Posts Tagged ‘Israel’

Hope in a cookbook

December 24, 2012

There is not a lot of hope floating around the world of Israeli-Palestinian relations these days. We’ve got Hamas still in charge in Gaza, as dead-set against coexistence with Israel as ever. We’ve got Netanyahu in charge in Israel, forming ever more hawkish coalitions and sticking his finger in the eye of a two-state solution by moving ahead with massive new settlements in and near East Jerusalem.

But here is hope… in a cookbook.

My daughter had a job providing holiday retail help this past week at Rockridge Home, a hip, friendly gift store in our neighborhood. Yesterday she pointed me to a cookbook they sell called Jerusalem.

Jerusalem cover

Jerusalem is a beautifully-produced hardcover recipe book with gorgeous photos of food and people from Jerusalem. No big deal, right? There are lots of beautiful cookbooks around. But Jerusalem is co-written by an Israeli and a Palestinian — who are warmly willing to credit the cuisines and cultures of the many peoples living in that disputed city.

This is in distinct contrast to the more common approach, which is to fight over who invented hummus and falafel. Jews invented it! No, Arabs! No, Jews! As if it’s not enough to fight over land, water and sovereignty, people even have to fight over sandwich fixings.

In any case, co-authors Yotam Ottolenghi (Jewish from West Jerusalem) and Sami Tamimi (Palestinian from East Jerusalem) work together as chefs and restaurants owners in London. They’ve both lived abroad for longer than they lived in Jerusalem, which perhaps accounts for their ability to collaborate like this.

The book has plenty of wonderful-sounding recipes from Jerusalem. Stuffed artichokes with peas & dill. Stuffed eggplant with lamb & pine nuts. Butternut squash & tahini spread.  But more importantly, it acknowledges the central role that Jerusalem — its tastes, its smells — plays in the deepest hearts of both Jewish and Arab residents.

The flavors and smells of this city are our mother tongue. We imagine them and dream in them, even though we’ve adopted some new, perhaps more sophisticated languages. They define comfort for us, excitement, joy, serene bliss. Everything we taste and everything we cook is filtered through the prism of our childhood experiences; food our mothers fed us, wild herbs picked on school trips, days spent in markets, the smell of the dry soil on a summer’s day, goat and sheep roaming the hills, fresh pitas withy ground lamb, chopped parsley, chopped liver, black figs, smoky chops, syrupy cakes, crumbly cookies….

Jerusalem market, from Jerusalem: A Cookbook / photo by Adam Hinton

Jerusalem market, from Jerusalem: A Cookbook / photo by Adam Hinton

In a recipe for Roasted sweet potatoes and fresh figs, the authors describe how Sami as a boy used to sneak onto a neighbor’s roof and steal the sweet figs she was drying there. In a section on seafood, they describe ten-year-old Yotam’s first disgusted taste of gefilte fish — “sweet, gray and smeared with gelatinous gunk, it was perceived as a typical remnant of the old Ashkenazic world that was best left behind in eastern Europe.”

Hummus, from Jerusalem: A Cookbook / Photo by Jonathan Lovekin

Hummus, from Jerusalem: A Cookbook / Photo by Jonathan Lovekin

This is a book that acknowledges and cherishes those childhood memories. It doesn’t ignore the political conflict. But it seeks common ground — even where Jewish and Arab foods may be different, their emotional resonance is shared.

Jerusalem-style bagels, from Jerusalem: A Cookbook / Photo by Adam Hinton

Jerusalem-style bagels, from Jerusalem: A Cookbook / Photo by Adam Hinton

It also pays homage to cultural traditions in Jerusalem such as Russian, Greek, Armenian, Lithuanian, Bukharan, Yemeni and Ethiopian that are often overlooked in broad-brush discussions of Israeli versus Palestinian claims.

In this soup of a city it is completely impossible to find out who invented this delicacy and who brought that one with them. The food cultures are mashed and fused together in a way that is impossible to unravel. They interact all the time and influence one another  other constantly, so nothing is pure any more. In facet, nothing ever was. Jerusalem was never an isolated bastion. Over millennia it has seen countless immigrants, occupiers, visitors and merchants — all bringing foodsand recipes from the four corners of the earth.

So why does this mean hope to me?

Certainly there is the inspirational image of the Palestinian and Israeli chefs as partners, collaborators and friends.

But it is also their philosophical approach — acknowledge the “other,” acknowledge the other’s deep emotional connection to this place, and use that common connection to build a partnership.

(Rather than continually trying to trump the other: We came first. We’re more oppressed. We’re more righteous. You don’t really count. In fact, you don’t really exist.)

Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

This is what we will need in order to achieve a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians — enough people who accept the other’s deep ties to the land, who respect the other’s culture, who can perhaps even celebrate the commonalities.

Maybe it requires living in diaspora for this to happen, away from the daily body-blows of checkpoints and missile strikes, in a place with a melting-pot tradition like London or America, in a country where the damp, cold winters make a common longing for sunny olive-studded hillsides and fresh tomato-cucumber salads so much more apparent.

This is only a cookbook. And I haven’t even tried making any of the recipes yet.

But it’s also a tiny spark of hope.

Thank you Ten Speed Press/Random House for publishing this! At $35, it’s pretty pricey. But the production values are high, the pictures are beautiful, you can learn a lot about the cultures and foods of Jerusalem, and yes, your $35 buys you a little bit of hope.

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Click here to order Jerusalem from an independent bookstore. Or click here to order it (at a discount) from Barnes & Noble. 

Conflicted over the (Israel-Iran) Conflict

February 26, 2012

The New York Times had a front-page story last week about how, exactly, Israel would carry out a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Reporter Elizabeth Bumiller interviewed all sorts of military experts about the logistical challenges of such a strike, even including a map of three possible air routes that Israeli fighter planes could use to reach Iran.

This felt surreal. Such a strike would be a a de facto act of war. Normally it would be planned in deepest secrecy with a goal of utter surprise. But here we were — millions of New York Times readers, to say nothing of the diplomats and pundits — discussing it as casually as we would discuss Jeremy Lin’s basketball prowess or Mitt Romney’s strategy for winning Michigan or Florida.

Possible flight routes for Israeli attack on Iran / Map by New York Times

What kind of  “surprise attack” is this when the entire diplomatic world has been debating it for months, and the New York Times has  printed maps of the flight routes on its front page?

Even with all the public discussion, no one knows what the outcome will be:

  • Maybe it would be a quick surgical strike that slows down (doesn’t stop) Iran’s nuclear production. There would be an explosion of news stories, lots of denunciations and finger-pointing, and then life in the Middle East will go on as usual.
  • On the other hand, maybe this is the equivalent of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a “surgical strike” that in fact  launched World War I. Maybe Iran retaliates and wipes out half of Tel Aviv. Maybe other countries like Syria or Pakistan decide to intervene on behalf of Iran. Maybe things escalate further and we end up with some kind of huge international conflagration….

When we read the history leading up to World War I these days, it’s easy to scratch our heads and feel, “What were they thinking with all those alliances? Didn’t people see a catastrophic bloodbath in the making?”

Fifty years from now, will history students scratch their heads and say, “How could the world just have let this confrontation between Israel and Iran happen? Didn’t people see a catastrophic bloodbath in the making?”

I feel conflicted about this whole scenario. I believe strongly in the rule of law, international diplomacy and trying to work things out non-violently. Thirty years ago, I would probably have come down squarely against an Israeli attack.

But thirty years ago, the “enemies” that America and Israel were dealing with were different. We hadn’t seen the emergence of the totalitarian, anti-Semitic, fundamentalist Islamic state that is Iran.

I don’t doubt that Iran’s current government would be willing to use a nuclear weapon against Israel if it had one. Unlike Latin American leftist movements, for instance, the Iranian mullahs don’t differentiate between governments and people — they’d be willing to kill a million civilian Israelis to punish the Israeli government.

So one question is — is Iran in fact close to having nuclear weapons? I have no good way to evaluate this. Most experts seem to think so; but then there are some who disagree. We rushed to judgment on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and later found out we were wrong, so there is good reason to be skeptical. Yet people tend to fight the last battle rather than the current one. Just because Iraq didn’t have WMD doesn’t mean that Iran doesn’t have nuclear capability.

So then there is the second question: Is there a non-violent way to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons?

So far, non-violent approaches like economic sanctions don’t seem to be working. If the pessimists among the experts are right, we don’t have the luxury of five or ten years to wait for sanctions to bear fruit. I see only two non-violent approaches that could defuse an Iranian nuclear threat:

  • A revolution within Iran that brings to power a more moderate government that wants to ally with the West.
  • Complete resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so there is no longer any pretext for Iran to attack Israel.

Neither of those are what you might, in the short run, call “likely.”

So where does that leave me? Conflicted.

I hate the idea of Israel acting outside the law, attacking another country, assigning itself the role of international vigilante, and killing civilians as will inevitably happen in any large-scale military action. It’s so completely counter to the idea of Israel as a light unto the nations, a country built on Jewish ethics.

At the same time, I don’t see an effective alternative.

And so I sit here, reading stories like that Feb. 20 New York Times piece with a combination of surreal fascination and angst. I feel like we are watching two trains head toward each other in slow motion. Everyone sees it; no one can stop it.

Is this how people felt in the run-up to the Franz Ferdinand assassination?

Walls, stones and what is sacred

January 22, 2012

I’m a writer and I swim in words. But occasionally, there is an image that expresses things better than any words I could write.

When I was in Israel back in November, I took several photographs of the stones of the Western Wall because I loved all the textures and colors. It’s a classic image; I thought it might be useful sometime for this blog.

Then, as I wrote about in an earlier post, we walked a few hundred steps outside the Old City to the disputed Arab neighborhood of Silwan. And this is what I saw:

Photo by Ilana DeBare

Photo by Ilana DeBare

When I squinted my eyes, those images blurred and became the same — both patchworks of textured white stone.

One was the Wall, the most sacred site in Judaism. The other was a workaday Palestinian neighborhood.

The Torah portion for my Bat Mitzvah service almost a year ago concerned construction of the Tabernacle, and I talked about how places — official “sacred” places, places in wild nature, other kinds of places and settings — can help us get in touch with the spiritual part of ourselves.

But physical places can also become idols, false gods.

I understand how, for many people, the Western Wall is a sacred place. But what those photos say to me is that living communities — the people in them, no matter the nationality or religion — are equally sacred.

To me, the people of Israel and Palestine will always be worth more than any particular place. No stone wall is worth a human life, no matter how many thousands of years of Jewish history it embodies. No olive tree is worth a human life, no matter how many generations of Palestinian family tradition it represents.

That’s the basis of the land-for-peace concept, the basis of a two-state solution. Both Israelis and Palestinians must give up some places that are precious to them in order to save lives that are ultimately more precious.

With right-wingers like Netanyahu and Lieberman running the Israeli government, and the rejectionists of Hamas tying the hands of Palestinian moderates, that solution seems almost impossibly distant these days.

But governments can change — maybe Israel’s will. And perhaps a more open Israeli government will spark a parallel openness among Palestinians. What we can do, in the meantime, is keep reminding ourselves and our leaders that human lives are more sacred than any walls, trees or stones. That’s why I support groups like J Street and Americans for Peace Now.

There! It just took me 379 words to deliver this preachy message.

When really, all it takes is looking at those two images.

Israeli women flash mob for their rights

January 9, 2012

If you’re one of my more tech-savvy readers, you know what a flash mob is — when a group of ordinary people come together, in what appears to be spontaneity but has in fact been orchestrated via cell phone, Facebook etc., and perform a group dance or dramatic action in a public spot. There are some great examples on YouTube of people doing this in places like Grand Central Station. It’s fun to watch the looks on the faces of passersby as they try to figure out what’s going on.

Here’s a video of a flash mob last Friday in Beit Shemesh by a bunch of Israeli women standing up for their rights! (Thanks to the Jewish Chronicle online.)

Beit Shemesh, an otherwise pretty ordinary city between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, is the latest hot spot in the ongoing clash between the ultra-Orthodox and modern-minded women in Israel. Signs had been hung in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood instructing women not to walk on the same pavement as men, to dress modestly and not to loiter by the local synagogue. Girls as young as eight and nine are regularly harassed, spat upon and called “prostitutes” by local ultra-Orthodox men as they walk to school.

This particular flash mob is not great as far as choreography goes. (For better choreography, see the classic flash mob doing Do Re Mi in the Antwerp train station.) But I love the spirit behind it and the statement it makes.

Plus, who’d ever have guessed that a song by Queen would become a political statement fro women’s rights in the Middle East?

Silwan, Ir David and the Politics of Archeology

December 2, 2011

On my one free Friday in Israel, my old friend Danny agreed to play tourist with me and visit Jerusalem. We wandered around the Arab souk in the Old City, which was just as filled with smells of zaatar and Turkish coffee as I remembered. We tried to join a free guided tour, only to distract ourselves in conversation and lose the tour group completely within the first three minutes.

“Let’s visit Hezekiah’s Tunnel,” I suggested.

This was an archeological site that hadn’t yet opened when I lived in Jerusalem in 1984-5 — a 1/3-mile-long tunnel deep that had been used to bring water from a spring into the Old City around the year 700 BCE. My daughter had visited it with a Jewish American teen tour in 2010. My brother and sister-in-law had visited it with a tour group from their synagogue last summer. They all raved about it – what wasn’t to love about walking for a quarter of a mile with flashlights through a wet, dark, evocative 2,700-year-old tunnel?

When we reached the entrance to the Tunnel site, though, we found a couple of dozen people sitting on prayer rugs in the street with others gathered around them.. A TV truck. A man in a courtyard giving a speech in Arabic. And a banner  announcing a “protest tent against home eviction in wadi hilweh / silwan.”

Silwan protest / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Classic Jerusalem: A casual morning outing morphs into a dose of cultural conflict and duelling realities.

It turns out that the tunnel is part of an archeological/tourism complex called Ir David that is mired in Israeli-Palestinian politics. There is a legitimate, fascinating archeological site there – the excavations were done by professional archeologists over the course of the 20th century. But then management of the site was outsourced to a group affiliated with Jewish nationalist-religious settlers who are determined to turn Silwan, the poor Arab neighborhood around the excavations, into a Jewish neighborhood.

Dozens of Palestinian families living above or alongside the archeological site are facing eviction from their homes. One was due to be evicted a few days after our visit.

And the archeological site itself has been turned into an exercise in nationalist propaganda. We watched a 20-minute 3-D film (with Avatar-type glasses and snazzy special effects) that combined the most kitschy Charlton-Heston-style images of ancient Israelites with a self-congratulatory, triumphalist narrative – all about how Ir David was the ancient, beloved home of the Jews, how it was captured by King David in blood and bravery, how now children’s voices are heard again there “for the first time in 2,000 years.” (As if no children had lived or played on that hillside in all those centuries that Jews were gone!)

Danny and I continued on and walked part of the tunnel. It’s impressive and cool. But knowing that, above you, people are being evicted as part of a religious land grab tends to dampen the historical thrill.

Inside Hezekiah's Tunnel / Photo by Tamar Hayardeni

Walkways leading into Ir David excavations / Photo by Ilana DeBare

And this is what kills me, makes me absolutely furious.  American Jews visiting Ir David with an organized tour – my brother’s family, my own daughter — experience Hezekiah’s Tunnel as a great romp. An archeological theme park.

They have no clue about the nationalist agenda and the political subtext. They have no idea that there is another side to the story. They are being duped and manipulated by the settlers.

When I lived in Jerusalem in 1984-5, the fascination and also the heartbreak was that the city holds two such completely duelling realities. Each one has its truths, and each one has its propaganda and myths.

It kills me when American Jews go to Israel and see only one side of the story. Sure, each side has its propaganda. But that makes it even more important for people to seek out and hear the stories of the other side.

And archeology doesn’t have to be like this. There are ways to do archeology that respect living communities as well as dead artifacts. There are ways to do archeology that tell an inclusive story of all the peoples living at a site over the millennia, not just the story of those currently in power.

Poking around on the Web later, I found a cool site on archeology and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, called Emek Shaveh. There Raphael Greenberg of Tel Aviv University paints an inspiring vision of how archeology at Silwan / Ir David could be inclusive, people-focused and a force for peace:

Archaeology can provide a robust and viable alternative to nationalist and exclusivist readings of history. Jerusalem’s material remains are so varied and contradictory that only by ignoring large parts of them can a single narrative be offered. Once it is recognized that conflicting narratives can coexist, and that there is no unitary historical truth, then the stranglehold of the past on the present begins to weaken…. Far from the mere confirmation of prior beliefs, the best kind of archaeology challenges what we think we know about the world and about humanity. Perhaps a little less complacency — and a little more humility — about our past is what we need to give Jerusalem a viable future.

We can do so much better, so easily.

Aargh.

The Jewish demographic threat to Israel

November 30, 2011

Like many other American Jews, I’ve heard warnings for a long time about the Arab demographic threat to Israel. If Israel continues to occupy the West Bank, this argument goes, the Palestinian population will outnumber the Jewish population and the country will have to choose between being a Jewish state and being a democracy.

During my visit to Israel this month, though, I heard over and over about a different demographic threat facing the country — an ultra-Orthodox demographic threat.

Recent decades have seen huge population growth among Israeli haredim — the extremely observant, black-hatted sects within Orthodox Judaism that believe halacha (Talmudic law) should govern every aspect of their lives, that don’t accept modern reforms such as the equality of women and men, and that maintain a kind of 17th century shtetl lifestyle in our 21st century world.

Haredim in Jerusalem

The ultra-Orthodox have been exempt from Israel’s compulsory three years of military service since the founding of the state. They receive government funding to run their own school systems, which unlike in the U.S. are not required to teach secular subjects such as math. The ultra-Orthodox in Israel have institutionalized Torah study to a point where few adult men hold jobs: They are all expected to study in yeshiva, regardless of their aptitude or interest. They typically have large families of seven, eight or more children. Sometimes the wives work to support the family, but most haredim live in poverty, supported by Israeli welfare payments or charity from abroad.

Secular and moderately-religious Israelis have had occasional friction with the ultra-Orthodox for years. When I lived in Jerusalem in the mid-1980s, the ultra-Orthodox would throw stones at any cars that happened to drive through their neighborhoods on Shabbat. Secular Israelis chafe at the Orthodox monopoly on marriage and divorce. Feminists continue to protest against Orthodox-driven rules that prohibit women from reading Torah at the Western Wall.

But these occasional conflicts may be dwarfed by the demographic issues looming ahead.

The ultra-Orthodox population is growing at an estimated six percent each year — far above the general Jewish Israeli growth rate of about two percent. That means the ultra-Orthodox population will double every twelve years.

While Haredim today make up about eight or nine percent of Israel’s adult populace, by 2028 they are likely to account for more than one-fifth of the Jewish population in Israel.

One-fifth of the Jewish population relying on the other 4/5 to defend it militarily. One-fifth of the population relying on the other 4/5 to support it financially. One-fifth of the population without the basic educational skills to hold jobs in Israel’s increasingly high-tech economy.

I heard concern about this over and over from the scientific and high-tech leaders I met.

“The way this country is going, we are in deep, deep trouble,” said Zehev Tadmor, a former president of the Technion, Israel’s premier engineering and science university. “Maybe in 20 years the Technion becomes a yeshiva? We will have 27 percent of students who are ultra-Orthodox, and 20 percent who are Arabs. The Arabs are less of a problem because they want to become scientists. What number of ultra-Orthodox can a country bear without them entering into productive jobs?”

Meanwhile, Dan Shechtman, who just won the Nobel Price in chemistry, has been beating a drum about the need for science and math education for all Israeli students — including the ultra-Orthodox, whose secular knowledge is often limited to basic addition and subtraction. Some never even learn multiplication.

“My grandchildren are the sixth generation in this country,” Shechtman said at a Technion ceremony last week honoring him for the prize. “I am a real Zionist. I want them to feel good in this country. The task is to bring about an understanding that we will not have redemption without good education for everybody. We need to make sure every person in Israel receives an excellent education.”

This problem needs to be addressed on multiple fronts. On the political front, the government needs to find the guts to stand up to the ultra-Orthodox and insist that their young people receive a secular as well as religious education. (But that is sadly unlikely, given how the Israeli parliamentary system gives disproportionate power to small parties such as the religious parties when they are needed to form a coalition government.)

On the cultural front, secular and moderately-religious Israelis should insist upon a religiously pluralistic society, and reject the common assumption that religion = Orthodox Judaism.

On the economic front, efforts need to be made to provide training and job opportunities to haredim who are willing to engage with broader Israeli society.

In one example of that last point, the Technion has started an 18-month program of remedial math and science studies for ultra-Orthodox men interested in pursuing a bachelor’s degree there. It also offers a three-year program in mapping and surveying at a haredi school in Bnei Brak.

Promising. But those are only little steps affecting a handful of haredim. And the potential solutions present other problems. How far should Israeli society bend to accommodate the integration of the ultra-Orthodox?

Recently several Orthodox Israeli soldiers protested the appearance of women singers at cultural events for the troops. The Army responded by agreeing to eliminate all women soloists. So the talented young women in the Army’s musical unit may now sing as part of a choir, but not solo.

What does the ultra-Orthodox population boom mean for Israel? Are we moving toward something that is a Jewish version of Iran?

Better Place — An Electric Car Vision Becoming Real

November 23, 2011

For the past four years, Israeli entrepreneur Shai Agassi has drawn headlines with his audacious plan to end world dependence on oil through a system of mass-market electric cars and roadside battery-changing stations. Today I had a chance to visit the Israeli showroom/ visitor center for Agassi’s Better Place startup — which is just months away from putting its first cars into action here.

Better Place Visitor Center / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Agassi’s vision, in a nutshell, is to make it feasible for large numbers of average drivers to switch from gas to electric cars, by:

  • Producing electric cars that are as affordable, roomy, and powerful as traditional gas-powered family sedans, and
  • Extending the range of electric cars so they are viable for long drives as well as short trips around town.

Better Place’s big innovative idea is the battery-swapping station. Like other new electric cars such as the Nissan Leaf, Better Place relies on lithium batteries that will be recharged at small pump-like charging stations at drivers’ homes, workplaces or other public spots. But it is also building a network of roadside battery-swapping stations — where drivers whose batteries are running low can drive in, have a robot replace their diminished battery with a full one, and be on their way in less than five minutes.

Cross-section of Better Place car with lithium battery in back / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Israel is the first test market for Better Place, to be followed by Denmark and Australia. The company has already sold about 300 cars here and expects to have several thousand on the road in the first quarter of 2012. It has ten battery-switch stations in final testing, with another 18-20 under construction. By March or April, there will be 40 stations that will allow Israelis to drive from Eilat to Metulla without stopping for longer than a five-minute swap.

Better Place charging spot / Photo by Ilana DeBare

My companions Shlomo Maital and Danny Shapiro and I stopped by Better Place’s visitor center in Tel Aviv, where you can test drive its cars (manufactured by Renault in Turkey). The center is as sleekly and classily designed as a Disney production, and in fact feels a bit like Tomorrowland, complete with twin life-size holographic images of Shai Agassi narrating a video presentation in its theatre.

Amidst the high-tech setting, little details reinforce the company’s environmental mission. The visitor center itself is housed in a refitted water tank that was formerly used by the oil and gas company. The plush theatre seats are in fact recycled bucket seats from old cars, with little plaques noting their former incarnation: I sat in a “1999 Mazda 626.”

We test-drove one of the cars. It’s as quiet as the hybrid Priuses that are common back home in the Bay Area, with the same initial unsettling feeling: I turned the key, but I don’t hear anything! Is it really on?  I haven’t driven a Leaf or a Prius myself, so can’t compare the driver’s experience. But it seemed as comfy and powerful as anything I’d need in my daily life, and roomy enough to be a family car. There’s an electronic information system that goes beyond the usual GPS tricks — it tells you how much battery power you have, how much battery power you’ll need to reach a given destination, and the location of the most convenient battery swapping stations on your route.

Midlife Bat Mitzvah takes a Better Place test drive / Photo by Danny Shapiro

The upfront and operating costs are in the ballpark of other Israeli cars, although structured differently. A standard Better Place Renault costs 122,900 Israeli shekels, about $36,000. Then, instead of paying for gas, owners will pay a monthly membership fee based on how much they plan to drive — for instance, 1,090 shekels ($290) each month for up to 20,000 kilometers (12,000 miles) per year. That provides electricity, a home charging spot, free access to public charge spots and battery switch stations, 24/7 customer service and free towing/transportation in case of problems. With gas going for $8 a gallon here, it’s comparable to fuelling a conventional car.

So what do I think? In the past I’ve been skeptical about Better Place — charismatic leader, tantalizing idea, but it could easily turn out to be smoke and mirrors. Agassi is aiming for nothing less than the transformation of an industry, a familiar daily routine, and a big chunk of our culture. There are lots of reasons to think he will fail.

But I’m encouraged by Better Place’s utter commitment to its vision. For Nissan, the Leaf is only one initiative among all its other conventional cars. Ditto for GM and its hybrid Volt. Those companies are experimenting with electric cars, but they also remain deeply invested in the old oil paradigm. Better Place, on the other hand, is betting the entire farm on electric cars — so has every reason to make them succeed.

And today — test-driving an actual Better Place Renault, standing beside a charging post, seeing a group of young Israelis crowd around one of the cars at the visitor center — it hit home that Better Place is really rolling this stuff out. On schedule. In the next few months. And not just as a pilot project with one or two charging stations, but through an entire country.

That is darn impressive. I look forward to seeing what happens.

Potential Better Place buyers? / Photo by Ilana DeBare

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P.S. Wondering what this little road trip had to do with my writing project here in Israel? Yep, you guessed it — Shai Agassi is an alumnus of the Technion. In fact Agassi — who started computer programming at age seven — enrolled in the Technion at age 15.

Third day in Haifa

November 22, 2011

Today was my third day in Haifa, fourth day in Israel (not counting the afternoon I arrived). I spent Shabbat – my first full day – with an old friend in a small community in the Galilee. Since then, I’ve been in Haifa doing interviews for this Technion book with the main author, professor Shlomo Maital.

View of Haifa and the Mediterranean from the patio of my hosts / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Our schedule has been really full, about three interviews each day. That’s fine for the first day or two – but then at a certain point, all the interviews start to collide in your head like an I-5 pile-up and you can’t remember whom you saw when. Given my general overload, the best I can do right now is share some random impressions from my first visit here in 26 years:

  • Distances are SOOO small. I knew this, but it hits home again. Haifa is basically an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv. Those are two of the three biggest cities in the country. Imagine L.A. being an hour’s drive from New York…. I spoke to several Technion students who commute every day from Tel Aviv to Haifa. I don’t think that happened so much when I lived here in 1985, partly because….
  • The infrastructure has improved! Well, duh, if it hadn’t improved in 26 years, that would signal a major problem. But the roads here now have fewer potholes than at home in Oakland. There is a sleek, spacious automative tunnel under the city of Haifa that makes the Caldecott feel like a 19thcentury coal mine. And there is now train service! There are frequent trains from Haifa to Tel Aviv, and further up and down the coast – real trains, not light rail. Soldiers don’t hitch anymore; they take the train back from their weekend furloughs on Monday morning. We took the train to a Tel Aviv interview on Sunday and it was super easy – 50 minutes on the train, then a five-minute cab ride. Sad to say – train service in this little resource-strapped country is faster and more frequent than between the Bay Area and Sacramento.

    Car tunnel under Haifa / Photo by Ilana DeBare

  • The Wall. Nothing illuminating to say here, just the shock that comes when seeing an abstract political issue made real. My cab ride from the airport to my friend Nomi’s house went north along Highway 6, a new-ish major road that in sections paralleled the wall that was built several years ago separating the West Bank from pre-1967 Israel. There has been so much controversy over the wall, and it is such a symbol of the unresolved conflict and the limbo in which the Palestinains live. And there it was, no longer some abstract phrase in a news story, but a thin metal fence with a bit of wire on top. Not very big. Not very permanent. But suddenly real.
  • The cats. Feral cats everywhere! Feral mom cat with three kittens making a home on Nomi’s porch. Feral cats mewing pitifully outside my window here at Shlomo’s house. I miss my Bowie! Clearly, once Israel has resolved those pesky minor issues involving peace, minority rights, religious pluralism etc., it is ripe for a major crusade to spay/neuter its cat population. Maybe I should start raising money right now….

    Feral cats outside my window / Photo by Ilana DeBare

I do have some less trivial thoughts and impressions – on the Technion, and on the population bomb you haven’t heard about — but those will have to wait a day or two.

Meow, and good night.

Off to Israel

November 15, 2011

I’ve had an upsurge of freelance work since August, to the point where there’s been no time in the past two months to touch my novel. Normally I don’t blog about work. (In the ten commandments of blogging, I think Thou Shalt Not Embarrass Employers/Clients comes even before Thou Shalt Not Embarrass Teenage Offspring.)

But in this case, I’m making an exception. On Thursday, I’m heading off to Israel for ten days for a writing project related to the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Technion.

Based in Haifa, the Technion is Israel’s top engineering and science university – the MIT of Israel. Recently one of its professors, Dan Shechtman, was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his discovery of five-sided quasicrystals, a kind of matter that scientists had thought impossible. (You can read here about how no one believed him at first.)

The Technion campus in Haifa / Photo by Technion

This will be my first visit to Israel in (yikes!) 26 years. I was on a kibbutz for five months in 1975, and I lived in Jerusalem in 1984-5, but haven’t been back since.

Why haven’t I visited? It’s a complicated stew of reasons. The simplest is logistics: expense, distance, parenting etc. And when Sam and I  had opportunities for foreign vacations, I wanted to go places that were completely new to me – Barcelona! Costa Rica! Czech Republic! – rather than somewhere familiar.

But I also haven’t known how to go back.

After living there for a year and a half, I chafed at the idea of returning as “just” a tourist. The prospect of staying in hotels and flitting between museums and restaurants felt painfully superficial — like running into someone at a cocktail party who was once the passionate love of your life, and being relegated to small talk about the awful commute or remodeled baths.

The politics of the region didn’t help. When I lived in Jerusalem in 1985, I was working on a novel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and spent a lot of time going back and forth between those two worlds. Just as I couldn’t imagine being a tourist, I couldn’t imagine returning in a way that didn’t address or acknowledge that conflict, that pretended it didn’t exist.

Basically, I needed a reason to be there. A foothold of some sort – a project, or mission.

Here I’d like to take a 10-second commercial break and put in a plug for the New Israel Fund, which raises money for progressive non-profits in Israel that are involved in women’s rights, religious pluralism, Arab-Jewish coexistence, environmental protection, etc. They periodically run study tours to Israel – there’s one in February 2012, in fact, that includes meetings with all sorts of grassroots activist groups. I could easily imagine going on an NIF tour, and Sam and I may end up doing so once Daughter is off in college. That would fit my need for a “mission.”

But meanwhile, this Technion project came up. It’s great – I’ll learn a lot, be involved with an historic Israeli institution, meet a ton of people, contribute something, work. I’m much happier doing this than spending ten days on a beach in Tel Aviv.

It should be eye-opening. Twenty-six years is a very long time. The last time I was there, the Labor Party still existed and Soviet Jews were still in the Soviet Union. You had to buy these little metal tokens called asimonim and put them into pay phones. Today the country has an average of 2.1 cell phones for every family – a higher figure, I believe, than the U.S.

When I went for 18 months in 1984, I took a portable typewriter and a single-lens reflex camera.

Now I‘m going for ten days and am taking a laptop, iPod, digital tape recorder, digital camera and my American cell phone, as well as a rented Israeli cell phone.

(What, no Kindle?)

Off I go!

Welcome home, Gilad Shalit

October 18, 2011

Today Israel released the first few hundred of what will eventually be 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Hamas releasing one Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit.

Gilad Shalit on Egyptian TV following his release / Photo by Associated Press

Those are astonishing numbers. Can you imagine an American president releasing 1,000 convicted terrorists to save one soldier? Can you imagine what Fox News would do to her or him? Heck, most American politicians are too terrified of looking soft on crime to divert even a single drug user from jail to treatment. (Unless the drug user’s father was a major campaign contributor, of course.)

I’d like to think that Netanyahu’s decision to okay the prisoner exchange was a testament to the the teaching from the Talmud that “whoever saves a single life, the Bible considers it as if he saved an entire world.” And maybe it was, indirectly.

But directly it was more of a testament to the nature of the Israeli civilian military — where everyone serves for three years after high school, and most continue to be called up for reserve duty each year through their adult lives. Every Israeli family has an 18-year-old in uniform at some point; every family has a son or daughter who could be Gilad Shalit.

But still, what a tough call. As much as I typically disagree with Netanyahu, I would not have wanted to be in his shoes facing this decision. Many of those 1,300 Palestinians were responsible for the deaths of civilians in terror attacks. Some will likely attempt such attacks again. Imagine being prime minister when, six months from now, an aide runs in to your office and says that a Jerusalem cafe has been blown up by someone you released.

Writer Yossi Klein Halevi beautifully articulated the ambivalence of many Israelis about the deal in an essay in Tablet magazine:

For the last five years I have tried not to think of Gilad Shalit. I avoided the newspaper photographs of his first months as an Israel Defense Forces draftee, a boy playing soldier in an ill-fitting uniform. Sometimes, despite myself, I’d imagine him in a Gaza cellar, bound, perhaps wired with explosives to thwart a rescue attempt. And then I would force myself to turn away.

I tried not to think of Gilad because I felt guilty. Not only was I doing nothing to help the campaign to free him, I opposed its implicit demand that the Israeli government release as many terrorists as it takes to bring him home. Israel has no death penalty, and now we would lose the deterrence of prison: If the deal went through, any potential terrorist would know it was just a matter of time before he’d be freed in the next deal for the next kidnapped Israeli.

But the argument could never be so neatly resolved. Each side was affirming a profound Jewish value: ransom the kidnapped, resist blackmail. And so any position one took was undermined by angst. What would you do, campaign activists challenged opponents, if he were your son? “He’s everyone’s son,” sang rocker Aviv Gefen.

So today he was released after more than five years. No photographs released during all that time. No visits permitted from the Red Cross or any international humanitarian groups. I had imagined the worst, and was happy to see that Shalit appears to be physically in one piece. Emotionally, of course, who knows what scars he’ll carry? And of course many of the Palestinians released will have  emotional scars from prison too.

When I lived in Jerusalem in 1984-85, I had friends in both the Palestinian and Israeli communities. I will always remember one instance when Israel released a large number of Palestinian prisoners — a searing illustration of how two completely different realities exist side by side there. In West Jerusalem, the mood was one of grim resignation: The government was releasing murderers. In East Jerusalem, people were exuberant: This person’s cousin was coming home! That person’s nephew was coming home!

I have great sympathy for the Palestinian people, even sympathy for Fatah, but I have none for Hamas, with its vision of an Islamic, fundamentalist, misogynistic and Jew-free region.

Here’s what Shalit was quoted by the New York Times as saying upon his release: “I very much hope that this deal will advance peace.”

Here’s what Khaled Meshal, the head of Hamas, was quoted by the Times as saying on Oct. 11 about the deal: That the next steps would be to “cleanse the land, and liberate Jerusalem, and unite the Palestinian ranks.”