Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Happy (early) Thanksgiving

It's hard to believe that Thanksgiving is really just 2 days away - in many ways it does seem that it's been 3 months that I've been in Israel, and in others it's gone very quickly. But obviously unlike back in the States, Thanksgiving is not a holiday people here celebrate, let alone have ever even heard of. We're having a pot-luck dinner at our absorption center in Ashkelon which I'm naturally excited for - we should have plenty of turkey, potato-related dishes, stuffing, pumpkin pie, the works.

One tradition that we started in my family around this time of year is vocalizing all that we have to be thankful for, and since I am very blessed to have so many things to be thankful for, I wanted to post them here. So even though I'm not able to eat with my family this year, I am thankful for their love and support (not to mention, excited for them to visit!) I'm thankful for my amazing friends who always know how to pick me up when I'm down, and who constantly encourage my ice cream-needing habits. I'm thankful for the State of Israel, and for the opportunity to live here for a year and experience life here in a way I wouldn't otherwise be able to. I'm thankful for the United States of America and for the educational opportunities it has offered me. And to all the past and current members of the Channel 7 Sports department...thankful I don't have to harass any high school football coaches and tell them how sorry I am their team lost the big Turkey Day game. So Happy Thanksgiving to all back home!

That being said - here's an update on two very interesting and thought-provoking education days in the past week. The first one was to learn about different elements of the Israeli Defense Forces, and the second was an intense examination of the political situation and scene.

The focus of the IDF day was on ethics and combat. There was a panel discussion with a journalist from Channel 10 as well as a current member of Knesset from the Kadima Party and the Vice Commander of an Armoured Division, in which we learned a lot about the realities of war and the amount of time soldiers have to make a decision on how to act.  I knew the IDF aims to prevent civilian death as much as possible, but it's always amazing to hear the lengths to which they actually go. Before bombing apartment buildings in Gaza where terrorists were hiding, they would first drop leaflets advising residents to leave because the IDF is planning to bomb. If the leaflets weren't enough, the course of the Gaza War, the IDF made over 160,000 phone calls to Gaza residents who might have been too scared to go outside to get the leaflets. We also learned about the blatant lies in the death toll counts from the Gaza War - I won't get into all the facts and figures, but suffice it to say that the number Hamas gave to the world (including such "respected" organizations such as Amnesty International) was inflated due to the fact that anyone who died in all of Gaza during the war was counted in the death toll. That includes people killed in fighting, but also all those who died natural deaths (approx. 450 a month in Gaza) as well as the members of Fatah that Hamas killed and then added to the count. Clearly it was a mistake that Israel decided to bar Israeli-based journalists from entering Gaza during the war, and instead of allowing reporters to embed with units going in on missions, the world gets to read, and ultimately believe all of Hamas' propaganda.

Some people on my program were skeptical about the speakers and the agenda they had calling Israel the most moral army in the world. But what other army in the world goes to these lengths to make sure civilians are out of harm's way? What other army gives such advance notice to the enemy? War is a horrible thing, and yes, there are going to be innocent people killed and wounded and suffering tremendous amounts of pain. But you cannot do a better job of protecting human life, especially when the enemy not only has no regard for life, but does the best it can to not only kill you and your civilians, but puts its own civilians in the line of fire (for example, we saw video of Hamas terrorists grabbing children and dragging them across streets in Gaza to use as cover, because they know with a child as cover, the IDF won't fire on them)

By far the coolest part was getting to visit the Sde Dov Air Force Base in northern Tel Aviv. We weren't allowed to take pictures of our own, but there was an IDF photographers taking pictures and we should get a link via email in the coming days so I'll post some pics when I get them. We learned a bit about the Air Force base, the kids of planes they have, and the intense training to become a pilot. Then we got to go and walk around near the runway - we saw a grounded B200 beachcraft plane that was wired for a communications relay flight, and saw some planes taking off and landing. Then we got to go up to the Air Traffic Control tower, which has an amazing beach-front view of the entire city of Tel Aviv.

Then Sunday was the final day of the Politics and Society seminars. First we learned about how the Knesset works (or doesn't) and how the government is formed. Israel has a parliamentary system, so when people go to the polls, they vote for a party instead of a candidate. And as you can imagine in a country full of Jews, there's enough political parties to run a continent. There are 120 seats in the Israeli Knesset, and a party has to garner at least 2% of the popular vote to get a seat. In the elections that were held in February, 33 parties were on the ballot, and ultimately there are 12 parties represented in the government. Usually, the party that wins the most seats gets the right to build a coalition to gain a majority of 61 seats. This year's election was particularly strange. The centrist Kadima party won the most seats, but its leader, Tzipi Livni was unable to show she could build a strong enough coalition. So the president, Shimon Peres, went to the right wing party, the Likud, and gave its leader, Bibi Netanyahu, the right to build the coalition. As it turns out, this is the first time in Israeli history that the party that won the most seats in the election isn't even part of the coalition (Livni is the leader of the opposition)

So from there, we learned about the smaller but very influential political parties, such as the religious parties who hold an extreme amount of power. The 3 main parties (Labor, Likud, Kadima) are overall secular parties, but because they rely on the religious parties like Shas to make up a coalition, they trade Knesset seats for decisions that affect how Judaism is practiced. Unfortunately, Israeli politicians have a history of giving almost total control to the Haredi parties, who in turn use their power to discriminate against everyone and anyone who dares practice a form of Judaism that isn't to their standards.

We heard from Michael Melchior, a former member of Knesset who is the leader of a centrist religious party that did not get the 2% vote in these elections to be represented. I thought the most interesting thing he had to say was about all the issues Israel faces that is unrelated to the political situation and peace process. Politicians and the parties are always re-adjusting their platforms vis a vis the latest developments regarding the Palestinians or Hezbollah or Iran, and while this is obviously the most important issue to consider, almost every other major issue falls by the wayside as a result. Education is not what it once was and performance is falling in almost every single category.

My favorite part of the day was meeting with David Horovitz, the editor in chief of the Jerusalem Post. Journalism has always been an interest of mine, and so naturally it was fascinating to hear his thoughts especially on the political situation and the existential threats Israel faces. He identified peace with the Palestinians, Iran, and de-legitimization of Israel around the world as the 3 biggest threats, with Iran being the scariest and most severe of the 3. He called the world's view on Iran as hypocritical, because many countries are giving it lip service, and the US and Israel aside, nobody's really interested in doing anything about it. And so as is the case at the end of these days, I now have a whole new list of articles and topics to research.

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