Thursday, August 28, 2003
More Gangland Violence

It's really beginning to look like 1920s Chicago around here. In yet another gangland attack, Nissim Alperon was shot Tuesday night in Givat Shmuel. Alperon was riding on a motorcycle driven by his nephew, when a car pulled up next to them and opened fire. Alperon was hit in the stomach but managed to walk into the ER. He is in stable condition.

This is the third assassination attempt on Alperon -- brother of fellow mobster/erstwhile Likud activist Moussa Alperon and the fourth gang-related violent incident in the last month or so. As a reminder, just two weeks ago a woman was killed when a bomb meant for a loan shark blew up prematurely.

Kassams in Ashkelon

Holy crapdoodle.

A number of Kassam rockets hit the southern industrial area of Ashkelon this afternoon. The missiles were fired from the Palestinian village of Beit Lahiya in the Gaza Strip. Luckilly, no one was hurt in the attack.

This attack represents a significant stepping up of the capability of these rockets. Until now, the Palis have launched Kassams mainly at settlements in the Gaza Strip and nearby Israeli towns like Sderot. The attack today is the furthest north these missiles -- and these are new Kassam-2s -- have reached.

As feared, the Palis used the downtime during the hudna to upgrade and test fire the Kassams with an eye towards the day when they could be used again against Israel. This is really worrisome.

Although no one has been killed as yet by these missiles (they have the accuracy and damage capability of a small catapault), it's clear that the terrorists are working daily to improve their lethality. As one of my co-workers pointed out, yes the rockets are primitive, but RAFAEL, Israel's armaments development authority, started out under similar circumstances.

The Teachers are Striking, the Teachers are Striking

The new school year starts next Sunday. Or maybe it won't. The national teacher's union is threatening to strike next week and hold up the beginning of the school year because of cuts in incentive pay to teachers in underprivileged areas. At the moment talks between the union and the government are not getting anywhere, which means that Israeli schoolchildren could very well get another couple days' summer vacation next week.

This shouldn't even count as news, since the teacher's union threatens a strike at the beginning of almost every school year. The reason for this is simple: teachers in Israel have a very hard time of it and the only leverage the teacher's union has is threatening to hold up the school year.

The strike threat, understandably, tends to annoy the parents of the schoolchildren who have had to deal with their progeny at home for the last two months and are ready for school to start again. Among these annoyed parents, we find blogger Imshin, who wrote about her frustration on her site yesterday. Imshin's daughters are supposed to go back to school this week and she doesn't understand why the teachers are striking. She also has a number of choice things to say about teachers in general here.

As the husband of a schoolteacher, I feel the need to give a counterpoint to Imshin's arguments and try to show how things look from the other side of this equation.

From the outset, let me be honest and say that I don't know what would possess anyone to want to be a teacher here. The pay is miserable; you end up teaching huge classes; and you get precious little respect, be it from the system, the parents, or your students. At the same time I have a lot of respect for those teachers who do the job, despite all the drawbacks.

As for some of Imshin's specific complaints:

  1. The teachers threaten to strike at the beginning of every school year for the same reason the lifeguards threaten to strike at the beginning of every swimming season: that's the only time the government will ever listen to them. Like everyone else here, teachers know that the only way to get anything done in Israel is through brute force. The demands this year aren't unreasonable; they never are. Most years the two sides manage to hammer out an agreement before the start of the school year. I don't expect this year to be any different.

  2. The respect issue:
    It's outrageous, of course, but the teachers don't seem to realize that it backfires, because it serves to further increase, if this is possible, the lack of respect the teachers skillfully manage to elicit in both parents and students.
    This sentence is so typically Israeli: the lack of respect is all the teachers' fault. Imshin doesn't countenance that this might be a two-way street, and that the lack of respect that students have for teachers comes directly from the parents' attitudes instead of the teachers' actions.

    Sadly, teaching is one of those professions that everyone thinks they could do easily. A lot of Israeli parents -- and I'm not saying that Imshin is one of these -- believe that they know how their students should be taught. The corollary to this belief, of course, is that the teacher is an idiot for not teaching the way the parents think she should. (A lot of times, the parents will go directly to the teacher or the principal and try to intervene.) These messages get passed on to the kids.

    The fact is that the behavior policies that the Ministry of Education wants to reinstate this year (such as standing up when the teacher enters the room), which Imshin mocks in her article, are fairly sound and might actually lead to a bit more respect in the classroom. Respect leads to quieter, better-behaved children, and a better learning experience in general. It would be nice if more students were taught to respect their teachers at home as well.

  3. Imshin then hits us with the granddaddy of arguments against teachers:
    (The rest of us have to spend a fortune on childcare during this time and/or use up valuable vacation days. We don’t get four months of vacations a year, and a paid sabbatical (every seven years, is it?)
    Ah, yes, teachers get all that holiday time. A couple of comments here: First off, the vacation time is actually around 3 months. And teachers usually spend the two weeks before school starts in meetings and getting the school ready. Yes, the holiday time is probably the only perk of teaching. But you have to balance this with the fact that teachers (at least the good ones) work long hours -- including evenings and weekends -- for which they don't get paid. You forget that besides the teaching load, they spend a lot of time planning lessons, creating and marking tests and assignments, preparing reports, fielding phone calls from parents, and attending parent-teacher conferences that the vast majority of parents don't bother coming to. And all this for the salary and levels of respect of a McDonalds employee.

  4. The general mediocrity of the education system:
    The thing is that there are some great teachers out there, but they tend to get lost in a sea of mediocrity.
    I completely agree. But why is there such a sea of mediocrity? There are a lot of factors at work here. The low salary level for teachers ensures that a lot of people who would otherwise make wonderful educators choose other, more lucrative, professions instead. The dense layers of bureaucracy built in to Israel's education system ensure that innovation is discouraged. At the same time, the system toys with all sorts of mumbo-jumbo pedagogical techniques that do more harm than good for the students. And at the bottom level the teachers have to deal with classes of 30-40 students, many of them little hellions whose parents have abdicated responsibilty for disciplining them and then complain when the teachers can't keep the little kids under control.

Once again, I am not saying that any of these particular complaints apply to Imshin or her daughters. On the contrary, from everything I've read I can only assume that she is the type of parent and the kids the type of students that teachers like. What I am saying is that there are a lot of difficult parents, and even more difficult children and the system provides the teachers with very little support for dealing with them.

Israel's teachers are doing the best under truly difficult circumstances. The old argument that they're only in it for the vacation time or that they're not qualified to do something else is a bunch of bs. I'd say that the majority put up with all the problems because they enjoy teaching and see it as a calling.

I think Imshin would agree with me that Israeli schoolchildren deserve the best education they can get. Attacking the teachers is not the way to get this done. Instead, if more parents would get on the side of the teachers and started to demand a better educational system from the government, the kids would benefit immeasurably.

And the Winner is...

Channel 10 has a weekly investigative news magazine called Zeh Hazman ("Now is the Time"). Along with its investigative reports, the show has a "gimmick" segment, a contest to find the most egregious behavior of a public figure for the week. The segment is called Mitzad Ha'ivelet (literally, "The March of Folly") which takes its name from Barbara Tuchman's famous book, and uses a play on words where mitzad can mean both "march" and "chart" (in the hit parade sense of the word).

Every week we see Israeli politicians and media figures at their worst: boorish, small-minded, and tending to talk first and think later. For the last couple of weeks, the show has been turned to the viewers and asking them to vote for the year's most egregious action/statement.

Lord knows there were plenty of examples. Take for instance Likud MK Gidon Ezra proposing that the country hire more Israeli Arabs as security guards because "they can spot Arabs better than anyone." Or Education (and Sport) Minister Limor Livnat who failed to meet Israel's delegation to the Special Olympics at the airport on their return after a great showing in the competition.

The show awarded the prize last night. The winner was our Prime Minister. Sharon won for a statement he gave at a press conference about one of the seemingly endless and complicated financial scandals that he and his sons, Gilad and Omri, seem to be mired in lately. Gilad and Omri, declared the Prime Minister, are independent, responsible men who have been managing the family's books for years. In other words, the PM has no idea what's actually happening with his personal finances, which happen to be entrusted to people who are under investigation by the police. Just the kind of thing that inspires confidence.

I was a bit disappointed by the winning entry in the competition. Yes, Sharon's statement was bad, but it lacked the pizzazz of the runner-up, which I was personally rooting for to win. This one involves Judy Shalom Nir Mozes, the odious television celebrity and wife of Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.

Judy's nomination to the March stems from an official government visit she and her husband took to Russia. As part of the visit, the Shaloms took part in an official state ceremony at Russia's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Picture the scene: It is an overcast day. The FM and his wife are taking part in a procession to the Tomb. In front of them are Russian soldiers in full dress uniform carrying a wreath. Behind them are a bunch of grim-faced Russians in dark suits. FM Shalom is also wearing a dark suit. Standing next to the FM is his wife dressed in … a nondescript sweater, a pair of jeans, and sneakers.

Now, Israelis are notorious for their lack of formality, especially in matters of dress, but this was an official state visit and a bona fide diplomatic faux pas. Surely Judy, who fancies herself a sophisticate, should have realized this.

Way to go, Judy. You should have been at the top of the charts.

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Yesterday, IAF helicopters struck again for the third time in a week. The target this time was Khaled Massoud, a Hamas operative responsible for Qassam rocket attacks on Israeli towns. Unfortunately, Massoud managed to escape and a bystander was killed in the attack. This was a regrettable outcome, but probably not one that will change the thrust of the IDF's current operations.

The name of the game right now is smackdown. As expected, the IDF reacted to the collapse of the hudna by declaring all-out-war on Hamas and is going after everybody without worrying about the bogus distinction between the organizations "military" and "political" wings. Some people here complain that we've gone back to the cycle of assassination-reprisal that has been the norm for the last two years. But there's a crucial change.

Until now, the strategy of the IDF was to target the PA in order to force the Authority to act against the Palestinian terrorist groups. This was the key strategy behind Operation Defensive Shield. Now, Israel has decided to bypass the PA altogether and go after the terrorists directly. They will continue to strike at Hamas, Jihad, and the Fatah terrorists until Abbas and Dahlan (or whomever succeeds them) start doing it themselves, as demanded by the road map.

So far, the results seem to be good. All the Hamas heads have gone underground and called on their members to stay off the streets. And the fact is that when Rantisi and the other terrorists start devoting time and energy worrying about their lives then they devote less time and energy to killing Israelis. In addition, the precision nature of the attacks instills a sense of paranoia into the terrorist organization, as they start seeing traitors on every corner.

The IDF pressure is designed to affect the PA itself, and we've even begun to see stirrings of action by Arafat's own security aparatus against Hamas and Jihad. This is more than likely for show than real (like the couple of tunnels Dahlan's boys sealed off the other day.) However, if the old ghoul is finally getting into the picture it means that the pressure exerted by the US, combined with the threats of invasion and exile by the IDF are paying off to some degree.

The downside? It doesn't photograph well, especially when you end up killing innocent civilians. And now the residents of Gaza can complain to the BBC that they are afraid to walk on the streets for fear of helicopter attacks. I saw an interview on one of the news networks with a Gaza cabdriver who says that when he drives around these days he gets very worried about the cars in front or behind him. "Who knows who's in the car? If it's a Hamas man then the Israelis might fire missiles at the car and hit mine instead."

To which I could only respond "Welcome to my world." I get the exact same feeling every time I drive next to a bus.

At the moment, Unca Dubya's guys have been pretty quiet about the IDF's actions. The question is how long they will continue to do so. In the next week or two expect Abu Mazen to make a dramatic plea to Koffi Anan or Chirac about how Israel's actions are keeping him from going after the terrorists (conveniently failing to mention that he had no intention of dealin with them before Israel's recent offensive). At the same time, expect the Palestinians to once again push the idea of a new hudna, this time between the Palestinians and Israel.

What I don't expect to see any time soon is any type of concentrated effort by the PA against Hamas. This despite the fact that they need to do it, they've pledged to do it, and they have the capability of doing it. In the meantime, if you happen to be visiting Gaza, stay clear of the roads.

Tuesday, August 26, 2003
The Urge to Give Up

Mark Steyn's latest column is another corker. The biggest problem the West faces in its showdown with the terrorists, he writes, is the tendency of many countries (cough. France. cough.) in the sane part of the world to essentially throw up their hands. This tendency is made up of equal measures anti-Americanism, cultural relativism, and a failure of nerves when it comes to our own sense of what's right and what's wrong:
This is the weirdly uneven playing field on which the great game is now fought. Islamic terrorism is militarily weak but ideologically confident. The West is militarily strong but ideologically insecure.

We don't really believe we can win, not in the long run. The suicide bomber is a symbol of weakness, of a culture so comprehensively failed that what ought to be its greatest resource - its people - is instead as disposable as a firecracker. But in our self-doubt the enemy's weakness becomes his strength.
The reaction to the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad should be an interesting test case. You would hope that the UN and other Western apologists for Islamic terrorists would wake up and realize that the jihadist nutbags out there have no intention of giving them a pass on the way to a global Dar al-Islam. However, that would be completely out of character. Much easier to blame Bush instead:
It's the Americans' fault because:

a) they made Iraq so insecure their own troops are getting picked off every day;

b) okay, fewer are being picked off than a few weeks back, but that's only because the Americans have made their own bases so secure that only soft targets like the UN are left;

c) okay, the UN's only a soft target because it turned down American protection, but the Americans should have had enough sense just to go ahead and install the concrete barriers and perimeter trenches anyway;

d) okay, if they'd done that, the beloved UN would have been further compromised by unduly close association with the hated Americans, which is probably what got them killed in the first place.

IN OTHER words, whatever happens, it's always evidence of American failure. That's the only "root cause" most of the West is interested in.
Read the whole thing.

Hikers Rescued

A group of 14 Israeli hikers were found safe this morning after having gone missing on a trip to Kamchatka. The area they were travelling in was hit by freak snow storms and the group failed to arrive at one of their way stations. The story sent the country in a bit of a tizzy in the last two days. About a month and a half ago, a group of Israelis died in an avalanche while mountain climbing in Peru. The association between the two cases -- Israeli mountain climbers + freak amounts of snow -- was easy to make.

This time, however, we had a happy ending. The climbers found a cabin and, realizing that the weather was getting ugly, decided to stay put, unaware that a massive search-and-rescue effort had been launched to find them.

The story combines a number of truly Israeli elements. Israelis, especially young Israelis, have a pronounced wanderlust for places that are remote and inhospitable. There's a macho element involved, certainly, but also an understandable desire to get as far away from the madhouse we call home, at least temporarily. The story also shows that Israel is essentially the world's biggest small village. In any other country, this story would be get a bit of television time, possibly with dramatic footage, and be forgotten the next day. Here, people feel that they have a personal stake in the safety of the backpackers.

Luckilly, this group will be coming home safe. We latch on to whatever good news we can get.

Non-Chemical Ali

Here's Scrappleface's take on the capture of Chemical Ali last week:
Ali Hassan al-Majid is now officially known as 'Conventional Ali,' since it is common knowledge that Iraq had no chemical weapons program.

"The thousands of Iraqis and Kurds who we thought were gassed on Al-Majid's orders, must have died from breathing the smoke of conventional weapons or perhaps sand dust," said an unnamed Pentagon spokesman. "But Conventional Ali will still be charged with misdemeanor violations of some environmental regulations about dust control at work sites."

The Pentagon had previously said that 'Conventional Ali' had died in an air strike in April.

Today an unnamed Pentagon spokesman said, "He'll wish he were dead when he gets done serving six-to-nine months in jail for his crimes."
I love Scrappleface.


There was a bit of a problem with the links in yesterday's entry. They have now been fixed.

Happy browsing.

Monday, August 25, 2003
One Year of Blogging

Today marks the first blogaversary of this little web project. One year ago I decided to jump into the overcrowded pool that is the blogosphere. All the cool kids were doing it and I felt that it would be a healthy way to air the political conversations that up until that point I was holding only in my head.

Even by the normally loco standards of the Middle East, a lot has gone on here. We’ve had elections and a war. There was a space shuttle mission that filled us with pride and, two weeks later, a lot of sadness. There was a spot of cease fire that came, then went away and might be back again. And, for a time, I got to experience life as a part of Israel’s unemployment statistics.

All this in addition to the quotidian plagues of suicide attacks, political corruption, economic woes, and the meddling of idiots from abroad.

Anyway, I’m going to use the occasion for a little self-indulgence and list some of the entries I’ve gotten the best feedback or most responses on:

The Mezuza Story

(Note: One of the most frustrating bits of blogging is having Blogger periodically chew up your archives. I wrote this piece about a month ago. Then my archives went down and when they came back up, this piece has mysteriously disappeared. So, I’ve decided to revise and reprint)

According to Jewish law, you need to put a mezuzah on every doorframe in a building that leads to a room. In Israel, you find these mezuzot – which are basically a small case containing two prayers written on a scroll – in most buildings.

When we moved into our apartment a few years ago, we got some mezuzot written by the rabbi of the Chabad center in London who is a close friend of my wife’s family. I affixed them to the doorframes as prescribed by halakha and didn’t think much more about it.

A few weeks ago, Julia our cleaning lady was wiping down the front doorframe when she accidentally knocked the cover off the mezuzah case. It was empty. At some point since we moved in, someone had come by, opened up the case, taken out the scroll, and replaced the cover.

Julia, who is very religious, got extremely excited. From the religious viewpoint, a house without a mezuzah (or, as in our case, one with an empty case) is not kosher. So we had been living in a non-kosher household for who knows how long. By knocking open the mezuzah case, she saved us from this fate, which is a great mitzvah. As she saw it, the hand of God had guided her and she immediately got on the phone to tell her friends about the miracle.

My wife was less awestruck and more annoyed. Not just from the cost and hassle of replacing the mezuzah, but also from the gall of whoever took it. If you heard about someone stealing mezuzont in any other country, your first thought would be “anti-Semitic incident”. Not in Israel.

The next day, my wife went to one of the Judaica stores on Allenby street to get a replacement mezuzah. The proprietor of the store was not surprised at all about the story. He says that every few months he comes to work and sees that someone has swiped mezuzot from the stores next to him.

All of which got me to thinking who the hell goes around stealing mezuzot? I don't think it's people who can't afford to buy one. I'm fairly sure that from the halakhic point of view stealing a mezuzah cancels out any benefit of affixing one to the door.

Which means that we're dealing with basic – albeit slightly esoteric—thievery. I wonder how much profit there really is in it. Mezuzah scrolls aren't cheap; but they're not that expensive, either (although I'm told that hand-written ones like ours do go for a few hundred shekels). And how do you find the market for hot scrolls?

Jews all over the world have mezuzot on their doors. Only in Israel do they get nicked.

Sunday, August 24, 2003
High Drama

So, we’ve gone from cucumber season right back to Gunfight at the OK Corral over here. In reaction to the Jerusalem bombings, the IDF is back at work in the territories actively doing what the Palestinian Authority has refused: take care of the terrorists. So, we’re back to blowing up explosives laboratories, arresting wanted men and foiling attacks.

Interestingly, instead of pressuring Israel to make more concessions, the U.S. looks like it’s taking a new (and much-welcomed) tack: pressuring the Palestinians. Apparently, the Palis’ standard excuses have finally worn thin. The message appears to be clear: deal with the terrorists. Now.

The recent turn of events has shown that absolutely nothing has changed in the PA. The whole rise of Abu Mazen and Dahlan, which was seen as such a change for the better, now looks increasingly like a farce. Abu Mazen and Dahlan are merely a pretty curtain to hide the ugly visage of Yasser Arafat, the guy who still calls all the shots. Over the last week, we’ve seen both the PA PM and the US Secretary of State turn to the old ghoul and beg him to allow the security services (who, bottom line, still owe their allegiance to him) to go after Hamas and Jihad. Arafat basically laughed at them.

And, having decided to kick his subversion of reforms in the PA up a notch, Arafat has decided that the time is right to completely neuter Dahlan by appointing one of his, Arafat’s, lackeys to run the security services.

In short, we’re quickly going back to satus quo ante around here. In an effort to try and do something, the U.S. turned to the Europeans and asked them to double their efforts in convincing the Palestinians to end the terror. Unfortunately, it occurred to no one in the Bush administration that double zero is still zero. Not only won’t the Europeans apply pressure on the Palestinians, they are also steadfast in their support of Palestinian terrorist groups, oops I mean “charitable organizations”. Whatcha gonna do?

So here we are. If things continue at this rate, Israel will once again put on the table the proposal to send Yasser into exile.