Thursday, 28 June 2007

Bring Gilad home now

A consensus is emerging in Israel about what to do about the MIAs: We should do everything possible to free them, but doing so in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners would reward terrorism and encourage future kidnappings. The consensus breaks down at whether we should go for a deal anyway, or rather, stand firm and not give in. Much has been written and said about the MIAs but as far as I can see there has been one glaring oversight.

Every occasion that an Israeli has been kidnapped in the last fifteen years has been a result of an Israeli mistake. Gilad Shalit was kidnapped from the Kerem Shalom army base within Israeli territory after terrorists dug a tunnel under the border. From a military perspective this is a shocking error that should never have happened. Eldad Regev and Udi Goldwasser, as well as the three soldiers kidnapped in 2000, were in Israeli territory on the Lebanese border. There is no acceptable reason why terrorists should be able to break through what should be a rock solid border. Elhanan Tannanbaum was visiting Lebanon to do a drug deal and Nachshon Wachsman was hitchhiking in the territories. The common thread is that Israelis wouldn’t get kidnapped if we didn’t make mistakes.

So what’s my point? Whether we do a deal with Hamas and Hezbollah or not, they will always know that kidnapping tortures us. Far more important than trying to regain our deterrence by refusing a deal, is to simply make it impossible for them to kidnap anyone ever again. Just as the IDF is currently undergoing a major retraining in light of the failures of the Second Lebanon War, they should also be figuring out how to strengthen our borders and defend our army bases. A military as strong as our own should be able to protect its soldiers when they’re on sovereign Israeli territory. It’s as simple as that.

Olmert should do a deal straight away, give them whatever they want and bring our boys home… and never let this happen again.

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

From Downing Street to Emek Refaim

Tony Blair must be glad to be ending his time in 10 Downing Street. It’s been an incredible ten years for the Labour Prime Minister, but having faced a difficult couple of years under tremendous pressure from his own party, Parliament and the British people, he’ll be pleased to say farewell. Aged 54, he has many good years ahead of him, and by the sounds of things, he’s not planning on getting out his slippers and pipe quite yet. Blair is expected to be appointed the Quartet’s Middle East envoy later today. The reaction was predictable: The Americans think he’ll be great, Tzipi Livni said it was a “terrific decision”, the Russians are disappointed and the Palestinians think it’s the worst thing to have happened to them since al-Naqba.

It will for sure be interesting to see how an envoy that appreciates Israel’s predicament fares in the region. Reaction has ranged from those that think this is yet another pointless effort at mediating between two sides that are so bitterly divided to make the whole exercise worthless, to those that think it’s worth a try, if unlikely to reap any rewards. I, however, am more interested in the spectacle of Tony Blair spending more time in Jerusalem. Rumour has it that he’ll get an office somewhere in Jerusalem. If he’s going to be here for longer periods, he might get fed up of the Citadel or King David and look to buy a small eight bedroom in the German Colony. If he and Cherie are strapped for cash now that they’re a one-income family, they could always call Ehud Olmert for some advice on where to get a dodgy loan, or simply put their Connaught Square house on the market. Then there’ll be the question of whether Tony would prefer to start his day in Café Hillel or Aroma – “I’ll have a coffee and croissant please… and do it Islington style”. He’ll probably fall off his chair when he discovers that a café breakfast doesn’t have to cost £12 . Then of course there’s the question of what to do with the kids. Ulpan would be a sensible first move but the only way to really pick up the language would be to enlist them all in the army and send them to Lebanon for the next war.

Tony has always been a friend of Israel, sometimes at great political cost. His support for Israel last summer might have been the nail in his political coffin, a decision that couldn’t have been made easily. It only goes to prove that he must have a thing for Israel and the Jews. With rumours circulating that he’s considering converting to Catholicism, we can only assume that the story is more or less right but the details are slightly off. When Tony hits the Middle East, don't be surprised if his first phone call is not to Olmert or Abu Mazen - the Jerusalem Rabbinate should be rolling out the red carpet!

Saturday, 23 June 2007

Where are they now?

Last week I bought a car. After listening carefully to my friends' conflicting advice, I decided on buying an ex-rental. Having taken the car for a quick spin, I agreed on terms with Udi, the moody Avis salesman, and signed a contract. Just before putting pen to paper, we pointed out that the car was dirty and it would be nice to have it sparkling, at least for the next day. Udi relunctantly agreed and radioed one of his colleagues. By the time we had finished the paperwork, the car was as good as new. We thanked the young Arab fellow and gave him a small tip. He was very grateful and wished us good luck with the new car.

As we left the car lot, we noticed that irritatingly, the security code wouldn’t stop bleeping. Conscious that we were at risk of becoming victims of a car-buying disaster story, we turned back ready to shout and scream. Udi shrugged his shoulders and told us that we must be doing it wrong. But my Arab friend showed more concern and came to have a look. He fiddled with some wires and tried again. When he realised that there really was a problem, he went into the office and came out with a voucher for us to go to a local garage for it to be repaired. Grateful for his help, I shook his hand and asked his name. “Abu Mazen”, he replied.
I burst into laughter. “Abu Mazen?”
“Yes. My name is Abu Mazen”.
Thinking for a moment I said, “I get it. They all call you Abu Mazen here because you’re the only Arab member of staff. What’s your real name?”
“No. They call me Abu Mazen because that is my name. I am Abu Mazen.”
Feeling a little embarrassed I thanked Abu Mazen and off we went, thinking to myself that I could now say that Abu Mazen cleaned my car.

Hamas has been giving the real Abu Mazen quite a headache lately so given the choice between being President of the Palestinian Authority or cleaning cars in Jerusalem, I would have thought that it’s a bit of a no-brainer. With Abu Mazen accounted for, if you have wondered why you haven’t heard so much about Yasser Arafat lately, you can see what Abu Mazen’s former boss is up to by clicking here.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Read all about it!

Like most subcultures, Israeli shuls have their own printed medium of communication – it’s called the Shabbat leaflets. These leaflets, published by Yeshivot and Jewish organisations, started out some years ago as black and white photocopies, comprised of a few short Divrei Torah. As they became more popular, and publishers saw the possibility of making money from them, they began to include adverts for everything from mobile phones, kosher holidays to the Far East and new homes. As the money poured in, the leaflets got bigger, the graphics got fancier and the general appeal started to grow. The content branched out from Parshat Shavua to cover a wider variety of Jewish topics and the selection of leaflets grew as more and more organisations started printing their own. In piles by the front door of shuls across the country, worshipers now enter shul on a Friday night and can choose from a wide selection.

However, the common thread through most sheets is a strong political line. With Mekor Rishon as the only right wing newspaper among a generally left-wing media, these leaflets fast became the medium through which the Dati Leumi community leaders would air their views. Whatever the week’s Parsha, Rabbis from West Bank settlements search for connections to themes such as the holiness of Eretz Yisrael and the importance of a Torah-conscious leadership. During disengagement, the sheets were vocally anti-withdrawal, directly attacking the government and its policies. Shul reading, previously the exclusive domain of Talmud Torah, has been for some time now, infiltrated by right wing political propaganda. The sheets regularly advertise new housing projects in West Bank settlements, promote demonstrations, and around election time, can be expected to call upon its readers to vote for one of the right wing parties.

The Yesha Council now publishes its own leaflet called Yesha Shelanu. This leaflet is pure politics – it mostly consists of news stories and pictures, all centred around the settlements. In many ways it’s a breath of fresh air – for once a leaflet that says what it is, rather than trying to disguise itself as a Torah publication. Last week’s edition reviewed a new trend of getting married outside the Cave of Machpela and offered a prize to anyone who could identify a photograph taken somewhere in the Land of Israel (funnily enough the Yesha Shelanu photographer never seems to make it to the Galil, Negev or even the Mercaz!)

As something of a backlash against this trend, a couple of new leaflets came out, published by more moderate or apolitical organisations like Tzohar, which aim to keep the focus on Judaism. While some of these sheets have managed to break into the mainstream of shul reading, it is hard to ever imagine a politically left-wing sheet ever being circulated around the shuls. And this is precisely the root of the problem – these publications have no accountability whatsoever. Their circulation is guaranteed by central distributors who decide what to deliver to the shuls, as well as the shul gabaim who have the final call as to whether they allow sheets on to their premises or not. If the distributor or your shul gabbai doesn’t like it, you simply can’t read it – you will read what they give you. And what’s more, I’m yet to see a sheet which publishes letters, leaving the readers with no way of channelling dissatisfaction in the way one can with a newspaper.

So if I don’t like them, why do I read them? Simple really. Beats the alternative.

Thursday, 14 June 2007

The President's new clothes

So Shimon Peres is the President-elect of the State of Israel. His two predecessors have both brought embarrassment on the office of the President – Ezer Weizman through his acceptance of large undeclared gifts from, and Moshe Katzav, through his alleged inability to control himself when amongst women.

What kind of president will Peres be? Having been in the Knesset since 1959, he's got used to speaking his mind. But yesterday he pledged that as president, he will be a unifier rather than a decision-maker. Since there's no written constitution, the president’s role and purpose is quite flexible, largely determined by the incumbent. Katsav was little known outside of Israel, considered by foreign dignitaries as nothing more than an official Israeli figure-head. Peres, on the other hand, has enormous kudos abroad and may indeed attract more international attention than the Prime Minister. But when it comes to Israelis, Peres will never command respect from a large number of locals – even if he were never to utter another political word. Which brings us to the question of who the president is there to serve – folk here or folk there?

Yossi Verter in Haaretz, summed up Peres with the following joke:
Shimon Peres comes out of a visit with the King of Thailand and goes to the local market and buys some elegant fabric. He takes it to a Thai tailor and asks him to make him a suit from it. The tailor looks at the fabric and says to him: I'm sorry - It's only enough for a pair of pants, if that. The next day he flies to London. He takes the fabric from Thailand to a top tailor. It's enough for a sleeve at most, the tailor tells him. That evening he's in Paris and goes to see another tailor. Maybe I'll be able to sew you a sock, the tailor says. Disappointed, Peres returns to Israel. On his way to party headquarters, he stops by his usual tailor on Lilienblum Street. Can you do something with this fabric, Peres asks. I'll make you two suits, says the tailor. And an extra pair of pants. Stupefied, Peres asks: How is it that abroad the fabric is hardly enough for anything while here you can sew me half a wardrobe out of it? That's easy, replies the tailor, laughing. Abroad, you're a giant.

Based on that, we can safely assume that for the next seven years, the Office of the President of the State of Israel will be great for Israel's reputation abroad, if largely irrelevant to the kiosk owner in Lod and taxi driver in Rehovot.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Too many cooks

Last week, Shaul Mofaz travelled to the US for high level talks in Washington. As Israel's Minister of Transportation you would naturally expect these meetings to have discussed the sale of new aircraft or perhaps an exchanging of ideas on reducing car accidents. But let's be honest – Mofaz was Chief of Staff and Defence Minister, so talking about cars is a little beneath him. He might have got a better portfolio in this Government if he had jumped ship to Kadima a bit earlier. But Mofaz went down the opportunist path and stayed with Likud until he realised that he wasn't going to get a good job at the end of it. Sharon was smart enough to realise that he didn't need Mofaz as much as Mofaz needed him. And when Olmert was eventually elected, he wanted his most senior security man at the Cabinet table, so gave him Transportation.

Building a Cabinet can be a difficult challenge for a new Prime Minister, especially when leading a new party full of power-hungry opportunists and with several other coalition partners. To satisfy the many, Olmert appointed a record number of ministers, creating jobs that didn't exist previously such as Minister for Strategic Affairs (basically dealing with Iran which used to be the responsibility of the PM, Defence and Foreign Ministers). This is an old trick - in 1996, Bibi Netanyahu appointed Ariel Sharon to the new post of Minister for National Infrastructure, just as a way of giving him a job, but not a very good job. There is no earthly reason why a small country with a 120 seat parliament needs a minister responsible for sewerage, gas and electricity!

More ridiculous, Olmert appointed a whopping six deputies! Shimon Peres and Tzipi Livni both hold the title of Vice PM, and Mofaz, Avigdor Lieberman, Eli Yishai and Amir Peretz (soon to be replaced by Ehud Barak) are all Deputy PMs. This is absurd!

The problem here is that the Israeli Government is basically operating like a Jewish organisation. Take a shul for example - there's a Rabbi, a couple of wardens, a treasurer, a president, a vice-president, a secretary, a head of the ladies' guild, a caretaker and even an old fellow who's been a member for a million years - and they all think then run the place. There are 120 MKs who think that they should be running the Knesset and aren’t willing to cooperate with others unless they get something in exchange. Most analysts see this as a product of Israel being a young country which still requires serious reform before it'll settle down into something of a normal liberal democracy. Such reforms include local representation and a written constitution. It would be nice to add to that list a limit on the number of cooks allowed in the kitchen.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Ten weird and wonderful things about shul

They’re true the world over and if you go to shul, you’ll know what I mean…

1. Shaking hands – Every time someone gets a mitzvah at shul – whether it’s an aliya, opening the ark, lifting the Torah – everyone he passes feels the need to shake his hand and congratulate him. Congratulate for what? It’s easy, it didn’t involve any preparation and we’ve all done it.

2. Instructions on opening the ark – Every time the job of opening the ark is given to a guest, shul wardens always feel the need to explain how to do it, as if directing a novice on how to do open heart surgery. “There’s two strings, one is high and one is low. Pull the high one down and the curtain will open. Then you’ll find two doors. They’re the slidy variety so don’t try to pull them open… Would you like me to go up there with you in case you need help?” Let’s be honest, we all have curtains and doors at home, we’ll figure it out.

3. Shokeling – What’s with the ferocious swaying movement? Sometimes forward and back, occasionally side to side. Someone once told me that Jews shokel to help their concentration during prayer but have you ever seen people violently swaying in an exam, or while driving a car?!

4. 'Someone’s sitting in my seat' – We’ve all been there before, when visiting a shul that someone comes in late and tells you that you’re sitting in their seat. Reasonable people like myself see this as incredible rudeness unbefitting of a House of Prayer. That said, when I come to my shul and see someone sitting in my seat, I find somewhere else to sit…and spend the rest of the service pissed off that someone's sitting in my set.

5. Standing up for the Rabbi – As a mark of respect to the Rabbi, we stand up when he walks into the shul. The problem is, that we’re tired and can’t be bothered getting up for him. So what do we do? We’ve put our hands on the sides of our chair, push all our weight down on our arms, and lift up our back sides so there’s about an inch between us and the chair. Then we release the pressure on our arms and drop ourselves back down. Let’s get something straight – that is not standing up.

6. Pointing your little finger – When someone goes up to lift the Torah for Hagbah, we’ve got this weird thing we do when we point our little finger in the air, close one eye, aim our little finger at the Torah scroll and then kiss our little finger. In my book, that’s not the way to kiss something. And why the little finger?!

7. Correcting laning – When someone goes up to read from the Torah, despite the fact that we know he spent hours preparing the laning and does so for no material benefit, we treat him like an arrogant showman who is out to impress us. It’s the only way of explaining the combat that begins with his first word, where we yell out every time he slips up. And when we do, we have that smug sense of having caught the bastard.

8. Sweetie man – Children are taught never to accept sweets from a stranger. It’s one of the most basic rules of childhood, along with “stop, look and listen”. But when it comes to shul, kids are free to take candy from anyone, regardless of how creepy they look.

9. Missing pages – All shul siddurim have pages missing. We accept it as if it’s a given. In fact, we never question why it is that we have books at home that have been read many times but are still in decent condition, but shul siddurim are always missing pages. Do people get so caught up in their prayers that thy start tearing it apart?

10. Sleeping – It doesn’t matter how much sleep you’ve had – there are certain points in the service that can put even the insomniacs to sleep. The Rabbi’s sermon goes without saying, but things like Megillat Kohelet and that song before laning on Shavuot morning can put the whole congregation down. Just make sure not to snore.

Sunday, 10 June 2007

Burg's treachery

Avraham Burg, former chairman of the Jewish Agency and Kneeset Speaker, has caused quite a ruckus round these parts. Ahead of the launch of his book, Defeating Hitler, Burg gave an interview to Haaretz, in which he said things that surprised even those who thought they new the renegade Laborite. It’s always dangerous to take short quotes out a long interview but Burg is too clever a man to have said what he said without meaning it. In response to one question about the notion of a Jewish state, Burg answered “to define the State of Israel as a Jewish state is the key to its end. A Jewish state is explosive. It's dynamite." Burg, now a successful businessman based in France where he bears a French passport added that he considers himself a “citizen of the world, afterward Jew and only after that Israeli”.

The response was explosive. Burg is now considered a traitor by many, while others are trying to explain it as some kind of psychological, ideological breakdown. Kadima MK Otniel Schneller called for Burg not to be buried in the section of Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl Cemetery reserved for national leaders, even if this requires passing special legislation.

Burg’s interview is in Zionist terms what a Jewish child marrying out is in religious terms. He has turned his back on the State of Israel, on the Zionist vision and the Jewish people. Not to mention his father’s legacy. From the far left to the far right there have been Israeli personalities whose opinions I have found to be deeply mistaken and self-damaging, but they remain true to Zionism. Burg has left the fold and is determined not to do so quietly.

When a Jewish child marries out, the natural reaction is often to disown him. As Chava desperately begs her father to accept her decision to marry out, Tevye asks “How can I accept them? Can I deny everything I believe in?” Burg has married out of the Zionist family and we should make our disapproval known. That said, we should do so in a sensitive way – try to understand where this change has come from – and do everything we can to make sure the door stays open to him. The Zionist project is relatively young and has a long way to go. We can look at the state of government or the dire relations between Israelis and Palestinians and easily give up hope. But being a true Zionist in 2007 is about realizing that we have a long way to go and that we’ll only get there with faith and commitment.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

12 to 12

This morning I was tagged in a memo started by Nefesh B'Nefesh, asking olim to list 12 things they love about Israel and send them on to friends, family, and Jew's all around the world.

1. Everything is negotiable – In Israel, we don’t just negotiate when buying a house. Even when going to buy some new shoes, don’t leave until you’ve got 50 shek off and a free pair of socks.

2. Tremping – In England, if you ever saw someone standing by a motorway junction with an outstretched finger, you would think “weirdo”. If you ever saw someone pull over for that guy, you would think “death-wish”. Although not officially recommended, it’s an alternative form of transport to the bus and train for many Israelis. I once got a tremp from an MK!

3. Israeli National Football Team – Every time Israel competes in the qualifiers for a major international football tournament, the Israeli fans really believe that this year will be the year. It obviously won’t be because the national team is made up predominantly of Jews who play every week in what is essentially a Jewish league. Jews are not and will never be that good at footbal, or any other sport for that matter.

4. Down to Earth – I love the fact that you often pass by an ordinary looking block of flats with an extraordinary amount of security outside. That is because the mayor or an MK or a judge lives in a modest three bedroom flat inside. (Not true for all our leaders but certainly true for quite a few!)

5. Marrying out – Although we usually frown upon dating and marrying out of the faith, we all shep nachas from Israeli model, Bar Refaeli. Can it really be that she is Jewish and so hot and dating Leo di Caprio?!

6. Israeli small-talk – On meeting someone for the first time, expect to be asked: “How much do you earn?” and “How many square meters is your home?” and “When are you going to have a child?”

7. Security – When you enter a shop, the guard asks you, “Are you carrying a weapon?” As if a terrorist would for sure say yes, apologise for the trouble he was about to cause and voluntarily hand himself over to the police.

8. Wealth – Western Olim Chadashim all talk about how much less they earn and how hard life is in Israel… but then buy a new car with zechuyot and build a brand new house. Who ever does that in London or New York?

9. The Environment – Israelis are by no means the biggest environmentalists but actually take decent care of it without even realising. Most flats have a dud shemesh, heating water through solar power most of the year, and fruit and vegetables is home-grown which means that it’s only available in season and doesn’t accumulate too many “food miles”.

10. Janglo
– The world’s only website where you can buy a second-hand cholent pot (warning: may need a clean) or sell your left over shemura matza.

11. Easily excited – Israelis get excited about the most ordinary things like a new road or tunnel. When the road to Gush Etzion was first opened, there were massive traffic jams as everyone tried to be first to see the tunnels.

12. Anti-Semitism – Many olim leave their home countries because of anti-Semitism. The great thing about Israel is that instead of being on the receiving end of anti-Semitism, you can actually become a fairly decent antisemite yourself. E.g. “Those conniving charedim steal our money and all stink” or “Those Peace Now bastards are worse than the blood-thirsty Nazis”.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Kosher Calling

Jerusalem is the best place in the world for keeping kosher. Wherever you are in the holy city, you will find a wide array of kosher eateries for your every taste. Whether it's pizza or shwarma, Chinese or Mexican, it's all here and it's all kosher.

Once the Jerusalemites had found a way to ensure that most food was certified as "kosher", they started making other things kosher. You can now travel on a "kosher bus route" - instead of split hooves there's split seating, men at the front, women at the back. You can also find "kosher shops" that don't allow entry to immodestly dressed women, and the more mehadrin shops have separate opening hours for men and women.

In my quest to find a moving company, I noticed an advert plastered over a Mea Shearim bus stop for Yosef Movers, "ten years of experience and low prices". About to tear off the tag with his phone number, I spotted that he had mentioned that his phone number was a "kosher number". I had never heard of such a thing. What made it more interesting was that the sign had been stamped in red ink - several times - "Beware, this number is not kosher!" Someone was going around stamping adverts with a kashrut warning. Memories came flooding back of that time I bought a Push-Up Lolly Pop to school, only to be told by one of my classmates that he had heard it "might not be kosher".

Desperate to get to the bottom of this, I decided to poll a few of the locals. The first chassid to pass, an elderly man, took a glance, squinted his eyes as if he was reviewing the whole Talmud Bavli for a reference to Hilchot HaPelephon, and then shook his head. Realising that the answer to my question would more likely be found with a younger Talmudic sage, I pulled over a teenage lad. He knew the answer straight away: "A kosher phone is one with no internet or SMS".

"So, is Yosef Movers kosher?" I asked. Examining the number carefully, my young friend said he couldn't be sure so to be on the safe side, I should probably find a different company.

As my bus arrived, I couldn't help but wonder what was so treif about a text message? How much impurity can you write in 300 characters? And how much porn can you squeeze into a screen that small?! With no one looking, I tore off the number and slipped it in my pocket. Let God be my judge.

Friday, 1 June 2007

What Shimon Peres should do after being President

The date is 21 July 2014 and President Shimon Peres’ seven year term has finally come to an end. Elections for the new President are heating up with a three-way race between candidates Aryeh Deri, Shiri Maimon and an unknown going by the name of Noshe Gatzav.

After surviving an indictment for buying a Pacific Island off an American businessman for $3 (which he claimed was to create a utopian “peace island”) and rumours of him pinching Sharon Stone’s bottom at the Tel Aviv Premier of Basic Instinct 4, Peres made it through to his last day in Beit Hanasi.

Aged 90, Peres has fought in the Haganah, served as the youngest ever Director General of the Ministry of Defense, an MK since 1959, filled almost ever ministerial position including Defense Minister and Prime Minister (twice), led the Labour Party, served as Deputy Prime Minister in a Kadima-led government and was the country’s oldest ever President.

Shimon Peres doesn’t like being bored. Looking ahead to his 100th birthday, Mr. Peres might like to consider filling his days in one of the following ways:

1. Sell Israel’s nuclear secrets on
2. Star in Basic Instinct 5
3. Spend more time by Ariel Sharon’s bedside
4. Compete in the Labour Party leadership primaries
5. Trigger a political earthquake with the creation of a brand new party called Kadima Hachadasha (see logo: thanks BY)
6. Referee a five-a-side football match between teams managed by Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley
7. Release a cover of Shir LasShalom with Dana International
8. Appear in Lirkod im haKochavim (Strictly Come Dancing)

Any other ideas?