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Migdal Ohr hopes to score with hoops event

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Tel Aviv’s Maccabi Electra played a sold-out game against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden in 2007 to raise money for the Israeli charity Migdal Ohr. The Electra return to the Garden on Oct. 18. Migdal Ohr

Tel Aviv’s Maccabi Electra basketball team returns to Madison Square Garden later this month for a showdown with the New York Knicks to raise money for the Israeli charity Migdal Ohr.

The teams first met in 2007 for an exhibition game before a sold-out crowd of 18,000. The Knicks dominated, outscoring the Israelis112-87, but so many thousands turned out in support of the Israeli team that the Garden looked like the Maccabi Electra’s home court. Now the Israelis are coming back, but to play for charity and not revenge.

Migdal Ohr, which means “tower of light,” is the world’s largest orphanage, said Robert Katz, executive vice president of American Friends of Migdal Ohr, which is organizing the exhibition. The Israeli organization serves 6,500 children annually, he said, with 1,500 living in its Galilee complex. With an operating budget of $25 million, the staff of 800 serves 15,000 meals a day and runs programs for children from 1-month-old to post-high school age.

“It’s a massive youth village,” said Katz, who lives in New Milford.

Katz credited Migdal Ohr’s founder, Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Grossman, for the organization’s growth. In 1968 Grossman moved to the Lower Galilee town of Migdal Ha’Emek, which had been created in 1953 as a development town for Jewish immigrants from North Africa. Crime was rampant because of a shortage of jobs and insufficient schooling.

Grossman became known as “the Disco Rabbi” because he frequently visited the town’s youth at discos and pubs. He became chief rabbi of Migdal Ha’Emek in 1969 and in 1972 he opened Migdal Ohr Educational Center.

The accolades have poured in for Grossman and his organization. In 1983, he received the Love of Israel award from then-President Chaim Herzog, and in 1991, Migdal Ohr was called the best educational network in Israel for the past 10 years.

Next week, Grossman will receive the International Humanitarian of the Year award from The Caring Institute and be inducted into the Caring Hall of Fame in Washington. He will be the first Israeli to either receive the award or be inducted.

“This is the Mother Teresa of the Jewish people,” Katz said.

The Israeli government provides roughly $15 million to the charity, leaving it to raise the rest. The 2007 Garden game raised $1.2 million in one night, which Katz called “glorious,” especially considering the Garden asked for Migdal Ohr to pay only for the event costs instead of exorbitant rental fees.

“That’s unheard of in today’s economy,” he said. “It’s a fabulous message.”

Before the Maccabi Electra and the Knicks take the court, the varsity basketball team from The Frisch School in Paramus will face off against the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns & Rockaway. After hearing of Migdal Ohr’s plans to return to the Garden, Frisch parent Eli Davidoff suggested the match-up to Katz.

“It’s a great charity event where the kids have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play in the Garden,” Davidoff said.

Rabbi Eli Ciner, Frisch’s assistant principal, said the administration was excited the kids would be able to learn about Migdal Ohr in the process.

“Additionally,” he said, “every kid who is involved in basketball has the dream of hitting a game-winning shot in the Garden. Hopefully this will allow one of our students the opportunity to make that shot.”

For more information on the game, call (212) 397-3700.

 
 

How Israel is implementing the settlement freeze

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Jewish settlers protest the government’s decision to freeze settlement-building in the west bank on Jan. 4 by breaking a house they built from ice near Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s house. Miriam Alster/Flash90/JTA

JERUSALEM – While an Israeli magician sat in an ice cube in Tel Aviv for 64 hours in a bid to shatter a world record, settler leaders in Jerusalem prepared to smash an ice cube of a very different sort this week opposite the prime minister’s residence.

The frozen block in Jerusalem that was shattered Monday by the leaders of west bank communities was meant to symbolize the 10-month construction freeze Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is imposing on Jewish communities in the west bank. Settler leaders are holding a weeklong demonstration outside the prime minister’s residence to protest the freeze, and the leader of the main settler umbrella group is encouraging people to keep building in violation of the freeze.

In the meantime, however, construction in many Jewish west bank towns has ground to a halt.

Some 230 stop-work orders were issued on projects in approximately 150 Jewish west bank towns visited by government inspectors. In addition, 36 pieces of building equipment used in illegal construction were impounded, according to a spokesman for the Defense Ministry’s Civil Administration, which is responsible for law enforcement in the west bank.

“The Civil Administration is carrying out the government’s decision regarding the suspension of building in Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria,” the spokesman told JTA.

Netanyahu ordered the freeze in late November in a bid to draw the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table and satisfy the Obama administration’s demand for a halt to settlement-building. While the Palestinians have rejected the temporary freeze as an inadequate measure, Israeli authorities have been laboring to enforce it just the same.

The question for many Israelis is how far, exactly, the government is willing to go on enforcement.

Israeli newspapers recently printed the contents of a leaked Israeli army memo showing detailed plans to demolish illegal buildings under construction in the west bank, and Israeli Border Police and soldiers reportedly are poised to carry out the demolition orders.

The freeze is being enforced “meticulously” and in an “extreme way,” criticized Dani Dayan, head of the Council of Jewish Settlements of Judea and Samaria, the main settler umbrella group.

Dayan said Israeli government inspectors have visited every community in the west bank and “looked with a magnifying glass” to see whether buildings under construction match aerial photographs taken the day after the freeze was announced. (Netanyahu’s freeze allows for 3,500 buildings already going up when the freeze was announced to continue construction.)

But an official at Peace Now, which advocates a full halt to Israeli settlement construction and monitors Jewish growth in the west bank, said it’s too early to determine whether Netanyahu’s freeze order is being enforced.

Hagit Ofran, director of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch project, said the proof will be in how the government deals with freeze violations — including those she and Peace Now volunteers say they have seen firsthand in recent visits to Jewish towns in the west bank.

“There are places where construction was halted and places where they did not,” Ofran said.

While she praised the freeze as the most dramatic ever by an Israeli government, and noted that it does not distinguish between far-flung settlement outposts and the large settlement blocs near the pre-1967 boundary between Israel and the west bank, Ofran said Netanyahu’s freeze still doesn’t go far enough. It should have covered construction of any kind and been long-term, she said, otherwise construction will resume with lightning speed as soon as the 10 months are up.

Netanyahu’s freeze was minimal and done to “satisfy the Americans,” she said. “On the ground, the Palestinians do not see any real change.”

But settlers are complaining that the freeze goes too far. Dayan said Israeli authorities are using “a lot of unnecessary force” to enforce the freeze, and that the halt in construction is causing great personal hardship for Jews living in the west bank.

As an example, Dayan noted that recently married couples in his own community of Maale Shomron who are ready to build new homes on recently purchased property now must shell out rent for at least 10 more months before they can begin building. Prohibiting work on homes, he said, is a violation of settlers’ “civil rights.”

Aside from encouraging people to continue building despite the freeze, Dayan said, he’s encouraging communities to continue with planning and approval processes and land development, so construction can begin immediately when the freeze is lifted in September.

JTA

 
 

As Israel’s image sinks, whither Israeli PR?

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Theresa McDermott, an Edinburgh postal worker who was a member of the Free Gaza Movement flotilla, speaks at a Boycott Israel demonstration in Edinburgh on June 5. Richard Milnes/Creative Commons

JERUSALEM – In the war of public relations for Israel, the past few weeks have been full of setbacks.

Israel’s deadly May 31 raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla sparked countless angry editorials, demonstrations, and condemnations. The assassination in Dubai in January of a Hamas operative by agents widely believed to have been Israelis — using faked passports — resulted in the expulsion of Israeli diplomats from the countries whose passports had been faked. Even leading musicians have canceled performances in Israel in recent weeks, citing political circumstances.

These developments have brought Israel’s growing image problem into sharp relief.

The fear is that Israel is subject to a growing tide of delegitimization that, if unchecked, could pose an existential threat. The nightmare scenario has the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement gaining more traction and anti-Israel opinion moving from Western campuses to governments, followed by a lifting of the protective American diplomatic umbrella.

More than ever, Israel needs an efficient PR machine capable of undermining the would-be delegitimizers and getting across the Israeli narrative.

That raises the question: Who is running Israel’s PR — in Hebrew, called hasbara — and why have they not been more successful?

The public face of Israel, the Netanyahu-Lieberman-Barak government, wins few points on the international stage. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is widely perceived as uninterested in making peace, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is seen as a racist bully, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak is seen as not doing enough to press for more peace-oriented policies.

Another problem is the large number of agencies within the government dealing with public relations. To name just a few, there is a directorate for PR in the National Security Council, and PR divisions in the Prime Minister’s Office, the Defense Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, and the Israel Defense Forces.

They are not always coordinated. For example, the Foreign Ministry’s quick response team and the IDF spokesman’s office argued over who should present the initial Israeli version of what happened aboard the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish-flagged ship that greeted Israel’s commando raid with violence. As a result, the Israeli account did not come out for about 10 hours after the incident, a lacuna the Turks and other detractors were able to take full advantage of.

Israel’s “rebranding” strategy also seems to have had little success.

For years, a Foreign Ministry team under Ido Aharoni has been trying to improve Israel’s image by branding it as a fount of “creative energy,” emphasizing Israel’s high-tech and scientific achievements, burgeoning economy, entrepreneurial zeal, energetic lifestyle, and vibrant diversity of opinion and culture. The core idea behind the campaign is that focusing on Israel beyond the conflict would deflect attention from its negative image as an occupying power.

Not only has the campaign failed to achieve its main goal, but politics has penetrated nonpolitical realms. Musicians such as Elvis Costello, the Pixies, and indie rocker Devendra Banhart have canceled concerts here, citing politics. The Madrid gay pride parade banned an Israeli float sponsored by the city of Tel Aviv, citing the raid aboard the Mavi Marmara.

Earlier this year the Reut Institute, a nonpartisan Tel Aviv-based think tank, issued a comprehensive report analyzing Israel’s delegitimization problem and the tools needed to combat it. The report argued that the time has come for the government to take the delegitimization challenge as seriously as it does the military threats facing Israel.

In its report, presented to the cabinet in February, Reut pointed to an increasingly effective alliance between Islamist rejectionists and radical left-wing groups in the West whose common goal is to destroy Israel by isolating it politically and economically, ultimately forcing a one-state solution with a Muslim majority. The delegitimizers are particularly active in places like London, Madrid, and the California bay area, which Reut called hubs, where they form grassroots networks of activists, NGOs, and fellow travelers against Israel. The tipping point in their work would be a growing international consensus for a one-state solution, the report said.

“Perhaps the existential threat to Israel is not yet around the corner, but as we know from history, state paradigms collapse exponentially,” Eran Shayshon, one of the authors of the Reut paper, told JTA. “Suddenly a few things happen to create an irresistible momentum, as happened with the Soviet Union or with apartheid South Africa.”

In order to meet the challenge, Reut proposes a complete overhaul of Israel’s foreign service. It argues that instead of an outmoded diplomacy geared toward handling states and continents, the new focus should be on the hubs where the delegitimizers are particularly active and where dozens of additional diplomats should be deployed to engage as many people as possible among the decision-making elites.

In addition, Reut recommends building anti-delegitimization networks worldwide based on Jewish and Israeli groups abroad, including NGOs. The main goal of the multifaceted campaign would be to prevent delegitimization from spreading from the fringes to the mainstream.

According to the Reut paper, the aim is to drive a wedge between bona-fide critics of specific Israeli policies and promoters of delegitimacy, thereby winning over the nonpartisan political center and creating a “political firewall around Israel.”

So far, there is no sign the government intends to adopt any of this. While pro-Israel NGOs from Jerusalem to New York are involved in trying to defuse deligitimization campaigns against Israel, some PR experts argue that the problem is more a question of government policy than organizational structures or efforts.

Israel will continue to suffer on the PR front unless it launches a major peace initiative, this school of thought says. That is one of the reasons Barak has been urging Netanyahu to come out with a new peace initiative, carefully coordinated with and backed by the Americans.

Such an initiative almost certainly would not impress the delegitimizers, but it probably would give Israel a better chance of stopping the erosion of its international standing by driving a wedge between them and the rest of the international community.

JTA

 
 

Life sciences become big business in Israel

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Life science industry figures mingle at the Tel Aviv ILSI-BioMed conference in June, which drew more than 7,000 people from around the world. Ilan Levi

TEL AVIV – Yaron Aizenbud lays out in neat rows a set of patented titanium tools designed for back surgery, picks out a curved drill that matches the curve of a spine and a plastic model of vertebrae, and simulates how the drill is used to stabilize a damaged spine.

Aizenbud and the other founders of the small Israeli start-up Scorpion Surgical Technologies hope their medical devices will become a new solution for back operations, particularly for people with osteoporosis, in some cases even eliminating the need for replacing ruptured discs.

Scorpion Surgical was among the hundreds of companies displaying their wares in a maze of rooms and bright lights at a recent biotech and life sciences convention in Tel Aviv. Among them were firms with home-grown advances in cell and gene therapy, imaging, and heart disease drugs.

In its ninth year the conference, ILSI-BioMed, drew some 7,000 people, including international investors and industry leaders. It was the largest such industry gathering outside of the United States, according to conference organizers.

Aizenbud, a veteran of Israeli high-tech who has worked for IBM, Amdocs, and a host of start-ups, spoke of the special satisfaction in switching gears to the life sciences.

“You feel the difference in what you are doing,” he said. “This is about contributing something to the public.”

The field of life sciences, an umbrella term that refers to medical devices, pharmaceuticals, and biotechnology, has become big business in Israel. There are more than 1,000 companies, and another 80 join the field every year, according to industry estimates.

Last year, life sciences accounted for $6 billion in Israeli exports, mostly to the United States, making it one of Israel’s biggest exports.

Israel tops the list of countries in medical device patents per capita and is fourth in the world for biotechnology patents per capita.

Observers credit Israel’s success in this extremely competitive market to the nurturing ecosystem the country has produced to foster life sciences innovation. The ecosystem brings together a combination of top research at Israel’s universities that transfers to companies, many of which get their start in state-subsidized “incubators.” In 2000, the government designated life sciences a priority sector.

“My impression is there is both a lot of innovation here and a willingness to take high risks here, even in comparison to U.S. biotech,” said Simeon Taylor, vice president of Cardiovascular and Metabolics Discovery Biology at Bristol-Myers Squibb, a major U.S. pharmaceutical company that had representatives at the ILSI-BioMed conference.

Over the years, Israel has built up a strong name internationally with a track record of success stories. Perhaps most well-known is the invention by the company Given Imaging of the PillCam, a capsule containing a camera that a patient can swallow, enabling the physician to see distinct portions of the gastrointestinal track.

And there are the potential blockbuster products coming on the market, like the drug to help treat schizophrenia developed by the Jerusalem-based company BioLineRx. The drug, BL-1020, helps reduce patient violence.

In June, BioLineRx signed an out-licensing agreement with a major U.S. pharmaceutical company for $335 million.

At the conference, Kinneret Savitsky, the company’s CEO, tried to put her company’s success in a larger, national perspective.

“Research is in our blood,” she said. “We think out of the box. It comes out of our way of life here.”

The medical device business accounts for more than half of the life sciences industry in Israel. These technologies require less research than biotech and usually can be brought quicker to market — before investors become impatient.

The relatively long time it takes to build a success in pharmaceuticals and biotechnology makes the industry a high-risk, high-yield one.

Claudio Yarza, the partner in charge of life sciences for PriceWaterhouseCooper’s Israel office, cautioned that although the industry has developed well in the past few years, the risk remains.

Even when a deal is made, Yarza said, it’s not clear that the product will make it to market or become a success.

“Bio-tech is harder to succeed at than high-tech because the development stage is more complicated,” he said. “Many high-tech companies start with an idea for a product, and it’s already ready for development, not awaiting more research. And in bio-tech we think we might have a new solution on our hands, but until trials are completed we cannot say it definitely does.”

Debra Lappin, the president of the Council for American Innovation, said the United States needs Israeli know-how and thus should be welcoming to Israeli companies and the advances they bring.

“The new nature of innovation relies on partnerships,” she said. “The U.S. is reliant on outsourcing its innovation, so we need to make sure the door is open because otherwise Israel will look elsewhere.”

JTA

 
 

Israeli Deputy Consul Krasna reflects on time in Teaneck

Benjamin Krasna, Israel’s deputy consul general in New York, has fond memories of the past five years living in Teaneck. But when he returns home next month at the end of his appointment, there is one thing he definitely will not miss.

“The hardest part of the challenge for me was the daily commute,” he said, noting that sometimes he would spend hours trying to cross the George Washington Bridge. Still, the pluses outweighed the minuses for him, his wife Sharon, and their three children, who found the modern-Orthodox lifestyle of Teaneck and day schools of Bergen County a good fit.

“Teaneck worked,” he said. “It was a very, very good match for us — in spite of the George Washington Bridge.”

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After five years as Israel’s deputy consul general in New York, Benjamin Krasna is returning to Israel next month.

But with such an active and Israel-focused Jewish community, Krasna’s became a 24/7 job. At Cong. Keter Torah, where the Krasnas were members, congregants would often express their opinions on Israel’s policies and offer Krasna advice.

“You’re in a situation where every Shabbat is another hasbara challenge,” he said.

Balancing a job like that with family life can be a challenge, but Krasna said he made his choices strike that balance.

“You work very hard to protect Shabbat and Sunday … so you can do normal Sunday things — coaching soccer, going to Little League games, things like that,” he said. “If I decide on this day I need to be at my kid’s party at school, then fine, I’ll go and do that. I’ll make the time. You have to find those moments to free the time up for them as well.”

As the Jewish state’s No. 2 man in New York, Krasna has been responsible for keeping a bead on national Jewish groups and how they interact with Israel. Rather than simply responding to requests for information or appearances, Krasna took a proactive approach. He has spent more time than any of his predecessors, he said, visiting smaller communities outside the metropolitan area.

Literally the day Krasna first arrived in New Jersey, his government was uprooting thousands of Jewish settlers from Gaza under the disengagement plan. Then came the capture of three Israeli soldiers, the Second Lebanon War, Operation Cast Lead, the election of America’s first black president, two elections in Israel. Also, the Giants won the Super Bowl and the Yankees won the World Series (again). But, he complained, “the Knicks didn’t get any better.”

One question in particular has become routine at every event, no matter who the sponsor is, and it’s a question Krasna will not miss answering.

“And that was about Israel’s PR,” he said. “I think Israel does a very good job. We make strong efforts to make people know about the multifaceted nature of Israel, Israel beyond the conflict.”

As PR successes, he pointed to the worldwide consensus on Iran, widespread support in Congress, and a recent Gallup poll that indicated more than 60 percent of Americans support Israel — a level not seen since the 1991 Gulf War.

“We have to understand also that sometimes being the stronger in the conflict means that public sentiment may lean a little towards the weaker,” Krasna said. “The fact of the matter is I still don’t want to be the weaker, I want to be the stronger. If I look at the level of understanding there was during the war in Lebanon — publicly in America — or during the war in Gaza, we basically had public opinion on our side to take the action we needed to take.”

Many point to Israel’s delay in releasing footage from the Mavi Marmara — that showed activists attacking Israeli soldiers — as a publicity misstep. Krasna quickly disagreed.

“It was a conscious decision taken to delay the release of some of the photographs and footage,” he said. “We paid a PR price for that. You have to remember when an operation is ongoing — literally, ships are still at sea, soldiers are still there — we have other considerations that come first regarding the safety of our soldiers. You need to successfully bring this operation to a conclusion.”

One area where Krasna would like to see more emphasis is Israel education of high school students. Much has been made in recent years about the college campus as the latest battleground for Israeli public relations. Krasna, however, believes that battle needs to begin long before students get to campus.

“If our kids don’t feel comfortable enough in their own skins as pro-Israel advocates, their choice is going to be to avoid confrontation,” he said. “They don’t have the arguments and they don’t want to be faced with a case where somebody’s going to confront them.

“That’s why we need to invest in education before they get there.”

Today’s youth — and Krasna’s generation, as well, he noted — can take Israel’s existence for granted because they never knew a world without the Jewish state.

“We all run the risk of taking for granted the fact that we live in a world with the State of Israel, which is a better world because of the State of Israel. We’re all a generation born into it,” he said. “Israel is not just Ben Yehuda [Street], or the Inbal Hotel [in Jerusalem], or nightlife in Tel Aviv. Israel is battles that were fought, people who sacrificed, and things we can be proud of.”

Krasna grew up in a Zionist home in Forest Hills, Queens, and made aliyah with his family when he was 11. Although his family returned to the United States a few years later, Krasna formed a lifelong connection with the Jewish state and, after completing a bachelor’s degree in Middle East studies at Rutgers in 1986, he returned to Israel for his mandatory military service.

He left Israel again to complete a master’s degree in international relations at Johns Hopkins University. And when he returned to Israel, he got his first diplomatic break — in the form of a newspaper ad calling for diplomats. He applied and was accepted.

Starting in 1997, he served as Israel’s deputy consul general in Istanbul, as the spokesman of the Israeli embassy in The Hague, and specializing in the Multilateral European Institutions Western European Division of the Ministry in Jerusalem.

And what’s next for the career diplomat?

“Home,” he said. “Home is to enjoy a house that I bought before I came here and haven’t had a chance to live in yet. Home is seeing my kids reacquaint themselves with Israel — in the case of my youngest … seeing him acquaint himself with Israel.”

As he prepares to head home, Krasna has but one lingering regret.

“I’d be more careful about what I ate at these [gala] dinners. A smorgasbord is a very dangerous thing,” he said. “As a general rule I chose the carving station over the sushi every time.”

 
 
 
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