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My Israel in Ten Objects

Daniel TaubFilmed at Limmud Conference 2013

It seems like it used to be easier to convey a picture of the State of Israel. A single image  – immigrants arriving at a port in Haifa in 1948, paratroopers looking up at the Western Wall in 1967, commandos returning from rescuing the hostages from Entebbe in 1976 – seems to sum up an entire era. But how to portray a picture of Israel today?  Using 10 personal objects,  Ambassador Daniel Taub (one of the best Jewish speakers) gives his own personal, funny and surprisingly moving portrait of contemporary Israel.

Daniel Taub currently serves as Director of Strategy and Planning for the Yad Hanadiv (Rothschild) Foundation in Israel. He served as Israel’s Ambassador to the Court of St James’s from 2011-2015, has represented Israel in peace negotiations with its neighbours, debates in the United Nations, and frequently in the media. He lectures and writes regularly on legal, Jewish and Middle Eastern issues, and wrote the popular Israeli drama series ‘The Rebbe’s Court’. He is a regular lecturer at Limmud, and as a student attended the first Limmud over 30 years ago.

So how do you convey a tangible picture of what Israel means to you? I think it used to be much easier. If you look back you can think of periods where a single photograph of Israelis dancing the hora in front of a radio which is broadcasting the UN’s partition resolution or three paratroopers looking up at the Kotel, or Israeli commandos getting off the plane on their way back from Entebbe, conjure up Israel for an entire generation.

And today, what can I say, it’s a little bit more complicated. So I was wondering, I have ten minutes, can I convey a sense of what Israel means to me in ten objects? So I’d like to have a try.

I wanted to start with something to do with childhood in Israel. Does Israeli childhood have a flavour? And I think it actually does and I think the flavour is probably this, Bamba! For those of you who don’t know what Bamba is, it is a peanut flavoured puffed corn snack. If you want to imagine the taste, imagine a cross between a Pringle and peanut butter, that’s genuinely what it tastes like. You can come up afterwards if you dare and try it. But the reason I chose it is actually not just because of the taste which every Israeli kid has had, but because of something else which is called ‘the Bamba Effect’, which is a phenomenon which has been reported in scientific journals which is the fact that genuinely, kids in Israel are 10 times less likely to have peanut allergies, because they have been exposed, through Bamba, to peanuts, they have been inoculated at an early stage.

And I think, if you like, it’s a metaphor for something in Israeli society where we actually do take something of a risk with our kids, we challenge them. We challenge them to take on positions of leadership, we challenge them to be madrichim, youth leaders, to volunteer on ambulances with Magen David Adom, and I think that’s something that goes someway to explaining the resilience and the chutzpah of young Israelis.

So my second object, also a little bit to do with youth, is this. Now it looks like silly putty, it probably is silly putty. But I have learnt to call it a polymer and I have learnt that from my son, Asher, who sold it to me. And that actually believe it or not is the point. Because Asher is really interested in science so he went to an after school chug, an after school club in Israel for science. And one day the parents were invited along to see what the kids were doing, and they were making polymers, they were split up into teams and each team had to develop their polymer. But what was so interesting was that part of the assignment was that they then had to go on and set up tables and market their polymers to sell them to their unsuspecting parents. And it struck me that probably in most other countries a science club would actually stop with the scientific result of the experiment. But in Israel it surprised absolutely no one that the question was, well what do you do with it? How do you take it to the next step? And I think, in a sense, that’s a sort of metaphor if you like, for a part of what has taken Israel…. you know, we love knowledge, but we’re always asking what can we do with it? And that is obviously a part, if you like, of the startup innovative mentality.

So I wanted to choose one example of Israeli high-tech. It had to be something that would fit into my box, so I chose this. That is something which basically looks like a large TicTac, but is called a PillCam. It is capsule endoscopy, which basically means it is a camera included in a pill. And the idea of this is that, instead of having an intrusive medical procedure, a patient can swallow this, it takes two pictures a second in the seven hours as it goes through the body, and it actually saves people, as I say, having these intrusive procedures.

But the thing that’s most fascinating to me about this, is the fact that the guy who invented it had no medical training whatsoever. He actually was an electro-optical engineer for Raphael, the defense company. His job had been to design guidance systems for missiles. And the reason that it’s so moving for me, is that it really gave me a deeper understanding of that very famous verse in the Bible, from Isiah: “[…] and they shall beat their swords into plowshares.” And I always thought that that basically meant you know you don’t need your metal for swords so you can use it for plowshares. But I suddenly realized that’s not the case. What it really means is you can be in a situation, defense situation, where your security context requires you to develop new capabilities and the dream is that we should be able to take those capabilities and actually divert them for the benefit of humanity, as we’ve done with the PillCam. And actually by the way, Given Imaging, the company that produces it has just been bought out for 800 million dollars, so there’s a good story there as well!

But I wanted to bring something from my own army service, and so I thought of this. Anybody who has ever done a first aid course will know what this is, it’s called an airway, it’s used for resuscitation. In Hebrew it’s known as ‘Air-way’. It’s not an Israeli invention, I don’t think it has any particular Jewish connection, except one thing. When I did the combat medics course in the army, I actually did it in the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, when you’re supposed to blow shofar every morning. And we didn’t have a shofar but there was one guy who every morning, I’m going to embarrass myself trying this, but every morning at the end of Tefillah he would take this this out and he would go …

But actually I wanted a reminder of that particular course for a different reason. At the end of the combat medics’ course you actually take an oath, and the oath that you take – and it may be that medics around the world take this oath – the oath that you take is that you will treat all injured on the field of battle equally, irrespective of the side of the conflict that they fall on.

And I remember even as I was making that oath, wondering whether that could ever be implemented in practice. And remarkably, just a couple of days later, I happened to be posted in a medical emergency room, and a Palestinian teenager was brought in who had actually blown himself up in the course of preparing an explosive device. And I was astonishingly moved to see that he was genuinely given exactly the same medical treatment that any Israeli would have had under the circumstances.

And I remember that obviously as a cause for pride, but I think more than that, as a reminder to us in all circumstances that that’s the ideal that we have to try and fulfill in whatever situation we find ourself.

I have one other thing that is actually to do with one of my sons’ army services. I have a son called Aaron and this is from him. It is a small – it’s actually leaking – but it’s a small sachet of water, regular water. And on Yom Kippur this year, Aaron was posted with his unit on the border with Gaza. It was an extraordinarily hot day, it was over 40 degrees centigrade and the situation vis a vis Gaza was very tense. And he sent me a WhatsApp picture which included a packet of these. And I asked him, what are those? He says well the army’s come round, and they’ve given every soldier a packet of these. This is the amount of water that halahically you are allowed to have every 10 minutes so that you can carry on guarding throughout the day. It’s called mayim bshiurim, sort of permitted amounts of water. And all Yom Kippur I couldn’t stop thinking about him, here he was, he wasn’t in synagogue praying, he was barely fasting, and yet he was having a Yom Kippur which is probably as meaningful and significant as any that I could ever imagine.

OK next one, here is something, it’s a little tile. I don’t know if any of you have ever played the game Rummikub? Rummikub, wonderful game invented by a Romanian immigrant to Israel, Ephraim Hertzano. It’s sort of like a cross between Scrabble and rummy and poker. It’s very Israeli in a number of senses. First of all, it’s a wonderful Shabbat game. It’s a game that takes just a couple of minutes to learn. Experience counts for nothing. You know the 5 year old can beat the 50 year old, as I have discovered frequently to my cost. But the reason I mentioned it is, actually, the game is still marketed by the Hertzano family around the world, it’s Israel’s number one game export. And they insist that, on every box, wherever it is marketed in the world, it should include the words ‘Made in Israel’. I’ve actually bought the Rummikub – the box I’m using is the Rummikub box – and it’s written in tiny letters. But what I really love is the fact that there have been countries, particularly from Asia, that have written to the Hertzano factory – countries like Japan and Korea – and they say, please can you write ‘Made in Israel’ in bigger letters so people will know what a clever game this is.

OK, the next one didn’t fit in my box but I brought it anyway. This is an El Al plane, you can tell it’s an El Al plane because, if you look through the windows, you can see people standing up and trying to get upgraded. Now flying with El Al is something of an acquired taste, I have to say. My brother – I don’t know if he’s here – my brother was flying on El Al once, and the stewardess came up to him and said would you like want beef or chicken? He said I’d like beef, she said, I’m sorry we only have chicken. So he said to her but why did you ask me if I wanted beef or chicken? Her response was wonderful, she said, because it’s El Al’s policy to offer you a choice.

But that’s not the reason. The reason is for all of that, some truly remarkable experiences, truly only in Israel experiences for me are associated with El Al.

I was on a flight, it must be about 15 years ago now, from Israel to London where there was a young man on the flight who was travelling to London for an operation and did not have enough money to cover the operation. And the news got out. There was a campaign, a collection on the plane, which the pilot joined in you know announcing. By the end of the flight they had raised the full 400,000 pounds that was needed for the operation.

A more remarkable story, I have to say, was a flight that a neighbour of mine was on from Jerusalem about 20 years ago. There was a person next to him who was complaining throughout the fight that his seat was wobbly, and there was nowhere else for him to move to. And finally, towards the end of the flight, the steward came over to him and he said I want to explain to you. He said last night this plane went to Addis Ababa. We were bringing Ethiopians to Israel. To get as many on as possible we had to take the seats out. I’m sorry, it seems that we haven’t put yours back as tightly as we could. I don’t think there are so many stories like that on other airlines around the world, so it’s one reason why I put this into the box.

The next one is a little bit of a cheat, I have to say. It’s a disk on key. Disk on key is another amazing high-tech invention but that’s not the reason why I brought it. I’d sort of made a rule for myself that I wasn’t gong to bring any documents, because I wanted them to be objects. But actually there was one document that I did want to bring and it’s on this disk on key and that document is my CV. Now why my CV? And the reason is a simple one – not that it’s not a particularly special CV.

But until I moved to Israel I had, like maybe some of you, two CVs. I had a CV of my academic and professional life. But I also had a separate CV of my various Jewish community involvements. And I was sitting in merkaz klita an absorption centre in Jerusalem and it was a very simple thing but I took those two CVs and merged them into a single document, and that said for me, in a very simple but very powerful way, what it actually meant to come back to Israel after 2,000 years.

And so I have two more objects and they are both in a sense related with that. The first is some Israeli coins. Now Israeli coins are a remarkable thing in many ways, not long ago we discovered, actually close to the Kotel, a half Shekel coin from the Temple time. It gives you chills to think about it, the half Shekel still being discovered. But that’s actually not the reason why I’ve brought coins.

This is another of my sons, my oldest son, Judah. When he was trying out for the army, he wanted to get into a very tough commando unit, and he’s a skinny fellow, and he was worried that he wouldn’t weigh enough to be selected into the unit. So only afterwards he told me that on the day of the tryout he loaded up his pockets with coins so that he would weigh enough to get in. And when I heard that I couldn’t help thinking about my great grandfather in Russia who had done everything that he could to get out of being recruited into the Red Army. And it just summed up for me in a very simple way what it actually meant to grow up in a country where you feel that sense of responsibility for the future.

And the last of the objects that I want to take out of the box is actually a box. This I’m sure will be familiar to many of you, it’s the traditional blue and white collecting box for planting trees in Israel and so on. And the reason I put this in the box is because, last year, I went on the March of the Living in Poland, which is an experience which I really recommend to every single one of you to try and do. And while I was there I discovered something that I hadn’t known before, which was that in the rubble of the Warsaw ghetto, they actually found one of these blue and white collecting boxes. And to me that was quite remarkable because the Jews when they were herded into the ghetto were told to take with them only their most essential belongings. And so for one of those people, the idea of rebuilding the Jewish homeland was an essential belonging. And here we are, just a few decades later, and it’s a tangible reality. And what it says to me is that we have the opportunity basically to live in the dreams of our ancestors. And it says to me that any day in Israel, how difficult it is, however challenging it is, wildly exceeds the wildest dreams of our grandparents and great grandparents and for me that’s an extraordinary privilege. So I’m sure you could add many things to the box, but those are my 10.

Thank you very much.


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