Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Move over, Lucy. Meet Adam. Did modern man originate in Israel, not Africa?

The proof is not in yet --because these 400,000-year-old teeth have yet to be certified as coming from homo sapiens and not Neanderthals-- but much international excitement has been mounting after a scientist chap, aptly named Avi Gopher, dug up eight teeth in an Israeli archaeological site and announced this discovery to the world (perhaps a bit prematurely, according to at least one Cambridge Don, Paul Mellars.) Without a portion of an ancient skull or jaw bone associated with the teeth, he says it is difficult to verify that these teeth are irrefutable evidence of modern man residing in Israel twice as long as in Africa, as conventional wisdom has it.
The academics are looking forward to chewing over the various scholarly arguments and weighing the evidence. (And getting more funding for further digs.) Meanwhile, it certainly increases doubts about the existence and/or efficiency of the Tooth Fairy.

Rather appropriately, given such a toothsome topic, this will be the last post on Israelity Bites for a while. Izzy Bee has been away from the Holy Land for some time and feels that biting commentary requires actual presence in the place. Even that goal can be made difficult. Note how the award-winning NPR reporter Lourdes Garcia-Navarro was recently detained and subjected to a strip search while trying to report on Kadima leader Tzipi Livni's presser about delegitimization. Garcia-Navarro's newly-wed husband was also pulled aside and grilled about his association with the ace radio reporter. Her Latina colouring and flashing dark eyes apparently were seen by a trigger-happy security agent as suspiciously Palestinian-like. She was holding government accreditation at the time, and graciously has laughed off the incident as an annoyance that comes with the job. The Foreign Press Association later issued a formal condemnation of the police detail's action. It bodes badly for the press coverage of Israel when reporters are routinely mistreated this way, even after years in the country. Sigh. Israelity Bites.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Israelis Outsource High Tech to West Bank

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks may be stalled, but that hasn't stopped a small but steady trickle of Israeli technology companies from seeking to work with people on the other side of the decades-old conflict, writes the Associated Press. (Outsourcing beyond the security fence is proving to be quite profitable. Payroll costs for a computer engineer are halved and by telecommuting instead of being herded through checkpoints with other permit-holders, Palestinian employees have a more pleasant work day. :-)

Israeli CEOs say it's their way of bringing a little bit of peace to their troubled corner of the world. But the real reason they're hiring Palestinians, they acknowledge, is because it simply makes good business sense.

Israel's high-tech industry is among the country's crowning achievements. Israel has the most start-ups per capita in the world and has helped produce such game-changing innovations as instant messaging and Internet telephony. Many Israeli tech firms send work offshore to eastern Europe, India or China.

In the past three years, however, some have turned to Palestinian engineers and programmers. They are cheaper, ambitious, work in the same time zone, and — surprisingly to many Israelis — are remarkably similar to them.

"The cultural gap is much smaller than we would think," said Gai Anbar, chief executive of Comply, an Israeli start-up in this central Israeli town that develops software for global pharmaceutical companies like Merck and Teva.

At a previous job, he worked with engineers in India and eastern Europe, but found communication difficult. So in 2007, when he was looking to outsource work at his new start-up, he turned to Palestinian engineers. He said they speak like Israelis do — they are direct and uninhibited. Today, Comply employs four Palestinians.

Palestinian engineers have also warmed up to the idea. "I doubt you would find a company who says, 'I am closed for business'" to Israelis, said Ala Alaeddin, chairman of the Palestinian Information Technology Association.

If there is hesitation, it's in marketing Israeli products under a Palestinian name to tap into larger Arab markets off-limits to them. "We're looking for a partnership ... not one side benefits from the other side," Alaeddin said.

"We have a window of opportunity to demonstrate our skills," said Murad Tahboub, CEO of Asal Technologies, a Palestinian outsourcing company that works with Comply and a handful of other Israeli-based companies. "The more people know about us ... the more comfortable they will be in doing business with us."

This is easier said than done. Comply's office in Hod Hasharon is only about 20 miles (30 kilometers) from Asal Technologies in the West Bank city of Ramallah — but they are worlds apart.

Israel's military prevents most Palestinians and Israelis from visiting each others' cities without special permits, citing security concerns.

A network of fences and concrete walls divides Israel from the West Bank, built by Israel earlier this decade amid a wave of Palestinian attacks. Travel restrictions make meetings between Israelis and Palestinians rare, and psychological barriers separate them as well.

Anbar says his company is proving skeptics wrong. One recent morning, Israeli project manager Gali Kahane chatted online in English with Palestinian programmer Mohammad Radad, sending him smiley emoticons while reviewing updates to the database software they are developing.

"At first it was a little bit strange" to work with Palestinians, but now it's like working with any other Israeli developer, Kahane said. "We are very curious what they think about us," but they never talk politics. "The only thing we talk about is when the bugs will be finished, and reaching our deadline together," she said.

Anbar says working with Palestinians is "doing something good for the world we are living in," but says the real reason he outsources to the West Bank is financial: He pays the outsourcing company about $4,000 a month per engineer, half the cost of outsourcing to an Israeli company.

While Indians or Chinese engineers cost even less, he said Palestinians are more loyal to his company than workers from distant countries — and have a dogged work ethic. Many gained experience working abroad, and stiff competition for coveted engineering jobs in the West Bank pushes those who have work to prove themselves, Tahboub said.

About 10 Israeli start-ups and international companies with centers in Israel have been outsourcing to the West Bank in the past three years, said Tova Scherr of Mercy Corps, an international aid group working to encourage these ventures. Scherr said visits by Israeli businessmen to Ramallah — with Israeli military permission — are becoming more common.

Networking giant Cisco says it was the first international corporation with research and development centers in Israel to begin outsourcing work to the West Bank. Israeli branches of Hewlett-Packard Co., Intel Corp. and Microsoft Corp. have followed Cisco's example and begun to outsource to the Palestinian territories this year, according to Mercy Corps.

Arranging meetings is "sometimes like crossing the Red Sea," said Cisco spokesman Gai Hetzroni.

Last year's initial meeting of Palestinian and Israeli engineers was meant to take place in the West Bank city of Jericho, but an Israeli military closure forced the workers to drag their laptops into a nearby Bedouin tent they rented for the day. Hetzroni said it was an "extraordinary meeting" that convinced the firm to go forward with the partnership.

Word of the West Bank's potential is spreading: Tahboub of Asal Technologies said he received about 20 inquiries this year from Israeli companies.

"We are doing great work for our country," Tahboub said, referring to the yet-to-be-born Palestinian state. "I believe the (technology) sector will become one of the pillars of the Palestinian economy."

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Palestinians, Contained

Israelis credit the serpentine, 400-mile (640 km)system of fences, barricades and checkpoints with reducing terrorist attacks to almost nil since construction began in earnest seven years ago. But the Wall has done more than keep out suicide bombers. No less important, it has created a separation of the mind. Israelis say they simply think much less about Palestinians. And a generation of Palestinians is coming of age without even knowing what Israelis look like, much less the land both sides claim as their own. The absence of familiarity, names, basic knowing — the absence of the foundations of empathy — does not bode well for the chances of the two peoples one day living as neighbors in peace.

The economic consequences of the Wall are plain: it has kept out of Israel hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who used to travel there every day, mostly to work. In the living room of Ramzi's father, family friend Taeser Ihmad complains that after 20 years earning 200 shekels ($55) a day as a gardener at a Jerusalem hospital, he now makes just 80 shekels ($22) building houses in Ramallah.

"I never faced a day that they were not nice to me," Ihmad says of the Israelis as Ramzi and his older brother Anis watch silently from the sofa, drinking in the adult conversation with both the silence expected of the young in an Arab household and the curiosity that betrays a less obvious effect of the barrier. Whatever lies beyond it — enemy, oppressor, kindly cashier — is largely a matter of speculation to those born in the hammock of optimism between the 1993 Oslo accords and the second intifadeh, the uprising that began in 2000 and ended after an iron curtain was drawn across the occupied territories.

Read more at Palestinians, Contained. Kudos to Karl Vick in Ein Arik

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Happy Hannukah

Candlelight, by the Maccabeats, helps distract from the nasty fires in the north of the country and the woefully unprepared firefighters with obsolete equipment.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Religion is No Excuse to Shirk Army Duty

Jewish faith, used by some to justify cultural and social isolation, can also be a force for cohesion and patriotism, for both men and women. Hannukah is as good a time as any to examine this notion. According to an opinion piece in the Jerusalem Post:

Under pressure from Shas and United Torah Judaism, the government has backtracked on its support for a bill that would have helped fight the worrying trend of draft-dodging among young women.

Currently, a young woman can avoid two years of IDF service by simply making a declaration before a representative of the Chief Rabbinate that her religious convictions forbid her to perform military service. Unfortunately, many secular young women take advantage of this. If it had been ratified, the bill would have forced young women seeking exemption to give proof they led a religious lifestyle. But haredi MKs claimed the bill breached the religious status quo protected in the government coalition agreement. MK Miri Regev (Likud), one of the drafters of the bill, abstained in deference to the coalition, though Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna’i broke ranks and voted in favor.

Sadly, the government’s myopic readiness to cater to the whims of narrow religious extremism has led it to ignore the broader national interest of encouraging universal conscription. Just last week, the head of the IDF’s personnel division, Maj.-Gen. Avi Zamir, said that by 2020 some 60 percent of eligible 18-year-olds would try to dodge military service. Half already do. Zamir voiced concern that Israel’s “people’s army” ethos was in danger.

Haredi men are to blame for the bulk of the decline.

But deception on the part of young women has a part to play as well. Thirty-five percent of young women eligible for the draft seek exemption for religious reasons, but thousands lie, according to the IDF human resources department. Via Facebook, the IDF recently managed to catch about 1,000 young women who updated profiles on Shabbat, or posted photos of themselves eating in non-kosher restaurants or wearing immodest clothing.

In the past, the IDF has even hired private investigators.

These efforts underline the IDF’s need for man- and woman-power, even if it means forcibly recruiting liars.

Paradoxically, while religion has been touted as an excuse for exemption from military service, it has also served as a major motivational force, especially among religious Zionist youths. Impressive, though unsurprising, figures were published in the August edition of the IDF magazine Ma’arachot showing a sharp rise in the number of religious combat officers and members of elite units in the IDF in the past decade.

Less known, though, is a growing trend among religious women to enlist in the army.

The vast majority of religious Zionist rabbis oppose military service for women, fearing that intimate contact with the opposite sex in a sexually permissive environment will lead to a breakdown of taboos.

But attitudes are changing. Religious Zionists, who have a greater tendency not to demonstrate blind loyalty to their rabbinic leadership, are responding to the IDF’s more accommodating approach to religious sensitivities – related, undoubtedly, to the sharp rise in kippa wearing officers and commanders and a general atmosphere of multiculturalism.

One thousand religious women interested in military service attended a conference last week in Tel Aviv, compared to just 400 last year. In parallel, an organization called Aluma was established in recent years to prepare religious young women for military service and interface with the IDF during service. Numerous educational frameworks exist for women, including Midreshet Lindenbaum and Tzahali, a women-only religious pre-military academy.

And many young women actually see constructive military service as a boon to faith. A survey of 98 religious women, published in January and conducted by researchers from Sha’anan Teachers College in Haifa, found that IDF service actually strengthened their religiosity.

A third of women who served as IDF teachers felt they had become more religious thanks to their military service, compared to just a quarter of women who served as teachers within the framework of national service.

And 95% said they studied Torah during their IDF stint, compared to just 72% in national service.

Jewish faith, used by some to justify cultural and social isolation, can also be a force for cohesion and patriotism, for both men and women. This is a decidedly positive development which should be encouraged. At the same time, the right of the sincere religious female to opt for national service instead of IDF service should also be respected.

But dodging service to the country altogether is simply unacceptable. Religion is no excuse.