Monday 27 February 2012

To Run Buses on Shabbat or Not?

The Tel Aviv City Council decided last week to recommend the operation of a bus services in the city on Shabbat.  The decision, which was passed by a majority of 13 to 7, threatens to change the "status quo" that has existed in the city and around the country since before the founding of the State of Israel nearly 64 years ago.  It was first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion who agreed to implement public observance of Shabbat in Israel, a situation that has endured across the country except for Eilat and Haifa until this day.  This has meant that public buses have not operated on the streets of Tel Aviv between sunset on Friday until after sunset on Saturday, and on religious holidays.

Israel is one of the few countries in the world that has succeeded in maintaining a public day of rest.  These days, most countries operate shops, restaurants and other places of entertainment as well as public transportation seven days a week.  The fact that many parts of Israel still manage to observe Shabbat, creates a fairly unique atmosphere on the day of rest.  This is something that is noticed immediately by visitors to Israel from abroad who observe Shabbat, and who are not accustomed to see entire cities literally shut down for the day of rest.  There are even those who are not observant who like the different atmosphere that Shabbat observance brings to towns and cities across Israel.  Besides bringing a public face to the commandment not to work on the Sabbath day, this practice also means that employees working in these establishments will not be called upon to violate their weekend.  This must surely bring an advantage in a day and age when shift work is commonplace to feed our demands to have services on tap 24/7.  This culture comes at the expense of a stable family life for those workers who are called upon to work odd hours when their families wait for them at home.  In Israel, keeping Saturday special by not operating commercial activities has endured as a result of the "status quo", and due to the pressure exerted by the religious groups who are very vocal when it comes to violating Shabbat.

The fact that children attend school 6 days a week from Sunday to Friday in Israel means that families wishing to undertake family trips or other activities can only really do so on Shabbat.  This fact has caused many to oppose the "status quo", as this prevents many families from undertaking activities that they can only do on Shabbat.  This has further  fuelled the argument that commercial activities should be allowed, and even encouraged, on Shabbat.  Compromise solutions have been found in some towns and cities in order to satisfy all constituencies.  I am aware of some places where Shabbat commercial activities are permitted in areas which are slightly removed from the central areas of the city.  This means that those who observe Shabbat, will be able to experience the tranquillity of the Shabbat without interruption.  Those wishing to take advantage of Shabbat to shop or be entertained, can leave the city centre area and head to the outskirts where these activities are available.  This works well for those who have their own private transportation.  For those relying on public transport to seek out Shabbat activities, it is not quite so convenient due to the fact that regular public transportation does not run on Shabbat.

Those who oppose the implementation of full public transport services on Shabbat in Tel Aviv, point to the fact that the "monit sherut" (a type of minicab operating along established bus routes) offers an alternative service and for a similar price to buses.  It is argued that this is enough of a service for those requiring public transport, while not encroaching on the sanctity of the Shabbat in the city centre in the way that buses would do.

Tel Aviv, as Israel's main commercial city, enjoys a special status in Israeli society.  It is also held up as being a bastion of secular freedom in a country that many believe to be dominated by religious extremists.  Although only a minority of Israelis (42%) define themselves as secular, it is clear that Tel Aviv has a majority of secular citizens.  Tel Aviv is also Israel's capital for secular entertainment such as bars, clubs, restaurants and cinemas that remain open over Shabbat.  It comes as little surprise to some observers that the "status quo" is being challenged in Tel Aviv, and that it has taken so long for this challenge to be made.

Even though the Tel Aviv City Council still has a long way to go before it can implement its decision to operate public transport on Shabbat, it seems quite determined to do so.  The government ministry of transportation will need to agree to this, and there are indications that the ministry is not inclined to support a change to the "status quo".  In response, the city council has threatened to operate its own private transportation if the ministry is not agreeable to running the existing public bus companies on Shabbat.  Those Tel Aviv residents who sense a change is imminent, may be disappointed in the short-term as this decision is likely to take some time to implement.  If the city is successful in bringing buses onto the streets on Shabbat, this will surely indicate a turning point for Tel Aviv, and for Israeli society as a whole.

Image by yanec.

Monday 20 February 2012

Israeli Embassies Under Attack

Events of last week contain a clear reminder that Israelis need to be vigilant wherever they are around the world.  Three attacks in three different countries within two days have made clear that those who wish to attack Israel will stop at nothing in their attempts to do so.  In these particular attacks, poor execution and good fortune meant that there was no loss of life and that injuries were kept to a minimum.  Israel knows only too well that this is not always the case, and that the next attacks may be much more serious.
An attempted attack in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, on Sunday was the first of last week’s critical events.  A bomb was attached to the car of a Georgian employee of the Israeli embassy, and was discovered by coincidence when the employee heard a strange noise on his car after dropping his children at kindergarten.  After he stopped the car to investigate the unusual sound, the bomb was noticed attached to the car.  The next incident in New Delhi on the same day was more serious because it caused moderate injuries to the wife of an Israeli official at the embassy.  In this case, a “drive-by” bomber on a motorcycle attached the device to the car as the woman and her Indian driver were driving to collect children from school.  The woman and the driver were both injured in the attack, as were two passers-by who were caught in the attack.  In the third incident, which took place in the Thai capital Bangkok, a comedy of errors saw two Iranians detained in the city after detonating explosives while still in their possession.  An Iranian man blew off both his legs when a device he was carrying exploded after he was confronted by a police office.  The roof of a rented house was blown off in Bangkok when the explosives were detonated by accident.  Thai police have confirmed that the intended targets of the attack were Israeli diplomatic personnel, and that the explosives in Bangkok were identical to those found in Tbilisi and New Delhi.
These attacks bring home a number of important lessons for Israelis and the Israeli government, as well as for bystanders around the world.  It is clear that Iran is intent upon carrying out its threats to try to destroy Israel or, at least, to try to inflict major damage on her.  Iranian President Ahmadinejad is being allowed to get away with his incitement, including statements calling for the destruction of Israel in any and every public forum, including the hallowed halls of the United Nations.  On Thursday last week, only four days after the attempts by Iranians to attack Israeli diplomatic staff in foreign countries, Ahmadinejad had the audacity to turn up at an anti-terrorism conference in Pakistan.  The international community has no idea how to stand up to the behaviour of this thug, and his actions are being tolerated while leaders continue to prevaricate in the halls of power around the world.  Each time he is allowed to get away with his actions, he is emboldened for the next set of actions in the knowledge that the world does not have the backbone to stand up to anything that he does.
There were a few positive hidden positive messages for Israel in the actions of last week.  Until now, Ahmadinejad has not found a way to attack Israel directly.  He may have tried, although we will never know if there have been attempts that have failed.  The attacks last week show that he is directing his efforts against Israeli targets abroad, where the security may be of a lower or inferior level.  He has been unable to break through the security cordon around Israel itself.  The attacks last week showed an element of desperation, demonstrated by the lack of professionalism in all of the attacks.  The fact that not one of the three attacks achieved its true objective, and that Iranians were blowing themselves up in Bangkok, demonstrate that plans are being implemented before they are fully ready, and in a very haphazard fashion.  Frustration and pressure were evident in the way in which the attacks were executed.
This is not an indication for Israel to sit back and relax.  On the contrary, the plans to stop the development of the Iranian nuclear missile need to be executed as soon as possible.  Despite the fact that the sanctions being imposed on Iran are taking their economic toll, indications are clear that these actions will not stop Iran from constructing its nuclear bomb.  An economically weak Iran with a nuclear missile is no better than an economically strong Iran with the same missile.  The world is looking to Israel, in many cases begrudgingly and critically, to take care of this problem.  No other nation seems to have the willingness and the ability to deal with this issue.  It was Israel that saved the world from an Iraqi nuclear weapon (despite enduring heavy criticism for its actions against the Iraqi nuclear reactor) and a Syrian nuclear weapon.  It seems quite likely that it will be Israel that will take action against the Iranian threat as well.
Organisations like Hezbollah, Hamas and countries like Iran will continue to pose a threat to Israelis, and Israeli diplomatic missions abroad.  This simply causes Israel to redouble her efforts to protect these missions to ensure that Israeli diplomats can continue to take up their rightful places in the diplomatic community.  Despite having suffered attacks on diplomatic missions in London, Buenos Aires and other locations, some of which took precious lives, Israel continues to insist on being represented as a country among the nations.
I continue to believe that 2012 will be the year in which the Iranian nuclear issue is resolved, one way or the other.  If Iran succeeds in getting to the end of the year with its full nuclear capabilities intact, I will concede that Iran has won this battle.  I expect that things will not be quite so easy, and that Israel will be doing all that she can to ensure that this does not happen.  The world is looking on expecting to see Israeli warplanes bombing Bushehr, Natanz and other Iranian nuclear facilities from the air.  I find this scenario very unlikely as it presents too much of a threat to regional stability.  Instead, I believe that the Israelis are hatching an unconventional plan that the Iranians may not even recognise until it is too late.
Somehow, I have to believe that this matter will be taken care of during the course of this year in order to feel that Israel’s security continues to be assured.  The Israeli government and army understand this too.  Instead of waiting to hear the drones of fighter-plane engines in carrying out this task, I am expecting the completely unexpected.

Sunday 12 February 2012

A Worthwhile Strike

Israel is back on strike after an announcement last week by the main workers' union, the Histadrut, that it has ordered its workers to stay home.  The Histadrut is an umbrella organisation for hundreds of thousands of workers across Israel, and a strike by its members has the ability to paralyse the Israeli economy.  It is estimated that this strike is costing the economy more than NIS 300 million a day, the equivalent of almost US$100m.

For the average Israeli who is not a member of the Histadrut and is trying to get on with his daily life, the strike is a gross inconvenience.  Banks, public transport, government ministries, municipal services and Ben Gurion airport are all suffering closures, disruptions and delays arising from this strike.  Prime Minister Netanyahu is on record calling upon the Histadrut to cancel the strike, and has said that he believes that it is possible to find a responsible and just solution to the problem.  I believe that he is right that a solution is within the hands of the relevant authorities.  But who has the responsibility to take the first steps in finding the solution?  Despite the fact that many people on the streets of Israel blame the strikers for inconveniencing their lives, are the strikers the ones at fault in this case?

The strike revolves around the terms and conditions upon which temporary workers in the public sector are employed.  There are an estimated 250,000 temporary workers whose working conditions are under the spotlight in this strike, many of whom fulfil roles as cleaners and security guards at their places of employment.  It is common practise for these types of workers to be "temporary workers" on a permanent basis.  The employees are usually provided by agencies, which are hired by the government and other companies to provide appropriate staff.  Even though there is often an attempt to rotate staff between different locations, it is quite common for individuals to serve in the same job at the same location for many years - essentially acting in the capacity as a permanent member of staff.  The only difference between these individuals and permanent members of staff, is the fact that the agency staff continue to earn their money on an hourly basis for indefinite periods of time.  Not only does this affect their rights to take sick leave or to go on holiday without having go be concerned about paying their rent, it also has a substantial impact on their social benefits during the time that they are working and when they finally leave their positions.  The main beneficiary of this combination deal is the government, which is by far the largest employer of these temporary workers.

This is not the first time that the Histadrut has raised this issue.  A short-lived strike was already held during the middle of last year.  This strike was called off on the promise that the issue would be resolved.  Needless to say, no substantial progress has been made towards rectifying the status and the rights attached to these workers.  Although I am not a great supporter of all actions taken by the Histadrut in the past, it is my view that the union would not be fulfilling its obligation towards its members if it did not take a strong stand on this issue.  If the Histadrut does not act strongly where this is concerned, what is its main role in our society?

Naturally and unsurprisingly, there are ulterior motives at play which serve to partially cloud the matter.  The temporary workers are not actually members of the union.  This is one of the rights that is denied them in their capacity as temporary workers.  If the Histadrut is able to succeed in convincing the government to change the status of these employees to give them a permanent contract, the Histadrut stands to gain a substantial number of new members.  Additionally members bring additional membership fees through the coffers of the union, and additional strength in the political arena.  Whereas the Histadrut is presenting its actions as entirely altruistic in the interests of the temporary workers, there is another side to their actions which needs to be considered.

Israel's "summer of discontent" saw strikes and protests against increasing economic hardship for the average Israeli.  The cost of living continues to soar, while earnings levels fail to keep pace with these increases.  Ironically, the main group of protestors who camped for months in public areas across Israel come from the middle class.  The main population of lower paid workers were not well represented at all in these protests.  The reasons are clear.  Many of them are new immigrants, coming from countries where this type of social protest is unheard of, and runs the risk of being rounded up by government authorities who will not tolerate public protest.  Most of all, they are unable to take even one day off work to protest, for fear of not being able to feed their children at the end of the month.  The message from the social protest movement to the government is that Israelis of all levels are finding the already tough economic conditions increasingly unmanageable.  When unscrambling the myriad of messages that the government received from the social protests, the key message relates to the weakest members of society, particularly those who could not even afford to be involved to express their hardship and suffering.  I see the latest strike as representing these people.

One of the messages of humility that I have learned since moving to Israel, has come from watching people strive to make ends meet.  Watching people who are accustomed to living in sprawling comfortable homes in their countries of origin choosing to adjust their lives to live in small apartments and work unbelievably long hours for little pay, shows an incredible level of commitment to this country.  Equally, seeing people who are highly educated unable to find jobs in their own professions and willing to take on menial low-paying tasks to feed children and assure their education, has been a life-lesson for me.  These people, many of whom don't even have a moment to raise their heads in order to protest for fear of foregoing an hour which can produce a little more family income, need every protection that our society can offer them.  This is why I do support the strike that is currently causing enormous economic damage to our country.

Prime Minister Netanyahu should make his haughty statements about causing economic damage into a nearby mirror, for he is the one who should be taking further action to bring the strike to an end.  In so doing, he should be taking active steps to help and protect our society's most vulnerable people.  We all understand and appreciate the fact that the government is under immense pressure to reduce its spending, and that cuts need to be made across the board.  These cuts should also be felt by those interest groups who Netanyahu is trying to court in anticipation of a general election later in the year.  The message from the country is clear.  The correct solution is not to spend more, but to spend more responsibly.  Take money that is being diverted to electioneering, and help those who really need it.

If the social protest movement really believes in the message that it has been sending to the government, most Israelis will support this strike.  Although there is always a political undercurrent to social actions, this strike could bring about substantial and sorely-needed changes to those who really need it.  It is for this reason that I am willing, albeit reluctantly, to suffer the consequences of the strike.  It is my hope that others will join in this view.

Postscript:  Not long after this blog was written, the strike was called off.  No details are yet available of the deal that was agreed upon.  Despite this fact, I feel that the statements made in the blog are still worthwhile publishing.