

James G. Lindsay's report, mentioned in the above article, can be read here. (Note: a pdf file will open)

The UN’s Palestinian Refugee Problem
Azure Magazine,
Arlene Kushner, 2005 (Note: a pdf file will open)

UNRWA`s Gina Benevento responds to the Kushner article here. (Note: a pdf file will open)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

When Disaster Strikes

Israel has been getting some much-deserved attention for its relief efforts in Haiti, as well as the usual small-minded aspersions. While most of the reports on Israel's rapid deployment to Haiti, following the devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake that leveled Port-au-Prince and killed thousands, have been positive there have been some that have rushed just as quickly to say that Israel's efforts were nothing but a PR stunt. A few crackpots have even suggested that the earthquake was a man-made attack by the US and Israel. That sort of nonsense obviously doesn't deserve a response.

Israel's forté, earned through the blood of her injured and killed soldiers and civilians, is battlefield trauma aid and logistics. That an Israeli IsraAid team is able to arrive at a moment's notice with doctors and equipment is something which we can take pride in, however, not at the expense of others who have also been doing what they can. Look, we have doctors; we have state-of-the-art medical equipment (we invented much of it) but that should in no way diminish the contributions of other countries.

Both the detractors and the devotees need to keep things in perspective. While Israel's advanced set-up was impressive, there were other field hospitals; Cuba had several but they were handling basic first-aid (and amputations). Norway also had a small set-up with around 20 staff. Argentina was able to provide immediate aid because they had a an medical station in Haiti before the earthquake. There were also a number of doctors already in Haiti whose three Doctors Without Borders aid stations were destroyed by the earthquake. I believe they joined up with the Israeli unit but I'm working on confirming that. Canada, for its part, dispatched two warships - the HMCS Athabaska and HMCS Halifax - loaded with humanitarian aid, as well as several military transport planes.

I was in close touch with the Jamaicans, who were flying aid into Haiti and preparing to receive refugees (and I'm going to write more on Jamaica's efforts over the few days). It's worth remembering that a number of Caribbean nations provide on-going support to the beleaguered nation. They were there before the cameras showed up, and they'll be there, I expect, long after. That they can't provide the kind of high-tech care that Israel can provide is irrelevant; they do what they do and it deserves to be acknowledged.

But the Israeli hospital was receiving (indeed, it was seeking) the most difficult cases, and because they had electronic equipment probably better than many hospitals in the area, they got a lot of press. Frankly, much of the coverage has been, in my opinion, more the result of American hurt pride than any desire to promote Israel; they just don't like when others show them up. (and most of the over-generous reports are coming from the US, not Israel. Who in the international community watches Israeli TV? Even most Israelis don't!)

Criticism of the US (and other western states) has not been fair; they've been prepping the USNS Comfort, a massive hospital ship capable of handling hundreds of patients, which has just arrived in the region. The US could take the time to adequately prepare the ship (which includes a crew of 900, and helicopters for ferrying victims) because they knew the Israeli team would be there within hours (and the recon team was there before doctors arrived).

And now that US (and Red Cross) relief is arriving en masse (and it should be noted, A French hospital ship, the Siroco, has also arrived), the Israelis, and other teams, will go home. In the words of one Israeli officer, "We provided timely medical care to about 1,000 people, we conducted 300 operations and delivered 16 babies. In the past few days the Americans arrived and then you can put things in proportion and become more modest in the face of their airlift and the scope of their aid. You need to understand that those who will continue to treat the main suffering there are the Americans." It's exactly this sort of cooperation between the US and Israel that highlights the importance of the relationship, a fact often lost on those who dwell on financial support or Arab intransigence.

A bigger issue is the future of Haiti as a society, as a people. The earthquake was really just rubbing salt in the wound of a place already knocked down time and again. Haiti, ultimately, isn't Israel's responsibility but everyone's, and how the world continues to support this place, after the cameras and temporary aid stations have packed up and left, will be the real test. Long after emergency teams have returned home, it will be countries like the US and Canada which will be providing long-term assistance to Haiti; indeed, Canada is hosting an international conference in Montreal today aimed at coordinating rebuilding efforts and to "physically get the Haitian government back on its feet." Haiti is already the largest recipient of Canadian long-term development assistance in the Americas and the second largest in the world.

What's really been missing is a coordinating agency that assigns nations in emergency situations according to their special capabilities. This was recognized after the Tsunami in Indonesia in 2004, when poor coordination between international aid agencies resulted in surpluses of some supplies and equipment and acute shortages of others. That this sort of coordination is still not happening is yet another failure of the UN, which would rather spend its money (which is really G8 money) on canapés and Landcruisers.

One can be proud of the Israeli team, and cognizant of the tremendous efforts of others; the two aren't mutually exclusive. In fact, I was told there were representatives of 30 countries (now numbering in the thousands) working in Haiti as of a few days ago. Many flew there on their own dime and are working with little support. That also deserves some praise. If not more.

As for those who choose to diminish Israel's humanitarian work for partisan reasons (or the breathtakingly petty: "they're acting TOO proud!"), it really just points to a pathological need to sully the Jewish state, and an inability to proffer any sort of mature line of reasoning. Not the first time, either.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Caribbean Mystery

Slightly jet-lagged, but otherwise unscathed, I'm back in Israel, back on the computer, back at work. I was covering a conference in Kingston, Jamaica ("The Jewish Diaspora of the Caribbean") for the Jerusalem Report but took the opportunity to investigate other interesting and relevant stories. Of course, the biggest story of the week occurred nearby while I was there: the devastating earthquake in Haiti. We felt the earthquake in Kingston, but it was no worse than a minor Vancouver rumble, and most people didn't even realize that's what it was until reports started to come in a few hours later.

Several colleagues and I immediately assessed ways of getting there, and that story will follow in a few weeks, when I'm able to freely describe the bureaucratic rigmarole that tripped us up. Over the next few days, I'll be writing fairly extensively on Jamaican relief efforts, and on an interesting Shabbat. What do you get when you put together a Baghdadi Jew from the US, an Israeli/Canadian Ashkenazi, a Sephardic Panamanian and a Jewish Reggae artist from New York. Not the beginning of a joke; I'm describing last week's Kabbalat Shabbat service!

In the meantime, I invite you to consider a question: why would a 320-year old Jewish gravestone feature a skull and crossbones?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Our Man in the Caribbean Day 3

Good morning, afternoon or evening.

Unfortunately, we've been moved to a different meeting hall where internet access in unavailable so no live blogging today. In stead, I'll do a short wrap-up next week, and of course, there will be a much more in depth review of the conference and feature on the Jewish diaspora of the Caribbean in a future issue of the Jerusalem Report.

For those who were following for my updates on the Haiti disaster, it is, of course, an ongoing concern here in Jamaica. There's a tangible concern and outpouring of grief and love for their fellow islanders; Jamaican businesses (including ScotiaBank which has a presence in Jamaica) are actively fundraising and collecting emergency aid for survivors. As well, this morning Jamaica's PM and staff are on route to Port-au-Prince to do a first-hand assessment. The expectation here is that Jamaica, and other islands, are about to receive refugees numbering in the thousands. At the very least, we're expecting that the UN, and other agencies, will have to set up tent cities in Haiti and neighbouring Dominican Republic. Confounding this effort will be destruction the UN itself has suffered. Dozens of UN peacekeepers have been reported dead, including the UN's mission chief, Hedi Annabi, and his chief deputy, Luis Carlos da Costa.

I'll try to post more on this later. Back to the conference.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Our Man in the Caribbean Day 2

There's only one synagogue left in Jamaica, Sharei Shalom Synagogue, the United Congregation Synagogue. After a devastating earthquake in 1882 destroyed the Sephardic and Ashkenazi synagogues, these groups came together and founded a new congregation. A synagogue was built but destroyed in a fire in 1907. A new building was completed in 1912, and it's still in use today, although the community has diminished and changed over the years. I'll be writing much more on this beautiful place, one of a handful of synagogues with a sand floor, in the near future.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Our Man in the Caribbean

Welcome to everyone from Kingston, Jamaica. I'm doing something new, liveblogging from the Jewish Diaspora of the Caribbean conference at the beautiful and impressive Pegasus Hotel.

If you have any questions for the participants, add a comment here, and I'll do my best to get an answer. I think tomorrow, I'm going to add some sort of live blogging software to the page, perhaps Coveritlive. What do you think?

Day 1, January 12, 2010

The conference started this morning and runs the next two days. It's an amazing coming together of academics, genealogists and local Jews interested in sharing their stories.

Ainsley Henriques opened the conference with a shehecheyanu blessing and a welocme to everyone.

Jane Gerber, conference co-chair and Professor of Jewish history and former director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York spoke on the importance of this sort of event. Most importantly, the importance of having the conference in the Caribbean rather than, for example, New York. it's vital to not only talk about the synagogue of Jamaica but also to walk on its sandy floor; there is the hope that the conversations that are generated by the event will be open-ended, flow from the room to the coffee break and beyond....also papers will come from these deliberations. There are many subjects to discuss: we hope to engage in discussions on forms of identity..multi-dimensional, multiple jewish identities; building of nations of the peoples in the area. what roles did the Jewish community play in the development of the region?

Swithin Wilmot is the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Education and Senior Lecturer at the University of the West Indies: Dr. Wilmot welcomed the guests and asserted that "there's no doubt that the Jewish community is at the heart of the history of Caribbean history and culture." We will explore so many aspects of this history over the next 3 days.

11:30 am

Speaking now is Gerard Nahon from the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, in Paris. He's discussing Amsterdam and the Jewish nation in the Caribbean during the 17th century.

Holly Snyder from Brown University is now speaking on the subject: What Jewish Merchants contributed to Jamaican culture, 1670-1831.

Ms. Snyder is North American History librarian at Brown University's John Hay Library where her responsibilities include Modern Judaic Studies. She's currently working on a book-length manuscript entitles "Geographical Destinies: jews, Conversos and Crypto-Jews in the Age of Mercantilism, 1500-1800.


2:00pm Rachel Frankel is talking about new technologies DIARNA, and the importance of cemetery research.

Diarna is an initiative of Digital Heritage Mapping, a 501c3 non-profit organization using technology to map and preserve cultural heritage sites around the world. “Diarna” means “our homes” in Judeo-Arabic, a version of Arabic mixed with Hebrew spoken by Jews across the Middle East in numerous local dialects. Read an overview article about Diarna in AJS Perspectives, the magazine of the Association for Jewish Studies. (from the Diarna website)

The International Survey of Jewish Monuments (ISJM) has an interesting page on the Jewish Cemetery of Hunt’s Bay and Orange Street Cemeteries in Jamaica.

There's a fascinating new book on the subject called: The Knell of Parting Day, by Marilyn Delevante.

Are you a descendant of Caribbean Jews? Let me know. Have a question for an expert IN JAMAICA? Send me a message or comment here.


Naomi Feuchtwanger-Sarig speaks on the mourning customs of Portugeuse Jews, their rituals, including the use of the colour black. The iconography of Jewish grief suggests the use of black as a sign of mourning is very old; but its origin as a ritualistic colour is vague. Texts in the mishnah record the use of back during the 30 days of bereavement (sheloshim); this custom was maintained in Spain for generations, and continues in Sephardi Jewish communities to this day. Some really interesting questions coming out of this talk: what is the origin of the iconography of the skull and crossbones in the Caribbean, and about the image of a tree being felled common on tombstones in Jamaica. I'll address these questions later, perhaps in the Jerusalem Report article.

That's it for today. This has been fun, and tomorrow I'll be set up a little differently. If you know anyone else who may be interested, please pass along the web address. I'm hoping I'll get a few questions tomorrow which I'll bring to the attention of the relevant guest speaker. Tomorrow's speakers include: Mordechai Arbell, Ronnie Perelis, Hilit Surowitz, Judah Cohen and Ed Kritzler, whose book Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, I reviewed for the Jerusalem Report last year. I'll try to add pdfs of the review later.