Monday 26 December 2011

Gender Segregation Pushed Too Far

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Despite many indications that Israel is a country that appears to promote gender equality more than most other countries around the world, there have been worrying signs of greater gender segregation creeping into some aspects of Israeli society recently.  Israel's Golda Meir was only the third female prime minister in the world, and Israeli women are required to serve in the Israeli army in the same way as their male counterparts.  These are all indications of Israel's progressive approach to women.  Yet this is the same country which closes off entire streets to the use of women, and requires them to sit at the back of the bus while their male counterparts sit at the front.

Ultra-Orthodox groups in Jerusalem and elsewhere around Israel, have been increasingly trying to enforce greater gender segregation.  There is also already fairly strict gender segregation enforced in ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods such as Jerusalem's Mea Shearim.  This is tolerable inasmuch as those who are subject to the segregation, are those who subscribe to it.  For the people living in Mea Shearim, gender segregation is part of their belief system and lifestyle.  Women are raised with this from birth, attend separate schools and are readied to take on separate traditional roles in the home and society.  Visitors to Mea Shearim know that this is the way in which things work in this neighbourhood, and are invited to stay away if this is objectionable to them.

The problem arises when supporters of gender segregation allow this to creep out into the general public, thereby affecting those who do not subscribe to it.  This has already long been the case in Jerusalem, with advertisers refusing to show images of women on buses and billboards for fear of them being defaced by ultra-Orthodox protestors.  Despite a court order prohibiting gender segregation in specific streets, even in ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods, residents of Mea Shearim set up separation barriers on Mea Shearim Street and Shivtei Yisrael Street during the recent Succot holiday.  The hard-line Toldot Aharon Hassidic sect were holding events relating to the holiday on locations in these streets, and were prohibiting women from approaching even near to these locations.

Two recent events have brought the gender segregation to a head, and have forced politicians and religious leaders to speak out on the issue.  The first event was a walkout of a military ceremony by religious soldiers when women soldiers began to sing at the ceremony.  The protestors subscribe to the so-called "kol isha" prohibition, which forbids males from hearing women sing.  The IDF's general staff has refused to back down on this issue.  The protesting soldiers were not given permission to leave the ceremony , and have been disciplined for their behaviour.  The military authorities have refused to heed calls to ban singing by women in future ceremonies.  This has brought the military into direct conflict with some ultra-Orthodox groups.

The second incident took place on a bus that was designated as a gender-separate service, something that has become more popular in Israel in recent years.  This means that women are required to sit at the back of the bus, while their male counterparts get to sit in the front.  Upon entering the bus, Tanya Rosenblit was requested by one of the religious males to sit in the ladies' section at the bank.  In a protest which was reminiscent of the actions by Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama in the 1950s, Tanya refused to relocate to the back of the bus.  This sparked a stand-off in which the bus was halted and the police called.  In a statement after the incident, Rosenblit said that she had shown respect by dressing modestly because she knew she was going into a religious area.  She refused, however, to be humiliated by being forced to sit at the back of the bus.  She has taken on a somewhat heroic status in the eyes of many, by being prepared to stand up to the religious coercion, something that few women have been prepared to do.

Israeli Chief Rabbi, Yona Metzger, came out recently saying that religious people are entitled to live their lives as they see fit, but they have no right to impose their views on the general public and in public areas.  Prime Minister Netanyahu announced at the Sunday morning cabinet meeting that Israel is a liberal democracy, and that public spaces are made available to men and women to use equally in a safe and open way.  The police will arrest those who spit, raise their hand or harass others.  These statements will sadly have no bearing at all on those who perpetrate gender segregation.  They do not respect these leaders, nor take note of anything they say.  They subscribe only to the leadership of the rabbinical leaders of their sects, and will only be guided by their statements.

It is ironic that these events take place at the same time that it is announced that no fewer than 5 female pilots and navigators, the most ever, will graduate from this year's air force flight instruction course.  It is only 16 short years since Alice Miller succeeded in challenging the prohibition on women being admitted to the flight instruction course.  Since then, many women have graduated from this course to serve their country with great distinction.  This year, 5 more women will join their distinguished ranks.  This is closer to the Israel that most of us know, a country which does support the equality of women in our society and which does encourage women to play a full role.

Despite the insistence by religious groups to enforce greater gender segregation and become more extreme in their views and actions, it seems unlikely that the greater public and the politicians will tolerate this.  While this does not mean that religious groups will be forced to dilute their religious observance, it simply means that they will be forced to limit their extreme views to their own environments, while allowing others to live their lives without being dictated to.  Surely this is the correct answer.

Monday 19 December 2011

The Apple Never Falls Far From the Tree

Many were taken by surprise last week when it was announced that the Apple Corporation has decided to open a development centre in Israel.  The main reason for the surprise, is the fact that Apple's strategy to date has been to centralise all of its development effort at its corporate headquarters in Cupertino, California.  The Israeli development centre will be the first one that Apple will open outside of the Cupertino headquarters.  Has this new step been enabled by the recent departure and demise of former Apple CEO and icon, Steve Jobs?  Perhaps so.  Upon closer examination, however, it becomes clear that the direction in which new CEO Tim Cook is taking the company, is not far removed from the strategy which Jobs pursued so successfully prior to his death.

Apple's meteoric rise in recent years has largely been driven by the innovation of its range of new products.  This has not been the only contributing factor to Apple's success.  In addition to bucking the trend by developing products and features which are different and exciting in a world which is oversupplied by all manner of electronic goods, Apple has also succeeded in achieving gross profit margins in excess of 40% on its sales.  This is far higher than its peer group of hardware vendors.  The way that Apple has achieved this, is by taking full control of its supply chain.  This has not necessarily required the acquisition of key suppliers, although this has been done on more than a few occasions.  Rather, the way in which this control has been achieved is by securing large volumes of required components ahead of time.  By doing this, Apple has succeeded in avoiding seasonal fluctuations in supply volumes and prices, even though it has required a substantial commitment of capital.  It is this strategy that has led Apple to Israel, and ultimately led it to the decision to establish a development centre here.

Apple's products rely heavily on flash memory, and the company spends billions of dollars a year in acquiring these components.  Israeli company Anobit has been a supplier of NAND flash memory to Apple, and develops systems for improving this component.  Apple has decided that acquiring Anobit could save it 10-20% on its purchase of flash memory each year, and Anobit has been put firmly on Apple's shopping list.  Acquiring Anobit may also allow Apple to cut off the company's cooperation with Samsung, one of Apple's fiercest rivals in the field of smartphones and tablets.  Anobit seems also to have been a catalyst for Apple's interest in Israeli technology, and appears to have influenced the decision taken by Apple to set up a development centre in Israel.  This centre will focus primarily on semiconductor development, a field that Israeli companies have excelled in over the years.

Even though the marriage between Apple and Israeli technological development seems obvious to some, it still requires a champion within a large company to drive through an initiative of this sort.  In Apple's case, the  decision to open a development centre in Israel has been championed by former Haifa resident Johnny Srouji, who was hired by Apple 3 years ago.  He has risen in the ranks of Apple to the level of vice president.  Now, the Israeli press is full of details of the fact that Apple has been searching for premises in Haifa which are reputed to be large enough to house as many as 250 employees.  Israeli high-tech veteran Aharon Aharon has been hired to head up the new Apple development centre.

Companies such as Intel, Microsoft and Google have enjoyed tremendous success by using Israeli brainpower.  It is no secret that it was Israeli engineers who helped Intel to break through significant barriers in the development of their processors.  This has contributed, in no uncertain terms, to Intel's continued successes over the years.  Now, Apple has decided to also tap into this pool of talent to help take its products to the next level.  It is expected that Israeli expertise in flash storage could help to speed up iPhones and iPads, as well as the data transfer between them.

Apple representatives have said that the company will continue to open the new development centre even if the deal to acquire Anobit does not go ahead.  The truth is, that either one of these acts on Apple's part would come as a huge compliment to Israeli hi-tech and engineering.  Both deals being done would surely make Apple a substantial player in Israel's technology sector, and will place Israeli technology at the forefront of the world's leading-edge products.  This is a great achievement for the previous generations of Israeli engineers, and a fantastic incentive for the next generation in order to keep Israeli hi-tech to reach greater heights.

Despite the fact that Israeli technology has already received recognition as amongst the best in the world, the decision by Apple to open its first development centre outside of California is a fantastic accolade.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

How to Bring Israelis Home

The Jewish Agency recently took a decision to make a change to their usual activities to attract Jews to come and live in the Jewish homeland. Until now, the activities of the Jewish Agency have been focused towards attracting Jews who have lived their lives in the Jewish Diaspora, to come and make their homes in Israel.  They have concentrated on two main targets.  Firstly,  they have concentrated on Jewish communities at risk or in need, such as the Jews in Morocco, Yemen, Russia and Ethiopia who were shipped to Israel in large projects, and sometimes in some haste. The Jewish Agency has also focused on attracting the attention of Jews in communities which were not under threat, such as Jews in the USA, the UK, South Africa, Australia, South America and other locations. The tactics employed in these communities has largely targeted the youth and the young adults to experience the vibrancy that Israel offers people of this age, in the hope that parents and other family members will follow the youngsters to Israel.
The new campaign that the Jewish Agency has embarked upon recently is aimed at an entirely different community. This time, the Jewish Agency is trying to attract former Israelis to come back home. In some parts of the world, and particularly around the USA, fairly large groups of former-Israelis (or yordim as they are sometimes known) have established themselves. It is estimated that as many as half a million Israelis live in the USA, and that this number has grown by 30,000 in the past ten years alone.  Most yordim continue to have a close connection with Israel, and visit members of their family on a fairly frequent basis. Although many voice an intention to return to live in Israel at some point in the future, the numbers of yordim continues to grow.  The link to Israel for these people is stronger during times of security crisis. They obviously have a strong concern for individual friends and family who may be at risk during times of unrest, and those who are serving in the IDF during periods of war.  There is a concern, however, that their link to Israel and Judaism gets weaker the longer they live outside of Israel.

The Jewish Agency campaign to try to convince yardarm to return home, has caused a great deal of negative reaction in the USA where adverts have appeared on billboards in areas where large communities of Israelis reside.  This has been supported by online video adverts that have been launched. The campaign focuses largely on the fact that the intermarriage of children of yardarm may result in assimilation. One video advert shows Israel grandparents communicating with their grandchild, in the USA on Chanukah. The parents ask what holiday the child is celebrating, to which he answers “Christmas”. In another advert, a yored father is upset by the fact that his child is calling him “daddy” rather than “abba”. The message is clear. The longer these people stay in their current environments, the more assimilated they become.

The Jewish community in the USA has come out in strong objection to the advertising campaign.  The main reason for their objection is that the assimilation referred to in the adverts is not limited to Israelis who marry non-Jews.  It also  includes the situation where Israelis marry Diaspora Jews.  This is particularly reflected in advert which shows a young Israeli woman watching a Yom Hazikaron ceremony on-line, while her American husband is seeing asking her to go out to a party.  The insinuation that  American Jews are somehow disconnected, is seen as being a slap in the face of the Jewish community in the USA, and their attempts to maintain their Judaism and their links to Israel.  I can understand the insult felt by the USA Jewish communities.  Apparently the Israeli government has also understood this as they have pulled the campaign since the uproar flared up.

As much as the campaign is disparaging towards the American Jewish community, it also contains a great deal of truth.  There can be no doubt that assimilation has ravaged the world’s Jewish population in the period following the Shoah, particularly that in the USA.  Recent statistics suggest that 40-50% of American Jews marry non-Jews.  Of these, only 33%  provide their children with a Jewish upbringing.  This means that there is an increasing number of “Jewish” children who are not halachically Jewish due to their mothers not converting to Judaism.  There are also a large number of children who are simply lost to Judaism as a result of their Jewish parent marrying a non-Jew,  and the family not identifying with the Jewish community at all.  This trend will have an impact on the Israeli community in the USA as well, even those who have a strong national identification with the State of Israel.

Israel has one of the few Jewish communities in the world that are growing.  This is not only because of aliyah and population growth.  It is also because there is much less of a problem of assimilation in Israel.  It is sometimes amusing to note the effect of the Jewish and Israeli national holidays, even on the non-Jewish foreign workers in Israel.  It is simply impossible for a child in Israel, even those raised in homes that don’t have a strong sense of Jewish identity, to miss a Jewish festival or not to be familiar with its main aspects.  This must surely be a strong reason why it is right to do all that we can to attract Israelis back home, as much as we wish to attract others to make Israel their home.  While I have a great deal of respect for the efforts made by the Jews in the USA and elsewhere to identify with Judaism and Israel, I feel that the only way to assure ourselves of Jewish continuity is to have as many Jews in Israel as possible.

Sunday 4 December 2011

Egypt's Elections Produce a Surprise Package

The Arab Spring uprisings began exactly 1 year ago this month.  The demonstrations against the government of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia began in December 2010, and resulted in him being removed from power 1 month later.  The Spring subsequently spread to many other countries in the Middle East, and has been encouraged by enthusiastic support from the western countries.  Ironically, the one voice of hesitation against the uprisings came from Israel.  At the time, it was difficult for many to understand why Netanyahu did not support the Spring whole-heartedly.  Now, a year later, his reasons are starting to become apparent.

Netanyahu's concern about the uprisings were most obvious when the demonstrations reached Egypt, and thousands of Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square demanding the head of President Hosni Mubarak.  It was clear that Mubarak had ruled with an iron fist in the 30 years that he had presided over Egypt.  He was never elected in a free democratic election, and he never repealed the emergency laws under which his government and his security apparatus were entitled to do almost as they wished, and which they used to maximum effect.  Most citizens around the world who have lived in a democratic system (as well as many who have not) felt some level of empathy with Egyptians as they demanded, and finally got, the resignation of their president.  Netanyahu's voice was a lone one during that time, and it seemed strange to many that the leader of a free and democratic country would express concern about the democratisation of another country.  There were silent whispers about whether the relationship between Mubarak and Netanyahu held more than what was publicly known.  There were mutterings about whether the gas deal that was struck between Egypt and Israel, and which Mubarak's family are reputed to have personally profited from, possibly held personal profits for Israel's leaders too.  All the while, Netanyahu was heard to speak out in understated tones about his concerns for the Arab Spring.

Fast forward 11 months since the day that it was announced that Mubarak had resigned from power, and how different the situation looks.  Egypt has undergone its first round of voting in its nascent democratic process, and things are looking distinctly worrying for Israel and the west.  Voting for the lower house of Egypt's parliament has revealed that Islamic extremist groups are likely to rule in the new Egypt.  The Muslim Brotherhood, which was held responsible for the assassination of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and which remained a banned organisation throughout the 30 years of Mubarak's rule, has emerged as the strongest party in the elections.  There are those who believe that this support comes as a result of euphoria over the unbanning of the Muslim Brotherhood, not unlike the euphoria which saw the ANC sweep to power in South Africa after it was unbanned.  There are those, however, who believe that this reflects a trend towards Islamic fundamentalism  that can be seen in many countries around the world.  This is borne out by the meteoric rise of the Salafist Al-Nour party which received the second highest number of votes in the first round.  The Salafists advocate greater Islamic fundamentalism than the Muslim Brotherhood, and wish to apply Islamic Sharia law to Egypt.  They make the Muslim Brotherhood look like amateur fundamentalists.

The fact that the Muslim Brotherhood had strong showings in the elections in Tunisia and Morocco, is not nearly as concerning as the indications of the trend in Egypt.  Besides the fact that Egypt has a direct land border with Israel, Egypt also enjoys a strategic position both geographically and politically in the current fragile state of international diplomacy.  Is the election result in Egypt showing that some countries are not yet ready to cope with western-style democracy, as so many people claim?  Or is the truth that Hosni Mubarak's iron fist also worked to protect the west against the scourge of Islamic fundamentalism?  Netanyahu seems to have been one of the only western leaders who understood this at a stage that it was still early enough to do something.  Unfortunately, his was very much a lone voice, and he had no prospect of stemming the tide towards the overthrow of Mubarak.

The Israeli establishment understood as soon as Mubarak left power that Israel's relationship with Egypt has changed forever.  There are some doubts as to whether the peace treaty signed between late Prime Minister Menachem Begin and late President Anwar Sadat will be respected by the new regime.  Even if it is, a new era has dawned for Israel and Egypt.  This will also manifest itself in Israel's relationship with the Palestinians.  The Muslim Brotherhood is a close ally of Hamas.  Whereas President Mubarak worked hard with the Israelis to try to prevent Hamas from acquiring weapons into the Gaza Strip, the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to do the exact opposite.  This promises greater and more sophisticated attacks coming from Gaza, spelling real danger for southern Israel, and for the safety and security of the State of Israel as a whole.

It will be interesting to watch what sort of political system will manifest itself in post-Gaddafi Libya.  In this case, western countries were actively involved in overthrowing Gaddafi by supplying NATO air power to assist rebel forces against him.  Now, they will be forced to stand back to allow a new democratic government to replace the old dictatorship.  But who will be the new elected leaders of Libya, and could it be that the west may yet come to regret this too?  Sometimes, you need to be careful what you wish for.