Thursday, December 22, 2005

That's the way it is with these high rollers

Easy come, easy go!

Easier than shooting fish in a barrel... finding anti-Israel bias at the New York Times.

But seriously, folks, just be thankful it's not the BBC!

Let the campaigns begin

With elections approaching, I'd like to offer each of the parties a winning slogan or theme. No need to thank me, just make out your checks to cash.

Without further ado:

Rockets on Ashkelon. Bombs in Netanya. Weapons smuggling in Gaza. A terror state in the making, right on our doorstep. With the success of disengagement echoing through Sderot, Israel needs a strong leader who will never give in to terrorism: Ariel Sharon.

Netanyahu: Not as bad as Sharon. Not as bad as Peretz. Not as bad as you remember him.

Vote for us or Amir's friends will shut off your electricity.

We have no choice; Israel must negotiate with Arafat.

Will somebody please vote for us? Mom?

National Religious Party
You don't have to be nationalist or religious, you just have to love to party!

National Union
Seven Knesset members, eight factions.

Agudath Yisrael
Best beards on the ballot!

We're a communist party, not an Arab party, insh'allah

United Arab List
The only Arab party except for all the others

Update: How could I have forgotten about...
Let Rav Ovadiah do your thinking for you.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Following in the old man's footsteps?

Sharon is often compared to Ben Gurion, Israel's founder and first prime minister, and he has been known to make the comparison himself. It is somewhat exaggerated, to be sure, but there are a number of points of similarity.

For Sharon's own thinking, see the speech he gave this morning at the annual state memorial ceremony for Ben Gurion. (Unfortunately, the translation's a bit sloppy.)

He recalls Ben Gurion's strengths - indeed greatness - while implying that he sees himself following the "old man"'s path. At the same time, if you read between the lines, you'll also find Ben Gurion's faults - which Sharon indicates he also admires and aims to emulate. Try this paragraph:
David Ben-Gurion understood that the public's trust is given to a leader in order to lead, determine clear goals and make difficult decisions. The fate of the people and the good of the State guided him, not polls, media treatment or measures of prestige. "I do not know what the people want," he once said, "I know what is good for the people." That was the secret of his power. That was his great virtue.

To paraphrase a questionable saying, I guess one man's vanity is another man's virtue.

Gammon Chick will double your cube

How would you like to get paid to play backgammon all day? Meet Jewish blogger Gammon Chick, who seems to want us to think that she does just that.

Keep reading, though; it's not quite that simple. She's actually developing websites. I think.

DovBear LIED!!!!!

In a clever (though self-admittedly pathetic) attempt to avoid paying for his own wife's birthday present, DovBear has invited his generous readers to chip in for a gift by buying a BlogAd on his site. He's so desperate he'll "even tolerate Republican slogans". (Here's one: Down with the Queen!)

But why should his fan club be so indulgent to Mrs. DovBear? For putting up with DB's intensive blogging, of course. After all, writes the smarter-than-average Bear:
As you've no doubt noticed, this blog takes up quite a bit of my time.

Does it, now? Less than two months ago, in response to readers badgering him to explain how one man could possibly blog so much, DovBear protested vehemently:
Why do you think it takes me a long time to do this? It really doesn't.

Moved by the civic spirit of, inspired by the subtle wit of Daily Kos, I hereby proclaim: DovBear LIED!!!!

Of the two most obvious explanations, I'm not sure which is more disturbing. Either DovBear lied in September, denying how long he spends blogging in an attempt to exaggerate his writing abilities and enhance his image, or else he lied yesterday, in a pathetic ploy to earn more sympathy for his wife and get those dollars rolling.

The third explanation is less plausible: That over the last two months blogging has become significantly more time-consuming for Dubie. The fourth explanation may be more likely: That over the last two months, Mrs. DB has grown increasingly fed up with his time wasting, and he feels a need to placate her.

With a record like this, it's no wonder public support has collapsed for DovBear's war on Cross Currents.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Too many topics, too little time

Every day there's something I want to write about, but there are always more pressing responsibilities.

So blogging's on hold for a while. At least I'm getting more work done!

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The president, the pope and the J-blogs

I don't believe for a minute that the protests of Jewish bloggers had any impact whatsoever on the parties to this non-agreement, but I do consider it noteworthy that this is the first time I can remember a mainstream Israeli newspaper even mentioning the J-blogs in a political report.

Katsav won't ink David's Tomb deal next week

Beit Hanassi has issued a statement categorically denying that President Moshe Katsav will sign a land transfer agreement with Pope Benedict XVI when they meet on November 17 giving the Church control over the room of the Last Supper.

The reports, which have appeared in various media outlets in the world and raised a storm among Jewish bloggers on the Internet, claimed that in return the Vatican would cede to Spain's Jewish community the site of what was once an ancient synagogue in Toledo.

Spot that moustache

Match the faces to the descriptions:

a) Newly elected leader of Israel's socialist Labor Party
b) Star of 1970s hit sitcom "Welcome Back Kotter"
c) Former president of Iraq, leader of socialist Ba'ath Party
d) Harvard Law School professor and pro-Israel author

(Sorry, I couldn't resist!)

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Sharon won't set Israel's borders

While I've been busy catching up on my work, Sharon has reportedly decided that he wants to be reelected to be the prime minister who determines Israel's final borders, whether through negotiations with the Palestinians or, if that fails, unilaterally:
"Sharon thinks that only he can do it because he knows the land and this is his historic mission. He looks around and sees no other potential Israeli leader who can do it. It will be difficult, but it's what the nation wants and it's what the world wants."

Ambitious? Sure. Realistic? Not very.

On the one hand, there is still no indication that there is any conceivable basis for a negotiated agreement between Israel and the Arabs. Where will the border run in the Jerusalem area, for example? Will the Arabs agree to forfeit the Old City? Or will we?

On the other hand, as I wrote a few weeks ago, "it's hopelessly naive to think that Israel has the power to unilaterally determine its permanent border. A border by definition has (at least) two sides. So long as the Arabs refuse to accept our self-declared border, it will remain up for grabs."

Sharon is a man of vision and ambition. But even he can't do the impossible.

There is currently no conceivable solution to the Israel-Arab conflict. No negotiated solution and no unilateral solution. Will our leaders ever stop promising us the impossible?

Friday, November 04, 2005

Cough... Sneeze... Remembering 1995 again

I've been holed up in bed with a cold for most of the last few days, poking my head out occasionally to follow the blogs. I actually wrote a substantial post yesterday, but I foolishly composed it in Blogger and it was promptly swallowed up by the abyss. I'll try to reconstruct it shortly.

Meanwhile, as today is the tenth (secular) anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, it is an appropriate time to link back to my rebuttal of claims that the Rabin murder was responsibility for the collapse of the Oslo peace process. That's not how I remember 1995.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Holiday pet peeves

With the holidays over, it's time to think back about all the things that annoyed me - most of which bug me every year. Let's start with...

The words

"Eloha selichot": This is wrong. God's name is never pronounced "eloha". The final hey follows the patah, like the chet in "sameach". The correct pronunciation is "e-LO-ahh", with the accent on the "lo" and with the hey pronounced at the end of the word, aspirated with a puff of air. Remember: If you pronounce it wrong, you're not saying God's name!

"Beena hagigeinu": In "shma koleinu" during selichot, the word "beena" is correctly pronounced with the accent on the first syllable: "BEE-na". Israelis often get this wrong, reading it "bee-NA", since they mistake it for the noun which means "insight" or "understanding". In this case "BEE-na" is a verb, in the imperative, pleading with God to "heed" our expressions of repentance. The word should really be "been", but the poetic form used here adds a superfluous hey to make it "BEE-na" (in parallel with "ha'azeena" in the first part of the verse). If you say it "bee-NA", you're not making sense; instead of saying, "Hearken to our utterances, God, heed our expressions," you're saying, "insight our expressions."

The actions

Waving for the "Hodu"s: In the "Hodu" paragraph of Hallel, the Chazzan waves his lulav for each of the first two verses (Hodu and Yomar Na), but the congregation should wave four times, each time they respond with "Hodu". Many congregations mistakenly follow the Chazzan and only wave the first two times.

Waving for "Hatzlicha na": Both Chazzan and congregation should wave lulavs for "Ana Hashem hoshia na" but not for "Ana Hashem hatzlicha na" (since we don't hold like Beit Shammai!).

The music

Lively Unetaneh Tokef: This is one of the most somber of the high holiday prayers, but I've noticed an (increasing?) inclination to put at least parts of it to lively tunes. One melody popular in Israel includes a lilting march for "umalachim yechafezun...", and I've also heard upbeat melodies used for "Adam yesodo me'afar..." ("Man comes from dust and goes to dust"). The popular (in Israel) Yair Rosenbloom melody is wonderful, but it suffers from the same flaw in places ("V'chol baei olam..."). Save your lively marches for Kedusha, please!

Hodu in unison: The Hodu paragraph of Hallel is meant to be recited or sung responsively, with the chazzan saying one verse and the congregation responding, "Hodu Lashem ki tov...". This has become so rare that I feel relieved when I see it done right. Not every song in the davening needs to be sung in unison!

The wrong hakafot songs: Simchat Torah celebrates the completion of the Torah. When I was young, we would dance to songs about the Torah or about joy, and all was well. Lately, though, it seems Simchat Torah is losing its theme.

First, they started with "T'hey hasha'ah hazot" - a slow, contemplative song pleading for God's mercy. It's a beautiful song, sure, but hakafot are a time to celebrate, not to plead! This is a hora, not a kumzits! Other kumzits songs like "Hamalach hagoel oti" came next. Come on, folks: If you want to meditate, do it at seudah shlishit!

Then, more recently - and I don't know if this is just my shul or if it has taken hold more widely in Israel - the Yamim Noraim songs appeared. "Mareh Cohen" is an inspiring hymn, but it's about the Cohen Gadol leaving the Kodesh Kodashim on Yom Kippur! And I simply don't get "Areshet Sefateinu" - when's the last time anyone blew a shofar on Simchat Torah? (Forget I asked; that's all I need...)

We have beautiful songs and we have meaningful festivals. What's so hard about matching them up correctly?

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Has Shmuley been reading DovBear again?

Quoth Shmuley:
Blaming human sin for the recent hurricanes in the United States is all the rage, and countless religious Americans, over the last few months, have given me some variation of my friend's diagnosis for the surge in hurricanes. But if it is true that God is punishing the US for its corruption and if it is true that natural disasters are a sign of divine displeasure, I have but one question. Where is the big hurricane that should have destroyed Riyadh, the capital of a country that has funded religious hatred and sponsor terrorism, for decades?

Where, by the same token, is the big earthquake that should have taken out the regime of Kim Jong Il, which starves North Korea's children, even as he feeds his army goons? Where is the tornado that should have scooped up the Janjaweed militias of Sudan, perpetrating a horrific genocide in the Darfur region?

Where, indeed?

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Soul of Fire: A Theory of Biblical Man

If you read only one essay this decade on biblical interpretation (pshat), this should be it (free registration required):

Soul of Fire: A Theory of Biblical Man
by Ethan Dor-Shav
Our common fate as water, earth, wind, and fire.
Azure No. 22 (Autumn 5766 / 2005)

A teaser:
Contrary to the Christological tradition (dominating biblical lexicography through the nineteenh century and beyond), the Hebrew canon does not uphold the dualist body-soul doctrine, submitting instead three soul terms: Nefesh, ruah, and neshama...

In what follows, I intend to show that the original Hebrew terminology was both distinct and consistent, and that the very absence of visible souls in the Hebrew Bible points to a more commanding alternative conception of man’s inner being. I also intend to show that while the Bible does not uphold the soul-body dichotomy – which most critics have considered prerequisite to a belief in the persistence of the soul after death – it does demonstrate the presence of a four-element structure of both matter and spirit that supports a belief in life eternal. This structure has been either overlooked or confused with Aristotle’s schema to the point that the spiritual implications of the biblical usage have gone undiscovered.

Thus, scholars searching the Hebrew Bible for signs of an interest in the afterlife have been looking through the wrong intellectual lenses, and have therefore missed the Hebrew Bible’s profound teaching concerning man’s constitution and destiny.

Along the way, the author sheds light on the biblical creation story (read this morning in synagogues) and, directly and indirectly, on many familiar and less-familiar biblical passages. I'm not sure I'm convinced of all his points, but his analysis is impressive and compelling.

A great way to start the new cycle of Torah readings. Yasher koach!

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Livni's chance to redeem herself

Whatever her other accomplishments, I will never forget Justice Minister Tzipi Livni for her key role in advancing Prime Minister Sharon's withdrawal from Gaza, a mistake I fear Israel will regret for many years to come. But there is one realm in which Livni can perhaps redeem herself, one achievement which could be enough a force for good in Israel to nearly outweigh the harm of the disengagement.

As Justice Minister, Livni bears ministerial responsibility for judicial appointments in Israel. Unlike in the U.S. and other democracies, judges in Israel are appointed by a committee in which the government has a distinct minority of the votes, and in which sitting justices of the Supreme Court are the largest voting bloc, substantially enabling them to select their own successors.

Livni is standing firm, though, against Chief Justice Aharon Barak, in insisting on the appointment of Hebrew University Prof. Ruth Gavison. Gavison, one of Israel's leading constitutional experts, is perhaps the most prominent critic of Barak's jurisprudence, and would bring much-needed balance to a court which today is nearly homogeneous in judicial outlook, not to mention socioeconomic, ethnic and religious makeup.

The court has three vacancies; Livni refuses to convene the appointments committee unless she has secured Gavison's appointment. Reports the Jerusalem Post:
Because of the strength of her personality, Barak fears that Gavison will dominate the court after he retires next year and undo all the changes he has accomplished during his years as head of the judicial pyramid.

Livni, for her part, believes that one of the most crucial tasks for the Minister of Justice is to help mold the Supreme Court. She is not ready to leave that job to Barak, who has generally dominated the appointments to the court during his tenure.

In any other realm of government, Barak would be the first to cry foul if a single perspective were to dominate a state institution, with prominent opposing voices excluded. In the courts, though, what he says goes. We can't let differences of opinion confuse the clear, unambiguous meaning of Israel's unwritten constitution!

Most striking, watching the confirmation battles for the U.S. Supreme Court, is how little the subject has engaged the Israeli public. The issue is rarely debated, and usually relegated to the back pages. That's what happens when the public's representatives have almost no say in the appointment of the men and women who will be among the most influential in shaping the country's future in the years to come.

Tzipi, stick to your guns! This is a fight we can't afford you to lose.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

What giveth at Yahoo! Mail?

If you have a Yahoo! Mail account, you've recently been subjected to some strange ads on the login page. Here's one which made me cringe:

Ouch! If you're going to use Elizabethan English, at least get the grammar right!

Yes, the English used in Shakespeare's time had rules, too. You can't just write "giveth" wherever you feel like it. It conjugates like this:

  • I give
  • Thou givest
  • He giveth

  • We give
  • You give
  • They give

So "SpamGuard taketh away" is correct (third person singular). But "Spammers giveth" is cringe country. "Spammers" is plural, and must be combined with "give", just like in today's English. At best you could say, "The spammer giveth."

But why would you want to? Why would Yahoo! want to evoke the King James Bible in an ad for e-mail spam blocking? Are they using an algorithm developed by Francis Bacon?

Like, what giveth?

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

What must Microsoft Israel's employees think?

Say you're Bill Gates, and you're scheduling your first-ever visit to Israel - a country where you sell millions of dollars worth of products and employ 400 people. Your schedule is tight. Which of these two events do you prefer?

  • Visiting the Microsoft research and development center in Haifa, and meeting with the 150 people you employ there


  • Conducting a workshop with Israeli teenagers, who will present their ideas and questions to you

Gates has apparently picked the latter.

And to think I once almost went to work for them!

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Meme Seven (and the transmission of mesorah)

"Meme Seven" has been working its way through the Jewish blogs for a few weeks now, and I've recently been tagged to continue by DovBear. (Update: Alleged gratuitous insult has been deleted.)

Before I get to it, a few words are in order about memes and the Jewish problem. A meme, briefly, is an element of culture transmitted by imitation. That is, it's something people do because other people have done it. In Jewish lingo, we call that minhag ("custom") or mesorah ("tradition").

When referring to material transferred among blogs, a meme is also something else: a text. As with (l'havdil) traditional Jewish texts, a meme can be altered in transmission, either carelessly or deliberately. And so it has been with Meme Seven.

Seven appears to have infected the J-Blogs via Matza and Marinara, who I will treat for the purposes of this discussion as the original, "authentic" text. M&M presented a seven-by-seven matrix of categories: "Things I plan to do before I die", "Things I can do", "Things I cannot do", "Things that attract me to the opposite sex", "Things that I say most often", "Celebrity crushes" and "People I want to do this".

Next, Mirty reordered the categories, from light to serious. Rabbi Neil Fleischmann, appropriately enough, excised the inappropriate categories ("opposite sex" and "celebrity crushes"). Steg received it from Neil, and passed it on to OrthoMom, who changed (in typical Jewish fashion) "Things I plan to do before I die" to the more upbeat "Things I Hope To Do In My Life". Finally, before passing it on to me, DovBear (intentionally or not?) dropped the category of "Things that I say most often".

(I should also note that the number of people tagged to continue the meme has been altered capriciously from seven to whatever number the blogger had in mind.)

Received tradition or restored authenticity?
So, as one faithful to the traditions, which version should I do? Should I transmit the meme as I received it, remaining faithful to my place in the chain of tradition? Or should I aim to ascertain the original, authentic form of the meme and restore it to its rightful glory, correcting any distortions which have taken hold in the meantime?

On the one hand, tradition only bears authority to the extent that it is preserved as it has been transmitted. Within the framework of tradition, I can carry on the practices of my father or my teachers. But the moment I adopt someone else's practices, someone with whom I have no direct authoritative relationship, I am not being traditional. I am being arbitrary and autonomous.

If I follow Hassidic customs because my father is a Hassid, or because my rebbe is a Hassid, I am continuing the tradition. But if I do so because they sound nice to me, or I find them inspiring or meaningful, I am acting of my own accord and have severed any link I might have to the chain of tradition.

On the other hand, where it is possible to determine that the tradition has gone awry, that authentic practices have been lost or distorted, and foreign ones substituted, is it not my duty to restore authenticity to the tradition, discarding any errors in transmission which may have crept in - no matter for how long they have taken hold? I am not being arbitrary and autonomous - I am restoring truth to the tradition!

Which brings me to Gil's meme. Also tagged by DovBear, he restored two of the three missing categories, "Things I Say Often" and "Celebrity Crushes", though leaving the latter marked "N/A". He failed to restore the "opposite sex" category, and kept OrthoMom's wording of "Things I Hope To Do". So Gil took steps towards restoring the authentic meme, though he failed to do so completely and (contrary to the usual practice of textual emendations to Jewish texts) he failed to note the emendations. Coincidentally, in his very next post, Gil discussed the question of textual changes to the prayers, concluding that though it may be desirable to restore the authentic original texts, it is probably impossible. Did the same thinking guide his approach to the meme?

Ultimately, I have decided to propagate the meme as I received it from DovBear. Who am I, a lonely individual in the chain of tradition, to decide it must be altered? My link to the revelation of the meme is only through DovBear and his chain of transmission. Restoring the original, authentic text may be an interesting question for researchers (Wissenschaft des Blogentums), but it should not affect halachic practice.

Without further blather:

7 Things I Can Do:
- Design and build a working object-oriented software system using C++ and/or Perl
- Lein the Torah accurately (with a modest amount of preparation) and lead most of the high holiday services
- Play the William Tell Overture on my teeth using a pen or my thumbnail
- Smell a cigarette from across a large restaurant
- Spot an artificial satellite traversing the night sky
- Sing beautifully (or so I'm told)
- Research the medical journals to reach an informed decision on health issues

7 Things I Can't Do:
- Wake up at the same time each morning
- Basic household repairs
- Watch soccer for more than a few minutes
- Open an envelope containing a bank statement
- Work without noshing
- Pursue a consumer complaint effectively
- Conceive of a workable solution for the Arab-Israel conflict

7 Things I Hope To Do In My Life:
- Have more kids and raise them successfully
- Study for semicha
- Get my finances in order
- Finish writing the drasha this blog is named after, and get it published
- Lead Mussaf on Rosh Hashana
- Maintain a clean home
- Get into shape - and stay there

People I'd like to infect with this meme (alphabetically):
- ADDeRabbi
- Am Echad
- Cosmic X
- David B.
- Out of Step Jew
- Rachel Ann
- Sharvul

Hilchos Camping Out

Rabbi Zvi Sobolofsky of Yeshiva University discusses the halachic aspects of sleeping in the sukkah in this audio shiur.

The real schedule for tonight's Hoshana Rabba learning

The OU Israel Center / Yeshiva University in Israel have organized an all-night learning program tonight in Jerusalem for Hoshana Rabba. The official schedule (PDF):

8:30pm - Rabbi Sholom Gold (Israel Center Wolinetz Family Shul)
9:30pm - Rabbi Reuven Aberman (IC Wolinetz Family Shul)
10:30pm - Rabbi Meyer Fendel (IC Wolinetz Family Shul)
11:30pm - Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Poupko (IC Wolinetz Family Shul)
12:30am - Rabbi Eddie Abramson (IC Wolinetz Family Shul)

10:00pm - Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm (Dan Panorama Hotel)
11:00pm - Rabbi Meir Goldvicht (Dan Panorama Hotel)
12:00am - Rabbi Hershel Shachter (Dan Panorama Hotel)
1:00am - Rabbi Dovid Miller (Dan Panorama Hotel)

2:00am - Rabbi Kenneth Brander (Israel Center Levmore Family Sukka)
3:00am - Rabbi Asaf Bednarsh (IC Levmore Family Sukka)
4:00am - Rabbi Binyamin Wolff (IC Levmore Family Sukka)

The real schedule:

8:30pm - Rabbi Sholom Gold (Israel Center Wolinetz Family Shul)
9:30pm - Rabbi Reuven Aberman (IC Wolinetz Family Shul)
10:30pm - Rabbi Meyer Fendel (IC Wolinetz Family Shul)
11:30pm - Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Poupko (IC Wolinetz Family Shul)
12:30am - Rabbi Eddie Abramson (IC Wolinetz Family Shul)

10:00pm - Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm (Dan Panorama Hotel)
11:00pm - Rabbi Meir Goldvicht (Dan Panorama Hotel)
12:00am - Rabbi Hershel Shachter (Dan Panorama Hotel)
1:00am - Rabbi Dovid Miller (Dan Panorama Hotel)

1:30am - Houston at Chicago, World Series Game 2 (in your hotel room, home or nearest sports bar)

Sorry, Rabbis Miller, Brander, Bednarsh and Wolff!

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Ritter: Israel secretly guided UN Iraq inspectors

William M. Arkin, who writes on national security issues for the Washington Post's website, reports a story which hasn't had much attention among pro-Israel blogs: According to a new book by Scott Ritter, formerly head UN weapons inspector in Iraq, the whole inspection regime was secretly guided by Israeli intelligence.

Now, Ritter clearly has his axes to grind, having switched from head UN inspector to leading defender of Saddam. His credibility is somewhat questionable, one could say. But whether or not this story is true, it has the potential for a major PR disaster. Watch this one carefully.

Not camping out

As much as we'd love to, we're not sleeping in the sukkah this year - at least not so far. The baby still needs a lot of nighttime attention, from both parents, and it's been too chilly to take her into the sukkah with us. So we're sleeping in bed for now.

It's supposed to warm up over the weekend here, and I'm hoping we can manage at least one or two nights in the sukkah. The last time we had a Sukkot without sleeping in the sukkah was a few years ago when it rained the whole week through.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Roadkill myths III: Unmasking a mythmaker

For the next installment in my series on road accidents in Israel (I, II), I had planned to discuss the claim that they are "a leading cause of death in Israel." That will have to wait, however, since a rare opportunity has presented itself: The chance to deflate one of Israel's leading mythmakers on the subject of traffic safety.

Dr. Elihu Richter of the Hebrew University is an "injury epidemiologist", who researches alleged harm from environmental pollution, cellphone use and other population-wide causes. He is, though, something of an alarmist, capable of finding injury risks regardless of the evidence - or lack thereof.

On the subject of road accidents, he is particularly fanatic, asserting (without evidence) that draconian speed enforcement could eliminate a high proportion of Israel's road deaths. I hope to address the question of speed and speed limits in a future installment in this series. For now, I want to show how Richter, by selective and inappropriate use of data, creates a misleading impression of Israel's road safety record.

Before I continue, I should note that despite my vehement disagreement with Richter on the subject of road safety, I am happy to give the man credit for defending Israel's March 2002 Defensive Shield anti-terrorism operations from one-sided assault by campaigners for "public health" and "human rights" in the European Journal of Public Health. As important as it is to improve our accident record, defending Israel from its enemies remains far more important. Kol hakavod.

Richter's latest missive

Back to our subject. Richter periodically spills his wrath on Israel's supposed poor road safety record in opinion pieces he writes for the Jerusalem Post. His latest missive appeared earlier this week.

Readers of my previous two installments know that in fact Israel's road safety record is not bad at all, and it has improved substantially over recent years, even compared with other Western countries at far higher levels of economic development. Let's see how Richter uses selective statistics to give the opposite impression.

Writes Richter: Israel, road death tolls have actually risen over the past 15 years

Richter can only be referring here to raw fatality numbers. Have they in fact risen over the past 15 years? Richter's basis for comparison is presumably 1990, which saw the lowest number of fatalities in recent years: 427 (according to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics). Since the last full year of data is currently 2004, with 476 fatalities, there was indeed an increase of 11.5% over that time.

But what if Richter had chosen his endpoint slightly differently? The previous year - 1989 - saw 475 fatalities, virtually identical with 2004's total. The year before that, 1988, recorded 511, some 7.4% higher than 2004. Overall, yearly fatality totals are volatile. Indeed, since 1986 Israel has seen year-on-year increases in total fatalities as high as 18% and decreases as high as 14%. By comparing two arbitrary years you can prove nearly anything.

Regardless, as readers of this series already know, the raw total of fatalities is not the significant statistic here. Since 1990, total fatalities have not changed much, but Israel's population has increased by 45%. That is a significant safety improvement by any standard. More impressively, total distance driven in vehicle kilometers has more than doubled, indicating an even steeper decline in road safety per kilometer. Against this backdrop, to claim that "road death tolls have actually risen over the past 15 years" is misleading, to put it mildly.

Richter continues:
mainly from speed creep and urban sprawl.

This is nonsense. I argued earlier that total fatalities should be broken down into fatalities per kilometer (i.e., how safe the roads are) and total kilometers driven (i.e., exposure to the risks of driving). Fatalities per kilometer have been steadily falling, while kilometers driven have been steadily rising. Total fatalities can be reduced only by reducing either fatalities per kilometer or kilometers driven.

By blaming "speed creep" for the stubborn fatality rate, Richter implies that the roads have become less safe due to speeding drivers. If this were true, we would have seen a rise in the fatality rate per kilometer. The reverse is true; fatalities per kilometer continue to drop, nearly every year.

If speeds are increasing, then, it is only because the roads are becoming safe enough to support higher travel speeds. Good drivers drive more slowly on twisty, narrow roads than they do on straight, clear roads. When they speed up because the road conditions are better, they aren't being reckless. They're being sensible.

Speeds in Israel are rising because the roads are becoming safer, as the statistics clearly show. That's a good thing, not a problem.

By mentioning "urban sprawl", Richter refers to the second of the two statistics I mentioned, suggesting that the total distance driven is increasing faster than necessary. If Israelis drove much more than their counterparts in other countries, he might have a point. But we've already seen that the reverse is true.

Israelis drive much less than do Brits, Frenchmen or Australians. With increased economic development, God willing, Israelis will only continue to drive further each year; we are a long way from catching up with most other Western countries. If Richter thinks that increasingly-affluent Israelis can be persuaded to leave their cars at home and take the train en masse, he is woefully naive.

Richter again:
During these years, tough nationwide speed-camera enforcement reduced deaths by nearly 50% in Australia, and by 40% in the UK and France.

Again, by discussing speed enforcement Richter implicitly focuses on the per-kilometer fatality rate. Look again at the charts of per-kilometer fatalities by country: The fatality rate has fallen substantially in virtually every country reporting it, with Israel showing a greater improvement than most. To attribute that drop to a single policy (speed-camera enforcement) in any country is highly questionable, but all the more so when the improvement has taken place across the board, even in countries which have not adopted that policy!

Of course, Richter ignores the most salient difference between Israel on the one hand, and Australia, the UK or France on the other. From 1990 to 2003, Israel's population grew by some 44%. Over the same period of time, Australia grew by 15%, France by 6.2%, and the UK by just 4.3% (see here and here).

Is it any wonder that, while road deaths fell by 40-50% in those countries, they remained level in Israel? With its burgeoning population, Israel had to improve by over 40% just to stay in the same place! To cite these raw total figures while ignoring differences in population growth is to do a disservice to Israel's safety record. If Richter took his readers seriously, he wouldn't engage in such manipulations of the statistics.

Final thoughts

As he has done before, and as he did before the road even opened, Richter blames the new Trans-Israel Highway, Israel's most advanced roadway, for contributing to the road fatality rate. But here, Richter's own arguments work against him: Since the road was opened, total annual road fatalities in Israel have fallen every year, sometimes significantly! Hardly any fatal accidents have taken place on the new road itself. If anything, the Trans-Israel Highway should be credited with improving road safety in Israel, by providing a safe new motorway and channeling traffic away from unsafe old roads. But for Richter, no road is a safe road.

Unlike Richter, I hope Transport Minister Meir Shetreet agrees to raise the national speed limit next month, so that we can continue to drive at safe speeds on Israel's highways without being branded lawbreakers. Surely drivers would be better off keeping their eyes on the road, rather than focusing on their speedometers and scanning the shoulders for hidden cops.

Several times, Richter refers to the possibility of "zero road fatalities" in Israel. Since we are only human, accidents will continue to happen whatever we do. Reducing fatalities to zero would require either reducing the per-kilometer accident rate to 1/400th of its current value, or reducing the number of kilometers driven by 400 times, or some combination of the two (such as lowering each to one-twentieth of its current value). Such changes are inconceivable, and unprecedented in any developed country. If we really want to improve road safety in Israel, we can start by setting realistic goals.

To close on a positive note: The statistics bureau announced last week that, according to preliminary data as of the end of September 2005, road fatalities in 2005 are down 13% over the same period last year. If this trend continues, 2005 may see fewer road deaths, God willing, than even 1990. Odd that Richter didn't bother to point that out.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Haveil Havalim #41

"What gain is there to man in all the labor which he labors under the sun?"
(Blogging, as described in Ecclesiastes 1:3)

This is a very special installment of Haveil Havalim ("Vanity of Vanities"). First, it is the final edition before the annual synagogue reading of Ecclesiastes (Koheleth), the book from which its name derives. More significantly, though, 41 is also the numerical value (gematria) of the Hebrew spelling of "blog". (It is, however, not the answer to life, the universe and everything. A shame.)

There were lots of great submissions this week, which I've supplemented with picks of my own. As promised, I've preferred posts touching on the holiday season. Keep up the great work everyone, and have a wonderful Sukkot! (Or Sukkos. Or Sukkoth. Or Succoth. Or Succos. Or Succot. Or Sukkes. Or Feast of Tabernacles. Or Ingathering Festival. Or...)

Pre-Yom Kippur

Cosmic X recalls the Selichot experience in the eyes of a ba'al teshuvah: "The bottom line of this post is that you get out of the selichot what you put into them." Amen. (On the other hand, Selichot at the speed of light make him miserable.)

DovBear likes piyutim, those long, drawn-out poems used to pad out the prayer services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. So I assume he wouldn't mind reading mine for me while I take a bathroom break.

Josh Cohen at Multiple Mentality wishes us a Happy New Year before explaining why he doesn't go to shul. Even for the High Holidays. Sorry to hear that, Josh.

Rachel Steinfeld celebrated Rosh Hashanah in Dar es-Salaam, Tanzania, where she is stationed for two years on a Harvard University research project.

Psycho Toddler sees new and unusual evidence that we're losing the PR war. As if we needed any.

Elie of Elie's Expositions partakes of a Pre-Yom Kippur Smorg. Pass the carrot sticks, please.

Yom Kippur

Elisson at Blog d'Elisson contemplates Hineni, the chazzan's prayer before Mussaf on the High Holidays and one of my personal favorite prayers in the liturgy. I hope to recite it myself some day, God willing.

Muse at me-ander whispers during the last minutes of Yom Kippur.

Thinking randomly in his shack, Jack had a meaningful Yom Kippur. Thanks for sharing, Jack.

After Yom Kippur, Ezzie from SerandEz appropriately thinks about death.

Krum as a Bagel has been assigned the task of editing the Yom Kippur machzor for next year. Unfortunately, he seems to think next year was 89 years ago. And I thought I was behind!


Succah Soccer Dad is building his custom-ordered sukkah, step by step: 1, 2, 3.

Akiva at Mystical Paths brings us a Lulav shortage update. Ze'ev at Israel Perspectives reacts to the Lulav Monopolization Scandal, asking whether such lulavim remain kosher. I sure hope so - I already bought mine!

The Charedi Wannabe poses some Succos trivia questions.

Mirty says Sukkot is a Man Thing. Isn't that obvious?

Aside from dramatically not changing his blog name, Gil of the blog now and formerly known as Hirhurim has been wondering why a bris must be held in a sukkah. (Would that still hold if someone is vomiting? I need to know, Gil. Your new banner graphic turns my stomach.)


Barak Moore at IRIS credits the Bush administration with reports that Afghanistan plans to recognize Israel, and wonders what's up with Syria.

Daled Amos sees Israel's Gaza policy and is reminded of the Cat in the Hat. Too true.

Yisrael Medad at My Right Word shows us how the Western Wall Plaza might look In the Not-So-Distant-Future. If you build it, Winkie, will they come?


Tzemach Atlas at Mental Blog discusses the intriguing suggestion that rabbinic enactments which fall out of practice could be subject to formal abolition by a rabbinical court. Radical? Extreme? Could be, could be.

Tovya Benyon at Zion Report feels the pain of exile, and yearns to be free from Galus. You're welcome here any time.

Yaakov at AliyahBlog observes people who come to shul late, leave early, and socialize in between, and asks, Why Do They Even Bother?


Greg Gershman at Presence points out that Nobel Laureate Robert Aumann, an Orthodox Jew, has published papers about game theory in the Talmud. (Greg's title, "Shall We Play a Game?" is a reference to one of my favorite childhood movies, one whose plot revolves around game theory.)

Gail at Crossing the Rubicon2 brings us Polish-Jewish artist Maurycy Gottlieb.

Chayyei Sarah worries that she's losing her touch, in part because she hasn't been mentioned in Haveil Havalim lately. Don't be sad, Sarah! You made it this time! Just for being unbearably cute!

Josh from Chakira shows us How to Get a Lakewood Internet License. What are they afraid of? That kollelniks will consult Rabbi Abadi?

At Ortho-blawg Judge and Jewry, Jeff Ballabon wonders about Harriet Miers and the Jewish problem. Weird.

Chag Sameach

This is the last HH for two weeks when it will resume at Shiloh Musings. Over to you, Batya.

Haveil Havalim (The Jewish/Israeli blog carnival) can also be found at The Truth Laid Bear's √úberCarnival.

Technorati Tags: Blog carnivals, haveil_havalim, Israel, Judaism.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The mysterious list to end all lists

No, I'm not referring to the one we mentioned today in Unetaneh Tokef, the one about "who will live and who will die." I'm referring to a far more significant topic: Jewish blogging.

First Gil complained he was left off a list. Then Miriam wondered why on earth he should care. DovBear seconded that, and offered a list of his own. Regretting that decision, he took himself one step further and offered another (only to regret that too, it seems).

Meanwhile, I've stumbled across the ultimate list of (Orthodox) Jewish blogs. More precisely, it purports to be a list of Frum 'n' Cool Blogs, in which "Links Should: 1. LINK! 2. Be of interest to Frum Jews 3. Be Blogs". If all of the hundreds of links on the page in fact meet those criteria, we may as well give up now. No one could possibly keep track of the goings-on among Orthoblogs with so many to follow.

This megalist raises several mysteries:

1. Who is the owner, "Ms. Space Cadet", who apparently owns no other blogs?

2. How often is the list updated, by whom and on what basis? There seems to be just one post, with a changing date.

3. Why on earth is the website called

4. Why am I the only blogger who merits a direct link to a posting? (Thanks!)

Does this universe hold greater mysteries than these?

Update (Sept. 14): Amazing. Gil still cares about that silly list.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Call for submissions: Haveil Havalim #41

The rumor is true! I have (graciously? I suppose) volunteered to be this week's host of Haveil Havalim, the Jewish/Israel related blog carnival.

Given the season, priority will be given to posts related to Sukkot or Yom Kippur.

Either submit your (self-)nominations via the Conservative Cat's submission page or e-mail me at biur_chametz at yahoo dot com. Submission deadline is 2pm Sunday Israel time (8am EDT).

This is the last HH for two weeks when it will resume at Shiloh Musings.

Last week's edition can be found here.

Finally, to set the record straight: we're always kvelling!

Monday, October 10, 2005

Camping out can be a mitzvah... or not

Last year I wrote (here and here) about the biblically-obligated but, these days, oddly rare practice of sleeping in the sukkah over Sukkot. Though the festival doesn't start for a week, this seems a good time to revisit the topic. Maybe I can inspire someone to give it a try.

I bring it up because I was talking to a friend the other day about plans for Sukkot. As it happens, over chol hamoed they're planning a family camping trip to the Negev desert. So he called ahead to the campsite to ask whether there will be a sukkah. "Certainly - we have sukkot on the premises year round."

Knowing the flexible way non-religious Israelis can define a sukkah, he tried to ascertain whether there would indeed be halachically acceptable walls and skhakh, and considered whether they should bring some extra skhakh of their own in case the shade cover was inadequate. The logistics could be difficult, and they could be disappointed to discover that the sukkah they expected to find was far from being kosher.

"Sounds like a challenge," I said, "but it's worth it. It's wonderful to sleep in the sukkah."

"Sleep?" he responded. "No, we're just looking for a place to eat. I never sleep in the sukkah. We'll be sleeping in tents."

I was at a loss to respond. They're going on a camping trip to the desert, where they're going to great lengths to make sure there will be a kosher sukkah, but they intend to sleep in tents? The only difference between sleeping in a tent and sleeping in the sukkah is that in the former you're camping out, but in the latter you're also doing a mitzvah d'oraitha!

"Yes, but what if it rains? We're better off in tents."

I might note that the chance of rain in the Negev in October is only slightly higher than the chance of snow. The desert is generally characterized by a distinct lack of rain.

So how do I explain this odd behavior, in which religious people make every effort to do what the halacha requires on Sukkot, except they'd rather sleep in a tent than in a sukkah, specifically avoiding the very mitzvah central to the festival? Is it, as I suggested, the "weird factor" or the "bourgeois factor"? Sleeping in a sukkah is hardly more weird or less bourgeois than sleeping in a tent. Is camping out fun and exciting in a tent, but onerously obligatory in a sukkah?

I don't get it. All I can suggest is that, for many Orthodox Jews today, sleeping in a sukkah is the furthest thing from their minds - even when they're sleeping in a tent next to a sukkah.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Top Ten New Mottos for Yeshiva University

In the spirit of YU's new Madison Avenue-style slogan (see here, here and here), I'd like to offer my own suggestions. Maybe Richard Joel will offer me a job?

From our head office on Amsterdam Avenue...
The Top Ten Mottos for the Rebranded Yeshiva University:

10. Putting the modern in Modern Orthodox

9. Torah for a new generation

8. Dude, where's my Torah?

7. Torah U'Madda: Two great tastes that taste great together

6. Bringing Torah to Spanish Harlem

5. As modern as possible (given the rabbinic faculty)

4. If you've got the time, we've got the Rav

3. Brighter than a burning bush

2. The same great YU taste with half the chumras

And the Number One Motto for the Rebranded Yeshiva University is:

1. This is not your father's Shulchan Aruch

Desecrating Atonement and Bicycle Day

What do bicycles have to do with Yom Kippur?

If you haven't been in Israel for Yom Kippur in the last ten years or so, you might think this was an obscure riddle. Unfortunately not. What for traditional Jews is the holiest day of the year, the climax of the season of introspection, repentance and atonement, has an additional identity in contemporary Israel. It has become National Bicycle Day.

Out of respect for the sacred day and for their neighbors, Israeli Jews, however non-religious they may be, do not drive on Yom Kippur, from the start of the fast at sundown until its end at the next day's nightfall. The roads are eerily quiet, from local byways to major highways.

Or at least they used to be. Nature abhors a vacuum, and apparently so does asphalt. Once, those who were not in synagogue would stay home to watch rented videos (since the television stations don't broadcast), read the holiday supplements of the paper, or go for a walk. Today they, or at least their kids, strap on helmets and knee pads and ride through the streets on bicycles, skateboards, scooters and rollerblades.

Most of the ambulance calls on Yom Kippur are for either fasting-related weakness or bicycle accidents. The pre-holiday sales feature microwave popcorn (for video watchers), paperback novels, and bicycles. Truly the stuff of holiness.

So we were perhaps thoughtless when last year, having moved further from shul since the previous Yom Kippur, we did what would have been unremarkable in the diaspora: we decided to take it easy and drive to Kol Nidrei services. After candlelighting, we hopped into the car in our Atonement garb and scooted over to the synagogue.

We had plenty of time before the day would properly begin, along with all its halachic restrictions. After all, the sun was plainly visible above the horizon. And once the fast ended, we would have the car right there, avoiding that last trek home on empty stomachs.

As it happened, though, moments (or so it seemed) after the published candlelighting time, the streets were already filling up with bicycles. We drove carefully, making our way through the crowds of surprised cyclists. It might still be tosefet yom tov for us - that optional time period after candlelighting when the holiday has not yet halachically begun. But the celebrants of National Bicycle Day were apparently stricter than we on such subtleties. For them, the day had begun, and we were desecrating it.

You could see it on the shocked expressions on their faces, and on those of passersby. It was hard to tell which aggrieved pedestrians were religious but, ignorant as to the halachic status of the pre-sundown period, thought we were actually desecrating the most sacred day on the calendar, and which were not, but zealously guarded the prerogatives of non-motorized two-wheeled vehicles. We had no time to argue. We had to get to shul without hitting any. Which we did, I might add, with plenty of time to spare.

Though I don't believe we did anything wrong last year, I expect we'll follow the more conventional approach this time. I can't think of any halacha we could have violated by driving to shul before the start of the holiday, but why needlessly antagonize people? Even if they feel antagonized only due to their own Jewish ignorance.

As shocking as it might seem to the uninitiated, bicycles may ultimately save the national character of Yom Kippur in Israel for generations to come. In a society where religious-secular tensions continue to grow, where contempt for religion continues to strengthen, where once-banned Shabbat shopping has become a national pastime for the secularists, could Yom Kippur have maintained its car-free status for much longer? Wouldn't it have inevitably been transformed into another day of family hikes and picnics?

Not now. After the fast ended a few years ago and we left shul, the last of the cyclists was clearing out of the road. (Apparently they also hold by tosefet yom tov at the end of the day!) A mother explained to her young daughter that she had to get out of the street, since Yom Kippur was over. "I wish it was always Yom Kippur!" she replied, sadly. "Don't worry; Yom Kippur will come again next year," said her mother.

Who would dare drive on Yom Kippur and ruin the fun for all the nation's children? Not us!

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Quick index to my high holiday blogging, 5766

My posts about repentance and introspection:
My posts about the shofar and its significance:
My posts about the high holiday prayers:

Impressively prolific, no?

My excuse: My wonderful new daughter has somewhat restricted the amount of time I have for such important activities as learning Torah, leaving me bare of pre-holiday inspiration.

A suggestion: Why not take a look at my holiday posts from last year?

Rosh Hashana and the New Moon (no, I never wrote a sequel)

Emulating the Angels (regarding Yom Kippur)

May you be sealed for a good year!

(And while we're on the subject: I'm with Ben Chorin on this one. I haven't made it to Selichot once this year, and I don't feel I'm missing anything.)

Update (Oct. 10): Why didn't anyone tell me I had the year wrong! 5756 indeed!

Wrong nursery rhyme!

Mother Hubbard's accident problem

Children growing up in large families are more likely to be injured in a preventible accident and to arrive later at an urgent care center or emergency room for treatment.

Jerusalem researchers who studied this "Mother Hubbard" syndrome, in which parents have "so many children they don't know what to do,"....

Note to researchers: If you're looking for a clever, media-friendly name for your new syndrome, first make sure you're citing the right nursery rhyme!

Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard
To get her poor dog a bone.
But when she got there
The cupboard was there
And so the poor dog had none.

There was an old woman
Who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children
She didn't know what to do.

With a mistake like that, they expect people to take their research seriously?

Sunday, October 02, 2005

"Oh ye Dry Bones, hear the word of the Blog"

Yaakov Kirschen, one of Israel's best-known political cartoonists (especially among English-speakers), has brought his long-running cartoon, Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37), to the world of blogs. At the Dry Bones Blog, you'll find new cartoons and golden oldies, along with the stories behind the cartoons.

Personally, for years I read the Jerusalem Post (International Edition) for Kirschen's cartoons before I was old enough to be interested in the articles.

Welcome to blogging, Mr. Kirschen, and Shana Tova to Shuldig and Doobie.

Washington Post discovers strudel in Israel

That's shtrudel, as in Hebrew slang for @, generally known in English as the "at-sign". Wondering what it's called in other countries? Post editor Nancy Szokan has the scoop (or slice, as the case may be).

The source her article is based on is here.

Winkie, were you her Israeli source? Just wondering.

Update: Yes, appparently he was. And he reminds us that the official Hebrew word for the at-sign is krukheet.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Disengagement II: When will we ever learn?

I don't know whether or not Eyal Arad's latest trial balloon reflects the prime minister's thinking, though it seems likely. But it's hopelessly naive to think that Israel has the power to unilaterally determine its permanent border. A border by definition has (at least) two sides. So long as the Arabs refuse to accept our self-declared border, it will remain up for grabs.

Take the Golan Heights, for example. Or eastern Jerusalem. No country recognizes Israel's sovereignty over them, despite decades of formal annexation to Israel. And no country will until our enemies do. Until such time, they're on the negotiating table, whether we like it or not.

Unilateral withdrawals, aside from destroying Israel's military deterrence and undermining those among the Arabs who support a negotiated agreement, simply cannot achieve the objective of finalizing Israel's borders. The Arabs do not recognize the Israel-Gaza boundary as an international border, and, following them, neither does the United Nations or any individual nation.

If, as Arad suggests, Israel adopts "continuing unilateral disengagement" as a long-term policy, we will only confirm to our enemies that we plan to salami-slice ourselves out of existence. That may buy us some quiet as long as the slicing continues (or it may not), but it certainly won't bring us long-term security and stability, let alone international recognition of our "permanent border".

A final note: While our allies reluctantly accepted and eventually applauded our unilateral disengagement from Gaza, they would not have done so had the plan included the annexation of areas of territory adjacent to Israel. A "disengagement" plan for the West Bank such as Arad describes, which includes the annexation of settlement blocs, would not even achieve the support of our closest allies, including the Americans. (Bush's letter about settlement blocs refers to the position the U.S. would take in the context of final-status negotiations with the Palestinians; the U.S. has never accepted Israel's right to annex settlements unilaterally.)

Israelis have an apparent infinite capacity to believe that this next plan will finally solve our problems. Will they ever learn?

Ein simcha bikhfar ha-botz

If you understood the allusion in the headline, you probably agree with Michael Freund:

Why Israel needs baseball

Should we sing "Buy me some peanuts and sunflower seeds"?

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Plia Albeck, of blessed memory

The little-known Plia Albeck, perhaps one of Israel's most influential lawyers in the 1970s and 1980s, passed away today aged 68.

Albeck, as this brief obituary notes, was the Israeli civil servant responsible for determining the legal status of land in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). On the basis of her legal opinions, over 100 Jewish settlements were established on lands she determined to be ownerless state land.

I had the privilege of meeting her once. She was possibly the leading expert ever on the complex legal issues affecting West Bank land, where the applicable laws derived from the Ottoman, British, Jordanian and Israeli legal systems.

Ha'aretz profiled her in this April 2004 interview.

May her memory be blessed.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Roadkill myths II: Israel is worse than any civilized country

In this second installment of my series on road accidents in Israel, I promised to address international comparisons. This brings me straight to the second prevalent myth.

Myth II: Israel is worse than any other civilized country

This is a bit trickier to tackle than the first myth, since international comparisons are a tricky thing. For example, different countries have different definitions of what it means to be a traffic fatality. How soon after the accident does a victim have to die to be considered a road death?

Also, different countries gather and report different pieces of data, and use different methodologies in collecting them. Who gathers the statistics and how reliable are they? When data must be estimated, on what basis is the estimate made?

Finally, countries vary greatly in their road infrastructures, in vehicle use, in general levels of development and prosperity. What constitutes the typical "civilized country" Israel should be compared with? The wealthy U.S., with its high levels of vehicle ownership and low fuel prices? Other countries with Israel's level of economic development? Countries where most driving is on empty rural routes or in jammed urban areas?

Keep such factors in mind when evaluating the data. You can't draw meaningful conclusions from narrow statistical differences. That doesn't mean you can't assess the general trends, though. Let's see what we can do.

Per capita first
As before, there are (at least!) two main ways to compare fatality rates: per capita or per distance driven. As before, we'll look at both.

Per capita rates tell you how likely an average individual is to be killed in a road accident in a given year. In a sense, it answers the question, "How dangerous is it to live in this country?" with regards to traffic accidents.

Here's the answer for 2003:

Data is from this source; note the comments at the bottom of the page and remember the limitations of this sort of data. I've left out very small countries due to volatility of data. Incorrect Israel data point in this source has been corrected; Israel data for all graphs is from the Central Bureau of Statistics.

For easy identification, I've shown Israel's data in green, and a handful of major western countries in orange. Of the 45 countries shown, Israel ranks 6th. That is, only five countries had a lower fatality rate per capita. The United Kingdom placed 2nd, Japan 7th, Germany 13th, Canada 16th, France 18th, Italy 23rd, the United States a lowly 35th, and South Africa 44th between Russia and Malaysia.

In fact the U.S. fatality rate was more than double Israel's. The average person is twice as likely to be killed on the roads in the U.S. in any given year than in Israel. Israel's fatality rate is 16 percent higher than that of the supersafe U.K., though.

Surprised? Doesn't everyone know the roads are dangerous in Israel? Isn't it obvious to any American visitor, for example, that drivers are less cautious, cars are not as solid, and the roads are not as well maintained as they are at home?

All of that may be true, but that relates to how much risk is involved in driving a particular stretch of road. That is, as I explained in the previous installment, it's about not fatalities per capita but fatalities per distance driven.

Now per kilometer
Let's look at that next. The number of fatalities per distance driven answers the question, "How many people are killed in an average-distance trip in this country?" Again for 2003, the fatality rate per billion vehicle kilometers (fewer countries report this data, yielding a smaller but no less enlightening graph):

Data is from this source. Note that overall nationwide kilometers driven can be difficult to estimate, and methods may vary among countries.

By this measure, Israel fares less well. Out of 23 countries reporting, Israel places 15th. On the other hand, we're in good company. France, Ireland, Japan, Austria and New Zealand are within 10 percent of us. Israel's fatality rate is 23 percent higher than that of the U.S. but 21 percent lower than that of Belgium. Compared with the top-ranked U.K., we're 52% worse.

As you expected, the roads in Israel are, on the average, not as safe as those in the U.S. But the gap is not enormous. Clearly there's plenty of room for improvement. Still, we are far from having the worst road safety record of any developed country.

If Israel's roads are more dangerous than America's, why are so many more Americans killed per capita than Israelis? Simple: Americans drive much more than Israelis - over two and a half times as much on average. Cars in Israel are much more expensive, as is fuel, and the average salary is significantly lower. So the average Israeli spends much less time on the road than the average American, and thus his exposure to the risks is much lower.

From the above statistics, we can compute the average distance driven per capita in each country:

All else being equal, the less people drive, the fewer accidents there will be!

As time goes by
I mentioned the need for improvement. As we saw last time, road safety in Israel is improving over the years. But other countries aren't standing still. How does Israel's record stand up over time?

Again, let's start with the per capita data:

Data is from here.Again, incorrect Israel 2003 data point in this source has been corrected.

Sorry about the messy graph, but the overall picture is clear enough. Per capita fatalities are improving in most countries, some faster than others. Many, you can see, have improved faster than Israel (in green); on the other hand, most had a much worse starting point. Israel was one of the countries with low per-capita fatality rates in 1988; it remains so today. In the interim, though, the gap has narrowed.

Let's simplify that data by looking at just the percentage improvement:

Israel's fatality rate has dropped by over 40% in fifteen years, while other countries in the middle of the pack also improved by 35-40%. The biggest improvements were over 50%, yet all of the countries with massive improvements were the ones with the worst starting points - they had the most room to improve.

To round out our picture, let's see how per-distance fatality rates have changed over the years:

Data is estimated from the graphs in this PDF file; I haven't been able to find the raw statistics. View the file to see the yearly improvements by country.

As the data show, Israel's safety record was poor back in 1980, about twice as bad as developed countries such as the U.S., the U.K. and Scandinavia. By 2003, though, as we saw above, Israel was only 52% worse than the U.K. Note also that all the countries in the sample had safer roads in 2003 than even the best of them had in 1980. This demonstrates the power of gradual improvements over time.

For a better focus on Israel's improvement over time, let's plot that on its own:

Israel is among the leaders here, with an improvement of over 70%, more than the U.K. As with the per-capita improvements above, the countries which improved the most (including Israel) were generally the ones with the worst starting points.

It's all about economics
How could Israel show one of the biggest improvements in per-distance fatalities, but place below average in improvement in per-capita fatalities? I don't have the statistics, but there's only one possible explanation: Compared to other countries, Israel has had a far greater increase in road use per capita. Israelis drive much more today than they did in 1980, and that has kept the per-capita fatality rate from falling nearly as fast as the per-kilometer rate.

As long as Israeli economic growth continues at a strong pace, this will continue to be the case. Economic growth has two effects: Society can afford more road safety, but individuals can also afford to drive more. As the roads get safer, the public's exposure to the risks of the road rise, moderating the impact of the safety improvements. I demonstrated this point in the previous posting, but the international comparison highlights it again.

To summarize: Israel's per-capita road fatality rate is lower than average for developed countries, while its per-kilometer fatality rate is higher than average. The discrepancy is due largely to Israel's low rate of road use. It's safer, on average, to drive a given distance in the U.S. than in Israel, but people do it far more often.

Most importantly, over time Israel, like other countries, is making substantial improvements in road safety, gradually closing the gap in per-distance fatalities. It would be great to improve even faster, but Israel's record is nothing to be ashamed of.

Which brings me to one last point, and one last graph. Note that most of the other countries in these comparisons are much wealthier than Israel per capita. Like everything else in the physical world, safety costs money: Better roads, better cars, better driver education, better enforcement. All else being equal, rich countries can afford more road safety than poor ones. We can see this by ranking countries by GDP per capita:

GDP figures from here.

Of the countries near Israel's level of economic development, Israel has the lowest rate of fatalities per kilometer driven. In fact, we're well within the range of road safety parameters achieved by some far wealthier countries, such as France, Austria, Japan, Ireland and Belgium. While there's still plenty of room for improvement, I'd say Israel makes a pretty good showing. By no means are we "worse than any other civilized country"!

I'm still thinking about what issues to address in future installments in this series. Suggestions are welcome.

Update (Sep. 26): In a comment, David Boxenhorn of Rishon Rishon asked for a graph related to the last one. I've taken the liberty of answering with what he really meant, not what he asked for. The question is: How safe are the roads in different countries relative to their GDPs? That is, if richer countries can afford more road safety, how well are countries doing considering how much they can afford?

"The amount of road safety" is the inverse of fatalities per kilometer: the average number of kilometers driven per fatality. The higher the figure, the safer the roads.

David asked for one graph; I'll give him two. First, a scatter plot of kilometers per fatality versus GDP per capita, along with a linear regression estimating the relationship between them. (I haven't tried any sophisticated econometric analysis; this is the standard regression function built in to my spreadsheet.)

The distance of each dot from the line indicates how much better or worse the country's safety record is relative to what one would expect based on its GDP per capita. The United States, Belgium, South Korea and Greece, for example, are significantly below the line, indicating a poor level of road safety relative to GDP. Significantly above the line are Israel, the UK, Finland, the Netherlands and Australia, among others, indicating a low fatality rate relative to national income.

To summarize this variation in a single statistic, we can divide the amount of road safety by GDP per capita. I've decided to call this the Bang for a Buck Index: Kilometers per fatality divided by GDP per capita. The higher the index, the more road safety "bang for the buck":

Israel has nothing to be ashamed of. Not at all.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Caution - Slow blogging - Road work ahead

I haven't posted anything lately because I'm working on the next installment of my series on road accidents in Israel. As promised, next time I'll compare Israel's record with that of other countries.

Stay tuned. And drive carefully.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Gaza: The densest journalism on earth?

Is it true that Gaza is "one of the most densely populated places on earth"? Why do journalists mention it so often? What do they mean by it? Does that make sense?

Last August, David Margolis of the Jerusalem Report asked those questions, and answered them. Read the article here (sorry about the lousy formatting).

For the lazy and illiterate, the answers in brief: No, not by far. Because they're lazy. That Gaza is an unpleasant place to live. Not really - ask millions of residents of high-density Manhattan.

Monday, September 19, 2005

An'-ge-la Mer'-kel

I don't know much about German politics - I can't even figure out their electoral system - and I don't care much about who wins, beyond a vague philosophical preference for conservatives over socialists. But there's one thing I love about CDU leader and candidate for chancellor, Angela Merkel. And that's her name.

Compared to recent German leaders - the guttural roughness of Gerhard Schroeder, the heavy, plodding Helmut Kohl - Angela Merkel positively trips off the tongue. Poetry!

Opening with the "a" of "father", Angela Merkel then plunges into a quick cluster of hard and soft consonants pronounced in all parts of the mouth, strung together by quick vowels which are essentially variants of the schwa. What a workout for the tongue.

She's even got meter (dactylic). She could be a character from a nursery rhyme (try substituting her for Little Miss Muffet), or Dr. Seuss:
Angela Merkel
Slipped on a hurkle
Under Schmerkellestrasse...

Or a magic phrase: Abracadabra! Open Sesame! Angela Merkel!

I may be an obnoxious foreigner, but it saddens me that Merkel's supporters have taken to nicknaming her Angie, with a soft "g". It doesn't have the pizzazz.

Keywords: Angela Merkel, poetry

Sunday, September 18, 2005

J, P, E and D - meet Dov and Bear

DovBear yesterday issued the blogging equivalent of a subscriber marketing survey, breaking down his nearly 2000 posts into ten main categories and asking readers which they like best.

And that got me thinking (after briefly noting that I don't care for any of them): Can one man really write 2000 blog posts - many of them substantial and nontrivial, some even well-researched - in about eleven months? Seriously, that's an average of over 40 posts a week - and he's shomer Shabbos! And has a wife and kids!

Then I considered his list of categories, and the picture became clearer. Would the same man engage in "Partisan poo-throwing" (category 1) and discourse on "Torah / theology / history"? Would the same blogger alternate "Pope pounding" with "Stray thoughts and observations"? Of course not.

The explanation is simple: The DovBear Documentary Hypothesis. DovBear, as his dual moniker suggests, is in fact written by two separate bloggers.

The first - for convenience, let's refer to him as "Dov" - is an intellectual Orthodox Jew, middle aged, who long ago gave up on completing his Ph.D. He discourses on Torah, theology and history, points out interesting news articles and editorials, tosses around stray thoughts and observations, and engages readers in the comment section.

The second - "Bear", natch - is younger, probably still working on his bachelor's, who learned to write from TV sitcoms and likes to make fun of strangers in the street. He takes pleasure at poo-throwing (partisan and non-), clobbering Cross-Currents, lacerating Lazer Brody, Paloozing Toby and in general assaulting and offending anyone at hand in between bursts of toilet humor.

Further research is necessary, but clearly our current text of DovBear was redacted by an editor who attempted to reconcile the obvious disparities between these two traditional sources through stylistic editing of both, such as inserting blatant spelling mistakes, and adding cross-references between them.

There is no other reasonable explanation.

Update (Sept. 19): Friend and ally Soccer Dad has identified a third documentary strand in the multifacted writings redacted by DovBear. He calls this author "P", for reasons which will become clear.

Supply and demand in the Jerusalem Post newsroom

I've never worked for the Jerusalem Post, thank God, unless you count an occasional op-ed. But I've known Post employees off and on over the past fifteen years. It's hard to live in Israel as an English speaker without knowing someone who works for the Post. And, without exception, they have all attested to how awful a place it is to work.

It always takes outsiders by surprise, especially now that the Post has become (seriously) an excellent newspaper. Quality-wise, the Post has been good at times, barely adequate at others, but management's treatment of its employees has, at least according to the workers, ranged among various degrees of lousy.

When I was younger, I once contacted a friend who was then high up on the paper's editorial staff to ask about the possibility of an internship. He said he could probably arrange it, but I really, really didn't want to do that. Not if I had any self-respect.

Why should Israel's leading English language daily, seventy-plus years old, treat its staff like dirt? I explain it in economic terms: supply and demand. Israel has a constant stream of English-speaking immigrants, many with journalistic experience or aspirations, most of whom lack the language skills to work in the Hebrew media. There is a chronic surplus of Israelis desiring to earn a living writing in English relative to the number of jobs. (Unpaid amateur hacks like me surely don't make it any easier for them!)

As a prestigious international newspaper, the Post is especially attractive. However the Post treats its employees, however chintzy the holiday gifts and however often they cut their pay and however many they fire, there will always be newbies eager to fill their shoes.

So, while I don't begrudge them the right to kvetch, I don't have much sympathy for former Post staffers like Allison and Miriam as they gloat over the continuing Post-related legal disputes. The Post's working conditions were never much of a secret, certainly not to anyone in the business, and they could have made a point of finding out before signing on the dotted line.

They've had their time in the spotlight. Time to give some newbies a chance to be exploited.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Remembering 1995, or Who killed Oslo?

Tuesday was the twelfth anniversary of the festive White House signing of the Israel-PLO Oslo Accords. On the occasion the Jerusalem Post published two relevant opinion pieces.

Former Post managing editor Avi Hoffman takes the opportunity to lambaste the indulgent prison treatment of Yigal Amir, the assassin who murdered Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. First, though, he credits Amir with sole responsibility for the destruction of Oslo's prospects for Middle East peace:
Yigal Amir is one of the most successful assassins in history. Ten years ago Amir's victim, Yitzhak Rabin, was riding a wave of glory.

Great and small nations of East and West were enthusiastically endorsing the Israeli premier's peace process with the Palestinians. Rabin was firmly navigating his country and the region into the promising waters of the "New Middle East." Rabin was the star of the Amman economic conference. Delegations from the Far and Near East, North Africa, Europe and the Americas vied for his attention. His keynote address was the main focus of the event.

Relations with the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world had never been better.

Then Amir shot Rabin in the back.

As the murderer had intended, the peace process crumbled. Palestinian terror escalated into new levels of outrage. Palestinians and Israelis were thrust into a vortex of terror and counter-terror.

It probably didn't bother the assassin much that hundreds of Arabs were killed in the collateral fallout from Rabin's killing and the death of the peace process. But it might have given him some pause that hundreds of Jews were killed as well.

The story of the murder of Yitzhak Rabin is the stuff of high tragedy. What if Rabin had not been killed? Would he have succeeded in bringing peace to his people and the region?

So everything was beautiful on the road to peace under the leadership of the beloved wise leader Yitzhak Rabin, until Yigal Amir gunned him down, plunging the region into unstoppable violence. Right?

Set aside the rhetorical question of how genuine that peace could have been if it depended on the leadership of a single man. Sticking to the facts: the situation of 1995 Israel was far from Hoffman's description.

Already failed
By late 1995, the Oslo agreement was already viewed by most Israelis as a failure. Suicide terror bombings in Israel had begun with the 1994 launch of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza and Jericho; 1995 had seen bombings outside Netanya, in Kfar Darom, in Ramat Gan and in Jerusalem. Arafat took no action to stop these attacks, and frequently spoke in praise of them. Clear majorities of Israelis opposed the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the remaining Palestinian cities, as called for in the Israel-Palestinian agreements.

Internationally, Israel and Israeli leaders may have been feted at conferences, but when negotiations broke down, Israel was always the one held accountable for not being "generous" enough. As long as there were more concessions on offer, they loved us. We may have won friends, but not allies.

Meanwhile, Rabin's government had also lost its majority in the Knesset; it governed with minority support. The second phase of the Oslo plan, including the withdrawals from the rest of the cities, passed the Knesset by a single vote, thanks only to two right-wing legislators Rabin had bribed with plum cabinet appointments.

On the popularity front, Rabin trailed steadily in the polls behind Likud head Binyamin Netanyahu throughout 1995: see here, here, here, here and here. We all know the limitations of polls, especially more than a year before the elections, but the mood was clear: Israelis had turned against Oslo and Rabin, disillusioned by the upsurge in terror and the repeated bad faith displayed by Arafat and his minions.

In short, it was not Amir who destroyed the peace process. It was already in tatters by the time he made his move. This does not make his action any less heinous, but clearly the Oslo process was already doomed by that time. If anything, the public backlash against Rabin's murder lent new support to the policies he had backed and anger at the opposition, who were tainted by Amir's association. Netanyahu immediately plunged in the polls, and only managed to pull even with Peres due to another wave of deadly suicide bombings - bombings triggered not by Amir or by the death of Rabin, but in response to Peres's decision to assassinate Palestinian bombmaker Yehya Ayash. Would Rabin have done any less?

Update (Sept. 16): Arguably, Amir saved Oslo. Had Netanyahu defeated Rabin, it would rightly have been seen as a public repudiation of the entire Oslo process. After the assassination, though, rejecting Oslo became tantamount to giving the murderer a victory. Instead, Netanyahu campaigned on a platform of insisting on reciprocity in Oslo's implementation, thus granting the agreement the Likud's retroactive stamp of approval.

For a different recollection of late 1995, see Emanuel Cohn's commentary from the same day:
Gaza, 1995. Though my tank brigade is stationed in the Jordan Valley, I am deployed to Rafiah. Rafiah lies in the Southern Gaza Strip, on the Israeli-Egyptian border. Together with some of my colleagues, I am charged with the mission of delivering weapons to the Palestinian Authority. Some of my fellow soldiers refuse this job, but I volunteer for it.

Read the rest. That's the 1995 I remember.

Postscript: Regarding Hoffman's main topic, I have no sympathy for Yigal Amir or his rights in prison. But the rule of law - worshipped dutifully by the Israeli left - demands that prisoners be treated equally, punished in accordance with their sentences as determined by law and the courts, however detestable their acts. This whole farce would be spared us if only Israel could mete out the only appropriate and just punishment for premeditated murder: the death penalty. But that, apparently, would be inhumane. The criminal deserves civil rights he never accorded his victim. Go figure.

Keywords: Israel, terrorism, peace, Palestinians