Oct 1 2009

Tel Aviv’s centennial is Zionism’s triumph

Tel Aviv (photo: Deror Avi)

Tel Aviv (photo: Deror Avi)

“There are prettier ones”, wrote once the Israeli poet Nathan Alterman about the city of Tel Aviv, “but none share its beauty”. Just like a child that is loved and cherished by his parents simply because he is their own creation, even if another boy might be taller or somewhat faster, so was Tel Aviv held dear by the poet who emigrated from Poland in 1925, simply because it was his own city, where he was neither a stranger nor a second rate citizen.

As its citizens now celebrate the 100th birthday, Tel Aviv still fulfils this same purpose of allowing the Jews a place of their own, a city where they can once and for all govern themselves and in which they can take pride. Indeed, Tel Aviv’s leafy boulevards and trendy bars are a reminder of how successful the Zionist movement is, and how well it achieved its main goal, which is a descent and honourable life for the Jews.

Consider this: after 2,000 years that Jews have not built a city, 66 families assembled on bare dunes just north of the mostly Arab port city of Jaffa. That was 1909, just 100 years ago, and the wandering Jew decided to build upon the wandering sands a permanent dwelling. By 1920 Tel Aviv had 2,000 inhabitants, by 1924 almost 20,000, and by 1925 – 40,000. Nowadays it’s a bustling hub with a population of more than a million in its metropolitan area.

As an act of defiance to 2,000 years of tradition, Tel Aviv’s founding fathers placed at the heart of their new community a secular educational institution instead of a synagogue. At the Herzliya Gymnasium, named after Theodor Herzl, students would learn for the first time in Hebrew, not in Yiddish or in any other European language.

This Promethean deed was only the first in a series that would position Tel Aviv at the heart of the modern and secular Zionist revolution. “The first Hebrew city”, as it is called, came to symbolize Zionism’s break with the past, and its rejection of any kind of ghetto-like circumscription. Indeed it was a choice – a choice to break with the Eastern European shtetl in favour of liberal and modern ideas.

Jerusalem is of course Israel’s capital. It is also the historic, religious and emotional centre of the Jewish world. But had it not been for Tel Aviv, Israel wouldn’t have been such a modern, liberal and western country. If Jerusalem stands for the past, with its solid rocks and tense emotions, Tel Aviv stands for the future, with its Mediterranean climate and optimistic easygoingness. Sir Patrick Geddes, the Scottish urban planner responsible for Tel Aviv’s master plan, said back in the 1920′s that it is a Jewish city that really lives, free of inhibitions felt so often in Jerusalem.

It is in Tel Aviv that finance and commerce take place. It is Tel Aviv that artists, musicians and actors flock to. It is in Tel Aviv where the four largest newspapers are located, and two of the largest universities, not to mention innumerous schools, galleries and art venues – all of which operate in Hebrew.

Not that it’s always an easy city. Patience, for example, is a commodity on demand: a shrewd observer once suggested defining the shortest unit of time as the splits of seconds it takes a driver in Tel Aviv to blow his horn when a red traffic light turns to green. And everyone has something to say – that’s why the main square of Tel Aviv turned quickly into a debating platform, where week after week rightists, leftists, pacifists, atheists and you name it, come to demonstrate, voice their opinions and share their aspirations.

It is by far the most plural and open city in Israel, not to mention the whole Middle East. In the late 19th century, when author Elhanan Levinsky wrote in his utopian novel that in the first Hebrew city “no one will ask you who you are, what your business is, and from where and to where you are going”, he couldn’t have envisaged that one day gay and lesbian Palestinians will find refuge in Tel Aviv. But they do, because they feel safer there than in their traditional and repressive environment.

Drive in its streets at 2am in the morning on a given Thursday night, and you’ll find yourself in traffic jams more often seen in London or New York during rush hours. You’ll see old people and young, dark-skinned and blonde, elegantly dressed and trashy.

Just a few days ago, while walking a Tel Aviv street at night-time, I have seen a typical view of this mixed and vibrant city: young people crowded the pavements, drinking cava. Above their heads were suspended posters of American President Barack Obama. Large garbage cans were leaning against the display window of a “Caucasian Coffeehouse” (whatever that means).

This chaos reverberates the words of the first city engineer, Yehuda Megidovitz, who used to say: “First you build, then you do the measurements”. But it is exactly this pandemonium that gives Tel Aviv its irresistible charm – the feeling that whoever you are, you’ll find your place there.

The whole point of the Zionist movement was to find a place for the Jewish people and to bring it back to life through a concrete geographical space. No other place does this better than the city of Tel Aviv, which might be called the capital of Zionism. Its 100th birthday should be seen as the clearest proof for Zionism’s triumph.

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Sep 28 2009

Now it’s serious

Have the latest revelations about a secret uranium-enrichment plant made an Israeli attack in Iran more probable, imminent even? Not necessarily. Such a plant might indeed mean that Iran is getting ever closer to obtaining nuclear weapons. But since all indications are that the Israeli intelligence already knew about this plant a couple of months ago, the genuinely significant development, in Israeli eyes, is Barack Obama’s, Gordon Brown’s and Nicolas Sarkozy’s signalling that this time they really mean business when it comes to the Iranian regime.

Nicolas Sarkozy (photo: Elysée Palace)

Nicolas Sarkozy in Pittsburgh (photo: Elysée Palace)

For years, Israeli officials have argued that an Iranian nuclear bomb is not like any other country’s nuclear bomb. According to most Middle Eastern analysts – Israeli, Arab and western – Iran’s official attempts to export the Islamic Revolution around the region have turned it into a source of great instability. Taking into account Israel’s tiny territory (75 times smaller than Iran’s), and the latter’s open and ongoing threats to “wipe Israel off the map”, it is not surprising that Israel considers a Iranian nuclear bomb as such a paramount concern.

As the months and years have gone by, the international community’s response to Iran’s nuclear project has seemed hesitant and slow. A fragmented Security Council, unfinished wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the American intelligence failure leading up to the Iraq war, have repeatedly let Iran off the hook. Despite a few rounds of sanctions, Iranian leaders have sounded defiant as ever, firm in their quest to achieve nuclear capabilities.

And Israel has felt more and more cornered, with no real alternative but to act independently. While for most countries around the world believe that an Iranian nuclear bomb might pose theoretical questions about the effectiveness of the non-proliferation regime, for Israel it’s a question of life and death.

“This latest disclosure shows that the Israeli assessments were right,” says Avner Cohen, a University of Maryland professor and author of the book Israel and the Bomb. “The Israeli intelligence did not believe the American assessment of 2007, according to which Iran had halted its nuclear programme. Now it appears that Israel wasn’t just pessimistic or war-mongering. It is a game-changer as to future negotiations with Iran, especially those that will start just this coming Thursday [Group of Six meeting with Iran in Geneva].”

Therefore, Israel had been encouraged to see a decisive Obama and a grumpier-than-ever Sarkozy in Pittsburgh. An international commitment vis-à-vis Iran will probably yield better results than any other possibility, given the carrots and sticks Iran’s trading partners can offer and the difficulties in carrying out any military action. This is why ex-prime minister Ariel Sharon’s attitude was that Israel has to keep a low profile in matters concerning Iran.

So now the ball is again in the international community’s court. It remains to be seen if this is a serious attempt to solve the problem or just another photo-op. The EU, after all, is still Iran’s largest trading partner (with $25bn worth of trade in 2008). Maybe instead of waiting for Chinese approval of new sanctions, Germany, Italy, France and other European countries should start by giving their own example.

(Originally published in Monocle, September 28th 2009)

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Sep 24 2009

Crisis? What crisis?

The somewhat odd celebrations on the first birthday of the financial crisis offered much remorse and only dim rays of hope. Standing in stark contrast, though, was the Israeli version of that anniversary, marked mainly by the feeling that the worst is already behind us, and that actually it wasn’t that bad.

Israeli New Shekels

Israeli New Shekels

This week, UBS joined Morgan Stanley and Barclays Capital in projecting positive growth of 0.3 per cent for the Israeli economy this year. According to The Economist, this will make Israel the only developed economy in the world with a positive growth rate in 2009.

Earlier this month, Moody’s Investor Services concluded that Israel’s recession appears to be over, while HSBC economists wrote that Israel had shown “tremendous resilience to the global recession”. In August, Bank of Israel governor Stanley Fischer was the first among his colleagues in the West to raise the interest rate, thus proclaiming an end to the recession.

So what went so (relatively) well here?
First of all, Israel entered the crisis in a very different situation to others: with no toxic bank assets and no property bubble. Israeli banks have traditionally been conservative lenders, and “sophisticated” financial tools were far less in use. Public and private levels of indebtedness were also very low.

Crisis did hit eventually, exports shrank and around 2 per cent of the workforce (more than 60,000 people) joined the ranks of the unemployed – the rate now stands at 7.9 per cent.

The big star of the crisis is no doubt Mr Fischer, who took a few resolute steps. He cut interest rates, bought government bonds and spent some 100bn shekels (€18bn) to buy dollars in order to help exporters.

But it seems that his most useful asset as the crisis unfolded was his leadership skills, and his ability to “speak softly and carry a big stick”. On the one hand, he was much more visible than usual, sending the market and the citizens a clear message that someone’s taking care of things. On the other hand, he reiterated time and again his refusal to spend public money in order to bail out companies.

Another important lesson is the advantage of being small. Dan Catarivas, director of foreign trade at the Israeli Manufacturers Association, says that Israeli companies were very flexible this year, and managed to shift their activities to markets with high demands. “Israeli companies are no General Motors,” he says, “and they can easily shift from providing services to the car industry, for example, to selling components to electronic goods manufacturers.”

Israel, of course, is not comparable to the big players, but rather to medium-sized economies, such as Hungary, Greece, Portugal and the Czech Republic. In the Israeli case, the crisis showed that it’s sometimes easier to navigate a small speedboat than a huge aircraft carrier.

(Published originally in Monocle, September 24th 2009)

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Aug 27 2009

On journalism and organ donations

The Swedish daily Aftonbladet has set last week new journalistic standards by publishing a story about IDF soldiers harvesting organs from Palestinians. Editor in chief Jan Helin admitted that his newspaper ran the story with no evidence whatsoever.

Palestinian woman giving birth in Barzilai hospital (photo: Edi Israel)

Palestinian woman giving birth in Ashkelon (photo: Edi Israel)

But the thing is that there is evidence. Actually, a lot of evidences. They just point to a totally different story.

From information I gathered in the last couple of days, it emerges that dozens if not hundreds of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza are being treated daily in Israeli hospitals. Most of them are not casualties of the conflict, just patients in need for care.

Barzilai hospital in Ashkelon, for example, just 12km north of the border with Gaza, treated more than 400 Palestinians in 2008. The city of Ashkelon was hit many times by rockets coming from Gaza in the last war with Hamas in January 2009.

Barzilai’s spokesperson, Lea Malul, said that since January 2009, the number of Palestinian patients has dwindled significantly, due to Hamas authorities’ refusal to let patients go to Israeli hospitals. Malul said that right after the war, teams from Barzilai opened a medical clinic on the border, but they were sitting idle – again, because of Hamas’ refusal to let Palestinians leave Gaza for medical care in Israel.

Sourasky hospital in Tel Aviv treats 30-50 Palestinians daily, according to spokesperson Aviva Shemer.

Sheba hospital in Tel Hashomer (near Tel Aviv) treats daily a few dozens Palestinians. Sheba spokesperson Amir Marom said that 25 Palestinian children are currently being treated for chronic and severe diseases such as cancer. This week, a Palestinian woman went through a procedure of taking her cord blood in order to save the life of her child.

Palestinians are being treated regularly in other hospitals, such as Soroka in Beer Sheeba (also targeted with rockets in the last war), Hadassah in Jerusalem and Beilinson near Tel Aviv.

I also approached The Israeli National Transplant Unit. They said that in the last 5 years at least 2 Palestinians from the territories were cured thanks to Israeli donors – one was a case of a boy who received a lung, and the other was a case of a girl who received a kidney. They said that cases of donations inside Israel between Jews and Arabs are too numerous to count.


Aug 9 2009

How did Israel stop being a free country (update)

On July 30th I published an investigation into a report made by Freedom House about the freedom of the press in Israel.

In response to this publication, Freedom House notified me that the report, sent to me by them on July 14th (to view it click here), was a draft report. They attached a new and revised report (to view it click here), which is somewhat shorter and has the following changes:

1. All references to self censorship by Israeli journalists were omitted.

2. The reference to media outlets, which during the Gaza conflict “fed popular sentiment and prioritized nationalistic themes” was omitted.

3. The story of RAM FM, “a pro-peace radio station” that was closed by the Israeli police, was omitted.

4. The reference to the Israeli government, who “ignored the High Court ruling”, was omitted.

In addition to these, many wordings were softened so as to be less aggressive towards the State of Israel.

Nonetheless, the score of Israel on the Freedom of the Press Index (31) and its definition (“partially free”) did not change.

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