Kobe JEWCOM Wall

The Jewish community of Kobe dates back more than a century. When Japan opened up to the world after the Meiji Restoration, in 1868, foreign traders and businessmen arrived here. Among them were also Jews, who established communities in Yokohama, Nagasaki and Kobe – the three major port cities.

During WWII, Jews escaping from Nazi Europe arrived in Kobe with visas provided by the Japanese vice-consul in Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara, who saved about 6,000 Jews. The local community welcomed and provided for them until they were moved by the Japanese authorities to Shanghai (then under Japanese control). Based on photos from that time the site of the the center was recently identified, because of the external wall, which is still standing. The site itself is now an institute of higher education.

The unveiling ceremony of a sign commemorating the Kobe JEWCOM building took place today, attended by local dignitaries and members of the Kobe Jewish community. The site is a 3-minute walk from my house. Below are some photos I took at the the event:

Xenophobic Japan

People who follow this blog know how much I love Japan. A testimony to this is the section on my blog entitled “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“, where almost all the posts are positive. I live here by choice, not because of some historical accident or family ties. I am well aware of the fact that as a foreigner in Japan I am not exposed to many of the less pleasant aspects of Japanese society and can enjoy life here.

But, as the saying goes, there is occasionally trouble in paradise. I’ve written before on how discriminatory Japan can be when it comes to foreigners, especially when the going get tough. An example of this is the following quote, displayed during the press conference held last week by the committee of experts on the corona virus, which was convened after the rise in infection rates these last couple of weeks:

The caption reads: “Differences in language and culture are why foreigners do not follow the rules to prevent infection”.

he committee is referring to foreigners residing in Japan (not tourists, which haven’t come here since March). As with many other foreigners living here, my immediate reaction was: “here we go again with the Japanese xenophobia”. Blaming foreigners for the rise in infections is not only factually wrong, it is an expression of the inherent suspicion, common in many Japanese, that foreigners are “less intelligent” and “less refined”. We don’t understand Japanese, our culture is different, so evidently we are the cause of infections. I will add that, as a Jew, this brings up connotations of darker times in history.

Other foreigners did not see this as xenophobia. A Facebook friend pointed out that this was a single quote that was taken out of context. The fuller explanation by the committee included comments about how foreigners cannot get the correct treatment due to language differences, how the government is working with embassies to translate materials, and that there were cases of discrimination against foreigners that must be condemned.

But the fuller explanation does not detract from the fact that the committee singled out foreigners, with no factual basis. Let me make two points about why this does in fact point to a xenophobic attitude, even given the full context of the press conference.

First, this is a pandemic. There is no country in the world that is not affected. Foreigners residing in Japan, even if they don’t speak the language and live in a bubble with no Japanese family members or friends, are well aware of what steps need to be taken to prevent infection. They speak with their families back home and they read news in their language. Pretty much everyone on the planet knows by now about masks and about the need to avoid crowded, unventilated places. It’s not as if a Nepali living in Tokyo will now get materials in Nepalese about how to prevent the spread of the virus and go: “Oh, if only I had known earlier about this! All that Japanese… I couldn’t figure it out! I was infecting people unknowingly!”.

Second, while it is true that, generally speaking, Japanese are more obedient and follow rules – both legal and social ones – compared with other nationalities, this difference in culture does not explain anything in this particular instance. Foreigners residing in Japan are well aware of the cultural norms here and, by and large, the vast majority of them follow them. If anything, percentage wise, there are more Japanese walking around without masks than foreigners (especially the young ones, and old men). Furthermore, even if we assume for the sake of the discussion that foreigners flaunt the rules and waltz around infecting others because of their “culture”, then the number of foreigners here is so small that mathematically speaking, the rise in infections cannot be attributed to them.

The very fact the committee singled out foreigners, citing language and culture differences, is the xenophobia I’m talking about. Foreigners don’t need to be taught how to prevent the spread of infection, certainly no more than the average Japanese. Many of them understand Japanese or have family and friends that do, and they can figure out how to wear a mask and avoid crowded bars.

In light of the government’s discriminatory policy against long-term foreign residents in Japan during the current pandemic, these comments can be construed only as a manifestation of the latent distrust of foreigners so prevalent here. To clarify, I don’t think there is a nefarious or malicious intent behind this. I think there are, to use the same phrase as the committee, cultural reasons why the Japanese are suspicious of foreigners. I’m just pointing out its existence in the hope that things will change for the better in the future.

Hospital Meals

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

A friend of mine needed surgery and checked in to a local hospital here in Kobe. After settling in on the first day, a couple of nurses came to his room and interviewed him for an hour about his food preferences and eating habits. They also checked his stats: weight and height.

They then put together a customized meal plan that would provide the best possible fit for his recommended calorie intake and personal food preferences. He’s been in the hospital four days now, and he has yet to get the same meal twice.

To clarify: this is a public hospital and he checked in with his regular national health insurance. Furthermore, because this surgery is classified as one hampering his work, he filled out a form and his local city office waived the co-pay hospitalization fees. He ended up paying a small, nominal fee for this hospital stay.

Here are photos of some of the meals:

Time for the Shtetl State

Occasionally, people in Israel speak about the idea of a separate country, dubbed “Judea”, for the fundamentalist messianic settlers who insist on clinging on to the West Bank at any cost. They will live over there, in a religious-messianic country of their own (or as an autonomy in the Palestinian state/authority), while the rest of the public will continue living a normal life in Israel.

But now it turns out that in order for most Israelis to be able to live a normal life, a three-state solution is necessary: Israel, Judea and a third country for the fundamentalist ultra-orthodox community. Let’s call it the “Shtetl State” (temporary name).

The fundamentalist ultra-orthodox community, just like the fundamentalist settler-messianic community, has proven over the years that its path is diametrically opposed to the path of most Israelis (including the moderate ultra-orthodox community). Just like the fundamentalist settler-messianic community, the fundamentalist ultra-orthodox community is a burden on the rest of the Israelis. Moreover, unlike the settlers, the ultra-orthodox for the most part contribute nothing to the economy and the security of Israel.

The current Coronavirus crisis has highlighted the problem in its fullness. The ultra-orthodox have proven they pose a clear and present danger to public health. If previously it was only the occasional outbreak of measles (due to their refusal to vaccinate), now it’s a behavior that causes mass infection by a lethal virus. Tragically, the false medieval antisemitic accusation – that Jews spread disease, has become a reality in the country of the Jews.

While the State of Judea can be established in a defined geographical area, a practical solution for the Shtetl State is not simple, because the ultra-orthodox are spread all over the country. Perhaps a system of cantons, like Switzerland, is the correct solution. The ultra-orthodox cantons will manage their own economy, will take care of local security, will establish their own hospitals, etc. – just like they manage their own separate education system today. Those members of the ultra-orthodox community who are willing to adopt responsible behavior and recognize the old Jewish traditions of following the laws of the government (דינא דמלכותא דינא) and mutual responsibility between Jews (כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה), are welcome to leave the canton and live in Israel just like any other citizen. Those who do not, the best of luck to them in the Shtetl State.

It was once said about the Palestinians that “they will live over there, we will live over here”. If Israel wishes to lead a normal life, it is time to implement this saying also on the settlers and the ultra-orthodox.

“In Person”, by Ehud Olmert

The year was 1985. I was serving in the army and found myself at an event where two politicians spoke. One represented the left wing – Yossi Sarid, and the other represented the right wing – Ehud Olmert. They disagreed, as expected, but I remember Olmert saying that if there’s one person in the left he is always happy to debate with, it’s Sarid. I saw Olmert twice since: in Tokyo, during his visit as Minister for Trade and Industry, and a chance encounter in a restaurant in Jerusalem.

בגוף ראשון - אהוד אולמרט

Many years passed since, and Olmert became prime minister, taking over after Ariel Sharon suffered a second stroke in January 2006, and then winning the elections two months later. He was a changed man by then, no longer the staunch right-wing politician. His tenure was short, just over two and a half years, but very eventful: the Second Lebanon War, operation Cast Lead in Gaza, the destruction of the nuclear reactor in Syria, preparing Israel’s economy to join the OECD, and coming closest than any previous Israeli leader to a deal with the Palestinians.

Olmert resigned over the multiple investigations into his affairs. Unlike the current prime minister, Netanyahu, who continues to cling on to power despite being indicted with corruption charges, Olmert resigned before the attorney general decided to indict him. Eventually, he was cleared of some charges and found guilty of others, and served 16 months in jail. It was during his time in jail that he wrote his autobiography.

I always thought that Olmert was one of the best prime ministers in the history of Israel. After reading his autobiography, my opinion has not changed. He is far from perfect and has made many mistakes. But his management capabilities, his active drive to change, his ability to admit mistakes and correct them – place him above many of his peers, certainly way above his successor. The associative style of writing is somewhat awkward to follow at first, but after a while I got used to it and enjoyed reading his perspectives on events and people. A few anecdotes in the book, of behind-the-scenes exchanges, only added to the pleasure of reliving this period in history.

As with many politicians who write their memoirs, Olmert occasionally slips into self aggrandizement. But anyone who saw him speak know that is part of his style. It is evident he is a highly intelligent person, and combined with the a no-nonsense attitude, his writing may seem arrogant to some. For me, that’s only the dressing. It is the content itself which I found interesting, with Olmert providing insights into many of the events that took place during his time.

Olmert is not a saint. But as someone wise once said: only he who doesn’t do doesn’t err. I can only wish for Israel to have more leaders like him in the future.

Netanyahu’s “Peace”

Netanyahu keeps using the term “peace” for describing the newly signed accords between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain. In true Netanyahu fashion, this is not entirely true.

Israel, UAE and Bahrain sign Abraham Accord; Trump says “dawn of new Middle  East” - The Hindu

Peace is the opposite of war or conflict. Israel never went to war against the UAE and Bahrain. If anything, the relationships between Israel and these countries were mostly amicable, and at one point in time (in the 1990s) there were representative offices exchanged between them.

What Netanyahu achieved is normalization: setting up diplomatic relations between countries that did not have them previously. Just like any other two countries that did not have such diplomatic relations and now do.

I’m not minimizing the importance of these normalization agreements, especially given their potential long-term benefit for bringing more stability to the region. What I’m minimizing is the PR effort by Netanyahu to brand these “peace agreements” as being comparable – indeed superior if you listen to his rhetoric about “peace for peace” – to the real peace agreements signed with Egypt and Jordan.

If and when Netanyahu signs agreements with Syria or Lebanon or, God forbid, the Palestinians – then he will be entitled to use the word “peace”.

Netanyahu’s Legacy

Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, lashed out last night against the country’s judicial system. Not for the first time, and definitely not for the last. His call for an independent inquiry of the attorney general’s office is another sad milestone in his relentless journey to try and extricate himself from justice, at any cost. It is also another nail in the coffin of his legacy.

It is a shame I will not be around when, decades down the road, historians with a proper perspective of time will write about Netanyahu’s reign in the beginning of the 21st century. How a highly intelligent and successful man, with an impressive and mostly admirable career, managed to self-destruct at the end, destroying in the process so much of the fabric of the country he loved so much.

It is a shame I will not be around to see whether my call for him to resign in order to salvage his legacy – made in early 2018, when this mess was just starting to gather steam – was accurate. At the time I still harbored feelings for him personally. After what he dragged Israel through these past couple of years, such feelings are gone.


Transparent Toilets

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

On one of the train lines near my home, the windows turn opaque automatically when exposed to direct sunlight, effectively acting as a curtain when necessary.

Now this same technology is being used in Tokyo for public toilets. These transparent toilets help you check if they clean before using them (mostly unnecessary in Japan, I know). But they also help determine if there is anyone inside, either using the toilet or just lurking with malevolent intentions.

Another stroke of Japanese design genius.

Discriminatory Japan

The Coronavirus crisis has hit the entire world, and governments everywhere are scrambling to contain the spread of the virus and protect their citizens. This includes restrictions on entry into the country. Japan’s government is no exception, and there are strict limitations in place for foreigners to enter the country. But in one area Japan has a unique policy (at least among civilized nations) that is unfairly discriminatory.

On April 2nd, Japan announced that it will be limiting re-entry into the country. Non-citizens who leave the country will not be allowed back. Many countries have similar restrictions, but in Japan this includes long-term, permanent residents who are not Japanese citizens (like me). Because Japan’s laws do not allow citizens to hold two passports, foreigners are reluctant to apply for Japanese nationality, not wanting to give up their home country passport. This means that even people who were born here or have been living here for decades, married with children, working and paying taxes, are “permanent residents” but not passport-holding citizens.

The current restrictions mean that these foreigners cannot leave Japan. I could not fly to Israel to be with my daughter on the day she enlisted to the army. My friend cannot fly to see his father, who is suffering from Alzheimer and will likely not recognize him in a few weeks or months. Another friend is stranded outside Japan, while his wife and children are here.

A few weeks ago Japan announced it would ease these restriction in “special circumstances”, for example attending a close relative’s funeral. But the vast majority of so-called “normal circumstances” are still bound by these restrictions.

This would not have been so infuriating if it were not completely senseless and discriminatory. There is no difference between a Japanese wife and her non-Japanese husband; they both live here, they both work and pay taxes here. And yet she is free to leave and come back and he is not. There is no reason why Japan cannot apply the same rules it applies for Japanese citizens (a PCR test and a 2-week quarantine) and allow permanent residents to re-enter. While many countries limit entry to foreigners, work visa holders, etc. I know of no developed country (certainly not G7 countries, of which Japan is a member) that bars entry to its permanent residents.

Many have labelled this policy as xenophobic, raising doubts again about the openness of Japan to foreigners. It casts a long shadow on the stated policies of accepting foreigners here. It creates a lot of distrust among foreigners living here, who view this unfair treatment of long-term residents as a policy not worthy of a so-called liberal democracy in the 21st century.

Shame on Japan.

Zero Tolerance

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

Japan is notorious for being one of the safest countries on the planet, with very little crime. A large part of it is attributed to social and cultural factors. But some of it is due to the ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards crime. There is no misdemeanor too small for the police to act upon and for the media to report about.

Take this news story. Tokyo police arrested a cyclist for a “bike rage incident”. He deliberately hit a car with his bicycle, resulting in a small dent – watch the video. The dashboard camera helped the police track him down. NHK, the national broadcasting association, reported the news.

Capture

This is how you keep a society civil and polite, and how you create an environment where everybody feels safe and not threatened. If this is how police and the media act in a law-abiding society like Japan, imagine what is required to attain similar levels of enforcement in other, less law-abiding, societies. Some would say it’s nigh impossible.