My Israeli top 12 list

Just as the Torah portion recalls the sin of the 12 spies, here’s 12 good things about living in Israel. This week, Jews read the Torah portion Shelach Lecha, which recalls the sin of the spies. These were the 12 men that Moses sent to scout out the Land of Israel before entering. When they returned, their reports were distorted and negative and caused a 40 year delay before the children of Israel could enter their land.

Today, despite the challenges that come with living in Israel, we – who have decided to make Israel our home – are witness to all that is good and special about living here. We’re able to have influence and be a part of Jewish history and not merely a spectator. To ‘rectify’ the sins of the ancient spies – and modern day spies – this message serves to shed light on just a bit of the good of life in Israel.

Just as the Torah portion recalls the sin of the 12 spies, I’d like to share 12 good things about living in Israel. Too often, the positive side of Israel ‘beyond the conflict’ is obscured.

12. The entire Jewish world focuses on us. When Jews around the world pray for dew, rain, or peace, it is not for weather in America or peace in Zimbabwe – but rather in the land of Israel. When you pray for peace, it is for peace in Israel and Jerusalem – my home. When Jews celebrate Jerusalem Day or the three pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot), they focus on the city I live in.

11. Safety. Despite fear mongering or the misrepresentation of the news, Israel is a safe country. I feel much safer walking the streets of Jerusalem at one in the morning than I feel in Washington, DC even in the middle of the afternoon. Random acts of violence are very rare in Israel. In addition, in Israel, we live long lives. The life expectancy for an Israeli man is 77.44 years and 81.85 years for a woman but in America, it is shorter – American men live over two years less (75.15) and women a year less (80.97).

10. Innovation and ingenuity – Israel ranks third in ingenuity in the world, second in quality of university education, and first in R&D investment. Only the US has more start ups in the world – yet Israel is only a fraction of the population. But, what does that mean in reality? It is an Israeli-developed processor that powers your computer, Israeli technology makes your small speakers give quality sound, it is Israelis that invented voice mail, Israeli doctors that find cures to diseases – Michael J. Fox is looking to Israel for a cure to Parkinson’s disease. When Warren Buffet looks for a good investment outside of America, he looks to Israel. These are my countrymen that are improving the world.

9. Israel is real – The Talmud says that mitzvoth (commandments) performed outside of Israel are just for practice for when the Jewish people return to Israel. Today, when I put on tefillin, or say a prayer, I know it’s for real – and God is a local call. Life isn’t just about catching the next dollar or empty meaningless lives. In Israel, it’s about making the world a better place, it’s about being a part of Jewish history and not just a spectator. It’s about LIVING LIFE. I don’t need to scuba dive or bungee jump to feel alive. I can do that every day in Israel.

8. Great food and wine – It’s not Manischevitz here! – Israeli wineries make some of the best wine in the world (Domaine du Castel – praised even by the French, and the one thing they know is wine – and Golan Heights Winery, for example). Restaurants from around the world – Mexican, Chinese, Thai, American, Italian, Brazilian, and Japanese, among others – make some of the tastiest food in the world. Even better – most of it is kosher!

7. It’s my history – Not someone else’s history, Israel’s holidays are my holidays and Israel’s history is my history. Whether it’s King David settling Jerusalem, the sights in which Biblical events took place, or modern Zionism and the building of the State of Israel, it’s the history of my ancestors. The founding of Tel Aviv? It was my family who was doing the building. When the American founders were reading the Bible for inspiration, they were trying to duplicate my people – not the other way around. When the president wishes the country a happy holidays, or when the supermarket cashier does, it’s my holidays. No December dilemma for me! And that means more vacation days as Jewish holidays are national holidays here.

8. A caring community ‘ ‘How are you doing?’ isn’t just a formality. In Israel, whether it’s the man or woman on the street, or the supermarket cashier, the people care how you are. It’s not cold, impersonal living.

7. Kosher food courts in the mall. Kosher restaurants in the street. – Business lunch? No problem!

6. The fulfillment of Biblical prophesy – When a bride and groom get married in Israel, it’s a fulfillment of the words of Jeremiah. When Jews from all over the world – Ethiopia, North Africa, Europe, America, and the four corners of the globe – live in one area, it’s Kibbutz Galuyot – the ingathering of the exiles we pray for in our daily prayers and mentioned numerous times in the Bible is happening every day here.

5. A country that mourns together, a country that celebrates together – Memorial Day isn’t an excuse for a long weekend, a trip to the mall, or a barbeque. Rather, an entire country comes together to remember those who died so we can be a free nation in our land. Independence Day isn’t just an excuse for a barbeque (although it is the national pastime on this day) but a day to celebrate together as one nation. We don’t watch the fireworks on TV in our own homes, but in our streets and neighborhoods as a country.

4. 180 miles of beach – Who needs an expensive Mediterranean vacation? We are that vacation! On the shores of the Med, Israeli beaches are world class. There’s no place in the world quite like the Dead Sea. Who needs an expensive vacation? Just take a day off and go to Tel Aviv or Netanya or Eilat. The world’s best scenery and beaches. And, above all – no jetlag!

3. The language of the Bible and the Jewish people is our everyday languageAtem medebrim Ivrit? Ani medeber Ivrit. No need for translations – this is the original. Israeli children speak the same language as Abraham and Moses. The language of the bank, of the court, and, yes, of the criminal is the language of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. Who needs translation? Here, it’s the original! Shalom!

2. It’s the fulfillment of a 2,000-year old dream. Who says dreams don’t come true? Ever since being exiled from our land, the Jewish people have prayed to return. Ever since losing sovereignty thousands of years ago, we have prayed for its restoration. Every day, every moment, every Jewish event has contained a dream to return to the land of Israel under Jewish rule. In the Grace after Meals, we prayed for an end to exile. For thousands of years, being in exile was not a choice. In 1948, being an exile became a choice. In 2004, my exile ended and I chose to be a free person in my land.

While our ancestors were mourning Jerusalem, today, I can celebrate Jerusalem at home, under a Jewish and democratic government, as a sovereign person in my land.

1. It’s home. ONLY in Israel are the words of Hatikvah true. Lihiyot am chofshi b’Artezenu – To be a free people in our land only happens in Israel.

Home may not always be fun, but it’s always home! And, as Dorothy says in the Wizard of Oz, ‘there’s no place like home.’

Dissecting the British academic boycott

When it comes to Israel, the acadmics have ignored the most elementary statistics.The British University and College Union describes itself as the largest national association of lecturers and academic related staff. And of all the burning education issues – budgets, standards and more – discussed at its recent conference, I am astounded to see which one has been assigned as the ‘top story’ on the union’s website. The answer: An academic boycott of Israel, due to continuing violation of Palestinian rights.

As an economics lecturer might say, assume that Israel is a pariah state and that Palestinians had not bombed the Hebrew University in Jerusalem nor the Sapir campus near Ashkelon. And accept that all those who voted for the resolution still believe that Israel has a right to exist in some guise. Even then, the intellectual logic of such a proposal will tax the most senior of professors.

The proponents of the boycott are academics, dedicated to the purity of fact and of research. Yet when it comes to Israel, they have ignored the most elementary of boring and inconvenient statistics. For example, a Jerusalem scholar pointed out recently that when Israel controlled the Palestinian territories, it founded seven Palestinian universities. Until then, there were none. And since 1994, when the Palestinian Authority assumed responsibility for education, no other pluralistic centers have been established.

Under the new ruling, British universities will not be allowed to accept this material, as it was obtained from an Israeli institute of higher learning.

Grasp the importance of this statement, and you realize how much the UK academics have just shot an enormous hole in their great big feet, all in the name of supporting peace. Academia thrives and depends on the exchange of materials, ideas and study papers.

For example, a recent survey conducted by the Milken Institute showed that of over 400 universities examined, Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University were ranked 12th and 21st respectively for registering biotech patents. Only one British establishment, London University, could beat those placings. Aside from deliberately sabotaging one of the potential areas of Israeli-Palestinian co-operation, UK academia will now deprive itself of much valuable input.

A business colleague of mine confirmed the problem. He is working with an Israeli start up on a unique technology in the field of homeland security. The company wishes to complete the research in the UK. He confined in me that “the software development is essential to prevent repeat bombings of the kind seen on the London underground. This latest development – political correctness taken over by extremists – will jeopardize the venture and place people’s freedom in danger.”

Israel’s software achievements in the past two decades have been extensive. They reach to numerous areas of daily lives of all peoples. A classic example is the very technology used to drum up support for the boycott, the Pentium NMX Chip. It was designed at Intel in Israel. Both the Pentium 4 microprocessor and the Centrum processor were designed, developed, and produced in Israel, as well as voice mail and the ICQ technology. Much of the groundwork for all these ideas came from whiz kids at Israel’s universities.

The absurdity of the issue rapidly stretches in to areas of Israeli bio and nanotech. To quote three examples, which mask thousands more: Medinol’s stents, used in cardiac surgery, are arguably the best in the world. Protalix is developing a system to produce complex human therapeutic proteins, which will help fight genetic disorders. Professor Aaron Ciechanover, recent Nobel laureate, has developed a series of cures for specific cancers.

All these projects emerged from research at Israel’s various universities. And not only is the UCU is asking its members to disassociate itself from such works. It is thus asking them and others not to use such breakthroughs, although they will improve the lives of millions.

Ludicrous? Maybe even wicked? Consider the Wolfson Medical Center, south of Tel Aviv. It is famed for its ‘Save A Child’s Heart’ program, which has treated around 1,500 children from around the world. Approximately 50% of the patients have been Palestinians. Much of the work is subsidized via the European Union and is supported by visiting doctors, including from the UK. Time to shut down the wards?

As a businessman, I meet with many Israeli companies developing new technologies. I recently visited Atlantium. Located outside Jerusalem, it targets the water protection and purification market in Scotland, where many rivers are losing fish due to a rare virus. Another CEO has made a presentation to the UK National Health Service, using Israeli medical trials that show he has discovered a way to contain the spread of contagious diseases in hospitals.

The delegates to the UCU conference are also asking for these projects to become taboo to its members and the consumer.

When I studied in Britain, new ideas were actively sought after. In the words of Dr. Sari Nusseibah, president of the Palestinian Al-Quds University: “The free flow of science and information… constitutes a powerful force against war… Of all possible bridges to burn as a form of ‘well-intentioned’ political pressure, the boycott of academic cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians should be excluded…”

If the UCU represents the best tradition of British academia, which has taken pride in its openness and progressiveness, the elected delegates of the members have taken a major step backwards towards selective teaching and predetermined research. Their decision will bring scorn upon itself and the community at large. It will damage those people they are supposedly seeking to help.

If that is the result of the union’s actions, the time has arrived to question seriously the true motives that have brought its members to such a segregationist position.

Israel has world-class economy

With only seven million people and no natural resources, Israel has achieved amazing results.When one evaluates today’s miracle economies, that designation usually is reserved for China, India, the Southeast Asian Rim and Brazil. Even Vladimir Putin’s Russia has used its energy dominance to accumulate the world’s third-largest currency reserves of $250 billion.

But no one, with the exception of Berkshire-Hathaway owner Warren Buffett, would put tiny Israel into that category.

After buying 80 percent of an Israel-based, world-class tool company for $4 billion, in addition to several smaller adjunct concerns, Buffett called the embattled Jewish state one of the world’s most productive on a per capita basis.

With a sparse 7 million population, no natural resources and all borders being totally surrounded by enemies, Israel has achieved mind-boggling results. This was accomplished despite a 30-day war with Lebanon-based Hizbullah last summer and the need to keep its population on constant alert through universal military training and a 25-year reserve commitment.

In spite of these hardships, Israel has been admitted to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which consists of the 30 leading economies in the world. This will improve Israel’s credit rating, yielding a substantial reduction of risk premiums for the financing of the coming multibillion-dollar infrastructure prospects.

It also will accelerate the flow of overseas investments in Israel. Economic statistics tell a big part of the story.

The International Monetary Fund projects a 4.8 percent growth for Israel for 2007, one of the highest in the industrialized world, trailing only Hong Kong, Singapore and Ireland, respectively. Inflation is negative, while unemployment is projected to decrease to 7 percent from 9 percent in 2005.

Gross domestic product growth particularly is impressive, projected at a 5.1 percent annualized rate compared to 3.1 percent in the European economic community and 2.3 percent in the United States during 2007. Israel’s just-announced first quarter came in at an even higher 6.3 percent.

Israel also has become one of the world leaders in annual military arms sales with $4.4 billion in 2006, an all-time record for that beleaguered nation, with 75 percent sold overseas.

With a GDP per capita of almost $20,000, far higher than any of the oil-rich Arab countries, Israel is the “go-to country” when it comes to high technology.

One in 10 Israelis works in the tech sector. Some 3,500 startup companies were created within Israel’s 7 million population last year, second only to the United States with 300 million inhabitants.

Under finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu, a once and possibly future prime minister, Israel took a giant step toward privatization, including banks and communications networks.

Israel increasingly is being considered worldwide as an alternative to Silicon Valley, with 90 percent of venture capital coming from foreign investors, mostly from the United States.

Such venture capitalists as Silicon Valley’s Greylock Partners have set up offices in Israel, with a $150 million dedicated expansion fund. Fifty-seven Israeli technology companies were sold last year to overseas buyers for a total of $90 billion, six times the value of 2004.

Microsoft is hiring 150 research and development people for its second R&D center in Israel, in addition to 200 persons already working at the company’s R&D center in Haifa.

Intel-Israel also has been responsible for that chipmaker’s recovery due to a freelance design bureau 7,400 miles from Silicon Valley. Intel credits Israel’s mavericks with new approaches that saved Intel from processing setbacks, according to CEO Paul Otelini.

Today, Israel has more scientists and engineers proportional to its population than any country in the world, including the United States. Israel’s stock exchange has been booming, including its investments in Africa, Moscow, Germany, United States, China and Finland.

Israel also has become a global leader in water and environmental technologies, planning to increase its current research staff from 1,700 to 8,000 in the next five years.

A consortium of Nokia Siemens has announced expansion of their Israel R&D operations (350 persons) while shrinking their global workforce by 15 percent. The consortium’s only non-Finland and non-Germany operations are in the United States, China and Israel.

One may or may not believe that Israel is God’s country, but it certainly seems to be enjoying divine blessings.

(Originally appeared in the Palm Springs Desert Sun)

No choice but to use heavy hand in Gaza

What would the Americans do were the Mexicans to fire rockets on San Antonio? What would the Americans do were the Mexicans to fire rockets on San Antonio? What would the Russians do were the Ukrainians to fire rockets on Moscow? What would the Indians do were the Pakistanis to bomb New Delhi?

Would they also be prepared to take quietly what the residents of Sderot have had to take on a daily basis? Would they also make do with sending a plane to intercept a jeep carrying the rockets? Or would they bomb and shell and destroy and kill until the Mexicans, or the Ukrainians, or the Pakistanis stopped shooting and begged for a bit of peace and quiet? Is there any doubt about that?

Moreover, what would the Israelis do were 20 Kassam rockets to explode in Tel Aviv on a daily basis? Continue to go about business as usual? Make do with a ‘measured’ response? Or would they shell the ‘sources of fire’ until the Palestinians said uncle. Is there any doubt about that?

The demand that we enter Gaza and ‘put things in order’ there is foolish machismo. We’ve been there and we gathered up our soldiers’ body parts wearing plastic gloves. We weren’t able to put anything in order there. If we go in they’ll kill a few of our soldiers every day, and in the end we’ll withdraw in disgrace.

Because we are incapable of stopping the Kassam rocket fire. Only the Palestinians can do that. And they will do that only after they understand that firing Kassam rockets at the northern Negev isn’t worth the damage it causes. Only after they understand that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are causing the residents of Gaza agonies that they cannot and will not pay for the pleasure of having Sderot shelled.

In order for the Palestinian population to rise up against the people firing Kassam rockets we are going to have to respond to every Kassam rocket with massive bombing at the ‘sources of fire’. It is true that this course of action will cause damage, suffering and death among the civilian population. It is true that it runs against the grain of our humane sentiments. It is true that the television footage out of Gaza will raise an outcry in public opinion throughout the world against us. It is true that the UN and the other powers will apply heavy pressure on us.

All of those troubles put together do not outweigh the fact that a country ceases to be sovereign when it allows its neighbor to bomb it. There is something insane in the fact that we engage in debate with ourselves and the world, calm diplomatic debate over whether we are allowed to or forbidden to use everything – everything! – to put an end to the grave assault on our sovereignty, the destruction of our homes, the danger to our citizens’ lives.

If there were even the smallest chance that this enormous restraint would bring peace any closer I might think differently. But the fact that we regard with such indulgence attacks on our population in the northern Negev does not bring peace any closer; it pushes it farther away. Because it signals to the Palestinians that it is possible to attack us and ultimately to defeat us one step at a time, Kassam before Katyusha (which will soon be upon us), Sderot before Ashkelon, Ashkelon before Ben-Gurion Airport, Ben-Gurion Airport before Tel Aviv. That is no empty threat. It is the logic that stems from the dynamic of the process.

He who refrains today from using a heavy hand will need a far heavier hand in the future.

(Originally appeared in Ma’ariv)

Expanding the Israeli prism

Why not focus on the fact that Israel is a developed, valuable modern democracy?The international media continues to refract every Israeli issue through the prism of the Palestinian question but the occasion of Israel’s fifty-ninth birthday last month presented an opportunity to step back from the ongoing conflict and take stock of its many accomplishments. For since its foundation in 1948 when, to borrow Seamus Heaney’s phrase, 2,000 years of Jewish ‘hope and history finally rhymed,’ Israel has established itself as a highly-developed, modern democratic state and a major player on the international stage.

For example, Israel is today a global force in the field of in science and technology. Given its tiny size and lack of natural resources, it has developed a sophisticated high-tech economy and today ranks first in the world as regards the percentage of scientists and technicians in the workforce.

Boasting the world’s highest ratio of university degrees per population, it produces more scientific papers per capita than any other nation and has one of the highest per capita rates of patents filed. Unsurprisingly then, Israel enjoys the highest concentration of high-tech companies outside of Silicon Valley – global giants such as Microsoft, IBM, Intel and Cisco have established major research and development centers there. Voicemail and internet instant messenger technologies were both developed in Israel and Israeli scientists also designed and developed Intel’s Pentium MMX technology and much of Microsoft’s Windows NT operating system.

This technological know-how has been applied to agricultural science with impressive results. Israel’s tri-annual Agritech exhibition, which showcases the latest technological innovations, attracts thousands of farming professionals from over 100 countries. Companies such as Agroproject provide agricultural consultancy services to private enterprises, public sector customers and international aid organizations working in the developing world, most recently in Afghanistan and Angola.

With 60% of its land defined as ‘arid,’ Israel has become the world leader in developing desert farming techniques such as drip irrigation, solar energy harnessing, brackish water fish farming, algae cultivation and desalination and, one hundred years after the first aliya, its deserts continue to bloom ? Israel is the only country with an annual net gain in its number of trees and over 50 million Israeli flowers were sent to Europe last Valentine’s Day.

Scientists travel from all over the world to study at Ben Gurion University’s Albert Katz International School for Desert Studies and the UN has publicly acknowledged its expertise in this field. Israel is also leading the way in water treatment technology and it is expected that, by the end of the decade, Israeli farmers will get half their water supply from recycled wastewater.

Medicine is another field in which Israel has excelled. Israeli scientists have been responsible for many recent advances in the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer, strokes, Parkinson’s disease, Hepatitis C and multiple sclerosis and breakthroughs have also been reported in the areas of umbilical stem cell research and ovarian tissue transplantation.

Israeli pharmaceutical companies such as Teva and Abic produce some of the world’s leading therapeutic drugs while the medical device industry is considered the most sophisticated in the world with Israel ranking first in the world in patents per capita. Recent innovations include the world’s first ingestible “camera in a capsule” for the diagnosis of gastrointestinal conditions from Given Imaging; the ClearLight anti-acne device; and InSightec Haifa’s development of the ExAblate 2000 system which provides a non-invasive alternative to the treatment of tumors.

Israel’s medical achievements are now being recognized. For instance, two Israeli scientists won the 2004 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their medical research while the Technion’s Shulamit Levenberg was included in last year’s prestigious Scientific American 50 for her work on the creation of lab-manufactured organs for transplant.

And in November 2006, Dr. Hossam Haick of Nazareth was awarded a grant under the EU’s Marie Curie Excellence program to further his development of an artificial olfactory system that can detect and diagnose cancer in the earliest possible stages.

But Israel’s scientific and technological pre-eminence has not been achieved at the expense of its cultural life. As a melting pot of European, Middle Eastern and African cultural traditions, it has also made a rich contribution to the world of the arts.

Pinchas Zuckerman, Itzhak Perlman and Daniel Barenboim are today legends in the world of classical music while Dan Ettinger, Yaron Gottfried and Asher Fisch are tipped as the faces of the future. Israeli musicians have also had a significant impact on the New York jazz scene and popular artists such as Ivri Lider and Idan Raichel singing in Hebrew, Arabic and Amharic are making their mark abroad.

Israeli authors such as Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua and David Grossman are feted throughout the literary world (Israel has the second highest publication of new books per capita in the world) while the poetry of Yehuda Amichai ranks among the greatest of the 20th century. Meanwhile, increased funding under the New Cinema Law 2000 has helped put the Israeli film industry on the international map. There are today ten film schools and seven international film festivals in Israel and movies such as The Syrian Bride, Sweet Mud, The Bubble, Beaufort and West Bank Story have recently won world prizes.

Even though the Palestinian issue looms large within the context of Israel and the world, the international media should occasionally take time to look beyond the conflict and acknowledge six decades of these impressive Israeli achievements.