Saturday, June 30, 2007

Same thing, different perspectives

Tonight, we visited one of Vivian's high school friends and her husband at their home in French Hill in East Jerusalem. Turns out her friends live on the same street as another of her friends -- married to author Robert Slater (who has written biographies on Donald Trump, Jack Welch and others), whom we visited last time we were in Israel three years ago.
So I asked about the cranes dotting central Jerusalem. "Oh, yes, there is some building going on, mostly for accommodation for foreigners, but much of the work is not really new -- it starts and stops," our host said.
French Hill is on the "Jordanian" side, occupied by Israel in 1967. Israel considers Jerusalem to be entirely part of Israel -- there are Arab villages and communities within the city limits, of course. Theoretically, the Arabs are eligible for Israeli citizenship, but most of them want nothing to do with the Jewish state, though their residence in Jerusalem accords them special privileges and rights, especially within Israel's health care and social services.
We told our guests that we were planning to visit (in an organized tour) a west bank 'settlement' next week. We heard a mouthful about the "extremists" who think that all of pre-1948 Palestine should be a Jewish-controlled state. There is irony here of course, because officially our hosts, denigrating the extremist settlers, are themselves "settlers" in east Jerusalem. Of course their attitude is different. "We don't see us as having any permanent right to live here," said Vivian's friend. "We are here as long as it is reasonable but don't claim permanent rights here." Refreshing, indeed.
Today, we toured the Old City again. I found my natural bargaining skills in high form -- to the point a merchant, in accepting my payment, essentially called me a pig for refusing to budge from an initial low offer. I probably should have let the guy save face for 7.5 shekels (about $2.00 US), or (more rationally) started with a lower initial position and then given him some room to 'haggle'. Lesson learned for next time.
We toured some British mandate colonial areas of Jerusalem; including the street with the Prime Minister's residence (but we missed seeing the home of the outgoing President, resigning after a sex scandal.)
Things here, indeed, are never exactly what they seem to be -- and there are many different perspectives of the same story. For example, if you read this comprehensive web site about the Irgun's King David Hotel raid, you might conclude that if what happened here is terrorism, it is terrorism with a surprisingly humane heart (and it is quite debatable whether a hit on the offices of the British military headquarters is terrorism or just a really assertive and reasonable military strike in war-time conditions.
Tomorrow, we head north for five days touring with a personal guide.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Jerusalem under construction

I'd like to have more empirical information to back this assertion -- but construction appears to be booming in downtown Jerusalem. Lots of cranes, lots of projects, notably what appear to be high -end residential condominiums.
In vacation mode, I didn't come here looking for information about the construction industry in Israel -- but will look into more details later in the visit. Safe to say, however, that while there may be plenty of conflict around here, the mood of this city (population about 700,000 with perhaps 200,000 transient visitors) is healthy, in growth mode, clearly.
We visited the "Kotel" in the walled city, that amazingly contentious piece of territory that combines the "Dome of the Rock" and the Jewish temple wailing wall (the Dome is one of the holiest sites in Islam; the Wailing Wall is considered the most holy sites for Jews.)The juxtaposition of the two religious shrines at one piece of property clearly reveals the severity of the conflict here. The distinction is that in the period 1948-1967, when Jordan occupied East Jerusalem, Jews were denied access to their site -- in fact it was degraded in insulting manners -- while post 67, under Israeli "occupation" religious rights are respected for everyone, including Muslims, though clearly there is significant security at the site.
We also visited the King David Hotel, notoriously remembered as the place where Jewish terrorism reached its apex in 1946, as the British sought to find a way to hang on in Palestine, and Zionists and Arabs battled among themselves and with the British. The Irgun bombed the hotel (used as British military headquarters), killing 45.
In the hotel lobby, posters and old photos acknowledged the hotel's earliest history -- in 1930. The complexity of this history shows up even today, as an Egyptian bank is suing for shareholding rights it claims trace back to the early years. Of course, for several decades, Egypt and Israel were at war or in conflict -- now, the two countries recognize each other so it isn't unreasonable for an Egyptian bank to seek recourse in an Israeli court.
Tonight is the Jewish Sabbath; the city virtually shuts down; if I was observant I certainly would not be writing in this blog; but, regardless, the city will be quiet tomorrow; no buses, most businesses closed, and a degree of peacefulness and solitude in this dynamic, changing, historic environment.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Scandals and family

An family vacation in Israel with a bright, sports loving 10-year-old is not the same experience as an organized tour group, or an adults-only travel experience. Even if you want to delve into complex and controversial areas, you aren't going to get very far -- because children's activities must take precedence.

We had thought of going to the Holocaust Museum, but Eric said "no, that is too depressing, I don't want to see the skinny bodies". So I needed to find an alternative, and we settled on the Bloomfield Science Museum.

This museum is like many similar museums in North America, with interactive kids oriented exhibits, and a lot of malfunctioning computers and machinery. I enjoyed the Einstein exhibit, especially reading his 1939 letter to President Franklin Roosevelt, advising him of the potential of a nuclear bomb, though he thought it would be too heavy to put on an airplane. However, he said the bomb, delivered by ship, would certainly destroy the port! Roosevelt thanked Einstein for his letter, and set in motion to research program that resulted in the 1945 bombs on Japan.

We returned to our new hotel, the full-service Dan Panorama. It is a 3.5 star type place; not dumpy, but not overly luxurious.

I set out to exercise in the modest fitness centre. On Israeli television, a woman was holding a press conference. She turned out to be the woman the former Israeli president is accused of sexually assaulting.

And, so this headline in the International Herald Tribune: President Katsav of Israel to plead guilty to sex crimes but avoid jail. The hotel fitness centre attendant without prompting from me said: "Everyone here knows that the woman is no angel -- she's slept around with all kinds of people, used blackmail, and threatened politicians -- Kastav is not the first." Of course, Kastav's reputation also is not particularly spotless, either. So we have two less-perfect-players creating a national scandal and an international blot on Israel's image.

Tomorrow, before things shut down for Shabbat, we'll head to the old city, the Wailing Wall -- the place where the conflicting religions co-exist in a strange but well choreographed set of images and patterns.

(Israeli taxi driving image -- Every community I know has its own rules and traditions when it comes to taxis, and Israel is no exception. The ground rules: Tipping is not expected, and you can either elect to use the meter or negotiate a flat rate. The latter option invites all kinds of creative options for cabbies.

Today, in transferring hotels, we used the taxi dispatch centre/stand near the place we had been staying at. One of the cabbies keeps his meticulously washed Mercedes right in front of the stand. When we pulled up with our bags, he said "40 sheckels". I said "Meter". He responded, "okay, I'll charge 3 shekels for each bag (we had five bags)". I said "no" and proceeded to unload our bags from the cab. (We aren't talking major money here, there are about 4 shekels to a dollar, so the fare would be $10, but I also knew this cabbie was gaming us and was going to give him as much he could get.)

We waited a few minutes in front of the cab stand, wondering if I'd made a big mistake. Another cab pulled up. I said "how much" and when the cabbie said "30 shekels", we wasted no time hopping in. But I think if we had a metered fare, the true cost would have been closer to 20 shekels. I know, we are talking only a few dollars difference, but this is part of the cultural experience -- and working with the creatively innovative and agressive cabbies in this community takes a certain a mount of fortitude and patience -- unless you want to be sucker-bait.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007


First full day in Israel -- adjusting to jet lag; and visiting the zoo. Now monkeys, giraffes and elephants can be seen in most major city zoos and even though the Jerusalem zoo claims some degree of biblical associations (one of its visitor's centres is shaped as Noah's Ark) it is plain and simple, a zoo.
Why go there? Three years ago, when Eric was six, we visited on a 'guys day out' (Vivian took time for more intellectual sites) and we formed certain bonds, especially observing the monkeys and chimps. This has been the stuff of school projects and family time since then; so, deciding to keep our agenda light as we adjusted our Jet lag, Vivian joined us, as well.
One jarring clue that things are not totally normal here, however, is the apparent police post you can see looking down from a Zoo vantage point. I believe the post controls access to an Arab village up a hill opposite the zoo.
That is the reality of Israel -- this is a totally westernized democracy (democratic it is, a big ad questioning the rightfulness of checkpoints and settlements appears on the inside front page of one of the newspapers here), but not everyone buys into the story. Hamas, especially, controls Gaza -- a poverty-stricken horror story -- and Hamas' view of democracy is that it is decadent (and Israel should be wiped off the map). But I'm sure the average Arab villager, facing the checkpoint every day on the way his home, is probably rooting for Hamas, even though I think it is realistic to assume his true quality of life would ultimately be poorer under Islamic rule.
You can easily escape these issues, and anything to do with controversy and news, by minding your touristy business in Jerusalem, and in fact, that is what most people do.
Tomorrow, we'll move from our inexpensive hostel to a full service hotel. I won't need to borrow another hotel's weak wireless connection, so may be able to post more photos, etc, and give the entry more time and care.

In Jerusalem

Still getting settled here -- I've been 'borrowing' high speed internet from a nearby hotel; paying 12NIS (about $5.00 for an hour's access --I'm sitting on a rooftop patio of the (much less expensive) hotel across the street.

Because the connection isn't reliable, I'll hold off more formal postings until we get more settled. But first impression is, if you din't read the newspapers or watch the television news, you would not sense there are any problems here -- construction is booming, people going about their normal lives; the only 'irregularities' are the security guards checking bags in front of grocery stores! And we are near the center of Jerusalem.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Day 1 - Boston

We arrived here about 1:30 p.m. yesterday -- checked into the hotel and then took the subway two stops to the waterfront/aquarium area for some dinner and a visit of the old city. We'll likely return to the Aquarium today for another visit, before heading to the airport and our flight to Milan.
I've been to Boston a couple of times on business; but this is our first family visit here. A day's visit only allows for brief impressions -- the 'touristy' section of the old city is both predictable, and nifty. Lots of boats, of course, in harbour area on the warm but not excessively hot summer day.
I put out a business crisis last night (see and have been reading Google reports on the Israeli situation -- but we will see more when we are on the ground there. Also fixed things so the image downloads from the camera work.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Packing our bags
This is our last night at home before embarking on the 3.5 week visit to Israel. It will become the third longest journey in my life (though obviously is not on the same scale as my youthful journeys to Africa, at 8 months and 18 months respectively in the mid-late 1970s.)
Nevertheless, this will be the first time for me to maintain a public travel journal.
Tomorrow we fly to Boston, MA, and spend about 30 hours there before catching a flight to Milan Italy and then Tel Aviv.

The day before

We leave for the first stage of our trip -- a day in Boston, MA tomorrow about noon. When we first planned the vacation about six months ago, Alitalia offered the least expensive flights, via Milan. To get to Boston, I am using accumulated Aeroplan points. Since Air Canada and Alitalia don't co-operate and the tickets are built on a different framework, I faced a choice -- setting up same-day connections and hoping there would not be weather, mechanical or schedule changes, or building in lots of 'wiggle room' by overnighting in Boston, both ways. I opted for the two way choice.

Second decision, should I purchase trip cancellation insurance. My view on this is usually 'no' --it is way overpriced for most circumstances; we aren't going to be put into poverty if we can't make the flight, and most flight insurance plans have limitations that reduce their values. But fate intervened. A few days before we committed to the trip, I received a notice that my name had been selected for possible jury duty consideration this year. It didn't say I would be on a jury -- just that there is a possibility.

Now, the last thing any self-employed person (with a business requiring some hands-on involvement) wants is jury duty -- though I admit, now, as we get ready to leave for this four week trip, that it wouldn't be that much of a hardship for me), but the thought of having to cancel the trip because of a court order made the insurance fees seem entirely reasonable. Of course, like all insurance, the money is (fortunately) 'wasted' because we didn't need it.

Today, Eric had his last day at school -- with a resounding send-off from friends, and I prepared for some last-minute work before the Sunday departure. Politics, history, culture, the great adventure are ahead -- but right now the focus is on last minute preparations.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Hamas, Gaza and fear

While several people in the last week have asked me, "Is it safe to go there? (Israel)" I quickly respond that I have no plans to travel to the Gaza Strip, which of course is no longer occupied by Israel. Of course, I have been monitoring the news closely. One publication, The Times of London, says Israel is preparing military action against Hamas in Gaza, but the majority of reports -- representing a diversity of perspectives -- suggest that as long as Hamas keeps things under control and doesn't try anything against Israel, the Israelis will not interfere and will in fact co-operate with humanitarian and food aid.

So we are continuing our preparations. I have an intensive week of work ahead, since we have not hired a permanent editor yet and I have to do most of the writing for the July issues before departing (giving instructions to freelancers to finish the work for July, and co-ordinate most of the editorial for August). We have to do our packing and stuff. Fortunately, most of the itinerary is set out and we are ready to go.

But what about Hamas, the "occupied territories" and the political mess that defines this region?

First, we must be clear -- Hamas has a fundamental goal -- the complete destruction of the state of Israel and its replacement with an Islamic theocracy. I'm sure if its leaders and lay supporters could have the power to brutalize the Jews, they would give us worse treatment than they showed their Fatah opponents -- with cold blooded murder, throwing bodies off roofs, and the like.

Second, Israel really can't destroy Hamas. In the Gaza cesspool, to do so would mean the murder of millions of people -- perhaps truly supporting Hamas, but nonetheless, these are downtrodeen, poverty-stricken civilians. Such brutality is of course against the Jewish moral code.

The problem here is hate and poverty are breeding on each other, creating a downward vortex for which there is no easy solution or obvious answer. Israel can't just leave Gaza alone, with arms smuggling and fanatics in charge, Hamas could build a formidable arsenal to achieve its objectives. Probably what will need to happen are periodic interventions from Israel, either direct assaults or pin-point attacks, especially on the Hamas top leadership -- to keep them from getting too strong, while showing as much respect as possible for international moral conventions, by allowing food and humanitarian support to continue. (Israel could theoretically starve and put the strip into a state of siege by cutting most of its water and power, but it won't do that, unless, I suppose, Hamas goes all out.).

These 'solutions' don't really solve the problem, of course. That roots back to Israel's birth in 1948, and the response of the Arabs, both locally and internationally, to regard Palestinian refugees as unassimialatable; to be supported by United Nations food aid as they are denied freedom of movement or opportunity, while they wait to 'return' to their homeland (pre-1948 Palestine).
Since it is quite obvious that Israel doesn't really want to millions of Hamas-loving descendants of Palestinian refugees crossing back over the border (the original refugees are of course senior citizens, if they are alive at all), the only hope is to create enough opportunity and mobility within the global community (including, I would argue, for some people to resettle in Israel, especially where there are valid family reunification issues), that the poverty can be replaced by opportunity and hope -- and the fanatic Islamic perspective be diluted to a terrorist fringe.

I'm not overly optimistic this will happen. So we'll watch and learn, and hopefully the Times of London is not right in its prediction, at least during our visit to Israel.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The journey begins

In less than two weeks, I'll be flying to Israel with Vivian and Eric. Thousands of families visit Israel every year. After two extraordinarily brief visits earlier in my life, this will be the first time I'll be able to immerse myself in the country.

My first visit -- in 1976, occurred at the tail end of my first real voyage overseas -- an eight month overland journey across Africa. I needed to get to Paris to use the second half of an open-ended cheap ticket to Canada, and El-Al had the least expensive fares from Nairobi. When the plane landed in Tel Aviv, my thoughts were: "It feels very strange to be among so many people who appear to be my relatives", but, equally, "I can't wait to get out of here -- and home." Virtually broke, and overwhelmed with the experience of being away from home for two-thirds of a year, my priority and focus was simply to get back to Vancouver, as fast as I could.

I returned to Israel about 2.5 years ago, this time with Eric and Vivian. This time, fate intervened again. Proudly announcing the planned trip to my mother, she said "You can't go." It turns out my nephew was getting married in Victoria, B.C., and they had changed the date to accommodate what they thought were our original vacation plans. After my sister phoned to make it clear I needed to be there, I did something that made some sense at the time, but now seems absurd. "I'll go -- I'll break my trip to Israel with a visit to Victoria."

So, 24 hours after arriving at Ben Gurion Airport with Eric and Vivian, I headed back to the airport and flew half way around the world to Victoria, spent two nights and one day, and returned to Israel. The side trip knocked off four days of our nine day vacation. It earned me plenty of frequent flier points. I will never do that again.

This time, we have cleared 3.5 weeks. The itinerary takes us first to Boston, MA, where we will catch a cheap Alitalia flight. This choice may prove to be a daunting experience -- it seems Alitalia's fares are cheap for a reason -- there are real service quality and morale problems; as well as reliability issues. But when we booked our tickets in December, Alitalia had the only available 'consolidator' inexpensive tickets to Israel -- and since three of us are flying, economy is important.

As we proceed, I'm planning to incorporate some video images, as well as photos, descriptions, and observations. I will also tackle the politically sensitive issues that define the Israeli reality. The story here is extremely complex -- propagandists on one side or another tout certain loaded 'party lines' and often are closed to other interpretations. My views are right now small "l" liberal -- I believe Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state, but appreciate the Palestinians have just grievances. However, idealism is tempered with reality -- the fact remains (despite all the arguments by anti-Israelis) that the United Nations created the Israeli state in 1948, and the Arab nations refused to recognize it, forcing the first war of independence. Many Palestinian organizations such as Hamas (the legitimately elected government of the Palestinian territories) refuse to recognize the right of the Israelis to have any Jewish state, despite the U.N resolution establishing it. The refugee problem is real -- the argument of how the refugees came to be and their 'right of return' is also volatile and sensitive.
Throw in cultural differences, wealth and poverty, the expansionist 'settler' movement, and you have one wild and perhaps unresolvable chaos.

In discussing these matters, I find many people's views are fixed; and many base their opinions on myths, party line arguments, and careless intellectual perspectives. I'll do my best to steer carefully through these arguments. I'm not going to try to cite footnotes from academic literature but will invite a wider and more comprehensive perspective.

While I'm travelling, this "travelblog" will replace the Construction Marketing Ideas blog, except where I see something in Israel relevant to construction marketing in North America. I welcome your comments, opinions and contributions.