Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The white season


 It was good to get back to the woods this week after a long break. The kids missed all those scrumptious climbable carob trees, the dried fruits in the upper branches still delicious for snacking on. I love the wonderful fresh scent of eucalyptus and pine, and the gentle shade they provide as the little people relax after a busy morning's climbing and playing in the dirt.

Just the other evening we were learning about lizards with David Attenborough's stunning "Life in Cold Blood" series and today in the woods we saw three species of lizard and a skink, as well as what looked like shards of reptile egg shells that had recently hatched. One little lizard was so bold that when the toddler reached out to touch it instead of fleeing it remained calm standing in front of us, it would have allowed itself to be petted had I not steered the toddler's hand away. Loving nature is one thing, making nice to wild reptiles quite another.

(Of course I arranged the whole thing so that our field trip would be directly related to yesterday's study material. I'm that good at predicting where tiny high camoflagued reptiles might be hiding in the big wide woods...)

I love being out in these woods this time of year. The shade of the trees makes the heat comfortable, blocking the worst of the still strong sun. At intervals there is a refreshing light breeze and while that still doesn't really make it autumn, it takes the edge off the oppressiveness of summer.

In many ways this is the white season, and not just because white, the colour of innocence and holiness symbolises the Jewish New Year and High Holy Days we mark during this transitional season. The summer's pure azure skies are broken more and more often with fluffy white clouds, some even bringing a light drizzle. After the long dry months white dust is everywhere, waiting to be cleaned away with the first autumnal downpour.

Almost nothing blooms now save for one hardy flower, the squill, which has made this season its own, dotting hillsides and highway verges like tall white festive candles. Their pallid blooms echo the season's clouds, puffs of purity and freshness sprouting proudly amidst the yellow-brown vegetation shrivelled and crisped by the summer sun.

There is a sweet Hebrew children's book about the squill "Why does the squill flower in autumn?" (it rhymes in Hebrew). It tells of how the simple white squill had trouble attracting bees and pollinating insects during more hospitable flowering seasons, like winter and spring. It just couldn't compete with the the attractive bright red blossoms of the anemone or poppy, the blue-purple lupins, yellow daisies or pink cyclamen. Then a little bird let it in on a secret - if it were to flower at  the end of summer and early autumn, it would have all the bees and bugs to itself. And so almost alone among Israel's wildflowers it chose to bloom in the harshest season of the year.

Traditional Jewish symbols of  the autumn festivals tend more towards the ripe red pomegranates and apples which also mark this season, the honey golden fresh dates and purple figs. These adorn Rosh Hashanah cards, sukkah decorations and kindergarten wall displays.

It seems a shame to me that these Land of Israel signs of the holidays are so well known and associated with the holidays in Jewish communities around the world while the humble but prolific squill, harbinger of the rain, symbol of fresh beginnings and freedom from sin, should be so unfamiliar outside the Holyland.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Keeping our heads above water

The wave of "social justice" protests continue to sweep the country with demands for a "socially just" budget, more government spending, higher taxes on the rich, increased state benefits, higher wages for state employees and more.

In principle many of the ideas sound good - more goverment programmes to help the poor and infirm, more government spending on healthcare, better paid state employees - in particular those with vital and difficult jobs like medical professionals and social workers.

Problem is that raising spending to do those things would probably have the effect of plunging Israel into the economic depression plaguing most the western economies.

Things aren't perfect now in Israel but they could be one heck of a lot worse. We are just about the only western country which actually has low unemployment (5.5%, Israel's lowest ever), our international credit rating was actually just upgraded to A+ (by contrast the US credit rating was just downgraded) and responsible fiscal management means we have far less debt than the US or western Europe.

Look at the terrible crises in Greece, Spain, Italy, and for that matter the UK and US, and be warned, that will be Israel if we rock the boat now with increased spending and higher taxes.

In Israel today the top decile (asiron ha-elyon) pay 75% of the total income tax paid, and the top one percent of earners pay about 31% of income tax. Raising taxes and giving them more reason to either evade or leave the country is going to hurt all of us and result in more of the burden shifting to the already overburdened and lower earning middle classes.

So yes, maybe some small things can be changed, there must be wasteful government programmes that could be cut so the budget can be spent on more useful initiatives. Overall though we are currently one of the most stable economies in the world at a time when some of the strongest economies in the world are on the verge of collapse. True, many Israelis are just about holding their heads above water, but increase spending and increase Israel's debt and we'll find ourselves drowning just like our southern European neighbours.