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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Israel's Achilles' Heel

Again Israel is fighting. The Gaza operation, which started five days ago, is still ongoing and two questions are being asked today: whether ground forces will enter Gaza, and whether a temporary truce should be considered. Both questions are a reflection of another, unspoken question: how many soldier casualties will this operation cause?

Fear of casualties in war is Israel's Achilles' heel. The process started in the first Lebanon war in 1982, or rather during the prolonged presence of Israeli troops in Lebanon after that war (Israel withdrew from Lebanon only in 2000). The continuous toll of casualties in Lebanon gave rise to various protest movements, most notably "Four Mothers". This decades-long process brought about a paradoxical shift in the attitude towards war casualties: we fear more the death of a soldier than the death of a civilian.

This is a paradox because the primary role of the army, in any democratic society, is to protect the civilian population. A soldier is supposed to risk his or her life in order to avoid casualties to civilians. And yet most Israelis will be more tolerant of civilian casulaties than of military ones. Not one soldier has lost his life in the past five days, but several civilians died as a result of the Hamas rockets fired indiscriminately into Israeli cities. There is not one word of protest against this situation.

The expected toll of soldier casualties is the hidden barometer by which decision makers operate here, in both the government and the IDF, although few will admit it. The Winograd commission, set up after the second Lebanon war, pointed this out very clearly. Our enemies know by now that Israel is unwilling to risk the lifes of its soldiers in order to protect itself. It will fight mostly from the air or using technological means, thus minimising the risk of casualties. This respect for life is very commendable on one hand, but in the long run it works against the interests of Israel. No country, especially one that is threatened on a daily basis by its neighbours, can survive if it is not willing to use its army to protect itself.

This is not saying anything about the current operation, about which I have mixed feelings. It is a general comment on our warped national psyche.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

God, Man and History, by Eliezer Berkovits

This is the second time I'm reading God, Man and History. I read it a few years ago but felt that it deserved a second, much slower, read. So I left it on my desk at the synagogue, and for the past few weeks I've been reading a few pages at a time every shabbat, trying to absorb this masterpiece of Jewish thought more thoroughly.

Eliezer Berkovits is one of the less-known Jewish thinkers of the past century, and the Shalem Institute in Jerusalem should be commended for publishing several of his works in new editions. This edition of God, Man and History was the first book to be published in this series, and rightly so, as it is considered Berkovits' keystone work. It is a small volume (just over 150 pages) and yet it manages to explain in clear language some of the most fundmental questions of Jewish theology.

The book has three sections, corresponding to the title of the book. The first, and most detailed section, deals with the encounter with God which is the core of Berkovits' philosophy. It lays the foundations for the rest of the book. The second section deals with ethics, that is the practical translation of the encounter into Jewish law and deeds (mitzvot). The last, and shortest section, is about the manifestation of God in history (or rather, lack thereof), particularly the history of the people of Israel. As Berkovits himself states in the introduction, the book follows the footsteps of that "most Jewish of Jewish philosophers", Yehudah HaLevi, the 12th-century Spanish philosopher and poet who sought to define Judaism from within (particularly in The Kuzari).

I will not even attempt to summarise Berkovits' philosophy here. But I will highlight one theme that permeates throughout the whole book, that of man's responsibility for his actions. Berkovits solves the paradox of the encounter between God and man by ultimately demonstrating that God cares for His creation and is engaged in its progress and survival. God is not an indifferent supreme being that leaves the world to its own devices (Aristotle), nor is He the pantheistic "God of nature" (Spinoza). However, there exists, and must exist, a separation between God and man, as such separation is vital for man.

The doubts about the existence of God, which derive from the fact that the encounters between God and man in history were extremely rare and brief, are essential for safeguarding man's freedom. God hides from man in order to enable man to believe in Him without compulsion. There can be no intellectual proof of God's existence as such proof would "put the human intellect in chains". We would have no choice but to believe in God; faith would be redundant. For the same reason, there can be no evident and continuous intervention by God in the world (e.g. by preventing evil) as such intervention would crush man's responsibilities and he would be nothing more than a puppet.

This is a most profound idea. We all know to repeat the mantra of man's "freedom of choice". Yet most of us wish for God to be more present, for Him to resolve the problem of theodicy and to govern the world through miracles. Understanding the concept of the "hidden God" and why it is vital for our existence as human beings, is an important step forward in accepting our reponsibilities in this world.

If I were ever asked to make the impossible choice of recommending one book, and one book only, on Jewish thought, God, Man and History would most definitely make it to the short list.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Time to Reboot America

This op-ed piece from Thomas Friedman doesn't say anything new, but it says it well.

For quite some time now, I've been telling my American colleagues that their country's infrastructure and services are below par, always to be greeted with puzzled looks. Perhaps now they'll understand better what I'm on about.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years, by Chingiz Aitmatov

Aitmatov is a Kyrgyz writer who passed away this year. I have never heard of him or his books, but a friend recommended this book to me recently. As is usually the case with friends' recommendations, this book turned out to be a real gem.

The story takes place over the course of one day, and includes one major plot and one short sub-plot. Yedigei, a railroad worker in remote Kazakhstan, sets out to bury his old friend, Kazangap, in an old cemetery. Throughout the long journey to the cemetery, Yedigei recounts his personal history and that of the few other souls that live with him at the remote railroad station. The shorter sub-plot involves the discovery of extraterrestrial life by an American astronaut and a Soviet cosmonaut. The location of the Soviet launch site near Yedigei's station serves as the background for this science-fiction background story.

I will not go into the plot itself; it is far too elaborate and clever for me to try to summarise it in a few short paragraphs. Aitmatov paints an achingly beautiful picture of hardships of life in the remote steppes of central Asia under Soviet rule. He succeeds in describing the rich tradition and history of the local people and how their culture and practices are challenged by the laws of the Communist regime. The animal world plays a major role in the story, with Yedigei's camel, Karanar, being one of the main characters in the book. There is an ever-present criticism of the Soviet regime, but it is so subtle that the book does not become an anti-government manifest.

The sub-plot about the extraterrestrials seems, at first, to be entirely disconnected from the main story. However, as details about the discovery become more apparent, and especially the reaction of the leaders of the USA and the USSR to the discovery, it all comes together. Yedigei's earthly worries and dealings are interwoven with galactic events, to make a strong statement about the human condition. The past, present and future are interwoven in an intricately designed masterpiece.

It's hard to do justice to this book by attempting to review it. I learnt a lot about Kazakh culture and the hard-working rural inhabitants of the Sarozek desert. But mostly I learnt that one can tackle the big questions in life through a simple story. In two words, my recommendation is: read it.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


In these tough times, a little perspective doesn't hurt.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Korean Air and the "Korean Mindset"

Following up on my previous post about Gladwell's Outliers:

I was visiting Korean Air headquarters in Seoul yesterday and had dinner with some managers from the Maintenance & Engineering group. After the proper level of inebriation was attained, I brought up Gladwell's theory about the link between Korean culture and KAL's crashes in the 1990s. I was somewhat apprehensive about broaching this topic as you never know what might be considered offensive when talking about national culture. But the KAL people immediately agreed that one of the main problems that plagued their company was indeed the "mindset" of the pilots, as they put it. They readily agreed that changing this mindset and training the first officer to speak up more directly to the captain was indeed helpful in solving the problem.

However, when I asked them why Asiana Airlines, whose pilots are also Korean, did not experience a similar problem, they were stumped for an answer. After some furious debate between themselves, the explanation offered was that the Korean "mindset" was only part of the problem, and that other issues - such as faulty or missing safety regulations - also needed to be fixed at KAL.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell purports to explore the root causes for success: what is it that makes people successful. Not just ordinary people, but outliers, those who are so accomplished that they lie outside normal experience. His basic claim is that the characteristics and personality of the individual are not the main explanation for their success. Rather, it is their environment which is the determining factor: when they were born, what culture and values they grew up with and how their family and community shaped them.

Here are a couple of examples:

  • Forty percent of successful Canadian hockey players were born in January, February or March. Reason: the cut-off date for selecting players to the children teams is January 1st, so the older the child the more likely he is to be fitter and stronger than his classmates and be selected to the hockey team.

  • Successful corporate lawyers in New York will have a similar profile: born in the mid-1930s to Jewish immigrant garment workers. Reason: they went to underpopulated public schools, received inexpensive college education and were barred from mainstream law firms, leading them to specialise in takeover disputes which later became all the rage in corporate America.

By far the most interesting story in the book is the chapter about the relationship between national culture and plane crashes. Gladwell analyses the example of Korean Air, who had a terrible crash record in the 1990s. Reason: the deferential, hierarchical culture of Koreans prevented first officers from challenging the captain's decisions in the cockpit even when these decisions were tragically wrong. (No chance of that happening in an EL AL cockpit, I guess). The same is true, apparently, also in Colombian culture.

Outliers is a very entertaining book, and Gladwell is a gifted writer. But as with his previous books - The Tipping Point and Blink - I was left with a feeling that this is more of a collection of anecdotes rather than a rigorously researched study. It is almost impossible not to be captivated by Gladwell's narrative, but after the initial "wow" effect, one finds several holes in his "theory of success". If Korean Air planes crashed because of Korean culture, why does Asiana (the 2nd airline in Korea) have a good safety record? And if working in the rice paddies shaped the champions of mathematics and science among Asian immigrants, why did the same not happen to West African immigrants, who also grow rice for a living?

It seems at times that Gladwell shot the arrow then painted the target. He had a theory and then looked for examples that support this theory. Not to mention the fact that if you believe Gladwell, then it really doesn't matter how smart you are and how hard you work. If you were born in the wrong generation or to the wrong parents, your chances of becoming exceptionally successful are very small. That is a very discouraging thought, especially in the prevalent American culture, so my guess is not many will like this book.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Zero-Star Hotel

With companies cutting down on travel budgets and asking employees to use cheaper hotels, one can only hope things will not get as bad as this.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Bluetoothless Japan

Japan leads the technology gadget world. Japanese hardware manufacturers release their latest products in the domestic market first, and some advanced models are available only domestically. Whilst living in Tokyo, I was accessing the internet using iMode on my DoCoMo phone years before the introduction of 3G phones in the West. I always took it for granted that use of technology in Japan, especially in the domain of mobile/wireless communications, would be ahead and more advanced than anywhere else.

So I was unprepared for the strange experience I had walking the streets of Tokyo this week: I was the only one using a Bluetooth headset for my mobile phone (the H700 pictured on the left). It took me a while to notice it, but nobody except me had a Bluetooth headset. I noticed that on my first or second day here, and all week I looked around for somebody else using one. Nothing. Not even one person.

This being Japan, the reason for this strange "Bluetoothless" phenomenon is obviously not slow or late technology adoption. I believe the answer to this puzzle lies in the social and behavioural rules of mobile phone etiquette here.

A strong emphasis is placed on proper manners - manna-a to locals - when using a mobile phone. For example, it is very rare to see a Japanese person use a mobile phone to speak on the train (texting though is OK; it is actually the most common activity next to reading manga). In the rare occasions this happens, the entire body language is one of apology and self-minimisation: a hand cupped over the phone, the head bowed, and a look of real consternation on the face of the caller, who usually ends the call immediately explaining he/she is on the train. When in meetings or in public places, if the phone rings, more often that not the person taking the call will step out of the room. The all-too-familiar picture of two Israelis sitting at a restaurant or coffee shop, both talking loudly into their phones, is nonexistent in Japan.

So I think that Bluetooth use goes against this social etiquette. Speaking with a Bluetooth headset means the person is basically talking into thin air, seemingly to nobody (a familiar picture in airports). This is unacceptable behaviour here, as it is not obvious to others around you that you are on the phone. It is too embrassing and definitely too impolite to be talking this way. It's almost like being caught eating in public, God forbid!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

TV Shows and a Fat Pig

In London again last week. Got in Monday with the most dreary weather imaginable; we didn't see the ground until we were practically on the runway. Most unpleasant.

Zapping through the TV channels here (jet lag or just from boredom) I am always suprised by the fact that almost every day one can watch a game show centered around general knowledge questions. And not only during the day but also during evening prime time. How come the UK has so many of these shows? I am not certain (as I am not connected to TV at home), but I'm pretty sure there are no such shows in Israel. I don't hear about them on the news. All I read about are reality shows and song/dance contest shows. The last one I remember being on TV was "Who wants to be a millionaire", but I don't think it's been on for a while now.

What does that say about Israelis? Is the generations-long Jewish quest for knowledge, a result of the priority placed by parents on education, coming to an end in the Holy Land of all places? I don't know, but I would definitely prefer to hear that TV audiences in Israel are watching "The Weakest Link" rather than vegetating in front of "Big Brother".

I also managed to catch a play this time: "Fat Pig" at the Comedy Theatre. It's a small story about a guy (Nick Burns) who starts to go out with a fat girl (Katie Kerr) but doesn't manage to come to terms with his friends' criticism of his new love. Kerr and Burns do a great job, but the ex-girlfriend (played by Kelly Brook) is seriously annoying and seemed to "over play" her part. Cute play, but nothing much to write home about. It's worth watching for Kevin Bishop, who does a great job as the rude and "in your face" friend.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Obama It Is

Well, Obama it is. Hard to say what this means for the US and for the world. As The Guardian put it this morning: "it is hard to know whether to week or to shout for joy". Most of the local commentary, driven by US-born Israelis, is that this is a historic mistake, the magnitude of which will be clear soon enough. Others are more cautious and ask to give Obama a chance.

If I were to try and take a high-level view of recent events (a risk, given the lack of proper historical perspective), I would frame everything in the context of the power shift from the US to the East, particulary to China. The US is steadily losing its hegemony as the world leader, a position it has held for almost a century, most recently as the sole world leader. The US is not going away any time soon; empires usually do not crash in a single bang, they fade out over a long period of time. But the trend is clear. This fading out has always carried with it tumultous events in world history, as the world seeks a new balance. The war against terrorism, the economic turmoil, the general sense of hopeleseness, the apathy of Europeans - everything can be attributed to this shift. The thirst for change in America, manifested in this Presidential election is yet another symptom of this global readjustment. The US is struggling to come to terms with the fact that it has peaked and it's mostly downhill from here.

We live in a world best described by the old Chinese curse as "interesting times".

Monday, November 03, 2008

Obama or McCain?

So the race is finally over, and tomorrow is the big day. Obama or McCain?

Truth is, I haven't been following the US Presidential election much (the disillusionment with Israeli politics is clearly spilling over) so I can't say I have a firm opinion either way. My guts tell me McCain will be better for Israel, but frankly I'm not too sure my guts are right this time. Who knows?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Chabad of Tokyo

Three years after leaving Tokyo, the whole family is back in Japan for a short visit this week. There are obviously many experiences and memories to write about, but I wanted to write a few words about a dear family and an invaluable organisation - Chabad of Tokyo.

During the 4.5 years we were living in Tokyo, Chabad was for us - as it is for many Jews around the world - the main focus of Jewish life here. The Sudakevitch family have become our friends. They arrived in Tokyo a year or so before we did, so they've been here for almost 9 years now. Recently the Chabad House moved to a new building, which is going to be renovated in the near future and become the centre of Jewish life in the Japanese capital.

We just spent shabbat and chag with the Sudakevitch family (we are staying in a hotel nearby). It was lovely to see them again and to have meals in their sukkah. We had "hakafot" last night with a group of tourists from Israel that really livened the place up; I'm sure the Japanese neighbours were asking themselves what the loud singing and raucous dancing was all about. Rabbi Mendi told me that on Yom Kippur they had about 200 people for the end of the day, with only about 60 chairs available. This is surely a great sign for the new Chabad house in Tokyo.

So if you're visiting Tokyo, be sure to pay Chabad a visit!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Singapore and Israel

I'm sat at Singapore Changi airport, waiting for a red eye to Tokyo, after having spent 3 days in this wonderful city-state. I've been to Singapore several times in the past, and it's a great place: "Asia for beginners".

Every time I'm here I'm struck by the fact of how much Israel would benefit by adopting some of the practices of the Singaporeans. I agree that, strictly speaking, Singapore is not a "true" democracy; in fact, it has been described as an "illiberal democracy" or even a "benign dictatorship". But my argument is that this is exactly the type of democracy Israel needs.

Here are some examples of Singaporean practices that I think would do wonders if applied in the Holy Land:

  • Freedom of speech is moderated, to protect minorities and to prevent "disharmony". Oh, if someone would only put a leash on the Israeli media!
  • You kill someone (first-degree murder), you die. You traffic in drugs, you die. Simple and effective.
  • OK, so perhaps capital punishment is a little harsh, so how about this: you don't flush the toilet, you chew gum in public, you litter, you jay-walk, you trade in pornography - you are a criminal.

I think the idea is clear. Compare Singapore to other "Chinese" countries in Asia and note the difference in wealth, law and order, cleanliness, manners, etc. Certain populations need taming, for want of a better term. Israelis could do with a little taming themselves. Things would look much better if heavy fines were imposed every time someone threw litter from his car or cut in line at "kupat cholim". I say: hit the Israeli where it hurts most: his pocket!

It's a well-known secret that Israel helped Singapore build its military. It's time Israel also learns a thing or two from Singapore.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Prozac and Home-Equity Loans

The financial crisis gripping the world right now started with the bursting of the sub-prime mortgage bubble in the US last year (explanation here). Naturally, the financial industry players - banks, brokers, insurers, etc. - took most of the rap for creating this crisis, and rightfully so.

But what about the people who actually borrowed the money? Aren't they at least partly to blame for taking these risky loans?

Adam Hanft has an interesting theory: Americans have been medicated with anti-depressant drugs to a level that caused them to accept irrational levels of risk. Not sure about that $500,000 loan for the new house you want so much? No worries, just pop a Prozac into your mouth and suddenly the loan doesn't look so risky. Drug-induced confidence might indeed be partly responsible for the irrational behaviour of many of these home-equity borrowers.

Now, isn't that a depressing thought?

Monday, October 06, 2008

Melachim Gimmel, by Yochi Brandes

Yochi Brandes grew up in an ultra-orthodox charedi religious family. Now she does not follow halacha but is "religious in her own way", whatever that means. And, faithful to the turnaround, she wrote a book that will probably make many religious people angry. Not me; the story isn't gripping enough to make me angry...

The presumptuously named Melachim Gimmel ("King III", i.e. a continuation of the books of Kings, no less) is not Brandes' first book, but it is her first "Biblical novel". This relatively new and recently blossoming genre, concerns books based on Biblical figures that go to extreme lengths to disfigure the Biblical narrative and present a "new way of looking at things". The authors will obviously studiously tell their readers that the new narrative is all based on apocryphal literature or midrashim, and they merely uncovered the truth behind the Biblical story. Because the Bible, as we all know (wink, wink) is just one big conspiracy story to hid the real history from us gullible believers.

Melachim Gimmel is basically the life story of Yerov'am (Jeroboam) son of Navat, the fourth king of Israel (first king after the split between Yehuda and rest of the tribes). The book has three parts. The first tells the story of Yerov'am's childhood and young adulthood, and lays the foundation for the "secrets" to be revealed later in the story. Mind you, at this stage we the readers are not really supposed to know that it's Yerov'am the story is about; he is called Shlom'am in his youth (altough it beats me how anyone with cursory knowledge of the Bible can miss it). The second part moves to Michal, daughter of King Sha'ul and wife of King David, who is following her husband's steps (upon his visit to Achish, the Philistine king) by acting as if she's crazy in order to fool everyone around her. In reality, the screaming and the lighting of thousands of candles at night are a ruse to hide her conspiracy with Hadad the Edomite to fell her husband and restore the kingdom to her father's family (you guessed right: Yerov'am). The third and final part is the part where it all comes together and Yerov'am becomes king of Israel, thus fulfilling the true prophecy of Elisha.

The Biblical story is turned on its head by Brandes. The King David dynasty and the tribe of Yehuda are depicted as the evil ones, whereas the King Saul dinasty and the tribes of Binyamin and Efraim are the good guys. The only reason the Bible says it differently is because the scribes of the time were ordered by the palace to write false stories. For example, David never really killed Goliath, Saul never really persecuted David (quite the contrary) and God never stripped the kingdom away from Saul to give it to David.

Brandes is not the first to write a "revolutionary" narrative of the Bible. Anita Diamant did it years ago with the story of Dinah. Shlomit Avramson did it recently with the story of Tamar and Yehuda. Even the story of the generations-long struggle between the dynasties of Saul and David was rendered into a (much better, futuristic, novel) by Chagai Dagan. But Brandes writes pretty well, so at least the shalowness of the "new narrative" and the "hidden secrets" are not all that tedious, and the book can be read and be done with in a few hours. Good riddance.

Friday, October 03, 2008

The Lion's Muffled Roar

The District Court in Jerusalem refused yesterday to overturn the moral turpitude clause in Aryeh Deri's 1999 verdict. This means that Deri will not be able to run for mayor of Jerusalem. This is good news.

Deri is considering to appeal to the High Court of Justice. I hope he does, so that the last nail goes into the coffin and the lion is buried for good (or at least for these elections).

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Financial Crisis: Explained (Again)

A day before Congress decides on the bailout plan for the financial markets (and for all of us), is a perfect day to be reminded of this video from about a year ago. How sadly prescient it was:

The Amnesiac, by Sam Taylor

The Amnesiac is a strange book. I bought it following a recommendation on VSL, that called the book "unputdownable". Well, it took me a few days to get through it, so I wouldn't define it quite as such. But it is an intriguing book, as one would expect from a book about amnesia.

James Purdew is a 30-year-old Briton that leads a more or less contented, easy-going life in Amsterdam with his girlfriend, Ingrid. A leg injury has him confined to the apartment for a while, which gets him thinking about life in general and his in particular (lesson for life: do not think too much!) He gradually realises he has this blank about three years in his past, and when he checks his diaries he finds out those relating to that period are locked in a box to which he has conveniently lost the key. As his relationship with Ingrid hits a dead-end anyway, he decides to head back to England to retrace his past.

So far so good, and up until this part the book was indeed "unputdownable". A great start. But this is where things get more complicated. James starts his detective work by going back to the house he lived in during his university days. The plot goes back and forth in time and various clues come together, pieces of the past. James starts feeling this is all part of a bigger picture that keeps eluding him. He also gets the feeling he is being manipulated by greater forces.

The story is hard to follow, not only because of the obvious "holes" of James' missing past, but also because of the writing style. Narration switches between James and a mysterious narrator, that claims at times to be in the same room as James. Excerpts of other works are inserted alongside the main story. There are several characters, in different times, whose names or initials are similar. Taylor also switches between genres: science fiction, mystery and drama. This is partly why this book is slow to read; the reader is curious to find out what is going on, but the style is such that it slows down the reading pace.

The end is rather disappointing, as one suspects what happened quite early on in the story. Nevertheless, this is a book I would recommend and certainly a great debut book for Sam Taylor.

PS - I was reminded of the movie Memento while reading this book (note to self: must watch that movie again).

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

History in the Making

These days most of us are going about their lives as usual: work, school, family... And yet the events of the past few months, and especially of this week, are probably nothing short of history in the making.

The American government bails out the two largest mortgage companies. Three out of the five leading banks in Wall Street are no longer with us. The largest insurance company is asking the government to throw it a lifeline. And the world stockmarkets are in a freefall.

We are all immediately affected by this "financial tsunami", through our mortgages, our savings, our pension funds and the value of our home. Yet these are merely the immediate effects and there is a much bigger picture to consider here. In the words of Alan Greenspan, this is a "once-in-a-century" crisis.

The banking system, unlike other parts of the economy, is built on trust and that trust has been eroded to a dangerous degree. The US government made a courageous decision by not saving Lehman Brothers at the last minute, preferring to send out a message that this mess needs to sort itself out with market forces. But this is a huge gamble, one that places the entire market-based economy approach to the test, the results of which may alter our lives in ways unimaginable (some say unthinkable) at this point in time.

By definition, it is not easy to discern clearly when history is being made. History is a hindsight business. But I'm paying close attention, as years from now I might find myself telling my grandchildren what life was like during the turnpoint year of 2008.

Monday, September 15, 2008


The primaries for the new leader of the ruling political party, Kadima, are taking place this week. One of the candidates, Shaul Mofaz (currently the Transport Minister) called a press conference yesterday and predicted he will win. So far - no news; typical candidate behaviour.

The interesting, and mildly disturbing, piece of news is that Mofaz confidently predicted to one and all that he will win with exactly 43.7% of the vote. Not 40% or 45%, mind you, but exactly 43.7%.

My first reaction was that I probably misheard (or rather misread, as I get my news from the Web). How can anyone possibly predict an election outcome with such precision? Surely even the most secular political candidate in Israel is aware of the saying of Rabbi Yochanan in the Talmud: since the destruction of the Temple, prophecy was taken from the Prophets and given to fools and children. Who in his right mind, i.e. not a fool or a child, would want to make such a prediction?

But then I remembered it is Mofaz we are talking about, and everything became clear. Mofaz, who has a lengthy military career behind him, was head of the IDF Officer School (Bahad 1) when I was there all those years ago. And even though as a cadet I did not bump into him that often, the impression that stuck in my mind from those few occasions I did hear him speak was that of a bumbling fool. I still remember all the jokes officers used to make about him behind his back. No wonder then that he, of all people, should be blessed with the gift of prophecy.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Do we Deserve Gaydamak? - A Year Later

On the eve of the current new Jewish year, I asked whether we Israelis deserved Gaydamak, the Russian-born billionaire with the questionable background that decided to run for mayor of Jerusalem. I added that if indeed we did deserve him, then we had some serious repenting to do.

A year on, it seems our repenting is starting to work and there are signs this particularly odious phenomenon may be starting its exit from the Israeli public arena. May this be the beginning of a wonderful fade out.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The Return of the Lion

Aryeh Deri, former minister, MK and leader of the ultra-orthodox party Shas, announced today he has decided to run for mayor of Jerusalem. Small problem: he was convicted and sent to prison 9 years ago, and the offences carried moral turpitude which prevent him from running for public office until next year. So he's asking, nicely, to let him run anyway and if that won't work, he will likely go to the President to ask for pardon.

Reminder: Deri was found guilty of corruption, breach of trust and taking bribes. He waged a campaign against the legal system for years, procrastinating at every possible junction while blaming the "ashkenazi elites" for political and racial persecution. He has never admitted guilt.

The Israeli public has a very short memory and an astonishing tolerance for chutzpah. Whilst this criminal has paid his debt to society, his asking for leniency on the ban to run for public office is unacceptable. It is inevitable (almost a law of nature) for Deri to come back to politics eventually, but he should not be allowed back by using the same old mixture of an attitude of self-entitlement coupled with shady dealings behind the scenes. Some humility and integrity are in order.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Hamei Yoav, Israel

For our wedding anniversary yesterday, my wife and I spent a day and a night at Hamei Yoav, a natural baths and spa complex in southern Israel. We've never been and as it's a relatively short drive away nowadays, with route 6, why not?

Here's why not. The place is in dire need of a facelift. A new coat of paint will be a nice start. My masseuse told me the place is run by the adjacent two kibbutzim, which explains the poor management of the facility. It's a shame to see such a beautiful place deteriorate through neglect. It can become a real gem with proper attention.

On the bright side, what can be wrong with a day spent lounging in various smelly pools, enjoying a massage and eating in an Indian restaurant in suprisingly well-developed and clean-looking Ashdod? But next time I'll probably choose another spa.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Transparently Pointless

I was in Boston this week and naturally could not avoid getting exposed to the Democratic Convention taking place in Denver. I was meaning to write about my impressions from this vacuous event, but after reading The Economist's correspondent's post on about the American talent for "creating transparently pointless political rituals", I don't have much to add.

There is one other remarkable American talent I wonder about: the ability to stomach cheesiness and fake emotions without puking (or hurling some heavy object at the TV). Michelle Obama's address was a masterpiece of fake emotions; how can anyone possibly believe the her voice genuinely hang, every so precisely, during critical moments in her speech? And when Hillary Clinton got to the "No way! No How! No McCain!" part, the camera showed Bill smiling and shaking his head, as if amazed to hear this gem come out of his wife's mouth; how can anyone possibly believe he has not heard this before?

I keep asking myself whether most Americans believe this blatantly fake nonsense or if this entire charade is just a perpetuum mobile that nobody can stop.

Sunday, August 17, 2008 - My Library Online

For years I've had this dream to create an electronic catalogue of all the books I own. I looked at various software packages but all of them required too much effort and too much time. The improvised solution I use for cataloguing my movie collection (using an Excel spreadsheet...) works well for a few hundred DVDs, but is inefficient for all my books.

So you can imagine the "Eureka!" scream I let out last week when I stumbled upon I kicked myself hard when I saw the site/service has been around for more than two years. And then I kicked myself even harder for not thinking about such a service myself.

The idea is very simple: you enter the book's ISBN (or, if you don't have it, some key words like title or author) and the site searches for the book in hundreds of databases worldwide. One click on the book's title adds it to your online library, including the cover image and various details about the book. The site has several other nifty features, making the entire experience quite enjoyable.

I've only just started adding my books to my library (a permanent link is on the right sidebar of the blog), so it's going to take a while before they are all online. I can't wait.

Friday, August 15, 2008


Uniqlo is a clothing retail chain from Japan. They came up with a brilliant branding idea: Uniqlock. Explanation here. I'm hypnotised.

Nachamu - Zion and Jerusalem

על הר גבוה עלי לך מבשרת ציון, הרימי בכח קולך מבשרת ירושלים, הרימי אל תיראי, אמרי לערי יהודה הנה אלהיכם

(ישעיה מ', ט')

This shabbat we read the first of the seven haftarot of consolation (sheva de'nechamata), the first one being from chapter 40 of Yeshayahu, known also as nachamu, nachamu ami ("comfort ye, comfort ye, My people"). The prophet calls upon Zion and Jerusaem to comfort the people of Israel:

"O thou that tells good tidings to Zion, get up into the high mountain; O thou that tells good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah: 'Behold your God!'"

(Yeshayahu 40, 9)

So who is the one that brings good tidings to Zion? And who is the one that brings good tidings to Jerusalem? And what is the difference between Zion and Jerusalem?

Some commentators explain that the verse refers to the prophets themselves, those who bring good tidings to the people. Most of the prophets were men, and the Hebrew word for "brings good tidings" here is mevasseret which is in the female form; this is explained in several ways, one of which is that the verse refers to the congregration of prophets, rather than to a single prophet, and whe word congregation in Hebrew - eda - is indeed in the female form.

But more interestingly, other commentators explain that Zion and Jerusalem are themselves the bringers of good tidings. And from this explanation we can try and understand the difference between the two.

Zion and Jerusalem are mentioned earlier in Yeshayahu (chapter 2), a verse we read every time we open the ark: "For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of God from Jerusalem." The Malbim writes that Zion is a name given to the seat of the Sanhedrin, the high court of 71 sages that sat in a designated room in the Temple (lishkat ha'gazit), and hence "the law" goes forth from Zion. Jerusalem, on the other hand, is the city itself, from which the words of the prophets, "word of God", goes forth to the rest of the land, the cities of Judah. This distinction holds also in our case. Zion, a symbol of the Temple, needs to "get up into the high mountain", as befits the Temple Mount and the high place reserved for kings, sages and priests. Jerusalem, a symbol of the prophets of the city, needs to "lift up its voice in strength", so that God's message is heard all over the world.

The same idea is further expounded by R. Avraham Kook. The double consolation of the prophet (nachamu, nachamu) refers to two types of redemption: an earthly redemption - Jerusalem - which is similar in nature to the national aspirations of all people on earth. And a spiritual redemption - Zion - which is unique to Israel and will come with the restoration of the Temple and the kingdom of Israel.

Our generation has been blessed to have witnessed the first redemption, that of Jerusalem. God willing, we shall also be blessed to witness the second redemption, that of Zion, soon in our times.

This idea for this week's thought is from R. Avraham Rivlin.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

No Short-Nosed Dogs Allowed

I connected to the internet in the ANA lounge at Narita airport this morning. After connecting, the browser is automatically directed to the ANA home page. Just before closing the browser window, I spotted the following headline under "ANA News": Resumption of Carriage of Short-nosed Dog. Obviously, I couldn't resist the temptation to click on this intriguing piece of news.

And here's the full story, copied here for posterity (the Japlish is ANA's, not mine):

Thank you for choosing ANA flight.

W accept a pet particularly carefully during the traveling. ANA will suspend carriage of certain breeds of short-nosed dog from July 1st to September 30th. In accordance with professional veterinarian viewpoint, Short-nosed dogs are vulnerable to environmental health condition in the summer season compare to other breeds, ANA decides that, at the current moment, we can not confirm to provide safe carriage of pet.

We apologize for any inconvenience and appreciate your understanding and patience.

1. The term for effective: July 1st- September 30th,2008

2. Applicable Flight: All ANA Group operating flights (Domestic and International)

3. Applicable Breeds: Bulldog, French Bulldog, Boxer, Shih Tzu, Boston Terrier, Bull Terrier, King Charles Spaniel*, Tibetan Spaniel, Brussels Griffon, Chow Chow, Pug, Chin, Pekingese

* Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is NOT same as King Charles Spaniel, ANA can accept Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.

It's a shame I didn't bring my Cavalier King Charles Spaniel with me on this trip, as it would have been allowed on board!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Coolest City in the World

If anyone is still wondering which is the coolest city in the world, yesterday's New York Times put all doubts to rest.

Unlawful Order

One of the oft-quoted military laws in Israel is the one of the "clear and evident unlawful order" (פקודה בלתי חוקית בעליל). A soldier must obey orders, but if he is given an order that is clearly unlawful, he is allowed to disobey the order. Many, on either side of the political fence, quote this law to serve and further their agenda. More often than not, the debate is what exactly constitutes an unlawful order and how is the soldier supposed to recognize one.

Yesterday, the human rights group B'Tselem released a video showing an Israeli soldier shooting a blindfolded and bound Palestinian in the foot at short range. The soldier claimed in his interrogation today that he received a direct order from the Lieutenant Colonel holding the Palestinian. If indeed this claim is true, then this video and the soldier's actions should be used in military academies as an example of what an unlawful order is. The soldier should have refused to execute on this order, if indeed this was the order he received.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

An Unbalanced Deal

Yesterday, Israel and the Hezbollah executed an "hostage swap" deal. Hezbollah returned two dead soldiers - Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser - whose kidnapping two years ago triggered the Second Lebanon War). Israel released five terrorists from jail and almost 200 bodies of dead terrorists. There are no right or wrong answers to the difficult questions surrounding the issue of such deals but here are some observations:

1. The debate in Israel around the return of living or dead soldiers from captivity is an irrational debate. The decisions of the government are influenced to an unhealthy degree by the families and the press.

2. Paradoxically, Israeli society is more vulnerable to loss of soldiers compared with civilian losses. During the last war, every injury and every casualty were reported almost in real time, with dramatic and overblown coverage. Terrorist attacks against civilians receive much less attention.

3. The media coverage of yesterday's events (and today's funerals) is nauseating. The need to fill hours of live coverage with nothing much to report led to total disrespect for privacy and an unrelenting stream of hyperbole. Three soldiers died in the kidnapping attack; four more died shortly thereafter in the tank that pursued the kidnappers; and more than a 100 died in the Second Lebanon War. None received the media attention of these two dead soldiers.

4. Given the history of such deals, the price paid for the two dead bodies (and remains of other casualties from the war) is more than reasonable. Those who cry foul that this deal sets a dangerous precedent - releasing living terrorists in exchange for bodies - are conveniently ignoring the fact that ten years ago Israel released 60 terrorists (and 40 bodies) for the body of one Israeli soldier: Itamar Ilya. So the precedent has already been set.

5. Having said that, the practice of releasing living terrorists for bodies must stop. It is a recipe for getting back only dead bodies, as the other side has no incentive to keep kidnapees alive.

6. These deals will forever be unfair and Israel will always end up paying a higher price. This is an inevitable outcome of the fundamental differences between the two sides: a democratic country vs. a terrorist organization, and a life-loving culture vs. a death-sanctifying one. Fairness will never be part of the equation when dealing with people who make a hero out of a terrorist that killed a 4-year-old girl by smashing her head in with the butt of his rifle.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Fall

One day, some historian will make use of today's story about the fall of Miss USA at the Miss Universe pageant (for the second year in a row!) as a metaphor for the beginning of the decline of the United States in the early 21st century.

Brief Visit to India

I'm never going to get around to writing the posts I've been meaning to write in past weeks, so here is a collection of random thoughts about my recent visit to India.

India is a fascinating country. Although I was there only for three days and most of the time I was either travelling or in meetings, my first encounter with this country left me wanting to go back for more. I have avoided India for years, partly because I never travel to third-world countries for holiday. Why suffer when you're on vacation? And business never brought me there until last month.

The first impressions of New Delhi, where I landed late on Sunday evening, were exactly what I expected. Tons of people everywhere; the airport looked like it had been built a century ago; the "deluxe taxi" that was waiting for me was a battered Hyundai Accent; when the driver wanted to switch on the lights while driving, he opened the door and held it open; traffic laws, if any indeed existes, were a mystery to me; and so on and so forth. And the constant horning! Everybody drives with one hand on the horn.

But although I expected New Delhi to be dirty, I was completely unprepared for what I saw. It was as if the city was built in a huge garbage dump, with paths cleared through the garbage to make way for houses and streets. People were sleeping on the streets, inches away from the cars and motorcycles passing by at breakneck pace. Even the plastic tents of the homeless (if that's what they were) looked as if they were erected inside the garbage mountains. Few streets were properly paved; most were simply dirt roads.

The following day I visited two companies: Oracle and IBM. One was located in the "high tech" area of New Delhi. The contrast between the inside and the outside of the buildings could not have been starker. The streets were the same as the rest around the city: unpaved, muddy from the first monsoon rains with gutters overflowing. Cows were strolling between the hooting cars. But the moment you enter one of the buildings, it's as if you're in Israel or the US, both in terms of the building facilities and the way people dresss and talk. A couple of hours later you leave the bubble and you're once again surrounded by cows, tents, barefoot children and beggars. Astounding.

In the evening we were taken for dinner to a restaurant located in a shopping street that was described to us as being a trendy night spot, situated in the middle of the diplomatic quarter. Frankly, it looked marginally more modern than a commercial centre in a provincial town in Israel in the 1970s... And there was a bull taking a dump in the middle of the pedestrian mall, right in front of the Reebok shop.

I also visited Bangalore and Chennai. Both cities looked marginally better than New Delhi. The streets looked more modern and I even spotted a couple of green spots that were relatively clean. The "high tech corridor" in Chennai is an impressive stretch of high-rise modern buildings, but once again the street itself was partly paved, with open gutters flowing on both sides. The train stations on the new line servicing this part of town looked like they'd just been bombed. And I saw a bus struggling along at a precarious angle due to a couple dozen of people hanging out of its left side. Just what one expects to see in India , I guess.

Strangely, all this "third worldliness" didn't disgust me as much as I feared it would. It all seemed so removed from the world, so much out-of-touch with what the modern world looks like, so unbelievably different - that somehow I found myself detached from it, looking at everything from afar. I am typically very critical of unclean cities, but I don't think I will complain any time soon about Israeli cities being not clean enough. Not after New Delhi.

Hopefully, business will bring me back to India in the future, so that I have an opportunity to start to understand this country a bit better.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

In My Name

Last night I watched the play "In My Name" at the Trafalgar Studios theatre in London. I didn't know what to expect as I bought a last-minute ticket in Leicester Square. I came out after one and a half hours with mixed feelings.

The play is set in a dirty and untidy flat (appropriately referred to as "shit hole" throughout the play), shared by two young and unmarried youngsters in London, on the day of the terrorist attacks on the London Underground and bus - July 7, 2005. Outside, the city is in turmoil, but inside the flat Grim is more concerned with his personal life: his girlfriend left him, he slept with a colleague from work the night before and she also disappeared, his phone doesn't work, there is no hot water, etc. His new flatmate, Egg, only adds to his troubles as he is mostly silent and keeps hearing these voices speaking in Arabic. He condemns Grim from his lifestyle and self-centred approach to life. Then an acquaintance from Grim's workplace, Royal, pops in for an announced visit. The tension between Egg and Royal only add to the general tension in the room. Grim and Royal order an Indian takeaway and the man who delivers the food completes the cast.

The play starts off with a comic note (and tons of foul language) but very quickly this things turn into a nightmare. Egg is actually an ex-soldier who was involved in the rape of an 11-year-old girl when on duty. Images from this event haunt him. He takes the Indian food delivery man as hostage because he suspects he is a terrorist, and forces Grim and Royal to tie him up. He preaches to them about duty to the country and Britishness and constantly points to the Union Jack flag hanging on the wall. He demands them to set a clear line between "us" and "them", especially in light of what is happening outside. He produces a gun and leaves the flat to take care of the landlord, Mohamed, who lives upstairs. Upon his return, he finds out that the prisoner was let free and breaks down. Grim calms him down and Egg's past comes flooding out. The play ends in a tragedy which I won't disclose here.

The acting was superb. The four young actors did an excellent job in a very small theatre (less than 100 seats, arranged in a semi-circle around the "stage"), and I found myself gripped by their emotions throughout the second half of the play. So why mixed feelings? Because of the obvious message of self-blame conveyed by the story. The focus is not on the terrorists, and that's understandable. But the play conveys that general "European attitude", if I may it call it so, of "we are to blame for everything". It is not the terrorists who blew up innocent people on the streets of London who are to blame, but the right-wing fanatic ex-soldier who sees everything in black and white and raped a muslim girl. Perhaps I'm reading too much into the message of this play, but I did come out of the theatre with an uneasy feeling.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

No Time

Someone needs to find a way to add hours to the day. Let's start modestly, by making it a 25-hour day instead of 24. I feel like I have time for nothing.

I wanted to write about a long weekend I spent in Prague. And about my first visit to India, a whirlwind tour of Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai. And about my impressions of Beijing on the eve of the Olympics. And also about a couple of good books I read recently. I keep running these posts through my mind, but I simply cannot find the time to sit down and write them.

I'm going to Rome on holiday for a few days. Hopefully, I'll have time there to do some catching up. Maybe.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Atonement, by Ian McEwan

Let's not beat around the bush. If I were ever asked to make a list of the ten worst books I've ever read, Atonement would be on that list. And pretty high up.

I read Saturday by Ian McEwan a few months ago; picked it up at an airport. I liked it. So when I saw the movie Atonement was playing on several of the flights I was recently on, I decided to get the book first, before watching the movie. What a mistake.

The plot of this book is superficial, not to say cheesy (a girl falsely accuses her sister's boyfriend for raping her cousin, and a long journey of "atonement" begins). McEwan's talent for descriptive writing is lost in tediously long passages that made me flip back a few pages just to remember where the story was left off. I found myself not caring what would happen next, but calculating how many pages I have left. The book took me ages to read; time and again I found myself yawning after a few pages, then dozing off into blissful sleep.

Why waste words on such a terrible book. I have no idea why it became a bestseller and what all the hype is about. On a recent trip to London I bought On Chesil Beach, so I'm going to give McEwan another chance. Hopefully Atonement is nothing but an aberration.

I should have known though... Through the book cover (I got the mass paperback version, depicted above) I learnt that the main character in the book - that annoying, whining, wish-I-could-smack-her, spoilt brat - Briony, is played by Keira Knightley, one of the worst actresses recently seen on the big screen. On second thoughts, what a fitting choice...

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

22,000 - Here and There

A few minutes ago, a one-minute siren marked the beginning of Rememberance Day in Israel, the day on which the country remembers and honours the soldiers and civilians that died in the wars and terror attacks.

After the siren, I sat down and checked the front page of Haaretz's website, to catch up with today's news. The headline was obviously about Rememberance Day. The official death toll is now at 22,437. The next item was about the cyclone that hit Myanmar (Burma), where the current death toll from this natural disaster is estimated at 22,500.

This uncanny coincidence sent a shiver down my back, as it brought into painful proportion the extent of the tragedy in Myanmar. How many of us spared a thought today about the hundreds of thousands poor souls on the other side of our planet?

There's a saying in Hebrew: "far from the eye, far from the heart" (I guess the English equivalent is "out of sight, out of mind"). How true.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Tearing Israeli Society Apart

The prophet Yishayahu (Isaiah) famously prophesised that the destroyers and ruiners of Israel will come from within it. The decision of the Beth Din HaGadol (the high rabbinical court in Jerusalem) to annul the conversion to Judaism (giyur) of thousands of people seems to be an example of this prophecy coming true in our times.

A short background. In the early 1990s, more than one million Jews from ex-USSR immigrated to Israel. By many measures, this aliyah was one of the greatest things that happend to this country. The absorption of most of these olim into Israeli society is one of the underrated successes of Israel's young history as a nation-state. However, not all is positive. For reasons I will not go into here, many of of these immigrants (some say a third, perhaps even more) are not Jews according to Jewish law (halachah). A commendable initiative by the government set up tackle this issue by founding a special conversion administration to convert those who wished to integrate fully into Jewish society. This special beth din, headed by rabbi Haim Drukman, has converted thousands of people to date, many of them young men and women during their military service.

Israel has enough social problems and it cannot afford to keep a sizable part of its population in limbo, as "quasi-Jews". As has happened several times in Jewish history, Israel embraced a lenient approach to conversion in order to accept these Israelis as full Jews, while at the same time keeping the requirements of halachah in the process. This was the right solution at the right time.

Now comes the high rabbinical court and, while ratifying a decree by a district rabbinical court in Ashdod last year, concludes that ALL conversions done by rabbi Drukman's beth din since 1999 are void. No less. Tousands of families in Israel who underwent the arduous process of giyur willingly, are suddenly "not Jewish" according to these rabbinical judges.

As was correctly pointed out by other rabbis (example) the halachah explicitly states that, regardless of what a person does after he has completed his conversion, "once a Jew always a Jew". A conversion cannot be reversed, even if the person suddenly starts worshipping Buddha, let alone if he merely does not follow mitzvot as stringently as the rabbis would like him to. The Jerusalem rabbis may dislike the government's initiative and rabbi Drukman's work (for reasons we shall conveniently ignore for now), but they cannot nullify a giyur once it has been completed by an authorised orthodox beth din.

Even if we ignore the direct halachic ramifications of their act, these rabbis are committing what is in my view a terrible mistake. They take people who have joined our country (never mind for what reason) and then chose to remain here as law-abiding citizens, integrating into Israeli-Jewish society and accepting full responsibilities - including serving in the military, which these very same rabbis refuse to do! - and purport to tear them apart from the "real Jews". This is unforgivable and I can only attribute it to the short-sighted, cowardly approach of ultra-orthodox Judaism in recent decades.

I hope that the religious and non-religious outcry against this decree will reverse the situation quickly, or else the words of the prophet will come true.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Avi Ravitzky Released from Hospital

Happy news for Purim. Prof. Avi Ravitzky was released from hospital today, a year and a half after being hit by a bus in Jerusalem. His recovery is said to be somewhat of a miracle, given the extent of the injury to his head. I wish him a speedy recovery and a return to as normal a life as possible.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Zachor - Remembering Amalek

זכור את אשר עשה לך עמלק, בדרך בצאתכם ממצרים. אשר קרך בדרך, ויזנב בך כל הנחשלים אחריך, ואתה עיף ויגע; ולא ירא אלהים. והיה בהניח יהוה אלהיך לך מכל איביך מסביב, בארץ אשר יהוה אלהיך נתן לך נחלה לרשתה, תמחה את זכר עמלק מתחת השמים; לא תשכח.

(דברים כ"ה, י"ז-י"ט)

This is shabbat Zachor, the shabbat before Purim, when we read the portion of the Torah reminding us of Amalek:

Remember what Amalek did to you by the way as you came out of Egypt. How he met you by the way, and smote the hindmost of you, all that were enfeebled in your rear, when you were faint and weary; and he feared not God. Therefore it shall be, when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land which the Lord your God gave you for an inheritance to possess it, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.

(Devarim 25, 17-19)

Like the proverbial elephant, the Jews are a people who do a lot of remembering, and forget (almost) nothing. Every shabbat meal we remember the Creation and the deliverance from Egypt; our holidays are there to remember events from the past; every day we remember our destroyed Temple and pray for it to be rebuilt; our garments act as reminders: the tzitzit reminds us of the 613 commandments; and nature itself performs the same function, as by witnessing a rainbow we remember the divine promise of never again flooding the earth. And yet the commandment to remember Amalek is puzzling. Why Amalek out of all the wars and people that tried to destroy us? Why this particular event?

Rashi's commentary on the story of Amalek in Shemot quotes a parable. A king took his young son upon his shoulders and embarked on a journey. Several times along the way, the son would see an object he fancied and ask his father to pick it up for him, and the father did. After a while, they came upon a stranger and the son asked him: have you seen my father? The father, angry at the son for forgetting who was carrying him and doing all the picking-up for him, let the son off his shoulders. A dog that came along bit the son.

The moral is obvious: Israel forgot God despite all the great things that He did for them and as a result God withdrew His protection for a while and Amalek came along and "bit" Israel. Remembering God when everything is fine is not difficult. Miracles in Egypt, parting of the Dead Sea, food falling from the sky every day; who can forget God when His good acts are so obvious? Yet at the first sign of difficulties in the desert, Israel starts to forget. It's harder to believe in God when things go wrong. Many of us have this notion of a benevolent God sitting in the sky and watching over us, a grandfatherly figure with a long, white beard that protects us from evil. So when evil strikes, we are surprised. We rebel against God and our belief is shaken. We cannot bridge the gap between our expectations of Him and the bad things that happen to us.

The remembering of Amalek is there to teach us that this is a mistaken view of the belief in God. We cannot begin to understand His ways in the world and why bad things happen to good people. We refuse to accept that God does evil (or, more accurately, what we perceive as evil) depite the fact that the prophets told us explicitly this is what He does: "I form the light and create darkness, I make peace, and create evil; I am the Lord that does all these things" (Yishayahu 45, 7). So when evil happens, we "forget" about God and ask: have you seen my Father? Sometimes, as happened with Amalek, God teaches us a lesson, a hard lesson. It is not the lesson that we are remembering with Zachor; it is the belief in God that we remember. Amalek's "bite" was a wake-up call to remind us that we should not waver in our belief in God, even in the face of harsh realities.

The commandment to remember Amalek can teach us also to beware of absolute truths when coming from the mouths of those that purport to know the link between God's ways and His reasons. All too easily, these people proclaim that "this was the will of God because...". A train hits a bus and children are killed? It was God's will because we don't check our mezuzot. An earthquake strikes? It's because there are homosexuals among us. The government declares its intention to evacuate the Gaza strip from Jews? This will not happen (hayo lo tihyeh, remember?), as it is not the will of God.

The story of Amalek teaches us that we cannot base our belief in God by imposing conditions: if we do X, then God will do Y, and vice versa. Israel made the mistake of asking "have you seen my Father" at the first sign of hardship. We should learn from that and instead of trying God, we should remember and pray for our belief in God to be absolute, regardless of His deeds in the world.

Why the Wife?

I watched a few seconds of the press conference at which Eliot Spitzer resigned. There's something I don't understand: why was his wife there, besides him? Given the circumstances, wouldn't she have preferred to stay home? What is it with politicians insisting that their wives be there in this moment of public humiliation? After all, it's not like there are any doubts and she's standing there to show support for some baseless accusations, right? I can't figure it out.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

German at the Knesset

German chancellor Angela Merkel is going to address the Knesset tomorrow, during her visit to Israel. After a loud and public debate, the Knesset House Committee approved today that she can give her speech in German.

More than sixty years after the end of the Second World War, this is still a very touchy subject in Israel. Many people still shun anything that has to do with Germany: they don't buy German products, they don't travel to Germany and they look with disfavour at any rapprochement between Israel and Germany. I have a lot of sympathy and understanding for this position. However, I believe that if the Israeli parliament invited Ms. Merkel to speak, she should be allowed to speak in her own language (arguing that she is technically not a "head of state" and therefore the Knesset by-laws do not apply to her is a disingenuous argument, to say the least).

Modern-day Germany in general, and Ms. Merkel in particular, are supporters of Israel. As Israel's former ambassador to Germany recently pointed out, no other country in the world has gone to such lengths to erect museums and monuments to commemorate atrocious deeds from its history. Germans of my generation are not only ashamed about what their grandparents' generation did, but more importantly, they are educated and knowledgeable about it. Not forgetting the past is the best mechanism we have (although not a guarantee) that similar horrors will not be repeated in the future. Israel should be careful about stepping over that fine and ambiguous line separating rememberance and alienation.

This is not an easy path. I can speak about my own experience. Although my family was not harmed directly by the Holocaust, I still have mixed feelings when I'm in Germany (I used to manag an office in Munich with German employees and I still visit customers there). These feelings often lead to emotional rather than rational thoughts: the announcements in the train stations will suddenly bring up images of other commands being shouted out at rail stations; when speaking with a German I might wonder what his granfather did during the war; and the sight of a motorcycle-riding policeman in uniform, leather boots and all, sometimes sends a shiver down my back.

And yet, when all is said and done, Germany today is a beautiful country with beautiful people. The German they speak was the language spoken by the Nazis but also the language spoken by the Jews. As difficult as it is, one needs to realise this is a complex issue that should be handled with care, and not painted in bold black-and-white strokes.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

How (Not) to Become a Cambridge PhD

Yonathan Mendel wrote an article for the latest issue of The London Review of Books on "How to Become an Israeli Journalist". Mendel used to be the Middle East correspondent for Walla (a news website in Israel), but is now pursuing studies at Cambridge (he received a scholarship, along with several other Israeli journalists). By the way, when writing for Walla, Mendel went by the popular shortened version of his name: Yoni; I guess that when you write for the LRB, and definitely when you're a student at Cambridge, using your full name is more appropriately decorous.

Anyway, let's have a look at some of the pearls of wisdom (presented as "truths") offered by Mendel to budding journalists in Israel:

Why is it that a serious article is reporting a claim made by the Palestinians? Why is there so rarely a name, a desk, an organisation or a source of this information? Could it be because that would make it seem more reliable?

I listen regularly to the news on the BBC World Service (1323AM in Israel). When the BBC reports about something happening in my neck of the woods, the report usually ends with: "Israel claims it was only responding to missiles fired from Gaza" or "Israel refuses to disclose details of its military operation". Does that make the BBC unreliable too? What does Mendel expect the article to say: "Ahmed the Dead Terrorist confirmed that it was he that blew himself up in the latest suicide attack?". Would that make the journalist more reliable?

Israel never kidnaps: it arrests.

(This was made in reference to Israel arresting senior Hamas members in response to the kidnapping of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit). Well, guess what: there is a difference. A huge one. When Israel arrests/kidnaps people, it is people who have done something to deserve being kidnapped in the first place. Israel also tells the world who sits in its jails, allows the Red Cross to visit and explains why the arrest took place. Those nice people from Hamas and Hezbollah kidnap at random and then torture the family and the Israeli public by withholding the most basic information about the victim (for example, whehter he's still alive).

The Israeli army never intentionally kills anyone, let alone murders them – a state of affairs any other armed organisation would be envious of.

Indeed, many armed forces around the world can be envious of the painstaking process which the IDF (and the Israeli government) go through before ordering targeted assassinations. The difference is so obvious it embarrasses me to repeat it here (but I do it for those budding journalists): the IDF targets terrorists and occasionally hits innocent bystanders; the Palestinian terrorists intentionally target innocent bystanders.

Another useful word is crowning (keter), a euphemism for a siege in which anyone who leaves his house risks being shot at.

Hmmm... A scholarship to study at Cambridge? The word keter in Hebrew has more than one meaning, Mr. Mendel. One is, indeed, a crown. But another is "to surround" or "to enclose". I wonder how this one slipped past the LRB's editor.

It was curious to watch the newspapers’ responses to the assassination of Imad Moughniyeh in Syria two weeks ago. Everyone tried to outdo everyone else over what to call him: arch-terrorist, master terrorist or the greatest terrorist on earth. It took the Israeli press a few days to stop celebrating Moughniyeh’s assassins and start doing what it should have done in the first place: ask questions about the consequences of the killing.

First, Moughniyeh was an arch-terrorist. As arch as they come. But are Mendi and I following the same Israeli media? The very first news report I heard about the welcome death of Hezbollah's operations chief was immediately followed by a long analysis by a panel of experts about "what next?" and what price Israel will pay for this assassination. Perhaps Mendel suffers from "selective reading" disease? It would not surprise me, as this is a malady many editorialising Israeli journalists suffer from.

And then there are the Occupied Territories themselves. Remarkably, there are no Occupied Territories in Israel... in Israel’s mass media today they’re called the Territories (Ha-Shtachim).

Well, duh! After all, the entire State of Israel sits on "occupied territories" taken from Palestinians (or Syrians) in 1948 and 1967. To be precise, the West Bank and Gaza are not part of the State of Israel and are therefore hardly "occupied". Gaza certainly isn't, not for more than two years now. If anything, Israel proper and the Golan are the classic "occupied territories". Yet somehow I don't see Mendel calling Tel Aviv "occupied territory"; we wouldn't want to let go of all those wonderful coffee places and bars, would we? By the way, I wonder how the Palestinian and Syrian media refer to to Israel.

I could go on, but the point is clear. Mendel's area of study at Cambridge is apparently about the connection between Arabic language and security in Israel. That certainly explains his interest in the subject and his bias towards finding faults everywhere. Fair enough. He would not be the first pseudo-academic to become so obsessed with his field of study as to come up with the silliest ideas (this week's undisputed winner of the title "academic gone silly" is Prof. Shanon from the Hebrew University, but I digress). But what on earth does all this have to do with "how to become an Israeli journalist"?