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Going Off-Beat and Up-Beat: Or How I Learned to Love the Tomato Wars

By Ted Lapkin

This week we’ll focus on a few off-and-up-beat stories that might have escaped your notice in the hurly burly of the normal news cycle.

When hackers, software coders and IT managers descend on Jerusalem next year for Wikimedia Hackathon 2016, they’ll find the welcome mat unfurled for “anyone who wants to come”. In fact, Wikimedia Israel Chair Itzik Edri is deliberately putting politics to one side by making a special effort to attract attendees from nations with less-than-friendly attitudes towards Israel. Edri is working with Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to arrange visitor visas for Hackathon attendees from Iran and the Arab world:

“Wikimedia does not have an official organization in Iran, as it does in Israel, the US, and most European countries, but we know of individuals and groups in Iran who work with and maintain Wikipedia pages. We would be happy if they, as well as hackers from Arab countries, would attend.”

I guess computer coding really is an international language all its own.

And while we’re on the topic of languages, Ha’aretz this week ran a fascinating feature article written by Australian olah – former-Sydney-sider Sarah Vanunu (ne Knopman). Entitled “Why my Jewish-Israeli son speaks mainly Arabic: Even though neither my husband nor I understand it”, it tells of the decision made by the Vanunus to place their youngest child in an Arabic-speaking daycare centre.

While Sara converses with two-and-a-half year-old Zac in English and her husband Eli does the same in Hebrew, the toddler spends 50 hours per week in an immersive Arabic-speaking environment. And as a result, while speaking both English and Hebrew, the language in which Zac feels most comfortable is Arabic.

One would think that the practical utility of multilingual skills in the 21st century would be self-evident, but Sarah relates that her family’s educational choice has attracted some measure of local criticism. So much so that she often feels:

“like shouting to these people, ‘Shalllllommmm, have you not noticed what region of the world we live in?’ Arabic is only the fifth-most-spoken language in the entire world, with 295 million speakers worldwide, not to mention that it’s one of the six official languages of the United Nations … It’s not rocket science to realize that knowing the language and being able to communicate with different people can increase our sense of security and serve as a bridge between people, as well as narrowing social gaps. If we want our children – all the children of Israel – to respect others as equals, regardless of religion and race, we must recognize this: It all starts with dialogue.”

And while talking about co-existence I’d be remiss were I not to mention another story that holds out hope, not only for Jewish-Arab relations, but for gender equality as well. Canada’s Globe and Mail this week ran a story about a Palestinian female bodybuilder who won the “Miss Fitness” category in Israel’s National Amateur Bodybuilders Association. Anoush Belian, who lives in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, beat out four other finalists to win the Tel Aviv competition. I suppose it could be said she muscled her way through to the finish line.

And if all these other Middle Eastern conflicts weren’t enough, the BBC is reporting on a stoush over ketchup in which Israel’s Health Ministry has ordered Heinz to re-label its product as “Tomato Seasoning”.

Turns out that Israeli government regulations require that a condiment must contain a tomato concentrate content of 41% in order to market itself as ketchup. But when arch-rival Osem had the Heinz product tested, a mere 21% tomato content was found within. And thus naturally Osem brought this to the attention of the authorities and Heinz was directed to change its labeling. All’s fair in love and war – at least the war over condiment labeling.

A spokesperson for Heinz Europe responded to the tempest in a tomato can thusly:

“The word ketchup is indicated in English on the front of the bottle while recognising that the Israeli standard for ketchup has yet to be brought in line with US and European accepted international standards, the back label of our ketchup sold in Israel reflects current local requirements for ingredient labeling and the Hebrew name for the product. The original, quality recipe for Heinz Tomato Ketchup sold in Israel and the standard for ketchup around the world remains unchanged.”

The Heinz spokesperson also took pains to point out that the same original Heinz recipe has been around since the American centennial of year 1876. Lucky they didn’t have ketchup content laws back then.

But regardless of where your taste buds lean on the Osem v Heinz grudge match, we can all yearn for a time when the only sort of fight facing Israel will be the battle for ketchup market-share.