David I. Roytenberg

Are we winning?

I was in Jerusalem on February 20, visiting my Israeli sister. She and her husband are hosting their daughter and ten month old granddaughter, the daughter’s dog, and a very loud cat named Frankie, who has adopted all of them. The baby’s father called in during a brief respite from his service in the war. The great grandparents tuned in on Zoom from across the ocean for baby’s supper.

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Image: Posters in Jerusalem call for the return of the hostages; Photo by David Roytenberg

The previous day, we went to Tel Aviv to meet a friend for dinner. Our friend is in Israel on a one week solidarity mission by members of my Ottawa synagogue. Another friend is in the North with a group sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Ottawa. Some of the worst affected areas from October 7 are starting to turn groups away because the constant flow of visitors is more than they can handle.

While everyone we know here is pulling together to keep life on course, the events in the wider world cast a shadow over everything. In Gaza, Israel is holding off on a final push against the remaining Hamas formations, while the IDF works to organize the movement of a million Gazan civilians out of harm’s way. In the conversations I had with my family, the necessity of completely eliminating Hamas from Gaza seemed obvious, just as it does to the people we have met and spent time with in Ashkelon and our friend from Ottawa. While Netanyahu is not loved by anyone we’ve met, his message that the task must be completed if Israel is to be safe is not controversial.

The news from Gaza is short on detail, but the army reports progress. We are heartbroken at the death each Israeli soldier. Today we learned of the death of Staff Sergeant Avraham Wovagon in fighting with Hamas forces in Northern Gaza. Three others were seriously wounded in another battle. While the conditions for the Israeli army in Gaza remain difficult, there is a sense that Israel is winning the war. The reported number of enemy dead has reached 12,000 and the remaining forces appear to be leaderless, as Yahya Sinwar is said to be on the run and no longer in contact with the Hamas bosses abroad.

My on line debates with non-Jewish acquaintances from my high school years have continued while I’ve been in Israel. They reveal just how big the gulf is between the way we see the war and the way Canadians on the political left see it. To some of our neighbors, the cost in civilian life is the only issue. The argument about Hamas using them as human shields is just an Israeli talking point. The necessity of eliminating Hamas, a matter of survival to us, seems to be unimportant to them. The Israeli response to the October 7 attacks is “disproportionate” and people like myself who defend Israel’s war as lawful have lost our moral compass. Hamas is bad, but Israel has “descended to their level.”

In Canada, the surge in public demonstrations of hostility to Israel continues. Leah Goldstein, a Canadian cyclist who had a heroic career, was due to give an address as the “Inspire Inclusion” keynote speaker at an International Women’s day event in my home town of Ottawa. She was cancelled after an “a small but growing and extremely vocal group” objected to her appearance due to her service in the Israeli military thirty years ago. Organizers announced that, “In recognition of the current situation and the sensitivity of the conflict in the Middle East, the Board of INSPIRE will be changing our keynote speaker.” They didn’t explain if it was because the group of protesters was small, growing, or vocal that caused them to dump their chosen speaker.

Goldstein criticized the decision and pointed out that cancelling her address would do nothing to help the people of Gaza. She attributed the decision to the fact that she is a Jew. She proudly said she would serve in the IDF again today if called on. [Update February 28:  The INSPIRE event, which was scheduled to be held in Peterborough, not in Ottawa, has now been cancelled entirely by its inept organizers, who first changed their speaker under pressure from the pro-Hamas mob and then abandoned the program altogether in response to the backlash at their clueless decision to capitulate.]

A petition appeared in my inbox yesterday pushing back against pressure to cancel “The Runner,” an Israeli play about the difficulties of an Israeli soldier serving in the territories. The play is part of the planned lineup this coming season at the Belfry theatre in Victoria. In 46 years no play has ever been cancelled there due to political pressure. If you want to sign the petition you can find it hereI signed it and I hope you will too.

In British Colombia, Selina Robinson, a minister of the provincial government was hounded out of office for criticizing the Palestinian cause and supporting Israel in the aftermath of the genocidal attack of October 7. She was accused by her critics of being a racist and a colonialist. In a moment of cowardice which may mark a turning point in the history of the Canadian Jews, the premier of British Colombia, David Eby, said that due to “the hurt she has caused,” he had no choice but to demand her resignation. Terry Glavin wrote about it here.

Israelis are doing what they have to do and Canadian Jews are gathering closer together for mutual support in an environment that seems to have become more hostile. I think that whatever challenges are put in its road, Israel will prevail in Gaza and Hamas will be driven from the territory. In that sense, we are winning.

But looking up at the broader world, it is harder to be optimistic. In the United States, military aid for both Israel and Ukraine remains blocked by a minority of Republican isolationists in the House of Representatives. An increasingly vocal Arab lobby wants to put an end to the close American-Israeli relationship. Although most Americans remain supportive of military aid to both Israel and Ukraine, extremists seem to have found a way to stop the will of the majority from being actualized, at least temporarily.

Disappointingly, the heroic Ukrainian defense of Avdi’ivka collapsed this week after four months of human wave attacks by Russia. The campaign for Avdi’ivka reportedly cost the Russians 47,000 dead, and underlined the price of depriving the Ukrainians of the weapons they need resist Russian aggression. The death of Alexei Navalny the same week was a chilling reminder of the way Russia is governed, and of the dire prospects for Ukrainians if Russia wins the war.

The rising tide of anti Jewish agitation in the United States in response to the Gaza war highlights once again the fact that Jew hatred does not exist only on the right. But the antisemitic right has also been more vocal since the start of the war. The America First rhetoric that is being used to justify holding up military aid for Israel and Ukraine was amplified on the campaign trail by Donald Trump, who said that NATO allies who don’t spend 2% on military aid should not be protected by America. In fact, he said, he’d invite Russia to do what they want.

Vladimir Putin, who has justified his war of aggression against Ukraine by claiming that there is a NATO plot to destroy Russia, must have been pleased at what Donald Trump is saying, although he solemnly endorsed Biden recently for the presidency. In explaining why he prefers Biden, he bolstered Trump’s claim that Putin doesn’t want him to be president because he is too unpredictable.

The Russians have announced a meeting in Moscow between the PA and Hamas in the latest attempt to create a Palestinian unity government. Clearly a Palestinian government including Hamas would be unacceptable to Israel and the United States. This would have the effect of torpedoing the Biden administration’s plans for a grand bargain in which Saudi Arabia and the remaining Arab states would recognize Israel and Israel would in turn make concessions leading to a Palestinian state.

Although the American talk of a Palestinian state seems mad in the context of the current war, the prospect of an America which retreats from the world, leaving the Middle East to Iran, doesn’t augur well for Israel. The cloud of uncertainty over the wider geopolitical picture offer plenty of things to worry about. Israel cannot help but be affected adversely if America continues to back away from its role as guarantor of the liberal international order.

For now, we must focus on the immediate challenges of doing what we can to help Israelis win the war, and fighting efforts to sideline Jews and supporters of Israel from the Canadian conversation. I am encouraged by the huge show of solidarity from Canadian and American Jews who support the people of Israel, as they fight this just and necessary war.

As the war continues in its fifth month, Israelis are demonstrating that at the grassroots, they come together and do what has to be done in a crisis. This is in spite of the fact that their leaders can’t stop the divisive rhetoric and incendiary policy initiatives. The Arab population of Israel has pointedly ignored the Hamas call to open another front inside Israel’s borders. A poll taken in November reported their sense of identification with Israel had risen dramatically since the beginning of the war to 70%. (In this context, it seem counter productive that the police minister wants to restrict their access to Al Aqsa during Ramadan.)

America may yet find a way to help Ukraine and Israel and the American public will have its say in November about whether Trump’s transactional approach to NATO is what they want.

This article was originally published at Canadian Zionist Forum.

About the Author
David Roytenberg is a Canadian living in Ottawa, Canada, with a lifelong interest in Israel and Zionism. He spent 9 months in Israel in 1974-75 on Kibbutz Kfar Glickson and is a frequent visitor to friends and family in Israel. He is married and the father of two sons. David is Secretary of MERCAZ Canada and the chair of Adult Education for Kehillat Beth Israel in Ottawa. He wrote monthly about Israel and Zionism for the Canadian Jewish News from 2017 to 2020.
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