Israel’s 60th through a different lens

Your neighbors and colleagues may not know it, but it’s their celebration too.It was just another night in Jerusalem. I was having dinner last month with a visiting group from the Beachwood, Ohio Chamber of Commerce.

We were into our first course and some wine, and discussing Israel’s perception among Americans and how Beachwood’s efforts to woo Israeli startups to open US offices in their fair city dovetails nicely into our efforts at ISRAEL21c to inform people around the world about the ‘other’ Israel that they don’t read or see about on the news.

Suddenly, all eyes turned as into the restaurant walked former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan followed closely by CNN founder Ted Turner. They’re the head of the United Nations Foundation whose mandate is to build public-private partnerships that address the world’s most pressing problems. And they evidently decided to take some time out from those pressing issues for a meal in one of Jerusalem’s finest eateries.

A couple of days later, I spoke to another delegation of Houston, Texas congressmen and councilmen here on their first trip to Israel – same restaurant, but no Turner or Annan this time… but the same fascinated interest in the innovations and technology coming out of Israel.

Earlier that day, I brought a group of American Jewish Community Center directors from around the US to visit NDS – the leading global supplier of open end-to-end digital pay-TV solutions for the secure delivery of entertainment and information to television set-top boxes and IP devices. The company’s offices at the Har Hotzvim high tech park in Jerusalem would put some Silicon Valley establishments to shame, and the visitors were duly dazzled by the far-reaching technology emanating from this Israeli hotbed of innovation.

What do all these vignettes have in common? First, they’re all part of the wildly diverse reality of Israel in the 21st century. And second – and this is the crux of the matter – hardly anybody knows about it!

With Israel’s 60th birthday year forthcoming, all the big guns are coming out with their versions of how the country’s tumultuous 60 years should be commemorated. Undoubtedly, most celebrations in Jewish communities around the world will deservedly focus on the amazing center – religiously, culturally and historically – that Israel has become for the Jewish people.

But what does Israel mean to everyone else, like those people (both Jewish and non-Jewish) who don’t feel that pride in the blue and white, or get goosebumps when they hear ‘Hatikva’?

Unfortunately, most people who only get their views and ideas about Israel from what they see and read in the news, are seeing Israel with tunnel vision glasses. What those glasses show them is a country at war, a place of concrete, walls and tanks, and people either wearing the green helmets of the army or the black hats of the haredim. And more than that, it’s a country that has absolutely no relevance to their lives whatsoever.

We all know that this isn’t an accurate portrayal of Israel and its people. Between the beaches, the high tech centers and the thriving night spots in Tel Aviv, Israel is a kaleidoscope of diversity. But much more than that, due to the steady stream of scientific research, medical devices and high tech innovations coming out of the country’s thriving business community, Israel is actually very relevant to everyone’s lives.

There’s the usual litany of products we use every day that have Israeli footprints on them – you’ve probably received viral emails listing them… the Centrino chip, AOL instant messenger, etc.. but it really is true. And it’s incumbent on the people who care deeply about Israel to let the world know about these accomplishments… accomplishments that are enabling people to live better, safer, healthier and fuller lives.

So as we prepare to celebrate Israel’s 60th, and as our chests puff out with pride as we look back on the wars won, the challenges overcome, and the Zionist dream fulfilled, let’s also look at how we can recruit our neighbors, our colleagues and our friends to join in on the celebrations. Because they might not know it yet, but it’s their celebration too.

I’d like to take this chance to thank all of ISRAEL21c’s board, staff, contributors, readers and supporters who have helped to make our site the leading reference for Israel in the 21st century that’s available anywhere. It’s been an amazing five years, and as I move on to other challenges, I’m confident that the organization and the website will have an even greater impact in helping to reshape the image of Israel in the world.

(Originally appeared in The Persistence of Vision: Israel at 60)

A summer camp for the future

As the world gets flatter, Israel is ideally placed to nurture the creative impulse.The world is flat. That’s what writer Thomas Friedman says about the new global reality of the twenty-first century, in which innovation is no longer held back by national borders, creativity crashes across continents, and ideas travel the globe faster than the speed of megabytes.

It’s a radically changed status quo, uncomfortable perhaps for those of us who grew up with no idea where Bangalore or Beijing precisely were, let alone what they might have to do with our hard drive or our telco helpdesk. But in this kind of flat world, it’s easy to see one thing: that Israel, at the cusp of its sixtieth birthday, is just beginning (like any good baby boomer) to hit its second wind.

Flashback to 1948 for a moment: to a small wedge of a nation struggling to survive on little more than the power of conviction, idealism and sheer tenacity, contending not only with enemies on every side but also with the frustrations of a land poor in natural resources. Lucky, then, that Israel could sustain itself upon a different sort of milk and honey: its brains, which today have already improved the lives of billions around the world – from drip irrigation to purified drinking water to the technology behind Intel chips and Microsoft operating systems.

Did you know that Israel has the second largest number of start ups in the world, second only to Silicon Valley, despite having a fraction of the population? And as the world grows still flatter, we find ourselves ideally placed to nurture this creative impulse into an even brighter future.

That’s the idea behind the eCamp Israel, an idea my partners and I developed which is designed to bring enterprising teenagers from around the world together for a unique interactive summer camp experience.

We’ve received the support of government ministries, President Shimon Peres and one of Israel’s greatest high tech success stories Shai Agassi.

Participants in eCamp Israel will meet the world’s top innovators – from the founder of ICQ and AOL Instant Messaging software, to leading researchers at Intel, Google, Microsoft and Motorola. They will participate in workshops on 3D animation, flash programming, Web 2.0 video creation, robotics, programming, and will even get the chance to develop their own mobile-device video game.

Most importantly, though, campers will be introduced to maybe one of the most staggering facts about our new, flattened reality – the notion that all you need is a little work, a little chutzpah, and a lot of imagination – and you can change the entire world.

Or as Theodor Herzl put it, “if you will it, it is no dream.”

The first ever eCamp will be opening its doors in Summer 2008, planting the seeds of our future in the rich intellectual soil of the land of Israel. And I, personally, can’t wait to see what grows.

Welcome to the Silicon Wadi.

Hooters and Herzl

Hooters and Herzl

Doesn’t its diversity help make Israel the beautiful country it is today?When I heard a few months ago that Hooters was opening their first franchise in Israel, the following thoughts entered my head in no particular order:

- I like buffalo wings.

- Hmm… that’s interesting.

- WHOOOOO-HOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Ok, it was more like “ha ha!” While the value of a place to watch sports, drink beer, and act like men cannot be overstated, the potential comedic value of this particular place in Israel for me – a comedian – far outweighs it. In a land constantly struggling to define what it means to be a Jewish state, chalk up a point for secular Judaism. What, you were expecting waitresses in long skirts? (See, the concept is making me laugh already.)

Busting with curiosity, I had to check it out myself. And I did, finagling my way into the private opening night party a couple weeks ago as a media member. Some observations along the way…

** The opponents of the Gaza disengagement adopted the color orange during their protests in the spring and summer of 2005. At the Hooters launch, the color took on a whole new meaning. Why do I have a feeling these two groups will never, ever meet?

** Will they be selling Jewish Hooters calendars, complete with the holidays? ‘Holy chumus, Shlomo! Check out Miss Cheshvan! She is smokin’!!!’

** Suddenly, the IDF’s generation-long stay at the top of my ‘Uniforms I Find Really Hot’ rankings just got a little more tenuous, didn’t it? This is the biggest shake-up since Katie Couric and the Today Show took down Good Morning America in the 90s.

Ok, enough. Truth be told, the opening was a fascinating cultural experience. At least half the staff were flown over from the States to help the launch. As I suspected, the highlight was not being a creepy, drooling male, but having the rare taste of home, some greasy (albeit non-kosher) American food, a beer with friends, and good old-fashioned rock ‘n roll.

With my friends eager to hear firsthand about opening night, I raced home and immediately posted pictures on this site’s blog, Israelity, in my typical silly and sarcastic tone. I didn’t think anything of it.

Silly me. As the old saying goes, ‘two Jews, three opinions’, and Jews in Israel are certainly diverse in their beliefs and practices. The very first commenter took me to task for my celebrating and high-fiving tone for what he called a shameful event.

“This is what we waited for 2000 years for? To be like everyone else? To bring Hooters and culture such as that into this beautiful land?… What is the reason for living and building Israel if not for beautifying it, making it special? To be a light unto nations? not, to be like or worse than the nations. Why is Hooters breaking news and not the constant barrage of missles on Sderot and the Negev? You find Hooters more important than Jewish lives? You find Hooters more important than giving up Jerusalem, our capital, our home, our beacon of all Judaism?”

Suddenly, those buffalo wings didn’t taste so good anymore. Did he have a point? Was I making too much of this hedonistic restaurant which, yes, objectifies its female waitstaff? Was this going to contribute to the downfall of Israel? Nah?

While I fully respect and appreciate this commenter’s opinion, I feel great about Hooters’ arrival to Israel and not for the obvious reasons. Let’s face it: in a country known way too much for its politics and, ahem, situation with its neighbors, each new capitalistic venture from the Western world is a positive reminder that, hey, there’s more to this place than what Americans see on CNN.

I’m proud of what Israel has done as a capitalist country: the start-ups, the scientific breakthroughs, even that McDonalds can make it here with an Israeli twist by selling shawarma in pita. Do I think Hooters is going to make it here selling mozzarella sticks? I have my doubts. But I applaud people in this country for their risk-taking values.

I think we are a light unto other nations by not targeting civilians in war like our enemies do. We are a light by sending aid to countries affected by the tsunami in 2004. And as another Israelity commenter stated, while Israel is indeed the Holy Land, it is also an actual, functioning democratic nation with diverse citizens. Isn’t that part of what makes this place the beautiful country it is today?

After all, father of modern Zionism Theodor Herzl dreamed for a place where Jews would fill the workforce in their own state, as doctors, merchants, and laborers… and as hot waitresses in orange outfits. Consider his dream come true.

So count me as one of those who’ll be going back and enjoying every Zionist bite I take. Just don’t expect me to keep from laughing when the waitress offers me “bah-fah-lo weengs.”

The persistence of vision

It’s refreshing for Israelis to be reminded that there are Jews who want to move to Israel.Israel is a miracle.

I’m not talking about the oranges and the silicon chips. Just the fact that this country exists at all, as a Jewish country, is a miracle.

What has happened in Israel is utterly unheard of. A people exiled from their land for 2,000 years coming home and reviving their dead language. And building a modern high tech country out of what was once a colonial backwater. Unique on so many levels it’s hard to know where to begin.

What other nation has survived exile? The Tibetans are struggling with a similar problem – they are trying to figure out how they keep the unique culture of Tibetan Buddhism alive while living in exile from their home. Not surprisingly, the Dalai Lama has met with Jewish leaders to try and find out our secret. The Jews succeeded in keeping their culture and religion alive through 2,000 years of exile; how did we do it?

The answer is the persistence of vision.

The rabbis never gave up on the vision of the Jewish people in the land of Israel. They built reminder after reminder into our prayers, into our rituals, into our expressions. ‘L’shana habah b’yerushalayim’, (Next year in Jerusalem!) we cry out at the end of our seder meal every Passover.

When the Temple was destroyed 1,937 years ago the rabbis had to adapt. Interestingly, the early Christians also had to adapt – they were equally attached to the rituals of the Temple. At this crucial juncture, Judaism went one way and Christianity another. The Christians decided that the physical was not important – all that mattered was the spirit. The importance of the physical Jerusalem was, for Christians, replaced by the idea of the ‘spiritual Jerusalem’, a place of spiritual peace and harmony set free by belief in Jesus. Jews went the opposite direction.

The rabbis focused on ways to keep the memory of the physical Jerusalem, the memory of the specialness of being at home on our land, a part of our cultural memory and legacy.

For a long time though that vision remained latent. Jews were content to remember without being called to action. To remember and faithfully wait for God to say it was time to come home. That is until Theodore Herzl came along. Herzl gave the Jewish vision a nudge in a new direction. Instead of waiting for God to say it’s time, Herzl had the audacity to suggest we should make it happen. Enough of the waiting already!

At first Herzl’s vision and the vision of the rabbis did not seem to connect. Herzl was secular – his vision was not based on fulfilling 2,000 years of religious longing. His vision was that Jews should have a place to live free from anti-Semitism – and he believed that could only happen in a country of our own. At first the religious community rejected Herzl’s ideas – after all, to try and take matters into our own hands to create a state seems to be an action meaning we no longer have faith in God. We no longer believe God will bring us home when He is ready.

It didn’t take too long for the rabbis – or at least most of the rabbis – to come around. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel (at least in modern times) was the first real religious Zionist. Kook melded the dreams of the rabbis with the dream of Herzl. He married a mystical connection to the land to a practical desire to settle the land.

The fact that I am now living in Israel is in a way a response to Rabbi Kook’s vision.

Any Jew who makes aliyah from the United States is certainly not doing so because of anti-Semitism. We come to be connected to this land. We come to be connected to this enterprise of building a Jewish country. We come out of religious motivations and we come out of communal motivations.

Unlike Jews coming from places like the former Soviet Union, we don’t come because we are fleeing persecution, and we don’t come because the financial opportunities are so much better here. We come because it’s amazing to be here.

I was sitting in my living a few days ago reading the Torah portion for the week (parsha) – the story of Jacob’s ladder – and reading the commentary that the place where Jacob slept was the Temple Mount. And I was able to look out my window and see the Temple Mount. I still find that incredibly cool.

It’s sad how many Israelis themselves are losing sight of this incredible miracle. It makes me wonder about the continued staying power, the continued persistence, of the vision for a Jewish state.

I indulged myself a little today by buying a second hand mountain bike. What do I need a mountain bike for? Fifteen minutes away from my home in Jerusalem I can ride a mountain bike on dirt roads through forests planted with money donated by American Jews in their little blue JNF boxes. Beautiful forests in the hills of Judea. But the roads are pretty bumpy, and when you get to be my age you appreciate the comfort of a dual suspension bike.

But I digress. The point of the story is that I was chatting with the owner of the store while one of his workers was fixing up my bike. He spoke great English, having lived in America for a year. When I told him I made aliyah a few months ago, his reaction was one of surprise: “Oh, people are still doing that?”

To be fair, a far more common response is ‘baruch haba’, welcome, ‘let me know what I can do to help.’ People seem genuinely glad to see Americans making aliyah. I think it’s because when an American makes aliyah it reinforces for them that there is something special about living here. So many Israelis seem to want to move to America, it’s refreshing for many of them to be reminded that there are Jews in America who want to move to Israel.

One of the reasons I’m here is because I believe that the modern state of Israel is the most important thing to happen to the Jewish people in the last 2,000 years. As Arnie Eisen, the chancellor of JTS said, “Israel is too important to sit by and let other people blow it.”

The philosopher Camus said the ultimate philosophical question is suicide. I would say that for the serious Jew, the ultimate philosophical question is aliyah. If you believe all the stuff you say in your prayers, why aren’t you here? :-)

(Originally appeared on