Monday 29 December 2008

A War of No Choice

The inevitable happened, and the IDF finally struck Gaza. The Israeli government was given no choice in the matter, as no responsible government would allow its citizens to be bombarded day after day without acting to protect them. And so Operation "Cast Lead" was initiated by surprise during the course of Saturday in order to finally deal with this ongoing problem.

The name "Cast Lead" is the English equivalent of a term taken from a famous Chanukah song - "My uncle made me a dreidl of cast lead". The significance of the name is that the assault was initiated on the 6th day of Chanukah. It also coincided with the start of the Hebrew month Tevet and with the holy Sabbath day. The response could not wait another day due to the fact that lives were increasingly at risk in the area surrounding the Gaza Strip. And despite the fact that we were left with no choice and the army is willingly waging war to protect Israeli citizens, I believe it would be fair to state that most Israelis would much prefer not to be in this war.

President Shimon Peres was quoted in the press today as being confused as to why Hamas would have decided to attack Israelis. He, of course, has a point. The "occupation", the usual reason given for any terrorist activity aimed against Israel, is no more in Gaza. The unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip was completed more than 3 years ago. So, the occupation can no longer be a valid reason. Instead of establishing a model government and cooperating with its neighbours in the interests of advancing the welfare of its people and nascent nation, Hamas has spent more time and dollars on attacking Israel. There can be no logical explanation except one - the intention to destroy Israel completely. For me, it is astonishing that this objective comes at the expense of all else, especially at the expense of the well being of the citizens that Hamas purports to represent. But this is the reality that Israel faces, and this is the base of the war in Gaza today.

What saddens me, and many of my fellow Israelis, is the suffering of the innocent victims of the war. In particular, I am appalled by the way in which Hamas attempts to use civilians as human shields during a time of war. At best, it prevents attacks on certain targets. Israel, unlike Hamas, does it's utmost to prevent civilian casualties and has been known to call off attacks or redesign them in the interests of limiting casualties. At worst, it provides Hamas with a great front page story when civilians are hurt or killed.

Whilst I am not under any illusions that this war will put an end to Hamas and their terror tactics aimed at destroying Israel, hopefully it will give the residents of southern Israel some much needed peace and quiet for a time. We also pray that it will bring the release of Gilad Shalit who is constantly in our thoughts.

Thursday 25 December 2008

What Next with Hamas?

So, Hamas has declared that the ceasefire is now over. Many claim "what ceasefire?", and with some justification. Things have certainly been quieter since the ceasefire was implemented. But attacks have, nonetheless, continued throughout the period. Besides a short-term convenience for both sides, to what extent has the ceasefire contributed to a longer-term peace in the region? or not? And what happens now that the ceasefire is over? In order to answer the question completely, it is necessary to examine Hamas in more depth.

Hamas was formed in 1987 by Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Mohammad Taha. Although there are a number of differing theories about the exact meaning of its name, it is generally accepted that it is an Arabic acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement. Immediately after its formation, the first intifada broke out, which popularised the use of suicide bombings in addition to other attacks on civilians and security forces. Some of the most notorious suicide attacks on Israeli civilians, including the Dolphinarium attack and the Passover attack, were carried out by Hamas during this period. The Hamas charter calls for a destruction of Israel, a point which its leaders choose to emphasize and de-emphasize according to the political game being played at any given point in time. Although Hamas is first and foremost an armed resistance movement that aims to achieve its goals through Islamic Jihad, it also runs an extensive social network. It has gained huge popularity throughout the West Bank and Gaza in running hospitals, libraries, educational institutions and other welfare organisations. Ironically, this aspect of its activities can be paralleled with the manner in which the Shas party also achieved great popularity in its constituency.

There is no escaping the fact that Hamas, in its charter and in its actions, has as its primary objective the destruction of Israel. As such, the concept of a long-term ceasefire between Israel and Hamas is a contradiction in terms. The Israeli government and nation need to internalise that Hamas will never live peacefully alongside Israel. Any tactics that may be adopted along the way, such as a temporary ceasefire, are only tactics to assist Hamas to achieve its final objective. A ceasefire, even though it brings a respite for the citizens of southern Israel, is also a useful tool for Hamas to allow it to take a break and rearm itself. This should not be interpreted to mean that Hamas is becoming more tolerant towards Israel, or may be considering acceptance of Israel's right to exist. This is totally contrary to what Hamas believes in, or stands for.

The only way to deal with Hamas is to declare it an enemy terrorist organisation, and deal with it accordingly. This is made extremely difficult by the humanitarian responsibility that Israel currently has towards the citizens of Gaza. Whilst it has been a useful switch for Israel to use in modulating pressure on Gaza, Hamas and its citizens, the truth is that it is impossible for Israel to be both an enemy and responsible for the welfare of the citizens. This latter responsibility should be relinquished at the earliest opportunity to allow Israel to treat Hamas as the enemy that it is.

Olmert is quoted in the press in recent days encouraging the citizens of Gaza to reject their Hamas rulers. This is the equivalent of requesting that lower-class religious Jews of Middle Eastern extraction to reject Shas as the party that best represents their interests. Barring some extreme occurrence, it will not happen any time soon. In addition, the Israeli government's policy of acting to strengthen Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah party in an attempt to weaken Hamas also appears misguided. This policy has cost hundreds of Fatah prisoners released from Israeli jails after being held on counts of terrorism and other criminal activities, and delivered no tangible results that the government can point to. Let us not forget that the Fatah party remains the same one led by Yasser Arafat, who was exposed as a liar and a cheat. Despite signing a declaration to remove the call for the destruction of Israel from the Fatah charter, Arafat found every way to try to present that this had been achieved despite the fact that it was not. To this day, the Fatah charter remains unchanged in this respect, and Abbas has made no effort to take any action on this point.

But this is all in the medium or longer-term. Right now, rockets are falling indiscriminately on southern Israel and are aimed at any and every civilian location in range. Israel is obliged to respond accordingly in defence of its citizens. And the dirty tactic of placing civilians in the way of possible military action should not deter the Israeli response. Whilst it is clear that Israel makes every effort to prevent "collateral damage" in the war that it is forced to wage, this risk should not be an obstacle in the job that has to be done.

The medium-term political game needs a greater level of thought applied to get it right. For now, though, a short, sharp and highly effective strike on Gaza is required to put a stop to Hamas and its bombing tactics.

Saturday 20 December 2008

What are we Teaching?

Before making my move to Israel with two young children more than 10 years ago, one of the things that I was not concerned about was the Israeli education system. I was obviously concerned to find the right schools that would allow my children to feel at home, and provide them with the best chance of a successful integration. I did not think for a moment, however, that the education system may not be up to a good standard, or may not provide my children with the tools that they require to succeed in life. I took it for granted that a Jewish country, that embodies age-old Jewish values and priorities, would place the education of its children very near the top of its list. I have, unfortunately, been proven wrong.

My children settled down into their respective schools quite quickly. It was the parents who took longer to settle down and get accustomed to the different quirks of the Israeli school system. In the first few years of primary (elementary) school, I noticed that the homework diary that we had been instructed to buy contained more names than homework tasks. When I enquired what the purpose of the list of names was, I was advised that the first homework task each day was to phone the kids who had been absent from school that day. This was the reason for them appearing in the homework diary. This task was more important than the homework.

And so it was that I discovered how the Israeli school system works. During the first few years of school, the emphasis is on social tasks rather than academic ones. It is important to check in on the sick kids, and turn up to birthday parties to provide support to other kids in the class. Academic tasks are also given out on the understanding that the children are only expected to do an hour's homework each afternoon. In the event that the homework is not finished in the hour that has been allocated, the children are not expected to finish it. The reason? It is important to have time for friends and for after-school activities each day, and homework should not interrupt this. In a country where social skills and getting along with each other is an important lesson to learn at school, this approach is admirable. But all the while, it is sending the message that school work somehow has a lower level of priority than everything else.

This latter point is emphasized even more by the time the children reach middle and high school. There always seem to be a thousand good reasons why children need not attend lessons, or why lessons are replaced or even cancelled. Israeli children seem to be busy with numerous outside activities, many of them good and wholesome. My high school-going son is an active member of the local scout troop, and I am very supportive of the time and effort that he puts into this activity. Despite this fact, I feel that his studies should always take priority over his scout activities. The school, it seems, does not agree. He is excused from attending lessons for almost any scout-related activity. If the scouts have held a function that has resulted in a late night for the children, they are often able to receive special dispensation to skip the first few lessons of school the following day. Worse than this is the high school's policy that all kids are entitled to skip a certain number of lessons each semester without being recorded as absent or penalised.

In my view, what is worse than all of this is the total lack of replacement teachers in the school system. It is inevitable that teachers are sometimes sick, go on school trips with other classes or need to attend enrichment courses during school hours. On these occasions, their scheduled lessons are cancelled. No replacement teachers, no setting of tasks or extra work. Simply cancelled. Whilst I am trying to teach my son to take his responsibilities and commitments seriously, and to make alternative arrangements where people are relying upon him for one thing or another, the school system is teaching him exactly the opposite. The school even has a system which allows for the easy sending of SMS messages to the pupils of a particular class to advise them that the lesson has been cancelled so that they do not turn up. Not only is this letting down the Israeli youth who need to maximise every learning hour that they can, it is also teaching them that it is OK not to fulfil your commitments to others. Surely, this is one of the worst things to be teaching our children? And yet, it is coming from no less than the education authority itself.

It is true that Israeli students fill highly sought-after places in the most respected universities, colleges and institutions of higher learning around the world. It seems to me that this is in spite of the education system in Israel, and not because of it. Imagine how much more Israeli youth could achieve if they had a higher quality education base to work from.

Sunday 14 December 2008

Sending our Children to War

The inevitable has finally happened to me. This is a time that I have been dreading, and it is coming true. After years of being there to protect my son, the time has come for me to let go and allow him to go it alone. This has nothing to do with his call-up to the IDF (although this is also in the pipeline). The time has come for him to begin learning to drive.

Those of you who have had the misfortune to be on the road in Israel will understand why the notion of our children driving here conjures fear in every parent's heart. It is on the Israeli roads that the very worst characteristics of Israelis seem to be on display. Notorious lack of patience, inherent in every native-born Israeli and drip-fed into immigrants, is not a good character trait to take to the roads with. And yet, this is predominant on the roads, to the point that it ends up taking valuable lives.

One of the most frequently quote statistics about Israel is that more people have been killed on the roads in Israel since independence than in its wars. Given that the number of victims of war and terror attacks number over 22,000 (or almost 400 each year) in the 60 years of its history, it is clearly not something to be proud of that there are more victims of traffic accidents.

In addition to the lack of patience which is part of Israeli culture, there is another Israeli cultural trait that is detrimental on the roads. This is the Israeli notion that everything can be negotiated. This is even inherent in schools where pupils feel that adhering to the school rules is only a recommendation. In the event that they are caught out, they enter into a protracted negotiation to justify their transgression. Frequently, their position is accepted and their negotiating stance vindicated. This attitude that "rules are there to be negotiated around" works well in the hi-tech environment where Israelis prove to be very successful as a result of not being willing to conform to conventions. Whilst this attitude has its advantages, it proves to be disastrous on the roads where people feel that they can take the law into their own hands when they believe it is justified.

A great deal of effort has been made by the road safety authorities to address the road casualty statistic. Fines for transgression of road traffic rules have been considerably strengthened. Cameras have been erected in numerous places to record drivers that disobey rules, and prosecution of these drivers has been streamlined. Many drivers are barred from driving or are invited to defensive driving refresher courses in the event that they accumulate too many penalty points. This seems to have had the desired effect on the death toll as the number of road deaths dropped to 398 in 2007 as opposed to 414 in 2006, 448 in 2005 and 480 in 2004. This same period also showed a 15% drop in those seriously injured on the roads and an 11% drop in those who were lightly injured.

When taken in isolation and compared to other countries, the road death statistic does not turn out to be as bad is it initially appears. In 2006, the 414 road deaths equated to approximately 64 per million inhabitants. This is better than most countries in Europe for the same period according to the European Commission road safety statistics. In fact, only 8 countries included in these statistics can boast road deaths less than 64 per million inhabitants. Lithuania has the misfortune of the worst road record in Europe with no less than 223 deaths per million inhabitants in 2006. Germany is very similar to Israel with 62 deaths per million.

For some reason, I have an instinct that smaller countries should have lower road death statistics. This is not based on anything other than a gut inclination. Maybe, it seems logical that a smaller country has less roads and shorter roads therefore lower speed and less casualties. Referring back to the European Commission statistics does not really bear this out. The smaller countries represented in these statistics together with their 2006 road casualties per million inhabitants in brackets are as follows: Malta (25), Cyprus (112), Luxembourg (78) , Slovenia (131) and Belgium (102). Just to prove the point that size does not matter where these statistics are concerned, France's road casualties for the same period numbered 75 per million.

So, it is clear that Israel's road casualties are not so terrible when compared with the countries covered by the European Commission. And yet, this does not allay my fears nor my feeling that even 400 deaths in a year seems far too many. It is all the more worrying when the war on our borders is considered in addition the road warfare. There seems to be a great deal for a parent to be concerned about.

My fear of sending my son out onto the road does not stem from him being irresponsible, nor my feeling that he won't be able to handle the car. It stems entirely from my fear that he will not have sufficient experience to ward off the other kamikaze drivers that are likely to test his driving skills to the limit. I have told him that I do not wish for him to drive alone until he is 18 years old, even though the law permits him to do so. He hates me for this but, somehow, it feels as though my presence can be of some assistance to him as builds up the necessary experience to take on the perils of Israeli driving.

But ultimately, I will need to let go and he will have to go out on his own. I dread the thought.

Postscript added on 18th December 2008
My blog appears to have tempted fate. Since writing it, one of Israel's worst road accidents in terms of loss of life occurred. A tourist bus carrying Russian tour guides and their families fell down an embankment near Eilat, and overturned killing 24 Russian tourists and injuring many others. This loss of life, particularly of visitors to our country, is tragic. It will almost certainly ensure the reversal of the positive recent trend of decreasing victims of road acccidents, and is a blow to the hard work done by road safety campaigners. What is particularly disturbing are the differing reports about how the accident came about. It is reported that two tourist buses were travelling together, and the drivers may have been playing a game with each other. The driver of the bus involved in the accident claims that somebody fell onto him causing him to lose control of the vehicle.

Whatever the real cause of this terrible tragedy, it is increasingly clear to me that we require a significant national change to the behaviour of drivers on our roads, and to the culture of driving in this country.

Friday 12 December 2008

A Search for the Meaning of Life

December is with us once more and it seems to spring upon us more rapidly with each passing year. When I was younger, the year seemed to last a full 12 months. Nowadays, it appears to go by much more quickly. When it reaches this time of year, it always brings back memories of my late Bobbie and Zaida. My Zaida's birthday was in November, and Bobbie's birthday was in December. She liked to have a big fuss made of her for her birthday, and the family usually ensured that she was the queen for a day. And because her Hebrew birthday fell during Chanukah, she often managed to squeeze out two birthday celebrations for the price of one.

What I find quite strange is that, even though my own children are already teenagers and almost adults themselves, it doesn't seem to change the way in which I remember my own grandparents. It is often said that one sees ones parents and grandparents in a different way when you have children of your own. I am sure that this is true for many people, but not really for me. I was one of those kids who was immensely fortunate to have known all 4 grandparents. And even though my paternal grandfather died when I was quite young, it was my great privilege to have 3 grandparents present at my barmitzvah, and both my grandmothers alive to witness the birth of my own children. For now, my thoughts turn to my maternal grandparents who had a tremendous influence on my life especially during my teenage years.

Quite how a young Lithuanian man found and married a lady from the northern English town of Hull, both of whom were immigrants to South Africa, is something of a mystery to me. Besides the Jewish blood which ran through their veins, they appeared to have very little in common. She was a strong-willed domineering figure whilst his personality was less domineering. Despite this fact, he was equally as strong-willed and as stubborn as anybody you could ever meet. And yet, they had a happy marriage whilst leading a simple and hard-working existence. The notion that opposites attract was surely proven by this couple. After raising and marrying off three daughters in the heart of rural South Africa, my grandparents retired and decided to move to live around the corner from where my family was living. For me, this was the start of a wonderful period in which they both had a tremendous influence on me.

My Zaida was the first person to start teaching me to read some Hebrew. There was no Jewish school or Cheder where I lived, so it was my Zaida who started guiding me in this direction. I used to go to shul with him each week, and he always seemed to know all that there was to know about Judaism. As the only Kohen (descendent of the Priestly clan of Aaron) of the community, he had the honour of being called up to the Torah each time it was read, and had the responsibility of duchening (saying the Priestly Blessing) on the high holidays. My Bobbie would insist that he duchen with the correct socks - the ones that she knitted for him (the blessing is made before the community by the Kohanim without their shoes on). And I will never forget the pride that he felt on the day of my barmitzvah. My Bobbie was the one who always had a secret supply of biscuits at her house, no matter when we turned up there. She made our favourite potato salad and lokshen pudding when we went there for Friday evening supper. Their house was an extension of ours.

My Zaida suffered a lengthy illness which took it's toll on him and gradually weakened him. Although I was only 16 years old when he died, his mark had been indelibly made on me and my life. In fact, I was present with him when he took his last breaths. This event is forever carved in my memory as moment when a young boy suddenly grew up.

Following his death, Bobbie's fighting spirit came to the fore. She was also not in the best health and spent many years in a wheelchair and bedridden. But she refused to give up and her strength of personality was always obvious. She was ever eager to do a crossword, play a word game or show her vast general knowledge. And, of course, she loved to be made a fuss of for her birthday in December and on the the third light of Chanukah. And, as life sometimes dictates, she made sure that I was there too when she died. I arrived for a short visit from Israel bringing my own son with me just before his barmitzvah. She held on to whatever life was in her, awaiting our arrival.

It was my son who made the kiddush at her bedside on the last Friday night that she was able to share with us. We had the short opportunity to share some thoughts with her before she quietly slipped away having seen 90 unbelievable years.

Although they are no longer with us, I frequently feel their presence and their influence over our lives. My wife feels that it was no coincidence that we viewed our present home for the first time on Bobbie's birthday. She seemed to be there guiding us to somehow see things into a house that were almost not there to be seen. And yet, having moved in and made it our home, there is no doubt that this is the right place for us. My Zaida always seems to be close to me, particularly when the Kohanim duchen at shul. I can almost feel him there. And we are reminded of him each Friday night when his kiddush cup is used by my younger son who is named after him.

It is hard to know if there is any significant meaning to be derived from any of this. It surely is a source of comfort to me, and a provider of fond memories. It often makes me think what sort of a grandparent I might be in the event that I am, one day, blessed with grandchildren. I feel that it would be hard to emulate their fantastic example, and yet I would like to try. Perhaps this is the meaning of life.

Saturday 6 December 2008

Settler Warfare

There has been a significant upsurge recently in violent incidents between the settlers in Judea and Samaria and the soldiers of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). This is a worrying trend which contains the possibility of getting out of control. The prospect of a nation's army fighting against the citizens which it is protecting, and vice versa, is indeed an extremely grave situation.

The settler community in Israel has been a significant contributor to the IDF over the years and has produced an extremely high proportion of combat soldiers and officers. In addition, the IDF has, for many years, been deployed to protect the various settler communities in Judea and Samaria and previously in Gaza. It is, therefore, ironic to witness the current rising antagonism between the two groups.

It would seem that the current round of hostilities can be traced back to the government decision to exit Gaza in the summer of 2005. This brought settler soldiers into direct conflict with their own friends, families and communities when the army was deployed to forcibly extract settlers who refused to leave Gaza. This event has left a deep scar on the relations between the settlers and the IDF and resulted in members of the settler communities being more reluctant to take up leading positions when serving in the IDF. Subsequent to the Gaza disengagement, the settlers have made a concerted effort to create new settlements around Judea and Samaria, despite the government ruling that many of these new settlements are unlawful. The decision of the settlers to ignore the government's prohibitions has forced it to deploy the army to uphold its decisions, and the rule of law. The settlers have become increasingly violent in their efforts to oppose the government's attempts to impose its rulings.

It is quite easy for me to understand the position that the settlers take against giving up on any piece of land within their vision of the Greater Land of Israel. There is much evidence to support the fact that the attempts by the Palestinians to pursue the two-state solution is simply a cynical attempt to dispossess the Jews of any land we may have. The fact remains that today's Palestinians (this term has only recently been applied to Arab residents of Gaza, Judea and Samaria) only began to lay claim to the establishment of an independent Arab country in these areas after they were conquered by Israel in the Six Day War. It would be valid to question why they were happy not to have their own country when these areas were ruled over by Egypt and Jordan, but insist upon it now that the area has been conquered by Israel. It is clear that the Arabs feel strengthened by any weakness shown by the Israeli government. It is the view of the settlers that relinquishing Judea and Samaria shows a weakness that Israel cannot afford. And if Judea and Samaria are given to a Palestinian state, how will the Israeli government respond when Tel Aviv is also demanded? Perhaps now is the time to show a strong resolve, and not later.

Whether one believes that the settler position has justification or not, there is another much stronger principle at play here. This principle is one of civil obedience in a democratic society. The time for the settlers to make their point is during a general election. Once a duly elected government makes a decision which is consistent with the rights and obligations of a democratic regime, it is the obligation of the citizens to abide by this decision. Violence against the government's army, which has been deployed to uphold its decisions and the rule of law, is not an acceptable response. This is tantamount to a declaration of civil war. And the cynical use of the youth, girls in particular, to oppose the army so that their arrest appears to be an abuse on the part of the military is also not acceptable. The use of unacceptable tactics by the settler community should be reigned in.

The settlers are a community under siege. Once, the Israeli government strongly supported and encouraged their establishment of new settlements as part of the policy of "creating facts on the ground". After more than 60 years of ongoing conflict, it has become clear that this policy has not advanced the cause of peace at all. There are those that believe it has worked against the prospect of a lasting peace in the region. The current government has decided to reign back on the policy of settlements. This duplicitous behaviour by differing Israeli governments is understandably highly frustrating for the settlers and has left them desperate and with few options. By nature, the settlers are fighters, and this is no exception.

Their fight against the soldiers protecting the government's decisions, the same soldiers who also protect the settlers themselves, however, is misguided and should be ceased immediately. If not, the black cloud of a civil war looms large.

Thursday 4 December 2008

Chess Masters, or Maybe Not

The Israeli chess team returned from the recent Chess Olympiad in Dresden, Germany, with the silver medal. This has been hailed as a significant achievement for the Israeli team, which has never previously won a medal. The Israeli team comprised Grandmaster Boris Gelfand, Boris Avrukh, Michael Roiz and 19 year-old Maxim Rodshtein. The winner of the gold medal, for the second time in a row, was Armenia.

There can be no doubting the fantastic influence and contribution made by the Russian immigrants to Israeli chess. Israel appears 7th on the list of the countries with the most Grandmasters. Israel boasts 33 GrandMasters as opposed to the Russians at the top of the list with 156. Armenia, the tournament winner, has 17 GrandMasters and appears in 17th position. On the list of GrandMasters per capita, Israel is even higher up the list at 4th place with 0.526 per 100,000 population. Iceland is at the top of the list with more than 3 GrandMasters per 100,000 population and Armenia is only marginally better than Israel on this list with 0.57 per 100,000 population. So, whichever way one looks at the current status of world chess, Israel has achieved a great result in being beaten into second place by a narrow margin. This, after defeating the Armenian team in a direct contest between the two countries.

Although the Israeli team continues to be dominated by Russian immigrants, the impact of the chess-playing revolution is clear up and down Israel. And this is not limited to those with Russian roots. My young nephews are excellent examples of this. Adar and Noam are nearly 11 and 9 respectively, and are regular kids who have been turned into chess geniuses by effective coaching. All of the members of our family have had to learn this in the most difficult way possible. I will not forget the lesson that was dished out to me, but even more comical was the lesson dished out to my father who considers himself a reasonable player who likes to devise effective strategies. It took Adar only a few moves to completely destroy any pretences that my father may have had of providing a contest of any sort. Noam, then 7 years old, followed closely on his heels. Needless to say, none of us will take up a challenge of playing against them for fear of utter humiliation. Both boys have performed well in the numerous competitions available to children of their age, and this is laying the groundwork for the next generation of Israeli champions. The likelihood is that the Israeli team that attends the next Olympiad will be relying less on players with Russian-sounding names.

Chess is one of those games that is often used in other contexts. It is frequently said that successful negotiating skills require the ability to "play a good game of chess". The reason for this is because it is a good skill to be able to think a number of moves ahead, and to be able to work out a range of responses to various possible moves that the opponent may undertake. It is also used in the context of politics and politicians where the ability to think like a chess player is regarded as a required skill.

It may be, however, that these burgeoning chess-playing skills have not quite reached the upper echelons of Israeli politics and business. Although a number of Russian names are evident in the business and political world, there still seems to be too much short-termism in the decisions and actions taken. These frequently smack of being knee-jerk reactions to cover today's problem without much consideration for the impact that they may have on tomorrow and the next day.

Hopefully the achievements of the Israeli chess team can begin to rub off more broadly on the wider population, particularly business and political leaders, to encourage a greater measure of long-term thinking.

Tuesday 2 December 2008

Mumbai Sequel

Following the dramatic events of the past few days in Mumbai and the arrival home of the Jewish victims of the Nariman House siege, I am forced to write a sequel to my earlier blog Black Friday in Mumbai. I write this sequel with a heavy heart, but feel that there are certain actions that demand further examination.

When making the arrangements to fly the bodies of the 6 Jewish victims from Chabad House to Israel for burial, the family of one of the victims, Aryeh Leibish Teitelboim, is reported to have approached the Israeli authorities with a rather unusual request. The request was to ensure that the coffin of their family member not be draped in the Israeli flag like the other coffins. In addition, they requested that Teitelboim's coffin not be included in the official memorial ceremony for the victims upon their arrival at Ben Gurion Airport. The reason for their request - Teitelboim belonged to an anti-Zionist Hassidic sect that does not recognise the State of Israel.

Teitelboim grew up in the Satmar Hassidic sect, and married into the Toldot Avraham Yitzchak community. Both sects are anti-Zionist and do not recognise the State of Israel. He is reported to have disavowed his Israeli citizenship in favour of holding an American passport despite living in Jerusalem.

As an Israeli citizen, I am proud of my government's commitment to the protection of Jews around the world in time of need, even those who are not citizens of Israel. No event could have demonstrated this more than the rescue at Entebbe in 1976. When the need arose in Mumbai, the government of Israel immediately dispatched security, medical and forensic teams to assist the Jews in need. It had no hesitation in sending an Israeli Air Force jet to accompany the victims on their final journey. Under these circumstances, how can the response of the Teitelboim family be justified?

In a final irony, the government of Israel declared the victims in Mumbai as victims of terror. This entitles the victim's family to receive government compensation in the same way as the families of victims of terror in Israel are entitled to receive. This means that Teitelboim's widow and 8 children living in Jerusalem will benefit financially from the same government and state that they do not recognise.

Monday 1 December 2008

Black Friday in Mumbai

Whilst most Americans were fighting their way through crowds to get the best shopping bargains in the post-Thanksgiving rush, events were unfolding half a world away which many of them were not even aware of. In my opinion, these events are of the same magnitude, and will have a similar impact on the world order as those that took place in America's back yard on that fateful September 11, 2001.

The attacks that took place in the Indian port city of Mumbai did not have nearly the same number of casualties that the USA suffered on 9/11. The level of prior planning, careful selection of targets, accumulation of weapons and execution of the attack, however, all show serious intent to do major damage and to sow further fear and insecurity. If the world suffered from security nervousness prior to 2001, the 9/11 attacks justified the fact that this feeling of insecurity was not without cause. They also propelled inland security to the number 1 spot on the agendas of most western governments. Subsequent attacks in Madrid, London and continuing violence in the Middle East and on the Indian subcontinent, whilst not resulting in the same loss of life that occurred in New York, serve to reinforce the ongoing risk that we live with. I view the Mumbai attacks as being on the same scale as 9/11.

India is a country with a population of more than 1.1 billion inhabitants. Although Muslims comprise a minority of less than 15% of the population, there are nevertheless more than 150 million Muslims in India giving it the third highest number of Muslim citizens in any country in the world following Indonesia and Pakistan. It seems, therefore, quite strange for India to be the target of an attack of this sort at the hands of Muslim extremists. It may be explained by the feeling that Muslims, as a minority in India, are trying to assert greater strength and influence in that country commensurate with the third largest community in the world. It seems to me, however, that it is a combination of two other factors. The first is the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan which has resulted in numerous deaths in the Kashmir region, and ongoing instability in the subcontinent. The second is the perception (now confirmed) that India is something of a soft touch from a security perspective.

It is reported that the terrorists were of Pakistani origin. The irony, when taken in the context of the Pakistan-India conflict, is that the terrorists stalked out targets which are not specifically Indian. Instead, the targets were seemingly British, American and Israeli/Jewish. So, although there was clearly an attempt to take advantage of India's seemingly lapse security arrangements and possibly reduce India's international standing as a result, the terrorists clearly focused on international targets. Nothing can better demonstrate this than the attack on Nariman House, the Lubavitch headquarters in Mumbai.

There can be no doubt that the attack at this address was not coincidental. Mark Sofer, Israel's ambassador to India made the obvious statement that there are so many buildings in Mumbai that there can be no uncertainty that the attack on Nariman House was specifically aimed at Israeli and Jewish targets. And what sort of a target was sought out in this blatantly anti-Semitic act of terrorism? To say that it was a soft target would be an understatement of enormous proportions. No matter what one's view of the Lubavitch movement is, their efforts in "kiruv" - reaching out to unaffiliated Jews and those far from home - stands out as a selfless and admirable activity. I have had personal reference to their wonderful activities from my business partner travels frequently and sometimes finds himself in far-flung places over Shabbat. Chabad House is always a place that can be relied upon to provide a warm Jewish experience when this is needed.

This is also the way in which Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivka are described. Warm, loving Jews who went to far-away Mumbai to set up an outpost for unaffiliated Jews in this remote location, and to provide a refuge for the many thousands of Israelis and other Jews who travel to this city each year. How they, along with some of their selfless helpers, could have been singled out by the terrorists escapes my imagine. Today, we mourn these brave people, and our hearts go out to a two year-old boy who has been orphaned together with the other families of the victims.

But while our hearts are sore and pained by the needless loss of life, let us not be weakened in our resolve to fight this battle with every strength of our being. Unlike 70 years ago when the worst anti-Semitic events of all time took place, today we have a Jewish army. Our Jewish army is there to ensure that any attempts to persecute us for our religion and for our beliefs will be futile.

But is the world sufficiently resolved and coordinated to fight these attacks on the innocent in their countries? Despite being more prepared than 7 years ago, I still perceive too many gaps in this resolve to be able to significantly deter those that are intent on sowing fear and hatred around the world. It is my fear that Mumbai will be just one more event in an ever-growing list of terrorist activities that the world will experience.

Thursday 27 November 2008

The Long Waite

I recently completed reading the autobiography of Beirut hostage Terry Waite. His book entitled "Taken on Trust" is excellently written and a worthwhile read. It has, however, left me feeling bewildered.

Terry Waite was the Archbishop of Canterbury's special envoy dealing with Middle East hostages. He worked tirelessly to negotiate the release of hostages held by various extremist groups around the Middle East, including those who were connected to the church as well as those who were not. He enjoyed some success in securing the release of a number of captives before he himself was captured in Beirut in January 1987. He was held for a total of 1,763 days, of which nearly 4 years was in solitary confinement. Waite's story is one of mental strength and survival. But, more than anything, his story is one of humility and modesty. Beyond describing facts regarding his treatment in captivity and some of his thoughts and frustrations during this time, Waite astonishingly has no bad word for his captors nor Hezbollah, the organisation which they represented.

I could not read one page of this book without thinking about Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held in captivity by Hamas for the past two and a half years. I could not help wondering whether he is being held in similar conditions to those described by Waite, whether he is being treated in the same inhumane way as Waite, whether he is also being chained to his cell and denied exercise and sunlight like Waite, whether he is also being allowed only one toilet visit each day and whether he has the mental strength to get through his ordeal. Terry Waite is undoubtedly a man of incredible mental fortitude, and yet the scars left on him by his ordeal will haunt him for the rest of his days. So how can we expect Gilad, who recently celebrated his 22nd birthday in captivity, to be holding up? The thought is a troubling one.

Unlike Waite, I have no qualms about wearing my heart on my sleeve. I try to think about what type of people would subject innocent human beings to this sort of treatment. If it was an isolated incident, it could be justified as an uncoordinated action by a renegade group of extremists. Unfortunately, this is not isolated and the group is not renegade. This is a policy adopted and condoned by many different groups around the Middle East. There is one thing that these groups have in common - they are all Muslim extremists. Do we, therefore, conclude that this is an action adopted to advance the Muslim cause? It is difficult not to. How can we justify having anything to do with such people? These are the people that Israel is being pressurised to sign a peace agreement with, in accordance with which a state bordering Israel will be created. Are these the neighbours that we would choose to live with? It is true to say that I am creating a generalisation about Muslims on the basis of actions of some of them. My problem is that I do not hear or see the so-called moderate Muslims standing up and opposing the horrifying policy of hostage-taking. Either they are quiet, or they are in quiet agreement. My interpretation is the latter.

There has been much criticism of the handling of the Gilad Shalit case by the Israeli government. I have to admit being part of this chorus in chiding the government for not doing more to get Shalit released before today. Having read Waite's book and taken further note of some of the recent press reports on this saga, I acknowledge that the criticism may not be entirely justified. It seems as though the requirements set by Hamas for his release are being continuously moved and revised. Each time the Israeli government begins to consider a proposal and to find logical ways to accommodate it or find a reasonable compromise, Hamas withdraws the offer. Even the Egyptians, who have been acting as facilitators in the exchange negotiations, have expressed their frustrations at Hamas. A cynic may conclude that they are more interested in playing mind games than achieving anything in a prisoner swap.

It is inevitable that people may bring the US prison in Guantanamo Bay as an example of how non-Muslims perpetrate similar criminal behaviour. Whilst not trying to condone the manner in which the Americans have handled Guantanamo Bay, and particularly the length of time taken to process the prisoners there, I find it very easy to distinguish between this and hostage-taking. If Gilad Shalit had received the most basic access to the International Committee of the Red Cross, and if his captors had provided his family with some information about his well-being, there may have been room for a discussion. But, by denying him even these most basic rights set out in the Geneva Convention, the hostage-takers set themselves apart as the most inhumane of people.

In his postscript, Terry Waite relates that he heard, subsequent to his release, that some of those who were responsible for guarding him were later shot due to the fact that "they knew too much". How can we possibly expect to hold a sensible negotiation with people like this? And yet, for Gilad's sake, we have no choice.

Saturday 22 November 2008

The Cycle of Extremism

I am always intrigued to follow the political leanings of people who come to live in Israel. My contention is that, no matter where on the political spectrum people stand prior to coming to live in Israel, they always seem to move to the right once they have settled into life in the Holy Land. In my view this is a natural outcome of what I call "the cycle of extremism".

Even though many people are politically well-informed about the Israeli situation prior to making the move, it seems as though they find there is a significant difference when viewing things from a distance as opposed to living it on a daily basis. For some reason, this seems particularly true of those who are naturally left leaning.

The traditional course of events causing this political shift often is started in one of two possible scenarios. It usually begins with an extremist Palestinian group attempting some sort of terror attack on an Israeli target, or alternatively attempting in a different manner to provoke the Israeli army and government into action. This type of provocation has, in the past, resulted in Israeli casualties. Thankfully in more recent times, the Israeli security services have managed to prevent casualties. Inevitably, the Israeli side is provoked into a response which is usually broadly reported in the press. This then provides the Palestinians with the "justification" to carry out a more extreme attack on Israeli targets. The second possible scenario sees the chain of events triggered by an action from the Israeli side. More often than not, this is an action to try to prevent terrorist actions from taking place either by initiating a military operation or by tightening the restrictions of movement of goods and people as a precaution. The tit-for-tat acts are usually played out in the same way, with the same results and consequences. These consequences often see ordinary citizens on both sides feeling more hatred towards the other side as a result of the violence between the parties.

The Palestinians use this in a very cynical manner to recruit support amongst their own people. Firstly, the fact that the Palestinians (particularly those in Gaza) suffer very poor living conditions is blamed wholly upon Israel. It is never presented that peaceful relations would allow Israel to give the Palestinians freer access to all that they require. Instead, every action is taken to ensure that Israel is forced to close the border crossings. This then facilitates the premise for propaganda in support of the fight against Israel by blaming Israel for the inhumane treatment of the Palestinians. The more the attacks against Israelis, the more likely the border closures and responses from the Israel Defence Forces. The greater the scale of the Israeli response, the more likely it is to solicit a reaction from moderate Palestinians. This creates a fertile recruitment ground for future extremists and "martyrs" to join the ranks of the fighters against Israel.

It is similarly true in Israel that more attacks by Palestinians serve to strengthen the resolve of Israelis to fight this evil terrorism, and cause Israelis to adopt more extreme views against compromise and peace. The Palestinians, by continuing to perpetrate attacks against the Israeli army and civilians, create an environment for making the Israeli negotiating position less flexible and less likely to be prepared to compromise with them. This, too, provides a basis for further extremism on both sides of the divide.

It almost seems as though the Palestinians turn on the tap of violence when they need to bolster their ranks with new extremists. It seems to be a sure-fire way to fill empty places. Violence solicits an Israeli response, which provides new Palestinian recruits who feel betrayed by the Israeli enemy.

The same is true in Israel where the average person feels greater hatred and less willingness to comprise with each additional attack. This is the "cycle of extremism" which seems almost impossible to break and lurches the whole of Israeli society to the right. With positions seemingly hardening on both sides of the conflict, this spells disaster for anyone who believes that a peace agreement is possible. Unless the vicious cycle of extremism can be broken, a peace will never be achieved in this region.

Saturday 15 November 2008

After the Elections

Although most of the world was focused recently on a certain election in the USA, we in Israel have held our own elections. Last week, Israelis went to the polls to elect representatives to more than 150 local authorities and municipalities.

All citizens and permanent residents aged 17 years old and above are entitled to vote in the local government elections. Each voter has two votes, a direct vote for the head of the council, city or town and a vote for representation of the council. As with the national government vote, the vote for the council representation is based upon proportional representation. Each voter votes for a party. The party presents its list of candidates and wins seats on the council in proportion to the percentage of the total vote that the party receives.

There were a number of interesting facts arising from these elections that are worthy of mention. The first of which is that the local government elections have hardly any link to national politics at all. Although the parties represented in the Knesset often run at the local government level, they usually do very poorly. In addition, national politics has no bearing on local elections whatsoever as local government elections are largely fought on local issues only. Perhaps the best example of this fact arises in the city of Sderot, which has been under the fire of Kassam rockets from Gaza for the best part of 7 years. It is generally accepted that the national government has not done enough to reinforce Sderot to protect it from the rocket fire. There are those who say that the national government has been negligent in the way that it has chosen to deal with Sderot, or not to deal with it by not providing sufficient protection for it. For much of the time that Sderot has been under rocket fire (and certainly over the past few years), the Kadima party has been in power. It seems very ironic, therefore, that the Kadima party candidate, David Buskila, was voted to replace incumbent mayor Eli Moyal. Adding further irony, Buskila was the first to criticise the national government when numerous rounds of rockets landed in and around the city in the days following the election.

The second point of interest is how the same issues seem to appear in many towns and cities. The battle for the mayoral seat in Jerusalem reflected arguments up and down Israel. The leading candidates in Jerusalem were Meir Porush and Nir Barakat. Porush was an ultra-orthodox candidate representing the ultra-orthodox parties in Jerusalem. Their power succeeded in electing Uri Lupoliansky, the outgoing mayor of Jerusalem. Barakat is a secular candidate who was defeated by Lupoliansky the last time around. Inevitably, the battle was along religious lines, but not necessarily as one may think. Most of the ultra-orthodox citizens voted for Porush, except for certain ultra-orthodox sects who had a long-standing rivalry with him. They, together with the modern religious and secular citizens, voted for Barakat. Barakat was the eventual winner by a comfortable 10 point margin. Many other citizens in cities across Israel also voted along religious lines. Religious voters preferred religious parties that would ensure sufficient funding to their religious schools and other institutions. They would also ensure that the laws of Shabbat and other Jewish laws would be protected in their local area. Secular voters, afraid of the religious imposing their will on non-religious citizens, rushed to vote for secular candidates who promised to oppose the might of the religious lobby. The argument over religious issues unfortunately drowned out the real issues facing most local authorities and their citizens today. These include running a balanced budget, eradicating corruption, providing an improved educational framework for all our children, reducing pollution etc. It is my view that these issues are far more important to Israelis, religious and secular, than the futile religious debate and should have formed the main points of the election platforms.

The animated debates that formed part of the election campaigns and the arguments that ensued between rival parties were, themselves, viewed with concern by certain people. The view of Jew arguing with Jew and accusations being flung from all sides was concerning to some people who understand the need for Jewish unity. This is particularly true at a time like this when we, as Jews, are under continued attack on many fronts. There were even those who attempted to prevent the debates from taking place in attempt to encourage greater unity.

It is my view that the attempts to limit these debates, as honourable as they may be, are futile. The course of the democratic process demands that people express their views and are prepared to present what is most important to them. It is also important for each voter to be able to identify what it is that he does not like about the party that he is not voting. If necessary, he should be allowed to challenge different party platforms in attempt to find the position and the party that best represents his views. Any attempts to quell this process ultimately end up destroying the democratic process. In Israel, we should be grateful for the democratic rights which are guaranteed to all citizens and we should be protecting them with all that we have. This requires us to defend the democratic process, even if this means pitting Jew against Jew in doing so.

Part of the democratic process also requires us to accept the outcome as the will of the majority, and to do our best to work within the framework set out by the duly elected representatives. It additionally requires us to create unity amongst ourselves to allow us to fight the common enemy that continues to try to destroy us and our nation. It is my sincere hope that we Israelis will be able to do this as well as we were able to defend our positions and platforms against one other.

Wednesday 29 October 2008

She'll be Back

With less than a week to go until the 2008 US presidential election, the polls are currently pointing to a comfortable victory for Barack Obama over John McCain. The latest gap between the candidates is shown to be fairly large in view of the very close-run campaign thus far.

From the perspective of an outsider, it seems that Obama is not leading as much as McCain is trailing. Obama has played a safe game and made sure that he has not made any mistakes. His campaign appears to have been sure-footed and error-free without being startling in any respect. It seems that, instead of offering voters reasons to vote for him, he has offered them reasons why not to vote for his competitor.

From the external view, it appears as though factors beyond the control of the candidates will ultimately be the difference between them. The credit crunch and ensuing finanical crisis has damaged John McCain more than Barack Obama. It is my conclusion that this will probably be factor that gives Obama the White House ahead of McCain.

Each candidate's vice presidential running mate has made for some interesting analysis. In keeping with his "safe and steady" campaign, Obama selected Senator Joe Biden as his running mate. In truth, he has hardly been visable in the campaign coverage as the Democrats do all that they can to focus on Obama. In stark contrast, McCain chose Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin. She has enjoyed a great deal of media coverage, not all positive. She has contributed to McCain's campaign remaining highly visible in the media at all times.

Despite the obvious disadvantages that she comes with and the mistakes that she has made, Sarah Palin has made a positive impression on me. I like her feisty style and determination to continue with her job to the best of her ability despite many trying to trip her up and find another negative headline to write about her. True, she is highly inexperienced on the national and international stage. True, her teenage daughter's pregnancy could not have come at a more inconvenient moment for he mother's vice-presidential hopes. True, it did not help her when it was revealed that she was spending $10,000 a month of campaign funds on her clothing and beauty treatments. But she has still provided the best entertainment and has been a breath of fresh air in an otherwise very boring campaign. Her name is today internationally recognised whereas 3 months ago, nobody beyond the borders of Alaska had heard of her.

Once the campaign has been fought and lost, I find it difficult to believe that Sarah Palin will simply retire to the Governor's residence in Anchorage and go back to what she used to do. I think that we will hear more from this interesting lady in the future, no matter what the outcome of the 2008 election will be. I think that she has it in her to go back to the drawing board and to evaluate her strengths and weaknesses in light of her experiences over the past few months. She may know little about international diplomacy today, but she has plenty of time to learn what she is lacking. After all, at only 44 years old, she could easily go through an extended learning process and still be running in an election 20 years from now.

I think that we will see a lot more of this lady and, who knows, she may even break the ultimate glass ceiling in the USA and be the first lady to occupy the Oval Office. Watch out for Sarah Palin - she'll be back!

Monday 20 October 2008

The Problem with Akko

The recent outbreak of violence in the northern Israeli city of Akko (Acre) on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, gives a great deal of food for thought.

Akko is a seaside town in the Western Galilee with a rich history stretching back to Biblical times. It is considered the key to the Levant due to its strategic coastal location. During the War of Independence in 1948, a typhoid outbreak in the town led the Arabs to accuse the Jews of using biological weapons against the Arab population. Although this was never proved, Egypt executed Israeli soldiers that it claimed were responsible for this. Approximately three-quarters of the Arab population at the time, amounting to about 13,000 people, left the town when it was captured by the Jews and became displaced as a result. Akko currently has a population of just less than 50,000, approximately one third of whom are Israeli Arabs. Only about 15% of the current Arab population are descendants of the families who lived there prior to 1948.

The actual events on Yom Kippur of 2008 are reported to have been triggered by an Arab resident of Akko who drove his vehicle into a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood on the holiest day in the Jewish year. Those who have been in Israel over Yom Kippur will know that vehicles are not driven at all on this day, particularly in Jewish towns and cities. The driving of this vehicle sparked outrage amongst the Jews of Akko who then went on a rampage in response. Arabs were targeted in their attacks that lasted for five days, and were only brought under control when police reinforcements were drafted in from other areas. Arab residents of the town were forced to leave their homes as buildings were set on fire and homes gutted. People were also injured in the process. The annual Akko Festival, an important event in the town, was cancelled inflicting further economic hardships on the business community.

It is my view that both parties need to take responsibility for this embarassing and unnecessary chain of events. The Arab driver, who subsequently expressed profound regret for his actions, should never have been driving his vehicle into a Jewish neighbourhood on Yom Kippur. At best, it is a show of grave insensitivity and at worst, an act of intentional provocation. The Jewish response is equally unacceptable, particularly around the time of Yom Kippur when foregiveness is sought for sins committed during the previous year. To initiate a rampage that damages property and hurts people and their livelihoods amounts to thuggery and is intolerable.

So why does this happen in a town like Akko? Well, the problem with Akko is that it is a microcosm of the Middle East and represents everything that is wrong with the Middle East. This is a region where people, who otherwise may be tolerant, act in an intolerant way. This is where every action is assumed to be done in order to provoke other parties. This is where small genuine errors are not tolerated, and people feel immediately offended. This is where previous events have such a huge bearing on what happens today, that any small action serves to build upon years of pent-up frustration. This is a region which singularly lacks tolerance and mutual respect. In short, this is a region which requires the tiniest of sparks to light the volatile keg of dynamite. Every act by any citizen, as insubstantial as it may seem, serves to add insult to injury and seems to give the other party more justification for his next action. A never-ending cycle of claim and counter-claim, attack and counter-attack which ultimately helps neither one party nor the other.

As has been discovered during a 2,000 year history, there are no magical answers to resolve this conflict. I cannot pretend to have all the answers or even any of them. If I did, I would be writing more than this blog!! It seems to me, though, that the first stage needs to involve mutual and self respect. To respect one's self and fellow citizens is a basic human trait that appears to have become severely diluted, and even lost in the Middle East. How can we expect people to have any respect for the enemy when they are struggling to respect themselves?

If converted into Israeli terms, this would involve getting people to think about other fellow Israelis at least as much as themselves, and perhaps even more than themselves in everyday situations. This would work well when driving motor vehicles, when shopping in supermarkets and standing in line at the post office. Every situation currently causes people to feel like they are in a war zone doing their best to protect their own interests. Why is it that people cannot be honest and say "you were here before me", when in line at the bank? Instead, if you are not prepared to fight to protect your position, a hundred others would push in front of you. This consequently turns everyone into a combat soldier at the bank after they have been taken advantage of once too many. If 50 million people in the United Kingdom manage to get along with mutual respect, why can 7 million Israelis not achieve the same? Once we have perfected the art of respecting our own, it would make it much easier to consider the possibility of offering some respect to our enemies too.

It is equally true that our enemies could take some lessons of their own. When the Gaza Strip gains access to a limited amount of fuel, the first ones to take their share are the politicians and connected people. Thereafter come the hospitals, power generation plants and other emergency services. Needless to say, the ordinary man in the street never gets his turn. No small wonder that he feels escalating hatred towards the Israelis. For the Arab leaders, this is a good thing and they ensure that the man in the street feels just as angry, if not more, the next time any fuel is made available.

The concept of a parent offering a child (or anybody) as a suicide bomber to martyr him or herself in the name of a political cause is incomprehensible. This is surely lack of self respect at its very worst?

The longer this lack of respect continues, the greater the escalation of tensions between the parties. And to reverse a trend that has been running for decades and centuries is a little like asking an individual to stop a freight train with his bare hands. But we cannot give up on the dream of making this happen. Even small corrections and amendments placed in critical parts of the education system can make a difference. To achieve this, we need to have enough people who recognise what needs to be done, and are committed to making this happen.

Unfortunately, from where I am sitting, I do not see enough of these people or the required commitment. Perhaps, this is the problem with Akko?

Wednesday 15 October 2008

Some Parts of the World are Flat

The Jewish festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles) has arrived and, with it, the tradition of building a Sukka. A Sukka is a temporary dwelling that is constructed outside of the usual home, and is required to have a roof made of branches to reinforce its temporary nature. Jews are expected to undertake as many of their usual daily activities as possible in the Sukka over the week-long holiday, and it is from my Sukka that I am currently writing this blog (fortunately my wifi network extends to my Sukka). There are numerous symbolisms that are associated with this temporary dwelling, but suffice it to say that is a fun time of year in Israel with better weather conditions and increased interactions with friends and neighbours due to be being outdoors.

I was struck by an advert which I saw in the local newspaper last week. It appeared in all the local newspapers, Hebrew and English, as it does every year at this time. The advert was in the form of an invitation and requested the company of the citizens of Israel in the Sukka of the President of the State of Israel, Shimon Peres. The invitation stated that all citizens are invited to the President's Sukka, and provided details of the day and time that the public are invited to attend. Parking details were advertised along with the statement that one should bring an ID document or passport to secure entrance to the President's residence. Certain security details were also published.

During the course of reading this invitation, I wondered to myself how many other countries in the world would invite its residents to the home of the President. I suspect not many. I was also struck by how unsurprised the citizens of Israel are to see such an invitation. For the average Israeli, it is the most natural thing in the world to be invited to visit the Sukka of a friend or neighbour. I have heard it said that the President whilst being in an important position, is after all only human. So why should one not be invited to visit his Sukka as well?

This line of thinking fits well into Israel culture. Israel is a very flat society without any of the airs and graces that are common practice in other countries. It is a country where it is not out of place to call anybody and everybody by their first names, no matter who they are and who you are. Teachers in the schools are known to all students by their first names, even in the kindergartens and primary schools. Adults do not feel disrespected when a kindergarten child calls them by their first name on their first meeting. This is also true when adults meet others who may be in a position of seniority e.g. Prime Minister or President. Although it is acceptable to address the Prime Minister as Prime Minister of something similar, it is equally acceptable and usual to call him or her by their first name.

When a child addresses an adult as Mr. or Mrs., it does automatically indicate a level of respect on the part of the child. It often, however, indicates a false type of "respect" as it is also possible for a child to disrespect an adult despite referring to him as Mr. It is my view that allowing children and adults alike to refer to each other by their first names removes a barrier between them which promotes a different type of relationship between them. Communications between the generations is difficult enough without creating further barriers. I believe that a child can respect an adult even whilst referring to him by his first name. As always, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Israel, where all people refer to each other by their first names, is one of the flattest societies I have come across. It is a society where the most simple and uneducated people would not feel out of place dining and associating with those from the upper echelons of society. I believe that this is most certainly facilitated, at least in part, by the equality created by using first names.

I feel sure that the kibbutz movement has also had some influence on this characteristic of Israeli society. Kibbutzim were established as collective farms, and operated strictly according to socialist ideals. This naturally creates a very flat society where all people are equal to each other. The kibbutz movement has proved to be a financial failure, and most kibbutzim have been forced to adopt certain capitalist practices in order to stay alive. There can, however, be little doubt that the egalitarian principles, upon which the kibbutzim were built, have permeated into Israeli cities and towns.

The natural attempts by some elements of Israeli society to set themselves apart from the rest have been largely ineffective, and it remains an extraordinarily flat society. This sets it apart from most countries around the world, and particularly from British and American societies that have clear class systems and hierarchies, each predicated upon a different base.

The invitation issued by the President to citizens to join him in his Sukka accentuates two concepts. The first is the flat Israeli society which does not blink twice when invited to the President's Sukka. The second is the festival of Sukkot, which serves to bring everybody to a similar level when constructing and living in their temporary dwelling for the week, and which encourages the inviting of guests into your Sukka. Whilst being accepted as an annual event of no extra significance beyond other annual events, for me it is an outstanding symbol of a special and positive quality of Israeli society.

Sunday 5 October 2008

Justice for Deri

The District Court in Jerusalem ruled at the end of last week that Aryeh Deri should not be allowed to run in the upcoming election for Mayor of Jerusalem in November. This ruling is a victory for the rule of law and a defeat for corruption, so endemic in all levels of Israeli political life.

Deri, a former leader of the Shas Party and former Minister of Internal Affairs, was found guilty in 2000 on several charges of bribery. He was sentenced to four years in prison, which was later reduced to three years. He ultimately served two years of this sentence before being released in 2002.

When Deri was sentenced, the law that prevents citizens convicted of crimes involving moral turpitude from serving in a public position provided for an exclusion period of 6 years from the day of their release from prison. By the time Deri was released, the 6 year period had been extended to 7 years. This change formed the basis of Deri's appeal to the court, as a 6 year ban would have allowed him to run in the 2008 election. He put forward the argument that he should be subject to the laws in place at the time that he was convicted and sentenced. Any subsequent change to this affected him retroactively, and retroactive punishment is a concept not supported in law.

In dismissing Deri's petition to the court, Judge Moshe Sobel found that Deri was sentenced to 3 years in prison. If he had served his full term of imprisonment, even the previous period of 6 years would have prevented him from running in the upcoming election. His early parole, the judge ruled, could not have been foreseen. More important than this, the judge found that a crime of moral turpitude is not consistent with the moral level appropriate to holding public office. " Only when enough time has passed to blunt the impression created by a crime, will public confidence in elected officials be guaranteed", wrote Sobel.

Arye Deri was born in Morocco and arrived in Israel at the age of 9 years old. After receiving Rabbinical ordination, Deri was one of the founder members of the Shas party in 1984 under the leadership of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Deri's charisma was precisely the type of attraction that the party needed in its quest to assist and uplift Israel's religious communities that originated in Arabic Middle Eastern countries. The party saw this population sector as downtrodden and abused by the Ashkenazi European elitests, who have dominated the country's Knesset and upper echelons of society since independence in 1948. Shas set about giving this underdog community pride, assistance and representation at the highest levels. Grass roots organisations were established to provide practical daily help to the working class people by providing daycare, religious learning institutions for children and food programs at highly subsidised rates. This, in turn, provided the popularity to allow the party to hold as many as 17 seats in the Knesset in the 1999 elections. As is the case with many of the minority parties in the Knesset, Shas has managed to extract significant value from successive governments in turn for agreeing to join the coalition. Inevitably, its power in the coalition has significantly exceeded its number of seats.

Unfortunately, no fewer than 6 Shas Members of the Knesset have been convicted of crimes involving bribery, forgery, fraud and obstruction of justice to name a few. This seems wholly inappropriate for any Knesset member, not least one that represents a party that bases its ideology on religious adherence to Jewish law.

Whilst fully supporting Judge Sobel's decision, I only half agree with his judgement. I don't believe that there is any amount of time that can pass to guarantee public confidence in elected officials after being convicted of a crime of this nature. In this respect, I agree with Haaretz's Ze'ev Segal when he writes, "Weighing the possibility of changing the existing law, so a public official who has been convicted of a serious crime involving government corruption (one that naturally carries with it a mark of moral turpitude) is permanently prohibited from holding a senior public position, is seemingly in order."

Adopting a lifetime ban from public positions will certainly give a crime of moral turpitude the appropriate level of seriousness and weighting that it requires. Whilst it is true that people can change their ways and rehabilitate themselves, the question is whether the public can afford to have people like Deri back on their books to risk further inappropriate behaviour. I believe that, for elected officials, it should be "one strike and you are out".

Sunday 28 September 2008

Numbers that Count

Each year, just prior to the Jewish New Year, the Israeli government publishes its latest population statistics. This year's numbers were published last week and make for some interesting reading.

There are currently 7.3 million people living in the State of Israel, a growth of approximately 1.6% over the previous year. Of these, 5.5 million are Jews and 1.5 million are Arabs. The remaining 300,000 are mostly foreign workers. The statistics are sliced and diced in almost every way, highlighting the number of men versus women (women rule), the number of young and old, the number of marriages and divorces and almost anything else that one may wish to know. For me, there are two or three statistics which stick out above all else.

Firstly, whereas the number of Jews in the diaspora is shrinking, Israel is the only country in the world where the number of Jews continues to grow. Although it is true that many Jews from the diaspora are choosing to make their homes in Israel, the number of new immigrants to Israel during 2007 was less than 20,000 which neither accounts entirely for the increase of the number of Jews in Israel, nor the decrease of the number of Jews in the diaspora. So one can only concluded that the increase in Israel, whilst greatly assisted by immigration, has a lot to do with natural growth. Equally, one is forced to conclude that the decrease in the diaspora is largely driven by assimilation. These numbers serve to reinforce the famous prediction of Zeev Jabotinsky who proclaimed "Liquidate the diaspora before the diaspora liquidates you". Thankfully there were sufficient followers and believers who were prepared to commit themselves to ensure continued Jewish existence by moving to the Land of Israel. I have no doubt that these actions have served to strengthen and secure the future of the Jewish nation.

Along the same lines, a second statistic that caught my attention was the fact that Israel's Jewish population represents just more than 40% of the world's Jews. Although Israel does not quite yet have a majority of the Jews in the world, it does now have the largest Jewish population after it surpassed the number of Jews in the USA a year or two ago. This gap has now grown further since the number of Jews in the USA has fallen whilst the Israeli population continues to grow. It seems inevitable that Israel will soon house a majority of the world's Jews if the current trends continue.

The third fact which really caught my attention was the one that 3.8 million of Israel's citizens were born in the country. For most countries, it is obvious that most of its citizens should have been born there. For Israel, however, a country that started out life 60 years ago with a Jewish population of 646,000 and a total population of 806,000, this is a big achievement. Most of the early population growth was down to immigration in the same way that much of Israel's early years relied heavily on the active support of diaspora Jews. The balance has now shifted to the point where the Jews of the diaspora are relying more on Israel. This is not to say that Israel does not benefit from donations made to key institutions by wealthy diaspora Jews and from the large number of Jews who are tourists in Israel each year. It is, however, increasingly the case that Israel provides the support to the Jews outside of Israel, be it financial, emotional, religious or security support. As is evidenced by the numbers, the Jewish diaspora will be increasingly dependent upon Israel as the population gap continues to grow.

What is particularly interesting for me is the life expectancy of children born in Israel in 2007. For women this is 83 years old and for men 79 years old. This adds the quality aspect to the quantity. Not only are there more and more Jews living in Israel, it appears as though they have a quality of life that affords them the privilege to live a long life as well.

Having been fortunate enough to be born during the years following the establishment of the State of Israel, I have always come to regard Israel as a natural and integral part of the Jewish world. It would be hard for me to think of the world without the existence of Israel. Even so, it is not difficult for me and others like me to understand what may have happened to the Jewish world in the absence of a Jewish State.

We have a great deal to be thankful to Jabotinsky and his colleagues about. Not only did they accurately predicted the damage that assimilation could cause to the Jewish population, but they were prepared to take up the fight to ensure that there would be a Jewish state to provide a solution to this problem.

Happy New Year.