It’s an Israeli thing

For a foreigner, the Rabin memorial ceremony seemed a bit like Woodstock. Something like that wouldn’t have been possible in my homeland of Germany.

For someone who does not understand any Hebrew and is in Israel for the first time, the memorial ceremony for Yitzhak Rabin held in Tel Aviv recently seemed to me at the beginning to be a purely political event: Something which politicians use as a platform to express their opinions. So, I didn’t expect much.

But I was proved wrong.

As I was walking to the Rabin Square through Gordon Street I had to pass through several security control points manned by the police and army. I heard a helicopter hovering over me. They checked my bag, which felt strange, because although I have already been here a week, I’m still not used to it. And I am also not used to the guns. In Germany the police do not carry machine guns in public and the army is never present at such events, so the atmosphere is much less militaristic. But I do understand the necessity for it in Israel, or at least I accept it as necessary. I mean, I am just a foreigner here, what do I know?

As I reached the square I was astounded by the huge number of people who were standing there peacefully. Although I didn’t know what was written on the banners and the signs held by the crowd, I was encouraged by the number of young people around. I expected a mourning ceremony, not something like Woodstock. Well, of course it wasn’t Woodstock, nobody was naked or banging their heads to the music, but the general atmosphere and the feeling at the square seemed to be similar: A yearning for peace and for the world as a better place.

One banner, which I could read, said: “This is the time: Choose peace”. It was written by some American youngsters who joined a group of Israelis. They wore blue shirts and were part of a youth movement. They sang together the songs of freedom Israeli artists performed on the stage. And I thought how nice and warm it was – young people standing side by side is always the foundation for peace and understanding.

I asked the people around me to explain what the politicians were saying and what the songs were about. Nearly everyone in Israel speaks English; you must have a good education system!

One man on stage was the US Teamsters Union President James P. Hoffa, who brought greetings from the new US president-elect Barack Obama. It was okay, but his attempt to encourage the crowd to chant Obama’s campaign slogan, “Yes, we can”, was a bit over the top. This evening was not about Obama or about motivation for peace. I felt the people here were already very motivated.

I was especially moved by the song for peace, “Shir LaShalom”, and the national anthem, “Hatikva”. The people sang together, something which rarely ever happens in Germany. The people in my country seem to be too reserved for such a thing and they have also had bad experience with mass events and chanting and singing crowds. We are more a society of individuals, but we long for something like what was going on at Rabin Square. Maybe this is one reason why the Germans were so hyped up about the FIFA-World Cup 2006, which was held there. They could celebrate and sing their national anthem without feeling guilty. It was just sports, not politics.

As the Rabin memorial was over the organizers played “Imagine” by John Lennon in the background, and I became a part of the people around me. I know this song and I joined the singing people while they were already leaving the place. I sang phrases like “Imagine all the people, living in a world of peace,” and went home humming the melody.

Reprinted with permission from YnetNews (

Young Israelis to volunteer in Cambodia

In December, a contingent of Israeli volunteers will head for the Cambodian rainforest in an effort to help improve the lives of villagers living there.After finishing their military service, legions of young Israelis deploy themselves throughout the world. Having subsumed their interests to those of the State of Israel for several years, they often take on missions of indulgence. As a result, Israeli travelers have become notorious in many parts of the world for post-military partying.

The “Backpacking and Donating” project is designed to improve the international perception of Israel and its youth. At the beginning of December, a contingent of Israeli volunteers will be sent to the Cambodian village of Chi Phat in the Cardamom Mountain rainforest for three months. Over the course of a year, four groups, each consisting of 10 volunteers between the ages of 21 and 40, will participate in the program. They will engage in volunteering activity for 10 hours per day, five days a week.

“This important project will introduce young Israelis to the humanitarian problems that exist in Cambodia and will emphasize to the locals the giving aspect on the part of Israelis,” said Yael Rubinstein, the Israeli ambassador to Thailand and the region. “This sort of activity will assist me in presenting Israel as a country that is attentive to humanitarian problems.”

Although their responsibilities will vary according to the immediate needs of the community, the volunteers will be collectively committed to improving the quality of the lives of the approximately 3,000 residents of the village. They will work intimately with the local population, focusing on English, mathematics, computer, health, and occupational training.

Despite minimal advertising, there were numerous applicants to the project, according to Gil Hen, the project coordinator.

Finding complete personalities

“We chose complete personalities that we believed could handle the rigors of the program, and represent Israel well,” he said.

The first group is already involved in a three-week training course in which they are learning about Cambodian culture and practicing relevant skills, Hen said.

Eshhar Tsafrir, the manager of the first three groups, will be going to the village in the middle of November to prepare for the arrival of the rest of the volunteers.

“I plan to meet with the leaders of the village to create a timetable for the program,” she said. “I will also coordinate with the representatives of the Wildlife Alliance who are reforesting the area and helping people develop permanent agriculture.”

For Niv Reshess, one of the members of the group, the project represents an opportunity to fulfill a lifelong desire.

Lucky to be taking part

“My nationality has prevented me from participating in overseas volunteering programs in the past,” he said. “So I feel really lucky to be part of one that will allow me to help improve the lives of people in need on behalf of Israel.”

Chi Phat was selected for the project based on its acute need for intervention. At this point, students attend classes for only two hours a day, and no one speaks English. Five percent of children do not reach their first birthday, ten percent of women die during childbirth, and the oldest person in the community is 57 years old.

The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Latet, an Israeli humanitarian organization, are financing the project. They have commissioned Lametayel, an Israeli outdoor gear and travel company, to manage it, based on its involvement with a similar effort in Nepal.

Yuval Limon, the CEO of Lametayel, is confident that the project will be successful, due, in part, to the desire of the villagers for help.

“From our vast experience in this field, in order for a project to be effective, the most significant factor is the willingness of the local population to receive assistance,” he said.

Despite its relatively small scale, the organizers of Backpacking and Donating hope that it will lead to a larger movement towards Israeli humanitarianism worldwide.

“We want to inspire more Israeli people to effect positive change, and display the real character of this country to the world,” he said.

Printed by courtesy of The Jerusalem Post.

El Al flies to the rescue

Israeli airline El Al celebrates its 60th anniversary this fall. It’s been a long and interesting ride.This fall, El Al will mark 60 years in the air. The company’s maiden flight took place on September 28, 1948… to pick up the first president of the State of Israel Chaim Weizmann from Geneva and bring him to Israel. Few know that the original El Al insignia blazoned on the company’s first uniforms wasn’t a Star of David; it was a flying camel – a mascot of early Jewish aviators. In its 60 years, El Al has accumulated a stock of “you’ll never believe this” service stories – some are highly “unorthodox services” the company has provided in extraordinary times, and a number concern genuinely bizarre “service routes” that sound like an upscale fly-by-night take-off on Marc Chagall’s famous series of blissful floating lovers seemingly caught in mid-flight.

One winter, El Al looked into using some of the carrier’s fleet as flying movie theaters during slow periods. The idea never got off the ground as a commercial operation… perhaps because the unorthodox flight plan – simply going in circles over the Med – did not qualify moviegoers for duty-free privileges.

Some of El Al’s perks are industry firsts. The most outstanding one to date was inaugurated in 2002 on behalf of a wealthy New York couple who visit Israel at least four times a year, each time bringing their two cats with them. The airline decided to allow small dogs, cats and birds, who indeed had tickets – $89 one-way from New York, Chicago or Miami and $98 from Los Angeles – to collect frequent flyer miles and gain a free trip along with their owners.

Anyone for Paris?

Once upon a time, cynics said “El Al” stood for “Every Landing Always Late.” But in the early 1990s, El Al found itself plagued by a chronic case of corporate jet lag due to passengers’ last-minute duty-free shopping sprees before boarding. At one point, fed up with having to hunt down bargain-hunters, an El Al plane took off on time – leaving seven tardy passengers in the lurch. When questioned by the press, a company official explained: “It’s out of the question that every morning, on almost all flights, we act as if we were a taxi outside the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station – yelling ‘Paris, Paris, Who is going to Paris?’ before taxiing away.”

Speaking of Paris – in 1990, on one El Al plane bound for the French capital, an asthmatic passenger found he had forgotten his medicines in a Tel Aviv hotel room. While there were emergency medical supplies on board, according to news reports, after consultation with El Al’s doctors, the pilot was instructed to fly at 31,000 rather than 43,000 feet – despite the additional fuel consumed at lower altitudes – in order to maintain optimal conditions for the passenger.

In terms of conventional cargo, in 1987 El Al was flying high, grabbing ninth place among trans-Atlantic cargo carriers. At the time, the company’s ads sported a picture of a “flexible” cargo plane with the head of a giraffe and the body of an elephant bulging out of the roof of the cabin, under the caption – “You won’t believe what we’ll do for your cargo.” In 1987 a quarter of the company’s revenues came from carrying almost anything. But one contract was definitely not El Al’s dish: Approached about transporting Canadian ham to Europe – still on the hoof – El Al feared a negative reaction among its religious clientele, and rejected the lucrative offer, hams down.

Indeed, religious clientele constitute a third of the passengers flying El Al. Beyond the sweeping demand that the company refrain from flying on Shabbat, in June 1987 El Al agreed not to fly over the Temple Mount – until the coming of the Messiah. The airline then introduced special plastic liners for “flying coffins” that haredi elements demanded to prevent “mid-flight leakage of the “tum’a” (unclean spirits of the dead) in the presence of Kohanim. And in 2002, a haredi cohen asked to be allowed to zip himself up in a body bag during take-off to avoid close encounter with the tum’a purported to be rising from the Holon Cemetery located directly in the takeoff path from Ben-Gurion Airport. The request was turned down, but air control agreed to detour all flights slightly to avoid flying directly over the cemetery.

One case of “special handling” involved some very special hand-baggage: In a race against time, an American Red Cross representative collected 572 blood samples from Jews of Lithuanian lineage at blood banks in Carmiel near Haifa and the Sheba Medical Center outside Tel Aviv. Packing the contents in an insulated picnic box, the American sped to catch a 2 am El Al flight back to the US – in the hopes of finding a match for a 20-year-old woman badly in need of a bone marrow transplant.

From $4,500 to $60,000 in one flight

One of the most unforgettable humanitarian gestures to which El Al was a part took place on Flight 316 from Tel Aviv to London: Among the passengers was four-year-old Moran Kadosh, on her way to London for a liver transplant. The child was accompanied by a doctor and her parents – who had a mere $4,500 in their pockets to finance surgery. When the child’s plight became known to fellow passengers and El Al flight employees, they organized a spontaneous collection at 35,000 feet. The captain announced over the public address system that Moran’s life was in danger. By the time the jumbo landed at Heathrow, 400 passengers and crew had gathered the $60,000 needed to pay for the transplant.

Another unforgettable episode centered on a volatile pilgrim from Latin America. While politics can make strange bedfellows, the lady in question presented a genuine enigma: Halfway to Tel Aviv, she stripped to the buff, telling a bewildered El Al steward – “I want Shamir! – referring to then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir. In another case, a passenger got up in mid-flight, walked to the front of the plane and sought to open the door to the cockpit. Diplomatically detained by a cabin attendant who asked where he was going, the passenger replied that he “only wanted to step out for a breath of fresh air…”

In September 1970, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine skyjacked four airplanes. Few know there was a fifth target – an El Al flight, where the midair attempt was foiled by the pilot, who plunged the aircraft into a 14,000-foot nosedive, throwing the two armed terrorists for a loop, allowing passengers and crew to overpower the pair, including a traveler purported to have clobbered the male assailant over the head with a whiskey bottle before the air marshal took over.

Going in the other direction, in the 1980s a group of Greek pilgrims arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport after an Easter pilgrimage carrying 20 burning candles in glass containers they planned to take on board as carry-on baggage. The candles had been lit in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and they wanted to take the “holy flame” home with them. Not wanting to disappoint the passengers, the cabin crew agreed to stow one lit candle in a galley stove and return it to the group after landing.

While efforts to go the extra mile may raise questions whether any air carrier can hold a candle to El Al, the ultimate case of going out of the way for passengers was Operation Solomon: the historic June 1990 airlift of 15,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 24 hours, using IDF and El Al planes. El Al made aviation history… and The Guinness Book of World Records, for transporting 6,500 passengers in 10 aircraft.

Printed by courtesy of The Jerusalem Post.

Finding hope in the wake of Acre’s riots

Tension may have been bubbling for some time in the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Acre, but there’s still light at the end of the tunnel.I spent more than two years of my life working in an Arab-Jewish community center in a poor “mixed” area of Akko (Acre), whose goal is coexistence but whose scarcity of Jewish users indisputably made me “the other”.

It is not pleasant being “the other”. People watch you, treat you with suspicion and speak their own language in front of you even though you know they are all perfectly capable of conversing in Hebrew. But when you are “the other” no one really wants to speak to you anyway, and as for your religious holidays, well no one acknowledges them either.

But over a period of time, no matter how frustrating, hurtful and off-putting it could be walking into that center in the morning, knowing that no smiles or greetings would be awaiting me, slowly, slowly my Arab colleagues began to understand that my motives were pure and that I really believed that we could work together to make life better for us all.

Looking back over my special time in Akko, and comparing it to last week’s television images of hatred and violence, I think of Rehab, the office administrator who wouldn’t smile at me for almost a year, but who cried when we said goodbye; I think of Kareen, the Arab women’s coordinator who took up the veil last year and who pressed her phone number into my hand when I left; I think of Sara, from the FSU who tried so hard to convince Jewish women that it was safe to come to the center, and of Ahlam, my boss’s wonderful wife who spoke no English, whose Hebrew was far worse than mine and whose friendship was like a warm blanket. Four very special Akko women who overcame suspicion and fear, and became my friends.

Would the sparks of hatred have ignited into full blown riots, widespread damage to property, “pogroms”, and the shameful burning of three Arab flats in “Jewish” areas, if some Arab idiot hadn’t driven into a Jewish neighbourhood on Erev Yom Kippur and triggered an irreversible series of events fueled by religious incitement? Probably not.

But the tension is always bubbling beneath the surface in Akko, the wounds ready to be opened, and extremists on all sides ready, willing and eager to “have a go” and show once and for all that Akko is “their” city in “their” country.

Today I work at the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa, another of Israel’s mixed cities, where we are trying to reassure our Arab and Jewish residents that Haifa is different. But the truth is we are holding our breath that no knock-on effect will spread the hatred into the Galilee and Israel’s other mixed cities.

The sad reality is that no one I know will be going near Akko this holiday week; Kareen called off her dinner invitation to my husband and I, the annual Akko Festival, so vital to that city’s economy has been cancelled, and most certainly reservations will not be needed for a table at Uri Buri, my favourite fish restaurant in Akko’s old City.

But am I hopeful that we will find a light at the end of the tunnel? Yes of course I am; so long as I don’t stop believing in what I am doing.

Israel may help the Arab world reach its potential

Imagine what could be achieved in the Middle East if Israeli innovation and enterprise was combined with Arab funding and creativity.In the wake of the Kadima party’s primary elections, the process of replacing Israel’s prime minister will begin in earnest. The leading candidates, as one would expect, have been discussing the familiar litany of problems facing the country: the threat from Iran, the challenge from Hamas, the dangers posed by Hezbollah, and the conflict with Palestinians and Arab countries.

Considering the long list of grave dangers, it might seem surprising that Israel’s economy is not flashing distress signals. In fact, while the global economy has split into two camps – one swimming in oil wealth, the other limping partly because of the high price of oil – Israel, a country with almost no natural resources, has just reported its best unemployment rate in more than two decades.

To be sure, Israel’s economy will slow down because it is deeply intertwined with the rest of the world. But it has kept growing strongly despite an international credit spasm and a spike in commodity prices. One can only imagine the explosion of prosperity that would follow if real peace were achieved in the Middle East.

Glimpses of potential

We can already see glimpses of the potential. In Dubai, the dazzling emirate that dares to be different, an Israeli-born Italian architect, David Fisher, will build another astonishing addition to the Gulf skyline. The 80-floor tower will feature floors that rotate independently, changing the shape of the building and the views from each window. The undulating structure will produce its own energy, with solar-power cells on the roof of each floor. The idea is revolutionary for many reasons, beginning with the birthplace of the architect. Arab countries don’t do business with Israelis. But Israelis have much to contribute, and progressive Arabs working with them could create world-transforming partnerships.

Israel today attracts more foreign investment than anyone, except the United States and the European Union, because its entrepreneurs and scientists have proven that they can produce and innovate. Israeli products and inventions touch all of our lives.

Israel has what the Arab world needs. And Israelis would rejoice in true partnerships with their Arab neighbors.

Until now, the Arab Middle East has looked like a grotesque display of haves and have-nots. Oil-rich countries have splurged on luxuries while importing servants and cheap labor from poor neighbors. Israel, meanwhile – and, for a time, Lebanon – built an economy that relies on the skills and talents of its people. Israeli prosperity created thousands of jobs for Palestinians, until suicide bombings led to check points and dreadful difficulties for West Bank and Gaza residents.

A vibrant economy

Despite wars, violence, and political scandals, Israel has kept investing in its people and creating a vibrant economy that could one-day help remake the entire region.

Last year, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development invited Israel to apply for membership. The exclusive OECD brings together 30 of the world’s richest economies that are committed to democracy and free markets.

Undeterred by political scandals and by defense spending – far exceeding US aid to Israel – that sucks out a huge portion of the national income, Israel has an exceptional educational system that stimulates creativity and independent thinking. The country has some of the world’s highest rates of university graduates, of doctorates, book production, technology companies, patents, innovation, discoveries, and much more.

The Arab world has always had enormous potential and, for a time, it produced great knowledge. Then came cultural stagnation. But that will change one day.

Much of the region has been derailed by war, extremism, and despotism. Precious time and treasure have been wasted. Israel, meanwhile, has focused on survival – and has thrived.

Last year, for example, the government decided to give a big push to electric cars. Israel will become the world’s lab for electric cars, with participation from several European companies, and Israeli technology and government incentives to create a national network for electric transportation.

Israel doesn’t have to be an isolated island of innovation. Can we imagine the citizens of a place like Dubai joining hands with Israelis to seek alternatives to oil? Picture that: Gulf oil money and talent working with Israelis pursuing the future beyond oil, or tackling global warming; or working together to build on Israeli inventions that lower water usage in that parched part of the world. Israeli ingenuity and resourcefulness, plus Arab funding and creativity, could turn the Middle East into a region of peace and prosperity, instead of one of violence and extremism.

For now, however, one hears the politicians and returns back to today’s reality. For now, it’s about facing dangers and focusing on survival.

Printed with permission from Frida Ghitis