Don’t Panic, Pt. 2: Keep your distance

First and most importantly, I wish speedy and complete recovery to all those who are ill with COVID-19 and continued good health for those who are asymptomatic and in quarantine.

I delayed writing because the situation in Israel is changing hourly and while there will be more to come, now is a good time to catch up.

After the third election, there was still no coalition, but because of the coronavirus, elected officials understood that now is the time to act in unity to protect Israel and its people. Corruption and massive egos get pushed aside when Israel is under threat.

On Thursday, Israel closed its borders. Tourists are not allowed in the country unless they can prove they have a home (not a hotel) to self-quarantine for two weeks. Schools were officially closed until after Passover (mid-April).

Also on Thursday night, a huge storm blew across Israel with high winds and chances of flooding in the Dead Sea and Negev. Coincidence or Divine Directive to stay home?

On Friday morning, normally a busy time in Jerusalem even on rainy days, the streets were quite empty. There are images of a nearly empty Western Wall plaza, nearly empty Mahane Yehuda (the open air market), and few people on the outdoor shopping streets (Ben Yehuda and Mamilla).

As of Saturday evening (see sections of Netanyahu’s speech with simultaneous English translation), entertainment and cultural activities are closed, including cafes and malls. Gatherings of 10+ people are no longer allowed. We are asked to keep 2 meters (6 feet) away from others. Netanyahu said we are at war with an invisible enemy.

We are not in lock-down, but we’re getting there.

This is where we are now

The main article making the rounds right now is “Corona Virus: Why You Must Act Now” (available in 19 languages). It’s a pretty scary article backed by a lot of graphs, statistical models, and historical analysis of the 1918 flu pandemic. Bottom line: Social distancing, containment, early action.

I skimmed it and am quite comfortable with Israel’s policies – even if they get a lot more invasive (and they will).

Getting in touch with our humanity, virtually 

My friend in Milan is taking the lock-down philosophically. He can’t go anywhere for a month, so he thought it would be a good time for some self-reflection and life evaluation.

Facebook is filling up with quarantine support groups and offers of small group activities for children.

Asymptomatic but quarantined religious women in Israel are expecting to have more time to clean for Passover.

A Hebrew Ulpan is offering Hebrew classes online (free).

Economic safety nets are showing up using online technology. Tour guides have been hit hard by the closed borders and one company decided to try something different: virtual tours given by real guides on location to families in their homes around the world.

The main Tai Chi group in Israel is offering stress-relieving Qigong meditation classes online (for free).

Thoughts for now

Reasoned, thoughtful action is what will get the world through this mess.

Panic will only lead to irrational toilet paper and hand sanitizer hoarding. Let’s elevate ourselves above that.

 

 

 

 

Big news week. Or is it?

If you read any of the insane headlines this week, it might seem as if the world is on a high-speed crazy train to WTF-ville. But we’ll keep the focus on Israel.

Two and a half “big” things happened that got a lot of people talking, but the public seems to have responded with a collective yawn.

The Peace Plan

Finally, the “deal of the century” was delivered. Since we are in the middle of our third election, both major party leaders, Netanyahu and Gantz, went to Washington to shake hands with Trump and accept it. As I’ve said in many blog posts, Israel wants peace with its neighbors, without sacrificing security. In this case, neither party has anything to lose by showing early support.

Lots of people in Israel don’t like the plan, but most are pretty sure it will never happen. It’s simply not worth getting excited about. Palestinian leadership called for a “day of rage” while the Palestinian people said “whatever.”

So: Whose election is this good for? Will this nearly impossible-to-implement plan win enough points to overlook corruption and abuse of power?

Release of Israeli in Russia

A young woman passed through the Moscow airport coming home to Israel from India. She was accused of having drugs in her bag. The charges spiraled and she was eventually sentenced to 7.5 years in a Russian prison. She maintained her innocence all along.

This week Netanyahu got her out and went to pick her up in Moscow to fly her home on his private plane. Photo ops abound. They led to a lot of cynical (but hilarious!) memes.

Because again: Whose election is this good for? What did Netanyahu offer Putin to get this deal?

Immunity? I don’t need no stinkin’ immunity!

Netanyahu gave up his bid for immunity in the Knesset and corruption charges were immediately filed against him. The trial will likely get pushed to after the election.

If he wins the election, he expects to come up with some kind of deal to keep himself out of jail.

And that’s where we are

Elections are on March 2. Do we live in a country where handshakes with Trump and Putin paired with gargantuan hubris win elections? Let’s hope not. But I’m afraid that voter apathy and maintenance of the status quo will be enough to secure a fifth term. Perhaps that will finally start a conversation about term limits.

News through an Israeli lens

Like any other country, Israel looks at world news through its own lens.

UK Election: Thank God that anti-Semite party wasn’t elected! Although if the Jews no longer felt welcome in Britain, they are definitely welcome here.

US Impeachment Hearings: What’s an impeachment?

At White House Chanukah Party, Trump signs Executive Order to Punish Campuses for Allowing Anti-Semitism: Whadda guy! Although the guest list was kind-of ^eye-roll^

Shooting in New Jersey: We are watching.

The Reimann family (owners of Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, among other well-known brands)  committed to righting its Nazi sympathizer past and will track down people who were forced to work for them during the Holocaust to give them compensation. They are also committing EUR 25 million annually for Holocaust education: ^Nods of approval^

Finland’s Prime Minister is a 34-year-old Woman: ^crickets^


Meanwhile, here in Israel, we have our own issues.

On the way to a third election within a year: Seriously?!?!?!?

Netanyahu will not step down: Likud is having another leadership election. Netanyahu is trying to get support for direct elections for prime minister. Netanyahu keeps using the terms “witch hunt,” “attempted coup,” and “fake news.” (I wonder where he got the idea?)


And finally, watching American TV through my own Israeli lens.

An Israeli philosopher was mentioned on Chuck Lorre’s vanity card after Young Sheldon.

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A Wall, a Fence, and Border Security

Israel’s border security is the inspiration for the US’s southern border security solutions. Our security doesn’t involve surrounding the whole country with 35-foot-tall concrete slabs. We built smart fences with layered security. Only 5% of the security barrier in the West Bank built to stop terrorism consists of very tall concrete slabs.

Here I’ll focus on the border fence built between Egypt and Israel to stop the flow of unauthorized migration from Africa.

The February 2017 US Senate report (you can read it here) compares the efficiency and efficacy of Israel’s border security to that of the already existing southern US border solutions. Israel’s fence is better by far.

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  • 150 miles of fence cost US$415 million
  • Yearly maintenance cost is US$58 thousand per mile
  • It was built in 2 years and the physical structure is made of rebar, barbed wire, and concrete buried underground
  • It’s about 15 feet tall
  • There was a 10-mile section that was easier to breach so they raised that section to 25 feet

Does Israel’s fence “work”? Yes. From tens of thousands of migrants coming through the border, last year fewer than 20 came through.

But here’s what the security fence didn’t do:

  • Write a formal immigration policy for Israel (it never occurred to anyone that non-Jewish people would want to live in a Jewish state, so there are guidelines but no formal policy for people who fall outside the definition provided by the Law of Return)
  • Deal with the tens of thousands of migrants already in Israel
  • Deal with security or trafficking at airports, maritime ports, or any other points of entry not covered by the fence

If the US followed Israel’s plan, here’s what should happen:

  • The US southern border needs about 13 of Israel’s fences (all things being equal), so it should cost US$5.4 billion. This doesn’t take into account terrain differences, proper oversight, consistency, eminent domain issues, etc. Even if you round up for other factors, let’s say US$10 billion
  • It should cost $112 million dollars per year for maintenance

The US already has 650 miles of fence.

  • The lower estimate given by the Senate report says it cost $2.3 billion (though another report says over the years it has been $7 billion). At US prices, Israel’s 150-mile fence would have cost US$530 million (or up to $1.6 billion)
  • Maintenance today on the US fence is US$77,000 annually per mile (or almost US$20,000 more per mile than Israel’s)

In short, the existing US fence was more expensive to build and is more expensive to maintain. But somehow it’s not effective. If the US builds a new fence using a plan based on anything other than Israel’s fence, it will be a case of throwing good money after bad.

Israel’s fence deals with a specific issue: unauthorized African migration, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan.

The US southern border fence claims it will deal with two specific issues: immigration and crime. So I checked a few statistics.

So if the border security “works,” it will stop approximately 400,000 people from entering the US via the southern border. It will do nothing about visa overstayers, nothing about “unauthorized” immigrants already residing in the US, nothing about immigration policy, nothing against any kind of trafficking (most likely), nothing for any other border sector, airport, or maritime port, and nothing about immigration from any other region than Mexico and Central America. It will also probably be over budget and improperly and expensively maintained. In addition, those who might have come via the southern border will likely find alternate routes.

Trump’s US border wall is a Golden Calf. Some will bow down and genuflect to its glittery greatness, and it might even make some people feel better. But like a statue, no matter how much you pray to it, it won’t actually do much.

The Rule of Law

One of the big headlines in Israel this week is that the Supreme Court of Israel ruled to allow a student to enter the country to attend Hebrew University in a Master’s program even though this student has a history of supporting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel. It was among the first test cases of the anti-BDS entry law that Israel passed last year blocking entry to Israel of people who actively advocate BDS and act against Israel. (*Note: this is not the law that allows suing for damages if Israel is harmed by BDS activism. That was a different test case.)

Crash course on Israel’s governmental structure

Israel is not at all like the US system and is much more similar to the UK system. The Prime Minister is the head of the party that wins the election (thus the executive branch and legislative branch are combined). The President of Israel is a ceremonial position and is filled by a person elected by the Knesset, usually after a long career in politics. The President appoints the 15-member Supreme Court based on the recommendations of a judicial committee. Judges on the Supreme Court may serve until the age of 70 unless they resign for other reasons.

The Supreme Court in Israel serves two functions. Like the US Supreme Court, it is the final court of appeal. But unlike the US Supreme Court, the Supreme Court in Israel – operating as the High Court of Justice – may also hear petitions to rule on the legality of laws or other issues that would not normally be heard in a court of law. Since Israel doesn’t have a constitution, the Court uses the Basic Laws of Israel as its guide.

In 2017, a law was passed in the Knesset that said that a non-citizen who actively uses a public forum to call for a boycott of Israel and has a reasonable expectation of causing a boycott to occur, can be barred from entering Israel. This more-or-less applies to leaders of organizations, not someone who supports BDS on Facebook.

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It’s pretty divisive issue in Israel. The Left says that the law and its application violates freedom of speech and that Israel has nothing to hide. The Right points out that the democratically elected members of Knesset are acting on behalf of the will of the people and defending Israel at the border against enemy agents trying to destroy Israel from within.

Other BDS activists/supporters have been turned away at the airport, but the student in question here decided to take it to court.

The Court ruled that the law itself was in accordance with the Basic Laws, but that it did not apply in the student’s case. She claimed not to be involved in BDS for the last year and a half and was not planning to be a BDS activist while in Israel. So she’ll be starting at Hebrew U. next week.

Two comments

Academia the world over tends to lean to the left and it’s the case in Israel too. There are a good number of Israeli academics who support the BDS movement – even if it sometimes backfires and they themselves are uninvited to conferences or blackballed in publications. So while it seems on the face of it that the student wanting to attend Hebrew University, and who was backed in court by Hebrew U., is not supportive of BDS, I’m not so sure that it is quite so clear-cut. I guess we’ll see what this student does while she’s here.

This court case is a microcosm of the existential question of what kind of state Israel will be. Will Israel be a state of wide-ranging freedom for all or a repressive state that only allows opinions that agree with the majority?

And that’s where the Court comes in. It should not be a question of political Left or Right, but a question of what is just, not only legal. When the Court took upon itself the responsibility of protecting human rights, the Right called it an “activist court.” And when the Court allows a law to stand that the Left feels is repressive, the Left calls the Court a “rubber stamp.” The truth, of course, is somewhere in between. The Court must act to stop tyranny of the majority, but they must also allow the state to act on behalf of the safety and security of its citizens. The principle is simple, the application is complicated.

“Justice, justice shall you pursue.” – Deuteronomy 16:20

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Palace of Justice, Jerusalem

A Thought about Yom Kippur

When I worked at the University of Washington, I asked to take Yom Kippur off.

“Will you be going to synagogue?”

“No.”

“Will you be fasting?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t decided yet.”

“Then why are you taking it off?”

**what?**

I hated that conversation. And I love the fact that I’ve never had to have that conversation in Israel.

I usually go to the Kotel (Western Wall) for Yom Kippur, but I live further away now and it’s probably going to be hot, even in the morning. I don’t know if I want to walk 2 hours round trip to have a few words with God. God is everywhere, right? So I should be able to stay home.

And that is the beauty of living in Israel. No one will question what I choose to do on Yom Kippur and no matter what I do, I don’t feel any less Jewish.

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In the US, there’s a lot of effort that goes into maintaining a connection with Judaism. You have to plan ahead to coordinate holidays; if you want a community, you have to join a synagogue or community center (often paying dues and fees); if you want to be more religious, you have to shop at certain stores, live in certain neighborhoods, reorder your life slightly out of step with the surrounding community. It’s hard.

Here in Israel, I can effortlessly connect to my Jewish heritage. The nation functions on the Jewish calendar, I can walk into any synagogue at any time or never walk into any synagogue ever, I’m in-step with everyone and everything around me. I don’t have to try so hard.

I sound lazy, I’m sure. But it feels to me like my soul is planted in the fertile soil that it needs so that I can grow in other directions.

My dad had a pin that he liked a lot. He probably got it from Chabad. It said: “We never lost it.” I asked him what it meant and he said that we never lost the answers. I was about seven, so it didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Now I can see that even if you never lost a thing, sometimes it doesn’t always fit properly. But once it’s in its rightful place, everything else seems to realign itself.

I never lost my Judaism, I just didn’t have a way to make it fit properly for me in the US. Now that I’m in Israel, I feel that everything is in its rightful place no matter what I do on Yom Kippur.

***

I’m sorry if my posts offended anyone. I’m sorry that some posts got a bit too long. I’m sorry if I misrepresented something or someone my writing. I hope you can forgive me. I will try to do better next year.

Wishing everyone a Gmar Chatima Tova!
May you be written and sealed in the Book of Life!
May you have a meaningful fast (if you’re fasting)!

***

Traditional Yom Kippur posts: 2015 | 2016 | 2017

But is it good for Israel?

I’m not a fan of Sacha Baron Cohen. I never saw his movies and I never watched the shows. All I really know about him is based on video clips I’ve seen here and there.

The problem is that I like the **idea** of Sacha Baron Cohen. I like the fact that he holds up a funhouse mirror to society and calls out hypocrisy and shows a certain group of people that their beliefs taken to absurd conclusions are very likely based on false foundations.

It’s meant to be funny (granted, sometimes it is), but it’s more often uncomfortable, rude, upsetting, horrible, and ultimately sad (I’m thinking of Borat in a bar in Texas getting everyone to join him in singing “Throw the Jews Down the Well.”)

So now we’ve got Baron Cohen’s new show on Showtime – we get clips in Israel – featuring the Israeliest Israeli Erran Morad. This is from an Associated Press article.

“The reaction has mostly been astonishment about the accuracy of the portrayal. He really got some of our traits down,” Einav Schiff, a[n Israeli] TV critic, said with a chuckle.

“Everyone here knows an ‘Erran Morad’ but I haven’t recognized any outrage or embarrassment about the character. It’s mostly been ridicule for these Americans who have fallen for him,” Schiff added.

I’m Israeli enough to appreciate the spot-on portrayal (it’s quite good), but I’m American enough to be dumbstruck by the words coming out of his mouth and shocked that US politicians are not catching on.

I’m stunned that anyone would believe that Israel has a “Kinderguardians” program that advocates arming kids starting at the age of 4.

Now read that again. I’ll wait.

Do you for even a second believe that it’s a good idea to put weapons into the hands of a 4-year-old? And would you endorse a program that advocates arming children? I think the clear answer – even if you admire Israel and even if you are proponent of gun rights – is a resounding NO.

Now let’s say you don’t care one way or the other about Israel or gun rights. Let’s leave it as a wild card if you know of Sacha Baron Cohen and let’s let Youtube make suggestions based on your previous viewings. You like funny stuff, so the video clip comes up.

So you see this guy (definitely foreign, so probably, as he says, Israeli) saying all kinds of absurd stuff with a straight face and he’s believed by legitimate congressmen and leaders. So you’re left with this impression of a bad-ass, crazy Israeli who advocates guns for toddlers. And since you also know that the Israeli Mossad is the top intelligence agency in the world and the Israeli army is one of the best, maybe Israel really does have a Kinderguardians program.

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This show is probably not good for America, but I’m not convinced that it’s going to do a lot of good for Israel either.

(Prepare barf bags if you have a sensitive stomach. You’ve been warned.)