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Monday, July 21, 2008

Coolest City in the World

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

Unlawful Order

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

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

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

An Unbalanced Deal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Fall

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

Brief Visit to India

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 10, 2008

In My Name

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

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

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

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