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Some trivial impressions from Israel

June 30th, 2004

I’ve spent the last five days in Israel, at a summer school on the Economics of Risk. Judging by the wrtings of visitors who’ve spent a similar amount of time in Australia, I ought by now to have formulated both an incisive analysis of Israeli society and a comprehensive plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I haven’t done either, but I do have a few rather trivial observations to make.

First, I’ve quite often been assumed to be Jewish (including on this visit) and I can see why – in both appearance and mannerism I could pass for a local, if only I had some Hebrew. In fact, with a black coat and hat, I could blend into an ultra-orthodox crowd.

Second, after some limited experience of strategic manipulation of the rules surrounding the Sabbath, I can understand why Israelis dominate game theory. A couple of examples. You can’t get espresso in a kosher setting because making it violates the rules. But filter coffee is kosher because the water can be brought to the boil in advance and kept there. Similarly, while pressing buttons to operate a lift would break the rules, it’s OK to use a lift that is set to stop on every floor. If you’re brought up on this kind of thing, recursive prisoner’s dilemmas must be a piece of cake.

Third, I’ve never seen so many mobile phones. I assume they must be cheaper than in Australia. Actually, it’s more of a puzzle why mobile phones are so prevalent in Australia, despite prices that seem exorbitant to me.

Fourth, Jerusalem is an advertisement for rigorous town planning (or, if you’re a libertarian, for wide-area restrictive covenants). The British, who ruled from 1917 to 1948, and whose romanticised view of the Holy Land was epitomized by Lawrence of Arabia, required all new buildings to be faced with stone. Except for a brief period in the 1950s, the Israelis have maintained the same rule. I’m sure lots of people must have been annoyed and inconvenienced by this rule, but the result is an exceptionally beautiful city, at least on a large scale view (up close, there’s plenty of dirt, grime and garbage about).

That’s it for now. I’ll try and do a more serious post when I’ve had time to reflect more on my visit.

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  1. July 2nd, 2004 at 10:20 | #1

    Nice postcard John. The mobile phone thing is familiar. A friend recently came back from Brazil, famous for being one of the most unequal socities on earth, and reported that everyone, like everyone, had a mobile.

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