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Thursday, December 28, 2006

Quest for (Im)perfection

A small post scritum to my previous post about the Japanese quest for perfection.

Last week I took a few days off and went to Costa del Sol with my son. The hotel we stayed at was almost brand new and part of a respectable chain of resort hotels. This what the toiletries tray looked like:

Note how the shower cap is placed. Note that one bar of soap is upside down. Note that the entire tray is a tad askew. Now compare that to the pictures of the toiletries I took in the Tokyo hotel and answer these questions: Would you rather buy a Mazda or a Seat? Would you rather have a Japanese plumber or a Spanish one fix your drain?

I rest my case.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Quest for Perfection

The Japanese are notorious for being extremely good in producing quality goods. Companies worldwide have adopted Japanese methodologies and practices in order to improve the quality of their products. Countless business books laud Japanese manufacturing as a model for imitation.

This does not come out of nowhere. The Japanese spend a lot of time and effort to ensure that everything they do is done well. The quest for perfection is ingrained in all walks of life: from the lady cleaning the sidewalk in front of her home, leaving no leaf behind; through the delivery man, making sure he delivers on time and fills out every detail on his forms; to the shop attendant who wraps the goods purchased as if they were destined to be handed to the Emperor himself, no less. No matter how lowly and unimportant the job may seem to be, most Japanese will do everything to complete it to perfection.

Anyone who works in Japan notices this. Deliveries of products or services purchased by Japanese companies from overseas suppliers are almost always considered sub-standard by the Japanese, who expect a quality level that most foreign companies fail to achieve. One of our customers in Japan is nearing the end of their project and the test scenarios are being written for the final testing phase of the software. My colleagues did their utmost to produce what they believed were very detailed and comprehensive scenarios; having failed to satisfy this customer on previous deliveries, they really did their best this time. And the outcome was probably the best my company has done in a decade in terms of documentation, for any customer.

Last week I was in Tokyo and noticed that the engineers of our partner company were working on writing test scenarios. Puzzled, I asked them why they were still working on the scenarios, when these have been delivered by us already. After much prodding, they sheepishly admitted that our scenarios were simply not good enough, so they were re-writing them from scratch! One quick look at their work confirmed the sad truth: there is absolutely no way an Israeli engineer could have produced such documentation. Not in a thousand years, not under extreme torture. When I asked how much they were charging the customer for this work, the (unsurprising) reply was: nothing. This is what the customer expects as a standard in these types of projects, so they won't charge for it.

To illustrate my point, I'm going to use what may seem like a very trivial example. And yet, I believe that through this seemingly trivial example one can perhaps begin to grasp what I mean when I write that the quest for perfection is ingrained in the Japanese work ethic.

Here are a few pictures I took in my Tokyo hotel room last week:

1. The hand towels hanging in the bathroom. Note that the towels are folded in opposite directions, and placed on the rack at the exact height, so that the writing of the hotel name is perfectly aligned, as if it were one towel and not two.

2. The toiletries. The same set of 3 toiletry bottles are placed in the bathtub (first picture) and on the shelf (second picture). Needless to say, the bottles are positioned so that the writing is facing outside; that's a given. But look carefully: in both locations, the bottles are placed so that the "shampoo" and "rinse" bottles are touching each other, and the "body shampoo" is slightly to the right, not touching. You'd think this was a coincidence, right? I stayed in the hotel for 7 nights and every single day the three bottles were placed just so, in exactly the same manner.

3. The bedside table. See the glass half-filled with water? I left it there one morning. Instead of simply removing it, the cleaning lady took the pain of covering it with a piece of paper, just in case I needed that water again...

Some may scoff at these trivial examples saying they prove nothing. But after a long exposure to Japan I firmly believe that it is these seemingly trivial everyday activities - and there are hundreds of such small details in every walk of life in Japan - that are testimony to the quality and perfection inherent in Japanese culture.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Islam and Christianity

A friend emailed me this "religious debate" from the Jon Stewart show. It's quite funny:

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Turning Forty

This week I turned forty. While brooding about this momentous milestonein my life, I Googled "turning forty" and came across this article in The Guardian from 2003. Out of sheer boredom I decided to check which of these "40 things about turning 40" applied to me and which did not:

1 Gardening is suddenly good.

  • Hmmm... It's true that this year I finally have a garden I can call my own, but as for gardening, I'm not quite there yet.

2 As is Schubert.

  • Schubert was always good, not suddenly so.

3 The prospect of dancing in public is terrifying.

  • Always was for me.

4 You hiss when mobile phones go off at the Titian exhibition.

  • (I had to look up "Titian exhibition"). I've always been fond of giving the dirty look to people who forget to silence their phones in movies, theatres, etc. One of the deadliest social combinations is an Israeli with mobile phone.

5 You have a Party Seven stomach rather than a six-pack.

  • I'll pass on this one.

6 You know what Party Seven means.

  • Hah! Now it's clear why I didn't understand #5. I have no clue what "party seven" means.

7 Your younger colleagues think your libido requires chemical enhancement, or that it's OK to make jokes about the probability that it does. The unfeeling brutes. (This may just be a guy thing.)

  • I have had Viagra recommended to me, but I'm proud to say I never had the need to try it.

8 You buy more chart CDs than ever (in an attempt to hang on in there) but still go home and slap on Prince's Sign o' the Times.

  • Haven't bought a CD in years (isn't that what MP3 is all about?) Never owned a Prince CD.

9 You start playing football.

  • Only since about a month ago, when I purchased GameCube FIFA '06 for my son and got caught up by the brilliant graphics of the game. Real football? Not in a million years.

10 You punch the next person who says "Denial isn't just a river in Africa, you know" and laugh when anyone uses the word "closure" in a purportedly emotionally insightful manner.

  • I actually never heard that one before ("denial"). Not bad. And yes, I find the americanism "closure" to be, like most americanisms, quite laughable.

11 You are more inclined to tell people to shut up.

  • I don't know about more inclined. Internally, I've been telling people to shut up since I remember myself.

12 If you're a guy, harmless office flirting may not be so harmless. You don't want to end up a dirty old man.

  • Luckily for me, I seldom go to work in the office.

13 You know that texting has passed you by.

  • Oh yes. Unfortunately, emailing on Blackberry has not.

14 You worry about rudeness, graffiti, the newspaper arriving late, the decline of public services and the possible truth in libido jibes.

  • All true, except the last one.

15 Moisturiser for men is the new wet-look hair gel.

  • Huh?

16 Thinking about death is the new thinking about nothing much.

  • Not quite there yet, I'm afraid.

17 You sit at traffic lights singing along to Barry White. Small boys with squeegees laugh at you. Screw them.

  • Who's Barry White?

18 When your boss asks you when you can do some urgent task, you feel more free to say: "How about never? Is never good for you?"

  • Oh, I've been saying that for ages. Internally, of course. I want to keep my job.

19 You think younger people who wear hooded sweatshirts with the hood up look stupid and sinister. You cross the street to avoid them.

  • Stupid, definitely. Sinister?

20 You go to the pub less often due to the belated realisation that it's rubbish and makes your clothes smell.

  • Never been much of a pub-goer, but yes, it is mostly rubbish and the smoke is terrible.

21 You are less certain of things than you used to be.

  • Oh, definitely so. And less certain every day that goes by.

22 You argue with the television. You always win.

  • I don't watch television, not for 5 years now. So as far as I'm concerned, I've already won.

23 Reading is the new staring into space.

  • Frankly, I can't remember when I last stared into space.

24 Board games are the new cocaine.

  • Sadly, I never really got the habit of playing board games.

25 Childcare is the new nightlife.

  • I thought this was about turning 40, not turning 30...

26 You find children less irksome than hitherto, and are less perturbed about making small talk with them.

  • Not sure about this one. I don't mind small talk with children, but I still find them irksome. Especially if they're not my children.

27 You increasingly find cryptic crossword puzzles diverting entertainment.

  • That's not me. That's my wife.

28 You're temperamentally incapable of using the following phrases: "Oh. My. God"; "And I'm like ..."; "And she's all ..."; "Whatever". But, oddly, not "Well, duh."

  • Not true, true, true, not true. And not true.

29 You're temperamentally incapable of doing high fives or other showy handshakes.

  • I high-five my kids all the time.

30 You find solace in birdsong.

  • Not much birdsong in my neck of the woods, I'm afraid.

31 You aren't surprised that the Cheeky Girls were spawned by Ceaucescu's Romania.

  • Cheeky Girls?

32 You wonder if you would be shopping at Dunn and Co if it was still going.

  • I have no clue what "Dunn and Co" was/is.

33 You pretend to care about J-Lo and Ben Affleck, subscribe to Heat magazine and have a Celebdaq account to stay in touch with celebrity culture, while simultaneously despising it.

  • I don't need to pretend; I simply don't give a damn.

34 You think nothing of spending £8 on a bottle of wine.

  • £8 = NIS66. True. Didn't realise that's a hefty amout for a bottle of wine.

35 You take a Thermos on demos.

  • Nope. Bottle of water.

36 Actually, the rugby's on. There are enough people on the march already.

  • Oh, I thought "demos" meant presentations to customers... Just goes to show how much work is affecting my ability to think straight. Haven't been to a "demo" since the peace rally on Nov. 4, 1995, the one prime minister Rabin was murdered at.

37 You write letters of complaint to Currys, Ikea, Norwich Union etc, while not expecting or receiving anything approaching a reply, civil or otherwise.

  • Well, not to these companies, but yes I do occasionally shake off my apathy and write a letter of complaint.

38 It's hardly ever quiet enough.

  • How true.

39 It can be too quiet.

  • Not in Israel.

40 You're going to die sooner than ever.

  • Thank you, The Guardian, for ending this on such a positive note...

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Chayey Sarah - Stranger and Sojourner

ויקם אברהם מעל פני מתו וידבר אל בני חת לאמר: גר ותושב אנכי עמכם תנו לי אחוזת קבר עמכם ואקברה את מתי מלפני

(בראשית כ"ג, ג'-ד')

The parasha called "The Life of Sarah" begins with the death of Sarah. Avraham, after the period of mourning, sets about to find a suitable burial spot for his dead wife. He turns to the people of Chet, residents of the land, and says to them:

"I am a stranger and a sojourner with you: give me a possession of a burying-place with you, that I may bury my dead out of my sight."

(Bereshit, 23, 5)

The words Avraham uses to describe himself - stranger (ger) and sojourner (toshav) - require some investigation. Why would Avraham label himself both a stranger and a sojourner? Perhaps we can learn a few things from this choice of words by Avraham.

Rashi, and many other commentators, explain that Avraham wanted to stress the fact that, although he is a stranger to the land, his intentions are to become a sojourner, a permanent resident. Therefore, his claim to be allocated a plot of land for burial purposes, something which a passing stranger cannot ask for, is justified. The Or HaChaim expands on this explanation by claiming (somewhat asynchronously) that Avraham was relying on the halacha that one is allowed to give a "ger toshav" a permanent gift, and that this halacha was binding also upon the people of Chet. Giving a burial plot to someone who has emigrated to live among you is considered "the done thing", part of the Natural Law; the halacha merely restates this law. Avraham demonstrated his friendly and neighbourly ways, for example by fighting the four kings to liberate the people of Sodom or by his insistence to take nothing from Avimelech, so he was right in expecting the locals to reciprocate in a fair and friendly manner.

But Rashi provides a further explanation. He quotes the Midrash that says that Avraham was in effect threatening the people of Chet: if you do not accept me as a stranger, I will take the land by force as a sojourner; it is rightfully mine, as was promised to me by God. Why would Rashi bring this Midrash? To understand this, we need to recall the first Rashi on the Torah, which quotes another Midrash: Why did the Torah start with the Creation story and not with the first mitzvah given to the People of Israel? Because nobody has an inalienable right to the land; the "promised land" is not a promise that is kept without any conditions. In fact, it depends on the will of God. When the people deserve the land, by walking in God's ways, they get it; if not, they don't. And indeed history proves this: the current situation, where Israel has been independent for almost 60 years, is an aberration in the thousands of years of Jewish history.

So Rashi is perhaps trying to tell us that although we have a divine promise to inherit the Land of Israel, this is a right that we cannot claim by force no matter what. Avraham's veiled threat comes with the plea of being a stranger that has demonstrated his willingness to live peacefully in the new land. Yes, the land has been promised to Avraham, but he knows he also needs to deserve it.

A final thought about the use of "stranger and sojourner" is from Rabbi Lichtenstein, who uses these words of Avraham to describe the existential dilemma of every human being. As humans, as lives are finite and we do not know when we will die. And yet at times we act as if we we will live for ever, making long-term plans and feeling (over)confident about ourselves. This paradox is highlighted by the story from Berachot: the sages were at a party and asked R. Himnuna to sing a song. He stood up and sang about how terrible is the day of our death (talk about a party spoiler). When asked by the stunned sages how they should respond to this, R. Himnuna answered that they should sing about our faith in God and his laws. By acting like he did. R. Himnuna illustrated not only the paradox of our short lives (we are "strangers" on this earth) coupled with our tendency to feel invincible (as real "sojourners"), but also the remedy for this existentialist conundrum: attach yourself to the real sojourner, the eternal one, in order to get by this life.

In summary, Avraham's use of the expression "ger ve'toshav" to describe himself teaches us a few things: that we should act in a neighbourly and honourable manner with the residents of the land; that we should not think our right to the land is unconditional, as it depends on our behaviour; and that to survive in this world we need to attach ourselves to God.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Fighting Toothpaste

New security measures are in effect in all airports in Europe. If one wants to take liquids or gels on board - e.g. toothpaste, deodorant, cream, lisptick, etc. - these need to be placed in a transparent, resealable plastic bag and taken out for security scanning. The liquids/gels need to be in containers of less than 100ml each, and no more than 1l in total.

I was unfortunate enough to be travelling to Europe on the day these new measures came into effect - Monday of last week. I went through four different European airports during the week and in all of them chaos reigned (except for Heathrow, where these measures are actually more lenient than the ones that were in effect for the past few months). The security lines were unbelievably long. The security personnel were busy checking containers to see whether the 100ml limitation was being violated, scarcely giving the passgengers themselves a second look. Debates raged between security personnel regarding whether this or that item qualified as liquid or gel. My instant shoe polish sponge was taken out from my carry-on as it contained a tiny capsule of shoe polish, which unfortunately was in liquid form.

In short, it is clear that the Western world has given up the fight against terrorism in favour of fighting toothpaste. I don't blame them. It is much easier to fight toothpaste than it is to fight terrorists...

On a more serious note, these security measures seem to indicate, once again, that the entire approach is wrong. In Ben Gurion airport, the security machines (x-ray, chemical scanner, etc.) are a secondary measure; the focus is on the PERSON and not on the LUGGAGE he or she are carrying. Security personnel question each passenger and only those that arouse suspicion or fit a certain profile are subject to a thorough search. Profiling, a taboo concept in the "enlightened" world, prevents Americans and Europeans from adopting this rational and effective approach to airport security. For them, a 90-year-old nun's bag poses the same security threat as that of a bearded youngster carrying a Pakistani passport. I whisk through security in Israel because I carry an Israeli passport and travel often, but my European colleagues - sharing this profile in their countries - must undergo the same security ordeal I go through as a foreigner in Europe. Their toothpaste is as suspicious as mine is...

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Thumbs Up for Napping

Yesterday I needed to sit a 3-hour exam at 4pm. Not that it was too demanding an exam, but as I got up early and felt a little tired, I decided around noon to take a short nap, I woke up after 1.5 hours feeling much better and ready for the exam.

This morning I read this pro-napping article in the Toronto Star, "a tribute to the soft pleasures of dozing". Spot on, as the Brits say. I feel guilty when I wake up late in the morning, and extremely guilty when I need to take a nap during the day. It does not happen very often, but now that I've read the article, and the hard science backing siesta lovers, maybe I will feel a little less guilty next time.

Which reminds me of a visit to Taipei, capital of Taiwan, a few years ago. I had a meeting at a large bank around lunch-time. On the way to the meeting room, I passed through a big open-space office area, seating perhaps 30-40 employees. All of them, without exception, were fast asleep, their heads resting on pillows they put on their desks. Apparently, a short nap after lunch is an agreed practice for office workers in Taiwan.

Got to rush. It's time for my post-lunch nap...

Friday, October 20, 2006

More London Ruminations

This week brought me to London again, a trip which gave rise to a few more ruminations:

I do not know any other city in the world that is as multi-ethnic as London is. Everywhere I go in London the people around me are a mix of colours, shapes and sizes, and the cacophony of languages from all around the world is music to my ears. Some would argue that New York City is as diverse as London, it not more, but I think the size of NYC is such that there are areas which are very homogeneous (Flatbush comes to mind...). London is also a big city and yet almost everywhere you go the population is heterogeneous. This thought brought back memories of my first visit to Boston 13 years ago; after a couple of days in the city I suddenly caught myself thinking: where are all the blacks?

The only place in London where I saw a sizable group of people that were mostly white and English-speaking, was at the theatre. (I went to see "The 39 steps" at the Criterion in Picadilly Circus, which I enjoyed very much). But no worries: stepping out into the streets of Soho and things were back to normal.

I also had time for a visit to the Jewish Museum in Camden Town. They are currently running an exhibition called "Identities" which displays photographs from various Jewish families and Jewish activities in London. There is also a film in which English Jews are interviewed about their identity. Again, even in the narrow Jewish community of England (less than half a percent of the total population), the ethnic diversity is striking. Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews, secular and religious Jews, young and old - all proclaiming their allegiance to the kingdom while at the same times grappling with what it means to them to be Jewish.

On my way back to the hotel to pick my stuff and go to the airport, I made an impromptu stop at Charing Cross road, for a quick stroll around Foyle's, "London's legendary bookstore" as I believe it labels itself. I haven't been to Foyle's in over than a decade. I remembered it from my last visit as an amazing bookstore, but this time I was rather disappointed. I guess that with the proliferation of the "mega bookstores" - Barnes & Noble, Borders and of course - the grandness of Foyle's has somewhat diminished (at least in my eyes). I mucdh more enjoyed the few minutes I spent at Bookends, opposite Foyle's, a store which has retained its intimate book-browsing experience. I got a few Asterix books for my son.

And this impulsive stop at Charing Cross did not, sadly, leave me enough time to walk up Oxford's street to Selfridge's for my Krispy Kreme doughnut...

Monday, October 16, 2006

Prayer for Avi Ravitzky

I just saw on the news that Prof. Aviezer (Avi) Ravitzky, head of the department for Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University and winner of the Israel Prize, was hit by a bus in Jerusalem this morning and is in hospital in grave condition.

I had the honour of hearing Prof. Ravitzky talk on several occasions over the years and read a couple of his books. I stood a few paces away from him during the peace rally on the 4th of November 1995, at the end of which Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered.

He is truly a great thinker and I pray for his speedy and full recovery with the help of God. Amen.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Waving To and Fro

Sukkot is almost over. One more day. Tonight is Hoshana Raba and tomorrow morning we face a long prayer, circling the bimah seven times whilst holding and waving the lulav in all directions.

Every year on Sukkot I am struck with the same odd feeling. It's one of the most beautiful festivals, one on which we are commanded to be happy. After the stressful 10 days of the beginning of the year, culminating in Yom Kipppur, a happy holiday is just what we need. And yet, every morning of Sukkot and particularly on Hoshana Rabba, I watch myself and my fellow congregants waving the lulav to and fro, in all four directions of the earth, and I can't help but think to myself (not out loud of course, God forbid): "what the heck is going on here?!".

Yes, I am aware of the different reasons given to this strange custom, from the Seffer HaChinuch who categorises this mitzvah with the ones given to us by God for bringing us closer to Him, through the symbolistic gesture that the whole world belongs to God, to the more kabbalistic explanations about warding off evil spirits. And still, it just doesn't feel right. All this to and fro... All this circling around the synagogue...

To put it somewhat bluntly, there's a somewhat paganistic feel to it all. Of course I'm not suggesting this is a pagan ritual, and obviously if it's directed towards a proper cause - the worship of God - there's nothing wrong with it. And yet...

Oh well, I guess I'll just need to suppress my impure thoughts tomorrow morning, stifle my yawns (we start at 5am!) and go through the motions. Chag Sameach!

Friday, October 06, 2006

London Ruminations

I grew up in an anglophile environment, receiving British education from age 10 until I finished high school. Little surprise then that England, and London in particular, were places I felt comfortable with for most of my life. In recent years however, I have grown to dislike London, finding it to be a city where almost anything that can go wrong does go wrong. It is dirty, far too expensive, not safe enough, offers low quality of service and generally rather unpleasant. And with the heightened security measures after the terrorist attacks in London (real and imagined), Heathrow airport has become an unbearable airport to fly to and from.

Here are a few random observations from a short visit to London this week:

The airport hotels around Heathrow are not only ourageously expensive, but also so difficult to get to they can hardly qualify as proper airport hotels. Whereas the Heathrow Express takes you from Heathrow to Paddington Station in the heart of London in 15 minutes, the "Hotel Hoppa" buses that serve Heathrow's hotels take ages to get you to the hotel. Murphy's Law is strictly followed here: the bus you need (there are 9 lines, H1 to H9) is almost always the last one to turn up, and when it finally does, it follows a circuitous and noisy route before dropping you off, exhuasted, at the hotel.

England is where the English language was born and perfected, nurtured lovingly by generations of proud Britons. Elsewhere in the English-speaking world, respect for this beautiful language was never a top priority, but Britons always took pains to make sure English was properly spoken and written. That, sadly, is changing. An example: in the same "Hotel Hoppa" bus, there is a sign behind the driver telling passengers what not to do when the bus is in motion. The first sentence starts like this: "Do not speak to the driver or distract their attention...".

The Tube, London's world-famous underground transportation system, is falling apart. Years of misguided privatisation efforts and maintenance neglect are finally taking their toll. Almost on every ride I hear a message about a failure that will delays or shutdowns. Posters in every station advise passengers which lines will not be operating as usual on the coming weekend due to repair works. Were it not for London's traffic, I would have opted for the (exorbitantly expensive) cabs instead of riding the Tube.

The latest fad in London now is free newspapers. Published by established media groups, these are handed out during the afternoon rush hour. As far as I could tell, there are two: London Lite (here again, no respect for proper English spelling) and The London Paper. I was browsing through one while waiting for a friend at Leicester Square to go see a play (Donkeys' Years, a British comedy) and in five minutes I learnt the following: 1. Bono (of U2) is married (or dating, I can't remember) a 24-year-old, and was photographed topless (Bono that is) while on holiday in Croatia; 2. Farah Fawcett (ex Charlie Angel) is fighting cancer; 3. Commuters on the Tube listening to loud music on their earphones is something that has been troubling many Londoners of late, and; 4. An actor by the name of Walliams (I think) appeared nude on stage last night. Think of all that wealth of knowledge you're missing out on because you don't live in London!

But there was one discovery I made on this trip which made it entirely worthwhile, a discovery that will make many future trips to London more enjoyable. Selfridge's Food Hall serves Krispy Kreme doughnuts!!! If you enter the store from the second door on Baker Street (the door furthest away from Oxford Street) you will stumble right onto the doughnut stand. This means I no longer need to wait until I visit the US to have a Krispy Kreme doughnut. Well worth all the aggravation London is giving me...

Friday, September 29, 2006

Plastic World

I lost my wallet yesterday (or perhaps it was taken from me) on my way to the airport in Seoul, South Korea.

I remember using it last to pay for the airport bus at the hotel. A couple of hours later, at the airport, it was no longer with me. With only an hour or so to go until my flight, I barely had time to get my wits together and start cancelling my credit cards in 4 different countries. I had to continue the process during the flight itself; thank you Lufthansa for wireless access on board...

In one instant I came to realize how much we rely on the "Plastic World". I had several cards in my wallet: six credit cards, one ATM card, a DeutscheBahn train card, my medical insurance card, my drivers license, my dialling card and probably another few cards I don't quite remember were there. (Thankfully, my passport was in a separate place). Suddenly I was unable to withdraw cash, to make phone calls, to rent a car or to reserve anything online. It's going to take a while until all my cards are renewed and until then I will be living in a crippled, Plastic-less world.

Here's an idea for a startup: a memory chip that will contain all personal data and cards which, if lost, can be reproduced at any bank or post office in the world by identifying the owner, preferably using DNA, fingerprints, etc. The technology is surely there and it's only a question of putting the right checks and balances in place to avoid misuse of such a technology.

I'm off to London after Yom Kippur. It's going to be a cash-only trip as I won't have my credit cards renewed by then; I'm not looking forward to that experience...

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Oriana Fallaci and Benedict

How symbolic is it that Oriana Fallaci, Italian journalist and author, passed away on the same week that Pope Benedict made his remarks about Islam, sparking the fury of Muslims worldwide and forcing him to make several public apologies to soothe the "hurt feelings" of the world's second-biggest religion.

Fallaci made her reputation in the 70s and 80s as a no-nonsense journalist who interviewed the world's leaders and put them on the spot time and again. In recent years she made headlines mostly as a result of her tireless tirades against the Islamisation of Europe (or "Eurabia" in her words). I recently read her last book "La Forza della Ragione" ("The Force of Reason"), which is a follow-up to her post-9/11 book "The Rage and the Pride". In "Reason", Fallaci tells the readers about the numerous death threats she received as a result of her comments in the first book. She identifies herself with Master Cecco, who was put to the stake by the Inquisition on account of his beliefs and heretical writings. Fallaci writes with passion but does not allow this passion to shadow the "force of reason" when examining the trends in her homeland. She writes in the first person, often addressing the reader directly, and I found her Italian to be fascinating and rich.

By now Pope Benedict and the Vatican msut have apologised perhaps seven times for daring to quote some obscure Byzantine emperor's views about the violent nature of Islam. I wonder how many of the offended Muslims, who attacked Christians and burnt down churches, paused to think how by their actions they are proving the accuracy of the Byzantine emperor's observations...

An appropriate epilogue to this post is this link to an article by Sam Harris in the LA Times this week. As Harris puts it, "a cult of death is forming in the Muslim world". Five years after 9/11, the Al Qaeda attack on the US is sadly proving to be only a prelude to the real war still ahead of us all.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Welcome Aboard

The following "truthful" in-flight announcement appeared in this week's The Economist. This is what these announcements would be like if the airlines would only tell us the truth.

Welcome aboard

In-flight announcements are not entirely truthful. What might an honest one sound like?

“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. We are delighted to welcome you aboard Veritas Airways, the airline that tells it like it is. Please ensure that your seat belt is fastened, your seat back is upright and your tray-table is stowed. At Veritas Airways, your safety is our first priority. Actually, that is not quite true: if it were, our seats would be rear-facing, like those in military aircraft, since they are safer in the event of an emergency landing. But then hardly anybody would buy our tickets and we would go bust.

The flight attendants are now pointing out the emergency exits. This is the part of the announcement that you might want to pay attention to. So stop your sudoku for a minute and listen: knowing in advance where the exits are makes a dramatic difference to your chances of survival if we have to evacuate the aircraft. Also, please keep your seat belt fastened when seated, even if the seat-belt light is not illuminated. This is to protect you from the risk of clear-air turbulence, a rare but extremely nasty form of disturbance that can cause severe injury. Imagine the heavy food trolleys jumping into the air and bashing into the overhead lockers, and you will have some idea of how nasty it can be. We don't want to scare you. Still, keep that seat belt fastened all the same.

Your life-jacket can be found under your seat, but please do not remove it now. In fact, do not bother to look for it at all. In the event of a landing on water, an unprecedented miracle will have occurred, because in the history of aviation the number of wide-bodied aircraft that have made successful landings on water is zero. This aircraft is equipped with inflatable slides that detach to form life rafts, not that it makes any difference. Please remove high-heeled shoes before using the slides. We might as well add that space helmets and anti-gravity belts should also be removed, since even to mention the use of the slides as rafts is to enter the realm of science fiction.

Please switch off all mobile phones, since they can interfere with the aircraft's navigation systems. At least, that's what you've always been told. The real reason to switch them off is because they interfere with mobile networks on the ground, but somehow that doesn't sound quite so good. On most flights a few mobile phones are left on by mistake, so if they were really dangerous we would not allow them on board at all, if you think about it. We will have to come clean about this next year, when we introduce in-flight calling across the Veritas fleet. At that point the prospect of taking a cut of the sky-high calling charges will miraculously cause our safety concerns about mobile phones to evaporate.

On channel 11 of our in-flight entertainment system you will find a video consisting of abstract imagery and a new-age soundtrack, with a voice-over explaining some exercises you can do to reduce the risk of deep-vein thrombosis. We are aware that this video is tedious, but it is not meant to be fun. It is meant to limit our liability in the event of lawsuits.

Once we have reached cruising altitude you will be offered a light meal and a choice of beverages—a word that sounds so much better than just saying ‘drinks’, don't you think? The purpose of these refreshments is partly to keep you in your seats where you cannot do yourselves or anyone else any harm. Please consume alcohol in moderate quantities so that you become mildly sedated but not rowdy. That said, we can always turn the cabin air-quality down a notch or two to help ensure that you are sufficiently drowsy.

After take-off, the most dangerous part of the flight, the captain will say a few words that will either be so quiet that you will not be able to hear them, or so loud that they could wake the dead. So please sit back, relax and enjoy the flight. We appreciate that you have a choice of airlines and we thank you for choosing Veritas, a member of an incomprehensible alliance of obscure foreign outfits, most of which you have never heard of. Cabin crew, please make sure we have remembered to close the doors. Sorry, I mean: ‘Doors to automatic and cross-check’. Thank you for flying Veritas.”

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Until I Find You, by John Irving

Whenever I get a chance to spend time wandering around a bookstore with no particular book in mind (sadly not too often), I always check if one of my favourite writers has published a new book. One of these writers is John Irving. For many years now, Irving has been near the top of my favourites list, with A Prayer for Owen Meany probably being one of the best, if not the best, novel I have ever read. It was therefore with great expectations that I took his latest book - Until I Find You - with me on my latest trip to Japan, looking forward to long hours of reading pleasure on the flights.

Alas, it was not to be. I have had disappointments from recent Irving books, but Until was probably the greatest letdown. I learnt a lot about tattoos but despite the familiar Irving prose this book somehow seemed too long and repetitive. And the ending was hugely disappointing.

The book tells the story of Jack Burns, "actor before he was an actor", son to Alice, a tattoo artist, and to William, an organ player. William falls out of love with Alice shortly after meeting her, but she is pregnant with child and does not agree to let William go without a fight. When Jack is four he tours Europe with Alice, moving from city to city, from church organ to church organ, in the hope of tracking William down and confronting him with his "abandoned responsibilities". In the first third of the book (total: >800 pages!) Jack recounts this odyssey through Europe, reconstructing it from the memory of 4-year-old.

After the failed hunt for William, Alice and Jack go back to Toronto and Jack is enrolled in an all-girls school, St. Hilda's, where boys are admitted until grade four. It is there that he discovers his affinity for "older women" and where he meets Emma Oastler, who becomes his mentor and life-time friend. From St. Hilda's Jack goes to a boarding school in New England, this time an all-boys school. Eventually, Jack moves to Los Angeles and becomes a famous actor, winning an Oscar for a screenplay adapted from one of Emma's books after her death. In the last third of the book, and after his mother dies, Jack discovers the truth about his parents and he embarks on a second odyssey to Europe, this time seeing the stories his mother told him in a totally different light.

As usual, Irving's characters are described in detail and become memorable personae: Jack's third-grade teacher, Catherine "The Wurtz", who ends up as his companion to the Oscars; Michelle Maher, one of Jack's many girlfriends, but the one he never forgets; numerous tattoo artists, all Alice's friends, who helped her and Jack during their voyage in Europe lending them a place to "sleep in the needles"; and many more. Irving's characters become very vivid in the reader's mind, and because of the length of his novels some of them become almost friends. I remember the feeling I had when I finished reading The Cider House Rules during my military duty: I felt very sad to have to "say goodbye" to some of the characters after weeks of companionship.

Some of Irving's regular and recurring themes are also present in Until: New England, boarding schools, wrestling and coaching, intra-family intimate ties, single motherhood, marital infedilities, etc. Curiously missing, though, are the bears... Irving's use of repeated phrases that become the leitmotif of the book are also present in Until, except that this time I found them to be somewhat too repetitive (how many times can one read about Jack's fondness for his penis being held by an older woman?).

As much as it pains me to write this, it seems that Irving is past his prime. He made his fame with A World According to Garp (personally not one of my favourites and a terrible movie adaptation) and then solidified his literary prominence through bestsellers such as The Cider House Rules, A Son of the Circus and The Fourth Hand. But it is his earlier novels - for example The Hotel New Hampshire or A Prayer for Owen Meany - that are truly his best. If you are new to Irving, Until I Find You is definitely not the book you should read first.

Thursday, September 07, 2006


I never really understood the hold gambling has on some people. On my visits to Las Vegas I have watched those people sitting in front of the slot machines, mechanically pushing the buttons or pulling the lever, watching the wheels turn round with glassy expressions for hours on end. I understand these people have a problem but I cannot grasp the depths of human misery that drives them to such senseless behaviour.

Pachinko is, by far, the most common form of gambling in Japan. A Pachinko machine is a cross between a pinball machine and a slot machine. The player buys a large number of small steel and, using a small knob, controls the speed at which the balls are fed into the machine. The balls drop down through an array of pins and are mostly ejected from the machine but, if you're lucky, some of them go through a gate which give the player points (i.e. more balls). At the end of the day, the more balls you're left with, the better. A modern, and increasingly more popular, version of the game is the Pachislot, basically a slot machine.

Pachinko parlours are usually located near train stations. They are noisy and smoky places, with a dazzling display of coloured lights and incessant annoying background music. Players sit in long rows in front of the machines, their right hand permanently on the knob and their eyes fixed on the dropping balls. It's a sad sight. Because gambling for money is illegal in Japan, the player can exchange the balls he earned for prizes such as stuffed toys, pens or cigarette lighters. Then, once outside, he can exchange these prizes for money at the small shops near the parlours that exist for this sole purpose. Neat loophole.

Allegedly, today's pachinko parlours are mostly owned by Korean immigrants and natually there is considerable involvement of the Japanese mafia (the infamous Yakuza) in this lucrative business. Every summer, there are reports of babies suffocating to death in parked cars, left there to wait while their father or mother are busy playing Pachinko.

In my four and half years living in Japan I have never visited a Pachinko parlour. Last week, on a short visit to Tokyo, I decided I should check it out. I went to the parlour outside Akasaka-Mitsuke station with a colleague from work. He was my tour guide. I inserted a 1,000 yen note (about $8.5) into the machine, got my balls, and started feeding them into the machine. Frankly speaking, there is absolutely nothing to it. It doesn't look as if the speed at which the balls enter the machine matters, although my friend insisted that I hold the knob so that the balls hit a specific area in the needle array. About 20 minutes and 5,000 yen later I got the point and put an end to my short and inglorious Pachinko career.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Flying with Israelis and with Japanese

Flying from Tel Aviv through Frankfurt to Tokyo this week, I was on two Lufthansa flights on the same day. So same environment: same airline, same crew (not the actual people of course) and same service.

The main difference between the two flights was that most of the passengers on the Tel Aviv-Frankfurt flights were Israelis while most of the passengers on the Frankfurt-Tokyo flight were Japanese. The other difference was the duration of the flight: 3.5 hours for the first flight vs. 10.5 hours for the second.

For the sake of brevity, let's call them the "Israeli flight" and the "Japanese flight" accordingly. Here below are some observations about my experiences on these two flights. Keep the above differences in mind and draw your own conclusions:

  • On the Israeli flight, 10 minutes after the "boarding completed" announcement (i.e. all passengers on board) was made, people were still fumbling with their bags and standing in the aisles. On the Japanese flight, everybody was seated.
  • Throughout the Israeli flight, except for take-off and landing (first and last 20 minutes of the flight), most of the aisles and the area near the galleys were blocked by people standing and talking to each other. On the Japanese flight, the aisles were free throughout the flight except for the occasional person hurrying to/from the bathroom.
  • The one time I needed the bathroom on the Israeli flight I had to wait in line for 5 minutes. The three times I needed the bathroom on the Japanese flight I never waited.
  • The bathroom I frequented on the Israeli flight had paper towels on the floor and the toilet was not flushed by the previous user(s). The bathrooms I used on the Japanese flight were spotless (there might have been some water drops near the basin, I'm not sure).
  • I sat near the galley (exit row on both flights). Throughout the Israeli flight I kept hearing the "ping" sounds that warn the flight attendants that someone pushed the call button. I never heard one "ping" on the Japanese flight.
  • As the plane was approaching the gate, and upon hearing the pursar utter the words "flight attendants, all doors in park", almost all passengers on the Israeli flight jumped from their seats and dove for the overhead compartments to fetch their bags. Needless to say, the "fasten seat belts" sign was still on. On the Japanese flight nobody moved before the "fasten seat belts" sign was off.

As I said, draw your own conclusions...

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Still Here

Well, it's August 23 and we're still here.

I think that the reports about Ahmadinajad planning something terrible against Israel this week were correct. However, it wasn't a nuclear attack. It was something else.

His scientists seem to have been successful in devising a monstrous way to make us suffer. They found a way to heat Israel up to an intolerable degree. The heat wave here is simply out of this world and I refuse to believe God has anything to do with it. It must be the Persians.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Two Days To Go

According to Bernard Lewis, a well-respected scholar on Islam and the Middle East, there is a chance Israel has only two days to live. Come Tuesday, we'll be nuked by Iran.

I'm letting you all know, just in case I suddenly stop blogging. If I do, you'll know why.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Humour - From the Other Side

One of the things I missed in this war is the humour. During the first Gulf War, when missiles rained on Israel almost every night, Israelis developed a wonderful sense of humour (some of it black). The zehu zeh trio on TV were at their peak at the time. This time around - nothing. Perhaps a sign of the malaise...

Anyway, I saw today the following joke. It's from "the other side" and it's funny (in a sad kind of way):

Olmert was sitting in his office wondering how to invade Lebanon when his telephone rang.

"Hallo, Mr. Olmert!" a heavily accented voice said. "This is Abul Abed, down at the tea house in Beirut! I am callin' to tell ya dat we are officially declaring war on you, yes you!"

"Well" Olmert replied, "This is indeed important news! How big is your army?"

"Right now," said Abul Abed, after a moment's calculation "there is myself, my cousin Mustafa, me next-door-neighbor Abou Khaled, and the whole team from the tea house. That makes eight!"

Olmert paused. "I must tell you Abul Abed, that I have one million men in my army waiting to move on my command."

"Holy jeez," said Abul Abed. "I'll have to call ya back!"

Sure enough, the next day, Abul Abed called again. "Mr. Olmert, the war is still on! We have managed to acquire some infantry equipment!"

"And what equipment would that be Abul Abed?" Olmert asked.

"Well sir, we have two Mercedes 180, and a truck."

Olmert sighed. "I must tell you Abul Abed, that I have 16,000 tanks and 14,000 armored personnel carriers. Also I've increased my army to one and a half million since we last spoke."

"Ya lateeeeef", said Abul Abed, "I'll be getting back to ya."

Sure enough, Abul Abed rang again the next day. "Mr. Olmert, the war is still on! We have managed to get ourselves airborne! We modified a helicopter with a couple of shotguns in the cockpit, and four more neighbors have joined us as well!"

Olmert was silent for a minute then cleared his throat. "I must tell you Abul Abed that I have 10,000 bombers and 20,000 fighter planes. My military complex is surrounded by laser-guided, surface-to-air missile sites. And since we last spoke, I've increased my army to TWO MILLION!"

"Lah lah lah lah," said Abul Abed, "I'll have to call you back."

Sure enough, Abul Abed called again the next day. "Olmert I am sorry to have to tell you dat we have had to call off this war."

"I'm sorry to hear that" said Olmert. "Why the sudden change of heart?"

"Well, sir," said Abul Abed, "we've all sat ourselves down and had a long chat, and come to realize there's no way we can feed two million prisoners."

War? What War?

Voices calling for dismissal of Chief of Staff Dan Chalutz are not new, from left and from right.

The left do not like him because they think he's an insensitive brute. When asked by a journalist last year what it feels like when launching a missile into Gaza knowing civilians might get hurt (Chalutz is a pilot), he said: "all you feel is a slight bump in the wing and you go on".

The right do not like him because of his role in the disengagement process a year ago, when he commanded the IDF troops that evacuated Gaza's Jewish population.

This morning, the Israeli daily Ma'ariv published the following story: on July 12 at noon, Chalutz called his broker at the bank and asked him to sell his stock portfolio, worth about 120,000 NIS (about $27,000). This was only a few hours after the kidnapping of the two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah. The IDF and Hezbollah were trading fire, Israeli warplanes were bombing southern Lebanon in an attempt to block the kidnappers' escape route, Israeli tanks were in pursuit of the kidnappers inside Lebanon and the Israeli cabinet was debating whether to start a war or not.

Chalutz did not deny the story. He commented that his portfolio was a private affair that had nothing to do with the war, and that in any case on July 12 he still "did not think and did not foresee that there would be a war".

Chalutz should go home. Not because he thought about selling his portfolio at a time when the IDF was in hot pursuit of the kidnappers; it's bad, but not reason to fire him. However, the fact that the Chief of Staff says that at noon on July 12 he "did not think and did not foresee" that a war was a realistic possibility is absolutely unbelievable and unacceptable. This is a clear failure of the highest authority in the army.

Monday, August 14, 2006

War Over - Lies Exposed

War is over (for now). Olmert made his victory speech. Time to check the lies I wrote about a few days into the war:

We are fighting to get the kidnapped soldiers back. All Israeli soldiers are on their way out of Lebanon, except for Goldwasser and Regev. And Shalit is still somewhere in Gaza. If these three come back home, they will do so in the "conventional" way, i.e. in return for the release of terrorists and prisoners from Israeli jails. Not because of the war.

Our aim is to crush Hezbollah. The last day of war saw 250 rockets and missiles launched by Hezbollah into Israel; images from Haifa made the city look like a war zone. Tens of Israeli Merkava tanks were put out of order by Hezbollah's anti-tank fire. Not one village in southern Lebanon is free of Hezbollah control. Need I continue? An ideological organization like Hezbollah cannot be crushed. Period.

The air campaign is effective. If so, why the ground offensive? Why more than 100 soldiers dead? Why did the number of rockets increase, not decrease, as the air campaign proceeded?

The people are behind us. This was and remains to some extent true. Except that many of these people view the government as a total failure in the way it dealt with the very same "people". The erection of the "tent city" in Tel Aviv yesterday, hours before the ceasefire, epitomizes the uselessness of the government's response to its citizens' needs in time of war.

The world is behind us. Right... The same world that saved us from continued embarrassment by forcing the ceasefire.

We will establish a security zone in Lebanon without IDF's presence. Yet to be seen... I heard Morrocco, Malaysia and Indonesia - all Islamic countries - are offering to send troops to man UNIFIL's "expanded" force in southern Lebanon. Knowing they will be there protecting me, together with the French, makes me sleep better at night.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Prognosis: Profound Malaise

Shortly after the rioting in Paris' banlieues at the end of last year, French President Jacques Chirac addressed the nation on TV and diagnosed France as suffering from une profonde malaise. The rioting was merely a symptom of the general feeling of unease and discomfort so rife in France, a feeling of despair and helplessness with the present coupled with gloomy predictions about the future.

My prognosis is that Israel will enter a similar state following the ceasefire (which, barring last-minute surprises, is expected to begin tomorrow).

Despite some gains on the ground and on the diplomatic front, the general feeling here is that Israel lost this war. The government is perceived as being too hesitant and indecisive; it took too long to approve the ground offensive, only to backtrack a mere 24 hours after the green light was finally given. The IDF is perceived as a rusty and bulky war machine, ill-equipped to deal with a nimble and determined enemy such as the Hezbollah and unable to reduce, let alone eliminate, the daily bombardment of Israeli cities. Stories are beginning to appear in the media about unavailable equipment to the reservist soldiers and about neglect of thousands of northern residents stranded in shelters. In the last two days, government officials and army generals were busy making veiled but obvious comments to the media about who's fault it all is, no doubt in preparation for the post-war investigation committees.

Israel entered this war with almost optimum conditions: the enemy did not expect it, the public was solidly behind it and, at least initially, the world did not cry foul. And yet, through a series of miscalculations and a misplaced sense of hubris, it finds itself a month later picking up the pieces and trying to salvage what can still be salvaged of its deterrence and reputation. The repercussions are obvious: heads are going to roll, the government will not live out its term and our enemies will make most of their victory.

An inevitable profound malaise will permeate all walks of life in Israel as the countdown to the next war will begin.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006


Israel is at a crossroads in this war. Either go for a ceasefire or for an escalation.

After almost a month and little to show for it, the army is requesting a large operation that practically means the re-invasion of Lebanon. Olmert knows that if he agrees, hundreds of soldiers will die, with guarantee of a decisive victory and the risk of regional conflict. Hence his inclination to stop. On the other hand, if he does not agree and the war ends soon, he will be blamed for not having what it takes to be PM. In the eyes of both the enemy and, increasingly, the Israeli public, Israel has lost this war by squandering the opportunity to make a difference in the first round of fighting.

I don't envy him. We'll see what the cabinet comes up with today.

UPDATE: The cabinet approved a short while ago the larger operation. Today's high toll for the IDF in Lebanon is only a precursor to what we can expect in coming weeks.

Monday, August 07, 2006

The Cold Arithmetic of Blood

Good op-ed article by Merav Arlosoroff (in normal days a finance journalist) in Ha'aretz today, following the difficult day yesterday. "A war is not an insurance policy" she write. This is something the Israeli government should be communicating to the public, instead of making irrelevant speeches about having won the war when clearly this is not the case.

The cold arithmetic of blood

By Meirav Arlosoroff

Exactly 100 years ago, Theodore Roosevelt received the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing the two sides in the Russian-Japanese war to the negotiating table. Besides the fact that the teddy bear is named after him, Roosevelt is also remembered as being an outstanding American president. A century ago, he coined one of his many famous sayings: ?Speak softly and carry a big stick."

Roosevelt's approach is not alien to Israel. The historical Mapai party adopted it, and it also inspired David Ben-Gurion when he shaped Israel's security outlook during the War of Independence, as well as during the retaliatory operations taken by the elite Unit 101 and in the Sinai campaign (in the last case, unsuccessfully). In fact, Israelis express this sentiment intuitively when declaring, quite frequently, that they won't be anyone's sucker.

Roosevelt's approach has been put to the test now, too, in the battles Israel is waging in Lebanon, which are apparently about to end. Let there be no mistake: The war in Lebanon has not been about the return of two abducted soldiers. It is a war for Israel's deterrent power. This is a war that is being waged over the question of whether Israel will be able to retain the message that having to defend its home front is taboo, and that anyone that dares to violate that taboo will pay an unbearable price.

Hezbollah is not the strategic threat posed to Israel at present. The real threat lies in Syria, which is arming itself with thousands of missiles with various and sundry warheads, and in Iran, which is only a heartbeat away from attaining nuclear weapons. The war in Lebanon, therefore, is not only a war against Hezbollah and its ability to continue to attack Israel. It is a war against Iran and Syria, which clearly have the ability to attack Israel. The only question is whether they will dare.

The achievements in Lebanon will have crucial implications vis-a-vis this question. From this point of view, the extended fighting there is not a campaign. Nor is it a war of "no alternative." It is an existential war, one of the most important ever fought by Israel. It is a war intended to ensure that the real strategic threat to Israel, the one from Iran and Syria, will be cut down to a minimum, thanks to Israel's ability to maintain its deterrence. And it is also a war that can affect the peace process with the Palestinians: Israel's ability to maintain its deterrence is the best way to convince them to come to the negotiating table, just as Israel's ability to maintain its deterrence during the Yom Kippur War prompted Egypt to sign a peace agreement with Israel.

This is an existential war and Israel should be fighting it as one. It is a war in which every possible military effort should be invested, exposing the country to the dangers of an all-out war - of soldiers being captured, of becoming embroiled in difficult battles, and of facing such perils as opening of a second front and incurring very large numbers of losses. Coping with these dangers is essential despite the fact that doing so does not guarantee achievements.

A war is not an insurance policy. Taking risks is not a sufficient condition for victory in such circumstances, but it is certainly a necessary condition - because only those who dare will succeed. Only those who are willing to dare can truly threaten the other side.

Israel cannot promise that the Hezbollah will pay an intolerable price for breaking the taboo by attacking the country's home front. It can promise to be willing to pay a very high price in order to make Hezbollah pay a far higher one. This promise could have been the basis for its deterrence.

Israel's willingness to fight to the death to protect its home front is the only way to make those considering attacking that front in the future think twice. To put it bluntly: Israel's willingness to absorb hundreds of losses can prevent the deaths of thousands, and perhaps even more, in the future. This is a cold and cruel arithmetic of blood, but it is the one that will be determined in this war. And it is doubtful whether Israel has fulfilled its part in it.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Painfully Small Country

In Israel, the theory of six degrees of separation is not applicable. Not because it's not a valid theory but because this is such a small country that people are are connected to each other not through five intermediaries but probably through no more than two.

This has become painfully true for me yesterday.

A couple of weeks ago, almost every Israeli knew someone that was living under constant bombing up north. Last week, almost every Israeli knew someone who had been drafted to join the war. Last Friday, I was informed of a young soldier who had died fighting in Lebanon; I did not know him personally, but through one intermediary. (I also "know" one of the two kidnapped soldiers in Lebanon through two intermdiaries.)

This is a small country. At most times claustrophobically so. At times like these painfully so.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Cease Fire Looming

I listened to Olmert's speech today (most of it). I normally do not waste time listening to such speeches, but as I was driving in insane traffic and as listening to music is not the done thing these days, Olmert was pretty much the only option.

Some of the gems from the mouth of our Prime Minister: "Israel is winning, with unprecented gains"; "the face of the Middle East has changed"; "this war created a new balance in the region"; "Israel can no longer be threatened with missiles"; and so on and so forth. You get the picture.

The conclusion is obvious: Olmert knows that time is running out and fast. International pressure, coupled with the evident lack of success in bringing about a decisive victory in the battlefield (as if one were possible), means that the cease fire is around the corner. Unless Israel deliberately widens the scope of this war in order to escalate the conflict and continue fighting - and it's becoming a bit late in the game to do that - Olmert will very soon need to agree to a political solution that will allow Israel to bow out of this conflict with some dignity. However, as this political solution will not bring about a significant change compared to the situation Israel was in prior to July 12, 2006, he is beginning to spin the story to make this war look like a victory, lest he and his government be blamed for promising too much and achieving so little.

The window of opportunity Israel created three weeks ago, with the help of a collosal blunder courtesy of Nasrallah, is snapping shut. Olmert's government hesitated and missed a golden opportunity to make a difference. Now they are scrambling to save what they can. So obvious and so sad.

Bet Shean, Israel

Last week, on my way back from Tveria, I stopped at Bet Shean, a small city in northern Israel, close to the border with Jordan.

My first goal was to eat. As most of the places in Tveria were closed, I was hungry by the time I arrived in Bet Shean. Fortunately, the first building that greets drivers arriving from the north is a small shopping mall with a McDonalds restaurant, boasting a huge sign that this is the kosher McDonalds... Well, how can I resist such a temptation?

Lunch was mostly uneventful, but dining among local residents proved an experience in and of itself, in an anthropological manner of speaking... Say no more.

I then set out to find the archeological digs of ancient Bet Shean. Fortunately, the place was open. The guy at the cashier almost fell off his chair when he saw me approaching; evidently, not many people visit these days. I paid 23 shekels, got a small brochure and headed in. I had the entire 1300 square metres of the National Park of Bet Shean to myself. And what a pleasant surprise it turned out to be.

The digs revealed the remains of a city that was populated continuously since the 5th century B.C.E. The most spectacular remains are from the glory days of the Roman city of Scythopolis, during the rule of Hadrian in the 2nd century C.E. There are also remains from Hellenistic times. As the city was destroyed by a powerful earthquake in 749, many of the buildings were preserved as they were during the Roman times. (Apparently, what happened to the people is still a mystery, as no human remains were found).

Frankly, the Roman ruins are so impressive that they compare, in my humble opinion, with the ruins of the Foro Romano in Rome. I will let the pictures I took speak for themselves:

I then climbed the 200 or so stairs up to Tel Bet Shean, seen in the background in the 3rd picture above. It wasn't easy climb, given the heat and beating sun, but well worth it. I am now studying about the history of Israel during the days of the First Temple and seeing some of the ruins there from biblical times was truly fascinating. Ancient Bet Shean was the place where the Philistines hung the bodies of king Saul and his sons after the fateful battle of the Gilboa. The tel digs also uncovered ruins from the Pharaonic times.

On the way out I could not resist taking a picture of my car, so lonely in the the vast and empty car park:

Friday, July 28, 2006

The Limits of Power

In today's salvo of rockets from Lebanon, a "red cross" station in Tsfat and a hospital in Nahariya are hit. Also, rockets fall on Afula, 60km from the Lebanese border (i.e. long-range rockets). Tens of rockets so far today, and still counting.

Who would have thought? Israeli cities are bombarded for fifteen straight days by a para-military organization, a third of the country's population is under constant attack, northern Israel is full of ghost towns - and Israel, with the most powerful army in the neighbourhood (by far), is powerless to stop it. Stop it? It cannot even bring about a decrease in the number of rockets launched against its citizens daily.

The limits of power are becoming achingly evident to Israelis with every passing day. Some of the lies will soon be exposed in their full and painful ugliness.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Dire Straits War

In the press conference today, defence minister Amir Peretz suggested the war be called "Bein HaMetzarim War". The bein hametzarim days are the three weeks between the fasts of the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av (today is the 2nd of Av). This is similar to, but much better than, my suggestion.

As for the English name, although a strict translation would be "Between the Straits War", my suggestion would be to make it simpler and call it "The Dire Straits War". After all, the Dire Straits are my favourite band...

Four and a Half Billion Dollars

Amid the stream of terrible news yesterday, the acquisition of Mercury by HP was grossly overlooked.

Shadowing the Iscar deal last May by 500 million dollars, this is the largest M&A in Israel's history (if we ignore the failed Chromatis deal). Given the latest troubles at Mercury this is somewhat of a bittersweet exit, but remarkable nonetheless.

I have several friends working for Mercury, both here and in the US; I congratulate them on this deal and on their newly-found riches...

100 Dead Soldiers, Every Day

The morning after, and I heard/read at least three times the sentence: "where is the IDF we knew in the Six Day War"? In other words, after nine dead soldiers yesterday in Lebanon, Israelis are wondering why the IDF is not as swift in bringing victory as it was during the 1967 war.

One fact is somehow forgotten in all this flurry of forlorn reminiscence. During six days of fighting in June 1967, almost 800 soldiers died. On average, that's more than 100 soldiers every day. Are Israelis willing to sacrifice the same number of lives to bring the war in Lebanon to a swifter end (assuming for a moment such an end is indeed attainable)?

Short memory...

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Trip to Tveria

This is a tragic day in the war for Israel: at least eight soldiers dead and many more wounded from the fighting around Bint Jbeil in southern Lebanon. This war is taking a (predictable) turn for the (expected) worse. As Meron Benvenisti writes today in Haaretz, "very soon everything will return to what it was before - apart from those who sacrificed their lives".

But this is not what I want to write about today. I want to write about my trip up north.

Yesterday I received an email from my MBA alumni network in Israel. They were organizing to deliver urgent aid to new immigrants from Ethiopia who live in the north, most of them in absorption centres, and were in dire need of supplies as they were spending most of their time in the shelters. People were asked to bring in food, water, toys, fans, linen, diapers, computers, TVs, etc. and volunteers were required in order to drive up north today to distribute the stuff around the various centres.

At 10am this morning we gathered at Tel Aviv university. In less than 24 hours, the amount of stuff that was brought in was quite astounding; it filled up an entire room and more was arriving throughout the morning. We loaded several cars and jeeps and every driver was given an address and a phone number. I was assigned to drive to Tveria (Tiberias) to an absorption centre, pictured below, where more than 300 people live, half of whom are children.

Thanks to route 6, I was in Tiberias in less than 2 hours and was warmly welcomed by the management of the centre. They, and some cute kids living at the centre, helped me unload everything and then were kind to offer a cold drink and some fruit. I took a list of additional things they needed, as there is a second delivery round planned for early next week. They thanked me warmly several times, but frankly I felt it was I that should be thanking them for giving me the opportunity to help, even if it was nothing more than a delivery job.

(On the way back home, I stopped at Rabbi Meir Baal HaNes's grave to pray Mincha and then, since I had time, drove through Bet Shean and decided to stop and see the archaelogical digs there. But that's a subject for another post.)

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Final Solution

Driving to work this morning I came about this interview on one of the morning radio talk-shows. As I caught it in the middle, I struggled to figure out what it was all about, but I did gather something about solving the current problems once and for all. Fortunately, there was a website address given at the end of the interview.

I checked it out. Imagine there was a way to "immediately eradicate terrorism from its root - once and for all - and reduce by tens of percents negative phenomena such as: accidents, crime, drugs abuse, illness, unemployment, strikes, disputes between various sections in society and violence of every kind".

Sounds promising, right? All it takes is for 7,000 Israelis to... meditate. Yes, it's that simple. I'm surprised our government hasn't tried it yet.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Fouad Ajami on Nasrallah and Lebanon

A good analysis of Nasrallah's miscalculations by Fouad Ajami in the WSJ yesterday, pointing the root of the problem:

That raid into Israel, the capture of the two Israeli soldiers, was a deliberate attack against the new Lebanon. That the crisis would play out when the mighty of the G-8 were assembled in Russia was a good indication of Iran's role in this turn of events. Hassan Nasrallah had waded beyond his depth: The moment of his glory would mark what is destined to be a setback of consequence for him and for his foot soldiers.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Nameless War

The current war is still nameless.

Israel's first war was aptly named the War of Independence, as it erupted with Israel's declaration of independence on May 14, 1948. The Six Day War was obviously named post mortem. The Yom Kippur War was named after the day it started, the holiest day of the Jewish year (although the Arab world prefers to call it The October War). The Lebanon War was the second name given to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon; originally it was called Peace for Galilee but as Israel mired itself deeper and it became achingly obvious that peace in the Galilee was no longer the aim, the name was changed.

So what to call the current war? Some suggest to call it the "ad kan" war, after Olmert's words in his speech to the Knesset this week, when he banged his fist on the podium and exclaimed "no more" or "this is where we draw the line" in Hebrew. The Israeli poet Haim Hefer suggested to call it simply "boom". (Side note: I've never liked Hefer's poems; isn't it obvious now why?)

My suggestion is to name it after the day it started, which was the 17th of Tammuz in the Jewish calendar (July 13th, 2006). Appropriately, the 17th of Tammuz is a day of fasting, in remembrance of several tragedies that befell the Jewish people over the ages, most notably the breaching of Jerusalem's walls during the siege of Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C.E. which eventually brought to the destruction of the First Temple.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

An Instance of the Fingerpost, by Iain Pears

Reading a book recommended by a friend is almost always guaranteed to be a pleasant experience. And so was this one. I had never heard of Iain Pears until a couple of weeks ago, when a colleague of mine from work mentioned him over dinner. He described how moved he was by Pears' writing, so I decided to give it a try. On the way back from the restaurant we stopped at the wonderful Barnes & Noble store in Burlington, MA, and I picked up a copy of An Instance of the Fingerpost. (Yes, I know, the title made zero sense to me at the time as well.)

The book is a murder mystery novel. It is set in 17th century England and recalls events that happened in Oxford shortly after the Restoration of Charles II to the monarchy in 1660. The events are told in the form of four memoirs, two of which are by real historic characters (John Wallis, mathematician and cryptographer and Anthony Wood, historian and antiquary). The book is laced with historic events and people, and Mr. Pears kindly provides an index at the end of the book to help the reader distinguish between real and fictitious characters and give a short biography of the real ones.

Dr. Grove, a dean at Oxford university, is found dead in his chambers after being poisoned by arsenic. Signs point to Sarah Blundy, a servant girl who used to work for Dr. Grove. Sarah is found guilty and is hanged in public. But obviously this is only the beginning of the true story and as the plot unfolds, events much greater than a simple poisoning are revealed, some truly shocking. The ending is quite surprising, always a good thing with a mystery novel.

The author provides a fascinating look into life in academic Oxford in the age of the great scientific, medical and mathematical discoveries. Characters in the novel include such luminaries as the philosopher John Locke and the chemist Robert Boyle. It is laced with discussions on philosophy, theology, medicine and mathematics, such discussions taking place between the "men of curiosity" of that epoch. It is enlightening to witness how much religion played part both in politics and in science in those days, permeating all walks of life and defining the relationships between Protestants, Catholics and Quakers.

Pears writes beautifully with many insights into human nature and desires. The following passage struck me as particularly powerful, describing Anthony Wood's thoughts when faced with the insurmountable task of going through all the manuscripts in the libraries of Oxford to do his work. I am often struck with the same thought when I realize the number of books I will never get around to reading in my lifetime:

It is cruel that we are granted the desire to know, but denied the time to do so properly. We all die frustrated; it is the greatest lesson we have to learn.

This book has been compared to The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. That's a fair comparison but I find Pears' writing to be more flowing and more "human", indeed more moving, than Eco's.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Way We War

Out of boredom, I picked up a copy of the International Herald Tribune at Charles de Gaulle airport today. There was an op-ed piece (reprinted from NYT) by Etgar Keret, an Israeli writer. He describes rather succinctly that "warm and fuzzy" feeling Israelis are now feeling about the military campaign in Lebanon, a feeling that was mentioned by one of the commenters in my previous post.

Here's the piece, in case the link doesn't work:

The way we war
Etgar Keret

TEL AVIV Yesterday I called the cable people to yell at them. The day
before, my friend told me he'd called and yelled at them a little, threatened to switch to satellite. And they immediately lowered their price by 50 shekels a month (about $11).

"Can you believe it?" my friend said excitedly. "One angry five-minute call and you save 600 shekels a year."

The customer service representative was named Tali. She listened silently to all my complaints and threats and when I finished she said in a low, deep voice: "Tell me, sir, aren't you ashamed of yourself? We're at war. People are getting killed. Missiles are falling on Haifa and Tiberias and all you can think about is your 50 shekels?"

There was something to that, something that made me slightly uncomfortable. I apologized immediately and the noble Tali quickly forgave me. After all, war is not exactly the right time to bear a grudge against one of your own.

That afternoon I decided to test the effectiveness of the Tali argument on a stubborn taxi driver who refused to take me and my baby son in his cab because I didn't have a car seat with me.

"Tell me, aren't you ashamed of yourself?" I said, trying to quote Tali as precisely as I could. "We're at war. People are getting killed. Missiles are falling on Tiberias and all you can think about is your car seat?"

The argument worked here too, and the embarrassed driver quickly apologized and told me to hop in. When we got on the highway, he said partly to me, partly to himself, "It's a real war, eh?" And after taking a long breath, he added nostalgically, "Just like in the old days."

Now that "just like in the old days" keeps echoing in my mind, and I suddenly see this whole conflict with Lebanon in a completely different light.

Thinking back, trying to recreate my conversations with worried friends about this war with Lebanon, about the Iranian missiles, the Syrian machinations and the assumption that Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has the ability to strike any place in the country, even Tel Aviv, I realize that there was a small gleam in almost everyone's eyes, a kind of unconscious breath of relief.

And no, it's not that we Israelis long for war or death or grief, but we do long for those "old days" the taxi driver talked about.

We long for a real war to take the place of all those exhausting years of intifada when there was no black or white, only gray, when we were confronted not by armed forces, but only by resolute young people wearing explosive belts, years when the aura of bravery ceased to exist, replaced by long lines of people waiting at our checkpoints, women about to give birth and elderly people struggling to endure the stifling heat.

Suddenly, the first salvo of missiles returned us to that familiar feeling of a war fought against a ruthless enemy who attacks our borders, a truly vicious enemy, not one fighting for its freedom and self-determination, not the kind that makes us stammer and throws us into confusion.

Once again we're confident about the rightness of our cause and we return with lightning speed to the bosom of the patriotism we had almost abandoned. Once again, we're a small country surrounded by enemies, fighting for our lives, not a strong, occupying country forced to fight daily against a civilian population.

So is it any wonder that we're all secretly just a tiny bit relieved? Give us Iran, give us a pinch of Syria, give us a handful of Nasrallah and we'll devour them whole. After all, we're no better than anyone else at resolving moral ambiguities. But we always did know how to win a war.

Etgar Keret is the author of "The Nimrod Flip-Out." This article was translated by Sondra Silverstone from the Hebrew.