Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Oldest Holocaust survivor, Alice Herz-Sommer, dies at 110

Oldest Holocaust survivor, Alice Herz-Sommer, dies at 110

Prague-born pianist who knew Kafka and lived in Israel for 40 years, dies in London.
By Ofer Aderet

Alice Herz-Sommer, now 110 and pictured here on her 107th birthday, 
is the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary. Photo by Polly Hancock

Alice Herz-Sommer Photo by Family archive

The world’s oldest Holocaust survivor, Alice Herz-Sommer, died Sunday at the age 110 in London. 
Herz-Sommer, a pianist, born in Prague, was the subject of a documentary “The Lady in Number 6: 
Music Saved My Life”, nominated for an Oscar this year.

“Young people take everything for granted, whereas we, the elderly, understand nature, “ Herz-Sommer told Haaretz in an interview at age 106. “What I have learned, at my advanced age, is to be grateful that we have a nice life. There is electricity, cars, telegraph, telephone, Internet. We also have hot water all day long. We live like kings. I even got used to the bad weather in London,” she said.

Besides her twin sister, Mariana, she had another sister and two brothers. She discovered a love for music at the age of 3, and it has remained with her to this day. Her family home in Prague was also a cultural salon where writers, scientists, musicians and actors congregated, among them Franz Kafka, who she remembers well. He was the best friend of the journalist, author and philosopher Felix Weltsch, who married her sister Irma.

“Kafka was a slightly strange man,” Sommer recalled. “He used to come to our house, sit and talk with my mother, mainly about his writing. He did not talk a lot, but rather loved quiet and nature. We frequently went on trips together. I remember that Kafka took us to a very nice place outside Prague. We sat on a bench and he told us stories. I remember the atmosphere and his unusual stories. He was an excellent writer, with a lovely style, the kind that you read effortlessly,” she says, and then grows silent. “And now, hundreds of people all over the world research and write doctorates about him.”

When World War I broke out, she was 11. Five years later she enrolled in the German music academy in Prague, where she was the youngest pupil. Within a short time she became one of the city’s most famous pianists, and in the early 1930s was also known throughout Europe. Max Brod, the man who published Kafka’s works, recognized Sommer’s talent and reviewed several of her performances for a newspaper.

In 1931 she married Leopold Sommer, also a musician. Six years later their only son, Rafael, was born. In 1939 the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia.

This was a very difficult time for Sommer, who had stayed behind. The Nazis forbade Jews to perform in public, and so she stopped holding concerts and participating in music competitions. At first she was still able to make a living by giving piano lessons, but when the Nazis forbade Jews to teach non-Jews, she lost most of her pupils.

“Everything was forbidden. We couldn’t buy groceries, take the tram, or go to the park,” she said.

But the hardest times of all still lay ahead. In 1942 the Germans arrested her sick mother, Sophie, who was 72 at the time, and subsequently murdered her.

“That was a catastrophe,” Sommer said. The bond between a mother and her child is something special. I loved her so much. But an inner voice told me, ‘From now on you alone can help yourself. Not your husband, not the doctor, not the child.’

And at that moment I knew I had to play Frederic Chopin’s 24 etudes, which are the greatest challenge for any pianist. Like Goethe’s ‘Faust’ or Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet.’ I ran home and from that moment on I practiced for hours and hours. Until they forced us out.”

In 1943, Sommer was sent to the Terezin-Theresienstadt concentration camp, along with her husband and their son, who was then 6 years old. The Nazis allowed the Jews to maintain a cultural life there, in order to present the false impression to the world that the inmates were receiving proper treatment. Sommer thus performed there together with other musicians.

“We had to play because the Red Cross came three times a year,” she recounts. “The Germans wanted to show its representatives that the situation of the Jews in Theresienstadt was good. Whenever I knew that I had a concert, I was happy. Music is magic. We performed in the council hall before an audience of 150 old, hopeless, sick and hungry people. They lived for the music. It was like food to them. If they hadn’t come [to hear us], they would have died long before. As we would have.”

In September 1944, her husband Leopold was sent to Auschwitz. He survived his imprisonment there, but died of illness at Dachau shortly before the war ended. His departing words to her at Theresienstadt saved her life, says Sommer: “One evening he came and told me that 1,000 men would be sent on a transport the following day - himself included. He made me swear not to volunteer to follow him afterward. And a day after his transport there was another one, which people were told was a transport of ‘wives following in their husbands’ footsteps.’ Many wives volunteered to go, but they never met up with their husbands: They were murdered. If my husband hadn’t warned me, I would have gone at once.”

In May 1945, the Soviet army liberated Theresienstadt. Two years later Sommer and her son immigrated to Palestine, where they were reunited with her family: her twin Mariana, who had meanwhile married Prof. Emil Adler, one of the founders of Hadassah Medical Center (their son, Prof. Chaim Adler, is an Israel Prize laureate for education), and with Irma and her husband Felix (their grandson is actor Eli Gorenstein).

I don’t hate the Germans,” Sommer declared. “[What they did] was a terrible thing, but was Alexander the Great any better? Evil has always existed and always will. It is part of our life.”

In 1962, she added, she attended the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem: “I have to say that I had pity for him. I have pity for the entire German people. They are wonderful people, no worse than others.”

For almost 40 years Sommer lived in Israel, making a living by teaching music at a conservatory in Jerusalem. “That was the best period in my life,” she recalls. “I was happy.”

In 1986, Sommer followed her son, a cellist, and his family to London. She continued playing and teaching; to this day she devotes three hours a day to practicing. She speaks lovingly of her two grandchildren, whose father, Rafael, died of a heart attack in Israel in 2001, at the end of a concert tour. He was 64.

His birth was the happiest day of my life, and his death was the worst thing that happened to me,” she notes, but manages to find a bright spot even here. “I am grateful at least that he did not suffer when he died. And I still watch my son play, on television. He lives on. Sometimes I think it will be possible someday to postpone death through technology.”

When asked in 2006 what the secret of her longevity was, she answered: In a word: optimism. "I look at the good. When you are relaxed, your body is always relaxed. When you are pessimistic, your body behaves in an unnatural way. It is up to us whether we look at the good or the bad. When you are nice to others, they are nice to you. When you give, you receive. My recommendation is not to eat a lot, but also not to go hungry. Fish or chicken and plenty of vegetables.”

The topic Israelis are talking about

The topic Israelis are talking about

By Michael Oren

The beachfront of Tel Aviv, Israel.


Michael Oren: Israel sits in a region bristling with conflict and hostile to its presence
He says one topic stirring attention is number of streets named for women in Tel Aviv
Israelis have always lived with the threat of war, and put it in perspective, he says
Support for a two-state solution is strong in Israel today, he says

Editor's note: Michael Oren is the former Israeli ambassador to the United States. His books include "Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present."

(CNN) -- Like Americans, Israelis begin their day by watching one of several television news shows. These highlight the pressing issues facing the country. But Israel, of course, is not just any country, but a contested and often controversial Jewish state situated in the epicenter of an overwhelmingly Muslim and constantly roiling Middle East.

One would expect, then, to hear commentators on these shows discussing the latest glitch in the peace talks with the Palestinians, the recent terrorist bombing just beyond Israel's southern border with Egypt, or the revelation of more advanced rockets in the arsenal of Hezbollah in Lebanon. But the topic on Israel's leading morning show this week was none of these. The top issue, rather, was the percentage of Tel Aviv streets named for women.

Turns out that women's studies scholars and feminist activists have examined Tel Aviv street names and discovered that the overwhelming majority of them are named for men. While preparing for work, I kept one eye on the television and listened, fascinated, as representatives of women's rights groups argued passionately for gender equality in Tel Aviv street-naming. They made a compelling case and even the show's hosts, who are generally testier than their American counterparts, were convinced. I, too, was impressed, and not only by the discussion, but also by the very fact that it was taking place.

Michael Oren

From Tel Aviv it is roughly a two-hour drive to Mafraq in Jordan, the temporary home of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, making it the country's second-largest city.

From Tel Aviv, one can drive three hours north — less than the distance between New York and Boston — and arrive in Damascus, in the thick of the Syrian civil war. Or one can drive east from Tel Aviv and in eight hours reach Iraq, where an estimated thousand people are being killed each month by suicide bombers.

A similar excursion of about nine hours concludes in Tahrir Square in time for the latest confrontation between Egyptian protesters and police. A veritable firestorm is engulfing the Middle East, and Israel's Tel Aviv is just a short commute from its flash points.

Yet it was women's rights, not the upheaval encompassing Israel on all sides, which highlighted the morning news. One explanation, certainly, is that Israelis need diversion from the chaos closing in on them, and what could be more distracting than a debate about signposts?

After all, the question of whether to name a street after Golda Meir is certainly easier than asking if Israel can coexist with a nuclear-armed Iran.

Another claim, one that is sometimes voiced by visiting statesmen, is that Israelis have it too good to think about the hard choices they face in the peace process. In fact, support for the two-state solution is vastly higher among Israelis today—more than 60%--than it was during the years of suicide bombing, when it was close to zero. But the real reason for Israel's interest in women's rights at this time is much more fundamental and reveals this country's secret. The reason is fortitude.

Unique among the world's nations, Israel has never known a second of peace. Since its creation in 1948, and for many years before that, the country has been in a relentless state of war. And yet, in spite of that trauma, Israelis simply refuse to live abnormal lives.

Almost militantly, they insist on normality. Call it a bubble, call it a fantasy, but the fact is that it works. In the midst of regional insanity, Israelis have built several of the world's leading universities, a cutting-edge high-tech sector, a universal health care system, and a wildly vibrant democracy.

Yes, there is controversy. There is still no two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians and no end in sight for the Iranian nuclear program. Israeli intelligence recently reported that terrorists are pointing 170,000 rockets and missiles at the Jewish state. But on the streets of Tel Aviv, quite possibly the most threatened city on Earth, the cafes and cultural centers are packed, the food is superb and people are arguing why more of those streets are not named for women.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

In Rawabi, the brand-new Palestinian city, both sides win

Projects like this bring our peoples closer together, says Bashar Al-Masri, the entrepreneur behind an unprecedented construction project that is changing the West Bank landscape

Civil engineer Shadia Jaradat (center) poses with two colleagues in one of Rawabi's model apartments. 
A third of the project's engineers are women (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

A model of Rawabi in the project's visitors' center (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

Former Sharon adviser and current Rawabi legal fixer Dov Weisglass (left) stands next to Rawabi managing director Bashar Al-Masri (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

A construction site in downtown Rawabi (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

Palestinian flags encircle Rawabi's visitors' center (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

A view from the balcony of a ninth-floor Rawabi apartment (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

The living room in Rawabi's model apartment (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

RAWABI, West Bank — If all goes according to plan, this summer 600 middle-class families will begin moving into their new apartments in Rawabi, the largest construction project in recorded Palestinian history.

The city slopes down a hill 9 kilometers (5.6 miles) north of Ramallah, directly between Nablus and Jerusalem, and the Israeli coastline is clearly visible from the balconies of its higher apartments. Rawabi, which is Arabic for hills, is entirely funded by private investment — a joint venture of Palestinian company Massar International and Qatari real estate developer Diar — estimated to surpass $1 billion. When phase A is done, it will be home to more than 25,000 residents seeking to escape the disarray of traditional Palestinian cities.

While the prospects of a positive outcome to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians seem iffy, Rawabi is a towering certainty. But the shiny new city on the hill is not only a model of Palestinian entrepreneurship, it is also a little-known exemplar of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation.

Bashar Al-Masri, managing director of Rawabi, said that though no Israeli companies have been involved in constructing the city, hundreds of Israeli suppliers provide it with raw materials such as cement, sand, electric components and plumbing. He estimated that Israeli businesses benefit from the Rawabi project to the tune of tens of millions of dollars a month. The only political principle Rawabi holds with relation to Israel is no cooperation with businesses in the settlements.

“We buy from whoever gives us the lowest price,” Al-Masri said. “It makes no difference to us if the company is Israeli, Italian or German.”

“We have no choice but to cooperate with Israel and Israelis, but we also want to do so,” he added. “It is a mistake to separate our economy from Israel’s. Projects like this bring our peoples closer together: Israelis come to the site, they are exposed to Palestinians, and they realize there’s no risk in coming here. There is a sense of comfort.”

A view from the kitchen in Rawabi’s model apartment (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

These positions have placed Masri — a native of Nablus who spent much of his adult life living in the US, the UK and Saudi Arabia — under fire in his own society. In 2012, the Palestinian National BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) Committee condemned him for normalization with Israel, accusing him of “advancing personal interests and profit making at the expense of Palestinian rights.”

But despite the BDS efforts, the ambitious project is already a huge blessing for the Palestinian economy. Providing 8,000-10,000 jobs in construction, Rawabi is by far the largest private employer in the West Bank. Once complete, the city is expected to employ 3,000-5,000 people in its commercial and cultural center, said Amir Dajani, the project’s deputy managing director.

A model of Rawabi’s mosque in the visitors’ center (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/times of Israel)

Rawabi materialized remarkably fast; its planning began five years ago and construction just two. Situated in area A, Rawabi lies within full Palestinian jurisdiction, where planning and construction bureaucracy are far less obstructive than in neighboring Israel. A local quarry feeds an on-site stone-cutting factory active 24 hours a day, six days a week. The city will eventually emerge complete with three schools, two mosques, a church, a commercial center including restaurants and cinemas, and an amphitheater that can seat 15,000. With no residents yet, Rawabi already has an appointed mayor, Majed Abdul Fattah.

But cooperation with Israeli authorities has not always been easy. The Civil Administration, an IDF organ entrusted with the civilian governing of the West Bank, objected to the widening of a local road leading up to the city and passing through area C, which lies under Israeli administrative control. And Israel’s national water company, Mekorot, has still not guaranteed a water supply to Rawabi.

Dov Weisglass, an Israeli lawyer and former bureau chief for prime minister Ariel Sharon, serves as the legal and regulatory adviser to Rawabi in its dealings with the Israeli government. He said that while some officials in the Civil Administration place hurdles before Rawabi since they are “no big supporters of the vision of Palestinian development,” the Israeli government has gradually changed its attitude toward the new city.

“A few years ago, when Rawabi was just getting started, the Israeli attitude was harsher and more suspicious,” Weisglass said. “However, today I can state with satisfaction that most Israeli authorities willingly cooperate based on a deep understanding that history is being made here before our eyes, both domestically and — to a certain extent — with relation to Israel.”

Weisglass asserted that the new middle-class city will be the antithesis of violence and extremism.

“Does this project not contribute to normalization, to co-existence and to peace?” Weisglass wondered. “We are doing something tremendous for the State of Israel.”
A new Palestinian concept: The mortgage

Rawabi looks remarkably different from the typical Palestinian community. The city, which markets itself as environmentally sustainable, will have no water tanks on its roofs and will enjoy a centralized TV service to replace the ubiquitous satellite dishes of Arab urban centers. All of its infrastructure is being laid underground.

When planning began for the city, Masri met with renowned Israeli-born architect Moshe Safdie, who took him on a tour of nearby Modi’in.

Bashar Masri at Rawabi’s construction site (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

“When searching for a model, we first looked at cities next door,” Masri recalled. “Modi’in has similar topography and a similar climate to Rawabi.”

Rawabi’s planners also learned from Modi’in’s mistakes. The planned Israeli city is still widely viewed as a commuter town due a lack of local businesses, a planning mistake Masri said he was determined to avoid with Rawabi. Rawabi’s center is therefore designed as a commercial hotspot built to attract Palestinians from the surrounding areas.

“Today many Israelis come here to learn from Rawabi,” Masri noted. “Just last week we hosted a group from the Israeli association of planners.”

But Rawabi has also challenged the conventional attitude toward home ownership in the West Bank.

Traditionally, Palestinians build their homes on family land, expanding the house as money becomes available. The Rawabi project has introduced a new concept: the long-term mortgage.

Before Rawabi set up a mortgage company granting 25-year loans, the typical Palestinian loan would entail a five- to eight-year payback period. The Palestinian Monetary Authority used to require a down payment of 20 percent of the property’s value, a rate Rawabi successfully lobbied to lower to 15%.

One beneficiary of Rawabi’s financing system is Shadia Jaradat, a 26-year-old civil engineer who has been working for Rawabi for the past four years (a third of Rawabi’s 300 engineers are women). Through an assistance program in which the project helps its employees on their down payment, the Hebron native recently purchased a four-bedroom ninth-floor apartment for $120,000, a price she said was affordable. Eleven percent of home-buyers in Rawabi are single, like Jaradat.

“I plan to move in as soon as they fit the windows,” she told The Times of Israel.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Wheelchairs of Hope, from Israel with love

Wheelchairs of Hope, from Israel with love

Former Keter plastics executives turn their expertise into a humanitarian project to help millions of disabled children in developing countries get to school.

By Abigail Klein Leichman

This wheelchair is meant to look like a cool toy.

Virtually every household in Israel has a few Keter brand plastic chairs, so why not use a similar seat as a base for lightweight, inexpensive but sturdy kid-friendly wheelchairs?

After 30 years as a Keter executive, Pablo Kaplan decided to do just that. With his life partner and former coworker, Chava Rotshtein, in 2009 Kaplan founded the nonprofit Wheelchairs of Hope.

The couple aims to provide colorful, maintenance-free wheelchairs to the estimated five million children in the world who cannot attend school because of mobility handicaps. Central and South America, Africa, Asia and other Middle East countries are target markets.

“Our wheelchair is specifically designed for children, as we wish to empower education through mobility,” Kaplan and Rotshtein explain. “Mobility from early childhood is a gate to education. By giving access to education we create a new generation with better skills, confidence and hope.”

Last September, the Wheelchairs of Hope founders presented their idea at the opening day of the United Nations General Assembly and were selected to serve on UNICEF’s task force for assistive technologies.

“The task force’s goal is to identify novel technologies to recommend to all member countries,” Kaplan tells ISRAEL21c. “Our product was chosen as one of those innovations.”

A chair, not a medical device

The wheelchair, to be available in bright primary colors, weighs 10 kilograms (22 pounds) and is expected to cost about $50. By contrast, the basic metal wheelchairs currently donated to developing nations by various humanitarian organizations cost at least $150 apiece and weigh 15 to 17 kilos.

“The child sitting in it will weigh a maximum of 25 kilos, so the light weight will make a big difference,” predicts Kaplan.

The first prototype, made in June 2013 on a 3D printer, followed more than a year of fine-tuning in consultation with Naomi Geffen, deputy director general of clinical services at ALYN rehabilitation hospital for children in Jerusalem, and the hospital’s biomedical lab director, Ohad Ga’al-Dor.

“We went over every single part of the wheelchair,” Geffen tells ISRAEL21c. “We were very happy with the results. It looks like something fun and not like a medical device you wouldn’t want to use.”

The Ziv-Av Engineering Group, Nekuda Design Management and patent law firm Reinhold Cohn all donated their time and expertise to make the final product a reality.

Ziv-Av CEO Itzik Taff tells ISRAEL21c that the engineering challenge was to design a “cool-looking,” low-cost product robust enough for harsh conditions such as bumpy dirt roads, yet lightweight enough for a five- to eight-year-old to maneuver easily.

“We also wanted the ability to add on devices for kids with special needs, like to stabilize the neck,” says Taff. “So we had to try to get the maximum out of what plastic can do. We used the minimum amount of material to achieve maximum strength.”

Beit Issie Shapiro, a service and advocacy organization for Israelis with disabilities, also endorsed the project. “We are very impressed with the Wheelchair of Hope, its simplicity, durability and low cost, and we are proud to be a beta site for a project which will give children new opportunities to be independent in their communities,” says Executive Director Jean Judes.

Meanwhile, in the field of adult wheelchairs, Israeli entrepreneur Nimrod Elmish and automation expert Izhar Gafni of I.G. Cardboard Technologies are working toward commercializing a lightweight, maintenance-free product made of less than $10 worth of durable recycled cardboard, plastic bottles and recycled tires.

Pablo Kaplan hopes to make millions of the chairs.

For the sake of doing good

Encouraged by the positive feedback, Kaplan and Rotshtein are seeking seed money to build manufacturing molds and basic infrastructure. Wheelchairs of Hope has the active support of the World Health Organization, and aid agencies including the International Red Cross are interested in helping to get the chairs where they are needed.

“We do a lot of work with children from Israel and abroad, and this definitely will be a low-cost solution for some of the populations we see,” says ALYN’s Geffen. “This chair is accessible to everyone and is made of durable plastic, which is important in third-world countries.”

Kaplan says he got very emotional watching the enthusiasm of a young ALYN patient who tried out the prototype bright green model and didn’t want to get out of it. He and Rotshtein hope to repeat this moving scenario many times over.

“Based on our ability to reach the minimum level of investment, we plan to start a pilot phase involving 2,500 children in four to five different countries by the end of 2014,” says Rotshtein.

The Kfar Saba residents are often asked if they came to this project out of personal experience.

“Chava and I have no relatives with disabilities,” Kaplan says. “Wheelchairs of Hope is just for the sake of doing something good using our knowledge of the plastics industry.”

For more information, see

The B.D.S. Threat

The B.D.S. Threat
FEB. 10, 2014

Roger Cohen

LONDON — Secretary of State John Kerry caused outrage in Israel recently when he declared:
“For Israel there’s an increasing delegitimization campaign that has been building up. People are very sensitive to it. There is talk of boycotts and other kinds of things. Today’s status quo absolutely, to a certainty, I promise you 100 percent, cannot be maintained. It’s not sustainable. It’s illusionary.”

Members of the Israeli government were indignant. Israel, they declared, will not negotiate under pressure. Advice givers, stay away! But Kerry was only repeating what Israel’s own finance minister, Yair Lapid, had already said: The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (B.D.S.) movement is beginning to bite.

I am a strong supporter of a two-state peace. The messianic idea of Greater Israel, occupying all the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, must wither. Jews, having suffered for most of their history as a minority, cannot, as a majority now in their state, keep their boots on the heads of the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank any longer.

Palestinians must accept the permanence of the state of Israel within the 1967 lines with equitable land swaps. Competitive victimhood should cede to collaborative viability for the nation states of the Jewish and Palestinian peoples. Narratives and revealed truth do not a future make. They perpetuate the imprisoning past.

So, in theory, B.D.S. might be a positive factor. When the largest Dutch pension fund and the largest Danish bank withdraw investments from, or cease business with, Israeli banks because of their operations in the settlements, they send a powerful signal to Israel to get out of the West Bank.

Yet these developments make me uneasy for a simple reason: I do not trust the B.D.S. movement. Its stated aim is to end the occupation, secure “full equality” for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and fight for the right of return of all Palestinian refugees. The first objective is essential to Israel’s future. The second is laudable. The third, combined with the second, equals the end of Israel as a Jewish state. This is the hidden agenda of B.D.S., its unacceptable subterfuge: beguile, disguise and suffocate.

The anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa contained no such ambiguity. As Diana Shaw Clark, an activist on behalf of a two-state solution, wrote to me in an email, “People affiliated with divestment in South Africa had no agenda other than the liberation and enfranchisement of an oppressed majority.”

This is not the case in Israel, where the triple objective of B.D.S. would, in Clark’s words, “doom Israel as a national home for the Jews.” Mellifluous talk of democracy and rights and justice masks the B.D.S. objective that is nothing other than the end of the Jewish state for which the United Nations gave an unambiguous mandate in 1947. The movement’s anti-Zionism can easily be a cover for anti-Semitism.

It would be gratifying if Israelis and Palestinians could learn overnight to live together as equal citizens in some United States of the Holy Land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, a binational and democratic secular state that resolves their differences. But it is an illusion to think this could ever happen, the one-state pipe dream. The fault lines are too deep. A single state cannot mark its Day of Independence and Day of Catastrophe on the same date.
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Mary Kay Klassen 20 hours ago

The truth is that the United States in failing to allow unlimited refugees of Jewish descent to emigrate to the United States after World...
casual observer 21 hours ago

The two state solution is the reasonable alternative but it relies upon one condition to work, trust between the Israelis and the...
randy tucker 21 hours ago

I am sad that my main reaction to reading a thoughtful piece such as this one is to be glad that I am neither Israeli nor Palestinian.
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One state, however conceived, equals the end of Israel as a Jewish state, the core of the Zionist idea. Jews must not allow this to happen. Trust your neighbor? Been there, tried that.

The so-called right of return of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians driven out in the 1948 war (whose descendants now number in the millions) cannot be exercised, any more than the Jews of Baghdad and Cairo have deeds to return home. There can, and should be, agreed compensation for the dispossessed, but there cannot be a reversal of history. The “right” is in fact a claim.

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A Jewish national home is needed. History demonstrated that. It must now be reinvented. For that, the corrosive occupation has to end and with it the settlement industry.

B.D.S. is a wake-up call. I oppose it because I do not trust it. That does not mean, as Lapid intimated, that Israel can ignore its message.

Israel can only be a state of laws again when the lawless enterprise beyond the Green Line ends. West of that line, Israel is a democracy affording greater minority rights than other regional states (Omar Barghouti, a B.D.S. leader, has a master’s degree from Tel Aviv University). But that is not enough. All citizens should enjoy equality in the Jews’ national home, a state where civil marriage becomes possible, state and synagogue are divorced, and Israelis are permitted to identify themselves as Israelis if they so wish, rather than as Jews or Arabs or Druze — that is as undifferentiated citizens

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

At SodaStream, Palestinians hope their bubble won’t burst

At SodaStream, Palestinians hope their bubble won’t burst
A manual worker at the settlement-based factory that sparked the Scarlett Johansson controversy, 
Nahida Fares of Ramallah earns triple the pay of her husband, an officer in the PA


Sodastream CEO Daniel Birnbaum stands next to Palestinian and Jewish employees, February 2, 2014 [photo credit: Elhanan Miller/TOI]

The SodaStream plant in Mishor Adumim, a former IDF munitions factory, overlooks the Judean Hills (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/TOI)

Soda bottles are assembled at the SodaStream factory in Mishor Adumim [photo credit: Elhanan Miller/TOI]

Palestinian employees package bottles at the SodaStream factory, February 2, 2014 
(photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

A Palestinian woman works at SodaStream's plant in Mishor Adumim, February 2, 2014 
(photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)<>

MISHOR ADUMIM, West Bank — The SodaStream factory, situated just off the highway leading down from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, was abuzz on Sunday with journalists from across the globe trying to get a glimpse of the action.

The tour of the carbonated beverage-maker plant was organized especially for curious foreign correspondents on the eve of the Super Bowl, which featured an ad starring its glamorous spokeswoman Scarlett Johansson. The factory, SodaStream’s charismatic US-born CEO Daniel Birnbaum proudly declared, used to produce munitions for the Israeli army. It was bought in 1996 by the fizzy drink start-up, seeking to better the world by doing away with polluting plastic bottles.

A statue at the entrance to the plant, Birnbaum pointed out, encapsulated the company spirit with the immortal words of the prophet Isaiah: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

SodaStream’s business has grown exponentially since Birnbaum was hired by the private equity firm that bought the company in 2007. Under the previous management, SodaStream manufactured 20,000-30,000 counter-top soda machines a month. Now it produces that number every day.

A Palestinian worker speaks with his Jewish employee at the SodaStream factory in the Mishor Adumim industrial park, February 2, 2014 (Photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

As SodaStream’s global market expanded, so did its need for manual laborers. Today, the Mishor Adumim plant — the first of eight Israeli locations and 22 worldwide — employs 1,300 workers; 950 Arabs (450 Israeli and 500 Palestinian) and 350 Israeli Jews. Salaries and work benefits — management asserts and workers confirm — are equal for all workers in comparable jobs, regardless of ethnicity or citizenship. The factory secures Israeli work permits for its Palestinian employees as well as rides from their home and back, SodaStream’s Chief Operating Officer Yossi Azarzar told The Times of Israel.

Proponents of the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanction) campaign posit that any Israeli business located beyond the 1949 armistice frontier known as the Green Line is by definition exploitative, in addition to being illegal under international law. They castigated Johannson for representing the firm; she rejected the onslaught — declaring that “SodaStream is a company that is not only committed to the environment but to building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine” — and resigned as an ambassador for British-based charity Oxfam when they critiqued her role.

A statue at the entrance to the SodaStream factory conveys the pacifist vision of the prophet Isaiah 
(photo credit: Elhanan Miller/TOI)

Birnbaum, the CEO, was clearly cognizant of the dispute. He spoke of Jewish-Arab coexistence as he stood next to a veiled young Arab woman working on the assembly line across from an older woman with a black head covering who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union in 1993.

Zooming in on Birnbaum and the two women, the camera crews and microphone-holding reporters overlooked another young Palestinian woman standing nearby, fitting plastic valves into a large metal tray. Nahida Fares, 28, graduated Nablus’s A-Najjah University in primary school education. She began working for Israeli companies two years ago, when she could find no work in her field in Ramallah, where she lives with her husband and infant child.

“There are no job opportunities in the West Bank,” Fares told The Times of Israel. “Even the jobs that do exist pay no more than NIS 1,500-2,000 ($430-570) a month.” Fares now earns triple those sums.
Many educated women like Fares were forced to seek work outside the home following the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000 to support the household as the Palestinian economy collapsed, she explained.

Palestinians and Israelis work at the SodaStream factory in the Mishor Adumim industrial park, February 2, 2014. (Photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Fares’s husband, a first lieutenant in the Palestinians’ prestigious Preventive Security Force, earns NIS 2,000 ($570) per month after 10 years of service. Given the relatively low levels of political violence in recent years, the Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) has increased the number of work permits granted to Palestinians by some 37% between 2010 and 2012. Still, Palestinian men must be above the age 24 and married with a child to be eligible for work permits within Israel. Israeli workers’ unions do not protect Palestinians from exploitation by employers, critics note.

To work in a settlement, however, a Palestinian man need only be older than 18 and have no negative security record. To work in Israel, Palestinians must apply to the Israeli Population and Immigration Authority; to work in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank (like the Mishor Adumim industrial zone) they must apply to the Civil Administration, the branch of COGAT entrusted with Palestinian civilian matters. A COGAT spokesman told The Times of Israel in a written response that 24,000 permits are given to Palestinians wishing to work in the settlements on average every month. More than double that number (49,250) were allowed to work in Israel in January, mostly in the construction industry.

Palestinian employees at work on the SodaStream assembly line, February 2, 2014 
(photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

Fares, for instance, first began working at a laundromat in the Mishor Adumim industrial zone (where SodaStream is located), but left because of management mistreatment. At SodaStream she is much happier, working a 12-hour shift from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and receiving a 15-30 minute break for every two hours of work. Food in the cafeteria is great, she said, as she showed me the valve that she boasted is “the most important component of the soda dispenser.”

Another employee, Sa’ida, 28, began studying Hebrew in her hometown of Jericho but only started using it at the plant, where she first came in contact with Israeli Jews. Jews and Arabs mix freely here, she noted; “they even change clothes together,” she said, and blushed.

Scarlett Johansson with Sodastream’s Daniel Birnbaum (photo credit: Mike Coppola/Getty Images for SodaStream/via JTA)

While declining to discuss the political ramifications of her sensitive employment at Mishor Adumim (working in settlements is illegal under Palestinian law), Sa’ida said she and her colleagues were wondering why SodaStream had been singled out by the media from all the other companies in the industrial zone.

“It’s because of Scarlett Johansson,” she was told.