Saturday, April 28, 2007

traffic misery? just what the car czar ordered

David Rubinger, an irrepressible charmer of 82, managed to tease a confession out of Jerusalem's traffic czar, Kobi Bartov. The man finally admitted what local drivers have long suspected.
"I cannot pass a law that would prevent private cars from coming to downtown Jerusalem," he told Rubinger, a renowned photojournalist. "But what I can do is to make life so miserable for the drivers, they will eventually leave their cars at home and come by bus." See The Jerusalem Post for his whole story.

Bartov has narrowed traffic lanes downtown so no ambulance or fire engine could possibly get to a medical emergency or a terrorist's bomb site. Concrete pillars prevent vehicles from pulling over to let them pass. Siren, schmiren: it's just a big bottleneck. Plus there's nowhere to park.

Some cities, like chaotic Bangkok pictured above, experience the phenomenon of improving their roads, only to attract more cars and get even more clogged than before. Batov takes a different tack. He doesn't care if post-Intifada, many Jerusalemites still are leery of public transport. He aims to frustrate, trick and defeat motorists until their only salvation for sanity is public transport. Traffic commissioner is not an elected post, because the guy is not exactly popular.
(photo of Palmach Road by I.Weismehl; Bangkok's trafffic JMcG)

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Flagging Olmert's Snub to Pakistan

Is this the shape of things to come?
Artist Zoya Cherkassky has designed an Interim Flag to update the present national banner and unfurled it in cyberspace on Independence Day. She explained to Ynet news that “The problem with the current flag is that it was born Jewish and only appeals to Jews. There are other people in this country, and just as Arabic is a second language, I would expect that this would be reflected in the flag." To many, these are fighting words. But she has a point.
Zoya's flag shows a Star of David with undefined boundaries. In fact, the shape resembles an explosion, which seems brutally apt for the present situation, as tensions with Hamas increase by the hour and Israelis must brace themselves for a new wave of terror attacks. Preparations for new military incursions into Gaza are underway, they say, and strikes will start after a report on the political and military blunders of the summer Lebanon War gets published. It's deja vu all over again, so it is crucial to reach for a better solution. The red warning flags are hoisted all around, jaws are flapping the same stale slogans, and it's high time to think outside the box.

That's why rejecting Pakistani General Pervez Musharraf's offer to intercede in peace talks with the Palestinians was a poor decision. As todays' Haaretz commentary points out, Israel should welcome a bid from non-Arab Muslims who recognize that peace is the path forward.

Musharraf is no stranger to the risk of extremist Islamic groups, since he must deal with pro-Taliban Mullahs in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Provinces and Baluchistan who object to his western leanings. He is no paragon as a democratic leader, having seized power in a coup. But Olmert's snub to the general, a beleaguered US ally who happens to have his own nuclear weapons, comes across as high-handed, shortsighted, and stubborn. It shows his weakness. The attitude of Pakistan, along with non-Arab Muslim countries such as Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia, could prove critical. The Prime Minister has turned his nose up at a "powerful incentive, under which not only 350 million Arabs, but some 1.25 billion Muslims, would cease to view Israel, at least officially, as an enemy that ought to be annihilated." This is a chance for diplomatic relations and normalization in exchange for not being "dragged into a military abyss." Not a bad bargain.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Moses and Black Gold

So why did Moses take 40 years to find the Holy Land from Egypt?
It takes a while to locate the only place in the whole Middle East without oil.
Oy veh

...overheard at an Independence Day picnic in Liberty Bell Park. Lots of laughter and self-deprecating jokes made the rounds. A newspaper poll showed that after 59 years as a nation, more people here identify themselves primarily as "Jewish"(55 per cent) than as Israelis!

Firework displays and precision aerial stunts by Air Force jet squadrons delighted the Independence Day crowds barbecuing under clear skies today, but there were some more ominous fireworks too. The military wing of Hamas broke their truce to unleash about 100 rockets into Israel, acc to the BBC. There were no reports of injuries, although two IDF soldiers were attacked by a settler who defied their orders at a road checkpoint. A march into the former settlement of Homesh looks set to go ahead, according to local reports. And the beat goes on.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Israel's own anti-semites

Everywhere you look today, there's an Israeli flag flapping. The Jerusalem Post handed out Star of David bunting with each morning paper, and most cars and taxis fly the flag, too. The nation is geared up first to salute all its fallen soldiers and terror victims on Monday. Sirens signal when to show respect. Next comes the big national 59th birthday bash which commemorates David Ben-Gurion declaring the state of Israel in Tel Aviv and putting the kibosh on the British Mandate. Plastic hammers are the big accessory: smash the past, you sabras.

With all this rampant nationalism on display, Ozzy Bee tells me it's particularly disturbing to learn that no anti-semitism laws exist inside this country. There is so much critical coverage of European legislators who outlaw racism, but neglect to specifically ban anti-semitic acts as well. It turns out that there's a homegrown problem with anti-semites inside Israeli cities, mostly vandalism committed by ethnic Ukranian skinheads against the Ultra-Orthodox. They desecrate tombs, steal mezuzahs, and beat up the Haredim. Girls join in the fray. Wire reports and other newspaper articles have estimated that close to 500 acts of anti-semitic violence happen here each year, and are increasingly frequent. Read 'em and weep. Few Israelis acknowledge this great unmentionable, although some admit to institutional prejudice against the "permanently suntanned" Sephardics and Ethiopian immigrants. This resurgence of perverse anti-Jewish sentiment was never envisioned by the founders of the Jewish state. It is a disgrace.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Rothko & Mozart - escapes into art

The current Rothko exhibit in Tel Aviv's Museum of Art hit me hard in the gut. The press notices should have prepared me for the impact of intense colour and stripped-down form of his paintings, so familiar from art history textbooks and reproduction posters. But in person, they seemed almost overpowering.
This show traced the evolution of Mark Rothko's work, including some early figurative paintings like the demon goddess of the night, Lilith, shown below.

(Another artful and powerful Queen of the Night came calling in the flesh in the Occupied Territories. She appeared in the Magic Flute, one of the pieces performed by the touring Choir of London for a Palestine Mozart Festival which lasted two weeks. Enraptured Palestinian kids from refugee camps would clamber on stage to join the cast for an intimate curtain call. The moment seemed enchanted. Sadly, four of the participating Palestinian musicians missed the final performance in East Jerusalem because their permits were denied and Israeli guards would not let them cross the checkpoint. But I digress).

It was the purely abstract works of Rothko that took my breath away in Tel Aviv. Fuzzy edges of vibrant solid hues mark off entities that enhance one another, never quite touching. Somehow it evoked a coexistence which is vibrant and distinct. If only the lifestyle equivalent could be pulled off in this part of the world,life imitating art would really be something to sing about.
As I left the exhibit, a saw a guard wrest away the mobile phone from a museum-goer who had been surreptitiously snapping all the Rothko paintings. He deleted the tiny images one by one as the photographer scowled, then sulked. It was like a performance artist playing a bully.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

'Blue Suede Jew'

A BBC 2 documentary follows an Israeli Elvis Presley impersonator on his journey from the Holy Land to Graceland, and even Uri Geller, the spoonbender, gets in on the action. It's hilarious, but touching too, to explore this obsession of Gilles (Gil) Elmalih. There's more than just the predictable karaoke warbling of 'In the Ghetto' by a chubby wanna-be with sideburns. The family acknowledges that Elvis has left the building...but now communicates with him via paper messages (scrawled in Hebrew!) which the King somehow tosses from heaven onto the sitting room carpet. Living in the West Bank, family becomes convinced that only the King can restore world peace. His divine messages convince them to shlep to Vegas and Memphis. They are chosen.

Though the 79 minute film was completed in 2006, it screened this week in Britain, and has been picked up online. Click here to watch a clip from the Morgan Matthews documentary. Critics loved it.

As the ultimate ersatz Elvis, Elmalih managed to leave his mark in Israel, too. There is a turn-off on the main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway signposted "Elvis", and if you pull over you're bound to get all shook up at a commemorative gas station and a 50s style roadside diner with clientele as odd as the decor. See this article about the Elvis Inn. Frequently, travellers in Israel are overwhelmed in historical reverie, but chicken-fried Americana from the 50s seems definitely anachronistic in this Biblical landscape.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Teenage Bride nabbed as bomber-to-be

Among yesterday's terror arrests was a teenage bomber-bride from Nablus, who was picked up at dawn with six others in a raid on her West Bank refugee camp. The story of this potential "femme fatale" from Palestine is troubling. She may have been trying to escape a dismal arranged marriage by pretending to be a terrorist. This morose wanna-be martyr could hardly be called feisty or drop-dead gorgeous. From all indications, the girl's preference would be to curl up and die.

Newlywed Najwa Hashash, just 19, despaired of married life with her increasingly feeble bridegroom. The honeymoon was definitely over, because the teenager was required to do the chores of a nurse and orderly along with the housework in cramped quarters. She was desperate to find a way out. Her husband, much older, had little chance of recovering from his debilitating illness according to this article in Ynet. Najwa was arrested yesterday by IDF paratroopers, after rumours circulated during the past three weeks that she planned to strap on an explosive belt and cross the closest checkpoint. Earlier, she'd been detained by the Palestinian Authority and released after questioning. Apparently, they deemed Ms Hashash incapable of anything so hush-hush.

In fact, Najwa's neighbours inside the Balata refugee camp in Nablus suggested that the bride had the blues and spread this malicious gossip herself, hoping to be arrested and jailed as a potential suicide bomber. It was just an escape gambit which would leave her "honor" intact and spare her being murdered if she managed to run away from a bad marriage. But others reckon that a recruiter for the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades took advantage of her misery and persuaded Najwa that if she planned to end her life, she might as well take out some Israelis with her. Why not be glorified as a martyr and get a stipend for her family? (Unsurprisingly, the al-Aqsa Brigades deny any contact with her.)

The Israeli army raided West Bank houses at dawn Tuesday and hauled Najwa in along with two dozen other terror suspects in an ironic twist to Palestine's annual Prisoner Day. They'd released 500 inmates in a good will gesture the previous afternoon, although at least 7600 more-- including 362 children and 82 women-- still are in lockup inside Israel. About ten per cent are held in protective custody indefinitely, without charges against them.

The IDF is not expected to be lenient with Najwa, and there is little hope that she'll be tried quickly. They say Palestinian women are increasingly taking an active part in the conflict, including kidnaps and stabbings. Motives don't really matter. Two of five suicide bombers last year were female, and one was a grandmother. IDF and Shin Bet forces recently arrested 19 Palestinian women suspected of terror activities against Israel. Ten of these women were allegedly affiliated with Fatah and the remainder with Islamic Jihad. Violent female militants are not the only threat. Women tend to serve as messengers, and frequently carry cash for militant groups. So did Najwa accomplish her plan by getting arrested? Did the IDF thwart a deadly attack or enable an adolescent scheme to replace the lonely prison of marriage with actual jail time? Was this girl ever an actual threat?

('Suicide Barbie' blonde bombshell poster is by the conceptual artist Simon Tyszk.)

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Pulitzer Prize Picture is Unsettling

This powerful shot of a lone settler woman resisting a squadron of Israeli police who were ordered to carry out evictions last year has won the world-renowned Pulitzer prize for news photography. Mozel tov to an intrepid Israeli wire photographer, Oded Balility.

But does this image show defiance or something else? Is this an idealist or a stubborn criminal? Every picture tells a story...and this one cuts to the quick of the contentious struggle over homeland inside the Holy Land.

(Photo above is copyrighted by Oded Balilty, of Associated Press.)

Monday, April 16, 2007

Holocaust Remembrance

In an abrupt U-turn, the Vatican’s envoy to the Holy Land joined all foreign ambassadors to attend the official Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony Sunday night at Yad Vashem, easing renewed tensions between Israel and the Vatican.

The Vatican had been offended by a photo caption at Jerusalem's Holocaust museum which emphasized the silence that Pope Pius XII maintained throughout the extermination campaign waged against Jews during World War II. The pontiff declined to sign the Allies condemnation of the genocide in 1942. But after receiving a letter from the museum directors suggesting a dialogue, Monsignor Antonio Franco agreed to end the public spat and participate. (The wartime pope is on the fast track to sainthood and his defenders insist that he saved Jewish lives with backroom diplomacy.)

"Since my action was not intended as a move to disassociate myself from the commemoration but to call attention to the manner in which the pope is presented - my aim has been achieved," Franco said in an interview on Vatican Radio.

Six Holocaust survivors were chosen to light ceremonial torches, each one representing a million people who were murdered in the Nazi death camps. Their harrowing stories were featured in the Jerusalem Post. A siren will wail for two minutes Monday morning, bringing Israelis to their feet in silent tribute to these victims of hatred. Memorial services will be held across the country, where 250,000 Holocaust survivors now live. Leftist youths will demonstrate outside the Knesset for the Israeli government to give exile to Darfur refugees. Others call for pension boosts for the 80,000 elderly Holocaust survivors who live below the poverty line inside Israel. Stress and childhood malnutrition have left these extraordinary people particularly susceptible to cancer, and some cannot afford medication. This neglect is viewed as a national disgrace.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Surviors' anguish - Israeli wounds

Somber salutes to the Holocaust victims will mark this Monday, April 16th, with special poignance because many of the quarter million ageing survivors here in Israel are nearing the ends of their natural lives. About one third live in poverty, according to government census records.

Scandalously, these holocaust survivors-- so distinctive with their wrist tattoos, woe-filled faces and obliterated families-- have not always been viewed as heroic inside Israel. This shocked me. Many gruff Israelis tend to view the first Zionist pioneers as far more admirable than European Holocaust victims, the ones who hid, ran away, or did not fight back. Few of these European survivors went into Israeli politics, perhaps because such a life story was a reminder of weakness and self-deception to voters, who tended to shun them. Before they can get Israeli state medical compensation these days, holocaust victims are forced to prove that their health problems were caused by Nazi maltreatment and are not the inevitable decrepitude of old age. Even inside Germany, the compensation for concentration camp survivors is more generous. This situation is deplorable and activists are working towards change.

Against this prevailing attitude, Yossi Zur is making sure that attention is paid to ordinary Israelis who are killed out of hatred. The bereaved father, whose teenage son, nicknamed Blondi, was killed by a suicide bomber on a Haifa bus four years ago, has pledged to remember all civilian victims in the country. He quotes Winston Churchill: "A nation that forgets its past has no future."

Zur has not purged the anger that festers inside the families of the fallen who stay inside contemporary Israel. But commemorating the sacrifice of lives-- whether at Kiryat Shmona, the successive Intifadas, or under Qassam rocket fire-- gives a focus to his grief. Ynet features his campaign to document all civilian memorials to terror victims and name each one. His work will also be showcased in an exhibit at the Castra Gallery in Haifa. The show is called simply "A People Remembers," and a website lovingly compiled by Assaf Zur's bereft father accompanies it.
The memorials to civilians come in myriad shapes and sizes, and Zur photographs them all.

Little Sara, a young Palestinian Christian acquaintance, has dubbed this website a Jewish Cyber-Shaheed. This is her way to comprehend the tears behind each random death. It's more of a cyber-Kaddish. Visitors can lay a pink, red, or white flower in cyber-space for each terror victim.

Genius - A Jewish trait?


The liberal media tends to link that word with the Jewish people's behavior.
Well how about the latest from the rightwing press?

Some 32 per cent of the Nobel Prize winners this century are Jews, yet they make up only two/tenths of one per cent of the global population. As stereotypes go, the Jewish whiz-kid is a pretty good one. The archetypal Jewish Mother brags non-stop about her children's accomplishments. My son, the doctor... or the lawyer, the rabbi, the dentist, the professor... it's a constant refrain around the mahjong table, no? (My son, the general is the proud Sabra Mama take on this theme.)

Charles Murray, a highly controversial social theorist, extols Jewish genius in his latest article which was published in the neo-con monthly, Commentary. Murray concludes that "the Chosen People" are six times as likely to have elevated IQs as the standard population and their levels of achievement are laudable. He points out:

In the first half of the 20th century, despite pervasive and continuing social discrimination against Jews throughout the Western world, despite the retraction of legal rights, and despite the Holocaust, Jews won 14 percent of Nobel Prizes in literature, chemistry, physics, and medicine/physiology. In the second half of the 20th century, when Nobel Prizes began to be awarded to people from all over the world, that figure rose to 29 percent. So far, in the 21st century, it has been 32 percent. Jews constitute about two-tenths of one percent of the world’s population. You do the math.

Hmmmm. Murray says it doesn't take an Einstein to notice that Jews tend to be smarter than the average Joe. (All the numbskulls and schlemiels loitering in my Jerusalem neighborhood must be the exceptions that prove this rule.) Surely smart Jews have been clever enough not to boast about their brains and get them bashed in. This is not the kind of publicity that is necessarily welcome.

Coming from the author of The Bell Curve, which in 1994 blamed the low IQs of African-Americans for their consignment to an underclass, this analysis of Jewish genius is bound to be examined carefully. Some scholars detect an underlying racism, in this case a rare pro-Semitical slant, in anything that purports to look at "genetic tendencies" based on race or creed. He takes pains to examine why non-Ashkenazy Jews score lower. Murray himself is a Scotch-Irish goy from Iowa, and displays a predictable contempt for dumb farmhands. Is he trying to ingratiate himself with his employer, a neo-conservative, pro-Zionist institution? Makes you wonder.

Sure, most Jewish families value higher education and marry for brains, and canny survivors may have been "winnowed" through centuries of persecution, as the London Sunday Times surmises from Murray's text. It may also be true that standardized IQ tests tend to have a cultural bias. They measure test-taking ability, not raw intelligence. It's a point of pride that Jewish intellectuals rank high in the stratosphere of academics. (Except for recent campaigns trashing Israeli universities as overtly politicized institutions of higher learning.) Go figure.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Falafel Factor-it's a wrap

Israel's irascible ambassador to the UN, Dan Gillerman, submitted to a grilling on Jon Stewarts's The Daily Show on Comedy Central last night. His failure to dodge reading aloud from a blaxploitation script is worth a look. He pulls it off with a certain elan. Press here

Dan the Man readily confirms that his country is "run by Jews"; other impertinent queries concerning the Big Falafel and its likelihood of its pushing the nuke button don't faze the seasoned diplomat.

If you use the new window on this blog for viewing random clips, keep in mind that it's experimental. It's located on the right, above the archives, and opens up at the top of the blog. Please email us if any problems arise, and we'll get Ram Blogwallah on the case.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Russian roulette - ageing breast implants

Heard about how the perky new false breasts of a starlet suddenly imploded when her jet started its descent into LAX ? Or the new insurance required for Californian crematoriums that risk explosions when the silicone implants of the departed hit the flames? It gets worse.

Consider the plight of two Russian immigrants in northern Israel whose breast injections have gone bad a decade after their Ukrainian doctors completed their boob jobs. Apparently, a yellowish goo called Bio-gel was shot straight into their delicate breast tissues, and now has passed its sell-by date. After two women in their 30s showed up at Sieff Hospital complaining of sharp pains in the chest and grotesque swelling, plastic surgeons launched an investigation into the undocumented mystery substance pumped inside their breasts. Now Israeli doctors are urging any Russian woman who had breast enhancement during the 1980s or 1990s to come forward and have them surgically removed.

This is no small order. For the past decade, massive waves of immigrants from the former Soviet republics boosted Israel's non-Arab population by 3% per year, adding over one million new citizens. Dr Eyal Winkler, a plastic surgeon, told Haaretz that, because of a shortage of silicone in Russia, women frequently sought cheaper alternatives. One marginal "natural" treatment was harvesting fat from corpses and injecting it into living breasts. Eeew. And, imagine, this they did voluntarily.
Over the past ten years, Winkler personally has treated five cases of infected breasts which had been plumped up with cadaver-fat. But the commercial Russian Bio-gel is even more difficult to treat, because no one has deciphered its precise compenents. "There is no reason to panic," he said soothingly.

I can't help recalling that old advertising campaign for Jaffa oranges which was popular about the same time these breasts were being 'enhanced'. Beautiful Sabra women handed out Jaffa oranges while wearing t-shirts lettered with a most sensible slogan:

"Small ones are more juicy."

Life is Sweet: Mimouna musings

Mimouna is a Jewish-Moroccan springtime celebration for indulging in the season's first leavened bread: in our case, the thinnest Mufleta crepes imaginable, cooked on the reverse side of a heated tagine dish and then dipped in honey.
Arcane symbols, with a repetition of the number five, promise fecundity and fortune. Scattered grains, nuts, flat beans, crisp lettuce leaves, gold coins and filling-tingling honey were laid out. Milk, flour and white candles stand for purity; dates and jams for a sweet year; bean pods for fertility. It's a wonderful way to get your fill of sweet treats after a week of abstention during Passover.

This possibly pagan holiday is now embraced by almost all Israelis, especially politicians. (The mayor and the vice premier showed up at Jerusalem's convention centre, although the pols usually come to gab and grab sweeties at city park picnics or beach bbqs.) My neighbour upstairs hosted an extravagant Mimouna party for local artists of North-African origin, and it was one of the best evenings of the year. Wearing a kaftan, sprawled on cushions, there are no worries of a tight waistline pinching after so much indulgence. I am told that in Morocco, matchmakers always worked overtime during this festival, and this party seemed awash in undercurrents of sexual tension.

Izzy admits to being an etymology buff. Suggestions that "Mimouna" is derived from the Hebrew word emunah, or faith, seem farfetched. A Moroccan accent doesn't mangle every utterance so much. Others say that the holiday refers to word mammon, which means riches or prosperity. Religious sticklers say the festival is probably derived from the Rabbi Maimon. Maimonides' father, who had lived in Fez, where Mimouna most likely originated, is said to have died on the day of this festival. But my favorite explanation is that the sweet table is laid out this way to appease the she-devil wife of Baal, as one history prof described in Ha'aretz newspaper article.

The arrival of Mimoun confirms that Spring is in the air. It's so obvious that the season has changed. Delicious fragrances waft in on the breeze, pollen makes us all sneeze, while almond and olive trees are in full blossom, and so are the ubiquitous Judas trees with branches groaning with magnificent magenta flowers. Originally from Judea, the tree's name was altered after Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus, was found hanging from one, legend has it. With all those festive blossoms,some even coming right out of the knobbily old trunks, it's hard to imagine this as a likely suicide tree.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

'Lost Tomb' Tumult at Easter

Judging from today’s throngs of worshipers, Easter rituals inside the Holy Land are as fervent as ever--despite claims by Hollywood’s Terminator Man, James Cameron, that a crypt unearthed in a Jerusalem suburb decades ago is the “Lost Tomb of Jesus” which once contained Christ, along with his clandestine wife and son, plus half a dozen more assorted relatives.

Worshipful crowds from at least six denominations, including Roman Catholics and Christian Orthodox, jostled inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to celebrate Christ’s Resurrection on the very spot believed to hold his abandoned tomb. Meanwhile three thousand protestants sang hymns at an ancient Garden Tomb nearby, where they reckon Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead on the first Easter Sunday. Over yonder at Talpiyot apartments, where the sealed and disputed tomb was unveiled to 4 million tv viewers in March, there was only birdsong and barbecue smoke. Jewish Passover is winding up and local families seem to have scant interest in Christian conjecture. (see Time’s blog).

Simcha Jacobovici, lately a director sidekick to producer James Cameron, was so captivated by the ancient family crypt of a man called Jesus, he spent three years chasing up the Talpiyot discovery which he says Israeli archaeologists hushed-up. The lid had been kept on this information for at least 27 years. (Er, except for a BBC documentary 11 years ago and a scientific paper.) Now that the initial buzz about Talpiyot has been replaced by widespread derision, and the book has dropped off the bestsellers’ list, Simcha is grousing that his critics are out to crucify him! (See “His Cross to Bear”, a Jerusalem Post profile.

Simcha is an unbridled enthusiast, not a scholar, and his new bestseller was just reissued with a revamped cover of a rather zombie-like blue Christ that eliminates possibly gnostic symbols. “The Jesus Family Tomb: The Discovery, the Investigation, and the Evidence That Could Change History” by Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino, was re-released this week. (Disingenuously, Pellegrino claimed that it was apt to be censored by a close-minded establishment. See his remarks here.

The controversial “Lost Tomb” program probably will be rerun after Easter to boost ratings and book sales, if the corporate sponsors don't lose their nerve. Note that Coca Cola has delayed the Good Friday release of an Italian feature film due to a potentially offensive scene where a hitch-hiking Jesus quaffs coke from the can. The director now must cut it out. No one wants to rile fundamentalist Christians-- America's biggest consumer base--by ill-considered product placement which might be deemed blasphemy.
This documentary project took off after an Israeli archaeologist, Amos Kloner, showed Simcha inscriptions on ancient ossuaries that had held the remains of a fellow labelled Jesus (or perhaps Joshua), the son of Joseph; Judah, son of Jesus; a couple of males named Jose and Mattieu, Maria (in Latin), and another female called Marianme e Mara (in Greek). The caskets spanned generations yet Simcha was intrigued. Could this mean another Bible-based Emmy in the offing?

The eager filmmaker went into overdrive. He called in experts, grilled the locals, located and mapped the crypt, gathered samples of remains, then co-wrote a book and filmed a rather hokey schlocku-drama for television which was rife with costumed recreations and foreboding music.

Now, after one broadcast of his 90-minute show, Simcha is reeling from scientists and Christian critics-- online, on air and in print-- going into instant attack mode. Castigated for “pimping the Bible” and producing “archaeo-porn”, Simcha seems wounded by personal insults to a baby-boomer who's a “humble father of five.” But since he christened himself the “Naked Archaeologist” in a nod to Jamie Oliver, a brazen British cooking personality with a huge following, Simcha has only himself to blame for lowering the tone. Rather like Mary Magdalene, the peripatetic missionary who the High Church discredited by labelling a whore, this Israeli-born Romanian-Canadian feels he is misunderstood. He has no axe to grind, he insists, but just lays out startling evidence. Marginal communities, like the earliest Christians who were persecuted as heretical Jews until the 4th century, fascinate him.

Izzy Bee met Simcha recently in Jerusalem, where he grumbled about his current woes. Both the scientific community and the church hierarchy have disparaged the shortcuts in his logic and far-fetched conjecture. The Vatican has just ignored it all. He clearly was on the defensive as an upstart outsider:"Look, this is inspirational. It could prove that Jesus wasn't a myth --he really existed. People have come up to me and said their faith has been reinforced," Simcha said plaintively. Most of these same practiced soundbites were recapped almost verbatim in the Jerusalem Post profile which ran a couple of weeks ago. Maddeningly, he wouldn’t discuss personal views on religion with israelity bites, and insisted that his faith was irrelevant to the project, because he is a professional investigative reporter. But to the Post journalist, he gave his take on the tomb as an Orthodox Jew, and even gave tips on keeping Kosher in Hollywood. It’s quite a bizarre read.
Pontormo's odd masterpiece. Click to enlarge

In the Discovery Channel documentary, some intriguing elements were skimmed over, although they do figure prominently in the book. The co-author Charles Pellegrino expounds on them here and here. Simcha was not the first tomb raider, nor was it the 1980 antiquities crew called in after builders blasted it open. Centuries ago, some Crusaders crept into this distant crypt and vandalized it, placing three skulls in an equilateral triangle. Some people read this as a kind of a Gnostic hex against the anti-Christ, especially when paired with the the stylized chevron and dot carved over the tomb’s entrance, just like a Freemason emblem. (Simcha said that reports of Cameron's links to the Freemason cult “were total nonsense”, and then giggled that the same ominous eyed- pyramid sign was visible from Cameron’s Hollywood office. New World Order--heavy,man. Next he flipped to a plate in his book -- the Jacopo Pontormo painting of the 'Supper at Emmaus', showing the resurrected Christ beneath a floating eyeball. "Get a load of this," he said, clearly titillated.)
Because the Templar marauders had handled the skulls and bones and may even have altered the casket inscriptions that puzzlingly were wrought in Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew, it makes analysis even more iffy. The BBC crew who filmed “The Body in Question”, a sober 1996 precursor to the Cameron/Jacobovici remake, also had encountered an important inscription in a different venue from roughly the same era. “Jesus, son of Joseph” was scratched on a unimpressively small shard, beside a decorative fish sign; ultimately the BBC producers overlooked it and chose to feature the bone box for better visuals on television. So did Cameron and Jacobovici.

Questioning Simcha on the leaps of faith it took to reach his conclusion was a challenge. He shuffles legends, artifacts, gospel and Biblical-inspired legends like a latter-day card shark. “Just google it, there are thousands of references!”, he countered my queries about how he can equate Mariamne to Mary Magdalene, based on a single apocryphal document. When asked about testing the other ossuaries or the contents of the Virgin Mary’s traditional resting place near Gesthemane, he said “Limited budget : we don’t have the means to test every holy relic.” And he rolled his blue eyes impatiently when I voiced misgivings about obvious DNA test shortcomings: sequencing had ruled out maternal links between Marianme and Jesus, but paternal relationships might have existed - say, this Jesus might have fathered the Mary in the adjacent ossuary, or could have been her uncle or cousin or slave. “Could have been snatched away by aliens, too, but we try and go with the most likely scenarios,” he chuckled. Uh-huh.
Simcha invariably will hype the importance of his latest re-discovery for his upcoming book tour, and he is an engaging fellow with a fascinating spiel. Yet somehow, I get the feeling that with this latest bit of rushed research, he and James Cameron have really laid an egg. It’s a fanciful technicolor Easter egg, gift-wrapped for a gullible public.

Faberge egg image courtesy of

Friday, April 06, 2007

No Go: Jerusalem Tram Plan Trammelled?

Getting around inside Jerusalem unobstructed is almost impossible, except on foot. Drivers face sudden improvised barriers, detours, closed lanes, potholes,and shallow ditches. An ambitious one-way road system keeps getting rejigged and rerouted before drivers can work it out. Local cynics insist that it's designed to enrage and frustrate car owners so they'll be willing to park and ride the city's new Light Railway once it is up and running in 2009. For now, parked cars, straddling the curbs, block most sidewalks. The city buses run sporadically, are too wide for narrow inner streets, and must share the roadway with enormous tourist coaches. Reliable public transportation--if it can be kept safe from attackers-- would be a godsend for Jerusalemites. Envisioned by Theodor Herzl back in 1900, a city rail transport plan was finally signed into existence a century later by then-mayor Ehud Olmert. He's now the Prime Minister, and the least popular man in the country.

Citypass consortium is contracted to build and run the long-awaited light rail project in Jerusalem.If it can ease the traffic snarls and improve the humour of impatient drivers, that will be viewed as a minor miracle. Tempers have been fraying for months as construction workers get stuck in. With streets torn up and constantly re-piped and repaved, no one seems to know how to avoid bottlenecks.

But there is yet another stumbling block. Two French companies, Veolia Transport and Connex, hold contracts for the tramway's construction and are being sued in Paris. It's political, with suggestions that the city fathers plan an apartheid railway, with separate carriages likely for Arab-Israelis, and severe restrictions against any Palestinian riders. Prosecutors allege that "Israel was exploiting international and regional crises to create a new permanent reality in Jerusalem and its vicinity, expanding the settlements, building the separation fence and constructing the light rail." The pro-Palestinian plaintiff insists that a conspiracy is underway to "turn the settlements that are located close to Jerusalem into Jewish neighborhoods of the city, facilitating transport to and from these settlements and encouraging more people to live there" because of the quick link to downtown.

Creating Israeli strongholds in Arab parts of Jerusalem will further isolate the east Jerusalem neighborhoods from the West bank, the lawyers charge. The project will expropriate land from Arabs for parking lots and some rail routings.

Under union pressure, a Dublin firm called Veolia Transport Ireland has balked at the project. It abruptly cancelled plans to train Israeli personnel.Dublin's union drivers refuse to allow their transport system to be used by drivers destined for a new tram system linking the illegal Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem. “It’s not going to happen”, trade union official John Flannery said.

In November the Dutch ASN Bank decided to divest from Veolia until the company respects the relevant UN resolutions. Meanwhile, the streets of Jerusalem are in disarray as railway workers pickaxe the pavement again and again.

Graffiti daubed on construction sites for the tramway in downtown Jerusalem. Snaps by JMcG

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Promised Land or Bust!

Just wanted to share this offbeat Passover greeting which Gali, a hip photographer with sardonic tastes, has emailed to her friends in Jerusalem. It's actually a book promo for Sam Apple, author of "Schlepping through the Alps", and although this site does not normally run ads, this one is too baaaad to pass over.
So click here and have a happy pesach, everybody. Who who who....
Best to view this while eating a scoop of that newfangled seasonal ice cream, Matza Crunch, by Ben & Jerry. No, really.

Monday, April 02, 2007

smoke signals?

Photo of Jewish passover rites, from Associated Press, shows some Orthodox families burning bread in Jerusalem before 11 am.

In the midst of this Passover holiday, which celebrates the Jews' return from the wilderness, there are decidedly mixed signals from Israel's leader, who rated a dismal three per cent approval rating in one recent poll.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has called on King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and other Arab heads of state to talk peace inside Israel--what they consider the belly of the beast--and he suggests that peace can come to the region within five years. Some analysts think that the shifting situation with Iran may be behind this diplomatic step.

Many hawkish Israelis are appalled by this notion, and consider it a sellout to even consider revival of the 2002 Saudi peace plan. Arab analysts shrug it aside as empty talk from a weak leader, and doubt that anyone would show up.
According to the BBC, a regional meeting is likelier to take place outside of Israel.

BBC Captive Held Three Weeks

...and counting. The vigil continues for Alan Johnston, the BBC reporter who was abducted at gunpoint exactly three weeks ago in Gaza. Yesterday would have been his last day on the job, before a transfer to another foreign posting following three years on this critical beat.
Apparently the notorious Dogmush clan, the Gazan mercenaries who are believed to be holding Alan for ransom and/or prisoner exchange, has had little contact with the Palestinian government. They may have been subcontracted by other political or criminal factions for the kidnapping. Allegiances are constantly shifting in this brutal strip which is increasingly compared to Somalia. That's why local journalists call for a boycott of coverage for the ineffectual Palestinian leadership and why the BBC and British government are working low-key, behind the scenes, for some sort of resolution.
Note that the Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hamas and Hezbollah last summer are also still captive and believed to be alive. Their families will be eating Seder suppers for the first time without their sons at tonight's Passover celebrations.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Israeli cyber-crooks outspam Nigerian emailers

A Silicone Valley software security study has revealed that Israel has the most web-criminals per capita on the planet. Israeli internet-users constitute nine per cent of online crime, followed by Taiwan with 8 per cent, and Poland (tied with America with 6 per cent). Those shady Nigerians who beg to park funds in your personal bank account and give you a portion of any gains no longer dominate the statistics. Now the malicious Israeli bot-masters propagate viruses, "trojan horses" and other sundry programs designed to take over target computers. E-mailed attachments can gain control of a victim's computer without his knowledge and steal useful information, such as credit card account numbers or personal address books. Gone are the days of frivolous pranksters: greed is the motive now. Unfortunately, they do not all take the Sabbath off. Two per cent of the world's spam originates in Israel, a relatively tiny country. For the past two years, spamming technically has been illegal in Israel. Enforcement is pretty tough.

Not April fools -- a high caloric art prank

It is Palm Sunday today, and the Chocolate Jesus controversy has arrived. Although it may have passed over the rest of Jerusalem, which is busy readying for Passover, the triumphal Jewish spring festival that celebrates exodus and return with a family feast, grumblings have been overheard. Complaints about sacrilege have reached the Christian quarter of the Old City, the same place where US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and her entourage, including Keith Ellison, America's first Muslim Congressman, toured yesterday with their bodyguards.

Photos of a New York gallery exhibit--a lifesize and anatomically correct "My Sweet Lord" (sans loin cloth)-- have stirred up ire at the unconventional exposure of a 45,000 calorie deity. Devout Christians tend to ritually eat the body of Christ via little flat eucharist wafers not unlike matza. So displaying a 200-pound candy Christ, like a gargantuan bunny or Easter Egg, has upset a large swathe of Christendom...including the priests inside Jerusalem, who tut-tutted privately at the amount of publicity which has been generated for the Lab Gallery and the artist-cum-chocolatier, Cosimo Cavallaro. Now this show has been cancelled because of a public outcry and the candy-coated christ is stored inside a refrigerated truck away from the gallery, as alternative offers pour in. Sweet Jesus-- ain't exactly Piss Christ (Andres Serrano, 1987), but the timing is piss poor, and deliberately so. Maximum exposure for the naked Christ was guaranteed by displaying it on the Lenten week between Palm Sunday and Easter. This was what rankled a cardinal or two.

The notion of a chocolate Jesus is not so radical. Edible crucifixes are sold for Easter Baskets. And after all, Tom Waits growled out his raspy ballad Chocolate Jesus last year on late night tv,
Since Waits drawls the words in the YouTube clip, we'd better spell out the lyrics:

Chocolate Jesus

Well, i don't go to church on sunday
Don't get on my knees to pray
Don't memorize the books of the bible
I got my own special way

I know jesus loves me
Maybe just a little bit more
I fall down on my knees every sunday
At zerelda lee's candy store

Well, it's got to be a chocolate jesus
Make me feel good inside
Got to be a chocolate jesus
Keep me satisfied

Well, i don't want no abba zabba
Don't want no almond joy
There ain't nothing better
Suitable for this boy

Well, it's the only thing that can pick me up
It's better than a cup of gold
See, only a chocolate jesus
Can satisfy my soul

When the weather gets rough and it's whiskey in the shade
It's best to wrap your savior up in cellophane
He flows like the big muddy but that's okay
Pour him over ice cream for a nice parfait

Well, it's got to be a chocolate jesus
Good enough for me
Got to be a chocolate jesus
It's good enough for me

And it's got to be a chocolate jesus
Make me feel so good inside
Got to be a chocolate jesus
Keep me satisfied