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.

Equality and inclusion: A new vision for Israel

Jewish philanthropists work with Arab and Jewish leaders to try to bridge the chasm.For the past 60 years, Diaspora Jews have been deeply engaged in building a national home for the Jewish people. Our priority has been helping Israel to build hospitals and universities, absorb waves of Jewish immigrants and develop the country’s infrastructure. Focused on the survival of the Jewish State, we failed to realize that both our philosophy and our philanthropy were leaving behind 20 percent of Israel’s citizens – the indigenous Arab minority.

The issue of building a just and inclusive society for all citizens of Israel was the challenge that brought 60 American, British and Canadian Jewish philanthropists to Israel last week. During three intense days, we met with Arab and Jewish leaders who are committed to partnership and change, and learned more about the chasm that separates the Jewish and Arab communities.

We learned about a faltering educational system reflected in declining academic achievement, seen most acutely within the Arab schools. We learned about widening socioeconomic gaps, shortages of social services, the lack of programs for Arab youth at risk; and employment practices that limit opportunities for Arab college graduates to participate in the knowledge economy.

We also heard about crushing pressure on Arab municipalities to provide for their communities’ basic infrastructure needs; festering and unaddressed issues of land allocation and planning, most acutely felt within the Negev Bedouin communities; and longstanding exclusion of Israeli Arabs from meaningful participation in the state’s political processes.

During our trip we also heard from a member of a kibbutz that was established in the state’s early days to be a “security wedge” between Arab villages to the north and south. Listening to how the kibbutz had been constructed on land that was both purchased and confiscated from Arabs, we realized that the clock could not be turned back. We understood why our host felt obligated to pursue solutions that would benefit both the Jewish and Arab communities in the region.

While we were in Israel we were also surprised to learn that a few outspoken members of the Arab community had called for a boycott of meetings with our group. While the call to boycott fell on deaf ears among the vast majority of Arab leaders, it taught us an important lesson: that the lines of conflict in Israel are not between the Arab and Jewish communities, but rather between those Jews and Arabs who embrace a vision of a just and inclusive society and those who seem intent on pursuing an agenda of separatism and alienation. This only served to strengthen our commitment to advancing our vision of a society in which all citizens enjoy equal opportunity and feel equally at home, rather than being distracted by the separatist voices within the political fringes of both communities.

Until recently, few Diaspora Jews understood the importance of supporting Jewish-Arab cooperation. But this is beginning to change. Today American Jews help support some of the 200-plus Israeli organizations working in the field of coexistence and equality.

And recently, 70 major American Jewish nonprofit organizations from across the political and religious spectrum formed a powerful new coalition to tackle these issues and take action.

Although Israel’s government will be a critical part of the solution (just as it has been a part of the problem), American Jews and philanthropists have a meaningful role to play in advancing the vision of an inclusive society. How? By providing support to Arab and Jewish NGOs, using our influence to advocate for government action and drawing upon international experience in majority-minority relations.

From a deep and fundamental commitment to the welfare of a Jewish democratic Israel, we are determined to address what we believe is Israel’s central domestic challenge. We are gratified to find that senior Israeli government leaders, the Jewish Agency and other key institutions are more responsive to the agenda of inclusion and equality, and are beginning to translate words into deeds.

We invite all Israelis — Jewish and Arab — and Americans to join us in this critical undertaking.

Israeli wines come of age

Israeli wineries can feel more self confident today. The Wine Advocate, the mouthpiece of Robert Parker, the world’s most famous wine critic, published details of its first ever tasting of Israeli wines at the end of December 2007. The results were not at all bad – in fact for some wineries, rather good.

No less than 14 wines scored more than 90 points and this is an important threshold for Israeli wines to have passed. The highest scoring red wine in the tasting was Yatir Forest from Yatir Winery at Tel Arad. The best white wine was ‘C’ Blanc du Castel from Castel, situated in the mountains west of Jerusalem and the best dessert wine was the Yarden Heights Wine from the Golan Heights Winery. Four wineries excelled by receiving at least two wines with 90+ scores. They were Carmel, Castel, Golan Heights and Yatir.

The result of the tasting was the eagerly awaited judgment of the most powerful and influential wine magazine in the world of wine, which can make or break reputations with its much sought after opinions.

The tasting supports my long held opinion that Israeli wines are in fact world class and that we are producing the finest quality wines in the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean. Whilst proud of the successes, it also encourages us to continue the upward curve and be still more quality orientated in future. Israel has done well, but we still have a long way to go.

Not all Israeli wineries produce wines that are kosher. However, it is significant that no less than 11 of the top 14 wines in the order of merit are kosher.

Sometimes our most disbelieving followers are our Jewish consumers who have grown up with Manischevitz or Palwin sacramental wines and assume that all kosher wines are by definition poor wines.

However, The Wine Advocate summary of the tasting was very clear: “No one should avoid wines because they have kosher certifications… in fact Kosher wines are amongst the best in this report, such as those from Domaine du Castel and Yatir.”

This brings home another truth that we have known for years – a kosher wine can be a great wine and it is irrelevant to the quality if it is kosher or not. Coming from me, this is what you would expect, but from Robert Parker’s publication, it is a very significant statement that should help to change preconceived ideas.

Israel is a ‘new world’ wine country, in one of the oldest wine regions on earth. In this Biblical land, one can find a curious combination of the new, old and ancient world of winemaking in a country no bigger than Wales or New Jersey.

Ancient Israel, with roots going back deep into Bible times, must have been one of the earliest wine producing countries – at least 2,000 years before the Greeks and Romans took the vine to Europe. It took a Rothschild to renew the tradition and create a modern wine industry in Israel. Baron Edmond de Rothschild, owner of the famous Bordeaux winery Chateau Lafite, founded Carmel Winery in 1882 with advice and expertise from the French. He built two large wineries with deep underground cellars, at Rishon Le Zion, south of Tel Aviv, and Zichron Ya’acov, south of Haifa.

However, the quality revolution really began with the founding of the Golan Heights Winery in 1983. The winery brought in expertise from California and showed the world, and more important Israelis, that it was possible to make international class wines in Israel.

The Israeli wine industry is built on the pillars of three large wineries: Carmel, Barkan and Golan Heights – which together control about 70% both of the local market and of Israeli wine exports. There are 25 commercial wineries in all.

Something close to wine fever has gripped the country in recent years. The amount of vineyards planted with noble varieties has doubled and there are now over 200 wineries, many of them boutiques.

The majority of them have sprung up in the last 15 years. The most famous of these is Castel, situated in the mountains west of Jerusalem. Some of the new quality wineries, like Yatir, Flam and Clos de Gat have provided much needed variety and added color to the Israeli wine scene. This in turn has galvanized the larger wineries like Carmel, Golan, Barkan and Teperberg, all of whom have responded by building new wineries.

Israel is famed for its agriculture. Drip irrigation, which is used worldwide, was an Israeli invention that revolutionized the global agricultural industry. The same high standards may be seen in our vineyards. The use of meteorological stations in the Golan vineyards or pioneering attempts to plant vineyards in the desert, show Israel’s viticulturists are dynamic and up to date.

Israel is an Eastern Mediterranean country, so it is no surprise that the climate is mainly Mediterranean. However, in the higher altitude vineyards of the Upper Galilee, the Golan Heights and Judean Hills, the climate is cooler and there is even likely to be snow during the winter months. It is these areas where the new fine wines from Israel come from.

Most of the fine wines highlighted by The Wine Advocate are red. These are wines to buy as gifts, to lay down or to enjoy on an important occasion. Each of these will now automatically become sought after wines. I suggest you look them out while stocks last. For anyone who had any doubts, Israeli wine has arrived!

Cheerleaders for Aliyah

One hundred and ninety one reasons to get out of bed before 5am.Last Thursday, my wife Jody and I roused ourselves out of bed at the ungodly hour of 4:50 AM in order to arrive at Ben Gurion Airport, not for a trip to some exotic destination, but in time to greet an El Al flight of 191 new immigrants making aliyah to Israel. The process was inspirational and exhilarating. We were among more than 500 similarly minded Israelis who came to cheer, applaud and otherwise show their support for the new arrivals.

It made me think back to our own family’s aliyah. My, how times have changed.

When we arrived in Israel almost 13 years ago in October 1994, we were the only new immigrants on the plane. We told our flight attendant about our exciting new status and she merely shrugged her shoulders in a typically Israeli way (shades of things to come) while muttering a muted mazel tov (congratulations). There was no one at the airport to greet us. No flag waving. No enthusiastic hordes.

Instead we scrambled like everyone else to be first through passport control, then made our way upstairs to a cavernous hall that had been built to handle a planeload or two of Russians all arriving together. We had, in fact, been worried that we might come at the same time as a Russian aliyah flight and get stuck for hours in immigrant processing. Instead, we were shown into a small room where a perfunctory clerk stamped our papers and gave us our teuda oleh (immigrant ID cards) and temporary immigrant passports.

Flash forward 13 years. New immigrants from North America now fly together on a plane designated just for them where Ministry of the Interior officials walk up and down the aisles completing all of the paperwork from tablet computers.

Upon arrival, the new immigrants walk between two lines of cheering crowds waving flags, holding up hand-decorated signs and otherwise keeping up a remarkable amount of energy for so early in the morning. It reminded me of the “Shalom Kita Aleph” ceremony for first graders entering elementary school… only this time with adults.

The front rows of the two lines were reserved for a cadre of army soldiers; behind them were a gaggle of religious seminary girls wearing blue and white who’d painted their faces with Israeli flags and “I love Israel” in little hearts. A big bearded man blew a shofar as each busload of immigrants disembarked. A live band (well, a guy with a keyboard) played “Heveinu Shalom Aleichem” over and over. The arriving immigrants looked overwhelmed by all the attention after a 12-hour mostly sleepless flight.

Among the new immigrants on this flight was our cousin David Gilbert, a radio news reporter who, after nearly eight years living in Israel as a tourist, finally took the plunge to become a full-fledged Israeli citizen.

Once inside the arrivals hall, there was a large stage set up in front of the baggage claim conveyer belts for speeches. Dignitaries included representatives from various government ministries; Elazar Stern, the head of the army’s manpower unit; Danny Ayalon, former Israeli ambassador to the US; and Tal Brody, who years ago was a star basketball player for the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team and remains one of the best known North American immigrants to Israel.

The hoopla was choreographed by Nefesh b’Nefesh, an aliyah organization that has had a remarkable track record in boosting immigration from North America and the U.K. This was Nefesh b’Nefesh’s 31st chartered flight, the 18th of 2007. All together, Nefesh b’Nefesh has brought over 13,000 immigrants to Israel since its establishment in 2002, nearly 3,000 alone this year, and an 80 percent increase in the past five years.

Last Thursday’s flight included 82 singles, 32 families with 25 children, 30 future IDF soldiers and a former ballerina for the Zurich Ballet who made aliyah from New York with her husband and two children. The youngest oleh in the group was 3 months old, the oldest was 96. The flight also included six dogs and two cats. Pictures taken by long time aliyah advocate Jacob Richman can be seen at http://www.jr.co.il/pictures/israel/history/2007/a260.htm.

Nefesh b’Nefesh, which was started by Rabbi Yehoshua Fass and businessman Tony Gelbart, has been instrumental in the dramatic increase of immigrants from the West. The Jewish Agency, however, disputes Nefesh b’Nefesh’s numbers, saying that immigration from North America actually dropped seven percent this year and that aliyah from the UK is down 20 percent. The Agency claims that Nefesh b’Nefesh has deliberately inflated its immigration numbers to justify the group’s request for more funds from the state and from Jewish philanthropists. Nefesh b’Nefesh says it needs the money and claims to have a waiting list of some 20,000 Jews.

While North American aliyah may or may not be up, both sides agree with the Absorption Ministry which reports that the overall figures are down. In 2007, 19,700 immigrants arrived in the country, a decline of six percent from the previous year and the lowest number since 1989 after the wave of immigration following the fall of the Iron Curtain. The largest number of immigrants in 2007 still came from the former Soviet Union at 6,445. In second place was Ethiopia at 3,607. North America had 2,957 and France held strong at 2,659.

Israel’s total population is about seven million. Approximately 118,000 people have moved to Israel from North America since the founding of the state, and over one million have come from the FSU.

Nefesh b’Nefesh certainly puts on a good show and makes for a comfortable and supportive landing. But new arrivals eventually have to move past immigration and deal with the “absorption” part of the process where, I’m afraid, no cheering crowds or speeches by well-dressed dignitaries can properly prepare a new arrival for Israel’s plethora of crazy drivers, surly store clerks and questionable customer service.

But the fact that 191 new immigrants nevertheless chose this week to throw their lot in with the rest of us was good enough news for me – and reason to get out of bed in the wee hours of the morning.

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)