A nuclear Iran is the only existential threat to the State of Israel, said Gabi Ashkenazi, a retired general who was chief of General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces from 2007 until 2011.
Ashkenazi was the guest speaker at the annual general meeting of the Ottawa Jewish Community Foundation, June 6, at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre.
“Forget [what] the newspapers [say]. The situation – from a national defence perspective – is quite good,” he said. “It is better than it was two decades ago; and definitely better than when I was a young lieutenant during the Yom Kippur war.”
Ashkenazi said now that President Donald Trump has pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal, the Iranians have two major options. The first would be for the country to remain in the deal, because the other signatories – the United Kingdom, France, Germany, China and Russia – still support it.
Iran’s other option would be to break from the deal and “dash to the bomb.”
If Iran opted to break the deal, Israel would face the possibility of having to use military force, said Ashkenazi.
“Hopefully, we will not have to act alone. But, based on my experience, we probably will be alone, and that is why we must be ready to protect ourselves.”
The other issue with Iran, Ashkenazi said, is that Iranian proxy groups, such as Hezbollah, are present in Syria and fighting for the Assad regime in that country’s civil war. That should be a red line for Israel.
The borders with Egypt and Jordan, the two Arab countries that have peace treaties with Israel, are quiet, he said, and threats from terrorist groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza are not serious.
“They cannot conquer Israel. They are no real threat to us,” Ashkenazi said.
However, he acknowledged, Israel still lives in a tough neighborhood.
“Even after 70 years as a country, many of our neighbouring countries are not willing to accept our basic right to have a Jewish state,” he said.
Israel’s greatest challenges, according to Ashkenazi, come from within. Israeli society is changing, he said in reference to the growing proportion of haredi Orthodox in the population, with fewer young people are serving in the military, getting a proper education and paying taxes.
“It is not just economically unsustainable, it is social unsustainable” Ashkenazi said. “We have to change all of that, through education, through service for all, and through leadership. I think we have the budget and resources to fix this.”
“The story about this country is a miracle,” Ashkenazi said. “But beyond divine intervention, it’s a story about people. The strength of Israel is about people.”
Ashkenazi is now chair of the Rashi Foundation. Established in 1984, it is now the largest philanthropic organization, and the oldest private foundation, in Israel. The Rashi Foundation assists underprivileged segments of Israeli society, with special attention to children and youth.
Ashkenazi said that 80 per cent of the foundation’s disbursements support education, while the remaining 20 per cent goes towards welfare.
“We provide opportunities to those who have no opportunity. We give them choices. That is what we are doing,” he said.
Ashkenazi also took the opportunity to thank the Jewish community of Ottawa for its support of the State of Israel.
“Thank you for what you are doing, for standing for Israel, and for building Jewish lives and community,” he said.
The Foundation AGM included the presentation of several awards presented by Paul Finn, a member of the Foundation Board of Directors.
The Ilana and Steven Rubin Scholarship Award was presented to two graduating high school students going on to university: Mackenzie Cook, who hopes to become a lawyer, and Alise Gertsenchtein, who plans to pursue studies in business and marketing, each received $1,800 scholarships to help further their educations.
McGill University student and Jewish campus life activist Jasmine Segal received the George Joseph Cooper Scholarship Award. The Cooper scholarship is presented annually to a student from Ottawa’s Jewish community who has “displayed leadership qualities, academic excellence, a strong commitment to the Jewish community, and whose studies and career goals will advance the arts, literary or social sciences.”
The Hillel Lodge Long-Term Care (LTC) Foundation received the Norman Lesh Philanthropy Award for its video campaign project. LTC Foundation President Russel Kronick and Executive Director Mitch Miller accepted the award, which is meant to “encourage other innovative thinkers to develop their own philanthropic legacy.”
The meeting was led by Foundation Chair Gillie Vered, who spoke about the importance of the Foundation’s work in ensuring the future viability of the community and about his stepping up to a leadership role with the Foundation.
Foundation Treasurer Adina Libin presented the financial report noting an eight per cent return on Foundation investments. This allowed the Foundation to make grant commitments of $3,194,187. Of that amount, 85.5 per cent went to Ottawa Jewish agencies, 10.7 per cent to North American Jewish agencies, 2.4 per cent to non-sectarian agencies and 1.4 per cent to Israeli agencies.
Other speakers at the AGM included Jewish Federation of Ottawa Chair Hartley Stern, who gave a report on Federation’s “Jewish Superhighway” initiative; Foundation and Federation President and CEO Andrea Freedman, who gave an overview of Foundation activities; Michael Landau, immediate past-chair of the Foundation who presented the Governance Committee report and slate of nominees for the Board of Directors; and Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton of Or Haneshamah, who offered a D’var Torah.