The jury is still out in Israel

Our children will ask ‘What did you do for the Sudanese refugees?’ What will we tell them?
I missed Ismail at synagogue last night.

This intelligent, thoughtful man, a refugee from Darfur – then in Israel for less than 20 days – had joined me the previous Friday night for services. At the end of the service he had spoken to the community. After a slightly nervous start, he told his story to the 300 assembled people: many bullets, three countries, two jail arrests, fear and death. They were dumbstruck to hear what I knew was only a small part of his and his family’s harrowing and dangerous journey, one that had led him to be there that night. At that point, Ismail, his wife and four children (aged 1, 3, 5 and 15) had been living with my family in our Jerusalem home for a week.

That morning, our photo and a detailed story had appeared on the front page of national paper Ha’aretz; what had felt to my family like simply a Jewish, moral, and Zionist thing to do – to help a refugee family – had been portrayed as an act of great exception. It was one of many interviews and a TV appearance.

Then, in the middle of the next week, the family moved to Tel Aviv where Ismail began work at a restaurant. As a computer technician and network administrator – better trained than most of his peers and with excellent English – I doubt it will be long before he moves into his chosen profession. When I visited them the following night to see their rented apartment, he pointed out an empty shop front he had set his eye on, from which he hopes to start repairing computers, as he had done in Cairo. While I miss the intense experience of their company, I am glad they have moved on.

But the stories of Ismail and the 1,400 or so other Sudanese refugees in Israel have only just begun and Israeli society must contend with this new situation. For now, the refugees are being hosted in private homes, living temporarily on kibbutzim, staffing hotels bursting with summer holiday makers and, perhaps surprisingly, in Ketziot – Israel’s high security jail for Palestinian security prisoners. But then what? Nobody knows quite what to do.

Only if we get our arms around this challenge in real-time will we be able to handle this burgeoning crisis in the humane and moral tradition on which our deepest values rest. Before serious mistakes are made and long-lasting regrets created, several leading Israeli nonprofit organizations have created the Coalition for Refugees from Darfur and Sudan to coordinate their direct activities and to prompt the government into action.

Ismail was born in a small village in Darfur, the region where the ‘Fur’ kingdom existed till a hundred years ago (‘Dar’ means Kingdom and ‘Fur’ is the name of the group of African tribes that made up the Kingdom). Over the years, Western intervention was followed by Arab and Islamic efforts to ethnically ‘cleanse’ the area of the Darfurians, who are neither Arab nor Moslem.

Forty years ago, Ismail’s family lived on the family plot growing agricultural produce; in his late teens he went to Khartoum, the capital city, to learn English. It was then that the attacks by the Janjaweed, Sudanese government backed militias, began. This escalated in 2002 with murderous attacks amounting to outright genocide.

Following many atrocities and family tragedies, Ismail and his family fled to Cairo, where they were given refugee status. Initially things were bearable, but the situation of Sudanese Refugees in Cairo became shockingly bad; they have no access to health or education services and were randomly beaten and arrested on the street.

According to Amnesty International, a protest against this situation in 2005 led to some 30 refugees being shot dead by the authorities. Ismail was arrested and jailed. On his release, he realized he had to do something. That led him to recently pay Bedouin smugglers to smuggle the family to the border with Israel and, after short stops in Beersheva and then Jerusalem’s Rose Garden opposite the Knesset, they were the family we decided to host to save their being ‘relocated’ to the Ketziot prison in the Negev desert.

As our family sat around our lounge discussing this decision, we wondered whether the yet-unknown family would be with us forever. We decided that two weeks was our limit. But what if the government hadn’t made any progress? Would we take them back to the Rose Garden and say ‘It was nice, but that’s all we can do?’ It was clear we would not.

The emotional, moral and practical territory we decided to chart was to do every single thing we felt we could do and to trust that our friends, the organizations involved and the government would rise to the challenge so that we would not face that unthinkable situation. By reaching out to our networks and working closely with the organizations, we proved to be right. We feel this is a microcosm of what Israel must do: to do everything it can and rely on the world community to do its part too. If we think ‘all or nothing’, we paralyze ourselves into inaction.

So far, the government has been slow to react. Perhaps fearful of Israel being overrun at the barely-fenced border between Israel and Egypt, the government’s response to date has been to let citizens look after the refugees.

Recently, new arrivals coming over the border have been sent to jail. I visited these refugees in jail last week as part of the Coalition delegation. While the 52 women and children were being looked after relatively well, the 200 men are in the regular prison facility and having a very hard time. But they should not be in jail at all. The government has not decided whether any of the refugees will be given some sort of permanent status in Israel. Some ministers have said the current status quo is just ’till they are all returned’. That makes us very, very concerned.

So while Ismail is managing, he and the other refugees are still in a complete twilight zone. Our coalition is working hard to achieve three goals:

1. Advance Israeli NGO efforts to directly help the 1,400+ Darfur and Sudanese refugees who have entered Israel (and those still coming over the border) receive proper treatment, have their rights protected and find short and long-term solutions for health, housing, work and childcare/education needs.

2. Advocate for the Israeli government to develop policy and take action in a range of short and long-term issues, including but not limited to: establishing facilities and services to help refugees; developing and implementing a border protection policy and a refugee absorption policy; taking part in international efforts to end the violence in Africa and advocate for protection of refugees there. We will develop and advocate for specific policies as needed.

3. Develop an Israeli and international Jewish humanitarian response to the plight of African refugees, including the creation of an Israeli-international Jewish managed facility for 1,000 refugees in a friendly African country partnering with Israeli and Jewish volunteers.

In Israel we are actively seeking volunteers, donations and more organizations to join the coalition. In North America, we seek the involvement of those who wish to help us carry out goal #1, lend their weight to help convince the government to fulfill goal #2, and partner with us to fulfill a basic Jewish responsibility – as the Jewish people – in fulfilling goal #3. We have begun discussions with major American organizations working on this issue.

When asked by a reporter how I rate my government, I said the jury was still out. This could turn into a huge violation of Human Rights and of the 1951 international treaty on refugees, one which Israel not only signed on but was instrumental in creating. This would be a source of heartache and guilt for generations. Or we can rise to the occasion with mindfulness, compassion and resolve. When our children and grandchildren come to us in the future, as they will, and ask ‘What did you do for the Sudanese refugees and to stop the genocide in Africa?’ will we be proud of the story we have to tell?

My own family narrowly escaped from Vienna when, in 1938, the Nazis came over the border into Austria. Months earlier, prior to my grandfather applying for papers to immigrate to Australia, he had sent a letter to long-lost Uncle Borer asking him to make the mandatory declaration of taking responsibility for the family. Little did my grandfather know that when he wrote to Uncle Borer, he actually sent it (not knowing any English) to the Borer and White Ant Extermination Company. The company owner and friends decided to sponsor my grandparents and then 7-year old father out to Australia. They wrote back as if they were Uncle Borer. Till the moment my grandparents and father arrived, they expected to meet Uncle Borer at the wharf.

Today we Jews – in Israel and elsewhere – are challenged to decide. Do we take responsibility for people in desperate need only if they are part of our Jewish family? Or will we break the barriers of psychology, comfort and habit to include others in the human race? We must now embody what we constantly tell ourselves we believe: that all humanity is one family, that to save one life is to save a whole world; that we truly mean it when we say ‘Never again’.

It is here and now. It is not in heaven.

(The author can be reached at

Undiscovered commercial treasures in the Holy Land

A year after the war in Lebanon, Israel’s economy is thriving. Who is taking advantage?During the past 12 months, the Israeli economy has fought off the effects of a war in Lebanon. On the southern border, Hamas has launched hundreds of rockets into nearby Israeli towns and villages. And yet, the Israeli economy has rarely had it so good.

The country’s statisticians have just released a further stream of positive news. Unemployment is at its lowest in years. Foreign direct investment is expected to grow by 8.0% in 2007, passing $15 billion. The stock market has seen new peaks. GDP increased by 6.3% in the 1st quarter of 2007. It is growth time, and the improvements have flowed from prudent policies, overseen by finance ministers of all parties.

CNBC Europe television recently developed this theme in a series of features on the Israeli economy. Covering a range of stories on local commerce and finance, one of the main conclusions was that Israel has departed from the international axiom that only peace brings prosperity. Sure, it is preferable if your neighbors love you. However, Israel has ‘invented a technology’ that enables its industries and services to develop, even as the guns are going off.

This process started back in the mid-1980s, when the government introduced a series of banking and structural measures to free up the economy. Jumping forward to 2007 – after a couple of ‘Intifadas’ and some wars with Hizbullah – and Israel regularly features in the top rankings of countries for commercial competitiveness. As Deutsche Bank observed in its July 2007 review; “We continue to view Israel as one of the most robust economies in Europe, Middle East, and Africa region.”

Multinationals have not waited for banks to issue surveys. Motorola’s Israeli facilities are the company’s largest development center outside of the US. Kodak and Intel have similar relationships with Israel’s expanding skilled workforce. In June 2006, Boston Scientific announced an agreement with Remon Medical Technologies in Caesarea, whose value has been estimated at $380 million.

The question is whether Israel is promoting itself abroad as much as possible. True, Israel’s exports are responsible for the boom, a trend continuing into 2007. And yet, others argue that this growth is often revealed through the lead of the country’s industrial giants like Teva. It is the little guys, the small and medium sized enterprises which make up the bulk of any economy, who are at the heart of Israel’s high tech economy and who are being ignored This sector has yet to realize its full potential.

An Israeli colleague of mine has experienced this contrast at first hand. He has begun working with a new European-based consortium, focused on the possibilities offered by Israeli high tech start ups. Although the consortium represents an experienced and sophisticated team in the many facets of international trade, they have been fascinated and surprised by the range and quality of opportunities available in Israel. They have come to understand how young Israeli companies frequently possess a unique IP, but need help to punch their message through to the beckoning European and American markets.

In a parallel development, Nobska Ventures from America opened up in 2007 a $50 million Israeli focused fund to invest in new projects. By June, it had already announced a $1.2m equity investment in ClassifEye Ltd, whose fingerprint authentication software is expected to expand mobile commerce applications in the US. In Israel, the company’s size can be a poor indication of commercial possibilities.

It is significant to recall the words of Alex Ricchebuono, regional sales director for Southern Europe of Janus Capital Group Inc, which has begun operating in Israel. Recently quoted in the Israeli financial columns of Globes, he said, “The perception that Israel is a small market is mistaken. The Israeli market isn?t large compared with other markets, but it has the potential for driving deals abroad. To define the Israeli market as an emerging and undeveloped market is a mistake.”

The Israeli economic machine, as expressed in its new and smaller companies, has learnt to brand itself, in spite of the geopolitical environment. The recent entry in to the hallowed club of the OECD is another vote of confidence in what Israel has to offer: a well-educated workforce, an in-built dynamism to create yet more technology, and the strength and the sense of purpose to succeed.

The international community has been used to hearing the news on Israel reported in the context of violence. The commercial and financial reality of the new ‘milk and honey economy’ has been hidden from view. The secret of the Israeli version of a peace dividend has finally been exposed. The opportunity exists to reap the commercial benefits.

Follow Israel’s lead on fixing airport security

It’s not racism or bigotry but common sense to pay special attention to certain travelers. Have you stood in an airport security line waiting for screening and wondered how effective the procedures were? After a recent overseas trip to Israel and several domestic flights, my wife and I do more than wonder: We worry.

The Department of Homeland Security and its component – the Transportation Security Administration – have strengthened security at airports since Sept. 11. But America still needs major changes in philosophy, screening and onboard security before our airports and planes are as safe as Israeli ones.

The Israelis became the first victims of Middle Eastern aviation terrorism when an El Al flight from Rome was hijacked in 1968. Strong security measures have prevented a single El Al plane from being seized since, and no commercial airliner leaving Israeli airports has ever been taken over.

How does Israel do it? The first answer lies in philosophy. Israeli procedures concentrate more on identifying people who are threats than things that are threats. That makes them more proactive than US protocols, which remain largely reactive.

Israeli security staff appear better trained and more alert than American staff. They earn better salaries and have higher educational levels. We noticed that whereas TSA personnel often chat with one another at checkpoints, Israeli personnel focus consistently on evaluating the passengers.

When we passed through security at La Guardia Airport in New York, TSA staff were so engrossed in their own conversation that no one watched the X-ray monitor for onboard luggage. The line ground to a brief halt until an agent noticed and resumed scrutiny of the screen.

In contrast, multiple layers of El Al security began with several rings of armed personnel and progressed to individual interviews by questioners trained to notice body language as well as verbal answers. Such vigilance detected the threat posed by Anne-Marie Murphy, a 32-year-old Irish woman at Heathrow airport in 1986.

Without her knowledge, her fiancee – a Palestinian terrorist – had hidden in her carry-on bag a bomb designed to explode in flight and kill 375 passengers, including Anne-Marie.

TSA staff would have trouble stopping such a plot not only because of the greater number of passengers that they must cope with, but also because federal rules prohibit profiling, a technique that is widely used abroad.

Yet all 19 terrorists on the Sept. 11 flights were Middle Eastern males in their 20s and 30s. It is not racism or bigotry but common sense to pay special attention to such travelers. As an Israeli acquaintance sardonically said, “We Israelis want to stop terrorists, but you Americans want to be politically correct.”

Harsh words, but they make you think.

They do so particularly because Israeli screening for weapons and dangerous devices succeeds better than our own. The TSA’s figures show that in 2002 American screeners missed 70 percent of knives and 60 percent of false explosives sent through X-ray machines by testers.

Improvement is slow. NBC News reported last year that federal agents smuggled materials needed to make homemade bombs through security checks at 21 airports. Six months ago, the Newark Star-Ledger reported that 20 out of 22 weapons got by screeners at Newark’s Liberty International Airport.

Onboard security provides a third area for improvement. All El Al flights have reinforced steel doors at the cockpit, and those doors remain locked while any passengers are on the plane. In contrast, the doors remain wide open during boarding of most US flights. And all Israeli flights carry more sky marshals than American ones.

Finally, the Israeli procedures make obvious sense to the public and are carried out with more politeness than we routinely experience in American airports. Nor did we hear the shouting there that we routinely do in our own country.

Without improvements, our system will produce more absurdities like the hour-long detention in June of former Secret Service officer Monica Emmerson. She annoyed TSA personnel by spilling water from her toddler’s sippy cup at Reagan International Airport in Washington. TSA insisted that she clean it up as well as go through their procedures all over again and so missed her flight.

It’s hard to see how that made our skies any safer.

(Originally appeared in the Detroit News)

Activists told focus on Israel beyond the conflict

Activists told focus on Israel beyond the conflict

Thursday, July 26, 2007

by Eric Fingerhut

Staff Writer

The women dress in burkas and are subservient to men. There’s no grass or green anywhere, but lots of barbed wire. Everyone is ultrareligious.

That’s the image many Americans have of Israel, according to focus group research. And Larry Weinberg wants to change that.

“Israel is defined by two lenses – the eternal conflict or [religious] Orthodoxy,” he told about 30 local Jewish activists on Wednesday of last week at the Embassy of Israel in the District. “We need another lens,” a “human” one that focuses on technology, health and culture, he said.

Americans, he added, need to know that Israel is helping to make their lives “easier, safer, more efficient and healthier,” he said.

Weinberg is executive vice president of Israel21c, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization whose aim is to provide Americans with news and information about Israel “beyond the conflict.” He was in town last week to offer what he calls a “new paradigm” for pro-Israel communications at an “Israel Branding Summit” for invited guests, both in the morning at the embassy and later that evening at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville.

Similar events have been held eight times in various American cities during the past year, including San Francisco, Miami and Boston.

Israel21c uses research from focus groups that had been convened by the Brand Israel Group, marketing professionals concerned about Israel’s image, according to Weinberg.

He said that Israel is a “ubiquitous positive presence in the lives of all Americans.” As evidence, he pointed out that Israeli-made computer chips and other technological advances help power such everyday products as cellphones, satellite television and MRI machines.

“Why don’t people know this stuff?” he asked. “We haven’t been telling them about it.”

Weinberg said the recent controversial photo spread of female Israel Defense Forces soldiers in sexy poses in the men’s magazine Maxim was a “superb” example of strategic communications, because it exposed millions of young American males – a demographic that knows the “least information about Israel” – to the Jewish state and “gets them to think differently” about the country.

“Pro-Israel communication should be like a well-balanced meal,” Weinberg said. News about Israeli technology and culture “is not dessert, not something you do when you have room,” he said. “It may not be the steak, but it’s got to be the peas and mashed potatoes that come with it.”

One attendee cautioned that altering public opinion on Israel will not be easy.

Norman Goldstein, vice president of Israel and overseas for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, said he strongly favors the idea, but noted that “there is a presupposition that everybody really cares” intensely about Israel.

While everyone in the room last week did so, it’s not something regularly on the minds of many others, he said.

Getting Israel to turn up on their radar screen, he said, is a “real challenge.”

Weinberg and Israel21c consultant Pearl Lerner Kane, who also spoke to the group, acknowledge that news about Israeli medical discoveries or the hip-hop scene in the Jewish state are never going to overtake news about the conflict, and they emphasize that they are not advising anyone to ignore that aspect of Israel.

Their effort also does not replace the continued need for political advocacy, they said. But over the long term, they envision that news reporting about Israel could go from the current 98 percent about the conflict to perhaps 70 percent, with the remaining 30 percent beyond the conflict.

Kane said the best way to get that message out is through “word of mouth,” whether by talking about the topic in one’s social networks or alerting media contacts about stories that they might find interesting.

For instance, Weinberg recalled to the gathering a recent dinner he and his wife had with a couple he was meeting for the first time. Aware that the husband was an endocrinologist, he spent a half-hour earlier that day researching information about Israel in which the doctor might be interested.

The Israel21c effort comes as recent polls show American support for Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians is as strong as ever. Weinberg said after the summit that such support is important, but is “all based on Israel’s geopolitical utility to the United States,” and that Americans need to be given additional reasons why they should identify with the Jewish state.

Reaction from those in attendance last week was enthusiastic.

Miriam Zaghi, who teaches about modern-day Israel at the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, said she thought the idea was great.

“It’s a nice shift,” said Zaghi, 30. “People need a positive vision.”

She added that “word of mouth works,” noting that she’s seen it work when she’s “gone out and spoken to people.”

“Word of mouth is more than one to one,” said Leonard Bebchick, an American Jewish Committee Washington-area vice president. He noted that having other Jewish organizations link to Israel21c’s Web site, for instance, will help get the message out. (The organization also sends out a weekly e-newsletter with links to the new stories that have been posted to its Web site, and Weinberg said the group has already placed 5,000 stories in American media during the past few years.)

Eric Rozenman, Washington director of CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America), also thought Israel21c’s ideas are important, noting that when he meets with media members, he will suggest that reporters write about other aspects of the Jewish state besides the conflict.

While emphasizing the continued need for media watchdog groups like his, he said grassroots efforts like Israel21c’s could be effective in the long term. As an example, he pointed to the success of Arab propaganda efforts since the Six Day War, which he said helped turn once positive media chronicling of the Jewish state into much more critical coverage in recent years.

Israel’s fundamental value of medicine

No questions are asked that are not pertinent to the patient’s immediate stabilization.
Outside the trauma room at Beilinson Medical Center in Petah Tikva, health-care professionals mill about, joking with one another, discussing banal topics, or scrutinizing the plots and relationships on some television show.

Nothing foreshadows the gravely serious scene about to unfold. As the doors to the emergency room part and gurneys are wheeled in, the shift in demeanor is striking. Expressions become serious; motions, deliberate; and all verbal communication, professional. In a cloud of frenzied action lasting no more than a few minutes, the trauma room is transformed from coldly sterile and silent into chaotic and often bloody disarray. Every person in the room recognizes the importance of time, of distinguishing immediate danger to the patient vs. a non-critical injury.

No questions are asked that are not pertinent to the patient’s immediate stabilization. On the precipice of a potential fatality, a person’s curriculum vitae – number of children, occupation, religion – simply does not matter and might even become a distraction. The profession requires that no normative evaluation be made of a life in danger. And, while this fundamental value of medicine, this unwavering law of impartiality, might seem noble and lofty in theory, abiding by it can sometimes harshly test one’s mettle. It certainly tested mine.

As a product of Cleveland’s Jewish day schools, I have long been educated about Jewish laws and values and the importance of the state of Israel. While my level of religious observance has vacillated and my perception of our Jewish state has become increasingly confounded, I remain staunchly proud of my heritage and the small stake Israel’s Jews have claimed amid a sea of less-than-friendly neighbors.

Certainly, a trip to the cash register at Supersol (Israeli supermarket), not to mention the somewhat disconcerting recent activities of Israel’s leaders, would remind even the most idealistic of Zionists that our Jewish homeland could use some tinkering. Nevertheless, there is so much of which to be proud, and, in some respects, the unmasking of flaws has authenticated rather than tarnished the unrealistically pristine picture sometimes presented in school.

Like all members in the health-care field, I bring personal values and convictions to the workplace, quelling them when necessary in favor of a sworn professional obligation. In just my second experience as a member of a trauma team, I was assigned the task of mechanically ventilating one of two incoming patients known to be Palestinian terrorists. They were shot while being apprehended in an attempt to infiltrate Israel’s borders.

I stood there, breathing oxygen into a man willing, quite literally, to sacrifice his life for the annihilation of the Jewish state and its people; I was participating in saving the life of a man who, in reversed circumstances would not only not save me, but would almost certainly end my life. While I did not falter over the course of treatment, I felt more than a little conflicted throughout. And the conflict was one that ran right to my very core.

When the dust had settled and both lives had been saved, I left the trauma room, sat down, and reflected for a moment. If this experience had been so difficult for me, an American Jew born and raised far from the Israel-Palestinian struggle, it must have been considerably more so for the other members of my team. These are Israelis who have witnessed Palestinian violence against their people and perhaps experienced firsthand the loss of loved ones. Yet, in the trauma room, they acted professionally and impartially according to their professional code.

Over this past year, I have rotated through five hospitals in the Tel Aviv area and participated in treating many Palestinians seeking medical attention within Israeli institutions. They are treated equally and compassionately, with access to the same resources and technology afforded to Israeli citizens.

While I have opinions regarding the international community’s persistent condemnation of Israel’s supposed humanitarian infractions against Palestinians, I will abstain from expressing them here. I will say only that the Israeli health-care system is more than non-discriminatory in the treatment of its charges. Rather, it goes out of its way to care for Palestinian patients despite what I can only imagine to be deep frustration and dismay over the unrelenting feud which has brought with it so much suffering and bloodshed.

I am then led to wonder whether the academic community of Great Britain has taken the behavior of Israel’s health-care community into consideration as it threatens to boycott the exchange of information and ideas between the two countries. But then, considering the world?s untiring capacity for turning a blind eye to violence against Israeli citizens, all the while reprimanding Israel for its alleged lack of restraint, I wonder if this display of humanitarian behavior would even make a difference.

(Originally appeared in the Cleveland Jewish News)