‘Person of the Decade’

Haaretz is inviting readers to select a Person of the Decade, with the option of choosing up to five people who “have had the most impact on Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world in the past 10 years.”

Astonishingly, Yasser Arafat is not among the options(!), although other big-time Bad Guys like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, and even relatively insignificant people like Omri Casspi, the Israeli rookie sensation of the NBA, and Anti-Defamation League director Abe Foxman, are included on the list.

I don’t see how you could choose anyone other than Osama bin Laden for the Person of the Decade, given his direct impact on the course of the decade’s history and the scope of the effects of his actions and words across the globe. There really isn’t anyone who comes close.

Where Israel is concerned, it seems to me that Ariel Sharon is a slam dunk for the “award”. He may have spent the past four years in a coma, but his influence on the past decade is unparalleled… which is not to say unblemished. Again, there really isn’t anyone who comes close.

…Although I might give honorable mention to the folks behind the birthright-taglit program, which has succeeded in making Israel (and, to a great extent, Jewishness) relevant for a huge portion of young Jews  in North America. Given the direction that that particular demographic was (is?) heading, that’s no small feat.

Easy rider

An Australian oleh wants Israel to get to know – and become known for – an electric-powered, shotgun-resistant folding bicycle

Inspector Gadget, your bicycle is ready. Andrew Hamilton has prepared it according to all your needs: It has an advanced battery pack to give you an extra burst for pursuing bad guys, and it folds up nice and small, too, like the impossible tools that you use to catch them. It can even survive a gunfight.

Of course, even those who aren’t fictional characters can appreciate the benefits of Hamilton’s bicycles. Based on a British-made folding model considered by aficionados the best of its kind, the Freedom E-bike offers a heretofore unknown commuting experience. The bike makes quick work of hills with a peppy electric motor, positioned in the hub of the front wheel, that springs to life with a flick of the wrist on the right handgrip, motorcycle-style. Then, it goes from basic transportation to suitcase-sized sculpture in about 10 seconds with a few easy snaps and folds.

It’s not a new concept. There are dozens of similar bicycles available commercially, some with integrated power systems and others with snap-on kits that can be assembled by buyers or by dealers. Hamilton’s combination of parts is unique, though – a package that he claims is stronger, lighter and even cheaper than the competition. And it’s made in Israel.

The Freedom E-bike was born, however, in Sydney, where Hamilton works as a lawyer specializing in IT and telecommunications issues. About two years ago, he explains, he was simply looking for an inexpensive way to get to work. And he had some very specific requirements for the vehicle that would make that possible.

“I wanted to ride a bicycle to work, but I didn’t want to break much of a sweat,” he says, “and since the weather can change quickly in Sydney, I also wanted to be able to take the bus if necessary. A folding electric bike was my holy grail.”

There were lots of options, though, and Hamilton wasn’t satisfied by any of them. So he went about putting together a bike of his own.

“I started doing some research into what was available in the form of electric bikes, to see if they were any good. I found that the Brompton was considered the best folding bike, and that there was a kit to put a motor on it. The kit was available in the UK, but it took a very long time to get to me [in Australia], and they didn’t supply a battery, so I had to come up with my own battery solution,” he says. “After a lot of research, I chose the latest in lithium-ion, nanotechnology cells. I put all that together and it worked really well.”

That might have been the end of the story, had Hamilton and his family not made aliya recently. But when he started pedaling around Jerusalem on his one-of-a-kind bicycle, and people started asking Hamilton where they could get one just like it, he saw an opportunity.

“I figured I’d try to get in contact with the people doing the kit in the UK,” Hamilton continues. “Well, they were out of commission. They had so much demand that they decided not to do the business anymore. Basically, the guy was one of those weird engineering characters who didn’t know anything about customer service or running a business.”

That setback, which forced Hamilton to source his own parts, actually turned out to be a boon. He was able to choose parts that better served users’ needs than the prepackaged kits then available.

“The kit I got was really quite complex to install for the customer, and it was more complex for the company that was doing it, which was why they couldn’t keep up with demand. It was too tricky,” he says. “I thought, there’s got to be a better way.”

There was.

“Because it’s a folding bike, you want to keep the bike as free of stuff as possible. But most battery kits that you can buy for bikes, you can’t put on folding bikes because they interfere with the fold. So,” Hamilton says, “I thought, I need to take a minimalist approach. I asked myself, what absolutely has to be on the bike? The motor absolutely has to be on the bike and the throttle absolutely has to be on the bike. But [I realized that] the battery doesn’t need to be on the bike and the [output] controller doesn’t need to be on the bike.”

That’s where the Freedom E-bike’s design differs from others.

“Since the Brompton comes with an integrated, front-mounted luggage bag, and the battery I chose is small, I realized I could put the battery in there and get it off the bike.  It doesn’t interfere with the fold, so when it folds, it folds perfectly, the way the Brompton is supposed to.

“But that wasn’t the end, because there are seven different wires that you’ve got to connect, and they’re taking a lot of current. So I managed to source a high-current, seven-pin connector, which was pretty hard to find, and it makes the connection a breeze.”

He swapped out the right hand grip for the throttle, changed the front wheel to fit the stronger-than-usual electric hub motor he had chosen, put the battery in the storage bag and plugged it in.

“Away you go!” as he says.

Indeed, away you go. Turn the throttle on the Freedom E-bike and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the silent push of the electric motor. That initial difficulty of starting to pedal is gone, making commuting and errand running a nearly effortless affair. You could refrain from pedaling entirely if you wanted to, letting the motor do all the work for you… but that would drain the batteries much too quickly.

When the battery is low on charge, Hamilton says, it can be fully recharged in about an hour and 20 minutes with a standard charger – a fraction of the time that the competition’s batteries require. And once fully charged, he adds, the Freedom E-bike’s power pack will provide enough juice for most people’s needs.

“In a city like Jerusalem, which is pretty hilly, a fully charged battery will give you about 15 kilometers of power, together with a moderate amount of pedaling,” he says. “Now, it all depends on how much effort you put in, it depends on the terrain, it depends on the wind conditions. But I find that I can pretty much get anywhere in Jerusalem and back home on a single charge. I’ve ridden to Yad Vashem and back [to the German Colony], to Mount Scopus and back… all sorts of rides, on a single charge.”

That’s a testament, he says, not to his legs but to his battery – a pack of A123Systems lithium ion cells, like the ones used in several electric and hybrid cars, that Hamilton assembles for his bikes. They offer more power in a smaller, lighter package than the other batteries on the market, he says.

“Because other companies use a battery that is less advanced than ours, they need a bigger battery to provide the same amount of ‘grunt’. Instead of carrying around a 3- or 5-kilo battery, you can use a 1-kilo battery and have it be sufficient for most urban cycling that you do. And it’s modular, so that if you want to add another pack to that, you can.”

The weight savings is not insignificant, Hamilton notes.

“In the biking world, people pay a whole lot of money to save a few hundred grams. Weight is very important – particularly in a folding bike, since you don’t just ride it, you also carry it.”

In addition to being light and powerful, the Freedom E-bike’s batteries are extremely resilient, as well.

“I’ve even had them shot by a bomb-detonating robot, a few days after I made aliya,” Hamilton says with a laugh. “I rode down to a mall in Talpiot, and I didn’t want to bring the bag, with the battery, into the mall, because with the wires hanging out I was worried it would freak out the security guards. I figured I would just leave the bag tied up with the bike…

“Well, when I came back two or three hours later after shopping in the mall, my bike was there but there was no bag – just little pieces of black plastic lying all around. Apparently, someone had called it in as a suspicious package and the sappers shot it with their shotgun.

“Eventually,” Hamilton continues, “I managed to track down the bag and get it back. The battery was still in there – and of 12 cells in the pack, six of them were salvageable, despite having taken four concrete slugs at point-blank range! So it’s very robust. That’s not something I’d recommend you do at home, of course, but it just goes to show that it’s very safe in a transport application.”

There are other, more conventional safety issues of electric bicycles to consider. In the UK and Europe, Hamilton notes, regulations require that the motor not provide assistance above 25 kph.

“The logic is that, if it isn’t helping you go faster than you could go under your own power, then it doesn’t require any different safety standards – sturdier brakes, etc.”

Bigger, more powerful motors allowed in the US are also heavier, which makes them more attractive to daredevil tinkerers than they would be for casual commuters, who are Hamilton’s target market.

“The way this motor works, its gearing makes it ease off as it gets faster. What this means is that, as you get tired and provide less energy, the motor helps you more, but if you’re feeling like you really want to ‘go for it,’ the motor pulls back and provides less boost. So it’s a self-balancing thing. It’s about the way most people use a bicycle for commuting, just a bit easier. It has all the advantages of a regular bike in terms of promoting fitness, and in terms of getting from Point A to Point B, without all the sweat,” he says.

“If you ask people why they don’t use a bike for getting around, they’ll typically answer that they don’t want to ride hard enough that they get really sweaty, that the hills are too hard and that they’re scared of traffic. This solves at least two of those problems. The boost makes the hills much easier and it makes riding much more pleasant in general. And since it accelerates to about 25 kph, you can merge into traffic or keep up with traffic to a degree. In fact, especially on inclines, I find myself passing some cars.”

So much for what the product can do. What does it cost?

A fully assembled Freedom E-bike will set you back about NIS 7,500, Hamilton says.

Now, that’s a hefty price for a lightweight bike. A brand new 50cc motor scooter costs about the same, and will easily have you zipping around town at 90 kph per hour.

“True,” Hamilton concedes. “But you have to factor in fuel costs, maintenance costs and insurance costs to that. You don’t get the heath benefits that you get from riding a bike, either. And then there’s theft. With a folding bike, you never have to worry about that. At home, you just fold it up, carry it inside and leave it by your bed. At work, you fold it up and leave it under your desk. You never have to worry about it.”

The price, although steep, is also competitive in its market. Most models in the US and Europe cost as much or more. In Israel, the options are extremely limited.

“One of the reasons that I started building these bikes here is that a relative ordered a folding bike with an off-the-shelf electric kit from a place in Tel Aviv. The kit wasn’t as good as ours, with a weaker battery, and it was mounted in such a way that it prevented the bike from folding. I knew we could do better. In fact, for almost the same price, we sell a better bike with a better kit.”

Still, the high cost means that Freedom is currently selling the vast majority of its bikes overseas, where folding electric bicycles are selling like hot cakes. In fact, it’s one of the fastest growing markets in the world. In Europe, annual sales are expected to triple in the next two years; throughout Asia, sales figures are skyrocketing, and in the US, new models are being introduced all the time to meet burgeoning demand.

Hamilton, who has filed a patent in Australia for his unique combination of parts and design features, hopes to turn his tiny operation into an Israeli powerhouse. He imports all the parts – motors, batteries, plugs, etc. – from his various suppliers, then assembles the bikes here to be shipped around the world. Israel’s location and low shipping costs in general make this an advantageous place to set up operations, he says.

“The interesting thing is that it’s so cheap to mail from Israel. It actually works out cheaper to mail from Israel to New Zealand than it is to ship from Australia to New Zealand,” he says. “Even for shipping inside Australia, it’s cheaper to just ship everything from Israel.”

Hamilton also hopes to soon work out an agreement to import Brompton bikes to Israel, which would significantly reduce costs. And he is working with an Israeli company that makes small electric motors to fabricate one to the Brompton’s factory measurements – which would obviate the need for the stretching of the front forks that current hub motors require of all electric conversions – so that Israeli ingenuity can take its place alongside the Chinese power plants currently dominating the industry.

That dream is still far from becoming reality. But, Hamilton shows, hopping onto his gadget bike and speeding off with a quiet whirr, it’s quickly unfolding.

A working model

An upstart program gives the hopelessly unemployed the tools – and the motivation – to find rewarding careers

In their down time, the unemployed play charades. They laugh, they mingle, they pour each other coffee. But they also dress in formal office attire and carry with them copious notes from their latest meetings. After all, just because they don’t have professions doesn’t mean they can’t be professional.

Their coffee break over, a group of participants in the latest STRIVE employment program file into a classroom to simulate a confrontation with an employer. Miri, a tall and plump woman in her late 20s, plays a nurse who has administered the wrong medication to a child in her care.

“How could you have made such a grievous error?!” barks an instructor, playing the role of the supervisor in a scolding via telephone. Miri refuses to admit her mistake and demands a face-to-face meeting to review the evidence, as her “boss” becomes increasingly agitated. A two-week suspension had been in the cards – and, the boss hints, avoidable had Miri handled this correctly – but now she is a whisker away from an outright dismissal.

After a heated exchange, the instructor steps out of character and turns to the class, asking, “How could Miri have done that better?”

Miri and her classmates have been in this kind of situation before – and usually come out of it badly. The goal of today’s class is to learn how to communicate in a manner that reflects responsibility and character, and to learn as well how to defuse an explosive workplace situation or prevent one altogether. Some of the students need to learn how to defend themselves without becoming defensive. Others need to learn how to stand up for themselves. And others are still working on not simply giving up and walking away from a job that will feed their families.

“What we’re trying to do is to get people to stop saying, ‘The system screwed me’ and start taking control of their lives,” explains Naomi Krieger, STRIVE’s general manager.

That ethos couldn’t come at a better time, as the country is in the midst of an alarming rise in unemployment. Now hovering around 8%, with more than a quarter-million Israelis already out of work, joblessness is at its highest point in three years.

“Unemployment will continue to rise… there are still difficult times ahead of us,” Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer said in late July. “I am optimistic about the Israeli economy,” Fischer continued, “but we shouldn’t exaggerate. We will need to cope with the problem of unemployment.”

The big question, of course, is how to do that. And with it comes the question of whether the government can complete the mission on its own. Most of the government’s efforts thus far – mainly, in derivations of the so-called Wisconsin Plan – have met with only meager success. So meager, in fact, that an 18 percent job placement rate has been considered cause for celebration. To put that in perspective, STRIVE claims a job placement rate of roughly 75 percent.

“The government has never had a holistic view of employment,” Yossi Tamir cautions.

He ought to know: a professor of social work at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and former directory-general of the National Insurance Institute, Tamir headed the government committee upon whose recommendations the Wisconsin-based Mehalev program was founded. He is also currently the executive director of TEVET, the Joint Distribution Committee’s array of employment initiatives of which STRIVE is a part.

“The establishment of [Mehalev] sprung from a need to address an alarming increase in the number of people who were receiving guaranteed income payments,” Tamir says from the JDC’s Jerusalem office. “It was clear that doling out money wasn’t solving the poverty problem.”

The issue that Mehalev was supposed to fix, Tamir explains, was not unemployment per se, but unemployment by choice. Israel, Tamir notes, has the lowest rate of participation in the workforce in the Western world.

Cultural norms account for much of that, as many haredi men choose advanced Torah study over work, and many Arab women continue to serve in their traditional role in the home. A minimum wage that is too low in comparison to the benefits handed out to the jobless by the government is another cause. Indeed, Mehalev brought a significant reduction in those numbers, as thousands of people who had been receiving support checks while simultaneously working for pay “under the table” were forced to give up the dole.

On the score of getting more people to work, though, Mehalev has been a disappointment. For STRIVE to succeed, it would have to be different from Mehalev. And it is – very much so.

To begin with, there are nuts-and-bolts differences in the programs. For example, Mehalev aims to place people in jobs as soon as possible and clear their files from the government’s welfare caseload. By contrast, STRIVE’s work is still in its early stages by the time subjects are placed in jobs; at that point, there’s still more than two years of personal and professional development to go.

At least as important, though, is the psychological element that permeates the STRIVE concept and makes it unique. Beyond preparation for work, STRIVE officials say, the unemployed need motivation for work. The cases they are dealing with are people who have been out of work for long periods – some for years, and some even as third-generation recipients of welfare payments.

“One of the exercises we do with our participants is to ask: ‘If you could receive NIS 8,000 per month for the rest of your life, on the condition that you never work a single day, would you?’ At first, some say, ‘Of course!’ But then, when we ask what they would suggest their kids respond to the same question, they become very insistent that their children work to support themselves. The idea is to instill the sense that there is a value to working,” says Krieger.

In addition to the value of work, STRIVE students are given something most people take for granted: the hope and belief that they can accomplish their goals through hard work. It may seem simple, but for these people, it is absolutely transformative.

At the STRIVE offices in Jerusalem, Michal talks of her own transformation.

Before, says the slender 20-year-old, “I had a dream.” Then, after a pause, she adds, “but that’s all it was.”

The dream, she explains, was to start her own cosmetics line. What was holding her back was a stifling insecurity.

“I married young, had children and stayed at home, on the couch,” she says. “I allowed myself to be bullied and made to feel inferior. STRIVE gave me a direction. And it really got my head together.”

STRIVE’s introductory month of classes and workshops follows a rigid 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. schedule, with no excuses for being late or absent and no childcare option. The discipline and resourcefulness required to make it through the course, Michal says, were exactly what she needed.

Now working regularly at the cosmetics desk in a branch of the Super-Pharm chain, Michal is back to dreaming of starting her own cosmetics line – but now she views her work shifts as time spent learning the business from the inside. She’s not merely working, she’s investing in herself. The empowerment is immense.

“I don’t give in so easily anymore,” she says, beaming. “I even got divorced and took control of myself. It’s like I got an extra dose of smarts!”

Even more enthusiastic is Avi, a 30-year-old who bounced around in yeshivot and kollelim until starting a STRIVE course a few months ago. Lacking drive and lacking a sense of self-worth, Avi saw himself foundering.

It was his sister, though, who gave Avi the impetus to apply to STRIVE. She had just completed the initial course and “couldn’t stop talking about it,” he says. “The whole family saw how dramatically she changed. I thought it would be good for me, too.”

Even before STRIVE helped Avi find a job, he says, it helped him become a better father.

“In class I learned how to be an attentive listener, and how to develop confidence. I applied the lessons at home, listening to my children more and encouraging them to have more confidence in themselves,” he says with pride.

Avi is actually so enthusiastic that he is practically leaping out of his chair.

“The idea that I can do things, that I can try something new and maybe even succeed at it, is such a revelation,” he says. “Before, I was afraid to do anything, to try anything. Now my only fear is that this [positive] feeling will fade.”

Avi works at a travel agency that specializes in trips to Uman, where Rabbi Nahman of Braslov is buried. He, too, treats his job as a starting point rather than an end, though, and has already set his sights on opening a business of his own. He eagerly soaks up the “Ofek” (horizon) continuing education classes that STRIVE offers participants fortnightly, and hopes to one day come back to STRIVE to teach others how to succeed.

“Why not?” he asks. For Avi, anything is possible.

Dudu remembers the way he was just a few short months ago – sitting at home, dejected, without the desire to work anymore, having lost faith in his ability to hold down a job that would support himself, his wife and his two little girls.

At 36, he says grimly, and with no sense of hyperbole, “all was lost.”

Then he saw an ad in the newspaper for a STRIVE course and decided to give working one last shot.

“Now,” he says, beaming, “I’m happy to say that I’ve been working in the customer service department of Office Depot for the past three months. My smile says it all.”

For years, Dudu says, he struggled to figure out where he wanted to go in life. Now he hopes to study for a bachelor’s degree.

The power of the lessons he has learned in the STRIVE program, Dudu says, is so great that “soon, this will be like the psychometric exam. It’ll be an obligatory course.”

CLEARLY, STRIVE participants are benefiting. But what about their employers?

Meir Shalim, the deputy CEO for human resources at customer service company

Kishurit, is always happy to hire STRIVE graduates.

“Every month we take on new graduates, and we already have four or five cases of people who have come in from STRIVE who are now in senior positions with us. More than once our employee of the month has been a STRIVE graduate,” Shalim says. “They come in and hit the ground running with a lot of motivation.”

Kishurit currently employs nearly two dozen STRIVE graduates. Some have progressed from entry-level jobs to become shift managers or even supervisors. For a company that handles as many as 30,000 phone calls per day, that translates to a lot of responsibility.

“We make sure to give them positive feedback, to make sure they have all they need,” Shalim says. “You have to make sure to address their fears and concerns in returning to work after so long. We don’t pressure them in terms of time and such. We prefer to focus on learning the ropes and developing skills. It works.”

Why?

“These folks come in with twice as much desire to succeed as all the ‘regular’ workers.

They’re just so much more productive. We couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Danny Diamant, head of public relations for Mehashvim, which markets information systems to businesses and professionals, says his company has also been pleasantly surprised by the STRIVE graduates it has hired.

“Some have been here for a few years already, and are now leaders in sales. That’s significant, because it’s not easy to make it here. But there’s no group that has sent workers who have succeeded more than the STRIVE graduates have. As far as we’re concerned, it’s great.”

STRIVE makes a “win-win” pitch to businesses: pay no fee for finding workers, as they would have to do when working with manpower agencies, and get workers who are already trained and highly motivated. In return, the organization can sometimes convince employers to waive requirements that an employee hold an academic degree.

THE STRIVE program, which lasts two-and-a-half years, goes way beyond Miri’s class and job placement. Sure, the standard components of usual employment programs are in place – learning how to write a CV, how to make a good impression in a job interview, how to search for jobs, etc. – but what makes STRIVE unique, officials say, is its overarching focus on cultivating a positive attitude and the motivation to turn any job into a successful career.

Everything at STRIVE is meant to reinforce the lesson of, well, striving. The offices of the downtown Jerusalem branch, bright, colorful, inviting and modern, are the total opposite of the drab and dreary look of government employment offices. In fact, they could be mistaken for a PR firm. All the doors are glass – intentionally, Krieger says, to create the impression of transparency.

STRIVE opened its doors first in Tel Aviv, and then spread to Haifa and Jerusalem. The program was adapted from an initiative of the same name in Harlem, New York, founded 25 years ago by a former convict-turned-social worker and successful social activist.

The Israeli version focuses on the sectors of the population hit hardest by chronic unemployment – haredim, Arab women, immigrants from Ethiopia and the Caucasus, and the handicapped – and challenges them to turn their lives around.

“These are people who have had it rough for a long, long time. When they get the phone call telling them they’ve been accepted to the program, sometimes it’s the first time they’ve ever been accepted to anything,” Krieger says.

Each group has its own unique stigmas to overcome, she adds. For example, she tells the story of a haredi young woman at a STRIVE-sponsored barbecue in Gan Sacher. A counselor who noticed the woman standing off to the side, clearly uncomfortable about mingling, reassured the young woman: “Don’t worry, I’ll personally make sure you get a good shidduch.”

Whatever the reason, STRIVE is making great strides – of some 30,000 participants in the program at the three offices across the country, Tamir says, more than 20,000 have found work.

Tamir, though, says there is still much that can be done.

“Where we have failed, in my view, is in advancing workers,” he says with a sigh.

In Israel, he notes, the number of people working in minimum wage jobs is twice as high as in Europe and North America. One of the reasons for that, he adds, is that “too many mayors of small towns and local councils want industrial parks, but they don’t want to train residents for jobs in them,” so the bulk of jobs that could help depressed peripheral areas remain in the metropolises.

To help the most amount of people the fastest, STRIVE has focused on the big cities, but Tamir says he would like to expand the program to Beersheba and the Tiberias-Beit She’an area soon.

Tamir wants to help the people who have been passed over by successive governments. And while the government funds half of the STRIVE program, the outsiders’ success may be lighting a fire under the authorities to pick up the pace in their own work.

At the end of the summer, Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer announced an ambitious 10-year, NIS 1.75 billion plan to get 135,000 haredim, Arabs and handicapped to join the workforce.

“We are taking steps to remove obstacles related to education and professional training, transportation difficulties and discrimination,” he said.

If he wants suggestions on how to accomplish those grandiose goals, the minister will find a willing adviser in the newly enterprising Avi.

“There are two things everyone should do in life,” he says with a sly smile. “Visit Uman, and STRIVE.”

‘From the heart’ – but with a new mindset

Retooling the government’s Mehalev program has made it more efficient and less cruel at the same time

Bari Bar-Zion has heard all about the flaws of the government’s Mehalev (“from the heart”) program to move people from welfare to work. He knows quite well how bad things were when the program first got up and running – how people were forced to travel hours from their homes to attend meetings that did not, in the end, help them find work; how people were dropped from the welfare rolls as soon as they were placed in jobs, even if those jobs proved to be exploitative and short-lived, etc.

Bar-Zion was working in the Finance Ministry then, dealing with the economic mess of chronic unemployment. Like his colleagues, Bar-Zion was concerned by the disproportionate rise in welfare recipients that the government had come to finance. And like Eli Yishai of Shas, then industry, trade and labor minister, Bar-Zion felt that various strict and inflexible requirements made the Mehalev program “successful but cruel” and, ultimately, not as helpful as it could have been.

Changes that Yishai put in place have taken hold now, with demands that the companies operating the Mehalev program help participants find jobs that earn more money, prove that participants are indeed working, and ensure that they find work for the long term (at least 12 out of 15 months). Now CEO of Amin, the Mehalev franchisee for Jerusalem and the surrounding area, Bar-Zion oversees an operation that is run more efficiently – and, he says, more humanely – in helping people find meaningful employment.

Walking around Amin’s offices in downtown Jerusalem, Bar-Zion proudly points out the systematic path that participants follow, a detailed step-by-step process that guides them from the moment they walk through the door to the moment they head off to their new jobs.

“Each participant gets a personal plan,” he says, striding from the reception hall to the offices where social workers, job counselors and in-house National Insurance Institute representatives prepare participants for work.

“We run a tight ship here,” Bar-Zion says with pride. “Within three days of walking through our doors, new participants begin an orientation course that includes an intake process, visits with counselors, examination boards and the construction of a personalized program.”

Amin teaches participants a range of skills for getting, and then holding onto, jobs. It also provides babysitting and even dental care, Bar-Zion says, so that participants can concentrate on the task at hand.

“Looking for work is a full-time job,” he says.

While looking for work, participants continue to receive their NII benefits. And once they start working, they become eligible to receive financial grants from the government upon reaching various milestones on the job. They also continue to receive guidance from Amin counselors – in any of 14 different languages.

Amin is a combination of Action4Employment, a British company, and Aman, an Israeli consulting company that runs several government projects. Since 2005, it has received 14,000 case referrals from the NII. About 1 in 3 has been placed in a job, Bar-Zion says.

Some are on display, as it were. The security guard at the front door was a participant three years ago; he has been working at Amin for the past 18 months. Another security guard also came to Amin as a participant.

Most participants, Bar-Zion says with a laugh, actually find work outside Amin.

Unfortunately, about half of those who do find jobs work only part-time, and usually in low-paying jobs. Many of those who do not find work, it turns out, were receiving NII benefits even though they didn’t need or deserve them. In such cases, Bar-Zion says, Amin “fails” to make a job placement but succeeds in cutting down on fraud.

One of Bar-Zion’s employees updates him on a disciplinary hearing for a “frequent flier” who, since 2006, has rejected every job placement suggested to her. This is precisely the kind of person the government has tried to remove from the dole, the kind who abuses the system to siphon public funds into her bank account for nothing.

It’s actually very difficult for Amin to take away such a person’s NII benefits, Bar-Zion explains, thanks to the much-increased oversight of the companies operating the Mehalev programs. The panel that heard the case of the “frequent flier” was an external, government-appointed one, and social action watchdog groups meet regularly with Amin representatives to see that participants are given fair treatment.

Real progress in fighting unemployment (and welfare fraud, too, for that matter) still comes down to making job placements, though, and no one at Amin makes more job placements than Osama Shanan. A Druse who drives into the capital from Hurfeish, in the Galilee, each week, Shanan routinely places more than a dozen people per month in jobs. It’s easy to see why: the man is practically on fire, he’s so enthused.

“I believe in what I do. I feel like I’m doing community service,” says Shanan, a former investigator for the NII who spent four years checking to see whether welfare claims from east Jerusalem Arabs were legitimate.

“Thank God, I’ve helped a lot of families. I’ve seen what drugs, domestic violence, even prostitution can do to people. So many people come in here broken. If we can get them to work and to smile again,” he says, “then nothing is impossible.”

Shanan has heard all the excuses, and seen all the hardships that go with years of unemployment.

“Politics do play a part,” he says. “People say, ‘The occupation owes me.’”

But Shanan, who served in the IDF, does not relent.

“I have to look women in the eye and tell them that, no matter how they feel, no one is going to simply come in and give them money for their children. I spend a lot of time explaining how important it is to maintain their family’s dignity by working. I tell them it’s a mitzvah to work to support their children.”

He is always careful, he says, to get the message across that gainful employment comes when the participant wants it, not when it is forced on him.

“I constantly tell people, ‘Don’t work for my sake, work for yourself!’”

Shanan’s enthusiasm clearly rubs off on the people he counsels. One, a young Arab man, beams as Bar-Zion walks by.

“For years, no one ever told me to go get a job and make something of myself,” he says. “Now, Osama has me raring to go!”

Shanan appreciates the young man’s newfound passion, but he knows that real change comes with time.

“Just today, a new participant came in and started telling me that he wanted to work,” Shanan says. “I stopped him and asked if he really wanted to work. Because lots of people say they want to work, but then they start giving you conditions – I won’t do this, I won’t accept that, etc. He said it didn’t matter, he just wanted to work. So I arranged a placement for him at a factory in Atarot, right then and there.”

Leaning back in his chair, Shanan gives a prolonged shrug of his shoulders.

“We’ll see,” he says. “We’ll see!”

While Abbas crashes and burns

While everyone is busy grilling Mahmoud Abbas these days over the Palestinian Authority’s decision (i.e. his decision) to let the Goldstone Report die, and preparing to eulogize him for all the rage that is being directed at him for it, let’s not forget who benefits from this circus — Hamas. After all, the more intense the criticism of Abbas, the less attention is paid to the Hamas leaders who:

1) lauded, authorized, ordered and/or paid for the firing of Kassam rockets at Israel from amongst the homes and backyards of Gazan civilians;

2) goaded to the point of begging Israeli infantry to stomp through the crowded streets of Gaza City;

3) forced civilians to house or hide armed fighters in their homes;

4) mined schools, a zoo, playing fields and countless alleyways with explosives that any child could have triggered by accident;

5) hid in and fired from mosques;

6) looted internationally funded humanitarian aid packages of food and fuel for their own wealthy elites;

and more.

If Mahmoud were Menachem…

ahm_1494743fOk, so, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad might have been born Jewish, as a report in the Telegraph claims.

The knee-jerk reaction to this is to snicker at the irony of the situation. After all, what could be funnier than the greatest single enemy of the Jewish people currently living having Jewish roots?

(Now that these allegations have surfaced, they’ll probably remain as vexing to Ahmadinejad and historians as the allegations of Adolf Hitler’s Jewish roots.)

Well, it isn’t funny at all. Anyone who laughs at Ahmadinejad’s alleged Jewishness implicitly accepts and condones the notion that being Jewish is a shame and a handicap, an embarrassment that deserves to be hidden away. It only reinforces the ugly stigma against Jews that goes unrepudiated in the Muslim world.

Rather than heckle Ahmadinejad with taunts about his ancestry, he should be confronted over the unbearable bigotry with which he — and the vast majority of the Muslim world — relates to those taunts.

Look who’s talking

lizzythelezzyLizzy sure has a big mouth. And it’s dirty, too. Most of what she says can’t be reprinted here – but on YouTube, where Lizzy reigns supreme as the only animated lesbian stand-up comedienne hailing from Israel, the innocent-looking little cartoon character lets her potty mouth fly. Viewers, couldn’t you guess, love it.

“Lizzy is one of the funniest modern cartoons out there,” one enamored fan wrote in response to one of the dozens of Lizzy the Lezzy clips on YouTube. “This is freaking hilarious! And I’m so GLAD that I chanced upon this! Thanks for your work and for spreading laughter all around the world!” wrote another. “I laughed so loud my neck hurt. Now I’m gonna watch these all night long,” wrote still another. There are thousands more responses from viewers tickled by the sweet-singing cartoon’s salty vocabulary and shameless discussion of lesbian life.

All this comes, not from an imposing and statuesque megaphone of a woman but a petite and unassuming figure. She’s “extremely short with brown eyes and brown hair, tiny [breasts] and a very large oval-shaped head,” according to her description, and she “usually likes to wear trousers and a baggy top to cover my [butt].” Oh, and “I have no fingers, either,” she adds, “but don’t let that put you off.”

IF IN fact that doesn’t put you off, and if her explicit pillow talk doesn’t bother you either, then you may just find yourself among Lizzy’s rapidly expanding group of fans. From there, it’s easy to see what makes her so charming. She generally takes an upbeat view of things, addressing the world with a mischievous but disarming giggle.

Rather than tiptoe around stereotypes and taboos, Lizzy pokes fun at them – as when she responds to the question of whether homosexuality is a temptation from the devil with flashing red eyes and a deep belly laugh, or in her Halloween special, in which she accessorizes her witch’s costume with a vibrating broomstick.

Lizzy’s videos routinely begin with a singsong ditty, sometimes including an acoustic guitar. Each one is a permutation of a brief but catchy introduction, usually something like “I’m Lizzy the Lezzy, I’m out and I’m proud. I’m Lizzy the Lezzy, let’s sing it out loud. I’m Lizzy the Lezzy, just sing it with me. I’m Lizzy the Lezzy, and I like”- ahem… well, you know.

Then again, she makes an amusing rapper, dressed in a winter hat, scarf and gloves, as she sings, “We’re butch and we’re fem, and we look like Eminem. And when we find your sister”- okay, there she goes again. You’ll have to check out the video to hear the conclusion to that one.

No, this is definitely not kids’ stuff. Listening to Lizzy opine on the difficulty of finding a willing date is like watching the boys from South Park teeter over the thin precipice that keeps them out of the pornographic and in the realm of merely raucously indecent. (Actually, Lizzy’s folksy guitar-playing tribute to her ex-girlfriends manages to make a poke at redheaded “gingers” that’s even more outrageous than the one South Park did.)

It isn’t all fun and games in Lizzyland, though. Her jokes about the dangers of falling in love with a straight woman hint at a frustration that is anything but comical. After belting out an over-the-top, aggressive gangster-style rap about using partners purely for sex and then kicking them to the curb, Lizzy reveals that she’s “not like that, actually. I’m more like, ‘Stay! Don’t ever leave me!’ But they do…”

In such moments, the sometimes painful life of Lizzy – and, by extension, her creator, Ruth Selwyn, becomes apparent.

“Lizzy tells the truth,” Selwyn says succinctly.

IT’S WHAT makes her so popular with fans, and what disturbs her detractors. “I have received some homophobic and anti-Israel comments,” Selwyn says, “but they have easily been overshadowed by the many touching, moving letters about how Lizzy has helped many women deal with their own sexuality.”

In talking with Selwyn, it becomes clear that Lizzy has helped her just as much in coming to grips with her own identity. For example, Lizzy’s age is purposely kept vague, although, if pressed, Selwyn will say that her creation “is about 24.” Not coincidentally, that’s the age at which Selwyn, now 41, told family and friends that she was a lesbian.

Today, Selwyn is well entrenched in the local gay and lesbian community. She lives right around the corner from Rehov Sheinkin, the trendy stretch of cafes and boutiques that is the epicenter of Tel Aviv’s Bohemian scene. But getting here, from the small suburb of Birmingham, England, where she grew up, has been quite a journey. Along the way, she has learned how to become comfortable in the minority.

In a small town with very few Jews, Selwyn attended a Christian school, where she and her classmates were sent to church on Wednesdays. Singing in the church choir “didn’t bother me,” she says, because “I knew I was Jewish.” Attending heder on Sundays and being active in the Habonim Dror youth movement made sure of that. Already then, it seems, she was learning how to adapt to being different.

As Selwyn grew into adolescence, her feelings of otherness pervaded her blossoming-yet-ambiguous sexuality. As Selwyn grew into adolescence, her feelings of otherness pervaded her blossoming-yet-ambiguous sexuality. She recalls times when, at around 13 or 14 years old, she and a friend would tickle each other for lengthy sessions that seemed innocent but which, upon reflection, she realizes were her first forays into more intimate groping.

In high school, she and some of her girlfriends would joke about how they were attracted to Cagney from the popular television show Cagney and Lacey, about a pair of women cops. While her friends toyed with the idea, though, Selwyn was hesitantly awakening to the notion that she had more than just an infatuation with girls.

“I was very confused and unsure about what this inclination meant,” she says. “It was really something that I kept inside me, that I didn’t talk about. With some of my close friends I could admit it. I could say, ‘That’s something I wouldn’t mind trying.’ But I didn’t think I was gay, I just thought I was liberal-minded. Some people were trying it, and I thought I should try it too.”

It was actually a boyfriend she met while studying public performing arts at Manchester Metropolitan University who introduced her to a lesbian friend for the first time. (The boyfriend, Selwyn notes, was actually bisexual, and it was his femininity that attracted her to him.)

“I remember how she sized me up and said, in such a blunt fashion, ‘You’re a bit of alright! I wouldn’t mind going down on you,” Selwyn recalls. “Well, I jumped. I mean, that wasn’t what I was looking for at all. I was looking for love, for a spiritual connection. It wasn’t about sex at all. The fact that she said that to me right at the beginning scared me, because I was thinking, ‘Is this what lesbians are like?’

“That [experience],” she continues, “was one of the things that made me say, ‘I need a nice Jewish girl.’ I wasn’t 100 percent sure, but I was starting to get these feelings about my sexuality, and if I was going to do it, I wanted to have a Jewish girlfriend. It was very important to me.”

By then Selwyn had already made several trips to Israel, having visited with family, touring with her youth group and volunteering on a kibbutz. The idea of moving to Israel had been in the back of her mind, but it suddenly jumped to the forefront. One of her studies at university was sign language.

“I loved it,” she says, “but I was learning British sign language. When I thought about what I could do with that as a career, I realized it would be meaningless in Israel. That kind of triggered something and, boom! I didn’t want to stay in Britain.”

SO, IN 1992, Selwyn moved to Israel and started working on a kibbutz. She came, she says, not knowing that she was actually going to make aliya, with a rucksack and a few pounds in her pocket, but she ended up staying. After six months at Kibbutz Tuval near Karmiel, Selwyn went to Kibbutz Tzora for an intensive ulpan. It was there that she decided to “come out” and declare herself a lesbian.

“It just wasn’t working for me with guys,” she says. “I mean, I had tried plenty of times… but I needed to check out this feeling that I had. So I made the decision that I was going to try [a relationship] with a woman. No more men.”

Shortly thereafter, while she was working as a youth group counselor in Dimona, she found a girlfriend and prepared to tell her family about her.

“I told my two brothers first, hoping they would be able to soften the blow for my parents, who were about to come to visit me. When I told them, they were shocked at first, but they were also very supportive. They said, ‘We don’t understand it, but we love you no matter what.’ I was very lucky.”

Not long after that Selwyn moved to Tel Aviv and began to find her way through the city’s thriving gay community. Professionally, too, she had begun to pave her own path. She began to make documentary films, and was doing some English editing and graphic design when she started teaching herself how to program in Flash. In the early days of Web design she started making Flash intros, designing banner ads, etc. Selwyn had settled into a routine when Lizzy came along. She was “born,” Selwyn says, about three years ago, after “the latest in a long string of painful break-ups.”

“I kind of looked around and thought, ‘What next?’ I needed a change. I was thinking of the success of shows such as The L Word [an American/Canadian television show about lesbians in Los Angeles] and some lesbian films, and I just wasn’t that impressed. I started looking for lesbian-themed animation, and found none. So, ding! A light went on.”

That light stood up on stage and started singing about coming out of the closet (Selwyn records Lizzy’s lines and then digitally turns them five semi-tones higher than her own voice). Selwyn sent out that first clip to a few friends on MySpace. Those friends sent it out to more friends, who sent it out to more friends, until hundreds of people had chuckled at Lizzy the Lezzy.

Now Lizzy appears on T-shirts and tote bags and wall clocks, thanks to the online store that Selwyn has opened (a Lizzy the Lezzy throw pillow adorns her couch at home; from time to time, Selwyn looks over at it as if she were addressing the cartoon). She even gets to tell her story in a new book, called Lizzy the Lezzy Gets Laid!, that Selwyn published herself. In the small, simply illustrated full-color book, Lizzy struggles to navigate her way through the bar scene, looking for love and finding it exceedingly hard to come by.

Lizzy’s story is actually a semi-autobiographical account of Selwyn’s adult life; the characters that share the stage with Lizzy (Gary the Gay, Danny the Tranny, Kate the Straight et al.) are composites of people Selwyn has known, and Lizzy’s misadventures are usually retellings of Selwyn’s own experiences.

“For me,” Selwyn says, “coming out was a long process. I was scared of being ‘one of them,’ and I was seeking an emotional connection, not sex. So Lizzy is different in that sense. She was ‘born’ out, and she’s always chasing someone for sex.”

SELWYN TRIES to make Lizzy’s appeal as broad as possible. Lizzy has reached out to the deaf with a sign language version of her tunes, to the blind with a blacked-out screen while she pretends to sing in the nude, and to those whose siblings are gay or lesbian. She has sung her songs in Spanish, French and German, as well as Hebrew, decked out in traditional national dress for each one (her wardrobe for the Hebrew episode consists of blue jeans and a big, blue-and-white shirt with a Star of David on it). She has wished fans a merry Christmas with an uproarious twist on the Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer story, as well as greetings for Valentine’s Day and Easter.

Most of the time, Lizzy pokes fun at herself and others. She generally avoids politics – but she has also joined the fray when Selwyn has thought it necessary for her to do so. She dedicated an episode to the memory of Lawrence “Larry” King – a 15-year-old California boy shot in the head early last year by a classmate because of his sexual orientation – and (virtually) picketed against Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in California.

Lizzy also appeared in a documentary with gay Israeli celebrities last year that Selwyn made to promote the success of Israel’s gay community.

“I’ve seen the gay scenes in London, New York and Madrid,” Selwyn says, “and I can say that Tel Aviv’s is the best. It’s a really tight-knit group.”

That open and liberal atmosphere was shattered in July, however, when an unidentified assailant fired into a gay community center in Tel Aviv, killing two people there. Selwyn, who attended the protest rally the Saturday night after the shooting, recalls with pride how thousands of people marched through the streets of Tel Aviv, chanting, “Gays can parade without being afraid!”

It was during that march, she says, that she noticed “just how gay and gay-friendly Tel Aviv is. There were gay pride flags hanging from bars and bistros all along the route. Our visibility, and the support for us, just shot up. If anything, we’re more ‘out’ now.”

The attack remains unsolved, with little hope of catching the shooter. Yet Selwyn says she is not afraid.

“I don’t think it represents the way our society is heading, I think it was a one-off kind of thing. Besides,” she says, “the risk is mitigated here by terrorism and traffic accidents!”

So Selwyn carries on, keeping Lizzy current. There’s a Lizzy clip in the works for an upcoming lesbian film festival, and even talk of Lizzy possibly hosting an animated talk show.

“She takes up a lot of my time,” Selwyn says, looking somewhat accusingly at her Lizzy the Lezzy throw pillow. “She’s very demanding,” she laughs, adding, “like all lesbians!” You just know that Lizzy would have a witty retort to that. The kind, of course, that we wouldn’t be able to print.

Reaching the endgame

It isn’t often that I agree with the Jordanians and Saudis, but they’ve gone and forced my hand.

On Monday, after meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington, Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh articulated his country’s complaint against the plodding pace of the peace process.

“In the Middle East,” Judeh said, “there has been in the past an over investment perhaps by the parties in pursuing confidence building measures, conflict management techniques, including transitional arrangements, and an over emphasis on gestures, perhaps at the expense of reaching the actual endgame. As His Majesty the King puts it, Madame Secretary, there has been too much process and too little peace, a situation that most certainly is no longer sustainable. And what is required now and needed more than ever is to achieve peace…

“Tried, tested, failed formats, as have been discussed here during His Majesty the King’s visit in April, should also be avoided, including piecemeal approaches that never lead to peace, and that have proven repeatedly to be confidence eroding rather than confidence building. This time, the restoration of faith and the creation of the appropriate environment can only be achieved through clearly highlighting the endgame and skillfully guiding the parties to expeditiously crossing the finish line.”

Just a few days earlier, Prince Saud al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia told Clinton essentially the same thing, saying:

“Incrementalism and a step-by-step approach has not and – we believe – will not achieve peace. Temporary security, confidence-building measures will also not bring peace. What is required is a comprehensive approach that defines the final outcome at the outset and launches into negotiations over final status issues: borders, Jerusalem, water, refugees and security.”

Both men, of course, decried Israeli settlement building and insisted on the same maximalist demands as usual, chief among them a full Israeli withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 lines. Obviously, they glossed over the brutal terrorism that has made the very notion of peace laughable. And undoubtedly their words were at least partially motivated by a desire to once again portray Israel as the party that is blocking rather than advancing peace.

Looking beyond that, though, the most important aspect of these two men’s comments is their insistence on calling a spade a spade regarding the hopeless charade that has been the Israeli-Arab peace process. That incrementalism has not achieved peace and will not achieve peace, and that the piecemeal approach has been tested and failed, has been so glaringly obvious, yet so dangerously ignored, for far too long.

Can there be any question that the endless confidence building measures of the past 15 years have failed to build confidence or bring our peoples any closer to a true and lasting peace? Is it even possible to deny the futility of continuing on this fruitless course of inaction, which perpetuates the conflict by keeping a final settlement constantly at bay, in some vague and ever-elusive future?

What Judeh called reaching the endgame is not just a desperate move to end a wearying conflict, it is the only way to resolve the conflict in the foreseeable future. Let’s be clear: There can be no peace without a resolution, first and foremost, to the question of borders. All other issues – all other issues, including security arrangements, division of water sources and resettlement of refugees – are merely derivatives of the overarching issue of borders. For a generation, we have talked about having “us over here, and them over there”. Without a clearly defined border, however, we can not know where “here” ends and “there” begins. With one, everything else falls into place.

That’s the main reason why the Obama administration’s obsession with a settlement freeze is folly: because it’s irrelevant. The only issue worth pressing all sides for now, and pressing really hard, is the issue of borders. You can’t have a Palestinian state, or a secure and democratic Israeli one, for that matter, without them.

We’re not used to taking advice from Jordan and Saudi Arabia, but it’s time to make an exception. Negotiating for a final status agreement now, with no more dithering over confidence building measures, is the only alternative to many more years of “too much process and too little peace.”