Editorial: Avera Mengistu is Still a Hamas Prisoner. Why?

Sept. 9, 2020 – There is a common myth in Israel that it will never desert one of its own. Israel has cooperated beyond courage to bring back those killed on the battlefield. IDF officials have negotiated in the past with Egypt, Jordan, the PLO, even terrorist groups, often trading hundreds of captive Palestinian terrorists and enemy combatants for the body of one IDF fighter.

Recall Gilad Shalit, the IDF soldier who, in June 2006, was captured by Hamas terrorists entering Israel near the Kerem Shalom crossing through their intricate tunnel system. Shalit was kidnapped and held prisoner for more than five years.

Israel and the Shalit family, which had resources thanks to campaigns in Jewish communities worldwide, kept his name and his plight at the centre of events. In October 2011, following tense and often fractious negotiations through intermediaries, Shalit was finally released in exchange for some 1,000 Arab and Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, 280 of whom were serving life terms for carrying out deadly attacks against Israeli targets.

The treasuring of each Israeli citizen was, and continues to be, the truest test of Israel’s character.

Sadly however, in the case of Avera Mengistu, the credo of “no Israeli left behind if captured by enemy combatants” does not seem to hold true. Some feel racism is to blame.

Mengistu and his large family arrived in Israel from Ethiopia in 1991 when he was five years old. Theirs was not an easy life. His father found it difficult to find work and the only income for the clan came from Avera’s mother, who cleaned homes in Ashkelon, near the Gaza border.

Avera’s life went from bad to worse following the death of his beloved eldest brother. He turned to friends for money, and his mental health became fragile to the point where he underwent psychiatric treatment. In March 2013, the IDF determined that Avera was not fit for military service. During this time, his mental health deteriorated even more.

A few months later, in circumstances that remain vague, Avera was seen near the Zikim beach on the Israeli-Gaza border. An IDF unit thought he was one of many Sudanese refugees who were trying to get into Gaza. He was last spotted near the security fence, and by the time Israeli border guards arrived, he had disappeared into Gaza. He has not been seen since.

There were some minor attempts to have him returned to Israel. All failed. In an interview with Al Jazeera, a senior Hamas official acknowledged that Avera was in Gaza. He claimed the Ethiopian was wearing a uniform, was mentally healthy, and was part of ongoing negotiations relating to the 2014 Gaza-Israel truce talks.

And this is where Avera’s fate has largely stood to this day. Unlike the case of Shalit, there has been little mass public outcry from Israeli authorities for his release. His family, who are among the poverty-stricken Ethiopians in Israel, have no resources to fight for his release.

There is an inescapable feeling that the reason Avera’s case is not being handled with the determination and seriousness of other kidnapped Israelis is because he’s Ethiopian – and Black. Indeed, one of Avera’s brothers, Yalo, noted in an interview with Ha’aretz that “it’s more than racism. I call it ‘anti-Blackism.’ I am one million percent certain that if he were white, we would not have come to a situation like this.”

Hamas has also not lost sight of the fact that Avera’s case has garnered little attention, though there have been sporadic reports of Hamas demands for a prisoner exchange with Israel for his release. Notably, Hamas has used the racial bias issue as a propaganda chip. On its Twitter platform, a Hamas message claimed “obviously the real Israeli motto is ‘leave no Ashkenazi (white Israeli) man behind.’”

This is a sad story of one man suffering from severe mental health problems. It seems sadly clear that both Israel and Hamas view the situation through the colour of his skin. It’s time that both sides see Avera as a man who must be returned to his family. His life matters and we cannot be silent.

Erin O’Toole On Record as Pledging Embassy Move

Aug. 24, 2020 – New Conservative leader Erin O’Toole has in the past indicated he is a strong supporter of Israel and would move Canada’s embassy there to Jerusalem.

Following a six-hour delay to fix glitches with the ballots, O’Toole handily won the Conservative Party leadership early Monday, taking 57 percent of the votes on the third and final ballot, compared to 43 percent for second-place contender Peter MacKay.

In a video posted to Facebook last month, O’Toole repeated his pledge to move Canada’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people, and the modern presence there just cements this. The Knesset, the Supreme Court and Foreign Ministry are all in west Jerusalem,” O’Toole said.

Canada-Israel relations have “weakened and wavered” under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he added.

“I stand with Israel,” he said. “Yesterday, today and always.”

This past February, MacKay backtracked on his position on moving Canada’s embassy in Israel. On day after he was quoting as saying he would not commit to such a move as leader, MacKay said it had “always been my personal view that Jerusalem is the undisputed capital of the State of Israel and that is where Canada’s embassy should be and under my leadership, will be located.”

O’Toole, a former party foreign affairs critic, wasted little time in staking out his position.

“Under Stephen Harper, Canada stood out as a resolute friend of Israel. Sadly, under Justin Trudeau, this strong support has weakened. We need a principled Conservative leader who will make Canada a true friend of Israel once again,” O’Toole said at the time.

“I have been absolutely clear about this and my views have not changed. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. The strong presence of the Jewish people there is thousands of years old.

“I believe that we need more of a presence in the ground in Jerusalem. It’s crazy that our ambassador has to drive from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to meet with government officials just to preserve a diplomatic fiction. It’s time to recognize reality and move our embassy,” O’Toole said.

Earlier this year, all Canadian political parties came out in opposition to Israel’s contentious plan to annex parts of the West Bank, particularly the Jordan Valley. Israel has since postponed those plans.

The CJR reached out to Conservative leadership frontrunners MacKay and O’Toole. Only O’Toole replied, saying, “We don’t support any unilateral action whether it involves the Palestinians using the [International Criminal Court] against Israel, or the Israelis annexing disputed territory. Canada supports and remains committed to a negotiated two-state solution to the conflict.”

When he ran for the leadership in early 2017, a contest won by Andrew Scheer, O’Toole was an unstinting supporter of Israel, even in a field of 14 strongly pro-Israel candidates.

At the time, O’Toole said he supports “Israel as a democratic, Jewish state with secure borders… Israel has been ready to sign a final peace deal several times. Each time, the Palestinian leadership has walked away from the table. Palestinian leaders still refuse to accept the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. It is this, and not the settlements, that is the obstacle to peace.”

O’Toole said he’d advance peace by establishing an exchange program between the Canadian Armed Forces and the Israel Defense Forces, “and vocally opposing efforts to isolate Israel, such as the recent United Nations resolution that the Trudeau government remained silent on.”

Canadians Help Fund Education, Cancer Research in Israel

Aug. 12, 2020 – By STEVE ARNOLD

Canadian philanthropists are giving more than $3 million to Israeli universities to fight cancer and clear hurdles to higher education for Ethiopian Israelis and Israel Defense Forces veterans.

For Sylvia Soyka of Markham, Ont., the money her family’s foundation is giving to Canadian and Israeli pancreatic cancer researchers is a personal commitment to overcome the disease that killed her father.

Sylvia Soyka
Sylvia Soyka

“This is very personal for me, and that’s why the project is named for my father,” Sylvia Soyka said in an interview. “The one thing I’ve come to understand about this disease is that nobody understands much about it, other than it’s very bad.

“There is an urgent need to shine a light on this disease now,” she added.

The Soyka Foundation’s grant will finance the second phase of research projects in the two countries looking for treatments and early diagnosis techniques.

Alex Soyka
Alex Soyka

Early diagnosis of the disease is especially important, Soyka said, because while her father was 90 when he was stricken, its victims are usually much younger.

“This is a young person’s disease,” she said. “Its victims go very quickly and often leave young families. It’s a horrible disease.

While progress is being made – when the first stage of the research started in 2014, the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer was less than five percent – today it is nine percent.

“We’re making huge progress, but even doubling the survival rate still leaves you in a pretty scary place,” she said.

Soyka would not discuss the specific amount of the donation, other than to say there’s still a huge need for support.

“To a large degree it doesn’t matter because no matter how much it is it’s still just a drop in the bucket,” she said. “There is a huge need because there is still such a knowledge gap in this field.”

The Soyka Foundation’s support will finance researchers from Hebrew University’s Institute for Medical Research Israel-Canada (IMRIC), the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, and Israel’s Sheba Medical Center.

Ethiopian students hoping education will be their ladder up in Israeli society will get a boost from the Morris and Rosalind Goodman Family Foundation grant.

Morris and Rosalind Goodman
Morris and Rosalind Goodman

Morris Goodman, now 89, co-founded Pharmascience Inc., now the second largest privately-owned pharmaceutical company in Canada. The Goodman Foundation was endowed in 2008 and focuses on scientific research to improves public health, experiential and informal education and community capacity building.

The Montreal-based foundation is partnering with Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University to provide scholarships for needy Ethiopian Israeli students who are engaged in social, community or academic leadership activities.

Divided equally between the universities, the gift will support students pursuing graduate studies while highlighting the importance of higher education in this demographic and promoting community engagement.

Foundation president Maxyne Finkelstein said Ethiopian Israelis are held back in life because they’re denied the chance at higher education.

“In Canada people go for a second and third degree because they want to achieve the most they can,” she said in an interview. “In this case, you have a population where very few of them are able to access these opportunities.”

Israel is home to about 150,000 Ethiopian immigrants who started arriving in the country 35 years ago. According to a news release from Canadian Friends of Hebrew University, about half live below the poverty line, they are sharply under-represented in the country’s universities, and often face financial hardship in pursuing education.

Finkelstein noted that in a country where up to 45 percent of the general population has 16 years of education, only about 10 percent of Ethiopians get through to a bachelors degree.

“We looked at a gap in society and asked if there was something we could do to create greater social mobility and a real step forward toward greater financial independence and family stability for the future,” she said.

The scholarships will cover tuition and living expenses and are not targeted at any particular field of study. The only condition on the support is that applicants must do some form of community volunteer work.

“We want to advance Ethiopians in fields where they want to advance and where they feel they can make a contribution to society,” Finkelstein said. “We feel these people can be role models to other young Ethiopians, and this is an area where we can create a real social change.”

Finkelstein would not disclose the value of the gift. Applicants for the next university semester are already being recruited.

Lenny and Faigel Shapiro of Calgary are investing $625,000 in a five-year program of scholarships for young Israelis who have completed their mandatory military service but who lack money for further education.

Lenny and Faigel Shapiro
Lenny and Faigel Shapiro

“I have always been attracted to the IDF soldiers, these young people who come out of the army at age 22 and have no money to go to school,” Lenny Shapiro said in an interview.

“I want them to be able to have an education and get a degree,” he said. “When I was a young man in Montreal, I didn’t have that chance until I could go to night school.”

Shapiro made his money as head of Allied Resources Management in western Canada’s oil business. The scholarship program is currently supporting 60 students and he hopes to expand that to 100.

The value of each award is being increased. In addition of portion of the Shapiro gift will be matched by Canadian Friends of Hebrew University and Hebrew University.

The Shapiro scholarships cover tuition costs only.