Category Archives: Life in Israel

Christmastime in the Holy Land.

Spending so many years abroad I have gotten used to alternative Christmases. Spending it in Israel is particularly interesting.

Although a lot people in Israel do celebrate Christmas – mainly Arab-Christians, Russian immigrants and other overseas migrants – the majority of Israelis do not celebrate Christmas. Generally in across Israel Christmas can pass you by without a Christmas tree or a Santa Claus in sight or hearing a ‘festive’ tune over the radio.

This is to expected as 92% of the population is either Jewish (76%) or Muslim (12%). But with Bethlehem, the focal point of Christmas celebrations, just down the road it is still perplexing how little attention Christmas celebration receives, at least in the parts of Israel I find myself in.

Honestly, I’m fine missing out on Christmas every once in a while. If nothing else it makes it all the more special when I do get to celebrate it a home – seemingly every four years now á la the Summer Olympics. As with previous years we happily make do with our small plastic Christmas tree, a few presents flown in from Denmark, and online access to an endless array of Christmas songs. And as in previous years Christmas Eve is topped off by attending midnight mass at the St. Andrew’s Scots Memorial Church.

Our Modest Christmas Tree

Initially it had been my plan to visit Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. I have been their once before in the days leading up to Christmas but never on the actual evening itself. But as Christmas Eve closed in, the temperature dropped and the heavens opened (lashing much-needed rain over the Judean Hills) I think I might have made the right choice…

Of course visiting Bethlehem, for all it’s allure, especially around Christmas retains very little of the idyllic biblical imagery we probably can all remember from our religious lessons and nativity plays. Once a small village surrounded by open pasture, modern-day Bethlehem is now a concrete city surrounded by the trappings of modern-day occupation and  security paranoia: 8 meter high concrete walls, barbed wire, observation posts, automated sensing devices and military check points. Bethlehem anno 2011 feels nothing like the city of hope and peace eulogized in countless Christmas carols and hymns.

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Back inside the warming confines of St.Andrew’s church the Scottish Minister tip-toed diplomatically around this contradiction. Half the congregation consisted of Jewish Israelis attending the service out of curiosity. So this was probably not the time or place to moralize one way or the other. Instead, and carefully introduced between hymns, the messages of hope and peace associated with Christmas were juxtaposed with the reality that makes Bethlehem nowadays just as well-known as a symbol of injustice and violence in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as it is for its role in Christianity. He talked of the shared value of peace among people in the Holy Land, but how the definition of peace naturally varies between the powerful and the powerless. Whereas the powerful define peace by the simple absence of disquiet, the powerless define peace in realization of justice. So while the (powerful) Israelis enjoy a relative level of peace unprecedented in recent decades, the (powerless) Palestinians still live without the peace, justice and statehood they deserve.

It all adds up to a dangerous status quo that cannot and should not last… Who knows what 2012 will bring.


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Celebrating Chanukah

This year the Jewish ‘Festival of Light’, Chanukah, coincides conveniently with Christmas, running from 20th Dec to 27th Dec.

A week of doughnut eating and colourful candle lighting. Also the time to dig-out some of my favourite Chanukah related songs (thankfully not as prolific and omnipresent as Christmas songs)

Here is just one taster…

And here’s a photo of last’s year chanukiah.

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Posted by on December 23, 2011 in Life in Israel


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The Peres Center for Peace:The start of a new experience…

As many of you may well know I’ve started a 4-month internship at the Peres Center for Peace in Tel Aviv. Founded by former Israeli Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, the organisation attempts to encourage socio-economic cooperation and development between Israelis and Palestinians. I am working in the Business & Economics Department which at the moment is working on business-to-business cooperation projects across the divide as well as economic academic research and advocacy based on the principles of a 2-state solution – goals and projects which can seem entirely out-of-place in the current environment where reaching out to “the other” is often deemed a highly contentious act in itself.

It’s been a tough old first week, not least getting used to the 2 ½ hour commute between our home and their offices magically located on the seafront in Jaffa (the Arab part of Tel Aviv). Thankfully the work has been challenging and far from the menial administrative tasks you fear you might end up doing as intern. A mixture of editing, translating, writing newspaper opinion pieces, attending budgets meeting with the EU, as well as the odd business lunch with Israeli and Palestinian academics (discussing water rights in the West Bank) in a swanky East Jerusalem hotel thrown in for good measure – all of which has made the first week an interesting one.

Hopefully I’ll have some good stories and experiences to tell over the coming months. Until then I leave you with this rapidly re-written op-ed piece I was assigned to draft for two academics who are publishing a paper on the upcoming UN bid by the Palestinians. It’s basically about the economic potential of Palestine and the dire economic consequences that it would continue to face should meaningful negotiations remain….well non-existent. It’s a hard task translating a 50-page economics paper full with graphs, tables and lofty economic rhetoric into something relatively catchy and approachable for the general public. Anyway I gave it my best shot and tried to relate it to the ongoing social protests in Israel as means to engage the average Israeli.

Op-Ed: September as a Cross-Road

As much as we try to erect walls, physical and psychological, between ourselves, the future economic prosperity of both our nations remains intrinsically intertwined. The social protests in Israel may have tactically avoided the issue but if social justice is to be based on a fairer division of the economic pie, Israelis must recognize that the size of the economic pie depends on long-term peace between Israeli and Palestine.

Aspirations for social justice are not limited to the protestors on Rothschild Av. but extend to the occupied territories. Whilst on Rothschild Av. the protestors legitimately protested against the millionaire tycoons and decades of neoliberal policies, so Palestinians feel legitimately compelled to protest against the economically restrictive measures intrinsically interwoven into the status quo. Furthermore, the political impasse is endangering the two-state solution by deterring international aid – so long the life-line of the Palestinian economy. This in turn risks stirring up a highly dangerous situation where Palestinian political instability and a depressed economy couple with the frustrated aspirations for a Palestinian state.

Thus we approach September’s UN Palestinian bid with the hope that the “September Process” will revive the peace process. It is true that tensions are likely to be running high in the coming weeks. At the UN Israel is bracing itself for a diplomatic “tsunami” as the General Assembly is set to upgrade the Palestinian’s status. At home Israelis are bracing themselves for the possibility that peaceful Palestinian outpourings of celebration and/or demonstrations will spillover into violent confrontations with the IDF and settlers. However, these legitimate concerns in the short-term must not blind our long-term aspirations

For all the obstacles the occupation places on Palestinian economic activity the potential for a vibrant and sustainable economy remains within our reach. A new economic regime betweenIsraelandPalestine, with a free trade agreement at its core, would reignite the Palestinian economy, 11-12% annual growth over the next decade. A stable sovereignPalestinestate with a prosperous economy will be a dynamic economic partner forIsrael. Israeli companies will benefit from the Palestinian need for Israeli technological know-how and advanced industrial infrastructure and products. Equally Israeli consumers can expect to benefit from the introduction cost effective Palestinian products to the Israeli market. Finally, the prospect of a viable solution to the conflict will enhance stability in the region and in turn provide international investors the guarantees they need for boost investment in Israel.

The peace process (or lack of) need not be framed as an insidious battle to see which side can extract the largest concessions from the opposing party. Instead we should use the window of opportunity afforded to us by the September Process to refocus our negotiations on the win-win situation that can be achieved by economic cooperation and the economic prosperity it can sustain for both Israelis and Palestinians.


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Falling Rockets over Israel & Gaza

For the third consecutive day the sky over southern Israel and Gaza is full of Grad missiles and Qassam rockets, mortars shells and other assorted forms of rocketry.

The inevitable recommencing of hostilities between the Israeli Defence Forces and Gaza militants came after the multipronged terrorist attack on Israel this Thursday left eight Israelis dead and dozens injured (Seven killed in series of terrorist attacks in southern Israel)

In Jerusalem we are normally far away from the ‘action’ but this weekend we’ve been visiting Asya’s family in kibbutz Mash’abbe Sade in the heart of the Negev desert, a mere 50km from the Gaza border. Normally there wouldn’t be too much to worry about as a) 50 km is still on the border line of the militants’ range, b) the kibbutz sits happily in the middle of nowhere and far from any of the targeted urban areas such as Sderot, Be’er Sheva, Ashkelon and Ashdod and c) the recent deployment of the missile defence shield, the ‘Iron Dome’ has meant a number of rockets are now being successfully shot out of the sky.

Still last night at 4 am the air-raid siren here kicked into life, warning of an incoming rocket. Given the proximity to Gaza you then have less than a minute before the rockets hits. Normally they fall into open fields but every once in a while they hit a building resulting in smashed houses, severe injuries and the occasional death. So far in the last 3 days a number of houses have been hit, scores injured and a single death. Thankfully for us it was only a false alarm… especially since I slept through the whole thing and first heard about it over the breakfast table.

Fortunately here in the middle of the Negev desert there is really nothing to worry about with regards to incoming rockets. But every once in a while you hear a distant thud and you wonder how many innocent civilians, Israelis and Palestinians, are being caught up in the belligerents’ mindless ‘rocketeering’. It’s a horrible way to live and in any other country it would be far bigger deal. However here, sandwiched between hostile entities, Israel has managed to normalise this eternal conflict in a way that continues to baffle me…

Here below is a copy of fridge magnet stuck on many a fridge door up and down the land. It indicates the response times you have for incoming rockets from Gaza or Hezbollah-controlled southern Lebanon.  Only 60 seconds here in the kibbutz, but a whole 3 minutes in Jerusalem. That said I’m still quite clueless as to what to do and where to go if and when the alarm goes off again. Perhaps better to just sleep through it all and hope for the best…



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Chanukkah 2010

Happy Chanukah 2010

Chanukah, the “Jewish Festival of Light” has come and gone. It’s one of the few Jewish holidays Asya and I make an effort to celebrate and given its closeness to Christmas the only holiday that I can really appreciate. And who wouldn’t want to celebrate a holiday that involves lighting lots of candles and eating over-the-top doughnuts.

This is the third year we’ve celebrated it together and as much as I enjoy the small traditions we try to keep for Chanukah it still underwhelms in comparison to what I am used to for Christmas. Surprising really, because back London (or at least in Golders Green) you really did get a sense that Chanukah was a big deal – standing in Trafalgar Square watching London mayor Boris Johnson fumbling with a flame thrower on top of a cherry picker trying to light the world’s largest Menorah being a particular highlight. You would have thought of all places to make a big deal of it, it would be here in Jerusalem. Alas. Although there seems to be menorahs (the nine-branched candlestick) dotted throughout the city, on top of public buildings or glistening from inside people’s home it still all feels a bit tame. But perhaps that’s just the view of someone who has grown up in a society addicted to its annual binge on bright (and commercialised) Christmas paraphernalia.

Like Christmas, Chanukah comes with its own set of songs. “Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel” is the one that kept on sticking in my head this year, no thanks to this version from South Park:

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Posted by on December 9, 2010 in Jewish Life, Life in Israel


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My First Jewish Wedding

A few weeks back Asya and I were invited to our first wedding here in Israel and my first ever Jewish wedding. Needless to say it was quite an experience and very different from the few weddings I have been to back home in England and Denmark. I managed to catch some of the highlights of the religious ceremony on my camera, which I’ve pasted below.

Not quite your Church of England wedding, is it? Despite the presence of the rabbi and necessary religious overtones that are, by law, necessary at Jewish weddings here in Israel (civil marriages and inter-faith marriages are prohibited) the wedding ceremony had a very party-like atmosphere to it, with loud chanting, clapping and cheering accompanying the various stages of the ceremony.

I am used to weddings being long, drawn-out affairs that last the best part of the day, with ample time between the marriage ceremony, the meal, and dances etc. But here there was little more than an hour between the newly wed bridegroom was smashing the glass at the altar (the traditional way to end a Jewish wedding) and the couple finishing their meal and having their first dance. It all seemed a bit hasty and rushed. Still, I can’t complain as the food and drink was plentiful and  as always it was just nice to have an excuse and an occasion to dress up a bit and escape Jerusalem for the evening.

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Posted by on December 5, 2010 in Jewish Life, Life in Israel


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Winter’s Here! (supposedly)

“Winter’s Here!” – this was the slightly exaggerated headline that followed this weekend’s weather report. Having just spent 2 weeks in cool autumnal Denmark returning to Israel has been more like stepping back into the summer again, not winter, not even autumn; not by a long shot.  Shorts and flip-flops again the normal dress code. However for Israelis the sight of the mercury dipping near the 20 °C level and the appearance of the odd grey cloud in sky has them running for their cupboards, digging out the thick jumpers and umbrellas whilst hastily declaring the arrival of winter.  It hasn’t rained here since April so arrival of the winter rains really is a big deal. Rumour has it that raindrops have indeed fallen somewhere in the Holy Land, but I have yet to witness it, neither here in Jerusalem or down in the kibbutz were we spent this last weekend.

So although the winter rains are supposedly right around the corner and whilst I do admit every now and again begrudgingly resorting to wearing trousers during the middle of the day here for the first time in months, to declare the arrival of winter is somewhat premature – even by Israeli standards.  This is the reverse phenomena of what I was used to back in the UK (particularly up in Scotland) when in March/April we would get one of those glorious sunny weekends and we’d all naively believe it to be end of winter only for Monday morning to arrive along with a new front of bitter cold and showery weather taking hold over the British Isles.




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Posted by on October 11, 2010 in Life in Israel