Why live in Israel?

by Brian on April 30, 2017

in A Parent in Israel,Only in Israel

Why do Jews live in Israel? That was the question Jerusalem Post editor Yaakov Katz asked in his Friday column two weeks ago. With Yom Ha’atzmaut just around the corner, it’s a question we should all be asking ourselves.

Katz sets up – and then deconstructs – two answers popular in recent years with Israeli hasbara mavens: Israel as the Startup Nation, and Israel as a Light unto the Nations engaged in tikkun olam – doing good around the world.

The hi-tech narrative is an easy one – especially for me, since I write about startups for a living. Israel is a worthwhile place to live, Katz writes, because of “the amazing innovation that originates in the Jewish State.”

That’s certainly true: Israel has more companies listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange than do India, Japan and Korea combined, has more venture capital investment per capita than anywhere else in the world, and is number one in the rate of per capita R&D spending.

The results of this hi-tech culture are manifest, including global market leaders such as Teva Pharmaceuticals, Check Point Software Technologies, and Mobileye, whose hugely successful IPO and subsequent $15 billion sale to Intel were among the biggest in Israeli hi-tech history. Just about every major international tech company – Microsoft, Google, Cisco, Motorola, Apple, eBay, PayPal, Facebook – has an office in Israel.

The other story – tikkun olam – is equally compelling.

“Israel is a state you should support,” Katz writes, “because it treats wounded Syrians and developed the most innovative drip irrigation used to grow crops in places like India and Rwanda.”

Israel sends rescue teams to Haiti, Turkey, Nepal and wherever natural disasters hit. Our water desalination prowess, writes Seth Siegel in his book Let There Be Water, is a “solution for a water-starved world.” Israeli scientists are international experts in smoking out the medical benefits of marijuana.

But there is a problem with both the Startup Nation and tikkun olam narratives, Katz points out. “They are “generic stories…that could apply to any other people in the world.”

Katz understands why these depictions are so popular.

“Israel, especially for the last 30 years or so, has become a divisive topic,” he explains. Tikkun olam and Startup Nation, by contrast, “can connect youth to Israel and potentially give them a reason to be Zionists. [But] while that is commendable, it cannot be the bottom line.”

The Jewish people did not return to Israel out of a desire to bring life-saving technology to Africa or the opportunities to receive venture capital funding. Rather, “those inventions were made possible exactly because Jews live as a free people in their historical homeland,” Katz writes.

That’s a good answer, but it’s not enough, either. Because it says why we came but not why we ought to stay (at least for those who have a choice to leave or the one-third of Israelis who tell pollsters they’d consider emigrating).

And if we’re honest about Israel, this country has significant problems: violence and crime, xenophobia and racism, ongoing terrorism, government corruption, an enormous gap between rich and poor, high taxes, crippling bureaucracy, religious coercion, and as David Brinn wrote in The Jerusalem Post Magazine two weeks ago, rising road fatalities.

I could go on, but let’s stop, because our reason for being here, as Jews, is actually very simple.

It’s to make things better.

The re-establishment of the State of Israel after so many years is truly a historic, once-in-a-millennia opportunity. But what kind of Israel will it be? An egalitarian nation of equal rights and wise policies; of superior education and a population that is gracious and loving to one another? Or something darker?

Right now, we’ve got both – the good and the bad (and a lot of gray in-between). Our job is to do our small part to push Israel towards the light. To make this a place worth living in – and to give Jews outside of Israel a reason to keep coming, whether as a tourist, or on aliyah, like we did over 20 years ago.

Can one person really make a difference? The answer here is an emphatic yes. That smile you gave to a stranger, or the person you made room for on the highway, reverberates in ways you can never fully track. Your vote for a particular party can result in political changes that impact millions.

When our family lived in the U.S., I never felt that any individual action I made had much of an influence. Here people and issues are so close, it really does.

And if it’s not me, let the revolution come from my children (and their children), who I hope I have raised with the kind of values and interpersonal behavior that will result in Israel becoming a better place to grow and thrive.

It’s time to get our own house in order and there’s so much to do. It won’t be easy, it will frequently be messy, and the obstacles will often seem insurmountable. But we have to try.

Yes, we should continue to innovate and do even more tikkun olam, but the real answer to the Yom Ha’atzmaut question – why do Jews live in Israel? – is to actively engage in the greatest Jewish experiment of the modern era: figuring out together what type of civil and religious society we want to build – and then going out and doing it.

How could I not want to be a part of that?

I first wrote shared my answer to the Yom Ha’atzmaut question at The Jerusalem Post.

Image from Adam Jones, Kelowna, BC, Canada (Facade with Israeli Flags – Jerusalem – Israel)

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I’m a Haggadah hoarder.

Over the years, our family has collected dozens of different Haggadot for the Passover holiday. They range from the highly traditional to the decidedly modern.

We have classic Haggadot with commentaries from the Me’am Lo’ez (originally written in Ladino by Rabbi Yaakov Culi in 1730), Rabbi Marcus Lehman of Mainz (late 1800s) and Efrat Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin (a bit more recent – from 1983). Plus a highly annotated Artscroll Haggadah that’s 225 pages long.

On the more progressive side, there’s the Carlebach Haggadah with a selection of teachings from the famed singing rabbi; the liberal, egalitarian Velveteen Rabbi’s Haggadah; and the wonderful “A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices” by Mishael and Noam Zion.

We also have a smattering of straightforward Haggadot with minimal commentary. The only missing Haggadah: a classic Maxwell House, which our family used growing up but didn’t seem to make aliyah with us.

With such liturgical riches, I really didn’t think we needed a new Haggadah for this year. That was until Rabbi Aryeh Ben David published “The Ayeka Haggadah: Hearing Your Own Voice.”

A veteran Jewish educator, Ben David founded the educational institute Ayeka (it means “where are you?” in Hebrew) 10 years ago to fuse the traditional cerebral approach to learning Jewish texts with what he calls a more soulful, personal experience.

“The goal of learning Jewish wisdom is not solely to become a more knowledgeable or smarter person,” Ben David explains. Rather, it’s about “how to listen to Jewish texts as if they are speaking to me personally, right now,” and to “create a safe educational space for learners to feel comfortable sharing personal thoughts without feeling judged by facilitators or peers. It’s about finding one’s own voice within the symphony of the Jewish people.”

Ayeka sponsors seminars for individuals, parents and teachers. I’ve participated in some of Ben David’s classes and found them deeply moving. And now Ayeka has published its first book.

I asked Ben David why take on the Haggadah – one of the mostly widely published Jewish texts of all time?

“I felt that the conversation at the Seder was often very disjointed,” he said. “People would share random comments or stories from their Haggadot that didn’t connect with each other. Moreover, I didn’t feel like we talked personally at the Seder. All the other Haggadot have someone else’s commentary. I wanted everyone to become their own commentator.”

The Ayeka Haggadah does that by interspersing, amidst the traditional text, some 40 open-ended questions, specifically crafted to evoke spirited discourse. They are divided into five categories.

There are 10 questions for kids and 10 questions for “everyone,” two questions for seniors, three questions meant to be considered in havruta pairs, and 15 questions designed to elicit “hope.” After all, the Exodus story at the center of the Haggadah is all about “overcoming impossible odds,” Ben David explains. “The Passover Seder is the antidote to hopelessness.”

The Ayeka Haggadah even comes with a strict admonition that it be given out to participants one week before the Seder, with each Seder-goer instructed to prepare for at least an hour, picking out the questions they most relate to and being ready to lead a conversation.

Ben David: “People often spend hours and hours preparing – shopping, cleaning, cooking – but they don’t spend much or any time getting ready emotionally or spiritually.”

Last year I wrote a column in The Jerusalem Post called “A Seder for Non-Believers.” In it, I proposed using the Haggadah as a loose framework to trigger discussion on “contemporary personal, political and professional concerns” rather than rote reciting the whole text.

As soon as I heard about the Ayeka Haggadah, I knew it would be a perfect prompt for a Blum-style Seder.

We bought five copies. It was a roaring success.

So, which Ayeka questions spoke to us the most at our Seder this year? Here are a few:

  • When eating the karpas: what aspect of the natural world gives you hope? Where is the most hopeful place you have ever been?
  • When discussing the wise child: what is one smart thing you did on your journey through life?
  • When reciting the plagues: what has been your biggest plague in life? Have you ever been able to laugh while experiencing a difficult time?
  • When the rabbis start upping the number of plagues: every journey has moments worthy of exaggeration. Years from now, what moments in your journey do you think you will be exaggerating?
  • At Dayenu: what would be on your gratitude list for the Jewish people?
  • While tasting the maror (bitter herbs): what are the most difficult moments in Jewish history that, looking back now, give you hope?

All told, it was just what our family needed to take our already non-traditional Seder up a notch.

I asked Ben David what his favorite question is.

“Have you ever felt the hand of God helping you on your journey,” he said. “No one will ever directly ask you this question. Yet once it is raised, people share the most incredible stories.”

We didn’t get to that one. Maybe next year in Jerusalem.

For information on how to order a copy of the Ayeka Haggadah for your Seders to come, visit www.ayeka.com.

I first wrote about this great new Haggadah at The Jerusalem Post.

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The plan sounded perfect: my wife and I would spend the weekend at the Kumbuk River eco-resort, a luxury lodge located on the edge of Sri Lanka’s famous Yala wildlife sanctuary.

The resort has only three rooms set in 16 acres of mostly wild jungle. Between indulging in decadent, individually-prepared meals, we could search for elephants across the river, go for a tractor ride or get up early to spot some birds. Or just sleep in. It was to be a much needed break after two weeks of ambitious touring and mountain trekking in this fascinating tropical paradise.

When I called up Kumbuk River, I was told we were in luck: there was one room available. “Please book it via the website,” the receptionist said.

But the website was a little wonky: first you fill in an inquiry form, and only then do you receive a credit card link by email some hours later. By the time the message arrived, the room was gone – someone else had snagged it.

I was furious. But even more than that, I was suffering from some serious FOMO.

An acronym for “Fear of Missing Out,” the journal Computers in Human Behavior defines FOMO as “a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent.”

It’s become so prevalent in popular culture that the term was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013.

While technology analysts like Sherry Turkle (whose book Alone Together has become a kind of bible on the effects of social media on the teenage brain) and Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake, whose 2011 essay catapulted the term into the hi-tech vernacular, focus on the connection between FOMO and our inability to turn away from our phones, my biggest FOMO challenges come when I’m on vacation.

There’s always too little time and too much to see when you’re on the road. As a result, any choice you make means you’re necessarily missing out on something else.

Was it more important to visit that double waterfall rather than the ancient Buddhist temple we skipped? Should we have lounged on the beach with the sea turtles longer and spent less time hiking? Why did we choose the tourist trap restaurant over the hole-in-the-wall place with the kottu roti that looked so good from the street?

I’ve even come up with my own sub-definitions of FOMO.

“Pre-FOMO” is what most people suffer from. I’m more of a post-FOMO guy, which I’ve dubbed ROMO or “Ruminations on Missing Out.” It’s similar to “regret” but tied to the overall FOMO phenomenon.

But there’s an antidote to FOMO and it’s also an acronym: JOMO, coined by another technologist, blogging pioneer Anil Dash.

“The Joy of Missing Out,” Dash writes, comes from the “blissful, serene enjoyment in knowing, and celebrating, that there are folks out there having the time of their life at something that you might have loved to, but are simply skipping.”

JOMO is related to mindfulness, for sure, but it’s also about embracing the familiar reality that one closed door often opens a surprising new one.

When the Kumbuk River was booked, we had to rejigger our plans. We added a couple of extra days to our stay in the Sri Lankan hill town of Ella (at the inexplicably named “Zion View Hotel,” which the manager, clearly not Jewish, said had something to do with a Bob Marley song.)

In that time, we added a thrilling five-hour hike, signed up for a cooking class (to learn how to make all those exquisite vegetarian curries we’d been eating) and had a pair of Ayurvedic massages. There were no elephants or eco-tractor rides, but it was glorious nevertheless.

On our way to Ella, we planned to take what our guide book described as “the most beautiful train ride in the world.” A three-hour saunter through lush tea plantations with endless vistas of green.

But when we got to the train, it was standing room only. And when we stooped down to look out the windows, all we could see were dark clouds and rain.

I was so disappointed, I grumbled on tired feet for the first two hours. But then something shifted. My wife Jody and I started talking to our fellow passengers. I got into a deep discussion about the Israeli education system with a German woman studying to be a teacher. We bought a few spicy “dahl balls” (like falafel but made out of lentils instead of chickpeas) from a passing vendor who jumped on the train during a delay. By the time the ride ended, we were sorry that it had been so short.

The hardest part about switching from FOMO to JOMO is doing it up front, right as the FOMO is about to kick in, and not just as a cognitive re-set after agonizing through several days of debilitating ROMO.

JOMO is my new travel companion, but of course it can be applied in a wide variety of situations. As Anil Dash points out, after he moved to New York, he realized that there was so much going on, you’re inevitably “going to miss stuff. [And] on any given day…there’s an event going on that would be the best event of the year back in your hometown. And most of the time, you’re not going to be there.”

That goes whether you’re in New York, Sri Lanka, Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.

I first wrote about FOMO, JOMO and ROMO for The Jerusalem Post.

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It was while visiting the doctor that I finally snapped. I had waited months to see a particular specialist. I needed some answers to an ongoing ailment – it was an important appointment.

“Can we speak in English?” I said as politely as I could. It was more a statement than a question.

“No,” the doctor replied.

“No?” I sputtered, surprised by the abruptness. It’s the rare physician I’ve found who can’t conduct business in English.

“But…I need to understand what’s happening with my body,” I explained. “My Hebrew isn’t good enough.”

“No,” he repeated. “You are in Israel now. We speak Hebrew.”

I get the sentiment. The revival of our ancient tongue as a common denominator for a nation of newcomers is a source of pride and cohesion. I have no quarrel with its underlying importance.

But what if you just can’t do it? What if you’re no good with languages?

Hebrew has always been difficult for me. I’ve taken no less than five ulpans during my twenty plus years in the country, from five month stints at Ulpan Etzion and Beit HaNoar in Jerusalem to the intensive daily one-on-one approach of Ulpan Or.

I always seem to get to a certain point and then I hit a wall. My last Hebrew teacher, upon noticing my recurring inability to comprehend conjugation and sentence construction, suggested I might have “FLLD.”

FLLD stands for “Foreign Language Learning Disability.” Originally identified by researcher Dr. Richard Sparks, FLLD reflects the difficulty otherwise bright people, who are often-excellent communicators in their mother tongue, have in picking up a new language.

Sparks has since walked back on his research, stating that use of the term “was premature.” But there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that FLLD is real.

The website Educational Research documents several such stories.

Matt is a native English-speaker originally from the U.K., with advanced degrees in engineering and science. He has been living in a Russian-speaking country for over ten years, is married to a native Russian speaker and has two bilingual daughters.

“After years of exposure and attempted use of a language in a native environment, I would expect to be fluent to some degree in the language,” he writes. However, “it has been an immense struggle and hugely frustrating. I would estimate that I understand only roughly 60 percent of the spoken Russian I hear. My ability to speak Russian is incredibly poor.”

Matt admits to the same kind of difficulties with Russian that I have with Hebrew – problems with tenses, gender, and adjective-related endings. “I haltingly speak the language, but with a huge number of errors and, as time passes, I do not improve,” he concedes.

Robert, like Matt, lived in Germany for ten years with his German-speaking wife and kids, “but after four attempts to learn German, I am at a loss,” he laments.

Closer to home, Celeste Aronoff explains that “when I speak Hebrew, my giant box of metaphorical tools is reduced to the equivalent of a hammer, a screwdriver and a few misshapen nails. When I speak English, I can access every tool there is with finesse, grace and eloquence.”

With Hebrew, she continues, “even though I feel a mystical connection to thousands of years of history, religion and identity, I am isolated from the ordinary conversation around me.” Celeste is now back in the U.S., pursuing a master’s degree in Jewish Education.

“I can actually speak Hebrew pretty well,” my friend Dan shared with me. “The problem is when people respond. Then I don’t understand half of what they’re saying and I wind up nodding and feeling like an idiot.”

“What’s the problem?” my wise (and fully bilingual) daughter asked. “So you have a hard time with Hebrew. Why does that bother you?”

“I can’t fully participate in life here,” I replied.

“There are enough things going on in English to keep you plenty busy,” she shot back, which is entirely true.  In Jerusalem, in particular, there’s a thriving Anglo sub-culture (although instead of the Cameri, we get community theater).

“It’s the snarky comments Israelis make when they hear me fumbling in Hebrew,” I told my daughter. “They’ll ask, ‘how many years have you been here…and you still don’t speak Hebrew?’ And then I feel ashamed.”

“That’s so unfair,” she responded. “You shouldn’t feel embarrassed. You should get angry. Fire back at them: ‘So, I’m not good in languages. What things are you not good at?’”

She’s right, of course. Why should I feel abashed over any kind of limitation? My father had polio as a child. He could never play ball with me or run or roughhouse. He didn’t apologize for who he was.

In the end, the doctor spoke to me in his very passable English. He didn’t fix what was wrong, but I figured out what I should say to the next linguistically combative physician I encounter.

“I agree with you that it’s really important for the Jewish people in the modern state of Israel to speak Hebrew and I tried many times but I just couldn’t master the tongue. So I do my best to contribute as an Israeli using the skills that I have. Rather than chastise me for my FLLD, how about saying kol hakavod, good job, for sticking it out in Israel despite all the frustrations of not being able to communicate fully?”

I first shared my FLLD story at The Jerusalem Post.

Image from Drdpw [CC BY-SA 3.0]

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Land of cars and innovation

by Brian on March 13, 2017

in In the News,Technology

Investor Mike Granoff likes cars. As the head of Maniv Energy Capital, he was one of the first to put money into Better Place. Following the high flying electric car startup’s collapse, Granoff turned his focus to the next big thing in transportation – the growing field of vehicle autonomy (i.e. driverless cars) and other ways to make driving safer and roads less congested.

Speaking on a panel about “Transport Technology” earlier this month at the annual investor summit sponsored by equity crowdfunding firm OurCrowd, Granoff – who is originally from the U.S. but has been living in Israel for the past four years – commented that when he was looking for companies to invest in for his newest fund, he hadn’t expected to find so much of what he needed right here in Israel.

Indeed, Israel is not generally thought of as an automotive powerhouse. Israel’s only real car maker, Haifa-based Autocars, which manufactured the boxy Sussita and the sportier Sabra until the end of the 1970s, has long been defunct.

But today, some of the coolest next generation car technology is coming out of the Startup Nation.

Jerusalem’s Mobileye is the clear Israeli leader when it comes to powering self-driving cars. While a high-profile partnership with Tesla fell apart last year after the fatal crash of an autonomous vehicle (Tesla tried to blame Mobileye for the tragic accident), Mobileye quickly inked a deal with BMW and says more are in the works.

Other Israeli startups with innovative offerings for cars were on display at this year’s OurCrowd shindig. A common theme was improving safety in one way or another.

Take distracted driving, for example. It’s not just a problem when you’re cradling a mobile phone on your shoulder or sneaking a peek at a text when your eyes should be on the road. Even hands-free conversations can cause problems. That’s made worse when you can’t hear what the other person is saying or they can’t understand you – a still common occurrence with car speaker phones.

VocalZoom’s technology dramatically improves sound quality by distinguishing between speech and background noise. The result, says VP of product Eitan David is that “you can carry on a conversation even with the window open.” VocalZoom was accepted into Honda’s “Xcelerator” program and, while a development deal hasn’t been inked yet, Honda has been making invaluable introductions for the VocalZoom team.

Argus Cyber Security tackles safety in a different way – the company specializes in preventing your car from being hacked. “We all want our cars to be fully connected,” explained the company’s CEO Ofer Ben-Noon – to the Internet, to GPS mapping, to cloud-based diagnostic systems. But that opens up the possibility of someone with ill intent taking control and, in a terrifying example, disabling your brakes on a hill. Argus works to prevent that. As autonomous driving goes mainstream, Ben-Noon pointed out, “the future will be less about traffic accidents and more about hacks.”

Engie addresses a more prosaic safety concern: keeping your car’s engine in tip-top shape. All cars manufactured in the last decade have a computer port where your mechanic can attach a device that downloads data about the vehicle’s performance, Engie’s Harel Meshulam told me. How is your gas mileage? Is the engine running too hot? Will your car pass the air pollution test?

Engie puts that power in the car owner’s hands by selling a NIS 100 device that you attach by yourself. Engie sends the data via Bluetooth to a mobile app on your smart phone, then suggests repair shops near you that have the best price and relevant experience. Engie says it can save drivers up to 35% on vehicle maintenance costs. 100,000 users and 200 mechanics are signed up so far in Israel. Investors include Waze co-founder Uri Levine.

Sometimes the safety problem is not inside the car but with other drivers. How often have you wished you could send to the police a picture of a car parked illegally on the sidewalk or a video of that guy who cut across three lanes right in front of you and the cops could issue a ticket automatically? That’s what Capester does.

The Capester mobile app records a specially encrypted video – one that can’t be doctored with (“we do for videos what PDF did for documents,” CEO Ohad Maislish told me) – so that it can be used as legally binding evidence at city hall. Capester is piloting with a few Israeli municipalities plus a couple in South America. It’s not just empowering for the user; cities like it too, as it results in more revenue (from tickets).

If you’re going to be tooling around town in your cool new car, you’ve got to look the part. Israeli startup pq has partnered with celebrated Israeli artist and industrial designer Ron Arad to make 3D printed glasses. They not only look and feel great, but they are custom printed for each person, so they fit perfectly. pq plans to sells its face scanning system to opticians. The glasses are then “printed” at pq headquarters and mailed back complete with the lenses.

I’m not sure pq improves road safety, but my wife Jody said I was rocking a bit of a Howard Hughes Aviator vibe when I tried on a pair of Ron Arad specs. Just what you need when talking on your VocalZoom-enabled phone, clicking videos of offending drivers, while secure against hacks – all thanks to Israel’s surprising car tech scene.

I first wrote about the Israeli automotive powerhouse in The Jerusalem Post.

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Texting on Shabbat? Guidelines for the observant Jew

February 19, 2017

The growing phenomenon of Orthodox Jewish teenagers keeping what’s been called “Half Shabbos” burst into the Jewish media several years ago. “Half Shabbos” describes someone who observes all of the Sabbath regulations except one: using his or her smart phone to send text messages. Religious leaders reacted predictably to the revelation of what had been […]

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Trump triggers crisis of faith for some religious Jews

February 6, 2017

The election of Donald Trump has created a profound crisis of faith among some Orthodox Jews who opposed Trump’s candidacy. How is it possible, they ask, that so many of their co-religionists allowed themselves to look past Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, his pathological falsehoods and moral failings that seem to go against so much of what […]

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Israel: the new Jewish shtetl

January 23, 2017

Hebrew Union College Professor Steven M. Cohen published an essay last month with some startling conclusions about Jewish demography. Reviewing figures compiled by the Pew Research Center over the past half century, he writes in The Forward that the number of Orthodox Jews in America has quadrupled in just two generations – with 79,000 “grandparents” […]

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Can religion boost your immune system?

January 13, 2017

When I was young, I remember being taught that the laws of kashrut derived from a pre-modern understanding of hygiene. Pigs were “dirty” and you took the risk of contracting trichinosis if you ate raw or undercooked pork. Keeping kosher, as a result, was a way of staying healthier. Indeed, today even non-Jews will buy […]

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Breaking the rabbinate’s monopoly on marriage

January 2, 2017

Rabbi Chuck Davidson is on a holy mission to end the Israeli Rabbinate’s monopoly on marriage. Nearly every night of the week, Davidson conducts wedding ceremonies that the rabbinate deems “illegal.” His goal: to get arrested. That’s the only way, he says, to force the courts to rule on what he considers one of the […]

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