Immigrant Moments,Israeliness

Emigrating Israelis – point counterpoint

The discussion of Israelis overseas just won’t go away. First I wrote about the video campaign “guilting” expats to come home. Then, as David added, the videos were pulled by none other than the prime minister himself. Now there is a “point-counterpoint” set of articles in Ynet that promise to keep the debate fomenting further.

Point: Liad Magen

In the first column, Liad Magen writes about why he wants to leave Israel. Like a good Rothschildian, he complains about the high prices, low salaries, a deteriorating medical system, monopolies, bank fees and even crappy public transportation. Then, surprisingly, he calls for his fellow Israelis to not work for a better society…but to emigrate.

Not only that, but he posts a status update to his Facebook profile in which he urges his friends and family to leave with him, to create an “immigration group” that will together settle a new land (North Carolina, Norway, he doesn’t say), supporting each other while looking for work and learning a new language.

Counterpoint: Tal Raphael

Magen’s article is followed by Tal Raphael, who sympathizes with his plight. Yes, Israel is a tough place to live. Yes, the wars we are forced to fight have scarred our small nation with too many dead. Her counter-argument, though, is not for Magen to come home, but to think of his children or grandchildren.

Raphael writes: “Perhaps you will succeed in the new country, and just like your friends, you’ll establish huge companies and do well for yourself. But maybe, in 60 years or so, you’ll have a grandchild. This grandchild will apparently not be called Liad, but rather, James, or Jimmy, or something else…Jimmy will be born in Los Angeles, or in any other city, and live his life with ease and without concerns, until one day, he will want to make aliyah to Israel.”

She continues: “Why would he want to do this, you ask? Maybe because someone will call him ‘Jew-boy’ on the street, or maybe he’ll open the Bible, or learn a little history, or seek meaning. Maybe he’ll hear that the falafel around here is the best. I don’t know when and why, but it will happen, and if not to Jimmy it shall happen to his grandson, or great grandson.”

Jimmy’s story, Raphael concludes, is that of the entire Jewish people, who keep leaving home yet always return. “I have no decisive answer for why this happens,” she concludes, “but I have 2,000 years of experience.”

And that, in many ways, was the exact point of the now pulled ad campaign aimed at Israeli yordim (emigrants): you’ll never be truly comfortable outside of Israel. And if not you, then your children who, while they may be comfortable calling you “Daddy” today (as in one of the videos), will eventually betray your decision to leave and, in turn, will break your heart to return to the land of their grandparents. And so, implies the video, why not nip that eventuality in the bud and stay to fight another day.

Most of the people I’ve spoken with about the video series felt it was right on and effective for its target audience. This timely point-counterpoint only serves to bolster that contention.


New video campaign for expat Israelis: great advertising or big insult?

Haaretz reported today on a new video campaign by the Ministry of Absorption to convince expatriate Israelis to come home. The videos, however, have been met with fierce criticism by Jewish groups like the ADL in the U.S., calling them heavy handed, demeaning and even degrading to Christians.

Why all the fuss? The concern by the Israeli government about large numbers of its citizens living abroad is not a new one. By most estimates, there are hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have emigrated to the U.S. or are residing there for extended “temporary” stays. Many would love to come home if the circumstances permit.

Universities like Bar Ilan have active and well-funded programs to help Israeli “returning scientists,” which include providing research facilities, staff and even fast-tracked tenure. A hot shot Israeli programmer can certainly find high paying and satisfying work in Israel’s ever-booming hi-tech sector. And Israel’s economy has so far been mostly spared from the travesties of record high unemployment and mortgages under water that has afflicted the world, from Indiana to Italy.


But the Absorption Ministry decided to go the guilt route. In one video, a family of Israelis in America are Skype’ing with the grandparents back home. A menorah looms large in the background. Grandma asks her granddaughter what holiday is coming up to which she receives an enthusiastic “Christmas.” Grandparents and parents look at each other uneasily. The video’s title: “Before Hanukah turns into Christmas, it’s time to come back to Israel.”

ADL director Abe Foxman told Haaretz: “While we appreciate the rationale behind the Israeli government’s appeal to its citizens living in the U.S. to return to Israel, we are concerned that some may be offended by what the video implies about American Jewry.” Not to mention those who are concerned that the Grinch who stole Christmas may soon be depicted wearing a kippa and waving an Israeli flag.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry chimed in too, saying it was blindsided. “We only found out about it from the complaints that reached the consulates,” an official told Haaretz.

The Absorption Ministry was quick to assure detractors that it was only targeting Israeli expats, not American Jews and that, in any case, the videos have been met with positive feedback by the Israeli demographic targeted.

Here are two more videos that are part of the campaign – the American boyfriend who doesn’t know it’s Yom Hazicharon (Israeli Memorial Day):


And one on the difference between Daddy and Abba:


Jeffrey Goldberg has a more spirited analysis in The Atlantic.

Now it’s your turn. What do you think? Insulting or effective? Insensitive or a kick in the tush where one is needed most. Leave your comments below.


20,000 Birthrighters in Israel last summer – but why?

I’m always heartened to read about the ever-growing numbers of young people the Taglit-birthright program has brought to Israel. In the latest report, appearing today on Ynet, last summer nearly 20,000 young adults (including 10,000 from 712 colleges across North America) participated. Leading the pack were universities in Michigan, Florida, Indiana, Maryland and Pennsylvania. More than twice as many young people applied than there were places and Taglit has set an not unreasonable target of 51,000 annually by 2013.

I wonder, however, how many of those students were coming to see the country and how many for the promise of sex and drugs (and a little rock and roll clubbing to boot)?

Take a look at the Jewlicious blog’s “Unofficial Guide to Sex on Birthright Israel,” a primer for pre-trip safe sex that appeared earlier this year and, based on comments I’ve heard from those who’ve participated on a Taglit trip, is pretty spot on.

Among the revelations: while making it with an Israeli soldier is tres sexy, watch out – despite their macho demeanor, male soldiers can form surprisingly emotional attachments from what a Taglit gal may have thought was a quickie. As for the women soldiers, compared to the army men they’ve had to deal with, Taglit participates are “soft in the middle and tremendously immature,” writes “Wendy in Furs,” the author of the Jewlicious blog post.

Sex with counselors, tour guides and bus drivers are a definite no-no, Wendy adds, but if you can figure out how to be alone in a shared room, other participants are fair game.

There are also some forthright tips, such as an exhortation to buy condoms only from the large pharmacies rather than the cheap ones sold at the local makolet (grocery store) that are more likely to, um, malfunction.

Wendy ends by adding some sobriety to her irreverent primer. “The vast majority of people participating in Birthright do not have sex on the trip,” she writes. But that headline sure makes for guaranteed reading.

P.S. – there’s now also an unofficial guide to drugs on Birthright on the Jewlicious site. Among its takeaways: there is no right against unreasonable search and seizure in Israel; marijuana in Israel sucks; hashish comes mostly from terrorists in Lebanon; and drug transactions involving tourists don’t usually end well. Stick with the sex, I say.


Unhappy cafe

It was clear from the moment we entered that this was not a happy place. It was our oldest son’s 20th birthday and we decided to celebrate over food. We’d heard that Roza, which has branches in town and on Emek Refaim in Jerusalem, had a creative menu and reasonable prices.

We made a reservation for 6:15 PM and arrived slightly late. The greeter at the door scowled at us, didn’t even look at the reservation book, and pointed to several tables that would fit a party of four. As we skimmed the menu, we noticed that none of the other wait staff were smiling. There was a general feeling of malaise at best, or more likely passive aggressive disquiet.

When Gal, our waiter arrived, my wife made a point of acting chipper. Gal seemed to brighten at her energy. She then proceeded to ask if the establishment has a tav chevrati. The tav is a sort of parallel to kosher certification. Rather than referring to the food, it is given based on whether the employees are treated well, given favorable work conditions and a sufficient salary.

Gal had never heard of the tav chevrati. When my wife Jody asked if the restaurant has terms that might grant it such a certificate, Gal was quick to answer “absolutely not.”

Which is a shame, because the food was quite good. I had a fajita with stir fried veggies on a sizzling platter, our son had a steak sandwich so stuffed that it was hard to figure out how to fit it in his mouth without using a knife and fork. We also had an awesome starter of a lamb kebab foccacia.

We have friends who won’t eat at restaurants without the tav chevrati. I’ve already boycotted at least one, despite the café’s truly excellent crushed ice lemonade with fresh mint.

Jody thought about telling the manager that his or her employees were not happy, but we were in a hurry at the end of our meal and the thought slipped her mind. In any case, it seems like a case of preaching to the wrong choir. But maybe if enough people voice their concerns, conditions will improve.

Try it for yourself – order a meal (that part will be good at least) and if the wait staff are grumpy on your visit, tell the manager. We’ll go back and do the same.

Consider it your own little tent protest for social justice.

Does that pill cause side effects? Treato will tell you

Israeli website aggregates and analyzes user-generated data to revolutionize the way patients, physicians and drug companies share info about medications.


Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90
Treato allows patients to understand the side effects of every medication.

Have you just been prescribed a new medication and want to know its possible side effects? Are you already taking a drug whose side effects aren’t listed on the package insert? Most likely, your first step is to Google it. But the unstructured results can be overwhelming and hard to make sense of.

That was exactly the problem confronting Gideon Mantel, the CEO and co-founder of First Life Research. His 17-year-old daughter had suffered a basketball injury and was facing knee surgery, medication or both. Mantel searched the web to learn as much as he could in order to ask the right questions of his daughter’s doctors. He spent days combing through posts on patient blogs and online bulletin boards.

And that led to Mantel’s light-bulb moment. The former CEO of Israeli high-tech heavyweight Commtouch was determined to create a service that would aggregate all that patient information in one place, categorized in an easy-to-understand format.

Four years in the making, with $5.5 million in venture capital financing, Treato was launched at the end of September at the Health 2.0 conference in San Francisco. First Life Research is betting that Treato will revolutionize the way patients, physicians, health maintenance organizations (HMOs) and pharmaceutical companies integrate user-generated data into their information processing.

In fact, Treato’s revenue is expected to come from partnerships with pharma, HMOs and drug-related research groups willing to pay for the data. First Life is in negotiations with half a dozen big players, with deals possible by the end of the year.

Organizing billions of posts

Sifting through roughly 10 billion patient discussions posted online — a number that grows by nearly 50 percent each year — and putting them into some sort of logical structure was Treato’s challenge.

To do so, the company had to develop its own natural language processing, a tricky task that took a few years. Someone writing in Texas may not use the same expressions as a patient in India to describe the same side effects, explains Haggai Levy, head of marketing communications.

“There are different writing styles, slang and misspellings,” he points out.

“If someone says they feel like their ‘head is going to explode,’ we have to understand that this is referring to a headache,” adds Michal Tamir, the company’s marketing and business development manager. Making sense of such similes in several billion messages requires a “machine,” as Levy puts it.

Michal Tamir

Michal Tamir, marketing and business development manager of Treato.

Once the data is categorized, it’s possible to analyze it and present significant statistics. An asthma medication may have some 700 reported side effects, but which are the most prevalent? And which side effects are most common when switching from one drug to another? Treato aims to conquer all of these tasks.

You can also search for medical conditions. The Treato site covers 13,000 conditions and 11,000 medications. Of the 10 billion patient discussions, Treato indexes just over 800 million of them from 23 million patients.

Tamir adds that clinical trials only look at one drug at a time rather than side effects that may occur when two medications are taken at once, something that Treato’s software can compare and correlate.

Drug companies like it, too

The result is a free service that is valuable to patients, but equally in demand by pharmaceutical companies.

“The drug companies know which side effects occur from the clinical trials,” Levy tells ISRAEL21c. “But these studies can be very small. As a result, most side effects are unknown when the medication hits the shelves. It’s not like Merck or Pfizer are trying to hide anything, that there’s some conspiracy going on. They are trying to do their best, but their tests are necessarily limited.”

Levy gives an example regarding the popular asthma drug Singulair. “A patient went to see his doctor complaining about mood swings and suicidal thoughts. These were not known side effects for Singulair. The physician had access to our database, plugged in the medicine and saw that, even though those side effects were rare, some people were suffering from it and blogging about it. The physician connected the dots, switched the drug, and the side effects went away.”

While some physicians criticize the veracity of user-generated online medical content, Tamir claims that some 60% of them “are going to the web seeking health information from these types of sources.”

“At the end of the day, the physicians may have their egos, but they also want to give better service,” Levy adds. “Our advantage is that we can transform random anecdotes into patterns resulting in known phenomena.”

Treato just launched a co-branded partnership with Healthline, a medical information site that previously had no user-generated content, bringing Treato even greater exposure. First Life received a grant from BIRD (Israel-US Binational Industrial Research and Development) Foundation for this project.

First Life is backed by Reed Elsiver Ventures, the VC arm of the largest US medical publisher. All initial staffing for the company – which now numbers 27 in Yehud – came by recommendation from advisory board chairman Yuval Shamir, a professor of medical informatics research at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheva. Founder Mantel is joined by Jacob Sabo (the two met at the gym) and Dr. Itzhik Lichtenfeld, who built the risk management operations at the Israeli HMO Maccabi.

The site is bringing in about 600 queries per day. “We are all patients at some point in our lives,” says Levy. “So you want to tell your friends about it.”