Saturday 26 December 2009

The Other Side of the Deal

With the details of the proposed Gilad Shalit deal occupying the front pages of every Israeli newspaper during the course of this week, I am finding it difficult to avoid writing about it again. A survey published in a national newspaper revealed that more than 90% of Israelis would support the government doing a deal with Hamas to release Gilad Shalit at "any price". Those of you who have read my previous blogs on the subject will know that I fall firmly into this 90% group. It may be worthwhile, however, to keep remembering that there is another view on the deal.

The reason why so many Israelis support bringing Gilad Shalit home at any price is because we all put ourselves into the position of the Shalit family. The words attributed to John Bradford, a sixteenth century theologian, come to mind - "There, but for the grace of G-d, go I". Due to the fact that all Israeli families are obliged to send their sons and daughters to serve in the IDF, the Gilad Shalit story could happen to any of us. We all want to believe that the government would do all it can to bring our children home if we were, heaven forbid, placed in this situation.

The counter view is discussed in the press, but perhaps not given the same level of consideration by everybody. In order to bring Gilad home at any price, the price is that many hundreds of Palestinian prisoners will need to be released back onto the streets. Some of the terrorists whose names have been submitted for release to the Israeli government, are terrorists who have actually murdered Israeli soldiers or civilians. For each of these terrorists that may be released, there are victims and there are families of those victims. It would be extremely inconsiderate and disrespectful to ride roughshod over these victims' families and their feelings.

An article forcefully outlining why terrorists should not be released was recently written by Rabbi Stewart Weiss and published in the Jerusalem Post (see "A nation held hostage"). Rabbi Weiss is director of the Jewish Outreach Centre in Ra'anana Israel, and the father of Sgt. Ari Weiss z"l who was killed in 2002 during an IDF raid on Hamas headquarters in Nablus. In his article, Rabbi Weiss describes a conversation that he held with a woman who is advocating a deal to free Gilad Shalit at any price. In the conversation, he asked her if the price that she is prepared to pay includes the life of her child. The implications of this statement are obvious - Rabbi Weiss has already paid this price. Clearly, every parent is willing the government to do a deal at any price, until the price includes the life of their own child. This is when the price becomes too much. In a letter published in the newspaper which followed up his article, Rabbi Weiss also argues that halacha (Jewish law) demands that the deal to save one life not be done when the deal endangers other lives. These people are not advocating that Israel should completely forget about Gilad Shalit. They argue that his freedom should be secured through a military operation.

I fully understand the notion that bereaved families rest easier at night knowing that the murderers of their loved ones are behind bars. Release of these murderers will surely be considered an insult to the memory of the departed. I am extremely sensitive to the need to continue to respect the memories of those who have died in defending the Jewish homeland, and those who have been innocently murdered whilst going about their daily business.

As much as one does not wish to present this as a conflict between honouring the memories of the departed and their families, and honouring one who is held in captivity, this is what it boils down to. Without any intention to disrespect anybody, my choice would be to respect the one life that can be saved over the lives that may be lost. I am under no illusions that the risk of Israelis losing their lives is made greater by the release of murderers from Israeli prisons. On the contrary, there are reported to be many Palestinians roaming free in the West Bank and Gaza who would be willing and able to murder Jews given the chance to do so. I do not believe that releasing murderers will make this occurrence more likely. So rather than speculating about lives that may or may not be lost, it is my choice to secure the life that we know will definitely be saved.

We are led to believe that the Israeli secret service knows exactly where Gilad is held in the Gaza Strip, but is unable to free him in a military operation. The reason for this is that the area around where he is held is so heavily booby-trapped that there is no prospect of freeing him alive. This casts Israeli memories back to 1994 when captured IDF soldier Nachshon Waxman was killed during a military operation to attempt to free him from captivity. The IDF is determined not to allow this to happen again. If this fact is true, the only prospect of Gilad returning home is via a negotiated deal.

There seems to be little choice for the Israeli government. The vast majority of the public expects that it will do all that it can to secure Gilad's release, and at any price. Failure to do so will be remembered long into the future of the State of Israel. No matter what good things he may or may not achieve, Netanyahu's legacy will almost certainly hinge upon the outcome of this delicate issue. Whilst he may posture and add conditions for Hamas to consider before agreeing the deal, it seems to me to be inconceivable that this deal will not be concluded in the near future.

At the same time, we should always remember people like the Weiss family, and the ultimate sacrifice that they have made. Despite the position that I hold on the Shalit deal, I will always respect those who have been prepared to pay "any price" in the defence of the State of Israel. The Jewish people can be proud that there are so many in Israel like the Weiss family who are willing to continue to protect Israel and the Jewish people, despite the dangers involved. May the memories of our heroes be for a blessing.

Sunday 20 December 2009

Why Force the Soldiers to Choose?

The Hesder yeshiva program has been in operation in Israel for more than 50 years. The "hesder" (English translation "arrangement") yeshivot have formed an important part of Israeli society by allowing religious boys to combine military service with Torah study. The programs usually run for 5 or 6 years of which approximately 2 years are spent serving in the military with the rest of the time spent studying Jewish texts. The number of such institutions have grown to over 40 across Israel, and the number of students/soldiers currently number in the tens of thousands. The hesder yeshiva students have mostly served as combat soldiers during their service, and have formed an important part of the IDF with the combination of their loyalty and strong ideology.

As part of their yeshiva studies, the students are instructed about situations that they may find themselves in which could present a conflict between their military service and their religious observance. The classic situations usually involve how they might react when called upon to violate the rules of Shabbat or of a religious holidaywhilst carrying out a military exercise. As a general rule, they are instructed to uphold religious observance unless they are in a life-or-death situation, or in a situation where the violation of the religious observance is unavoidable. Many of the situations where they are called upon to violate are fairly clear-cut, and not the subject of debate. For example, if soldier would be called upon to violate one of the ten commandments, this would be a clear conflict situations. Many rabbinical rulings over the years have also been adopted into broad-based common practice such that there is no debate as to whether violating one of the rulings would be an accepted violation of Jewish Law. There are, however, many rabbinical rulings and interpretations that are not widely accepted by other rabbis. So it could happen that some soldiers refuse to undertake an action due to their rabbi having ruled that doing so would constitute a violation, whilst other soldiers are quite happy to undertake the same action without any fear of violating Jewish Law as interpreted by their rabbi.

An issue of this nature has recently arisen which is threatening the very foundations of the Hesder yeshiva program. It concerns the evacuation of settlements which are being constructed in the West Bank, and which are in contravention of government policy. The religious community, which forms the driving force within the settler movement and also behind the Hesder yeshiva program, largely follows the ideology of the "greater land of Israel". This means that they believe that the boundaries set out in the Bible's book of Genesis are the real borders of the State of Israel. These borders are much broader than the current State of Israel, and go even further than simply including the West Bank and Gaza. So, although they don't hold out immediate hope that modern-day Jordan and parts of Iraq will become part of the Jewish state any time soon, they do hold onto the belief that any land in Israel's possession should not be relinquished. It is for this reason that they send people out to remote locations to "inhabit" the land. It is their belief that, in so doing, it makes it more difficult for the government to relinquish this land in any agreement struck with the Palestinians due to "facts on the ground".

There is a pecking order in the adherence to Jewish Law. Preserving life and personal safety is regarded as being of primary importance. This means that it is permissible to transgress any other rules and laws in the interests of preserving life and personal safety. There are those in the religious community who trust the government's policies and actions with regard to the division of land and territory, and recognise that the government would not choose to give up Jewish land unless it was in the interests of securing the safety of the people of Israel. In these terms, evacuation of settlements is permissible even though it is a transgression because it secures personal safety. This is where some lack of consensus arises with the reaction of the Hesder yeshiva students. Some rabbis rule that it giving up parts of the greater Land of Israel are permissible where it secures life and limb.

The government has had to call upon help from the military from time to time to evacuate outposts which have been established contrary to government policy. Some of the outposts are very temporary comprising a few tents or prefabricated buildings. Others already contain more permanent structures. The use of Hesder yeshiva soldiers for this task caused a great deal of controversy during the evacuation of the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005, and recently reared its ugly head again. Some of the Hesder program rabbis have instructed their students to disobey military commands to evacuate such establishments within the greater Land of Israel, as this is contrary to Jewish Law. Clearly, the IDF finds a situation where significant numbers of its soldiers are refusing commands intolerable. This has led to a notable escalation in the tension between some of the Hesder yeshivot and the military establishment. These tensions reached a point last week where one yeshiva was even expelled from the Hesder program due to the head of the yeshiva calling upon soldiers to disobey commands.

I feel that placing the Hesder yeshiva soldiers in the middle of this controversy is unfair, and avoidable. The rabbis clearly understand that instructing a large group of soldiers who hold influence within the IDF to disobey orders is intolerable in any army environment. Similarly, the military must surely understand the level of sensitivity involved in ordering soldiers to evacuate locations that may even house members of the soldiers' friends and families. Expecting the soldier to make the call in the heat of battle is not fair on anybody, particularly not fair on the soldier himself, and needs to be avoided at all costs. There must surely be enough other options available to the military and to the Hesder program to avoid these types of conflicts in the future.

The IDF does not conform to the typical command-control structure employed by many other armies around the world, which calls for blind obedience on the part of the soldier to the instructions of his superior. The IDF manages somehow to combine the adherence to superiors' commands with the promotion of thought and creativity of the part of each soldier. While this may disrupt the discipline typically expected within the military, this philosophy has paid enormous dividends in the IDF's history when situations arose where soldiers were better placed than their commanders to make decisions in the field of battle. The Hesder soldiers generally have strong decision-making skills, and it would be shame to remove their willingness to make important decisions by forcing them to make decisions which do not belong in the army, and have no winners.

For the sake of the future of the IDF and to guarantee the future of the Hesder program, the soldiers should not be forced to choose between the orders of their commanders and their rabbis. Rather, the commanders and rabbis should be holding a dialogue to find a way to allow these young men to adhere to Jewish law and to serve their country in the easiest and most efficient possible way.

Sunday 13 December 2009

Is Syria Getting Serious?

The past week has contained a number of announcements which are significant to politics in the Middle East. While these events were all reported in the international press, they seem to have been downplayed for reasons that are not easy to explain. Perhaps the Copenhagen summit was stealing all the main headlines, or maybe the announcements were timed in such a way so as not to attract too much attention.

The first event was on Sunday when it was announced that Israel would withdraw from the northern part of the village of Ghajar. The on and off Israeli presence in northern Ghajar has been cited as an obstacle to peace between Israel and its neighbours for many years. Ghajar was captured by Israel in 1967. Ghajar's residents were Syrian and members of the minority Alawite sect which is also the sect to which the ruling Assad family belongs. In 1981, the Golan Heights was formally annexed by the Israeli Knesset and many of the village's residents accepted Israeli citizenship. In 2000 when the UN demarcated the border, the border line split the village in two with the northern half of Ghajar allocated to Lebanese control while the southern half remained with Israel. In the 2006 Lebanon War, Israel recaptured the northern part of Ghajar thereby reuniting the village. In terms of the UN resolution that ended the war, Israel is obliged to withdraw from northern Ghajar.

Ghajar, together with nearby Shaba Farms, is claimed by the Lebanese government to form part of Lebanese sovereign territory. This is despite the fact that this area was clearly captured from Syria during the Six Day War. Although it seems illogical to divide the village again and the residents of the village have been protesting against an Israeli withdrawal, such an action on Israel's part would clearly be seen as a concession to its Arab neighbours. Unilateral actions, while they do sometimes happen, are highly unusual in the Middle East. They are more often than not part of orchestrated actions which make up some sort of deal or agreement.

It was only one day later, on Monday, that prime minister Netanyahu announced to the Knesset that Syria has agreed to give up its pre-condition to resuming peace talks with Israel. Up to now, Syria has always demanded that Israel agrees to give up the Golan Heights before it was prepared to enter into peace talks. This pre-condition has been relinquished, and this seemingly paves the way for peace talks to resume. The avenue for this message has been a party that has not previously been involved in the Israel-Syria peace track. It was French president Nicolas Sarkozy who advised PM Netanyahu of the change to the Syrian position. Previous peace discussions, which were reported to have progressed particularly in 2000 and 2006, were facilitated by the Americans or the Turks. It was reported that the previous negotiations secured Israel all water rights to the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) , and also agreed on the security arrangements for both countries via an early warning system in the Golan. In addition, it was proposed that most of the Golan Heights would be a "peace park" open to visitors from both Syria and Israel.

For the Israelis, the above-mentioned arrangements might well be enough to exchange for a peace agreement. The Syrians have a more complex issue to address - that of national pride. The Syrian pride was severely dented in 1967 when Israel captured the Golan Heights. In particular, President Hafez El-Assad suffered a public relations catastrophe. Being of the minority Alawite sect, Assad was ever conscious of the need to keep the Sunni majority happy and in support of the presidential family. Until his dying day, Assad promised the people of Syria that the Golan would be returned to them. His son, President Bashar El-Assad has inherited the challenge of bringing back the Golan, although he seems to have been less forceful about promising this to his people.

The next significant event occurred two days later on Wednesday. A law was passed very quickly through the Knesset requiring that a national referendum be held before the government can agree to cede any territory as part of a peace treaty. This effectively means that Netanyahu may come to an agreement with Assad regarding the Golan, but it will not be binding unless approved by a national referendum. I believe that this is a tremendously smart move on Netanyahu's part. Firstly, he can never be accused of acting against the will of the people in giving up the Golan. Such a move will only be allowed if approved in the referendum. Secondly, he will undoubtedly use the referendum in all negotiations with the Syrians in an attempt to extract more from such a deal. One can almost hear him saying that he requires a more attractive deal from the Syrians in order to be able to pass the deal through a national referendum. The referendum will act as a safety net to save Bibi any responsibility if a deal goes wrong. After all, it will have been approved by the Israeli people.

Israel's biggest problem with Syria these days has little to do with the Golan Heights. Rather, it is the ongoing Syrian support for Hamas and Hezbollah. These two organisations are waging constant war on Israel's northern border and on its border with Gaza. If Syria was to agree to cease its support for these two terror organisations, there is no doubt that Israel's safety would be significantly enhanced, and such an agreement would be worth a great deal to Israel.

It is difficult to judge whether Syria is more serious about peace this time, although we certainly hope that this is the case. Perhaps Bashar Assad feels less responsible for the loss of the Golan, therefore less obliged to return it to Syria in the way that his father felt. Assad junior, however, has continued to support the terror organisations mentioned above and even increased his support for them. Any possibility of getting him to step away from this support and to distance himself from the terror regime in Iran would be worthy of serious consideration by the Israeli public in a referendum.

In the meantime, the three seemingly unrelated events seem very closely connected to me. In a region where there is nothing for nothing, I have to conclude that these steps are cogs in the machinery that may progress the Syrian peace track. I certainly hope so.

Saturday 5 December 2009

In Defence of Racial Profiling

A recent industrial dispute in South Africa in which a former El Al security agent sued his former employer for unfair dismissal has, once again, raised the issue of the validity and morality of racial profiling.

In the particular case, former security agent Jonathan Garb accused El Al of the non payment of a bonus. The disagreement between the two escalated to the point where Garb was dismissed from his position after working for El Al for some 17 years. He sued for unfair dismissal, but also went on a parallel press campaign to publicly discredit El Al in South Africa. He saw fit to approach an investigative television program to level claims against El Al which were aired on South African television. In these claims, he accused El Al of hiding Israeli spies amongst its security personnel which lead to the South African government expelling an Israeli diplomat. Perhaps most serious of his claims was one which accuses El Al of using racial profiling as part of its security operation. Garb claims that, in using this practice, El Al is acting above the law in South Africa. Clearly, racial profiling is a sensitive point in South Africa, which is still living under the cloud of the former apartheid regime. This has caused some tension between the South African authorities and the Israeli government, and with El Al in particular.

Racial profiling is not only a sensitive issue in South Africa. It has come under the spotlight on many previous occasions in various places around the world. Garb was clearly aware of the fact that he would be opening a can of worms in raising this accusation against his former employer. He was clearly intent on doing as much damage as possible to El Al.

Racial profiling is defined as the inclusion of racial or ethnic characteristics in determining whether a person is considered likely to commit a particular type of crime or an illegal act, or to behave in a "predictable" manner. Political correctness in our current society dictates that racial profiling is discriminatory and should not be used. For some people, this is where the argument begins and ends, and they are the ones who fight against racial profiling without considering other issues. But, like most things, the matter is not as simple as it appears on surface.

When considering the important subject of airline security, there are many competing considerations at play. First and foremost is the issue of ensuring that security procedures will guarantee the safety of the airline and its passengers - on each and every flight. Secondly, the airline will work to achieve this at the cheapest possible price. Security already comprises a significant part of the budget for any airline and, like all costs, there is a great deal of pressure to reduce costs to allow the airline to operate profitably and to be able to compete effectively against other airlines.

El Al has long been acknowledged as having very effective security procedures in place to guarantee the safety of its passengers. It would be widely, if not universally agreed that El Al is probably the airline that is most at risk to international terrorism in today's world. So, whilst El Al cannot afford to take any chances with its security, it is still forced to compete on equal terms with other airlines for its business. The fact that it is forced to implement more extensive security arrangements to secure its passengers will not justify charging its passengers more on ticket prices. This would almost certainly put it out of business. Instead, El Al is forced to work "smarter" to guarantee security whilst limiting its prices to be able to compete against others for its business.

Working smarter means many things. Amongst others, it means not forcing all passengers through the full extent of its security checks. If the airline is going to be able to reduce the security checks that it applies, it needs to decide which passengers will go through full security and which passengers it can afford to apply reduced security checks to. Because security cannot be applied on a random basis, the airline is forced to assess the risk that each passenger presents. During the course of this risk assessment, the airline has decided that Muslim passengers present a higher risk to the safety of the airline than other passengers. This conclusion was not reached in a haphazard or discriminatory fashion. It was reached on the basis of actual events that have taken place in recent years, and on the basis of actual threats that have been made against the airline, against Jews and against Israel and Israelis who comprise the bulk of its passengers. The reality is that the more terror threats and attacks around the world have been perpetrated by Muslims and Arabs than by any other nation or group. This fact cannot be ignored, and this cannot be blamed on El Al security.

The policy of racial profiling was challenged in a filing in the Israeli Supreme Court earlier this year. The challenge made by a civil rights group alleged that Arabs are singled out for tougher treatment by El Al security. The respondent did not deny this fact. It was mentioned that in the US the law prohibits racial profiling, and requires that passengers be singled out for security checks on a random basis rather than according to race

I feel that the policy of racial profiling adopted by El Al has more than justified itself. The airline has an exemplary security record which, for passengers, is the most important point. In addition, it is still in a position to compete against other airlines who do not have the same level of security threat to deal with. It is also noticeable that El Al was not forced to make wholesale changes to its security checks in light of the additional threats presented in the post-September 11 world. El Al is the only airline that routinely continues to use stainless steel cutlery on all its flights, and Israel is the only airport that continues to allow passengers to board flights with liquids in their hand luggage. In fact, it is my impression that El Al checks are much easier to negotiate these days than those of other airlines. I have never yet been asked to remove my belt or shoes prior to boarding an El Al flight. I cannot say the same for other airlines that I have recently flown with.

It remains clear to me is that racial profiling is an important and valid part of El Al's security process and can easily be justified. The profiling is based upon a real and identifiable threat posed by a certain group of people, and is not based on random discrimination. In order for this policy to be rescinded, the onus is not on the airline. Rather, the onus is on Arabs and Muslims to prove in the future that they do not present the same threat to airlines as they do now. Instead of being critical of El Al, perhaps the criticism should be reserved for those who are the cause of the lack of airline security, and who perpetrate terrorist acts on airlines and elsewhere.

Jonathan Garb should be ashamed of his accusations and his behaviour. Whilst he may have a valid claim for unfair dismissal against El Al, his decision to drag the issue of racial profiling into his case is a low blow. After all, Garb should understand more than most how important security is for El Al, and how it is best undertaken.

Monday 30 November 2009

Iran's Moment of Truth

A number of events have taken place in recent months that should have the world's headlights flashing red. Although these events have been reported in the international press, it does not appear as if anybody has really connected all the events together to draw a clear picture of what is happening with Iran's nuclear activities. Perhaps the world has already grown tired of too much information regarding Iran? Perhaps the world does not feel sufficiently threatened by the nuclear ambitions of a country that is ruled by an extremist, anti-Semitic tyrant? Whatever it is, the time has come for the world to take some serious action against Iran.

Until now, Iran has hidden its nuclear activities behind the veil that they are for exclusively civilian purposes. Even though Israel has always maintained that this is a blatant lie and that Iran is building a nuclear weapon, the doubt that has existed has been sufficient to lull the world into inaction. I classify the ineffective statements, resolutions and inspections into the category of "inaction". They are empty threats that have no impact upon the rate that Iran is ploughing forward to build a nuclear bomb. The events of the past few months and, in particular the past few weeks, have clearly removed this element of doubt. This leaves no excuses for the world not to respond. And yet, we are met with a deafening silence at a moment when decisive action is required.

The first of these events was the revelation in September that a second uranium enrichment plant is under construction at Qom in central Iran. This was met with some surprise by certain elements given the fact that Iran had succeeded in hoodwinking the international community and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) into believing that it was cooperating with all its demands. This revelation was a clear indication of Iran's intention not to cooperate with these demands.

The next event in the series was Iran's rejection of an attempt at a compromise offer. The international community offered Iran the possibility to ship its low-enriched uranium to Russia or France for further enrichment and processing into fuel for power plants. This would allow Iran to pursue its nuclear electricity program, but prevent it from being able to generate nuclear weapons. Iran's rejection of this compromise is surely the clearest indication to date of the fact that its true intention is to build nuclear weapons.

This was closely followed by the announcement made last week by the IAEA retiring chief, Mohammed El-Baradei. He announced to the IAEA board of governors that, "there has been no movement on remaining issues of concern which need to be clarified for the agency to verify the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program." He continued, "we have effectively reached a dead end, unless Iran engages fully with us.". These are indeed stark words coming from an organisation whose chief is much more accustomed to "diplomatic speak" rather than saying things as they are. El-Baradei's protestations could not be clearer.

The final action so far in this series of events is Iran's announcement this week of an approval that has been given to build 10 new nuclear enrichment plants. The Iranian government is quoted as saying that this approval comes as a reaction to the condemnation issued by the IAEA last week regarding its nuclear program. It should be clear to all concerned that it would be impossible to turn around an approval of this magnitude in less than a week, and that it must have been under preparation for some considerable time. It may be true that the timing of the announcement was specifically to counter last week's condemnation. It should be clear, however, that the announcement would have come, with or without the IAEA condemnation.

Each Iranian action seems to be bolder than the previous one. Whereas Iran was previously making an attempt to hide its nuclear ambitions behind a cloak of secrecy and create confusion about its intentions, now it seems quite happy to be open about what it is up to. Even though it has not come out and said that it is building a nuclear bomb, it is clear from current events that this is indeed the case.

So now that the truth about Iran is out there for all to see, the moment of truth has also come for the international community. The IAEA conclusions and condemnations have opened the door for much wider diplomatic and military action to be pursued. There can be no doubt that the only acceptable outcome to this sorry state of affairs is the complete destruction of Iran's nuclear capabilities. Currently, it seems like it is only Israel that is prepared to shoulder the burden of taking action against Iran. This is, however, not only Israel's problem. This is a world problem. But where are the offers to help going go come from? This is not at all clear right now, but time is running out. The clock is ticking.

Sunday 29 November 2009

How Equal are Israeli Women?

Judaism seems to have a somewhat ambivalent approach to the role of women in society and in the religion. On the one hand, female characters like the first women Eve, the four mothers Rachel, Sarah, Rivka and Leah, Ruth the Moabite and her mother-in-law Naomi and many others have strong positions in biblical stories and religious significance. Yet, the Jewish religion seems to firmly place women into a predetermined role as a home-maker. In addition, women are absolved or excluded from many of the religious practices. One example is the exclusion of women from the honour of being called up to the reading of the holy Torah. We are told that this exclusion is not one which is based upon biblical prohibition, but rather on interpretations and edicts issued by rabbis over the years, mainly for social reasons.

This ambivalence is also reflected in modern-day Israeli society. Women have an important role in society and, in many cases, there is an expectation that they fulfil duties that require them to be equal to their male counterparts. Israel is the only country in the world which has compulsory military conscription for women as well as men. More than 70% of women between the ages of 25 and 64 years old are currently in the Israeli workforce. This compares to approximately 60% in the USA. Golda Meir was only the third woman in world history to become the Prime Minister of her country. Tzipi Livni recently completed a stint as the country's foreign minister and continues as the leader of the Kadima party in parliament. A woman has occupied the position of CEO of a major Israeli bank, and there are women to be found in many senior positions in Israeli academia and industry. On the face of it, there would appear to be plenty of evidence of equal opportunities being afforded to Israeli women.

When scratching slightly below the surface, the picture of the role of women in Israeli society is not quite so rosy. Although women are conscripted into the army, the roles that most serve during the period of their military service are clerical and secretarial duties. It is known that those girls wishing to serve in fighting units or other front-line positions are required to fight hard for the right to do so. Such roles are usually allocated to their male counterparts and females wishing to fill them are forced to prove themselves way beyond their male equivalents. Alice Miller was excluded from the pilots' training course because she was a women. She was forced to petition the country's law courts before she was finally accepted to the course. This was only 14 years ago.

Incidents of sexual harassment in the military are commonly spoken about and well known, despite the fact that relatively few formal claims have been successfully pursued. Incidents of sexual harassment and cases where women are being taken advantage of by more senior men seem to be prevalent in all walks of Israeli society. The ongoing shameful court case against former president Moshe Katsav, or the conviction of former defence minister Yitzhak Mordechai on rape charges is evidence of this at the very highest levels.

In the workplace, there still seems to be a good deal of discrimination against women. It would appear that certain types of clerical roles are still associated with and reserved for women. The average salary earned by women in Israel is consistently and significantly lower than that earned by men. Although many of Israel's residents do not originate from Middle Eastern countries, the classic Middle Eastern stereotyping of women seems to be as prevalent here as it is in many of our neighbouring countries.

The real irony of the role of women can be found in the ultra-orthodox communities. Here, the men are expected to spend their days in learning institutions devoting their time and energies to the study of Judaism and the Torah. There are many thousands of such men engaged full-time in this activity. In return, they receive a stipend from the institution with which they study, money which is government-funded. Traditionally, it is expected that the wives of these men are at home raising (significant numbers of) children and taking care of the home. Because of financial pressures, more and more of these women are going out to find work and extra income. There are businesses, particularly in the Jerusalem area, that employ only ultra-orthodox women. The irony is that these women, who do not have the right to take part in many of the religious rituals, are the ones upon whom the entire home economy rests upon whilst their husbands are studying.

The good thing in Israel is that boys and girls have equal opportunities in the educational system to pursue an education and to follow their specialities and their dreams. Many high schools have successful girls' sports teams, and there are many girls who are following scientific specialisations such as physics, chemistry and robotics. Even though the average girl is toughened up during the course of her military training, something seems to happen between that event and the time that she enters the workplace. Even those women who have risen to the top of their professions and companies, have been forced to work harder and to endure unpleasantness at the hands of their male colleagues along the way only because they are women. This clearly needs to change.

The real interest for me is how modern Israeli society will continue to live alongside the traditions and laws of the Jewish religion, or perhaps the other way around. It seems as if those who safeguard the religion and the role of women in the religion, will be forced to reconsider their position on a good many issues in order to remain relevant. This does not mean that should sell the religion out and make changes to its most fundamental beliefs. It may, however, require the modern rabbis to question the edicts of rabbis from days in which the role of men and women were very different from the current day. Just as rabbis in days of old took it upon themselves to issue rabbinical laws to conform to their society, it is incumbent on our rabbis today to reopen these decisions, and to issue laws that will allow women to fill their rightful role in our society.

Monday 23 November 2009

Silence on Shalit is Golden

Speculation has mounted again over the past few days on a possible deal for the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Any progress in the negotiations to free Shalit, who has been held by Hamas terrorists in captivity for more than 3 years, is welcome.

There have been many previous occasions when speculation about his possible release has reached fever pitch. The big difference this time is that the Israeli press has been very subdued in its reporting of the developments. Most, if not all, the news items have been initiated by foreign press including newspapers in the Arab world. Israeli newspapers seem to only have carried reports of stories that are repeats of information in the public domain. The only piece of original reporting so far was the details of President Shimon Peres's trip to Egypt yesterday, and his comments regarding the Shalit deal. Nothing more than that.

On this occasion, I think that the Israeli press has got it right. It is probably thanks to the military censor that gory details of this story are being kept off the front pages. I believe that the negotiations for the release of Shalit should be conducted behind the scenes and not through the press. Public reports in the past regarding a possible release have been particularly unhelpful. Perhaps a lesson was learned, and this time the talks have been kept to the negotiating table where they belong. Reports in the press only serve to increase expectations, and could send messages to the other side which may even serve to derail the talks.

For now, the right thing to do is to work towards lowering speculation in the public domain whilst the negotiators do their work behind the scenes. The joy that will be felt by the Shalit family and the Israeli public will not be increased or decreased by significant prior speculation about a deal. There can be no doubt that limiting public gossip on the deal can only ultimately be advantageous.

We continue to hope that a deal can be done as quickly as possible to secure Gilad's release. Despite the obvious attempts by Hamas to keep the negotiations in the public domain, I hope that those with the power to influence public speculation on the deal will exercise as much restraint as possible.

Saturday 21 November 2009

Netanyahu's American Credentials

Bibi Netanyahu is regarded as "almost American" by many Israelis. It is true that Netanyahu, who spent many years in the USA sounds like an American when he speaks English. There is also a suggestion that he understands the American psyche. So why is it that Israel's relationship with the USA seems to deteriorate when Bibi is in charge? I am not only referring to the events of the past few weeks. On the previous occasion when Bibi was prime minister, Israel's relationship with the US also seemed to go through a significant dip.

Netanyahu returned last week from his trip to the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly (GA) meeting in Washington DC. Netanyahu's trip to the GA had been scheduled for some time prior to the assembly. Due to the fact that the GA was held this year in Washington DC, and given the fact that President Barack Obama was also invited to address the GA, it seemed logical that Bibi should seek a meeting with the US president. There are a number of open issues on the agenda between the two countries. It is reported that Obama did not respond to a number of requests from the Israeli prime minister for this meeting. This has been viewed as a snub to Netanyahu by Obama. In the event, Obama cancelled his address to the GA and travelled instead to Fort Hood in Texas to attend a memorial for the victims of the mass shooting there. Obama's chief-of-staff, Rahm Emanuel addressed the GA in place of the president.

Netanyahu did eventually manage to engineer a meeting with Obama at the White House. There are conflicting views about how sensible it was for Netanyahu to insistent upon meeting with Obama after it was initially made clear by Obama that he was not enthusiastic about such a meeting. Many media sources suggested that Bibi had been humiliated by the manner in which Obama had ignored his initial requests for a meeting. There were even references made to unnamed sources in the prime minister's office who concurred with this view. It is mentioned that the meeting was specially scheduled for a late hour in Washington that would ensure that news of the meeting would be too late for the main news broadcasts in Israel. In this way, Bibi could not capitalise on the news arising from the meeting until the following day in Israel.

When news of the meeting did eventually hit the Israeli press, it was almost unanimously negative. This, in spite of the fact that no formal press conference was held nor press statements issued. It was described by the Israeli press as a bad meeting which was angry and confrontational. The reception given to the prime minister by the president was alleged to be "cold". In particular, the president is reputed to have expressed gross satisfaction over the issue of building and expansion in the Israeli settlements beyond the Green Line. The prime minister's office went out of its way to refute the press reports. Officials described the meeting as warm and open, and that it presented an opportunity to reignite the momentum to move towards renewed talks with the Palestinians.

Whatever the outcome of this particular meeting, there is no dispute over the fact that relations between Jerusalem and Washington have been strained in recent months. This is a stark reminder of the deterioration in relations between the two countries towards the end of 1996 when Bibi opened a new exit for the Western Wall tunnels which triggered riots and unrest amongst the Palestinians. But the main issue which annoyed the Clinton administration at that time was the same one which is now causing disquiet with the Obama government. The issue of expansion of settlements, then like now, is the main cause of a deterioration in relations. Whilst I do not expect the Israeli prime minister to compromise himself in carrying out matters of policy that may be good for Israel, I do question the way in which he does it.

I am trying to understand Netanyahu's tactics in his dealings with the USA administration. Even when taking actions that are known to be against the wishes of the White House, it seems to me that there is a way of doing this in order to minimise the negative impact. After all, the continued support of the USA administration is important for Israel. Bibi appears to ignore this principle, and has undertaken these difficult actions in a way which flies in the face of the president and his men. If he had only done this once, I could agree that it may have been an error. Now that he seems to be adopting the same tactics again, it appears to be deliberate. Is he trying to show that he is unafraid to stand up to the "most powerful man in the world"? If so, what will this achieve? Does he believe that his constituency will admire him more for showing that he stands up to the USA administration? If this is the case, I wonder whether he has considered the price that Israel has to pay for the breakdown in relations with USA.

The difficulty that Netanyahu experienced in getting a meeting with Obama will not be a new experience for him. President Clinton refused to meet Netanyahu when he travelled to the USA in November 1997. The summit at Wye Plantation which followed in 1998 was not only a disaster in advancing Israeli peace talks with the Palestinians, it also did not result in the release of Jonathan Pollard which was promised by Clinton at the time. By all accounts, Bibi's tactics did not yield any positive results.

We are forced to recognise that, without the involvement of the Americans, peace in the Holy Land is impossible. Whilst this should not mean that we need to compromise all our principles and only bow to American requirements, it does mean that it is important to recognise the importance of the Americans in our world. I feel that the time has come for Bibi to use his American skills to the best advantage of Israel and make more of an effort to court the White House, instead of flying in the face of the American administration which is unlikely to help Israel. Israel cannot afford to be in a situation where its prime minister is ignored when requesting a meeting with the US president. I cannot imagine anything which can present this as being positive for Israel. Netanyahu would do well to learn lessons from his previous experiences as quickly as possible.

Wednesday 18 November 2009

The Attraction of Israel

Israel is like a drug to those who know it. It is the quintessential melting point of all ages, all religions and people from all walks of life. It never fails to make an impression on those who have the opportunity to visit.

I have lived in Israel for the past 11 years, and each and every days leaves me with a new impression. Sometimes the impressions are less positive, driven by the extremes of people, their behaviours and the clash of different cultures. Mostly, however, the impressions are positive arising from people responding to total strangers as if they are family members or the quirky style of interacting with each other.

Although Israel offers the richest lesson in history and religion that anybody could hope to experience, my Israel is more about the people than the place. It is true to say that without the Holy city of Jerusalem and all that it represents to the three monotheistic religions, Israel would not be the place that it is. Along with many religious and historical locations around Israel, there are also cities like Tel Aviv and Eilat which are not as historical nor particularly religious. And there are all the other interesting places in between. It is exactly this which draws the strangest mix of people together in a way that no other country can boast.

My Israel, the people in Israel, the extremes in Israel, represents the Israel that I love. It is what makes it different and fascinating. It is what creates the addictive nature of the society which forces people to keep returning, or never to leave.

Flights to Tel Aviv are available frequently from major destinations.

Saturday 14 November 2009

Intel Inside Israel

Intel Israel has found itself in the news this week for all the wrong reasons. It is the target of threats of demonstration action by the religious community in Jerusalem after the company announced its intention to keep its fabrication plant in Jerusalem open on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath. The company's general manager, Maxine Fassberg, was involved in a series of meetings in the Knesset in attempt to avert community action against the company.

Intel as a company, and particularly its Israeli branch, should be in the news for much more positive reasons than this. Intel is the world's largest semiconductor and microprocessor producer. For those less technical, a microprocessor is an integrated circuit that contains the entire central processing unit of a computer on a single chip.

Intel's relationship with the State of Israel goes back over 35 years to 1974 when the first Intel chip design centre was established in Haifa, Intel's first outside of the US. Dov Frohman was instrumental in establishing this Intel presence in Haifa. Frohman joined the Intel Corporation in 1969, a year after it was founded. Here, he discovered the EPROM, the first semiconductor memory that was both erasable and reprogrammable. This was the catalyst that led to a long line of innovation and development that produced today's flash memory technology.

After a short break away from the company, Frohman returned to Intel in 1973 and managed to convince the management to allow him to return to his native Israel in 1974 and set up an Intel presence in Haifa. In 1985, he concluded a series of negotiations with the Israeli government to set up a semiconductor fabrication plant in Jerusalem. Frohman was general manager of Intel Israel until his retirement in 2001. He succeeded in setting up a second Intel fabrication plant in the southern Israeli city of Kiryat Gat. During his time with Intel, he managed to establish Israel as a global centre of excellence for the Intel Corporation. Today, Intel Israel employs more than 5,000 employees countrywide and exports more than US$1 billion per annum.

The achievements of Intel Israel are considerable and legendary. It was the Israeli Intel 8088 chip that was selected by IBM in 1980 for its first personal computer (PC) which launched a new era of computing. This major breakthrough for Intel was hailed as a victory for Intel in the microprocessor wars. By 1986, Intel Israel was producing the 386 chip which was 7 times faster than the 8088. With the continued increase in the speed of chips and decrease in their sizes, a new problem was encountered. More power was required to support the increasing speed and, with it came greater heat output. This caused chips to overheat, and computers were equipped with fans to overcome this problem. For laptops, fans could not be accommodated due to size limitations and chip production had hit the so-called "power wall". The Israeli team set to work to design a chip that could go faster without needing to use as much power and thereby overcome the problem of the power wall. The new chip used a type of gear system, similar to gears in a car, that allowed the chip to work faster whilst maintaining a lower clock speed. This also limited the heat output.

When the Israeli team triumphantly presented its new invention to the Intel headquarters team in Santa Clara, they were met with a less than enthusiastic response. Wall Street analysts would value the company on the basis of the clock speeds of the chips being produced. By developing a chip with a lower clock speed (even though the chip worked faster than other chips), it went against the standard parameters used to value the company. It was a little like trying to convince diamond dealers that the number of carats in the diamond was no longer significant. The Israelis mounted a campaign to convince Intel CEO Paul Otellini and the team in Santa Clara that their chip was the only way to go. Finally, Israeli persistence paid off and the Centrino chip was released in March 2003. Although its clock speed was approximately half of the reigning 2.8 gigahertz Pentium chip, it sold for twice the price. More importantly, it gave laptop users the portability and speed that they needed. The new chip was an immediate success and became the anchor of Intel's 13% growth in sales between 2003 and 2005.

Although Intel suffered revenue losses from increased competition in the period that followed, one bright spot in 2006 was the launch of the new Core 2 Duo chip. This was Intel's successor to the Pentium and incorporated dual-core processing which came directly from the Haifa labs. CEO Otellini claimed that "these are the best microprocessors we've ever designed, and the best we have ever built", at the launch of the new chip at the Santa Clara headquarters. Although Intel's stock price was down significantly during 2006, it climbed 16% after the announcement of the new chip. Today, almost every new computer is sold with a microprocessor that is based on this technology.

It is clear that Intel and Israel have had a relationship which has benefited both. Israeli technological insight, innovation and persistence have all contributed to drive Intel to the leading position that it enjoys in the field of microprocessors. Intel has provided Israel with the ideal opportunity to showcase its best, an opportunity that Israelis have grabbed with both hands.

It seems that it is essential for both Intel and Israel that the problems currently experienced in Jerusalem be resolved as quickly as possible. Intel continues to face a great deal of competition in its market, and Israeli innovation and development is essential for its future. Similarly, the Israeli hi-tech industry needs a company like Intel to allow it to show its capabilities off in the best possible way. After managing to maintain its Jerusalem facility for more than 20 years whilst respecting the Jewish Sabbath, I certainly hope that Intel is able to find a way not to have to change this now. By continuing to respect the spirit of the day of rest now and in the future, Intel can assure itself many years of peace in the Holy City.

With acknowledgement to "Start-Up Nation" by Dan Senor and Saul Singer published by Twelve, Hachette Book Group (2009).

Sunday 8 November 2009

Hi-tech in Silicon Wadi

In its short history, Israel has developed a name for technological innovation and advancement. In this respect, Israel is often compared to the famous Silicon Valley in California which is the hotbed of world technological development. Although comparisons are validly made between the two and close connections are forged in the interests of cooperating to advance the world's technology, the truth is that the differences are as remarkable as the similarities.

Israel has been in existence for a mere 61 years. During this time, she has been forced to devote a vast slice of her human and monetary resources to fighting wars in the defence of her right to continue to exist at all. Many other countries in the same situation would have collapsed and fallen by the way a long time ago. But Israel has succeeded not only in surviving 61 amazing years, but also in developing some world firsts. Silicon Valley, on the other hand, has been the beneficiary of many millions of dollars of investment money and a stable environment to cultivate new technologies. The link has resulted in Israel gaining the nickname "Silicon Wadi" after its more famous US counterpart.

I have chosen on this occasion to focus on three amazing developments that have come out of Israel. These are true technological firsts. They are three of numerous other unique developments that have come from Israel. I hope to cover other developments separately in the future.

Telephone Transmission:
Israeli company ECI Telecom was the first to develop Digital Circuit Multiplication Equipment (DCME) in the world. This is equipment that is attached to undersea and satellite telecommunications infrastructure to allow the transmission of many more simultaneous phone calls than the infrastructure was originally designed to carry. If an undersea cable was originally designed to carry 64 simultaneous phone calls, the attachment of DCME to the cable enable the transmission of many more calls without the need to upgrade the cable infrastructure. DCME was first marketed in 1988 and is still in use by many large telecommunications companies around the world, saving many millions in infrastructure costs.

Voice over IP:
Internet Protocol (IP) is the protocol that was developed for communicating data across networks. This is more recent than the protocol that was traditionally used for communicating voice for many years before. So it was a significant development when Israeli company Vocaltec succeeded in launching "Internet Phone", the first application that truly allowed the average person to communicate using a voice call over the Internet. Vocaltec's ground-breaking technology is the base for better known applications such as Skype, Jajah, and numerous others. Unfortunately, Vocaltec was never really able to build upon its amazing invention and many other companies managed to leapfrog it whilst using its technology. But Vocaltec is universally recognised as being the first of its kind.

Camera in a Pill:
Israeli company Given Imaging is the first and only company to develop a camera that is small enough to fit into a pill that can be swallowed by a human. The purpose of the camera is to create a short video film of the inside of the patient's body, and transmit the video to computers outside the body such that physicians can analyse its details. The video can transmit images for up to 8 hours before it is expelled from the body. The technology was initially developed by Gabriel Iddan who honed his scientific skills developing missiles for the Israeli military. This technology was used and is now evident in the capsules that are being sold around the world to assist the examination of the internal workings of the human body. Recent advancements to the pill include the ability to "control" the movement and location of the capsule inside the body. In this way, doctors can focus on particular areas and gain extended exposure of certain critical parts of the body in a way that was not possible before.

These remarkable stories show that it is possible to make an impact on the world and to create business opportunities, even in the absence of natural resources or a classic stable working environment. Sometimes big dreams, hard work and great ideas are enough to make the world sit up.

I hope that the above stories have created an appetite for additional Israeli technology stories. I hope to be able to discuss other stories in the future.

Saturday 31 October 2009

Where to Draw the Line

I read an article entitled "Democracy check" written by Naomi Chazan and published in The Jerusalem Post magazine this weekend . In her article, Ms Chazan argues that the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin 14 years ago came as a result of a lack boundaries in Israeli democracy and society. She claims that increasingly threatening, aggressive and violent behaviour patterns have become commonplace and acceptable in Israeli society as a tool for people to get what they want.

While reading her article, I began to realise how correct she is. There are so many elements of Israeli society that are affected by this issue of lack of boundaries that Ms Chazan discusses. Even though she raises only negative aspects to this phenomenon, I have also identified one or two positives that arise from it.

The most basic and common behaviour that reflects lack of boundaries is the lack of personal space in Israel. Whether you are standing in line for the post office or withdrawing cash from an ATM machine, you can be sure to have somebody standing right on top of you. It also manifests itself when strangers look through your shopping trolley in the supermarket to ask your opinion regarding items that are there. Many even ask whether you should be eating something with so many calories. There are those who object to this sort of behaviour as being too intrusive and not respecting privacy and private space. These are usually new immigrants to Israel who find this type of intrusion totally unacceptable. Some immigrants find this behaviour endearing in the sense that it shows a caring and warm side of the Israeli culture. Even though people may be insulting you, they are doing it because they want to show that they care. People born and bred in Israel seem to find this completely normal and they know no different.

Israel is regarded as a place where laws, rules and prescribed methods of behaviour are all open to negotiation. This usually means that timid or polite people are considered "freiers" (the Hebrew word for suckers) and are the ones who wait in line patiently whilst more aggressive, persistent and convincing people seem to get away with pushing their way to the front of the line. These aggressive people are also the ones who get their own way in all other aspects of life, be it in business, when driving on the roads or other daily activities. It is unfortunate that this gives rise to the Israeli notion that the way to get anything done in this country is to "tip the table over". This literally means going along to the person who you wish to convince or who you require some service from, and remonstrate with them to the point of tipping their desk over until you get what you want. Usually, it works. This means that, the next time you wish to get a bank or government clerk to do something that may not be quite part of what they are allowed to do, you do what you know works best which is adopting bullying tactics. This notion clearly promotes aggressive and even violent actions, and breaks down the boundaries of reasonable and acceptable behaviour. This is handed down to the next generation when children witness parents and teachers getting their own way by bullying others.

The "lack of boundary" behaviour is clearly evident amongst our politicians. The lack of respect afforded by members of Knesset to each other, even on the floor of the Knesset, is a shocking example to Israeli adults and children. If this is the way that the society's leaders behave, what hope is there for future generations growing up in Israel who witness this unacceptable behaviour?

Despite the negative and often shameful behaviours that are seen in Israel, I am equally convinced that Israel would not be experiencing some of the successes that it enjoys if the boundaries were adhered to. A good example is the Israeli hi-tech industry which has developed and successfully sold some significant firsts. For example, the voicemail that most of us have on our mobile and fixed line phones was first thought of and developed in Israel. Similarly, an Israeli company was the first to produce a firewall to prevent unauthorised accesses to our private networks at home and at the office. It is no accident that companies like Intel and Microsoft have significant development labs in Israel. The fact that Israeli scientists and engineers refuse to be limited by restrictions that are regarded by others as insurmountable means that Israelis are producing new and improved products and technologies that would not be developed elsewhere. The lack of boundaries in society promotes free thinking and creativity in business and technology with astonishing results.

As is usual with such things, the real answer often lies between the extremes. In this case, it would be fantastic if we could ensure that boundaries are adhered to in our daily behaviour, whilst ignoring them in scientific or engineering developments. Inevitably, this is difficult to achieve.

Ms Chazan concludes that the lack of boundaries threatens Israeli democracy. There may be some element of truth in her contention. I find people who behave this way in everyday life to be intolerable. We cannot ignore, however, the contribution that this behaviour style has made to the building and successes of the State of Israel. Even though many of us find this attitude difficult to live with, it seems somehow to be an integral part of the culture of modern-day Israel. It will not change any time soon, so I am forced to focus on the positive elements of which they are many.

Sunday 25 October 2009

Health Care Israeli Style

The subject of health care seems to be in focus at the current time for a number of reasons. The Obama administration is spending a huge amount of time and effort trying to reform the US healthcare system to provide more affordable healthcare to a broader spectrum of people. This, added to the H1N1 pandemic that is sweeping across the world, and the significant burden that has been placed upon healthcare systems around the world has brought the issue of healthcare to the attention of many of us.

I had experience of the South African health care system and the British system before coming to live in Israel. Each system is entirely different from the others. The South African system works well for those who have medical insurance. The quality of treatment available to those with the right insurance is generally very good. Private doctors and hospitals and medication are used by those with the right insurance. The problem is that the premiums to cover the medical insurance policies are not within the reach of the average citizen. As such, first world medical care is available to the privileged classes whilst many others are forced to endure much lower quality of medical care, or none at all.

The National Health system in England is held up in many countries in the world as an ideal example of universal health care. This system provides a minimum level of health care for all citizens of the UK. The problem with this system is that it is overburdened and waiting times can be very long for simple appointments, procedures or operations. As a result, those who are able to afford private health care or who have insurance to cover it, prefer to get private treatment. This creates a type of two-tier system of health care, once again favouring the wealthy and leaving the poorer classes with inferior care.

The Israeli system is different, and quite an interesting way of providing health care. There are four health maintenance organisations (HMOs) in Israel. Every citizen of Israel should be a member of one of the HMOs. They are private organisations for the provision of health care to Israel's citizens. Employees have a health tax deducted from their salaries according to their earnings. The tax deducted is handed over to the employee's chosen HMO. This provides a basic level of health care of the employee and members of his family. Members of the HMO can also upgrade their membership to packages that give greater benefits to the members such as access to better specialists and better quality hospitals. Those who are unemployed have their health premiums paid by the National Insurance Institute. New immigrants are provided with free health care for a period of six months until they have managed to establish themselves and arrange their premium payments. Health cover is extended equally to all Israeli citizens, Arabs and Jews alike. All of this means that those who have even the most basic health package still have access to some of the best medical care available with reasonable waiting times. In addition, with the significant research and development that is undertaken in medicine in Israel, Israeli patients can be assured of the most up-to-date technology and medical treatment. It was recently published that Israeli patients have the highest rate of cancer survival in the world.

As a Diabetic, I am forced to make maximum use of the medical system of the country in which I live. I observed that my Diabetes was accepted by my HMO when I applied to them, and not excluded as a pre-existing condition. As such, I have fully coverage of all treatments relating to my Diabetes. The treatment that I receive in Israel is not only high quality, intensive and easily available to me at all times, my Diabetes is treated using the latest technology and in a high quality way.

The life expectancy for people living in my home town is over 80 years old for both men and women. This is the case for a country that is constantly at war and losing young men and women in wars and terror attacks. Most of Israel's taxes have had to be spent on the military to guarantee her continued existence, which has left much less funding available for medical and other expenditure. This is surely a remarkable achievement, especially for a country which has been in existence for barely 60 years. President Obama could do a lot worse than establish a similar system in the US.

Saturday 17 October 2009

Refusing to Serve

Israel is a democratic country, and I would be one of the first to defend its democratic principles. This includes the right to free speech even when the statements being made are illogical and immensely damaging to the state. These are my views about the statements made by groups of high school seniors and other objectors who speak out against being drafted into the Israel Defence Force (IDF), and carrying out their duty to serve their country.

Israel is one of the few countries in the world which has a compulsory military draft for both boys and girls. Boys are currently required to serve in the IDF for 3 years whilst girls are required to serve for 2 years. There is a good reason for this compulsory draft. Israel is a country under an immense existential threat, with more than one of its neighbours openly voicing the wish that Israel will be destroyed, and indicating the willingness to destroy the Jewish state and all its inhabitants given the chance. There can be little doubt that the IDF is the reason why Israel is still in existence today more than 60 years after its independence. More than this, the IDF protects the freedom and liberties of Jews around the world. I have stated on these pages on more than one previous occasion that I believe that the only reason why another holocaust has not taken place is due to the existence and the power of the IDF. With rising anti-Semitism around the world, the strength of the IDF will also be the only thing that will prevent a future holocaust.

The IDF does not provide any flexibility for conscientious objection against the draft. Objectors are tried in a military court and are usually jailed if they continue to refuse to serve. With the vast majority of Israelis having served in the IDF at one time or another, Israeli society has a strong relationship with the IDF. There is often a stigma attached to people who choose not to undertake their service, and they may find it difficult to further their careers or be accepted in the local society.

I find myself getting really angry at this time of year when the annual letter is written to the Prime Minister, signed by a "group" of Israeli high school students speaking out against being drafted to the IDF. The letter, this year signed by 80 students, received its fair share of press coverage. It speaks of their refusal to serve in an "occupying force" and in a force that treats civilians badly and makes life difficult for millions of others. Whilst respecting the rights of these students to speak out, along with other conscientious objectors including the so-called "Shministim" who have travelled around the world speaking out against the IDF, I do not respect their point of view nor the way in which they choose to express it.

Like the objectors, I would also prefer for the IDF not to have to blockade millions of civilians into the Gaza strip. I would also prefer for IDF soldiers not to have to establish checkpoints for civilians crossing out of the West Bank, and being forced to search each one before allowing them to continue on their way. The requirements to behave in this way come because of the experiences that Israel has been forced to suffer to date. The fact that Palestinian civilians are trying to smuggle explosives into Israel every day with the objective of killing and maiming Israeli civilians forces our soldiers to have to search each and every one of them. The fact that civilian areas in Gaza are being used to fire missiles towards Israeli civilians in a random manner, forces the IDF to respond to this threat accordingly. The style of the IDF's behaviour is not out of choice, it is out of necessity.

So our Shministim and their colleagues are happy to live in Israel and to be protected by the IDF, to allow them and their families to live a safe and free Jewish existence. All of this is OK as long as other people's children are protecting them, and are risking their lives in the process. Unfortunately, some of these people even die in the course of the service of protecting Israel including the objectors. The minute, however, it comes time for them to serve their country and to protect the families of those who have protected them, then they come out as conscientious objectors. This is the moment they choose to object to the "occupation". In my opinion, this is unacceptable.

Like in every large organisation, there will undoubtedly be soldiers in the IDF who behave contrary to the rules and in a shameful manner. These soldiers are dealt with accordingly. This fact is not enough of a reason for people to object to serving in the IDF. Without the IDF, we have no Israel. People who object to the IDF, object to Israel. In my view, people who refuse to serve in the IDF should lose their right to live in Israel. With a Jewish population of less than 6 million people, there is no room for passengers.

Whilst I am infuriated each time my attention is drawn to the conscientious objectors, I do manage to keep this in perspective. Thankfully, the vast majority of high school students are not only willing to serve in the IDF, they are keen and eager to play their role in the defence of Israel and Jews around the world. I have the privilege of being exposed to my son and his friends who are all looking forward to their opportunity to serve. It is a pity that these young men and women don't get the same press coverage as the objectors. They certainly deserve it.

Tuesday 13 October 2009

Soldiers Speak Out

The Goldstone Commission has brought into sharp focus the behaviour of the Israel Defence Force (IDF) during the recent Gaza War, Operation Cast Lead. It has questioned the culture of the IDF and the conduct of individual soldiers in carrying out their orders.

Goldstone has painted the IDF as an army without morals. He has depicted it as a force that purposefully pursues civilian targets in the worst case or, in the best case, disregards the consequences on civilians of the actions it takes. Those of us who are closer to the daily activities of the IDF know that nothing could be further from the truth. We know that the IDF is an organisation that often takes risks to protect enemy civilians even though this could risk the lives of Israeli soldiers and civilians. How can it be that Goldstone and his associates do not see this. After all, comparing the behaviour of Hamas to that of the IDF is like comparing day to night.

I have been sent details of an interesting website that illustrates this point (thanks Ivan). The website - Soldiers Speak Out - carries the testimonies of various Israeli soldiers from their combat experience. Some of the stories worry me because it sometimes seems that the care for the enemy civilians far oversteps the line of reasonableness. In some of the stories, the risks to Israelis by protecting Palestinian civilians was far too great. In my view, the IDF is there to protect Israelis in the first instance, then consider the protection of Palestinian civilians. On the other hand, I gained great strength from realising that the IDF has morals, has a conscience and a heart. This is both at an institutional level as well as at the individual level. Even though the job of a soldier demands a certain amount of heartlessness, the IDF has shown that it is not required to lose your humanity to do a good job as a soldier. In fact, sometimes being human adds to the qualities of a soldier.

Please go to the website and please listen to the stories. It is important to show just how wrong and unjust the Goldstone Report really is.

Saturday 10 October 2009

Three South African Jews and the Gaza War

A side story arising from the Goldstone Report on the Gaza War has run in newspapers in certain parts of the world. The story surrounds the role played by Lt. Col. David Benjamin, an Israel Defence Force (IDF) reserve officer serving in the Military Advocate General's office during Operation Cast Lead. In these stories it is alleged that Benjamin committed war crimes in this role during the Gaza War.

I have known David Benjamin since we were at university together in Cape Town during the late 1980s. We were both leaders in different Zionist youth movements encouraging the Jewish children in South African to identify more strongly with their Judaism, and with Israel as the Jewish state. After completing his law degree in South Africa, he moved to live in Israel. Soon after making aliyah, Benjamin joined the IDF where he held many legal positions during the time of his service. He ultimately was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel when serving in the Military Advocate General's office as the head of the international law department. Although he had already resigned from the IDF prior to the outbreak of Operation Cast Lead, he is reported to have returned to his former position in the Military Advocate General's office during the Gaza War.

So why the focus on Benjamin? After all, he was not the Military Advocate General. Surely any accusations of war crimes directed against lawyers who advised field commanders as to what actions were allowable should be directed against the legal chief rather than somebody like Benjamin?

The twist is in the fact that Israel did not sign up to the 2002 Rome Treaty that brought the International Criminal Court into existence. As such, the ICC does not have jurisdiction to indict its citizens. South Africa, however, did sign up to the Rome Treaty. When Benjamin immigrated to Israel, he retained his South African citizenship whilst taking on Israeli citizenship. By virtue of the fact that he is still a citizen of South Africa, Benjamin falls under the jurisdiction of the ICC. It is claimed that the ICC in the Hague had been alerted to this fact by various pro-Palestinian groups and had begun an investigation into Benjamin's role in committing "war crimes". This was initiated following an interview that Benjamin conducted with In this interview, he confirmed that the international law department was intimately involved in the planning of the Gaza War.

An opportunity to act further on this case presented itself when Benjamin travelled to South Africa after he was invited by the South African Jewish community to attend a conference on international law during war time. During his trip, South African prosecutors were asked to open an investigation that Benjamin had committed war crimes. In order to avoid any confrontation, Benjamin departed South Africa earlier than he had planned.

Whilst this opportunistic behaviour is no less than could be expected from those whose sole purpose in life is to damage and discredit Israel at every opportunity, some of the responses by members of the South African Jewish community were less than acceptable. In particular, the remarks issued by the director of the conference, Professor Dennis Davis, were shameful. Davis is a district court judge in South Africa and a lecturer in international law at the University of Cape Town. Davis is an outspoken and active member of the Jewish community in Cape Town and formerly had Benjamin as a student in his class when he was a law student. Davis spoke out against the comments made by Benjamin at the conference that Israel did not commit war crimes. Davis is quoted as saying that if Benjamin was still a student in his class, he would fail him!

It is not enough that a Jewish South African called Richard Goldstone is responsible for publishing a report into the Gaza War that does not attempt to reflect the extremes to which
Israel went in order to fight a war of necessity in a fair and moral way. His report accuses Israel of war crimes, and recommends the indictment of Israelis on these charges. We now have a Jewish South African judge in the form of Dennis Davis who adds insult to injury by going further than Goldstone in singling out an individual like Benjamin on such crimes.

Although both Goldstone and Davis are great legal minds, unfortunately their legal acumen is misguided in this case. There is no harm in holding Israel and the IDF responsible for its actions when these actions are independently contrary to accepted norms and standards. In the case of the Gaza War, however, the extremes to which the IDF went in order to protect the innocent civilians despite the despicable behaviour of Hamas in trying to exploit this fact, is deserving of commendation and not criticism. The time has come to speak out in favour of the wonderful job done by Benjamin and his colleagues. The time has also come to speak out against Goldstone, Davis and other self-hating Jews. I am ashamed to be a South African Jew when I am classed alongside such individuals.

It is my fear, with the increasing threat to Jews around the world and in South Africa, that the Jews living outside of Israel will be forced to turn more and more towards Israel to protect them and their Jewish heritage. Perhaps this is what is required for individuals like Goldstone and Davis to recognise the wonderful job done by Benjamin and other soldiers in the IDF to protect Jews and Jewish freedom around the world. It is a shame that certain Jews in the diaspora still cannot appreciate the value of the risks taken and sacrifices made in Israel to keep them safe wherever they are. Be assured that, in the unfortunate event of a Jewish emergency anywhere in the world, Israel will always take seriously its responsibility to protect and provide a safe haven for all Jews, even those who have turned their backs on Israel during a time of need.

Saturday 3 October 2009

How Do We Respond to the Gilad Shalit Video?

The release of a video clip of captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, by Hamas on Friday has given the Israeli government and Israeli public much to think about. It is the first real sign of life provided by Hamas since Gilad was captured more than 3 years ago. But should we read any significance into this first sign of life? Is there anything that we should interpret about the timing of the release of the video?

The release of the video came on the eve of the Jewish festival of Tabernacles (Sukkot). One of the symbols of the festival is the four species which are taken and blessed on each day of the festival. Each one has different characteristics and the significance of making the blessing on all four of the species is that all individuals in the Jewish nation are important, irrespective of their characteristics. This message is extremely important in the context of Gilad Shalit. He is an important part of Israel and the Israeli people, and has not been forgotten by his parents, friends, ordinary Israelis and government ministers alike. That one individual can capture the attention of an entire nation is entirely consistent with the message of Sukkot.

Where does the release of the video sit in the process of the negotiations for the release of Gilad? There have been various attempts to try to play down the significance of the release of the video. Messages from Hamas, the Israeli government and the Shalit family have all indicated that the public should not anticipate any further significant news on the back of the release of the video. There have also been conflicting messages from each of the parties, at least expressing hope that this act signals possible progress in the negotiations for his release.

To me, it is clear that such an act does not take place in a vacuum. It is obvious that Prime Minister Netanyahu was eager to show some early visible progress in the negotiations for Gilad's release. Even though the release of a video is far from gaining his release, it is more progress than has been shown to date. So Netanyahu will chalk this up as something of a success for himself. I see this act as more than a simple success for Netanyahu. I can imagine that the Israeli side, with help from the unnamed German negotiator, will have said to Hamas that there seems little point in continuing to discuss lists of names of Palestinians who may or may not be released in any deal if the Israelis cannot be sure that Shalit is still alive. So, as part of the larger process, a sign of life is critical. Prisoners were even released in exchange for the video, so this seems to be an initial step in wider negotiated deal. It may be true that the next steps are still not fully agreed, but this certainly feels part of a process.

More important than all of the above is the fact that there would seem to be a channel of communications open, facilitated by the Germans and the Egyptians. This channel has also demonstrated itself to be working, as evidenced by the receipt of the video. It is ultimately this successful channel that will bring Gilad home. For this reason, I have been delighted to see the arrival of the video. I am sure that it also brings some comfort to his family, especially during the festival of Sukkot.

The history of this sad case forces me to be cautious in my optimism that Gilad will be released any time soon. I cannot help, however, feeling more optimistic now than at any time in the past since his capture. It is his safety and the well-being of his family that are foremost in my mind. I trust that they will be taking strength from recent events. For the sake of Gilad and for that of his family, I sincerely hope that my optimism at this time will prove to be justified. I know that the Israeli public is with me in this hope.

Sunday 27 September 2009

Iran Does Not Surprise Me

The statements issued at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh by Barack Obama, Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy about the latest state of the Iranian nuclear program came as a huge surprise to me and many others. I suspect, however, that my surprise is probably not for the same reasons that others are surprised.

Political leaders and press alike expressed their surprise that Iran's nuclear facilities are more extensive and further developed than have previously been acknowledged. They also seemed to express surprise that Iran was concealing and lying about so many aspects of its nuclear reactors.

I am really not surprised about the current status of the Iranian nuclear program, nor the confirmations issued at the G20 summit about further reactors. After all, Iran's intentions have been made clear for the longest time. Although recent reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have been very limited in the information that they detail emanating from Iran, there have been sufficient rumours circulating in the market to understand that these reports have probably concealed more than they have revealed. The Israeli government has been actively pushing the Iran issue onto the front burner at every opportunity. Prime Minister Netanyahu's recent "secret" and urgent trip to Russia is just one more action in a lengthy list of attempts to raise this issue to the top of every government's agenda.

Against this backdrop, I am surprised about two things. The first thing that surprises me is the surprise that is being expressed following the G20 revelations. With all that has been happening over the past few years in Iran, and with clear evidence that the Iranian regime is not to be trusted, who can honestly feel surprise at what we now know to be fact. If this new information is surprising, the world had better brace itself for more surprising news. For what has now been revealed still only represents the tip of the iceberg of the reality of the nuclear production activities in Iran.

The second thing that I am surprised about is the fact that the world has done so little to date in response to the massive threat posed by Iran. It is now understood that the revelations at the G20 contained information that has been known by western governments for at least a year. So why has more not been done to oppose this and to prevent Iran from making such significant progress with its nuclear production? In fairness, the attempts by the IAEA to police and control the Iranians have been feeble. Efforts by the key western powers have been equally lacklustre and entirely ineffective. With the significant threat posed by allowing nuclear weapons to fall into the hands of somebody as unpredictable as Ahmadinejad, surely much more should have been done to put a stop to this.

Maybe the inaction on the part of the western powers is down to the fact that they don't really view their countries as being under threat. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu stated in his address to the UN General Assembly last week that Israel is not alone in the risk posed by Iran. Weapons currently in its possession can reach most countries in Europe, and the range is likely to expand until it will reach the US before long. It already certainly has the ability to attack US interests in the Middle East and Europe. The threats posed by nuclear weapons being in the hands of a fundamentalist government like that of Iran should cause all logical people not to sleep easily, no matter where they are.

In its previous actions, Israel has shown a willingness to take steps to prevent the build-up of such a threat on its doorstep. The most well-known of these actions was the destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981. Although Israel is willing and able to take on Iran to prevent a further escalation of the threat posed by its nuclear activities, it seems on this occasion that the responsibility needs to be shared more broadly. It seems illogical that Israel should be responsible for bearing the entire burden of the consequences of such action when the threat is clearly a world-wide threat.

Having said that, it is clear that Israel is under significant threat. This is not only because of Israel's proximity to Iran which puts it clearly in reach of Iran's weaponry, it is also because of the constant tirade of anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli vitriol that Ahmadinejad issues at every opportunity. If one considers the audience given to Ahmadinejad at the recent UN General Assembly meeting and how many delegates found fit to stay in the session to give him a hearing, this threat is still being ignored by many governments around the world. By contrast, the walkout on Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu showed the number of governments that are not interested in hearing of the threat that Iran poses to the world. If the UN was living up to its ideals, a man like Ahmadinejad would not be allowed to address the General Assembly at all. All of this suggests that, in the absence of stronger responses on the part of the western powers, Israel may be forced to go it alone once again.

Following the statements made by the G20 leaders on Friday, there have been further discussions about increasing sanctions, there have been discussions about increasing the investigation activities of the IAEA and there have been expressions of surprise and condemnation. In stark contract Iran has responded by test firing two short range missiles and testing a multiple missile launcher. These tests have been surreptitiously timed to coincide with the eve of Judaism's holiest day, Yom Kippur, and the anniversary of one of Israel's hardest-fought wars.

The difference in style of the two responses unfortunately also does not surprise me.

Sunday 20 September 2009

The Goldstone Farce

The establishment of the UN Fact Finding Commission on the Gaza Conflict by the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations was accompanied by a great deal of scepticism. I also felt these sceptical pangs as I considered this strange decision on the part of the UN. I decided, however, that I would give it the benefit of the doubt in the hope that this would allow the world to really see Operation Cast Lead for what it was - an attempt to return peace and security to the citizens of southern Israel. After all, they were forced to endure years of insecurity with the incessant firing of rockets and other missiles randomly into civilian areas.

Judge Richard Goldstone was appointed as head of the Commission. I have in common with him the fact that he is Jewish and South African by birth, but it seems that we have little else in common. On the face of it, his extensive experience makes him an ideal person to head the Commission. He is a former judge of South Africa's Constitutional Court and he was a prosecutor in the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. It did not take long, however, for it to become clear that the intentions of the UN were not to undertake an objective enquiry. Goldstone's anti-Israel bias made him a perfect person for the UN to appoint to ensure that their objective was achieved.

The Israeli government saw from a very early stage that the main purpose of the commission was to criticise the actions of the Israeli government and army, and hang them out to dry. As a result, they decided not to cooperate with the commission. This decision has been criticised by various parties, but I feel that it was the right decision. There is no reason to cooperate and to provide confidential information to an investigation when the purpose of this cooperation is to simply use it against you at every opportunity.

When the Goldstone Commission findings were published, many inches of newspaper columns were devoted to the one-sided nature of its findings. The Israeli government immediately went into attack mode to defend itself against the ridiculousness of the report. I decided that I wish to read the report myself, and not to rely on the filtered impressions of journalists and political commentators. I did manage to read the executive summary of the report, but only just. The truth is that I found it to be so openly biased and lacking in objectivity that I could not read any more.

A shocking aspect of the report for me was the fact that the UNHRC set a brief for the commission to cover only the events between 27 December 2008 (the date of Israel's invasion of Gaza) and 18 January 2009 (the date of the cessation of Operation Cast Lead). This simply ignores the reason for the invasion and the events that caused the Israeli government to decide to attack Gaza. In fairness to the commission, it did examine these contributing events (although in a very cursory manner) and even concludes that the firing of the rockets onto the Israeli civilian population is a violation of international law. The Commission even devoted a few lines of its report to the kidnapped Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. Here, the language is much less forthright and the Commission says that he should be treated humanely and that the ICRC should be allowed to visit him. The report is, however, a catalogue of criticisms of Israel and the way in which it conducted its war. It even criticises Israel's specific attempts to avoid civilian casualties despite the use of civilian locations by the Hamas militants to fire their rockets and fight their battles.

For me, however, the biggest omission of the report is a recognition of the simple right that Israel has to exist in peace. The fact that Hamas continues to deny Israel this right in a public and unashamed way is surely the main contributing factor to the ongoing conflict. If it was not for the fact that Hamas wishes to destroy Israel or to see it destroyed, it would not spend more of its time attacking Israel and Israeli civilians than it does on looking after its own people. This is what justifies its bombing of Israeli civilians to cause terror and insecurity. This, in turn, is what forced Israel to attack Gaza. Surely Goldstone can understand this?

The Goldstone Commission report is indeed unfortunate. This is not only because it fails to address the key underlying cause of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza (and the Middle East conflict), or to treat Israel's actions in an objective manner. Having read parts of the report, it is not clear to me why the Commission was established at all. What was the purpose of the Commission? It is surely not too difficult to find evidence of acts of war during a war. Wars are inevitably situations which bring out the worst in people. We don't require commissions of enquiry to prove this. So why appoint a commission to prove that acts of war were committed during a war? And once this is proved, what happens next? Should governments and armies be prosecuted for acting to protect their citizens? Which conflicts justify the appointment of such a commission, and which conflicts need not have commissions of enquiry? Why was the Russian invasion of Georgia not subject to a similar commission? Will the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have commissions appointed? I suspect not.

Unfortunately the UN continues to show its bias against Israel. This bias not only manifests itself in the report by the Goldstone Commission, it shows itself in the number of anti-Israel resolutions that have been passed. This does not even consider the huge number of resolutions that have been defeated due to vetoes being exercised. As a body that is theoretically unbiased and a protector of the rights of nations and peoples, the UN could do well to make clear the fact that Israel has a right to exist in peace. Is this too much to ask?