Sunday 26 July 2009

Who Do They Represent?

It is very seldom that I watch BBC World News these days. At one time, I used to watch it a great deal. That was until the Lebanon War in the summer of 2006 when I realised once and for all that the BBC's reporting was unacceptably biased against Israel. So it was unusual for me to change to the BBC World News channel the other day. In a way, I am sorry that I did because my eyes were shocked at the sight that greeted me.

The story that happened to be on the news at that moment was the one involving the arrest of 44 people in New Jersey on wide-sweeping corruption and money laundering charges. The pictures that I was watching showed people being escorted from a building to a police bus that had been brought to transport the suspects. What caught my attention in particular was the fact that more than a few of the people being arrested wore the unmistakable "uniform" of Haredi orthodox Jews. This picture is the one that is stuck in my mind, and I am sure in the minds of many others like me.

The wearing of a uniform or a particular style of dress is usually done for positive reasons to identify the individual with a certain group. In most cases, it is done according to rules that are laid down by virtue of a job or a position held. The examples that come to mind include policemen or women, airline attendants, schoolchildren, scouts, fire fighters, hospital workers etc. In some cases, the uniform is chosen by those wearing it for their own reasons. Examples include the Amish community and the Haredi sects of orthodox Jews. What is clear is that the wearer of the uniform is immediately identified with the group to whom the uniform belongs in both good and bad situations. This means that the uniform-wearer has a responsibility to himself as well as to others in the group. If he behaves in a negative way, he risks bringing discredit to all members of the group, and not only to himself.

In the case of the Haredi sects who choose to wear black trousers and jackets, white shirts and skullcaps (kippot) and long side locks, they are associated not only as Haredi orthodox Jews, but as Jews. This reflects, both positively and negatively, on all Jews and not only on Haredi Jews. More than this, because these groups hold themselves as more religiously observant and close followers of all religious laws, there is a natural expectation that their behaviour will be exemplary in their pursuit of religious adherence. As such, pictures of these people being arrested are even more shocking. Clearly these facts had escaped our New Jersey Rabbis who are currently in police custody.

When the local government officials and politicians were escorted to the police bus, it was difficult to identify them as such. They looked like any person and could have been a cleaner, electrician or plumber as well as a government official. But when the uniformed orthodox Jews were led to the bus, no commentary was required to state who they were and which group they were part of. The pictures spoke for themselves.

When wearing clothing that identifies your links to a group of any sort, the wearer has the responsibility of the entire group upon him. Not only should he behave well, he should be seen to behave well at all times. I cannot help thinking about the recent demonstrations in Jerusalem which have pitted Haredi Jews against the police, with some of the Haredis throwing stones and other objects at police. Even if their cause is good and they are justified in their protest, the sight of these people throwing stones at the police does Haredis and all Jews a great deal of damage.

The same is true of the New Jersey Rabbis. Whether or not they are found guilty on charges as serious as dealing in human organs, the damage to Jews across the world has been done. In the current climate where Jews are under more significant scrutiny and certain non-Jews are seeking any reason to speak out and act out against Jews, this sort of behaviour does no credit to the Jewish community. It promotes anti-Semitism and this is something that we can ill afford at this time.

The truth is, that despite our common ancestral bonds, I don't feel that they represent me in any way.

Saturday 18 July 2009

French Feedom

France celebrated Bastille Day last week. This year commemorates the 220th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, which was the precursor to the first French Republic and freedom for the French people from the feudal system and the monarchy. But how free is the French Republic these days? Whilst everybody's view of freedom is slightly different, certain recent events have brought some of France's current problems into sharp focus.

The event that I wish to specifically refer to is the trial of the members of the "Barbarians" gang who murdered Ilan Halimi. Halimi was a Jewish cellphone salesman who was kidnapped, tortured over a period of 3 weeks, and was found dying beside a railway track in February 2006. In addition to a financial motive that was put forward for the crime, there was a clear anti-Semitic motive for the murder. Not only are many of the members of the Barbarians gang Muslim, a number of incidents reported from the trial (which was held behind closed doors) indicate a strong anti-Semitic motive. Unfortunately, many Gallic French do not subscribe to the fact that the trial has an anti-Semitic theme to it. Whilst they are generally abhorred by the evil nature of the behaviour by the gang and the crime committed, they seem to feel that jumping to an anti-Semitic conclusion is not justified. This may largely be as a result of the fact that the trial was forced behind closed doors due to the fact that some of the defendants were minors.

The gang leader, Youssouf Fofana, is a French national born to parents from the Ivory Coast. He is reported to have shouted during the trial that Halimi was murdered because he was Jewish. In addition, there were attempts to kidnap 8 others before Halimi was kidnapped. All 8 were Jewish. These facts seem to be more than simple coincidences. The fact that the trial verdict was passed down on a Friday evening after the start of the Jewish Sabbath, and thereby preventing many observant members of the Halimi family and the extended Jewish community from attending the only open session of the trial seems to lack sensitivity. But the action of the Barbarians Gang cannot be regarded in isolation from events that have been taking place in France over a number of years.

The number of Muslims in France is difficult to assess due to the fact that the French do not request to know the religion of their citizens in any national census. It is variously estimated at between 5% and 10% of the total population. Most of the Muslims originate from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, former French colonies. The French number a total of about 60 million, so this places the Muslims in France at between 3 and 6 million people. There are approximately half a million French Jews by comparison. French Jews have been feeling under increasing threat in recent years due to the Muslim threat. Whilst this is partially fuelled by events outside of France such as the 9/11 attacks in the USA and the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, there has clearly been significantly increased tension within France itself. This tension has arisen as a result of a number of violent events aimed at degrading and threatening the Jewish population in France. This has contributed to more and more French Jews choosing to give up their comfortable lives in France and move to live in Israel. The number of French Jews arriving to live in Israel in 2006 was almost 2,500 and more than the combined total in the previous 5 years.

The election of Sarkozy as French President would appear to have slightly reversed the previously rising levels of anti-Semitism in France. The Halimi trial seems to reflect this to some degree. Whilst the gang leader was sentenced to life in prison with a minimum of 22 years behind bars without parole, other gang members seem to have escaped much more lightly. They were sentenced to a few months in prison, or suspended sentences. Immediately after the verdict and sentences were handed down, the French Justice Minister called the sentences too lenient for 14 of the 27 defendants and the office of the French prosecutor swiftly appealed to the Court of Appeals seeking longer sentences. It was announced last week that a retrial will take place for these 14 people.

The French have eagerly upheld their freedom over the past 220 years. Bastille Day is indeed a big occasion and celebration in France each year, and justifiably so. The nature of France's freedom seems, however, to be changing with the change in the mix of the population. Surely the freedom should not be exclusive to Gallic French or to Muslim French, but to all citizens of the republic including the Jews.

Sunday 12 July 2009

Davis Cup Joy

The Israeli men's tennis team has been competing in the quarterfinal round of the Davis Cup competition against Russia. On paper, the match-up is one of David and Goliath proportions.

The first and last time that the Israeli team competed in the quarterfinals of this competition was in 1987 when it was comprehensively beaten by India. Getting as far as the quarterfinals this year has been a significant achievement for the Israeli team. The Russian team, on the other hand, has been at least a semifinalist for each of the past 5 years. Russia won the Davis Cup in 2002 and 2006, and was the runner-up in 2007. Russia is currently ranked first in the International Tennis Federation rankings as opposed to Israel's eighth place.

It has, therefore, come as a big surprise that Israel has defeated Russia after only 2 of the 3 days of competition have been completed. Israel holds an unbeatable 3-0 lead after winning both singles ties and the doubles tie. The reverse singles will be played for the record only, as they have no bearing on the outcome of the rubber. Israel will play either Spain (the current holders of the Davis Cup) or Germany in the semifinal leg. The gusto with which Hatikva was sung after the doubles victory reflected the unlikelihood of this victory. I can remember few moments of such national pride.

This sporting achievement comes on the back of a number of other notable sporting achievements in recent times. Israel won its first Olympic gold medal at the Beijing Olympic games when Gal Fridman took victory in the windsurfing event. Israeli sportsmen and women have also achieved notable results for judo, athletics, basketball and other sports. We should not forget the tennis court where Yoni Ehrlich and Andy Ram have combined to win both the Australian Open and Wimbledon doubles titles in recent years.

The Maccabi Games, the "Jewish Olympics", will open in Israel next week. This brings together Jewish sportsmen and women from all over the world to compete in many different sporting events. The games were originally conceived to promote the concept of sport in the Jewish world, once considered to be a generally weak point amongst Jews. The games not only promoted sports and sportsmanship amongst Jewish sportsmen and women, it also encouraged and achieved greater sporting achievement.

Surely the Davis Cup victory over Russia, a country much larger and with much greater investment in sport than Israel, can be attributed at least in part to the Maccabi Games and the spirit that it represents. Well done to the Israeli tennis team. Good luck to all participants in the 2009 Maccabi Games.

Saturday 11 July 2009

A Series of Unbelievable Events

The strange story surrounds a medical patch called Life Keeper which has reputedly been developed by an Israeli company, SafeSky Software. Life Keeper shot into the news last week when it was announced that SafeSky had sold 37% of Life Keeper to British-Taiwanese company, Micro-Star International for $370m. This values Life Keeper at a cool billion dollars. But what is Life Keeper, and why should it be worth so much money?

The interest in Life Keeper stems from the fact that it claims to warn the patch wearer of a pending heart attack 30 minutes before it actually happens. The company makes the following statement about Life Keeper on its website:
"With this new device, we are able to save the lives of perhaps millions, or more importantly than that, the life of someone you care so dearly about, as to value his or her life far above that of your own. In principle, the system works very simply. The Life Keeper device monitors the flow of your pulse and records a critical or sudden change that is above the permissible levels. The device then sends this data to a medical centre to alert for help. It is widely know that in case of medical intervention within 10-15 minutes after the primary symptoms of a heart attack, there is a chance of saving a patient. Your Life is in Your Hands."

This is the good part of what sounds like an interesting product. There are, however, some problems with the story. Company management are reported to claim that a patent has been registered in connection with Life Keeper, and that it has approval of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). No mention is made of the patent or the FDA approval on the company's website, and there is no mention of the approval on the FDA site nor any evidence of a patent having been registered. Further investigation by Israel's Globes newspaper revealed that the Taiwanese company did not report the deal at all, and its London subsidiary denied any knowledge of it. Company management continued to insist that the deal was alive and well despite the vigorous denials by Micro-Star. Globes also reported that no Israeli venture capital company had heard of Life Keeper, nor had any of Israel's leading doctors in the field that Globes approached on the subject. This is especially strange in Israel, which is known for having an environment where everybody knows everybody.

The company's website lists 4 persons as company officers in its Israel headquarters. These are Dr. Amos Bouchnick, Dr. Gavriel Picker, Mr. Arik Klein and Mr. Hagai Hadas. Bouchnik and Klein are reported to be the founders and equal shareholders in Life Keeper. Bouchnik is a dentist who, besides owning a chain of dental clinics, also has a shareholdings in a biotechnology firm as well as a media and marketing company. Klein, it is claimed, is behind the patent and the product's algorithms. Klein is reported to have previously served jail time for fraud. It was further reported that the Israeli Money Laundering Authority is investigating an attempt by Bouchnik and Klein to open a bank account for the purpose of receiving "large sums of money from African countries".

What is far more interesting for me, however, is the involvement in this story of Hadas and Picker. Picker is also a dentist who is reported to be a close friend of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since first grade. It is claimed that he has treated Netanyahu in the past. Picker, who is listed as the CEO of Safe Keeper, tendered his resignation from the post suddenly on Thursday in a statement via his lawyer. The lawyer claims that the resignation comes after Picker was denied from gaining access to the memorandum of understanding covering the supposed sale to Micro-Star.

Hadas's involvement is of even more interest. He is a former senior member of the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad. He was recently appointed by Prime Minister Netanyahu to be the special representative to negotiate for the return of captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. It is widely understood that Hadas had hoped that this appointment may be a step towards returning to the Mossad as its head.

This sorry affair could be counted as just another strange story if it were not for the close links of some of the people to PM Netanyahu. In particular, Hadas has a very important and sensitive job to carry out and the Israeli public require that this job be undertaken only by somebody who can be "loved and trusted" to make the right decisions. His involvement in this sordid story calls Hadas's appointment into question. It also casts further doubts on the decisions being taken by the prime minister.

I am aware of the fact that many people, both in and out of Israel, view the Israeli business environment as one that is riddled with dishonesty and corruption. For those people, this story may not come as any surprise. As somebody who has been involved in this business community for the past 10 years and seen some less than acceptable practices, I find the whole episode shocking. This is not only because of the series of seemingly dishonest activities that took place, but also because of how close it comes to the highest echelons of Israeli politics. It seems as though we have yet to hear the end of this story. Watch this space for more.

Sunday 5 July 2009

Losing the PR War

In the 61 years since Israel's independence, there are many fine achievements that the country can lay claim to. The young state has succeeded in integrating Jews from many different countries and backgrounds. Economic difficulties have been overcome to create a viable economy which can compete with other countries in the region and around the world. Israel's hi-tech industry is considered to be at the leading edge and one of the most advanced in the world. And Israel's military achievements speak for themselves by virtue of having survived over 60 years of almost continuous war and aggression aimed at destroying her very existence. These are but a few out of a lengthy list of worthy and admirable successes.

Whilst the story is an overwhelmingly successful one, there are inevitably a number of failures that have been chalked up along the way. In my view, one of Israel's most significant failures is the poor public image which she portrays in the international community. The lack of success on the public relations playing field was a disadvantage in the early years of Israel's existence. As time progresses, however, this disadvantage is becoming a much more significant problem which requires urgent attention.

In the years immediately following independence, Israel seemed to enjoy some measure of support in the international community. When the stench of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism hung in the air, the nascent Jewish state was considered an underdog. As a general rule, the world likes underdogs. Even though the physical support that this underdog was getting was limited, there was a spirit of supporting Israel, albeit from a distance, in her efforts to survive. Since those days, Israel has progressed in leaps and bounds especially in her military capability. As a result, she is no longer considered the underdog and no longer enjoys whatever sympathy may have been generated in this capacity. In the current time, those that wish to destroy Israel enjoy the position of the underdog and are taking advantage of the advantages that come with this status.

When Israel was a young country with limited population and resources, and battling every day just to stay alive in the sea of Arab hostility, it was understandable that not a great deal of time or effort could be devoted to public relations efforts. In those days, the leaders simply did what they needed to do in order to keep the ship afloat without taking to much heed of what was being said about them or Israel. Necessity was the name of the game. This necessity has, unfortunately, given way to a type of arrogance. This arrogance dictates that Israel is not answerable to any external body or party because her leadership is unique in its concern for Israeli citizens and Jews around the world. So, when those with anti-Jewish or anti-Israeli views attempt to rail-road organisations like the UN into anti-Israeli measures, the government of Israel will not heed their actions and will continue to do what it feels is right and fair for Jews. Whilst this attitude is still a hangover from the time when each day was a fight for survival, Israel lives in a different world which requires a different response.

Although Israel's poor PR effort is a frequent point of discussion for Jews around the world and in Israel, I only realised the real extent of the damage that is being done recently during a dinner with a Jewish work colleague from abroad. His point was very clear. Those that are biased against Israel will be biased no matter what action is taken. There is, however, a vast middle ground of independent thinkers who are available to be convinced. If we are not making the effort to convince them, the enemy camp will inevitably succeed in doing so. And the enemy camp is devoting a huge amount to public relations. Not only that, Israel's friends and supporters including the large numbers of Jews around the world need good Israeli PR to help their cause. They wish to help to defend Israel's position in any way they can, but are getting little help from Israel herself. This begins to frustrate even the best of her friends at a great cost to the overall public relations effort.

There is no doubt in my mind that most of Israel's actions, even those harshly criticised by the outside world, are legitimate and easily defended. When one considers the extent to which Israelis are having to suffer at the hands of terrorists and from continued random attacks on civilians, and compares this to the manner in which the IDF clinically avoids civilian casualties on the enemy side, there is no doubt that Israel's actions can be defended. The lack of an organised, professional, sustained PR effort that runs across the major populations around the world serves simply serves to undermine the legitimacy of the best-laid actions, and is damaging to Israel's image.

In the weekend newspapers, I read of a special unit of Tourist Police whose job it is to ensure that tourists to Israel have the best possible time by helping to prevent them falling victim to petty crime or muggings. This is a country that is at war on two borders, but can devote time and energy to ensure that a tourist who lost his wallet in the holy city of Jerusalem has it returned to him without too much ado. This is the same country that prefers not to destroy a location being used to store ammunition or launch rockets if there is any risk of civilian casualties.

It's a shame that the outside world does not receive these and other stories that could put an entirely different view on the conflict in the Middle East. It is still not too late to begin the PR effort.