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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Course Correcting

In one of the episodes of Lost, Desmond explains to Charlie (in his charming Scottish accent) how he is able to view the future and therefore save lives. However, he cannot continue doing so for ever, because “the universe has a way of course-correcting”.

I thought of this quote yesterday, when I checked the news after the fast ended and saw this. Good riddance, and not a moment too soon.

Sometimes – alas, not too often – the universe indeed corrects its course.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Bibi and the Peter Principle

The remarkable speech given by Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, at the UN General Assembly yesterday (dubbed by some pundits as Churchillian), was a painful reminder of the accuracy of the Peter Principle.

If only he could have remained Israel’s Ambassador to the UN (a post he held in the mid 1980s) instead of becoming Prime Minister.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Assaf Ramon z”l

I wanted to write yesterday about my feelings with regards to “Israel’s mourning” of Assaf Ramon, but thought it would be polite to wait until after the shiv’ah.

I guess in our day and age, waiting out of politeness is no longer an option. Both Benny Tsiper from Haaretz and Enav Shiff from Walla! wrote today (sorry, Hebrew only) pretty much what I had wanted to write.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Israeli Society in 2030

Last Friday evening, over a long dinner at the Chabad House in Tokyo (not that shabbat dinners there are ever short), I had a chat with two friends who are local but are also ex- (and future?) Israelis. The conversation, as is the case whenever two or more Israelis sit down together, quickly turned into solving Israel’s problems. After we solved the Iranian issue and the Obama-settlement issue, we turned to the face of Israeli society in the future.

I brought up the issue by stating the fact that in a couple of decades (assuming Israel is still around), the majority of 20-year-old Israelis will be either Arab or Ultra-Orthodox.

Here are the numbers for Jewish pupils in primary schools (from Statistical Abstract of Israel, rounded):

Year State Non-Religious State Religious Ultra Orthodox
1980 74% 20% 6%
1990 71% 21% 8%
2000 60% 19% 20%
2008 54% 19% 27%

In other words, more than a quarter of all primary school Jewish pupils are in the Ultra-Orthodox education system, compared with only 6% thirty years ago. The number for Grade 1 pupils is obviously higher: about a third of the pupils entering the school system this year were Ultra-Orthodox. (For those not familiar with the Israeli system, these schools are recognised and funded by the State, but they set their own curriculum, which in the vast majority of cases – especially for boys – does not include any secular studies and does not culminate in any official diploma). Incidentally, the decline in State Religious schools attendance is also interesting (and something I have strong opinions about), but I won’t go there right now.

Regarding the Arab sector, the percentage of primary school pupils for 2008, from the total, was approximately 27%. In nominal terms, there were about 235,000 Arab primary school pupils in 2008, compared to about 160,000 Ultra-Orthodox pupils.

The trend is clear. Barring some unforeseen demographic event, similar in size to the immigration wave from the ex-Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the face of Israeli society will change dramatically in a couple of decades. Most people finishing school will – under present conditions – not be doing military service. More significantly, a large proportion of these graduates (most of the Ultra-Orthodox ones for certain) will not be joining the work force. Countries like Japan are facing a work force crisis due to the low birth rate; Israel has a high birth rate, but in the “wrong” sectors of society.

In my opinion, this is by far the single biggest challenge facing Israel’s future. This will no longer be the Israel we know, governed by a secular elite with (more or less) Western values and standards. Certain aspects of life in Israel will change dramatically, with consequences that cannot be predicted with any reliable degree of accuracy.

Unfortunately, we were not able to solve this particular issue around the shabbat table in Tokyo. Perhaps the hour was too late.

Sunday, September 06, 2009


A couple of weeks ago, we spent a few days in Ireland. The pretext for this trip was a friend’s wedding in London, so looking at the map Ireland looked like a good choice to spend a few days touring before the wedding, as we’ve never been but heard many good things.

We landed in Dublin around noon on Sunday and took a car. Things started off well when Hertz offered me a relatively small car compared to what I had booked, and ended up giving me an upgrade to a BMW Series 5. Unfortunately, my wife didn’t understand what all the fuss was about (to quote: “a car is a car”) so I had nobody to share the excitement with.


We got on the M4 and drove westwards. As we needed to get to the Galway area for the night, we didn’t stop much on the way. We did make a small detour though, to see Clonmacnoise, an ancient monastic settlement situated pretty much in the heart of the island. It was founded about 1,500 years ago and became a major Christian site until the English destroyed it in the 16th century.

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Our stop for the first two nights was the Oranhill Lodge B&B in Oranmore village, just south of Galway. (I link to their website because it’s a beautiful place run by a lovely and welcoming couple – Ann and Michael – so if you’re ever around the area I highly recommend it). We settled in for the night after a short visit to Galway city; it was too cold and too late to walk around much.

On Monday we decided to visit Connemara. We basically drove in a circular route from Galway all the way to Clifden, a lovely town overlooking the Atlantic ocean, and back. The Connemara region is mostly uninhabited (unless you count sheep and cows) and offers stunning views of open and very green landscape (my daughter kept remarking how everything in Ireland was so green). The area is knows for its bogs, which make the roads very bumpy. The Connemara sheep are of a peculiar kind, with black legs and heads.



We stopped to have a look at Kylemore Abbey, the oldest Benedictine Abbey in Ireland, which is today a girls boarding school (apparently the school is about to close down).


[Side note: I left for Ireland without a book to read (the horror!), so I decided to sample an Irish author. A short search led me to believe that Roddy Doyle would do. I looked for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha in a couple of bookstores but couldn’t find it. In Clifden, the bookstore owner recommended The Snapper, so I bought it. She said it was hilarious; I can’t say it was, although it wasn’t a bad companion for the holiday.]

After a good night’s sleep, we set off on Tuesday to drive southwards to Cork. We made several stops along the way:

- Dunguaire Castle in Kinvara, dated to the 16th century and, in my opinion, the most beautiful castle we saw in Ireland.


- Poulnabrone Dolmen, an ancient tomb in the Burren region dating back to the Neolithic period. Fortunately for us, we were the only people there so we could wander around the site uninterrupted.


- Cliffs of Moher, undoubtedly the foremost tourist attraction in Ireland. Can’t say I was overly impressed, but I guess that’s what you get when a site is oversold and overhyped…OK, they are pretty impressive.


- We bypassed Limerick and stopped at Adare village for a quick lunch. It’s a charming little village with a tranquil public park in its centre.



- Our last stop for the day was Killarney, a beautiful town in County Kerry. We had time to walk around the town centre, visit the cathedral and take a short walk through Killarny National Park. This is definitely an area of Ireland worth spending more time visiting.



We arrived late in Cork where we had dinner in a fancy vegetarian restaurant (the kids demanded pasta; none of those fancy tofu dishes for them), and went straight to bed.

After a big breakfast on Wednesday morning (the B&B we stayed at is famous for its breakfast; you can order pretty much anything you like from the kitchen and they’ll make it for you), we left Cork on the way back to Dublin.

Because we wanted to have at least a day and a half in the capital, we took the N8 and drove pretty much without stops. The only significant stop we made was at Blarney Castle, where we arrived early to avoid the crowds and get a chance to kiss the Blarney stone (only I did; the rest of the family refused to be lowered down).



After checking in at the hotel in Dublin and returning the car (with a sigh), we headed for the first place any sane person would make sure he visits first in Dublin, just in case the world comes to a sudden end before the end of the visit: The Guinness Storehouse! Home of the famous dry stout beer (the “coal beer” as my wife likes to call it). I don’t drink much beer, but when I do, I prefer Guinness; a friend once asked me why I like to “chew my beer”... Anyway, Guinness Storehouse is apparently the most visited site in Dublin where the visitors self-guide themselves through the seven floors of the building. The visit culminates in a “free” pint at the Gravity Bar on the top floor.



We then strolled through the center of Dublin, through the medieval quarter and Grafton Street, then back to the hotel.

On Thursday we continued to explore Dublin on foot. We crossed the Liffey to the north side of the river, walking along the quay and up O’Connell Street to see the Old Post Office building and the Spire of Dublin.



We then crossed back to see the Temple Bar area, the City Hall, Dublin Castle and the impressive Chester Beatty Library. We had lunch neat St. Stephen’s Green and then walked through the government buildings area. We concluded our Dublin visit with a stroll through Trinity College and a visit to the Long Room Library. Now, this is what I call a university campus…


Ireland deserves more than a few days’ visit. I hope to be back there soon. The Irish all seemed very friendly and, surprisingly, I could understand what they were saying (mostly). Perhaps they had mercy on the bumbling tourist and toned down their accent, who knows?

A word about the weather. The joke is that if you don’t like the weather in Ireland, wait five minutes and it’ll change. This is very much true, but nevertheless, these Irish have a very funny notion of what summer should feel like. We saw this funny t-shirt at the airport on the way out: it had four sheep (spring, summer, autumn, winter) all holding umbrellas in the rain, with the only difference being the summer sheep had sunglasses and the winter one had earmuffs.