Monday, December 31, 2012

A Boring and Dangerous Election

A Boring and Dangerous Election

by Donniel Hartman
Published originally in the Jerusalem Post

As an optimist, new elections generally inspire me to hope. As new parties and new personalities enter into the fray I find myself anticipating the new ideas and thinking that will enter into our political discourse and open up new horizons for Israel. This optimism often causes me to vote for the latest new party, the one that has not yet disappointed me. My track record hasn’t been that great, but as an optimist I am not inclined to allow past failures to color my hope for the future.

This election season started with great promise, and indeed new parties and very talented individuals have emerged across the political spectrum. The problem is that this influx hasn’t generated the expected new ideas. It is possible that this is the consequence of an election whose outcome is already clear, with the only issue up for grabs being the elements that will constitute the right-wing bloc which will lead the country afterward - whether Likud-Beiteinu will get 35 or 38 seats, or the Bayit Hayehudi, 12-15. The parties aren’t campaigning to win, for who will win is already clear. The campaign is about increasing one's party size by one or two seats over the latest projections and most significantly, avoiding mistakes which might lead to a decline of one to two seats.

These elections are boring. They are not only challenging for an unrepentant optimist such as me, but they are dangerous for Israel and its future. Israel and Zionism are about ideas, about ways in which the national homeland of the Jewish people will represent and embody aspirations for justice, decency, and intelligence within our foreign, military, economic and social policies. They are about creating an exemplary society, which while grounded within real politik, nevertheless continually aspires to change it for the better. When Israel stops leading with ideas, and our politicians are the great protectors of the status quo, Israel becomes ever-more distanced from its true purpose.

One of the more exasperating examples of the mediocre rut into which our political thinking has descended is the debate within the Likud-Beiteinu Party as to whether to include in the party platform Prime Minister Netanyahu's 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech supporting a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians. The speech put an end to the affiliation of the Likud Party with the dreams of a Greater Israel and tacitly admitted that settlements in certain areas of Judea and Samaria would have to be dismantled for the sake of peace.

The reason given by some of the more moderate voices within the party for removing it from the platform is that given Palestinian Authority President Abbas's apparent policy to sidestep direct negotiations with Israel, we should not "reward" him with such a prize. There are others, who today play a far more central role in the leadership of the Likud Party, who want it removed for it contradicts their ideology, which still holds fast to the fantasy of a Greater Israel.

What both hold in common is the belief that the current status quo is sustainable and plays in Israel's favor. They are at home in a politics devoid of new ideas and may consider expending effort to produce them only after they are inspired by evidence of new thinking on the other side. This is not a path which produces a greater Israel but a smaller one.

A second example of mediocrity is being exemplified by the Labor Party's decision to avoid speaking about foreign policy in its current campaign, under the hope that a focus on economic and social justice disconnected from the party's past peace platform may "fool" one or two mandates away from the Center-Right. This is a policy well at home in the current election culture and may ensure Labor the accolade of being the biggest party amongst those who lost. It is, however, a poor service to a party which in theory aspires to lead, and an even poorer service to the country.

In a democracy the opposition plays a central role as generators of ideas and as watchdogs against stagnation. When the opposition is leading the charge down the path of complacency the dangers to Israel's future are multiplied.

When functioning well, an election season serves to put forth noble and naive ideas, which everyone knows need to be and inevitably will be tempered by the reality of the day after the elections. Cynics may argue that a campaign is about putting forth the lies that the population wants to hear. I believe that its purpose is to set forth the goals which give the electorate a window into the minds and hearts of those who aspire to represent us, the goals to which they are committed so long as reality doesn’t get in the way.

We need to reconnect to the political discourse of hope and aspirations. Of course we have peace plans. Let's talk about them, debate them, and figure out which ones best serve our values, goals, interests, and concerns. The fact that we may have nobody to talk with has never stopped Jews from talking. We are the People of the Book, who have spent 3,000 years putting forth ideas and chiseling away at the rock of reality until we penetrate it.

Let the dreaming and talking begin. May the next month until the elections be filled with a competition over innovation, a rivalry to discover new ways to change the status quo and place Israel on a trajectory to a better future. The job of the politician is to lead. Please begin to do your job.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Moral Animal

The Moral Animal

By Jonathan Sacks

Alain Pilon

IT is the religious time of the year. Step into any city in America or Britain and you will see the night sky lit by religious symbols, Christmas decorations certainly and probably also a giant menorah. Religion in the West seems alive and well.

But is it really? Or have these symbols been emptied of content, no more than a glittering backdrop to the West’s newest faith, consumerism, and its secular cathedrals, shopping malls?

At first glance, religion is in decline. In Britain, the results of the 2011 national census have just been published. They show that a quarter of the population claims to have no religion, almost double the figure 10 years ago. And though the United States remains the most religious country in the West, 20 percent declare themselves without religious affiliation — double the number a generation ago.

Looked at another way, though, the figures tell a different story. Since the 18th century, many Western intellectuals have predicted religion’s imminent demise. Yet after a series of withering attacks, most recently by the new atheists, including Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, still in Britain three in four people, and in America four in five, declare allegiance to a religious faith. That, in an age of science, is what is truly surprising.

The irony is that many of the new atheists are followers of Charles Darwin. We are what we are, they say, because it has allowed us to survive and pass on our genes to the next generation. Our biological and cultural makeup constitutes our “adaptive fitness.” Yet religion is the greatest survivor of them all. Superpowers tend to last a century; the great faiths last millenniums. The question is why.

Darwin himself suggested what is almost certainly the correct answer. He was puzzled by a phenomenon that seemed to contradict his most basic thesis, that natural selection should favor the ruthless. Altruists, who risk their lives for others, should therefore usually die before passing on their genes to the next generation. Yet all societies value altruism, and something similar can be found among social animals, from chimpanzees to dolphins to leafcutter ants.

Neuroscientists have shown how this works. We have mirror neurons that lead us to feel pain when we see others suffering. We are hard-wired for empathy. We are moral animals.

The precise implications of Darwin’s answer are still being debated by his disciples — Harvard’s E. O. Wilson in one corner, Oxford’s Richard Dawkins in the other. To put it at its simplest, we hand on our genes as individuals but we survive as members of groups, and groups can exist only when individuals act not solely for their own advantage but for the sake of the group as a whole. Our unique advantage is that we form larger and more complex groups than any other life-form.

A result is that we have two patterns of reaction in the brain, one focusing on potential danger to us as individuals, the other, located in the prefrontal cortex, taking a more considered view of the consequences of our actions for us and others. The first is immediate, instinctive and emotive. The second is reflective and rational. We are caught, in the psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s phrase, between thinking fast and slow.

The fast track helps us survive, but it can also lead us to acts that are impulsive and destructive. The slow track leads us to more considered behavior, but it is often overridden in the heat of the moment. We are sinners and saints, egotists and altruists, exactly as the prophets and philosophers have long maintained.

If this is so, we are in a position to understand why religion helped us survive in the past — and why we will need it in the future. It strengthens and speeds up the slow track. It reconfigures our neural pathways, turning altruism into instinct, through the rituals we perform, the texts we read and the prayers we pray. It remains the most powerful community builder the world has known. Religion binds individuals into groups through habits of altruism, creating relationships of trust strong enough to defeat destructive emotions. Far from refuting religion, the Neo-Darwinists have helped us understand why it matters.

No one has shown this more elegantly than the political scientist Robert D. Putnam. In the 1990s he became famous for the phrase “bowling alone”: more people were going bowling, but fewer were joining bowling teams. Individualism was slowly destroying our capacity to form groups. A decade later, in his book “American Grace,” he showed that there was one place where social capital could still be found: religious communities.

Mr. Putnam’s research showed that frequent church- or synagogue-goers were more likely to give money to charity, do volunteer work, help the homeless, donate blood, help a neighbor with housework, spend time with someone who was feeling depressed, offer a seat to a stranger or help someone find a job. Religiosity as measured by church or synagogue attendance is, he found, a better predictor of altruism than education, age, income, gender or race.

Religion is the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age. The idea that society can do without it flies in the face of history and, now, evolutionary biology. This may go to show that God has a sense of humor. It certainly shows that the free societies of the West must never lose their sense of God.

Jonathan Sacks is the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth and a member of the House of Lords.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Why Israel Has No Newtowns

Why Israel Has No Newtowns

It’s the Jewish state’s gun culture, not its laws, that prevents mass shootings like the one in Connecticut
By Liel Leibovitz

Israeli girls wear automatic rifles as they dance together during the celebrations for Independence Day in Jerusalem on April 19, 2010

Why? In the days since 27 innocents, most of them children, were murdered in Sandy Hook Elementary School, all have been asking that question, trying to make sense of an ultimately senseless act. Simpler minds insisted that anyone who has ever argued in favor of anything but the absolute abolition of firearms was complicit in the murder of innocent children, while more astute thinkers tried to look past their indignation and heartbreak in search of sensible policy alternatives. Not surprisingly, they often ended up looking to Israel, a nation, went the argument, whose citizens are heavily armed yet rarely use their guns to shoot each other. This, more than one report noted, was due largely to Israel’s surprisingly strict gun-control legislation: Assault rifles are banned, registration is necessary, and a whole system of checks and requirements is in place to keep weapons out of the wrong hands. A popular statistic spread like wildfire on Facebook and Twitter: Only 58 Israelis were killed by guns last year, compared with 10,728 Americans.

It’s a compelling story. It’s also wrong: There’s much that we can learn from Israel when it comes to firearms, but it’s the state’s gun culture, not its gun laws, that keeps its citizens safe.


Let us, for the sake of argument, put aside the fact that nearly all Israelis serve in the army, and that virtually all soldiers are armed with semiautomatic weapons that they carry on their person at all times, even when back home on vacation. Most men continue to enjoy this unfettered access to arsenals for the duration of their service as army reservists (at least a few weeks out of each year until they’re 45). If we disregard the glut of guns facilitated by the Israel Defense Forces, we are left with strict-sounding laws that require anyone who wants a firearm license to register with the government and meet a list of seemingly stringent conditions.

To receive a gun license, one technically needs to meet two sets of criteria. First, the basics: A gun owner must be a citizen or a permanent resident and speak some Hebrew. The person can’t be a minor and can’t have any physical or mental problems hindering him from operating a firearm. Second, one must show cause to carry a weapon, a privilege limited on paper to about a dozen categories of people whose work conditions are perilous enough to justify carrying a firearm.

These are the strict gun laws that many commentators have been citing as the reason the Jewish state has no Newtowns or Columbines. But take a closer look, and that second set becomes quite porous: Security guards, obviously, are permitted their guns, but so are men and women who work in the diamond industry, or who handle valuable goods or large sums of cash. Anyone who lives or works in an “entitled residency”—code for a high-risk area, meaning the settlements—is permitted a weapon, no questions asked. Retired army officers can easily obtain a license, as can anyone who has inherited a gun from a friend or a relative. And sportsmen can easily get shotgun permits if they claim that they wish to use it to hunt pheasant or boar.

The upshot: Anyone can come up with an excuse to legally own a gun. I have personally witnessed more than one friend apply under false premises, claiming that their work required that they travel to settlements and other high-risk areas, and walk out, a short while later, with pistols much like the ones used in Aurora or Columbine. Assault rifles, admittedly, are harder to come by in Israel. If you are not a soldier or a reservist or don’t have one in your family—again, nearly the entire population—the only way to obtain semiautomatics is if you reside, or claim to reside, in a settlement.

It doesn’t take much of an expert to realize that these restrictions, in and of themselves, do not constitute much by way of gun control. And even though there have been no Newtown-style mass shootings in Israel, the Israeli government has tightened the reins over the past decade, passing a series of additional restrictions and placing further emphasis on enforcement. The result was clear: In 2000, there were approximately 400,000 legally owned firearms in Israel, the majority of them handguns, and the number of illegal weapons stood at about 150,000. Ten years later, thanks largely to the new strictures, the ratio was reversed: 180,000 firearms were legally licensed, and more than 400,000 were illegally obtained, most of them assault rifles like the M-16 and the Galil, stolen from the Israel Defense Forces. Naturally, this led to an increase in the number of casualties, as it placed far mightier tools in the hands of criminals who were previously content to handle their affairs using the perfectly legal and readily available guns at their disposal.

ISRAEL21c’s year in videos

ISRAEL21c’s year in videos

Posted By Abigail Klein Leichman 

ISRAEL21c is committed to providing a window onto the many ways Israeli innovation is changing the world for the better. We also share a glimpse of how Israelis simply let their hair down and have a really good time despite – or perhaps because of – living in a part of the world that isn’t ordinarily equated with fun. The best way to show that is through action. This year, we’ve produced and posted more than 45 short films that you can view on our site or directly on YouTube – where ISRAEL21c’s channel has gotten more than three million views since 2007. We’ve brought viewers to an olive-spitting contest, to roller derby in Tel Aviv, to a “live statues” festival in Rehovot and to a desert bike race at the Dead Sea. To watch the 10 most-watched ISRAEL21c videos in 2012, go tothe website at:

1. What does Made in Israel mean to you?
Produced in celebration of Israel’s 64th birthday, this video gives a rapid-fire visual overview of 64 years of amazing achievements. You’ll learn that amniocentesis was invented by an Israeli, as was an ultrasound device to melt tumors; a treatment for multiple sclerosis; a device to help paraplegics walk; a pain-free dental laser; and non-invasive treatments for ADHD, depression and Alzheimer’s. Israelis are helping you mow your lawn robotically, defend yourself with Krav Maga, turn your dog’s droppings into harmless powder, stay safer in the car, put bubbles in your soda, get rid of unwanted hair and enjoy a whole new crop of TV shows, musicians and artists. 

2. A cardboard bicycle?
Izhar Gafni is crazy about bikes – he makes them, fixes them and rides them. But three engineer friends thought the chain had really slipped from the gears when Gafni suggested making a cheap and environmentally friendly bicycle out of 100 percent recyclable materials, 95% percent of which is strong cardboard. With six prototypes already manufactured, Gafni hopes to interest corporate or governmental sponsors in helping to spark an urban environmental project or perhaps an affordable mode of transportation for schoolchildren in Africa. 

3. Tel Aviv, home to the world’s most beautiful people
Travelers Digest readers included Tel Aviv on its 2012 list of Cities with the Best-Looking Men and on its companion list of Cities with the Best-Looking Women. We show you why the mag says: “Tel Aviv has become a hot spot for trendsetters worldwide. Local cuties flaunt their fit bodies – made all the better by their year-round tans – at any of the numerous beaches and cafés found on the 10-mile seaside strip.” 

4. Hannukah in Jerusalem
Walk the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City during the eight days of Hannukah and you’ll see why the holiday is called the Festival of Light. Along its dark and ancient alleyways, hannukiyahot (eight-branched candelabras), are set outside everyone’s doorways. Every night of the eight-day holiday, a new flame is set alight. But Hannukah isn’t just about light, it’s also about food and fun. 

5. Israel, the new ice cream capital?
Israel’s not known as a destination for great ice cream, but as this video illustrates, maybe it’s time to rethink that. After all, the average Israeli eats about 10 liters of ice cream per year, compared to 6.2 liters per capita in Italy, home of gelato. We’ve got our own takes on the frozen treat –for instance, hummus ice cream, made with chickpeas and topped with olive oil and pine nuts; or 10-spice ice cream, reminiscent of chai latte. 

6. Krav Maga: World’s best defense system
Imrich Lichtenfeld probably didn’t envision that the style of street combat he invented would become so popular outside of Israel, where it has long been taught in the military. In the 1980s, this defensive martial art went international and is taught to people from six to 60. Many students prefer to come to Israel to learn or perfect Krav Maga at its source, and this video features some disciples explaining why they made the trip. 

7.Neta Rivkin: Olympic gymnast
Neta Rivkin got her start in rhythmic gymnastics at age six, when her future coach saw her walking in Petah Tikvah with her dad, a basketball coach. The expert saw right away that Neta’s body was made for gymnastics. She’s been perfecting her rhythmic gymnastic routine ever since, becoming one of only two Israeli gymnasts to win medals at international competitions. London was her second Olympics. “Representing Israel makes my heart flutter,” she says. 

8. Jerusalem on ice
Tons of ice made for tons of fun during Jerusalem’s first Ice Festival in 2012. Keeping the frozen water at minus-10 degrees Celsius was no easy feat in the early spring in Jerusalem, but the Israelis and tourists who came marveled at the life-size giraffes, scenes from Noah’s Ark, “The Wizard of Oz” and other children’s books, as well as an ice windmill and the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, all crafted by 31 ice sculptors from China. 

9. 3D street-painting festival
Chalk artists, painters, environmental sculptors and musicians from Israel and Holland, Italy, the United States and Russia contributed their diverse talents to the inaugural Festival of Street Painting in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Hasharon, which celebrated its 90th anniversary this year. The highlight of the street festival, expected to become an annual event, were 3D sidewalk chalk drawings that cross the line into the genre of performance art. Take a look at the artists at work in our video. 

10. Touring the Carmel Market
Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market is “the” place to go for everything from souvenirs to cutting-edge café cuisine. Top chefs from the city’s eateries come here to purchase raw ingredients, including Israeli staples such as bountiful varieties of fresh herbs, chickpeas, cheeses, olives and eggplant. This video also illustrates deliciously why Carmel Market is the destination for freshly made regional delicacies including flatbread, hummus and falafel.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The connection between good health and a religious lifestyle

The connection between good health and a religious lifestyle that incorporates faith in God and prayer has been puzzling the Western medical community over the last few years, as studies have shown that such factors as synagogue attendance are predictors of better all-round health.

A new article, released in the October 2012 edition of the Israel Medical Association Journal, examined data collected by a comprehensive European study.

The Survey of Health, Aging and Retirement in Europe, or SHARE, collected data relating to health and aging from 1,287 Israeli Jews over age 50 as part of a wide-ranging study conducted in 10 European countries and Israel between 2004-2006.

When Dr. Jeff Levin from the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University in Texas analyzed the data, he found that regular synagogue attendance is a predictor for good medical health. Levin reached this conclusion by examining the data concerning the relative incidence of chronic medical problems, diseases and disabilities, as well as physiological symptoms such as heart problems, respiratory difficulties and sleep impairment.

Regularly attending synagogue services was linked to lower rates of sickness, even after adjustment for variables such as age. The study linked lack of support outside of the home to worse medical outcomes, a finding that reflects the isolation experienced by older patients who lack regular social interaction.

The findings also pointed to synagogue attendance as a disease-preventing factor for elderly Jews, and prayer was reported even to have a therapeutic and healing effect on sick patients.

“In summary, the present study offers modest evidence of a health benefit from Jewish religiousness – whether as a protective factor or a coping response – that is consistent with results from previous studies among other religious groups and in other countries,” wrote Levin.

Evidence of the connection between religion and improved health has been more prevalent as of late. In July, researchers from Tel Aviv University reported that prayer decreases the chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other memory-related disorders. Researchers from Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem reported over a decade ago that death rates from heart disease and tumors are higher within secular kibbutzim than among religious kibbutzim.

By Alejandro S. Bloch

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Losing Hope on Israeli-Palestinian Peace

Losing Hope on Israeli-Palestinian Peace

By Leon Wieseltier

Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP/Getty Images

LOST CAUSES are not wrong causes, unless winning is the measure of right. The historical victory of an idea reveals nothing about its merit: power has uses for fictions, and the popularity of lies is an ancient feature of human affairs. I am always stirred, when I read the medieval disputations between Jews and Christians, by the boldness of the Jewish retort to Christian triumphalism, to the arrogant Christian insistence that the lowly social status of the Jews was proof of their lowly spiritual status—was any argument ever more rigged?; and always offended by the Hegelian view, which survives in many forms, that it is for history to vindicate philosophy. There is no shame and no error in a minoritarian existence. If one is in error, it is hardly because one is not in a majority. For this reason, the legitimacy of lost causes is one of the gifts of a democratic order, in which heresy is merely another opinion and dissent does not require an extreme of courage. The beauty of lost causes may be hard to appreciate, though, in a society such as ours, with its pornographic obsession with winners, and its harsh assumption that failure is a blow to dignity. In my eyes, the pursuers of lost causes possess an extra measure of dignity, because one really should be intransigent about what one believes to be true. This confers an inner strength that cannot be defeated by circumstances. The spine owes a great deal to the mind, even if one should not think with one’s spine; and so the pursuer of lost causes can be, paradoxically, the most stubborn of fighters. Yet I would not exaggerate the glamor of lost causes. Sadness always attaches to the deferral of a dream.

I HAVE BEEN THINKING about lost causes because I have concluded that one of my causes is lost. I no longer believe that peace between Israelis and Palestinians will occur in my lifetime. I have not changed my views; I have merely lost my hopes. I am still quite certain that the establishment of the state of Palestine is a condition for the survival of the state of Israel, as a Jewish state and a democratic state, and that for Israel not to be a Jewish state would be a Jewish catastrophe, and for it not to be a democratic state would be a human catastrophe; and that the only solution there has ever been to this conflict is the solution that was proposed by the Peel Commission in 1937, that is, the partition of one land into two states; and that the Jewish settlement of the West Bank was a colossal mistake, and the occupation (and the indifference to it) corrodes the decency of the occupiers; and that the Jewish state is a secular entity; and that anti-Semitism, which will never disappear, does not explain the entirety of the history of the Jews or their state, or exempt Israel from accountability for its actions. An impenitent Zionist and an impenitent dove, in sum; but to the consternation of some of my comrades, a hawkish dove, too, since I see that Israel has enemies and I believe in the ethical primacy of self-defense. I have irritated some of my comrades also with my unglowing view of the Palestinians and their inability to recognize the historical grandeur of compromise. Since 1977, and really since 1947, they have refused one proposed solution after another, as if the “unviability” of an imperfect state is not preferable to the unviability of statelessness. In recent decades they have added a new religious maximalism to an old secular maximalism. But still I concur in the necessity and the justice of their demand for a state, and still I yearn for a serious Palestinian diplomacy.

ALL THESE BELIEFS, however, are beginning to seem pointless. Reality appears to have other plans for itself. Hamas maintains its terrorist and theocratic sway over Gaza, and criminally fires hundreds of rockets at Israeli civilians, and extols the destruction of its arsenal and its infrastructure by Israel as some sort of apotheosis. Mahmoud Abbas celebrates the attainment of observer-state status at the United Nations with a mean and small speech in which he accuses Israel of “one of the most dreadful campaigns of ethnic cleansing and dispossession in modern history,” and of unprovoked “aggression” in Gaza, and of “an apartheid system of colonial occupation, which institutionalizes the plague of racism.” Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian leader for whom we longed, is a tragic figure, undone by Palestinians and Israelis together. In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu petulantly responds to the General Assembly vote with an outrageous proposal for Jewish housing in the area east of Jerusalem known as “E1,” which would scuttle any cartographically meaningful state for the Palestinians. He allies his party with the party of Avigdor Lieberman, the fascist face of Israel, who has proposed loyalty oaths for Israeli Arabs, and then his party, I mean the Likud, demotes its moderates and promotes theodious likes of Moshe Feiglin, who refers to Arabs as Amalek and advocates their “voluntary transfer” from Israel. As these anti-democratic maniacs flourish in Netanyahu’s base, one increasingly hears in those quarters the ugly old refrain that Jordan is the Palestinian state. And there is no significant opposition to Likud, only a petty and fragmented and pathetic assortment of self-interested figures and parties. People assure me that all this can change if there is the political will to change it; but I do not detect the political will. So what if the two-state solution is the only solution, when nobody is desperate to solve the problem?

I HAVE BEEN RE-READING The Shepherd’s War by my old friend Meron Benvenisti, his controversial essays of the 1980s, in which he described “the virtual permanence of the present situation,” and reported that “after implementing a project which concerns people’s lives, one may discover that it is irreversible,” and contested the progressive view that “there is no such thing as an irretrievable loss, options are never closed, there is no need to trouble our conscience over what we have wasted, no reason for perpetual sorrow.” He was vilified for his fatalism. I think he is owed an apology. It has been almost half a century since Israel acquired the territories in a war to save itself, and more than half a century since the birth of Palestinian nationalism. Those were the allegedly provisional decades, the cost-free interim in which both sides were to come to reason. Sure, the struggle continues. The debate must go on. But how long is an interim? What if reason never comes? When does hope become illusion?

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Right Way to Play The Game: Keep Our True Goals In Mind

The Right Way to Play The Game: Keep Our True                Goals In Mind

By Donniel Hartman

The game, Red Light, Green Light 1-2-3, like most children's games, has clear rules, an achievable goal, and is relatively easy to play. The goal is to be the first one to touch the wall without one's progress being detected. To succeed one must take small, incremental steps, coupled with moments of boldness when the opportunity arises. An interesting feature of this game is that one doesn’t get to determine for oneself whether one has been caught moving. It is a game of interaction in which someone else reviews one's actions and calls you on them. Individual protests, such as, "I wasn't moving," or "You didn't see me," are of no avail, unless, of course, one wants to break up the game.

There is often something very childish about the way Middle Eastern politics plays itself out, and it has often been compared to playground squabbles. The problem with this analogy is two-fold. The deadly consequences of "the game" and what is at stake is one of them. The second is that in the playground, one's actions are defined by the goals, which are agreed upon and very clear: for example, in "Red Light, Green Light," to be the first to touch the wall. One of the great failings of both Palestinian and Israeli actions this past week is that we aren't functioning adequately even by playground standards.

Both Israeli and Palestinian leadership have professed loyalty to the following aspirations and goals: for Palestinians, to achieve real, national independence and prosperity for their people alongside Israel; for Israelis, to attain real peace and viable security within the context of a two-state solution. If this is truly agreed upon, the question is, "how to touch the wall" together.

If Palestinians are really committed to national independence alongside Israel, negotiations with Israel would be the self-evident and recognized path to achieve this end. Unilateral action is never conducive to the cooperation and partnership essential for a viable Palestinian entity alongside Israel. If Israel's aim is to achieve peace and security within the context of a two-state solution, at the very least, no policy would be adopted which would sabotage this aspiration. Settlement expansion which undermines the viability of an independent Palestinian state and our ability to one day separate from each other into two distinct entities is simply self-destructive to Israel's own stated goals. Instead of playing with each other we seem to be more committed to playing by ourselves, to adopting actions which "play well" to the home audiences but get us no closer to our goals.

As a Jew and as an Israeli, I am deeply frustrated by much of the actions of the Palestinian Authority and leadership and have serious doubts as to the Palestinian people's commitment to live alongside me in mutual peace and security. This has caused many of us here in Israel to question whether our goals are achievable in our lifetime. In this context, it is understandable to respond with caution and to avoid potentially self-destructive policies which put Israel at risk. It is another thing altogether, to be self-destructive and to put our own goals at risk.

The dramatic declaration of Israel's government on settlement expansion this week is akin to making a bold dash in "Red Light, Green Light," but running in the wrong direction. Settlement expansion within the settlement blocs and in Jerusalem is one thing, and is in accord with a very broad Israeli consensus, commensurate with our and much of the world's notion of the borders which will ultimately demarcate the two-state solution. Settlement building in E-1 or in any area which will eventually be a part of the future Palestinian state is simply stupid, harmful to Israel, and legitimately questions what game we are really playing.

When Israel's actions reflect our legitimate security concerns and we act in a measured and thoughtful manner toward a clear and justifiable goal, as we saw in the recent Operation Pillar of Defense, not only are we not called "out," but we find ourselves supported by our friends around the world. We can make a case regarding our significant security concerns in the context of a future Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria alongside Israel. We can also make a case that realities on the ground, such as the settlement blocs and Jerusalem where 80 percent of the settlers live, whether initially justifiable or not, must factor into any future border demarcations. When we make these cases, and only these cases, we clearly align ourselves with the values of peace, human dignity, freedom, and democracy on which the State of Israel is founded. When we make these cases, and only these cases, we align ourselves with the best of what our tradition stands for. When we do so we are also not alone.

However, when we align ourselves with policies devoid of vision and hope, policies grounded on our own internal narratives of holiness of the land and messianic politics, policies which pander to shallow nationalistic delusions in an election season, we have no case to make. It should not take us by surprise, therefore, that in light of our recent decision we find ourselves aligned with no one and playing alone. Just as in “Red Light, Green Light” it is useless to argue, "I didn't move," it will be futile for Israel to attempt to justify its recent decision. This is not faulty public relations but faulty policy. It was a power play aimed at responding to a Palestinian power play. It was not merely inappropriate for the playground, but unbefitting to the State of Israel and our values.

Israel was founded on a noble and large dream. Our future will be secured when we stay loyal to our foundations and aspirations. As in "Red Light, Green Light," we have to move cautiously. However, if we want to win, truly win, and by that I mean to create a viable, productive, prosperous Jewish democratic state at peace with our neighbors, we are also going to have to keep our eyes open for opportunities to dare, when a bold move can change the outcome. Let's play this game. Let's play it well. Let's always remember our true goals. If we do so, we will constantly progress is the right direction. There will be stops and starts, and at times we will be sent back to the beginning. But at the end, we will touch the wall together.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Israeli politics in America get lost in translation

Israeli politics in America get lost in translation
By Vered Kellner

In New York, American Jews, unable to resist temptation, try to set me straight on Israeli politics, though I as an outsider tread cautiously on their home turf of U.S. politics.

On the front page of last Saturday’s New York Times was a photograph of an American soldier in his wife’s arms. Their lips were joined in a kiss as their baby daughter looked on in wonder. This kind of photo should seem familiar to Israeli readers: another hero returns from the battlefield. But the caption seemed to come from another world completely. “Who’s that man, Mommy?” was how the editor chose to describe the girl’s feelings at that moment. Later in the piece, he explained that the soldier had returned home to Colorado after ten months on the front.

Ten months with no weekend leave? What’s wrong with this picture?
I got the first hint of an answer about two weeks after my family and I landed in New York in the middle of this August, during the tumultuous days between one party political convention and another. The American presidential election campaign was in full swing, and I became addicted to countless hours of pathos-filled speeches. With that in the background, I quickly found my way to Barack Obama’s Facebook page and gave it a “like.” That was how an invitation to a lottery, where the prize was dinner with Michelle and Barack, appeared in my Facebook feed one day. To me, it seemed like an excellent idea, particularly with my husband’s birthday just around the corner. That could be a great surprise, I thought.
A quick double-click and I was in. I typed in my private information as I wondered whether it was worthwhile to mention anything about kosher food or my gluten-free diet, just to be on the safe side. But then, at the bottom of the page, there was a note in parentheses from the campaign staff reminding everyone that the sole condition for participation was American citizenship. Oops – haven’t got that. I left the page disappointed, reminding myself that feeling at home on the Upper West Side and a subscription to The New York Times weren’t really enough.

It was an important reminder. In this global environment, we all live under the delusion that borders are an archaic relic of an age when you needed a walking stick, a backpack and a small inherited fortune to get to know different worlds. Today, with one friend telling me about his daily routine in Berlin and another sending updates from Florida every ten minutes, it’s easy to feel as though the world were in the palm of our hands. That we have enough information to put together a well-informed opinion in every controversy. Even if it’s on another continent. Self-confidence, a trait that has always been attributed to Israelis, definitely doesn’t help to hold back this feeling of belonging, imaginary though such belonging may be.
For example, if I’d stayed in Israel, I’d content myself with watching the foreign news segment of Channel 10’s news broadcast, plus a Jon Stewart skit or two that a friend put up on Facebook, so that I could firmly assert that the Tea Party is nothing but a bunch of lunatics cut off from reality. If I wanted to seem like I was really in the know, I could always quote some translated essay by Maureen Dowd. Nobody would argue with me after that. But here’s the problem: I know how these opinions sound to somebody for whom American politics are their home ground. I know that because I saw what happens on the other side of the barricade when American Jews, unable to resist temptation, try to set me straight on Israeli politics.
This is a routine dialog where Jews who are liberal on all the current issues in America try to convince me how much Israel wants peace and that it’s gotten to where it is only because there’s no one to talk to on the other side. He supports Obama’s health-care reform. She thinks that the people in charge of Wall Street are a bunch of money-grabbers whose greed knows no bounds. But when the elections approach, they will consider voting for the Republican candidate “because of Israel.”

This out-of-tune piano plays on every scale of the political spectrum. It also sounds jarring when J Street breaks out of internal American discourse and tries to hold a dialog with Israelis and Palestinians. More than a year ago, Jeremy Ben-Ami and his colleagues on J Street’s board came to Israel for a series of meetings and tours, and I accompanied them for two days as a journalist. Their efforts to inject some momentum into the dormant negotiations were really touching, but the general feeling was that they were talking in a foreign language. They completely missed that over the past few years, the Israeli mood has been one of despair, of giving up. They were still practicing their accents from the optimistic Oslo days while the locals, Israelis and Palestinians alike, responded to their good intentions in fluent Skeptic.

The mini-war in Gaza also lost a lot in translation – from the frustration of many citizens over Netanyahu’s latest spin for the election campaign, to the deep despair that comes from feeling like we live in a centrifuge of events spinning out of control, to the news of the rocket alert in Tel Aviv, which left us badly shaken. That’s my home. My community. The anchor of my sanity. It’s where my children took painting classes until three months ago. Nobody wants to hear the smooth-tongued, patronizing opinion of an outsider, for whom Tel Aviv or New York are nothing but tourist destinations.

So to keep from falling into the trap of rudely translating my opinions from the old country, I tried to do my homework. I watched the party conventions with Google open in my browser so I could find out who Sandra Fluke was (answer: a feminist who worked to get contraceptives included in the health-insurance law), and why Rush Limbaugh was so annoyed with her (answer: for the same reason). When I met physicians, I cautiously asked whether they could tell me what was included in Obama’s health-insurance law, and what the difference was between Medicare and Medicaid. Now that the elections are over, I’ve been focusing my efforts on NPR’s economics program to learn what on earth people are talking about when they mention the “fiscal cliff,” only to find that not even the descendants of the pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower have any idea.

But even after all that, I realized that as an outsider, I was better off listening than talking. That’s no simple matter for a person who has politics in her blood. In Israel, I had three solid opinions a day, and I knew who would respond and how when I shared them. In New York, I have to feel my way carefully. It turns out that no banker on Wall Street wants to hear that Obama saved his job and scooped him off the trash heap. And an American soldier, even when he’s smelling of the sweat of the battlefront and embracing his wife, is not my neighbors’ son who’s just come back from a two-week stint at the Qalandiya checkpoint. I learn pretty quickly that intuition is a matter of geography.

On election day, I got a ride to a parent-teacher meeting with two other mothers. From the back seat, I asked with some hesitation whether in America, it was all right to ask people whom you’d met ten minutes ago whom they’d voted for. “No,” said one. “I voted for Obama,” said the other. “And I cancelled out your vote,” the first one said, “because of Israel.”

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What I Saw During Operation Pillar of Defense By Nira Lee

What I Saw During Operation Pillar of Defense
By Nira Lee

Four years ago, watching the coverage of Operation Cast Lead from the comfort of my dorm, I was a conflicted college student. As supportive as I was of Israel, I still found it painful any time I heard about civilian casualties in Gaza. What I saw portrayed in the media didn't add up: on the one hand I knew that the IDF was engaged in careful efforts to prevent civilian casualties, despite Hamas's strategy of fighting from amongst its own civilian population. Yet the media made it seem like the IDF was actively targeting civilians.

Back then, I understood Israel's efforts at protecting civilians as a something akin to a talking point -- I had no personal involvement in the conflict. Yet I had no idea how true it is until I myself participated in last week's Operation "Pillar of Defense" as an officer in the IDF.

When I moved to Israel and enlisted, I joined a unit called the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), which is devoted to civilian and humanitarian issues.

As an International Liaison Officer in the Gaza office, my job primarily entails coordinating transfers of goods, aid, and delegations into Gaza. I work closely with representatives of the international community, and although our perspectives may differ, we maintain relationships of mutual respect born of a common goal; I am here to help them succeed in their work improving the quality of life in Gaza.

While the day-to-day work is challenging in Gaza, I learned over the past ten days that the true test comes with crisis. At exactly the point where most militaries would use the heat of war to throw out the rulebook, we worked harder than ever to provide assistance wherever and whenever possible.

The eight days of Operation "Pillar of Defense" have been some of the hardest I have ever known physically and emotionally. The college student from Arizona would never have thought it possible to work 20 hours a day, fueled only by adrenaline and longing for just an hour of sleep on a shelter floor -- wearing the same filthy uniform because changing, much less showering, wouldn't allow me to get to a shelter in time when the next rocket barrage hit. And no, wearing the green uniform does not mean that you aren't afraid when the sirens sound.

Had you told me four years ago that there were IDF officers who stayed up all night under a hail of rockets, brainstorming ways to import medical supplies and food to the people of Gaza, I am not sure I would have believed you. But I can tell you it is true because I did it every night.

What amazed me the most was the singular sense of purpose that drove everyone from the base commander to the lowest ranking soldier. We were all focused completely on our mission: to help our forces accomplish their goals without causing unnecessary harm to civilian lives or infrastructure.

It is harder to explain the emotional roller-coaster -- how proud and relieved I felt every time a truck I coordinated entered Gaza, and how enraging it was when we had to shut down the crossing into Gaza after Hamas repeatedly targeted it. Or how invigorating it was help evacuate two injured Palestinians from the border area, only to be informed minutes later that a terrorist had detonated a bomb on a bus near my apartment in Tel Aviv.

So after all that I see and do, nothing frustrates me more than the numbers game that is played in the media. The world talks about "disproportionate" numbers of casualties as the measure of what is right and wrong -- as if not enough Israelis were killed by Hamas for the IDF to have the right to protect its own civilians from endless rocket attacks.

In my position, I see the surgical airstrikes, and spend many hours with the UN, ICRC, and NGO officers reviewing maps to help identify, and avoid, striking civilian sites. One of our pilots who saw a rocket aimed at Israel aborted his mission when he saw children nearby -- putting his own civilians at risk to save Gazans. At the end of the day, what these "disproportionate numbers" show is how we in Israel protect our children with elaborate shelters and missile defense systems, whereas the terror groups in Gaza hide behind theirs, using them as human shields in order to win a cynical media war.

What's really behind the headlines and that picture on the front page? Every day, I coordinate goods with a young Gazan woman who works for an international aid organization. Last month we forged a bond when we had to run for cover together when Hamas targeted Kerem Shalom Crossing -- attacking the very aid provided to its own people. During the eight days of Operation "Pillar of Defense", not one passed without a phone call, just to check in. "Are you ok?" I would ask. "I heard they fired at your base. Please stay safe", she would reply. And every night I made her promise to call me if she needed anything. These are the things that the media fails to show the world, just as they underplay how Hamas deliberately endangers civilians on both sides of the border -- by firing indiscriminately at Israel from Gaza neighborhoods.

Maybe stories such as these make for less exciting headlines, but if they received more attention there would perhaps be more moral clarity, and thus more peace in the Middle East.

2nd Lt. Nira Lee is an Arizona native. She moved to Israel in 2010 and has been serving in the IDF for the past two years. She works as a liaison officer to international organizations out of the Gaza Coordination and Liaison Administration

Monday, November 26, 2012

Thank You, Prime Minister

Thank You, Prime Minister

by Donniel Hartman

Socrates taught us that the wisest of persons is the one who knows that they do not know. Our rabbis have taught us that the wisest person is the one who is open to learning from others. What they both hold in common is the notion that the fool is the person who knows that he or she knows. Acquiring wisdom is a journey which begins with the recognition that one has what to learn and a continuing willingness to learn from others and life's experiences.

For some, the central question surrounding Operation Pillar of Defense is who won, whose truth prevailed. For me, the central question is what have we learned, and what can we adopt as we construct our future foreign policy. Before the operation, Israel's policy and public assumptions were founded on a number of beliefs and "truths": we are alone and can count only on ourselves, the world is against us and public relations is useless in an anti-Semitic universe, in the Middle East the lingua franca is power and compromise is weakness, for all of Israel's challenges a solution can be found in the use of power, fear must guide our policy while hope is naive, and once Islam enters into the equation the conversation is over,

All of the above have dominated Israel's discourse, both when it comes to a nuclear Iran, as well as with the stalled peace process with the Palestinians. None of the above, however, shaped Israel's actions in Operation Pillar of Defense. Quite to the contrary, Israel tried out a new set of assumptions and was surprised by their efficacy. It refrained from an extensive ground campaign, not only because it believed that such an operation would not result in additional gains, but also because it would undermine the opportunities made possible by this new set of assumptions.

What have we learned? First, we are not alone. When our actions are grounded on a strong moral foundation and our response commensurate to our legitimate rights, there are many who are willing to stand on our side and by our side. Second, in such a reality public relations are beneficial, but PR can never be a substitute for good policy. Third, Israel's world is most secure when it works in close cooperation with the United States administration (and not merely the Congress), and when it does so, new avenues become possible.

Fourth, while the use of military force could possibly wipe out the existing stockpiles of Hamas missiles, it would not prevent their replenishment. Even with the blockade of Gaza and a friendly Egyptian government, more than 10,000 missiles still found their way into the hands of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Because Israel possesses a hammer it does not mean that the solution to the dangers from Gaza is a nail. Through the confluence of America being a true ally and an Egyptian government both deeply allied with Hamas and at the same time in need of showing the United States its continued importance as a potential constructive force, a new factor was introduced which could possibly alter the current failed status quo in Sinai.

Fifth, Islamic fundamentalism is not a conversation ender. While it neither breeds love for Israel or Jews, it is not necessarily devoid of real-world calculations and self-interests, and as a result can be both negotiated with and potentially play a constructive role.

Sixth and most important, while fear is here to stay, foreign policy should not be merely a response to this fear but rather should be geared to creating the possibility for hope. In choosing to suspend for now additional military operations, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government chose to live up to the Rabbinic adage that true strength is sometimes expressed in self-control. It is in such expression that fear ceases to dominate one's consciousness and behavior, and new and unforeseen possibilities are allowed to enter the arena.

The politics of fear are often popular, particularly in an election season. Fear needs constant feeding and provides purpose, consistency and predictability. Hope is frail and opens oneself to disappointment. Hope is about investing in the unpredictable and as a result often generates great anxiety. Do we dare to really want change, knowing that we may never achieve it? Do we dare to explore uncharted paths and policies knowing full well the precariousness of our existence? Do we dare to open up our old truths to reevaluation without the certainty of where this will end?

Prime Minister Netanyahu chose a new path for Israel. He exhibited great courage, vision, restraint, and skill. None of us knows whether this will prove successful. Have no fear; the old assumptions are lying ever-ready to reclaim their place. Do not worry; our ground forces are still prepared for what tomorrow may bring. Today, however, we are in his debt for his willingness to pursue the path of wisdom – the path which dares to both questioning what one knows one knows, and is open to exploring the unknown.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

War Diary Entry Number 2 from Rabbi Mauricio Balter, of Kehillat Eshel Avraham in Beersheva.

Dear Friends:

I think psychologically, I put off writing this until the end of the day with the hope the news might be better. It is not.

Reproduced below you will find War Diary Entry Number 2 from Rabbi Mauricio Balter, of Kehillat Eshel Avraham in Beersheva. Rabbi Balter is also the president of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel.

At our kehillot in the south, Shabbat services were held as usual, with more than one community finding it necessary to cram people into a bomb shelter. In Beersheva, we hope we are no more than two weeks away from the installation of a new, and larger, bomb shelter.

It is hard to imagine the emotions of people walking to or from services, knowing the siren might sound at any moment, and with seconds to find shelter.

Masorti kehillot and members from less affected parts of the country have been offering hospitality to those from areas under direct fire.Kibbutz Hannaton will host 100 children from the Neve Hana Youth Village.
Our NOAM youth have been distributing neck-warmers to troops gathering in the south, much as we did in 2009. Shirat Machar, our NOAM singing group, will be entertaining children relocated from the south to areas in the north. Two of our rabbis, Mijael Even David of Karmiel and Liron Levy of Holon, have been called to active duty. They cannot serve the IDF as rabbis, but they can serve as soldiers. We think Liron may be the first female rabbi called to active duty. May they, and all IDF soldiers, go in peace and return in peace.

In partnership with the Rabbinical Assembly, our Masorti Leadership Mission (December 3-6) will now be a joint solidarity mission. We pray that by the time of our arrival, things will be much improved. I have twice before had the privilege of leading joint Masorti-RA Solidarity missions. It is not fun to see your friends living with the threat of rockets, but it is important we be there to show our support.

Crisis does bring our community together. The Masorti/Conservative movement is joining with others to unite behind the vital work of the Jewish Federations of North America. Please make your gift here.

David H. Lissy
Executive Director and CEO
War Diary Entry Number 2, From Beer Sheva
Rabbi Mauricio Balter, Congregation Eshel Avraham

A few minutes ago Shabbat ended, and I'm sitting here writing the second entry into my war journal.
The first one I wrote four days ago, and it feels like ages ago.

I would like to share with you the experience of Shabbat. In our community, we decided to announce that the synagogue would be open for prayers and that I would be there. The idea was not to invite or encourage people to get out of the house when we are in war. I would remind you that it is the moments of moving from place to place that are the most dangerous. Because when the sirens go off, you have to quickly find cover, which isn't always easy. In these circumstances, leaving the house is everyone's independent decision.

Yesterday, at 5 PM I opened the synagogue (prayers start at 5:30). At 5:15 there was a siren. Many people who had been on their way to shul turned and went back home. In the end, we were nine people who prayed together and went home.

The night passed with tense quiet and no sirens. That is, until 7AM this morning when I got a glimpse of how the rest of the day would look.

We started prayers with three people and I thought, again we won't get a minyan. In the end, more people came and we ended up with a group of 15. During the time of Torah study, at 10AM, there was another siren. We moved quickly and quietly to the shelter (please G-d we'll be getting our new shelters in ten days). I asked the people there to tell stories of how they have been dealing with the sirens of the previous days. One of the women told of an argument she had with her mother about the possibility of going to Tel Aviv for the day on Thursay. She said, "In Tel Aviv, we can have some peace and quiet." But on that day, at 6:30PM, when they were in the middle of an art workshop, there was a siren in Tel Aviv, too.

Others told stories as well. In the end, I told my story of what happened on Thursday, when I returned from visiting my mother who is in a rehabilitation hospital. A siren sounded right when I stood at an intersection between two main roads in Beer Sheva. Following instructions, I immediately began looking for cover. I looked at the four corners of the intersection: On on corner there are two petrol stations (not a recommended place to find cover), on the second corner they are building a mall, on the third is a playground and sports equipment, and on the fourth, very far away with a high fence, was a building. What to do??? Where to run to????

The sound of the siren is piercing, and I realize that I must find cover. But there is none to be found! Suddenly I see a huge truck stop at the intersection. The driver gets out, stands between the wheels, and calls me to stand next to him to take cover. He says to me, "It's better here than outside!" I look at him and thank him. After a few seconds, I say, "What's your name?" He smiles and says, "Pinni". I say, "My name is Mauricio". I figure, in case something happens, I should know who my new friend is.

This is how we live. We are friends in our shared destiny and try to protect one another. We are not a perfect nation and there is a lot to fix. but we are definitely a nation with solidarity, and the mutual help is felt every day anew. It finds expression in many little things that we are experiencing these days.

Pinni, the truck driver who invited me to take cover next to him, is our neighbor. Yesterday, when he saw that my daughter Maya is in advanced stages of pregnancy, he went and brought her challah for Shabbat. Hundreds (I am not exaggerating) of telephone calls and emails from people around the country calling and offering to host people for a few days, people who they don't know, to find some rest from the tensions, they are all a source of tremendous pride for me, to be part of this nation and this country.

Today there is another source of worry: Reservists received their "tzav 8" orders. It's a very small country and the army is the nation itself. Neighbors, friends, acquaintances. On their behalf: Go safely and return home safely!

May the One who makes peace in the heavens bring peace to us and to all of Israel and the entire world, and say Amen.

Rabbi Mauricio Balter
Congregation Eshel Avraham
Beer Sheva, Israel

Mauricio Balter Pic

Doing what we can in an unredeemed world

Doing what we can in an unredeemed world

The Times of Israel

Rabbi Dr Donniel Hartman is President of Shalom Hartman Institute of Jerusalem and Director of the Institute's iEngage Project

The foundational obligation and responsibility of every nation is to protect its people. When it comes to Israel, this obligation has a particular twist of a profoundly secular nature. Rising out of 2,000 years of powerlessness, and 2,000 years of belief that salvation of Israel is in God’s hands, the modern State of Israel chose to live by the credo that God helps those who help themselves.

Instead of waiting for God to repeat the Exodus story and again redeem God’s people with “a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,” with the rebirth of Israel, the Jewish people have chosen to wait no more. We recognize that we don’t live in a redeemed world, in a world where God ensures that everything will work out, that everything will find its right place. It is a world in which the just do not necessarily prosper, nor do the wicked by definition fail.

If we are to achieve, it will only be the result of our efforts on our own behalf, and even then with no guarantee of success. To be a Zionist is to embrace this reality, not as a curse but as a responsibility, if not a gift. To be part of shaping one’s own destiny and defining one’s peoples’ history in the midst of the uncertainty of an unredeemed world is the privilege which Israel has bestowed upon modern Jewish life.

It is critical that we remember the above as we assess our actions and responsibilities in Operation Pillar of Defense. First, we simply have to do what we have to do. What any nation not merely has the right to, but the obligation to do. Our citizens cannot be terrorized, nor our soldiers attacked, without attempts on our part to prevent them and stop them from occurring in the future.

While the world is filled with Monday morning quarterbacks, questioning the efficacy of every move with the benefit of hindsight, the targeted killing of Ahmed Jabari and the destruction of the long-range missile capacity of Hamas and Islamic Jihad was at the very least a plausible attempt by Israel to fulfill its obligations and responsibilities as a sovereign nation.

Living in a non-redeemed world, in a world where the just do not necessarily prosper nor the wicked by definition fail, obligates us to act to protect ourselves and better our future. However, precisely because the world is not redeemed, actions which are just, actions which are necessary, and even acts which are prudent, are not guaranteed to succeed. In a non-redeemed world we must remember that not every problem has a solution, and doing the right thing will not necessarily lead to a positive result.

I dream of an Arab peace partner who will want to join with me in working to make our region truly bloom. As a Zionist I recognize that my dreams will only come true to the extent that I fulfill my responsibilities and pursue every possibility for peace to reign. Hamas and Islamic Jihad, however, are not peace partners and when promulgating an approach to Islam which makes Jewish presence and independence in Israel an affront to Allah, they create a nightmare.

In their world, Jewish civilian casualties are a legitimate military goal, while Muslim civilian casualties a public relations success. In their world, success is not measured primarily by their ability to better the life of their people, but by their ability to endure suffering on the altar of a distorted version of Allah’s will.

As painful as this reality is, the responsibility of one who has chosen to recognize that one’s world is not redeemed is to see this reality for what it is. It will not be changed by the saving hand of God, nor will it be resolved by a military operation, whether limited or extensive. We must avoid the Messianic temptation of believing that our military is God and that because our cause is just, we will by definition prevail.

The dream of seeing Hamas and Islamic Jihad waving a white flag, or the population of Gaza repudiating their leadership and tactics is precisely that – a dream. It is not a reality, and certainly not one which will be ushered in through military action. A substitute will be found for every terrorist leader who is killed, and every missile which is destroyed will inevitably be replaced.

For some, the above will be depressing. The danger in this perception is that depression is all too often a fertile ground for Messianic fantasies, for belief that because it ought to be so, it is in our hands to make it so. Messianic fantasies lead to irrational demands of our politicians and military leaders. In such an environment, one is tempted to reach beyond one’s grasp, and ineffective, not to speak of dangerous policies and operations inevitably ensue.

With the rebirth of Israel, the Jewish people have embraced reality and our responsibility to do our best within it. We have relinquished the need for salvation as a standard of success and have chosen instead the beauty, complexity, and responsibility of living in a non-redeemed world. One of the “advantages” of the Middle East is that it always brings one back to the incompleteness of reality. This is our world, and our task is to create pockets of decency, sanity, safety, prosperity, and yes, even holiness within it. It is normal to want more. However, if you need more, you undermine Israel and the Jewish people’s ability to continue on our journey.

In our world, you can do the right thing, the necessary thing, the prudent thing, and still not achieve the desired outcome. In our world, there is a simple truth:

"It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it."
The Ethics of the Fathers

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

How Waze’s crowd-sourced data helped FEMA deliver the gas after Sandy

How Waze’s crowd-sourced data helped FEMA deliver the gas after Sandy

By Ryan Kim

With gas shortages rampant following Hurricane Sandy, FEMA and the White House turned to crowd-sourced navigation app Waze to gather data on where to send gasoline fueling trucks. The episode showed how mobile crowd-sourced data and tools like Waze can be helpful in a crisis.

Close to 30 million mobile app users turn to Waze to tap its crowd-sourced data for car directions. The Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) and the White House saw an opportunity to use the app in a new way, following widespread gas shortages due to Hurricane Sandy.

The government agencies called up Waze Friday night and asked for help in figuring out where to send gasoline trucks in New Jersey. Since many gas stations were out of power or were unable to open, the challenge became understanding where to send the fuel and who needed it most.

Di-Ann Eisnor, Waze’s VP of platforms and partnerships, told me that within an hour, Waze had a simple system up and running that allowed users who visited a gas station to get a system message that allowed them to report the conditions there. The users were able to leave a chit-chat message explaining if there was gas available, how the lines were and how long the wait was. The Waze app also displayed pins on its maps for local gas stations that were open.

Waze relayed hundreds of chit-chats back to both FEMA and the White House and sent the data along to Google’s Crisis Maps, which collected disaster resource information. After opening up a line of communication with New Jersey residents, Waze heard from users in Staten Island and Long Island, who also complained of gas shortages. Waze then expanded its reporting program Saturday night to those affected areas and turned over that information to the government, helping them target more gas stations.

Eisnor said it’s unlikely that the government would have turned to Waze even a year ago. But after growing rapidly to about 30 million users, up from 13 million users six months ago, the app has sufficient reach to mobilize people and gather good data.

“We did not think there would be a fuel shortage and FEMA would need to talk to the Waze community but I think it’s a given now that a problem like this needs to be crowdsourced and government and citizens need to work together,” said Eisnor.

She said there are more opportunities for systems such as Waze to work with government agencies on tasks like relaying Amber Alerts or routing traffic around trouble spots. Waze, she said, will likely work on how to pass data directly on to the government during emergencies instead of relying on people at the company to do that.

Eisnor was also pleased at the response from users, who are becoming more attuned to the idea of assisting each other and giving back to the greater good through crowd-sourced tools. In future crisis situations, having a widely used platform and a willing group of users could play an even bigger role in restoring order, gathering information or providing need.

“Everyone was just helping each other out. Things can change when people are involved in massively-scaled crowd participation,” Eisnor said.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Taking a Tour of Israel's Innovation

Members of global Jewish advocacy group AJC spent a week in October exploring a different Israel.

New Yorkers on the InnovatioNation tour learned about solar energy developments at Israel’s Arava Power.

The 15 New Yorkers who came to Israel for an October “InnovatioNation” tour with the Westchester chapter of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) didn’t spend a lot of time at classic tourist sites such as Masada.

Most of them had already been to those places, and were ready to delve into more behind-the-scenes aspects of Israel — from the multinational Bialik Rogozin school in South Tel Aviv to the Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research at Sde Boker; from cutting-edge companies like Urban Aeronautics to startup incubators like The Hub TLV.

“This is my eighth trip to Israel, and I’ve always done the usual things,” George Bruckman tells ISRAEL21c. “I got tired of the hospitals and the schools and the social agencies. Then I read the book Start-Up Nation and couldn’t put it down. When I read about this trip, I felt it was a must for me,” says the Tuckahoe, NY, resident.

The trip, which was implemented by Keshet: The Center for Educational Tourism in Israel and guided by Marty Friedlander, was conceived as an appropriate way to cap off a regional five-year AJC initiative, “Israel … New Perspectives,” designed to deepen the members’ familiarity with Israeli culture, diplomacy and business.

“We brought Israelis to our region from the literature, film and wine industries,” explains AJC lay leader Judy Rieger of White Plains, NY. “We envisioned it as a five-year program, and as we approached that mark we decided that instead of bringing Israel to us, we should come to Israel.”

Keshet’s Innovation, Imagination and Ingenuity tourists take a look at Better Place electric car network.

Working with Keshet and relying heavily on ISRAEL21c coverage to choose points of interest, Rieger says her goal was to build enthusiasm for the Jewish state.

“I wanted people to be excited about Israel – more excited than they were beforehand – and to be enthusiastic about exploring more aspects of Israel and AJC,” she says.

Some of the participants have been involved with AJC for years, some are brand-new board members and others have no affiliation with AJC. “Two couples came as a result of a book club in our area that read Start-Up Nation,” says Rieger.

“We’re very inspired by the startup spirit here and the culture that allows it to thrive, whether it’s Better Place [electric car network] or Hadasit [technology transfer company for the Hadassah Medical Organization]. “It’s been eye-opening and fun, and has spurred many wonderful conversations.”

The group visited Mobileye, the developers of vision-based automotive safety systems.

The group stopped at Herzliya to meet with Gemini VC Fund’s Ed Malevsky. They visited Evogene, an agri-tech startup involved in crop development for extreme climates. They heard from Arava Power co-founder Yosef Abramowitz, a global pioneer in solar energy, and they explored some of the challenges and triumphs in Israeli-Palestinian environmental cooperation at the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership.

“I’ve been very impressed by the academic backgrounds, command of language, maturity and dedication of the young people we’ve met,” says Bruckman.

The group also visited Verisense, a Jerusalem-based high-tech company that is working to build up the ultra-Orthodox work force; the Negev Solar Energy Development Center; and Mobileye, developer of vision-based automotive safety systems.

“Wherever we’ve gone, we’ve really tried to find that kernel of what is Israeli about this particular company,” says Rieger.
The visitors spent time with children at Tel Aviv’s famous Bialik-Rogozin School.

Other speakers included Gidi Greenstein, founder and head of the Reut Institute think tank, Member of Knesset, Einat Wilf, and Shlomo Caine, a 30-year veteran of Israeli high-tech, former venture capitalist and now a consultant to startups.

Some conventional touring was on the agenda as well: the Israel Museum, the Tower of David sound-and-light show, Old Jaffa and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the Ayalon Institute pre-state clandestine munitions factory, Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda open market, wine-tasting at Tzora Winery and a drive through the Elah Valley, setting of the ancient clash between David and Goliath.

“What grabbed my attention most were two biotech companies — Evogene and Hadasit,” Harriet Schleifer of Chappaqua, NY, tells ISRAEL21c. “Both of those are relevant to my life because my husband is in the biotech industry.

“I’ve been here several times and I love the country,” she continues, “but typically we tend to see historical and archeological sites. This was a total change of pace, and it fit very well into our AJC mission in the Westchester area — to showcase the achievements of Israel and not have Israel simply be either a victim or an aggressor.”

Rieger explains that the stop at Bialik-Rogozin was added because AJC Westchester screened the Academy Award-winning documentary about the multi-ethnic school during its Jewish Film Festival last spring.

“Our visit to the school gave us a unique window into the immigration and educational issues in Israel today. Although only a few of us had seen the film, everyone was enriched by the experience and impressed by the programs, staff and amount of volunteer effort that goes into making the school successful.”

Thursday, November 8, 2012

For the right man, Israelis would make peace

For the right man, Israelis would make peace
The consensus is moving to the right, but that doesn't mean Israeli Jews won't support a deal with the PA if the right leader comes along, a new study shows.
By Akiva Eldar

When Labor Party chief Shelly Yacimovich reads the new survey by Tel Aviv University's Walter Lebach Institute for Jewish-Arab Coexistence, she'll be able to smile and tell her campaign advisers: "I told you there was no need to get worked up about the peace blather from that Abu Mazen" - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The survey, conducted in May, finds that 80 percent of Israelis don't believe it's possible to make peace with the Palestinians. Half of them don't believe it's ever possible to make peace, while half don't believe it's possible in the foreseeable future. About two-thirds support a diplomatic solution, but many more still eagerly buy the convenient argument that there's no partner. What a pity.

The survey is part of a long-term study under way since 2002 led by four specialists from Tel Aviv University: professors Michael Hopp, Yochanan Peres, Izhak Schnell and Dan Jacobson. They compare their findings with similar studies they conducted in 2002, 2003 and 2005.

In the first, they interviewed 3,800 Jewish Israelis in Israel proper and the West Bank, in the second 1,100, in the third 500 and in the fourth 1,200. Each survey was carried out during a relatively quiet period by two research institutes and was found to be free of errors.

The (relatively ) good news is that 87 percent of secular Jewish Israelis believe in the need for peace with the Palestinians, but only half the religiously observant and a smaller percentage of the ultra-Orthodox believe this. Traditional Jews have moved to the right and are now in the middle of the road.

The marginal occupation

The study shows that the occupation has become a marginal element in the national debate among both secular and traditional Jews. Moreover, only about 20 percent of secular Jews see the demographic threat as an existential problem and only one-third believe the occupation and the settlements are creating a security threat to Israel.

In the poll, nearly half the respondents consider Palestinian terror a major security problem; this reflects the strong influence of the second intifada and the terror from the Gaza Strip, making it hard for large segments of the population to support a compromise with the Palestinians. "These findings might well show that the policy of continuing the creeping occupation and the settlements is indeed bearing fruit and leading a change in positions among the public, even if gradual," the rearchers write.

Within the Green Line, the number who consider themselves rightists or right-leaning has increased from 41 percent to 48 percent. Two-thirds of this increase comes at the expense of those who say they hold centrist positions. But between 2002 and 2012 the left has strengthened; it has grown from 20 percent to 25 percent of the population.

The study shows that the right's determination to take action to advance its goals is stronger than the left's. This is seen mainly in the willingness to act against government decisions to evacuate settlements or territory, although this willingness is limited to nonviolent means.

While 60 percent of the public supports a democratic solution to the conflict, 22 percent of Jewish residents of the West Bank prefer the authority of the rabbis to the authority of the elected institutions.

Only six percent of the respondents (14 percent of the settlers ) see the use of violence to prevent withdrawal from the West Bank as legitimate, while 59 percent (70 percent of the settlers ) believe that the public only has the right to fight for its beliefs within the law (compared with 31 percent and 45 percent respectively at the beginning of the decade ). Around 37 percent of the secular respondents see the settlers as pioneers, compared with 32 percent in 2005, and 35 percent see them as "the bedrock of our existence," compared with 23 percent in 2005.

But this is only theoretical support. About 70 percent of the respondents show a preference to remain where they are living today. Twenty percent of the religious would prefer to move to live in the territories, whereas 14 percent would prefer to leave the country.

It turns out that the hard core of settlers as represented by Gush Emunim, which has pushed the Israeli government and public to settle in the territories, hasn't spread its messianic ideology among the public, or even among the settlers. It turns out that the main motivations for living in the territories, including among many of the religious, are comfort and quality of life.

Compensation up to 300 percent

The researchers found that it's possible to evacuate half the settlers with their consent if they are offered compensation equivalent to up to 300 percent of the value of their property. While the willingness of Israelis inside the Green Line to compensate the settlers for a loss of property during an evacuation decreased last decade, the willingness to be evacuated increased. And there was no significant change in the percentage of those who would refuse any compensation.

The researchers found that the occupation splits the public between people with a neo-Zionist outlook who emphasize a nationalist-religious agenda and a moderate Zionist majority that focuses on the land inside the Green Line and promotes a social agenda.

Therefore, the right is advancing its agenda unhindered, the researchers say. It's exploiting the confusion among centrists who have lost faith in the ability to achieve peace; the occupation remains on the margins of their political concerns.

Still, the researchers conclude, "a leadership that takes responsibility for finding a compromise solution with the Palestinians is expected to receive the support of most of the public, just as most of the public supported [former Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon's unilateral disengagement plan, despite its disadvantages."Did you get that, Shelly?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Microsoft employs more workers per capita in Israel than anywhere else on earth

Microsoft employs more workers per capita in Israel than anywhere else on earth, says Ballmer
Visiting CEO hails ‘remarkable’ Israeli hi-tech, says his firm looks to its Israel R&D center for ideas, innovation — even leadership

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer (left) on stage with MS Israel CEO Danny Yamin                                    (photo credit: Chen Galili, Shilopro)

If Silicon Valley didn’t exist, Microsoft would still be able to get some great ideas and acquire new technologies — in Israel. In a conversation with Israel’s Chief Scientist Avi Hasson, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said that even though there is only one Silicon Valley, “Israel is among the second tier of innovative places” — akin to Microsoft’s hometown, Seattle.

That conversation — sort of a cozy “fireside chat” between Hasson and Ballmer — took place Monday during Microsoft’s biggest event in Israel: Think Next. The fifth annual event is sponsored by Microsoft’s Israel Research and Development facility, and features some of the most innovative ideas and projects on the Israeli high-tech scene today. Start-ups chosen by Microsoft display their wares at Think Next, and get exposure to investors, angels, and top industry figures that may lead to partnerships, or even a buyout.

Ballmer, both in his own remarks and in his conversation with Hasson, was effusive in his praise for Israel’s high-tech industry. Telling the crowd of about 1,000 that he was “thrilled” to be in Israel, Ballmer said that “the range of innovative things that Israel is doing is remarkable. There is such a wide scope of exciting things going on here. Israel is a start-up center, and there is always something to challenge us here, or one that we can acquire.”

One such company — one that had actually demonstrated its technology at a previous Think Next, said Tzahi Weisfeld, a top executive at Microsoft’s Israel R&D center — was Primesense, from which Microsoft licenses 3D camera technology, key to Microsoft’s Kinect gaming system. A number of MS technologies are “Made in Israel,” Weisfeld explained in a previous interview: These include Microsoft gateway VPN technology; Microsoft Security Essentials anti-virus suite; and the newest product, the recommendation system for Xbox systems, said Yoram Ya’akovi, director of Microsoft Israel’s Development Center, at the event.

That system, which recommends movies, music, games, and other downloadables based on user preference, is now a part of the newly released Windows 8 operating system, which is implemented on all of Microsoft’s offerings, including Windows phones and Slate tablets. “Anyone using preference on Windows 8 is using one of our products,” Ya’akovi announced.

Ballmer, and the rest of the MS Israel team, are naturally excited — and hopeful — over the release of Windows 8, which was just announced weeks ago. The fact that Windows 8 was released in tandem with the new phones running the operating system, as does Microsoft’s new Slate tablet, was no accident, explained Ballmer: The new OS takes an innovative approach to the user interface (replacing the traditional Windows Start menu with a series of customizable tabs to access applications, an interface well suited to mobile devices, according to many industry analysts).

“Windows 8 is the start of a shift for Microsoft,” Ballmer said. “Until now, we have been chiefly a software company, but now we are producing devices.” The future, informed Ballmer, is not just operating systems or even applications, but a user experience that combines all of them. “With Windows 8 we have re-imagined the user interface, giving the same user experience from phone to tablet to desktop, to the 82-inch tablet I have in my office.”

In addition, Ballmer continued, applications — especially those that access the cloud for services — are a major trend as well, and one that Microsoft is also working intensely to excel in. And applications are a major Israeli strength. After speaking to local start-ups that specialize in app development, Ballmer declared that “I saw so much innovation here, it is truly amazing.”

Another major trend in computing, continued Ballmer, is “big data” — getting a handle on the reams of information that come into the world every second of the day… gleaned from the Web, Facebook, Internet retail sites, and a myriad databases. The best — and perhaps only — way to control this flood of data is by implementing advanced machine-learning techniques, essentially “teaching” software to learn the habits and choices users make. “How do we use mass mounts of data to figure out what customers want? How do we figure out how to make the right suggestions?”

As data analysis gets more involved, Ballmer expounded, Microsoft will be concentrating on better ways to tame it — and in this area, especially, he expects Israel to lead.

“Leadership” might sound like a funny term to use when describing the contribution you expect a remotely located branch of the main company to provide, but Ballmer is serious. Israel was the first Microsoft R&D center outside the US, which opened in 1991. Today, the company has centers around the world, but there’s a big difference between the Israel center and the others. “In most countries, the R&D centers are given specific things to do,” explained Ballmer. An example is the R&D center for the Internet telephony app Skype, which is now a Microsoft brand, in Estonia.

“There are only four places in the world where the R&D centers get involved in general and innovative projects: the US, China, India, and Israel.” The US, of course, is where Microsoft is based; and China and India rate, Ballmer theorized, because “half the annual science grads in the world are there.”

Israel, which has far fewer tech grads — but, according to Ballmer, the highest number of Microsoft workers per capita of any place on earth — is on the company’s short list because “of the entrepreneurship and ability of Israel. We have built some great things in Israel. What you have done here is remarkable.”

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Why Halloween Rocks in Israel

Why Halloween Rocks in Israel

Jen Maidenberg is a writer, who blogs about her experience as a new immigrant to Israel…

I had a better blog post planned.

It was about Hurricane Sandy. And fear and acceptance. About climate change and transition.

It was going to be a doozy.

But I got smacked with a doozy of my own — first a bad cold. And then a migraine. ‘Screw the environment. This hurts like hell.’ So instead, I bring you Halloween in Israel. My Israeli friends are laughing right now because they get the joke. Most of my American friends don’t.

Honey, in Israel, there ain’t no Halloween.

No candy corn. No Milky Ways. No Target-bought costumes that smell like plastic. No cozy life-sized polyester teddy bears from Old Navy or Land’s End. No homemade Raggedy Ann dresses that make me feel like the worst mother in the world because my kid is sweating bullets underneath polyester.

Nope. No Halloween.

No plastic pumpkins or recycled sustainable resuable bags filled with candy… and a handful of pennies. No wooden doors with brass handles to knock. No darkened streets to avoid.

Nope. No Halloween.

And the truth is — I don’t know why. It’s something Jewish. I could Google it. But so could you.
It has to do with something about paganism and worshiping graven images. But for me to give you more specifics than that, I would have to go look up what graven means. Instead, I will tell you a secret.
I only miss Halloween a teency weency bit. Hardly at all. Because somewhere after I started having kids, I became a Halloween Grinch. A scrooge. A buzz-kill.

Halloween went from being a fabulously fun excuse to dress up like Madonna circa 1984 (a photo I’d show you if it weren’t at the bottom of a trunk in my mom’s basement in New Jersey, which I hope and pray is still dry) to being a big fat pain in my butt. When I became a mom, Halloween became yet another item on my to-do list. I always wanted to do something extraordinarily creative for my kids, but as working mom, I never felt like I had the time and energy to put into making the holiday as fun and special as I would have liked. You know: Styrofoam tombstones lining the driveway; homemade orange-frosted cupcakes with gummy worms baked into the center.

As a mom, Halloween made me feel kinda like a failure. Then my son developed a nut allergy, and Halloween became yet one more national holiday in which I had to worry about his safety and he had to feel like an outsider.

Finally, when I got more wise to wellness, Halloween turned into just one more reason for you not to like me. I got annoyed with all the attention put into a holiday which was no longer special, now that kids suck down Hawaiian Punch every day of the year, not just October 31. I became the crazy mom who rationed her kids’ booty.

Living in Israel, surprisingly, allows me to once more appreciate Halloween. I don’t have to compete with any Super Moms. At least, not until Purim. I don’t have to worry (today) about my son’s friends plucking from his sack and peeling open a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup before he gets back to his own house.

I don’t have to remind my kids of their very low tolerance for junk. And how that low tolerance often translates into vomit. That I have to clean up. (Dear God, please no vomit. The migraine is enough.)
Instead, I get to surprise my kids. With a yummy homemade cake.

And some funny signs.

And put on a wig, or some fake nails, before I greet them at the door today. Be the mom who remembered Halloween. And feel for a minute like a mom… who is… extraordinary.