Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Koolulam: Startup Nation meets Secular Prayer

One place to start this story would be the dark years of the 2nd Intifada, when Israelis tried to leave their homes as little as possible because visiting supermarkets, riding busses and walking down the street were all life-threatening activities. Jerusalem was perhaps worst-hit of all, and people from the rest of the country stopped coming. Then, as the security forces figured out how to block the suicide murderers, life slowly returned to normal. In Jerusalem a new phenomenon appeared, with thousands, then tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands of regular Israelis traveling there on the hot summer nights of August and September to participate in tours of old neighborhoods, synagogues, then finishing late at night at the large open square in front of the Western Wall, the Kotel. The highpoint of these pilgrimages are the final nights before Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar; in recent years the number of people cramming onto that square easily surpasses a quarter million each night, and their cumulative number exceeds 1.5 million. Once they're there, they sing slichot – medieval texts asking God's forgiveness. All together. Like this.

In early 2017 Or Teicher, a secular Israeli producer, saw that clip and wondered if he could bring together ordinary Israelis, strangers to each other, and get them to sing together with some sort of fervor. So he tried. He collected some talented people around him, they collected 400 people in Tel Aviv, and on April 15th 2017 they sung together. Here, watch them:

On September 7th 2017, as the Jewish High Holidays approached, they collected 600 people in Jerusalem. Their technique was getting better, and it was a smashing success:

On December 17th 2017 they gathered 600 mostly secular Israelis in Tel Aviv and sang about believing, in English. Another roaring success.

There's logistics in there, and organizational ability on multiple levels. There's musical creativity in spades. The cameras turn a crowd into a sea of identifiable and fascinating people with faces. And of course, there's that astonishingly charismatic young man with the dreadlocks who pulls everyone into a seamless many-layered choir in a single hour, even as most of them have never previously sung a single chord with the others. So they upped their ante. On Jan. 1st 2018, they organized 2,000 people in a gigantic tent in Tel Aviv, and proved the model worked with larger numbers, too.

On February 14th 2018 they pulled together 3,000 people in Haifa, and sang Matisyahu's One Day in three languages, Arabic English and Hebrew. If you haven't been paying attention, concentrate on the faces, their diversity, and of course, their intensity:

Later that week was International Women's Day, so they had an event by and for women only, 2,000 of them. The endlessly energetic Ben Yeffet, not being a woman, wasn't there. They all had a great time.

They have no website, if you're wondering, and no swanky marketing operation. They're propelled by the excitement they're generating, as ever broader swathes of Israeli society take notice of this new cultural phenomenon sprouting among us; they announce their next events on a Facebook page.

On April 2nd 2018 they tried something new, with 7,500 people singing simultaneously in five different cities: Jerusalem, Ashkelon, Dimona, Rishon Lezion, and Kiryat Motzkin. The genius was adding Kiryat Motzkin, a scruffy town no-one has ever even heard of unless they live there; it turns out the locals know how to sing as well as everyone else.

Then they turned deeply serious. For Yom Hashoah in April 2018 they collected dozens of Holocaust survivors and three generations of their descendants, and together they prayed Ofra Haza's song I'm Alive. If you can watch this one without being moved to tears, you're a lost case.

This week (April 16th 2018) they unveiled their largest event so far: 12,000 people, joined by Israel's President Reuven Rivlin, singing Naomi Shemer's immortal paean to the beauty and wonder of this flawed land we live in. If this isn't a new form of mass devotion, I don't know what might be.

Monday, April 16, 2018

How to prove you don't have a sister, or The insidious assumptions of Israel-critical journalists

The first half of that caption is a common hebrew saying, noting how it can be impossible to disprove baseless allegations. After all, perhaps when your father was 16 and drunk late one night he had an encounter which ended up in your having a (half) sister you've never heard of? How could you possibly prove otherwise?

Earlier today a journalist sent me a series of questions about stuff that happens at the Israel State Archives, of which I'm still the boss until the end of next month. The first question or two were informative, if not particularly well informed, as a short visit to our website could have shown. But then she got down to business, with questions that already contained her theses; and her theses contained fundamental assumptions not only about the ISA, but also about how things work in Israel in general.

Here are her questions and my answers. Judge for yourself.

·       Is the State Archives open to people to visit in the reading room or are all documents only accessible on line? What happens if a person is looking for a document or documents that are not currently digitized?

As a general statement access to the archival holdings of the Israel State Archives (ISA) is via the archive's website, which has two interfaces, one in Hebrew and one in English, each of which uses the same search engine on the same collections. Individuals who demonstrate a specific need to see the original files can view them in the archives office building, in a specially designated room which you might call a reading room, except that most days it's empty because few people see the need to visit it. Files which have been partially redacted, for whatever reason (security, privacy, copyright), can be viewed only digitally as the redaction is done digitally. Whenever anyone requests to see a file which has not yet been checked or digitized or both, the file is sent immediately to be digitized and then to be checked; upon completion the scan is uploaded to the website and an announcement with the link is sent to the person who made the request. The file remains thereafter online for everyone. On average 10-30,000 newly processed pages go online every night.

·       Is there an online catalog they can use to see what documents are housed by the archive?

Of course. Right here. For obvious reasons most of it is in Hebrew, irrespective of the language of the documents themselves.

·       In the future might the Reading Room re-open?

It is of course conceivable that a future State Archivist might decide to re-open the reading room, thus incurring significant hassle to serve the needs of 15 people a day, even as the website serves 1-3,000 people on most days (365 days a year). Since checking the files for security/privacy/copyright issues is done on the scanned version of the files, it's hard to see who might benefit from such a move; as noted previously, individuals who can explain why they need to see a specific file may see it, if there are no redacted sections, even now.

·       In the case of materials from 1948 War of Independence, are some files classified because of “privacy” of the Palestinians who may have been harmed in the battles? I.e. civilians who may have been raped or injured?

I don't know. As a general statement, privacy rules make no distinction between ethnic groups, citizenship or anything else. If the redactors deem a piece of information as requiring protection, it will be redacted irrespective of any other consideration. I have never come across a single case, nor heard of one, in which privacy rules were applied according to any such criteria; nor have I ever heard of any directive to do so. Were such a practice to be demonstrated, the courts would undoubtedly forbid it – but I've never heard of such a case so it's never gone to court.

·       In the past (when the archives were accessed through the Reading Room) some Palestinian and Israeli Arab historians and researchers have said that when they have requested information on 1948 related unclassified files in person they were told they were blocked from accessing file. They claim it was bias by the archivists who did not want to give information to them because they were Palestinian or Israeli Arab. Do you have any comment on this?

I have never heard of such a practice. It would of course be illegal, and highly unlikely that an archivist on the staff of the ISA would take upon himself (or herself) to do such a thing, knowing that it could not be defended were there to be a complaint. If you'd like to supply me with specifics, rather than vague and unspecified hearsay, I would be happy personally to look into each case. I would add that in the current system, whereby requests for files come in from the website, there is no way for the archivists even to know who ordered which file, what country they are in, nor what their gender, ethnicity, age, profession or anything else might be. The most they can see, if they make the effort (which they rarely do because there is no significance to the fact), is an e-mail address and whatever name the person invents. I myself have invented multiple fictitious e-mail identities with which to submit requests and test our systems and processes. No one has ever tried to ask me who I am (who I are?).