Yovav Kalifon

Yovav Kalifon isam a 29 year old Israeli who recently finished a M.Sc. program in theoretical physics, and is now trying to make up for it by traveling and seeing more of the actual world. I recently came back to Israel to attend my brother’s wedding. I crossed in to Israel from Jordan, after flying there from India, sailing there from Egypt, going there by bus, and hitchhiking to the border from where I am sitting right now. I moved out of Kibbutz Tsubah to live in Jerusalem. I work formally very irregularly, giving private math/physics lessons, and translating academic articles whenever I’m lucky enough to find a client. The idea is to leave maximal free time to do my own thing, recently which has been getting into peace organization, and promoting my own initiatives as I see best.

Recent Posts

August 14, 2012


No to Application of Israeli Sovereignty Over Judea and Samaria


If you thought my last blog entry on the application of Israeli sovereignty over Judea and Samaria was depressing, brace yourself for impact.

The lobby for a two-state solution held a public meeting in the Israeli parliament about a week ago, featuring MP’s from the Labor party, Kadima, Meretz and Hadash. I went there for the sole purpose of figuring out whether the people running the show thought peace was just around the corner or well behind the horizon. Those people were Dr. Gershon Baskin (founder of IPCRI), attorney Gilead Sher (Blue White Future), and Ted Harris (One Voice).

Talk about depressing… there was close to no energy in the room. It was nothing compared to the right-wing conference I attended in Hebron the week before. Here’s the crunch of what invited speakers had to say:

MP Peretz (Labor): Netanyahu is wasting valuable time by doing “conflict management”. In the end we’ll find ourselves with a one-state solution, losing the support of the Arab League, which issued the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002*. *[Like many other left-wing leaders, Peretz feels the Arab Peace Initiative was a breakthrough, since it calls ”To accept to find an agreed, just solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees in conformity with Resolution 194,” yet Peretz ignores ”the rejection of all forms of Palestinian patriation which conflict with the special circumstances of the Arab host countries.” In other words, the Arab League calls on all Arab states to maintain the refugee status of Palestinians in their territories, leaving them only the option of going to Israel, seemingly offering to make peace with the Jewish state, though it will no longer be Jewish if they had their way… somebody should explain this to Peretz.]

Gilead Sher: Israel must perform “constructive unilateral moves”, separating itself from the Palestinians in order to maintain a Jewish majority within, whether there is an agreement signed or not. For example, Israel should prepare to absorb those hundreds of thousands of Jews living beyond the Green Line, resettling them along the coastal area of Israel, at an estimated expense of 50 billion Shekels. Even this, Sher admits, will not guarantee we’ll find peace, but argues it must be done regardless of anything.

Isaac Herzog (Labor): We should show the Israeli public that we have a partner on the Palestinian side before the public can agree to disengage and evacuate more settlements. There is not enough trust between our respective leaders.

Avishay Braverman (Labor): We must realize maintaining the status quo puts us at risk. It’s similar to the mood in Israel after the 1967 war, when people thought we had everything sorted. We are heading towards a catastrophe.

Zahava Gal-On (Meretz Party): It’s good to see there are people pushing in the right direction while our government involves itself in survival maneuvers. Peace is our highest priority when it comes to promoting social justice in Israel, since after the security issue is off the table, we’ll be more free to invest in our own society.

As you can see, the MP’s present at the meeting were uninspiring, had nothing new to tell us, and basically killed any enthusiasm that might have been lingering in the room. They expressed no hope in reaching a solution with Palestinians, blaming the current Israeli leadership upfront, but also recognizing the lack of will on the Palestinian side too.

Ted Harris (One-Voice): All those who have led negotiations recognize there is a Palestinian partner. Those who did not gain experience in negotiations spread the rumor that there isn’t one. With the Palestinians running deep in debts and suffering the from the global economic crisis, it is not unlikely that we will see a rise of radical movements and a violent outbreak in the near future.

Dr. Gershon Baskin: According to recent poles made in the Palestinian territories, we see Fatah is slightly more popular than Hamas. The most prominent Palestinian leader today is Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life sentences for direct involvement in terror attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians. Among the Palestinian population, there is very little hope and almost no expectation to see peace any time soon.

The personal impression Baskin shared with us was that usually he finds, in conversations with Palestinians, that though they may speak of a one-state solution, they find it hard to describe their vision. Those who do find the words to describe it often paint a picture of a Palestinian one-state, an Islamic state, a Sharia state, and other such things. This is hardly what Israelis imagine when they talk of a one-state solution, a liberal, democratic, progressive state…

The Lobby for a Two-State Solution

The impression I was left with was that the “peace camp” in Israel is rather tired and without hope. While it is easy to blame Netanyahu’s right-wing government, at least some of them remembered to mention there would probably not be peace under any other government either.

As sad as that is to admit, that’s what I went there to hear. I was wondering how optimistic or how cautious the speakers might be, and found most of them to be more-or-less sober about the prospect of peace. In-fact, some of the speakers mentioned that being a “leftist” in Israel is becoming somewhat of an insult, as it appears most of the public feels further concessions to Palestinians will not make them like us any better than they already don’t.

On the practical level, I learnt that the current trend in the Israeli left is similar to the current trend in the Israeli right, that being a trend of unilateral decisions. The right-wing conference I attended called for annexing the West-Bank. This lobby meeting called for a unilateral withdrawal. Both camps claim to work for the best interest of the Jewish-Israeli sector, insisting that the other camp is leading us towards a catastrophe. Both camps also insist their approach will benefit the Palestinians, as if there were not enough contradictions between them already.

Well, at least they all mean well.

What we might need now, if we want to see an Israeli withdrawal or a renewal of negotiations, is something along the lines of what the Arab Peace Initiative fails to deliver. It is a signal, an indication, from the Palestinians and for the Israelis, saying that the Jewish character of Israel is not at threat. By doing so, they would revive the Israeli peace camp, they will bring an Israeli withdrawal to the separation barrier closer, they will take another step towards independence.

The speakers at the lobby meeting referred to this question, the Jewish character of Israel, saying it should not be a precondition for negotiations, in-fact it should be left out of the whole debate. This, they said, is entirely an Israeli issue, irrelevant to other nations. Of-course, the speakers agreed, Israel should always remain the national home of the Jewish people, maintaining a clear Jewish majority and holding on to Jewish state symbols.

Ironically enough, they said all of this in response to an Israeli peace activist who explained how he finds it impossible to draft a vision statement for his bi-national peace movement. He keeps insisting Israel should always remain Jewish in character and composition, and his Palestinian partners for peace insist it is unacceptable.

To my understanding, this is exactly the root cause of the conflict. The Jews aspired for sovereignty over some part of the land, and they got it in 1948. The Arab Peace Initiative shows us this is still unacceptable in the Arab world today. Israelis will not support a peace agreement which will cause them to forfeit their hard-earned independence, they will only support a peace agreement which serves their interests. The Palestinians appear not to be ready to come to terms with the existence of a Jewish state, and I wouldn’t expect unilateral moves or any sort of technical maneuvering to resolve this ideological gap between us.


June 23, 2012

Fly-In To Syria

I’ve been thinking a lot about Syria.

What started as an “Arab-Spring” wave of demonstrations in early 2011 has developed into a bloody civil war, with 10,000 civilians dead in over a year of fighting. We keep receiving video footage and eye-witness accounts from Syria portraying widespread atrocities such as massacres, torture, rape, burying people alive, maiming adults and children, just to name a few.

Syrian hopes and calls for reform turned into barbaric chaos, misery and death.

I won’t try to play the political analyst and tell you who’s fighting whom and for what aim. For what I am about to suggest, it is not even necessary for us to agree on who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy in this story. Even if you subscribe to the theory that foreign agents are at play in Syria and that it’s not a real rebellion, you should keep reading. All we need to agree on at this point is that the situation in Syria is bad, that it is out of control, and that civilians are caught in the middle of it.

The other thing I hope you’ll agree with me on is that the situation in Syria has gone on for long enough. The UN, the Arab-League, and Turkey in particular, have tried their influence over Syria, but to no avail. UN observers are having a hard time getting into the country and reaching the necessary places. Humanitarian aid is concentrated mostly outside the borders of Syria, where refugees find help after already losing it all. On top of everything else, it seems the fighting sides opt to carry on with it, have nothing left to lose, nor a better future to offer.

With the situation as complex as it is, there is no obvious solution that will satisfy all sides of the conflict. Still, the sounds and images coming out of Syria leave no room for doubt – there is an ongoing slaughter which must be stopped, and our governments are not up to the challenge.

Seeing how all other attempts end in failure, I suggest a civilian, multinational, self-organized fly-in to Syria:


What does a fly-in mean exactly?

The idea is for groups and individuals to make plans to travel to Syria, by land, sea or by air, and arrive there within a set time-frame. The aim is to make it clear that the international community is not merely monitoring the horrors from far away, but actually mobilizing itself to arrive on Syrian soil, out of genuine sympathy and concern.

A fly-in by Whom?

The people who will travel to Syria will mostly be ordinary civilians, people like me and you, as well as private groups and relevant NGOs. As unofficial representatives of the International community, it will be easier for us as volunteers to cross into Syria and to move around. So far, official governmental workers who are required to coordinate their actions with the Syrian authorities were not able to move around effectively enough, for the reason of being official representatives, bound by rules and regulations.

Why a fly-in and not something else?

Our governments and their organizations have had over a year, and there is no obvious sign of them having much influence over the events. Signing online petitions is a nice gesture, but Syria is so deep in blood that they probably don’t notice and care even less. Sending more field hospitals and humanitarian aid to help fleeing refugees is important, but they keep slaughtering each-other inside Syria, resulting in more refugees.

We all remember what usually happens when our governments intervene militarily in remote conflicts, such as what happened in Libya for example. I believe most people will prefer not to resort to military means yet again, not in Syria, and not anywhere else. There is reason to give internal disputes a chance to resolve themselves, and when they don’t, there is reason to think of non-violent means of intervention, and to give them a chance to work.

The only non-violent intervention I can think of that will deliver humanitarian aid into Syria proper, inject hundreds of (unofficial) observers and reporters, and breath hope into a desperate situation, is to stage an international civilian fly-in and cross-in directed at Syria.

What will volunteers do there?

Once in Syria, volunteers should make their presence clearly felt. This will send an important signal, one which will ripple in two opposite directions:

First, the signal to Syria will be that it’s unacceptable, in the 21st century, to slaughter civilians, when we can all see them calling out to us from Youtube, Twitter, FaceBook etc.

Second, the signal to all the world’s nations will be that it’s unacceptable, in the 21st century, to slaughter civilians, when we can all see them calling out to us from Youtube, Twitter, FaceBook etc.

The most practical thing volunteers should do in Syria is exactly the work of UN observers, reporters, and humanitarian aid workers. As much as the situation allows it, volunteers should shed light on the situation, deliver humanitarian aid as best they can, and call on others to join them.

For that to happen, volunteers should equip themselves with cameras, laptops, cellphones, medical aid and equipment. They will function as humanity’s eyes, ears, mouth and conscience.

Hopefully, as more trained individuals and specialized NGOs join the initiative, experts will get involved, specific guidance will be circulated, equipment will be obtained, funds will be raised, logistic support will grow, and the effect will be much greater. Some of the organizations I’d like to see getting behind this initiative are Doctors Without Borders, the Red-Cross, Amnesty International, and there are many others.

What will be the effect?

Already in the preparation phases, as more and more people apply for visas to Syria and contact their consulates, their respective governments will notice the rising interest in Syria, and may start to wonder. This alone might lead some countries to rethink their attitude towards the crisis in Syria, and its affect on them.

Assuming the situation continues as it does and the fly-in gets under way, one can expect Syria and other states to interfere with the plan. Giving Syrian authorities something of this sort to worry about might lead them to lower the levels of hostilities from their side. Having our governments prevent us from traveling to Syria will similarly compel them to act more responsibly and decisively, knowing full-well their public is greatly concerned about Syria.

Assuming the fly-in eventually gets through and volunteers spread throughout Syria, the presence of international civilians on Syrian soil should have a pacifying effect on all fighting sides. Realizing they are being watched in-person and in real-time, fighters will adjust their tactics and become less openly brutal. By the same token, and as a later consequence, conflicts in other parts of the world will be affected by the precedence, set in Syria, of an international civilian fly-in to calm a civil war down.

Of-course a civilian fly-in will only be the beginning of a change. It will affect the way the crisis is perceived and addressed, leading to change in how it develops. As the situation will calm down gradually, official, trained workers will be able to follow suit and deliver much needed professional aid to Syrian civilians.

But is it safe?

Absolutely not. Syria is not safe, not for you, not for me, not even for Syrians. If it were, I wouldn’t be talking about a fly-in. Drastic times call for drastic measures. When no-one is willing to take risks for what is right, people should expect to see more wrong. This initiative is not for amateurs, thrill seekers or anarchists. It is a serious matter of global concern, a matter of life or death, right and wrong. The fly-in requires commitment, audacity, hard work, confidence, and perseverance. Responsible people should think hard before committing themselves to it, accept responsibility for themselves, and take their stand.

Why Syria and not some other war zone?

True. Civilians the world over are facing hardships. They too could use our attention and our immediate support. But we don’t have to deal with one single conflict at a time. That would take us forever. Devoting too much global attention to one conflict only will allow other conflicts to flare up and spin out of control, all the while remaining out of sight. Media consumers should insist on having access to a balanced coverage of various issues.

Personally, I feel Syria deserves much media attention at this time, resulting in more immediate action. That crisis is still relatively fresh, and should be treated before it becomes the normal situation in Syria. In the Middle-East, feuds like the one we see in Syria can easily spill-out to include more groups and states. They can develop into something much bigger that lasts much longer.

Setting a memorable precedence in Syria, such as conducting a massive fly-in, will have a positive effect on other countries in the region, and far beyond. A demonstration of that sort will advance human rights in an area where it is clearly needed. The “Arab-Spring” happened for a reason, and as the results remain undecided in Syria, something along the lines of a fly-in seems necessary to complete what it started.

When is it?

Throughout August 2012.

Stay up-to-date and help the effort at:


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May 17, 2012

The Holocaust Through Arab Eyes

That was the title of a talk I attended last night.

The talk was held at “The Museum on The Seam”, located on the road which goes between East and West Jerusalem, formerly the border between Israel and Jordan.

The organizer of the event was Smadar Peri, journalist for Yediot Aharonot. Speakers were MK Ahmad Tibi, Israeli-Arab member of parliament, and Nazir Magally, an Israeli-Arab journalist and writer for Asharq Alawsat, probably the most influential international Arabic newspaper.

On the issue of the Holocaust, both speakers basically saw eye-to-eye. They both talked of how they first heard of the Holocaust relatively late in life, and how this was probably the case for most Arabs living in Israel or the Middle-East.

Both speakers agreed there exists general ignorance, dismissal, and outright denial of the Holocaust in the Arab world. They told personal stories of encounters with high governmental officials in the Arab world who expressed denial or ignorance towards the Holocaust. One such diplomat is the current candidate for the presidency of Egypt and former GS of the Arab-League, Mr. Amr Musa. Musa first refused to visit Yad-Vashem, the main Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, but later agreed to visit only the children’s memorial site at the museum. He refused to be caught on camera, so there’s no documentation of that visit.

Personally, after spending one month in Egypt during the summer of 2011, I know full well that Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” is sold in almost every book-store and street-side book-stand. One might wonder how people can know Hitler so well and at the same time deny the Holocaust…

On a positive note, the audience and myself were relieved to learn that both speakers considered this situation extremely shameful. To them, “a true Arab cannot possibly dismiss the Holocaust”. I suspect they feel some sort of personal connection to the Holocaust because of its underlying theme of suffering and victimhood.

Both speakers had visited concentration and death camps in Europe, organized trips and visits for others, spoke and wrote about the Holocaust through Arab eyes, and they seemed to be doing so with a passion.

Naturally, MK Ahmad Tibi could not avoid sticking in a few political statements during the evening. Being very careful not to draw comparisons with the Holocaust or use Nazi terminology, Tibi reiterated the point that he would have expected Jews, those who suffered “the most terrible crime in modern history”, to be more lenient and understanding towards their own victims – Arab Palestinians.

Here, Tibi was subtly suggesting a point which comes up very often, and I always find it is misleading. Palestinians consider themselves victims of Israel, and often argue that the crimes committed against Jews in Europe serve as no justification for Palestinian suffering today, by the hands of those very same Jews. Instead of arguing my point of view, I presented MK Ahmad Tibi with a question to demonstrate why I think it is a misleading point to make:

My question was: “Seeing that we all agree there is general ignorance in the Arab sector towards something very obvious which took place in plain view for the entire world to see only 70 years ago, is it not very likely to assume there will also be found general ignorance towards less obviousand much more distant chapters of Jewish history?

“I am thinking of ancient Jewish and Israelite kingdoms which existed here during Biblical times, their associated archaeological remains throughout Judea and Samaria, the importance of Jerusalem to the Jewish people, and many other such things. They are well known and generally accepted outside the Arab world. How are they seen through Arab eyes?”

MK Ahmad Tibi, losing his temper right away: “Let me ask YOU a question: do you speak Arabic?”

“I took Arabic in primary school and high-School, yes, but I don’t speak it very fluently.”

MK Ahmad Tibi:“You should know that my Hebrew is much better than yours. In-fact, most Arabs know your language and your history much better than most Jews!”

An Arab-Israeli university student standing right next to me whispered in my ear: “it’s not really so, only few Arabs know these things…”

MK Ahmad Tibi continued: “We are fighting for only 22% of our homeland. What do you expect, that the Arabs will embrace your history? That would erase us!”

Very well, I thought to myself. Even though Tibi avoided giving me an answer, he managed giving me a very clear answer. Tibi gets emotional over the topic of Jewish history and he seems to think Arabs should not be educated on Jewish history in the land of Israel, since that would “erase them”.

My take on it is that Arabs gradually feel more comfortable showing how they dare to publicly admit the Holocaust took place, but immediately argue that the Holocaust does not justify Palestinian suffering. They are correct to do so. I also don’t feel the Holocaust serves as valid justification for displacing others, but that’s not what is happening here.

The thing which makes me Jewish and ties me to Israel is not the Holocaust. Tibi misunderstands or ignores the main issue. The thing which matters to me is the +3,000 years of Jewish history, in Israel and later in the diaspora. It is the Hebrew language and Jewish dialects of languages in the diaspora. It is my Jewish heritage, culture, holidays and traditions. It is my connection to the Jewish people as a whole. It is my Jewish identity and consciousness.

I don’t define myself based on the Holocaust, and I wish Tibi would also not define me as the grandchild of Holocaust survivors. My ancestors were proud to be Jewish already 500 years earlier, when they survived the Spanish inquisition, for example.

Basically, all the elements I listed to define the Jewish people as a nation were in place much before the Holocaust, extending far back into ancient times. Those are the things which define us and justify having a national home for the Jewish people in the land of Israel.

Based on Tibi’s reaction, those are exactly the things he cannot afford to recognize in public. Those are the things he says will “erase the Palestinians”.

Nazir Magally, the second speaker, felt he had to step in. With a calm smile he said Tibi’s reaction was what you’d expect of a politician. Magally later told me he thought it was a sign of weakness by the Arab leadership, not to recognize obvious elements of Jewish history.

I totally agree. People who feel secure in their own identity and right of way can afford to listen and recognize other people’s points of view. Those are the same people who can afford to face historical facts and deal with current realities. Thus they also tend to make more educated choices and have better chances of success.

I believe that if Arabs would calmly recognize Jewish history and understand why the state of Israel exists, it will not cost them any piece of land, rights or liberties. On the contrary, I think they will simply be more ready to accept Israel as a legitimate state, and strike a deal with Israel. There really is no reason for suffering on either side, if you look at the situation with honesty. Realizing that would lead to Palestinian independence, alongside and in good relations with the Jewish state of Israel.

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May 8, 2012

Tal Law and the Army Draft in Israel

Politics in Israel has gotten a bit of a stir over a recent High-Court ruling, saying that “Tal Law” was unconstitutional, and should not be extended beyond its predetermined expiration date this August.

Tal Law made it possible for religious Yeshiva students to be legally exempt from military service, year after year, provided they can demonstrate they truly do attend the Yeshiva (religious College), where they study Jewish philosophy and traditions, as their way of life.

The motivation behind the law, it should be noted, was not to draft more ultra-orthodox people into the ranks of the IDF, nor to push more of them to study in the Yeshiva. The motivation was merely to make it possible for them to get jobs in Israel.

An Israeli who did not complete military service cannot legally work in Israel, unless they were exempt. The Arab sector, in general, is not called in for service, and can legally work. Many Arabs volunteer for military service, in-fact some of them say it is racially discriminatory not to draft them automatically. The Druze and Cherkessian do get drafted, and they serve with a passion.

Today it is also possible to do some form of voluntary civil service and avoid being drafted, and many choose this option, especially religious girls and some minority groups. By doing so, they earn the right to work legally, without having to serve a day in the military.

The Jewish public is called in for service, but many ultra-orthodox have serious issues with that. They tend to dodge the draft in increasing numbers. That creates tensions between the sectors. It also makes it difficult for the dodgers to get jobs. Working in the black market creates a whole added source of problems. It required some sort of legislation.

Legally speaking, now that the Tal Law will not be extended, it seems those Yeshiva boys might be drafted after-all. That would change the “status quo” we have in Israel, which is difficult to believe (the term “status-quo” refers to the accepted state-and-religion relationship and related laws).

I went out to the neighborhood of Me’a-She’arim with a friend of mine, a French journalist, to talk to the ultra-orthodox about the latest developments.

What we learnt was that for some young ultra-orthodox, the idea of going to a Yeshiva college and studying Jewish philosophy is more important than having people defending the state, and defending the people living there, including themselves.

They more or less assert that Israel faces threats on all sides, with Iran taking the lead as the top existential threat to Jewish independence in the land of Israel, Hezbollah and Hamas trailing somewhere behind, and the somewhat defiant Arab minority in Israel posing a minor concern to Jewish national sovereignty.

Still, some of the people we talked to seemed to think that by going to Yeshivas, they do a better job of protecting the land and its people, than does a high-tech modern army such as the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

One person went as far as saying that we need an army today, surely, but if we had never established that army and simply sent everyone to the Yeshivas in the first place, we would have had no threats to our existence here. He was probably unaware of the fact that Jews were fighting for their independence here since before 1948 and the consequent creation of the IDF.

Another person had a more subtle point to make. He said that by sending some people to the Yeshiva, they help preserve the Jewish character of Israel and the Jewish way of life. That, in his opinion, gives the public some sort of self-confidence and a sense of worth, and that is the main function and reason for having a Yeshiva.

So studying in Yeshivas, to that person, was not done to defend the state, but to defend its character, and give the state something valuable to defend.

Well, I thought it was an interesting point to make, and maybe a bit more sensible than the previous mystic idea of God defending Israel without having an army, but it had holes in it too.

My main objection to this view was that the ultra-orthodox, if they truly wish to promote the religious aspect of Jewish character in Israel, should not close themselves off in ultra-orthodox neighborhoods such as Me’a-She’arim, where we were having that chat, or Bnei-Brak, for example.

They should be out in universities, publishing articles in the mainstream media, serving as doctors in hospitals, going to law schools and serving in the High-Court. They should be taking part in society, not shutting society out.

No, the reason they go to Yeshivas and the reason they don’t want to mix with the rest of Israeli society, in the army or elsewhere, is because there is a clash between aspects of Jewish character in Israel. By him saying they preserve Jewish character in the Yeshiva, he is actually saying he sees secular Jews in Israel, or even the state of Israel itself, as devoid of Jewish character.

The truth is that secular aspects of Jewish life in Israel give such an appealing sense of identity that the ultra-orthodox sector has to defend its own sense of Jewish identity by separating itself from modern life in Israel.

Abroad, for example, ultra-orthodox Jews don’t have to face this sort of threat to their identity, and they can afford not to shut themselves in. They earn a better living, they lead more productive lives, and they sponsor Yeshiva boys in Israel.

The Israeli ultra-orthodox, in choosing to separate themselves from the rest of Israeli society, find themselves in a rather poor condition. Upholding their education system and upholding Jewish philosophy above all else makes it difficult for many of them to compete with educated workers in the modern world. Not being able to work legally makes it even more difficult to get by. Men who get married, have many children, and still go to Yeshiva in their thirties or even sixties make it so much harder for their wives to provide for the family.

The situation there is absurd. They obviously sacrifice a great deal for the sake of maintaining their way of life and their Yeshivas. The self-inflicted separation between them and other sectors is a sign of paranoia. The only explanation I can give for their extreme sacrifice, paranoia, and resulted poverty, is the idea that they are afraid of losing their version of Jewish identity.

Looking at other sectors, I see a repeated pattern. Secular Jews and national-religious Jews have a well defined Jewish identity, with either a secular or a religious emphasis, and taking part in state-building is not a threat to their character, in-fact it is their motivation, i.e. identity, to take part in it. The Druze and Cherkessians also have a strong unique identity, and they can contain an Israeli identity alongside of it, so they integrate into Israeli society fairly well, serve in the army, get descent jobs, and do well for themselves.

Two outstanding sectors of Israeli society do poorly, separate themselves from the rest, don’t get very involved in the military, state institutions, civil councils, etc. They are the ultra-orthodox and the Arab-Israeli sector. They would both do well by themselves if they could find a way to coexist with modern Israel, a democratic state with a Jewish majority and a Jewish national character, without them having to lose their other unique identities.

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April 13, 2012

Israelis Show Solidarity with the People of Syria

A friend asked me to join a small team of organizers planning to help the situation in Syria somehow

Quick background
The Arab Spring, as they call it, took an ugly turn in Syria, and today the military and various rebel groups are fighting hard. Iran and Lebanon also seem to be involved, fighting on the side of the Syrian regime, while military personnel who defected from the army fight on the side of civilian rebels against the regime. In over one year of fierce fighting, about 10,000 civilians were reported dead, or about 100 dead per month.

Online revolution
Being the 21st century, the face of the revolution is mainly seen on youtube, twitter, and other such channels of communication. Foreign media has a hard time reaching the important areas, and Syrian controlled media is giving only one version of the events. Thus, civilians under fire take it upon themselves to film the events and upload information to the web. In doing so, they are taking big risks, not only in putting themselves in the line of fire, but also by exposing themselves to arrest and interrogation by the Syrian authorities.

What do we see in Syria?
If you have the stomach for it, I recommend going on youtube and punching in a few relevant search words regarding Syria. It doesn’t take a big Middle-Eastern expert to interpret the images and sound. You will see civilians under military fire, you will notice snipers taking down protesters just like that, you will find scenes of execution, people slaughtered with their hands tied behind their backs. There are videos of torture and abusive beating by people in uniform, or against people in uniform. You can find survivors testifying on their experiences, showing bullet holes in their feet or whatnot. There are many claims of mass rape, and basically the worst situation you can imagine.

Looking at the images, I can’t imagine how anyone could support president Assad or his regime. The homicidal brutality is simply out of control in Syria, and that much is obvious. No commentary is necessary. On the other hand, what might have begun as a civil movement or a peaceful protest has evolved into an armed rebellion. They want Assad down, and he is fighting to stay in power. Whether the public demands are right or wrong, Assad has nothing left to lose. He has to suppress the movement or lose it all.

And when we look at the rebel groups, what do we find? It’s hard to convincingly argue they are aspiring for freedom or democracy, universal rights or liberties, humanistic values or the likes. Many of them probably do, but on the whole, it now looks as if Sunna and Shia Islam have a new battle ground, with Iran supporting the Alawi regime against the Sunni public, with other Alawis in the country fortifying themselves in, as do the Druze and other minority groups, each community defending itself in its respective region, probably expecting the worst as each other minority group picks up smuggled arms and fights whomever…

I don’t know if I support any of them, or why I should assume any group will be better for Syria than Assad is, or was.

Here, for example, is a Syrian opposition official which I don’t find particularly pleasing to hear. Not only does he spit out Nazi propaganda, he also blames Israel for the continued bloodshed in Syria: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=usn1TRusPhc

What I fear the most is that in a society like Syria, which seems to be tearing itself apart, the group that will eventually come on top might be the most brutal and oppressive one. That would be bad for Israel, and worse for the Syrians.

The best case scenario, I feel, for Israelis and Syrians alike, would be to have a group clearly stand out from among the rebel groups, and promote pluralistic ideals, something resembling a democracy, or at least equality and basic rights for all Syrians. So far, the speakers that reach my attention all speak on behalf of their own group, and promise to punish others – the criminals. But who are the people who are to be punished, I am afraid to ask. Are they individuals, or their entire families and supporters wherever they may be? Is this justice or cleansing we are talking about, and how does it differ from the cleansing performed by the current leadership in Syria?

What can we do
As Israelis, we know we are not generally liked in Syria. The Syrian regime, and the opposition, and much of the public, don’t like Israel, in general. In their protests, you can hear Syrians chanting: “Assad, you coward, don’t aim your tanks at us, aim at Israel”. Critics of the regime argue that “Assad is worse than the Zionists”. Of course, Assad goes on television saying that there is no popular uprising, but rather it is a Western plot by Israel, the Mossad, and the USA, using criminal gangs to ignite civil unrest in Syria.

I recently received a visitor from Syria, right here in Jerusalem. He was a young American traveler. He told me there was a street in Damascus where the flag of Israel was painted on the sidewalk, so that passersby could walk all over it. He always felt he had to go around it, not to step on the Magen-David, until someone told him it made him look suspicious, and that he should beware the secret police. He also mentioned to me most Syrians were afraid to discuss politics with him, or among themselves, and often resorted to using code-words when referring to Israel or such, so not to draw the attention of the authorities.

Therefore, if Israel would show too much support for the rebels, the regime would use that against the rebels, showing that they serve some Israeli interest, or that they cooperate with Israeli Mossad agents. Israel won’t risk assisting rebel groups militarily, since that might start a real war between our armies. There was another public protest in Israel, in-front of the Russian embassy in Tel-Aviv, soon after Russia and China vetoed a UN resolution to back-up an Arab plan to force Assad to step down. As a part of that protest the Israeli organizers also arranged for humanitarian aid to be delivered to Jordan, where Syrian refugees are now gathering.

In this climate, a small private initiative was born, to make a public show of solidarity with the Syrian people.

How it began
A young mother in Tel-Aviv named Shira Ingber-Cohen, aged 29 and trained as a clinical-psychologist, watched a documentary news report by Itai Anghel on Channel 2 in Israel, and was shaken to her core. The report, which also made use of those videos uploaded by Syrians to the Web, tells about the abuse, the torture, the rape, the slaughter. It is a difficult report to watch, and it’s difficult not to do anything about it, so Shira decided to write something from the heart, to express her pain, and to ask volunteers to help her organize a public show of solidarity.

Shira’s letter
The letter, which Shira placed at the heart of the event, was spontaneous. It does not make any political analysis of the events in Syria. It does not involve calculations of national interest. It simply and honestly expresses pain, genuine outrage, and pure solidarity. Shira, bothered by the fact that we live in a world where such atrocities can go on under the very nose of viewers worldwide, was reminded of the Jewish holocaust under Nazi Germany. This time, Shira felt, someone has to shake the system. The world cannot afford to remain silent time after time.

It worked. A few inspired individuals came to her assistance. The group went public and started promoting the event obsessively. I was already involved with another initiative on the same issue when I noticed Shira’s activity on the Web. We finally decided to help Shira with her plans, instead of competing for attention.

Shira’s letter “Something from the gut about what is happening in Syria”, in English, Arabic and Hebrew, can be found here, on the event page: https://www.facebook.com/events/324110560980972/

Youtube clips from Israel

Another organizer, Irit Kashani, went around Tel-Aviv interviewing Israelis and produced this clip to promote the event: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8bZiZvXhLX0&fb_source=message

Here is a quick youtube summary of the final event in Tel-Aviv, after the march reached its final destination: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2KFdinx15C8&feature=player_embedded

The artist you see playing is Arkadi Duchin, a well-known Israeli musician who was eager to take part in such an event weeks beforehand. There were four other musicians who played in the event, not seen here. One of them played Syrian tunes on a typical Syrian flute, which I thought was a beautiful tribute. Another nice tribute was that in-between all the difficult clips that were screened at the event, there was also a pause to remind people of the beauty and respectable heritage of the land of Syria and its people. A series of slides were projected showing archaeological sites, modern city squares, touristic attractions, Syrian traditions, with Syrian tunes playing in the background.

The lady you see speaking in the video is Shira, reading yet another personal letter she wrote, this one addressed to Amal. Amal is the Syrian lady seen projected on the screen, facing the wall, giving her heartbreaking testimony while trying to keep her identity safe. Shira’s letter to Amal was yet another emotional demonstration of honest care and solidarity, written from one woman to another, not going into politics, not making any further calculation, just a gut reaction, as you would expect people to react.

Another speaker you see on the video is Mossa Mossa, an Arab Israeli who noticed the preparations for the event and volunteered to help with writing signs in Arabic. Mossah asked to say a few words on stage, and if you understand some Arabic, here you can find the full speech by Mossa, which I thought spoke amazingly well: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dobO_SpTdmQ&feature=relmfu

On the night of our event in Tel-Aviv, Yair Bartal, one of the organizers, went on stage and read out a few comments left by Syrians on the event page on Facebook. Those remarks were amazing to hear. People in Syria knew we were planning a public show of solidarity for them, and they were touched. Their message back to Israelis was that Israelis should not fear a free Syria, that Syrians are of the most educated and open-minded people in the region, that a free Syria would put an end to the Iranian project in the region, that they will remember who showed support for their cause and who did not, and that they are thankful.

I met with Mossa Mossa and with Irit Kashani last night in Jerusalem, two weeks after the event took place in Tel-Aviv. All of us noticed something similar. While trying to raise awareness towards the obvious atrocities taking place in Syria daily, we were criticized for not showing the same solidarity towards Palestinians. Showing how brutal the Syrian regime was, we were told Israel was just as bad. Trying to argue there is an emergency requiring special attention to Syria, we were told to first solve our own problems with the Palestinians…

I have much to say about the comparison between the two issues, one Arab-Israel, the other 100% Syrian, but I do not want to take part in the trend of shifting global attention to Israel all of the time. There is something obviously wrong going on in Syria, and on this I hope people can agree. Looking at the clips uploaded by Syrians, I hear their words. They are asking “where is the world”, “where are the Muslims”, “the world must see this”, “this is too much, help us!”. I feel for the Syrians. They are trying to get our attention. Can we not afford to address the issue without involving Israel for once?

As I tried explaining, it’s not easy to choose a side and show support, since the Syrian opposition is not exactly Mr. Nice Guy. The only thing I can think of that’s worth doing for Syria is to show our support for freedom, our support for life, and our discontent with any call for vengeance.

I personally don’t care which faction ends up taking the lead in Syria, so long as they establish a stable society where minorities can feel welcome and safe. If they can contain the variety within their own society and allow some basic freedoms, that would imply they might also get along well with other countries.

The only way that can happen, is if Syrians make the choice themselves, and create a healthy society. They must choose to get along among themselves, and work together for the benefit of all Syrians. The desire to first eradicate the criminals is exactly the opposite of what’s needed. Learning to get along is the cure.

The role we have to play in this is minor. We can only express our desire to see that day come. But that is in-fact not such a minor thing. By showing global support for pluralism, tolerance, humanism and freedom, we will be shaping the future of the planet.

The world is a dynamic place. Empires rise and fall. Communism came and went. Democracy rules in some areas today. Ideologies battle with each other all the time. Anything is fair, it’s only a question of which one gets most of the support. Syria is at a tipping point. Syrians have a choice to make. It’s their show. All I am asking is that the free world present an attractive alternative to Syria and other countries in the region – become a member of the free world.

Here is the bottom line, and the moral of this story. It is another message written by a Syrian, addressed to the Israelis present at the event in Tel-Aviv, but relevant to readers all over the free world:

“Only free nations can live in peace with other free nations. Free people should support freedom in other places.”

This post was not written for your amusement. It was written to motivate you into action. Say what kind of Syria you wish to see, and look for a partner there who has a similar vision. If the free world doesn’t do this well enough, Syria might just tip in the other direction. I’d rather not think what the outcome of that might be.

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March 15, 2012

Purim Night in Jerusalem

Last Thursday it was Purim. I usually don’t take this holiday very seriously since I don’t typically enjoy wearing a mask and a costume, partying all night and drinking heavily. This year something changed. I wanted to throw myself in there and see what it’s all about.

My plans to travel to Tel-Aviv for a party with people I met while traveling in India were foiled, after I accidentally caught a long nap and woke up around 23:00 at night. I got on my bike and went to down-town Jerusalem instead. Parties there were in full swing, people were walking around in crazy outfits, lots of stuff was happening all over the place. Before anything else, I decided to head for an ultra-orthodox part of town, to see how the people there were celebrating Purim.

Sure enough, there was more motion on the streets than usual, but it wasn’t as busy or as alive as in the center of town. Then I heard loud music coming from a girl’s school. I could see only young guys around, so I went in. They were partying hard, getting way too drunk for their age, running around holding hands and really letting it loose. Then I passed by a synagogue where I could see they were playing live Klezmer music, which I love, so I went in. The folks near the door motioned me in, even though they could tell I wasn’t from there. Even on a holiday where the custom is to wear a costume, they still dressed like ultra-orthodox folks dress, and I still looked very secular, despite having a full beard.

Anyways, after seeing a few parties in Meah-Shearim neighbourhood I went back to the down-town area, where I found a nice party in a private apartment on Bezalel Street and stayed up dancing all night, with regular Jews, some of them secular, some of them more traditional, but no ultra-orthodox. For sure not.

The main differences I noticed in how the ultra-orthodox and secular Jews celebrate this holiday were that the orthodox folks separated men from women in their singing and dancing (not to mention drinking), while the secular folks preferred dancing all together (naturally). The music they played was nothing alike, with the ultra-orthodox playing songs related to Purim, and secular parties playing everything but.

Another obvious difference was the way they dressed. The orthodox were not as inclined to go crazy and ridicule themselves by wearing outrageously funny costumes as the secular public enjoys doing on Purim. Some orthodox people I noticed did dress up as a policeman, city workers, an Arab Sheikh, but they were usually below the age of 7. Otherwise, people were content to dress nice, or just put on an unusual hat, like a Turkish Tarbush or a cowboy’s hat. Nothing special. My secular friends dressed up in much more creative ways, such as Iranian nuclear scientists, the Arab Spring, the Simpsons, the Smurfs, Greek mythological figures, private organs, and of course, going as religious ultra-orthodox Jews. The main similarity I noticed was that both the orthodox and the secular were fully engaged in the celebrations they were in.

Since most Jewish holidays are a little more strict with rules and commandments, do’s and don’t’s, I can see why the two groups would celebrate separately. But here, with the holiday of Purim, I thought it might have been nice to mix, if only this one time per year, to remind ourselves we’re a part of the same ancient people, members of the same modern country, two parts of a society that could use a bit of cohesion right now.

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March 15, 2012

Lessons from the Bus Tragedy of February 16

A bus collided with a truck on February 16 outside Jerusalem. It was packed with Palestinian children. It flipped on its side and caught fire.

According to some reports, 5 children perished. Others say 10 lost their lives. Whatever the number may be, it was a tragedy.

In some Arab sources, it was said the truck was a “Zionist truck”. True, it was a licensed yellow-plate truck, but driven by an Israel-Arab…

Also, many publications in Arabic failed to mention that the most seriously injured children were rushed to Israeli hospitals.

Of course, first on the scene were Israeli fire-fighters, paramedics and security forces, but some say it was because Palestinian aid was delayed at check-points.

Still, the thing which really made headlines was an image of “talk-backs”, taken from the Walla Facebook news page, featuring a handful of racist remarks by Israelis, happy to know the casualties were Arab.

Truth be told, such remarks are a disgrace to Israel and to mankind, but that’s not what this post is about.

What really caught my attention was how the media and the public took that “evidence” to the extreme, trying to show how immoral Israeli society is, how prolonged occupation corrupts humanity in Israel, how the truth is finally out there…

Hang on one second please. Let’s count how many racist remarks were spotted. A handful? Now let’s count how many Israelis expressed pain and sympathy in their talk-backs. Let’s count how many Israeli bloggers and talk-backs condemned the racist remarks. And let’s recall Walla removed the racist remarks within minutes…

And also, let’s look again at Israeli institutions and representatives. The president of Israel, as well as the prime minister expressed their grief over the accident and offered their assistance to the PA. Israeli doctors are still fighting to save the lives of the injured.

The obvious conclusion is plain to see –

– A bunch of racist talk-backs do not represent Israeli society. The whole thing was a spin, spun out of proportion.

The more interesting conclusion might be this –

– Elements in the media tend to pick on Israel and take things out of proportion.

The ultimate effect might be this –

1) Israelis who feel the way I feel might tend to dismiss future accusations of belonging to a racist society, arguing (justly) that the media picks on Israel no matter what.

2) The media, becoming ever more inclined to bash Israel, will tend to dismiss other angles and stories that really are worth covering.


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