Business,Life

Audited

Fortunately we don't have to file taxes as in this picture from 1920 in the U.S.

For the 17 years that we have lived in Israel, we have been boy scouts when it comes to paying our U.S. taxes. We file our 1040s dutifully, even though there is rarely any tax to pay (we pay our 45% pound of flesh to the Israeli authorities and then the double taxation treaty with the U.S. keeps us in the clear).

That doesn’t mean it’s easy: this last year we became aware that we’d never filed two forms – one for foreign owned businesses (I have one) and the other a declaration of most of our personal assets. Neither have any tax implications – they’re for information only – but failure to file carries a $10,000/year penalty. It cost a small fortune to get into compliance – and even that wasn’t a sure thing.

So when I received a thick envelope from the IRS (the U.S. Internal Revenue Service) yesterday, my heart started to pound. If it was just a statement of acceptance – or even a refund! – that would have been a one-pager.

We were being audited.

The letter tried to reassure us that it was probably just a random selection and in all likelihood we’d be fine. There was no mention of the two forms I’d filed late, which was a relief. But it summoned us to an examination by telephone, which would probably take “two hours,” it said. We would also have to send in advance a vast number of documents – bank statements, checks, proof that our children were dependents during the period for which we were being audited – all in English.

Our bank statements, invoices and receipts are in Hebrew of course. The letter said these would all need to be re-written by a “certified” translator, one with an Internet site to verify his or her credentials (and prices). No Hebrew speaking buddy would be accepted. Thankfully, there was no requirement for notification, which can run a good $100 per page.

I was audited a couple of years back by the Israeli tax office. They sent two women to my home office and grilled me over my business expenses. I had to call my accountant several times during the examination in order not to make a costly gaffe with my spotty Hebrew. In that case, my file was closed and I was off the hook. Hopefully it will be the same way this time.

Have you ever been audited by the IRS? I would love to hear about your experience. Please leave your comments on this blog.

Emek Tzurim Park: a hidden treasure in Jerusalem

The beginning point of Emek Tzurim

File this one in the “who knew?” department.

During the intermediary days of Passover, my wife and I had the opportunity to join a guided tour through the Tzurim Valley that begins at the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University and ends at the Dung Gate entrance to the Old City, opposite the Western Wall. The route – more an easy walk than a hike – includes so many surprises, that it’s a wonder it isn’t on everyone’s Israeli traveling agenda (we’d never even heard of it).

Surprise number one: there is a blue and white marked trail that leads through a mostly untouched, Judean valley full of olive, oak and “Judas” trees and, at this time of year, red poppies and lots of greenery – not what you’d expect in the heart of East Jerusalem with its ever-present view of the glinting gold Dome of the Rock.

The trail leads past a “sifting tent” where rubble from the excavation of the Solomon’s Stables area of the Temple Mount has been transported to allow visitors to try their hand at archaeology-made-simple. Work by the Islamic Wakf to build a mosque where the Biblical-era Stables once stood caused an outcry in the archaeology community when the remains – full of Second Temple treasures – was found dumped outside the Old City walls.

In the sifting tent, the dirt is placed into raised containers to make it easier for families (there were many children) to poke through. We didn’t try our hand…there was much more to see.

Surprise number two: there is a gorgeous park situated midway along the path named after early Mormon leader, Orson Hyde, and built as part of the mid-1980’s deal that allowed for the creation of the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies. A perfect place for picnicking, the park is large, lush and mostly deserted. Perhaps I shouldn’t have told you that.

Descending out of Tzurim Valley (a National Park since 1988) and into the Kidron Valley, we reached the Gethsemane Church and its adjacent gardens. The gardens are open free of charge from 9:00 AM – noon and then again from 2:00 PM until the sun sets.

Zechariah's Tomb

The concluding segment of the journey overlooks the Mount of Olives – not a surprise – but also a number of Jewish tombs – one for Absalom (the rebellious son of King David) and another for the prophet Zechariah, who in all likelihood is not actually buried there: Zechariah preached during the First Temple-era, but graves from that time are located on the western side of the Old City. The tomb itself is carved out of solid rock, much like Petra, although not as colorful or on as grand a scale.

Our tour – led by a Naomi Ehrlich, a charming, competent and occasionally outspoken Israeli tour guide – lasted about three hours, which included many stops for explanation and snacking. You can easily walk it in half the time and the path is well marked. Naomi offers the tours during the Passover and Sukkot holidays through the Jerusalem AACI (Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel).

Of course, if your politics prevent you from walking through East Jerusalem, you’ll have to forgo this extraordinarily beautiful and fascinating adventure. The Tzurim Valley Park itself is controversial (note the ongoing tensions over the creation of the nearby Mount Scopus Slopes National Park) and the sifting tent is run by El’ad, which also backs the City of David archaeological site.

I’d recommend putting such proclivities aside – at least for a couple of hours – to enjoy one of the region’s as yet mostly undiscovered delights.

Keeping the Dead Sea Alive

The Dead Sea is anything but dead. But it is ailing.

Human exploitation has taken its toll on the area over the last 40 years. The Dead Sea’s shore has been receding at an alarming rate. Where once bathers used to take their buoyant healing baths at 393 meters below sea level, today they are floating in water some 20 meters lower.

But two Israeli researchers are leading a team from the Minerva Dead Sea Research Center at Tel Aviv University, which together with scientists from neighboring Jordan at attempting to diagnose different challenges in earth sciences that affect the Dead Sea region.

The greasy, salt-water may grow only bacteria but the ecosystem surrounding the Dead Sea is rich in both modern and ancient natural history. Historians say Dead Sea minerals were one of Cleopatra’s best-kept beauty secrets and researchers claim that long before Egyptians built the pyramids, the early hominids, our ancestors, used the Dead Sea corridor to migrate from Africa to Asia and beyond thousands of years ago.

“Imagine what could be trapped under the salt and minerals,” asks TAU researcher – Swiss-born Hillel Wust-Bloch.

“There are traces of ancient weather patterns waiting to be deciphered, as well as clues to mans’ early travels,” says Wust-Bloch who is working on the project with Minerva Center head TAU Professor Zvi Ben-Avraham, the foremost authority on Dead Sea research in the world.

The problems have to do with water consumption and business. As the Israeli and Jordanian populations grow, less and less water makes it in the end to the Dead Sea: water which helps the Dead Sea maintain its equilibrium. But Israelis face water shortages as do the Jordanians and precious drops which once flowed from Israel’s Lake Kinneret or Jordan’s Yarmuk River into the Dead Sea are now being used by humans instead.

To compound the problem, large industrial plants are draining the Dead Sea on its South shores. There, on both sides of the border, Israeli “Dead Sea Works” and Jordanian “Arab Potash” factories pump out rare and rich minerals. “The cosmetics market accounts only for spoonfuls of the minerals being depleted at the Dead Sea,” says Wust-Bloch, explaining that large industrial plants use the rare minerals such as bromide, potassium and magnesium for everything from fertilizer to automotive parts.

Stopping Dead Sea exploitation is not simple. First of all, the water shortage in Israel shows no signs of letting up and mineral harvesting by Jordanians and Israelis contribute significantly to the GNP of both countries.

For the past 15 years Ben-Avraham, also a professor at the university’s Department of Geophysics and Planetary Sciences, has been utilizing the Minerva Dead Sea Research Center to make realistic goals and a plan of action, which takes into consideration the unusual social issues existing between Israelis and Jordanians.

The Israeli team is comprises about 15 researchers who work in multidisciplinary manner. Once a month, Ben-Avraham and Wust-Bloch are visiting Jordanian scientists to work on a joint research project. Many plans have been proposed for making the Dead Sea sustainable. One which came up recently, and which was first suggested by Theodore Herzl many years ago is to create an artificial canal from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea.

The solution would be costly and introduces unknown variables of shifting ecosystems if such a waterway including its flora and fauna, were to embark on a downward journey to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth. But this is one question scientists are tackling.

Rather than take on too many big questions at once, Ben-Avraham’s short-term goal is to create a team of environmental stewards who can combine forces for basic research.

As part of that research, Wust-Bloch along with a German colleague developed a seismic microscope to pick-up where the next Dead Sea sinkholes might appear. Sinkholes are a product of environmental degradation at the Dead Sea. As the water level drops, freshwater washes out mineral pockets underground. Over time, the freshwater melts the materials inside, generating surface caves and meters-wide craters which can trap people and animals and damage nearby highways, hotels and factories.

The connection between sinkholes and Wust-Bloch’s previous research was obvious to him. “I started to work in volcanic seismology, where I was at the interface of Earth Science and humans,” Wust-Bloch told ISRAEL21c. “Earthquakes affect people and I found it fascinating that Science can help mitigate natural hazards. Around 1995 the sinkhole problem became widespread and in 2002, I was called in to see what I could do.”

Today, he rigs up his seismological microscope and makes tests around the shores of the Dead Sea. About once a month, he also travels to Jordan where they have similar sinkhole problems.

“Jordan has some brilliant scientists,” says Wust-Bloch, “But the country is feeling a brain-drain because the best scientists can find better opportunities elsewhere. Through the work on the Dead Sea, we are giving them a good reason to stay in their country.”

Wust- Bloch’s machine, which he takes with him everywhere, has a sci-fi name fit for the movie Spaceballs. He calls it the Nanoseismic Monitoring Platform and it has applications which go far-beyond the Dead Sea, he says. It can be used for monitoring aftershocks and landslides, mapping active fault zones, and for forensic seismology.

“It can also be used to find the smoking gun when a country denies it has been testing nuclear warheads,” says Wust-Bloch.

The technology will be used for humanitarian purposes around the world, says Wust-Bloch, who adds that the main drive behind his research is to leave good things behind in this world for his kids. The Dead Sea is one of those things, as is peace and stability in the region, which he thinks can be achieved through cooperation on joint projects focuses on the Dead Sea ecosystem.

To date, Dead Sea research has included Israeli, German, American, Jordanian and Palestinian scientists and graduate students. The Dead Sea also encourages cooperation across disciplines and brings together scientists in geophysics and geology, neotectonics, seismology and natural hazards, archeology and atmospheric sciences.

“We have dozens of projects with constellations of partners,” says Wust-Bloch, who himself is particularly interested in the intimate connection between the layers of the Dead Sea sediments (read like rings of a tree) and the Bible. “We can see different periods preserved in the records of the Dead Sea. We can see into the first centuries and understand for example why the Ein Gedi settlement there was abandoned. The paleoclimatic record of the Dead Sea shows a correlation. There was a dry period.”

Ben-Avraham, is going through anything but a dry period in his career. He recently won the Israel Prize for his research and multidisciplinary vision. Wust-Bloch comments, “Ben-Avraham looks back into history and ties tectonics with human migration such as in the case of people moving out of Africa. He also investigates present correlations between the Dead Sea and a broad range of processes, such as bird migration. The multidisciplinary approach is an important one in research today.”

Wust-Bloch knows that their research won’t yield a cure for cancer, but he gets great satisfaction knowing other things. “Our state-of-the-art science addresses Dead Sea issues in a holistic way and we may find, in the end, a way to stabilize the whole region. We are looking to turn over a solid legacy dedicated only to this.”

No pink slime in our burgers, please
Food

No pink slime in our burgers, please

Pink slime (image from KSDK TV, Saint Louis)

Kosher food is often equated with being healthier. While I’ve taken comfort in this conjecture, it’s not really true. Kosher food can be filled with just as many preservatives and unhealthy processed mysteries as non-kosher food. And as scandals over the past years at kosher meat plants in the U.S. have proven, slaughter according to Jewish law can be fraught with corruption and less than sanitary practices.

But an article in this week’s Ynet (and reported earlier on the Green Prophet blog) indicates that in at least one area, kosher most definitely trumps treife: at McDonald’s in Israel.

McDonald’s – as well as other fast food chains – came under fire when celebrity chef Jamie Oliver exposed the fact that the Golden Arches was using something called “boneless lean beef trimmings” in their burgers. Oliver referred to it derisively as “pink slime” on an episode of his TV show (here’s the video).

These trimmings apparently consist of what’s left of the meat after all the choice cuts of beef are taken. They’re then run through a centrifuge and treated with ammonium hydroxide (an ingredient used in household cleaning agents) in order to kill off bacteria such as E. coli.

That makes the slime safe for human consumption…at least in the U.S. Boneless lean beef trimmings are banned for people in the U.K., and are used for dog and chicken food instead.

Sounds absolutely yummy.

The good news is that McDonald’s in Israel have never used the pink slime in their burgers, since boneless lean beef trimmings could potentially include parts of the cow that are not OK from a kashrut perspective. That applies to both kosher and non-kosher certified McDonald’s – both import their beef from the same plants in South America via the Israeli Of Tov company.

Kind of makes you proud to be an Israeli fast foodie.

All this doesn’t give McDonald’s a pass on the detrimental-to-your-health scale: 100% beef or not, the calories, fat and sugar in a McDonald’s meal are definitely not as happy as Hamburglar might have wooed us into complacency when we were younger and hooked on Saturday morning cartoons. Want more convincing: just watch Morgan Spurlock’s documentary Super Size Me and you’ll be a budding vegan in under 90 minutes.

McDonald’s has since announced that it is no longer using pink slime in its burgers in the U.S.

Holidays

The most memorable Seder

Chabad Kathmandu

As an early icebreaker just before we began to read from the Passover Haggadah Friday night, my wife Jody asked the assembled family and guests to name their most memorable Seder. For me, there was no question.

Exactly one year ago, our family was sitting in a luxurious ballroom at the Yak and Yeti Hotel in Kathmandu for what is billed as “the largest Seder in the world.” Organized by the local Chabad, this massive Seder hosts over 1,000 guests, nearly all of them Israeli, young, and pierced. My wife and I, young at heart but decidedly non-pierced, were clearly the odd folks out.

The ballroom was laid out with about 100 round ten-person tables. Perhaps wanting to seem less conspicuous, we sat next to another older Israeli couple: Claude and Ilan, who had hiked not only the eleven-day half Annapurna circuit that we did but the full three week loop that climbs as high as the 5,400 meter Thorong-la Pass.

What was remarkable about the pair was that Claude is completely blind. His partner literally led him through the route, up and down 5oo meter-at-a-time climbs on rough steps, past water buffalo and into the deep snow at the top of the world. They slept in the same hard beds we did and used the squatter toilets and bucket showers that are the norm in the Himalayas.

The two North Tel Avivi’s were quite enjoyable company; I wish I could say the same about the Chabad rabbi and his cadre of ten or so yeshiva bochers who had flown in from as far away as Israel and Thailand to lead the Seder.

It feels unfair to complain about Rabbi Lifshitz: putting on a Seder that size is an logistical nightmare – from taking payments over the Internet to securing a location where the gas generators are large enough that there’s sufficient electricity for the whole evening. They even put signs in Hebrew all over Kathmandu directing Seder-goers from the Chabad House in touristy Thamel to the Yak and Yeti, located on the road out of town.

The problem was that the way the Seder was run seemed (to me at least) like such a wasted opportunity. Rabbi Lifshitz essentially speed-read the Haggadah as if it was a “greatest hits” album; we finished the entire story and were washing for matzah in under 50 minutes, including “breaks” for the most popular songs such as Ma Nishtanah.

Why couldn’t the Chabadniks have engendered some discussion? “Who is the evil son today?” would have been a good question to ask. Or “What is the nature of freedom when we have our own state?” After all, they had 1,000 captive Israelis and, other than the crowd in the lobby smoking its way through the magid while waiting for the matzah-ball soup, we all know how Israelis like to argue. This was a chance to bring the Seder alive for these certainly secular Sabras who might otherwise have been camping out in the mountains on the holiday.

Instead, to keep the attendees’ attention, the rabbi kept things interesting by running a raffle right in the middle of the dinner. First prize was a bungee jump off a 160 meter high suspension bridge over the Bhoti Kosi River near the Nepalese-Tibetan border. And unbelievably, Jody held the winning ticket! We never win anything, but unfortunately, we weren’t able to take advantage of our unlikely luck, as we were leaving back for Israel the day after the holiday. So we let another intrepid Israeli enjoy the plunge.

Perhaps the prize should come with a few strings attached, so to speak: as the jumper is plummeting towards the water, he or she would be required to sing dayeinu. That just might be enough to redeem the Seder.