Now playing at the Theater of the Absurd

The latest UN farce, a UNESCO play called ‘Let’s make up stuff about Jerusalem, and then we’ll bash Israel.’ As reported in the Jerusalem Post:

Israel slammed the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization on Tuesday for adopting a “completely one-sided resolution” on the Old City of Jerusalem that “deliberately ignores the historical connection between the Jewish people and their ancient capital.”

Foreign Ministry director-general Dore Gold issued a statement saying that not only does the resolution gloss over any Jewish connection to Jerusalem, it also fails to acknowledge Christianity’s ties to Jerusalem and refers to the Temple Mount area only as a “Muslim holy site of worship.”

[…snip…]

“As the historical heritage sites of this area are being systematically destroyed by jihadist forces, such as the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, UNESCO’s adoption of utterly false allegations about Israeli archeological practices is misplaced and hypocritical, at best,” he said. “The resolution is full of distortions and is totally disconnected from reality on the ground,” he concluded.

In short, it’s lies. But, hey, what’s new?

Heart of the Hunter – Deon Meyer

Deon Meyer writes great character-driven fiction, and this is as good an example as you could hope for. It’s a thriller that starts slowly, and quickly heats up.

In the beginning, Thobela Mpayipheli (Tiny to his friends) is approached by the daughter of an old friend. Somebody has kidnapped her father, and demanded she deliver something from his safe in exchange for his release. She is scared and disabled. Will Tiny do the delivery?

In a sense, Tiny is also a play on the role of the man, because he is a tiny cog in a much bigger situation than he can possibly realize. (Not that such a realization would have affected his decision to help.) Spooks are involved. Special Forces are involved. There may be a high level mole in the South African Intelligence Community, who may also be involved. And the kidnappers are not to be toyed with.

That’s the dangerous mix that Tiny faces. In fairness, Tiny is better equipped to face the challenges than 99% of the population. His former life as a skilled assassin is revealed in little snippets, and you wonder at the character of the man who gave up a world of violence to set up home with his girlfriend and her son, and work as a gopher in a motor cycle dealership. He promised not to go back to his old life, but he feels a greater duty to his friend.

Another part of the mix is the Cape Times reporter, Ms Healy, thriving on police tip-offs, and constantly trying to stay ahead of the machinations of the State as they seek to hunt down Tiny before he can complete his mission. Does she see Tiny as a thug, or something more complex? Can she understand and appreciate the forces involved in the story?

And then there’s the motor cycling. I knew that the author was a keen biker, and his love of that pursuit comes across so strongly in the passages in the book telling of Tiny’s motor bike journey as he tries to evade the authorities. Although they are probably a touch indulgent, you get the sense of the author writing from his own experience, drawing deeply on his inner feelings and trying to breathe yet another layer of humanity into the character of Tiny. After all, Tiny is no one dimensional construct. In that respect, he is like the modern South Africa that Meyer does such a good job of portraying. The backdrop of the country is deftly delivered.

There is, indeed, the heart of the hunter beating at the center of this novel. And it will keep you company as you are drawn, inevitably, into the maelstrom.

This is a terrific adventure that, in the classic tell-tale fashion, leaves you distraught on discovering you have read the last page.

Ben who?

Way back in the mists of time, after my mum had died, and in the early days of the alternative minyan at Giffnock and Newlands Hebrew Congregation shul, there was a shabbat kiddush that – looking back now – stands out. Someone, possibly Michael Levy, produced a bottle of BenRiach whisky. Up till that point, I had tried whisky, and could take it or leave it. It was not a main interest of mine. But after sipping that BenRiach, my life changed forever. From that point on, my interest in whisky grew.

Over the years, I tasted a wide range of whisky – mostly Scotch, with the occasional foray into Canadian grain, bourbon, and Irish – and accumulated a decent collection. I fairly quickly understood how personal the connection was; while there was a lot of whisky snobbery, and marketing noise, what was important to me was the whisky I liked, instead of what people told me to like. Or told me was a so-called better whisky. And when people ask me, I make the point of explaining that they should develop their own likes and dislikes, and to be very cynical when it comes to ‘expert’ opinion.

So BenRiach has a special place in my whisky world. And it is therefore very pleasing to see that the reborn brand and its company are doing well. This shabbat, all being well, I’ll drink a wee dram in memory and in honor of BenRiach.

L’chaim!

Balak, Bilaam, and CNN

The following quote from Rabbi Berel Wein‘s Shabbat Shalom Parsha Booklet (3), about the Torah portion we read in shul last Shabbat, seems well timed:

Poor Balak and Bilaam. If they would have lived in our generation they would have undoubtedly received great and favorable media coverage, interviews on CNN and invitations to speak at the Hebrew University to tell their side of the story.

The part about the speaking donkey would certainly have made for great feature articles where it would be pointed out that Bilaam is not to be blamed for beating his animal – rather it is all the fault of that conquering, occupying, bullying angel that inserted himself into the picture.

Yet, no matter what the revisionist historians will say, Balak and Bilaam remain the guilty villains in Jewish tradition and minds. There was no justification to demonize and curse an entire people who intended to do you no harm. Bilaam is a non-governmental, allegedly not-for-profit, one man organization, proclaiming great ideals while at the same time condoning enslavement and murder of thousands. And, in spite of his protestations of idealism and even-handedness, he is for hire.

Five for Friday

Not quite a full week back in a routine, but a damn good start. And the same could be said about progress towards getting rid of the jet-lag. I am fine getting up in the morning, but mid afternoon my body decides to play silly buggers with me, and tell me it’s time for bed. Travel. I hate it. Except the arriving bit.

Talking about arriving, we have arrived again at the weekend. The perfect boost to recovery, and the best preparation for a week of routine. To the extent that anything is ever routine in Israel. But it is, therefore, time for the regular set of links, and here they are:

Shabbat Shalom!

Lost in flight

I’m connected to the web, browsing away, when this advert appears slap bang in the middle of the Globes (English language version of their) home page:

emirates

The definition of a total waste.

(I’m not quite sure why it thinks my native language is German, but whatever the language, there will not be many Emirates flights sold to Israeli browsers of the internet.)

We Shall Inherit the Wind – Gunnar Staalesen

First, it appears this author is a giant of detective fiction in his native Norway. He gets lots of praiseworthy quotes comparing him to Mankell, Chandler, and so on. That set my expectations to a high level. Broadly speaking, these expectations were not met.

The story is that Varg Veum, private investigator, is asked to look into the disappearance of a businessman. From that assignment, Veum is thrown into the struggle – for and against – the expansion of wind power in a part of Norway, with family woes, corporate struggles, and local authority corruption, all mixed up in a toxic cocktail, guaranteeing there will be one or more bodies to deal with before the tale is over. And so it proves.

So, it’s a detective story whodunnit with an environmental theme.

The Norwegian backdrop is also a major player in the atmospheric setting, and sometimes I felt the author was better at that than he was at handling dialogue. However, that might just be grumpy old me. Certainly Veum’s inner reflections were of varying (literary) quality, and often left me cold.

The plot has its share of twists and surprises, though they vary in quality.

The main character is OK, but the supporting cast is straight out of a supermarket warehouse: cardboard, cardboard, and more cardboard.

The opening chapter does hook you in, but the somewhat lackluster prose lets you slip away all too easily. I was past caring about the characters before too long. A shame, as the premise was good enough, and there was potential for a real chiller.

I doubt this is the author’s best book. It would be difficult to believe all that praise was for something that was quite good, but not brilliant. (I certainly hope not.) I am in two minds about whether to go any further with the author. Regrettably, I cannot recommend it.

Exposed – Liza Marklund

Last time around, I wasn’t that impressed by this author. However, I decided to give her another chance. Partly this was because I discovered this was the second book written, but was set as the first of the series. In short, it was the true start.

And start is what Annika Bengtzon, the central character, does. She wants to be a journalist and joins a newspaper as an intern. Her big break comes with her getting to cover the story of the murder of a young girl, found naked in a cemetery. And off this character goes, in all the ways you would expect a novice journalist to go: she makes some daft moves, and some clever moves, and is caught up in the office politics of her work environment.

In a sense, the main frustration is that she is not a policeman, and so is not leading the investigation. That is a different perspective, but at times it was not engrossing enough for me. That having been said, it’s a fairly comprehensive portrait of the central character, and one you cannot help feeling sympathetic towards.

The story draws in some political intrigue, too. That part probably deserved a book on its own, but the author kept it down to the basics, and used it as a rather obvious red herring.

The plot has one obvious twist that, surprisingly, doesn’t take too much out of the value of the read. However, the ending sort of arrived with a stutter, and rather let down the tension that at one point threatened to build up. On the plus side, although there are plenty of loose ends – perhaps the author’s message about their absence in real life – the author does explain in a postscript, the source of her inspiration for some of the book’s events.

Overall, I wasn’t convinced that I wanted to spend any more time with this character. While I might be sympathetic to her troubles, the job of investigative reporter is not one that – for me – either intrigues or captivates. If, however, that does not trouble you, and you are looking for a well drawn leading lady, then you might get a lot more out of the book than I did.

Fleeing Ra’anana

This, from Globes, is interesting:

Israelis leaving big cities

Israelis are bucking a global trend by moving into smaller communities.

Migration figures are an important measure for any community. A city losing its population is a signal that something in the municipal cost-benefit equation is not working.

Cities and communities that are adding new families, on the other hand, are showing that they can be attractive to many Israelis, even if those new families are going there to live because they cannot afford the cost of living anywhere else.

According to figures recently published by the Central Bureau of Statistics and the Ministry of Construction and Housing, Israelis are fleeing the large cities, in absolute contrast to the global urbanization trend strengthening the world’s largest cities. Israel’s five largest cities, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Rishon Lezion, and Ashdod, where a quarter of Israel’s population (two million people) lives, had negative migration in 2010-2013. Other than Haifa, each of these cities also had negative net migration in 2009.

Of Israel’s 40 largest cities (with 40,000 or more residents), only 17 had positive net migration in 2013. In 16 cities, containing 40% of Israel’s population, net migration was negative in each of the years from 2009 through 2013.

It seems that despite the distinctly urban lifestyle of most Israelis, and even though the big cities offer a broad range of housing solutions, educational institutions, culture, employment centers, etc., something there is just not working. The high price of housing in those cities, the absence of adequate construction solutions, and perhaps economic and social temptations in other cities are drawing people away.

Now, here’s where it comes closer to home:

Fleeing Ra’anana

For some reason, size has become a disadvantage in the Israeli way of life. Other than Petah Tikva, all the cities with 100,000 or more residents are losing people. Even Tel Aviv, which has so many attractions to offer, saw 22,500 people leave in 2013, while only 20,500 moved to the city (legal residents, of course; thousands of immigrants come to the city who are not legally registered in it). 18,000 Israelis left Jerusalem in 2013, while only 10,500 moved there.

Ra’anana has the largest negative migration in Israel, losing almost 2% of its population yearly: 15-18 out of every thousand residents. The fact that the city is currently almost aggressively promoting construction in the framework of National Outline Plan 38, and is building large neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city (Neve Zemer, to contain 3,500 apartments) indicates an attempt to reverse the trend, and perhaps to combat the high prices in the city (according to Ministry of Construction and Housing figures, a new four-room apartment in Ra’anana costs an average of NIS 2.14 million) that drive away many of its residents and making it difficult for other Israelis to settle there.

In stark contrast, Kfar Saba, which is right next to Ra’anana, is the leader in positive migration. Massive construction in the city and the relatively cheap alternative it provides to the other Sharon area cities (a new four-room apartment there costs an average of NIS 1.83 million) are making Kfar Saba the preferred option for many families. Just behind it, Hod Hasharon (NIS 1.82 million on the average for a new four-room apartment) has also been waiting patiently far from the limelight (certainly in comparison with its prestigious neighbor, Ramat Hasharon), and has also consistently shown positive net migration in recent years.

While Kfar Saba is the popular alternative in the Sharon area, in the northern outlying areas this role is played by Afula.

Points to ponder:

  • There’s anecdotal evidence of more French immigrants settling in Ra’anana. Will that reverse the trend when the next set of statistics come out, or are they just taking up some of the slack?
  • It’s difficult to know what drives the huge difference in property prices between Ra’anana and Kfar Saba. They are, literally, across the road from one another. There are a much higher percentage of Anglo immigrants in Ra’anana. Is that the driver?  Why?
  • The mayor of Ra’anana has recently introduced a new tax needed to fund infrastructure repairs. The drop in population may have contributed to the need for this new source of money.
  • It’s also difficult to see how the huge construction ongoing in Ra’anana is going to reduce prices. The recently completed development next to ours is more than half empty, but there is no sign of a drop in prices. Either the builders are well capitalized, or the bank have taken over, and will just wait, and wait.
  • I can see why Petah Tikva is attractive; the housing is more modern, and there’s a real communal buzz about the place. However, like most Israeli cities, the road infrastructure struggles to cope with the volume of traffic.