My friend, Tom Lantos

Throughout his distinguished political career, Californian congressman and former Holocaust survivor Tom Lantos, was firmly committed to Israel and the Jewish people.Tom Lantos was truly one of a kind in the US Congress. His passing is an incalculable loss not only for his constituents, the US Congress, and the United States, his adopted country, but for Israel.

I first befriended Tom before he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1980. Even back then, I was impressed by his incredible life story – surviving the Nazi occupation of Hungary and the Holocaust, coming to the US on an academic scholarship, earning a doctorate in economics, and making a name for himself in California.

I first encountered Tom’s commitment to Israel and the Jewish people in 1976 when he called on me at AIPAC to discuss the Democratic presidential primary elections. At the time, almost all pro-Israel Democrats were, for good reasons, backing Henry M. (“Scoop”) Jackson. After our meeting, Tom wisely decided to help Sen. Frank Church because of his position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Over the next three decades during his 27 years in Congress, Tom’s contributions to Israel and the Jewish people were unparalleled. It was not only his considerable intellect and unique personal story that differentiated him from his 434 House colleagues, but the way he approached them.

Tom was definitely Old World when it came to his manners and charm. He didn’t keep a desk in his office so that he could treat his guests as if they were in his own living room. Unfailingly polite and attentive, he treated his Democratic and Republican colleagues with equal respect, forging strong bipartisan bonds that endured even after partisan rancor became the order of the day on Capitol Hill.

And then there was the energy and devotion he applied to all of his causes, and the relationships he cultivated with foreign leaders, which culminated in his ascension to the chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Tom was thus able to influence policies affecting Israel positively more than any other single Member of Congress. For example, his strong working and personal relationship with former Foreign Affairs Committee Chair, now ranking Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, led to the kind of effective bipartisan legislative actions that are rarely seen in Washington’s present acrimonious environment.

Prior to that, he was able to work harmoniously with the late Republican chairman Henry Hyde, someone whose background and views on a host of issues were so different than Tom’s. During this period, Hyde essentially left one particular geographic area up to Tom.

Tom’s activities involving Middle East policies and US-Israel relations dovetailed beautifully with the outstanding leadership he provided in championing human rights. He founded the Congressional Human Rights Caucus to highlight abuses worldwide, taking a leadership role and thereby increasing his credibility on Israel-related matters.

Not only did he highlight anti-Semitism, but genocide and, more recently, Darfur. In this cause he enlisted his wife, Annette, who worked on human rights issues on a daily basis, and had her own desk in his offices. But whether it was Tom’s closeness to Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi, or his intimate conversations with President George W. Bush, Tom’s overriding passion has always been his support for a secure Israel as being not only in the best geopolitical interests of the United States, but also one of our nation’s highest moral callings.

Tom’s admirers spanned both the American political spectrum from Left to Right, and also the often-fractious organized American Jewish community. This is quite a remarkable accomplishment considering the differences of opinion (and animosity), which unfortunately exist today as Israel engages in the latest peace process, and confronts threats from Hamas and Hizbullah on its borders, and the growing menace of Iran.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has stated that, “the State of Israel owes a great debt to Lantos.” She is certainly correct. However, much of the good that Tom accomplished in his 27 years in Congress to assist Israel’s well-being has gone unrecorded. Very few are fully aware of all of Tom’s efforts behind the scenes to benefit Israel and the Jewish people.

On a personal level, I will miss our wide-ranging conversations, where we exchanged information, probed each other’s views and even engaged in the latest political gossip, of which there was always an abundance on Capitol Hill. But the backdrop invariably was how it all affected Israel.

It was during one of our meetings last spring when Tom suggested that my 16-year-old daughter intern in his office last summer. I thought she might be too young to take full advantage of this opportunity. As it turned out, it was an experience she will always treasure. It gave her the opportunity to be close to a great man, and an opportunity which I hope she takes advantage of later on in her life.

My friend, Tom Lantos, was someone who was truly able to make a difference. That is why he will be missed by so many, and particularly those of us who had the privilege of knowing and working with him.

Eilat – home of sun, sea and symphonies

Once little more than a seaside resort, Eilat is rapidly becoming home to some of the country’s most exciting cultural events.The average Israeli or, for that matter, foreign tourist generally thinks of Eilat in terms of a sun-kissed fun-filled resort where the only potential minefields are over-exposure to the sun and splashing out on too many VAT-free shopping sprees. If that includes you, you’d only be partly right. The Red Sea town, it seems, is rapidly becoming something of a major cultural center too. And, if the recent Red Sea Classical Festival is anything to go by, Eilat is putting its money where its mouth is.

Consider just some of the cultural events that now take place down south: The long-running Red Sea Jazz Festival, which has become a permanent end-of-summer vacation feature over its 21 years, the annual Chamber Music Festival, the Teimaniada and the aforementioned four-day classical bash, sponsored by the Isrotel hotel chain. Add to that list, a burgeoning film festival, several sports events and a new theater festival and you start to get the emerging cultural picture.

“The classical music festival is a good example of what we are trying to do here,” says Red Sea Tourism Administration director Yossi Anni. “Yes, most people probably think of Eilat as a place where you just chill out on the beach or by the hotel pool. But we are trying to enhance that image. Most Israelis don’t think of Eilat as a major cultural center, but I think that is starting to change.”

According to Anni, cultural and sporting events bring in close to 170,000 visitors to Israel every year. “The Red Sea Jazz Festival has around 20,000 visitors and the film festival brings in another 3,500. Then there are sports events like the Sportiada, Triathlon and Ironman. They bring another 80,000-100,000 here.”

The timing of the festivals and other cultural activities is also an important factor, as is the type of tourist they target. According to Anni, having the Red Sea Classical Festival in January makes sense. It helps fill the hotels at a time of year when they don’t normally enjoy full occupancy. “Also, events like the classical festival bring in a different kind of visitor,” he says.

Judging by the patrons of the King Solomon Hotel during the Red Sea Classical Festival, it looked like half of the country’s better-heeled residents had relocated down south for a long luxurious weekend. No expense, it seems, was spared. Food was plentiful and frequent, and transport was laid on from the hotel to the hangar where the concerts were held at Eilat Port. Once at the port, we were treated to pre-concert cocktails and tasty niblets and, if that wasn’t enough, there were several steaming tureens of hot soup awaiting us on our return to the hotel after the musical entertainment. Isrotel and the festival organizers had pulled out all the stops to make sure the festivalgoers felt pampered and that the long trip down south was value for money, and then some.

“One of the things we are trying to do with the classical festival is to bring people to Eilat who wouldn’t normally come here,” declares Isrotel general manager Raffi Sadeh, “and at a different time of year than the normal high season.”

According to Sadeh, the classical festival has gained momentum over its seven-year history. “I think events like this festival are making a difference. In the first year most of the people who came were die-hard classical festival fans. This year, there all sorts of people here, and not just those who have a deep understanding of classical music – and they are all having a good time. Classical music fans can catch [festival artistic director and conductor Valery] Gergiev at concerts in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other places around the world. What they get here is culture and a vacation. That’s a great combination. The Kfar Blum classical music festival is based on a similar idea.”

Eilat is, of course, one of the great get-away places. It is almost like going abroad. As you drive or fly across the Arava desert you gradually leave the hustle and bustle and tensions of everyday life in “the real world” behind, and your pulse starts to settle into a more pedestrian pace. “The Swiss go off to ski resorts, where they mix taking it easy with sporting activities. That’s the added value of coming to a festival, for example, in Eilat. You get to rest, eat well and enjoy some top-quality cultural events at the same time.”

If there was anything of a “downside” to the classical music bash it was the premises used for the classical concerts. A hangar is not the most comfortable place to perform classical music. The seats were far from the padded pews patrons enjoy at, for example, the Opera House in Tel Aviv, although the sound people did an admirable job in ensuring the acoustics were commensurately audience friendly in the ad-hoc voluminous music auditorium.

Eilat Mayor Yitzhak Halevy was understandably a busy man during the festival, and is naturally delighted with the response to all the cultural events that now take place in his town. “It is wonderful to see 7,000 music lovers come to Eilat,” he beams. “And we want to upgrade all these events.” Does that include providing a purpose-built concert hall that would serve the classical music festival and some of the other music events in Eilat? “I would very much like that to happen,” says Halevy. “It is just a matter of time.”

Israelis and non-Israelis who visited Eilat in the 1970s and haven’t been back since would be amazed at the transformation that has taken place there. Back then, for many, Eilat was just a stopping-off and stocking-up point en route to the beaches of the Sinai. There were less than a handful of decent hotels and the beaches were dotted with tents and low-budget tourists. Today, there are dozens of top-grade hotels and restaurants, and the town is home to close to 50,000 residents.

Halevy sees Eilat’s cultural events as a means of attracting tourists on a grand scale: “I believe Eilat should invest heavily in education and culture for two main reasons. We have tough competition from the east – Aqaba – and the south [Sinai]. I think the only way we can compete is by making Eilat an exclusive place of culture, with festivals, fairs, congresses, symposiums and academies. We also have a branch of Ben-Gurion University here, and I want to reach a student body of 3,000. There is no reason why we shouldn’t achieve that. That will bring young people to Eilat, and will be good for the future of the town.”

Like Sadeh, the mayor also sees added value in combining relaxation with cultural and sporting endeavor. “I don’t believe that just offering sunbathing opportunities is the way to go for us. You’ve got to offer quality, and have a quality local community to support that.”

Halevy sees an even brighter future for Eilat. “I’ve got plans for more festivals and other events here. I think when you get the momentum going you get an appetite for more.” Judging by the mounds of food available at the marina-side get together, where we met, that appetite will be duly catered for.

Reprinted courtesy of The Jerusalem Post. The writer was a guest of the Isrotel King Solomon Hotel.

Eilat – home of sun, sea and symphonies

Once little more than a seaside resort, Eilat is rapidly becoming home to some of the country’s most exciting cultural events.The average Israeli or, for that matter, foreign tourist generally thinks of Eilat in terms of a sun-kissed fun-filled resort where the only potential minefields are over-exposure to the sun and splashing out on too many VAT-free shopping sprees. If that includes you, you’d only be partly right. The Red Sea town, it seems, is rapidly becoming something of a major cultural center too. And, if the recent Red Sea Classical Festival is anything to go by, Eilat is putting its money where its mouth is.

Consider just some of the cultural events that now take place down south: The long-running Red Sea Jazz Festival, which has become a permanent end-of-summer vacation feature over its 21 years, the annual Chamber Music Festival, the Teimaniada and the aforementioned four-day classical bash, sponsored by the Isrotel hotel chain. Add to that list, a burgeoning film festival, several sports events and a new theater festival and you start to get the emerging cultural picture.

“The classical music festival is a good example of what we are trying to do here,” says Red Sea Tourism Administration director Yossi Anni. “Yes, most people probably think of Eilat as a place where you just chill out on the beach or by the hotel pool. But we are trying to enhance that image. Most Israelis don’t think of Eilat as a major cultural center, but I think that is starting to change.”

According to Anni, cultural and sporting events bring in close to 170,000 visitors to Israel every year. “The Red Sea Jazz Festival has around 20,000 visitors and the film festival brings in another 3,500. Then there are sports events like the Sportiada, Triathlon and Ironman. They bring another 80,000-100,000 here.”

The timing of the festivals and other cultural activities is also an important factor, as is the type of tourist they target. According to Anni, having the Red Sea Classical Festival in January makes sense. It helps fill the hotels at a time of year when they don’t normally enjoy full occupancy. “Also, events like the classical festival bring in a different kind of visitor,” he says.

Judging by the patrons of the King Solomon Hotel during the Red Sea Classical Festival, it looked like half of the country’s better-heeled residents had relocated down south for a long luxurious weekend. No expense, it seems, was spared. Food was plentiful and frequent, and transport was laid on from the hotel to the hangar where the concerts were held at Eilat Port. Once at the port, we were treated to pre-concert cocktails and tasty niblets and, if that wasn’t enough, there were several steaming tureens of hot soup awaiting us on our return to the hotel after the musical entertainment. Isrotel and the festival organizers had pulled out all the stops to make sure the festivalgoers felt pampered and that the long trip down south was value for money, and then some.

“One of the things we are trying to do with the classical festival is to bring people to Eilat who wouldn’t normally come here,” declares Isrotel general manager Raffi Sadeh, “and at a different time of year than the normal high season.”

According to Sadeh, the classical festival has gained momentum over its seven-year history. “I think events like this festival are making a difference. In the first year most of the people who came were die-hard classical festival fans. This year, there all sorts of people here, and not just those who have a deep understanding of classical music – and they are all having a good time. Classical music fans can catch [festival artistic director and conductor Valery] Gergiev at concerts in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other places around the world. What they get here is culture and a vacation. That’s a great combination. The Kfar Blum classical music festival is based on a similar idea.”

Eilat is, of course, one of the great get-away places. It is almost like going abroad. As you drive or fly across the Arava desert you gradually leave the hustle and bustle and tensions of everyday life in “the real world” behind, and your pulse starts to settle into a more pedestrian pace. “The Swiss go off to ski resorts, where they mix taking it easy with sporting activities. That’s the added value of coming to a festival, for example, in Eilat. You get to rest, eat well and enjoy some top-quality cultural events at the same time.”

If there was anything of a “downside” to the classical music bash it was the premises used for the classical concerts. A hangar is not the most comfortable place to perform classical music. The seats were far from the padded pews patrons enjoy at, for example, the Opera House in Tel Aviv, although the sound people did an admirable job in ensuring the acoustics were commensurately audience friendly in the ad-hoc voluminous music auditorium.

Eilat Mayor Yitzhak Halevy was understandably a busy man during the festival, and is naturally delighted with the response to all the cultural events that now take place in his town. “It is wonderful to see 7,000 music lovers come to Eilat,” he beams. “And we want to upgrade all these events.” Does that include providing a purpose-built concert hall that would serve the classical music festival and some of the other music events in Eilat? “I would very much like that to happen,” says Halevy. “It is just a matter of time.”

Israelis and non-Israelis who visited Eilat in the 1970s and haven’t been back since would be amazed at the transformation that has taken place there. Back then, for many, Eilat was just a stopping-off and stocking-up point en route to the beaches of the Sinai. There were less than a handful of decent hotels and the beaches were dotted with tents and low-budget tourists. Today, there are dozens of top-grade hotels and restaurants, and the town is home to close to 50,000 residents.

Halevy sees Eilat’s cultural events as a means of attracting tourists on a grand scale: “I believe Eilat should invest heavily in education and culture for two main reasons. We have tough competition from the east – Aqaba – and the south [Sinai]. I think the only way we can compete is by making Eilat an exclusive place of culture, with festivals, fairs, congresses, symposiums and academies. We also have a branch of Ben-Gurion University here, and I want to reach a student body of 3,000. There is no reason why we shouldn’t achieve that. That will bring young people to Eilat, and will be good for the future of the town.”

Like Sadeh, the mayor also sees added value in combining relaxation with cultural and sporting endeavor. “I don’t believe that just offering sunbathing opportunities is the way to go for us. You’ve got to offer quality, and have a quality local community to support that.”

Halevy sees an even brighter future for Eilat. “I’ve got plans for more festivals and other events here. I think when you get the momentum going you get an appetite for more.” Judging by the mounds of food available at the marina-side get together, where we met, that appetite will be duly catered for.

Reprinted courtesy of The Jerusalem Post. The writer was a guest of the Isrotel King Solomon Hotel.

Bringing the kids back home

The residents of Hatzor Haglilit hope to turn the impoverished Israeli development town into a thriving community.The juxtaposition of expensive villas and poor slums is not unusual in many towns across the globe. But in the northern development town of Hatzor Haglilit, this occurrence is substantial. Almost 60 years after the development towns of Israel were formed, this town still hasn’t been able to channel the large amount of potential it holds, and 95 percent of its young citizens leave the city after their army service.

Last week, I went to Hatzor. I was early for an appointment with the director of the community center, and I found myself amongst a group of people – parents to children not much younger than myself – who gather weekly for a class in entrepreneurship and to talk about Hatzor and the problems it faces.

We went around the room and everyone shared their thoughts. One woman told us that her main concern was that her children moved to Tel Aviv and did not want to return to Hatzor. They moved to Tel-Aviv to study, she explained, but have long-since finished their studies and continued living there.

And that’s exactly what these meetings were about: these parents were prepared to do whatever it takes in the town in order for their children to want to return. Everyone in the group expressed their desire for Hatzor to develop and become a better place to live in – but how? How could they turn Hatzor into a place where people didn’t just drive by on their way to somewhere else, but where people would stop by and enjoy their stay – where its own residents would proudly return?

Well, the first step is through such gatherings. It was incredible to see this group of people come together to talk about the town’s problems. They weren’t politicians. They weren’t being paid to come. Most of them had never taken part in such an initiative before. Simply put, they were there to make a difference.

Like so many Israelis, these individuals, most of whom arrived in Israel as children in the early 1950s, had struggled through the economic and social hardships of the first years of the establishment of the State of Israel. This year, Israel will be celebrating its 60th anniversary. The country is flourishing, there is so much prosperity and economic growth, yet these people are still struggling. Now, however, they are struggling to bring Hatzor’s next generation back ‘home’.

I thanked the group for letting me participate in their meeting. They immediately replied by thanking me for being there – for coming all the way from Jerusalem, for investing my time in acknowledging them, and for the fact that the organization I work for, the United Israel Appeal of Canada (UIAC), is investing time, effort, and funds in their town. They were amazed that someone actually wanted to listen to what they had to say.

There is a lot to learn from this development town. It has much to offer. Every town should be so lucky as to have a group of people that care so deeply about the wellbeing of their town and its future. Investing funds in Hatzor, primarily in educational programs, is a noble and wonderful mitzvah (good deed). Philanthropists that do so are certainly improving the lives of many of its citizens.

But the point is this: without the citizens themselves being involved and wanting to change and improve their town, there is only so much that funding can do. This sort of change has to come from within.

As I entered my meeting with the community center’s director, I thought of another juxtaposition. Hatzor is situated not far from the quaint, well-known town of Rosh Pina. I wondered what it would take to make Hatzor become as well known and amply visited as Rosh Pina, and if UIAC’s allocated post-war funds, along with the efforts of the town’s citizens, would be enough to help Hatzor achieve such status.

I was glad I came early that day. After meeting with Hatzor’s group of dedicated citizens, I no longer think this goal is far-fetched.

Of course the world is flat

It’s a global world, and Israel’s right at the heart of the action.In 2005, Thomas Friedman published The World is Flat, documenting globalization and a world in which divisions such as geography are becoming increasingly irrelevant. While I’m an admitted Friedman fan and devotee, there is one thing I plan to ask him next time we talk:

This is news? Globalization smacks me in the face when I walk into the office at 9am on a Tuesday.

Boss: “Benji, did you hear who Tila Tequila chose?”

Me: “One… must… have… coffee… and two… what’s a Tila Tequila?”

Not ‘what’ …who? Tila Tequila is the star of MTV’s hit reality show A Shot at Love and I just realized one of two things: either globalization has hit Israel with full force or I’m further removed from MTV’s target demographic than I thought.

Yes, at some point, our little country the size of New Jersey went from two TV channels to a heck of a lot, including everybody’s favorite music channel and all the trash it can fit into a 24 hour schedule. And the delay that once existed between a show’s original broadcast and its arrival to Israel? It’s over before you can say 24: Season 7.

What’s that? Your Israeli cable provider isn’t showing Two and a Half Men How about Slingbox? This baby hooks up to a TV and sends a signal to a computer anywhere in the world with an Internet connection. Boom, you’re watching your favorite show, no problem!

When we think of globalization, we often think of technology. And make no mistake about it… it’s here. Which technology? Processors? Biotech? Yes, but try again. If you said Facebook, you win.

In the biggest invasion since the Beatles made American girls scream on the Ed Sullivan Show, Facebook took Israel by storm this past year. The social networking site expanded from 18,000 members in June to 340,000 at the writing of this article, staggering growth given the population of this country. Now the question is who isn’t on Facebook. Member of Knesset (Kadima party) Yoel Hasson is (I just wrote him.) My boss, my editor, and my roommates are. I know the Syrians aren’t, having been banned by their government. (So how do they waste time at work?)

The Israelis immediately added their own unique flavor to the proverbial Facebook stew, creating third-party applications like IsraPoke and Facts of Israel. Have you installed Superpoke which allows you to pinch, tickle, or throw sheep at your friends? Download IsraPoke and throw garinim (sunflower seeds) at the ones you love the most.

A few years ago, my reaction to the Facebook invasion might have been something to the effect of ‘how cute, the Israelis are using our website’, as if the Internet, all its toys, and American culture in general inherently belonged to America and was given to Israel on loan. In 2008, it’s clear that these things belong to no one, and the divisions between cultures and what belongs to whom will only continue to blur.

How else to explain that more of my friends in Israel have joined Facebook than in Atlanta, my old place of residence? Or that my co-workers sing Run DMC songs from when they were still in diapers? Maybe globalization should stop IMMEDIATELY.

Well, maybe not immediately. I don’t know if I’m willing to give up Skype, the software that allows me to video chat with my parents. With just a click of a button, I can watch my mom and dad turn into the Costanzas, trying to figure out how to turn the camera on while their voices rise (along with my blood pressure.)

The connection isn’t great but I’m not willing to pay the $30 monthly fee for a Vonage voice-over-IP line (VOIP) and the US number that comes with it. I do however have a new landline which makes cheap outgoing calls to the States through HOT, the company that also provides me cable. Of course the calls aren’t really through HOT, they’re through 014, the company I pay for my long-distance service which sends the calls through the cable company’s bandwidth. Still with me? Good-please explain to me what I just said.

I may not understand how my phone calls work but I do understand that olim (immigrants) have it easier here than ever before, at least in terms of adjustment to the new culture and distance from their loved ones. Between online social networking, the amount of cheap communication options, and the omnipresence of EVERYTHING around the world, things look pretty globalized to me. It’s a flat world and Israel’s right in the middle of it. Not a bad place to be, is it? See, Tom, I didn’t even need to buy your book.

Now if you’ll excuse me, the new season of American Idol is playing on Star World.