Global Thoughts — 9 November 2015

On campus with Ben Franklin at University of Pennsylvania for homecoming weekend.
On campus with Ben Franklin at University of Pennsylvania for homecoming weekend.

This past month my daughter Elizabeth who is soon to turn 10 cooked up a chicken cutlet dinner (well, she prepared the cutlet and someone else did the frying). Afterward, she went to bed early. She said that all that kitchen work made her tired.

A number of years ago I predicted that Israel would become more of a pariah state and that the bond between it and America would be negatively impacted by the fact that the younger generation of American Jews feels more distant to the country, despite the things you hear about Birthright trips to Israel for teenagers, whose long-term effect seems to be minimal. Despite two visits to the country that we have made as a family without negative incident, my daughter said recently she doesn’t want to visit Israel because she thinks it is a scary place with people walking around with guns. My son recently called it “the freaky place of death.” I think that Israel doesn’t just have to win arguments on college campuses; it has to think about portraying a positive image of the country in elementary schools where kids are forming images of that country as a no-go destination based on whatever it is they seem to know about the country. And when we tell them that the parents of 6 kids were gunned down in their car it doesn’t help.

And yet the Qatari Financial Center recently rated world financial capitals and Tel Aviv came out as #25, up from #32 two years ago, and ahead of Abu Dhabi which was #28. The Wall Street Journal rates Israel the top technological center in Europe. So whether or not Israel will be a pariah state, it is a force in the marketplace of money and ideas that is too compelling to be ignored. I don’t think that South Africa ever compared to Israel in its history, which made it much more dispensable. And it is not as if America is about to abandon its ties with Israel. There is just too much business going on that isn’t going to stop. And even if a new generation of Jews take Israel for granted, American evangelical Christians don’t and that support is significant. To top it all off, Sky News reports that several Gulf Arab states are in negotiations to buy hundreds of billions of dollars of Israeli-developed weaponry (mainly the Iron Dome defense system) via the US. They don’t care where it comes from; they want it against Iran. And then came news of joint air force drills between Israeli, Egyptian, Jordanian and American pilots hosted in the U.S.

You’d think that religion was the cause of many wars; evidently, according to the Encyclopedia of wars, only about 10% of wars over the past 2,000 years were connected to religion and most of the wars that were connected to that issue were minor.

Here’s another interesting fact. As much as it sounds awful about hearing people die of disease and war in Africa and the Middle East, it turns out the biggest cause of death in these regions is auto accidents. People are driving like maniacs on poor roads and law enforcement is not focused on this area and corrupt. It’s not in the headlines but it’s where the most lives can be saved if the problem were dealt with.

Does this make sense? The price of oil goes down and you figure people pocket the difference and use the money to buy stuff. Because when the price of oil goes up, everyone complains that they have no money for other things. But what actually happens? People start buying more expensive grades of fuel with the extra money, according to the Wall Street Journal.

This is not a joke – the US spent about $500 million to put up rebels against Syria’s Assad and the whole army consists of about half a dozen people. After this embarrassing news came out and Russia decided to make a fool of Obama, our president is now serious and the front pages of all the nation’s newspapers heralds the fact that we are now sending special forces into Syria – about FIFTY of them. I think there is something to be said for the argument that all our attempts to stay out of the region is creating vacuum that is being filled by others who will in turn force us to re-enter the region with more money and troops in the long run.

I agree with Obama that Russia is just putting itself in a quagmire in Syria and that it is not necessary to oppose them just because it is Russia and that its leader is anti-American. Aside, Russia has been more clever to make sure to coordinate its activities in the region with Israel, which is not opposed to its involvement and probably sees more eye to eye with Putin than Obama. Russia has figured out that it has much more maneuverability in the region if it coordinates with Israel than if it opposes Israel.

Gun control opponents in the US have to explain why Canada, Britain and Australia saw a virtual end to these mass killing sprees after they passed legislation and why the US continues to have these massacres every few months, especially from copycats.

Increasingly people are saying that it will be Marco Rubio against Hillary Clinton. Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal writes of Jeb Bush’s candidacy in the past tense with polls showing him coming in at under 5% among the Republican field. I watched a video of Rubio on the Senate floor and he seems like a young guy who speaks well but I can’t imagine why he has the experience to be president. After 8 years of Obama, you’d think that hands down Clinton would be the better choice because of her experience, but then again people voted for Obama who brought nothing to the table except good speeches. Next year’s race might come down to the debates where both will be pretty evenly matched. America will be choosing against a guy who is funded by some pretty smart Jewish billionaires and who couldn’t make his own mortgage payments versus a very wealthy woman who looks at the US presidency as part of a family business. Either way it is very corrupt – governments and companies are contributing millions of dollars with the Clinton foundation to curry favor and Rubio will have to be partial to whomever gives him money. If the Republicans lose, they deserve it – they are not uniting behind talented people with experience that are moderates who can win in a national election. The US is not a monarchy and there has to be more talent available in a country of 300 million than Clinton and Bush progeny, and the distaste for monarchies runs deep in the American psyche. If Rubio wins, it will be because of this argument and the sense that even if Rubio lacks enough seasoning, it is better than electing someone because of who he is rather than what he is. I prefer Michael Bloomberg to both of them but he won’t run because it is virtually impossible for an independent candidate to win and he is too smart to run unless he can win, and neither party would have him run under their ticket because he is a hybrid of both parties’ positions. That’s part of the problem in America – the really good people won’t run for the office.

You might have noticed an article in a recent Wall Street Journal called “Roosevelt and Auschwitz” by Geoffrey Ward reviewing a book written by Jay Winik. While the subject matter is well trodden by historians, something buried in the article struck me as odd. The article discusses whether or not FDR should have bombed the death camps, and at some point the article discusses aerial photography. Here is the quote that jumped out at me:

“Thirty-odd aerial photographs of nearby industrial targets made in 1944 do accidentally show the Auschwitz complex, but since no one was ever tasked to look for the camp within them, they have no bearing on the situation then. Some of these images were so detailed, the author claims, “that the intelligence agents could make out . . . people walking to the crematoriums, and with the use of a magnifying glass, even the prisoners’ tattooed numbers.” This is fantasy. Details of the camp were not seen until 1978, when two CIA analysts magnified the old images 35 times, using techniques unknown to their wartime predecessors. Even at that size, it was impossible to pick out individual prisoners, let alone their tattoos.”

The reason this is odd is that in 1988 I visited Auschwitz / Birkenau and then I went a few days later to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. I don’t know if the exhibit in 2015 is the same as it was in 1988 but what struck me then were photographs of Auschwitz from the air on display that showed all the areas we had walked through just a few days before, such as Stalag 9. Everything was marked and the message that was conveyed to me and others I’ve spoken to through the past 25 years or so who had done the tour was very powerful – how could the Allies not have known what was going on there and why didn’t they bomb the place, if everything was so clear.

Except that if these pictures only really came to light in their true context in 1978, the argument doesn’t really work, at least on the strength of these photos. Maybe they knew or should have known via documents or other photos, but if these photos cited in the Winik article are the same photos that are displayed at Yad Vashem, then at least to my eyes it means that the argument being made at Yad Vashem is crude propaganda based on evidence that came to light 40 years after the fact. I don’t know the basis for what was shown in Yad Vashem and I have been trying to find out.

I want to know the truth about the Holocaust and America’s role in it – the good, bad and the ugly. But I don’t appreciate being manipulated, and I’m sure neither do you. By the same token, Bibi Netanyahu’s recent speech that the Mufti gave Hitler the idea for the Final Solution is a bit nuts when you consider that mass murder of Jews had been going on for quite some time under the Nazis before Hitler met the Mufti to discuss his Jewish problem. What a relief it must be to the Mufti’s estate that Netanyahu later issued a retraction of his earlier speech. Yessir, dear reader, I am not making this stuff up.

Here are my thoughts on Global Warming, particularly after reading Super Freakonomics. I agree that the solutions being bandied about probably don’t make much sense such as carbon trading and getting people to stop driving and flying, because transportation is about 2% of what contributes to global warming. If you could get all the cows in the world to have better digestion and not fart so much methane into the air, it would make 25x more difference. There seem to be solutions to global warming that are not so difficult or expensive to deploy, and if the problem ever becomes very real and apparent, there will be inventions to solve the problem. You can also count every so often on something like a volcanic eruption to lower the world’s temperature. 40 years ago people were afraid of global cooling. 100 years ago people thought that the horses of the world were a threat to humanity and the invention of the automobile was seen as a savior to the environment. We don’t know where we will be in another 20 years. We do know that 20 years ago people thought of peak oil and the US being at the total mercy of the Arabs, nobody thought the fracking or gas industry would be anything as it is now with the US as a swing producer and exporter. So basically I think people should just go on with their lives and not get too worked up over this subject.

So Israel-Palestine has gone into another wave of violence. The Palestinians had been warning of this for the better part of a year and the Israelis were brushing them off. In time the Israelis will crack down again and put things back in the box and then we will go on for another couple of years. This all reminds me of a relative I have in the real estate business. When times are busy, the person complains that she is too busy doing closings and deals to be able to do anything else. When times are slow, the person complains that she has to diligently hunt down every lead hoping that something will close. So basically the constellations are never in order for this person to be satisfied and to go away on holiday and take a risk that she can walk away and come back without an acceptable level of loss. And thus it is with the Israelis: If times are good, they say who needs peace because we can live like this for 50 years. If times are bad, they say who needs peace because the Arabs are crazy and you can’t deal with them. So it’s never good to take a risk of testing peace without an acceptable level of loss even though time and time again you know exactly what is going to happen in this theater. Malcolm Gladwell’s book “David and Goliath” can tell you from years of experience in conflict zones of occupation what won’t work – Israel passing a law giving at least 4 years prison to stone throwers is not going to deter stone throwers, for example. Lots of aerial bombs and roundups in the streets and curfews are not going to make people stop making trouble. The strong can overpower the weak, but you can’t break their spirit and sometimes weakness can be turned against the strong. But you can’t change people’s psychologies and you can’t get people to think beyond their current situations when they don’t want to, even though they should by now know exactly what to expect.

If it were my decision, I would free Marwan Barghouti from prison and see if I could deal with him. People tell me that he is probably the best person out there to unify the Palestinians and to serve as a responsible leader. Mr. Abbas should have retired by now and nothing will happen with him. The problem is that the Gulf states support Mr. Dahlan, but he doesn’t have wide support among the people. If Mssrs. Dahlan and Barghouti could work together, that might be a play. I think that as long as the Palestinians don’t have a leader whom they can unite behind, and so far there is no chance that Hamas and Fatah will unite under Abbas, it will be impossible to do anything in this arena. The Israelis will come around if they have somebody to talk to. Netanyahu under the current government has no room to maneuver but if the Arabs had a leader the Israelis could form a decent government very quickly and come to the table, even under Netanyahu. And if he were at the table, the Arabs would probably prefer to deal with him because he isn’t going anywhere and has been around for a long time now. Peres and Olmert were interested but were politically weak and couldn’t deliver, so nobody wasted time with them. Rabin could have delivered but died too early. The fact that the Russians are people the Israelis could deal with and that as states Lebanon, Syria and Iraq are no longer enemies with any real offensive capability aside from Hizbullah rockets that the Israelis can destroy if they wish and that Egypt and Jordan are not enemies is probably the best Israel has ever had it in its history. The Iranians are a problem for Israel, but 10x more so for everyone else around them who are more likely to get hurt one way or another by them.

It's a Small World at Disney
It’s a Small World at Disney’s Magic Kingdom

After all the Jewish holidays, we like to go out and do something distinctly un-Jewish, so we went off to Disney World. Our whole family enjoys Disney’s Hollywood Studios (my kids love the Aerosmith Rockin’ Roller Coaster), and you can do the park in about 6 hours. We also spent half a day at the Magic Kingdom, which was enough considering that at this point our kids are interested in the 3 mountains with coasters (Space, Thunder and Splash) and that’s about it. There are big lines for the new rollercoaster in Fantasy Land but it ain’t worth the wait. Our two favorite hotels for Disney parks overall are the Waldorf Astoria (the best buffet breakfast perhaps in America) where you can stuff your whole family into one suite at a decent price, and the Four Seasons if you want the best overall food and beverage and if you want to have a great day at the pool, with slides, lazy river, several pools, day camp, rock climbing wall and all sorts of activities going on such as movie at the pool, night glow games and watching the Magic Kingdom and Epcot fireworks from the roof. Both have excellent facilities throughout the property. Both are technically on Disney property and they both have shuttles to the theme parks, although the Four Seasons has more frequent and direct service. We were supposed to come back with the Auto Train (overnight sleeper train that starts at 4pm either in Florida or Virginia and ends in the other place at 9am the next morning with you and your auto on board) but because of the recent hurricane in the Carolinas, the railroad tracks were under water all week. They cancelled our train 3 days in advance so we flew back. As we were flying back, we noticed that the train was “un-cancelled” and had actually gone on its trip. Better luck next time. The Auto Train is a piece of America that kids should want to experience.

Here are some travel notes from a trip this month to Hamburg, Germany and to London. I haven’t been to Hamburg since 2002 but I have an office there and wanted to visit our personnel. Hamburg has a lot of lovely architecture with a mix of old and new. There are a few days of stuff to see there if you take your time and I would return. The Fairmont Four Seasons along the lake is an excellent city hotel of the grande dame variety. You can take an airport train to the city center in 30 minutes for 3 Euros and then it’s one more stop to the lake (the “alster”) and a 5 minute walk to the hotel. Surprisingly it was not so cold at the end of October and the leaves were changing. The whole city is walkable and there is a good system of subways. Karstadt and Alsterhaus are the best department stores and on the top floor of Karstadt is a great buffet like the old Movenpik Marches. Deichstrasser is a pretty historical street. City Hall is worth a visit. In 3 hours walking I saw a lot.

View from my room at the Shangrila London at the Shard.
View from my room at the Shangrila London at the Shard.

I was there 24 hours and then flew on to London (it’s a 75 minute flight and make sure you get Fast Passes for the customs lane if you are entitled to them) and stayed at the Shangrila hotel in the new Shard skyscraper; the iconic city view rooms are corner rooms with views of everything from Big Ben and the London Eye all the way over to the Tower Bridge and Canary Wharf. The hotel is next door to a tube station and the Jubilee Line is very convenient to many important sites in central London. You can also take the tube straight to Heathrow with one transfer to the Piccadilly Line in exactly one hour for all of 6 pounds. I wouldn’t stay there again because it had no business center or spa and the gym was poor and the hotel wins the booby prize for most annoying lobby music (all techno babble all the time); I would prefer a more full service hotel more centrally located especially to shopping areas. The London tube demands either an Oyster card which is prepaid but gives you substantial discounts or a day pass for 12 pounds; a single ride otherwise is 5 pounds. The Heathrow Express alone is 21 pounds and it doesn’t always save you time depending on where you are actually going. Here too the leaves were changing and it wasn’t so cold. At this point I am happy to go to Marks and Spencers and a bit of John Lewis for my shopping; the stuff they sell are really cute for the kids, very good prices and very durable. M&S has two locations on Oxford Street 2 bus stops apart so between the two stores you can find just about everything you want. I saw 2 good shows: Thriller, the Michael Jackson revue, where the ironic thing is that the white guy dancer does all the best moves. After the two hour show, you realize that Michael Jackson had a large book of songs. Another great show was La Soiree, a cabaret style show with circus acts, most of them humorous and a tad raunchy but really high quality. I laughed a lot and enjoyed it. They tour a lot so watch out for them. At the start of the show, they asked people to watch the show with their eyes and not with their screens. Touche! Took a nice train ride an hour away to a small town called Tunbridge Wells to visit one of our offices. Breakfast with a friend of mine Lorenzo who is very tech savvy and says that while ebooks have lost ground to the fact that people enjoy the tactility of books they can hold in their hands and turn pages to, the next generation of ebooks will be shells of tactile books that can be filled with digital content, so that you can replace the book you hold in your hand with page-turning content of whatever book you want. London makes a very good impression; everything is clean, works well, I never waited more than a minute or two for a subway, and nothing looks out of place. Lots of new things being built and fixed up. Heathrow’s newest Terminal 5 is quite nice (tip: get the VAT refund after passing security because hardly anyone is there) and British Airways has a great caterer and beautiful planes and lounges, although I wonder how many people choke on the bones of the grilled filet of Dover Sole. BA is miles apart from United Airlines which is just awful by comparison no matter what class of service you are in, and Newark airport on a Sunday evening makes third world countries look good.

I end with a visit to my alma mater University of Pennsylvania where I went with my wife and kids for homecoming weekend. (I found out that homecoming has nothing to do with alumni coming “home” but rather is all about the football team coming home after an extended road trip playing other Ivy League teams.)  The college green looked great with the falling leaves, football, student club performances and Shabbat dinner at the local Hillel house. Asians have become a more prominent presence on campus; we went to an all-Chinese student acapella group concert where they did arrangements of mostly Chinese songs. I asked several of them if they do acapella in Chinese universities and they didn’t know, but one said that they had received a request for their arrangements. The glee club which used to be lilly-white did a musical number with Indian musical instruments and in an Indian language and it also did an African number but you see very few African Americans on this campus overall. In less than 10 years my kids will be off to college and I enjoyed watching them take in the stimulating nature of a college campus. It’s never too early to start checking those colleges out! My personal feeling is that college is overrated and not worth what you pay for it, but I assume that when the time comes I won’t be sending my kid to a local community college to prove the point. The Franklin Museum in Philadelphia remains one of the nation’s top science museums and we easily spent half a day there. Amtrak charges a heckuva lot — $500 for a family of 4 to go roundtrip from New York to Philly on a regular train, about 90 miles each way. We are subsidizing the rest of the country’s rail system and it is a deterrent to family travel along the northeast corridor at that price.

Today, the date of this posting, is Karen’s and my 12th anniversary!


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