A safe place to play in Sderot

After eight years of rocket attacks, Sderot’s children can finally play in peace, with the world’s first indoor playground reinforced with concrete and steel. Children playing, enjoying themselves, laughing. We take it for granted. But for the past eight years, this scene has been in short supply in Sderot. While rockets regularly fell on this northern Negev town – just one mile from the Gaza border – life was adjusted. And playing outdoors was one of the first casualties.

That changed recently when a new $5 million indoor recreational facility was dedicated by the Jewish National Fund-US in a particularly moving ceremony. According to JNF’s CEO Russell Robinson, the playground is “the biggest and most important gift that could possibly be given to the children of Sderot and the entire region”.

The JNF, which funds 99 percent of its Israel projects with partners, set out to raise the entire project cost on its own. The operating budget, estimated at $200,000 a year will also be entirely funded by the organization.

Like many play areas, it is complete with a jungle gym, rock-climbing wall, air-hockey tables, snack area and even the latest in high-tech devices. Unlike other facilities, this 21,000 sq. foot former textile factory has an indoor mini-soccer field and is largely built with reinforced concrete and steel – making it the only ‘safe-for-play’ indoor recreational facility in the world.

Here, children who have known nothing but Code Red since they were born, can play and their parents can be comfortable knowing that they are only seconds away from one of the many sections of the facility that double as a shelter when the siren sounds. Peace of mind for all.

The excitement in the room was genuine. It emanated from parents and grandparents to children, to the JNF Mission who traveled to Israel just for this dedication, to the dozens of spring break participants here to give a bit of themselves to this land.

It will be a long haul, however. I spoke to a young mother who has lived her entire life in Sderot. She’s happy that her kids now have this place to enjoy, but added: “The reality for my children hasn’t yet changed. It will take no more than one red alert every few months before the change will begin.”

A long list of individuals came together to make this playground a reality. Most impressive was the speed of it all – local people and local materials were used and the project was completed in just seven months. Many volunteered – from senior citizens to students at Sapir College. All responding to the need that for eight long years there has been no safe place for kids to play.

Despite all, the spirit of the 20,000 plus residents of Sderot remains strong. And as one 12 year old told us all at the conclusion of the dedication ceremony, “Nothing can break us – we’re here to stay.”

The very next day, the residents of Sderot enjoyed their first outdoor Purim carnival in eight years. Together.

Israel’s opportunity in a time of economic crisis

Now is the time for investment in a national strategy to exploit the next technological wave. The world stands on the threshold of a multi-dimensional technological renaissance, and Israel can and must be an important player in these developments. Its task is to invest in human capital and in the conditions required for it to realize its goals in this respect.

The global economic crisis and the elections held in Israel last month again sharpen the questions about the role of the state and the government in shaping economic policy. The crisis generates expectations of the government, most of them to do with the short term, and diverts attention away from the need for serious public discussion of long-term national economic strategy. The basis for such a strategy is the goal, where does the country want to be in another five years, or ten, or more?

It’s hard to answer that question in our complicated geopolitical circumstances and in the changing “flat” world. I want to propose a flexibly defined goal whereby Israel wants to create and keep a global competitive advantage in the areas on which it chooses to focus.

Keeping a competitive advantage in a global world will enable us as a country to maintain a growing economy and to invest in growth producing areas and in important national aims (security, welfare, and so on).

After deciding on the goal, we have to choose the areas on which we wish to focus, to choose the ways in which we can obtain an advantage, and to decide how to measure progress.

Developing knowledge

Israel should focus on developing knowledge and innovation-intensive industries, and on exporting the goods and services they produce. By this I mean products and services that exemplify originality, inventiveness, and combinations of scientific disciplines, through which we can stay ahead of competing countries. The innovation industries can be in various fields: communications and computing, medicine, design, genetically modified agriculture, complex materials, and so on.

The pace of technological progress is dramatic. The concept “science fiction” has lost its meaning today, it’s hard to think of things that won’t be fact in the next decade or in the course of this century.

An example of this is the tremendous developments in computing and information technologies. The capability and power of today’s personal computer are a million times those of the first personal computer, which was developed 35 years ago. This pace will accelerate, uses and applications will broaden, providing answers to many problems that concern us in areas such as energy, education, and healthcare.

The world stands on the threshold of a multi-dimensional technological renaissance, and Israel can and must be an important player in these developments. Its task is to invest in human capital and in the conditions required for it to realize its goals in this respect.

There are many layers of investment, such as:

* Development and support of basic research at universities and research institutes (for example, encouragement and subsidies for researchers from overseas);

* Increasing the size of grants for commercial companies on the basis of their investment in R&D, with clear criteria for such aid (such as number of patents registered annually);

* The definition and implementation of a national education strategy, with an emphasis of nurturing teachers, excellence, and core subjects (languages, natural sciences, creative thinking);

* Removing bureaucratic bottlenecks, such as restrictions on the flow of investment capital to Israel;

* Expanding investment in the national communications infrastructure and turning Israel and its citizens into leaders in the use of advanced technologies.

Sixth in the world for innovation

A good yardstick for monitoring progress is the Global Competitiveness Index compiled by the World Economic Forum. The index combines data in 12 “pillars of competitiveness”, and ranks 134 countries according to their ability to compete in international markets and provide a basis for rapid growth. Israel is currently ranked 23. In the past few years, our ranking has fallen, from 14th, to 17th, and now to 23rd.

For innovation, we are ranked 6th in the world. On the other hand, we are ranked in 56th place for macro-economic stability, and 24th for the standard of higher education. These figures show that we have the ability, but that we must improve performance in the other areas in order to be among the leading countries.

Many commercial companies have flourished in times of crisis, and Israel too has an opportunity to define and implement a national economic strategy, based on cultivating its innovation industry, to turn us into one of the 10 leading countries in the world for competitiveness and capacity for growth.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2009. Reproduced by permission of Globes [online] – www.globes.co.il

Tomorrow’s negotiators offer hope of a better future

Student teams who take part in Israel’s model UN conferences are learning how to negotiate and resolve conflict – skills the Middle East can’t do without. Over the last two months, we have witnessed appalling negotiating skills in the Middle East. Israel and Hamas have each declared a unilateral ceasefire because the two sides cannot even agree on terms to bring an end to the current tensions, never mind a long-term solution. Political leaders may promote the idea of peaceful resolution, but actually sitting down to talk seems to require a Herculean effort in which nobody wants to invest.

Despite the visible failures of current leaders, programs designed to offer an alternative to future generations are encouraging. Two examples are this week’s third annual Israel Model United Nations Conference (IMUN), and last week’s eighth annual Israel Middle East United Nations Conference (TIMEUN). In both conferences, diverse groups of high school students improved their own conflict resolution proficiency.

For the third year, IMUN took place in the Moshe Sharett Auditorium of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Approximately 300 Arab and Jewish students across Jerusalem, from the Hartman Institute to the Boyer School, as well as the American International School in Even Yehuda, spent three days negotiating and passing resolutions based on formalized rules of international diplomacy.

During the opening ceremony, students had an opportunity to pose challenging questions on issues ranging from global warming to concerns regarding Israel’s portrayal in the United Nations. Based on responses to the remarks of keynote speaker Richard Miron, spokesperson and chief public information officer, United Nations Special Coordinator’s Office, it was clear that these students had carefully researched the challenges they would be addressing. They did not shy away from asking difficult questions and did not accept answers at face value.

Watching “Denmark” send messages to the Greenpeace delegation about supporting offshore drilling resolutions and Iran protest international sanctions from the podium, it’s hard to remember that these students, dressed in business attire, are not real United Nations delegates.

But, despite the sometimes palpable tension as representatives struggle to simultaneously support their positions while working to achieve an acceptable compromise, none of the delegates walk out. Nobody screams and nobody uses idol threats. These students assume the passion, dedication and professionalism we would like to see in real negotiating teams.

Dedication to peaceful resolution

The same dedication to peaceful resolution of issues was also seen at last week’s TIMUN conference. Under the passionate and dedicated guidance of Sara Jane Shapira, and her assistant, Peter Sickle, over 500 students came together at the campus of the Walworth Barbour International School (WBAIS) in Israel’s Even Yehuda to debate real issues, adjust to unexpected crises and pass resolutions.

Christian Arabs from Nazareth, Palestinians studying at the Jerusalem French School, Jewish students from the Amit Nachshon Yeshiva and even a group of students who flew in from the Bikent University Prep school in Ankara, Turkey joined students from WBAIS and 31 other schools for three rigorous days of committee meetings, passionate debate, resolutions and team-building.

For eight years, despite the second Intifada, Lebanon War and other regional crises, high school students have sacrificed free time throughout the year so that they can prepare for this conference; showing their classmates, neighbors and families that, if people are ready to talk, they can find a way to resolve conflicts. But they have to be ready to talk.

Sitting with Sara Jane Shapira, a longtime teacher at WBAIS and the ongoing director of the conference, I realized just how passionate the participants were. Assignments were made months ago, long before the war broke out in Gaza. Despite the tensions of current events and the resulting deteriorating relationship between Jerusalem and Ankara, the Bikent Prep students did not cancel their trip. Not only did they participate, but they did not resign from their previously assigned role as the Israeli delegation.

Actually, all of the student participants displayed a great deal of courage and integrity.

A different point of view

Shapira encourages participants to broaden their horizons and look at conflicts from different perspectives, so all of the students are asked to assume roles different than those they represent in real life. Students of Haifa’s Leo Baeck school represented Jordan, students at the Tabeetha School in Jaffa assumed the roles of South Korea, Thailand and Uzbekistan and students of the Hayovel School in Herzliya assumed the position of Saudi Arabia.

For months, students involved in both conferences have learned to argue effectively to defend countries whose positions they may have found anathema in reality. They are challenged to see things from a different point of view.

For some students, the affects are long lasting. Graduates have used their TIMEUN experience as a springboard for professional training. More than one former student has returned to tell Sara Jane that their participation in TIMEUN inspired them to study conflict resolution in university. Some are now teaching these skills themselves at a variety of universities.

Merrill Lynch and Global Classrooms have sponsored TIMEUN for many years. Though the economy has weakened globally, all of those involved in the program, including conference directors, students, and parents hope that the funding will be available next year. The program challenges students to re-evaluate long-held positions and biases.

The world is becoming more and more divisive. It is a dangerous time. Radical religious movements are increasing in numbers, and the damage they inflict is growing This, combined with the worst economic global downturn since the Great Depression, can combine to serve a lethal blow to the future of peaceful conflict resolution.

But watching the IMUN and TIMEUN students in action, one realizes that the world cannot afford to lose events like this. These debates offer students a chance to become more effective leaders than the ones who have brought us to the dangerous precipice where we stand today.

We have more in common than we believe

Serving as chairman of one of the 9,000 ballot boxes used in the 18th Knesset elections proved to be an enlightening experience for one Israeli voter. I had the honor of serving as a chairman of one of the more than 9,000 ballot boxes used during the elections for the 18th Knesset. When I arrived at the voting location at 6:30am, I had no idea that I would leave at 12:15am, almost 18 hours later, after such a mind-altering experience.

The first thing to strike me was the different worlds merging on my staff. My deputy was a young secular woman representing the Labor Party. The second member of my committee was a young, religious woman representing National Union. There were two “voting observers,” both haredi men – one from United Torah Judaism and one from Shas. During the course of the day, an additional observer joined from Kadima. The camaraderie and unity which developed over the day among the group was quite remarkable.

As a group we laughed, debated some points, discussed our backgrounds and cultures and really bonded. In what other setting would a haredi man be found sitting and talking amicably with a secular woman? Where else would a member of Shas be found challenging a young, Kadima activist to solve a difficult riddle? In what other setting do people from all walks of Israeli life sit and discuss the coming of the Messiah, the Iranian nuclear threat, and anti-Zionist extremists? While for the rest of the country it was a day of fragmentation as people voted their separate ways, in our voting room there was a unique moment of unity.

I need to do this myself

The second incredible impression was witnessing certain voting experiences. A new immigrant from America in her ’90s took close to 20 minutes trying to decipher the various Hebrew acronyms on the voting slips, refusing legal help from my staff since she “needed to do this by myself.” She had tears in her eyes as she put her envelope in the ballot box.

There were French immigrants who, upon slipping their envelopes into the ballot box proudly proclaimed a voté, the French declaration that “I have done my civic duty.” There was an older Israeli woman who, upon putting her ballot into the box mumbled, “The Messiah should come today.” There was a Russian couple standing outside the room for quite some time trying to make up their minds – clearly basking in the fact that they had the right to make this decision and influence the future of their country.

There was a young man who moved to Jerusalem recently but was still registered in Beit Shemesh who, upon realizing that he had left his identification documents at home, panicked and was willing to spend hours on the road driving wherever he had to go to find some way to vote. There was the recent Anglo olah (new immigrant) pleading with us to find a way for her to vote despite her not holding the legal documents to allow her to do so. Overall, there was an incredible sense of anticipation, tension and excitement, as people were not simply voting but clearly sensing that they were helping set the direction of their nation.

You never know what a person truly feels

The final experience came at the end of the day, when it was time to count the votes. Some of the staff felt so comfortable with the rest of the group that they decided to reveal for whom they voted. The young male Kadima representative? He voted for Shas. The young female Labor representative? Shas. This taught me in the most glaring and tangible way that externals cannot define the essence of a person; you simply never know what a person truly feels on the inside.

It also revealed to me that there is a searching and yearning for something spiritual and meaningful among the younger generation which manifested itself in these two people, one Sephardi and one Ashkenazi, identifying with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and a religious party.

We do not yet know in which direction our country will turn. But for me, Election Day yielded tremendous fruits as I came to the conclusion that our country has a bright future with passionate and caring citizens who have more in common than we are often led to believe. For me, and I hope for you, this serves as an Election Day victory.

Published courtesy of The Jerusalem Post

The Holocaust – a side order to everything

As the world commemorates International Holocaust Day, one Israeli-American reveals how for her, the Holocaust remains a constant companion.
Yotvata is the 24-hour cafe next door to my hotel and my second home in Tel Aviv in the wee hours of the morning when I can’t sleep. It’s a dairy restaurant, a chain, with all the milk coming from Kibbutz Yotvata near Eilat, established in 1957.

The young adults who work here are saving for their post-military dance-a-thons in Goa, India, treks in Nepal, beach parties in Thailand and rainforest off-roading in South America. This morning, the new one asks me if I want some Holocaust with my shakshuka, a glorious hot pot of tomatoes, onions, garlic, eggs and spices. I tell her its ok to leave it off, I’ve had enough Holocaust.

Except it turns out she was practicing American style politeness where you seek approval for things that already are and can only be.

I figure this since she brings my side order of Holocaust anyway, saying that it comes with the shakshuka. I tell her not to put it down that I will change my order in that case to an Israeli breakfast. She says not to bother, for the Holocaust comes on the side with every dish, with every meal, with every customer, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for the past 60 years. If I want to eat here in my beloved cafe so close always open so good and always fast I must accept it.

And that’s how it is here in Israel.

The Holocaust comes as a side to absolutely everything. You can’t say “Hold the Holocaust.” You can’t get around or get over it. You can’t avoid it, reject it or deny it. If you want to live here that is, truly live and not be a tourist.

The bi-coastal techie

Uzi. That’s his name. You know like the submachine gun. The “Uzi” was named after Uziel Gal, a captain in the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) who designed it during the 1948 war. And this name, Uzi, was and is a common one here. So it’s the man’s name that came first. It’s not like the Israelis started naming their children after a submachine gun.

In the year since the passing of his father, Uzi has been on a mission to find his missing uncle. You see, it was known that this uncle had escaped from the Nazis and was alive after the war and resettled in Israel just like Uzi’s father. This uncle was known to be the only person from his father’s family who also survived the Holocaust. It’s just that for reasons left unsaid, and hence unknown, his father chose not to search for his brother. So out of respect for his father’s wishes, Uzi waited. He waited 33 years until his father died and he could start the search himself for his uncle. Uzi hoped he wasn’t too late.

The Israeli classic

Bald, hot, bright, alpha-male, works hard during the day moving money around the globe. He likes to “live the good life” as he puts it. This includes chatting it up and drinking on the beaches of Tel Aviv at night. He’s not so laid back as you would think, however. He’s German. For those not in the know, there used to be a large and thriving German Jewish population? in Germany of course.

Before the war, Germany was a bustling cultural and commercial center for Jews. Liberalism in worshipping practices accompanied a revival of Jewish literature and modern Jewish scholarship. Reform Judaism, the type I practice, was invented to allow “enlightened” Jews to continue to take part in Jewish traditions without having to believe in the literal interpretation of the Torah. From the mid-1800s until the Nazis arrived, Jews enjoyed close to legal equality with other Germans. Great fortunes arose from banking in families such as the Rothschilds, the Warburgs and the Schiffs.

Our Israeli came from one of these banking families, under whose guidance money was moved around the globe, before the war. His grandfather moved to the land of Israel out of Zionist passion. He told his fiancé that he would get settled and send for her, once his finances arrived. His finances never came and the woman was never seen nor heard of again. Eventually the grandfather married another woman and raised a family.

I think how proud of his grandson this man must be now, for our Israeli has grown up big and strong and is once again continuing the family tradition of moving money around the globe.

The peacemaker

Intensity is the hallmark trait of the former New York Yeshiva boy turned Middle East kingpin for peace. His soft-spoken style and gentle manner belies a consuming drive and high ambition. He runs a website that promotes conversations between Jews and Palestinians, along with anyone else who wants to talk peace. He meets with government ministers, speaks at conferences, coordinates rallies and speaks out against violence. He immigrated to Israel four years ago and has 20 more to go before reaching his goal of Middle East Peace.

His grandmother was living with her family in a small town in Europe when the trouble began. Her father was shot and killed. When the Nazis came for the rest of the family, her mother’s quick thinking saved her life. As the Nazis divided the Jews of the town into those whose labor made them worth keeping, and those whose lives were not considered valuable, this 16-year-old girl was initially shoved into the wrong line along with her mother and little sister. Her mother pushed her back and said to the Nazi: “Please sir, someone needs to cook and care for him”, pointing towards her older brother who was in the right line. It worked and her life was spared.

She ended up hiding out with an older man who would later become her husband in a hole dug out of the ground for the duration of the war. Eventually, they immigrated to New York City, where they built a clothing business together. But his grandfather always wanted to come to Israel. So at age 90, three years ago, he made the move.

Bless him, this Nazi. For his decision to allow one girl to move into the right line begot a daughter who writes about children of Holocaust survivors, and a grandson who promotes peace.

The party-boy

He has been spotted at every major party I’ve been to in Tel Aviv for the past six months. His flamboyant hats and mischievous grin are impossible to miss. The consummate flirt from Texas, I took him for a rather casual character.

Recently, I discovered that The Partier organizes parties as a volunteer side job with his day role being running a start up. He told me that these parties are fundraisers for Holocaust survivors. In other words, scanty clad young Israelis and associated travelers go drinking, dancing, smoking, kissing, hooking up and generally “carrying on” as my grandfather would put it, all in the name of Holocaust survivors?

Don’t get me wrong, there is no time that is a bad time to raise funds for such a worthy cause. It just seemed??.off. So I asked him if he knew any Holocaust survivors. “Yeah,” he said. “My family. At least those that survived.”

The Tel Avivian

The Tel Avivian has two Jewish parents but adamantly denies he is a Jew. He has lived in Israel his whole life but adamantly denies he is a Zionist. He dislikes Silicon Valley but stayed there long enough to receive funding and an exit that fuels his daily afternoons at the beach. He told me more about his experiences in a military intelligence unit than I know he should have told me so I have forgotten them.

Our Tel Avivian has a family that appears to have materialized only mid-century. Nothing before. He has four grandparents. All alive. Each arrived after the war. Alone. There is a word used for these Holocaust orphans but I cannot find it. Many had to be smuggled into Israel on ships, sneaking by the naval blockade set up by our wonderful British friends who didn’t seem to see that there was something truly inhuman about stopping Holocaust survivors from getting to Israel after the war.

The Tel Avivian can talk to me about just about anything, although mostly we end up on topics few Americans would consider discussing with anyone other than their therapist. He can tell me how each of his grandparents picked up shovels and literally built this country from scratch. But he cannot talk to me about these four individuals’ lives prior to their arrival in Israel. I do not know where they are from, or what happened to their families. At this point, I like it better that way.

Imagine living and working with, not the ancestors, but the close relatives of those individuals headlining at Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem museum and memorial to the Holocaust. Not the overwhelming unknown unidentified blur of six million Jews, but people whom you know and love.

The citizens of Israel don’t talk about the Holocaust the way I do. The Holocaust for most of the Ashkenazi Jews here is about “my father”, or “my grandmother’s whole family”, or “both of my parents’ families” or “only my mother and her sister”. It’s about “he came here alone”.

Imagine living in a city where the same people in those photos at Yad Vashem, those who were children and teenagers at the time, materialize right in front of you in the wee morning hours as you walk along the Tayelet (Tel Aviv’s three mile long beachfront promenade) with their Philippine aides. If they are at least 70 years old and Ashkenazi looking, chances are probably better than 50-50 that they weren’t in the land of Israel soon enough.

Try to remove the Holocaust from your life in Israel. Go ahead. I dare you. Learning to live with the Holocaust is a critical aspect of learning to live in Israel. And perhaps that is a contributing, unspoken factor for why so many who come here – go home again.

Of the five men profiled, Uzi, the party-boy and the peacemaker are real individuals, while the Tel Avivian and an Israeli classic are real but are each composites of two individuals.

The views expressed in this article, do not necessarily reflect the views of ISRAEL21c.