Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Never fly with Air Berlin

I don't generally post about consumer issues, but there's always a first time.

Last night we (a group of 14) flew from Berlin to Iceland with Air Berlin. We now know that the airline simply refrained from loading our luggage, not that they said anything about it. They left us to stand for an hour at the baggage claim area along with dozens of other passengers to eventually figure it out.

Today there was no-one to talk to. No representative, no phone number to call, no office where somebody will tell tall tales. Simply nothing. An email I sent they responded to with a standard form. Will our kit ever arrive, in Iceland or back home? Will we be reimbursed in any way? Can we expect someday, even if only weeks from now, to see the personal items in those bags? Your guess is as good as mine. Air Berlin, at any rate, ain't sayin.

Never fly Air Berlin.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

How Israel avoided its Grexit moment

30 years ago today, on June 30th 1985, Prime Minister Shimon Peres convened the Cabinet for a dramatic meeting. Israel had been living with monthly double-digit inflation for a number of years; now, less noticed by the populace but more dangerous, the money had run out. Within days the economy was expected to collapse. It was essentially the last possible moment to avert catastrophe. For weeks Labor PM Peres, and Likud Finance Minster Yitzchak Modai, had been overseeing the formulation of a complex package of measures, some of them quite harsh and most of them politically explosive or worse, and now the Cabinet was called to adopt them.

The meeting went on, almost unbroken, for 20 hours until the early morning of July 1st, at which point the ministers, most of them visibly exhausted, narrowly voted to adopt the plan.

On the anniversary of the event the Israel State Archives has declassified and published the transcript of the meeting (300-some pages). We have also put online recordings of some of the meeting, so you can hear the deliberations, not only read them. And we've asked two economic historians to write their impressions of the documents. If you know Hebrew it's worth your time to peruse some of this.

I've put all the links here.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Henryk Gorecki, Catholic

I don't write much on this blog anymore; when I do it tends to be about impersonal matters. Israel, books, stuff. This post is very personal, but it's important enough for to put somewhere.

Earlier today I stumbled upon a Youtube link to Henryk Gorecki's Symphony nr. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs).

It is overpowering. Overwhelming.

While I think I've encountered parts of it in the past, this was the first time I ever listened to it. Now that I'm consciously aware of it, if it's ever played at a Jerusalem theater I won't go. Who could sit in a hall full of people and publicly listen to such a piece of music?  The danger of losing emotional control in the presence of all those strangers would be too great.

So I did a spot of googling, and came upon this website. And on the website I found this picture:

Where I grew up, Polish people were suspect of having been nasty to Jews. Crucifixes were not suspect, they were known with certainty to have been wielded with fury by pogromists or with hatred by inquisitionists. Poles with crucifixes were, at best, to be avoided.

That was half a century ago, but childhood rumours are generally more powerful and rooted than much of what we pick up later.

Yet listening to that soul-arresting music, looking at the Pole sitting in his room full of Catholicism was profoundly comforting. There's a connection between his religion and his soul and his ability to create music that touches my soul. In a world awash in rampant soulless secularism, arrogant ignorance, rabid relativism and all-conquering vacuity, here's a man who sat under a wall of crucifixes and achieved transcendent beauty which touches eternity.

Update: It turns out that Gorecki explicitly tied his symphony to the Polish history of the 20th century in general, but also to Auschwitz in particular; and that the three sorrowful songs are between a mother and her son and daughter, perishing in the maelstrom. Here's a recording of the symphony interspersed with takes of Gorecki himself, wearing a heavy homey sweater.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

On completing Creation: on the 48th anniversary of liberating Jerusalem

It's the evening of 28th of Iyar, the Hebrew date of the Battle of Jerusalem in June 1967 on which the IDF captured the Old City of Jerusalem from the Jordanians (June 7th 1967).

In my study of the Bible I recently passed the chapters in the Book of Kings relating the story of King Solomon, and how he built the (first) Temple in Jerusalem. After a long and detailed description of the construction, and just before telling about Solomon's prayer to God upon opening the Temple, there's one of those many verses which contain more in the original Hebrew than in the translations: ותשלם כל המלאכה, Vatishlam kol hamelacha, When all the work was finished. (Kings 1 chapter 7 verse 49). The modern Daat Mikrah interpretation of the Bible points out the relationship between the word Vatishlam and shalem - became complete and complete, and the name Shlomo (the original of Solomon). It then brings an interesting Tana'itic comment, according to which it was not the construction of the Temple which was completed, but ALL the work. By completing the construction of the Temple, Shomo had completed the divine project of creation.

Historian that I am, I found this commentary particularly poignant. The Tanaim lived after the destruction not only of Solomon's Temple, but also after the destruction of the 2nd one; actually, they lived shortly after that second destruction, and in the world created by the wars against the Romans. Their world was anything but complete. Yet there it is, a theological statement that completion of the construction of Solomon's Temple had completed Creation.

This interpretation came to mind when I then read Yossie Klein Halevi's
Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation. Klein Halevi tells the story of the group of young reserve paratroopers who fought in Jerusalem in June 1967, and were the first to reach the Temple Mount and then the Kotel, the Western Wall. In a typical Israeli twist, it turns out that the small group of a few hundred young men included figures that were to be household names in Israel for decades, but were spread all over the map. Left-wing kibbutzniks such as Arik Achmon and Avital Geva, who grew up to be a founder of Israel's free-market economy and a kibbutznik artist, and both members of the peace camp; Yoel Bin Nun, Hanan Porat and Yisrael Harel, three very different leaders of the settler movement, Udi Adiv, a kibbutznik who spent years in an Israeli jail after being convicted of spying for Syria, and Meir Ariel, a maverick songwriter who fit into no-one's pigeonhole at any time until his death in 1999.

Following Yoel Bin Nun onto the Temple Mount on that historic morning after a night of battle, Klein Halevi tells how the event seemed to be the end of history, the culmination of Jewish history. As close as one can imagine to a Vatishlam kol hamelacha moment. Yet the book itself was published in 2013, and most of it is a recounting of the complications the young men lived through since that historic moment. If the morning of June 7th 1967 could have seemed like the happy ending to Jewish history, it certainly doesn't look like it today, 48 years later. History continues with a vengeance.

Unless you take the perspective of those post-destruction Tanaim looking back 1,200 years, not a mere 48.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Mishehu Pa'am, Someone Once

In the coming months you'll be hearing even more than previously about nationalist, chauvinist, nigh-fascist and of course extreme far-right Israel and its ghastly government and policies. Since I'm forbidden to deal with overtly poitical issues, I won't be required to pontificate about any or it. To be honest, I don't even expect to spend much time listening to the cacaphony, nor worrying about it. I'm too busy, at work and in life, and am slowly weaning myself from decades of political junkie-ism. It's not that I no longer care, but I'm learning to control my need for a permanent stream of poitical data. Better to wait a bit and think, rather than inbibe limitless quantities.

(Followers of my Twitter account will have noticed that I'm much less active than previously. About two months ago I experimentally deleted it from by mobile phone, and have never looked back.)

So here's an installment in the Shirim Ivri'im thread that was once popular on this blog. (Explanation here and here). I present it because it's an interesting shir, but mostly because it's from one of the many parts of Israeli life which aren't about the stuff you get from the media.

Ivri Lider Is a talented and popular writer and preformer of Hebrew songs. Here's his website. The piece is called Mishehu Pa'am, Someone once. It has nine stanzas, eight of which begin with the line Mishehu pa'am ahav oti kacha, which seems a straightforward sentence until you look closely. It means someone once loved me this way. Or perhaps loved me as I am. Or loved me in the way I'm about to tell. Or even, possibly, someone once loved me in spite of (our difference in age, or our incompatability, or the sheer recklesness of it all, or...)

Not a bad trick, to have more than seven or eight possible meanings to a three-word half-sentence. Upon reflection, even the first unequivoal two words, Mishehu paam, aren't that unequivocal. They mean a man once loved me, a woman (the gender formultion is clear). Or do they? Lider is unabashed about his homosexuality, and his voice is a bit feminine. So who is he really talking about?

The first seven stanzas describe the evolving relationship they once had, in which the un-named Someone pursued Me intensely and in spite of all obstacles, and it was nice, and powerful, and wonderful, and complicated, and painful. The eighth stanza says "so somone once left me kacha and got on a plane and went to live his full life elsewhere". Which brings us to the final, subdued and sad stanza, about someone who once loved me kacha and played me Mozart from old records, but I wasn't listening to the music...

Now watch the official Youtube version. It has been watched two and a half million times, mostly by Hebrew spearkers I assume, so the number is all the more impressive, though it really does speak for itself in a universal language. And remind yourself how silly those media reports are, how narrow-minded and blinkered.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The grandchildren of '73

Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day for more than 23,000 Israelis killed in the wars. One of the most meaningful days of the year. A central part of it is listening to hours of Shirim Ivri'im in minor keys which flood all the media channels.

One of the most important shirim (songs is an inadequate translation) is "The Children of '73". It is sung by a group of soldiers who were conceived in the dark months after the Yom Kippur War ("the winter of '73") to shellshocked fathers and relieved mothers clinging to each other in mourning. You promised us no more wars, sing the soldiers, and you promised us peace. You promised we'd not need to be soldiers. Well, we're young men and women ourselves now, and we're soldiers, and you needn't worry. We're strong, and we can shoulder the burden.

Do the maths. Those soldiers concieved in the winter of '73 are the parents of today's soldiers. The ones who were killed in last year's war.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

This is what a Jewish state can be for

Various folks have been kvetching recently about the growing incompatibility of nice American Jews and perhaps less-nice Israeli voters. Kvetching is a time-honored Jewish pastime, and you wouldn't want to deprive anyone of its pleasures.

Earlier today I participated, mostly as an observer, in a discussion about policy and the implementation of it in an (Israeli) government agency. Those present were disagreeing about technology, change, adaptation of the bureaucracy and the bureaucrats to new conditions, rate of change, hierarchies and decision making, consultation with stakeholders and participants... the works. Organizational consultants make a fine living from this sort of stuff.

Except that at one point the top bureaucrat present branched off into a discussion of Biblical exegesis. When Moses headed off into the desert, did he ask the Israelites if they liked the idea? One of the people disagreeing with him about the present day issue also disagreed about his interpretation of Exodus, but he shot down her interpretation, then someone else suggested a different reading.

After four or five minutes they all trooped back to the 21st century and the desirability  of using machine intelligence in the processing of large bodes of data.

There are many reasons why the Jews need a state, but this, to my mind, is one of the top ones. That Hebrew-speaking secular officials use their cultural heritage as it should be used: as part of everyday life.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Tarek Abu Hamed appointed to a senior position

Tarek Abu Hamed was appointed today to the position of Deputy Chief Scientist in the Ministry of Science. This is big news. Not gigantic, not an historic event to be recorded in the annals of the Levant, but significant nonetheless. In order to understand why, I need to tell a bit about Israel's Civil Service.

The Civil Service is a formidable place. Over the years it has acquired layers of complexity far beyond what non-civil servants recognize, making it much harder than necessary to get things done. Cabinet ministers, for example, usually have only very little long-lasting influence. They're not in the system long enough to figure it out, and even when they're experienced operators the system is geared to slow them down and limit their ability to do things. (There are some exceptions). The folks who have real power are the ones who are high in the system, but not so high they'll be moved within a year or three. The ones who are high enough to be in regular contact with many others of their general rank, as well as with the really top figures when they have the need.

The job Dr. Abu Hamed has just landed, therefore, is potentially a powerful behind-the-scenes mover, in a corner of the bureaucracy which itself has real significance: the allocation of funds and apportioning of government support in developing scientific and technological programs. Not anything to be sniffy about.

Dr. Abu Hamed is Arab, as his name indicates, but that's not the surprising part. There are higher ranking Arab civil servants, including some in positions which require high security clearance. The thing about Dr. Abu Hamed is that he's not an Israeli citizen. He's a Palestinian of East Jerusalem, a permanent resident by legal status, but not a citizen. Yet look what job he has just won.

Noteworthy. I certainly wish him the best.