Sunday 31 January 2010

A Country of Working Poor

The Secretary-General of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Mr. Angel Gurria, recently visited Israel as part of Israel's application process to join the organisation. During his visit he issued a report regarding the current state of Israel's economy, and improvements that need to be made to bring Israel into line with other OECD member nations.

I was very surprised to discover that, when Israel joins the OECD, it will be the poorest member country of the OECD. A statistic that was quoted is that 20% of Israel's population is more than twice as poor as the average citizen of the OECD. For me, these statistics were surprising and somewhat frightening. I have always viewed Israel as an economically developed country. Israel has an average GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per capita of more than $28,000 per year which places it 36th on a list of over 200 countries around the world. Somehow, this does not seem the same country that will be the poorest in the OECD when Israel is admitted, hopefully later this year.

This seeming inconsistency has forced me to think a little more about the Israeli economic reality. There can be no doubt that, economically, Israel has produced a miracle in achieving all that it has in the short space of 62 years since independence. In 1948, Israel was a backward, small, underdeveloped country with no economy to speak of. It was reliant upon funding from the Jewish Diaspora and other sources of income from abroad for even the most basic requirements. During the last 62 years , Israel has developed a sophisticated banking and economic infrastructure including sectors and companies that are at the leading edge of their respective fields, and highly sought after around the world. All of this has been achieved while being forced to spend tens, and even hundreds of millions of Dollars on defence and security just to keep the state alive.

On the other hand, there are many in Israel who find making a living an impossible task. The fact that more than half of the work force is paid less than NIS 4,000 (a little more than US$1,000) per month is a frightening statistic. In certain social segments, more than 60% of citizens are living below the poverty line. These are numbers that cannot, and should not, be tolerated in a developed modern society. So even if the average GDP is highly respectable, this average hides a very nasty and important piece of information which is size of the gap between the rich and poor. It is true that the gap between rich and poor is expanding in most countries, and Israel is no exception. The problem is that Israel seems to have a much wider gap, and a much more urgent need to address the problem.

It is a well-known fact that making a living in Israel is harder than in many other countries. This is partially because of the Middle Eastern culture which is very obvious in the business and work environment. Things that are taken for granted in the western countries, from which many of us hail, are not necessarily regarded as normal behaviour in Israel. Add to that the highly bureaucratic way of doing things and the fact that each and every action requires lengthy negotiations and explanations, to contribute to a highly frustrating atmosphere. The punitive tax regime is also well-known, with Israel appearing 34th on a list of those countries having the highest tax burdens. The defence spending, it seems, is being financed by the average worker. A joke which is often told by new immigrants to Israel turns out to be true: How do you make a small fortune in Israel? Arrive with a big fortune !

The thing that bothers me most about the financial hardships suffered by many Israelis, is the fact that Israelis are not generally lazy people. Most of those struggling to make a living are employed, sometimes even working more than one job. The problem is that employees are often not earning a living wage, even to live at a very basic level. The cost of living in Israel is much higher than the average person can afford. Tel Aviv is the 17th most expensive city in which to live in the world according to the Economist Intelligence Unit's 2009 Cost of Living Survey. This effectively makes Israel a country of working poor.

One of the criticisms of Israel mentioned by the Gurria report, is corruption. Although Gurria refers specifically to the arms and weapons industry in which Israeli companies are very active, the truth is that corruption in Israel goes a great deal further than this. Israel is a small environment where everybody knows everybody, and those who have the right contacts and know the right people seem to be the ones who make a better living. The ordinary man in the street, who works a hard and honest day, does not always seem to come out with enough money to live on. So those with the connections get richer, and those without connections get poorer. This is endemic in Israeli society from the top down. Many well-known politicians and leaders of business and industry have been proved to be acting in a dishonest manner for the purpose of enriching themselves. On many occasions, these individuals are well-off to begin with, so their corrupt behaviour seems difficult to justify. Behaviours and business practices which would never be acceptable in other countries, seem to be absolutely normal in Israel. The corruption and mutual back-scratching that goes on at the upper echelons of society, seem to come at the expense of the ordinary man, whose only objective is to make enough to feed his family.

Despite the financial hardships that plague many people, Israeli society is a surprisingly happy and positive place to live in. The advantages of living in a Jewish environment seem to outweigh the disadvantages for many people. To survive, people show a level of flexibility that appears unparalleled elsewhere. This is epitomised by the Russian immigrants who arrived in Israel with very high levels of training in fields which could not be put to use upon arrival. There were too many scientists, doctors and musicians to employ in a country the size of Israel. So those who could not find jobs in their fields became cleaners, supermarket shelf-packers and anything else that they could find. Many people with second jobs are also working in their spare time on a pet project that they hope will be the next big thing in the Internet or high-tech field. There are numerous non-profit organisations out there helping to make life easier for as many families as they can help. Although this should not be necessary in a country like Israel, it is uplifting that there are so many who go out of their way to help others enjoy an easier life. The proof is in the result, which shows many Israelis returning to live in Israel from abroad, and many new immigrants continuing to make Israel their new home.

The benefits for Israel of joining the OECD have been presented as greater international acceptance, and involvement with a respected international organisation. It is my hope that membership of the OECD may go further, and somehow help the ordinary Israeli. In order for this to happen, institutional corruption needs to be rooted out of Israeli society. In addition, the amount that people earn for a hard day's work needs to be sufficient to allow an average family to live on. When this happens, Israel will make the real economic progress that is so badly needed to add even more to the quality of Israeli society.

Sunday 24 January 2010

Israelis in Haiti - the Irony of the Situation

The Israeli government and the Israel Defence Force (IDF) dispatched an El Al plane to Haiti in the days immediately following the devastating earthquake that occurred there on 12th January 2010. An IDF medical team of 121 arrived in Haiti including 40 doctors, 20 nurses, 20 paramedics and 20 lab and X-ray technicians. In addition, 2 search and rescue teams were on the flight, along with hundreds of kilograms of medical and rescue equipment and emergency rations.

Nobody in Israel was surprised to hear of the emergency mission that was assembled in a very short space of time to go to a far-flung location. After all, this is not the first time that Israel has deployed emergency teams to locations which have experienced national disasters. We have even had the honour of having our proposed help rejected when offered to countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel. Despite the ongoing challenges to Israeli national security and attempts by our enemies to destroy us, Israel is frequently willing and able to assemble a team of expert professionals and ship them off to help others in need. Perhaps it is precisely because of these threats that Israel is able to get an emergency team together so quickly. This team not only has excellent training, unfortunately it also has experience in real emergency situations and has a track record of being able to respond to such situations quickly and efficiently.

It is only Israel and Russia who have been able to establish field hospitals in Haiti so far. An American hospital ship has been sent to the region but the Americans, along with the rest of the world, have failed to put any emergency medical facilities on the ground until now. I have watched the media reports coming out of Haiti with some interest. I have enjoyed seeing reports covering the Israeli field hospital on all international news networks, and hearing about those who have been rescued and helped and those whose lives have been saved. I have been amused to see Haitian children on TV who have passed through the Israeli facility and who are wearing T-shirts with Hebrew writing emblazoned across the front. I was moved to hear of the baby that was born in an Israeli field hospital, and named Israel. I was immensely proud to hear the story of an Israeli medical worker who, without giving it a second thought, transfused blood from her own arm into that of a Haitian child in order to save a life. This is the best demonstration of true Jewish and Israeli values.

The stories coming out of the Israeli medical facility in Haiti raise a number of ironies. The first irony is how come Israel and Russia are the only two countries in the world who have set up medical facilities in Haiti? The medical requirements in Haiti are far beyond what these two facilities can cope with, and Haitians who survived the initial earthquake are now dying of disease and illness. So why are there not medical facilities being established by all of the wealthier countries? It seems strange that the response has been so slow and so small from those countries that have the means and ability to respond, especially those whose resources are not devoted to fighting wars on their borders.

The second irony concerns the response, or lack of it, from the Arab world. The population of the Arab world exceeds 350 million people and the wealth that is contained in this part of the world arising from the huge amounts of oil is substantial. So where is the humanitarian aid from the Arab world? Why is it that they cannot share the burden of looking after people in their hour of need? By not stepping up to help in this effort and other emergencies like it, the Arab world simple burden the rest of the world with a disproportionate share of responsibility. If a country with a population of 7 million people can lend its support, it seems to me logical that assistance from the Arab world can also be offered.

A further irony for me is that Israel's enemies have taken the opportunity of the good work done by Israel in Haiti to continue to bash Israel. John Smithson, a reader on the Mondoweiss site wrote, "I guess giving Israel credit for good deeds in Haiti is like watching a serial killer or other sociopathic type mow an old woman's lawn (or some other charitable thing)." Palestinian-American journalist Ray Hanania wrote of the Israeli aid effort this week: "200,000 Haitians died in an earthquake. They sent doctors and supplies to help. That is a good thing. Just because we are fighting with Israel doesn't mean we should sneer at that assistance to people in need. YES, I wish Israel could show the same compassion for Palestinians. But Israel and Haiti are not at war and Israelis and Palestinians (mainly Hamas and the settlers) are." I have some news for Mr. Hanania and others like him - despite the fact that Palestinians continue to smuggle bombs and suicide bombers through Israel military checkpoints in ambulances, Israel has treated many hundreds of Palestinians in Israeli hospitals. This includes at the height of periods of war. I have yet to see more compassion shown by other countries towards their enemies who would do all in their power to kill them.

All of this has led many commentators to question how ready Israel is to face a major earthquake on home ground. Given that Israel is built on two major fault lines - the Dead Sea Fault and the Carmel Fault - there is a great deal of speculation regarding when the next "big one" will occur. The last major earthquake in this region took place in 1927 when a quake measuring 6.25 on the Richter Scale killed 300 people and caused extensive damage to buildings, including many holy sites. It is speculated that, statistically, a major earthquake is due in the near future, and that such an earthquake would likely damage around 20% of buildings in Jerusalem. The experts maintain that, in such a quake, 5% of Jerusalem's buildings would be completely destroyed.

Each time I turn on the TV and hear another story about how Israeli emergency services are saving lives and building friendships in Haiti, I can feel the pride building in my chest. I can even tolerate the ridiculous critical comments dished out be Israel-bashers. It is obvious that they are forced to defend their negative positions when the news unexpectedly turns to compliment Israel instead of criticise. It is unfortunate that we have the best skills in the world to deal with emergencies - they have been acquired with blood, sweat and tears. Having acquired the skills, there is no reason in the world why we would not share them with anybody who may need them.

Sunday 17 January 2010

Route 443: Is the High Court Correct?

On 29th December 2009, the Israeli High Court of Justice ordered the Israel Defence Force (IDF) to reopen Route 443 to Palestinian traffic. The ruling was made in response to a petition by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) on behalf of the residents of six Palestinian villages who were previously barred from using the road.

Route 443 is officially described as the main road connecting Jerusalem to the city of Modi'in. Perhaps more importantly, the road provides an alternative route between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The primary artery between these two key Israeli hotspots is Route 1, which has become increasingly congested as the volume of traffic between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem continues to grow dramatically. Many of those travelling between the cities choose to use Route 443 in the hope of avoiding the major traffic jams. The controversy surrounding Route 443 centres on a 14 kilometre stretch of the road between the Maccabim Checkpoint near to Modi'in and the Atarot Checkpoint on the north side of Jerusalem which passes through the West Bank.

In the 1980s, the Israeli government upgraded Route 443 spending many millions of Israeli taxpayer Dollars in the process. The plan was to improve it for the use of local traffic for the approximately 35,000 Palestinians living in villages on either side of the road, as well as for traffic travelling between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. When the second intifada broke out in 2000, Route 443 became a target for attacks by Palestinians on Israelis. Despite the erection of anti-sniper barriers along the road, 6 Israelis were killed in incidents of gunfire on Route 443. Three of these casualties were in a single attack when Freda Sawari lost her son, brother and sister-in-law. Numerous other attacks were staged on this road which, thankfully, did not result in casualties. These events prompted the IDF to close the road for use by local Palestinian traffic. Instead, the local traffic was diverted onto 3 alternative roads known as the "fabric of life" roads. There is no doubt that travelling on these alternative roads was far less convenient for the local traffic and ensured that their travel times were extended, sometimes quite considerably. Closures on Route 443 were enforced with physical barriers - concrete blocks and gates - to prevent local traffic from gaining access to the road. Since local traffic was barred from the road, there have been no Israeli casualties on Route 443.

In July 2007, a petition to the High Court of Justice by the local residents to open the road to local traffic was unsuccessful. The court upheld the IDF's right to restrict traffic on the road for a further six months. Despite this ruling, the IDF announced that it would open use of the road to local commercial and public service vehicles during daytime hours. The villagers, however, did not accept this decision. Israel was continually accused of imposing "apartheid" on Route 443 by allowing Israeli traffic to flow while denying the right of local Palestinian traffic to use the road.

This has now been changed by the court December ruling which forces the IDF to open the road for use by Palestinian traffic within 5 months. This will be the first time that it will be open to Palestinian traffic since October 2000. The court ruling was not unanimous by the three justices on the bench. The majority, which included Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch and Justice Uzi Fogelman, ruled that the IDF is required to find an alternative way of keeping peace on Route 443. Dissenting Justice Edmond Levey felt that the security on the road was the jurisdiction of the IDF and the Defence Ministry, and that the courts should not intervene in such a matter. Ironically, one week before the ruling, an explosive device was found on the road. This was fortunately discovered in good time and dismantled before it could do any damage.

While I feel proud to live in a democracy where there is always recourse to the courts, even on such serious matters that may affect national security, I do feel on this occasion that the court decision is incorrect. I am not sure that I concur with dissenting Justice Levey's view that this matter is not within the jurisdiction of the courts. On the contrary, I would wish the courts to rule on such matters. I feel on this occasion that the court has not ruled on the side of justice. If enabling local traffic on the road increases the risk of terror attacks, this traffic should not be allowed. I would feel the same about preventing Jewish traffic on the road if the terror attacks were initiated by Jews rather than Palestinians. So far, no Jewish threats have been evident on the road. Even though there continue to be threats on the road since the closure as evidenced by the device found shortly before the court ruling, it is clear that these have been kept to a manageable level to allow passengers to continue to use the road in relative safety. The fact that there have been no casualties since the closure was implemented on the road is, for me, sufficient evidence to prove its value. The road is a public service and should be made available to all law-abiding citizens wishing to use the road for its intended purpose. It would be the ultimate solution if this included the local Palestinian villagers as well as the Israelis passing by.

Since the court ruling, there have been reports of isolated stoning events along Route 443. This is despite the fact that the closure remains in place. It seems as though the ruling has emboldened Palestinians in the area to return to their old ways and this is regrettable. Israeli drivers have responded by staying away from the road in their droves, thereby creating insufferable traffic jams on Route 1. It was quoted recently that a diversion of only 20% of the through traffic from Route 443 to Route 1 would cause a collapse of the main artery.

I agree that the Israeli courts need to be looking after the best interests of all citizens in Israel - Jews and Arabs alike. I also agree that there have been occasions that the IDF has resorted to the "easy solution" in taking care of a complex security situation. Sometimes the easy solution is not the best solution, and the courts do have a role in evaluating this. I sincerely hope, however, that Justices Beinish and Fogelman can see something that I cannot see as to how the IDF may be able to keep the peace on Route 443 while still allowing local traffic on the road. In the meantime, I remain unconvinced and, along with me, the vast majority of the Israeli public. I sincerely hope that we are wrong.

Sunday 10 January 2010

Forced to Abandon the South African Connection?

Despite the fact that I have lived outside of South Africa for nearly half of my life, I have always retained a close affinity and connection with the land of my birth. This is not only because of my ongoing family connections with South Africa. I feel that South Africa has influenced many of the things that I still enjoy in life. I cannot escape my love for sport, sunshine, braais, boerewors and biltong all of which were cultivated in South Africa. For the first time since leaving Cape Town in 1990, however, I feel that I am being forced to reconsider my strong links to South Africa. Up until now, I have succeeded in balancing my South African roots with my allegiance towards my new home, the State of Israel and my Jewish heritage. Recent events are making this a great deal more difficult.

When the ANC government came into power in 1994, it was inevitable that there would be a clash between Israel and South Africa. The new South African government consisted of the former resistance fighters of the ANC. During its years of engaging in military opposition to the apartheid government, the ANC enjoyed support and close links with the PLO and other Palestinian factions. Even though the diplomatic relations between Israel and South Africa were retained by the ANC government, it was never likely that the relationship between the governments of the two countries would be close. Despite this fact, they did succeed in retaining relations in a way that made it relatively easy for former South Africans and Jews in South Africans to be in close contact.

Ironically, the events that are giving me difficulty in balancing my South African and Israeli/Jewish identities have been precipitated by Jews. First, it was Jewish ANC government minister Ronnie Kasrils who decided to put pen to paper in criticism of Israel's policies towards the Palestinians. His visit to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in 2007 was not helpful in promoting closer Israel - South Africa relations or in helping the position of the Jews in South Africa. The damage by Kasrils is, however, insignificant when compared to that done by Judge Richard Goldstone.

The publication of Goldstone's report into the Gaza war (Operation Cast Lead) has done immense damage to the status of Jews in South Africa, as well as that of former South Africans in Israel. Goldstone presented a report which was highly unbalanced and critical of Israel's actions, with only passing references to the significant efforts made by Israel to attempt to behave fairly and proportionately under very difficult circumstances. If this was not bad enough, he went even further by accusing Israel of committing war crimes. This is translated into accusing Israelis who fought in the war, of being war criminals. It has been suggested that Israelis should be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague on charges of war crimes arising from the Goldstone report.

The ICC was brought into existence by the Rome Treaty signed in 2002. Israel was not a signatory to this treaty, which means that the ICC does not have any jurisdiction in Israel or over Israelis. This is currently the only issue saving Israelis from possible prosecution. Even this safety net appears not to be 100% secure as evidenced by the recent threat to arrest certain senior army officers and politicians in the UK. South Africa is, however, a signatory to the Rome Treaty. Two organisations, the Palestinian Solidarity Alliance and Media Review Network approached South Africa's National Prosecution Authority (NPA) a few weeks ago with a list of some 75 South Africans who allegedly fought in Gaza. These organisations had previously initiated action against Lt. Col. David Benjamin who was on a visit to South Africa during August 2009. Their approach to the NPA is based on the fact that these names are South Africans who are contravening the South African law forbidding South African citizens to serve in foreign armies. It is also based on Goldstone's recommendation that those fighting for the IDF in Operation Cast Lead be sent to the ICC for prosecution. Because many former South Africans have retained their South African citizenship, it seems as though they may be at risk of prosecution either under South African law or by the ICC.

For ex-South Africans living in Israel, it seems that there may be an easy answer. If they have decided to make Israel their home, why not give up their South African nationality? This will ensure that they cannot be accused of serving in a foreign army and this may also help to avoid arrest on war crimes charges under the Rome Treaty. Even though some may find this to be emotionally difficult given the strength of connection that still exists between members of the South African community in Israel and their former homeland, there is a more significant issue which comes in the way.

A few years ago, message was sent around the community of South Africans in Israel advising that the South African government had issued an instruction forcing all former South Africans living abroad to use only a South African passport when travelling to South Africa. There is nothing that I have found in writing that confirms this regulation, but subsequent enquiries at the South African consulate in Tel Aviv confirmed this to be true. Besides the cost and inconvenience of maintaining an additional passport, our family and others like us have no issue in adapting to this regulation in the interests of staying on the right side of the South African authorities. With many family members remaining in South Africa, the likelihood that we would want to visit South Africa from time to time is high. Being on the good terms with the South African authorities is certainly our preferred approach.

With the new threat of possible prosecutions and arrests on war crimes charges in South Africa, a great dilemma arises for the South African community. Many of us or our children have served in the Israeli army, or will be doing so in the future. I am personally proud of the fact that my children will be serving the Jewish state and the Jewish people via their service in the IDF. For people like my children and their contemporaries, they are faced with the choice of risking arrest in South Africa or giving up their South African citizenship. Whilst the implications with the South African government of choosing the second option are not entirely clear to me, it has come to my attention that at least one former South African due to enlist with the IDF soon has been asked to give up her South African citizenship by the IDF. It seems as though the decision as to what to choose may be made automatically for those who will be joining the IDF in the future.

While I clearly oppose the accusation of any war crimes having been committed by the IDF in any of the operations that it has been involved in, I would welcome the possibility of continued good relations between South Africa and Israel. The fact that one South African Jew can cause so much damage and is able to destabilise a relationship that has existed for so long seems to me to be inconceivable. I hope that these unjustified actions will not force our community to abandon our South African connection.

Sunday 3 January 2010

Whose New Year Is It?

Most national holidays in any country are based upon the religious holidays of the country's majority. Christmas and Easter are good examples of this in the Christian world. In addition to religious holidays, most countries have at least one national day. For example, the USA celebrates two national days in the form of Independence Day and Thanksgiving. I have long keenly observed how holidays celebrated in one part of the world find their way to other parts of the world in the global village that our world has become. The new year holiday seems to me to be one which transcends religions and nations.

Much TV and newspaper space has been devoted to the lavish celebrations and fireworks displays that have been put on around the world to welcome the start of 2010. But whose new year is it really? The Chinese celebrate their new year according to the lunar calendar. This usually falls in the Gregorian calendar between late January and late February. The Indians celebrate new year at different times of the year in different places. These celebrations are also according to the lunar calendar and do not correspond to the traditional western date of 1 January. The Indians and Chinese together comprise almost half of the world's population, so it seems as though the Gregorian 1 January date maybe celebrated by a minority of the world. The Jewish calendar is also a lunar one, with the Jewish new year being celebrated at the start of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, which corresponds to a date in September or October in the Gregorian calendar.

The truth is that the Gregorian new year, or civilian new year as it is called in Israel, seems to be universally celebrated and I am guessing that it is probably the most widely celebrated holiday. This is largely because the Gregorian calendar is in prevalent use, even where different calendars are followed. Although the Hebrew date is used on all official documents in Israel, Israeli society operates according to the Gregorian calendar aside from the dates of the Jewish festivals. It is, therefore, unsurprising that Israelis have increasingly taken to celebrating when 1 January comes around. There are those in Israel who are wholly opposed to any sort of celebration for the civilian new year. They believe that it is even anti-Jewish to mark this occasion. I have a somewhat ambivalent view on the subject.

Growing up in rural South Africa, I always felt that trying celebrate the Jewish holidays required significant effort and compromise. It always appeared as if the most important activities at school were reserved for the days upon which I had to be away for one Jewish holiday or another. Of course, I gladly took the days off for the Christian holidays even though we had no part in celebrating the festival. When moving later to a university which had a more significant body of Jewish students in my classes, the university was forced to be more accommodating to the Jewish students and faculty staff. In later years when working in London, I always had to plan well in advance to ensure that I could take Jewish holidays off work. These holiday requests were not always well received by my employers.

When coming to Israel, I felt a real sense of relief that I would be able to legitimately take days off for the Jewish holidays. This is a part of living in Israel that I still enjoy immensely. For the first time in my life, I am entitled to take off Jewish holidays without having to explain or justify this. I am even entitled to take the day before the Jewish holiday (erev chag). I am amused that the non-Jewish workers in Israel know how to offer the traditional greeting for each Jewish holiday, and are familiar with the customs and foods that are associated with such holidays. For me, the wheel has turned full circle from the days when I was forced to wish friends and customers a Merry Christmas in the town in which I lived. Now it is them who greet me with my holiday greeting.

It is regarded as ironic by Christians around the world that Christmas is not celebrated in the country in which the Christmas story took place. When Christmas falls on a regular weekday, it is regular work day in Israel with all businesses, shops and the stock exchange open for work and trade as usual. Because the Israeli majority is Jewish and Christmas is a Christian holiday, it is clear why this is not celebrated in Israel. In fact, I was most unimpressed when my local gym decided to put up a decorations around the Christmas season. Although there were no images of Santa Claus or his reindeer, the white snowflakes and winter scene effects were enough to convince me that the decorations were not for Chanukah.

It was the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar who was first to celebrate January 1st as the start of the new year in 46 B.C.E. On this occasion, the new year was celebrated by Caesar ordering the violent routing of revolutionary Jewish forces in the Galilee. Because new year's day is 8 days after the birthday of Jesus, it would also have been the day of his circumcision according to Jewish tradition. During the medieval and post-medieval periods, this day was specifically reserved for violent anti-Jewish activities such as synagogue and book burning, public tortures and murder.

Pope Gregory, the architect of our current calendar system, initiated many anti-Jewish activities on new year's day during his reign. It was during the second half of the 16th century that he variously initiated Catholic conversion sermons being delivered in Roman synagogues after Friday evening prayers, the confiscation of sacred texts from Roman Jews and many other anti-Semitic activities to coincide with 1 January. Many Jews were killed during this period.

In Israel, new year is commonly known as "Sylvester". In fact, Sylvester was the name of a Saint and Pope who reigned during the 4th century. He convinced Constantine to prohibit Jews from living in Jerusalem. All Catholic Saints are given a day upon which Christians can celebrate and pay tribute to the Saint's memory. December 31st was the day given to Saint Sylvester, hence the fact that new year's eve is known as Sylvester.

It is easy to see why celebrating new year can be associated with the considerable number of anti-Semitic acts perpetrated on this day in the past. Without derogating or diminishing the horror of such actions, I feel that there is still place to recognise that the year has changed. It presents an opportunity to consider what has taken place over the past 12 months, while expressing positive wishes and intentions for the year ahead.

Whatever your view happens to be, it is my wish that 2010 will be a happy, healthy and successful year for everybody. Whilst it is my hope that Middle East politics will continue to give me much to think and write about, I sincerely hope that I will be writing about positive actions, about progress towards peace and understanding and about much greater levels of tolerance by all parties. Happy new year !