Thursday, November 24, 2005

Shirking Responsibility 101 - A required course for Israeli bureaucrats at all levels

Even after so many years in Israel, there’s one thing that happens here that still amazes me, despite the frightening degree of regularity with which it takes place. It’s that unwavering ability to wait for something horrible to happen, and only then to react with shock and dismay that the event happened in the first place. The signs are all there, of course, but those in charge repeatedly choose to ignore them. It happened with the Versailles wedding hall, it happened with the Maccabiah bridge, and these days, it’s happening in our schools. Bureaucrats are playing with the lives of our children, ignoring the signs and failing to take action. It is a travesty in the making, and if action isn’t taken soon, the children will pay the price.

My friend A has been at the forefront of a battle against the school board in the Sharon area town of Kfar Yona (there are many similar stories, and Yediot Ahronot’s Hebrew website has even created framework forpublishing these stories via public complaints). His daughter is a first-grader at the Amal school there, which has been turned into a treacherous construction site. What originally began as a battle waged by the parents over asbestos ceilings has turned into a situation where the school grounds have turned into a perilous obstacle course. One part of the school has been torn down and preparations have been made to begin reconstruction, which will, of course, take place while school is in session, subjecting the students endless noise distractions, not to mention the inevitable increase in dust levels that accompany all such work.

Promises have been broken right, left and center; it was agreed upon that certain aspects of the work would take place and be completed during the holidays, when school was not in session, but it seems that they’ve been unable to stick to the timetable. A fence was supposed to be erected to keep the children away from the construction site, which is currently a large, two-meter deep hole in the ground (and contains additional narrow 12-meter deep holes for poles to be inserted). The fence has been erected, but it is not complete, has holes in it (including a gate that allows people to enter the school grounds freely, contradicting local laws designed for security reasons), and was built too close to the hole, a fact that became quite evident following recent rains that shifted the sands in which the fence was erected, creating a situation where the fence threatens to topple into the hole itself. As a result of this dangerous situation, the children were forced to remain in their classrooms all day long, and were not allowed to go outside during breaks.

In the midst of this big balagan (mess), the local council is claiming that everything is going according to plan and that all security precautions are being taken. Was this the case when tragedy was narrowly averted the day a tree cut down by the workers fell over the fence and into the school yard? What a miracle that no children were hurt, given that it occurred DURING school hours! A and the other parents have been waging this battle for their children’s safety since July (who can blame A for not wanting to send his daughter to school on a construction site?), and have met with little success as all agreements have been ignored, all promises broken, and all concerns belittled?

This situation is a tragedy waiting to happen. All it will take will be for one curious and industrious child to make his way to the other side of the fence. After all, isn’t such an obstacle merely an invitation to these children? Who wouldn’t want to take a look to see what was happening? Who among us hasn’t tried to steal a look between the gaps in a fence to see what was on the other side? In this case, the results could be disastrous, even fatal. I can already see the recriminations, the passing of blame that so many Israelis in positions of power seem to be so good at in situations like these. As is par for the course, they will claim that they didn’t know. That all security regulations were being met. That something unexpected must have gone wrong. But none of that will matter, as a child may be injured or dead. The nation will be shocked and outraged, will demand that something be done. And something probably will be done, but it will be some token measure, taken to pacify an outraged public. The cycle is sadly predictable. We will move on to other issues, and everyone will forget about what happened in Kfar Yona. And then, once this tragic episode is firmly behind us and forgotten, the nation will once again rise up in awe and anger when it happens again, because someone chose to shirk their responsibilities until it was too late.

For more info on this situation, check out this link from the local Kfar Yona newspaper (in Hebrew), or this article that appeared in Haaretz back in August (it's the story entitled "Parents protest overcrowding during school reconstruction").

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Expat Musings...

For nearly 15 years, I’ve been an expat living in Israel, absorbing the culture and doing my best to assimilate. It hasn’t always been easy, though overall, I think I’ve managed to do a pretty decent job. It’s taken some time, but I’ve managed to build myself a network of friends and acquaintances, many of whom are even Israeli; I live in a Hebrew-speaking community (as opposed to one of the English-speaking enclaves like Raanana, Jerusalem, or any one of a number of settlements); I speak and read nearly fluent Hebrew (though admittedly, my writing leaves something to be desired), and even dream in Hebrew on occasion. I can understand the news (as much as one can understand the news here, anyway), I can make people laugh (intentionally!), and I can argue with the best of ‘em. My life is here, and for the most part, I’m happy.

And yet, when it comes down to it, I am, and probably always will be, American. My formative years were spent in the US (I moved here after graduating from university), and as settled and as comfortable as I am here, I will probably always feel a little more comfortable there. Not for lack of trying, you understand. It’s simply a fact. There is a big difference between growing up in a culture and learning to adapt to a culture. What came naturally to me in the US is not necessarily par for the course in Israel, and vice versa (in a really big way!) with regard to the norms I’ve internalized in my adopted culture. And, with all that I have going for me here, there is always that pull to go back to the US, even if only for a few years. Since my first trip to Israel, I have never felt 100% in either place – always being drawn to one when I am in the other. Perhaps it would be different if I had opted for a country whose culture is more similar to American culture (I could certainly see myself living very happily in England, uber-Anglophile that I am…), but then again, perhaps not.

At times, I feel limited as a foreigner, a non-native speaker; limited in my work choices, limited in my study options, severely limited in my ability to understand Israel’s greatest comedic/cultural icons – Hagashash Hachiver (as fluent as I am, the nuances and cultural references simply escape me – Husband has given up trying to help me understand)… Granted, mother-tongue English is often quite desirable here, but usually only in very specific sectors like hi-tech. If my interests were in a different direction, I might not feel so restricted. However, I can’t help it. I want to write. My Hebrew writing will never reach the levels of my English writing, so essentially, I’m screwed. It’s the deal I accepted when deciding to move to a non-English speaking country, a decision that I’ve chosen to live with. All part of being an expat, I suppose.

Hands down, though, the hardest part of being an expat is the altered dynamic between yourself and those you’ve left behind. My whole family still lives in the US – I miss births, deaths, weddings, family reunions, etc, as do they (we postponed our son’s brit for two days after he was born a week early, so that my parents could be here for the big event). Visits are high-pressured affairs, as we try to cram as much as we can into two or three-week stints once or twice a year, generally invading each other’s personal space and getting on each other’s nerves with a degree of regularity that could compete with the precision of a Swiss watch.

Then, of course, there are the friends who are no longer physically a part of your daily life. People with whom you have actively chosen to forge emotional ties, who are suddenly forced into the periphery of your new, distant life. People who you’ve left behind, people who have left you behind. A natural part of the life cycle, for sure, but painful nonetheless, and with a greater degree of finality when you live in different countries. My best friend in the world is also an expat – an American living in Europe. We’ve been friends since high school, and have lived our lives on parallel tracks. She has enriched my life in so many ways, seen me at my best and gotten me through my worst, given of herself in ways that have touched me more than I could ever express in words. We are in touch on an almost daily basis, whether by phone, email, SMS (when I got my new cell phone last year, I opted for GSM so that we would be able to text each other, and I specifically inquired as to the cost of text messages to the country where she lives), etc. It’s not the same as being there, though. Knowing exactly what she’s doing on a given evening or weekend is not the same being an active participant in the activity, and though we are still very close, the fact that she is not physically present in my life leaves a gaping hole. I’ve made some very close friends here, but it’s just not the same.

Anyway, I’ve rambled on here much more than I ever intended to do, and as I read what I’ve just written, I realize that it’s actually quite depressing. I just want to make it clear – I am happy here, happy with the life I’ve chosen (or the life that’s chosen me, depending on how you look at it). It’s not always an easy life, but it’s certainly an exciting one. It’s exciting to live in a country that’s small enough to allow its regular citizens to have their say and make a difference. We’ve got the greatest reality show in the world – the world of Israeli politics (nobody could simply make up the stories that unfold here on a regular basis!). We have socialized medicine (for better or worse). We have amazing coffee. I can wear jeans to work everyday if I want. Yet despite all of that, I just want a little more sometimes. Nothing wrong with that, is there?

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Terror in Jordan

I know I've already posted today, but I just wanted to condemn the latest in a series of attacks perpetrated by Al Qaeda, designed to sow fear and terror and destroy innocent lives. This latest attack, this time targeting the people of Jordan, has served to show that these fanatics will stop at nothing, and no one is immune. My hope is that this will finally act as a wake up call to those who have remained silent in the face of such acts. Terror must be condemned and fought in all of its forms, or the terrorists will win and the global community will cease to exist as we know it. My sympathies go out to the Jordanian people, and my prayers are with the victims and their families.

Laboring over Israeli politics

Israel woke up this morning to discover that a revolution had occurred in the Labor party. Shimon Peres is to Israeli politics what Susan Lucci is to the daytime Emmy awards in the United States – always a candidate, yet no matter how deserving, never a winner. In yesterday’s Labor party elections, Amir Peretz, who is also the chairman of the Histadrut labor union, managed to pull off a victory, beating Mr Peres by winning 42% of the vote to Mr Peres’ 40%, with Binyamin Ben Eliezer trailing too far behind to even be noticed.

I have great respect Mr Peres. I share his beliefs and admire his courage. His ability to be a true statesman and a politician whose goal actually seems to be to make Israel a better, safer place for all its inhabitants (instead of the tendency of most Knesset members who only seem to want to improve their own lives) makes him a rarity in today’s political scene. The man has worked tirelessly on behalf of the country, promoting its interests abroad, and striving for peace. He has led an incredible life, and has created a legacy of hope, of optimism, of courage to fight for belief in the greater good, never giving up even when the odds are stacked in the wrong direction. Mr Peres is to be commended for his actions. There is no other politician in Israeli today who embodies the true spirit of politics. Whether one likes or dislikes his beliefs, it is hard to deny that he is an elegant, elder statesman in the truest sense, and that if more politicians behaved as he has, Israeli politics would be quite a bit more civilized.

Part of me believes that the time has come for Mr Peres to leave the crumbling world of the Labor party and focus his efforts elsewhere, as there must be many areas and realms in which his talents would receive the proper appreciation, given that he has been so dreadfully underappreciated in Israeli politics throughout his career. Then there is the other part which is reluctant to see him go. The Labor party is already in tatters, and despite Mr Peretz’ recent win, I do not see him or any other prominent party activists who are suitable to pull the party out of the mire in which it has been swimming for quite some time now. There doesn’t seem to be anyone else capable of successfully leading the party, let alone leading the country.

All of this leads me to one final thought. If Mr Peretz should be elected Prime Minister, will he finally be forced to resign as chairman of the Histadrut, a position he has retained throughout his tenure as a Knesset member, or will he be able to continue to perpetuate this absolutely astounding conflict of interest, organizing labor strikes for the most absurd reasons and paralyzing the country he leads? I can hardly wait to see how the latest chapter in the soap opera known as the Israeli government unfolds.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Spine Chiller

Before I get started, this is in no way a political post leaning leftwards, but I'm sure the odd idiot out there will take exception to something or other I, if you are an idiot, please read no further.

Tomorrow sees the 10th anniversary of the Rabin assassination. Can you remember where you were 10 years ago tomorrow?

Crazy, eh? 10 whole years, 10 years since we heard those spine-chilling words read from the PM's spokesman at the entrance to Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv, pronouncing the death of Rabin, followed by cries of despair from the crowds surrounding him. I don't do spine-chilling much, as She might vouch, but this is a moment which almost gets my tear-ducts juicing up...

I'm guessing most of you (at least those in Israel, or those connected in some way to Israel) know exactly where you were when you first heard the news that Rabin had been shot. I know exactly where I was. I was shopping with my then girlfriend, as it was actually her birthday, and we had gone out to celebrate. Don't remember where we'd been before we walked into Super-Pharm (and don't remember her much, if I'm honest, though every Rabin anniversary flashes me back to this moment when we were together) but we heard some of the cashiers talking about somebody getting shot. When we asked, they looked at us in surprise: "What, you didn't hear? Rabin was shot!"

I remember us making our way back to her parents' place (unable to talk as we were on the back of my scooter, and probably numb with nothing to say anyway) and entering a noisy house complete with TV blaring. My girlfriend's father had his head in his hands and was mumbling to himself that he wished he hadn't said the things he'd said about Rabin. As you can guess, her father leaned so far to the right he was walking on three limbs...

It wasn't long before the confirmation of Rabin's death came through and the trauma that was solely Israel's was underway. Who can't forget the endless crowds at Kikar Malchei Israel (eventually renamed Kikar Rabin), the candlelight vigils, the tearful kids that seemed to take it the hardest, the funeral procession, Clinton's magical "Shalom Haver" ("Goodbye, friend") quote. And then, we moved into the blame process, with endless stories of conspiracies, undercover agents, "rabid right-wingers" and "looney lefties"...and despite the trauma, a cleverly-waged election campaign from Netanyahu saw the right-wing Likud take over the governmental reins only a few months after Rabin's death. Oslo and any dreams of peace were dead and buried for now.

You know what's most galling about this 10th anniversary? That his killer, Yigal Amir, the one with that arrogant sneer that really needs wiping off, is still in the headlines. What with his ambitions of procreating with his nutter groupie of a wife and fresh announcements of a cover up, he still fronts our newspapers, still has his face greeting me when I access news websites...

10 years on and there are still people who don't appear to have learned. Conspiracy theories still abound, but it looks like most are clutching at straws. A myth has been created, even Rabin himself has become a myth and comes out smelling like a true hero, despite his obvious flaws. I'm a big advocate of free speech, but how this guy is getting away with publishing his theories and doctored pics of Peres, I don't know. Sad stuff.

10 years on, eh?

Well, do you remember where you were when you heard Rabin was shot?

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

It's all in the dough...

Now that the disengagement is behind us, it seems that the Israeli government has returned to its previous routine of devising ways to screw the weaker sectors of society, while rewarding those situations are somewhat less precarious.

As of today, the price for a loaf of bread will rise by 6.57 percent. According to an article on the Haaretz website, the primary reason given for this increase is that gasoline costs have recently risen by 131 percent. Huh? Excuse me? I could understand if the rise in bread prices was due to rising costs of flour, which I believe may have been the reason given behind previous increases (please correct me if I'm wrong, my mind is a bit hazy this morning), but to connect it to the rising cost of gasoline sounds absurd, especially in light of the fact that the same article mentions that also as of today, the petrol prices decrease by 10%. I'm sure those individuals who can barely afford to buy bread at current prices, let alone own a car, will be thrilled to know that while a loaf of fresh bread may now be beyond their means, a liter of gasoline is now within their grasp. Kudos to the government for this savvy little agreement!

And, for some of those struggling to buy bread, the folks over at the Finance Ministry have decided give them yet another kick in the teeth by not allowing the Israel Association of Community Centers to run its successful enrichment programs for some 5000 disadvantaged children, many of whom are immigrants.

The article states,

"Suspending the supplementary study program, known by its Hebrew acronym PELE, is another attempt by the treasury's Yaron Zelekha to issue tenders for all IACC programs - a move that will lead to its privatization. Zelekha claims the IACC
is a monopoly that undermines free competition. The IACC warns that privatizing it would deal a severe blow to the populations it serves, including new immigrants, people with disabilities and the elderly."

Once again the government is playing games with the lives of Israel's disadvantaged, and this act is a particularly vicious blow, as it targets the children. To curtail activities aimed at lifting these young individuals out of poverty and giving them tools to succeed, the government is doing nothing but perpetuating this devastating cycle and denying these children the chance to eventually become successful, productive members of society, instead simply leaving them to languish in their disadvantaged, difficult lives, with little hope for improvement. What makes this issue even more tragic is that the primary beneficiaries of these programs are the children of immigrants, who carry the additional baggage of cultural differences and difficulties assimilating into Israeli society. Instead of doing all it can to help these children feel Israeli, the government has essentially chosen to play games.

When trying to save children, every moment is precious. To squander an opportunity is to negatively affect the future of our children - in effect, endanger our future as a country. When will the government learn that it cannot continue to allow the weak sectors to become even weaker, while the rich become even stronger? We are a tragedy in the making, and if the government continues in this direction, we shall become our own greatest enemy.