Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Indian-Israeli olive agribusiness experiment

The Indian-Israeli olive agribusiness experiment

Though olives are hardly a staple in India, through Israeli expertise and saplings, Rajasthan farmers are expecting a bumper crop this year


BANGALORE — In a sign of growing relations between the two countries, Israel has extended                         an olive branch to India.

Quite literally, in this case.

Over the last five years, Indian farmers have joined hands with Israeli agribusiness to produce a crop that the majority on the subcontinent have only seen in books and films: fresh, green olives.

The project started out as a joint venture between Israeli firm Indolive and the agricultural board representing the Indian state of Rajasthan, a desert state on the western border. An Indian private company, Finolex Plasson Industries Ltd, joined the business alliance in 2007 through its subsidiary Plastro Plasson, drumming up greater investment for the enterprise. All parties involved in the joint venture now fall under an umbrella group called the Rajasthan Olive Cultivation Ltd (ROCL).

“We really got on to the project by chance after we happened to hear that there was already something happening between State of Rajasthan and an entrepreneur in Israel,” says Satish Ghatpande, executive director at Plastro Plasson Ltd.

The idea of including a private sector company in the deal particularly appealed to the Israeli investor, given the complexities of engaging with Indian bureaucracy.

Since Plastro Plasson was already in the drip irrigation business, they were a natural fit for the project.

Ghatpande says the scale of investment in India is relatively large, even though olives are hardly a staple crop in India.

“The current investment includes the state government and us putting in Rs. 15 million [about $270,000] each towards share capital,” he says, adding that Indolive imports the saplings to India.

The pilot project has now blossomed into a system of organized olive cultivation in six regions in Rajasthan. (photo credit: courtesy)

While the venture began as a pilot experiment, it has now developed into a system of organized cultivation across six regions in Rajasthan. Ghatpande forecasts a 200-hectare yield from the current harvest.

“Our results have been mixed since the nature of soil differs from place to place,” he explains. “So, we try different saplings based on soil conditions.”

It hasn’t been smooth sailing for the venture either. From water shortages in the arid western desert and input resource bottlenecks to the paucity of skilled labor, the project has repeatedly hit stumbling blocks.

“The difficulties are there. We have to train people, create the right infrastructure and many times, the olive crop is very difficult to monitor as well,” Ghatpande says.

Also, despite initial investment, projects such as these are often sidelined by the government as they do not represent mainstream economic activity, he adds.

The total share of agriculture in India’s gross domestic product is 21 percent — a worrying statistic when you consider 72 percent of the total population lives in rural agrarian communities

This ties up with the overall state of agriculture in India, where the government sees more bang for their buck in the manufacturing and services sectors, which deliver swifter and larger returns. According to World Bank data, the total share of agriculture in India’s gross domestic product is 21 percent — a worrying statistic when you consider 72 percent of the total population lives in rural agrarian communities.

However, Ghatpande says farmers in Rajasthan are still keen to get in on olive cultivation despite the crop’s limited exposure to the Indian markets.

“Farmers are now willing to jump from their current crops to olives because the yields on many crops in Rajasthan are declining,” says Ghatpande. Given that most of the olive crop is for exporting, farmers see this venture as lucrative in the long term.

The government, however, sees value in keeping some proportion of the fruit and pressing it locally within India.

“In August, we’re expecting the oil pressing machinery to come from Italy,” says Yogesh Verma, manager of ROCL. This means we can now press the oil in India.”

And while the import of olive oil has increased to eleven thousand metric tons over the last five years, Verma says this number could fall once olives are pressed locally. He also forecasts harvests will soon hit 5000-hectare yields in the next three or four years.

Early signs of what is expected to be a 200-hectare harvest next year. (photo credit: courtesy)

So are farmers currently locked into contract-farming agreements with ROCL — a system that could potentially cap profits on farmers’ harvests?

“Apart from the 182 acres of land under us, there is a separate 72 acres for local farmers,” Verma says. “Also, a new agreement that we’re discussing will allow farmers to sell their fruits to anyone they want.”

The olive experiment, if anything, points to a larger development in business ties between India and Israel. The latter see India, an emerging economic powerhouse, as a great global market for technology transfers and trade.

“The potential of cooperation and synergy between Israeli and Indian companies has become more and more clear with the increasing number of Israeli companies that want to come here,” says Orna Sagiv, the Israeli consul general in Mumbai, India.

The growth in technology exports from Israel to India explains why the Israeli embassy was keen to set up shop in Bangalore, a southern Indian city known for its high-profile IT companies. The consulate in Bangalore, which was formally inaugurated on May 20, is the third one in India.

Only three other countries in the world have over three Israeli missions, Ambassador Alon Ushpiz mentioned at the inauguration ceremony. He added that it is the growth in small and medium businesses in both countries that drives successful entrepreneurship and innovation.

In terms of hard numbers, Sagiv says that trade has risen exponentially over the last two decades.

“Trade has increased since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992 between India and Israel,” she says. “If you look at the scale, the volume of trade was very low — at $180 million. Today we have reached over $5 billion in trade.”

This trend, Sagiv adds, will continue with the increasing bilateral trade relations and exposure that business people from both countries get.

Agribusiness is just part of the $5 billion trade between India and Israel. (photo credit: courtesy)

So what is it about India that has drawn this growing trend of investment in business?

“On one level, it is that both sides benefit,” Sagiv says, explaining that the market potential in India is huge. Entrepreneurs in Israel see joint ventures as the best way to tap this potential, because having partners on the ground would limit their exposure to unsound investments.

The biggest support from Israeli technology, Sagiv identifies, is in terms of food and water security, especially in agribusiness. Traditionally, Indian agriculture is rain dependent and with erratic monsoons, droughts are common. This explains the popularity of Israeli drip irrigation technology among farmers in India, where irrigation infrastructure has yet to catch up.

Recently, an Indian news magazine reported that farmers from the fertile Haryana region in the north-west were visiting Israel for “specialized training” in farm technology.

The consul-general, who is leaving India after five years of service at this post, also says that India and Israel are currently negotiating a free trade agreement, which she calls a potential “game changer.”

‘Israel is a small country but has advanced agro-technology that can benefit India’s population’

“We have had a few rounds of talks already and hopefully, we are moving in the right direction,” Sagiv says.

While she declines to comment on India’s recent streak of protectionist trade policy, as seen in the rigid caps it placed on the entry of foreign big-brand retail, Sagiv is optimistic about this incipient trade deal between Israel and India.

“We don’t have Walmarts and Targets,” she says. “Israel is a small country but has advanced agro-technology that can benefit India’s population. We believe that trade between the two countries will triple in the next few years. ”

As these economic ties grow, it isn’t impossible to envision the sacred Mount of Olives lending its name to a stretch of leafy grove among the dunes in the Indian desert.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Letter to PA President Abbas: Don’t Prove the Naysayers Right

A Letter to PA President Abbas:                                                    Don’t Prove the Naysayers Right

by Donniel Hartman

Dear President Abbas:

The new administration in Washington has brought to our neighborhood a Secretary of State who has not yet given up on the possibilities of progress in bringing our conflict to a peaceful and just end. It seems, as well, that President Obama, while facing numerous challenges both on the home and international fronts, is willing to expend some political capital in trying to help us help ourselves. What you may not know is that many Israelis are counting on you to help waste this opportunity and contribute your share in reinstating the status quo of Obama's first-term hands-off policy.

One of the difficult things about living in the Middle East, as you undoubtedly know all too well, is that we never really get what we want. We don’t get to shape the conditions of the starting position, who is at the starting position, or even when it really starts. As an area with so rich and troubling a history, an area contested over the millennia by so many peoples, religions, and nations, we inherit the starting position and the players involved, both on our side, as well as our opponents.

As an Israeli and as a Jew, I love Israel, and I am quite partial to its needs. I am fully aware, however, that you could very easily imagine a starting position and an environment in which we either are not here or, if we are present, it is in a very different and diminished capacity. The significant question we all face is not whether we would choose the conditions under which we find ourselves, but what we do about them.

The Middle East is steeped in history, and we all inherit extensive and complex memories. The strange and frustrating thing about history is that despite its profound impact on who we are, its content is very often forced upon us. My father used to love to say that he had been in therapy for 30 years, and his mother still hadn’t changed.

We don’t have 30 more years to engage in self-reflective therapy. Secretary Kerry has opened up a small and short-term window of opportunity. I expect that even if we had 30 years we still wouldn’t be able to change our past.

No one can forget their past or the core narratives that have shaped who they are and how they see the world. We can, however, choose how to use these narratives in writing a different future for ourselves. I am writing to you, because I deeply yearn for our two peoples to make this choice and to stop living a fantasy that the status quo somehow plays in one of our favors.

In Israel, the going narrative, which serves the "status quo-ists" is that you are not a serious peace partner. I call it the "Olmert Syndrome": "If Abu Mazen turned down even Olmert's offer, then there is no offer that could be put on the table which he will accept." I am sure that you may have a slightly different take on that scenario. As in all cases, the facts are the most difficult to ascertain.

What I do know, however, is that the consequences of the Olmert Syndrome are the creation of an Israeli narrative that is profoundly self-serving and self-congratulatory and an environment in which we Israelis are exempt from self-reflection and self-evaluation with regard to the actions we must take and the policies that we have already put into place.

I am frustrated by this, and I assume you are as well. Anytime I encounter self-laudatory narratives which magically put the entire onus on the other side I know something is wrong. As people with a deep religious sensibility, people who believe in a transcendent God who demands that we be more, do more, and when we fail, must redouble our efforts, self-laudatory language is supposed to be alien to us.

I am writing with a simple request and prayer: Take a chance. I know that you and I look at the present through very different eyes, and while there is always an abundance of blame to go around, and we may disagree on how it should be apportioned, and on whose shoulders it rests, I have come to a place in my life in which I realize it doesn’t really matter anymore.

I cannot change the past. I can, however, recognize that your sense of the past is different from mine. You also cannot change the past, but maybe you, too, can recognize that mine has its own coherent narrative, as well. When we understand this, and deeply internalize it, we don’t forget our particular histories, but we realize that part of the process of moving forward with others is that we ask ourselves not only from whence we both have come, but where we both want to go.

I am sure that you have a bagful of frustrations toward Israel and have a store full of arguments to make your case. There is one thing, however, that I know: Regardless of our policies – right or wrong – no Israeli will turn their back on someone who is willing to shape a better future for us all.

I am writing to ask you to be such a person. I am not asking for unilateral concessions on your part, or for you to shoulder any blame. I am writing to ask you to help shift the focus from yesterday to today and possibly to tomorrow.

We can meet Secretary Kerry and bring him into our respective pasts, asking him to somehow serve as a judge who will allot reparations for yesterday and awards for who is the greatest victim. Or we can meet Secretary Kerry and ask him to be a friend who helps us envision a new future. Who knows? You may even find that this may be the most effective tool to correct some of the injustices of the past.

We live in a complicated and difficult part of the world, in which the past is all too often not merely a foundation for our existence or an anchor for the present but a chain which brings us all down. President Abu Mazen, cut the chain. If you do so, you will find that Israelis will have done so at the same time.

The paradox of our conflict is that we have become so much alike. We watch each other carefully and take our cues from every nuance and subtlety that we pick up. For too long this symbiotic relationship has been destructive. Before we can separate from each other in a manner which is just, in accordance with both of our legitimate rights, we need to use that symbiotic relationship to inspire each other. We don’t need gestures from each other in order to placate hurt feelings from the past, but rather significant parallel moves which in the context of our symbiotic relationship will motivate each other and generate movement in a new direction.

We didn’t pick each other as neighbors, but we do find each other at the starting line. That line can either signify yet another beginning of a competition, another chapter in our no-win conflict, or a line which delineates the tragic past from a hopeful future. I and most Israelis look forward to meeting you as a partner in this future.

Sincerely yours,
Donniel Hartman

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Defining Zionism: The belief that Israel belongs to the entire Jewish people

Defining Zionism: The belief that Israel belongs to the entire Jewish people

Given the ways in which the word 'Zionism' is thrown around both in Israel and outside of it, and the vast permutations it’s gone through over the past decades, perhaps it's time we try to define it realistically.

By A.B. Yehoshua

“Zionist” is a concept that’s basically simple, clear, easy to define and understand, and there should be no difficulty defending its definition. But over the past 20 to 30 years, this simple concept has turned into one of the most confused and complicated notions of identity, and its overuse has made it impossible to agree on what it means.

The right likes to use it as a type of whipped cream to improve the taste of dubious dishes, while the left treats it with fear, as if it were a mine liable to explode in its hands − which is why it always feels the need to neutralize it with some strange adjective, as in “sane Zionism” or “humane Zionism.” In the dispute between the “national camp” and the “peace camp,” Zionism is used as an offensive weapon that is batted from one side to the other.

Abroad, critics of Israel use Zionism as a kind of poisonous potion to exacerbate every accusation against the state. Many critics believe that the solution to Israel’s future lies in the de-Zionization of its identity. Among Israel’s sworn enemies, “Zionist” is a demonic epithet, a term of denunciation that replaces the word “Israeli” or “Jew.” Hamas members speak of the captured Zionist soldier, and Hezbollah and Iran speak of the criminal Zionist entity, not about Israel.

So it’s about time that we try to define the word “Zionist” realistically. First of all, we must remember that from a historical perspective, the concept emerged only at the end of the 19th century. It’s meaningless to try and describe Yehuda Halevi as a Zionist, or any other Jew who immigrated to the Holy Land in centuries past. In the same fashion, we can’t use the terms “socialism” or “socialist” for periods before the middle of the 19th century, and describe Robespierre, for example, as the “socialist” of the French Revolution, which occurred at the end of the 18th century. These concepts only have significance from the time when they emerged in a specific historical context, and tossing them around freely as labels for anything we choose is a clearly anachronistic act.

If so, how would we define who is a Zionist, starting from the emergence of the Zionist movement as inspired by Theodor Herzl and his associates? Here is the definition: A Zionist is a person who desires or supports the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, which in the future will become the state of the Jewish people. This is based on what Herzl said: “In Basel I founded the Jewish state.”

The key word in this definition is “state,” and its natural location is the Land of Israel because of the Jewish people’s historical link to it. Thus my grandfather’s grandfather, for example, who came to the Land of Israel from Thessaloniki in the mid-19th century, cannot be considered a Zionist. He came to settle in the Land of Israel, not to establish a state here. This is also the rule for the ancestors of Neturei Karta and other Hasidic groups that came to the Land of Israel as far back as the 17th and 18th centuries, and who remain loyal to it. Not only were these Jews not interested in establishing a Jewish state, but they include some who saw − and still see − the State of Israel as an abomination and a desecration of God’s name.

A Zionist, therefore, is a Jew who supported the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, and not necessarily one who actually settled in the land. Herzl himself and many Zionist leaders never settled in the land, yet you wouldn’t hesitate to call them Zionists. Even today, the members of Zionist federations worldwide are considered Zionists by us and by themselves, even though they don’t live in Israel.

Anyone who believes that only a person who lives in Israel can be a Zionist is essentially saying that today, there are no Zionists outside the State of Israel, and that’s not the case. And what about those born in the Land of Israel − are they considered Zionists based on their place of birth alone?

A Zionist is a person who wanted or supported the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. What kind of state? Well, every Zionist had his own vision and his own plan.

Zionism is not an ideology. If the definition of ideology, according to the Hebrew Encyclopedia, is as follows − “A cohesive, systematic combination of ideas, insights, principles and imperatives that finds expression in the particular worldview of a sect, a party or a social class” − then Zionism cannot be considered an ideology, but merely a very broad platform for various ideologies that may even contradict one another.

Ever since the State of Israel was founded in 1948, the definition of “Zionist” has been revised, since we don’t need to establish another state. Therefore, its definition is as follows: A Zionist is a person who accepts the principle that the State of Israel doesn’t belong solely to its citizens, but to the entire Jewish people. The practical expression of this commitment is the Law of Return.

The state’s affairs are indeed managed solely by its citizens − people who have an Israeli identity card, of whom 80 percent are Jews, while 20 percent are Israeli Palestinians and others. But only a person who supports and affirms the Law of Return is a Zionist, and anyone who rejects the Law of Return is not a Zionist.

Nevertheless, Israeli Jews who reject the Law of Return and declare themselves non-Zionists or post-Zionists ‏(whether from the right or the left‏) are still good citizens who are loyal to the State of Israel, and retain all their civil rights.

From this it emerges that all the big ideological, political, security and social questions over which we do battle day and night have nothing to do with Zionism. They are similar to the questions that many other peoples, past and present, have had to struggle with, and still struggle with.

Moreover, Zionism is not a word that’s meant to replace patriotism, pioneering, humaneness or love of one’s homeland, concepts that are found in other languages as well. Hebrew is rich enough to endow every position or action with the appropriate word. An Israel Defense Forces officer who serves in the standing army for many years after his compulsory service, for example, is no greater Zionist than the kiosk owner eking out a livelihood, though we would certainly see him as a greater patriot. A person who volunteers to help needy children is no more a Zionist than a stockbroker, although he may be a greater humanitarian.

To be a Zionist is not a badge of honor, or a medal a person wears on his chest. Medals are connected to actions, not to support of the Law of Return.

Nor is there any connection between the size of the country and Zionism. If the Arabs had accepted the partition plan in 1947, the State of Israel within the partition borders would have been just as Zionist as it is within different borders.

If the State of Israel had conquered and annexed the east bank of the Jordan and repealed the Law of Return, it would have ceased being Zionist even though it would be three or four times the size. The state was Zionist when it controlled the Gaza Strip, and it was just as Zionist after it withdrew from it. Many countries have seen changes in the size of their sovereign territory, but their core identities remained intact.

With regard to the Law of Return, which some see as discriminating against Israel’s Palestinian citizens, this is the answer: The Law of Return is essentially the moral condition set by the countries of the world for the establishment of the State of Israel. The United Nations’ partition of Palestine-Eretz Israel in 1947 into a Jewish state and a Palestinian one was on condition that the Jewish state would not just be a state for the 600,000 Jews that lived there at the time, but would instead be a state that could resolve the distress of Jews all over the world, and would enable every Jew in the world to consider it home. Would it be moral for the hundreds of thousands of Jews who immigrated to Israel on the basis of the Law of Return to shut the door they entered through behind them?

Moreover, it’s almost certain that there will be a similar law in the Palestinian state that I hope will be established, speedily and in our days. It would behoove that state to legislate a law of return that would enable every exiled Palestinian to return to the Palestinian state and obtain asylum and citizenship.

But neither the Israeli Law of Return, nor a similar law in the future Palestinian state, contradict general immigration laws that set specific entry criteria, as is customary in every country of the world.

Liberating the concept of Zionism from all the appendages and addenda that have adhered to it would not only clarify the ideological and political arguments we have among ourselves, and thus prevent these disputes from being mythologized, but it would also force critics abroad to clarify and focus their positions.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Our Big Fat Indian-Jewish Weddings

Our Big Fat Indian-Jewish Weddings

There are so few Jews in the subcontinent that the census lists them with the 0.6% of religious ‘others.’ 
But while their weddings reflect an absorption of the surrounding culture, they remain wholly Jewish

BANGLORE — When Indian couple Sharon Bhalkar and Shulamith Malekar tied the knot in March, their wedding had all the pomp of a typical big Indian ceremony. From elegant sarees and fragrant curries to a DJ spinning the latest Bollywood hits, this could have been any other Indian wedding in the capital city, Delhi.

Except that both Sharon and Shulamith can trace their ancestry all the way back 2,000 years to Israel.

Little is written about India’s Jewish population. Jews in the subcontinent are such a minority that even the national demographic census lists them under the 0.6% of religious “others.” Quite often, India’s Jews are lumped together with another religious group that migrated from West Asia: the Parsees.

While the exact dates of their migration remain hazy, the Bene Israeli Jews, as they are referred to locally, probably left Israel prior to the years of Selucid persecution under Antiochus Epiphanes in 167 BCE. This would explain why the festival of Hannukah isn’t celebrated among most Indian Jews.

Like most other migrant communities, the Bene Jews gradually integrated into Indian society over centuries by drawing on local customs and finding room for them in their own traditions and observances. The Indian Jewish wedding is possibly the most visible example of this socio-cultural amalgamation.

Abigail and Isaac Rohekar were married at the Succath Shelomo synagogue in the west-Indian city of Pune in 1955. (Photo credit: Paul Dharamraj and Ofira Reuben/Times of Israel)

“Indian Jews try to follow as many traditions as possible,” says Nirah, a former El Al employee who married a Jewish Indian air force pilot, Abraham Doodhkar, in 1984. “Jews are known for adjusting to the society they live in, and borrowing from local culture.”

The biggest Indian element at a Jewish wedding is the mehndi ceremony, in which the bride’s hands are adorned with designs in henna. The pre-wedding ritual typically marks the start of a Hindu wedding. As all Jewish weddings are on Sundays, the application of henna begins two days earlier on Friday mornings.

But apart from decorating the bride’s hands, other local rituals include wearing a garland strung from jasmine flowers and smearing a yellow paste of turmeric on both the bride and the groom’s faces.

“Turmeric is applied to the bride’s face so that she will have sparkling skin for her wedding day,” says Aviva, Nirah’s daughter, who married David Mapgaonkar in 2004.

However, she adds that the reasons for the turmeric paste are more than simply cosmetic.

“When I got married, I was told that in Indian tradition, the turmeric is said to bless the couple with fortune and prosperity,” says Aviva.

For her wedding ceremony, her mother Nirah wore a white saree — a six-meter length of embroidered silk draped gracefully. Aviva, however, went western, swapping the traditional garb for a white gown. She changed into a colorful burgundy saree for the reception.

Nirah and Abraham Doodhkar tie the knot at Mumbai’s Magen Hassidim synagogue in 1984. (photo credit: Paul Dharamraj and Ofira Reuben/Times of Israel)

Another point of difference with the western Jewish wedding, Nirah says, is that Indian Jews don’t give too much importance to ring exchanges. Instead, they’ve adopted the Indian practice of tying the mangalsutra — a gold and black bead necklace which symbolically keeps the couple safe from harm. The groom gives his bride a mangalsutra, she adds.

The pre-wedding henna ceremony ends with a group song-and-dance routine, popularized by Bollywood cinema and encouraged by the older married women.

Indian Jews, however, remained atavistic when it comes to the religious components of the wedding, with all prayers and rituals handed down from one generation to the next.

To begin with, all Jewish weddings have to be conducted in a synagogue (Mumbai, Delhi and the coastal city of Cochin have some of the oldest synagogues in the country).

Chupah, the sheva brachot prayers and glass-breaking are paid great attention at community weddings. But even as all prayers are recited in Hebrew, a majority of the Indian Jewish community cannot speak or read the language anymore.

At Aviva’s wedding, her husband (and most of the congregation) couldn’t read the Hebrew script. Given the centuries since the Bene Israeli fled to India, most modern Jews have neglected reading the scriptures in the original language. However, they’ve found a way around it—by transliterating all the prayer books into local Indian languages.

David Mapgaonkar puts a mangalsutra on Aviva during their wedding ceremony in 2004. 
(photo credit: Paul Dharamraj and Ofira Reuben/Times of Israel)

Abigail, Aviva’s grandmother and Nirah’s mother, was married to the late Isaac Rohekar in 1955. One of the most important prayers at a Jewish wedding is the opening prayer, which welcomes the bride as she enters. Issac, Abigail says, couldn’t read any of the prayer in Hebrew.

“Eventually, we had to get him to read it in Marathi,” she reminisces. “Nobody taught us how to read Hebrew locally back then — except for the occasional rabbi visiting from Israel.”

Her granddaughter Aviva had a similar experience with prayers. However, her mother adds that her future husband Abraham put in a good six months’ practice to get the prayers right.

“We’d hear him singing every morning for at 5 a.m. for half a year before the wedding,” Abraham’s sister Shamira says, remembering how his morning ritual drove the entire family up the wall.

Once the ceremonial bits come to an end, guests make their way to the colorful reception. Traditions from both the Indian and Jewish heritage find representation here. The community rendition of Hava Nagilah and the “chair dance” have remained wedding favourites locally. Equally popular are enthusiastic singalongs and dances from Bollywood films.

Indian cuisine is popular at Jewish wedding receptions, albeit with a kosher twist. Everything from the mutton kebabs to the chicken biriyani is prepared in strict accordance with the Jewish dietary laws.

As a part of the mehndi ceremony, David looks for his name, which is written in henna on Aviva’s hand. (photo credit: Paul Dharamraj and Ofira Reuben/Times of Israel)

“We had kosher meat, but all cooked as Indian cuisine,” says Aviva, who now studies dentistry in Las Vegas. “Since all we have are Indian caterers, it’s usually local cuisine that everyone opts for.”

Kosher standards are taken very seriously among Indian Jews, Nirah says. She mentions that local synagogues have refused to use cooking vessels which show even the slightest traces of milk or dairy products for meat preparation.

There’s no shortage of local flavors, from tangy appetizers like the pani-puri to fiery mutton curries. The crowning glory at these feasts is the popular chicken biriyani, a rice dish with pan-Indian appeal. With its strong spices and condiments, the biriyani is made in over 30 different ways in various parts of the country. Indian Jews, not to be outdone, have their own recipe, Nirah says.

The most telling story about the Indian Jews’ long-standing cultural ties to the faith, however, comes from a local legend that Nirah narrates. When an Israeli rabbi first visited India back in the 18th century with the East India company, he couldn’t initially swallow claims that a few locals made about being Jewish. Only later, when he took a stroll along the shores, did he get the evidence he needed. Local immigrant fisherwomen were sorting out the day’s catch. Like Sharon and Shulamith carefully holding on to their heritage, these fisher folk wouldn’t even touch unscaled fish because it was “against their tradition and dietary customs.”

Aviva and David Mapgaonkar’s first kiss after the wedding, as their friends and family hold them up on chairs. (photo credit: Paul Dharamraj and Ofira Reuben/Times of Israel)

Jerusalem Police: We will not obstruct women's prayer at Western Wall

Jerusalem Police: We will not obstruct women's                         prayer at Western Wall

Announcement made at Knesset debate, following court decision that Women of the Wall can pray as they choose at holy site; Kotel rabbi endorses Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky's compromise for egalitarian prayer.

By Yair Ettinger, Jonathan Lis and Haaretz

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky presented his proposal on the Women of the Wall to the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women on Tuesday.

The proposal to set up a new egalitarian prayer section at the holy site, which has the support of the Reform and Conservative movements, centers around renovating the Robinson's Arch area adjacent to the Western Wall. This is the area the High Court in 2003 had designated as an alternative so that it would be more of an extension of the Kotel plaza, and would be open most hours of the day to accommodate both WOW and non-Orthodox groups who wanted to hold services.

Sharansky said the goal is a solution that will enable every Jew to express his or her connection to God and the Jewish people and that it can only be reached through dialogue between the different segments of the Jewish people.

The organization behind the struggle to change the rules of prayer for women at the Kotel expressed reservations about the proposal last week, citing they would like to continue operating as a women's group.

MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid), who chairs the Knesset panel on women and had advocated for Sharansky's proposal, warned that the current limbo, "in which it isn't clear what is permitted and what is prohibited, could lead to serious problems on Friday."

This coming Friday, WOW plans to hold its prayer service in honor of Rosh Hodesh (the first day of the Hebrew month of Sivan), with prayer shawls, tefillin, a Torah scroll and Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein's consent, who decided not to appeal the decision.

Michael Frankenberg, legal advisor to the Jerusalem Police said at the meeting that they would act in accordance with the court's decision, and not obstruct the women's prayers, shawls, tefillin and all.

Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch endorsed Sharansky's proposal, though he pointed out there are parts he agreed with less.

Harel Goldberg, a representative from the Justice Ministry, said the Attorney General's decision not to appeal the court ruling supports the notion that prayer at the Kotel must be more inclusive and liberal than the Orthodox Jewish custom.

Meanwhile, Israel's Minister of Religious Affairs Naftali Bennett plans to present new regulations for Jewish holy places that could restrict the right of Women of the Wall to pray as they see fit in the future, though he promised to formulate the new rules with input from the women's group.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Pope Francis says he wants to visit Israel in near future

Pope Francis says he wants to visit Israel in near future

Peres tells pontiff the sooner he makes journey the better it will be for the peace process; no date set for trip, which would be Bergoglio’s second, after a sojourn at start of 1973 Yom Kippur War

President Shimon Peres meeting with Pope Francis I at the Vatican in Rome, Italy on April 30, 2013. 
(photo credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO/Flash90)

Newly installed Pope Francis accepted an invitation from President Shimon Peres to visit Israel, as the two leaders held their first meeting on Tuesday.

The pope accepted the offer ”with willingness and joy,” a Vatican spokesman told reporters.

No date has been set for the trip, which would be the second for the pontiff, who visited in October 1973, at what turned out to be the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War.

Francis would try to find time to visit “in the near future,” the President’s Office said in a statement.

“The sooner you visit the better as in these days a new opportunity is being created for peace and your arrival could contribute significantly to increasing the trust and belief in peace,” Peres said.

He added that Israelis saw Francis as a “leader of peace and good will.”

“I am sure that you will be received warmly by all the citizens, regardless of religion, race or nationality.” He said. “I am expecting you in Jerusalem, not just me but the whole country of Israel.”

Peres’s visit with Francis at the Vatican on Tuesday was the first by an Israeli leader since Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope in March.

Peres and Francis discussed several Middle East issues, including the civil war in Syria and the state of talk between Israel and the Palestinian Authority during the talks, which the Vatican described as “cordial.”

“A speedy resumption of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians is hoped for, so that, with the courageous decisions and availability of both sides as well as support from the international community, an agreement may be reached that respects the legitimate aspirations of the two peoples, thus decisively contributing to the peace and stability of the region,” the Vatican said in a statement. “Reference to the important issue of the city of Jerusalem was not overlooked.”

Peres said that he was pleased to hear Tuesday’s announcement by the Arab League that it would integrate the idea of a “minor” land swaps into the Arab Peace Initiative.

“You have an important role in progressing peace and the belief in it, I turn to you and ask that within your sermons in front of millions of believers in the world you include the hope for peace in the Middle East and the whole world,” Peres told the pontiff.

Pope Francis expressed his hope that Israel and the Palestinians would soon return to the negotiating table.

Peres first invited Francis to Israel in March, immediately after his election, calling on the pope to visit as a spiritual and not political leader.

Both of the current pontiff’s immediate predecessors visited Israel, Benedict XVI in 2009 and John Paul II in 2000. Peres has already invited the pope to visit Israel, in what would be Bergoglio’s second visit to the Holy Land. Bergoglio visited in 1973, arriving just as the Yom Kippur War broke out.

During the meeting, Francis denounced anti-Semitism, which he said went against Christian beliefs.

“Anti-Semitism goes against Christianity – as pope I will not tolerate any expression of anti-Semitism,” he said.

In addition to his meeting with Pope Francis, Peres met on Tuesday with the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the secretary for relations with states, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, and Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta.

According to a communique released by the President’s Residence earlier this week, in consultations with Italian leaders, Peres will “discuss in depth the Iranian threat, increasing the economic and diplomatic sanctions against Iran, European involvement in the peace process, and strengthening the strategic, technological and economic relations between Israel and Italy.”

Peres will also use his visit to meet with leaders of the Jewish community in Italy and senior business leaders. He will receive an honor in the city of Assisi, the birthplace of Saint Francis of Assisi, after whom the new pontiff took his name.

After asking the pope “to pray for us all,” Peres told him that “I shall go to Assisi and pray for you.”

Israeli percussionist Itai Meshorer never thought terrorism would follow him to Boston.

Israeli percussionist Itai Meshorer never thought terrorism would follow him to Boston.

The 23-year-old studies at the Berklee College of Music, just a stone’s throw from the April 15th Boston Marathon bombings. Meshorer heard both explosions and saw smoke, but unlike others from his cohort of 25 Israeli music students currently enrolled at Berklee, he didn’t realize it was an attack until media confirmation.

After the attack, shady campus streets usually filled with guitar-playing hipsters were replaced by an active crime scene with hundreds of investigators.

For Berklee’s cadre of visiting Israelis, the Middle East-style bombing attack brought echoes from home and helped them reflect on the anomalous nature of their campus environment.

At Berklee, Israelis create and perform music with students from around the world – including Jordanians, Turks and Palestinians. Politics are usually checked at the door when students enter the school’s multicultural, inventive environment.

“Last night I performed with the India Ensemble,” Meshorer said. “Fifteen countries were represented among the performers.”  The Boston Marathon attack forced Berklee to cancel rehearsals and performances, and much of the campus was cordoned off for investigators. “The attack shook all of us badly,” said Daniel Rotem, a 22-year-old tenor saxophonist and composer. Rotem has represented Israel as a performer in The Hague and Cape Town and in 2010, the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music, outside Tel Aviv, voted him its top player.

“We were going to cancel all of our shows for weeks. But the one thing I learned in Israel is to never give up to things like that. Keep pushing forward to achieve your dreams,” said Rotem. On Tuesday, The Daniel Rotem Trio will perform at the Regatta Bar in Cambridge, a top jazz venue.

Each year, Berklee hosts about two-dozen Israeli student musicians from Rimon. As Israel’s only modern jazz school, it has sent hundreds of Israeli musicians to Berklee through a matriculation agreement forged in 1992. The Berklee-Rimon partnership turned into a model for creating what Berklee calls its International Network Partners. This means that like Israel, Finland, Korea and Brazil send their best music students to Boston each year. There, they influence each other’s art on a small campus tucked between the city’s Fenway and Back Bay neighborhoods.

‘The students’ cultures affect one another, and it’s like a wave of music changing the world’

“The students’ cultures affect one another, and it’s like a wave of music changing the world,” said David Mash, senior vice president at Berklee and a founder of the Berklee-Rimon partnership. “One-third of our students are from countries outside the US, and here they can connect in deep and meaningful ways.”

Faculty at both schools are heavily involved in the partnership, with Mash travelling to Israel each year to conduct auditions and workshops. He also helped Rimon design and equip its new building. And coming from Israel’s only jazz institution, Berklee’s Israeli musicians have an unshakable passion for the art of improvisation.

“I love jazz because it evolves, and it is about listening,” Rotem said. Improvisational performance fills many hours a week for most students, allowing them “to speak and listen to each other through music,” he said.

Some of Berklee’s Israelis work with Arab students on more overt co-existence projects, including 26-year-old Ella Joy Meir’s “Singing for Peace” program. Meir is a vocalist and pianist who said she thrives at multicultural Berklee, where “the human factor motivates me to create art.”

Meir’s “Belly of a Whale” song is her take on the Bible’s Jonah story – “my redemption song,” she said. She also started Isis Lune, a band “combining electronic textures with a raw human element.”

Some students mentioned a shift in their self-identity as Israelis since coming to Boston. For 28-year-old recorder player and vocalist Tali Runbinstein, it took a year of living in Boston to assimilate Israeli roots into her music.

“I have always played the recorder,” Rubinstein said. “But not until I came to Berklee did I really think about its connection to the Israeli experience. The recorder was the instrument of the kibbutz and early Israeli music. Only now, surrounded by musicians from around the world, do I make these connections between what I do and Israel.”

To sustain the Berklee-Rimon relationship, Berklee recently established a scholarship fund for Israeli students. Launched with a significant personal gift from Berklee President Roger H. Brown and his wife, Linda Mason, the fund will help Israeli students – most of whom need financial aid – study at Berklee.

Steady and vibrant, the Berklee-Rimon partnership attracts all kinds of supporters. Israel’s top diplomat in New England, Shai Bazak, speaks regularly with Berklee’s president Brown about the students.

“One of our central goals is to share Israel’s vibrant culture and art with the people of Boston,” Bazak said. “Through the amazing talent of our Israeli students at Berklee, we have the opportunity to do so.”

Much has been invested to help hundreds of Israeli music students spend a year or more in Boston since 1992. In turn, the “Berklee Israelis” have left a mark of their own on campus and in the Jewish community.

“The Israeli students have amazing work ethics and are incredibly social with everyone,” said Brett Lowenstern, a Berklee freshman vocalist known for his 2011 stint on American Idol. “Some of this is because they are all a few years older than us and served in the army.”

Several Israeli friends at Berklee convinced Lowenstern to join a Birthright Israel-Taglit trip and he regularly visits Boston University Hillel with Israeli students for Jewish activities.

“There is a lot of political ignorance on our campus,” Lowenstern said. “Having these Israeli students there makes it better because people can understand reality, and not what Israel haters elsewhere might say.”