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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"?

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Clear Air and Plagiarism

I heard on the news this morning that the family of Naomi Shemer, perhaps Israel's most famous song writer, is threatening to sue the city of Tel Aviv for using four words from the song "Jerusalem of Gold" in an ad campaign.

Tel Aviv, among other cities, signed an ecological treaty, and street ads all over the city carry the words avir arim tsalul ka-yayin - "city air as clear as wine". One changed letter in Hebrew paraphrases the opening line from Shemer's song: "mountain air as clear as wine". The family claims this play on words violates copyrights. (For those who don't know, "Jerusalem of Gold" is practically Israel's non-official national anthem; almost every Jewish child around the world will recognize this song instantly.)

I had to smile. A couple of years ago it became known that Shemer confessed, in a letter, that the melody to "Jerusalem of Gold" is based on an old Basque folk song called "Pello Joxepe" that she heard a friend sing. Shemer says this was done inadvertently and the Basque song must have "subconciously" influenced her. Perhaps. But if you listen to the original song, as performed by Paco Ibanez, the similarity is glaringly obvious.

If I were the family of Naomi Shemer I would have been a little more humble and cautious before crying out plagiarism over this particular song...

Monday, March 03, 2008

Built to Sell

I don't usually write about business on my blog. I spend way too much time working, so blogging about work seems a foolish thing to do. But I felt like the following picture, appearing in The Marker this week, deserved a comment:

The background: an young Israeli start-up company, YaData, was acquired by Microsoft. Although the exact amount was not disclosed, it was quoted as being a "very nice rate of return on the investment", which probably means tens of millions of dollars. This is yet another Israeli high-tech success story, a good example of the engine driving Israeli economy and helping it attain a GDP per capita that surpasses that of most European countries. Kudos to the entrepreneurs and the investors behind the company.

But the "SOLD" message (with those big grins) in the picture above is annoying. There are far too many "entrepreneurs" that set up new companies with an explicit, typically lightning-speed, exit strategy. There are not enough entrepreneurs that have a vision to build a company over a long period of time, going through the hard work of creating an Israeli "Nokia". The challenges are huge, given the particular circumstances of Israel, but it can be done, as Teva, Amdocs and others have shown. The "SOLD" mentality is definitely great for the bank accounts of those smiling entrepreneurs, but I'm not sure it is good for Israeli economy as a whole.