This Blog Has Moved


New Address:

All posts are available in the new blog

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

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Holes in Switzerland

Yesterday, with almost 58% of the vote, 22 out of 24 cantons in Switzerland voted to ban the building of minarets in the country. The party that put the motion forward claimed minarets are a “sign of Islamisation”. The Swiss government was quick to reassure the 400,000 Swiss Muslims that this decision was not to be interpreted as a rejection of the Muslim community.

I guess most people would shrug at this piece of news and point to Switzerland’s world-famous “neutrality”. Switzerland has notoriously distanced itself from world political alliances, wars, international organisations, etc., maintaining a neutral stance towards issues that most other countries grapple with on a daily basis. So no wonder it would seem to some that keeping the “status quo” by not allowing the building of minarets would be in line with Switzerland’s policies. But nothing can be further from the truth.

As Assaf Sagiv eloquently explained in the last issue of Azure (Hebrew/English), Switzerland’s neutrality comes at a very high price, as it ignores “many of the basic values that any enlightened nation is duty-bound to uphold”. Here are some facts from this article:

  • Last April Switzerland hosted the UN Conference Against Racism, a.k.a Durban II, during which Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave a typical Israel-bashing speech. Many European delegates walked out, but the Swiss didn’t.
  • A delegation from Hamas – considered by the European Union as a terrorist organisation - was warmly received in Switzerland a couple of months later, where the foreign minister labelled the organisation as a “major player” in the Middle East.
  • Last year, Hannibal Gaddafi, son of the Libyan dictator, and his wife were arrested in Geneva and later released in bail after beating their domestic staff. Libya withdrew $5 billion in protest from Swiss banks, hitting the Swiss where it hurts most and prompting the President to apologise publicly for the arrest.
  • During World War II, Europe’s most testing hour in history, when good fought against evil for the future of civilisation, Switzerland did business with the Nazis. Hundreds of millions of dollars in gold, most of it looted from Jewish victims of the Holocaust, were exchanged into hard currency by Swiss banks, oiling the German military machine.
  • Switzerland deported more than 30,000 Jewish refugees, most of whom were later murdered by the Nazis.
  • As every Israeli knows, Switzerland dragged its feet for decades, refusing to grant Holocaust survivors and their families the right to reclaim capital they deposited in Swiss banks before and during the war.

These and other examples might help shed some light on Switzerland’s supposed “neutrality” and how it is used by the Swiss to further their interests (mostly economic ones) while claiming innocence. “Live and let live” is not an option in world where civilisations clash and where a stand must be taken. It is despicable that the Swiss would defend a blatantly racist policy of banning the building of minarets. By passing this vote, the Swiss have not only shown they are not neutral; they have aligned themselves with the worst of nations. Imagine how the world would have reacted if Israel had a law banning the building of minarets.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Drive-Thru Extreme

Remember that opening scene from the 1980s movie “The Gods Must be Crazy”, where the narrator speaks of the differences between life in the West (specifically the US) and life in the Kalahari desert in Africa? To illustrate life in the US, a woman is shown getting into her car, backing off from her driveway into the street, driving a few yards down the road to drop an envelope into a postbox, only to drive the few yards back to her house.

I was reminded of this scene (and this hilarious movie) when I saw this picture of Americans in California getting vaccinated for the H1N1 virus. What’s next? Having your appendix removed without getting out of your car?

H1N1 Vaccine

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Fourteen Years

Last night I attended the annual memorial rally for Yitzhak Rabin, shot 14 years ago in the square that now bears his name in the heart of Tel Aviv.

I took my son with me, to show him the place his mother and I stood on that fateful night and sang along with Rabin at the end of the peace rally, moments before he was shot. I also showed him the place where we saw his car speeding away after the rally, not understanding until later why the driver was driving so fast. My son was not born yet at the time, but in a way he was also present; he was a fetus on November 4, 1995.

Rabin Rally 

I had mixed feelings about the rally last night. On one hand I was pleased to see the square was quite full and with people both old and young. On the other hand, I was saddened (but not surprised) to count only a handful of people wearing a kippah. Many kids from youth movements like HaNoar HaOved and HaTsofim, but none from Bene Akiva. This central memorial rally, and generally the memory of Rabin, have sadly long ceased to be unifying events. We have learnt nothing.

The speeches at the rally were predictable and mostly pathetic. The only decent speech was actually the one given by the only representative of the “right wing” camp, Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who did not speak in clichés. To listen to Barak and Livni repeat the mantras of “now is the time for peace” is, quite frankly, nauseating.

Thomas Friedman got it right this morning in this weekly column: "The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has become a bad play. It is obvious that all the parties are just acting out the same old scenes, with the same old tired clichés — and that no one believes any of it anymore." Friedman’s conclusion, alarming as its implications to the region may be, is sorrowfully the correct one: "Let’s just get out of the picture. Let all these leaders stand in front of their own people and tell them the truth: “My fellow citizens: Nothing is happening; nothing is going to happen. It’s just you and me and the problem we own.”"

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely

In the past decade or so Behavioural Economics has become all the rage in both academic circles and among the general public. The financial crisis that started with the bursting of the sub-prime mortgage bubble in the US a couple of years ago has given behavioural economists a major boost.

The basic premise of behavioural economists is that humans are not necessarily rational when they make economic or financial decisions. One of the cornerstone assumptions of “traditional” economics is that we decide based on rational analysis of costs and benefits and seek to maximise our financial gains. It turns out this is not the case and many of our decisions are driven by “irrational” factors that defy the premises of traditional economics.

Professor Dan Ariely is another ex-Israeli scientist that has popularised Behavioral Economics with his book Predictably Irrational. Using relatively simple experiments he shows that many of our decisions are influenced by irrational factors, but more importantly, that this irrational behaviour is, in many cases, predictable. In other words, contrary to popular belief (at least in the last 300 or so years of the “scientific era”), humans are inherently irrational.

Here are a few examples:

  • People will feel better taking a medicine that costs 10 times as much as another, identical, medicine.
  • When faced with a free product, we will likely “buy” it even if they don’t need it.
  • Sexual arousal will lead people to change their behaviour and perform deeds they deem immoral.
  • We will think food or drink are better if they are presented in a more glamorous setting.

Ariely’s book is highly entertaining and provides some delightful nuggets of truth about ourselves. But I didn’t find many of his “discoveries” surprising. It is true that we like to see ourselves as rational machines, but most of our life experiences clearly demonstrate this is not the case. Blind belief in a purely rational brain is, well, irrational. The work of Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahenman (with his partner Amos Tversky), around how people decide between alternatives involving risk, has been known for many years. Ariely’s achievement is mainly in popularising the subject and presenting it in a way that most people can understand.