VIDEO: Question to panel of experts on the upcoming Israeli elections in 2013

Senior member of major British-Jewish organisation asked what will be the community’s response to the rise of Naftali Bennet’s Jewish Home party and his controversial plans to annex “Area C” (62%) of the West Bank.

AUDIO: Question to Peter Beinart on Liberal Values in Israel

Peter Beinart is an accomplished author and journalist who first shot to fame with his controversial 2010 article, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment, and then again with the book, “The Crisis of Zionism”. He is also known more recently for his New York Times Op-Ed in March 2012 which called for a “Zionist boycott movement” – boycotting goods manufactured in the Israeli settlements while strengthening pre-1967 Israel.

Peter Beinart speaking at an event sponsored by the Center for American Progress Action Fund (photo credit: CC BY-ND 2.0 license, Center for American Progress Action Fund flickr user)

Peter Beinart speaking at an event sponsored by the Center for American Progress Action Fund (photo credit: CC BY-ND 2.0 license, Center for American Progress Action Fund flickr user)

In this audio clip I pose the question to Beinart via video conference from London: how can the Jewish Diaspora have any impact on a society whose main institutions were shaped and founded by members of the “Second Aliyah” wave of immigration, which was not necessarily characterised by Western Liberal values.

As Israel-Iran Cold War Heats Up, Old Friendship Provides Rare Insight into Iranian Strategic Thinking

Former Iranian diplomatic consultant and media professional now turned academic says Israel is not the real enemy of Iran; main goal is to compete with Turkey for regional power.

The Iranian Embassy in London (photo credit: CC BY 2.0 license,  Snapperjack flickr user)

The Iranian Embassy in London (photo credit: CC BY 2.0 license, Snapperjack flickr user)

Filled with a sense of trepidation, I set out on a bright autumn morning in London for a reunion of sorts with an old university friend. Far from a normal social engagement, my companion was Iranian while I have been an Israeli citizen since birth.  This of course wouldn’t have presented such a problem if Farhad Shirazi (not his real name) had been one of the many Iranian dissidents living in the West and a critic of his country’s government.  But in this case, not only did he live in Tehran at the time, but he was also a self-professed supporter of the Islamic Republic.

When the meeting took place late last September, tensions between Israel and Iran were not what they are at present.  The threat of all-out conflict did not loom as large, and the tit-for-tat secret war of assassinations and bombings were also not common-place.  But even back in September when I told friends and family what I was planning to do, they strongly advised me against it.  “Far too dangerous” they said. “You haven’t seen him in years, he’s been living in Tehran all this time, he could have been recruited by Iran’s secret intelligence services or even the Revolutionary Guards.”

They had a point.  As an Israeli abroad, I was potentially a “soft” target and there had been hushed rumors that the Iranians still might be planning a revenge attack for the Israeli assassination of Senior Hezbollah commander, Imad Mughniyah back in February 2008.

But despite the dangers, I persisted, determined to go ahead with the meeting.  I am not sure exactly what was compelling me to do it: was it simple curiosity or a grander notion that such a meeting could serve as a small gesture towards building understanding.  Whatever it was, the main question driving me was how did the regime in Iran really think and what was their real attitude towards Israel?  As Shirazi had apparently risen up the ranks in the state-run media, and moved in pro-government academic and diplomatic circles, I was sure that his perspective would be especially valuable.

Indeed, he did not disappoint.  The young Iranian hadn’t really changed since university and was his usual candid and controversial self, providing insights which broke with normal perceptions of Iran in the West.  In recent discussions he had with high-level Iranian diplomatic officials for example, Shirazi told me that Tehran did not view Israel as its main enemy in the region.  Instead they were far more concerned with the recent emergence of Turkey as a major regional competitor.  In fact, Shirazi said that these officials viewed confrontation between Turkey and Iran at some point in the future as “inevitable”, regarding it as a natural return to the historic rivalry between the Persian and Ottoman empires of old.

“Ideology is merely a tool of influence for Iran”, said Shirazi. “Its not the main factor motivating its behavior on the international stage. Iran’s anti-Israel statements invoking the Holocaust do not stem from some crazy theology propagated by a couple of mad Mullahs sitting in Tehran. Instead it’s the logical result of a cold calculated policy by the political class attempting to pander and win support for Iran in the Arab world.”

At other times in our short conversation, Shirazi had a great deal to say about Israel and how its weaknesses are viewed in Iran. “The problem with Israel, is that it has no self-sustaining organic life-force. It is totally dependent on outside US military aid, and in economic terms, overly reliant on exports – mainly diamonds and a small high-tech sector.  Israel has failed to integrate itself naturally into the Middle East and therefore it can never become a serious regional contender.”

But his criticism was not just reserved for Israel.  He was also scathing of the systemic domestic problems facing Iran.  “Iran simply does not function properly today,” said Shirazi.  “It is a country beset by nepotism, corruption and mismanagement, and yet still has vast ambitions for regional power and dominance in the Middle East.  At the end of the day, the only thing that really works in Iran is oil and security.”

When asked whether there were any limits to Iran’s pursuit of power and hegemony in the region, his response was at once both humorous and ominous: “Its like asking a fat kid if he wants more cake”, he replied.  “There is always the desire for more”.

And so in the end my somewhat irrational fears concerning my personal safety turned out to be unfounded. On a personal level, the friendship seemed to have endured the test of time and the great political tension between our two countries throughout the years. But with the region still in turmoil, particularly in Egypt and Syria, and no end in sight to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the future relations between Israel and Iran today remains as uncertain as ever.

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Can we tackle the challenges of “tomorrow” without the wisdom of “yesterday”?

LISTEN (HEADPHONES RECOMMENDED): At the 2012 Israeli Presidential Conference, Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson outlines the four categories of predicting the future, inspired by history and bizarrely, Donald Rumsfeld.

The assembled speakers during the plenary session focusing on the issue of the economic future for the world. (Far-Left): Alan Bollard, Governor Bank of New Zealand. (Centre-Left): Niall Ferguson. (Centre): Richard Haas, President Council on Foreign Relations. (Centre-Right): Martin Wolf, Associate Editor Financial Times. (Far-Right): Stanley Fishcher, Governor Bank of Israel (photo credit: Daniel Easterman).

Professor Niall Ferguson, the acclaimed Harvard and Oxford historian, economist, consultant and television personality, once again graced the glitzy light-effect laden stage of the fourth annual Israeli Presidential Conference in Jerusalem last month.  The conference, organized under the auspices of the industrious octogenarian President Peres, is one of the largest in the Jewish world, attracting over 5,000 participants and 200 speakers from Israel and abroad.

Criticized by some as an incoherent and disjointed affair, lectures, speeches and workshops featured everything from psychology to the Arab spring, to the rise of Asia and cloud computing.  However, the over-riding theme of the conference was essentially about thinking and planning for the future or “tomorrow”.  Something Israelis, even by their own admission, are not terribly good at.

Professor Ferguson on the big screen during his speech at the 2012 Israeli Presidential Conference
(photo credit: Daniel Easterman).

As usual the conference organizers were able to secure a star-studied array of high-profile personalities from the worlds of politics, technology, economics and science including Henry Kissinger, Tony Blair, Google Chairman, Eric Schmidt, world-renowned sexologist “Dr Ruth” and even Zionist infant terrible, Peter Beinart.  But out of all these highly regarded and accomplished individuals, perhaps none were able to encapsulate the challenges of “tomorrow” quite so ably and succinctly as Professor Ferguson.  Probably this is because very few people in the world have the same command that Ferguson has over such a variety of distinct yet inter-related subjects.    From the history of the British Empire to high finance and the intricacies of macroeconomics, to his understanding of the importance of technology; not only does Ferguson seemingly know it all, but crucially he knows how to explain it all, and he does so in a compelling and user-friendly fashion.

This year, Niall Ferguson in his own words “conjured up the spirit of Donald Rumsfeld” by structuring his lecture according to the famously clunky categories of “known knowns” and “known-unknowns” first propounded by the much-maligned Former Secretary of Defense during the Iraq War.

So what will be the most serious challenges of tomorrow Professor Ferguson?  Well, the most obvious one or “known known” as Ferguson insists on calling it, is the ongoing economic crisis plaguing the United States and Europe.  When governments on both sides of the Atlantic were forced to bail out the banks for their profound recklessness and ill judgment, the tremendous mountains of debt they incurred were then of course transferred to the balance sheets of sovereign states.  While a second great depression was narrowly avoided in the short-term, the western world is now reeling from what can best be described as a all-mighty economic hang-over after binging on enormous sums of credit in the form of numerous budgetary and monetary stimulus packages.

The so-called “PIGS” economies of Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain have so far fared worst in this latest round of global economic misery, but Ferguson also thinks that the US is not so far behind despite the fact that it is still (barely) the largest economy in the world.  If the bond markets finally catch wind of the precarious state of America’s finances, Ferguson believes (as he has stated elsewhere) that we could literally be in for a world of trouble.  As yet, it is difficult to predict when this tipping point will be, but barring a radical change in policy, it is hard to see how the US will be able to evade this outcome indefinitely.  Meanwhile, Western economies will continue to sputter along at infuriatingly low or even minus growth rates.

In terms of the next category of “known unknowns”, these are as Ferguson says, things we think are going to happen, but don’t really know when or where.  For Ferguson, this is essentially the category of future military conflict and war, namely in the Middle East where the Syrian civil war is still raging and a possible pre-emptive strike against Iran still looks likely.  And then of course there is the continued failure on the Palestinian track, which Ferguson forgets to mention.  The PA under Abbas and Fayyad are becoming increasingly unpopular and their hold on power over the restive populations of the urban sections of the West Bank seems to be slowly weakening.  A sudden outpouring of violence and anger in the West Bank in the wake of continued Syrian instability could plunge the region into further chaos and misery.

Skipping over the third category of “unknown unknowns” which essentially deals with the destabilizing effects of rapid and unforeseen technological advancement, we now move on to final category of “unknown knowns”, which Ferguson himself has confusingly titled.  Despite the perplexing nomenclature, this is perhaps the most important category.  Drawing on major historical events as our guide, we see that wherever there is a dramatic improvement in living standards and a rising middle class, there is also an accompanying rise in revolutionary political sentiments.  Nowhere is this most true today, than in China, the great economic and geopolitical story of our time.  If the growing legions of middle class Chinese start demanding western political rights as well as western brands and economic standards, we could potentially see much greater instability in China with consequences for the whole world.  As Ferguson warns, when great powers change places, and a monumental “reconvergence” between different empires occurs, the ensuing process is not usually smooth and painless.

According to Ferguson, this last category is not just the most important, it is also the one that only those familiar with history and the lessons of “yesterday” can employ for the good of tomorrow.

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PREVIEW: Protesters Plan Night Of Darkness To Replace T.A. Mayor’s “White Night” Cultural Showcase

Municipal government in vulnerable position as Meretz party quit, Rov Hair (Mayority of the City) party of the youth, also under pressure to resign

Scene from last summer’s social justice protest movement in Tel Aviv (photo credit: flickr, cc-by-sa-2.0)

The Israeli “social justice” tent protests, also called J14, as July 14th was the date the movement started, swung back into action with a vengeance last week.  It all began last Friday afternoon when demonstrators tried to return their tents to Tel Aviv’s famous Rothschild Boulevard as they had done the previous year.  But this time the authorities were instructed to assume a policy of zero tolerance as local and border police, together with municipality “inspectors” swooped in to intercept any tents being constructed on the street.  In the ensuing melee, several protestors were arrested including most notably, Daphni Leef, the face of last year’s movement and the most recognizable leader of the protests.

Then, on Saturday evening, confrontations with police and security forces escalated to new levels.  Another demonstration on Rothchild, this time against homophobia quickly swelled and transformed into a general protest against the police’s heavy-handed tactics on Friday.  The authorities were ill-prepared , unequipped and outnumbered as protestors marched from Rothchild all the way to the major Ayalon highway, blocking off the main road to traffic.  The evening’s disorder culminated in the smashing of the windows of several banks, something unprecedented in what was once a relatively mild movement.

The question is whether the protests will now be discredited in the eyes of the public, or if the government will take the demands of the demonstrators more seriously.  Will the violence return this evening (Thursday 28th June) as the Tel Aviv municipality, which many hold responsible for the police’s actions, kicks off its annual Lyla Levan (White Night), all-night citywide cultural extravaganza?

Already, the consequences of last week’s violence are being felt at the formal political level.  The left-wing Meretz party quit the Mayor’s municipal government coalition on Tuesday, with strong pressure also being placed on the Rov Ha-ir party of Asaf Zamir, who I interviewed in the Jerusalem Post last fall.  At the time of writing, Rov Ha-ir has resisted calls for the party to resign from Mayor Ron Huldai’s government.

“It is a very sad decision”, said Alon-Lee Green, one of the main organizers and speakers at last summer’s tent protests.  But he also added that the choice to stay in the coalition was not yet final and was still hopeful that Rov Ha-ir will soon come to the conclusion that the party’s continued presence in the coalition is untenable.  Such a decision would reduce the municipal government by half, thus putting greater pressure on Huldai to step down, which Green says is now the goal after the actions of the police on Saturday.

Alon-Lee Green speaking at last year’s protests (photo credit: courtesy subject’s facebook page)

But other more moderate members of the overall protest movement such as Ofir Yehezkeli of the group, Mitpakdim, disagree saying that Rov Ha-ir should continue to influence the Mayor’s ruling faction from within.  He also argues that Rov Ha-ir has achieved a great deal in various policy fields since they were first elected in 2008 and should be allowed to continue their valuable work for the city of Tel Aviv. Yehezkeli’s Mitpakdim calls on ordinary Israelis to get involved in institutional party politics by signing up for party membership and voting in internal elections.  Despite numerous campaign videos on youtube involving actors and TV celebrities, and attempts at drawing attention through publicity stunts, so far Mitpakdim’s message has failed to gain serious ground.

In response to Yehezkeli’s comments, Mr. Green countered that as his compatriot in the movement does not live in Tel Aviv (according to facebook, Yehezkeli lives in Herziliya), he is not qualified to understand the current situation for Tel Aviv-Yaffo residents.  Green says that in key local policy areas such as housing, education and public transportation, all are under-funded and substandard, while money pours into catering for the needs of wealthy American and French tourists who reside part of the year in luxurious apartment blocks.

Ofir Yehezkeli, leader of Mitpakdim (photo credit: Daniel Easterman)

In terms of what is in store for Thursday night, Green predicts that the evening’s events will go off without incident and serious violence will not return to the streets of Tel Aviv.  “The police will be on their best behaviour”, says Green, “because there will be too many people present who the authorities do not want to see their harsher side”.

Several counter-events to the official White Night have been planned including a march from Ha-Bimah square from the northern tip of Rothchild Boulevard to the South of Tel Aviv, and a sleep-in at Rabin Square from 3am onwards.  In addition a number of smaller art and cultural events have also been planned in some of the impoverished southern neighborhoods of the city.  It remains to be seen if the self-styled “Black Night” can peacefully coexistence with the establishment’s traditional White Night, or if tempers will fray again and the police will clash violently with social justice demonstrators.

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WATCH: Eugene Kaspersky: Flame virus has opened a “Pandora’s box” for global terrorists, cyber weaponry much easier to produce than conventional military hardware.

In dramatic conference, founder of Kaspersky Labs tells Tel Aviv press corps that release of Flame could usher in “the end of the world as we know it.” Calls on nation-states to cease and desist from cyber weapons development for the safety of future generations

 (N.B. PLEASE WATCH ALL FOLLOWING VIDEO WITH HEADPHONES).

Eugene Kaspersky at Tel Aviv University on Wednesday

Eugene Kaspersky, the CEO of Kaspersky Labs told reporters in Tel Aviv Wednesday (6 June 2012) that the recent discovery of the so-called “flame” virus could mark the beginning of a terrifying new era in cyber-warfare and terrorism.

When asked what the planet would look like after a worldwide cyber-terrorist attack, Kaspersky’s answer was surprising: “Die Hard 4”, he responded, the last instalment of the popular Bruce Willis action movies.  The film’s plot revolves around a group of hackers wreaking havoc on the U.S. by taking control of transportation, infrastructure and military systems.  “In this movie, Hollywood has taught the possibilities of cyber-war to the bad guys”, said Kaspersky.

At the Tel Aviv University press conference, Kaspersky called on the global bodies such as the UN to take steps towards developing a framework of international law and cooperation to deal with the new threat posed by cyber-warfare.  This is the only way to solve the problem says the Anti-virus magnate, as no anti-virus or security software can prevent outbreaks like this from occurring in the future.

However, there are some in Israel who have attempted to downplay the importance of Flame. Zvi Netiv for example, a security expert at NetZ Computing contends that Flame has been “over-hyped”.  In response, Timor Tsoriev, Chief of Staff at Kaspersky Labs, told the Israeli Internationalist that such claims were ridiculous and completely erroneous.

“Flame is a totally unique phenomenon”, said Mr Tsoriev.  “It’s incredibly complex and has been evolving year upon year, going through multiple versions while active in the wild.  “In short, Flame is a masterpiece.  It marks a new and unprecedented step in the development of malicious programs,” he said.

My photo from Kaspersky press conference featured on Times of Israel frontpage, June 6th 2012

In particular both Kaspersky and Tsoriev are worried that terrorists, cyber-criminals or so-called “hacktivists” could get their hands on the sophisticated code of viruses such as Flame, thus unleashing mayhem on a global-scale.  At present many states possess the know-how and capability to develop highly sophisticated cyber-weapons including lesser-known computing heavyweights such as Romania or Portugal for example.  Even states like Iran which may not have the expertise at the moment to develop weapons-grade software, can easily recruit or even kidnap engineers in the future warns Kaspersky.

“I’m scared, believe me” he said, “if we continue developing weapons like this and going down this path, I’m afraid it could be the end of the world as we know it.  The world will become a very different place.”

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PHOTO-ESSAY: Hebron, Israel’s Forgotten City

As Israel turns in on itself, focusing on the multitude of social and economic problems facing the country, the West Bank continues to drift further away from the country’s collective consciousness.  But how long will the relative quiet in Hebron last?

On Friday May 18th I participated in a tour with “Breaking the Silence”, a group of former IDF combat soldiers.  The following photo-essay shows a day-in-the-life of Hebron in 2012, and how in this city, even a minor incident can cause things to rapidly spin out of control…

Palestinian children walking down a deserted Hebron street. To the right is a white tent built by settlers which has been torn down repeatedly by the IDF. Each time requires at least 300 soldiers.

The official Israeli checkpoint for passage in and out of the West Bank, far beyond the internationally recognized 1967 “Green Line” which itself has no discernable markers. The so-called checkpoint looks more like an innocuous European-style border crossing between countries, providing a sense of normalcy for Israelis and other privileged visitors to an otherwise abnormal system of military government.

Revered by both Jews and Muslims as the final resting place of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the Bible, the Me’arat Ha-Machpela or Al Haram al-Ibrahimi in Arabic is also the site of the 1994 massacre by the Brooklyn-born settler, Baruch Goldstein.  Goldstein’s killing of 29 Muslims and wounding 125 is widely regarded as one of the major causes for the outbreak in Palestinian suicide attacks and the consequent derailment of the Oslo peace process.

Palestinian child looks-on at the rare sight of Israeli civilian visitors from the other side of the roadside barrier which divides Jews and Muslims along Hebron’s main Shuhada street, a few steps away from the Tomb of the Patriarchs.  Since the outbreak of the Second Intifada in October 2000, Palestinians are forbidden from travelling by car or opening shops in the city center.  Despite attempts by Israeli NGOs to improve conditions through legal action, Palestinian freedom of movement, even by foot is severely restricted in Hebron to this day.

A Sunglasses-clad military border policeman surveys the scene, as the group continues down Shuhada Street. Often confused by foreign media outlets as “Israeli soldiers”, the border police or “magavnikim” in Hebrew shorthand are actually a branch of the Israel National Police and not the military. Even so, young Israelis can choose to volunteer for Magav at the age of 18 as part of their three-year mandatory military service.  Those that do so are usually motivated by ideology as the unit has regular contact and confrontations with Palestinians, particularly at checkpoints.

Once the scene of a busy marketplace selling fruits, vegetable and meats much like Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda “shuk”, this stretch of Shuhada street is still a virtual ghost-town or as is common in army parlance, “sterilized” of Palestinians.  The only movement that can be found is bizarrely of a jogger (in orange), an armored police vehicle and a solitary soldier whose silhouetted figure can just be made out in the background.

Yehuda Shaul, one of the founders of the Israeli NGO, “Breaking the Silence, and the “tour leader” for the day’s excursion through Hebron.  Shaul, a former soldier who served for years in Hebron during the Second Intifada, is a religiously observant Jew with close family, including a sister that lives in the settlements. Breaking the Silence strictly define their role as that of “providing education and information”, particularly for Israelis on the situation in Hebron and the surrounding area. They are quick to point out that their goal is not to suggest a “political program” for solving the conflict.  Nevertheless they are unequivocally opposed to the continued occupation of the West Bank.

One of the numerous IDF soldiers we passed along the way, next to a heavily armored police vehicle.  Hebron is the second largest urban area in the West Bank with a population of 166,000 Palestinian Arabs.  It is the only major Palestinian city in the West Bank which Israelis are legally allowed to enter because of the three “micro-settlements” of 1,000 Jewish settlers within the actual city.  Guarding these 1,000 people is a battalion-strength force of about 500 soldiers, reinforced by both regular and border police.  This means that for every two settlers, there is at least one solider protecting them, the highest ratio of its kind in the West Bank.  Despite these heavy outlays of money and manpower, Israel formally claims no sovereignty over Hebron.  The only governing authority over the city is military rule.

“Breaking the silence” tours are usually notorious for the interruptions and antagonism they elicit from the small settler community of Hebron.  While there were two minor disruptions by settlers from the area, overall local reaction to the presence of the tour group in the city was muted and bemused rather than aggressive or violent. Here a member of Hebron’s Chabad House argues that the property was acquired through legitimate means while Shaul continues to address the group, rebutting the man’s claims.

However, the day was not entirely without incident. Towards the very end of the tour, the group finally got a tiny taste of the emotionally charged nature of Hebron and the often unfair and illogical conduct of the city’s security forces.  As the group attempted to enter the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a vicious verbal standoff ensued whereby the border police refused to allow the Israelis to pass through.  One visibly religious and senior-looking officer instructed the police troops not to say anything to any of the increasingly agitated members of the group, “not a word” and not to grant them entry under any circumstances.  Threats of arrest and confiscation of photographic equipment were made, to which the group responded by shouting insults, yelling “chatzuf” or “insolent” at the magavnikim.

Despite the stern orders by his commander, the middle-aged trooper of Ethiopian origin, pictured in the foreground here, flaunted all protocol; loudly claiming that one of the group had made a racist comment against him.  Here I was able to take one hasty shot of the continuing exchange between him and group member, while one of the younger military policeman (out of shot) aggressively urged me to move on, shouting more threats.

And suddenly, the initial complete refusal of entry was overturned in an instant.  As a large American-Jewish tour group comprising both secular and religious teenagers approached the site, inexplicably the order by another officer was given to allow everyone entry.  Here at the entrance to the site’s many hallways lined with “memorials” to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, I wait behind a crowd of American tourists whose presence seems to have been the random decisive factor enabling my own access to Judaism’s second holiest place.

Breaking the Silence says that Israelis suspected of “left-wing” views are routinely barred entry to the Tomb of the Patriarchs if they don’t look “religious”.  Strangely, the information materials we were given by the NGO were also temporarily confiscated upon entering the second security check area situated within the enclosure itself.  On my way out, I saw a friendly-looking magavnik of about 19 or 20 years of age, intently reading one of my leaflets.  “Very interesting,” he said after he reluctantly handed it back to me, clearly enjoying the colorful graphs, facts and figures contained in the materials.  It seemed to sum up the very bizarre encounter, where personal whims and emotions ruled the day rather than clear orders and the fair application of one rule for all.  Our unpleasant inconvenience was just that, a simple inconvenience (albeit one filled with vitriol and the threat of violence), but for the Israelis involved, it perhaps gave them a small snap-shot of what it is like to be a Palestinian, even if for only a brief moment.

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Facebook Threatens To Ban Work of Israeli Political Cartoonist

The visual art of Israeli cartoonist, “Mysh” has drawn the ire and censorship of social media giant, Facebook, it has emerged today.

According to the artist, three major pieces have been removed, with threats that his page will be completely erased if he continues to post “flagged material” in the future.  Mysh reported that his page had already been suspended for 24 hours by the social network while efforts to contact the relevant department dealing with censorship issues have so far been unsuccessful.

In some of Mysh’s work he draws inspiration from popular comic book superheroes such as Superman, Batman and the Hulk to comment on the political and economic issues of the day.  These have included Israel’s wealth divide, the recent spate of anti-African agitation and violence, and settlement expansion in the territories of the West Bank.

One of  the piece’s reproduced here, which has been banned by Facebook, depicts the Israeli settlement enterprise in the figure of the Hulk.

Text says: “The Green Sabra, control, but not over itself” (Courtesy: Mysh)

Another banned illustration entitled “A Problem of Self-Esteem” is meant to critique the “Holocaust-complex”, the  tendency by Israeli leaders and parts of the general population to view Israel as a permanent victim, due to the trauma of the Holocaust, a self-image which is not always in tune with the current reality.  In response to Facebook’s decision to remove the cartoon, one user reposted the image on Mysh’s page saying, “go ahead Facebook, delete it again”, reflecting an upswell of online support for the Israeli cartoonist.

(Courtesy: Mysh) Various popular prejudiced slogans are tattooed on the figures back, including “death to the Sudanese, a good Arab is a dead Arab, what doesn’t come with force, comes with violence, allow the IDF to mow down”

This third piece, which so far has escaped the Facebook censor, shows far-right national-religious politician, Michael Ben Ari, Shas Minister of Interior Eli Yishai, and Prime Minister working hand-in-hand to distract the Israeli citizen with the recent African immigrant issue in Israel.  Routinely referred to as “infiltrators” by the media and political class, the increasing number of Africans in South Tel Aviv, principally from Sudan and Eritrea has become a hot-button issue in recent weeks.  Religious and right-wing politicians from both extremist and mainstream parties alike have used the issue to stir-up racial hatred and violence among the disenfranchised and impoverished neighborhoods of southern Tel Aviv.  Last Wednesday, Likud Parliamentarian, Miri Regev, former Brigadier General of the IDF’s Spokesperson’s Department told a baying crowd that the African “infiltrators are a cancer in our body”.  Regev subsequently denied making those comments, but her speech was then caught on camera and widely distributed throughout the internet, thus exposing her denials as false.

(Courtesy: Mysh) “Teamwork”: PM Netanyahu says, “make sure that nothing is left in his pocket”

I emailed the Facebook press department several hours before publishing to receive an official explanation for why they opted to censor and threaten Mysh’s work with a ban, but no response has so far been forthcoming.  Mysh has informed me that Facebook will not return his own request for more information until the 6th of June.

The controversy over Mysh’s artwork comes at a time when the whole medium of political cartoons and animation are gaining increasing importance online as users demand more hard-hitting visual content incorporating opinion as well as basic news.  Al Jazeera recently ran a piece for its “Listening Post” programme on this new trend, featuring Mark Fiore,  the first ever online animator to win the Pulitzer Prize in 2010.

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A Step in the Right Direction

Is a new plan for economic development in Arab towns a shift from politics to pragmatism?

Street view of Kafr Kassim, one of the Arab towns earmarked for funds under the new development plan (photo credit: Daniel Easterman)

Originally Published in Jerusalem Post, Weekend Magazine Edition, 25/5/2012

The complex reality facing Israel’s 1.5 million Arab citizens today is often obscured by the constant political controversy revolving around the current crop of Arab politicians.  As the rhetoric becomes more fierce and incendiary, the divisions and mutual distrust between Jews and Arabs has also tended to widen, contributing to an overall sense that the Arab population will never truly become part of Israel, nor have any desire to do so.

But is this picture really accurate?  While the political grandstanding and Knesset dramatics grab all the headlines, a quiet economic revolution, spurred on from the heart of the Israeli government, is also taking place.

Back in February 2007, and to little fanfare, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) established a special governmental “Authority for the Economic Development of the Arab, Druze and Circassian Sector” to operate within the PMO’s departmental framework.  The objective of the Authority was to “maximise the economic potential” of the three Arab communities by stimulating employment opportunities, enhancing its business and commercial sector, upgrading transportation and communication infrastructure, and finally building new housing facilities specifically for Arab citizens.  By March 2010, “Decision 1539” was approved by the government, committing 778 million shekels across 5 years for the economic development of 13 Arab towns and villages throughout Israel.

One concrete example of where these funds have been spent so far, is on the brand-new “one-stop employment center” in Tira, a “village” of 22,000 people situated in the middle of Israel’s central Sharon region close to Kfar Saba.  The Tira pilot center is the first of twenty two of its kind to be implemented countrywide, providing a variety of courses in vocational Hebrew, computer skills, English, and assistance in creating and refining CVs.  The courses are particularly valuable for Arab women says the Director of the Center, Nibras Taha.  “In the last two or three decades, the Arab society as a whole has undergone a series of changes,” he explains.  “It is no longer taboo for woman from traditional families to work.  The economic reality in Israel today means that it is imperative for both spouses to be employed.”

Nevertheless, serious challenges still remain.  Efforts to create greater economic opportunity may be a step-in-the-right direction, but it is clear that emotional issues still present a major barrier to progress and better integration.  When the Mayor of Tira, Mamoun Abd Alhai was asked in a recent press conference organised by the PMO’s Government Press Office whether he would support making two-year national community service for Arab youth compulsory (instead of military service), the Mayor expressed some misgivings.  Although he said that the purpose behind the idea was well-intentioned, he also stressed that he would be more comfortable if the organization of national service programs took place through the “Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Welfare”.  As such programs are currently connected to the IDF and the Ministry of Defense according to the Mayor, there will always be a “dilemma” among Arab youth on whether to take part, especially as long as the wider Israel-Palestinian conflict goes unresolved.

However, there are others who believe that the softly-softly strictly economic approach coming from the Prime Minister’s Office is the right way to go, even if the big political issues stay unresolved.  Ibrahim Habib, Director of Regional Development at the Authority for the Economic Development of the Arab Sector, told me that ensuring proper government investment in Arab communities should not be left to the politicians but rather economic professionals who can use the clout of the Prime Minister’s Office to influence decisions.  “The Arab sector doesn’t receive enough financial assistance from the government at the moment,” said Mr Habib, “but its better to accept one shekel now and request another later rather than rejecting everything out of hand, which is what politicians from the main Arab parties have done in the past.”

Mr Habib, himself an Arab-Christian, also told me that he sees growing disillusionment among the ordinary people of Israel’s “Arab street” towards the established Arab parties in the Knesset.  “When the delegation of six Israeli-Arab MKs met with Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in April 2010 for example,” he recalls that this was a really big turning point.  “People began to ask, how can they associate with such a leader and adequately represent our real-life needs and problems.  Are they living in the real world?”  Habib also says that the Muslim segment of the Arab population in particular is beginning to drift towards support for the mainstream Zionist parties – “even Likud”, although at present they are unwilling to admit the fact publicly.

Professional officials such as Ibrahim Habib are not sentimental about their involvement in the Israeli government, nor the very real achievements they are providing for their community, but appear to simply want to put politics to one side while the real work gets done.  At the local level at least, even the politicians of the Arab sector seem keen to steer clear of partisan political squabbling.  When I asked Mayor Mamoun Abd Alhai of Tira which party he belongs to, the answer was none, atzmai, “independent” he replied in perfect Hebrew.

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