A good start… to a bad ending

Olmert and Barak are attempting to ‘manage’ the conflict with Hamas. That is the wrong approach, and its failure is inevitable

APTOPIX Mideast Israel Palestinians GazaFor the hundreds of thousands of Israelis within range of the rockets that Hamas and its junior partners in terror have been firing for more than seven years now – thousands of missiles in total – the aerial assault that the Israeli air force waged on the Gaza Strip on Saturday was a lot of things: a surprise, a relief, a welcome change from an irresponsible and cowardly policy of restraint that only encouraged the terrorists and abandoned Israeli civilians to their fate. One thing it was not, though, was a solution.

I say that not because I believe in the tired old adage that “there is no military solution in Gaza” – I don’t – but because the prime minister and defense minister have said as much themselves. 

In defining the goals of this (ridiculously named) Operation Cast Lead, Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak stated that they were seeking an end to the rocket fire that has pummeled the South and an end to weapons smuggling from Egypt. Yet these are things that Hamas can not give – at least, not openly, not in response to military pressure and not for any significant period. Simply put, Hamas needs to commit these acts because fighting Israel is what the organization is all about. One might as well ask a frog not to jump.

Although the army is now calling up reservists to support the effort, there is no reason to believe that this operation will be anything but limited in scope and duration. All indications thus far are that Israel wants Hamas hurt, but still in place, so that it can come to an agreement on how to live together. What Olmert and Barak are attempting, essentially, is to “manage” Hamas, to establish a sort of “understanding” in which both sides remain committed to the other’s destruction but do as little as possible to antagonize each other. 

If that seems familiar, it’s because it was precisely Israel’s policy toward Hizbullah for years. For much of the past two-and-a-half decades, Israel and Hizbullah observed a sort of de facto truce in which neither side acted beyond certain bounds of aggression, or minimized the scale and arena of confrontation between the two.

All that changed, though, in 2006. In contrast to Ariel Sharon, who retaliated against Hizbullah for kidnapping Israeli soldiers but then reverted to the status quo and negotiated for their return, Olmert responded to the kidnapping of soldiers in a cross-border raid by declaring the crippling of Hizbullah and “changing the rules of the game” once and for all as his goals for the Second Lebanon War. 

With the poor result from that war still reverberating in the public consciousness, much of the talk since Saturday morning’s bombing raids has centered on “the lessons of the Second Lebanon War” and whether Olmert and the defense establishment have learned them. The limited goals of this campaign, everyone seems to believe, show that those lessons have been learned. But they have not. That campaign was misguided, and this one appears to be, too.

Hizbullah was a formidable foe, a well-trained, well-armed, well-funded guerilla force. It was deeply entrenched in difficult terrain, across a large area, with a sizable territory at its back to which it could retreat. It was a small player in a larger state structure that, despite serious divisions and difficulties, was nonetheless part of the community of nations and functioned as such. It had on its border a large, cooperative and supportive neighbor that eagerly transferred weapons, funds and credibility to the Islamic Resistance. 

In these circumstances, destroying Hizbullah – without a massive war that would have ultimately destroyed Lebanon as a state and required a full-scale war with Syria as well – was an impossible goal. “Managing” the conflict with Hizbullah was the right approach, and abandoning it was the first of several crucial mistakes that Olmert made.

In Gaza and Hamas, however, Israel faces a very different situation. Despite swelling from a total of a few hundred men under arms just a few years ago to as many as 15,000 now, Hamas remains light years away from Hizbullah as a fighting force. Its training, its arms and its funding are less than what Hizbullah had in 1996, to say nothing of Hizbullah’s position in 2006. 

Further, Hamas stands on a comparatively tiny patch of land, flat and exposed, with nothing but the sea at its back. It is alone in ruling its territory, and its rule is neither effective nor recognized as legitimate nor even fully autonomous in the community of nations. On its border stands an uncooperative, perturbed neighbor that wants nothing more than to be rid of it and of the Hamas thugs who sprouted from the Muslim Brotherhood movement that poses the greatest threat to the Cairo regime.

In these circumstances, destroying Hamas is a goal that, although difficult, is feasible. Targeting the top echelon of political leaders such as Ismail Haniyeh and Mahmoud a-Zahar, as well as at least half of the Hamas cadres, might be a tricky proposition, but it is ultimately the only correct strategy. 

“Managing” the conflict with Hamas, on the other hand, is the wrong approach, and its failure is inevitable. Seeking an “understanding” with Hamas perpetuates the problem at the benefit of only a brief period of quiet, allows and encourages the organization to continue to grow and to fire more rockets at us, and prevents any real progress toward a two-state solution by paralyzing Mahmoud Abbas and his inferior forces.

What Israel is currently trying to do in Gaza, it should have tried in Lebanon two years ago, and what Israel attempted against Hizbullah then, it should be trying against Hamas now. Until that realization sinks in in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the achievements of Operation Cast Lead will remain just a good beginning… to a sorry ending, which the weary residents of Sderot and Ashkelon have seen coming from kilometers away.

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Eating themselves up

ariela-beforeMichael knew if he didn’t do something drastic, his weight was going to kill him. For years, his body had been trying to tell him how much it was struggling to carry 149 kilos of bulk on his 1.86-meter frame. There was the sleep apnea that sapped his energy, the high blood pressure that threatened his heart, the alarming shortness of breath. All pointed to organs in distress. 

He had tried for years to lose weight, but nothing seemed to work. Well, nothing worked for long, that is. Sure, there had been diets – so many diets! – and even a solid year of regular exercise, leading to periods when Michael lost enough of his heft that it seemed like he could manage his weight just fine. But the kilos always came back, and then some. When Michael’s doctor warned him that his kidneys were on the brink of irreversible damage from the trauma that obesity causes, he cried “enough!”

In April, at age 50, Michael underwent a duodenal switch, one of several bariatric surgeries used to treat morbid obesity. Part of his stomach and part of his intestines were removed, restricting the amount of food he can ingest and restricting how many of the nutrients his body can absorb. Six months and 60 kg later, Michael knows the surgery has not only changed his life dramatically, it may have saved it as well.

The number of Israelis resorting to these drastic measures is climbing into the hundreds per year. But that is just the tip of the iceberg that is this country’s growing obesity epidemic. Fully 40 percent of Israeli adults are overweight, according to Health Ministry statistics, while another 23% are obese. Thousands are classified as morbidly obese or even superobese. Worse, these numbers are rising all the time.

What this means for the country is nothing short of an emergency. More and more, research shows a clear link between obesity and a wide range of health problems, with significant increases in the risk of developing heart disease, hypertension (high blood pressure), stroke, diabetes, certain cancers (e.g. breast cancer and intestinal cancer), osteoarthritis, breathing problems, and more. The strain that this puts on the public health system and the economy is immense: NIS 10 billion or more per year, in direct costs of treatment and indirect costs from sick days and lack of production, according to various estimates.

Of course, the human costs are tremendous.

“I couldn’t get out of a low beach chair without the help of at least two people,” Michael recalls. “In restaurants, chairs would break under me, and I would be so embarrassed that, rather than complain that the restaurant didn’t have chairs to serve me, I would worry and consider myself lucky if they didn’t demand that I pay to replace the broken chair.”

Ariela, a 58-year-old retired school teacher from Jerusalem, weighed 111 kg before undergoing gastric banding surgery just over two years ago. Before then she took up two seats on the bus. Fibromyalgia caused pain all over her body that nothing could relieve. She was so limited physically that she had to teach in a classroom on the first floor because going up stairs was too difficult, and she couldn’t join class fieldtrips because of the exertion required.

“Any time I didn’t have to be out, I stayed home – in bed – as much as I could,” Ariela says. “You get to a point where you ask yourself, why get my hair done? Why buy nice dresses? What’s the difference?

“When I walked down the street and passed a display window or a mirror, I would turn away so I wouldn’t have to see my own reflection. When I would walk into a room, I would automatically feel embarrassed and inferior, knowing everyone was looking at the fat woman who had just walked in.”

Michael knows the feeling.

“Often, obese people are easygoing and jolly, but that doesn’t mean they’re really happy. That’s just a persona they adopt because they have to, in order to overcome their obesity,” he says. “Ultimately, every obese person wants to stop being fat. They don’t want to have to hide anymore.”

Hiding, Michael adds, begins with fashion.

“You try all sorts of things to look better – tucking your shirt into your pants, untucking your shirt from your pants, whatever. You tell yourself that in certain clothes you don’t look fat. But later, when you see photos of yourself, you realize that no clothing can hide the truth.”

You have to wear something, though, even if it isn’t flattering. And when you’re obese, not much is.

“Clothes shopping is a nightmare when you’re obese,” Michael continues. “Your clothes never fit quite right. You walk into a store and pay a lot for clothes that are of low quality because you have to take whatever they have that fits on you.”

Ariela can empathize.

“I would walk into clothing stores – for ‘big sizes’ – and ask, ‘What’s your biggest size?’” she says.

Constantly losing and regaining weight also wreaks havoc with a wardrobe.

“I would purge my closet of all my ‘heavy’ clothes, only to have to buy more when I would gain weight again,” Michael says.

Like most obese people, Michael and Ariela were often able to lose weight, but never able to keep it off. And every time the number on their scale climbed higher was another stinging failure.

“I have had to fight my weight almost my whole life,” says Ariela. “We’re talking about 30 years of frustration and anguish.

“I was always on a diet,” she continues. “I drank only diet drinks. I would sit in the teachers’ lounge and drink coffee instead of eating lunch. Meanwhile, these thin women would devour these huge sandwiches. I couldn’t understand it… People would tell me to lose weight, and it would make me so mad. Losing weight was just impossible.”

Several years ago, Michael and a friend were watching Dudu Topaz on television when the entertainer challenged the public, offering a new car to the person who could lose the most weight. The two figured Michael had a shot at winning the car and started planning his strategy. “Suddenly my friend turned to me and said, “Wait. For a new car, you would lose weight, but for the sake of your own health, you won’t?!’”

That kind of thinking is common, Michael says – and it hits home. But it’s also a trap.

“Obesity is something you’re ‘guilty’ of, in your own mind and in the minds of others,” he says.” If you have cancer, everyone will embrace you. But if you’re fat, people will say, ‘Get yourself together!’ So you tell yourself, ‘It’s okay, I’ll fix it.’ Ultimately, what you have to realize is that the problem is simply too much for you to handle by yourself.”

OBESITY IS RARELY the result of a lack of motivation to be healthy. For some, getting in shape really is too difficult to do. The effort required to lose enough weight – and, more importantly, to keep it off for good – is so great, doctors say, that few will actually accomplish it on their own.

“Numerous studies have shown that the chance of a morbidly obese person reaching a healthy weight, and maintaining it for at least five years, is less than 5 percent,” says Dr. Subhi Abu Abeid, head of the obesity clinic at Tel Aviv’s Sourasky Medical Center.

One problem is that not everyone realizes how dangerous obesity is, says Abu Abeid.

“It’s important to recognize that we’re talking about a disease,” he says. “A person might say to himself, ‘Yes, I weigh 180 kilos, but I’m strong, I’m okay,’ but that just isn’t the case. He’s sick, and his obesity is his illness.”

Further, he says, “morbid obesity entails a range of illnesses, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, joint problems, sleep problems, emotional problems, infertility, kidney damage, etc.  It’s only a matter of time before someone develops one or more of these complications. You can die from this.”

Indeed, researchers in Europe and in the United States have found that obesity can shorten lifespan by as many as 13 years. In the hopes of preventing that grim prospect, 15 to 20 morbidly obese patients come to Sourasky every month for one of several bariatric surgery options.

“Usually the people who come to us have tried all kinds of diets, pills and other methods that just didn’t work. Beyond a doubt,” he says, “surgery is the most effective treatment for morbid obesity.”

Underlining the message that morbidly obese people rarely ever maintain a healthy weight through diet and exercise alone, Abu Abeid notes that several of the former contestants on the reality weight loss show “The Biggest Loser” have come to him for surgery. “But they want to keep it a secret,” he says with a smile.

The surgeries “are not cosmetic,” Abu Abeid stresses. They make it physically impossible to eat more than a little bit at a time, either by tightening the stomach or cutting most of it away.

They are also unlike surgeries for “normal” people. Treating morbidly obese patients entails unique circumstances.

“It can be difficult to sedate them,” says Abu Abeid. “Sometimes the patients are so large that we need two operating tables just to hold them.”

The surgeries are laparoscopic, he says, which means that “there is no need to open people up.” The surgeries themselves last about an hour, and patients can leave the hospital in one to five days.

After that, though, things get tougher. There are new diet rules to follow (often including pills to ensure sufficient intake of vitamins and minerals), an exercise prescription – and lots of office visits.

“If you have your appendix taken out, you see your doctor twice afterward and that’s it. This, however, requires lifelong follow-up,” says Abu Abeid. “That includes regular check-ups with a doctor, working with a dietician, meeting with a social worker, and sometimes even joining a support group.”

“Some people think it’s hocus-pocus and then they’re done,” laughs Dr. Andre Keidar, who heads the obesity clinic at Hadassah-University Hospital in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem neighborhood. “But the follow-up treatment lasts the rest of their lives.”

Patients are usually faithful to the program in the beginning, but often they become lax as time goes on.

“The sad fact is that most people aren’t going to change their behaviors much, which is why, without the surgery, they wouldn’t get thin in the first place.”

At both hospitals, prospective patients are given a full description of the options before them. Then, those who are sure they’re interested in one of the procedures have to undergo a series of tests before they can be accepted for treatment. They have to be heavy enough and sick enough to warrant the surgery, but not so sick that the surgery would pose too great a risk.

“Sometimes those who are turned down for the surgery become quite upset,” Keidar says. And that’s understandable.

“You’re not just talking about a person’s weight, you’re talking about their ability to function, and you’re talking about their emotional wellbeing. Keep in mind,” he says, “many of these patients are very successful in other areas of their lives and they are frustrated to find themselves failing to maintain a healthy weight.”

For those who fit the profile, though, hearing that they are eligible for the surgery is good news. Most of the weight they need to lose will come off within a year of the surgery. And, since the procedure is in the basket of public health services, they won’t have to pay a single shekel for it.

MICHAEL AND ARIELA both came around to the idea of having bariatric surgery pretty quickly. 

“At first the prospect is a bit frightening,” says Michael. “But I’m telling you, it’s great. If only there were surgery to make people stop smoking, and to stop gambling, too!”

Early on, as the kilos melt away, it’s a magical time.

“There’s definitely a ‘wow!’ period that you go through, like when you celebrate being able to wear the kinds of clothes that normal people wear,” he says. “But it feels weird to lose weight so quickly. It happens so quickly that you’re not ready for it emotionally.”

The change is definitely drastic. Michael, who owns a store in a mall, often finds himself greeting customers who don’t realize that the person standing before them now is the same one who served them months earlier.

“They’ll give me this look, like when you think you recognize someone but you’re not quite sure, and they’ll ask, ‘Did your brother used to work here?’ I get that almost every day.”

In his driver’s license photo, Michael is still 60 kg heavier. It’s the same name, the same ID number, the same address. But it isn’t the same person.

He’s happy with his body now, but to see how unnaturally Michael carries his pencil-thin frame is to see the old phrase “I’m a thin person trapped in a fat person’s body” turned around. Michael is now a morbidly obese man living in a lithe body that he doesn’t quite recognize.

“I still can’t think of myself as thin,” he says. “Before, when I would travel, I would worry, what if my luggage is lost? However will I find clothes that fit me? Then my pants size went from 60 to 44, and I was able to shop for pants at any store I wished. Yet every morning, when I pull on my pants, I don’t believe that my legs are going to fit into something so small. And I still feel a rush of anxiety whenever I have to bend down. I have to remember that I can actually change my own shoes now.”

That might not seem like much, but for Michael it’s huge. For years before his surgery, it used to be that one of his employees would always lock up the store at night, because for Michael to bend down to the floor to lock the gate, and then try to raise himself back onto his feet again, would be an ordeal that no one wanted to endure.

His new body may be a gift, but it is one that is taking time to adjust to.

“I used to sweat a lot,” he says. “I thought it was just me, that something was wrong that made me sweat a lot. Well, there was: dozens of kilos of extra weight!”

Michael finds it strange that he is now able to squeeze into his car, even in a tight space in a parking lot, and that once he sits down the steering wheel is not pressed against his belly. He is bewildered that he can fit into the seat of an airplane. After decades of being obese, his mind is still working on the assumption that his body’s proportions are so much larger.

There are also some drawbacks.

“Before, people would automatically let me sit in the front seat of a car because there wasn’t enough room for me in the back seat; it was understood. Now they relegate me to the back seat!” he half-heartedly complains.

Then there is the fear that he will lose “too much” weight.

“I chose this surgery because I didn’t want to be responsible anymore for how much I ate,” Michael says. “I was tired of it. So now it isn’t really up to me. I simply can’t eat large portions.”

Because his meals are so small, Michael has to make sure he eats frequently throughout the day, about every three hours, and make sure he includes plenty of animal protein in his diet.

“Sometimes I miss the old days,” he says, as if in admission, “when I could go to a buffet and just eat everything in sight. Now, when I’m at a buffet or a large meal, I just have a little bite of this and a little bite of that. I’m not even interested like I once was. It may sound strange, but in a way I feel like, by losing my appetite, I’ve lost my best friend.”

Everything he has gone through has been worth it, he says, noting the support of his wife and three kids.

“Without that support,” he says, “I don’t know how I would get through it.”

For Ariela, the surgery has brought only good things.

“I had heard about bariatric surgery on the radio, but figured it wasn’t for me,” she says. “Then a friend who was even bigger than I was underwent the banding surgery and is now really thin. She’s the happiest person in the world now. Anyway, when I did finally go to a presentation at the hospital, I suddenly realized that it was real, and that it was the kind of thing that I could do. Before the presentation was over I was asking for surgery as soon as possible.” 

She opted for gastric banding – a sort of noose around the stomach that makes it painful to eat too much, which can be tightened or loosened through a button-like apparatus just under the skin over her hip.

“It’s so nice not to have the appetite I once had,” Ariela says, leaning comfortably on her couch. “An obese person never says, ‘I can’t eat another bite.’ They can always eat more. Today, I can eat anything I want, I just can’t eat very much of anything – and the truth is, I don’t want to. I’m looking at those wafers there on the table and I don’t even want them.”

Recuperating from the surgery took about a week, Ariela says, and getting used to her new dietary demands took a little longer. But the benefits have been astonishing.

“I no longer need medication for my blood pressure, and my fibromyalgia is gone. I feel 20 years younger!” she says.

Seeing Ariela now, so petite and so vibrant, it’s hard to believe she’s the same woman who once could barely fit through her own hallway at home. But, even after giving away 40 bags of clothing, she still has a few of her old size 56 pants to prove it.

“Now,” she says, “my being obese is like an episode in the past.”

And she doesn’t miss it one bit.

“Recently I brought home groceries from the store. I had bags full of all these heavy fruits and vegetables that I had to carry up stairs. It was a real workout. Out of curiosity, when I got home, I put them on the scale. They weighed 20 kilos. I said to myself, ‘My god, I barely carried an extra 20 kilos of groceries. Where did I put another 30 kilos of fat? And how did I ever carry them?!’”

Really, she asks, how does anyone?

 

Fighting ‘the barbecue culture’

“I’ve been a failure at treating obesity for the past 25 years,” Prof. Elliot Berry says wryly.

Conquering obesity, the head of the School of Public Health at Hadassah-University Hospital in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem says with a sigh, “is simple in theory but so, so difficult in practice.” 

Easy in theory, because as long as you ingest fewer calories than you burn throughout the day, you ought to lose weight. Difficult in practice, because so many people eat much more than they need to and exercise much less than they should.

“There is nobody who has been found on this planet who cannot lose weight. By eating less and exercising more, anybody can lose weight,” Berry says emphatically.

“The problem is maintaining it. Some people are metabolically very inefficient, and some are very efficient. Some are like the cows of Pharaoh’s dream [in Genesis] – they can eat up the fat cows and not gain weight. Others can just look at food and gain weight.”

Aside from exceptional cases, though, obesity is a function of behavior rather than genes, Berry continues.

“The great increase in obesity in the past decade means that it has nothing to do with your genes, which couldn’t have changed in such a short period, but rather has to do with your environment,” he says. “Portion size has grown so much in recent years that the calories available to a person have increased, since the 1950s, by 1,000 a day. So there’s too much available out there. And, there’s too little exercise. There’s too much TV, and not enough walking.” 

Further complicating matters are the metabolic changes that take place as one loses weight.

“As you lose weight, you become more metabolically efficient, so you don’t need as much food to maintain your weight. If you don’t continue to decrease your food intake, you’ll gain weight again,” Berry explains.

That’s exactly what happens to a lot of obese people who are only able to temporarily keep weight off.

Alright – that, and the fact that a lot of people seem to be “addicted” to food.

“But exercise is also addictive,” Berry notes. “Look, you can’t expect people to stay on a (restrictive) diet all their lives. It’s just too hard, which is why you have to encourage exercise. You can’t fight fast food, but you can give people the education to make the right choices. People have a whole range of food and lifestyle options, and it’s our job to be role models for them.”

The slim, London-born doctor practices what he preaches, wearing a footstep counter to ensure he moves around enough each day, and running 10k races throughout the year.

Too few people are willing to take a disciplined, lifelong approach to diet and exercise, though, preferring crash diets and pills that Berry says are “for people with more money than sense.”

Often, people only come around once they suffer a serious health problem.

“There’s nothing like a heart attack or diabetes to encourage someone to lose weight,” Berry says.

He’d like to prevent that, of course. He and other health care professionals are trying to fight the “barbecue culture and chronic overeating” that are making obesity so common in Israel, but they feel they can not win that fight alone.

The Health Ministry, Berry says, is acutely aware of the problem, but it has no budget for combating it. Meanwhile, he says, the Treasury is unattentive.

“That’s why I firmly believe that it has to come from the Prime Minister’s Office.”

“When you have more than 60% of your population either overweight or obese, you’re talking about a national crisis,” Berry says. “When obesity is beginning to show up in populations, like Ethiopian and Yemenite immigrants, who had no tradition of obesity, there’s a serious problem. This issue has to become a national priority.”

 

Losing bat wings and saddlebags

newjerseytummytuckbeforeDr. Benny Meilik strides through the halls of Sourasky Medical Center in his light blue scrubs, having just finished another surgery. Like the patients he sees in his private office just two blocks away, this one was looking for a tighter tummy and a more attractive appearance. The difference, however, was huge – several dozen kilos’ worth of difference, actually.

While massive weight loss from bariatric surgery usually leads to a much improved appearance and level of function, some patients continue to suffer. Their unwanted weight may be gone, but the skin that once covered it stays behind. What’s left is a drooping mass of flesh that hangs off the body.

This has nothing to do with muscle tone, Meilik explains. “They can practically live in the gym,” he says, “but the excess skin will remain.”

Upstairs in his office, Meilik reviews photos of his patients before they undergo body contouring, the advanced plastic surgery procedures that follow massive weight loss. The images, frankly, are shocking. The grotesque folds and pockets of flesh so change the look of these people that they make the skin seem like melted wax. One could be forgiven for thinking it the work of make-up artists for a ghoulish scary movie. It looks unnatural and grotesque – and the patients feel that way, too. 

“It’s not just tough to look at, it’s extremely uncomfortable. As these extra folds of skin rub against each other constantly, the friction can cause rashes, scabs and foul odors. It really is like a handicap, and these people are suffering because of it,” says Meilik.

“A large percentage of the people I treat are single, or divorced, and although they have lost a tremendous amount of weight the extra skin makes their bodies quite unattractive. There’s no way that they can expose themselves before someone else; there’s no chance that they can maintain a physical relationship. I have had patients tell me, ‘I preferred being obese. Before, I was fat, but my body looked normal. I could go to the beach. I had no problem getting into bed with someone. Now…!’” 

One of Meilik’s patients, an obese teenager who has not had bariatric surgery, suffered so much from the teasing he endured over his drooping, flabby chest that he did not leave his house for three years. Meilik performed a breast reduction that, while not solving the boy’s obesity, allowed him to wear normal clothing and gain the confidence to rejoin society.

“That’s why this is so important – and people don’t realize it – because it isn’t just about cosmetics, it’s about allowing people to function like normal people, to give them a body they can feel comfortable in.”

To help people suffering from this condition, doctors like Meilik have had to develop techniques so far beyond the normal demands of plastic surgery that they have become a special field of their own. Even the nomenclature for the unique folds and bulges of skin is new, and is constantly changing, he notes.

“In the States, they call the flesh that dangles under the arms ‘bat wings.’ The sagging pockets on the hips are ‘saddlebags.’ In Israel we don’t use such disparaging terms,” he says.

The surgeries can last up to nine hours to complete with the help of a specially trained crew. The most severe cases call for a “total body lift” – an elaborate process of  liposuctioning away fat and tissue, and cutting and pulling and reshaping off skin.

“For someone like this, a tummy tuck and a breast reduction just aren’t enough,” Meilik says. Actually, Meilik might rebuild a woman’s sagging breasts and tighten her back at the same time by trimming the “lateral chest roll” that remains after her weight loss and stuffing it into her chest. Likewise, he can use rolls of skin from the lower back and hips to “build” a firm, round bottom.

The transformation is downright Frankenstein-like. And it really does, well, bring people to life.

“They’re better physically, emotionally and socially after undergoing this treatment,” Meilik says.

For the doctor, with his piercing blue eyes and trim beard, this is turning into quite a rewarding second career. He only started studying medicine at the age of 28, after flying planes in the air force. He doesn’t have to come here each week for the grueling surgeries; if he wished, he could stay in his private practice and stick to the much simpler – and much more lucrative – nose jobs, tummy tucks and breast enlargements. Yet Meilik spends a great deal of time at the hospital with these unique patients because the challenge of helping them is so stimulating, and the reward of seeing them happy is so great.

“This is what I’m talking about,” he says, turning to photos of a woman with a nasty sunburn. “This is a 53-year-old woman who had lost 90 kg after bariatric surgery, and was so excited about her new figure after the body lift we did for her that, just three weeks after surgery, she went to the beach – for the first time in her life.”

Clearly, she has taken to her new, normal figure. As for the painful lesson about exposure at the beach, Meilik says with a smile, “She’ll learn.”

Who’s collapsing now?

APTOPIX Iran Ahmadinejad InterviewIranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been dancing a jig to the sounds of falling markets around the world, but now he’s finally facing the music at home.

Ahmadinejad, who has publicly rejoiced at the suffering of Western economies and proclaimed his country’s Islamic revolution the answer to such troubles, has for the first time admitted that Iran’s economy is in decline.

Actually, that’s putting it mildly. While Ahmadinejad was trying to present himself as a savior for the Iranian Republic, announcing in state-run media that he had accumulated a foreign exchange unprecedented in Iran’s history and cut the country’s dependence on oil revenues from about 62% of the national budget to a “mere” 52%, the reality for him is quite bleak. The state budget depends almost entirely on the sale of oil and natural gas, funding approximately 80% of government expenditures. When oil prices were approaching $150 per barrel, Ahmadinejad was riding high. But now that they are in the $40s again, Iran is on the brink of disaster.

For several months now, Ahmadinejad has come under increasing pressure – not so much for his bombastic statements regarding Israel, the Holocaust and Iran’s nuclear energy (i.e. weapons) program, but for the severe plunge that Iran’s economy has taken under him.

This has tremendous implications.

A conversation I had recently with a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood (and this idea has been repeated by others) was instructive. In Egypt, he said, the people saw how much the Saudis adhered to an extreme, all-encompassing form of Islam, and they saw how much Allah had blessed the Saudis with prosperity in the form of oil wealth. If only they would follow the Saudi example of piety, these Egyptians figured, they would surely reap earthly rewards as well. The opposite of this is also true — that the economic failure of radical regimes can be a powerful tool in undermining popular support for those regimes.

In my speeches, I have argued for significantly increased efforts to develop energy sources that can replace oil and natural gas, in order to deny Iran and other states like it the means with which they fight Israel and the West. Presently, market forces are doing what scientists have not.

In the absence of unforeseen circumstances, economic issues will remove Ahmadinejad from office in next year’s presidential election. That won’t solve the problems that he has created or exacerbated, of course… but it’d be a heck of a good start.

Talking out of both sides of our mouth

Here’s another scene from the theater of the absurd that is our current government’s foreign policy.

The Foreign Ministry has expressed its disappointment with the European Union over the EU’s move toward warmer relations with Syria. Sure, that seems like business as usual, but hold on.

For its part, the EU sees making kissy face with Damascus as a palliative for a region that is as turbulent as ever. Diplomatically, Europeans hope that a smiling front will show Syria that it will be rewarded for “playing nice” with Lebanon, its former vassal state. Economically, there are ties in the making that would be threatened by a sour public tone from European capitals.

To Israel, though, Syria remains the main conduit for Iranian weapons shipments to Hizbullah in Lebanon. Also, the United Nations probe into the assassinations of about a dozen different anti-Syria politicians in Lebanon, which already includes a very damning preliminary report on the role of the Syrian government in those murders, is still ongoing. It’s only natural for the Foreign Ministry to scowl at an EU that overlooks such things.

One would have to forgive European diplomats, however, for feeling confused. After all, isn’t Israel’s prime minister busy promoting peace talks with Syria and, by extension, selling the idea that Bashar Assad is worthy of engagement from the West? Indeed, he is.

George W. Bush called Ehud Olmert on this very point, according to a report that surfaced this week.

According to the report in Haaretz:

 Bush believes that Israel is offering Syria the Golan Heights without getting anything in exchange, according to sources briefed on his White House meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last week.
After Olmert updated Bush on Israel’s indirect talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad, the US president demanded, “Why do you want to give Assad the Golan for nothing?” the sources said.
“It’s not for nothing,” Olmert insisted. “It’s in exchange for a change in the region’s strategic alignment.”
Bush persisted: “Why should you believe him?” And to that, Olmert did not reply.

Note to Ehud Olmert: When a simple question from George Bush makes you look like a fool, you’re in trouble.

Seeds of success

castor-4Shlomi Jonas and Doron Levi are serious about a plant with a funny name. That’s because jatropha, an otherwise puzzling and forgettable plant, may be the key to one of the most important alternatives to fossil fuels in the coming years – and because Jonas and Levi’s company Galten is at the forefront of making it so.

Jatropha is a long-overlooked plant that has recently begun receiving loads of attention. The seeds of the leafy green tree are rich in oil that can be used to make biodiesel, a “green” fuel which offers several benefits over other alternative fuels that are currently popular.

 

It’s a perennial plant that can start producing oil in its second year of growth, and will continue to be productive for more than 30 years. It’s so tough that it can survive up to three years of consecutive drought, and so versatile that its byproducts can be used to make soap, mulch, herbal medicines, and more.

 

Galten is cultivating jatropha on some 200,000 hectares in Ghana, betting on the plant’s ability to supply barrel upon barrel of one of the hottest new fuels in the world today.

 

“We are planting oil wells,” says Jonas. “It’s as simple as that.”

 

On the other hand, maybe the prophet Jonah was onto something. Jonah may have wept over the “kikayon” – that is, the castor bean plant – because of the loss of the shade it provided him. But today the humble, inedible plant is receiving high praise for its biodiesel potential. Castor bean seeds contain as much as 54-percent oil by weight, much higher than most plants currently used for biodiesel. In fact, castor bean produces about three times as much oil per hectare as soy bean, one of the most popular biofuel crops.

“It’s one of the most productive plants, in terms of oil produced per unit of land farmed,” notes Dr. Oren Ostersetzer-Biran. He is leading a research team at the Agriculture Ministry’s Volcani Center that is working to breed castor bean plants for optimum growth and production.

 

Both jatropha and castor bean are relatively new candidates for farming, so their growth characteristics are still being developed.

 

“The castor bean plant was cultivated for a short while in the ’60s, but then it was pretty much abandoned thereafter,” says Ostersetzer-Biran. “So we’re really starting off from zero.”

 

Already, Ostersetzer-Biran says, each castor bean plant can produce about 100 kilograms of oil per dunam per year. His team’s experiments in the fields in Beit Dagan, outside Rishon Lezion, will soon double that, he says.

Here’s an example of how they’re accomplishing that: In nature, the plant’s seed sacs pop open so the seeds can scatter. It’s an evolutionary development that helps the plant survive and spread. In terms of industrial production, though, it’s counterproductive for efforts to collect the oil-rich seeds. So the Volcani researchers are breeding castor plants in which that genetic trait is suppressed. Likewise, they are developing plants that grow a larger number of seeds, in closer bunches, than the wild natural variety, whose home habitats includes Israeli roadsides and neglected lots. All these things together, the researchers hope, will make the harvesting of castor bean seeds easier, faster and more lucrative.

 

A similar process is at play with Galten’s jatropha plants, with a castor oil biodiesel venture in Namibia run by three other Israeli companies working in cooperation, and with a number of other oil-rich plants in labs and fields around the world. There’s a race, then, to see who can breed the most productive plants the fastest. Galten and the Volcani researchers believe that they are several steps ahead of their competitors in making that happen.

 

THE SEARCH for alternatives to petroleum springs mainly from two concerns: the impact of carbon emissions from the use of fossil fuels, blamed for global warming in the landmark Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report of 2007, and most countries’ unsettling dependence on fossil fuels for energy. A recent EU study found that biofuels lead to significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and that this benefit will only improve as the fuels themselves continue to develop.

 

But getting in on the biofuels boom is about more than lowering carbon emissions and diversifying energy sources. It is “green” in the business sense, too.

 

Recent legislation in Europe and the United States mandates increased biofuels consumption, which means a guaranteed market. In 2003, the European Union set a goal for biofuels use of 5.75% of total consumption by the end of 2010, and even higher afterward. In America, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 mandates biofuels consumption of 7.5 billion gallons by 2012.

Even if those targets are not ultimately met – and at the current rate of implementation, they will not be met – they will at least have provided a significant push to the biofuels industry. In fact, they already have. If a company were to target just commerical trucking and municipal buses in the United States, for example, it would be looking at a market that has jumped in the past few years to more than 1 billion gallons annually. And with the world biodiesel market averaging roughly 40% annual growth, global consumption is estimated to exceed 40 billion gallons within the next decade.

In addition to trucking and personal automobiles, in the next few years trains, aircraft and home heaters are also likely to enter the picture as biodiesel applications, each with tremendous business potential.

So, there is definitely a market. But can it be profitable? Absolutely, insiders say.

“Most people make the mistake of assuming that petroleum has to be a certain price for us to make money. They’re wrong,” says Galten’s Levi. “If a company in Europe has to buy biodiesel because of the EU mandate to do so, then our oil is not in competition with petroleum, it’s in competition with other biodiesels. When we went ahead with our plans to produce oil from jatropha, oil was at $50 a barrel. Since then it has gone up and come back down, but it doesn’t really matter. The factors that make biodiesel profitable have to do with the costs of production, not the price of petroleum.”

Currently, Ostersetzer-Biran says, the price of castor bean oil is relatively high because of its demand for use in plastics. But he believes that, with larger-scale production and the advances that he and his team are making in breeding the plant, the price of production should fall considerably.

CURRENTLY, ETHANOL is king of the biofuels. But its reign looks to be a short one. Based on plants such as corn and sugar cane, ethanol is produced by the fermentation of sugars into an alcohol that can be added to regular gasoline. It’s extremely popular in Brazil, which is rich in sugar cane, but is rapidly losing ground in the United States, which relies on corn for the fuel.

 

In addition to questionable benefits-versus-costs calculations, ethanol production has caused an acute crisis in food prices, especially as corn has turned farmland and a key food crop into a fuel, causing corresponding spikes in other commodities. On top of that, ethanol’s net energy savings is being challenged; new research suggests that it may actually take more energy to produce than it saves.

 

Biodiesel made from soy beans has many of these same downsides. But so-called second-generation biodiesels, made from plants such as jatropha and castor beans, do not. They are made from inedible crops, and they don’t compete for farmland, as they are suited to grow on poorer-quality land that would otherwise not be farmed.

Oils used for biodiesel – including palm oil, soy bean oil and the seeds of jatropha and castor bean – are cheaper to produce than ethanol, they don’t evaporate as easily as ethanol does, and they produce more energy per weight than ethanol does.

(One benefit specific to castor-based biodiesel is that it has a much higher “flash point” than petrodiesel, meaning that it is less likely to cause an explosion if a car is in a collision.)

 

 

For all these reasons, the United States is beginning to shift from ethanol to biodiesel. Europe, meanwhile, is already pretty heavily invested in biodiesel.

 

HOWEVER, BIODIESEL is not a perfect solution to the fuel puzzle.

Jatropha is a labor-intensive crop, as each fruit ripens at a different time and needs to be harvested separately. It is an ancient plant but it has never been fully domesticated, Jonas concedes – which means that there can be large differences in oil volume and quality from one plant to another.

At Volcani, Ostersetzer-Biran’s team is experimenting with a dozen or so varieties of the castor bean plant selected from among some 150 different varieties from all over the world, to breed plants that will grow tall enough and uniformly enough to make mechanical harvesting feasible, and to do so with reliable quality control.

 

Another issue related to supply is the fickle nature of farming. One benefit of petroleum is that, rain or shine, it flows. Farming, though, is heavily dependent on weather and other environmental factors. Is Galten concerned about how a harsh winter, for example, or a sudden drought, could impact production?

 

“There’s a risk in any farming venture,” Jonas acknowledges. However, he says, “the plant is extraordinarily robust, and the conditions in Ghana are both highly conducive to jatropha growth and very unlikely to suffer setbacks. The plant is resilient to disease – ironically, because of its toxins, which also make it repellant to animals.”

 

The conditions in Ghana are not just “highly conducive to jatropha growth,” as Jonas says. They’re also highly unusual, as Levi testifies. Speaking to The Jerusalem Post from the sprawling fields that Galten controls, Levi describes an environment far removed from the central Israel home base of his company.

 

“We deal with three or four local chiefs, and you have to sit with them in these elaborate ceremonies that last for hours,” he explains. “There are special rites that you have to learn, like pouring out water before you drink, to show that you respect the land. Some of our contracts are signed with fingers, not pens. It’s definitely a long way from the board rooms of Tel Aviv, and it takes patience.”

Those tribal chiefs, Levi continues, are concerned first and foremost with providing employment for their people, whether it’s efficient for the business or not. “And we’re okay with that,” he says. The company hires hundreds of locals because “the people here have the know-how to work the fields. We bring them the opportunity to work and make money. At the same time, we are making use of land which otherwise would have no use. It’s good for everyone.”

The “Israeliness” of the company, Levi says, “is not expressed by having Israelis grow the plant, but by the fact that we have brought our technology and know-how to those who are growing the plant.”

Galten chose Ghana for its political stability, but also for its lush fields and warm climate.

“It’s perfect,” Levi continues. “Yesterday morning, it was hot as hell. Then at 2 o’clock, it was raining like crazy. A few hours later, there were clear skies. With a climate like this, you don’t need sophisticated irrigation methods. All we have to do is to invest some money, clear away some land and plant the seeds. Then keep doing it. It’s like when you know exactly where oil is, and all it takes is some time and effort to get it out of the ground.”

There is competition for superiority in the jatropha market, especially from India. The government there has earmarked some 11 million hectares of land that are suitable for jatropha cultivation, and it has embarked on an ambitious project to grow the plant along the length of the railroad from Mumbai to Delhi.

“Actually,” says Levi derisively, “the Indian government’s plan is based on encouraging small farmers to grow enough for themselves, then sell any excess they have. That’s not the right model for mass production.”

In addition, there is a growing sense, revealed in the reports of several energy investment companies, that much of the press on jatropha thus far has been more hype than reality.

“You can’t believe everything you read on the Internet,” scoffs Jonas.

“We have actually called up some of the companies claiming to be cultivating jatropha, companies that are raising lots of money around the world based on the claim that they are growing jatropha, and asked to order oil. Quickly it became clear that they’re not close to producing oil, or that they’re really just small-time farmers.

“In the end they don’t really grow jatropha, but work primarily with other alternative fuels. They just don’t have the know-how and experience that we have,” he says.

While that remains to be seen, Levi claims that Galten will be able to put its first jatropha-based biodiesel on sale by the middle of next year. The company already has in place a draft contract with two large companies for the sale of oil produced, one with a major Brazilian firm and the other with a European refinery.

At Beit Dagan, Ostersetzer-Biran explains that Israel is not meant to be the center of biodiesel production. Rather, Israeli research will produce the most efficient and desirable plants, which will then be marketed around the world to anyone wishing to capitalize on the coming biodiesel craze. And while the “winning formula” is yet to be found, the seeds of success have already been planted here.

What is biodiesel?

Rudolf Diesel used vegetable oils in the early models of his unique engines, a century ago, and believed they would be as important to transportation and energy production as fossil fuels were. With the development of biodiesel, that prediction is coming close to fruition.

Biodiesel, though, is only one of the two most common types of biofuels.

Biofuels are an alternative energy source to fossil fuels, which are considered the cause of global warming. One method of biofuel production involves crops high in sugar, such as sugar cane, or starch, such as corn; these are fermented to produce ethanol, which is blended with gasoline.

The other widespread method of biofuel production involves plants high in vegetable oil, such as palm oil, soy, jatropha or castor bean; this oil is refined and added to diesel fuel, hence the name biodiesel.

Pure biodiesel can be used by itself in some standard diesel engines, and as a blend with regular petroleum-based diesel fuel in most standard diesel engines built since the mid-1990s.

The diesel engine is most prevalent today in the trucking industry, which is currently the main focus of biodiesel firms. Countries that encourage biodiesel use can theoretically make a significant reduction in their carbon emissions, and trucking firms can expect to save large sums of money on reduced fuel costs.

Since diesel engines are already more fuel-efficient than their gasoline-burning counterparts, the viability of biodiesel could also spur greater use of the diesel engine in passenger cars.

Biofuels are attractive energy sources for several reasons: they are renewable, their carbon emissions are theoretically offset by the carbon dioxide their plants absorbed while they were grown, and they reduce countries’ energy dependency on fossil fuels.

However, recent studies suggest the picture is not so rosy – or green, as it were. One major downside of large-scale biofuel production until now has been the creation of a crisis in the global agricultural market, as food crops such as corn and soy are diverted to fuel production.

Another significant problem is that, instead of reducing carbon emissions, biofuels may actually increase them, since the energy required to produce biofuels is higher than that required to produce gasoline. Worse still, some countries have cut down rainforests and introduced other environmentally damaging methods in a scramble to make way for the profitable new energy crops.

Plants such as jatropha and castor, though, offer the opportunity to produce biodiesel without competing for farmland or diverting food crops from the market. Assuming continued improvements in the efficiency of the fuel and in the methods of production, Rudolf Diesel very well could prove prophetic.

Pros and cons of biodiesel made from jatropha or castor oil

Pros:

Reduced dependence on fossil fuels

Lower carbon emissions than petrodiesel

Cheaper than petrodiesel

Higher production per hectare than soy or corn

Uses marginal land, creating no competition for food crops

Cons:

Crop yields and quality vary widely

Clearing forestland or draining wetlands in order to plant biodiesel crops would offset the fuels’ environmental benefits

 

 

Neither flour nor Torah

studyingThe global financial meltdown’s spread to the sources of funding on which this country’s haredi institutions depend is proving the mishnaic axiom that “when there is no flour, there is no Torah.”

As The Jerusalem Post reported last week, the well of foreign donations that keeps kollelim, yeshivot and other haredi institutions afloat is running dry, sending full-time scholars out into the job market. The story of Tuvia, a 20-year-old hassid from Jerusalem who chose to operate a machine at a drug company rather than face the threat of choking poverty, was indicative of the changes under way.

The current crisis, though, is ironic – for, as the mishna above continues, “when there is no Torah, there is no flour” (Avot 3:21). Yet today, even as Torah study is on the rise, the financial well-being of the Torah-studying world faces a precipitous decline. Something is amiss.

Many haredi leaders would respond to such a paradox with a call to greater devotion – in study, in prayer and in deeds. Yet, again, this would ignore the glaring contradiction between the increasing strictness of religious observance and lengthier commitment to Torah studies among the haredim and this sector’s worsening financial straits. The contention that this suffering would be alleviated through divine recompense if only young men would concentrate more on their Gemaras can only bear so much of the strain of observable fact before it shatters. Tuvia the machine operator is just one example of what happens when it does.

Heavenly judgment notwithstanding, poverty among haredim is almost entirely self-inflicted. Only about half of haredi men and women of working age are employed – some 30 percentage points lower than the figure for non-haredi Jews – and the jobs they do hold tend to be in lower-paying sectors. The haredi community, therefore, is unable to independently fund its kollel system and relies heavily on donations from abroad. Considering how impossible this equation is, the only thing that is surprising about this crisis is that it hasn’t come sooner.

FOR ALL those who have watched with concern while the haredi community’s singular devotion to Torah studies has pushed it deeper and deeper into poverty, the impending collapse of the kollel economy is good news. Not, God forbid, that anyone should take pleasure in the distress of others, or in the thought that Torah learning may decrease. Rather, it is good news that what has been painfully obvious to so many outsiders may finally be sinking in among stalwart proponents of the widespread kollel culture that has created this catastrophe: that the system is broken, and demands repair.

The first step is to recognize that the kollel paradigm currently in vogue is a deviation from traditional Jewish norms. It is only recently, with the advent of the welfare state and other social changes, that the large-scale subsidization of long-term Torah study has taken hold. Yet even in other times and places, when wealthy patrons could have been relied upon for support, the vast majority of Torah scholars did not accept payment either for teaching or for studying holy texts.

As Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld has noted in his commentary on Pirkei Avot: “While in Temple times, scholars had either supported themselves, or been paid a pittance out of Temple funds, during the Yavne period a policy emerged of encouraging the community to regard the support of the sages as a religious-communal function.”

Even so, Rosenfeld continues, “many scholars still plied their crafts as cobblers, smiths, scribes, etc., supporting themselves in this way in their spare time. In principle the scholars accepted no remuneration for their communal activity, or for the instruction they gave, and certainly not for studying. The ideal was that a scholar ‘should study for the sake of heaven’ and live from his own toil” (Tanna de-bei Eliahu 5:2).

Of course, there have been a number of outstanding rabbis who have devoted themselves entirely to Torah study and teaching, including the gaonim of Babylonia. But they have been the exceptions to the rule. Throughout the centuries, the greatest figures in all of Jewish scholarship worked for a living.

Many a brilliant scholar employed his faculties in a position of prominence. Avraham Ibn Ezra, the Rambam, the Ramban, the Ran and Ovadia Sforno were physicians. Bahya ibn Pakuda, the Ravad and the Ralbag were philosophers, astronomers, mathematicians and judges. Rashi, Rabbeinu Tam, the Rashba and Yitzhak Ben Yehuda Abravanel were deeply involved in finance.

Others engaged in simpler occupations. The Amoraim Rava, Abbaye, Abbahu and Hama traded wine and other goods. First-century Tanna Abba Shaul Ben Batnit was a shopkeeper in Jerusalem. The Hafetz Haim, refusing to make the rabbinate his livelihood, helped his wife maintain a small grocery.

Babylonian Amora Hisda became very wealthy as a brewer. Abba Shaul was a baker. The Rashbam was a sheep farmer. The great Italian mystic Ramchal earned a living as a diamond cutter.

Some, despite their exalted status in the study hall, earned their living through difficult or humble jobs. Honi Hame’agel, the renowned miracle worker from the period of the Second Temple, repaired roofs for a living. The Amoraim Hanina and Hoshaiah were cobblers. Some sages even tanned hides, despite the odiousness of the job.

WERE THESE men greedy for material gain? Were they inferior in faith and constitution to the young men of today, who spend their days and nights in kollel in exchange for meager stipends? The mere utterance of such a thought in today’s Jerusalem or Bnei Brak would be scandalous.

What, then, motivated our greatest scholars to toil? Their scholarship, evidently.

Although the Talmud is replete with admonitions to study Torah diligently, its pro-work ethos is overpowering.

“Love work and despise high position [the rabbinate],” the sages say in Pirkei Avot 1:10.

“The primary thing is not study,” they add in Avot 1:17, “but action.”

Going further in Avot 2:2, Rabban Gamliel, the son of Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi – the very redactor of the Mishna – says, “Good is Torah study together with a worldly occupation, for the exertion in both makes one forget sin. All Torah study without work will result in waste and will cause sinfulness.”

To make this message unequivocal, they admonish in Pessahim 113a: “One should flay carcasses in the marketplace and earn a living. He should not say, ‘I am a priest, [or] I am a great man, and such work is beneath me.'”

In terms even stronger still, the Rambam writes, in his Mishneh Torah: “Whoever thinks he will study Torah and not work, and will be supported from charity, profanes God’s name, shames the Torah, darkens the light of knowledge, causes harm to himself, and takes his life from this world, for it is forbidden to derive benefit from the Torah in this world.”

“Do you think,” the incredulous kollel student might well ask, “that our Torah sages of today are unaware of all these things?!”

To which we would respond, of course not! Indeed, that is what is most troubling: that, in essence, today’s haredi leaders have overruled practically every giant of Torah knowledge who has ever lived. And the consequences have been dire.

By encouraging more and more able-bodied young men to delay their professional careers, and by discouraging them from pursuing the broader technical knowledge that would improve their chances of earning a respectable wage, they have condemned hundreds of thousands of men, women and children to destitution. So, too, they have denied the working man the dignity and the sanctity with which our earliest sages invested him. Yet they rely completely on the work of his hands and eat bread by the sweat of his brow.

This problem will not be solved until paid kollel studies are limited to only the most promising of students. Doing so would allow for these students to be provided with higher stipends, which would both ease their economic hardship and more accurately reflect the value that the community places on advanced Torah scholarship. (At the same time, they ought to be required to perform some kind of community service, outside their studies.)

But what of the rest of the students, who would be sent out of the kollel? They need not abandon Torah study altogether – only combine it with professional training, followed by gainful employment. This would ease the financial pressure on them and on the rest of the community, ensuring the security of institutions of higher learning and freeing up resources for those truly unable to provide for themselves.

Defenders of the current paradigm will no doubt marshall all manner of arguments to justify its perpetuation. But resisting these critical reforms can only mean one thing: neither flour, nor Torah, for years to come.

Olmert seeks a legacy — Rabin’s

yitzhak_rabinehud-olmertariel_sharon_2004Ehud Olmert’s speeches on the occasion of Yitzhak Rabin’s 13th memorial had pundits wondering whether he was declaring a new diplomatic initiative, and whether he would be able to implement such a wide-ranging plan as he was laying out before the public. But that wasn’t the case.

In truth, his sweeping remarks about abandoning pieces of the homeland for the sake of peace were merely recycled phrases from a peace process as dead as Rabin. Really, the only thing being abandoned this week was any pretense on the part of Olmert at being the inheritor of Ariel Sharon; the only bold new initiative was Olmert sealing his not-so-subtle attempts to position himself as the spiritual successor to Rabin.

When Sharon fell into a coma in January 2006, the country was gearing up for new elections that were expected to give Sharon and his Kadima party a further vote of (shaky) confidence following the previous summer’s withdrawal from Gaza. Sharon’s illness forced Kadima strategists to switch the focus of the campaign from Sharon to Olmert, who had earned the No. 2 position in the party more by default than by merit. 

At first, Olmert played on the public’s sympathy for Sharon. In his victory speech following the elections in March of 2006, Olmert said his heart was really at Sharon’s bedside, lauding him as a courageous and visionary leader, etc. It was more of the same in April, during coalition talks, when Olmert talked of wishing to be able to tell a revived Sharon, “Arik, your dream has been fulfilled!” In May, speaking before Congress, Olmert took time to note that it was Sharon who “should have stood here.” The “legendary statesman, my friend and colleague,” Olmert said, had been felled, “but I am emboldened by the promise of continuing his mission.”

At the outset, it was clear, Olmert was playing the part of Sharon’s loyal heir. But that didn’t last long.

The next month, Olmert pushed out Sharon’s long-time confidant and foreign press spokesman. He also placed his cronies and yes-men in ministerial positions, and set out to established his own legacy. It was forged in short order, as the Second Lebanon War turned Olmert into a punching bag for politicians, journalists and men-on-the-street of almost all stripes (David Landau and his “etrog journalism” colleagues at Haaretz notwithstanding), and all sorts of other stains marred the record that Olmert tried desperately to present as sterling. 

Now the names most associated with Olmert’s legacy are Winograd (as in the government commission of inquiry set up to probe the failures of the Second Lebanon War), Talansky (as in the New York financier who spilled the beans about cash handouts that Olmert collected for years in return for vague political favors) and even Cremieux (as in the home in Jerusalem that Olmert sold to a political ally for far more than its market value, which signaled to authorities another payoff scheme).

Sharon’s name has fallen pretty far down on the list – and Olmert has kept it that way. He didn’t mention his political mentor at all in a lengthy interview with The Jerusalem Post this past January. He didn’t mention Sharon when he announced he was stepping down as prime minister. Since the spring of 2006, Olmert has rarely let Ariel Sharon’s name cross his lips. 

At the same time, Olmert has focused on territorial compromise with the Palestinians and with Syria as his signature initiatives. His identification with Rabin – as a diplomat first and, now, as a political martyr – has increased in time. His overtures surrounding Rabin’s memorial can best be understood as the point at which a butterfly emerges from its cocoon, transformed. 

Now, to a large degree, this makes sense. Olmert has lost all support from the Right, and has no credibility from left-wing do-gooders who demand “clean hands” politics. His only refuge, politically, lies in the path of territorial surrender and rhetorical flourishes about painful sacrifices for peace. The path, that is, of Rabin. (Or at least what has become of Rabin in the public consciousness.) 

But what is perhaps most interesting about this is that even the Left has moved away from Rabin. Each year, the memorial rally in Tel Aviv grows smaller and less strident; each year the attendees are younger and less aware of the nuances surrounding the times in which Rabin was murdered. Each year, the cult of Rabin grows more hollow and less sincere. The Second Intifada sucked the wind from the sails of the We Must Try Everything ship, disabusing most on the Left of the notion that it was right-wing Israelis, rather than Palestinian terrorists, who stood in the way of peace. The absence of Rabin’s name from the mouths of left-wingers looking for a different legacy is not unlike the absence of Sharon’s name from Olmert’s mouth and his own pursuit of a different legacy.

In the end, I’m sure, Olmert will try to present himself as something of a cross between the two men – or better, as per his style, the cumulative value of both. But history will surely judge him differently, as less than half of either Sharon or Rabin.