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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Plato Turning in his Grave

Plato must be turning in his grave. When he recommended, 2,500 years ago, that the rulers need to be “philosopher kings”, he could not have suspected that the important post of Finance Minister would be given to the likes of Yuval Steinitz.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Invincible Japanese Man

Surviving a nuclear bomb is pretty impressive. Surviving two nuclear bombs is bloody remarkable.


The Guardian bring the story  of Tsutomo Yamaguchi, the only known survivor of both atomic bombs dropped on Japan at the end of the WW2. He was on a business trip in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and suffered serious burns. He returned to his hometown of Nagasaki the following day, in time to catch the second bomb on August 9.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Sometimes a Picture is Worth a Thousand Words



Forever Flora

I bought this book by Yuval Elbashan as soon as I heard about it. Yuval and I worked together a long time ago and he has since become a prominent social activist in Israel. Naturally, I was curious to read what he wrote. (He also wrote some legal books, but I prefer other means for falling asleep fast).

FloraElla is a 40-something woman that is coming to terms with her father’s death five years ago, and is finally ready to enter his old flat and clear it up. (This takes place sometime in the 2030s, a futuristic them that is not developed further in the book aside to references to a “digital”, the video-phone of the future). In the flat Ella discovers a bunch of letters that her father – Na’im - wrote to her over the years, mostly in the form of short stories. These stories revolve around Flora, Ella’s larger-than-life aunt, who has seen it all, done it all: married and divorced two husbands, wrote a PhD, engaged in social activism, saved her younger brother from drugs, lived abroad, drove along Route 66… you name it. Flora’s presence in her brother Na’im’s life is so prominent that he names his daughter Flori, after her, but when the daughter grows up she changes her name to Ella. Na’im sees this not as a failure but actually as proof that Ella inherited some of his Flora’s independence and spunk.

Through the stories Na’im writes to his daughter, we are exposed to the lives of this poor family of children of immigrants from Iraq. Na’im and Flora have an older brother who is a womaniser; a younger brother who is an ex drug-addict; and a sister who is evacuated from the Gaza strip in the 2005 “disengagement” plan and whose husband commits suicide. These siblings grew up with a violent father and a submissive mother, and when they grew up each ran in a different direction to get as far away as possible from their childhood home in Jerusalem. Each grapples with the scars, physical but mostly mental, that their father has left them to carry for the rest of their lives.

I loved this book. It covers a lot of ground in terms of Israeli society: immigrants from Arab countries (“sefaradim”), bonds forged in the army, politics, social strife, and much more. Some sub-plots and characters in the book seemed a little “forced”, as if Yuval insisted on inserting his world views into the story even when the fit was not natural. For example, the story of the old Holocaust survivor who lives in the same building as Flora is somewhat under-developed and I suspect it is there to raise the shameful treatment these survivors receive from the establishment. But most of the stories are very touching and are universal in the sense that every reader can find parts of his personal family history in them. Yuval does a beautiful job in creating dialogues between family members that are short but reveal so much of their convoluted and complex relationships.

Towards the end of the book the narrator quotes a short passage from Flora’s PhD dissertation. It is about the “book moment”, the moment in the reading of a book that imprints it in the mind of the reader for eternity. I think not all books have this “moment”, but Forever Flora certainly does. For me, there were two such moments, the second of which was this short passage about “the moment” itself. The first moment was the beautiful theme of the Bakers and the Butlers. I won’t reveal here what this is all about; you’re going to have to read the book.

I have not spoken with Yuval for 15 years. I hope to have a chance soon to tell him personally how much I enjoyed his first novel, and how envious I am of his achievement.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

“Lax Rules of Engagement”

The headlines around the world today quote the report in Haaretz about alleged “lax rules of engagement” among IDF soldiers during the recent fighting in Gaza. Needless to add, the Israeli “moral blogosphere” is already taking the higher moral ground and asking for justice.

First things first. War is unpleasant and usually leads to unpleasant things. The Torah sets rules for behaviour during a war precisely because human beings are known to lose some of their humanity in such extreme situations. One doesn’t need to be a genius, and certainly doesn’t need Haaretz, to figure out that if hundreds of civilians died in Gaza, some of them died in circumstances that are far from being pleasant.

Having said that, the outcry is morally reprehensible.

From a legal standpoint, there so-called “testimonies” are worthless. They are based on hearsay or on what the soldiers “believed” happened or “thought” about what others felt. Most of the quotes in the report describe the soldiers’ feelings and personal interpretations. Calling for legal action based on this “evidence” is ridiculous. But of course, those who see crimes in every action of the IDF don’t need much “evidence” to cry foul.

Although there might be, and there probably are, exceptions to the rule – the basic fact is that IDF soldiers are NOT killers. Unlike the Hamas, they do not shoot old women and young children intentionally. If civilians are killed, then it is most likely either a mistake or a result of erring to the side of caution in order to protect soldiers’ lives. An army that does not think first and foremost of its own side’s casualties is immoral and I wouldn’t want the IDF to engage under rules that put the life of a Palestinian above the life of an Israeli.

Most importantly, every Israeli (even those who lead the witch hunt) knows who these IDF soldiers are. Not personally, of course, but these are our sons, our neighbours, our co-workers. I have yet to see an Israeli that will look me in the eye and tell me his soldier son or neighbour or co-worker goes to Gaza and kills for the sake of killing.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Spin Master

Our next prime minister is a spin master. He started his career as a furniture salesman and has since honed his sales skills to near perfection. His most successful job was ambassador to the UN, where he “sold” Israel in the best possible way. He is still a salesman; the difference is that what he is selling now is himself. Bibi selling Bibi.

Bibi keeps saying, to anyone who will listen, that he’s doing his very best to put together a wide government, a so-called “unity” government. He asked the president to help him in this noble endeavour. He is likely to ask Peres for another 14 days to form his government, so he can continue his valiant efforts to try and coax Kadima and Labour into his government.

But the truth is Bibi is not really interested in a wide government. All Bibi is interested in is, well, Bibi. Had he really wanted Kadima and Labour in his government, he would have made concessions on the political agenda; he would have agreed to rotate the post with Livni (as the election results mandate); he would have eased on the rhetoric against a two-state solution. He has done none of the above, for the reason that his one and only goal is to be prime minister. And alone. And for as long as possible.

So he’s now spinning us all. Expect him to devote a major part of his inaugural speech to his “relentless efforts” over these past weeks to form a “unity” government. Don’t be fooled. He is preparing his excuse for the future, for when his right-wing band of hallucinating morons will lead him to failure. Then he can turn around and blame Livni and Barak for failing to join forces with him now.

Whichever way you spin him, Bibi will land on his feet. As all good salesmen do.


Part of my job is to negotiate business deals. Picture, if you will, the following imaginary discussion between me and a vendor:

Me: I value what you have to sell very much. It is very, very important to me. It is more important than almost everything else.

Vendor: Good. My price is X.

Me: I am willing to pay a very high price for what you have to sell. It is very, very important to me. But your price is too high.

Vendor: Good. My price is still X.

Me: I realise I must make serious sacrifices to buy from you. What you have to sell is very, very important to me. But your price is too high.

Vendor. Good. My price is still X.

Me: I just got a phone call from my boss and he says that no price is too high for what you are selling. His advisors say the same. It is very, very important to all of us. But your price is too high.

Vendor: Good. My price is still X.

Me: I just had a conference call with my entire company, and everybody on the line was in agreement that we have no choice but to pay a very high price. What you have to sell is very, very important to us. But your price is too high.

Vendor. Good. My price is still X.

Me: I just looked back at the prices we paid you in the past and saw that my predecessors have always paid you what you asked for. What you have to sell was obviously very, very important to them. But your price is too high.

Vendor: You know what. Go home. And when you are willing to pay X, come back. Maybe I’ll have what you want, maybe not.

Now substitute "Me” with “Israel” and “Vendor” with “Hamas” and you will get a good picture of what’s been going on in the last few days. Is it a wonder Israel has zero chance to succeed in this negotiation?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Rabbi Aviner Does it Again

A few years ago, I wrote about Rabbi Shlomo Aviner’s twisting of the Halacha to serve his world view. Now it seems that was not an isolated incident.

Aviner recently published an answer to a question about the right attitude one should take towards Baruch Goldstein, the Jewish doctor (!) who murdered 29 Palestinians and wounded scores more while they were praying in Hebron, 14 years ago this week. In an elaborate word-twisting video response, Aviner tried to play it both ways. While taking care to point out that Goldstein was wrong in taking the law into his hands, he still managed to call him a “saint” and said the act cannot be judged separately from the man.

I must be growing old, for I do not feel so passionately against these ugly words as I did when Aviner justified the murder of a captured and bound terrorist a few years ago. I then called it a “license to kill” and expressed a wish rabbis would think twice before saying things that are not only wrong but also cause a big hillul hashem. Aviner’s recent answer deserves to be denounced no less passionately; Goldstein is nothing but a despicable murderer, full stop. No justifications, no mitigating circumstances.

The public outcry in some media outlets prompted Aviner to issue a clarifying answer. More word twisting.

I a truly ashamed that Aviner is such a prominent figure in the Zionist-Religious community in Israel. I am even more ashamed that other rabbis have not condemned his views.

The Big Picture

It’s been one month since the elections in Israel and, in the best tradition of our screwed-up proportional representation voting system, we still have no government. The outgoing government is still technically in charge – continuity of government and all that - but for obvious reasons it can’t make any major decisions. So everything is on hold until Bibi manages to get his coalition together.

So the rockets keep coming from Gaza. And the Bank of Israel announces that GDP will shrink 1.5% in 2009, the worst year ever. And thousands are being laid off every month. And Iran has attained the capability to put together a nuclear bomb. And Syria and Egypt are becoming best buddies again. And the list goes on and on.

Doesn’t anyone get the big picture? Is haggling over politics the right thing to do now? Is calling for the Navy chief to resign because he went to a strip club the most urgent issue on the IDF’s agenda? I open the news and one of the top items tells me that some third-grade singer sucks his thumb when he sleeps on Big Brother.

I guess this problem is not unique to Israel. I read today that several key appointments at the US Treasury Dept. are being held up because someone didn’t pay Social Security on a nanny 20 years ago. So the US financial system is crumbling but the righteous crusaders for political integrity (an oxymoron if I ever heard one) would rather get buried with it than wake up and get the big picture.

Makes one want to scream: wake up already!

And now for something completely different. Talking of “The Big Picture”, it reminds me to recommend this section of the Boston Globe online.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Point of No Return

The head of Military Intelligence told the Israeli government yesterday that Iran has made it past the “nuclear technological threshold”. The only thing that stands in the way of an Iranian nuclear bomb is a decision by the country leaders to move forward and make one. This assessment is in line with that of most Western intelligence agencies and the IAEA.

The ramifications of a nuclear Iran have been discussed ad nauseam so I won’t repeat them here. It seems as if the world understands these ramifications but would rather not deal with them and continue to hide behind diplomatic declarations and useless sanctions. The new administration in the US is busy dealing with other problems, and in any case Obama’s stated strategy is to reach a comprehensive regional deal with the Ayatullahs, in the hope that renunciation of the nuclear programme will be part of this new understanding. The chances of this deal happening are slim at best. Israel, from its perspective, has failed to stop the Iranian nuclear ambitions by relying on the world; the scary prospect of a military strike against Iran is looming larger than ever before.

Iran (Persia) is a nation with a long history of astute and clever leaders, who have used brinkmanship more than once to their advantage. Other leaders have succeeded to reap many benefits for their nations by dangling the nuclear stick cleverly in front of the world. But it remains to be seen whether Shi’ite dogmatism and the mix between religion and state has not weakened the sagacity of the Persians to a point where their judgement is fatally clouded.

I am not optimistic.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Can't Stand Them

I'm in the middle of watching Australia (first half I watched on the Boston-Frankfurt flight; second half I plan to watch on the Frankfurt-Tel Aviv flight I'm about to board). Good movie. But it prompted me to write something I've been meaning to get out of my system for a while: there are some actresses I simply cannot stand! They ruin every movie they're in.

Obviously Nicole Kidman is one of them. In Australia she plays this 1930s English lady that saves her late huband's cattle farm down under. Her acting, especially in the first half where she's still not used to the roughness of the Australian outback and is supposed to be oh-so shocked by everything, is reminiscent of the acting in third-grade movies like Crocodile Dundee.

And here are some others, just off the top of my head: Meryl Streep, quite possibly the most overrated actress on the planet. Jodi Foster, with that stuck-up, constipated look on her face (I guess it's stuck there since Clarice). And don't get me going about Keira Knightley; I have a weakness for British actresses - Emma Thompson is my favourite - but I simply cannot listen to Knightley's whining voice for more than one minute.

By the way, just in case you're wondering, this is not a sexist thing. There are also actors I can't stand. For example, the one-expression nincompoop Hugh Grant. But that's a subject for another post.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Back-Rubber / Back-Scrubber

For the past few hours I've been humming the words to the wonderful song by The Smiths, "Half a Person". For more than two decades now I am in awe of the genius lines of this song, particularly this:

And if you have five seconds to spare

Then I'll tell you the story of my life:

Sixteen, clumsy and shy

I went to London and I...

I booked myself in at the Y... W.C.A.

I said : "I like it here - can I stay?

I like it here - can I stay?

Do you have a vacancy For a back-scrubber?

But only this morning, when I searched for the lyrics, did I realise that the words were "back-scrubber" and not, as I had always thought, "back-rubber". I admit I was sorely disappointed. How much more appropriate it would have been for the clumsy sixteen-year-old to ask about a vacancy for a "back-rubber" at an all-woman hotel. Oh well; I guess that from now on I'll just need to re-adjust the images this song conjures up in my mind.