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Friday, January 01, 2010

Intel and the Hareidim

In today's Jerusalem Post Magazine you can read my new article called "Balancing Modernity and Sanity". Below is the longer original version:

Regress standing against progress. That is the gut-conclusion we reach when shown the images of black-clad ultra-Orthodox Jews standing as a monolithic angry mob out to protest at the shiny Jerusalem offices of the mega-successful microchip maker Intel.

At issue is Intel's Jerusalem factory and its continuing work hours on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath - a day Biblically set aside for rest.

Intel represents progress for the world: running with the slogan "Intel Inside" or the newer and bolder ad campaign: "Intel - sponsors of tomorrow", this cutting-edge international company powers global computing as 80% of the world computers run Intel chips.

Intel also means progress for Israel: Intel creates much-needed, well-paying jobs for people in Israel and helps boost the whole country's economy. In 2008 Intel directly employed 6500 Israelis, with a few thousand more working as subcontractors. Last year, Intel was Israel's leading exporter - sending out products worth more than $1.3 billion. This year that figure will double.

And if that is not good enough, Intel took it one step further and has built research and development offices and a chip factory in Jerusalem. The capital of Israel needs both economic and political support and Intel provides it. In economic terms, Jerusalem is one of Israel's poorest cities and the new mayor, Nir Barkat, himself a high-tech mogul, is trying hard to attract big business and job opportunities to Jerusalem. Success with Intel will pave the way for others to come. Politically, Israel's enemies try to isolate and divide Jerusalem and they loathe the fact that a major international high-tech company helps Israeli Jerusalem flourish.

All this leads to one simple conclusion: Intel is good for Israel. So why are Hareidi Jews so against it? Why are they attacking a great Jerusalem institution, forcing it to consider leaving the capital in favor of calmer pastures?

Some observers claim that it's all political, that the Hareidim want a show of power to counteract the new non-observant mayor, and that they are afraid of a secular trend taking root in Jerusalem. Others claim that it's all about the money, with the ultra-Orthodox wanting kickbacks from Intel. Yet others believe that the protesters are simply against progress. Evidenced by their out-of-date appearance and their ascetic (non-internet) lifestyle, maybe these protesters are fighting modernity itself.

To understand the side of the Hareidim, we need to step back and analyze this dispassionately. What did the protesters demand? Did they call to get Intel out of Jerusalem? Did they hold signs railing against globalization? Did the Hareidim call for a boycott against Intel or rail against the general ethos of the communications revolution? No. It was one simple message: Do it, push the envelope six days a week, but please, just not on Shabbat.

If the Hareidim did not look the way they do, this could have been perceived as a liberal protest: workers demanding more free time from their employers, or city citizens calling on a company to give the environment a break for one day. However, because Shabbat is religiously mandated, it never seems to fit liberal criteria, though the message may be liberal indeed. The overt religious look of the protesters, coupled with the branding that we have been taught to associate with them, automatically locks out any debate as to whether the ultra-Orthodox position may fit perfectly with progressive sensibilities.

In a new acclaimed book entitled "The Tyranny of Email: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox", author John Freeman describes the modern information-saturated lifestyle and the implications of our linked-in lives. Freeman reports that new surveys, like AOL's 2008 Email Addiction Poll, show an email-crazed world. 60% of respondents report checking their email on the toilet, 62% respond to email on vacation, and 67% answered that they check their email in bed in their pajamas.

What about cell phone usage? We live with the obnoxious ring, the "I'm in a meeting right now" short answer, the constant focus-shattering distraction. In December 2008, the US's 270 million cell phone users wrote more than 110 billion text messages, an average of 407 text messages per user a month, double the number in the same month of 2007. U.S. teens (ages 13 to 17) had much higher levels of text messaging in 2008, sending and receiving an average of 1,742 text messages monthly. There are now about 4.1 billion cell phones in use world wide. The numbers just keep going up.

What about television consumption? According to Nielsen ratings for 2008, the average American older than 2 watched television for 151 hours per month - that's over 5 hours a day! Scientists tell us that when watching TV, our minds are less active then when we sleep, yet we imbibe hours of violent, oversexed, and plain dumb junk daily. And now with YouTube and free video on the iPhone, these trends are sure to grow.

We are living in an age of addiction, where the devices that were supposed to set us free are actually enslaving us. The more free from wires they become, the more tethered to them we are. This is not to say that the internet-empowered multimedia cellphone isn't great - it is - its just that we have a hard time turning it off. Modernity is beautiful, but we have not reached a healthy harmony with technology, and right now the machine seems to have the upper hand.

The modern world needs a powerful counterweight to correct the disharmony that has arrived along with the technological revolution. Envision our fast-paced society humming along with cars honking, cell phones ringing, wireless routers blinking, inboxes flooding, news media ticking along, and all the rest. Now imagine that we do that for six days a week, but on the seventh day we voluntarily rest. We turn off our cell phone, we unplug the TV (so that even that standby light goes out), we power down the computer so that it too can rest.

Imagine if we, as a society, took this seventh day concept a step further: all of us decide voluntarily to walk instead of drive for a day. Oooo, smell that fresh air! Cars are great, but one day without them makes us appreciate the sites that we usually zoom past, we take a break from road rage, and suddenly there is a quiet that has not been around for a hundred years. Smokers too could use Shabbat as an excuse to give their lungs a break, maybe even as a first step towards quitting. If branded right Shabbat could be seen as a day of environmental consciousness.

Jerusalem is the natural choice for the world's first city-wide Shabbat experiment. Visualize walking in the streets toward the Old City, no honking, no smog, no tension, a true serenity over the city of Shalom, peace. People the world over will flock to Jerusalem to take part in the unique cultural phenomenon of Shabbat and they will turn off their cell phones gladly.

But while in Jerusalem Shabbat is natural, in Tel Aviv Shabbat would be a revolution! Tel Aviv needs a break from its break-neck pace and would relish a day of back-to-basics. Tel-Avivians need some form of Shabbat more desperately then do Jerusalemites, an excuse for the exhaust-exhausted to sit in the park, to read a book, to commune with the spirit.

In the end hi-tech Intel and the old-school Hareidim must reach a compromise. Intel's Jerusalem factory has technical reasons why it cannot stop the production line even for one day, but Intel is savvy enough to come up with a technical fix. Similarly, the Hareidi rabbis, though stringent, know that Jewish law has built-in flexibilities which allow for creative solutions like those utilized in farms where cows need to be milked on Shabbat.

And just as Intel and the Hareidim should find a middle ground, so too our society needs to find a healthy balance between modernity and sanity. Never before have we been so inundated with information, so enticed by entertainment, and so constantly on the go. Indeed, we need Shabbat today more urgently then ever before.

To be sure, the Hareidi protests at Intel's Jerusalem plant have not conjured the attractive images of a beautiful world taking a day off from the grind. However, the Hareidim are not big into PR - they want to win a limited war for themselves, for their neighborhoods, and for Jerusalem - and they are playing protest politics which they see as effective. Neither does the press try to present the demands of the Hareidim in any positive light. However, we need not fall into the trap of externalities by throwing away an important idea just because it comes dressed in alien garb. Maybe it is we, the internet-crazed, the blue-tooth enabled, the ceaseless searchers for wi-fi, that need the Shabbat more than the Talmud-crazed, the sidelocks enabled, the ceaseless searchers for G-d.

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  • At 11:03 AM , Blogger Yarden said...

    The problem is you are trying to impose your beliefs on people who do not agree.

    Almost everyone would benefit from taking a break from their work, studies, etc to do some physical exercise. Let's mandate that everyone has to go for a short run once a day. Why not? It's good for you. It would make our society healthier. Put down that sefer and come for a run.

    Why can't I make you go running? The same way you can't make someone observe Shabbat. Just because you value something, doesn't mean you can impose it on others.

    Say no to religious coercion.

  • At 10:41 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    I bet you are right, they want kickbacks, you know how they are!

  • At 2:07 AM , Anonymous ilona@israel said...

    this is seems to be a well constructed, well argued piece!
    From my point of view, as I believe that religion is a personal choice and not legally enforceable, if there are people willing to work on the Shabbat then they should be free to do so unhindered.

  • At 2:03 PM , Anonymous Mia said...

    Ilona, there are ALWAYS people willing to work on Shabbat. Many Jews were willing to work on Shabbat when they came to America, in exchange for the promise not to be fired for not showing up on that day.

    It's not just about "willingness" to work. it's about being taken advantage of by corporate culture, and losing sight of our own selves in the name of making a buck. Shabbat puts us all on equal footing, with equilibrium.

    No one is gunning for the rights of diesel car drivers or those who want to smoke in public. Let's not kid ourselves - a lot of the issues are a matter of framing. Because religion has been framed for so long as an imposition, people see it that way. If we framed it differently, people would feel privileged to take part.


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