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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Education and Israel's Future

Two interesting items in the news in Israel this week:

1. Deloitte announced the results of its annual survey of fastest growing technology firms in EMEA. The first three spots were taken by Israeli firms: Voltaire, Celltick and Runcom.

2. The Ministry of Education published the results of the 2006 PIRLS tests. These tests measure and compare the proficiency of school students across 45 countries. Russia, Hong Kong and Singapore took the first three places; Israel got in at the 31st place.

These two seemingly unrelated stories tell a very strong story.

Israel has no natural resources. It is a country burdened by high military expenditures. Its traditional industries, such as agriculture and diamond-cutting, are disappearing. The growth engine of Israel's economy in the past couple of decades has been the high-tech sector. In other words: Israel's future depends on "knowledge workers", people who can use their brains to create value.

The achievements of Israeli school children compared to those of their peers in Asia does not bode well for this country's future. Throw in the ongoing strike by high-school teachers and university professors (both get ridiculously low salaries), and the outlook is even gloomier.

Israel today is a leader the high-tech industry, worldwide. But this remarkable accomplishment is in grave danger. Continuing to ignore the fundamental problems in the Israeli education system - from kindergarten to PhDs - puts the future of this country at risk. The real threat to Israells' future does not come from Ahmadinejad and his likes. It comes from Israeli governments continuing to neglect the most important asset this country has: its people's education.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Annapolis: A Pointless Diversion

One day after the well-orchestrated show in Annapolis, Maryland, and the zillion words of commentary in the media about the "brave" or "expected" or "empty" speeches of the leaders (depending on who is doing commenting), it all boils down to three very simple facts:

1. Everybody knows what the deal will look like. Nothing in the main elements of a future agreement has changed (or can change) since Camp David 2000. So no speech can be "dramatic" or "brave" at this point in time. The problem is not the end result, it's the following two points.

2. Neither of the two leaders - Olmert and Abbas - have enough political power in their respective constituencies to strike a deal, certainly not the kind of deal they alluded to (i.e. partition of Jerusalem and the renunciation of the Palestinian "right of return"). Olmert is busy keeping his fragile coalition together; Abbas is busy trying to prevent the Hamas from taking away any remaining vestiges of power he still clings to.

3. Nobody in the US administration (or the international community) has the will nor the power to do what is necessary: dive into the mud to extricate the feuding parties, bang their heads together and force them to get the deal signed. Certainly not in the timeframe Bush and Olmert spoke about ("within 2008").

So, bottom line, I don't expect much to come out of Annapolis. In fact, I didn't even bother to watch or listen to the speeches; reading the headlines on the Web this morning was more than enough to figure out that plus ça change, etc. I obviously hope I'll be proven wrong, but I doubt it very much.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Values of Days Gone By

If you drive north on route 5 in Israel and look right (eastwards) after passing the Geha intersection (for Petah Tikva and Bnei Brak), you will see a decrepit industrial building with an interesting inscription on its roof:

I took this picture with my mobile phone, so apologies for the quality. Three letters are missing, but the inscription says: "We took a vow to partake in the building of the people and the Land of Israel".

I've been driving past this building for many years and I often look at these words. They strike an emotional chord within me every time. Yesterday, I googled these words and found out that the building belonged to an aluminium manufacturing company by the name of Zinkal, that apparently went under in 2002. Most of the entries about Zinkal on the Web are court proceedings of creditors against the company. The company's website returns an empty page.

I find this very symbolic. On one hand, the inscription shows the owners of Zinkal believed in values which most Israelis today view as passé and defunct. And yet they were proud enough of these values to inscribe them prominently on the copmany's building, in full public view on a main highway. On the other hand, the state of the building (and the inscription) are proof that the cynical view prevailed. Those who place the value of caring for the country and its people before the value of self-enrichment end up broke. I know I'm generalising, but it's a potent symbol nonetheless.

Update - 3 December:

Driving past the building again today, I noticed the sign posted on the top-left corner (you can just see it in the photo) is an ad for a lucky charm, an amulet, of R. Nachman of Breslov. This building' symbolism is stronger than I originally thought. Business gone bust, good old values failed, so let's turn to voodo Judaism to save us.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A Talmudic Negotiation

A couple of months ago I was in the final stages of negotiating a deal with a large company in South Korea. This company is notorious for its tough negotiating tactics. I was invited to a meeting with the VP in charge of purchasing to discuss pricing. The session was scheduled for 1pm, but he showed up at 4pm; we went on for 5 hours, during which I was not offered any food or drinks; no breaks were taken. This was all standard procedure, part of the "atmosphere" created by these companies to put pressure on the vendors. Not pleasant, but part of the game.

But every such negotiation has its funny moments. At one point, about 3 hours into the session, I was standing next to the whiteboard trying to reconcile our differences in pricing. I was moving numbers around, doing quick calculations and generally playing around with the figures to find a way to make it work. In the heat of the moment I must have been doing things a little too quickly for them to follow properly. One of the guys in the room suddently shouted: "stop!". I turned around and saw him holding his head between his hands. He gave me a desperate look, and said: "I can't take it any more with you and your Talmud!".

For a moment I was speechless. Then I just burst out laughing. They obviously knew I was Jewish and from Israel, but the last thing I expected to hear in that context was a reference to the Talmud. We all had a good laugh and after we calmed down I asked for an explanation.

It turns out that the Talmud is held in very high regard by Koreans. There are bestselling books in Korea, so I was told, that teach people how to think and negotiate better by using "Talmudic methods". The back-and-forth of Talmudic debate is considered a sophisticated way to reach the right conclusion, so this has been translated to advice heeded to by many Koreans. It's really all rather fascinating and it fits well within the widely-held myth (not particular to Koreans, by the way) that Jews are "intelligent" and "smart".

After a short discussion about the Talmud - they were impressed by the fact I study it every day - we continued the negotiation and eventually reached an agreement. I guess studying Daf Yomi has helped me in more ways than one.

Chuck for Huck

Mike Huckabee is a Republican presidential candidate in the US. Last month, Chuck Norris announced he is endorsing Huckabee's bid for the highest office in the country.

And here below is the first campaign commercial Huckabee is running. My jaw dropped when I watched this the first time. I had to watch it again to make sure my eyes and ears were not playing tricks on me. Only in America.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Beware of Blondes

Jokes about blondes are a dime a dozen. Blondes resent being stereotyped as dumb, but a recent study (from France, mind you) shows that men's mental performance declines when they are around blondes. In the words of the professor, "blondes have the potential to make people act in a dumber way".

Thankfully, I prefer brunettes.

Monday, November 19, 2007

140 Million Jews

One of the questions that comes up every now and then in the Israeli-Japanese discourse is whether the Japanese are descendents of the Israelite Lost Tribes.

Brief history: After the Israelite kingdom was run over by the Assyrians in the 8th century B.C.E, ten of the Israelite tribes were exiled and never heard of again. Today's Jews are descendents of the kingdom of Yehudah, specifically three tribes: Yehudah, Binyamin and Levi. Over the centuries, many theories have been put forward as to the whereabouts of the Ten Lost Tribes. In recent years, a group of Indians came forward and claimed they are descendents of the tribe of Menasheh; several of them made aliyah to Israel.

One of the theories is that the Ten Tribes (or some of them) ended up in Japan. Proponents of this theory point to Shinto, the native religion of Japan, purportedly showing that several traditions in Shinto can be traced back to biblical Jewish practices. The movie below summarises some of these finding, while this website is more comprehensive.

Personally, this all sounds a bit far-fetched, but who knows? After all, it has been almost 3,000 years so anything is possible. To me, the most frightening thought in this whole discussion is: imagine a world with 140 million Jews! The mere thought has me covered in cold sweat.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Sub-Prime Crisis: Explained

You've all heard about the sub-prime financial crisis, causing all that trouble to the mightiest institutions on Wall Street. Let's admit it: most of us don't really understand what it's all about.

Well, no worries. It is all explained here:

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Vanishing American Jew

Last Friday night I attended "services" at a Reconstructionist "synagogue" in Irvine, California. No, I did not lose my mind (yet).

The group of Israelis I was with for the 2-week educational course were invited to participate in a panel about higher education in Israel, and this took place at this "synagogue". As it was our last evening together, I wanted to come and say goodbye to everyone, so after going to a real synagogue for services, I walked over to this place. As it happens, I arrived there just as the "services" were starting, so I was lucky enough to witness the whole charade.

This was no regular Friday. On this particular Friday evening, the event was called "Shabbat Alive", an especially lively show. There was a male "rabbi" and a female "cantor", who coincidentally also happen to be happily married. Both wore a tallit and a kippah. The "rabbi" had a wireless microphone attached to his jacket lapel; the "cantor" used a regular microphone. The "cantor" played a guitar, in addition to being accompanied by two sidekick singers and a band consisting of three musicians, no less.

The "services" were a mishmash of songs, some completely secular (such as Halleluyah, an Israeli song that won the Eurovision song contest back in the 1980s), combined with bits and pieces from the siddur (prayer book). In the spirit of egalitarianism, some of the passages were recited in both male and female format. This was carried to absurdity: when the blessing over the bread - which, for some odd reason, took place during the "service" even though dinner had already been eaten by the congregation - was recited twice, once as "ha-motsi" (male) and once as "ha-motsi'a" (female). The congregation itself, an assortment of Jews and Gentiles, 200+ strong, were sat in a movie-like theater, facing the stage. I thought this was appropriate, as this was indeed more a spectacle than a prayer.

But the most suprising part for me was not the actual event. Rather, it was the reaction of my fellow Israeli friends, all of them secular. Some of them were more shocked than I was. To them, Judaism was purely Orthodox; in the spirit of Isaiah Berlin's famous words: the synagogue they do not frequent is an Orthodox one. So what transpired on the stage was nothing short of an abomination to them. One of my friends, a proclaimed atheist, refused to put a kippah on his head, saying he was so angry at the fact that the Jewish religion was being put to such mockery that he would not play along.

Even though halachically-speaking I shouldn't have attended this "service" (the hillul ha-Shem there was blatantly obvious), in a way glad I'm glad I did. Seeing with my own eyes what Judaism was reduced to in America was in many respects an eye-opening experience. Although from a historical perspective such aberrations were proven to be short-lived, it was still important to me to witness first-hand a symptom of "the vanishing American Jew" (the title of an excellent book by Alan Dershowitz).

If I were to look for a bright point in this story, I guess it is the following. There is some value to be found in these "religious" movements, as some Jews in America would have no connection whatsoever to Judaism were it not for the existence of the Reform or Reconstructionist movements. I heard from various people in the Jewish community in Irvine that there are many cases of the second generation (the children of the parent that married out) veering back towards Judaism, some even becoming practicing Orthodox Jews. So perhaps there is some sense and purpose in this madness.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Quality of Life in the US

Quality of life is a hard thing to measure. Economists argue about the parameters that make up this elusive measurement of how satisfied people are with their lives. There are several QoF indices being published by different bodies; The Economist's is one. Things like wealth, health, political stability, political freedom, climate and job security are taken into account. The weighting of each of these parameters is crucial in determining which country's QoF is better.

Because of its composition, the QoF index does not produce the same country rankings as the GDP per capita index. For example, in the The Economist's index, the US comes 13th in the QoF ranking, despite it being the country with the highest GDP per capita in the world (if you ignore tiny Luxembourg).

I thought about this during my recent stay in the US. I spent two weeks in Irvine, California, a southern suburb of Los Angeles (the locals will resent this definition; for them, Orange County is distinct and separate from L.A.). Irvine is one of the country's most peaceful and wealthy cities. And yet many of the city's residents work in L.A., which means they spend hours each day sitting in traffic on dreadfully congested San Diego freeway (route 405). Ensconced in their air-conditioned SUVs and Priuses, they spend their mornings and their evenings in a bumper-to-bumper river of cars. How do you factor this nightmare into the QoF index? People in Irvine may be sleeping in 3-million dollar homes and driving in 100,000-dollar cars, but can you really put a price on the agony of spending hours each day staring at other cars' backsides?

Or take dometic air travel in the US. I flew from L.A. to Boston yesterday. Economy class on United Airlines. It's been a while since I was on a long domestic flight in the US, and it wasn't pleasant. The security lines were long. The TSA personnel grumpy. The United employee at the gate kept barking at passengers. The flight attendants adopted another strategy: they simply ignored the passengers. No food was served, only drinks and a biscuit (this was a 5-hour flight). The only positive element of it all was that the flight was on time. Compared to domestic flights in Europe (and certainly in Asia) the Americans have it really bad. The treatment they receive at the airport and in the air is atrociously discourteous. And they seem to take it willingly. So either they've given up on being treated nicely or they've been bullied into stunned obedience by the post-9/11 American way of life.

Quality of life? I think not.