Israel’s media in crisis

Ari Shavit, a veteran analyst at Haaretz, confronts the crisis that Israel’s media face in a bold piece today.

As he writes,

Fundamentally, the crisis is global. In the United States and in Europe, the best and the strongest of media outlets are in danger. The Internet and the attention deficits of young people have caused the traditional press to lose paying readers at a murderous rate. Advertising is shrinking as a result. The business structure that allowed the existence of free, high-quality, privately funded media in the 20th century is no longer a valid model for the 21st century. One after the other, leading newspapers are closing, while the survivors are shriveling and becoming yellow and foolish.

In Israel, though,

the global crisis has a unique dimension. Two and a half years ago the Jewish American billionaire Sheldon Adelson launched the free newspaper Israel Hayom, now distributed daily, with a circulation of about 250,000. In the short run, the appearance of this giant from Las Vegas in the local arena was good for the Haaretz Group, which cooperates in printing and distribution. However, from the point of view of the other two Hebrew dailies, Israel Hayom is an existential threat. Yedioth Ahronoth is bleeding and losing its hegemony. Maariv may fold in less than a year.

The result is all-out war. Yedioth Ahronoth and Maariv are trying to silence Israel Hayom through a bill prohibiting foreign ownership of newspapers. Other bills are now in the pipeline.

The transparent attempt to strongarm the government into an artificial protection agreement is everything a media outlet should NOT be: anti-democratic, anti-progressive, xenophobic, anti-free speech. It illustrates the deep distress that these two media giants feel.

There’s more:

Meanwhile, in an amazing coincidence, the two newspapers are furiously assailing those perceived as Adelson’s proteges: Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu. Bibi’s immediate ouster is not only a political aspiration, but now also an essential business interest of the two veteran afternoon papers.

Political intervention on the part of Israeli media is not new, but this latest episode is not only extreme but maddeningly cheap and hypocritical. (The media are quick to criticize politicians for serving their friends’ business interests, yet here they are attacking the prime minister as an indirect attack on their own competitor.) One can only imagine how much eye-rolling is going on in the newsrooms of Yediot and Maariv as this process plays out.

As Shavit makes clear, though, this is about much more than petty politics.

In the long term, this struggle of the titans is dangerous. If Maariv closes, it will be a serious blow to the Israeli press. If Haaretz has difficulties later on, it would be a disaster in terms of culture and values. Israel will be a different country. Even a very weak Yedioth Ahronoth is a serious problem. In the end, Israel could find itself in a situation in which total domination by one media giant is exchanged for total domination by another media giant.

Unfortunately, Shavit jumps to an untenable conclusion.

The situation is clear: Israel’s media are failing, and market forces alone are not enough to save them. The only solution is artificial intervention. Just as the American government saved the banks, the Israeli government should save the newspapers. Nicolas Sarkozy already did so in France. He granted the print media extensive tax breaks, distributed free subscriptions to young people and increased public advertising. At a cost of 600 million euros, he managed to implement an emergency program to save the press without interfering in its content and without impairing its freedom. A similar plan is now needed in Israel.

I’m always wary when I see someone claim that “market forces alone are not enough to save” something. In this case, it’s not at all clear that the market WON’T, in fact, save newspapers. Just because we haven’t yet seen a broadly applicable, successful model for monetizing Internet news feeds doesn’t mean that one won’t be developed. It’s also not clear that we NEED the breadth and depth of coverage that made media expenses explode over the past two decades. Who’s to say that smaller, smarter news media can’t be viable and meaningful businesses?

What Shavit suggests carries with it a very small potential upside — the preservation of a bloated press — and a very large potential downside — the enormous waste of public funds. There’s far too little evidence to suggest that the step is necessary, or that it would even work. The forces that are driving down readership and advertising revenue wouldn’t magically disappear with a government bailout; the problem is not the lack of funds in the moguls’ bank accounts, but the lack of an exciting enough product and a workable business model for exploiting it.

Ironically, demanding government intervention in the private finances of the major daily newspapers (Shavit would only fund the big three, huh? Why not the Russian-language papers? Why not the sinking Jerusalem Post?), under the pretense that their demise would be a national disaster, is essentially the same argument being made by the owners of Yediot and Maariv that the government ought to legislate their competition away. Actually, Shavit’s proposal may even be a bigger chutzpah: at least Yediot and Maariv aren’t trying to pick the Treasury’s pockets!

Besides, must the newspaper REALLY go the way of the public theater and public symphony? Are headlines, photos and gossip columns REALLY essential elements of higher culture that require extraordinary measures to save? I don’t think so. I think that there ARE ways for news media to make a profit, and that they’ll figure them out soon. And if they don’t — well, how smart can all those veteran analysts have been, anyway?

‘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.

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.

The good fight

Thank God for Johnny Ray Haskins.

Haskins was a towering man, a hardcore criminal who had spent years in a state penitentiary for violent crimes. But on that night in the lawless, rundown housing projects of the American Deep South, old Johnny Ray was the only thing standing between Jeff Hochman and death.

Hochman was staring down a loaded handgun being pointed at him by a furious drug dealer certain that Hochman, his client in a sizable drug purchase, was an undercover cop. He was right – but just before he carried out a death sentence on the unarmed pseudo-junkie for that betrayal, Haskins intervened, claiming the dealer had it wrong and that Hochman was a “legit” dude from the area.

“I asked him later why he had saved my life,” Hochman says from his rented Ramat Gan apartment, recalling that long-ago incident. “He said, ‘Man, I’ve done a lot of shitty things in my life. I’ve hurt a lot of people. But you were trying to help people you didn’t even know… so I figured you didn’t need to die.’”

No, Hochman didn’t need to die. He would come close on many other occasions, though, in the course of a career that saw him take on drug gangs, weapons dealers, armed robbers, murderers, mob goons and even Iraqi terrorists and insurgents – and nearly drown in his own attic during Hurricane Katrina.

“Many times, people have asked me to write a book about my life,” he says. “After all, not many Jewish guys have been with the Marines, the cops, the FBI, and hunted IED (improvised explosive device) cells in Iraq – and made aliya.”

Still, Hochman dismisses the notion of penning a memoir, saying simply and somewhat gravely, “Some things are better left unsaid.”

Not that Hochman is anything but outgoing and cheerful. Shortly after having left Iraq, the 43-year-old talked with The Jerusalem Post about settling down to the relative serenity of a new life here in Israel – a life, he says, that he has dreamed of ever since he was a kid growing up in Mobile, Alabama.

AS A CHILD, Hochman was keenly interested in police work; throughout school he was part of the local law enforcement explorers, “a sort of Boy Scouts for police,” as he says. But after graduating high school, Hochman joined the Marines. He would serve just over two years in the corps. It’s an affiliation that means a lot to him.

“The Marines’ Eagle, Globe and Anchor insignia is dear to me and, like a lot of guys, I contemplated having it tattooed. In fact, I almost did it one night when I was out drinking with the guys,” Hochman recalls. “But then I remembered my mother telling me that if I ever got a tattoo, she’d never forgive me.”

Growing up, he says, “the only time I saw tattoos on Jews was the numbers on Holocaust survivors’ forearms.”

Immediately after leaving the Marines, the tattoo-less Hochman sought out a police job. Just then, he says, a narcotics squad was being put together for an undercover federal task force in western Alabama. Hochman jumped at the chance. It was not, however, a glamorous – or an easy – job.

“In order to look the part, I had to live in the projects, drive a shitty car, live a shitty life,” he explains. “I had a cover job as an assistant to a veterinarian, who was a former cop and who knew about my undercover role. But at night, after work, I would buy drugs, set up buys, whatever was necessary” to arrest drug dealers and weapons dealers.

He did this for close to three years, sometimes driving hundreds of kilometers to consummate a drug deal.

“I had to look like a junkie,” Hochman says, “so I’d mix beer and coffee and drink a whole bunch of that, to make me jittery and kind of out of it. I would walk into crackhouses – this white guy, in the South, in a house full of black drug dealers and junkies. I couldn’t look like a cop, so I couldn’t go around with a weapon, or a wire, or anything like that. There was no support waiting right outside for me, the way they do it nowadays. It was crazy.”

It was during this period that Haskins saved Hochman from ending up dead in a housing project. But there were other dangers as well, unbeknownst to Hochman.

“When I came out from undercover, one of my bosses was immediately arrested for drug distribution. Another was suspected of doing the same, though the suspicions were never proven. He later went to jail on corruption and extortion charges. When a third died, some said it was suicide.

“It was a big part of my career and taught me how important it is to be an honorable police officer, even when it’s the hardest to be. As an undercover cop there were a lot of things you could have done and gotten away with. It’s easy to do… My bosses were dirty when it was easy, and it put my life in danger.”

These gritty experiences opened doors for Hochman with the New Orleans Police Department, and allowed him to flourish there. From 1991 through the end of 2007 he tackled robbery, homicide, drugs and local mafia, rising through the ranks to become a detective sergeant and the head of a combined FBI/New Orleans Police Department task force on gang violence.

“All told,” he says, “I’ve worked about 1,000 murders in my career. I can’t even count how many shootings and armed robberies… It’s safe to say I’ve worked more violent crime than most Israeli police.”

YET AFTER all that, after facing all those bullets and blades and needles, it was water that nearly brought Hochman down. Lots and lots of water.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Hochman had been sick at home with a stomach virus. Rather than evacuate, he stayed home with his German Shepard, Thor, thinking he could weather the storm. And at first, he later recalled in a written account, he had – his home had suffered only minor damage, and flooding in the neighborhood had been minimal.

When the levees keeping the Mississippi River at bay burst, however, Hochman’s – and New Orleans’ – situation quickly took a turn for the worse.

“I had been lying in bed asleep and gotten up for something, going to the front bay windows of my house,” Hochman wrote. “Water was up about 15 centimeters, up to about the beginning of the hubcaps of the tires on the cars.”

Fifteen minutes later, water was pouring through his home.

“I quickly ran to the front bay windows again. The water was already over the tires and going up over the hood of the cars and was coming up underneath my house. I watched the current of the water, watching stuff flow down the street. I watched the water continue to rise and rise and rise, and I pretty much knew I was in trouble.”

Hochman had trouble communicating with colleagues on his radio, “but I could hear other officers screaming for help as the water was coming up into their attics. They were already up in the attic and they were having trouble and couldn’t get out.”

Hochman brought Thor up to his own attic, but still wasn’t panicking. He had sealed rations, water, a sledgehammer and crowbar, and a flotation vest for himself and the dog.

“I pretty much determined that I was going to tie the rope to a joist in the attic, hook it to me and Thor, bust out the ceiling and go sit on the roof with the dog. That was my plan.”

Downstairs, Hochman was amazed as the water level continued to rise.

“The water was finally around my chest, and I knew I was in serious trouble. I was going back and forth through the water to the attic to check on Thor, and I kept coming down to see if the water would go away, but it didn’t. It just kept coming up. I started hearing the refrigerators and washers and dryers and everything floating around and banging into each other… The house was filled with water.

“I had thought the plan I had was good, but then I realized it wasn’t and I pretty much knew me and the dog were dead. I was going to die. I told [my colleagues] to go to other areas and get people that had a chance. There were already dead people floating around me, so I figured the jig was up for me.”

For more than 1,800 people in the area affected by Katrina, the jig was indeed up. But in the moments went hope seemed lost, Hochman wrote, “I thought about everything I had been through – with law enforcement, the military – and I thought, ‘[Screw] this, I’m not dying. Not letting some water kill me.’”

Within a few hours a fellow officer who had found a boat made his way to Hochman’s house. Together they broke through a small window and the wall around it. Hochman swam through his house and back into the attic, where Thor was waiting.

“I went to the attic and cut the rope I had Thor secured with, but he wouldn’t swim. That dog was crawling on my back trying to make nice when I was dragging him under water and through the house; I was his raft. I finally had to push him through the window… and onto the roof.”

The policemen made their way to a highway overpass where dozens of citizens were waiting for rescue. Once they were taken care of, Hochman joined up with the rest of his police unit and went to work “patrolling and pulling people from houses and stopping looters.”

In the aftermath of the storm, with most of the city underwater and paralyzed, Hochman kept the peace as much as he could by day, and slept in a Wal-Mart parking lot by night. For several days, he didn’t even have shoes.

“Some New York policemen came down to help out,” he says, “and after taking a look around, they told us that what we were dealing with was much worse than 9/11.”

TWO YEARS later, Hochman had put in enough time with the police and the military to retire. But he wasn’t done working, and the Department of Defense was looking for people with his kind of background to join counterinsurgency operations in Iraq. So he took an offer to hunt down IED cells and suicide bomb units with the National Information and Intelligence Agency (“kind of a combination of the FBI and the CIA in Iraq,” Hochman says). He was embedded with their operators every day for a year.

“We used the same mentality and approach that I used in my police work,” he says, “because they used the same approach as gangs and organized crime. IED cells operate according to the same principles as the mafia – they smuggle, they lie and they cheat. The only difference is that, in the States, you have large organizations fighting in a large system. In Iraq, you could be looking for a lone operator riding a motorcycle through a wadi, dumping bombs in the sand for $100 apiece.”

What was different, Hochman adds, was the weather.

“There were what we called ‘black days,’ when it was too damn hot to work,” he says, enjoying the air conditioning in a Ramat Gan café. “It was so hot that it was like putting your face into an oven.”

Then there were the sandstorms.

“I was trapped in one so bad, and so fast, I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “A red wall hundreds of feet high just engulfed me. I had a strong flashlight with me, but I couldn’t see its light, even when I held it right in front of my face.”

Sometimes, when a sandstorm struck, it stranded Hochman and his team members at the homes of their Iraqi investigators. One kept them pinned down for 40 hours straight. Iraq’s fine sand – “we called it moondust” – would penetrate weapons, gear and clothes.

When not facing unbearable heat or unstoppable sand, Hochman and his crew still had the harrowing task of shaking up insurgents. They fought back, with bombs and mortar fire. “I lost some friends,” Hochman says matter-of-factly, without elaboration.

Working in small teams deep inside a hostile population, Hochman and his men often entered homes of suspects, knowing they could be boobytrapped. “You always go into a house hoping your first step in won’t be your last,” as he says.

The team that Hochman led dismantled numerous bombing networks and won praise from commanders for its efficiency and professionalism.

“I’ve always wanted to be the guy who did some good out there… catching bad guys and teaching others how to catch bad guys,” Hochman says. “I love doing that. It gives you a real rubber-meets-the-road perspective.”

Now removed from that, he says, “I don’t miss Iraq. But I do miss the work. I miss catching bad guys – the kind of people who use kids and women to do their dirty work… and I miss the professionalism of the guys. That’s what keeps the world safe.”

After finishing his contract in Iraq, Hochman was offered the opportunity to do the same kinds of things in Afghanistan, but declined. It was time, he says, to come to Israel.

“I HAVEN’T been the best Jew as far as going to synagogue, but I have always been very Jewish and very pro-Israel. I have always been interested in making aliya and living here – and here I am.”

Hochman’s connection to Israel has been professional, with visits here with law enforcement and counterterrorism delegations in the ’90s through 2007.

“Actually,” he says, “after one trip here in the mid-90s, I wanted to make aliya and be a cop here – but Israel can not recruit foreign government workers for government positions here, so I’d have to start over. There was no ‘support basket’ for new [Western] immigrants then like there is now, so it didn’t make sense to come then.”

Long before that, in the late ’70s, Hochman had spent a few months in Israel, together with his family. His father, an engineer, built a wire harnessing factory here for an Israeli company that made battery cables and jumper cables.

His connection goes even further back, though. Hochman still recalls the awe with which, as a young boy, he greeted Israeli helicopter pilots who had come to Alabama’s Fort Rucker for training, and who would spend weekends at the Hochman home.

“Those guys are all retired colonels now,” he says. “They’re something of a friends network for me.”

The pilots can’t help with Hochman with ulpan, or with the annoying bureaucratic errands that all immigrants must complete, or with the wait for his few belongings from New Orleans to arrive. But now, as he searches for an apartment to call home and looks back on an action-packed career, Hochman has no regrets about where he’s been, or where he’s come.

“I had many goals at 17,” Hochman says. “I wanted to be an infantryman in the Marines, a law enforcement officer, a tactical (SWAT) operator, a detective, a supervisor, a part of the federal government. An I wanted, one day, to move to Israel. So of every dream I’ve ever had, almost every one has been fulfilled. The only thing I’ve ever wanted that I haven’t had yet,” he says, “is a wife and a child… and who knows?”

Hochman knows that, of all the challenges he has faced, learning Hebrew might prove to be the toughest. And he is concerned about not finding employment matching his experience and qualifications.

“I’m hoping that someone in Israel recognizes that I could be of service,” he says modestly. “I mean, I’m sure I can learn something. You can always learn. Maybe I can adapt some of the things that I’ve done to things here, and eventually teach a synthesis of those methods to some people in the States.”

No matter what, Hochman promises, you won’t catch him lounging endlessly on the beach or packing up and heading back to the bayou.

“I am determined,” he says, “to make it here.”

The pen is mightier…

oliphant-cartoonUh-oh. The ADL is hysterical about this political cartoon by Pat Oliphant that depicts Israeli soldiers as headless Zio-Nazis, rolling over innocent women and children in Gaza. Prepare for the usual “You can’t criticize Israel without being labelled an anti-Semite” nonsense.

The ADL is right, obviously. This cartoon is terrible. But I’ve seen this kind of thing in American newspapers, European newspapers and, of course, Arab newspapers too many times before to be shocked. In fact, I have to say, this particular cartoon is poorly drawn and rather uncreative. This has been done so many times before, and so much “better,” so to speak.

Regarding the content, it stems from this report in Haaretz, according to which veterans of Operation Cast Lead purposely shot at non-combatants. This story has caught on quickly and been embraced with the zeal you might expect from people who are all to eager to envision Israel’s army as being full of jack-booted, blood-thirsty automatons happy to carry out genocide against the poor, helpless, peace-loving innocents who struggle in their spiritual quest for Palestinian self-determination. (Am I laying it on too thick?)

The only problem is that the story is bogus. The soldiers who relayed these harrowing tales of cold-blooded war crimes didn’t actually witness them, it turns out, but were only reporting events they heard had taken place. Once confronted, they even admitted as much. And the head of the academy where these stories were first told is an extreme left-winger whose own writings show a distorted and biased belief that his own army is immoral; it has been suggested, in so many words, that the soldiers in attendance were goaded into telling these tales by this man, or offered them because they thought such reports would please him.

Nonetheless, the bottom line is that these atrocities never happened… but now that they have been immortalized by Oliphant, what does that matter? Those who wanted to believe that the IDF was evil before the cartoon will continue to believe it even after it has been shown to be a lie — probably because they will never bother to read the refutations, or to accept them if they do read them. Nor will they bother to read the accounts of soldiers sending letters of apology and money to Gazans whose homes they commandeered during the raid, or any number of other accounts that reveal an IDF much, much different than the one portrayed in Oliphant’s cartoon.

If Oliphant had any integrity, in fact, he would make some minor adjustments to his cartoon: This time, a headless cartoonist hoisting a pen rather than a sword would push, not a Star of David but whatever symbol represents the pro-Palestinian liberal agenda, steamrolling an Israeli soldier while he consults the strict code of conduct by which he must abide to determine his response to the incoming threat.

I’m not holding my breath.

It must still be Purim

What a week of reversals this has become! First, Binyamin Netanyahu agreed to raise child allotments by a whopping NIS 1.5 billion over the next three years. Then, Ehud Barak won an internal Labor poll to join his party to Netanyahu’s shaky coalition.

This is rich — Netanyahu as Robin Hood, taxing the rich to rain money on the poor, and Barak playing the sidekick to Netanyahu. It must still be Purim.

Netanyahu reversed his own policy, from his time as finance minister under Ariel Sharon, of limiting child welfare payments. This policy, it is now generally agreed, was one of the key financial reforms that drove the country’s economy forward. Backtracking on this policy now runs counter to Netanyahu’s stated economic aims of cutting welfare payments and encouraging productivity.

It also undermines the social ideology behind the original move. What he had originally corrected was the inexplicable discrimination in payments that provided more money for the third and fourth children, and so on, than to a family’s first and second children. Obviously, this arrangement is desirable to haredim, who have large families. But it is indefensible on so many levels — because it attaches a higher value to one child than another; because it discourages the heads of large families, haredi and Arab alike, from seeking employment; because it punishes small families with smaller payments per child.

What this agreement says is, “To hell with ideology, I just need to buy some coalition members!”

Barak, too, has made a quick retreat from his election-night speech, in which he said Labor would sit in the opposition. But, a few fat ministries in hand, he dropped that plan and dragged half his (shrinking) party back into the government. This, too, screams, “To hell with ideology, I need to be at the center of attention!”

In the past few days, Labor has been called a bunch of “rags,” and Barak’s maneuver makes it hard to disagree. Of course, he couldn’t have done it alone. That so many in Labor would follow him into Netanyahu’s arms says something about them, too, and it is this: “We have nothing of our own to offer anyone.”

It’s almost funny to imagine the day, not long from now, when this marriage of convenience between Likud and Labor breaks apart. Because that is inevitable. And when it happens, both parties will have regretted the whole thing.