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entries tagged with: Israel


Does Obama have a plan for peace — or a plan for a plan?

Following weeks of meetings between U.S. special envoy George Mitchell, center, and leaders in the Middle East, President Obama reportedly is set to put forth new proposals for advancing Israeli-Arab talks. White House/Pete Souza

WASHINGTON – Are the parties in the Middle East ready for a U.S. peace plan? Or just for a plan for a peace plan?

Talk of a near-term U.S. peace plan was spurred last week when a State Department official said one would be in place “within weeks” — a projection confirmed within a day by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

“I think it will be in a matter of weeks,” the spokesman, P.J. Crowley, said in an Aug. 3 briefing when he was asked when George Mitchell, President Obama’s envoy to the Middle East, would present a plan.

Barak echoed the same message a day later during a briefing to the Knesset’s Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, according to a Reuters report.

“In the coming weeks,” Barak said, “their plan will be formulated and presented to the parties.”

Officials in the pro-Israel community and among foreign diplomats now say those projections were premature, that Obama administration officials were preparing the ground for the modalities of peace talks rather than a plan with specifics.

“What we know with our contacts with the administration is that they were satisfied with results of conversations Mitchell had in Israel,” a European diplomat told JTA. “There appears to be some confidence in the White House that there is an overall optimism that a breakthrough can be made — but there is no specific plan.”

According to the current scenario, Obama may be ready by the start of the U.N. General Assembly in mid-September to speak about deadlines and about where the talks will take place and who will participate.

Specifics, however, have been frustrated by a who-blinks-first dynamic that has overtaken U.S. diplomacy for the time being.

Arab states want Israel to commit to a settlement freeze before they announce concessions that would include allowing Israeli overflights and limited trade. Israel wants to see the concessions, and a stated recognition of Israel’s Jewish nature from the Palestinians and other Arabs, before it commits to a freeze. And the Palestinians have said that Israel must freeze settlements before they return to the table.

Hopes for progress were not helped by the long-delayed congress convened last week by Fatah, the mainstream Palestinian party that controls affairs in the west bank. The congress bogged down in debates over the tactics of “resistance” as opposed to peacemaking.

The belligerence at the conference, with resolutions demanding all of Jerusalem and accusing Israel of murdering Yasser Arafat, belied a readiness for peace and handed an opening to U.S. pro-Israel groups that have scrambled in recent weeks for the means to defend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s settlement policies.

The Fatah congress had the effect of marginalizing Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader and Palestinian Authority president, said American Jewish Committee executive director David Harris.

“Two months ago, President Abbas firmly rejected Prime Minister Netanyahu’s call in his Bar-Ilan University speech to resume direct Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, and now Abbas ups the ante with preposterous demands on Jerusalem and other final-status issues,” Harris said. “Why can’t Palestinian leaders openly recognize the fact that four consecutive Israeli prime ministers have offered a two-state solution?”

Another distraction for the Obama administration was his awarding of a Presidential Medal of Freedom to Mary Robinson, the former U.N. human rights commissioner who has been blamed in some circles for having failed to keep the U.N. conference on racism in Durban in 2001 from becoming an anti-Israel fest.

That news invited a flood of critiques from Jewish organizational officials who were glad for the break from having to explain the court-ordered eviction of Palestinian families from Jerusalem homes they had occupied for decades.

The centrist pro-Israel groups were not about to cede the upper ground. More than 70 U.S. senators this week signed a letter, strongly backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and opposed by some Jewish groups that favor increased U.S. pressure on Israel, urging Obama to focus on pressuring Arab nations to conciliate with Israel. A companion letter from the U.S. House of Representatives was sent to Saudi Arabia’s king.

The gaps between Israel and its neighbors in the Middle East and between some pro-Israel groups and the White House here do not mean Obama’s peacemakers will stand down. And Barak, the Israeli defense minister, warned his colleagues that they should be ready to play along when the White House steps up with a plan.

“Israel must take the lead in accepting the plan,” he was quoted as telling his Knesset colleagues.

That strategy would put Israel at an advantage, said an official with a pro-Israel group who consults with the Obama administration.

“That would be very positive for Israel-U.S. relations,” said the official, from one of the groups that favors increased U.S. pressure on Israel.

He noted the recent furor over a leaked memo from Nadav Tamir, an Israeli diplomat in Boston, who alleged that Netanyahu’s refusal to accept a settlement freeze was damaging Israel’s ties with its most critical ally.

The flurry of controversies means the White House is likelier to proceed at a slower, more careful pace, said David Makovsky, a top analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“There’s no value in coming out with full guns if you’re going to fail,” said Makovsky, who has intensely lobbied the Obama and Netanyahu administrations in recent weeks to consider a “borders first” solution in which Israel and the Palestinians would mutually agree on borders that would allow Israel to keep some settlements in exchange for land swaps that would amount to 100 percent of the land Israel seized in the west bank during the 1967 Six Day War.

Establishing borders would hand both sides a “win,” Makovsky said: Netanyahu’s government would be the first to annex west bank settlements, and Abbas’ government would show that it won back land through negotiations, quelling claims by Hamas in Gaza that only violence works. It also would help defuse a major sticking point between Jerusalem and Washington, as Israel would not be asked to freeze settlement construction in territory slated for annexation.

Thorny issues such as Jerusalem and the status of refugees would still be on the table, but according to this theory, the momentum created by resolving borders would spur such talks forward.

“It’s like in football,” Makovsky said. “If you can’t go 100 yards, you go 70 yards.”



Thanksgiving tradition mostly lives for expat Americans in Israel

_JStandardCover Story
Published: 20 November 2009

Thanksgiving is Thursday, and Fred Casden would kill for a cranberry.

“If I could find some fresh cranberries, or even frozen, I would make my sauce,” lamented Casden, an avid home chef who moved to Israel from Teaneck with his wife and daughter. “What they have here in the can is so lame I won’t touch it.”

Like many other Israelis brought up in the United States, the Casdens will be enjoying a traditional Thanksgiving dinner at the home of friends they met on the plane bringing them to their new home in Israel in July 2007. “But I’m not sure our daughter will get home from the army in time to participate,” he said of the Thursday evening get-together.

For Laura Savren, it was not the berries but the bird that proved to be problematic.

About three months after she and her family made aliyah in 1999, Savren walked up to the meat counter of her local supermarket and asked to order a whole turkey.

“They looked at me like I was nuts,” the Boston native recalled, laughing. Israelis eat plenty of turkey — usually in the form of schnitzel or shwarma — but almost never whole, since Israeli ovens are generally too small to accommodate the large bird.

Savren later learned through the Anglo-American network where she lived in Ra’anana that a butcher in town could help. She went in to order the bird, but it was too late. Finally, she found a frozen turkey imported from America in a specialty store that caters to immigrants. The same store also carried the cranberries, canned pumpkin, and mini-marshmallows that she needed to prepare the family’s first Thanksgiving dinner in Israel, with all the trimmings.

Adaya Mor said celebrating Thanksgiving with other Israeli soldiers who had left behind their families in America provided a needed boost.

“It’s my favorite holiday,” Savren said. “I love the food. I love making a turkey.”

Thanksgiving was first celebrated in America in 1621 by American pilgrims who wanted to show thanks for the harvest. It was proclaimed a national holiday in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln.

Each year, the American Jewish Committee hosts a Thanksgiving dinner for about 40 soldiers from the United States who are serving in the Israel Defense Forces.

Adaya Mor, 20, served in the IDF through Garin Tzabar, which groups lone soldiers together on kibbutzim, providing them with a host family and a support system. She made aliyah from Cheshire, Conn., in 2007.

About a week before Thanksgiving last year, Mor said, she realized she might not have the opportunity to celebrate the holiday.

“I never would have thought it would hit me, that I would really want a Thanksgiving dinner,” said Mor, an Israeli native who grew up in the United States from the age of 5.

Once Mor’s family arrived in the United States, American families invited them to Thanksgiving dinner. Soon her family began holding its own Thanksgiving celebrations.

Two days before the holiday last year, the AJC called Mor with an invitation to its Thanksgiving dinner.

“I was just in shock,” she says. “I was so thankful I was invited.”

Mor added that celebrating the holiday with other soldiers who had left their families in America to come to Israel gave her a boost she really needed.

“Sometimes you need people to remind you why you are doing this,” she mused.

Fred Casden gets ready for Thanksgiving. Will somebody please send him some cranberries? Abigail Klein Leichman

Mor has heard that the American students at Hebrew University, where she is a student, gather for a Thanksgiving meal with all the trimmings.

For many “Anglo” expatriates wanting to continue the tradition, it’s more common to move Thanksgiving dinner to Friday night.

“We always buy a turkey [for that weekend] but we have it on Shabbat since we have to make a big meal anyway, and nobody’s home on Thursday night,” said Roseanne Greenwald, who made aliyah in 1993 from Teaneck and lives in Tzur Yigal with her husband and kids.

“But we do have a group of friends who get together on Thursday for Thanksgiving and some years we have joined them. We have a lot to be thankful for; America was a wonderful place that gave us the concept of giving thanks for what we have.”

Some ex-pat Americans don’t feel the need to celebrate the holiday.

Lauren Dan of Pardes Hannah, who made aliyah from Connecticut 17 years ago at the age of 22, married an Israeli and moved to an area where there were no other Anglos.

“I became Israeli very quickly,” she said. “I feel so much more Israeli than I do American.”

Thanksgiving is an important tradition in her family back in America, and she calls them each year to wish them a happy holiday. She even admits to an occasional craving for her mother’s corn pudding. But she said she does not miss the yearly celebration.

Her twin daughters, 9, and son, 8, “have no idea” about Thanksgiving. When she questioned them about the holiday, her query was met with quizzical expressions until she asked in Hebrew if they are familiar with Chag HaHodaya.

Yes, they responded. They saw Zack and Cody celebrate it on the Disney Channel show “Suite Life.”

Though the Greenwalds keep the tradition going, Roseanne Greenwald recalled that her Hebrew school teacher in Central Jersey once told his students that Thanksgiving isn’t necessary for Jews. “Why? Because we [already] thank HaShem every time we put food in our mouths; every time we say ‘Hodu l’Hashem ki tov [give thanks to God for He is good].’”

Hodu, by the way, is also the Hebrew word for “turkey.”

Fred Casden, who wouldn’t be celebrating were it not for the invitation from friends, explained the disconnect on a practical level. “When you’re in America, it’s a day off, so you have the leisure to spend that Thursday cooking like everyone else,” he said.

“Here, no one is doing it, so it becomes a non-event — just like days which are important in Israel can never be as important in New Jersey because what everyone else is doing has a big effect on you. You can’t have a holiday by yourself, except maybe your birthday.”

Which is why those new Israelis who do celebrate Thanksgiving tend to do so with other former Americans.

The Savrens have often invited friends of different nationalities to their Friday-night Thanksgiving table. This year’s guest list includes an American family, an Israeli who grew up in Europe, a Dutchman, and his American girlfriend.

Aside from the fact that non-Americans often find the traditional dishes odd — Israeli guests, Savren said, take one look at the cranberry sauce and spend the rest of the meal pushing it around their plate — she says the meal is most successful with other Americans “because they get it.”

JTA/Jewish Standard


The EU throws a monkey wrench in Mideast peacemaking


Settlers step up protests, but Netanyahu is politically strong

West bank settlers and their supporters, including yeshiva students, try to block traffic entering Jerusalem on Monday to protest the settlement freeze. Abir Sultan/Flash 90/JTA

JERUSALEM – In the wake of the Israeli government’s freeze on building in west bank settlements, Jewish settlers are planning widespread protests and demonstrations, including blocking roads in Israel proper.

Their aim is to delegitimize the freeze decision among the public. The danger for the settlers, however, is that if they are perceived as too extreme, their actions could actually hurt their public standing.

In a campaign reminiscent of actions by the far right in the aftermath of the Oslo agreements in the mid-1990s and the run-up to the Gaza disengagement in 2005, young radical settlers plan to keep the police guessing as they turn up randomly at major thoroughfares at different times to block the traffic.

Their first target was traffic to and from Jerusalem, where dozens of settler youths were quickly dispersed by police Monday after trying to block the main entrance to the city.

Settler youths also have been at the forefront of moves to harass government inspectors entering the settlements to issue warrants against further building. In several cases this has led to violent confrontations between settlers and police protecting the inspectors.

The worst settler violence, however, has been against Palestinians. In what they call “the price tag” policy, extremists attack nearby villages whenever they feel the government is trying to restrict settlement in any way. Over the weekend, settlers rampaged through the village of Einbus, near Nablus, torching vehicles and setting a home on fire.

Although settler leaders have spoken out against violence, they are not fully in control of the situation, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned the settler community not to cross the fine line between legitimate protest action and open rebellion. And while the mood is not as ominous as it was in the days leading up to the Rabin assassination in 1995, the Shin Bet security service has intensified its already close protection of the prime minister.

Besides the protests and demonstrations, the settlers plan legal and political action against the freeze. They have petitioned the Supreme Court, arguing that the authorities had no right to implement a political freeze without the settlers first being given a hearing.

Their main hope, though, is in the political arena, where the settlers are banking on a rebellion within the Likud Party. Although the two most hawkish parties in the government, Yisrael Beiteinu and Jewish Home, have expressed deep sympathy for the settlers, they show no sign of bolting the coalition over the freeze.

Inside Likud, there has been a degree of unrest, as government ministers and Knesset members criticized the freeze as antithetical to party ideology. No one, however, has threatened to resign over it, and the chances of a full-scale rebellion within the party — like the one against Ariel Sharon over the Gaza disengagement in 2005 — are remote.

In 2005, Sharon found himself under attack from leading Likudniks like Uzi Landau and Netanyahu himself, who were ready to resign their ministerial posts to throw in their lot with the settler cause. That is not the case today, and there seems to be little likelihood of Netanyahu’s government being shaken by internal party ferment.

Nevertheless, given the threat, Netanyahu has been working hard to cultivate wide party support. He has been able to play on the trauma of the break with Sharon and to urge the rebels not to take action that again could split the party.

His second argument has been to stress that the freeze is for 10 months only and will not be repeated. On the contrary, Netanyahu says, as soon as it lapses, building will be resumed at an accelerated rate.

The prime minister also assured would-be rebels Sunday that there would be no second disengagement Gaza-style, and that the future of the west bank would be decided only in a final peace deal with the Palestinians, who thus far are showing no interest in making peace.

Apart from the fact that no ministers or Knesset members have walked out on him, Netanyahu has received strong backing from some 50 of the Likud’s veteran mayors. His position in the party seems unassailable.

Despite all the settler agitation, the government has been unwavering in its determination to implement the freeze. It has taken satellite photographs of the region to make it easy to pick up any new building, and mobilized dozens of inspectors to monitor the situation on a daily basis. Seasoned officers in the Israel Defense Forces say that for the first time, the government has issued clear and serious instructions on how to implement a building freeze.

The big question, though, is how serious Netanyahu is about using the freeze as a springboard for cutting a deal with the Palestinians. Serious implementation of the freeze doesn’t necessarily mean serious strategic intent, and several leading pundits see the freeze as nothing more than a tactic to blame the Palestinians for failure to make peace. Netanyahu himself has hinted as much, adding that the freeze also was necessary to get America in Israel’s corner on other key issues, like Iran.

His message to the settlers seems to be to wait out the 10 months, during which time nothing will happen on the Palestinian front, and then, together with the government, they can go back to the business of settlement building.

The trouble is, the settlers don’t trust Netanyahu and fear that, under pressure from the international community, he will sell them out and the freeze will serve to prepare public opinion for a territorial compromise with the Palestinians at their expense.



From upstart nation to ‘Start-Up Nation’

The case for Israeli stocks

Isn’t investing in Israeli stocks too risky?

That’s one of two questions people tend to ask Cliff Goldstein, 53, president of the Amidex35 Israel Mutual Fund in Valley Forge, Pa.

Cliff Goldstein

Goldstein, a lawyer, answers that in an age when former true-blue-chip stocks like AIG and GM have fallen off a cliff, “the concept of risk needs to be modified.” Israel, meanwhile, has “thrived despite government turnover, no peace agreements with its neighbors, and actual wars. The Tel Aviv Stock Exchange has vastly outperformed the Standard & Poor’s 500.” The Tel Aviv Index has climbed 60 percent over the past five years, the S&P 500 is down 4 percent.

The second question he’s asked: Why not just continue buying Israeli bonds? Bonds, he replies, are just loans — and when Israel was an exclusively socialist country, it badly needed bonds. “But now some of the world’s leading companies are headquartered in Israel, and investors have an opportunity to share in their growth.”

An example he gives: Teva, the pharmaceutical company, is the leading seller of generic drugs in the United States — and the leading seller of antibiotics throughout the world.

Goldstein launched Amidex35 in 1998. “I come from a long line of Zionists,” he says, “and I found that there was no way to invest in an Israeli mutual fund.” He talked with members of the Israeli Economic Mission, then they — joined by a few philanthropists, business leaders, and Zionists — started Amidex35. (The term comes from words meaning “friend” and “index.”) They also started the first combined index of Israeli stocks traded on Wall Street with the Israeli stocks traded on the Tel Aviv Exchange.

He’s thumbed through the new book “Start-Up Nation.” So, what’s his answer to the question, why has Israel been so innovative?

“Necessity,” he says. “Because Israel was so isolated, it had to become self-sufficient. Militarily, technologically.”

Some people think “there’s something in the blood,” Goldstein goes on. “The emphasis on education, on innovation. But lately, high-tech has become the national sport. Years ago, the second generation kvelled when someone went to medical school. Now they kvell when someone has a high-tech start-up. It’s a craze.”

Besides, he adds, “Because everyone does military service, they become a bit more mature, and learn teamwork and courageous thinking.”

Also, the government invests a ton of money in research and development, and a lot of money from other countries has been flowing into Israel as venture capital.

But why hasn’t the standard of living in Israel kept pace with its economic growth? “The rich have gotten richer,” he replies, “and the poor — not so much. Where once you saw rickety old cars in Israel, now you see BMWs and Mercedes — and apartments in Tel Aviv selling for $20 million. Several Israelis are on the Forbes list of billionaires.

“In Israel, the two groups, the rich and the not-so-rich, are in stark contrast — like the difference between people living in Newark, New Jersey, and in Alpine.”


From upstart nation to ‘Start-Up Nation’

A scary interview with the lead author

Warren BorosonCover Story
Published: 11 December 2009

Dan Senor, lead author of “Start-Up Nation,” is worried about Iran and Afghanistan. He was interviewed by telephone on Monday, from Boca Raton, Fla.

JS: What are you predicting for the next 25 years in the Middle East?

Senor: I’ll tell you about the next 25 months. The year 2010 will be traumatic. Iran will have a breakout in its nuclear program, and sanctions won’t work. The United States or Israel might go to war against Iran.

In Iraq, [if one sect gets the upper hand,] there might be a flood of refugees into Jordan, which would destabilize the region and have consequences for Israel. In Afghanistan, despite the [U.S.] president, the summer of 2010 will be worse than the summer of 2009. The impact of the increased troops won’t have made an effect.

JS: Getting back to your book, what has been the response to your talks around the country?

Senor: Very positive. The book has appealed to a wide range of audiences. American Jews find it exciting, but it appeals to people not just concerned about Israel. Businessmen and the military are intrigued by the Israeli model.

In this country, there’s a divide between the military and business, and it should be bridged. In Israel, an employer wants to know what unit a former soldier served in. In the United States, a corporate recruiter hears someone talk about his military experience, then asks, have you ever had a real job?

In the United States, business doesn’t value the importance of military training, of service in Iraq or Afghanistan. In Israel, a man of 25 has both military and college experience. He has better leadership ability and greater maturity.

JS: Israelis have sold many of their start-ups, often to American companies like Cisco. Was that a good idea?

Senor: That’s being debated in Israel now. They ask, why don’t we have a Nokia? Nokia has defined Finland.

The answer is, first, that Israel does have a Nokia — Teva, the pharmaceutical company. And, second, Finland may have Nokia, but it doesn’t have many start-ups. Maybe the Israeli situation — selling some start-ups, keeping others — is ideal.

JS: Why doesn’t Israel have a higher standard of living, considering its economic success?

Senor: Its standard of living is higher than it was before. The challenge for the government is to lift regulations against non-technological companies. Israel’s nontech sector is overregulated, and the regulations should be lifted.

JS: What will your next book be about?

Senor: My next book? I’m just recovering from this one! It’s taken one pound of flesh from not just me, but from my family.

Dan Senor explains Israel’s economic miracle

From upstart nation to ‘Start-Up Nation’


Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle” is one heck of a fine book — which helps explain why it’s now No. 6 on The New York Times Business best-seller list.

You might expect that a book dealing with economics and technology, and about a foreign country yet, would be one great big sleeping pill. But “Start-Up Nation” happens to be lively, surprising, and fun to read.

A key reason: The authors heeded the advice of their publisher, Twelve Books, and emphasized story-telling. The book is chockfull of short, punchy narratives — such as one about Yossi Klein, a 20-year-old helicopter pilot serving in Lebanon during the war. (See box.)

The authors — Dan Senor, adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, and Saul Singer, former editorial page director of the Jerusalem Post — present powerful evidence that Israel is far, far above most other nations when it comes to creating important technology, and then they try to explain why — every which way since Sunday.

The authors also answer such probing questions as:

How can the United States and other nations emulate Israel? (Short of reinstituting the draft: Apparently compulsory military service helps account for the Israelis’ success.)

Why have other formidable nations, like Singapore, not enjoyed anything like Israel’s success when it comes to innovation?

What’s the greatest threat to Israel’s continuing economic growth?


If there’s a flaw in the book, it may be that the authors downplay the importance of certain aspects of Jewish/Israeli culture — the historic Jewish emphasis on education, the historic approval of ambition (the “My son the doctor” syndrome). When the authors told people about Israel’s being so innovative, many responded, “It’s simple — Jews are smart, so it’s no surprise that Israel is innovative.”

The authors disagree. Israelis have little in common, they argue, with 70 different nationalities living there. Jews from Iraq, Poland, or Ethiopia, they contend, don’t share a language, education, culture, or history (apart from a legacy of persecution).

Well, some might argue, Jews do seem to share smarts, wherever the heck they came from — not that other factors don’t help explain Israel’s technological success. Natan Sharansky, the famous Soviet refusenik, is quoted as saying, “For us in the Soviet Union, we received with our mothers’ milk the knowledge that because you are a Jew … you had to be exceptional in your profession, whether it was chess, music, mathematics, medicine, or ballet…. That was the only way to build some kind of protection for yourself, because you were always going to be starting from behind” because of anti-Semitism.

The Yossi Klein story

“Start-Up Nation” is full of absorbing stories, all of them making a point. This story demonstrates how creative Israeli soldiers learn to be:

Yossi Klein, a helicopter pilot, was ordered to evacuate a badly wounded soldier from Lebanon. When he flew his chopper to the battlefield, though, he saw that the soldier was on a stretcher surrounded by dense bushes — which prevented the copter from landing, or even hovering close to the ground.

So Klein used the tail rotor of his helicopter like a lawn mower, cutting down the bushes. Then, by hovering close to the ground, he was able to pick up the soldier — who was rushed to a hospital in Israel and survived.

What Klein did was original — and certainly not something recommended by his superior officers.

Here is some of the evidence the authors produce to show how far in front Israel is in regard to originating technology:

• Israel is only 60 years old, surrounded by enemies, in a state of war since its founding, and with no natural resources like oil or precious metals. Yet it has produced more new companies than Japan, India, China, Korea, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

• Israel has more companies listed on the U.S. NASDAQ (mainly for small, promising companies) than those from all of Europe, Korea, Japan, Singapore, China, and India combined.

• In 2008, venture capital investments in Israel, per person, were over 30 times greater than in Europe, 80 times greater than in China, and 350 times greater than in India.

• Google’s CEO and chairman, Eric Schmidt, has said that the United States is the best place in the world for entrepreneurs, but “after the U.S., Israel is the best.” Steve Ballmer, who runs Microsoft, has called Microsoft “an Israeli company as much as an American company” — because of all the Microsoft teams working in Israel.

Granted, Israel is in a class unto itself. In fact, in June a major financial service, Morgan Stanley Capital International, decided to upgrade Israel from an emerging market to a developed market. This will happen next year. Both South Korea and Taiwan were not promoted.

Over the last five years, the Standard & Poor’s 500 Stock Index has fallen 4 percent. The Tel Aviv Index has soared 60 percent.

Here are just some of the many explanations that Senor and Singer give for Israel’s pre-eminence in technological innovation:

• Young Israelis are unnaturally mature. They must serve two to three years in the army, so early in life they learn responsibility. “It comes down to maturity,” says an officer of a British company working in Israel. Nowhere else in the world, he points out, “where people work in a center of technological innovation, do they also have to do national service.” In Israel, the authors write, “you get experience, perspective, and maturity at a younger age, because the society jams so many transformative experiences into Israelis when they’re barely out of high school.”

• Israelis tend to know a lot of other Israelis — in large part, from their military service. That’s why some companies, when they need new employees, don’t bother using help-wanted ads. “It’s now all word of mouth,” someone says. “Everybody knows everybody; everybody was serving in the army with the brother of everybody….”

• Israelis are impatient. Their future has always been in question, the authors write, so, when an entrepreneur has a business idea, he or she will start it that week. (And when an Israeli wants to date a woman, he asks her out that night.)

• If you’re looking for the cream of the cream, you can readily find it — in the Israel Defense Forces’ elite units, such as the 8200. “The unit in which an applicant served tells prospective employers what kind of selection process he or she navigated, and what skills and relevant experience he or she may already possess,” the authors write.

• Israel gives special training to its best students. The Talpiot program has produced only some 650 graduates in 30 years, but many have become the founders of a country’s most successful companies. NICE Systems, the company behind call-monitoring systems used by 85 of the Forbes 100 companies, was founded by a team of Talpions.

• Failure may be failure, but it’s not “abject.” There’s a tolerance in Israel for what some Israelis call “constructive failures” or “intelligent failures.” In fact, South Korea — another country with a military draft — hasn’t emulated Israel’s success, the authors argue, because the bursting of the Internet bubble in 2000 caused many Koreans to fear losing face in the future. As for Singapore, even though its military is modeled after the IDF, Senor and Singer report that its culture doesn’t encourage initiative and risk-taking.

• Israelis, as President Shimon Peres has said, are eternally dissatisfied. “The greatest contribution of the Jewish people in history is dissatisfaction,” he claims. “That’s poor for politics but good for science.” They tend to believe that whatever is “clearly impossible” is in reality perfectly possible.

• Israelis aren’t timid about challenging authority. Somewhere, “Israelis learn that assertiveness is the norm, reticence something that risks your being left behind.” As one Intel employee put it, “From the age of zero we are educated to challenge the obvious, ask questions, debate everything, innovate.”

One Israeli lawyer claims that in the Israeli army, “A private will tell a general in an exercise, ‘You are doing this wrong, you should do it this way.’”

Using your own judgment instead of blindly following orders is admired in Israel. Soldiers in the army are divided into those with a rosh gadol (a “big head”), who think for themselves, and those with a rosh katan (“little head”), who interpret orders as narrowly as possible.

This sense of entitlement is re-enforced by Israelis’ two- or three-year military experience. In the IDF, low-ranking soldiers have a lot more responsibility than in other nations’ militias.

• Israelis are willing to try new things. They spend more time on the Internet than people in any other country, and the average Israeli even has more than one cell phone.

• Israelis admire the ability to get things done — and someone with this ability is admiringly called a bitzu’ist, a pragmatist.

• Employers can readily find well-educated employees. Israel has the highest concentration of engineers in the world. Today, Israel has eight universities and 27 colleges — four are among the top 150 worldwide universities, and seven in the top 100 Asia Pacific universities.

• Israel spends a lot on research and development — a higher percentage of its economy than other nations spend.

• The kibbutzim, those famous communes, helped. With less than 2 percent of the Israeli population, today kibbutzniks produce 12 percent of the country’s exports.

• Immigration, especially from the former Soviet Union, was a big shot in the arm. Between 1990 and 2000, 800,000 immigrants came to Israel — among them many professionals, from engineers to physicians. Which is why Israel has more engineers and scientists per capita than any other country. They were also risk-takers. One Israeli is quoted as saying, “A nation of immigrants is a nation of entrepreneurs.”

• Israel is a land of multi-taskers. In the army, specialization is frowned upon; everyone is expected to be somewhat knowledgeable about everything. This fosters “mashups,” where innovation results from the combination of wildly different technologies and disciplines. Example: fitting a camera into a pill that someone could swallow, so a physician could study his or her insides. (Given Imaging, which sells PillCams, went public in 2001.) Multi-tasking, the authors assert, “produces particularly creative solutions.”

• Surrounded as they are by enemies, Israelis love to travel. “There is a sense of a mental prison here,” an Israeli editor says. “When the sky opens, you get out.”

Another way to escape: telecommunications. An Israeli venture capitalist says, “High-tech telecommunications became a national sport to help us fend against the claustrophobia that is life in a small country surrounded by enemies.”

This “avid internationalism” has helped Israel penetrate industries in nations around the world. Netafim, an Israeli company that provides drip-irrigation systems, now operates in 110 countries. Just in Asia, it has offices in Vietnam, Taiwan, New Zealand, China (two offices), India, Thailand, Japan, the Philippines, Korea, and Indonesia.

• Finally, there are “clusters” in Israel. Lots of schools, big companies, start-ups, suppliers, and venture capital in close proximity — as in Silicon Valley.

Senor and Singer sum up their wide-ranging explanations for Israel’s economic success this way:

“[I]t is a story not just of talent but of tenacity, of insatiable questioning of authority, of determined informality [those at the bottom can question those at the top], combined with a unique attitude toward failure [go ahead, try again], teamwork, mission, risk, and cross-disciplinary creativity.”

Israel certainly should not rest on its laurels. There’s a lot to worry about.

• The biggest threat, as the authors see it, is to Israel’s continued economic growth. Only a little over half of the workforce contributes to the economy, compared to 65 percent in the United States. Two minority communities are the laggards: the haredim, or fervently Orthodox Jews, and Israeli Arabs.

The haredim are not permitted to work if they want a military exemption, and ten of thousands of Israeli haredim go to yeshiva instead of the army.

As for Israeli Arabs, they are not drafted into the army and they don’t develop business networks that help people become successful entrepreneurs.

Both groups are expected to increase from 29 percent of Israel’s population in 2007 to 39 percent by 2028 — meaning that an even smaller percentage of Israelis will be working.

• Israel depends too much on global venture capital, and Israeli companies depend too much on exports — to Europe, North America, and Asia. Because of the Arab boycott, Israel doesn’t trade with most regional markets.

• If Iran becomes a nuclear power, there could be a nuclear arms race throughout the Arab world — and discourage foreign investment in the region.

• There’s a “brain drain” from Israeli universities. The authors report that an estimated 3,000 tenured Israeli professors have relocated to schools abroad. One possible reason: Gidi Grinstein, a political leader, is quoted as saying that “the quality of life and the quality of public services in Israel are low, and for many emigration is an opportunity to improve their lot.”

What advice do the authors have for the United States? That it create not a military draft but a national service — compulsory or voluntary — to give young people, before they attend college, “something like the leadership, teamwork, and mission-oriented skills and experience Israelis receive through military service.” (Something like the Peace Corps?)

The authors also pass along the advice that Peres gave to Israeli entrepreneurs and policymakers: “Leave the old industries. There are going to be five new industries. Tremendous new forms of energy, water, bio-technology, teaching devices (there’s a shortage of teachers), and homeland security to defend against terrorism.”

Dan Senor dedicated this remarkable book to Jim Senor, his father, and Saul Singer dedicated it to his brother, Alex. On his 25th birthday, Sept. 15, 1987, Alex was flown by helicopter into Lebanon to intercept terrorists bound for Israel, and was killed while trying to rescue his downed company commander.


A roadblock bigger than any settlement


Parshat Va’eira

Rabbi Lawrence S. Zierler
Published: 15 January 2010

It has been said that nature has a way of echoing human emotions. This concept, which is used as a literary device known as “pathetic fallacy,” finds itself powerfully expressed in our sedra of Va’eira, which describes seven of the 10 “makkot” or plagues that the Almighty rains upon the Egyptians.

Interestingly we find that the number seven in Kabbalistic literature represents “teva,” nature. In a sense we are treated here to a drama in which God turns nature on its head as a sign not only of His wondrous and powerful ways, but in divine protest over the egregious acts of the Egyptian people who were more than complicit with their Pharaoh in oppressing our Israelite ancestors. In many ways, in their slavish service to the gods of their day, they abused and misappropriated the forces of nature. All questions of theodicy aside, which are deserving of a separate study and analysis, one can find in each plague an element of justice done, or “middah k’neged middah.”

Indeed, “mei-oz yatzah matok” — from the bitter can come something sweet — and it is possible to mine from the expanse of destruction, lessons by which to live and improve our human condition. Consider as an example the seventh plague, that of hail. The Torah text writes that “there was hail, and fire flaming within the hail, very heavy, the likes of which had never been seen in the entire land of Egypt (Exodus 9:24).” The Hebrew words “v’eish mitlakachat b’toch ha-barad” (“fire flaming within the hail”) are described in Rashi’s commentary to represent “a miracle within a miracle” in that there was fire and frozen water mixed together. And to fulfill the will of their Maker, “asu shalom beineihem,” “they made peace with each other.” In order to please their Creator they defied the laws of nature and co-mingled and worked together to create this phenomenon of nature.

Certainly what was true of hail then is true of hail today. It represents an unusual mixture of opposites in nature. This past summer I drove through a hail storm the likes of which I had never seen before and which my son managed to capture on video. Frozen balls of ice rained down on my car with a fiery ferocity. Atmospheric antonyms, then and now, manage to somehow climatically coexist. And while there is for sure despair in the devastation, there might still be a moral lesson to harvest from this act of God, namely the challenge to create in our midst, under better and more optimal circumstances, unlikely alliances; to foster partnerships for the greater good of humankind rather than sow the seeds of discord and acrimony. It is sad that it takes tragedy to oftentimes bring otherwise disparate factions together. It is unfortunate that society, and Jewish life in particular, is too often defined by what I call “the Olive Oil Syndrome.” Just as the oil used to kindle the Eternal Lamp in the Temple of old was beaten from the olives, history has repeatedly demonstrated that we shine best when pressed and under duress.

Perhaps the Almighty, in this seventh plague, seeks to challenge us to similarly achieve the unnatural and unthinkable; to fulfill His will in a coalescence of conscience and concern.

Neither the fire nor the ice lost their natural properties and separate identities in the plague of hail but they managed for that moment and cause to effect a merger of wills. How and when to suspend our hard earned principles and at times parochial interests for the greater good of community and to please the will of our Maker remains a formidable challenge given the particularity of personalities and intensity of individual interests. But the gains to society when opportunities for growth and goodness loom so large on the horizon should beckon us to try harder and more often.


Jewish leaders grapple with the rough-and-tumble Internet

WASHINGTON – After the botched terror plot of the “Christmas underwear bomber,” David Harris took to the Huffington Post to argue that the United States had something to learn from Israel’s stellar record in airport security.

The argument seemed fairly innocuous as far as Israel-related matters go. But the vitriol unleashed suggested that Harris, the executive director of The American Jewish Committee, might write about the pleasant Israeli weather and still get hammered.

American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris says, “To read some of the reactions to anything I write about Israel is sometimes to require a very strong stomach.” AJC

“israel is not on the front line of fighting Islamic radicalism it on the front line of creating Islamic radicalism,” said the second of hundreds of commenters, using the name “baffy.” “These crazy guys are trying to blow up Americans primarily because of our government’s support of israel’s illegal occupation of palestinian land as well as invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq etc.”

Off topic, like many of the comments, but not anti-Semitic.

Things became a little more questionable a few Web pages later in an entry by “jomamas”: “Jews need to get something straight: because somebody says ‘we shouldn’t be like Israel’, doesn’t mean that we want to be like Arabs or Iranians, nor does it make them anti-semitic nor Israel haters. I can’t understand how the relatively progressive and educated jewish population is so utterly and completely biased when it comes to the issue of Israel. I don’t like Israel. I am not anti-semitic. I don’t really like Iran or Syria either.”

As the response to Harris’ post demonstrates, defending Israel and Jewish interests in tweet time can be rough, anonymous, and dirty — and organizational leaders are grappling for strategies on dealing with the phenomenon of personal and anonymous attacks in the comments section.

“To read some of the reactions to anything I write about Israel is sometimes to require a very strong stomach — it can be nasty, over the top, vitriolic, and dripping,” Harris said.

Still, the AJC leader added, he enjoys access to readers unfiltered by letters-page editors.

“I welcome this new environment,” he said. “Everything I write, I write myself.”

And in the case of left-wing sites such as the Huffington Post, it is important to confront anti-Israel voices, Harris said, rejecting the view of a segment of the organized Jewish community that sees the fight for liberals as futile.

Harris, who also has a regular Jerusalem Post blog, raised some Jewish organizational eyebrows when he decided to reply with a second entry on the Huffington Post, this one commenting on his commenters.

“For some readers my last piece, posted December 31, provided a handy excuse to unleash their unbridled hostility toward Israel,” Harris wrote, and outlined his counter-arguments.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, was less sanguine in describing the comments responding to the material that he has posted on the Huffington Post.

“It’s a magnet for conspiracy theorists and for haters,” Foxman said of the comments section. “I look at it and sometimes wonder why am I bothering.”

The answer, he adds quickly, is the “silent majority” — those who don’t post replies but are searching the Internet to learn and acquire the tools to defend Israel in their own communities.

Nevertheless, Foxman has his doubts.

“It’s a vehicle for educating, but it’s a vehicle for all the kooks in the world who want a platform,” he said. “I’m not sure we have the antidote.”

A spokesman for the Huffington Post, Mario Ruiz, said the blog endeavored to screen offensive comments.

“All comments made on blog posts are currently monitored by paid moderators,” Ruiz said. “While every effort is made to eliminate offensive comments, they do occasionally slip through the cracks of a process that handles nearly 2 million comments a month. But from its inception, HuffPost has taken comment moderation very seriously, and devotes a lot of energy and resources to maintaining a civil conversation, free of name-calling, ad hominem attacks, and offensive language.”

Ruiz said it was “great” that Harris was taking on his commenters.

Faulting the Huffington Post for such comments would be unfair, considering their ubiquity on pro-Israel Websites, including The Jerusalem Post, said Eric Rozenman, the Washington director of CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.

“Look at the talkbacks at any place to any article that stirs a little controversy — the Post, Haaretz — it can be appalling and disconcerting, the kind of stuff you used to see on bathroom walls,” he said. “The technology has enabled the fringe to go mainstream, and no one knows what to do about it.”

While it’s difficult enough keeping the anti-Semitic genie in the bottle in the mainstream media, CAMERA’s most recent struggle has been with C-SPAN, the cable broadcaster dedicated to making government transparent through live broadcasts of the U.S. Congress and the executive branch.

For the last year and a half, CAMERA has tracked a cadre of diehard anti-Semites who have been abusing C-SPAN’s open-caller policy, injecting vitriol against Israel and Jews into just about any discussion, ranging from taxes to Middle East policy.

Until now, the reply from C-SPAN has been radio silence.

Michael Scheuer, a former CIA analyst who has claimed he lost work because of his anti-Israel views, was a guest Jan. 4 on the network’s “Washington Journal” program. A caller identifying himself as “John from Franklin, N.Y.” launched into an anti-Semitic tirade saying he was “sick and tired of all these Jews” who were “willing to spend the last drop of American blood and treasure to get their way in the world.”

Jews, the caller said, have “way too much power” and “jewed us into Iraq.”

In response, host Bill Scanlan turned to Scheuer and said, “Any comments?”

Scheuer appeared to approve of what John had to say.

“Yeah. I think that American foreign policy is ultimately up to the American people,” he said. “One of the big things we have not been able to discuss for the past 30 years is the Israelis.”

On Monday, in response to a JTA query, the broadcaster acknowledged that the host should have been more proactive in dealing with the caller.

“Program hosts, whose role is to facilitate the dialogue between callers and guests, are certainly permitted to step in when a caller makes ad hominem attacks or uses obscenity or obviously racist language,” C-SPAN said in a statement to JTA. “Given that this involves quick judgment during a live television production, it’s an imperfect process that didn’t work as well as it should have that day.”

Readers can judge whether the Huffington Post’s screening process worked in response to Harris’ piece on Israeli airport security.

One official at another Jewish organization who also blogs on Huffington Post wondered about Harris’ decision to engage with the commenting crowd.

“Jewish fascists and anti-Semites are the prominent animals” in the comments sections, said the official who spoke on background to avoid a contretemps with Harris. “It’s like watching pornography — who’s going to get the sickest thing in.”

The official said he enjoys Huffington Post as a platform to reach liberal cognoscenti and the current political leadership — not the commenters “banging away in their footsie pajamas in their mothers’ basements.”

“To go to the comments and take them seriously — they’re not representative, you should stay away from it,” he said.

Harris says knocking those guys off the page is the point.

Ultimately, he adds, his target is the “sophisticated consumer” who can tell the difference between the vicious and the civil — and he noted that he also earned civil critiques from those who criticize Israel.

“I rely to a large degree on the sophistication of the consumer,” Harris said, “and I think we underestimate that.”


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