the 90th minute

Until September 2007, when my oldest daughter was born, this blog covered daily life and politics in Israel, as well as Hebrew-English linguistic issues, from the perspective of an American-raised journalist and translator living in Israel. Now it mostly serves as the SmunchMonk&Bear news agency, a portal into the bizarre universe of the little people. Read more at:

Monday, October 30, 2006

The Google bind

I was surprised to see a New York Times article the other day that quoted a law student named Dan Firger who seems to feel pretty much the way I do about what he aptly calls the “benign dictatorship” of Google.

I rarely get excited about products or corporate entities, but I readily admit that the heartfelt phrase “I love Google!” has escaped my lips more than once. And it’s not just that I shudder to think about the pre-Web journalism age (which I do) or that Google is the best-looking face of the good ole Information Superhighway (which it is).

There’s something so attractive about the visual cleanness of its design and the conceptual friendliness of the products it creates that Google gives me the sense that there are real people there who are working hard to make my life easier (and of course, to not be evil).

Maybe that’s why the company’s recent acquisition of YouTube started making me a little queasy. What I want to know is, is Google taking over the world? I mean, among the choices for world dictator, Google is not such a bad one, but I’m not so sure I really want it to be the master of all things virtual.

I already have Google as my homepage and can’t understand why the rest of the planet doesn’t do the same (according to the NYT article, only 41 percent of those who use the Internet are regular Google users!). I love the capacity to search my Gmail account and think that despite Yahoo’s blatant attempts at imitation, its email program will never be as user-friendly as Gmail. Google News is a great aggregator, despite the initial moans of editors who complained that they were being replaced by machines. And of course, this very blog is powered by Blogger, which is owned by Google.

I do have one complaint: In Israel, (the Israeli version of Google) generally comes up even when I very politely request '' Then when I type in English it's all backwards. I hate that.

But overall, I welcome the innovations of Google itself. This whole YouTube acquisition thing, on the other hand, just seems like one step too far in the march toward Internet hegemony, and I find it a little disconcerting even though I highly doubt that I will ever personally post a video to the site. It’s all just a bit imperialistic, if you know what I mean.

Reporter Alex Williams described this duality in the NYT article, writing: “Many users seem committed to the company, even when they are skeptical of its reach. Firger, the law student, acknowledged feeling a ‘weird tension’ about his love of Google’s products and his fear about its omnipresence in his life.”

Now, I realize I’m being completely unfair. Yahoo can buy all the Flickrs it wants, and as long as it adheres to the right side of the monopoly line it doesn’t bother me much. That’s because I think of Yahoo as a distant corporate entity that I could never relate to on a personal level. I don’t think anyone at Yahoo wants to make my life better, so I don’t really care what the company does.

But Google, it seems, has gotten itself caught in something of a bind. It has succeeded in turning users, including generally apathetic ones like myself, into avid fans. Yet that very connectedness inspires those same consumers to raise the bar for Google and impose higher, if somewhat amorphous and even unfair, standards.

This was evident in the whole China censorship issue, in which Google was attacked for censoring its search engine in China even as Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco contributed at least as much to the problem. Unlike Yahoo, Google (which didn't set up email or blogs in China) did not give the Chinese government the personal information of one of its users; unlike Microsoft, Google did not delete what one of its users wrote; and unlike Cisco, Google did not let its products be used to build the firewall China is using to keep out the foreign sites it doesn't want people to see. But the reason I'm on Google's side for this one is because of what it did do: Although it censored its fast site within China in order to comply with local laws, it left open its slower, U.S.-based site - which it did not self-censor - thereby allowing users to choose and compare. Hey, isn't that a key component of democracy?

But aside from the higher standard that Google fans have come to expect, there’s also another aspect to the Google bind: The more the company grows, the more difficult it might find it to keep up that homey personal connection with its users. As long as Google mostly sticks to dominating search engines and email, I can keep pretending that it's my personal gateway to all the facts, myths and lies I could wish for in a creation of Al Gore’s. But as Google keeps gobbling, that pretense could become increasingly difficult to maintain.

For now, though, I still love Google.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Raindrops are falling on my head

It rained today!

That may not sound like headline news to you, but hey, this is the country where every centimeter that the Kinneret goes up is duly reported and where the lake is cheered on like the underdog in a football game valiantly fighting its opponent, the Red Line.

A few weeks ago, the Israeli precipitation equivalent of an Indian summer came to the north of the country and radio announcers – while, of course, reporting the important event – were quick to explain that although there were drops technically falling from the sky, it wasn’t actually the First Rain.

This time around, the meteorologist informed Israel Radio on Friday that the rain expected Sunday (hey, he even turned out to be right!) was “the true yoreh,” the Hebrew name for the early rain.

And it came at just the right time – the day after Jews around the world recited the annual prayer for rain on the holiday of Shmini Atzeret. For those whose climate does not correspond to Israel’s, the whole concept of praying for rain at this time is perpetually decontextualized, but it starts to resonate a lot more when you can see, hear and feel the raindrops falling on your head.

What’s more, the meteorologist even went as far out on a limb as to predict a “feeling of autumn.”

That is a bit of a radical statement for this country, as those who grew up thinking that the year is divided into four distinct seasons (we even have backup in the form of that annoying song) may find themselves facing some serious cognitive dissonance issues after spending time in Israel. That’s because summer here usually lasts into October, with the possibility of a few slightly cooler days sprinkled in (at least in Jerusalem – hot and humid Tel Aviv is another story entirely), only to be followed by a heat wave to remind you that this country doesn’t know from autumn. Oh, and if you want to see leaves falling, you’d best pluck them off the tree yourself.

In Israel, rain heralds wintertime (forget all that stuff about April showers), so summer pretty much collides with winter, meaning that in the next few weeks people will be about equally likely to be strapping on their sandals as they are to be clomping around in their boots.

All in all, what I guess it comes down to is that moderation just doesn’t seem to flourish in the Israeli climate.

Crossposted to Israelity.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

If I were Rothschild

Fiddler on the Roof” is about as culturally Jewish as culture can be, and one of its signature taglines is the title of the well-known song “If I were a rich man.” (Go ahead, sing it: All day long I'd biddy biddy bum...)

But for all that the Jewish connotations of the phrase would seem to make it quite suitable for use in Israel, Israelis actually use an altogether different expression to get across the same idea.

The Marker, an Israeli business newspaper that is part of the Haaretz Group, used the expression Monday as a front-page teaser for a story about billionaire Arcady Gaydamak’s acquisition of property on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. The phrase? “If I were Rothschild.”

It somehow strikes me as fitting that Israelis use this phrase and not the Fiddler one. After all, the Rothschild family is renowned – here, at least – not only for their wealth, but also for their role in establishing the State of Israel.

As you can read here, the Balfour declaration, a 1917 statement of British support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” was made in a letter from Arthur James Balfour, the British foreign secretary, to Lionel Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild and a leader of British Jewry.

And so it is that those who are willing to take the chance of reading too much into a possibly innocuous idiomatic difference can see that once again, the lines between Israeli Jewry and American Jewry are being drawn, in the linguistic arena at least. While American Jewry falls back on the Diaspora image of shtetl Jews to describe their financial aspirations, Israelis look toward – well, yes, a Diaspora Jew, but one who played a key role in creating the state that bred a few million New Jews who shove and shout and ask you how much money you make and carry M-16s and create technology start-ups by the dozen: in a word, un-Tevyes.

Crossposted to Israelity.

Thursday, October 5, 2006

Out in the Wild Mideast

Almost a week ago, a bomb exploded in Rishon Letzion, near Tel Aviv.

Those outside the country, and even many people living in Israel, might not have heard about it. That’s probably because it wasn’t a terror attack perpetrated by Palestinians against Israelis. It was merely a bomb that killed Yossi Afriat, a “reputed underworld debt collector,” as Haaretz calls him in this article about the police force’s poor record when it comes to solving underworld killings in Israel, like the one that took place last Friday.

The blast also wounded 14 passersby, including a baby and a 12-year-old boy on a bicycle. The casualty count could well have ended up higher, police said.

"We can say that a major disaster was averted since had the car exploded further down the street, where there were many people, there would have been more casualties," Central District police chief Major General Dudi Cohen was quoted as saying.

Then why is it that I breathed a sense of relief as soon as I found out that the explosion was not a terror attack?

For one, there is a certain grim, death-toll logic to the stark distinction typically made between terror bomb and underworld bomb (or attack with a “criminal background,” as a literal translation of the Hebrew term would have it).

True, bystanders are sometimes the unintended targets of underworld killings. For instance, three people were killed in a 2003 bombing in Tel Aviv aimed at assassinating Ze’ev Rosenstein, an alleged mob boss who has been extradited to the United States to stand trial for charges related to the distribution of more than a million ecstasy pills.

But overall, while these mafia-type folks are pretty bad guys, they’re mostly trying to kill, maim or scare one another. When the terrorists bring a bomb into Tel Aviv, though, they’re doing their damnedest to find the most crowded area they can get away with entering and kill as many Israelis as they possibly can.

At a deeper level – and perhaps this is a key element of why terrorism, from its point of view, is so successful – there is just something inherently shattering about being an intended victim of people who are actively trying to kill you because of your nationality and/or ethnicity. And even though there isn’t much of a peace process going on at the moment, and even though another terror attack is always an all-too-real possibility in this country, there remains this intractable, unwarranted hope that maybe, against all odds, that last terror attack that took place really was the last terror attack. This thinking has the disadvantage of lending undue significance to every terror attack, regardless of the tangible damage it wreaks, but it's hard to escape that pit-in-the-stomach feeling of, “Oh no, here we go again.”

And so some relief at the prospect of underworld bombings makes a certain kind of sense, much the way it makes a certain kind of sense that Israelis can’t get it in their heads that their bad driving kills more people than terrorists do.

But when it comes to detonations, the time has come for Israel to get over the criminal/terrorist distinction. Because a bomb is a bomb is a bomb, and Israeli mobsters should not be excused for blowing up Israeli cities just because they’re not Palestinian. Unless the police tackle the underworld problem with full force – and are given the resources needed to do so – then we can expect to see more shootouts from the cowboys out in the Wild Wild Mideast.

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Peeing in the pool

For an excellent column on Tzachi Hanegbi and the damage caused by the cronyism and corruption in which he takes pride, read "Peeing in the pool" by Guy Rolnik.

This is how he begins his column:

The old joke goes something like this: "Don't pee in the pool," a lifeguard bellows at a swimmer. The swimmer is offended: "Everybody does it." "True," says the lifeguard, "but not from the diving board."

Guess who the diving board pee-meister is.