Resolving Fraternal Rivalry: Manasseh and Ephraim

Mikeitz, Genesis 41:1−44:17

A repeated theme throughout Genesis is the relationship of brothers – of Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph in relationship to his eleven brothers. In this week’s portion, I want to pay attention to a far less well-known pair of brothers, Manasseh and Ephraim, the two sons of Joseph. The meaning and significance of these two brothers (and eventually these two tribes) are of enormous significance.

This week’s portion of the text deals with the reunion of Joseph with his brothers. It begins with one dreamer, the Pharaoh, encountering another, Joseph. Only Joseph both has dreams and interprets them. Pharaoh’s dreams are interpreted as a message from God to the King. Joseph may interpret the dream, but it is God who sends the message via the dream of seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. How could God adumbrate the future for a non-Hebrew Pharaoh but not deliver what he promised to Joseph, and about which Joseph had his own dreams?

However, Joseph does get power and wealth. From a slave and a prisoner, he becomes effectively the Prime Minister of Egypt. The Pharaoh makes Joseph the chief vizier. He also arranges a marriage for him with the daughter, Asenath, of the priest of On, Potipherah. (Potiphara means “belonging to the sun.) It is the height of irony that it was Potipherah’s wife that tried to seduce Joseph and when he did not succumb, had him thrown into prison on false accusations. Then Joseph’s wife eventually turned out to be the daughter of his false accuser.

Asenath delivers two sons. Manasseh (“God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home.”) is the first born. Joseph through Manasseh is constantly reminded that he has the luck of the Irish, that he is a Hebrew who left behind his memories and his heritage and, in spite of that, ended up powerful and wealthy. The second son was called Ephraim (“God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.”)

What an irony again! God had promised Joseph’s forefathers that he would, along with his brothers, inherit the rich and abundant land of Canaan and have many progeny, but it is from the land into which he was sold into slavery, this other land, Egypt, where he was rewarded with power and wealth. His homeland and family seemed at first to have been left in the dustbin of history. Yet it was in this land, initially viewed as the land of his affliction because he was enslaved and then imprisoned, where he would have his progeny. Did the land of his affliction have another meaning not yet revealed to him, in fact, never revealed to him during his lifetime?

How many Friday nights did I put my hands on the heads of my two youngest sons and incant, “May God make you like Ephraim and like Manasseh”? (Yisimcha Eh-lokim k’Ephraim v’chi’Menashe) I did not do it because I wanted the older of the two to become an adult who forgot his heritage when he became prosperous or the youngest because I wanted him to suffer when he grew up. Nor did I do it as the Chabadniks declare because these were examples of boys born to a convert and brought up with all the temptations of Egypt and of power and wealth, but who stuck with the Israelites, with the Jewish people. Jacob blessed them (“Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine like Reuben and Simeon”) and adopted both as his own two sons and the head of an additional two tribes. I did cross my hands and put my right hand on the head of my very youngest and the left on the head of his older brother, as instructed, for the second will exceed the first.

When Jacob was about to pass away, he called Joseph to his bedside and asked to bless his two sons. Jacob told Joseph that these two boys, his grandsons, are like sons to him. Thus, unlike all of Jacob’s other grandchildren, Manasseh and Ephraim became two independent tribes — on par with their uncles, Jacob’s other sons.

The scene then shifted back to that very same homeland which had receded so deeply in Joseph’s memory. His father, Jacob, sent his ten brothers to purchase rations in Egypt when the famine took hold in the second seven-year cycle. Then Joseph’s early dream was realized. His brothers came before him and bowed low with their faces to the ground beseeching the vizier, whom they never recognized as their brother as he stood before them totally out of context in the dress of a noble rather than that of a shepherd.

Joseph recognized his brothers. And he spoke harshly to them, questioning them closely about their purpose and their origins. He accused them of being spies. Why spies? Was this an adumbration of the return to Canaan 400 years later at the end of the 40-year trek across the Sinai when the heads of each of the tribes (the Meraglim) were sent by Moses to spy out the land? (Numbers 13-14) The brothers protested the accusation and claimed their innocence and honesty. Thrice more, ignoring their protests, Joseph accuses them of being spies to find a land wasted in contrast to land of milk and honey that the spies of Moses would discover.

Joseph sets up a condition. As a proof of their honesty, they had to go home, fetch their youngest brother and return with him. Simeon was taken as hostage to ensure their return. Joseph did two other things. He wept when they could not see him as he overheard them speaking in Hebrew and blaming themselves for the trouble they were in because of how they had treated Joseph. It is a tale of irony built upon irony.

He also filled their sacks not only with grain, but with the monies they had come with to purchase the grain and provisions for the trip. Why would he treat suspected spies this way, except to entrap them, they thought when they returned home? They told Jacob the story. Jacob (Israel) berated them. He had lost Joseph. He had lost Simeon. Was he now to lose Benjamin? Reuben once again stepped up to the plate and told his father that he could kill his own two sons if he did not return with both Simeon and Benjamin.

Jacob had sent them back with double the money they had found in their sacks. But when they told this to Joseph, he replied, “All is well with you; do not be afraid. Your God and the God of your father (my italics) must have put treasure in your bags for you. I got your payment.” (43:23)

When the brothers presented themselves for the unexpected and surprising invitation to lunch and prostrated themselves before Joseph in obeisance as his dream foretold, Joseph asked after their (his) father’s health which they assured him was fine. Then he spotted his younger brother, Benjamin, and was overwhelmed. He had to flee to another room where he could weep in private. There we have it. Joseph, the eldest and first-born of Rachel, is a sentimentalist, a bleeding heart, a man of great compassion towards his brothers even though they had sold him into slavery. He forgave them and insisted that it was not they who sold him into slavery, but God, for it was part of God’s plan that he precede them in Egypt and lay the ground for the survival of the Israelites through tough times.

As it were, times would eventually become much tougher. The Hebrews as a whole would be made slaves in Egypt and suffer from great affliction. And a probable cause, or at least a very plausible one, was that they blamed a Hebrew for reducing them from freeholding farmers to serfs when he took their land for the pharaoh in return for providing them with rations to survive the famine.

There is another twist. Normally, the second-born is the peacemaker, the conciliator, but in this case, Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin. His older brother, Joseph had disappeared. He was by birth a second-born, but by personality a first-born, but with all the characteristics doubled for he grew up like an only son and his half-brothers were more like uncles to him. His father who doted on him was elderly. He, in effect, brought himself up. It should be no surprise that the character of first-borns was so powerful in him.

First-borns are fighter pilots. First-borns are natural warriors. Disproportionately, they are born military leaders. In contrast, though he was naturally a second born, Benjamin had none of the traits of someone who avoided confrontation and one who learns the Machiavellian methods of the calculating political leader in favour of direct action. In Jewish society, the first-borns are given to God so that the second-borns can rule through compromise and negotiation rather than might is right. Benjamin, though born of Rachel second, had the traits in spades of a first-born. (For a much more detailed analysis of the difference between first- and second-borns in both social psychology and in the Tanach, see my 27 May 2017 blog on the subject in WordPress.)

It should then be no surprise that when Jacob blesses Benjamin, he says, “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he devours the prey, in the evening he divides the plunder.” (49:27). It should be no surprise that, although the tribe of Benjamin was the smallest in numbers, it had the reputation as the fiercest; the Benjamites served as the shock troops of the Israeli military. It should be no surprise that Ehud, a Judge and also an assassin (as well, a left-handed one), led the defeat of the Moabites. Yet it is the tribe of Ephraim in its jealousy of Judah that is blamed for splitting off the northern Kingdom from Judah in the south. However, the ultraorthodox Ephraimites resisted the modernizing reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah. They were like the father of Ephraim, Joseph, haughty and self-righteous as well as sentimental and generous.

Queen Esther, who risked her life to save the Jewish people, was a Benjamite. So was King Saul, the great military leader, who ended his final days, his twilight years, his evening as it were, focused on dividing the plunder rather than on defending his people against their enemies. The Benjamites themselves proved that when the sun went down, their true wolfish character emerged and they gang-raped and murdered a Levite concubine, earning the wrath of all the other tribes who united to almost totally destroy the tribe of Benjamin in spite of its military ferocity. Ferocity unbound can lead to depravity and must be contained.

What about Joseph? He was the first-born of Rachel, but unlike almost any other typical first-born. A dreamer rather than a hunter, an aesthete rather than an outdoorsman, a preening and very proud competitor of his older half-brothers, he rose to the top of the political heap trough skill, cunning and calculation. But at heart, he was a sentimentalist. And when he had two sons not only by a non-Hebrew, but one who worshipped pagan gods, Joseph had to adopt them so they became heads of tribes themselves.

Since the Levites were not a self-contained tribe at all, Manassah and Ephraim became the eleventh and twelfth tribes of the Israelites. Manassah occupied the largest part of the Northern Kingdom on both sides of the Jordan River, the part conquered by the Assyrians and taken away as slaves until Manasseh was restored as a vassal king of Assyria. The tribe of Ephraim along with that of Benjamin lived in the crosshairs between the Norther Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah. Eventually the tribe to the south of Menassah, though initially smaller and blessed with fewer resources, became the larger, more powerful and wealthier one.

Further, when Jacob blessed them both and at the same time, thereby avoided the error of his own father, he crossed his arms and blessed Ephraim, the second-born, with his right hand. (This is why the worshippers in the Church of the Latter Day Saints – the Mormons – believe that they are descendants of or were adopted into the lost trine of Ephraim; Iranian Jews and the Telugu Jews of India, the Bene Ephraim, make the same claim.) Joseph blessed the other son, the elder one, with his left-hand. The older would in the end serve the younger.  And thus, the Hebrews were bequeathed a concept of political leadership that rewarded calculation, cunning and compromise over confrontation and conflict. The professional soldier was always to be in service to the civilian leader.

Evidently, not all the time. But the message of Jacob passed onto his heirs is that the Jews have to have both, have be governed by a marriage of skills of governance and military prowess, with the former in command of the latter. Though equal, the second-born shall rule over the first.

The Lord spoke to Moses: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying: This is how you shall bless the children of Israel: “May the Lord bless you and watch over you. May the Lord cause His countenance to shine upon you and favor you. May the Lord raise His countenance toward you and grant you peace.” [my italics] They shall bestow My Name upon the children of Israel, so that I will bless them.

“May God make you like Manasseh and Ephraim.”

Israeli Settlements and Evictions

I ended my blog on the normalization agreements by offering a boost for the blend of interests and idealism in the conduct of foreign policy. David Tal’s study of “United States – Israel Relations (1953-1957) Revisited,” in Israel Foreign Relations (28:1) (Spring 2021, 24-46) makes the same argument and applauds President Dwight D. Eisenhower who achieved precisely the correct mixture of both. “Eisenhower aimed to preserve and increase American influence in the Middle East in a way that would not put Israel at risk, but would respond to concerns voiced at home about his policies toward Israel and the surrounding nations. Furthermore, the administration’s approach was…evidenced by their policy of “friendly impartiality” toward Israel, attentiveness to Israel’s military and economic needs, and sensitivity to the views of American Jewry.”

How should America deal with the Israeli policy of expanding settlements as part of its creeping annexation? Soon after taking office in 2009, Barack Obama asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to freeze settlement growth; he asked specifically and personally when they met in Washington on 19 May 2009. Obama had already met King Abdullah of Jordan on 21 April and met Abbas after his meeting with Netanyahu. Obama told all three that, for America, a two-state solution was a priority.

However, Netanyahu refused to endorse the creation of a Palestinian state. But, as Obama recorded in his recent memoir (A Promised Land), “We began by calling for a temporary freeze in Israel’s construction of new settlements in the West Bank, a significant sticking point between the two parties, so that negotiations might proceed in earnest.” (631) Obama understood that, “the explosion in settlements amounted to a slow-motion annexation of their land and stood as a symbol of the Palestinian Authority’s impotence.” (632)

Obama thought that the stronger party (Israel) should make the first move. Obama encountered a full press lobby to counter his pressure on Netanyahu as well as his carrots to reinforce Israel’s security with support for the Iron Dome project. As Obama wrote, “the noise orchestrated by Netanyahu had the intended effect of gobbling up our time, putting us on the defensive, and reminding me that normal policy differences with an Israeli prime minister – even one who presided over a fragile coalition government – exacted a domestic political cost that simply didn’t exist when I dealt with the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Japan, Canada, or any of our closest allies.” (633)

Eventually, after first agreeing to support a two-state solution, two months later Netanyahu reluctantly agreed to a freeze on new settlements for ten months, but one excluding Jerusalem. (633) When 1,600 housing permits had been issued for East Jerusalem, Abbas considered the freeze a sham, insisted on a total freeze only to be rebutted by Netanyahu that all of Jerusalem was Israeli. However, under pressure from Mubarak and King Abdullah, Abbas finally agreed to enter into talks when there was only a month left in the suspension of the construction freeze. Abbas, though he had previously put down the freeze as irrelevant, now insisted it be continued. Netanyahu refused. That ended that effort to relaunch peace talks.

Was it simply a matter that interests and ideals could not be welded at that time? Or was the problem Obama. In his book, replete with critical self-awareness, he had considered that possibility. Did he lack Truman’s and Eisenhower’s “friendly impartiality”? Possibly. When Obama reflected on his dinner with Abbas, Abdullah, Maubarak and Netanyahu, he thought their easy familiarity was an act, an insincere ritual performance. It was a pantomime. The leaders lacked resolve. They were also all committed to basing foreign policy on realism, on a “world without illusions.”

What about his own? After all, he claimed to be adopting an impartial viewpoint, but deep down he did not really believe that Israel’s security interests were also America’s and thought that support for Israel, as long as it continued its occupation of the West Bank, damaged American interests. The absence of peace with the Palestinians made America less safe. Given that starting point, how could it be possible to wed interests and ideals when the interests of the convenor and Israel were so incongruent?

For the last four years the world has witnessed a dramatic shift in American policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the Obama era.

  • America no longer characterizes settlements across the 1967 Green Line as either illegitimate or illegal.
  • Obama certainly believes that US support for Israel’s occupation of the West Bank damaged US interests. That support, he writes, “continued to inflame the Arab community and feed anti-American sentiment across the Muslim world;” the Trump administration held the opposite position without any ideals thrown in.
  • America recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
  • Trump proposed a peace plan that would effectively annex half of Area C in the West Bank to Israel.
  • Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, was the first American high- ranking official to visit a settlement in the West Bank.
  • Symbolically, the settlement chosen was one that overlooks Ramallah.
  • Pompeo announced that all goods manufactured in Area C of the West Bank under Israeli control will henceforth be marked as made in Israel.
  • In February 2018, when the Knesset voted to put Ariel University and other West Bank institutions under the control of the same accreditation body as other Israeli colleges and universities, the US extended scientific cooperation agreements to include Israeli institutions of higher learning in the West Bank – that is, Ariel University.
  • The US moved its embassy to Jerusalem.
  • American citizens born outside the Green Line in Jerusalem can now list “born in Israel” in their passports.
  • Trump turned his back on the Palestinians in numerous ways:
  • closed the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem
  • closed the Palestinian diplomatic office in Washington
  • cut of all donations to UNRWA
  • cut off most USAID to the Palestinian Authority

How many of the Trump changes will Biden reverse? Joe Biden since he became U.S. President-elect has witnessed:

  • a flurry of settlement initiatives in East Jerusalem and the West Bank
  • the most significant is the issuance of invitations for tenders for 1,257 housing units in Givat Hamatos west of the settlement of Har Homa neighbourhood and next to Gilo which will cut off East Jerusalem from direct contact with the southern Palestinian territory;
  • the date for receiving bids was moved from two days before Biden takes office to three days after, either leaving an opening for American pressure to cancel the planned construction or as a challenge to Biden asserting “Here We Stand,” especially since Givat Hamatos is mostly within the Green Line;
  • Israel fast-tracked eviction proceedings in the contentious East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah (see below);
  • Israel increased home demolitions to which forty progressive Democrats objected when a new wildcat Palestinian village was demolished;
  • Mike Pompeo declared that the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement as antisemitic.

President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and U.S. Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, have worked assiduously over the last four years, and accelerated their efforts since the election, to create irreversible facts on the ground to ensure an exclusively Israeli governed Jerusalem and a Greater Israel that would enshrine at least half of Area C in the West Bank as part of Israel.

As far as settlement development is concerned, there is also Atarot (cf. Joshua 16:2) that was originally destroyed by the Arab Legion in 1948, but now holds Israel’s largest industrial park. There are plans to build 11,000 housing units on the old Atarot Airport grounds. Tenders are expected for the E-1 (East Jerusalem-1) zone in the West Bank to create Mevaasseret Adumin within the boundaries of Ma’ale Adumin, one of the oldest and largest West Bank settlements, to ensure control of the highway running from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea.

The general consensus is that it is unlikely that the Biden administration will expend any political capital to reverse many of these moves, especially given his appointments to his cabinet and the fact that the Democratic Party is still dominated by pro-Israeli liberals in contention with the forty-or-so progressive Democrats. Blinken has already declared that he will not make aid to Israel conditional, thereby surrendering his most powerful weapon of leverage.

What might be changed:

  • Reopen the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem, but making clear that this is not a political statement;
  • Reopen the Palestinian diplomatic office in Washington;
  • Restore funding to UNRWA;
  • Restore some aid to the Palestinian Authority.

What might be considered. Settlements may be labeled as inadvisable and contrary to American policy without characterizing them as illegal or illegitimate. Biden is not likely to repudiate the Trump peace plan, but he is also very unlikely to advance it. The plan will be allowed to die on the vine. Biden may make some noises about the new expansion of settlements, but I doubt it. He has already far too much on his plate. In other words, the status quo ante will not likely be restored, but it is an open question whether the US will close its eyes to any significant Israeli initiatives.

However, the problem is not only the expansion of settlements which have an impact on the geographical area available for an independent Palestinian state and not just an autonomous polity under the oversight of Israel. House demolitions and confiscations are another dimension of the problem. I will only take up the issue of appropriation of properties, and even then, only in a sketchy way.

On 3 and 23 November, Israeli courts upheld the eviction of eight Palestinian families in the Batan al-Hawa neighborhood of Silwan in East Jerusalem (affecting 45 people, including small children), and of the Sabbagh family in Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem (affecting 32 members of the family, including six children). All family members were put at risk of forced removal, possibly out of East Jerusalem and into West Bank Areas A or B.

Over the last few years, evictions in East Jerusalem have increased apace, especially in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan, 200 families are at risk. In Batan al-Hawa alone, 14 families have already lost their homes since 2015 following the 15 April 2015 decision of the Israeli Supreme Court affirming the applicability of the Absentee Property Law to properties in East Jerusalem belonging to Palestinians living in the West Bank, even though the ruling was to be applied “only in very rare and extreme cases.” All past expropriations were also retroactively approved. 80 other households have since faced possible eviction.  

How and why does it happen? The occupants do not have clear title to their homes. Either the properties prior to 1948 were owned by Jews or after 1967 were purchased by Jews. Owners are simply exercising their property rights and tenants have no rights from long term habitation. Further, the Custodian of Absentee Property has the power to issue a dispossession certificate to a person that, under the Absentee Property Law, is considered to be illegally holding an absentee real estate property. This continues to be the case even though the Klugman Committee in 1992 had identified 68 properties in East Jerusalem and strongly criticized how they were somehow transferred, with the assistance of the State of Israel, from Palestinians to settler organisations in East Jerusalem.  

The Israeli Knesset passed the ‘Law and Administration Procedures Law’ (‘the 1970 Law’) decreeing that residents of East Jerusalem are not absentees in relation to property within the annexed territory. However, Palestinians who lived outside the new municipal boundaries of Jerusalem who owned land or property inside the city limits, were defined as “absentees.”

If Jews can reclaim property from occupants, why can’t Palestinian refugees or even formerly displaced Palestinians do the same? What is a law for the Jew should be a law for the Arab. Except under the Absentee Law if one is a Palestinian no longer resident in Israel. The Absentee Property Law passed in 1950 deals with the governance of property of refugees. That property included not only buildings and land but chattels and bank accounts as well. The law enabled the Israeli government to take possession through a Trustee or Custodian and then dispose of that property to a Development Authority.

Thus, absentee properties in East Jerusalem are seized and sold to the Development Authority which usually resells it to settler organizations or may use it to build a police station or a post office. The only way to recover ownership for a Palestinian is to establish that he or she is a resident (not necessarily a citizen) of Israel or where relevant humanitarian grounds exist. The main application of the latter grounds applied to Palestinians resident in the West Bank in 1967, and thus not residents of East Jerusalem, but their properties were in East Jerusalem when the boundaries were extensively expanded.

“Present absentees,” that is Palestinians who fled or were forced to flee their properties but are still resident in Israel, were entitled to claim compensation provided the claim was filed before 1988. However, Palestinians resident in East Jerusalem who had owned property in West Jerusalem could not reclaim their property since it had been transferred to the Custodian and then sold to and by the Development Authority.

Following a series of cases taken before the court by Adalah, the Israel Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, the Israeli Supreme Court confirmed the legality of continued confiscations in 2015, hence the new seizures and evictions since then. The law applied if the owners were Jews or were Palestinians who are not citizens of Israel and did not live in East Jerusalem. Further, Palestinian occupants who believed they had title to their property, when they applied for a permit to make an addition, renovate or rebuild or sought to sell that property, discovered they lacked clear title. The Custodian of Absentee Properties had to certify that they were the owners. Failure to get such a certificate meant the property could not be sold with clear title or even a permit acquired to undertake a renovation. Thus, inaction by the Custodian could effectively take away the rights of the owner even without any transfer of ownership.

It is hard to find many ideals of justice, though there are some, compared to the huge weight of Jewish interests in dealing with settlements and evictions.

For an excellent series of podcasts on the issue of settlements, go to https://open.spotify.com/show/4NG1pkSYlOWcrwaEbbHoOZ

For a great topographical view of settlements, see Shaul Arieli, Israeli Policy Forum.

Peace in the Middle East

Following four years of seismic shifts in American-Israeli relations, we are witnessing the imminence of a Biden-Harris administration taking power. It is unlikely to push for any radical shift in the American posture towards Israel even if it repairs the American relationship with the Palestinians. Before we ever tackle the bull in the China shop, Iran, look at the current dramatic and radical shift in the political and economic landscape in the Middle East.

Over fifty-three years ago, Israel fought the Six Day War against three Arab states. Israel made peace, a cold peace but peace nevertheless, first with Egypt and then fifteen years later in 1994 with Jordan. The latter pact was known formally as the “Treaty of Peace Between the State of Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan,” or the Wadi Araba Treaty. Following the signing ceremony on 26 October 1994, the two countries established mutual diplomatic relations. But neither the peace with Egypt nor that with Jordan developed into a warm peace even though many disputes over water and borders were worked out and cooperation on tourism and trade was initiated.

In the twenty-five years after no similar breakthroughs, while the focus had shifted entirely to the relations between Israel and the Palestinians, apparently suddenly in 2020 Israel entered into a flurry of agreements, first with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), then with Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. More agreements seem to be on the horizon, such as with Oman. There has also been serious cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel that has not yet concluded in a peace or normalization agreement.

Just four years earlier, former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking to the Brookings Institute’s Saban Center on 4 December 2016, predicted the opposite. It is worth quoting at length.  “There will be no separate peace between Israel and the Arab world, I want to make that very clear to all of you. I’ve heard several prominent politicians in Israel sometimes saying, well, the Arab world is in a different place now. We just have to reach out to them and we can work some things with the Arab world and we’ll deal with the Palestinians. No, no, no and no. I can tell you that, reaffirmed even in the last week as I have talked to leaders of the Arab community. There will be no advance and separate peace with the Arab world without the Palestinian process and Palestinian peace. Everybody needs to understand that. That is a hard reality.”

Well it wasn’t a hard reality. It was not a reality at all. At the very same time that Kerry was giving that speech, Israel was already “working out some things with the Arab world.” Kerry had predicted that would never happen, let alone the possible dream of a separate peace, until the relations with the Palestinians were resolved. The conventional belief, not only for Kerry, but in the State Department, was that Israel had to deal first with the grievances of the Palestinians, which would require U.S. strong pressure and even intervention.

Only it required neither, except that the U.S. had served, not as a conciliator, not as a mediator, not as an arbiter, but as a facilitator. In 2014, an unnamed American official set up a meeting in Dubai between Itzhak Ayalon (not to be confused with the father of Ami Ayalon of Shin Bet fame). Itzhak Ayalon even entered the UAE with an Israeli passport, but through a VIP airport entry point. He was there as an agricultural expert to teach a group of Arab farmers how to grow vegetables in greenhouses using Israeli technology and expertise. There were restrictions. He could not speak Hebrew. He could not phone Israel while he was there. But he was not required to deny he was Israeli. And the advice could (and did) include the import of Israeli materials and equipment, though via Jordan and in unmarked cases.

Over the next five years, the transactional relationships between the UAE and Israel began to creep out of the closet. How could they stay confined when there were so many Israelis in Dubai! By 2018, the mutual arrangements of Israel and the UAE over diamonds was a matter of public record. In 2019, so was their cooperation on artificial intelligence (AI) when an Israeli delegation went to Dubai. However, the political lift off really came in 2017 when President Donald Trump traveled to Saudi Arabia as his first trip abroad to address 50 Arab nations and then went onto Israel to discuss the possibilities of peace between Israel and the Gulf states.

On 13 August 2020, UAE’s Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zay Al Nahyan signed a joint statement called the Abraham Accords, more formally the “Treaty of Peace, Diplomatic Relations and Full Normalization Between the United Arab Emirates and the State of Israel.” The short document was just a symbolic statement of intentions. As other countries came on board, the much fuller treaties signed on the White House lawn on 15 September 2020 were referred to collectively as the Abraham Accords. (https://lb.usembassy.gov/abraham-accords-peace-agreement/#:~:text=Pursuant%20to%20Article%205%20of%20the%20Treaty%20of,which%20they%20have%20agreed%20to%20the%20following%20provisions)

The initial UAE-Israeli agreements only had seven short core paragraphs whereas the agreement signed a month later at the White House had 14 pages plus appendices The original agreement provided that the initial one would soon be followed by bilateral agreements on “investment, tourism, direct flights, security, telecommunications, technology, energy, healthcare, culture, the environment, the establishment of reciprocal embassies, and other areas of mutual benefit.” The second great surprise was how quickly these were concluded and transformed into practices. On 31 August, Jared Kushner and a U.S.-Israeli delegation flew on the first commercial flight from Israel to the UAE. Currently, there are four flights a day and plans are underway for 16 flights per day.

There were two sets of caveats to the agreement not formally part of the agreement itself. In the first set, Israel agreed to honour Trump’s proposed deal and suspend declaring sovereignty over areas outlined in the West Bank in that deal to be assigned to Israel, allow all Muslims to visit the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and build new diplomatic ties with other Arab and Muslim nations, assisted by the UAE and the US.

In the second caveat, the U.S. agreed to the sale of unarmed drones but, most importantly, 50 stealth-capable Lockheed Martin Joint Strike F-35s with their high-end sensors and data-collection tools for a triple threat: airstrikes, intelligence gathering and air-to-air combat. They would be modified so that Israel would maintain its military edge. Israel agreed not to oppose the deal. Paul Rand allied with many Senate Democrats tried to stop the deal in a Senate vote on 9 December but failed.

Many subsidiary agreements were signed. For example, at the beginning of this past week, the two countries, at least the export credit agencies of Israel and the UAE, signed an agreement of cooperation to boost economic relations and trade between the two countries. The Israel Foreign Trade Risks Insurance Corporation (ASHR’A) signed the agreement with its UAE counterpart, Etihad Credit Insurance, to work jointly “supporting increased exports, trade, and investment.”

The conventional wisdom that the Palestinians could block further peace deals with Arab states had been exploded. Further, while the Palestinians sought self-determination, the most that Israel and the US under Trump would grant them was autonomy, as if that was sufficient for their dignity. Instead, interests in regional stability and prosperity trumped Palestinian concerns. While the Palestinians denounced this and subsequent agreements as betrayals, Abbas shortly after reversed his position and agreed to re-enter negotiations with Israel without preconditions. However, the “progressive” Palestinian opposition to both the PA and Israel continued to denounce the treaty as a betrayal. Their leverage had been removed and they had gained only a very temporary reprieve from formal annexation as creeping annexation proceeded apace.  

JStreet, which had previously insisted that negotiations with the Palestinians were the first priority and had run a similar but less absolutist line to John Kerry, also reversed positions and welcomed the agreement as “just the latest evidence that dialogue and diplomacy, rather than unilateral action and belligerence, are the route to long-term security.”

The Israel-Bahrain agreement quickly followed. Though it had slightly different wording, it followed the same thrust as the agreement with the UAE. Further, it had a longer underground timeline since, back in 2005, Bahrain had agreed to drop its boycott of Israel in exchange for a free trade agreement with the US. By 2017, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain even gave a talk to the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angles where he denounced the Arab boycott and announced that his subjects were free to visit Israel.

Along with their growing cooperation in trying to limit both Iran’s nuclear and conventional military operations, these steps set the ground for their diplomats meeting at the security conference in Warsaw in February of 2019. Then diplomats met in a follow up session in the US in July. Dana Benvenisti from the Israeli foreign office was invited to join a working group on maritime and aviation security in Manama, Bahrain in October 2019. Less than a year later, the country signed onto the Abraham Accords.

Two other agreements have since followed, neither having anything to do with reinforcing common security interests and cooperation in opposing Iran. The Israeli agreement with Sudan followed next, only this time with the quid pro quo being the rescinding of Sudan’s designation as a state sponsor of terror. The announcement came after the normalization agreement and it was connected in the publicity to the “historic democratic transition.” But few doubt the connection between the normalization and the withdrawal of terror sponsorship status, a designation that goes back to 1993 and the support of President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan (who was overthrown in 2018) and a base of operations for Hamas, al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, as well as Abu Nidal and Carlos the Jackal.  

There was another more explicit condition to the removal from the list of state sponsors of terror. The government of Sudan agreed to pay $335 million into an escrow account to settle claims by victims of the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the bombing of the USS Cole off Yemen’s coast in 2000. The 9/11 families have opposed the concession of excluding Sudan from suits by the victims’ families it represents.

In the last few weeks, the agreement between Israel and Morocco followed. Unlike the other three countries, these two have openly shared policies and activities with one another for decades – in intelligence, military, political and even cultural areas. Many Israelis trace their roots back to Morocco. Though the deal was hailed as a “peace for peace,” it was really just normalization since Israel had never fought a war against any of these countries. But here again there was a quid pro quo, even though formally there were no strings or price tags attached. The United States signed a $1 billion advanced arms agreement with Morocco and became the only country in the world to recognize Morocco’s unilateral annexation of Western Sahara.

The signed agreement with Israel was met with street protests in the capital. Moroccan police in riot gear dispersed a group of activists demonstrating outside the parliament building in the capital, Rabat, to show solidarity with the Palestinians and reject the normalization of ties with Israel. But those protests proved to be the exception. On Monday, Arabs from the UAE and Bahrain lit Chanukah candles at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. However, did those candles light a new path or offer a fuse to explode the frustrations of Palestinians while they emboldened the Right in Israel to expand settlements and continue with creeping annexation since there was no longer a price to be paid? Or, whatever price was paid, it was paid by the Americans.

Canadians paid nothing and benefited enormously. In an historic and actually exhilarating event chaired by Shimon Koffler Fogel organized on Monday by the Canadian Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) entitled “Light Across the Middle East: A Celebration of the Abraham Accords,” a ceremony simultaneously lighting Chanukah candles in the UAE, Bahrain, Israel and Ottawa was held. Speakers spoke about the impact of the Accords, not only on the parties, but on Canada’s traditional role in foreign affairs as a middle power and a peace broker. The events fit Canada’s self-image.

H.E. Marcy Grossman spoke first. She is Jewish and spoke from the UAE where she serves as a Canadian ambassador. She is also a founding member of the Jewish Council of the Emirates. She thought the celebration was fitting for it signalled a real warm peace and a paradigm shift from the previous three No’s – no recognition, no negotiations, no peace – to three very definite Yes’s.

Michal Cotler-Wunsh, who is a member of the Knesset for the Blue and White Party, also spoke. I cannot recall when I saw her last, but whenever I do see her, I remember taking care of her as a baby when her father, Irwin Cotler, was running for president of what was then called the Canadian Jewish Congress in Montreal. I was supposed to be his campaign manager, But I quickly learned that I would be more useful – and enjoy it much more – to babysit Michal. For her, the ceremony was a recognition of the right of Israel to exist as a democratic Jewish state as the shared values of freedom, equality and justice were upheld. After all, Bahrain had explicitly endorsed the IHRA definition of antisemitism that explicitly identified the demonization of Israel as antisemitic. For her, tolerance and co-existence were the way forward.

H.E. Houda Nonoo spoke next. She is the former Bahrain ambassador to the US (with accreditation to Canada). She too is Jewish – yes, a Jewish ambassador from an Arab state, the first one posted abroad by any Arab state. Her presence, her role and participation said more than all the words uttered at the event.

Rabbi Yehuda Sarna from Jerusalem hailed the result as a consequence of diplomatic genius built on shared interests, but nor just interests, for it was not just a compact but also a covenant, a promise for the future, a people-to-people document. He also noted that it was the first international diplomatic event in which he participated where the women outnumbered the men and signalled the importance of women in forging real peace.

Michal Cotler-Wunsh and Yehuda Sarna both noted the symbolism of the title of the accords, named after the father of both peoples. They along with Marcy Grossman pointed to the Abrahamic House announced in September 2019 and already under construction on Saadiyat Island in Dubai that would include a mosque, a synagogue and a church. The project was initiated following the pope’s visit to Abu Dhabi. Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar from Egypt signed a declaration establishing an Interfaith Higher Committee of Human Fraternity.

I do believe we live in historic times. Michal announced that, henceforth, legislation had been passed making Arabic a compulsory subject in Israeli schools. Progressive cynicism was being superseded by coexistence, cooperation and mutual understanding. As Marcy Grossman said, Canada would now have a unique opportunity to develop strong ties with the region while serving as a witness, influence and honest broker to enhance these values. After all, there were already 40,000 Canadians in the UAE and many are Jews. They could show that economic interests and political ideals can be wed.

America and Israel: A Current Overview

As of yesterday with the Electoral College vote in the U.S., we begin a new era of American government. Will it mean a new page in American-Israeli relations? Will the United States return to a more even-handed approach in dealing with both the Palestinians and Israel following the Trumplican administration? Bracketing the Palestinians for the moment and before we return to what can be expected of the Biden-Harris government, what is the state in which Israel currently finds itself? For an assessment of that, it helps to have some perspective.

When Israel was founded as an independent state just over seventy years ago, the situation was very different. Israel was very weak economically for the first two years and very dependent on diaspora Jewry. As a new state, Israel lacked any natural resources, held no monetary reserves, owned very little manufacturing capacity and its infrastructure was very undeveloped. Currently, Israel belongs to the developed world with a GDP per capita larger than that of Spain.

While the new immigrants that arrived in the 1930s came with financial resources, the 250,000 refugees from the European camps and most of the 1,000,000 that fled Arab countries came with nothing. At the same time, Israel lost 720,000 Palestinian productive members of the economy who fled or were forced to flee.

Israel had a population of only slightly more than 800,000 Jews and just under 880,000 Arab Palestinians living both in the territory allocated to the Jews plus the areas captured by the Zionists over the twelve months following the passage of the UN General Assembly partition resolution. Israel’s current population is 9,227,000 of which over 500,000 live in what was called the West Bank captured by Transjordan in 1948. Of the population living in Israel proper, an estimated 1,750,000 are Palestinians. In effect, the Jews moved from just under half the population to approximately 75% over the last seventy years.

In 1948, Israel was surrounded by sworn enemies – Egypt, Jordan. Syria and Lebanon. Currently, it has been at peace with Egypt and Jordan for decades. Israel also has normalization agreements with two of the Gulf States (the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain), with Sudan and with Morocco. Others appear to be on the horizon. The whole Arab world defined Israel as an enemy in 1948. Israel did not have a single great power backing it in 1948, though President Harry Truman of the USA was the first to recognize Israel. Currently, Israel is probably America’s closest ally and shares with the US security responsibilities in the Middle East. In that arena, Israel is the strongest regional military power.

In 1948, Israel was very deeply divided between the social democrats and socialists on the one hand and the much smaller but very significant percentage of Revisionists (both the Irgun and the Stern Gang) on the other. The socialists had accepted the UN partition resolution. The Revisionists had rejected it and continued to aspire for control of the balance of the land to the Jordan River. Currently, the Left has evaporated as a major political force and Israel is now run by Right-Wingers and Right of Centre politicians. The political coloration of the country has been radically transformed.

What is most significant is that this prosperous country is not in any immediate existential danger (more on Iran in a future blog) whereas the existential threat to its existence was very real when Israel was attacked by five Arab armies on 16 May 1948. The biggest difference, however, is that Israel currently rules over 2.2 million Arabs in the West Bank and Jerusalem and frequently seals the borders of Gaza which it no longer occupies. Terrorist attacks from the West Bank are currently few and far between whereas missiles are periodically lobbied at Israel from Gaza. However, Israel responds to attacks with even more punishing ones, but also has an “Iron Dome” that protects the country from most rockets.

The biggest difference is with the Palestinians. In 1948, Palestinians claimed self-determination in the whole of the remaining British Mandate from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Many were engaged in attacks on Israel after the cease fire agreement at the end of 1948. Today, terrorism has become much rarer and attacks even from Gaza have recently been infrequent.

The other major shift over the last 72 years has been the backing Israel receives from the United States, at no time more apparent than under the Trump administration when Israel was almost given a free hand. However, do not expect the Biden administration either to be so accommodating or to abandon strong backing for Israel. On 15 July 2020, the Democratic Party platform did not include a single reference to the West Bank and said nothing about whether it considered the settlements legal or illegal. This is because Joe Biden has had a long and strong relationship with Israel and even a warm relationship with Netanyahu that more than offsets the rise of the progressive critical voices against Israel in the Democratic Party as exemplified in Jamaal Bowman’s replacement of Eliot Engel as a New York representative from the 16th congressional district. The right, however, accuses the Biden Democrats of driving a wedge between Israel and America.

With respect to Israel, the 2020 American Democratic Party platform:

  • Supports a strong, secure and democratic Israel
  • Supports a two-state solution with recognized borders and a right of Palestinians to have a state of their own
  • Rejects a return to the armistice lines of 1949 as a basis for territorial division
  • Supports an undivided Jerusalem as the capital of Israel
  • Opposes unfair singling out of Israel for criticism at the UN
  • Opposes the BDS movement while protecting free speech, the latter caveat added in 2020
  • Remains committed to Israel’s security generally and Israel maintaining its qualitative military edge more particularly
  • Supports the ten-year MOU between the US and Israel dated 14 September 2016 that provides Israel with $3.1 billion per year for defence purposes
  • Continues a policy that defence aid is not conditional on Israeli political decisions [Tony Blinken]
  • Does not refer to West Bank “occupation,” but now opposes “annexation”
  • Praises Israel for its “values of democracy, equality, tolerance, and pluralism”
  • Opposes settlement expansion but does not designate settlements as illegal
  • With respect to Iran, prioritizes “nuclear diplomacy, de-escalation, and regional dialogue” versus the Trump policy of ratcheting up sanctions
  • Promises to restore Palestinian diplomatic ties and resume humanitarian aid.

The 2020 platform no longer includes:

  • Isolating Hamas
  • Resolving the refugee issue by settling the refugees where they are and paying compensation

Though Julian Castro and other members of the progressive wing of the party have momentum, given the appointees of Joe Biden, they are unlikely to get any significant movement on their anti-Israel critical policies. The Palestinians may not be able even to get the Biden administration to reopen the US consulate in East Jerusalem, since that is now dependent on Israeli governmental approval, though it may open a convenient service delivery office in East Jerusalem. On the other hand, it is unlikely that the Netanyahu administration will make much fuss if there is a reversal in this area, particularly if the right conditions are attached. Nor will the Biden administration likely reverse the Trump administration decision to allow US citizens born in Jerusalem to list their citizenship as Israeli.

Look at Joe Biden’s personal connections with Jews and Israel. First, all of his children ended up with Jewish spouses.

  • Haillie Olivere married Beau from 2002 to his death in 2015, and then Hunter married Haillie after Beau died.
  • Hunter Biden’s first wife was the filmmaker, Melissa Cohen, an anti-antisemitic activist educated in South Africa at the Orthodox King David Jewish High School Victory Park.
  • Ashley Biden, his daughter with Jill and an educational administrator, married Howard Krein, an ENT and plastic surgeon in Philadelphia in 2002; his parents are active Zionists.

Jewish grandchildren

  • Natalie, 16, and Hunter, 14, by Haillie Olivere
  • Beau, the baby child of Ashley Biden
  • Three other female grandchildren, Naomi (26 named after Joe’s infant daughter who died in a car crash with Joe’s first wife, Nelia; she is a lawyer), Finnegan (20, after Joe’s grandmother), Naomi and Maisy Biden (19 – her best friend is Sasha Obama), by Hunter’s first wife, Kathleen
  • He also has an “illegitimate” grandchild, a result of an affair of Hunter with Lunden Alexis Roberts in 2018.

His Vice-President is Harris Kamala who is married to Doug “Dougie” Emhoff, a Santa Barbara lawyer and partner in an LA law firm who, in the New Year, joins the faculty of law at Georgetown University teaching entertainment law. Kamala insists that, contrary to J Street, a peace deal cannot be imposed between the Israelis and the Palestinians. She also opposes BDS. However, she did not attend the AIPAC meeting in 2019.

Look at the lineup of the initial Biden cabinet members announced thus far:

  • Anthony Blinken, a Jew whose father was an activist Holocaust survivor, is Secretary of State. In the Obama administration, Blinken can almost singly be credited with getting the US to cough up a quarter million dollars to support strengthening the Iron Dome anti-missile defence system. Blinken also has deep roots in the State Department and both his father and uncle were American ambassadors.
  • Anthony Blinken’s wife, Evelyn Ryan, a Catholic like Biden, also served in the State Department as assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs.
  • Jake Sullivan national security adviser to President Biden, sat on the Board of the Truman Centre whose president he participated in naming, Jenna Ben-Yehuda
  • who served for 12 years at the State Department where she worked closely with the Defense Department and intelligence community liaison with Israel. Sullivan says that Joe Biden is committed to negotiating a follow-on deal with Iran, but, note the qualifications, one that advances Israel’s security and holds Iran accountable. “Let’s recognize that the formula that the Obama-Biden administration pursued, which was leverage diplomacy backed by pressure, is the kind of formula that can work again to make progress, not just on the core nuclear issues but on some of [the] other challenges as well.” Diplomacy first then “hard-headed, clear-eyed, effective and tenacious diplomacy, backed by pressure.”
  • Alejandro Mayorkas, a Jewish Cuban American Homeland Security Secretary, was a former deputy security secretary, in charge of both immigration and anti-terrorism; his mother was a Romanian Jew who fled the Holocaust and his father had Sephardic roots.
  • Linda Thomas-Greenfield ambassador to the United Nations was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Population, Refugees and Migration from 2004-2006 and served as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, one of the officials purged by Trump. She worked on the Iran deal.
  • Avril Haines (b. 1968), lawyer, Director National Intelligence, a former Deputy Director, had a New York Modernist artist as her mother, Adrianne Rappaport, who painted as Adrien Rappin.
  • Janet Yellen, a Jewish economist and the first woman to head the Federal Reserve, is Treasury Secretary; she was raised in Brooklyn in a Reform Congregation, Beth-El, where her son went to school; her mentors were Herschel Grossman and Joseph Stiglitz who won a Nobel Prize.
  • John F. Kerry climate envoy who once worked assiduously to get a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians.
  • Ron Klain, his Chief of staff and first appointee, was raised in a Jewish family in Indianapolis and celebrated his bar mitzvah in 1974 at Beth-El Zedeck congregation, a Conservative/Reconstructionist synagogue.

None of this tells us what his various cabinet appointees’ values and attitudes are towards Israel, but one could not go very off base to assume that they would do nothing to threaten Israel’s existence. But what about Israel’s standing in the world? What about the real threats Israel still faces? How will the current revolutionary geo=political shifts in the Middle East affect Israel’s security and the prospects for the Palestinians? Where is the peace process going now?

Trumplican Believers

“Polling has found that about 80 percent of the president’s voters are willing to believe that the election was rigged against him. Donations to the president’s campaign and political action committee, as well as the GOP’s recount efforts and the Senate runoffs in Georgia, have been pouring in amid the effort to overturn the election, even though the race is functionally over.” (Washington Post)

Joe Biden adviser Cedric L. Richmond re Trumplicans: “They recognize Joe Biden’s victory. All of America recognizes Joe Biden’s victory…This is just a small portion of the Republican conference that are appeasing and patronizing the president on his way out because they are scared of his Twitter power and other things.” Except, it is not so. The lies keep getting reinvented and the goal posts changed. 71% of Republicans and 79% of Trump voters want Trump to run again. Even after the Electoral College decides on who is president today, 25% of the American electorate will continue to believe that the presidential election was a fraud and was stolen from Donald Trump.

In an open letter this week, 73 Conservative notables, ranging from the former president of the Heritage Foundation to the president of the Council for National Policy, signed a 10 December 2020 letter (“Conservatives Call on State Legislators to Appoint New Electors in Accordance with the Constitution”) claiming that, “The evidence overwhelmingly shows officials in key battleground states—as the result of a coordinated pressure campaign by Democrats and allied groups—violated the Constitution, state and federal law in changing mail-in voting rules that resulted in unlawful and invalid certifications of Biden victories.”

Why do so many Trumplicans believe that the election was stolen? It cannot be the unavailability of correct information. There is no pedagogical reason that I can find. The explanation is related to why Chaim Eshed’s book, The Universe Beyond the Horizon, on a treaty between Trump and intergalactic aliens, is believed to be about reality. After all, Eshed is a highly respected scientist – for 30 years he headed the Israeli space agency. You have one key ingredient, an authority figure who holds high office. Donald Trump as president saying something is very different than Donald Trump as a private citizen. And even then, many people believed him when he was a promoter of Birtherism, namely that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, or called for the death penalty for the Central Park Five who were eventually fully exonerated by the courts.

Second, the believer has to be immune to irony and satire. This is true were we reading Mark Twain or Lolita. What is written by a highly skilled writer is taken as a representation of truth rather than a satire of that “truth”. In one part it is – information exists that UFOs are real. However, when Eshed responds to the release of information on the UFOs from the Pentagon, he writes, “The UFOs have asked [us] not to publish that they are here, humanity is not ready yet. Trump was on the verge of revealing [them], but the aliens in the Galactic Federation are saying: “Wait, let people calm down first.” They don’t want to start mass hysteria. They want to first make us sane and understanding,” We receive a double message, one that there is considerable evidence that UFOs are real, and that he is saying this possibly with a twinkle in his eyes and his fingers crossed behind his back. Trumplican believers hear the first message and take the second, not as irony, but as a reinforcement for the first.

It is not a prerogative of Republicans. The belief in the corruption of voting machines in the 2020 presidential election was spread widely; sixteen years earlier when John Kerry lost the 2004 election to George W. Bush, there were similar rumours. Thus, the third item: a plausible mechanism, one which has allegedly previously been used and the belief in electronic corruption, especially enhanced in a time when media companies are suspected of manipulating what we are permitted to read and think.

There is a fourth important element – the certainty (and repetition) stated with authority with which the lie is spread. And it comes from an authoritative source. No qualms. No qualifications. No loosening the reins on one’s acolytes. Believe! Believe! Believe!. There is no alternative. “There’s an agreement between the US government and the aliens. They signed a contract with us to do experiments here. They, too, are researching and trying to understand the whole fabric of the universe, and they want us as helpers. There’s an underground base in the depths of Mars, where their representatives are, and also our American astronauts.”

Of course, fifth, there is self-serving, whether of Republican congressmen who do not want to alienate Trump followers, or Trump followers who do not want to be exorcised from the cult, and Trump himself who is reaping in a fortune by promulgating the lie. As Malcolm Kenyatta, 30, a state legislator from Philadelphia who will cast one of Pennsylvania’s 20 votes for Biden, stated, “The president has a $200-something-million incentive to lie.”

Sixth, we, the intellectual and professional elite, are at fault for we so disdain such believers and we alienate them when we try to educate them. I think of how condescending and dismissive I was when our cleaning lady thought that COVID-19 was a hoax and that the vaccine would damage your immune system. When we mix mockery with correcting misinformation, we make it more difficult to be heard. Besides our very mastery of the specialized language of our various fields shuts the door on the possibility that they can find out for themselves, especially when they are offered alternative answers that are easily and readily understood. Why was an ignoramus turned into a pinata president that brought him sympathy alongside the ridicule?

Seven, then there is serendipity. Why did the COVID-19 crisis come along just when Trump was seeking reelection? Why were his questions about masks laughed out of court while his ignorant but seemingly commonsense solutions were as well? We all know that correlation is not causation, except we all do not know such a thing at all. Possibly a majority confuse correlation with causation, especially when figures in authority make the link.

Eight, who benefits? Professionals, experts, intellectuals, mandarins, all live in a rarefied world where expertise, where science, where knowledge, where skilled analysis, are all king. But the majority do not live in that world. The majority are not so privileged in the information age. They are, thus, more susceptible to the grifter when the con artist identifies with the ordinary believer rather than the elite specialists.

Nine, and what if those self-identified defenders of truth, self-identified defenders of democracy, are the same people who uncovered the flaws in the people appointed to be the highest arbiters of justice in the land? What if those same people who were supposedly the defenders of the rule of law were also the critics of those charged with the frontline responsibility of defending the law, of enforcing the law? And then the greatest hypocrisy: those same people rely on the courts – over 50 court cases, including two before the Supreme Court, the very court they accused of being in Trump’s pocket – to defeat the accusations of fraud. When such an apparent contradiction prevails, trust is not easily recaptured.

Ten, there are people who decry those who call the election a fraud by asking, where are the anomalies? After all, if there was a conspiracy to defeat the president by irregular methods, why was it not used against the Republicans who held their control of the Senate (at least, thus far) or the Republicans who gained seats in the House of Representatives? Why did an irregular pattern of voting not stand out? The rebuttal: if you are arguing on the basis of the absence of anomalies, we have the better answer. The very consistency is the proof of corruption; the absence of irregularities explains the sophistication, breadth, depth and extent of the fraud.

There is no understanding of the principle of falsifiability, that is, that something can only be claimed to be true if there is a way of disproving it.  100% conviction is not truth. A conclusion following a skeptical examination can be. With the epistemological odds loaded against the defenders of the principle of falsification, the following assertions of fact, that can be (and are) easily falsified are simply ignored or drowned in a river of lies.

  1. Only 1.8 million mailed ballots were sent out but 24 million were returned. In fact, over 3 million ballots were sent out. The 1.8 million ballots sent out was the figure from the primary election not the November 2020 election.
  2. In Georgia, thousands of voters were claimed not to be eligible, but a cursory examination of those names by a State representative, Bee Nguyen, revealed that in a sample page, most could, in fact, be certified as Georgians of long standing, that those on the list with Post Office boxes simply lived in multiple unit apartments that received their mail through post office numbers, that there were repeats on the registration lists that were not repeats on the voting lists, etc. In other words, the experts who put forward the claimed list of fraudulent voters were frauds as verifiers because they had not tested, and, then falsified virtually all their claims.
  3.  In the Michigan claim that that there were more voters than registrants in certain districts, a simple check revealed that the numbers obtained of the number of registrants came from a Wisconsin rather than a Michigan district.
  4. What about the claim of the dump after 3:00 a.m. in Wisconsin? Mailed ballots were not to be counted in that state until after the in-person votes had been counted and we know that far more Democrats used mailed ballots than Republicans.
  5. There were some real errors, but everyone of them that had been pointed out was first quickly found and corrected by the counters.
  6. What about the videos of burning ballots? They were simply samples that were burnt.
  7. What about suspicions in cases of long delays in counting votes? In one case, a pipe burst. In another case, it proved to be a misunderstanding that was quickly corrected.
  8. What about the submitted lists of dead voters. The ones on the list were indeed dead, but the fault was in the registered list of eligible voters; none of them actually voted.
  9. What about the videos of election workers filling out ballots? They were accurate, but the ballots were of ones mangled by voting machines or otherwise unintelligible for machine counting; the procedure was certified by representatives of both parties.
  10. There were alleged anomalies – in previous elections, 4% of ballots were ruled as inadmissible while only a tiny percentage in this election. However, when the error rates comparing the same kind of ballot were made, the pattern of errors was roughly consistent. Don’t compare apples and oranges.

One could go on and offer more than these 10 examples of claims easily falsified. However, once one has already dismissed the relevance of the principle of falsification and it is instead countermanded by repetitions of lies and affidavits based only on hearsay, even though the claims were dismissed through a fact check, for Trumplicans, falsification claims lost out to repeated lies.

Who Dunnit: Jacob Getting out of the Pit

Yesterday evening I saw My Hero Brother, Yonatan Nir’s moving documentary film about a group of Israelis who take their siblings, who have grown up with Down syndrome, to India for an arduous trek up the Himalayas. When you consider the shorter legs of children with Down syndrome and the difficulty they have walking long distances, their respiratory problems and their sensitivity to differential air pressures – they develop headaches – such an excursion might be considered an exercise in revenge by a sibling charged his or her whole life with responsibility for a brother or a sister with the condition.

Freud would be wrong if he ever made such a suggestion. That the trek is punishing is no question. But what you see and listen to is a range of sibling love and dedication, a determination of young Israelis to give their brothers and sisters an experience of their lives. It is Israeli tough love in practice. It is an exemplification that the IDF instills in its soldiers that arduous tasks undertaken successfully bring enormous rewards and unbeatable pleasure and satisfaction.

The physical challenges do not entail rock climbing up a sheer cliff as I initially feared. But the troupe initially travels by train and then bus and finally by 4-wheel drive vehicles to their starting point. They rest after several days of this type of travel, swim in a motel pool and then begin packing up their tents and gear for the strenuous challenge they will face. They do have mules to carry supplies, but each one carries his or her own huge hiking backpack that has to weigh at least 30 pounds. They do have Indian guides, but other than signs that the guides gradually fall in love with their very challenged charges, they are not asked or expected to help them. When they need help, it is their brothers or sisters who hold their hands or their elbows to give them heft over a tough spot or, once in a while, carry them over s crossing stream or a particularly onerous section of the path.

The film premiered at the Santa Barbara Film Festival on 7 February 2017. It won the Best Documentary Film Award and the Audience Choice Award. For as hard and difficult the physical challenge was for these young people with Down Syndrome, the emotional challenges between the siblings is over the top. When one suffers from altitude sickness, the sibling gets in a paroxysm of remorse for what she did to her brother. When one young girl with particularly short legs complains of the pain and that she cannot go any further, the group concede and put her on a mule for a while. In every case, they bounce back. In every case, they resume the challenging trek. And all the while the scenery gets more spectacular and more beautiful.

As is well known, after their army service many Israelis travel the world from Argentina to India to seek out an adventure and an escape from army life. Sometimes that escape involves hedonistic indulgence in Bali. At other times it involves even greater physical challenges than the ones they faced in the army. Enosh Cassel decided to take his brother Hanan who had not and would never serve in the army to a place he would never otherwise go.  “We needed to go through something intensive and then I could understand what life is like for him right now.” 

Their initial much more modest but very successful effort earned them reams of publicity and a pack of inquiries from others who also had Down Syndrome siblings. Itamar Peleg, owner of a travel service, Travelog, contacted him and together they planned the trek for eleven pairs of siblings, for 22 Israelis in total. They crowdfunded. They planned. They had get-togethers to become acquainted. It took them two years of preparation. A three-person film crew and a Tel Aviv physician traveled with the troupe.

When they all get to the top at almost 12,000 feet, when they look out across the gorge at snow-capped mountains that soar to 25,000 feet, when they stand on that relatively flat meadow at the top and hug one another, pose for group photographs and plant an Israeli flag, you do not have to be Jewish or Israeli for your heart to sing and clap along with them.

Who was the hero brother – the one who was dedicated and loved his challenged brother to take him on the trek, or the one who grew up with Down syndrome to face all the special challenges he had to face and emerge as a very loving, very loyal human being with more capabilities than I have and more guts as well than I ever had to trek up a mountain.

This week’s parashat in the Torah is also about brothers, but not brothers who take their challenged siblings to climb mountain heights, but ones who throw their arrogant smart-assed brother with all his personal beauty and aesthetic sensibilities, who is the favourite of their father, into a pit where they either intended to kill him or to leave him there for wild animals and lions to devour him. Professor Rabbi Marty Lockshin, a colleague from York University who now lives in Jerusalem, wrote a commentary on this week’s Parashat Vayeshev called, “Joseph Accuses His Brothers of Selling Him – but Did They?” (https://mail.google.com/mail/u/1/?hl=en_GB#label/Areas.Israel%2FJudaism/FMfcgxwKjnbqmntQTlcjMzWrpmftFfsv)

Marty sets out the possibilities:

  1. The brothers sold Joseph to the Midianites who resold him to the Ishmaelites.
  2. The Midianites found him in the pit, dragged him up and sold him to the Ishmaelites.

The first option appears to be the most obvious since Joseph, when he reveals to his brother who he is, says, “I am your brother, whom you sold into Egypt” (Gen 45:4). Who would know better than Joseph who did the sale? It is important to note that the original plan was to kill him, but the eldest brother, Reuben, convinced his other brothers to leave him in a pit for the animals to get him so they would not have blood on their hands. His intention was to secretly return, get him out of the pit and take Joseph back to his father.

But when he and his other brothers, excluding Reuben, were eating, Judah came up with another plan. Do not kill him. Do not let him be killed by wild animals. Sell him to the Ishmaelites whose caravan they could see in the distance. In the interim, the Midianite traders passed by, got him out of the pit and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver.

Does that mean that Joseph’s brothers neither killed him, neither left him for dead nor even sold him into slavery? What Joseph said could not be true except in two senses:

  1. Joseph believed they had sold him first to the Midianites who dragged him out of the pit.
  2. Joseph believed that the brothers were directly responsible for the Midianites capturing and selling him to the Ishmaelites so, in tort law, they were guilty.  

But Rashi said that the brothers did it. After all, didn’t Judah suggest the idea of the sale. The Midianites were traders, were middlemen, who first bought Joseph from the brothers for perhaps ten pieces of silver, one for each brother, and then resold him at a profit. But the commentator, R. Menachem ben Shlomo, suggested that the Midianites regretted the purchase and sold him at cost to get rid of him. But it does not matter why the Midianites did it, only that they did. But did they come upon him or did they first buy Joseph from the brothers? The narrative does not tell us. The narrative does not even say that the brothers sold Joseph to the Midianites.

Thus, there is the third alternative. The brothers never sold Joseph at all, even if that was what Joseph believed. The Midianites found him in the pit, pulled him out and sold him to the Ishmaelites even before the brothers could. Does it matter whether the brothers first sold him to the Midianites or, alternatively, they did not, but Joseph thought they had? And the fact that he thought that points to the significance of the story.

The brothers hated Joseph, and for good reason. They were given an opportunity for revenge and they had the following alternatives:

  1. They could have thrown him into the pit, left him there in fear and trembling as he feared wild animals would attack him, or, even worse, he would be left there to die. But after scaring him literally to death, they could have retrieved him as Reuben planned and return him to their father.
  2. They could have thrown him into the pit and let him to be devoured by wild animals or to be trapped there and die of thirst and hunger.
  3. They could have decided to lift him out and sell him to the Ishmaelites in line with Judah’s plan.
  4. They could have come across the path of the Midianites, sold Joseph to them and they resold him either in Egypt or to the Ishmaelites traveling to Egypt.

The first two alternatives would have been far worse than the last two because Joseph would end up not only dead, but dying in a horrific manner, almost equivalent to being buried alive. Let me elaborate on the two sets of alternatives by referring to another reference made on Yom Kippur in addition to the Joseph story. It is the tale of the scapegoat, the goat upon whose head was placed the sins of the Hebrews and then fled in freedom into the wilderness.

In that tale, there are two goats. One is sacrificed to God just as the goat that substituted for Isaac on the altar. The other carries off the sins of the people into the wilderness. Of these two choices, Joseph is the scapegoat who carries off with him the sins of the brothers, a sin which was unpardonable, and went off to the wilderness of Egypt where Joseph found not only freedom but riches and power and all that he ever dreamed of having. Joseph was not castigating his brothers when he reminded them that they had sold him off, but telling them that had unintentionally carried out a mitzvah. The statement that they had sold him was not so much a reminder and a remonstration as a wink and a nod – you treated me terribly but here I am, the very opposite of what you planned for me

In one variation of the scapegoat tale, the goat is taken to the edge of a cliff in the wilderness and pushed over. I believe it is a silly version for the point, I believe, is to say how unintentionally sins can be turned into good fortune, into a life of freedom partly through serendipity. However, it is an instructive version, for the man tending the goat and leading it into the wilderness was instructed to push the goat down the slope of a mountainside so steep that the death of the goat was guaranteed.

The trip down is more challenging than even the trip up. We have before us four geographical tropes, down into a pit and pulled up out of pit, travelling up a mountain as Abraham did with Isaac and the siblings did with their brothers and sisters with Down syndrome, or going over a cliff and dying in trying to traverse downwards a very steep incline. In that sense, the trip down the mountain was even riskier than the trip up for it is about whether the reconciliation achieved in going up is absorbed and incorporated into one’s being.

Joseph is not only pulled out of the pit, but travels upwards in power and riches. The alternative, the worst dying in the pit unattended or being abused and attacked by wild animals, was avoided. And that is what the siblings did with their challenged brothers and sisters. They refused to leave their siblings in a pit from which they had nowhere to go. Instead, they went on an aliyah, adapted in 1896 from the Arabic verb hajjara, meaning “to forsake.”

This is a very different view of the radical dichotomy between good and evil so deeply planted in Christianity and the contrast between Satan and God, of Jesus who suffers for our sins as the way forward to forgiveness and salvation. It is not the virtuous who are needed to carry the sins. Anyone can be cast in this role at anytime by a failure or by serendipity. But whatever the problem, even a physical one like Down syndrome, it can be turned into a source of forgiveness for years of loving resentment and turned into a much higher plane of deep love.

It is a tale about making lemonade out of lemons, of turning a bad situation into a beneficial one. That is what happened inadvertently in the tale of Joseph and his brothers who threw him into a pit. That is what happened when those Israeli heroes took their siblings with Down syndrome on a trek up the Himalayas. They forsook their past, but preserved it and raised it to a much higher level by traveling up the mountain. Hegel used the verb aufheben to convey all three movements at once, forsaking, preserving and raising up.

That in the end is the real challenge when dealt a bad hand, intentionally or unintentionally and inadvertently. This is how atonement takes place for sins we may not even know we committed. Whatever the bad cards dealt, they can always be turned into a source of redemption.

COVID-19 Vaccines: Part IV – Continuing Prevention

Masks, Senior Care Facilities, Diet and Exercise

Before I probe the issue of further prevention in addition to vaccine inoculation, one new piece of very surprising news.  Pfizer officials had recommended that Operation Warp Speed buy 200 million doses of its vaccines related to America’s proportion in the first world population, but the Trump administration chose to buy only 100 million doses, sufficient to inoculate 50 million people. Why? Evidently because it expected to get a cheaper vaccine earlier and wanted to save a buck rather than ensure, as Canada did, that the country would have sufficient supplies. The United States will not be able to buy more doses of coronavirus vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech until late June or July since other countries and COVAX have purchased virtually all of the supply up until then.  

In the meanwhile, it will be critical that everyone continue with precautions, especially over the next six months. Remember that 2% of coronavirus cases are lethal; only 0.1% of flu cases are. Precautions are necessary, for no drug or treatment exists to cure the disease, only procedures for reducing symptoms, important in itself. That means continuing to wear masks, practicing social distancing, washing hands and reducing the size of gatherings.

Government authorities all over the world will be faced with the problem of encouraging people to take the vaccines, especially in light of the rising distrust of government and the speed in which the vaccines were developed and approved. Something may be learned by the controversies over wearing masks to which there remains resistance everywhere, but clearly nowhere as much as in the U.S. where the president held little regard for wearing masks and discouraged wearing one by his personal example.

Though these are emotional and ideological issues, often complicated by outright myths, such as the vaccine disrupts your DNA (mRNA does not affect or interact with DNA) or that doctors have cooked the books on deaths financially to benefit themselves and the hospitals they run, or that washing with hand sanitizer too much weakens our immune system. The problem, however, more often begins with confusions over facts and the interpretation of policies.

Take the issue of masks. The recent paper below echoes the controversies in several contemporary academic and historical academic discussions of masks.

“Major Study Finds Masks Don’t Reduce COVID-19 Infection Rates” in The Federalist

https://thefederalist.com/2020/11/18/major-study-finds-masks-dont-reduce-covid-19-infection-rates/

In the Danish study above, the issue was, if I wear a mask, does it minimize or decrease the risk of my being infected with COVID-19. However, this is a misleading question since no respectable epidemiologist that I have read has argued that wearing a mask directly reduces your risk of getting COVID-19. COVID-19 is nanoscopic. The virus can penetrate the surgical mask barrier. However, for the wearer, it greatly decreases the amount and distance the wearer’s droplets travel. “(F)ace masks are not designed or certified to protect the wearer from exposure to respiratory hazards.” Masks are intended to minimizes the amount and range of distribution of respiratory droplets by the wearer. One wears the mask to reduce the risk of your infecting others. That is why general mask use was promoted – so that those who do not show symptoms but are carriers do not transmit the disease as much.

Further, wearing a mask does not even contribute in this way unless it is also accompanied by proper use, social distancing and washing hands. Note the conclusion of the November 2020 study: “The recommendation to wear surgical masks to supplement other public health measures did not reduce the SARS-CoV-2 infection rate among wearers by more than 50% in a community with modest infection rates, some degree of social distancing, and uncommon general mask use.” That is, it did reduce the rate of transmission, and, therefore, infection, by up to 50% with the following qualifications:

a)     the spread was modest rather than extreme;

b)    Other protection practices – social distancing and washing hands – were in place.

The issue in NOT whether there is any “statistically significant difference between wearing a mask or not, in preventing people from contracting COVID-19, but whether there was any significant difference in the spread, and thus contracting the disease if there was a general practice of a community wearing masks. In Doctor Robert Redfield’s testimony before the U.S. Senate, he testified that the CDC had concluded, based on its studies, that masks are “the most important, powerful public health tool we have” for combating the pandemic.

The Danish research took place in “a largely unmasked area.” So why would mask-wearing – not intended or proven to prevent contracting the disease – be relevant to reducing spread when masks in the study were not a matter of common practice. “42 of the mask-wearers in the study (1.8 percent) were infected with the virus while 53 of the non-mask-wearers (2.1. percent) were infected with the virus.” But what else would one expect if the masks were not intended to prevent getting but transmitting the disease, and that could only be accomplished by generalizing mask use.

The CDC study concluded that when comparing groups of people who had tested positive versus those tested negative for the coronavirus, a much higher percent of positive cases had had close contact with someone known to have covid-19 and were also more likely recently to have eaten at a restaurant. Further, it is not sufficient to simply compare mask wearing; you have to compare how the mask is kept, how it is put on, where in society the wearer has gone, with or without themselves wearing the mask, and when and where it is taken off. Thus, if you compare two groups with an equal percentage who wear and do not wear masks, you may find no statistically interesting distinction in the incidence of the disease in the two groups unless you compare for other factors.

That is why a conclusion that masks are “not a magic bullet” is a truism but irrelevant. As the study concluded: “These findings do offer evidence about the degree of protection mask wearers can anticipate in a setting where others are not [my bold and italics] wearing masks.” Right! But so what? We already knew that since we have known for some time that masks do not prevent contracting but only in reducing transmission of the disease.

In the history of recommendations, the American CDC in its initial 10 March guidelines re mask wearing and “interim infection prevention and control recommendations,” focused on wearing surgical masks versus N95s. Both were almost equally effective in reducing transmission when adopted as a general practice. Surgical masks were recommended because N95s were in very short supply and needed by frontline medical workers. Besides, they were more expensive. The surgical mask was explicitly recommended as a mode of reducing infection only by reducing transmission. Masks are designed to contain the wearer’s droplets not to prevent the entry of droplets into an individual’s respiratory system, though it will do this, but not sufficiently to prevent contracting the disease in statistically significant numbers.

That is why the article is misleading and does not distinguish between risk of being infected versus risk of infecting in a context not of individual but collective or communal responsibility. When the issue is reduced simply to individual choice, in contrast to New Zealand, Taiwan, South Korea and Vietnam, one gets much less uptake in the practice and not nearly as significant a degree of reduction in transmission.

The reality is that the controversy alone over whether or not to wear masks increases the risk of spreading the virus. The most telling critique is, in fact, not about its utility or efficaciousness in either the reception or the distribution of the virus, but whether its symbolic value is counter-productive. The mask communicates risk and danger. It thereby enhances readiness on one side for discomfort and a concern with the health of the other. But what if the mask is not stored properly? What if it is not clean? Most importantly, what if wearing the mask heightens fear rather than inducing socially responsible behaviour? Does the fear of infection outweigh the security against spread leading to counter-productive behaviour? Alternatively, does mask wearing create a false sense of security so that we become careless in how it is worn and less vigilant in other practices like social distancing and/or washing hands? In other words, does the mask itself mask what should really be feared? Have we been taught to expect too much from wearing a mask or should we be taught much more about the affective side of wearing a mask?

One is tempted to answer yes when our gross neglect of old age homes are examined where the majority of deaths by far have taken place. Recall when masks were in short supply. Rivera, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the federal Public Sector Pension Investment Board, is one of Canada’s major, for-profit operators of long-term care and retirement homes. It commissioned a report looking into the disaster that hit their senior care facilities over the first six months of the pandemic. The report concluded:

  • they were late in introducing measures to limit spread so that 97% of the residents who were listed as positive during the first wave contacted the disease before protective measures were introduced;
  • As part of the initial neglect of long-term old-age care facilities, the wearing of PPE (personal protective equipment) was not initially made mandatory to protect staff and residents;
  • Further, the first priority for scarce PPE was hospitals and not long-term care facilities, a very major error;
  • The first priority for testing should have been for new residents entering a nursing home facility; this was not the case;
  • Dr. Theresa Tam did not make wearing masks mandatory in these facilities until 13 April; the vast majority of the outbreak (almost 97%) trace back to the pre-13 April period;
  • The health system prioritizes acute care over chronic care;
  • Little or conflicting advice was given on how to separate infected residents from others;
  • The facilities handle staffing shortages by hiring many part time workers who work at two or more facilities;
  • Outdated homes had multi-ward bed and shared bathroom arrangements.

The result: over 6,000 deaths in the first wave from this source or 80% of deaths.

Have we learned our lessons? My bet, given current morbidity statistics, is that if a systematic review was currently made of senior long-term care facilities, many of the above problems would still be extant.

Much deeper and more extensive educational programs for mask wearing and an immediate and radical reform of our senior care facilities are not enough. There has to be an emphasis on the positive. It has been well known for some time that diet and exercise are important factors in contributing to immunity. Yet the system in place encourages people to become couch potatoes as gyms are closed and, as a consequence. people often veg out on comfort takeout food and unhealthy diets. I have not seen a public educational campaign to counteract these propensities.

According to the World Health Organization, healthy foods and hydration are vital. Individuals consuming a well-balanced diet are healthier with a strong immune system and have a reduced risk of chronic illness, infectious diseases. Vitamins and minerals are vital. Vitamin B, insoluble in water, protects from infection. Vitamin C protects from flu-like symptoms. Insufficient vitamin D and vitamin E can lead to coronavirus infection. Vitamin D can be found in sunlight, and vitamin E can be found in, for example, oil, seeds, and fruits. Insufficient iron and excess iron can lead to risk. Zinc is necessary for maintaining the immune system. Food rich in protein should be the top priority because it has immune properties (immunoglobulin production) and potential antiviral activity.” How many of you have been told to change or improve your diet to counteract COVID-19 by enhancing your immune system through diet? (Cf. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/how-to-boost-your-immune-system) How much encouragement have you had to get out in the fresh air and exercise?

The end is in sight. In the meanwhile, decrease the level of transmission by continuing to wear masks, and wear the mask properly even if you become immune from having the disease or by getting a vaccine shot. Each of us has to be an example for collective practices. We all wear seat belts even though a small minority are in automobile accidents where seat belts protect from serious injury and death. Eat well and get exercise. In the meantime, the government must take care of the more systemic problems.

COVID-19 Vaccines: Part III – The World

With the exception of Russia which short cut its trials, the first distributor will be Britain that has already approved the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. Russian President Vladimir Putin reported that its Sputnik V vaccine was 92% effective and vaccinations in Russia will begin contemporaneous with Britain.  China is slightly behind in the creation of its vaccine, but has a greater production and distribution capacity which, as a command economy, it can mobilize quickly. The British immunization program started this week, the second week in December. Britain accelerated its review process using a “rolling review” system. Conclusion: there were no serious side effects; the vaccine was 95% effective.

Canada leads the pack in terms of doses secured per capita. (Source data from Airfinity: https://media.nature.com/lw800/magazine-assets/d41586-020-03370-6/d41586-020-03370-6_18641108.jpg. The 27 member states of the European Union together with five other rich countries with 13% of the global population, including options, have pre-ordered about half of the production capacity for 2021. Including six other leading vaccine candidates, the total number of doses rises to 7.4 billion, with expansion options for another 2.9 billion doses. Local manufacturing deals have enabled India, for example, to secure more than 2 billion doses of vaccine by leveraging access to the manufacturing capabilities of the Serum Institute of India in Pune, the world’s largest vaccine maker.

CountryDoses/PersonContingencies
Canada81
US2.55
UK5.5.5
Australia5.5 
EU32
Japan2.5 
Infographic: Vaccine pre-orders. Barchart showing number of pre-orders of leading COVID-19 vaccine candidates.

What we see, then, is the primacy of vaccine nationalism even if that is followed by global sharing. Yet the creation of vaccines has been a global effort, often led, as I have previously written, by immigrants. Moncef Slaoui, who led Operation Warp Speed in the U.S., is not the only example. BioNTech’s Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, his wife and co-founder of the company that developed the vaccine, are the children of Turkish immigrants to Germany.

Vaccine developers estimate that, between them, they can make sufficient doses for more than one-third of the world’s population by the end of 2021. According to estimates from the Duke Global Health Innovation Center in Durham, North Carolina, because of costs as well as limitations on production, many in the Third World may have to wait until 2023 to receive the vaccine.

AstraZenecaPfizer and Moderna estimate a total production capacity of 5.3 billion doses for 2021 that will supply 3.1 billion people. Moscow will provide another half billion doses for the vaccine created by the Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow. There will actually be a capability of vaccinating everyone in the world by the end of 2022.

There has been worldwide pressure to ensure equitable distribution around the world, though it is quite clear that the richer countries will be at the front of the line.  Dr. Muhammad Yunus, who won the Prix Nobel de la Paix (2006), has circulated a petition to this effect that has already garnered over 722,000 signatures: “Aux gouvernements et aux dirigeants d’entreprise.”


“Les vaccins, traitements et équipements médicaux anti-Covid sauvent des vies. Nous vous appelons à en garantir de toute urgence l’accès pour tous, partout dans le monde. Les brevets doivent être suspendus, les connaissances technologiques partagées librement et ouvertement, et aucun profit ne doit être autorisé pendant cette pandémie. Les gouvernements, les scientifiques et les sociétés pharmaceutiques doivent coopérer et combiner leurs ressources pour que personne ne soit laissé pour compte. Nous n’en aurons pas fini avec cette pandémie tant qu’elle ne sera pas terminée partout.”

BioNTech has received $445 million from the German government, and Moderna has received $1 million from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and more than $1 billion from the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority and the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine has received more than  £1  billion ($1.3 billion) of public funding. Though the vaccines were produced by means of a private/public partnership, it is also clear that most of the funds came from the public so the public should retain an ownership interest in the vaccines or, at the very least, a measure of control to ensure equity as much as possible in its distribution around the world.   

To that end, and in the interim, critics of the private enterprise priority model have urged the following steps:

  1. Full transparency of the clinical trial results.
  2. Enable independent and timely assessments of safety and efficacy.
  3. Publications and publicity should prioritize public education and research dissemination, not business and stock markets.
  4. Science advances should be open across the board.
  5. There should be an immediate sharing of protocols.
  6. Emphasis now should shift to understanding how the vaccine actually works and how the disease effects the human body.
  7. The length of immunity and whether it differs for different segments of the population must be determined.

Around the world, 64 million have contracted the disease and more than 1.4 million have died. Economies of rich and poor countries have been devastated by lockdowns and border closures. But the end is finally in sight.

Final Installment Part IV – Continuing Prevention to follow.

COVID-19 Vaccines: Part II – Canada

What about Canada? There will be a third blog dealing with the world as a whole.

249,000 doses. They are promised to arrive next week. Final approval from health Canada of that Pfizer vaccine is expected at the end of this week. One source of delay is a step I had not known about or anticipated. Pfizer has to approve the 14 nodes set up for initial distribution to ensure that their vaccine can be stored, prepared and offered without risk to either the vaccine or patients. Evidently that will only take a day or two.

However, the information changes not only daily but hourly – until yesterday morning’s announcement by Prime Minister Trudeau, I had been led to believe that the vaccine would not arrive until January, already a revision to my previous information of arrival in March. I have proven not to be a reliable source on timing. Thus, some of the content may be outdated by the time you read this blog. Nevertheless, it is helpful to periodically collect what one has learned.

Canada has passed the 400,000 COVID-19 case mark and almost half those cases have been reported within the last three weeks. Over the last two days, Ontario reported 1925 and 1924 cases in that order and 26 deaths as the latest count per day. The federal government has signed contracts with five Vaccine Logistics Service Providers to deliver 358 million doses over the next two years. By January, Canada is expected to receive three million doses.

With one Canadian addition, the vaccines will be obtained from the same developers and manufacturers used in the U.S. But why 358 million doses when we need only 70 million at most for every man, woman and child to receive a COVID-19 vaccine? And why two years? Why not six months as in the U.S.? Well, it may be not much more than six months. The government does not want to raise expectations and then disappoint if things go awry in any way.

Agreements have been signed with Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech (5 August), Johnson and Johnson via their subsidiaries, Novavax and Janssen (31 August), Sanofi/GSK (22 September), AstraZeneka (25 September) and Medicago (23 October). In light of the recent rapid increase in occurrences of the disease, federal officials scrambled to double Canada’s vaccine order with Moderna to 40 million doses. But there are serious challenges in distribution given that the initial vaccines available have to be kept at -80 degrees. That means that distributing this vaccine creates costly and complex logistical challenges and make it almost impossible to distribute the vaccine to northern indigenous communities that are in such great need.

The two vaccines first off the starting line are based on priming the immune system’s defences against the viral “spike protein” rather than a weakened version of the disease itself, the traditional method for producing vaccines. Though advances in the use of this method largely came from years of research led by Barney Graham, Deputy Director at the U.S. National Institutes of Health facilities in Maryland, the original idea and initial research for the development of the use of the spike protein on the mRNA, that is, the messenger RNA, came from two other American researchers at the University of Pennsylvania who will undoubtedly win a joint Nobel Prize in Medicine, Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman.

The transient genetic material takes the instructions inscribed in DNA and delivers a genetic code rather than the vaccine itself to the protein-making parts of the cell so that the cells themselves become protein immune factories for preventing the spike protein from adhering to the cell. In effect, humans are turned into immune protein production factories. Thus, we can encode fragments of a virus to teach the immune system to defend against pathogens. Even more significantly, this methodology could also create whole proteins that are missing or damaged in people with devastating genetic diseases, such as cystic fibrosis.

One of the major challenges of the Health Institutes research was the instability of the mRNA as well as figuring how the spike protein adhered to the cell. Research revealed that the spike protein folded like origami, from a thumbtack-like shape before fusing with cells, to a rodlike shape afterward. One needed only to disrupt this transformation by enabling the immune system to recognize and then attack the thumbtack spike, a breakthrough accomplished by the painstaking work of Nianshuang Wang in the McLellan Lab at the University of Texas at Austin. He and the others mentioned are part of the immense army of scientists at diverse research centres who facilitated the development of the vaccines. It is noteworthy that a high proportion of the scientists were immigrants o children of immigrants.

In summary, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines work as follows:

  1. RNA vaccines contain a strip of genetic material within a lipid bubble.
  2. Inside the cell, ribosomes read the mRNA instructions for the spike protein.
  3. The cell then begins to generate copies of the spike protein.
  4. Antigen-presenting cells (APCs) consume the viral proteins and pass viral peptides to T-helper cells.
  5. The immune system, presented with the peptide, learns to recognize the virus and releases cytotoxic T cells and B cells.
  6. Cytotoxic T-helper cells detect and eliminate virus-infected cells.
  7. Antibodies from B-cells block the virus from infecting healthy cells.

In contrast to Pfizer and Moderna, AstraZeneca stands out, not only for producing the least expensive vaccine at 20% of the cost of the others, as well as much cheaper storage and shipping costs, it has pledged to provide the vaccine on a not-for-profit basis for the “duration of the pandemic”, and in perpetuity to low- and middle-income countries.

The large number of doses ordered by Canada was intended as a risk-averse strategy to ensure that Canada had sufficient vaccine that worked, that is 8 doses per person with a contingency of an additional dose as an example of very deliberate insurance in case of missteps and unsuccessful vaccines. Canada has arranged for the highest number of doses in the world per Canadian citizen.

Though Canada is only offering guidelines to the provinces for distribution priorities, and the provinces will have the final say, Canada has a different recommended priority system than the United States which has made front-line health care workers its highest priority. In Canada, based on an independent advisory panel, residents in long-term care facilities (LCFs) and staff will be first in line for COVID-19 vaccines followed by the elderly (those over 80-years of age), especially those with pre-exiting conditions that make them more susceptible to very serious illness as a result of the disease. Neither the United States nor Canada has prioritized super-spreaders, the most effective method of countering the spread of the disease, but also the most difficult to identify and the most controversial group ethically to offer the vaccine. Both countries favoured making risk to the most vulnerable the highest priority.

According to Caroline Quach, an infectious disease specialist at the Sainte-Justine University Hospital Centre in Montreal who chairs the National Advisory Committee on Immunization, “Our aim is to protect the most vulnerable first. We have started with the elderly in long-term care facilities and their staff because that is where the highest burden of illness is.” In contrast, Britain, which has just received its first deliveries of the vaccine, has prioritized health care workers followed by residents and workers in long-term care facilities. “U.K. residents who are over 80, nursing home residents and frontline health care workers are among the first to receive the vaccine.”

In addition, Sanofi/GSK has a contract to provide 200 million doses to WHO on behalf of a consortium of countries (COVAX) that includes Canada, but Sanofi/GSK will not begin Phase III trials until the new year. The ACT Accelerator, a global collaboration parallel to America’s Operation Warp Speed, was created to accelerate the development, production, and equitable access to COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines. COVAX is co-led by Gavi, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and WHO. WHO plans include providing every country in the consortium with 20% of its needs before any country receives additional doses.  At the same time, WHO has supported building manufacturing capabilities and buying supply ahead of time so that 2 billion doses can be fairly distributed by the end of 2021. In the meantime, it has secured an estimated 700 million vaccine doses so far. More than 189 countries have signed up to COVAX, including wealthy economies that have joined to subsidize vaccine access. If Canada ends up with excess doses, as expected, the plan is to contribute this excess to COVAX.

Medicago, a Quebec-based pharmaceutical, is the only Canadian-based vaccine manufacturer, but it lags significantly behind its global rivals in the development of its vaccine. It has promising but preliminary results from its Phase I trials on 180 volunteers, including both those who received a placebo and those that received the vaccine. The federal government has contracted to buy 76 million doses of its vaccine and will also invest $173 million in Medicago for its vaccine research and development and for the construction of its Quebec City manufacturing facility.

Trial runs in Canada are underway this week. Approval is expected by the end of the week for the Pfizer vaccine, the same time as the U.S. Originally, it was believed that Canada was probably three months behind America in its ability to get the vaccines. That time delay was shortened to two weeks for delivery to the distribution nodes in each province and now the gap has been reduced to no gap at all. Moderna has assured Canada that it is not only not at the end of the line, but that it will receive vaccines quickly. Canada is set to receive six million doses of these two vaccines by the end of March, four million Pfizer doses and two million Moderna doses. (It is noteworthy that in 2016, Moderna researchers developed a nanoparticle to deliver messenger RNA to a special cell type that could take the code and turn it into a protein on its surface to provoke the immune system.) That means that three million Canadians will be vaccinated by the end of March. The production of vaccines will snowball from month to month as more producers come on line.

While the Canadian federal government is responsible for the procurement and approval of vaccines for use in Canada, the provinces are responsible for the overall immunization strategy. Politics has entered the picture in a significant way as provincial premiers lobby Ottawa for additional health funding, even though Ottawa has paid 80% of the costs for battling the pandemic thus far. There are also politics at the provincial level. The Province of Ontario has been accused of giving in to business pressures (particularly around public gathering spaces like restaurants, bars, gyms and places of worship) compared to the advice received from medical experts and its own public health agency. Further, the province has offloaded the responsibility for restrictions onto municipalities. All of this adds to the concerns re delays in getting the vaccine. There are also rumors that the province is planning to grant long-term care facility owners and operators immunity from liability for the more than 1,800 resident deaths during the first phase of the pandemic.

Municipalities, responsible for immunization at the local level are also making plans, including allocating and distributing allotted vaccine doses, working with medical practitioners, administering vaccines through clinics and other methods, and providing data to the Province to evaluate the success of the campaign. For example, the City of Toronto initiated a COVID-19 Immunization Task Force under Chief Matthew Pegg of the Toronto Fire Services to plan storage, distribution and organizing prioritization for the vaccines as they become available using the COVID-19 incident management system that the City has developed. This includes prioritizing targeted neighbourhoods experiencing higher numbers of COVID-19 cases, expanding testing sites, using buses for mobile testing units, extending testing hours and even providing transportation, intensifying community outreach and engagement and dealing with threats of unemployment or eviction for persons infected and the need for emergency assistance. 

COVID 19 Vaccines: Part I – The USA

In this and the next blog on COVID-19, I have tried to provide myself with a synthesis of the updated information on the development and distribution of vaccines. There is nothing in these two blogs that can be considered original or valuable as interpretation. Rather, the blogs simply summarize knowledge which others may find valuable to share.

In December, the United States will reach the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. has had almost 14 million cases. 270,000 have died from the disease. The average number of cases per day now total over 162,000, an increase of over 12% from the two previous weeks. Death rates have increased over 26% from two weeks ago.

However, in this same month in the U.S., the direction of the war will be reversed, the vaccine assault on the disease will commence and during 2021 we can look forward to the retreat of this disease in America. Moncef Slaoui is the chief science adviser to Operation Warp Speed. He is a Moroccan-born retired vaccine developer and drug company executive who currently co-coordinates Operation Warp Speed with Gustave Perna, a US Army four-star general responsible for logistics. Slaoui spent nearly 30 years at pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), 27 of them working on a vaccine for malaria. He brought 14 vaccines to market and rose to head research and development for the entire company. The fastest a vaccine had ever been developed was the one for mumps; it took four years.

Slaoui will earn a total of $1001 for his role on Operation Warp Speed. However, his financial sacrifice has been much greater, for he resigned from the board of Moderna and gave up his stock options, but also sold all his stock, resigned from the board of the manufacturing firm, Lonza, responsible for producing Moderna’s vaccine. In addition, he resigned from Bril Biosciences, Artizan Biosciences and Clazado.

Slaoui has been giving a number of interviews through The New York Times, The Washington Post and other outlets to update the public on the impending counter-offensive against the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a summary of what he and other sources have had to stay about the arrival of the vaccines, their effectiveness and their distribution in America.

There is a strict separation between the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Operation Warp Speed initiated on 15 May 2020. They have different personnel and different functions. The FDA is charged with certifying the vaccines in the various stages of development and for final use. The FDA ensures that the companies involved in creating and producing the various vaccines do a thorough in-depth job with scientific rigor and appropriate scientific consultation.

Warp Speed, on the other hand, in addition to its responsibility for communication with other vaccine production operations around the world, is charged with coordinating the research by the six American companies involved in producing vaccines. In addition to Pfizer and its German collaborator, BioNTech, that has already received FDA emergency authorization, and Moderna, which has applied for emergency authorization, (the first two companies to pass the finish line), there are also:

  • Novavax, a small-cap vaccine biotech with a manufacturing capacity for approximately 2.75 billion doses of its vaccine candidate, NVX-CoV2373, has also been granted Fast Track Designation
  • AstraZeneca, a European drug giant in partnership with the University of Oxford based uniquely on the use of a genetically altered adenovirus (that is, a cold virus), with contracts in place to manufacture up to 2 billion doses of its vaccine candidate; in its initial trial, it has proven to be 90% effective when the initial dose by mistake was cut in half based on 2,800 volunteers, but only 62% effective with an initial full first dose; there have been no serious side effects, but the trials were paused when some volunteers experienced neurological problems which disappeared; This is the vaccine that is:
    • Much easier to store – does not require temperatures of -72 degrees
    • Much easier to mass produce
    • Costs one-fifth the price at $3-4 per dose
  • Johnson & Johnson, one of the first pharmaceutical companies to receive a major grant from the federal government, also has an adenovirus-based single dose vaccine; so is the Russian one called Sputnik V already being distributed on an emergency basis 
  • Sanofi (S-protein COVID-19 antigen based on recombinant DNA duplicating a genetic match for a surface protein on COVID-19) and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) with a $2.1 billion contract with the U.S. federal government for 100 million doses of its vaccine based on both companies’ adjuvanted innovative technology; note that the combination of a protein-based antigen together with an adjuvant to enhance the immune response, creates a stronger and longer lasting immunity against infections than the vaccine alone and can be manufactured at scale. 

(In Part II on Canada and the World, I will indicate what other vaccines are under development.)

Moderna and AstraZeneca  are using the HEK-293 cell line derived from kidney tissue taken from a healthy baby aborted in the Netherlands in the 1970s. Johnson & Johnson is using the PER.C6 cell line developed from retinal tissue from a baby aborted in the 1980s. Anti-abortion activists have been upset by this source and for some this may be an inhibition in taking the vaccine.

One hundred million doses will vaccinate 50 million people since most vaccines require double doses. Everyone is excited now that three of the vaccines under development have already passed Phase III trials with flying colours and two still await approval.

In the FDA’s independence and responsibility for quality control, there is some communication with Operation Warp Speed with respect to testing, manufacturing and even distribution to ensure the safe use of the vaccines. Operation Warp Speed has followed the imperatives Slaoui laid down when he took the co-coordinator and chief scientific advisor role. No political interference. No bureaucratic interventions. Science, not politics or administrative practices, would lead the way. Six months and four days after the contract was signed, Pfizer and its German collaborator, BioNTech, were the first across the finishing line. The vaccine awaits final formal approval; manufacturing and distribution will follow, likely by mid-December following an approval meeting on 11 December.

The U.S. Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is charged with ensuring the quickest, widest and fairest distribution of the vaccines and recommending to states the priorities on vaccination. CDC releases the data it accumulates on infected persons, hospitalized patients with COVID-19, numbers that enter intensive care units (ICUs), and deaths from COVID-19. It also makes recommendations on prevention and mitigation – lockdowns, stay-at-home, masks, distancing, numbers relatively safe to gather indoors and out, tracing when there is a disease spreader, and monitors the success of different treatments.

Warp Speed is not only responsible for coordinating the research and manufacturing of various vaccines, but overseeing all aspects of the distribution and logistics. The objective is that within 24 hours of approval, the vaccines will be shipped to specified addresses in each state using FedEx and UPS for example in temperature-controlled shipping after first arriving from Belgium. (The temperature must be -94 degrees Fahrenheit) Pfizer is currently studying whether the vaccine can be transported at higher temperatures. The problem will come with local storage at the low temperatures for local distribution nodes. Evidently, the syringes, swabs and other materials needed to administer the vaccines are already at the required locations. There have already been dry runs to deliver the boxes of vaccines of the right size and weight as part of the preparedness.  However, one estimate has given a figure of 50,000 deep cold refrigeration units needed for the various points of distribution around America.

Operation Warp Speed has been managed totally independently of the chaos in the White House and there has been no impact or even attempt evidently to influence its operations. Its decisions are guided strictly by technical, scientific and ethical data and norms. It has been helped enormously by the fact that both Pfizer and Moderna have been both very successful and swift in their development, but have also provided plenty of data that has been plentiful, robust and of excellent quality to indicate effectiveness and safety.

The best news has been the results of the trials with both vaccines. They are 95% and 94.5% effective on average and 100% effective for people with serious conditions after the two vaccines have both been through three stages of trials and 50,000 individuals have been vaccinated. About 15% exhibit typical side effects from the inoculation of the vaccines – pain in the arm, red swelling a rash, a small fever, but the symptoms are not long lasting.

There have been no measures for any long-term effects of the vaccines. But there have been no adverse effects at all in the shorter term other than the symptoms exhibited from the insertion of the vaccine. Some confidence that there will be none comes from the biological signals and data base in these and other clinical trials. Adverse effects, if any, occur within 40 days after immunization. Thus, although there is no way to really predict, and only time will tell, a great deal of confidence can be suggested that long term effects simply will not happen. In any case, when considering the alternative risk of getting the disease, the illness that results from infections, the hospitalizations and even deaths, the probabilities overwhelmingly favour taking the vaccine.

By the end of 2020 – that is this year – 40 million doses will have been produced and 20 million people vaccinated. The most vulnerable front-line health workers and those in long-term care facilities (24 million in total) will get the first doses. By the end of January, 80 million additional doses will be ready and 40 more million vaccinated. It is expected that essential workers and older adults will be next in line to receive the vaccine. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, “has insisted that science and data drive the process…for vaccine allocation and distribution” as it did for vaccines and therapeutic development. Since other vaccines are expected to be ready in February and March, it is easy to extrapolate and calculate that by the end of June 2021, every American who wants to be vaccinated will be.

In the meanwhile, what about cautionary measures – testing, masks, distancing, size of gatherings, tracing, etc.? Since the median time that people test positive is five days after exposure, and it could take up to two weeks, one might expect some individuals who receive the vaccine to develop COVID-19 because the disease was on its way before the inoculation. Whether the vaccine slows down the process or mitigates its effects has not been determined. The CDC has issued a new recommendation modifying its previous requirement of two weeks of quarantine for anyone that may have been in contact with an infected person.

The agency’s new recommendation has reduced the quarantine period to a ten or, in some cases, a seven-day quarantine periods. With the 10-day option used in France and Germany, about 1 percent of infections will be missed. With the seven-day option, which requires a negative test at the end, 5 percent of infections will be missed. If a person was definitely in contact with an infected person, a 14-day quarantine period is still recommended by CDC.

The pieces of the puzzle are in place to defeat the disease. To Be Continued.