Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Yom ha-Shoah in Tel Aviv

Tonight is the beginning of Yom ha-Shoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. So how are Tel Avivis marking the occasion? Well, tonight there is a soccer game between Chelsea and Liverpool for the Championshp League finals. Israel's national soccer hero, Yosi Benayoun, plays for Liverpool, and Israelis have been devoted Liverpool supporters since he came on board in 2005. But now Chelsea is coached by Avram Grant, Israel's greatest living coach. Israelis are beside themselves trying to figure out who they want to win. Of course, the Israeli TV stations are pumping out nothing but sad Holocaust-related shows tonight. So what to do? Tune in to a German cable channel, and watch the game either at the pub or more respectfully, at home. GOOOOOOAL!

Monday, April 14, 2008

Sderot: Rocket Town

Below are a few pictures from a quick Saturday visit I took with Hannah to Sderot, the southern Israeli town that has been hammered for years by small-warhead missile fire from Gaza. The missiles, called Qassem, after the legendary Muslim Brotherhood guerilla fighter Izz ad-Din al-Qassem, pack around 10 lb. charges. Sderot is becoming a standard stop for VIPs and foreign tourists. John McCain passed through a few weeks ago. Former US President Jimmy Carter visited Sderot today, another stop on his 9-day tour of the region. He was snubbed here by the Israeli PM and FM (she was in Qatar of all places), but did meet with President Peres.

Sderot is a mere 50 minute drive down Route 4 from Tel Aviv. As we passed by Ashqelon, we could spot in the sky the floating dirigible set over the northern Gaza strip and used by the IDF to give the earliest possible warning of a rocket launch, and help identify launching sites (it is the tiny dot in the middle of the sky). The town of Sderot is now dotted with newly installed on-street reinforced shelters. With a large religious contingent in the town of 20,000, there wasn't much happening on a Saturday afternoon. Even though the day before the IDF had made a ground incursion into Gaza, killing 8, there was no missile attack on Saturday or through today.

Driving on a residential street, we thought we had come across a home ruined by rocket fire. It wasn't, but a local resident steered us to the real deal. We also saw not a few "For Sale" signs in front of intact homes. Reports state that as many as 20% of the population have left the town.

Yom ha-Yayyin: Sideways in Judea

It started when I suggested in my naivete that we might go to the Golan Heights to tour the wineries up there. After all, in my American ignorance, the Golan Heights was supposedly the premiere wine growing country for the better class of wines. What little do I know! My buddy politely scoffed at the notion of a trip to the Golan, and counter-offered a trip to the Judean Hills, the rugged land west of Jerusalem that was always part of even pre-1967 Israel. He mentioned some labels I had never heard of. But I figured: when in Rome...

Thanks to our relation & friend Rafi, a comfortable schedule of 3 vineyards was set for April 14. And so this morning off we went, visiting the Ella Valley Vineyard located in the farming community Netiv Ha'lamed He; Clos de Gat, on the edge of Kibbutz Har'el; and finally Domaine du Castel in Ramat Raziel. Producing annually anywhere between 50,000-200,000 bottles, I am not sure you can call them boutique vineyards, but they are small. And they are worth the visit. The most prominent is probably Castel, which had a recent write-up in The Wall Street Journal, and whose 2004 Grand Vin received a 92 from Robert Parker (I bought 2 bottles of the 2005). Each of the vineyards presented for leisurely tastings complex reds and surprisingly good whites. All 3 cellars use French oak barrels, and show the definite influence of French production techniques. One of the wineries, Clos de Gat, doesn't even bother with kashrut. We timed this trip perfectly, and it promises to be one hell of a luxuriant seder this year!

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Dreams of My (Fore)fathers

In the literary review section of today's Haaretz is a full-page ad for a book I haven't yet seen in the stores, so this is the first formal announcement.
Update, April 12: My colleague Mark Silk, who seems to be quite taken with the Obomster, sent me a link to a Hebrew language Israeli blog apparently set up to support Barack Obama. I'd certainly call that outspending Hillary! Based on the comments, I'd say it isn't money well spent.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Plea Bargain? I Don't Need No Stinking Plea Bargain!

He fought and fought and fought. He stalled and stalled and stalled. Having been confronted with unassailable testimony from his several victims, former Israeli President Moshe Katzav agreed to resign the presidency and accept a plea bargain last year (I mentioned this as it was initially developing in a blog entry almost 2 years ago) for lesser charges than the rape he was accused of committing. In one of the more laughable and pathetic media performances ever given up by a political figure, Katzav took the defiant tack in an infamous press conference in January, 2007, even as he accepted the plea.

After over a week's delay, Katzav finally was to appear in court today to admit to guilt on lesser charges according to the plea agreement. Guess what? He showed up in court and announced he was rejecting the plea bargain which he and his lawyers agreed to back in late June, 2007. Defiant to the end, he'd rather fight the specific charges that he serially raped exposed his gentials to female workers in his office while he was Minister of Tourism, and treated one of his secretaries as a "sex slave" in exchange for promotions. Now all these charges will have to be re-examined by state prosecutors, and the public will be treated to a miserable judicial farce that should have ended long ago.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Israel: Dysfunctional Tax Code Revolutionized

It has been part of the US tax code for over 50 years: the child care tax deduction. But in Israel, it has never existed, and has crippled Israeli productivity by forcing 2-income families to pay onerous sums, oftentimes in the underground economy, to child care providers, with no compensation for the expense. But yesterday, in Tel Aviv district court, a judge ruled in favor of a suit filed by working mom Vered Pery against Israel's Tax Authority (the equivalent of the American IRS). With this single judicial ruling, a social revolution has taken place overnight. For in one fell swoop, the Tel Aviv court has declared that deducting child care expenses for working parents is now the law. While in the past the Israeli government had provided some subsidies and credits for working mothers, there has been no recognition of the problem as a professional employment expense. With yesterday's ruling, Israel's workforce dynamics have been radically altered.

This ruling also highlights some points made in this week's The Economist, the British newsweekly which devoted a special 14-page survey this week to Israel, which I recommend as essential reading for anyone who is interested in understanding current economic and social trends in the Jewish state. In its leader, The Economist describes Israel as "the dysfunctional Jewish state," and it is hard to argue with that snap characterization. There are lots of things that are working well in Israel in 2008, but there are lots of things on the verge of going wrong. So it has always been. Is the cup half empty or the cup half full? A decade ago, I made fun of the contradictions in Israeli culture with my sabra friends by jokingly referring to Israel as "Bangladesh" -- by which I meant to point out the ridiculous irony of the ultra-modern gleaming skyscrapers looming over the horse-drawn carts, all on the same street. A decade later, as I walk down a suburban street and steal WiFi from a half dozen homes, and the gleaming skyscrapers are no longer accompanied by mule drawn carts, I have to admit that the Bangladesh joke is no longer valid. But, as The Economist points out, in the last decade there has been no real move from poverty to the middle class, the education system is failing to produce a new generation of bright and productive citizens, and public R&D and investment in higher education has been virtually non-existent. Most telling for me was The Economist's description of Israel's current technological expansion as essentially a one-time boomlet tied exclusively to digital signal processing and broadband applications. In the near future, the global internet infrastructure will be essentially finished and built. While it was going up, Israel was a leading force, but this was because these communications technologies were something that the Israeli military desperately needed, and therefore invested in heavily. (Some of Israel's most succesful public hi-tech companies were spin-offs from the military-technological labs.) After this i-infrastructure is built, Israel will prove to have little to offer in the way of the next wave of high technology startups.

In other words, Israel's 2nd hi-tech bubble will soon burst. So says The Economist. Read it for yourself.