A schism within Israel’s society?

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The recent events that brought the ending of the exemption from compulsory military service for ultra-Orthodox men have shown the cracks between the secular and the ultra-Orthodox within Israel’s society.

The exemption, called Tal Law, started in 1948 when the Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion waived military service for 400 students; a number that increased over time to 37,000 in 2011.

They were dedicated to studying the Torah, Jewish Law, instead of doing military service that, in Israel lasts for 3 years for men and 2 for women. However, the Tal Law was suspended last August as Israel’s Supreme Court considered it unconstitutional.

With this decision, it is expected that the number of ultra-Orthodox conscripts will increase but not the interaction between them and the seculars. Prof. Yagil Levy, a senior lecturer at the Department of Sociology, Political Science and Communication in Open University of Israel, states that “the Haredi rabbis condition any integration (to the Israeli Forces) with separation to avoid secularization impacts and, of course, interaction with women”.

The Haredi, as the ultra-Orthodox are often known in Israel, traditionally keep to their own towns or neighbourhoods; they even have their own education system. Many ultra-Orthodox schools refuse to teach the core curriculum; so thousands of pupils grow up with only a rudimentary knowledge of maths and none of other sciences, foreign languages or non-religious history.

They also see the segregation between men and women as a strict religious rule to follow. This then creates clashes between them and the secular. For example, the attack of a woman for refusing to move to the back of a bus in Jerusalem and the harassment of an 8-year-old girl over her dress on her way to school in the town of Beit Shemesh last year.

Ultra-Orthodox men were responsible for these acts and justified their actions saying that they were defending the halakha (Jewish law). However, secular and moderately religious Israelis denounced these actions as a serious interference with their public lives. 

The conflict between secular and religious citizens in Israel is not something new; the above clashes are only the latest examples. In 1951, cars and buses were burnt in protest against those who did not follow the Sabbath observance, and, in 1958, ultra-Orthodox men protested against the opening of a mixed gender swimming pool in Jerusalem.

These examples draw a historical line of division between the secular and the religious community – a division that started even before the state was established.

When the state of Israel was created, a problem had to be addressed: how could a schism within the Jewish community be avoided? The decision was made to accommodate religious demands that were, at the same time, a challenge to the freedom of conscience guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence of Israel.

For example, in the 50’s, the rabbinical courts were granted with the absolute control of marriage and divorce laws, and the religious day of Sabbath was declared the national day of rest, which led to the prohibition of public transport on Saturdays.

These policies remain today in Israeli society which, among others, have created a sentiment of discontent among the secular population against the religious sector, as the former feel that the state has a permissive policy toward the latter.

Secular and moderately religious Israelis have come to see the ultra-Orthodox as an economic and social threat. More than half of ultra-Orthodox men are unemployed, in comparison with 14% of secular men, according to figures provided by the Israeli government – Figures that could increase,  as it is expected that the population of this group, which today conforms 10%, will rise to 17% in 20 years time. They have the highest birth rate, having, on average, eight children per family.

The situation among Israeli society is often described in the streets with the following sentence, “In Israel 1/3 of the nation serves in the army, 1/3 works, and 1/3 pays taxes. The problem is that this is all the same third”.

Remains of the repression in Egypt, an obstacle for press freedom

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Cairo has become one of the ten most dangerous places to work as a journalist. 75 journalists have been physically attacked and 81 imprisoned since February 2010, according to Reporters Without Borders (RWB).

Mohamed El Sayed, assistant editor for the Egyptian and Sudanese affairs newspaper Al Hayat, was one of the journalists to face the dangers of being in the epicenter of the uprising in the Egyptian capital in January 2011. “We were chased by the regime, police, and military agents especially the first days of February 2011. I was detained for 17 hours with a couple of journalists in a school at the beginning of the Egyptian revolution”, explained Mohamed.

Some journalists were hounded, harassed, and imprisoned without evidence during the first days of the uprising. However, a year after the first protests in Tahrir Square, the situation has not changed much.

“I went back to Cairo for a week on the first anniversary of the uprising and the situation was the same. We were surrounded by military and police agents and they tried to harass journalists and activists”, affirmed Mohamed.

These repressive methods have contributed to Egypt’s fall in the Press Freedom Index 2011-2012 released by RWB. Egypt fell from 127th to 166th.

Remains of the regime

The departure of the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, has not meant the fall of the entire infrastructure that supported the regime. Some critics state that the military is using the same old methods of censorship and intimidation of Mubarak’s regime.

The Supreme Council Army Forces (SCAF), which replaced the rais and will hold power until a new president is elected, has taken over the state media.

A few months after the revolution, people demanded the departure of those who were part of Mubarak’s regime in the public media. “The SCAF changed them but replaced them with military correspondents. 4 out of 7 state media chief editors were military correspondents who had long careers in the institution,” explained Mohammed.

However, not only journalists are being targeted, but also netizens who use internet to give their opinion. Both groups have been prosecuted before military tribunals for “insulting the army” or “spreading harmful information”. Egypt’s Penal Code and press law establishes prison and fines not less than 5000 Egyptian pounds (£530) if they are found guilty.

Some analysts believe that these terms are vague and they are used as a tool to prevent public criticism of the government and the military. “Now, there is to some extent press freedom, more than Mubarak’s period, but still restricted to critics to the SCAF”, affirmed Dr Mishrif, from King’s College London.

Maikel Nabil, an activist who had a blog about the military, suffered the consequences of criticizing the army. “He spent 10 months in prison and was condemned for two years. He was pardoned at the end of January after huge pressure from the political factions in Egypt,” explained Ahmed Kazi, journalist and activist.

The post that caused his prosecution can be found in Nabil’s blog. He wrote on March 2011, “the army did not stand by the people’s side, not even once during this revolution and that the army’s conduct was deceptive all the time and that it was protecting its own interests”.

A new agora

Even though, journalists and citizens know the consequences if they cross the red lines, they have not silenced them.

“Everyone in Egypt is talking about politics and the situation of Egypt. People express their concerns and fears about how the SCAF handles things in the country. Regardless of what the regime is doing people are participating actively”, affirmed Ahmed.

Egyptians have engaged in political debates that take place not only in the streets, cafes, and universities, but also on Facebook and Twitter. The social networks were important channels to spread the revolution and gather people in Tahrir Square at the beginning of the uprising, but also now after a year of the revolt.

“It has become a good channel for activists to communicate and to spread what happens in any inch of the country. The social media is playing a vital role in keeping the revolution going on”, stated Ahmed.

The social network has, therefore, become an important tool for communication and also a paramount source of information. For Mohammed, “twitter is at the moment the most credible source and keeps you updated all the time”.

The military has also seen the useful side of the social network. “They have a Facebook page that is used as the only channel of communication between the army and the people”, affirmed Ahmed.

The popularity of the social network in Egypt has situated the country with the highest number of Facebook users in the Arab world. Facebook had over 4 million Egyptian users in November 2010, now has over 9 million.

Social networks have converted into a new agora where to discuss and inform about what happens in the country, where the Egyptians keep demanding the reform of state media and the fall of prison and fine for criticizing the army.

Published in Mernet Newsletter April 2012

Tourism industry in the Mediterranean “paradise”: Can there be limits to aggressive growth?

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Yacht marina by Luis Paredes

What do one in three tourist share in the World? The answer is: they choose the Mediterranean to spend their holiday. Mild temperatures, a wide range of landscape and endless sandy beaches attract every year millions of tourists.

According to the final report of the “Coastal Tourism in the Mediterranean: Adapting to Climate Change” conference, which took place in Cagliari, Italy, from 8 to 10 June 2009, 300 million people visited the Mediterranean region in 2008, turning it into the world’s most popular destination.

The huge number of tourists has provided an important income to Mediterranean countries which have developed the tourist sector as one of the principal pillar of their economy. It has got positive effects on the society such as the growth of employment and promoting knowledge of culture and customs. In the case of local areas, the tourism helps to conserve the traditions which attract tourists to the region.

However, disadvantages have overtaken a number of advantages in most of the cases. The 80% of travellers’’ fees go to the airlines, hotels and other international companies, and therefore local businessmen and workers do not benefit much, according to the report “The Economic and Social Impact of Tourism”, by Batir Mirbabayev and Malika Shagazatova.

The destruction of the Mediterranean landscape has other negative effects, too. The view of virgin seas where the highest spot was marked by the vegetation has been replaced by the sprawl construction of touristic resorts, typically in the form of 20-storey towers, which repeat themselves throughout the coastline. The Mediterranean basin has got more than 40,000 km of coastline, more than half of which already heavily urbanized.

The desire to offer apartments with “zero distance from the sea” has been driving the individual builders and property development companies into building houses adjacent to the sea where the homeowners can nearly touch the water by simply leaning off their balconies. As a consequence, the massive touristic regeneration and infrastructure projects continue to pose a destructive threat on the ecosystem and biodiversity of Mediterranean coastal landscapes which contain 20% of the world’s plant species.

For example, in Murcia, southern Spain, the natural park Cabo Cope is going to become the biggest touristic resort in Europe. The park was unprotected by the local government in order to build 22 hotels with a total capacity of twenty thousand rooms, a marina big enough to host twenty thousand boats, five golf courses and ten shopping centres, according to the latest report by Greenpeace, entitled Destrucción a toda costa (this satirical title can be translated as “Costly destruction of all coasts”).

The new city will receive sixty thousand people which involve a significant increase in the consumption of natural resources such as fresh water. The Mediterranean coastline hosts most of its tourists over a three months period in the summer, a time when the water sources record the highest level of consumption. Mediterranean countries already suffer severe water shortages which are exacerbated by the amount used to watering gardens, golf courses and filling swimming pools. The situation gets worse due to the increase in temperatures and lack of rain due to climate change.

Thinking of solutions

The key phrase which explains how the tourism has become an enemy against the earth is the “irresponsible development”. For so many years the absence of any protective legislation, the ignorance of the damage to the ecosystem and the desire to make profit has shaped the tourism policies in the region.

Those who are against this trend stand and campaign for a sustainable tourism. They argue that countries should maximize the positive economic, social and cultural effects of tourism and fully reap its benefits, while minimizing its negative social and environmental impacts, according to the facts and opinions complied by the World Tourism Organization.

The United Nations agency has adopted a global code of ethics to promote an equitable and responsible world tourism order. The code highlights

, and its role also as a protector of environment by its support for the tourism activities which preserve the ecosystem and biodiversity.

If tourism development industry does not transform itself into a sustainable industry, the natural resources will be exhausted and the idyllic Mediterranean basin will become one of the last destinations where tourists would want to go for holiday.

 Published in Mernet Newsletter December 2009