Looking at tomorrow, Israel moves from 60 to 120

The recent President’s Conference in Israel was more than just a birthday gala, it was a frank discussion of how to solve some of the country’s most pressing social problems.The recent Israeli President’s Conference, convened and masterminded in Jerusalem by Shimon Peres, was an extraordinary event. Subtitled “Facing Tomorrow” – or in Hebrew, simply Hamachar, Tomorrow – it followed the festivities for Israel’s 60th anniversary and celebrated the country’s myriad accomplishments in many domains.

World leaders, presidents and high-ranking officials of many nations gathered in respect and friendship.

But the conference was more than simply congratulatory. Beyond the exhilaration of the moment, beyond the hoopla of a birthday gala, it was a gathering of brainpower to look toward the future – as the presenters took to repeating – from 60 to 120.

Most impressive were the open and in-depth discussions about the problems that Israel faces in this new century. While security remains an ongoing concern, it was the soul of the country that many of the participants – writers, political scientists, lawyers, professors, politicians – addressed, on many levels and in different realms. Without diminishing the complexity of what was discussed, I would say that two themes emerged as central: poverty and solidarity.

At the start of the conference, writer Amos Oz recalled a news report in the 1950s about a little girl who said she went to bed hungry at night. The country, Oz remembered, was shocked. Hunger? In Israel? A hungry child? How could that be? How could we allow it? The Knesset, the media – simply everyone, as Oz remembers it – became preoccupied with resolving the problem of poverty in Israel, a crushing poverty that sent children to bed with empty bellies.

Today, Oz noted with sadness, many go hungry, but no one feels shocked. The gap between the haves and the have-nots keeps widening, and the ethos of care – the sense of responsibility for the have-nots – seems to have diminished. The solidarity that defined Israel in the 1950s – an Israel far less materially endowed than today’s nation – seems to have given way, in more affluent times, to special interests and self interest.

This dual focus – responsibility for eradicating poverty and its attendant problems, and reinvigorating a sense of social solidarity – was echoed throughout the three-day conference, from many angles and by many speakers, from educators and philosophers to politicians and high-ranking government officials. Indeed, it was reiterated by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu at the closing session of the conference.

To be sure, Israel in its second half-century is different from Israel in its first decades. Then, it was easier to maintain the sense of cohesion and belonging in a small and more homogeneous population, especially with the very creation of the state in living memory of most of its inhabitants. Today, Israel is blessed and challenged with a booming population, and one of increasing diversity. Not only have Jews from a vast array of cultures made aliyah, but Israel is home to foreign workers separated from loved ones by thousands of miles, and it’s a haven to refugees from genocide and persecution in places such as Darfur.

None of the conference participants suggested that renewing social solidarity was an impossible goal, a pipe dream, a child’s idyll. Rather, the responsibility for one’s neighbors was seen as integral to the deep ethos of the country and profoundly Jewish. While it may sound like an ethereal goal compared with the more practical and tangible problem of poverty, it’s the ethical commitment that underlies resolving other concerns.

Many tourists visit Israel without ever facing the country’s poverty head-on. Dazzled by the country’s spiritual, natural and physical richness, and awed by its progress in so many industries, most visitors never venture into an overcrowded classroom, an inadequate apartment, or foreign workers’ quarters. And most countries, celebrating a significant milestone with international dignitaries and other invited guests, would not draw attention to such things.

But this conference demonstrated that Israel is not like most countries. At 60, Israel can rightly revel in its achievements – the creation and maturation of the state itself, against great odds; its inventiveness in areas such as agriculture, high tech, renewable energy sources, medicine; and its literary and cultural production. At the same time, its highest office encourages and fosters open, public and transparent discussions of problems and challenges that need to be solved.

In hosting, Peres brought honor to the office of the president and established his legacy for generations to come.

Reprinted courtesy of the Canadian Jewish News.

Israel and the Hulk

What do a great big green giant and Israel have in common? A great deal it seems.Years ago, whenever I would ask my summer camp bunkmate Chanan Beizer, expert on all things comic books, who would win in a superhero fight, the answer would always be the Hulk.

“Spiderman’s webs would be torn to shreds,” he would reply to my query.

“Iron Man would look like he came out of a trash compacter,” he would retort.

“Captain America would be wearing his shield on his kepele like your mother’s floppy beach hat.”

About 30 summers later, after recently watching the latest incarnation of the Hulk (The Incredible Hulk, starring Edward Norton), I was again fondly reminded of the sheer brute strength that the green monster possesses – and of how it’s a universal Jewish allegory of a misunderstood young geek longing for greater power over his life.

It’s no secret that the Hulk and his fellow comic book cronies were born of Jewish creators and like the Golem, were molded to protect us. The Hulk was born years after Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster created Superman and the superhero genre. He came to life in the 1960s, at a time of change for Jews – at a time when Israel, already nurtured out of the desert, again had to do battle against an army of Arabs, who were bent on destroying it.

Seeing the latest version of the Hulk in today’s context, I couldn’t help but wonder how germane the tale still is today.

For much of the world Israel is the Hulk, because that’s the only side of Israel the world sees. It doesn’t get to see the scientist, Bruce Banner, quietly working and creating Nobel Prize-winning experiments and amazing technological breakthroughs for humankind. Much of the world sees this big green monster throwing tanks and creating havoc.

They don’t see the cause that turns Banner into the Hulk. They don’t notice that Banner doesn’t like turning into the Hulk and does everything humanly possible to suppress his alter ego and the destructive transformation.

Pesky bullets and tiny rocket launchers have a minimal physical effect on

the Hulk, just as the stones Arab kids throw have little impact on the Israel Defense Forces . It all looks so harmless, until the giant arises and hurls back with a mightier and greater force, so that the provocative aggressors become the victims.

In one scene in the new movie, the Army general Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (played by William Hurt) corners Banner in front of his daughter (Liv Tyler) and launches gas canisters at him saying, “Now she’ll see what he’s like.” The Hulk is purposefully provoked to change because he’s being attacked. And once the Hulk appears, the cameras roll and he is to most everyone, including his daughter, a monster.

The Six-Day War created a perceptual change in the world’s eyes of Israel, which had been surrounded and attacked by Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Ever since Israel won that war and became the victor, the world has not seen Israel in the same light.

During that same era, and throughout his time on the pages of Marvel Comics, the Hulk too went through a number of character changes. (Did you know that in the first issue the Hulk was gray?)

But from the earliest stories, the Hulk has been concerned with finding sanctuary and quiet. Only when incited did he react emotionally and flare up.

While the Hulk is a comic book character, the fact that he, and so many others, from Iron Man and Spidey to the Caped Crusader, are still relevant today – outlasting plenty of other heroes (super and not) – speaks volumes about their influence and importance as iconic symbols of pop culture.

Their everlasting appeal and annual return helps me remember summer camp so well, when Chanan Beizer and I saw the world through the pages of comic books. Those hot months seemed to bake and leaven our teeming teen muscles like the radiated ones in Bruce Banner, emitting forces previously unknown as we attained the zenith of physical strength.

Alas, that was 30-odd years ago.

Peres sees the light

The President’s “Tomorrow” conference launched several complex initiatives whose success depends on public and private sector cooperation. Can he make it work?The impressive “Tomorrow” conference that President Shimon Peres gathered for Israel’s 60th anniversary was a great public relations coup, no mean achievement considering Israel’s dismal image abroad. But the ever-so-ambitious Peres had more than just public relations in mind. He wanted no less than to chart Israel’s future by studying almost all the challenges facing Israel, the Jewish people and even the world and then framing a comprehensive agenda for tomorrow.

The conference did indeed launch several initiatives – from planning the course of the Jewish people to digging a Peace Canal between the Red and the Dead Seas; but whether even some of these ambitious plans will actually materialize remains to be seen. Not only because they are immense, complex and objectively hard to “plan” and execute, but because their implementation largely depends on government and public sector cooperation with third way NGOs and/or private sector enterprises, a blend that has never worked successfully.

We know how well governments perform, world-wide and especially in Israel, where the role of government is so overwhelming and so anti-productive. Over 75% of Israeli government resolutions are never implemented, some would say mercifully so, because when they are, the results are dismal. Just look at what happened to the Galilee and the Negev or for that matter to all development towns, even to Jerusalem, all those places that governments tried to “develop.” Billions later they are usually worse off because governments, left or “right,” are not productive entities. They are focused, as they apparently must be, on discriminating and anti-productive political work, and they cannot implement their plans without fostering huge bureaucracies.

It is not accidental that all government-generated five- and 10-year development plans have universally failed, not only in Communist or Socialist regimes but also in so-called “mixed” (more accurately mixed up) economies such as Israel’s. The many plans for overcoming poverty and the “income gap,” costing billions and wasting precious resources, all failed. They also misdirected resources from market-generated productive activities, such as small businesses. Instead of economic growth, these government plans generated anti-productive and corruption-enhancing bureaucracies that abuse their power and make it impossible for productive enterprises to thrive.

A little late in his life (but as the saying goes “better late than never”) – and painfully late in the history of the state of Israel – Peres has been recently singing some really new tunes. After decades of employing massive state intervention to implement his visions, at high costs and very poor results (it worked once – we do not know at what cost, of course – when the far-sighted Peres helped Israel enter the atomic energy club), Peres recently started lauding the role of private enterprise in various developments projects. In his inimitable way, Peres claimed that industrial parks and hotels could better secure the peace in disputed border areas such as the Golan Heights and the Arava than fortifications and armed brigades. He neglected to mention, however, that in the foreseeable future, industrial parks and tourism in such contested areas will need the protection of a very strong force to survive, or they will meet the fate of the industrial parks and the hothouses that have been looted and set on fire by some of our neighbors who do not share yet Peres’ admirable understanding of the link between economic prosperity and peace.

Peres went even further. He lauded international trade and globalization for generating development and peace, making governments and their efforts look puny if not irrelevant. A really remarkable change of heart for a man who spent his entire life in politics and in government generated development schemes and who only recently branded the market economy as “piggish Capitalism”.

Even more remarkably Peres suited action to words and appointed one of Israel’s most remarkable entrepreneurs, Yitzhak Tshuva – a man known for his daring and flare, but more importantly a man with the ability to translate his bold visions into reality – as the chief implementer of his major project, the Red-Dead Sea Canal. If there is a person who could conceivably cut through the tangled ticket of bureaucracies that could block a project that is dependent on the cooperation of not only the notoriously uncooperative and resistant Israeli bureaucracy but also on the not less “talented” Jordanian bureaucracy (at least in Jordan there is someone – the king – who can keep the bureaucracy in check sometimes) it is a person like Tshuva. It is a stroke of true creativity on the part of Peres to have entrusted this project in his capable hands.

That said, the jury is still out on the fate of all projects that involve deep cooperation between the public and the private sector. Getting the two to cooperate is like mixing water with oil. It will take some doing to get a good working relationship between an entrepreneur that understands the economic opportunities and constraints of such projects, that knows to assess risk and to manage it, a person who has the flexibility and knowledge to deal with unforeseen contingencies, and the politically-rather-than-economically-oriented, risk averse and rigid bureaucracy.

We can only pray and hope that Peres’ vision of tomorrow will not turn out into another manyana.

Printed by courtesy of The Jerusalem Post.

People vs. Dinosaurs

Who would you put your money on? Warren Buffett or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?Tefen Industrial Park, Israel

Question: What do America’s premier investor, Warren Buffett, and Iran’s toxic president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have in common? Answer: They’ve both made a bet about Israel’s future.

Ahmadinejad declared on Monday that Israel “has reached its final phase and will soon be wiped out from the geographic scene.”

By coincidence, I heard the Iranian leader’s statement on Israel Radio just as I was leaving the headquarters of Iscar, Israel’s famous precision tool company, headquartered in the Western Galilee, near the Lebanon border. Iscar is known for many things, most of all for being the first enterprise that Buffett bought overseas for his holding company, Berkshire Hathaway.

Buffett paid $4 billion for 80 percent of Iscar and the deal just happened to close a few days before Hezbollah, a key part of Iran’s holding company, attacked Israel in July 2006, triggering a month long war. I asked Iscar’s chairman, Eitan Wertheimer, what was Buffett’s reaction when he found out that he had just paid $4 billion for an Israeli company and a few days later Hezbollah rockets were landing outside its parking lot.

Buffett just brushed it off with a wave, recalled Wertheimer: “He said, ‘I’m not interested in the next quarter. I’m interested in the next 20 years.’ “Wertheimer repaid that confidence by telling half his employees to stay home during the war and using the other half to keep the factory from not missing a day of work and setting a production record for the month. It helps when many of your “employees” are robots that move around the buildings, beeping humans out of the way.

So who would you put your money on? Buffett or Ahmadinejad? I’d short Ahmadinejad and go long Warren Buffett.

Why? From outside, Israel looks as if it’s in turmoil, largely because the entire political leadership seems to be under investigation. But Israel is a weak state with a strong civil society. The economy is exploding from the bottom up. Israel’s currency, the shekel, has appreciated nearly 30 percent against the dollar since the start of 2007.

The reason? Israel is a country that is hard-wired to compete in a flat world. It has a population drawn from 100 different countries, speaking 100 different languages, with a business culture that strongly encourages individual imagination and adaptation and where being a nonconformist is the norm. While you were sleeping, Israel has gone from oranges to software, or as they say around here, from Jaffa to Java.

The day I visited the Iscar campus, one of its theaters was filled with industrialists from the Czech Republic, who were getting a lecture – in Czech – from Iscar experts. The Czechs came all the way to the Israel-Lebanon border region to learn about the latest innovations in precision tool-making. Wertheimer is famous for staying close to his customers and the latest technologies. “If you sleep on the floor,” he likes to say, “you never have to worry about falling out of bed.”

That kind of hunger explains why, in the first quarter of 2008, the top four economies after America in attracting venture capital for start-ups were: Europe $1.53 billion, China $719 million, Israel $572 million and India $99 million, according to Dow Jones VentureSource. Israel, with seven million people, attracted almost as much as China, with 1.3 billion.

Boaz Golany, who heads engineering at the Technion, Israel’s M.I.T., told me: “In the last eight months, we have had delegations from IBM, General Motors, Procter & Gamble and Wal-Mart visiting our campus. They are all looking to develop R&D centers in Israel.”

Ahmadinejad professes not to care about such things. He was – to put it in American baseball terms – born on third base and thinks he hit a triple. Because oil prices have gone up to nearly $140 a barrel, he feels relaxed predicting that Israel will disappear, while Iran maintains a welfare state – with more than 10 percent unemployment.

Iran has invented nothing of importance since the Islamic Revolution, which is a shame. Historically, Iranians have been a dynamic and inventive people – one only need look at the richness of Persian civilization to see that. But the Islamic regime there today does not trust its people and will not empower them as individuals.

Of course, oil wealth can buy all the software and nuclear technology you want, or can’t develop yourself. This is not an argument that we shouldn’t worry about Iran. Ahmadinejad should, though.

Iran’s economic and military clout today is largely dependent on extracting oil from the ground. Israel’s economic and military power today is entirely dependent on extracting intelligence from its people. Israel’s economic power is endlessly renewable. Iran’s is a dwindling resource based on fossil fuels made from dead dinosaurs.

So who will be here in 20 years? I’m with Buffett: I’ll bet on the people who bet on their people – not the people who bet on dead dinosaurs.

Reprinted by courtesy of The New York Times.

Sderot residents yearn to be seen as more than just victims

Sderot may have suffered eight years of Kassam rocket attacks, but it’s also a vibrant and socially active city.After enduring Kassam rocket attacks for eight years, residents of Sderot and the surrounding area want the world to see them in a different light.

“We want the Jewish community to know the situation here,” said Avi Sulemani, who runs Sderot’s community center.

“It’s a kind of solidarity with the city. We want the wider world to know that we’re a community looking for peace, that we want peace. We cleared out of Gaza [in 2005] because we want peace.”

Like many residents, Sulemani thinks that the world sees Sderot as a war zone or military stronghold. But there are those who want to show the rest of the world – including much of Israel’s population – that Sderot can be a vibrant city. Social programs have been created throughout the area, encouraging residents to interact with each other in communal settings.

“Life here is stronger than any Kassam rocket,” said Talia Levanon, a representative of the Israel Trauma Coalition. “The city is standing its ground and the residents will never leave.” One of those activists is Amit Lerner, who moved to Sderot a year and a half ago to work with the youth population there. In addition to helping those who have just finished army service find jobs and go to college, she guides groups of 18- to 24-year olds who want to galvanize young leadership in the area.

“The communal aspect [of my work] connects them to the city,” said Lerner of the discharged soldiers. “They run cultural programs for the community. They are very active in volunteering. Young people are the strength of the city.”

The city’s schools have also set up a support system to help children deal with the daily trauma by holding yoga classes and group therapy sessions for students that include work with animals and team-building exercises.

“Therapists have become part of the culture of the school,” said Beth Raise, the director of the Joint Distribution Committee’s Havens of Calm Room at Alon Madaiim Elementary School, where much of the social work takes place. “It’s kind of like a family. Through their presence at the school they [also] provide support for the teachers.”

Even so, some children are having trouble living with the terror. Liza, a 10-year-old whose family moved to Sderot from Kharkhov in the Ukraine when she was three, says that she can’t see her friends on a regular basis.

“I can’t go out with friends or walk around because of the Kassams,” she said. “When there are Kassams, we all need to stay at home. We plan things, but we can’t go out.” Liza added that her family hasn’t adjusted to life in Israel due to the Kassams, and that they miss the calmer life in Eastern Europe.

“They brought us from a relatively good life, a calm life, to life here, with the Kassams,” she said. “All of the neighbors there were friendly. That’s impossible here because we can’t go out. We try to continue [with everyday life], but it’s hard.”

Another resource exists for children in groups of area teens who hold programs to enliven the town. One student, who plays a clown for bar mitzva parties, says that acting helps distract the children from the situation in addition to providing an escape for the actors.

“I entertain the children,” she said. “They don’t have a lot of activities they can go to and their parents don’t have the ability to act like clowns, so I can make them happy. It also makes me happy. It gives me a pleasant feeling.”

One of the ways the area is hoping to galvanize social and cultural activity is through Sapir College, which boasts a student body of some 8,000 students and is one of the area’s largest employers. One student there is happy with the atmosphere on campus but wants students to focus on solutions to the situation rather than on ways to avoid the attacks.

“If we want to change something, it needs to come from here,” she said. “People need to oppose the [attacks] themselves, not just figure out how to deal with them. It’s impossible to [completely] defend this place.”

She also hopes to see more dialogue between Israeli and Gazan students, whom she says want the same things.

“[Dialogue] is what will improve things,” she said. “Everyone wants quiet and peace here. There isn’t anyone who doesn’t want to live. [Gazans] experience the same things we do. They also live lives that aren’t lives and they’ve also lost friends and relatives. Once you recognize that you can talk about everything else.”

While Sderot residents are trying to improve their lives, many have called on the government to pay more attention and direct more resources to the situation.

But some believe that instead of relying on the government, the town should attempt to create as positive an environment as possible. “Sderot is presented to the world as a city with a lot of wretchedness,” said Lerner. “Despite everything, there are social projects for teens, for young people. People haven’t lost hope.”

Printed by courtesy of The Jerusalem Post.