Thursday 15 November 2012

Is it winter already?

I took a short hiatus, due to some local war. I'm sure you were worried for me, my blogfans, and indeed rockets were fired at Tel Aviv, but apparently they couldn't find anywhere to park.
And I thought of writing about the political shenanigans, again, in the run-up to the elections, but I blinked and one of the parties disappeared. I blinked again and one major party lurched rightwards, another blink and yet another party materialized as if by magic. I've given up blinking.

Indeed a week is a long time in politics. So said that great former prime minister of Britain, Harold Wilson. And how true. Why, it only takes a few minutes to stab a political foe in the back, or a crisis to unfurl, or a scandal to come out of hiding. A lot can happen in a week.
Creation, for example, only took six days, which, if you think about it, is quite a long time for a deity.
For us mere mortals, construction is a tricky business, and could take quite a while. A metropolitan light rail system for the Tel Aviv area, say, might take us 6 or 7 years, maybe even 10. Certainly no more than 15, and anyone who suggests that the Tel Aviv's been messing around with the plans for its desperately needed transport system for over 40 years should be ashamed of themselves. (Go to the back of the class, and think very carefully about what you've just implied.)

Back to creation. We read in that best-seller, the Bible (or the Tentateuch as we like to call it), that the One Above did the whole job in six days, including livestock, gnats, cirrus clouds and thrush. First He created light, because who on earth (and that's where He was, remember) can do a good job in the dark? (Please don't answer that one, it's not that type of blog). Then He went on, day by day, creating the waters and the waters (very easily confused) and then the trees and grasses, and by Day Four He'd created the sun. Which raises the question: What was the light that he created on Day One?

Now this isn't a theological blog either, so I won't attempt to answer that one.
But, as we all know, it took Him six days to complete the whole shebang, after which he rested, which is where we got the idea of cholent and shabbos shluf from.
Surely He could have done a faster job, if you think about it. But what was stopping him, was the fact that it got dark quite early at that time of year, and He hadn't had the wisdom of thinking up Daylight Saving Time, or Summertime, as George Gershwin likes to call it.
Who thought up the great idea, then? Well, some say it was a Brit named George Vernon Hudson, living in New Zealand. But do you honestly think the idea would come from New Zealand? I mean, what is there to do there other than count sheep?
Some say it was Benjamin Franklin, the US statesman and diplomat, though I'm sure he was far too busy flying kites for it to have been him. So I'm going for William Willett, a housebuilder from Surrey, who pushed the idea from 1909, though it never got off the ground until war broke out.
Yes, it was only during the First World War that countries, Britain among them, were searching for any means of saving money, and Daylight Savings Time was a saviour. So it started in Britain in 1916 when it lasted from May 21 to October 1. USA followed in 1918, though New Zealand didn't follow till 1927 (Being in the southern hemisphere does make it a little more confusing. Apparently, you have to turn the clocks forward whilst your back is turned, jump three times, and say 'my precious' in a gravelly voice).
Israel first had Daylight Saving Time in the 1940s, thanks to the Brits. Generally the "summer" that falls within the adjusted time period is shorter than everywhere else. And that is often blamed on the small religious parties in Knesset who make tenuous claims that summertime makes Yom Kippur far too dreary, or somehow makes kosher meat go rancid more quickly.
Photo: Patrick Seeger/dpa/Corbis

This year, summertime came to an abrupt halt on September 23, (in 2010, it ended on September 10th!!) when it was still hot and humid, and Mother Nature hadn't even packed away her summer sandals. The public ranted and raved, so to popular acclaim, the Knesset this month passed a bill that extended future Daylight Saving Time. Next year, it will last 191 days instead of the 177 days it did this year (though still far behind the 210 days in Europe or 238, noch, in the US).
What exactly made our politicians change their mind? Maybe, and here's a radical idea, maybe it is so close to our elections in January, that no party wanted to be seen dissing the widely popular move. So ever so quietly (only 27 MKs were around at the time) the Knesset passed the extended summertime.
But for the same reason, with an election looming, the government decided it couldn't go ahead with the budget for 2013. It'll just scrap the idea, and leave it all to the next government, that probably won't be formed until February. Meaning, they were too afraid that instead of the usual frenzy, with every party in the coalition threatening to resign unless it gets a few more billion for its constituents, there could actually have been responsible restraint from the politicians. So, putting their own interests first, we're heading into the new year with no state budget.
I know, the new year's not for another seven weeks, but as we all know, seven weeks is a very long time in politics.

Wednesday 31 October 2012

Exclusive: Four out of five polls are wrong (including this one)

Thank goodness for polls. Without them we wouldn't know what to eat, what to wear, which shampoo really makes your hair naturally curly and bouncy, and, almost as importantly, who to vote for.
Whiskas ran a popular ad campaign back in the 1820s or thereabouts, you wouldn't remember anyway, in which they claimed "Eight out of ten cats said they preferred it". (It was later changed, after the Advertising Piffling Pedantic Party-pooper Association discovered that cats can't actually talk, to the far more accurate: "77% of people who own, or share accommodation with, cats, or other animals of a feline nature, when surveyed, on average, within a 2-standard deviation of the mean, expressed a preference, when pushed, if they had to, for cat food." Which, you must agree, just trips off the tongue.) It was a great ad campaign, and has been widely mimicked over the years – what better praise can one get?

Newspapers love market surveys, no matter how misleading and unhelpful they may be.
Last month, the Jerusalem Post had a lead story along the lines of "Our exclusive survey results: Imaginary party headed by all the centre-left politicos and ex-politicos (not currently in jail) could prove the winning ticket." In their poll, they discovered that a party with the unlikely combination of Tzipi Livni (popular ex-leader who disappointed everyone by coming first in the last elections), Ehud Olmert (ex-prime minister, who recently starred in a court serial drama until it was suddenly pulled), Shaul Mofaz (current party leader, though no one knows where he is) and Yair Lapid (future party leader and ex-bank pin-up) could indeed beat the Likud favourites. Which takes some imagination, as the four wouldn't even share an antipasti let alone a platform. Yet another article for the chattering classes that served no purpose.
In today's The Times of Israel, an electoral poll suggested that Moshe Kahlon, a retiring popular Likud Member of Knesset (hey, he could be called MK MK) could end up as the second largest party, should he choose to run. In other words, "Non-existent party headed by man who has just left politics could come second in the vote." Well there's a useful waste of newsprint.
What should we expect next? "Eight out of ten people said they would buy something shiny if it came in very small handy sizes" or "Tuesdays would be far more popular if they came after Wednesdays, says our exclusive poll."

Moshe Kahlon bidding to set up the Vention 2012 Party  (Photo: Daniel Bar-On, Haaretz)
Now why exactly is Moshe Kahlon so popular?
Well for a start he promoted legislation that limited the commissions that banks charge us. You know the sort of thing: a few shekels for entering the bank, some more for asking a question, several more for having the audacity to want to take your own money out of your account.
But mostly for the past three years, as Minister of Mobile Phones (aka Minister of Communications), Kahlon has wrought changes that have probably benefited more middle- and low-income earners than anything he pushed through as Minister of the Tired, Poor and Huddled Masses (aka Minister of Welfare). He freed the phone market, allowing in more operators, and more network combinations including Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs), which if you're not quite sure what that means, wait after class and I'll explain it to you. But the main point is, he broke up the market, the products, the services. Instead of having to register with one company and buy your phone, your airtime, your number there, and stay there forever, trapped, at a high price, the market is now more accessible for all, at competitive prices. For example, the newest kids on the block (Golan Telecom and HOT Mobile) sell SIM cards, but not the handsets themselves. Prices are falling, the 'veteran' players are having to play a tougher game to keep their subscribers. New legislation has severely limited what fines must be paid if you choose to leave one of the telecoms companies (whether one of the cellphone companies or your cable or satellite TV company). And most significantly – without which all of these changes would be worthless – you can hop from one operator to another and take your phone number with you.
And in recognition of this, the Movement for Quality Government in Israel chose him as one of the handful of Knights of Quality Government last year, citing his work in "reforms intended to improve the status of the consumer in the telecoms market, particular in the cellphone sector, and including the lowering of connection fees and the introduction of new cellphone operators into the market."

Naturally in this topsy turvy world of Israeli movers and shakers, a popular, award-winning politician is the very type of individual who would choose to leave, and last month he announced he was forgoing politics for a quieter life. However, given the dearth and quality of the ones we're left with, and given that there are still five long weeks before lists have to be submitted for standing in the elections in January, anything could happen.
Anyway, he's a man to watch in my opinion. In fact eight out of ten of my opinions preferred him.

Wednesday 17 October 2012

Israeli Elections: A Guide to the Befuddled

Voters in Israel will be heading for the ballot boxes in January 2013, and clearly someone needs to explain the confusing array of politicians and parties who are competing in the elections. This I am happy to do.
Warning: The article below expresses the sole opinion of the author and in no way should be taken as a recommendation, a hint, a slight suggestion, or even a dare, to vote for one particular party or individual or vice versa or even viva voce. Politics is a serious matter, and should not be taken lightly. (A well-known academic, who shall remain nameless, once accepted a political dare as a joke whilst drunk at a party in Jerusalem and ended up as finance minister for the past four years. What do we learn from this? Don't play with politics, drink sensibly, and be careful what parties you go to).

Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud Party). Front runner in the polls. Not to be confused with his much younger and immature twin brother, Bibi Netanyahu (prime minister from some time way back for about three very long years). Benjamin Netanyahu, learning from Bibi's mistakes, has been, in the words of a wily political commentator, "one of the finest prime ministers Israel has seen since 2009". His achievements have been both legendary and anecdotal, his anecdotes have achieved a great deal, and his legends have been stuff of anecdotes. Recognizing how stability is held dear by many in Israel, he has staunchly defended the status quo, and indeed, throughout his term of office, he has managed to keep the same hairdo, the same name, the same marriage, many of the same friends, the same coalition (except for the parties that left and others that joined), and the same currency (for which he has won praise, and not a little envy, from many of his European peers). In the past four years Israel has consistently kept her geographic position, the same Mediterranean climate, as well as her participatory-but-non-victorious role in the Eurovision Song Contest. Many commentators put Likud as the winner in the January elections, and judging by his smirk, Netanyahu concurs with this.

Shelley Yachimovich (Labor Bleedinghearty Party). Yachimovich, a former journalist and abrasive radio anchor, became leader of the beleaguered Labor Party in 2011, after then leader Ehud Barak left (unilaterally, in the dead of night, allegedly taking the list of members and keys to the herbal tea cupboard with him). Yachimovich, an active social rights campaigner, won the leadership contest in a close-fought battle against Amir Peretz, trade unionist and binocular salesman, with only four and a half votes between the two. Peretz and Yachimovich had previously been very chummy, at one time allegedly planning to open a hair-salon-cum-moustache-trimming business together in Sderot. Knesset shenanigans since then have made the Labor Party the largest outside of the governing coalition, and hence turned Yachimovich into the official Leader of the Opposition, which is apt as she opposes almost anything you care to suggest. 

Some have suggested that Israel move toward the Julius Caeser Transferable Vote System, where the election results are clear cut and decisive (but often messy)
Ehud Barak (Labour Party, Someotherthingy Party). Former Chief of Staff of Israel's defense forces, and prime minister. Once lived on the 35th floor of an exclusive luxury block of flats in downtown Tel Aviv, though following the wave of social protests, he has since moved down to the 21st floor so that he can have a closer look at the troubles that beset the proverbial 'man on the street'. With this type of bonhomie, and rapport with the common man, Barak has charmed so many people as he passes through politics from party to party, winning popularity before moving on, and winning hearts again and again. Now leader of the… wait a minute I had it written down somewhere… I can't remember, anyway, definitely the leader of a new Party, and likely to remain as leader well into January. The party itself will probably win a few votes, though would probably win more if I could only remember what it's called.

Ehud-is that brown envelope for me thanks just put it on the pile with the others-Olmert. (Kadima, Likud). Former prime minister and mayor of Jerusalem, one time small-town lawyer. He recently trounced the evil State Attorney's Office in court, being declared Absolutely Not Guilty of several nasty malicious allegations thrown at him, and for which he had to step down as Prime Minister in order to cook up a good story, sorry, I mean, in order to defend his innocence. Though he was found guilty on the minor charges of doodling on state-owned headed paper without permission and posing as an honest politician, there are many calls for Olmert to return to the political fray. Olmert has been widely acclaimed as a fine administrator (since his stint as PM all files in government are now stored alphabetically, and are also colour coded), and praised for his loose political leanings, and agile party maneuverability, which allowed him to push through plenty of achievements whilst in office. Finance is not his strong suit though: Olmert drove Jerusalem to bankruptcy whilst mayor, and was on his way to doing the same to the country, before he stepped down as PM early in 2009. Apparently Olmert is keen to get back to the Prime Minister's Office (though this may be because he believes there's a brown envelope left in one of the drawers marked Holiday Snaps by Rishon Tours Photo Services.)

There now, that should help.

Disclaimer: All of the above was correct at the time of publication, but may be subject to changes at any moment due to Middle East idiosyncrasies. Indeed, just as I finished typing the previous sentence, 85% of the above article became obsolete. Management apologises for any inconvenience.

Wednesday 15 August 2012

1948 and All That*, A Whimsical History

Sadly, there’s quite a deplorable ignorance about the history of Israel among the young population. (Who’s young? you may ask. Well that’s all relative. Anyone who can’t remember what a record player is is young.) Or at least, so complained a friend of mine who teaches Civics here in Israel. Of course one assumes he was bemoaning their ignorance before he taught them, not after.

So for your, and their benefit I thought I’d give a quick rundown of Zionism, and the History of the Modern State of Israel, abridged.
Of course there’s a great deal of argument over Israel, Palestine, the history of Zionism. And the facts are often very confusing (possibly because a lot of them are on the ground, apparently, where they can be trampled upon). So I’ve redrawn the history with heaps of poetic licence, based not so much on facts but more on suggestive anecdotes and the general gist.

So if you're sitting comfortably, I shall begin.

Herzl, when he first started his modeling career,
here seen  sporting the popular frock coat.
Once upon a time, back in an earlier century, there lived an emancipated European Jewish man with a long dark beard called Herzl, who was always leaning on balconies and dreaming. One day, whilst leaning on a particularly classic balcony in a town in Switzerland, it suddenly occured to him that if he really wanted something it needn’t be a dream. So he formed an organization called WIZO, and gathering together all the influential and funny sounding friends he could find, he set about establishing a home for the People of the Book. But first he needed a Book. So he wrote an almost-bestseller, called Alt Neuland, which was Prussian for the Austrian for the German for what we in English called Neverneverland, which was an allegory of displaced people and their quest for a place where they could put their hat. And so call it a home.

At the time, there was an old empire, left over from the empirical period, called the Ottoman Empire on account of all the furniture in it, and the pashas. A small part of that empire, just below a larger part, and to the right of the important part, was a land called Frankenstien (formally Uganda) where the Philistine people lived. Herzl, together with his WIZO friends, having raised an enormous sum of money at a charity ball, put a deposit on a sand dune in Palestine, and invited others (not themselves, obviously) to move in and start building condominiums. The Turks (for it was they, under the guise of the pashas and Ottomans) were incensed and in retaliation, decided to join the wrong side of World War One. When World War One (also known as The War That Was To End All Wars Until The Next One) ended, the French and the British, who were on the Right Side of the war, sliced up the Middle East with no more than a ruler, a compass, and a hand that felled a city. The French got all the bits that spoke French, or pretended to, while the British got whatever was left over, or whoever agreed to drive on the left, and that included Palestine, which became a Mandate (which is a bit like a blind date, but involves no multitasking).

So now the British ran the place. They spent most of their time painting all the letter boxes red, renaming all the roads King George Street, drinking tea, and attempting to stop the influx of Zionists (which is Hebrew for the English term ‘bloody Zionists’), who were mostly Europeans from Europe who were escaping Europe by boat as World War Two (the one after the first one) was just about to finish. One of the most famous boats at the time was the SS Exodus (named after one of the books of the bible, though no one is sure which) and which was captained by Paul Newman. At this point, some of the local Arabs (who were either Philistines themselves, or possibly Turks) also took offense, though the British assured them that whatever Florence of Arabia (an Irishman of the British Legion who rose to high rank despite wearing dresses) had promised them would be honoured, if they could just sign here and here. And initials here, thank you.

But riots broke out, and the British who tried to keep the peace by offering even more tea, were finally compelled to blame it on everybody else, and left in a huff. (Huffs were very large boats at the time). And in 1948ish or thereabouts, while the local Jewish population were busy singing and dancing in the streets (as there was no television in those days, and no heating either), a new state was declared: the State of Israel. A wise old man called Ben Gurion (formerly known as Lod) who had tufts of white hair here and here, was elected the first prime minister and his assistant was an elderly young statesman called Shimon Peres, who, no matter how often he lost elections, persevered at politics for a whole life time (some say even longer) until he left politics altogether and became President of the State.

To begin with, the young state was not only young and inexperienced, but it was also out of place, out of odds, and out of tea too. (The British had taken the last shipment when they left, together with the last carton of milk. In a bitter irony, Israelis decided that from then on they would drink tea, but not the English sort, and they wouldn’t add milk). Meanwhile, all the neighbouring states launched an attack, and fighting carried on till finally someone said stop, very possibly Ben Gurion, who would often hold cabinet meetings while standing on his head on the beach.

That was the rocky start of the State of Israel, and if I can remember any more of the factless history, I’ll tell you the rest another time.
So now we're all the wiser.
Have a wonderful day.

*With many thanks to W.C.Sellar and R.J. Yeatman.

Wednesday 1 August 2012

Cause and effect: Karma and calmer

"My Aunt Dolly once put sugar in her tea, and over the next 40 years she lost all her teeth," quipped the great, late satirist and comic writer Peter Cook. Which is a wonderful lesson to us all: Cut down on sugar.
So you think today's blog is going to be all about calories?
Well I'm never that obvious, am I? So think again.
In his witty repartee, Cook had hit the nail on the head. It's all a question of Cause and Effect (oh, now I hear all the statisticians and econometrists among you jump up with excitement), which is a Karma philosophy. (Now I hear all you Buddhists jump up with excitement. Well maybe not jump. Roll over, possibly).
What it boils down to is: What causes what? If two things occur together, are they necessarily correlated? Maybe there's a third, unknown, factor which is behind it all.
Which came first indeed? The chicken or the egg, or the farmer?
In the 19th century, the great economist Ricardo faced a similar conundrum: Is the rent that farmers pay on their fields high because the price of corn is high? Or is the price of corn high because farmers are paying high rents?

Now why don't you sit back and let me tell you an old, old story.
Once upon a time, back in the 1880s, the French decided (like many before them) that it would be far quicker, easier, and therefore cheaper, if instead of sailing all round the bottom of Cape Horn to get from one part of the globe to another, one could cut right through the middle of the American continent. So they looked at the atlas, found the narrowest part of the continent, which was in… yes, well done, my blog fans… Panama, and decided to build the Panama canal. The French, led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, invested money, equipment, builders, engineers and designers into the massive venture.
The project failed.
Not just failed, but tragically failed. Over 22,000 workers died in the attempt. The venture was abandoned, and it took many years until the project was taken up again, this time by the Americans (trust them to turn up late, pump in the money, and take the credit), who succeeded, and the canal opened in 1914.
So, my quiz for the day: What was the missing link? Why did so many workers die in the first attempt at forging a canal through Panama?

The answer: Mosquitoes.
In the 1880s, no one knew that mosquitoes were the transmitters of malaria and yellow fever. No one fully understood the importance of sanitation and clean drinking water. And the site of the digging in Panama was surrounded by swamps, where the mosquitoes happily lived and bred, and spread disease.
So only after this link was discovered and suitable precautions and sanitation was introduced, could the Panama canal venture triumph. The swamps were dried, mosquito nets were placed over beds, in came window screens and fumigation, and so the engineering works could plunge ahead, and the journey from one side of the globe to the other became shorter, quicker, safer and cheaper. You could say the entire world trade benefitted from an engineering feat that relied on a medical discovery.
That's Cause and Effect.

And here's another one closer to my home, and which may sound just as odd.
I would like to suggest that partly one of the reasons that property prices are so high in Israel, is because we take large curves in order to turn left at intersections.
Obvious isn't it?

You are driving straight, and you come to an intersection. When do you start turning the wheel? In England, one is taught to slow down, and only when you have come absolutely in line with the turning you want to turn into – so you're practically looking down the destination street – then you turn the wheel, sharply, by 90 degrees, make your turn, and off you go.
It means you may very well be sitting plum in the centre of a major intersection, but, hey, what's life without some scary moments?

In Israel, though, the Powers That Be - that bunch of incompetent penpushers in the Ministry of Transport, Traffic Jams, and General Misery – have decided that, like children, the Israeli driver cannot possibly be expected to exercise such judgment, and good driving skills. So the Ministry insists that any junction must provide enough turning curve, for those turning left, that wouldn't tax a 12-year old with only one hand on the steering wheel.
So instead of minimal sized intersections, like this:

We end up with much larger intersections, like this:
US Department of Transportation

Note the painted white lines to indicate the sweeping turning curve. This curve allows the driver to drive faster, think less (two reasons that make this more dangerous) and it also results in a far larger intersection. The halt line for each approaching road has to be further from the center in order to allow for this curve.
End result: larger intersections, wasted space. Take a closer look when you're passing a junction. Try and find the smallest junction and see why it can be so small. Maybe no left turns are allowed.

And if the junctions took up less space, we'd have more space for more buildings. Supply of housing could rise, and maybe…just maybe… the extortionate price of housing in Israel would drop.

Causal links are not always obvious. But I think if we encouraged drivers to slow down and turn more sharply, and carefully, on a smaller space, then maybe flats in downtown Tel Aviv would become more affordable.

And try cutting down on sugar, too.  

Wednesday 18 July 2012

Charity begins at home, that is if you have one

Last week, amidst a popular protest march in Tel Aviv for social justice and a lower cost of living, Moshe Silman set himself alight. Silman had been driven to the extreme, after seeing his livelihood, his trucking business, his home, destroyed and wiped out by, initially, an unpaid debt of just NIS 15,000 to National Insurance. The Bailiff’s Office, in pursuing the money owed by Silman, confiscated his driving license, hence robbing him of his job as a taxi driver, and Silman, a 57-year old from Haifa, was not entitled to public housing since he had once owned property himself. The rules are that, if you once owned your own home, no matter how small the property, and no matter what the circumstances were that led you to sell it, you are not entitled to public housing.
Not that it would have helped. How many public housing units have been built in Israel since 1998?
You love these guessing games, don’t you?
Well, this is a tricky one, so I’ll give you some background info, or else you won’t have the foggiest.
There are about 7 million people in Israel, and just over 5 million old enough to vote (or buy their own home). To buy a 5-roomed flat in Israel, the average Israeli would have to work 191 months, twice the OECD average.
The average monthly salary is NIS 8,800 and according to a recent survey, the cost of living in Israel is among the highest of OECD countries.
So now that you’re getting the picture of how expensive it can be living here, I‘ll ask again: How many homes were built by the State of Israel for public housing in the 14 years since 1998?

Photo: Wisconsin Association of Housing Authorities

The answer: None.

That’s right, none. Apparently, our politicians have been too busy with other things.
Here’s an example of the other pressing matters that fill up their diaries.
This month the esteemed members of Knesset passed an extremely important law, that may possibly affect more lives than we know.
I am talking of course of the “Popcorn Law 2012”. Apparently our lawmakers were incensed that when you go and see a film in the cinema, you are forced to buy popcorn, fizzy drinks etc, at extortionate prices. Usually the establishment won’t let you bring in your own food or drink. This... what’s the word I’m looking for... this injustice had to be corrected. So the politicians of Israel passed the law which should come into effect next year.
If only Moshe Silman had been protesting about the insanity of not being able to bring his own sandwiches when watching a film at his local cinema, then maybe his one small voice would have been heard by someone in our Knesset.
I apologise if this sounds glib, but it is the ridiculousness of the situation that makes me so. It is clearly absurd that when one man, through personal, and not all that rare circumstances, cannot find work or a home, is incensed enough to set himself on fire, then one has to wonder if our popcorn-munching politicians, have got their priorities, or rather our priorities, right.

Public housing is a form of charity, by the state, on our behalf. No matter how big-hearted, or generous we may be, only a government can provide public housing for those in need.

Now according to Rambam, the great medieval Jewish philosopher, scholar, doctor and codifier of Jewish law, charity is not an option. It is a duty, and the highest form of charity is to help someone in such a manner that he no longer requires charity. In other words, instead of giving a poor man fish and chips, one should give him a fishing rod, and let him earn a living.
(Rambam by the way was not his real name. It was Moses ben Maimon, which led us to the old adage, “From Moses to Moses, there was no one like Moses,” a stunning one-liner, thought up by one of the scriptwriters from Eastenders probably, but obviously referring to the stature of Moses who led the people out of Egypt, and Moses who codified the laws. But not Moses Silman, who set himself alight).

Now once upon a time, a charitable man, somewhere in Israel, was asked to pop round to visit a woman who lived in dire circumstances. So he went. And indeed, the woman was living very much on the edge. Her phone had been cut off, and she had no money to pay even the electricity bill. The visitor was visibly moved. He rallied his friends round, and before you could say “No thanks I’ve brought my own popcorn”, he had rustled up enough shekels among them to pay the woman’s debts, and set her on the right path.

Pause for effect.

A while later this good man returned to see how she was getting on. She was still in her poky hovel, still with no electricity, and still with no phone. How could this be? There was no question of gambling, or fraud. It was simply that the woman had no idea how to handle her money, and had found herself back in financial straits within no time.

At first this charitable man was annoyed. But then he thought again, and realized that what she needed was not financial assistance, but help in understanding how to manage her money. Eventually this fellow set up a charity called Paamonim, and its volunteers follow Rambam’s philosophy, helping those in difficulties, not by handing them money, but by showing them how to dig themselves out of their own hole, to the effect that they should never find themselves in that trouble again.

Enjoy the film.  

Wednesday 4 July 2012

Not just for the sake of the trees

In the 111 years since its founding in 1901, how many trees has the Jewish National Fund planted in Israel?
Good question, wouldn't you agree?
Well I’ll let you ponder that one while I tell a tale or two of trees.

Once upon a time, I was a site engineer, or a resident engineer. This means I was the one responsible for overseeing a large construction project, I was the client’s eyes and ears on site.

Our project was the construction of a sewage tunnel, and the laying of over 10 kilometers of sewage pipe both through the tunnel and then beyond, across a conservation area on the southern outskirts of Jerusalem, and even beneath a river (which was either dried up for part of the year, or flowing with actual sewage the rest of the time).

One of the first excursions we took to this area, before any digging, drilling, pipe laying had begun, consisted of almost a dozen of us: managers (well it was a Jewish group, you see), engineers, “greens” from the JNF and Ministry of the Environment, landscape architects. We walked the length of the proposed route of the pipe, and noted in meticulous detail, where the construction site would be and how far it could encroach on the pastoral environment. In particular we analysed each and every tree that stood in the way of our construction, and decided upon its fate: If it could be left, unharmed, and the construction would just carry on around it; or if should be removed, temporarily, and then brought back after the whole job was finished; if it should be removed to somewhere else nearby and then left there; or, with no other choice, the tree would have to go (but be replaced later with something green and flowery maybe).

It was my first year of living in Israel and I was impressed by the attention given to, and the care meted out to, trees. Here we were, several senior, busy people, investing time and a great deal of care and effort, all for the sake of some trees. Being one of the most reliable people in the team at the time (or maybe, I was the only one with a pen), it fell on me to take the notes, writing such thrilling prose, such as: “Large conifer, south of rubble wall, at point 50, to be removed temporarily”. Of course, this was in fluent Hebrew, though at the time I probably didn’t know the words for rubble, or conifer, or removed. So I probably wrote it in Heblish, a common language spoken by many in these parts.

Still thinking of the number of trees the JNF planted in 111 years?

OK, enough of the suspense. The JNF planted over 240 million trees, making Israel one of only two countries worldwide that entered the 21st century with a net gain in the number of trees.

Which is why the Carmel Forest fire was all the more tragic. The fire that enveloped the Mount Carmel Forest outside of Haifa raged for four days in December 2010, causing more than 17,000 locals to be evacuated, burning over 12,000 acres, destroying an estimated 1.5 million trees and tragically killing 44 people (most of them Prison Service cadets on a bus, on their way to help evacuate the Damun Prison which had been engulfed in the fire. It appeared that the bus was caught in a fireball when a blazing tree fell across the road, and all but 3 died attempting to escape the burning vehicle).

Last week, the outgoing State Comptroller issued his report into the forest fire, and heaped scathing criticism on many, including the police, the Israel Prison Service, the Israeli Fire and Rescue Service and, most vociferously, the interior minister, Eli Yishai, and finance minister, Yuval Steinitz.

The tragedy highlighted possibly two failures that permeate the public sector in Israel: incompetence (poor structural organization, as the Comptroller would say) and a lack of accountability. I think he even had to invent a Hebrew word (achrayutiut אחריותיות) for “accountability” as the concept simply doesn’t exist here.

Photo: Shimon Edri /

Let’s say one cabinet minister, let's call him Eli, says the Fire Service needs new equipment. Another cabinet minister, the one with the key to the safe, let’s call him Yuval, says “No you can’t have it, because the Fire Service is hopeless, poorly structured, couldn’t organize a party in bar,” hoping that these encouraging words will inspire structural reforms.
Eli, however, goes and sulks in the corner, and refuses to use funds from elsewhere in his office for the Fire Service (despite Israel only possessing 20 tons of fire suppressant material - some 90% less than the emergency minimum), for as long as Yuval refuses to cough up the extra money. Each stands his ground.

This is called politics.
But at the end of the day, 1.5 million trees were destroyed. And 44 people were killed.

Whilst Israelis are known to be very forward, and not to mince their words, our State Comptroller, a diplomat among politicians, and indeed a former judge, did not call for anyone’s resignation. But he did consider the infighting between the two cabinet ministers as instrumental, and concluded that their responsibility was such that “it would be fitting to point it out in concrete and practical terms.”

If you do get a chance to read any one of the 500 pages of the Comptroller’s report, that’ll be more than either Steinitz or Yishai has done.

Was anything destroyed? Yes.
Was anyone killed? Yes.
Did anyone resign?

Tuesday 26 June 2012

Euro crisis? Not for us, thank you

This blog first appeared in the Times of Israel on June 21, 2012.
“If Israel were in Spain’s situation, Heaven forbid, no body or state would inject 100 billion euros to help us out.”
Such were the wise words of our finance minister, Yuval Steinitz, this week, just hours after Spain’s banks were assisted out of their little troubles with a 100 billion euro rescue package (Spain so downplayed the occasion that the Spanish prime minister made no statement until a day after the bailout, after which he hopped on a plane to watch the football in Poland).
So, thank you Mr Steinitz. That makes at least three people now (him, my neighbour from across the landing, and me) who understand that Israel is in no position to gloat while others are capsizing. There’s a mood in the country that, “Well, we managed to weather that storm, well done to us for keeping far away.” Now, that may be acceptable thinking by your greengrocer or reflexologist. But anyone in politics, and I mean all 120 damage-wielding, overpaid members of Knesset, should congratulate themselves less on missing the boat and think more along the lines of, ‘Would we have fared any better had we been on the boat?’ and ‘How sure are we that we won’t hit the same storm ahead?’
There’s a Greek tragedy playing out before our eyes, and the drama is spreading across the continent. The Greek populace, facing stark austerity plans, is up in arms, the Spanish banks are reeling, the Italians are poised on the brink, and the Germans are rattled at the bill that they—and largely they—will have to pay to save the day.
Once upon a time (about 20 years ago actually), some European countries got together to work towards a more unified economic bloc, bound together by a single currency. The Maastricht Treaty, that paved the way for this union, set targets for individual member countries on such measures as inflation, government budget deficits, and public debt. For example, the budget deficit (how much more a government spends than it receives in any given year) shouldn’t be more than 3% of the previous year’s GDP and public debt (total debt owed by the government) shouldn’t be more than 60% of GDP.
So how comes Greece has come a cropper? Its economy, now contracting fast, has been on the rocks for a while. Its unemployment is very high, heartbreakingly so among the young. All of this has led to a budget deficit of 10% or more (compared to the 3% in the Maastricht rules) and public debt soaring to…. wait for it…. a colossal 161% of GDP in 2011.
Greece is often referred to as “a poor country of rich people”. Indeed Greeks have an aversion to paying taxes or contributing to the common good and now it’s coming to haunt them.
And now for the Israeli smugness: Our economy isn’t contracting, it’s not even sluggish. Our budget deficit last year was 3% and our public debt has contracted to a decent 75%. We may grumble about taxes–who doesn’t?–but we do pay them.
So should we be patting ourselves on the back?
Not yet.
It has long been held that in good times a government makes a budget surplus (i.e. takes in more money from taxes than it spends) and in bad times, it does the opposite. In other words, when times are good, a government puts something aside for that inevitable rainy day.
The underlying logic is simple: the burden of spending should fall fairly across generations (quote from a UK government document, which must be up there on the best-sellers list, just after Jackie Collins). In other words: all public consumption benefiting the current generation should be paid for by that generation.
The trouble starts when you abandon this philosophy, and start spending money you don’t have, pushing the bill onto your children. It’s what the US has been doing for years, and UK, Greece, and others in Europe have practiced in the past decade or so.
And Israel? Well worryingly, we’re heading in that direction too.
While Europe has been reeling from recession, Israel has indeed notched up impressive economic growth rates of 4.6%, and 4.8% in recent years. But at the same time it’s borrowed, with budget deficits nudging 4% of GDP, when according to traditional theory, the government should have been recording surpluses. If you can’t make a surplus when your economy’s growing by over 4%, when can you?
Our politicians would do well to read Aesop’s fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper. Because it’s been a wonderful summer, and we’ve been singing (our own praises) when we should have been preparing for the hard times ahead.

Wednesday 20 June 2012

Never mind the debris, have a pina colada

I was cycling along yesterday evening, from Tel Baruch Tsfon in north Tel Aviv (pleasant dull suburbia, with orderly top-end apartment blocks, wide streets) through Park Hayarkon (joggers, cyclists, strollers, after-work get-fitters), onto Ibn Gvirol Street (cafes, meeting places, friends sitting, chatting on benches), past Habima (children playing and families sitting in the sunken garden), and finally down Rotschild Boulevard (cycling, walking, couples hand in hand) and I thought, “This is Tel Aviv. And I love it.”

But apparently this is all a sham. A bluff, as they say in Hebrew. According to a report on CBS’s 60 Minutes program, aired on TV in Israel just this week, the buzzing, happening city of Tel Aviv is only partying because, apparently, we all expect to die tomorrow. “It’s the last day of Pompei,” as some unknown Israeli with strong opinions told the 60 Minutes reporter.
It was a scathing, hyperbolic take on life in the “city that never sleeps”, voted as third hottest city in the world (Lonely Planet 2011), best gay city in the world (American Airlines 2011) and ninth best beach city on the planet (National Geographic 2010). According to 60 Minutes, we are surrounded by war, and yet prefer to stick our hands in the sand.
It was a picture of Tel Aviv that I simply didn’t recognise.
And when I hear people praise the mayor Ron Huldai for the wondrous things he’s done in the city, I don’t wish to steal his thunder, but I really think the true praise should go to the ones that make the city the vibrant wonderful Tel Aviv that it is. Yes, the Tel Avivians. The ones out strolling, sitting, cycling, frequenting theatres and clubs, sipping espressos in cafes. Because at the end of the day, any city is only as great as the people who live there.

Of course there are those that come here, and see a very different city.
The African other world. The actual numbers are unknown, as many of them have entered the country illegally and are without official papers, but there are reportedly upward of 50,000 immigrants from South Sudan, Sudan, Eritrea and the Ivory Coast. Many have fled untold horrors in their native countries, and have managed to escape danger, travel across continents, avoiding bullets along the way, until finally reaching... well let’s call it the Promised Land for want of a better name. Many are caught and are incarcerated for short periods by Israel before being eventually released and given a bus ticket to anywhere. Which normally means Tel Aviv, you know the city where they’re busy partying before the volcano erupts.   
Immigrants celebrating Seder in Tel Aviv Photo: Nathan Jeffay/The Jewish Daily Forward

When the numbers of Africans grew too big, some of the locals grew restless. Until finally, the government decided to take immediate (as usual, read “knee-jerk”) reaction, and is now repatriating as many South Sudanese as will voluntarily step forward. This Sunday, on the first plane, Israel sent some 127 back, each with $1,300 as a gift from the Israeli taxpayer (and $500 for each child). Of course, “voluntarily” can be misleading, as apparently if you don’t step forward, the authorities will track you down and send you back anyway (but without the $1,300, I imagine, and without our smiling Interior Minister waving you off from the airport tarmac). 
Now there are reportedly only 1,500 South Sudanese in Israel. In other words, to address a problem concerning 50,000 people, the government, up to its usual standard of incompetence, has taken very firm action regarding... well... 1,500 of them.

Why have the South Sudanese be singled out? Simple, because the courts said they can, because theirs is a newly independent state and “safe”ish.  

Which brings me onto a philosophical question: When times are bad, do you flee or stay?

Taking a global look, all the great countries of today have been through troubled times, revolutions, and wars, including civil wars. Britain, France, USA, Russia, Germany, Italy, Spain, have all been through awful stages in their evolution. There were times when a wrong word in the wrong ear could get your head chopped off in England or France. When innocent people were sent to labour camps in Spain, or exiled to the Gulag.

In the 2006 film The Lives of Others, a woman pokes her head around her front door in a block of flats in East Berlin and accidentally sees the Stasi putting in a wiretap in her neighbour’s flat. Eyes lock, but then she silently closes the door. To me, that sums up the fate of a country. If millions behave in that manner, then evil and dictatorship will win. I am most encouraged when I see Israelis argue with figures of authority, because that’s a country that will survive, where evil and dictatorship shall not prevail. Now I am not belittling the tragedies that occur today in many forsaken places in the world, and I’m not advocating that we send everyone back to where they came from, no matter how dangerous those places are. But I am raising a thought: that the “safe” places in the world were not made so by some heavenly decree, that the great, free, democratic countries of today are great and free not because they always were, but thanks to their people who stayed, and fought to make them so.

At the end of the 60 Minutes report, the presenter asked Yossi Vardi, the grandfather of Israeli venture capital, if he liked Tel Aviv (despite the rumblings of the volcano, imminent death etc.). He leant forward until their noses almost met. “I LOVE IT” he said.

I agree.

Wednesday 6 June 2012

But Dougal, it's not really magic, said Florence

When the traffic lights are green, what does this mean to an Israeli driver?
"Step on the gas", of course.
At least, that's the answer I got when I asked a hall full of engineering students when I recently gave a lecture on Road Design: Thinking Outside the Box.
That was quite an experience I can tell you. When I recall the lectures I attended in England way back in the previous century, I think of hundreds of students sitting in tiered lecture theatres (lovely term) hanging on to every word, as some lecturer espouses a theorem, defines a school of thought, or attempts a joke, while imparting his or her pearls of wisdom. Noticeably, other than the lecturer, the room is silent. Not one student speaks.
Now shift the camera to Israel, and zoom in on some lecture theatre, here. You'll find a very different picture. The more appropriate word that springs to mind is Interaction. Noise. Audience participation.
A new experience certainly.
So I delighted the crowd with some pearls of wisdom. On roads, and how they could be safer.

Roads are notoriously dangerous in Israel. Though now I've said it, I should qualify that.
It's all relative. Very possibly it's more dangerous crossing the road in Delhi, having to maneuver between 15 lanes of trucks, cars, buses (all belching out lethal fumes) bicycles, rickshaws, scooters, motorbikes (often carrying an entire family) and a cow or two.

When I first arrived in Israel many years ago, in my innocent stage, when everything seemed achievable, accessible, agreeable and at the same time unintelligible, I approached the Road Safety Authority. I met with the chairman and suggested, in my childish innocence, some ways of improving the design of roads in Israel. At one point, I made some comparison to England, to which he immediately bristled. He poohpoohed my suggestions. (Now, when was the last time you had a good "poohpooh"?)."Well of course," he dismissed, "England's at the top of the league in safety", as if it was ridiculous I should even mention it in the same sentence as road safety in Israel, as if the two worlds had nothing in common, and he showed me the door. But let's not be put off by his appalling attitude. (He was also little concerned over the dreadful rates of pedestrians injured or killed on the roads, and I quote him here, "Yes, but many of them are foreigners."!! This was years ago, and I'm sure his replacement has more feeling. Possibly he was replaced by a biro. Actually, the government clearly thought something was amiss as the National Road Safety has seen its budget shrink over the years)

Now back to the lecture.
You don't see many roundabouts in Israel. Certainly not on major roads, though they are popping up here and there in smaller urban intersections. Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, even Modi'in-Not-By-The-Sea has hopped on the bandwagon. This is encouraging.
Roundabouts are safer than regular junctions with traffic lights. And they're more efficient too.
How so?
Well they're more efficient in one simple way: you don't have to necessarily stop when you come to one. Slow down, certainly, but if there's no traffic around, off you go. Particularly at quieter times, traffic flows more smoothly over roundabouts. And having no traffic lights saves electricity. (Which would delight the Israel Electric Corporation, but I'm not even going to mention them this week).
And why are roundabouts safer?
Studies abroad showed that when a regular junction was replaced with a roundabout, accidents dropped by 40%, injuries fell by 80% and fatalities plummeted by over 90%.
First of all, serious accidents and injuries (including fatalities) are the result of side-on or head-on collisions. But at a roundabout, cars are never facing each other, or at right angles to each other. They merge, roughly moving off in the same direction (hopefully anti-clockwise).
But the other reason I and my enlightened Israeli students concluded was this: At a roundabout, the driver has to slow down, THINK and USE HIS/HER JUDGEMENT. So whilst the brain is in active mode, the driver is a safer driver.
At a traffic light, in contrast, the driver – in automatic mode – just watches the lights, and steps on the gas, as the students eloquently put it.

There are plenty of things in Israel that could drive you round the bend. But let's hope there'll be more reasons that will have us driving, safely, round a roundabout.

Wednesday 23 May 2012

Warm, getting warmer ... HOT

In 1937, Sheikh Mohammad Ahmed Abdel Rahim, a wealthy resident of Jaffa, commissioned a new home for him and his family in the neigbourhood of Ajami, and the architect’s brief was clear and simple: the design should respect Rahim’s way of life (which meant private ante-rooms for the women of the family, and other ante-rooms for him to hold private sessions with the many locals who came to consult with him) and secondly, it should make it clear to all from outside that “Here lives the richest man in the neighbourhood”.
And indeed it is a beautiful home. I had a private tour of this delightful International-style house just last week as part of Tel Aviv’s Open House weekend. The weekend allows the public into private homes, and behind the scenes of all sorts of weird, wonderful and architecturally interesting places.
Rahim’s home is now the home of the French ambassador to Israel. It is exquisitely maintained, and furnished in the 1930s style. As we stood there, hearing the explanation of the building from none other than the son of the architect, I certainly felt warm, and that’s because the house still refuses to employ airconditioning. Buildings in those days would have incorporated little tricks and devices to encourage a natural circulation of air, or to minimize exposure to direct sunlight. The natural breeze blowing through the delightful salon was the aircon of the day. How original. And it must surely cut down on their electricity bills.
My next visit on the Weekend for Nosey Parkers was a “green” house, i.e. one that was environmentally friendly. Also in Ajami, this house minimized direct sunlight by facing south, and, in contrast to what you would have expected from a house overlooking the sea, by having no windows looking westward, to the sea. Sunlight was however utilized to light up the basement (clever! how did they do that?), and all the shower runoff water was recycled to water the garden (which was green, flowering, and even sported a vine or two). The high ceilings and overhead fans provided some air circulation, but these were rarely used as the design of the house was such that it kept it cooler, for longer. So again, someone was enjoying lower electricity bills. (The owner actually showed us his bills to prove the point).

I'm a great fan of natural breezes. (

Is this ‘No Aircon’ status likely to catch on?
Well the Israel Electric Corporation, our monopolistic supplier of electricity, is actually encouraging us all to cut down on our aircon this summer. If you can use less electricity during the summer of 2012 than you did in 2011, you will earn yourself a discount of up to 20% off what you pay for your electricity. (Hurry, you must register by the end of the month to be eligible). Turn your aircon on later, turn it off sooner, raise the desired temp by just a tad: these are the useful tidbits of advice from the IEC. But why are they doing this? For our health, bless ‘em? I don’t think so. To help the environment? To help the what?! No, there’s a far simpler reason. The country simply doesn’t have enough electricity!
The all-knowing, all-super IEC is deeply worried that it’s going to run out of electricity one hot day this summer. It simply cannot produce enough electricity to satisfy all the demand around the country. Electricity cannot be stored, so all electricity suppliers across the globe have to be ready at all times. But there’s no point in spending billions on having enough capacity to generate 100 kWh if demand is only for 20. And worse still would be to be in a position to supply just 20, when the country demands 100. So a well managed business would work out just the right balance: investing enough on a “regular” supply capacity, with just the right amount beyond this that would mean it’s ready “just in case”. (Oh look, I managed to get the phrase “well managed business” in the same paragraph as “the Israel Electric Corporation”. I should get a Pulitzer prize for that, surely)
Well the IEC hasn’t quite worked out that “just in case” element. So one day in the summer of 2012, someone somewhere in Israel will turn on a kettle and KABOOM, the whole neighbourhood, town or city will find itself in the dark. We’ll be left with half-ironed shirts and half-cooked buns in the oven.
A well managed electricity supplier would be ready for such an event, but the IEC, instead of planning years ahead, and making the extraordinarily large investments necessary, is instead going for the “You, hey you with the funny haircut, Cut down on your electricity use!” approach.

Now some people like to take a bash at the IEC, but I’m not one of them. You could hold me down and threaten to tickle me, and I still won’t be drawn into that populistic sport. Let others bash it, but not me.
In fact, this week, the Nameless Inefficient Committee of Mostly Politicians or Other Obsolete Penpushers, or NINCOMPOOP for short did just that. The committee (its proper name is the Public Utility Authority: Electricity) rapped the IEC's knuckles very very hard for signing an exclusive gas-supply contract with the Tamar partnership. The IEC had signed a long-term contract with Tamar, which also happens to be a monopoly, with no thought that in the future it would be able to get a better deal, at lower prices. No, instead it had happily signed the contract which, at the end of the day, would mean higher prices for... yes, you guessed it, Jo Shmo. That's you. But I hope this doesn't get you all hot and bothered, because if it does, and you're minded to turn on a fan... oh, voy, voy, we could all go KABOOM.