Thursday, January 01, 2004
Happy New Year

New Year's Eve is always a strange occasion around here. Officially, it doesn't exist (the official new year starts at Rosh Hashana). A lot of people do go out to celebrate at clubs and restaurants, but they do so knowing that they have to wake up and go to work the next morning.

It's not necessarily a bad thing. After all, New Year's Eve generally sucks. You feel obliged to go out, but the experience almost never lives up to the advance hype. In Israel at least you can take a pass without feeling like a social leper.

We spent the "Sylvester" at a friend's wedding, which is actually not a bad way to go. Unfortunately, most of the wedding guests left by around 23:15, which left a small (but merry) crew who hung around until midnight dancing to '80s tunes. I got the impression that the management couldn't wait for us to leave and would have kicked us out by a quarter past midnight had we not already left.

I've had a couple of offbeat New Yearses since I've been here. On the whole, they tend to be more fun than the years when we made the effort to go out. Last year, for instance, we went to the movies (LOTR: The Two Towers) and had a much better time than we would have standing around in somebody's living room clutching plastic cups filled with cheap sparkling wine.

The most unusual New Year's Eve I had was 1996. My brother had come to Israel to do his time in the IDF as a tank loader. That particular evening he was stuck at Latrun, about 20 minutes outside of Jerusalem, guarding the Armored Corps memorial site. His girlfriend and I decided that he should have some company for the holiday. So, we picked up a couple of pizzas and drove out to the memorial site.

Needless to say, the pizzas were well received. He and his girlfriend went and had a little alone time to ring in the new year. Me, I spent the evening walking around looking at old tanks of various makes and provenances. Okay, so it wasn't the most fun I've ever had. But it certainly wasn't the worst way to spend the night and at least it was memorable.

It would be nice to have a little fireworks display in Tel Aviv on New Year's. Unfortunately, that won't happen anytime soon. The next best thing, it turns out, is a bunch of party poppers in a wedding hall in Rishon Lezion.

Wednesday, December 31, 2003
Terror Alert

What a fine way to end the year.

Tel Aviv is in a state of high alert and police are hunting down a Palestinian suicide bomber in a number of different places. One of those places happens to be the area of Seminar Hakibutzim, which is right by my neighborhood. (Yikes. Now I know what my wife must feel like every time we have one of these terror alerts by my office).

The police have detained 3 Palis in a suspicious van, but they haven't found any explosive devices. And so, we wait agitatedly, many of us in the traffic jams resulting from the police roadblocks. With all the people going out to celebrate New Years Eve (or, as it is known here, the "Sylvester"), the situation will probably just get worse.

And on the Crime Front...

Don't say we're not a compassionate people. An Israeli parole board has decided to release gangster Shmaya Angel from prison because of ill health. Angel, one of the hard men of the Israeli underworld in the '70s and early '80s, has been sitting in jail since 1982 on a double murder conviction. Now he has cancer and so the parole board has let him go home.

Now, far be it from me to deny a dying man the chance to go meet his makers not confined to a prison. But...

Angel is a nasty piece of work. He ran a large drug-smuggling ring in the '70s. He murdered two of his partners. Even in jail, police suspect that he has ordered a number of hits. And he himself has been the target of an assassination attempt. So, we've released a guy who is not only still dangerous but is also a target for attacks that can injure civilians. Given the type of mob violence we've seen in recent weeks, is this the message we want to be sending during a time when the police are trying to crack down on organized crime?

Now we can only wait and see what takes Angel first: the cancer or a car bomb.

Signage Problems

British Airways has been running a clever poster campaign in recent weeks. They put up posters which look like road signs. Except that instead of pointing you in the direction of, say, Dizengoff Street or the beach, they point to Buckingham Palace and Oxford Street. The tag line of the campaign is "London is Closer than you Think."

My in-laws, who are here visiting from London, were really amused by the posters but also a bit confused as well. My father-in-law said that the first time he saw them it took him a moment to realize that we hadn't opened an Oxford Street here in Tel Aviv. And apparently, he isn't the only one. The police have written BA demanding that they take down the signs.

While I also find the campaign amusing, I can certainly see where the police are coming from. The signs do look very similar to the actual road directions in town and not once I've found myself looking for directions somewhere, seeing a sign, then getting annoyed when I find out it's just an ad.

Another Low for Israeli Politicians

It hasn't been the best year for our politicos. We saw dodgy primaries, influence-peddling charges, and a double-voting scandal that ended up with an actual police investigation. So, it wasn't like we thought all that highly of them before. But now we find out that several MKs are also petty cheats.

On Sunday, Channel Two aired a show called "Test the Nation," which allowed viewers at home and people in the studio to take a collective IQ exam. The studio audience was divided into demographic groups: lawyers, models, bodybuilders, etc. Each of these groups participated in the IQ test in real time, with the goal to see which groups are smarter than others. Not surprisingly, the lawyers did better than the models.

The politicians -- who finished somewhere in the middle -- have now admitted that they cheated. Blobby, bull-necked MK Haim Katz (Likud) rationalized it this way:
"Like children, we want to succeed, [because] the whole country is watching," he told Army Radio.

Katz likened the behavior of his own team to tests in Israeli schools, where such cheating is endemic.
Lovely. There's probably a clever joke to be made here, but the whole incident is so pathetic that it's just depressing. And this is getting reported on AP, no less.

Tuesday, December 30, 2003
Looking Back on the War

Lileks has another corker today. (Why he always feels the need to apologize for his rants I'll never figure out; they're often his most amusing pieces):
I got a letter today from a fellow who was one of the more gentle critics of my position on the Iraq war – always a welcome break from the stuff that accuses me of being paid by the Bushitler-Rethuglican-Murdock-Fox-Zionist Christocracy, or words to that effect. The gist was this: of course Bush isn’t like the Nazis, but . . Oh, my molars ache when I hit the BUT. This letter was occasioned by my mention in the Bleat than I'm watching the "World at War" documentary; the emailer wanted to point out the similiarities between then and now. Specificially Adoph and Dubya. Bad idea. Right now I'm steeped in the details of the horrors of WW2, of the wretched consequences of fascist aggression. I'm in no mood for the equivocating BUT. Nevertheless: the emailer said a war of aggression is a war of aggression, and what’s the difference between taking France’s art and champagne and taking Iraq’s antiquities and oil?

As the old salad-dressing commercial might have said: Ten French Derrida-schooled Marxist deconstructionist chefs say: no deeferance!

What I found fascinating was the assertion – stated as a common fact, known to all – that the US emptied Iraq’s museums, and glugs Iraqi crude into Texaco tankers as we speak. As Mark Twain so memorably said: it’s not what people know that gets them in trouble, it’s what they pick up from the comments section of indymedia sites. It took me about 45 seconds of googling to come up with a long, boring press release from the IMF about the disposition of Iraqi oil revenues. They’re audited by the international community in accord with a UN resolution. How did that happen? How did a Unilateralist Cowboy War for Oil fumble the ball at the goal line? Perhaps the UN threatened to deploy Crack French Bureaucrats who'd unleash the indifferent shrug and the chastening frown. No! Not the lowered eyebrows! Anything but that! Here – take the oil money, all of it! Anything but a facial manifestation of Gallic disapproval!
Read le whole thing.

More fun at the BBC

This item popped up a week or two ago. The UK Daily Telegraph reported that journalists working for the BBC got a memo from the higher ups telling reporters to refrain from referring to Saddam as a "dictator". Instead, he should be described as the "deposed former president of Iraq." Apparently the Beeb's reasoning behind this is that because Saddam was elected by popular referendum (and there really should be quote marks around the word elected), technically he isn't a dictator.

I actually forgot about this until this morning, when I ran across an article in The Sun (arguably England's tabloidy-est daily paper) which described the BBC edict and the resulting flap around it in their own inimitable style:
BARMY BBC bosses have banned reporters from calling tyrant Saddam Hussein a former dictator.

Instead, staff must refer to the barbaric mass murderer as “the deposed former President”.
This story gets filed under "journalistic obtuseness masquerading as impartiality". This is one of those subjects that we're kind of touchy about over here, since journalists rarely label Hamas terrorists as such and usually resort to the bland label of "militants." They justify this policy by saying that the word "terrorist" implies a value judgement and that they don't want to take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I still don't understand how or why you want to avoid a value judgement when some homicidal fool boards a bus packed with families coming home from prayers and blows himself up, killing among others a half dozen children under the age of 10. Who do you risk offending?

Monday, December 29, 2003
Mark Steyn's Year

On his website Mark Steyn describes himself as a "one-man global content provider". He's hardly joking. Steyn manages to write weekly or biweekly for publications ranging from the Jerusalem Post, the Irish Times, the British magazine The Spectator, and the Thai newspaper The Nation, as well as a host of other publications.

And yet, somehow, despite the fact that the guy turns out vast volumes of writing he is more often than not brilliant, with some of the best zingers around. For example:
Dominique de Villepin, the ubiquitous Frenchman, declared the other day that Paris was indispensable to post-war reconstruction because it had so much experience in Africa. I don’t know about you, but I think Iraq deserves better than to be the new Chad or Ivory Coast.
The European Union’s Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia has decided to shelve its report on the rise of anti-Semitism on the Continent. The problem, as reported in The Sunday Telegraph, is that the survey had found that “many anti-Semitic incidents were carried out by Muslim and pro-Palestinian groups”, and so a “political decision” was taken not to publish it because of “fears that it would increase hostility towards Muslims”.

Let’s go back over that slowly and try not to get a headache: the EU’s main concern about an actual epidemic of hate crimes against Jews is that it could provoke a hypothetical epidemic of hate crimes against Muslims... A tolerant society is so reluctant to appear intolerant, it would rather tolerate intolerance.
He has collected a lot of his output from the last year and presents it in a month-by-month format, along with predictions of his that have come true over the last 12 months.

If you're not reading Steyn's stuff, you should be. This collection should show you why.

Sunday, December 28, 2003

With all the violence over the weekend, at least we had one piece of good news. Last night, Israel launched the Amos 2 communications satellite. The satellite was launched from a site in Kazakhstan using a Russian Soyuz 2 missile. The new satellite joins the Amos 1 which was launched in 1996.

I attended the official launch party last night at the new science hall of Tel Aviv University. Among the thousand or so people who showed up were the people responsible for coming up with and driving the Amos project to fruition (including my grandfather), and a host of politicians who helped support and fund the program over the years. Chief among these was Shimon Peres, who praised the project as an important investment in Israel's tomorrow.

The organizers put on an impressive show, MCed by comedian and impressionist Tuvia Tzafir (a fairly big celeb around here). They also had a pair of acrobats, as well as achildren's choir for the requisite "the children are the future" moment.

We saw the launch via live feed from Kazakhstan. The rocket blasted off at 23:30 and released the satellite into orbit 9 minutes later. It was a bit weird how we had an hour show leading up to essentially 30 seconds of action from the time the rocket fired until it was no longer visible. Amos 2 will take a few days until it reaches its final orbit 36,000 km above earth.

Amos 2 and the Amos project in general is important to Israel for a number of reasons. It's a big commercial venture, whose clients include HBO and Nickelodeon. It contributes a lot to the advancement of Israeli science and to the air and space industry. But more importantly, it shows that we're still capable of doing big things despite all the economic and security problems.

I think Peres summed it up best in the impromptu speech he gave. Now, say what you will about Peres' political views but there are certain areas where he thinks two steps ahead of everybody. Science and development is one of them. In his speech, Peres said that we tend to focus on our present problems and our history and don't put much emphasis on dreaming. This, he said, is a mistake.

Shooting Protesters

There was a bit of an ugly incident on Friday when a group of "peace" protesters attempted to cut through the security fence in the West Bank during a demonstration. As the demonstration escalated, soldiers for some reason decided to open fire on the protesters. One of the protesters, an Israeli named Gil Na'amati who belongs to something called the Anarchist Group, was shot in the leg. Another protester, an American, was lightly hurt.

The IDF has announced it will investigate the incident, since it's unclear who gave the order to open up on the protesters and why.

All in all, it was screwed up. The security forces should by now have learned some lessons from the events of October 2000, when police used live fire to disperse violent demonstrations by Israeli Arabs, killing 13 of the protesters in the process. The Orr commission, which investigated the behavior of the police during the riots, concluded that the police did not do enough to minimize casualties. And I think this is pretty much the correct view. In the absence of a very clear and present threat to the lives of the soldiers, they should do everything in their power to disperse mobs using nonlethal means before resorting to live ammunition.

Having said that, I have to be honest and admit that I have absolutely no sympathy for these protesters, including the guy who got shot. They had wire cutters and were in the process of cutting a hole in the fence; I suggest they try this stunt at any border demarcation in the world -- especially a border in a conflict zone -- and see what happens. At best you end up in jail. More likely you wouldn't come away from the incident still breathing.

I strongly believe the fence is currently the only solution to managing the situation with the Palis. A significant number of them are homocidal psycopaths looking to kill us. Their own leadership won't stop the psychopaths, so we're left with the fence to make it a lot harder (though, sadly, not impossible) to come over here and murder people waiting for a bus or sitting in a cafe. By trying to tear down the fence, the protesters are also trying to compromise our safety. And if the fact that some of these guys got shot will make the rest of them think twice and three times about trying this trick again, then... . I'm just saying.

UPDATE: Left and right debate the issue.