Stopping the economic slide

Despite the world’s economic woes, Georgia and other US states continue to actively pursue joint venture opportunities with Israel. Trade between the US and Israel has been hard hit by the current global economic downturn. Once on an ascending curve, bilateral trade peaked at $28 billion in 2008, up 30 percent from 2005 when it was $21.5 billion. Now, however, in light of the financial situation, trade figures are down considerably. Statistics published recently by the Israeli Export & International Cooperation Institute reveal that first quarter 2009 exports to the US are down 38% from the same quarter in 2008. Similarly, imports for the first two months of 2009 from the US are down 24% (a total of $300 million), as compared to the previous year. For example, the State of Georgia, which has a strong record of cooperation and collaboration with Israeli companies, has begun to experience this decline. Financial restrictions we once complained about during the “good times” have actually placed Israel in a position to better weather the downturn than most other western societies. The relatively low level of mortgage debt, the absence of sub-prime mortgages and banks that own the credit cards and, thereby, limit the level of short term debt that any family can amass, all combine to insulate Israel from some of the worst aspects of the downturn. The financial “crisis” the world is experiencing right now is actually a passage through a number of simultaneous transitions, any one of which would be sufficient to “upset the apple cart” as it were, but, taken together, creates an imbalance that will only be righted, if our luck holds out, over the next 18 months and very slowly at that. These transitions include: Transfers of Power: As nationwide elections for new leadership take place around the world, it is impossible to predict what the new fabric of world leadership will be, whether it will be conservative or liberal, predictable or radical, beneficial or detrimental. The Economic Downturn: Not since the great depression of 1929-1933 has the world’s work force had to deal with a downturn as serious as this and, as a result, the world does not have the experience on which to draw that will enable the average working person to cope with the challenges of this new reality. The Psychological Effect: This is the most overlooked effect of the downturn. Without prior experience in dealing with a problem of this magnitude and with people in many western nations, including Israel, having been brought up with a certain sense of entitlement to a better life than that of their parents, disappointment is running rampant. However, despite the current situation, Georgia and other US states continue to actively pursue joint venture opportunities with Israel, demonstrating belief not only in Israeli innovation and technology but in the country’s healthy economic life. With that in mind, the following things need to happen in order to arrest the downward spiral and re-establish confidence in global trade as an antidote to the continued decline of world economies: * We need to stop calling this a crisis and stop focusing on how terrible everything is. Half of economics is psychology and we should communicate that this is a serious, but manageable, problem and that fear and panic should be avoided as the world, united, works on the solution that awaits. * People should be encouraged to spend rationally. What we face now is capital paralysis provoked by shell-shock and conscientious self-reflection. Retreating to narrow, short-term protectionist policies would only serve to deepen the global recession, as it did in the ’30s. * Policy makers must think outside the box to help individuals overcome the massive hits to psychology as a result of losses sustained in capital markets, real estate and job security. * Local governments must help create new jobs and re-train existing workers for higher wage paying industries such as health care, technology and renewable energy. Having said all of this, the fact remains that until these points are addressed, world trade indicators will remain low for some time, as the current numbers show, because Israel is not an island and is very much dependent on global trade for its economic life. The US, as Israel’s biggest export destination, will need to begin to come out of its downward financial spiral before bilateral trade figures reverse their current trend.

In the search for peace, include the people

If you want to make peace in Israel, the Israeli and Palestinian governments need to engage the ordinary people in the process. We’re one third of the way through 2009, but we can already say it has been a hard year for those who want to see two states living in peace, side by side. In the wake of a war that devastated Gaza but failed to stop rocket attacks, continued fractures between the Palestinian leadership, Israeli elections which brought a right-wing coalition into power, and amidst talk of the demise of the two state solution, we find ourselves on shaky ground, looking toward a blurry and uncertain horizon. George Mitchell, US Special Envoy to the Middle East, visited Israel and the Palestinian Authority last week, trying to jump-start a stalled peace process. He carries with him the weight of the Obama Administration’s stated commitment to brokering a two state agreement. But what sort of mandate does he have from those on the ground, those who will be most affected by the outcome of his efforts – the Israeli and Palestinian people? A new poll released by the OneVoice Movement fills in some of the answers – providing a snapshot of where we are, and where we should be going. Building from some of the public opinion and public diplomacy methods employed in the peace process in Northern Ireland, the poll was designed to engage Israelis and Palestinians on final status issues and procedural processes, with questions meant to push beyond the usual, intransigent ‘yes’ or ‘no’ responses. The goal was to get to the heart of what people on the ground are willing to accept, and how they think the process should play out. At the macro level, the findings indicate that despite fears to the contrary, the two state solution remains the only resolution that is acceptable to the majority of both Israelis and Palestinians: 74% of Palestinians and 78% of Israelis would be willing to accept a two state solution, while 59% of Palestinians and 66% of Israelis find a single, bi-national state to be unacceptable. A negotiated peace is essential What’s more, Israelis and Palestinians are as convinced as ever that negotiations are the way to get there: 77% of Israelis and 71% of Palestinians find a negotiated peace to be either ‘essential’ or ‘desirable.’ Of course, that’s the macro view, and it’s not the whole story. There are significant gaps in public opinion on the toughest final status issues: Jerusalem, settlements, refugees. And there are even wider gaps on national priorities: the findings imply that mainstream Israeli and Palestinian populations still have yet to acknowledge the significant concerns on the other side. While the issue of greatest significance for Palestinians is freedom from occupation (94% deem it a ‘very significant’ problem in the peace process, ranking it the primary issue on the Palestinian side), only 30% of Israelis find it to be ‘very significant,’ ranking the issue 15th on the Israeli side. Similarly, the primary issue on the Israeli side is stopping attacks on civilians (90% rate it a ‘very significant’ issue). This issue meets with 50% approval on the Palestinian side, and ranks as 19th in a list of 21 issues. So how do we push past the impasse? How do we build consensus? And – perhaps most important – how do we ensure that this process isn’t subject to the same failings of all the others? The poll gives us some interesting answers here, as well. First and foremost, there is a clear desire for civic engagement in the peace process: ordinary Israelis and Palestinians not only want to be informed on negotiations progress, they desire greater involvement in the process. Progress at the negotiating table is only one step in the process of reaching an agreement that can be implemented. An end to the conflict which satisfies the primary needs of both Israelis and Palestinians – end to occupation and assurance of security – will only come when the leaders come to an agreement that their people are ready to understand, accept, and support. And this means civic education, true engagement of the grassroots. Working at the grassroots level Governments alone can’t take this on. They need to work in tandem with civil society groups and grassroots organizations to ensure true connection between the top level negotiations process and the will of the majorities on the ground. As part of this effort, OneVoice is launching a Town Hall Meetings series throughout Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which will start in May and continue throughout 2009. The meetings will use the results of the poll to start critical discussions on final status and mutual recognition issues – to highlight consensus where it already exists, and work toward consensus where there is none. Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not impossible – failure is not a foregone conclusion. The shape of an agreement is there, and there is genuine possibility to work toward compromise on even the toughest of final status issues. But without more attention to the process – without a genuine engagement of the people on the ground, who will have to live with whatever agreement is put down on paper – we will inevitably fall victim to the shortcomings and failures of the past. And our children will have to pay the price. About the poll. This poll was commissioned by OneVoice Israel and OneVoice Palestine in collaboration with Dr. Colin Irwin of the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool. The fieldwork to develop the questionnaires was undertaken by the research team in Israel and the Palestinian Authority in November and December 2008. The fieldwork for the public opinion polls was undertaken by Nader Said at Arab World for Research and Development (AWRAD) of Ramallah and Mina Zemach at Dahaf Institute of Tel Aviv following the elections in Israel in February 2009. Five hundred interviews were completed in Israel and six hundred in the West Bank and Gaza to produce representative samples of both populations in terms of age, gender, social background and geographical distribution. Publication of the results of the polls has been timed to provide the new administration in the US and new government in Israel with information to assist them in developing their policies for peace in the Middle East.

Finding a second chance in Acre

An employment program in Acre is giving women the chance not only to pursue new job opportunities, but also to fulfill their dreams.The word BeAtzmi, which means “on my own” in Hebrew, took on a new and inspiring meaning in March when 25 single mothers from the BeAtzmi program for employment initiatives in Acre graduated from the course. This is the second year BeAtzmi has worked successfully in Acre, changing the lives of single women, who for the first time in their lives are being offered the chance to pursue their occupational dreams and fulfill themselves on both professional and personal levels. The ceremony took place at a local community center and the audience was filled with the proud family members of the participants: children, parents and siblings. One by one, each woman presented her occupational dream. Most of them were only one step away from meeting their targets. An interesting aspect of this program is the process of true empowerment these individuals undergo. Most of these women became mothers before the age of 20 and were in troubled marriages; they could not even allow themselves to remember their dreams. Participants say that the program has made them better citizens and better parents; they now want their children to have a positive role model. They know that the best way forward is to keep trying hard, not to give up and always continue to pursue their dreams. Several factors enabled the success of this program, a joint venture of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto as part of the Israel Emergency Campaign funds, Strauss Group, the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee and the Acre municipality. Providing new skills Firstly, it provides its participants with employability skills. Additionally, deeply committed staff members, a coordinator and a professional mentor, provide the main pillars of success. The program also provides close follow-up and personal coaching, which have proven to be very effective. BeAtzmi works in full cooperation with the Acre municipality and their partnership is very strong, to the point that the program’s staff works hand in hand with the municipality. The BeAtzmi women’s group was appreciative of the support it received. The participants felt that this was the first time in their lives when someone believed in them enough to give them a chance. So many of the personal stories were fascinating, but there is one that stood out in particular for me. Ayala, a single woman with one child, worked cleaning houses all of her adult life. Several years ago, she lost her spouse when he died of cancer. More than ever, life seemed hopeless to Ayala and her son. She was encouraged to move to Australia where her sister lives, but after almost a year, she returned home because, as she admits: “I realized that I merely took all of my problems with me, and I saw that there was no benefit to being in a different geographic location.” Education and empowerment Upon returning to Israel, she learned that her other sister had participated in BeAtzmi the year before. Seeing the impact of the program on her sister, she was determined to join too. Ayala’s dream was always to become a beautician, but she did not know how to go about achieving this dream. The BeAtzmi workshops helped Ayala regain her self-confidence, an important part of becoming empowered, and, step-by-step, she is now undergoing professional training. At this point, reaching her occupational dream has become realistic. Following Ayala’s emotional presentation, her son jumped up to hug her, and her mother, who was in the crowd, silently cried tears of joy. Ayala says: “BeAtzmi gave me a chance I never thought I would have in my life: to be a happy, fulfilled person who can proudly support my family. I do not want to rely on anyone but myself.” And on a personal note, in my capacity as director of UIA Canada’s Israel Emergency Campaign, I have had the privilege to occasionally take part in BeAtzmi’s meetings, and I must say that watching the graduation was enlightening. This day and age when so many people are losing jobs – my fellow colleagues in the philanthropic world, people in the high-tech industry, and others – it emphasizes that all of us are vulnerable. And these women, despite the odds, despite their hardships of coming from a low socio-economic background and having to raise children on their own, found it within themselves to take control of their lives and fulfill their dreams.

Making peace in the Middle East to the beat of a hang drum

Founders, Israeli Lee Ziv (left) and Jordanian Jamil Sarraj connect Middle East nations and religions through a new musical project Musaique.She’s been featured in newspapers around the globe for her humanitarian work organizing money, supplies and the Israeli community to support the people in Gaza earlier this year. But professional peacemaker Lee Ziv, won’t stop at embracing the idea that she can connect people, through small efforts, in the Middle East.

Before the war with Gaza broke out in December, 28-year-old Lee, from Jerusalem, and Jamil Sarraj, who runs creative workshops in Jordan, had already met at a conference held in Jordan. After jamming a little, they decided to get a dozen friends together — six from Israel and six from Jordan, to make a little music and possibly something bigger in the peacemaking community. “We felt as though we created a new family,” Ziv recalls.

“Jamil and I started playing music and thought we had an amazing connection through this music. He called me and told me the United Religion Initiative could help us create a project. And we thought yallah, we should cooperate on music together,” Ziv tells ISRAEL21c. She has since collected over 40 musicians from across the Middle East region to participate in the project, Musaique.

“It’s not easy,” she admits. People across the Middle East can’t meet freely in each other’s countries: “We can meet only in Egypt, Turkey, or Morocco,” she explains.

Multi-faith band for peace

After a weekend jam session in a village on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea a few months ago, the musicians — mainly amateur — decided to create a group. They plan on touring with Musaique to create and record music in Middle East locations, where it’s possible for all the members to cross political borders.

Now organized under the United Religion Initiative (URI), Musaique could be the Middle East’s first multi-faith, multi-nations band, which will place more emphasis on the peacemaking part of music, than music as a profession.

“We thought from the beginning that we’re not going to be working [necessarily] with professional or known musicians,” says Ziv. “We want to bring people who love music and who want to do work on interfacing through music.”

Middle Eastern sounds and instruments will be a natural way for people from these parts to connect. Ziv, who works for the Sulha Peace Project in Israel, says she imagines the day when people from all over the Middle East will be able to play music together at both the Wailing Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, and the El Aksa mosque, the golden dome.

In many instances, Israeli Arabs who are Muslim, Palestinians, Bedouins, Christians and Israeli Jews already play music together in Israel, but not under a banner for peace, but as a natural form of cooperation as professional music makers.

Musaique, on the other hand, will emphasize the peacemakers’ dialogue created by way of the music. It will be a homegrown effort, initiated by the people who come from the region.

Living the music story for life

“There are so many problems in the region, not only in Israel,” says Ziv who lives in the Ein Kerem neighborhood of Jerusalem. “There is Armenia and Turkey, and now Egypt and Iran.”

After the first meeting in Jordan, “we feel we changed each other for life. I was just talking with Jamil and told him we’d have an amazing story to tell our grandchildren. But we’re not going to just tell it, we are going to live this story,” says Ziv who plays the drums and the new-age musical steel drum, the hang, also known as the PANArt.

During the weekend jam, their first meeting as a group, Ziv says the musicians felt a strong affinity for one another. “We felt as though we were practicing music for 10 years together,” she says. “All the music from this region, we have the same source. We came with Israeli songs with Hebrew lyrics, they knew the music and we know the tone and exactly what they are playing.”

A song called Oje aseman, a traditional Persian song, is the first that the band is working on. Next month a meeting is planned for Jordan in a village on the border with Syria. And in the near future, the group plans on taking the show on the road, recording in Amman, Jordan, and then onto Turkey with musicians they hope to collect from Israel, Jordan, Palestine, Morocco, Iran, Armenia, Turkey, and Egypt.

The musicians are already willing. “Every day I am getting phone calls,” says Ziv. “Our vision is to meet every time in a different place and then perform in a studio. We want to work with local communities in each place, and integrate Sufism and Kaballa and to create music around it,” she says. “Through this knowledge we can understand music includes everything.”

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.