This Blog Has Moved


New Address:

All posts are available in the new blog

Please do not post any comments here. Go to the new address to comment. Thank you.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Longing for Cucumbers

It is the middle of August and I have a longing for cucumbers. Not the vegetable, but the eponymous season, also known in English as the Silly Season.

Enough with the economic downturn and its green shoots, enough with the panic from swine flu and enough with the reports about murderous rampages. Give us some light and frivolous news, something that can be easily consumed in this insane heat.

A-propos weather, this is what my iGoogle page has been displaying for the 5-day forecast for Tel Aviv for quite some time now:


It has not changed in weeks. In other words, even the weather forecast is predictably boring, adding to the general indigestion.

But there is some respite after all.

Canadian researchers from The University of Ottawa published a mathematical model predicting the outbreak of… not swine flu, no… but an attack by Zombies! In other words, how the world can cope if it is attacked by hungry Zombies. And this is not a joke; some of the modelling is pretty impressive:


The esteemed mathematicians reached an astounding conclusion: “only quick, aggressive attacks can stave off the doomsday scenario: the collapse of society as zombies overtake us all”. I hope world leaders heed the call and devise an emergency plan, with suitable funds, to prepare for this disaster.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Distorted Reality

Lately, I noticed I have very little patience for the way politicians and the media use facts selectively to present a distorted picture of reality. I am fed up and annoyed with the unbearable easiness with which partial truths and single data points are used to present an issue to the public.

Here are a few recent examples:

1. Swine flu. The death toll from swine flu in Israel reached 10 yesterday. Every death is accompanied by huge headlines and scary predictions for the coming winter. The worst-case scenario might indeed come true, but why won’t the media and the politicians also tell us how many people died of regular influenza in the past months? Or stress how the vast majority of cases go undiagnosed and untreated, simply because people recover from swine flu like they do from regular influenza?

2. Murder. Israel has seen a spate of murders, so it would seem, in the past two weeks. A couple of mutilated bodies were found; a man was attacked and killed for no reason; a child was killed by mistake after an assassination attempt went wrong. The media prints graphic pictures and horror “witness” stories. The parliament holds a special session to discuss the increasing rate of murders. Pundits are declaring that the civilised world as we know it is coming to an end. But the truth is that 7 murders in a month is way below the national average in the past few years. If the current trend continues, 2009 will actually be a good year, murder wise. But why point out the statistical facts when hysteria sells more newspapers?

3. Legality of settlements. A few MKs visited the West Bank yesterday, and one of them, a minister not exactly known for his PhD in Law, pompously declared that the settlements (including the outposts) are all legal. The media reprints this statement without batting an eyelid. The fact is that the legality of the settlements is in dispute, both locally and in international law. Most international bodies do not recognise the legality of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, let alone the legality of the Jewish settlements there. I can understand how some politicians would want to use the settlements as a bargaining chip and would therefore declare they’re legal, but shouldn’t the media at least remind us of the basic fact that they are most definitely considered not legal by most jurists?

And the people read and listen and take all these as “facts”, where in fact it is nothing but a distorted reality.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Road Obstruction

On our way to the Dead Sea last week, the road down from Arad to the Dead Sea was blocked by some uninvited visitors. As the shepherd was nowhere to be seen, the police had to show up and shoo them out of the way. Plenty of time to get out of the car and snap a couple of pictures:




Thursday, August 13, 2009

It’s All About Education, Stupid!

Last week a friend of mine lent me the book “Whither Israel” (ישראל לאן) by Gadi Bloom and Nir Hefetz, two Israel journalists. The book is a series of 18 interviews with famous Israelis about different aspects of life in Israel – law, security, economy, culture, education, human rights, sport, etc. - with an emphasis on where the country is heading.

Israel LeanSome of the interviews are fascinating. Aharon Barak, formerly the President of the Supreme Court, paints a concise picture of the inherent paradox of a democratic and Jewish state and talks intelligently about the compromises needed to sustain this anomaly. Nochi Dankner, a prominent businessman, disperses many populist myths propagated by the media about the “industry tycoons” and talks frankly about the difficulties of being responsible for the livelihood of thousands of families. Ahmad Tibi, a veteran Arab Israeli politician does not gloss over some of deficiencies of the Arab sector in Israel, while staying true to his beliefs.

Other interviews are less interesting and a couple should have been omitted from the book. Shulamit Aloni, a prominent retired left-wing politician, comes through as a bitter old woman, and any good ideas she proposes get lost in the general accusatory nature of the interview. And Yehuda Shenhav, a professor of Sociology known for his strong views on ethnicity and race, sounds like a raving madman firing in all directions; I had difficulty figuring out what he was saying.

But the thing that struck me most about the book is that despite the heterogeneity of the people and subjects, the vast majority of the people interviewed raised the same topic: the importance of education for the survival of Israel. They lamented the decreasing standards of education in this country, the constant cuts in the budget, the dismal performance in international standardised tests and the “brain drain” phenomenon (throw a rock at any leading university in the US and it’s likely to fall within a few feet of an Israeli professor). Again and again they stressed that the single most important factor in determining the future of this country is the level of education and therefore the government should put much more emphasis on better education. One suggested to separate the Ministry of Education from the public service and detach it from the short political cycle of decision making; another suggested incentives for drawing back scientists who left the country; another recommended radical changes in the training programmes and pay structure of teachers. In short, it’s all about education, stupid!

This is not a new thing. We didn’t need all these interviews to understand that education is important for Israel and that the decline over the past couple of decades is a disaster for its future. Even if we neutralise the Israeli Arab and the Ultra-Religious sectors (traditionally scoring less on tests), the decline in the general population is still significant. One only has to look around - even in the greater Tel Aviv area, the heart of the country - and witness that way too many people have their priorities upside down. The talk of the day is about reality shows on TV, “all included” vacations in Turkey, get-rich-fast “social marketing” schemes, and the like. Gone are the values (wrongly labelled “zionist values’) that drove the young generation towards achievement through education and hard work. It is the type of “market failure” that warrants strong and immediate response from the government, but looking at the politicians running Israel in the past 15 years does not offer much hope that they will know to do the right thing.

The prophet Isaiah famously described the people of Israel as slaying oxen and killing sheep, eating flesh and drinking wine, whilst proclaiming: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die” (ch. 22). What can be a truer description of the short-term vision of our leadership with regards to the most vital asset of this country: education?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Why so Proud?

The gay community in Israel is up in arms. Ten days ago, an man entered a gay centre in Tel Aviv and started shooting, killing two people. Although the man has not been apprehended or identified yet, the killing has been labelled by the gay community as a “hate crime”. The Prime Minister paid a visit, the Knesset held a special session, a support rally took place (in Tel Aviv, where else) and the media is all over the subject. Both declared gays and closeted gays have appeared on the media philosophising about whether gays should come out or not and other such fascinating subjects.

Let’s assume, for the sake of the discussion, that this was indeed a “hate crime”. I fail to comprehend the current debate. Hate crimes take place every day: Palestinians kill Jews because they hate them; husbands kill their wives or children because they hate them; drivers kill each other because they hate the way they drive. Yet you don’t see these victims holding endless debates about how proud they are to be Jewish or female or a child or a driver. The media doesn’t go bananas over the identity issues of these victims. Why is it so with gays?

And while we’re at it, can someone explain to me the whole “gay pride” notion? I understand these people have certain sexual tendencies. I respect that and wish them all the best in bed. But I don’t parade up and down the street proclaiming how proud I am to have a fetish for [deleted] and for doing [deleted] with my wife. Why is it that gays have a need to tell the whole world – time and time again – what their sexual preferences are?

Thursday, August 06, 2009

History, Re-Written

The Fatah party is holding its convention in Bethlehem. Not an event that would begin to tickle my attention on a normal day. But this being August, with not much work and little else to do besides finding refuge indoors from the stifling heat, the following item caught my eye:

Fatah: Israel behind Arafat's death: Five years after former Palestinian leader's death, Fatah Congress unanimously concludes Israel was behind it, set up inquiry commission to probe matter.

So a political convention concludes – unanimously, mind you – that someone was killed, and then coolly proceeds to set up an inquiry commission to check if this conclusion is true. Fascinating stuff. First you re-write history, then you check whether what you’ve written makes any sense.

While the convention is still in session, the esteemed delegates might consider reaching other unanimous conclusions:

  1. Israel does not exist. It is merely a figment of our tormented (and heat-crazed) imagination.
  2. Arafat is alive and well. He just took a vacation in the Bahamas, where he’s sipping a margherita with the Lubavitcher rabbi and Elvis.
  3. There are no gays in Palestine. The phenomenon does not exist. (Hat tip: Ahmadinejad).
  4. The Palestinians did not miss any opportunity that came up to make peace with Israel. Abba Eban is a liar.