Wednesday 29 February 2012

This is something up with which I shall not put

Which is the 57th highest ranked university in the world? Of course, we can all rattle off the top 35, but then it begins to get harder, doesn’t it? Well, the 57th top university is in fact the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Alumni (that’s Latin for "graduates") include Meir Shamgar, Sayed Kashua and Ada Yonath.
Now you're asking exactly what I asked too: How on earth do they rank a university? Is it by the quality of the sausage rolls served in the canteen? Or the fashionableness of the tassles on the caps of the post-graduates?
[Apparently it's based on how often their staff and alumni get articles published, and how many Nobel prizes they can snap up, if you really wanted to know.]
The Hebrew University held its ground-breaking ceremony way back in 1921. All the glitterati were there, all in their long coats, funny hats, round glasses, and inappropriate dress for the baking hot Middle East. Being in the inter-war period when Britain ran Palestine (as it was then) top Brits were invited too. Among these was the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, who had come out especially from London. He was an impeccably dressed, well-spoken young man, son of a British duke and an American socialite. His visit to the country made a very great impression on him. He was convinced that some modern miracle was in play, as the "children of the prophets," as he called them, made the deserts bloom and the modern state of Israel come into being.
Maybe he took something of the frontier spirit back with him to Britain. The young Secretary of State for the Colonies went on to further his political career, and, after switching parties, he became a cabinet minister and eventually Prime Minister. You may have heard of him. His name was Winston Churchill.
Inspired by him, some Israelis recently established the Churchill Society of Israel. Yes, only 91 years after his visit to the country, a society has been set up in Winston’s honour. Bear in mind that this is a country where 91 minutes after a visit from a Israeli cabinet minister, not even a folding chair would be set up in his honour. So that's some achievement. But then again, Winston was some man.

(Photo: Opening ceremony of the Hebrew University, 1925. Copyright 2009
The society, so it says on the packet, is to "foster leadership, vision and courage in Israeli society through the promotion of Winston Churchill's thoughts, words, and deeds." Apparently the tenets of Churchill's life--freedom, democracy, responsibility and Western civilization--are shared by society in Israel, though they could do with a gentle nudge now and again, which is where the society hopes to come into play.
But before they go swanning round the county teaching Israeli children how important it is to smoke cigars, throw themselves into wars fought half away across the globe, and try to get themselves captured for the sake of good copy, maybe we could draw some other significant lessons from Churchill's life.
Pay up or I'll…
When Churchill first became a member of parliament in 1900, politicians’ pay was zero. That's it, nothing. Bubkes. Bear in mind that Britain was arguably the richest nation in the world, and at the time, teachers in Britain were earning about £150 a year.
Let's compare that to our members of Knesset. A fresh, inexperienced politician in Israel today receives a monthly salary of NIS 36,000, that's over four times the average wage, which may be why they cannot begin to comprehend what crosses the minds of the ordinary taxpayer.
A little aside for a rainy day…
Churchill was prime minister twice, retiring in 1955, after four years in his second stint. He was 81 by this time. So what pension did he get, the man widely regarded as the country’s finest statesman? Again, nothing. In fact to support him in his final years, his friends clubbed together, bought his home and let him live there (rent free, how jolly decent of them) until his death.
Now compare that to the fat pensions we pay our politicians, including former cabinet minister and disgraced former president, Moshe Katsav. Why don’t you send him a letter complaining? (Address: Maasiyahu Prison, Ramla, Israel).
Defeated, but not down  
Israel does not have a constituency-based electoral system, and so politicians need only bribe, sorry, network within their own party to ensure a "safe" position on the party list. They then sit back and let the party stand or fall. There is no concept of personal responsibility.
Now look at Churchill’s example of personal responsibility and tenacity. As a youth, he failed to get accepted into Harrow school, twice. When he first stood for parliament in 1899, he lost. When he finally won, and still a sitting politician, his own local party deselected him (in other words, his own party told him they’d chosen a different candidate for that constituency at the next election).
He found another constituency, Dundee, but again, in 1922, he failed to be chosen as his party’s candidate.
He stood for parliament in Leicester. He failed.
He never gave up. Eventually he climbed up through all the political ranks until finally making it to Prime Minister. But in 1945, after the Second World War, he lost the election.
It is an incredible story of a man’s career. And yet in Israel a politician is never required to stand for an election based on the individual. It is the political party that carries the can. Knesset lacks outstanding parliamentarians and statesmen, maybe because they are not required to undergo personal scrutiny or constituency-based elections.
In the words of Winston Churchill (referring to the oddity of ending a sentence with a preposition), this is something up with which I shall not put.

Wednesday 15 February 2012

Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side?

The three-day country-wide strike came to an end and all sides seemed happy. It was an historic achievement. It had highlighted solidarity of “strong workers with the weak” (quote by Histadrut Labor Federation chairman Ofer Eini), while the Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz had demonstrated “social sensitivity” (Eini, again) in the all-night discussions. The cost may ultimately have been great “but we are happy to pay it”, said Steinitz at the press conference. Smiles all round. I came over so warm and cuddly, I almost plotzed.

But could you, in no more than three rhyming couplets, tell me what the strike was about or what it actually achieved?

It was all about workers at the bottom of the rung, one could say; subcontracted workers. These are the ones that an employer (bank, government ministry, hospital, factory, even school, hostel, nursing facility) employs, instead of a permanent, fixed employee, because it’s simply cheaper for them. The employer approaches an employment agency, and in piecemeal fashion, asks for "Two nurses for three months, please. With chips, and go easy on the mayo."
This is becoming more and more prevalent throughout the country. Their pay is usually lower than those they work alongside. They do not enjoy job security. Their employers (technically, the manpower agencies) do not normally offer them pensions, nor other employment benefits, such as end-of-year bonuses or holiday gifts, or contributions to hishtalmut funds (tax-free employer saving plans).
And union boss Eini took advantage of fairly widespread sympathy for such workers when he rallied his troops, and shut the country down. He drew up a list of demands, which he'd only thought of last Tuesday though the trend of outsourcing has been growing for years. He called for scrapping the whole idea of subcontracted workers, bringing them into the permanent worker fold, and most importantly, he demanded they all be given the same gifts that their permanent work colleagues get every Rosh Hashana (New Year) and Pesach (Passover). Finance Minister Steinitz refused to accede to these demands. So the strike began.
There were no trains; there were no ships coming in or out of the country, in an economy that relies almost entirely on shipping for its exports and imports as we don't go in for much trade with our immediate neighbours for some reason, I can't for the moment remember why; mountains of uncollected rubbish piled up in the streets; Ben Gurion Airport froze all take-offs for one morning; and ATMs began to run out of cash (bank workers, bless their little cotton socks, came out in sympathy too).
The routine of millions was disrupted. Journeys were canceled. The cost to the economy was enormous.
It took two days and a marathon all-night session, until agreement was reached. By Sunday morning the strike was over, all sides were delighted. Eini praised the public for understanding that it was all for "social justice".

(Photo: nrg Maariv)
What tosh and bunkum.
Eini has a dream.
He has a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of the Histadrut's creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all public sector workers [but only public sector workers] are created equal." The labor federation in Israel, rather than rising historically from the downtrodden poor workers of society, is all about maintaining the incredibly cushy number of those in the public sector, who enjoy tenure (you can never sack them), salaries in excess of their true worth, and who look forward to bloated and, in some cases, "free" [i.e. non-contributory] pensions. The more workers he can get to join those sullied ranks, the stronger his position.
While the final agreement saw barely 600 subcontracted workers become permanent staffers, many more will find their wages and benefits linked to those in the public sector. And linkage is vitally important. If thousands of workers have terms of employment that are connected in some way to the sector that Eini controls, then this is all that matters.
So what happened to the poorly paid cleaners and security guards and bank tellers in the private sector? Well, yes, they’re sort of vaguely mentioned in the agreement. But please stop trying to change the subject.
Interestingly one of the “major” points was that the government agreed to employ a further 150 inspectors to ensure that the laws on subcontracted workers are enforced. How surreal. The public sector goes on strike to force the government to agree to enforce its own laws! Whatever next? Children going on strike to force their parents to feed them more green vegetables and less of the ice cream and chocolate, if you please?

A word about Steinitz, who caved in after two days, welcoming the extra cost of millions to the public purse: “Israel is the only country in the west that is making such a reparation, strengthening the weakest workers at this time.”
He should take a closer look at Greece. Despite violent protests, thousands on strike, and incendiary street battles, the Greek parliament this week passed what it considered to be the necessary, painful medication for a very sick economy: It cut 300 billion euro from public pensions, and plans to lay off some 150,000 public sector workers.
But Steinitz and Eini can hold their heads up high, for they know that when the going gets tough, the tough know what really justifies an all-out strike. They can pat themselves on the back, declaring that several hundred subcontracted workers in Israel will, come next Pesach, get that all-important bottle of wine and large box of chocolates.

Wednesday 1 February 2012

The shopping may have ended, but something lingers on...

What is it about the fresh produce markets of Israel that makes me go back there week after week, come rain or shine? Am I attached to the market by elastic, unable to completely cut myself off? Is it the freshness of the produce - chickens that were still having breakfast not half an hour before I arrived? Could it be the camaraderie, the same cheerful faces that greet me each week? Or is it the stallholders’ friendly banter, and their inexhaustible knowledge, evident as they freely dish out their well-tried recipes for ragu alla napoletana, or olive tapenade?
Well, I may be exaggerating, but you just can’t beat those markets: from the veteran Shuk Hacarmel, and Jerusalem’s ever popular Machane Yehuda, to the more ethnic Shuk Hatikva. Now Tel Aviv has a newcomer, Shuk Hanamal. It's indoors, clean and modern, European and nouveau-riche. Some could accuse it of being too faltzani (פלצני - pompous), a local take on the Boqueria in Barcelona.
But these markets are indeed wonderful. On busy days, they’re heaving, noisy, and fun--far more so than your antiseptic supermarkets--and, thanks to heavy tax and import restrictions, they mostly sell Israeli-grown fruit and veg, hence the seasonality. None of these all-year-round pineapples and artichokes that you find incongruously on sale in Sainsbury’s, mid-winter, on the edge of the Pennines. In Israeli markets, summer means a plethora of peaches, plums, mangoes and apricots, while winter abounds with grapefruits, oranges, tangerines and strawberries. You're as likely to come across a watermelon in winter in the market as you are to find someone saying "Oh, I'm ever so sorry for bumping into you".
(By the way strawberries are winter fruits in Israel; they’re summer fruits in England, don’t you know).
Shuk Hacarmel, the largest, has been going strong since the 1920s. Shuk Hatikva, recently and sensitively renovated, is more spacious, and more comfortable to stroll through, though I find it has a more limited variety of products. The new market in Namal Tel Aviv is another kettle of fish entirely. Or another tureen of boillabaisse, as they would probably say there. It’s a culinary journey through the hills of Tuscany, the vineyards of the Golan, and the smoking kilns of Scandinavia, bypassing most of the Gush Dan region, if at all possible. It smacks of European chic, and in a nutshell, is delightful. On Fridays it expands, and outside includes a Farmer’s Market too, offering a smorgasbord of organic produce at prices that would make you weep before you’ve even started peeling your onions.

So where’s the rub? I hear you ask, in Hamlet’s words. How can it be that I’ve got nothing but compliments to dish out in this post? Have I changed my medication? Am I in love? Have I been accepting unmarked brown envelopes from the city council? (Halevai! They know where I live, but I’m still waiting...)
The rub is plastic bags.
Yes, we in Israel are deluged by plastic bags. In a bustling outdoor market one sees literally thousands of plastic bags being bandied about, when the rest of the enlightened world has moved on, having become more attuned to their inherent dangers. Research undertaken at the Technion concluded that Israelis use 5 billion plastic bags a year. Five billion! I’m gobsmacked! (There, that should confuse the Americans among you. Go figure!). These bags are environmentally unfriendly, taking over 400 years to biodegrade, and they can endanger wildlife, particularly sea animals if dumped into the oceans. In some parts of the world, consumers are now more aware of such negative environmental impact, and have switched to biodegradable. Legislation and consumer action have had drastic effects, whilst here in backwater Israel, even in the ever-so-chic and high-tech city of Tel Aviv, one is still dependent on the omnipresent plastic. Surely one day these markets will wake up, and with an eye to the enlightened consumer, they’ll wrap up your purchases in yesterday’s newspapers.
I’m sure my local grocer considers me a recently arrived alien from Mars, as I invariably insist on not requiring a plastic bag with every purchase. I can quite easily carry the cornflakes and the milk home in my arms, thank you. He always smiles at me, amused. These English, he’s clearly thinking, they have the oddest behaviour, I wouldn’t be surprised if they add milk to their tea.