Thursday, February 28, 2013

Israel: Coalition Talks Continue

Yair Lapid (left) and Naftali Bennett
The Israeli election was held on January 22, 2013.  My analysis of the expected coaltion talks, writing at the time, can be found here.  Meanwhile, more than a month has passed and it is still unclear what type of government Israel will have, other than the fact that it will almost certainly be led by the Likud party.  Prime Minister Netanyahu has failed to reach a coalition deal within the initial alotted time period.  He will now have until March 14, 2013.  If he still cannot conclude a deal by that time, there will either be new elections - or President Shimon Peres will ask another party to try to form the government.  In all probability, Netanyahu will reach a deal with some of the other parties by the deadline, even if the deal is reached just as time is expiring.

The only party to have joined the Likud so far is "The Movement" led by Tsipi Livni.  This was quite surprising to many Israelis since the centrist Livni joined a government without knowing which other parties would be involved.  She was granted a few cabinet posts and put in charge of overseeing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.  As leader of the Kadima party after the previous election, Livni had opted to stay out of the government, despite having a large and powerful party.  This time around, she brings a much smaller number of seats.  To date, no other parties have been willing to join this coalition, which now numbers 37.  A majority of 61 is required to control the Knesset.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has been speaking to all of the possible suitors - Labour, Yesh Atid, Habayit Hayehudi and the ultra-Religious parties.  These talks are mainly held behind closed doors and it is really difficult to know exactly what is being demanded, promised or rejected and what genuine information or misinformation is being leaked.

However, it is fairly clear that two of the largest parties, Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi have reached some sort of deal under which they will only enter the government together.  Apparently, the main piece of the deal centres around the idea that almost all ultra-religious Israelis will be required to serve in the army or the national service, by age 21, with only a small number exempted.  Both parties seem to be holding very firm to this demand, even as the ultra-religious Shas party has been attacking the parties for their lack of flexiblity and alleging that they are "anti-Haredi."  Tonight, Likud-Beitenu suggested that Yesh Atid was refusing to sit in a government with the ultra-religious parties.  However, it is not clear that Yesh Atid has actually taken this position.  It may be that they are holding merely steadfast to certain demands - the content of which are entirely unacceptable to the ultra-religious.  However, there is a big difference between insisting on some significant policy changes that will affect Haredim (as well as many other Israelis) - versus being "anti-Haredi."

Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid seem to have been able to agree on policies in a number of areas, primarily related to domestic issues.  Their stated aims are to improve education in Israel, improve life for the middle class, change the relationship of the State and the Ultra-Religious and other issues.  Both Bennett and Lapid served in the Israeli Defence Forces and both believe that the burden of mandatory military service should be distributed universally across Israeli society including ultra-religious Jews and Arab Israelis.  Overall, in the realm of domestic policy, Bennett does not appear to have staked out any particularly extreme positions, though his party would certainly have a much more right leaning social and domestic agenda than the platform on which Lapid campaigned.

The big question mark is what this means for the future of Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Palestinian relations.  Bennett is adamantly opposed to any territorial concessions and has indicated that his party will not support a government that makes any such compromises.  Lapid is much more flexible and favours an immediate return to the bargaining table  with the Palestinians.  Even though both parties oppose any concessions with respect to Jerusalem, it is hard to see how any kind of peace deal could be reached with the Palestinians without significant territorial concessions in other areas.  So, ultimately, if both Bennett and Lapid join the Netanyahu-led government together, the government will likely be preoccupied with domestic issues and negotiations with the Palestinians will move down on the priority list, even below where they have been currently.

The big winner so far in the Israeli public forum has been Yair Lapid.  Israelis have apparently been very supportive of his determination and resolve in not making concessions to the ultra-orthodox on the issue of universal conscription.  Some polls have suggested that Lapid's party would win more than 30 seats if a new election were held now.  It may well be that Lapid plans to deal with domestic issues first and then use his momentum and popularity to force a change in the governing coaltion or to force the government to turn its attention to addressing the Palestinian-Israeli dispute in more flexible fashion.

In any event, it seems to me that there are still reasons for Israelis to be cautiously optimistic.  Although the Yesh Atid Party may not be able to fulfill all of its promises, the determination that Yair Lapid is showing with respect to domestic issues is a promising sign that some significant, positive changes are on the way.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Israel's "Makolet" (Corner Store) Culture

When I was younger, my aunt and uncle ran a corner store in Montreal.  Neighbourhood residents would come by and pick up most of their staples - fresh bread, cheese, meat, fruits and vegetables and dry goods.  The neighbours would spend some time talking to my aunt and uncle, who learned to speak a number of different languages - at least enough to have animated street conversations.  Over time, in Montreal, as with many other North American cities, these small, family run corner stores gave way to the spread of 24 hour supermarkets. and convenience stores.  While there are still "convenience stores" across North America, few people would think of making a full shopping order in one of these places.  Even fewer probably spend much time speaking to the proprietors.  There is a social disconnect in these modern convenience stores which engenders very little neighbourly communication.   Sometimes, this might be due to a language barrier.  Convenience store owners and workers in North America are often immigrants who have little facility with the English language.  Other times, there is simply a class or social gap that serves a communciation barrier.  In any event, there are few big cities left in which there is a culture of widespread family run corner stores with socially engaged clientele.

That reality is quite different from the situation in many Israeli towns and cities, where the family run corner store - the "makolet" is still ubiquitous.

Liat Market, Ra'anana
Take as one example, our neighbourhood in Ra'anana.  Just around the corner, the "Liat Market" is packed with patrons early in the morning and again towards the end of the day.  Many local residents come by every day to pick up fresh bread, milk, eggs and other products.  The proprietors are on a first name basis with most of the customers.  It is not unusual to hear Eli, one of the co-owners, chatting with different people about soccer games, politics, recent news events or other topics including their personal family situations.  Like in many of the other corner stores across Israel, the owners run a credit system for the customers and keep track of purchases made by any members of the family (including their young children) on index cards.  They collect at the end of the month, if they can...But even if some customers require credit extensions every now and then, there is a certain trust to the relationship and a confidence that they will get paid eventually.  I am sure that most customers reciprocate this trust by paying in timely fashion, even though there are certainly exceptions.

Until relatively recently, the options were credit or cash, though now the owners moved to a computerized system and began accepting credit cards.  Like with the old style corner stores, such as the one that my aunt and uncle used to run, the owners get to know quite a number of the customers well.  There is a definite sense of a common social fabric.  This is partially due to the general Israeli openness and the way in which people interact across the country.  But it is also a product of a culture that still values the local corner store and its benefits, including the close personal relationship with the owners.  Baked goods, the daily newspapers and the dairy products are all delivered, fresh, early in the morning and many people use these really fresh goods for their breakfast or their packed lunches for themselves or for their kids' school lunches.

These makolets are so popular, that they are everywhere.  Within a five minute walk, there are at least of three of them in our Ra'anana neighbourhood and many more nearby.  Things can even become quite competitive between the different owners.  So while the Liat Market, nearest to our place, does not sell fresh fruits and vegetables, there is a competing makolet just just down the street.  Yitzhak Hen's Minimarket has a wide range of fresh produce.  He also opens up at 6 a.m., an hour before Eli to get that competitive edge.  Like the owners of Liat Market, Yitzhak and his wife are friendly, outgoing, personable and helpful.  They joke around with their customers and they won't shy away from a discussion of just about any topic.  Some people in the neighbourhood are fiercely loyal to one owner or the other.  But by and large, the owners of both makolets have wide ranging social connections with many of the neighbourhood residents, many of whom walk over in the morning from nearby their nearby condominium,  apartment buildings or private homes.

While these are only two examples, I have seen these makolets all over the country, in large and small cities and towns.  This "makolet culture" is a reflection of a number of aspects of life in Israel.  It captures the warm and close social interaction that often takes place between retailers and customers, when they are not angrily negotiating over the appropriate price of an item.  It also captures the lack of a hard social barrier than can often exist in North America between store owners and their patrons.  And while watching people pay for goods in the makolet, often by way of credit, with payments for larger orders divided up over a number of installments, you get the sense that the makolet is also represenative of the way in which many retail transactions are conducted.

Overall, these makolets are throwbacks to the corner stores of years ago in many large North American cities, like the one that my aunt and uncle ran for so many years.  But unlike the situation in North America, there seems to be little likelihood that these makolets will vansih anytime soon.  They are far too ingrained in the social fabric of the country.


Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Israel: National Robotics Competition

This is a scene from the national high school robotics championship that was held earlier today at Metrowest High School in Ra'anana, Israel.

The competition winners advance to participate in the annual Trinity College Firefighting Home Robot Contest in Hartford, Connecticut.  This international robotics contest (the "TCFFHRC") is open to entrants from around the world.  This will be the 20th year of the contest.  The finals will be held in Hartford on April 6 and 7, 2013.  Past winners have included teams from China, Israel, Canada and the United States.

Contestants are required to build self propelled robots that move through a maze to find and extinguish a burning candle.  Along the way, the robots may face an obstacle (a stuffed toy dog) that is placed in the maze at one of several random locations based on the roll of a die.  The candle is placed in one of four locations, also randomly.  The robot is built and programmed ahead of time.  Contestants are only allowed to place their robots at the starting position and turn them on.  The judge preses the "start button."  Robots are awarded points for checking each of the rooms, finding the candle and extinguishing it.  They lose points for touching or bumping into the walls or bumping into the dog.  Of course, the robots are also timed and speed is a very important part of the competition and the scoring.

Students work very hard for months building and programming these robots.  On the day of the competition, it all comes down to three chances.  The atmosphere is quite tense.  This year, there were more than 60 teams competing.  This is a very difficult competition and historically, only about 30% of the teams succeed in having their robot complete the course and extinguish the candle at least once.

This a view of one of the mazes, with a robot at starting position.  We watched as quite a number of robots set off quite hopefully and then...faced disaster.  Some moved only a few metres and then suddenly stopped.  Others crashed into walls, became stuck trying to turn corners or faced other unexpected difficulties.  One robot started spinning around repeatedly.  Another arrived at the candle but could not blow it out.  By the end of the first round, approximately ten robots had succeeded in putting out the candles and completing the mazes.

After the second round, four or five additional teams succeeded in putting out their candles and completing the mazes.  All of the teams that failed in their first two attempts were eliminated from the competition, leaving of about 15 teams to participate in the final round.

By the end of the competition, three teams had succeeded in completing the course successfully and extinguishing the candle on all three tries.  All three of these teams, which finished in 1st, 2nd and 3rd place were from Misgav High School in Israel, a school which took the 1st, 3rd and 5th places at the 2012 world competition. 

5th Place in Israeli National Robotics Championship
Three teams from Ostrovsky High School in Ra'anana finished 4th, 5th, and 7th in this year's Israeli competition.  This photo features the 5th place team.  You might recognize the student in the middle...

Although Israel has generally sent the first three teams to the international competition, at which they have performed quite well, Israel has sometimes sent additional teams to participate in these exciting events.  It remains to be seen whether Ra'anana will be represented at this year's   TCFFHRC in Hartford.  That will likely be decided with input from Ra'anana's Mayor, Ostrovsky High School, and perhaps Ministry of Education officials.

Needless to say, we are thrilled and excited for all of the participants, the winning teams and the students of Ostrovsky in Ra'anana who performed so well....especially the students in the photo who came in 5th of whom happens to be a family member...

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Purim 2013 - 5773

I wrote about Purim in Ra'anana last year so I'll try not to repeat too much of last year's blog.  But Purim really seems to be an "expanding" holiday in Israel.  Although it is really a one day holiday - and one of the "minor" holidays on the Jewish calendar, it seems to have every increasing stature in Israel.  Perhaps that is because it is such a fun holiday.

Kids are off school for two days (the actual day of Purim - which is today) and tomorrow as well.  But the festivities began even before that.  On Friday, students across Israel went to school dressed up in various costumes.  Many cities had their annual Purim parades that day.

In Ra'anana, the "Adloyadah" parade consists of all of the schools across Ra'anana, including elementary, middle schools and high schools, religious, secular and other building floats and marching through the main city street (Ahuza Street) led by the Mayor.  The float on the left is part of the Hasharon middle school effort.

The float on the right is from the Ostrovosky high school.  Thousands of people lined the streets to watch the parade, which lasted for close to two hours.

Purim officially began on Saturday night with readings of the Megillah (the book of Esther) in synagogues and other places across the country.  We enjoyed a fully egalitarian, lay-led Conservative service and Megillah reading at Hod VeHadar in K'far Sabah.  Many of not most of the congregants came in costumes, including almost all of the children and most of the adults.  Our family accounted for two of the ten chapters, which is quite fun.  Reading the Megillah at Purim is challenging since the text is read from a scroll with no vowels, punctuation or musical notes - just like reading from the Torah.  It also seems to me that there are fewer and fewer young people who know how to chant it properly and that is quite concerning.  So we have made sure to try to do our part by teaching our kids...two of the three so far.  Fortunately, for people who are interested in learning, there are some great resources now available.  For example, the Virtual Cantor site has all of the readings available.  There are many other sites as well.

Purim continued today until sundown (other than in Jerusalem, where there is a bonus day tomorrow).  Many people delivered "Mishloach Manot" packages to friends and relatives - packages of food items, usually.  We received some really great themed Mishloach Manot this year including an all black and white themed package - and a Mexican themed package that included salsa and an avacado...

Another important part of Purim celebrations is making efforts to help the less fortunate by contributing money and food for the needy. There were visible activities in this regard throughout Ra'anana - and all over Israel.

All of these customs are rooted in Jewish religious tradition.  But in present day Israel, Purim is more than a religious festival.  It is a holiday of parties all over the country, people wearing costumes in the streets, gift giving and general merriment.  Walking along Ahuza Street, I saw people of all ages wandering about in various costumers.  Many teenagers dressed in very "minimalist" outfits.  For some reason, it seemed to be very popular for teenage boys to be wearing baby outfits - simply an adult diaper - and nothing else.  Some of them also carried a rattle...

Many teenage girls were wearing equally scanty outfits.  For example, we walked by a whole group of female "police officers," all wearing extremely short mini-skirts, hardly the current uniform of the Israeli police.

The grade 12 high school class at Ostrovsky High School all wore the same outfit.  The students chipped in some money and bought a set of matching white painters overalls for everyone in the class.  At 7:30 a.m., the met at a nearby park and had a "paint war" dumping paints of all different colours all over each other.  Then they all went to school dressed up as painters.  It was quite a sight to see the Ostrovsky students wandering around Ra'anana in their costumes.  Some of the students, mainly the boys as far as I could tell, wore nothing other than the overalls...

Fortunately Israel enjoyed some really nice weather.  If the weather had been cooler, many people would have been quite chilly if they had worn the same "costumes."

Overall, Purim is one of those holidays that is particularly exciting in Israel.  There is a celebratory atmosphere throughout the country and that  makes Purim very festive.