My Jerusalem

Change is inevitable in any city, let alone one with a 3,000-year-old history.

A classmate of mine at university once recounted the tale of her visit to an African country in the early 1960s where she was detained by the border control official who became suspicious after seeing her place of birth listed as Jerusalem. Until that encounter, he had never realized that Jerusalem existed as a real city rather than just as a heavenly concept.

Jerusalem tends to be idealized like that. There often seem to be two Jerusalems existing alongside each other. Not west and east. More the heavenly and the earthly.

Many psalms, songs and poems have been written about Jerusalem over the years, nay, millennia. Recently I found myself singing along to “Yerushalayim sheli,” (My Jerusalem), in which lyricist Dan Almagor records the Jerusalem of various characters, among them: “The peddler from Mazkeret Moshe” for whom Jerusalem “is Mahaneh Yehuda [market] on festival eves”; “the cobbler from Katamon” whose Jerusalem is “a tenement without a store and hopping on the bus”; and “the bathhouse attendant” from Mea She’arim whose Jerusalem is “the whisper of a prayer of days to come.”

My Jerusalem is yet something else. Ahead of Jerusalem Day on May 16, which this year marks the 40th anniversary of the city’s reunification, an endless parade of politicians, social commentators and artists have been interviewed in the Israeli media on their views of Jerusalem’s past, present and future. Everyone has a different perception of the capital, colored by their own experiences. For me, Jerusalem is simply home. And I love it.

Jerusalem is the city of contradictions. They say that cleanliness is next to Godliness. If that was so, Jerusalem would have to forgo its name as the Holy City. Jerusalem is not perfect. There are pockets of poverty and profound social problems. Its residents can be nosey and noisy (or caring and carefree depending on my mood). The security situation makes being alert second nature to Jerusalemites. At the height of the Palestinian hostilities, my neighbors quipped that it must be the only capital in the world where people are scared to go out during the day but feel safe on the streets at night. There is the sound of never-ending construction and the silence of ancient graves like the impressive Absalom’s Tomb. One of the liveliest areas, with its cafes and boutiques, is Emek Refaim the Valley of the Ghosts.

My Jerusalem is not that of a tourist. Most visitors don’t end up in a Hadassah University Hospital ward. Neither, apparently, do all those critics who talk of an apartheid policy. Jewish and Arab doctors and nurses work to help Jewish and Arab patients, without differentiation.

Natural coexistence is also evident at the Tisch Family Biblical Zoo, where Arabs and Jews secular and ultra-Orthodox enjoy themselves side by side.

The leopard might not lie down with the kid, but there are signs that it’s not such a fantastical notion. Anything is possible at a zoo which receives food for the animals from the traditional priestly tithes.

The Jerusalem I live in has a (tiny) Natural History Museum where the model dinosaur is called Zrubavel (Zerubbabel), after the hero who led the return of the Jews from Babylonian exile. It has the Bible Lands Museum; the

world-class Israel Museum; the hands-on Science Museum; and the Islamic Art Museum where you can pass the time looking at its clock collection. For the best view of Jerusalem’s history (and the city itself) climb to the top of the Tower of David Museum.

The Western Wall is in my Jerusalem. Known to the tourists as the Wailing Wall, a name most Jerusalemites detest, my nephew as a four-year-old renamed it the Wishing Wall. I tend to ‘use’ the Kotel rather than visit it. It’s only a bus ride away, and when I really want God to get the message, I feel it’s worth traveling there to hand-deliver a note with a prayer into the ancient cracks.

Yad Vashem also exists in my Jerusalem, a monument to prayers that went unanswered. Many cities around the world now ‘boast’ Holocaust museums. But my late Austrian-born aunt visiting Jerusalem from England once noted: “Yad Vashem is the only place I can go to say Kaddish.” No museum in the world can provide a suitable venue for reciting the Prayer for the Dead for those

who have no graves.

But my Jerusalem is more about life. Catch the classics played by the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra; watch contemporary theater at the Khan; the best foreign films appear at the Cinematheque; the box-office hits are available in the suitably commercialized malls. There’s the top-rate Israel Festival and Puppet Festival, and amateur performances galore. (My Jerusalem definitely includes JEST, the Jerusalem English-Speaking Theater.) When the money runs out, there are the free performances of street theater. In fact, just watching the world go by over a drink in one of the many coffee shops is cheap entertainment.

People are crazy about places like Paris. In Jerusalem, they GO crazy. No other city inspires its own medically recognized syndrome a psychosis that afflicts normally sane tourists who start hearing voices other than what the rest of their group is hearing (“For you, I make a special price…”).

Jerusalem often drives me crazy. If it¹s a peaceful Jerusalem you seek, stay away from the No. 18 bus where passengers argue over everything from the lack of seats to politics even though they all seem to support Bibi.

My Jerusalem is centered around the Katamonim where every Betar Jerusalem win is announced by honking car horns. On a Friday afternoon, it sometimes seems the whole neighborhood smells of kubbeh, freshly-shampooed kids, and the bunches of flowers sold by the weekly vendors.

For relaxation, I go to the Jerusalem Pool, where in the changing room I can also catch up on the local gossip and hottest summer plans.

On a Saturday afternoon, I can usually be found along with many, many others in San Simon Park, near the Greek monastery. The site of a bitter battle in 1948, it is now a wonderful playground where the kids run free, Israel-style, and their parents aren’t afraid to let them out of their

sight.

Jerusalem has changed over the years. Whatever happened to the man who used to sell hot corn on the cob at the traffic circle next to Beit Elisheva? Or the man who used to ask Kfir Cinema patrons not to litter or make a noise in the age BEFORE cell-phones?

Their Jerusalem, too, was different. But, then, change is inevitable in any city, let alone one with a 3,000-year-old history.

(Reprinted from The Jerusalem Post)

Why Africa needs Israel

Sharing Israel’s expertise will enable African countries to forge ahead on the path of development.There are numerous reasons why nations need each other to survive in today’s world. The rapid advancement of science and technology coupled with other development trends including globalization, have made nations more interconnected and transformed the way in which international matters are being conducted.

Africa and Israel share similar aspirations in respect to peace and stability, development and prosperity. They enjoy historical relations that in some cases predate the independence of the countries. In fact, Jewish settlement in Kenya started at the beginning of the 20th Century. The Nairobi Hebrew Congregation was established in 1904, well before Kenya’s independence in 1963.

Africa as a member of the international community needs dependable allies to participate effectively in international affairs. Maintaining close relationship with Israel is a sure way of, mutually cultivating and solidifying beneficial cooperation in political, economic, scientific and technological, academic and cultural fields among others.

Bilateral relations between African countries and Israel have expanded considerably. More than three quarters of African countries maintain diplomatic relations with Israel. However, the ties need strengthening to make them mutually productive. Political engagement has picked but exchange visits at the higher levels remains lackluster or lopsided and needs revamping.

Africa’s focus is not to dwell on the past, since more is in the present and the future. We believe the two have a lot to gain and learn from each other if the relations can move to the next level.

Africa is the largest developing continent. It is endowed with immense natural resources but at the same time, it is lesser integrated into the global system. Half a century ago, African countries were at the same level of development with Singapore, and Malaysia.

Israel was also a young nation. The current standing of most African countries pales in comparison to Israel and other countries. They have been unable to move with the changing tide and either have remained stagnant or only made marginal improvements in their lives.

Development is a shared responsibility between those who have succeeded and those who have not. Globalization has created profound changes in the world; shrunk distances in both time and space and entrenched interdependence of nations as the fulcrum of international relations. Issues that were local problems are now global and require a global approach.

Israel’s development has surpassed many obstacles, diversified its economy and managed to put up a fast growing high tech sector leading to its becoming a developed, economically advanced and industrialized country.

Moreover, Israel is an influential member of the international community and is in a position to help influence decisions made on African countries as they look for endorsement and recognition by the international community. Hence, Africa desires to coordinate positions with Israel at bilateral and multilateral levels to benefit from the process of Globalization.

The intricate and enormous challenges in Africa entail solutions from both within and outside the continent. Regional and internal political conflicts, some of them fuelled by the exploitation of natural resources, are destroying countries, and tearing whole societies apart. The result is disruption to universal peace, security and stability.

As much as it is Africa’s responsibility to deal with these issues, the causes are at times complex, demanding collaboration others. In some cases, the continent lacks the means or technology to confront the problems. On counter terrorism, Africa needs to work with the international community, as it is a global responsibility.

African countries also lack basic, scientific and technical means to address diverse challenges of environment, water and information, health, and agriculture technologies.

Israel is a pioneer in scientific and technological innovations and its highly skilled human capital of engineers, scientists and doctors is a hallmark of the country. Sharing the innovative solutions and expertise will enable African countries to acquire the relevant skills they need to forge ahead on the path of development.

A number of countries benefit from cooperation under MASHAV and others institutions. However, there is need to expand it to accommodate more people.

Africa remains optimistic. According to World Bank Kenya Country Director Collin Bruce, Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria have the potential to become the key economic empires in the continent similar to the Asian tigers. African countries are undergoing political and socio-economic renewal in order to reduce poverty and join the ranks of those that have achieved sustainable development.

Trade barriers and agricultural subsidies in industrialized countries are a main handicap to Africa. The African countries want to see Israel increase investment in Africa, and to buy more from Africa. They also want Israel’s help to access third country markets for their commodities, minerals and oil.

Israel has advanced technology, which we hope to use to achieve value addition in manufacturing. Opportunities also exist in joint venture partnerships in tourism, infrastructure development, and agriculture and water technologies.

It is further our expectation that closer cooperation will help balance the two-way trade that is largely in favour of Israel. In addition, Israel being equidistant between Africa, Europe and Asia can act as a bridge for international trade between African and the rest of the world.

Culturally, Africans have special affinity for this country and regularly undertake pilgrimages to Jerusalem and other Holy Sites in Israel. It is also an exciting place to visit for tourism or business. We hope that Israel can find Africa as exciting in spite of the negative travel advisories on Africa.

Finally, Africa’s economic development depends upon forging and fostering close cooperation with the international community. We shall continue to play our part to strengthen mutually beneficial bilateral and regional cooperation with Israel and others.

(Excerpts from remarks by Ambassador Feslistas V. Khayumbi at the launch of the ‘Africa Initiative’ at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev on May 9th.)

Associated Press – The many fronts of Israel’s PR offensive

Ivri Lider is Israel’s newest freelance ambassador.

The openly gay musician is one of a new breed of unofficial envoys trying to improve Israel’s international image – a battle the government has been waging for decades. Lider recently returned from a trip to the U.S., funded by a pro-Israel nonprofit group, where he performed concerts and spoke to college students and gay activists.

“When I met people they said, ‘We didn’t know that you could be an Israeli rock star who is out of the closet,’” he recalled. “I think Israel needs to reveal its more liberal, cool and funky sides.”

Israel has a reality problem more than an image problem, critics say. The country is still recovering from last summer’s war in Lebanon and is mired in conflict with the Palestinians. No matter how hard Israel tries, the critics argue, it will be impossible for Israel to complete its image makeover until it resolves its dispute with Palestinians.

The deepest hostilities toward Israel are found in Europe and the Arab world. But Israel also has an image problem in the U.S., where people generally view it as a war zone.

With Israeli officials still struggling to sway public opinion, a host of independent groups – funded primarily by wealthy American Jews – are trying to come to the rescue.

They include Israel at Heart – the group that sent Lider – which dispatches Israeli students on grass-roots missions to college campuses, churches and community centers. Its envoys often encounter scathing accusations regarding Israeli policies toward Palestinians, but they try to steer clear of politics, focusing instead on their personal stories to create basic empathy.

Other groups stump for Israel in the media or run ad campaigns – replete with models in swimsuits – that portray Israel as a desirable tourist destination. (See one such ad here: http://tinyurl.com/2whjyl.)

Israel’s image consciousness has even trickled into its pop culture. Channel 2 TV aired a highly successful reality show, “The Ambassador,” in which young Israelis competed to see who could present the country in the best light to a hostile international audience.



GOVERNMENT MISSION

Israel’s Foreign Ministry, which oversees much of the government’s public-relations effort, seems to be catching on.

The ministry has begun to diversify its ranks, sending women, Ethiopian immigrants and Israeli Arabs into high-profile positions – a contrast to the usual cast of grizzled, tough-talking former military men who often represent the country abroad. It even briefed Israel’s Miss Universe contestant on how to portray Israel in a positive light and deal with critical questions.

And thanks to foreign ministry efforts, Maxim magazine will soon publish a special Israeli edition featuring six of the country’s top models.

The government has also launched a “nation-branding” drive aimed at presenting Israel as a vibrant, modern society – with recent Nobel Prize winners in chemistry and economics, cutting-edge medical industries and innovative companies traded on Nasdaq.

“The product is fine; it’s the marketing that needs work,” said Amir Gissin, who has spearheaded the ministry’s drive for the past two years.



ENORMOUS CHALLENGE

No doubt, the image boosters have their work cut out. In a recent global survey that ranked the images of 36 countries, Israel came in last.

“The negative perceptions of Israel, arising from the constant reporting of the Middle East conflict, are so powerful that they basically drown out anything else positive,” said Simon Anholt, the London pollster who created the Anholt Nations Brand Index. “It simply contaminated the whole image of the country from top to bottom.”

That’s exactly what the masterminds of the unofficial “rebranding” initiative are trying to counter. They hope to shift away from the conflict and focus instead on Israel’s successes in business, medicine, science and technology.

“You have to separate the issue of policy and everything else,” said David Sable, a New York advertising executive who is one of the creators of the project. “We are just trying to highlight the natural strengths that are already there.”

Israel 21c, a nonprofit project funded by Jewish leaders from the San Francisco Bay area, has done just that, launching a Web site that reports exclusively on Israeli achievements and non-conflict issues. The Web site is geared toward foreign correspondents in Israel and says it has placed dozens of articles in newspapers around the world.



CAN IT WORK?

Anholt is skeptical of Israel 21c’s approach.

“I wonder if they know what an enormous immovable weight the country’s image is,” he said. “This is not a pair of running shoes where you can run a campaign and change its image.”

Uzi Arad, a former Mossad spy and director of Israel’s Institute of Policy and Strategy, called the rebranding drive “pathetic.” Instead of running magazine ads showing Israeli women in bikinis, he said, Israel has to defend its policies and be aggressive in the media, just as it has done in war.

“Don’t let them decide the actions. Go on the attack, go for the jugular, stop being apologetic,” he said.

Gissin, the director of the foreign ministry’s PR efforts, said the rebranding drive was aimed at improving Israel’s economic results by making it a more attractive destination for investors and tourists. Regardless, he said Israel could not disguise its reality and the drive needed to accompany the traditional, conflict-centric PR, not replace it.

“The conflict could go on for another generation; that does not relieve us of the responsibility to improve Israel’s image,” he said. “That people see us just through the conflict is not our destiny, we can change it.”



ISRAEL’S NEW FACE?

In the meantime, Israel is busy framing its new look. Ismail Khaldi, a member of Israel’s Arab Bedouin minority, a nomadic tribal society plagued by widespread poverty, recently took up the post of deputy consul in San Francisco. While other Arabs and Druse have represented Israel overseas before, Khaldi is the first Bedouin to reach such a high position.

One of 12 children, he lived in a tent until he was 8 years old, and his village in northern Israel only received electricity four years ago.

Despite his past hardship, he says he is ready to be the new face of Israel.

“America and the West can learn from Israel’s democracy. It’s a great achievement, one to be proud of,” he said. “We’re the unheard voices, and now we’ll be heard. That’s the beauty of diversity and democracy.”



Aron Heller is an AP reporter based in Jerusalem.

A welcomed alarm bell in Israel

Thanks to the Winograd report, Israel’s democratic life is being invigorated.
Something good is happening to Israeli democracy these days. Precisely when several indicators seem to show that Israelis are becoming weary of their democratic system; when the Index of Israeli Democracy, published by Prof. Asher Arian and his team from the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), reveal that many citizens prefer a ‘strong man’ over ‘all those deliberations in the Knesset’; when there are complaints that the Supreme Court, with its ‘judicial imperialism’, has taken over the political arena; in light of all this – and despite all this – we are experiencing today a surge of rejuvenation in our democratic life.

The trigger, of course, was the interim Winograd Report, which severely criticized the decision making of the Israeli leaders, both political and military, during the Second Lebanon War. The report set in motion a formidable democratic machine, and some 100,000 Israelis came to Rabin Square last Thursday, to call for the resignation of two government leaders – Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz. If you think about it in American terms, it’s like having six million people marching on Washington DC to rally for a certain cause (in the largest rally against the Vietnam War, in 1969, 250,000 people showed up).

Apart from this impressive show of citizens’ involvement, the Winograd Report brought back to the Israeli political sphere the essence of democracy, originating in ancient Greece: free citizens engaging in a serious discourse on their most crucial public affairs.

For years, this discourse in Israel has been contaminated by partisan politics, consumer craze and attack journalism – not uncommon in other societies, except that Israel is maybe the only country in the world whose existence is threatened, and therefore, it cannot afford to just lay back like others. The decline in voter turnout from 68 percent in 2003 to 63% in 2006, and the decline in the public’s trust in state institutions – both indicated by IDI’s Democracy Index – signaled the weakening process of democracy in Israel.

But the Winograd Report sounded the alarm. With a clear voice, this commission of one woman and four men told us exactly what went wrong last summer, and who is responsible for it. The commission not only criticized the military flaws and the poor decision-making exposed in the war, but also put on the table for discussion the key fundamental issues: Who should qualify to be a prime minister or defense minister in Israel? Should leadership that failed step down or rather be given a chance to fix what had gone wrong? What is the true meaning of responsibility in the public arena? What is the unwritten contract between the electorate and the elected? How should we balance between accountability (resigning of failed leaders) and stability?

All these issues and more are now at the center of a lively debate in Israel. Whether eventually Olmert resigns or not(I think he shouldn’t), is beside the point. The public has already taken its cue from the Winograd Commission. It has called its leaders to order, by rallying in big numbers and by expressing its opinions in the polls. Now the struggle switches to the Knesset, where the representatives of the people will have to decide how they respond to the wishes of the electorate.

There have been voices criticizing the whole idea of a ‘commission of inquiry’ taking over the roles of the regular organs of government. Furthermore, the critics say that the commission, headed by a former district judge, is another example, or an extension, of the ‘judicial imperialism’, in which the courts decide about public affairs instead of the representatives of the people.

Yet the Winograd Commission has done nothing of the sort. After laying the facts on the table – and few question the seriousness and professionalism of the inquiry – the commission members stopped short of making any personal recommendations. That’s the role of the public, they reasoned. Indeed, the public stood up to the occasion, and now is vigorously debating the Winograd findings, pondering what’s best for Israel: letting Olmert carry on and implementing the report; re-shuffling the government; or new elections.

This is a major event, where the Israeli citizens are once again debating real issues, not products of spin meisters, and there is a fresh feeling of the people being able to freely decide about its crucial matters. Democracy in Israel is being invigorated.

Asylum for Sudanese refugees in Israel

The Jewish instinct obligates us to free these fugitives from genocide and give them full asylum. Holocaust Remembrance Day is behind us, but it is incumbent on us to focus on the genocide taking place in the Sudan. We need to think about the 160 men and women, refugees of the genocide in Darfur, now sitting in Israeli jails. (Many other detainees were released after alternative arrangements were made for them, thanks to Kav LaOved Worker’s Hotline and the Kibbutz Movement.)

How did refugees running for their lives end up in our jails, when jails are for dangerous criminals? The answer is complicated.

A few hundred refugees from Darfur reached Israel, via Egypt, in their search for asylum. At first authorities used the prohibitions against illegal entry into Israel to keep them out. But the law allows for judicial review, which gives the courts discretion to release the refugees from jail.

Because of that, authorities began using a different law, one to prevent infiltration. This approach permits the deportation of those infiltrating from enemy countries and contains no recourse for judicial review. The High Court of Justice has been petitioned on this matter and will soon rule on the legal aspect.

But a larger issue remains: Is it Israel’s duty, as a Jewish state, to provide asylum to war refugees?

Israel signed two covenants that recognize the right of entry for political refugees. These were in response to the refusal of the enlightened world to open its doors to Jewish refugees during the Nazi era. In practice, Israel performs its international duty for refugees arriving at its shores only in a minuscule number of cases.

And what about refugees fleeing enemy countries? Israel has determined that the covenants do not apply to them. The UN has not explicitly recognized this demand, but it has helped to find such refugees asylum elsewhere.

The third-country alternative was found for Iraqi pilots (and other refugees from dictatorial Arab regimes) who fled to Israel because we accepted the principle that these refugees must not be returned to the places where they face danger. A committee of experts that I was privileged to head, which included four deans of law schools and three Israel Prize laureates, debated this matter. It proposed that the right to political asylum be defined by law, that the term “refugee” be broadened to include those fleeing from starvation or war; that such refugees be allowed to stay in Israel and be granted immigration rights (limited by quotas for refugees from enemy countries) “with each case… judged on its own merits, in accordance with its circumstances and… security considerations.”

The committee proposed that such refugees be granted the same rights as foreign workers and that they be issued travel (laissez-passer) documents while they continue to live Israel. However, our recommendations were never even discussed at the Ministry of Justice, and for all intents and purposes they were discarded. The Knesset’s Interior Committee held just one debate on them and made no decision. Yet the plight of the Darfur refugees underscores the importance of accepting the recommendations of the committee.

These are people fleeing for their lives. A new agreement between Sudan and the UN regarding the positioning of an international force in Darfur may, perhaps, put an end to the genocide being carried out there, undisturbed, for so long; but if, heaven forbid, the massacres should continue, our duty to provide legal status and human rights to those fleeing from them would continue too.

But what if we are inundated with refugees from Sudan, you may ask? The answer is that at this point we are not talking about a mass immigration, and the duty we have is absolute. However, should the numbers increase to levels we can no longer deal with, Israel would have to foster an international arrangement to distribute the burden of absorption among a number of different countries.

Israel is no ordinary state. It is a Jewish state. That is not a figure of speech: We remember how the gates of freedom were closed to our parents and grandparents; we remember the White Paper, which served as a death sentence to many tens of thousands of our people; we remember the Evian Conference, which convened on the eve of the Holocaust and officially resolved to do nothing for the Jewish refugees; we remember the fate of the Saint Louis, the ship filled with Jewish refugees fleeing from the Nazis that the United States sent back to Germany just a few weeks before the extermination was to begin.

Even if we wanted to, we could never erase these horrors from our memories and national consciousness. And while nothing should be compared to the crimes of the Nazis, the Jewish instinct obligates us to free the refugees – fugitives from genocide – from their jail cells and give them full asylum.

That is what Menachem Begin did immediately after he was elected prime minister, when he opened Israel’s gates to the boat people from Vietnam and, in this respect, showed us the way. This is the way of Israel, which maintains its right to defend itself against its enemies but, at the same time, never forgets its humane mission and the universal lessons of the Holocaust.

(Originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post)