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Israel Takes on Wikimania

by Charles Kopel

“Education is a human right,” declared Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director Sue Gardner to an applauding crowd of six hundred last week in the Haifa Auditorium.

The audience was gathered for Wikimania 2011, an annual event to celebrate the Foundation’s mission and accomplishments, and to plan its strategy for the coming year. Delegates from every corner of the globe proudly refer to themselves as “Wikimedians,” and unite in a common passion for free information sharing. This year, their supervisors were young tech-savvy Israelis, nervous in their first, and possibly only, opportunity to manage and address a large international crowd. A large percentage of them were wearing skullcaps. It was the sort of sight that one needs to see in order to believe.

We all know and use Wikipedia, the Foundation’s flagship project, which attracts 500 million visits a month, and whose tenth birthday on January 15 was marked by celebrations in six continents. But this free encyclopedia and its eleven sister projects are not just public online services–they are the front lines of a growing international movement. Wikimedians contribute time, talents, and energy to the creation and maintenance of an online network “to create a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.”

Haifa, Israel was chosen as the location of Wikimania 2011 with much fanfare and much controversy. Tomer Ashur, chairman of Wikimedia Israel, related that his team reacted with disbelief last year to their successful bid to host the conference. In his address to the gathered Wiki faithful in Haifa on Thursday, tinged with a tone of apprehensive relief, Ashur explained that Wikimedia Israel had to hit the ground running after the decision in order to identify a host city and prepare a venue.

Haifa was a natural choice, for three reasons: First, it is a university town, home to the Technion and the University of Haifa, two of Israel’s most prestigious institutions of higher education, and therefore conducive to the educational nature of the conference’s mission. Second, the city features an impressive high-tech industry center, aligning it with the technological savvy of Wikimania’s participants. Finally, Ashur announced to resounding audience approval, the northern coastal city is the greatest Israeli symbol of Jewish-Arab coexistence, with 26,000 Arab residents, 10% of the total population.

Wikimania 2011 featured 125 presentations, and was possibly the best-attended in seven years of the conference’s history. The talks included plenaries by Harvard professors Yochai Benkler and Joseph Reagle on the research surrounding Wikipedia’s success, a Q&A with the ten-person Wikimedia board and a closing ceremony with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. The majority of the talks were smaller-scale meetings with groups of Wikimedians about strategic uses of Wiki material in business, education, conflict resolution, local cultural heritage projects, and the like. The sentiment at the events was one of optimism and success. Wikimedia sites and networks have grown tremendously in the last several years, academics and journalists are beginning to see its resources as authoritative. At one point, Gardner recounted a conversation she had with a French journalist in New York last January at a celebration for Wikipedia’s tenth anniversary, in which the journalist said to her, “Making fun of Wikipedia is so 2007!”

I had the opportunity to meet and speak with enthusiastic Wikimedians from around the world. Marek Blahus of the Czech Republic writes Wiki pages in Esperanto, and, along with fellow activists at the conference, maintains that Wikimedia should encourage the usage of Esperanto as a universal language, rather than settling on the English standard. All Wikimania 2011 events were conducted in English or Hebrew, with translation services offered. Ming-li of Shanghai, the only Chinese representative, expressed dismay about his government’s strict control over the exchange of online information.  I also encountered groups of students from India and the Philippines, who expressed excitement at the opportunity to visit and experience Israel, albeit for a short time.

Their sentiments are not shared by all Wikimedians, however. A significant movement emerged to boycott the event and Wikimedia in protest over Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. A Facebook page titled “No for holding Wikimania Conference in Israel” has approximately 500 likes, and the absence of these potential participants was felt by those in attendance.

The Israeli government nonetheless made good use of the opportunity. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, one of the conference’s primary sponsors, distributed a free book called “Facts About Israel” to all Wikimedia participants. Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav also included a letter to participants, along with supplementary literature from the Haifa municipality. Even more strikingly, Meir Sheetrit, a member of the Knesset for Kadima, addressed the crowd, declaring his intentions to fight for expanded broadband access across Israel, and for the release of more government information over the internet into the public domain. The Wikimedias responded tot this second announcement with enthusiastic approval, though, contrary to common misconception, the Foundation has no relationship with Wikileaks.

The conference participants were also treated to a unique taste of Israeli society, as they unexpectedly found themselves sharing a city block with a full tent village of protesters in downtown Haifa. These protesters, part of a growing movement for social change in Israel, had no official interaction with Wikimania, although their proximity was strongly felt by all, and even received mention in several of the talks. In one of the more poignant moments of the events, Harvard professor Yochai Benkler expressed his view that the protesters outside, the conference participants inside, and the brave rebels just 90 miles northeast in Damascus are all part of the same struggle for freedom and social progressiveness.

A Declaration of Ignorance

By Steven Philp

Republican or Democrat, American Jews inherit a history of progressiveness concerning issues of race and religion. Yet a pledge released by the conservative organization Family Leader, expounding racism and religious intolerance uncharacteristic of our community, includes an unexpected Jewish stamp of approval. The document in question is the “Marriage Vow: A Declaration of Dependence on Marriage and Family.” Released on July 7, the pledge is intended for Republican presidential candidates looking for sponsorship from the Family Leader, a right-wing political organization that includes the Iowa Family Political Action Committee. Their influence is not limited to the Midwest swing states; considering their affiliations with national bodies like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, an endorsement from the Family Leader is a vital feather in the cap for any Republican hopeful looking to co-opt the conservative vote. The document—grounded in a concern for the integrity of the American family— includes promises of Constitutional fidelity, a commitment to upholding “traditional” marriage values and federal deficit reduction. This is undergirded by the unquestioned locus of “faithful monogamy…at the very heart of a designed a purposeful order.” This in turn is derived from “Jewish and Christian scripture,” “Classical philosophers,” “Natural Law,” and—of course—“the American Founders.” It may be time to modify synagogue curricula; according to the Family Leader, if you study enough Torah you may find elements of the “Marriage Vow.”

While having “Jewish scripture” appropriated by a group that defines itself as a “Christ-centered organization” may rankle progressive Jews, it would not be the first time that the Tanakh has been used in defense of “traditional” marriage values. We only have to look to the recent vote to legalize same-sex marriage in New York State to find examples of recalcitrance within the Jewish community, where a number of conservative Jewish groups used Biblical text to justify their opposition to the expansion of marriage rights. What is problematic is that a Christian organization has attempted to associate Judaism with a bigoted document that not only targets the usual suspects (divorcees, single parents and LGBTQ individuals), but also sets its sites on African-American and American Muslims. The document states that despite the ills of slavery, a black person born in 1860 “was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA’s first African-American president.” This garnered sharp criticism from moderate and liberal organizations, including the NAACP, who pointed to the fact that historical evidence shows that slaves were often prevented from marrying, and that selling family members to different slave owners was common practice. Furthermore, the implication that life was better for African-Americans under the burden of slavery is, at the very least, inaccurate and dangerously ignorant. The outcry forced the document’s first two signatories, presidential candidates Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum, to backpedal, according to The Huffington Post, and elicited a statement from the Family Leader saying, “After careful deliberation and wise insight and input from valued colleagues we deeply respect, we agree that the statement referencing children born into slavery can be misconstrued.” The passage has been removed from subsequent publications of the pledge.

Yet the statement concerning American Muslims is of equivalent ignorance; one of the fourteen points of the document has the presidential candidates vow to “[reject] Sharia Islam and all other forms of anti-woman, anti-human rights forms of totalitarian control.” Following the tragedy of September 11 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the coexistence of Islam and the West has become a heated issue among American politicians, religious leaders and academics. One of the primary concerns—at least for conservative politicians—is Sharia, the code of personal and communal conduct for observant Muslims.  Republican presidential candidates have offered several choice sound bytes concerning Sharia: Rick Santorum called it “an existential threat” to the United States, while Herman Cain explained that he would not readily appoint a Muslim to his Cabinet because “there is this attempt to gradually ease Sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government. It does not belong in our government.” While neither can provide concrete examples of an Islamic takeover, they do exemplify general ignorance concerning what Sharia is.

Translated to “path” or “way,” Sharia is not unlike Halakhah—a system of laws built over time from a central religious text (in this case, the Qur’an), the teachings of religious figures (for Muslims, these are the words of Mohammed recorded in the Sunnah) and subsequent centuries of religious scholarship. It is an evolving and diverse legal tradition, with tenets that reflect denominational and regional affiliations. To be Muslim is—in a way—to practice Sharia, of the type and to the degree befitting your desired level of observance. Like the Jewish tradition, there is the possibility for fundamentalism—this is exemplified in stories of stoning and beheading popularized by the global media. Yet also similar to Halakhah, Sharia is malleable; there is room for progressivism and adaptation. In the same way that every Jew engages with elements of Halakhah—applying it to our identity in unique and productive ways, debating with our peers over its applicability in contemporary society and embracing its place (in whatever form) in the history and structure of our community—so too Muslims also work with Sharia. The similarities between the two traditions are striking, from laws concerning ritual purity, to conduct in business relationships, to customs surrounding food consumption. One would think that in the United States, Jews would have the greatest empathy with our Muslim peers when their religious code is attacked.

Any Torah scholar— understanding that our moral structure, like Islam’s, is born of written and oral traditions—should recognize that Family Leader’s rejection of “Sharia Islam” is equivalent to forbidding “Halakhic Judaism;” this is the same as a ban on the faith tradition itself. Similarly, given the strong stance that Jews have taken against slavery and segregation—derived from our own narrative of bondage in Egypt—it is unlikely that the Jewish community would wax nostalgic on the subject position of the African-American slave. Associating the Jewish community with a document like the “Marriage Vow” to legitimize its bigotry shows that Family Leader is not only ignorant concerning the African-American community and Islam, but Judaism as well.

Holy Foreskin, Batman!

By Adina Rosenthal

There is a new superhero on the block. In true Superman fashion, he spends his days as regular citizen Miles Hastwick, but when trouble is afoot, he transforms into a superhero ready to rescue the public from a pernicious danger that has afflicted society for thousands of years and must be stopped: circumcision. Yes, folks, he’s Foreskin Man. “Aided by his advanced plasma boots,” as his trading card states, Foreskin Man flies above San Diego “to hunt down criminals who cut the genitals of innocent boys.” Along with the trading cards, you can purchase two issues of Foreskin Man, where he protects the foreskins of baby boys from the likes of Dr. Mutilator and Monster Mohel. T-Shirts are also available for both adults and children, so you too can wear the symbol of Foreskin Man, which is similar to a phallic version of The Green Lantern’s logo.

The comic series creator, Matthew Hess, is president of MGMBill, a national organization promoting legislation to criminalize circumcision of boys under 18, such as the controversial anti-circumcision initiative that will appear on the San Francisco ballot this November. Proponents of the bill assert that this is a human rights issue, referring to circumcision as unnecessary mutilation. Those opposed argue that circumcision is not harmful and call the measure unconstitutional, interfering with their First Amendment rights. The law would slap a fine of $1000 or a year in jail to anyone who performs the ritual on boys under 18.  While Jews and Muslims are well-known for circumcising their sons, most families who choose circumcision in the United States do so apart from religious reasons. Though a recent study shows that fewer Americans are circumcising their baby boys than in the past, as of 2010, 80 percent of the American male population is circumcised, and Jews make up no more than 3 percent of the population.

Foreskin Man was created as part of the campaign to ban circumcision through legislation, and has taken the rhetoric to a whole new level and seems to have singled out Jews as the major culprits. Many are calling the comic series overtly anti-Semitic. While the first issue of Foreskin Man raises eyebrows about what the blond-haired, blue-eyed hero meant when he said the pro-circumcision lobby has “all the well connected doctors and lawyers,” the second issue, with its hooked nose, tallis-adorned villain, Monster Mohel, and his henchman, sporting peyos, black hats, and kippot, leave less to the imagination.

In a press release, Nancy J. Appel, the Anti-Defamation League’s Associate Regional Director, blasted the comic for going too far. Appel vilified Foreskin Man for portraying mohels as “rapacious, bloodthirsty, and bent on harming children” and noted similarities with the blood libel, the accusation that Jews ritually murder Christian children for their blood (which apparently gives matzah its flavor).  Appel also makes the final point that “No matter what one’s personal opinions of male circumcision, it is irresponsible to use stereotypical caricatures of religious Jews to promote the anti-circumcision agenda.”
This charge of anti-Semitism led Jena Troutman of Santa Monica to drop an anti-circumcision proposal for her city. She claims that the initiative has nothing to do with religion, but about “protecting babies from their parents not knowing that circumcision was started in America to end masturbation…You shouldn’t go around cutting up your little babies. Why don’t people [insert expletive here] get that?”

Obviously, the anti-Semitic label is a loaded, hot potato, not to be taken lightly. But is Foreskin Man hate speech, free speech at its ugliest, or simply a humorous social commentary? Where do we draw the line?

When asked if Foreskin Man is anti-Semitic, creator Matthew Hess responded, “A lot of people have said that, but we’re not trying to be anti-Semitic. We’re trying to be pro-human rights.” But some historical comparisons may show that Foreskin Man’s kryptonite is similarities with anti-Semitic stereotypes.
Nazi Germany used comics as propaganda to paint Jews as dishonest, money-grubbing untermenschen (subhumans). For example, the 1940 Nazi film, Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew) likened Jews to dirty rats that spread disease throughout the world.  Law enforcement like police and SS-units were required to watch the film in order to desensitize them to the maltreatment of Jews in concentration and extermination camps. The Jews depicted in this movie, as well as other examples of Nazi propaganda against the Jews, looks eerily similar to Monster Mohel.

At the end of the day, Foreskin Man is a strong, Aryan-looking hero who rescues the innocent baby boy from the clutches of the dark, sinister Jew, whose diabolical aim is to “carry out the holy covenant” through circumcision. This comic highlights the classic good versus evil trajectory, leaving little question as to which role the Jew plays.

It’s just not kosher.

Like a Yellow Star On Our Food

By Steven Philp

Kosher products are a common sight in most American stores; it is an industry that is recognized outside the Jewish community, employing both Jews and non-Jews in its processing and distribution. Americans are less familiar with halal products, even though they are consumed by almost 1.5 billion people. Yet people are starting to pay attention.

This week thousands of businessmen and women will congregate in Kuala Lumpur for the largest annual exhibition of halal products in the world. For seven years the Malaysia International Halal Showcase (MIHAS) has served as a lynchpin for the growing industry as it seeks to meet the demand of Muslims’ dietary laws. A press release from the Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation, which hosts MIHAS, stated that last year’s event attracted “over 32,000 trade visitors from 81 countries.” With Muslim spending power increasing as their constituent nations emerge from the recession, this year’s conference is expected to exceed those numbers.

Yet the reception of halal products in countries with Muslim minorities has been tentative.  This past week, Struan Stevenson, a Conservative Minister for the European Parliament, added an amendment to a food bill that would have food labels read: “This product comes from an animal slaughtered by the halal method” or “This product comes from an animal slaughtered by the shechita method.”  The main bill, proposed by Jim Paice, the Food and Farming Minister to the European Parliament, seeks to label meat based on whether the animal was stunned before killing. According to an article by the Daily Telegraph, Paice is responding to demands from veterinarians and animal welfare activists who claim that the failure to stun an animal before its throat is slit causes “unacceptable levels of suffering and pain.” Currently, the failure to stun is legal under laws protecting religious freedom; in both halal and shechita, the animal is slaughtered while still conscious.

Although Paice believes that consumers should be informed which foods have been killed using the stun method and which have not, he has expressed resistance to Stevenson’s idea that they carry explicit religious labels. He is joined by the British Jewish interest group Shechita UK in opposition to the amendment. Their representative, Simon Cohen, explained that the proposal is “the 21st century equivalent of the yellow star, but on our food.”

Cohen is right, insofar that the requirement to label food with an explicit reference to their intended consumer is based in latent phobias. Only two months ago, American pastor Mark Biltz of El Shaddai Ministries—a Messianic Christian congregation in Bonney Lake, WA—posted a sermon online advocating for an increased awareness of “backdoor Sharia” vis-à-vis the prevalence of halal products in the United States. He cites the prohibition against eating food sacrificed to idols, explaining, “You could be eating beef, chicken… offered up to Allah and not even know it. I can just imagine at a Passover Seder the caterer unbeknownst to anyone is serving halal meat!” He then outlines methods by which one can ascertain what stores and restaurants to avoid for their provision of halal products. With its genesis in bigotry and misunderstanding, Biltz parallels arguments made almost a decade ago by white supremacist groups that kashrut was the façade for a special “Jewish tax.” Briefly outlined by an article posted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the conspiracy surmounted that if a food company did not pay the “tax”—and consequently did not receive the heksher—its products would be boycotted.

Halal and kosher products tend to occupy a shared space in a number of American stores intended for the general public, making access to them a mutual concern of the Muslim and Jewish communities. As we see in Europe, their similarities can cause them to be lumped together when considered from an outside perspective. We are fortunate to have access to a wide variety of kosher products in the United States.  In response to the high demand from the Jewish community, as well as other groups including Seventh Day Adventists, many non-Jewish stores stock their shelves with kosher goods. Even for many American Muslims, kosher products—subject to more stringent regulations than other foods—are a good alternative for the time being.  It is ultimately in our best interest to advocate for the availability of specialty products, and speak out against laws that restrict our freedom to consume food aligned with our religious values.  Kashrut and halal are not always the same, but they are not that different either.

All Converts Go To Heaven: The Case of Elizabeth Taylor

By Steven Philp

On April 6, 1959 Time Magazine reported the birth “of the most famous and perhaps most beautiful baby,” a Jewish girl named Elishaba Rachel Taylor. The prior week marked the conversion—or “birth”—of the 27-year-old actress Elizabeth Taylor to the Jewish faith, following six months of study under the late Rabbi Max Nussbaum of Temple Israel in Hollywood, CA. Over fifty years later, we mourn the passing of a screen legend, AIDS activist, and proud member of our faith community. Or do we? In an article posted on the Jewish-interest blog Jewlicious, Taylor’s commitment to her faith is skimmed over in favor of details about her multiple marriages and celebrity rabbi. The article ends, “Rest in peace Liz, and when you get to Kaballah [sic] Center heaven, say hi to Marilyn and Sammy.”

The reference to the center is a jab at Taylor’s faith.  The Kabbalah Centre—located near the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Pico-Robertson in Los Angeles, CA—has been embroiled in controversy since its genesis in 1965. Attracting A-list celebrities like Madonna, Lindsay Lohan, and Britney Spears, the center is at best tolerated as an idiosyncratic take on Jewish mysticism and at worst—as detailed in a BBC article from 2005—“an opportunist offshoot of the faith with charismatic leaders who try to attract the rich and the vulnerable with the promise of health, wealth and happiness.” To be associated with the Centre is to have the authenticity of your Jewish faith questioned, if not dismissed entirely.

The irony of the Jewlicious article is that Taylor’s association with the Kabbalah Centre is not well-documented. In a survey of Taylor’s commitment to the Jewish faith, an article posted to CNN claims that “Taylor had been a supporter of the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles.” Yet the Jewish Journal obituary it cites as the source for this information contains no mention of her involvement, or Jewish mysticism. What it does detail is a lifetime of service to the Jewish community—through her support of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, her participation in the 1981 documentary “Genocide: The Story of the Holocaust,” and her Israel activism—that shows a deep commitment to her adopted faith.

The Jewlicious article reveals a common bias against the Jewish convert, pegging them as somehow less authentic than those born in to our community. The idea of a “Kaballah Center heaven”—home to those A-list celebrities who pandered with Judaism—may have been intended as a light-hearted joke, and perhaps struck some readers as humorous, but it reinforces the stereotype that the Jew-by-Choice can never truly be genuine to the faith. Yet Marilyn Monroe, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Elizabeth Taylor—each having converted before the foundation of the Kabbalah Centre—all demonstrated indisputable chutzpah in their faith commitment. In an article written by Time shortly after Davis’ conversion, he is quoted as saying:

I wanted to become part of a 5,000-year history and hold onto something not just material, which would give me that inner strength to turn the other cheek. Jews have become strong over their thousands of years of oppression, and I wanted to become part of that strength. As a Negro, I felt emotionally tied to Judaism. Certainly the background of my people and their history cannot be compared to that of Judaism, but the same oppression and obstacles thrown in our way were overcome by a greater force than mere tenacity…I wanted to become a Jew because Judaism held an honesty and spiritual peace that was lacking in my personal makeup.

Similarly, the decision to convert for Taylor—according to Time—was “no sudden shift.” Nor did she abandon her faith commitments after conversion, devoting her time and money to supporting Israel, fighting against AIDS, and advocating for equal rights for the LGBT community. Elizabeth Taylor is not destined for “Kaballah Center heaven.” She has a spot reserved next to all other great Jews, born or by choice.

Gallery

Lessons for Germany’s Turks from France’s Jews

By Symi Rom-Rymer In the midst of cheering crowds and booming music at an auditorium in Düsseldorf, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told his Turkish audience of 10,000 to “integrate…into German society but don’t assimilate. No one has the … Continue reading

Anti-Semitic Auto-complete?

By Symi Rom-Rymer

Journalist Stéphane Foucart posed an interesting question in a recent article in the French daily paper, Le Monde: what can Google tell us about our prejudices?  Intrigued by an earlier piece in Télérama, a weekly French magazine, that pointed out that the word ‘Jew’ often appeared in the Google search drop-down menu when someone typed in the name of almost any French top media executive or public leader, Foucart undertook his own unscientific study; producing the same outcome.

Based on this experiment, he took the results as a sign that the canard that Jews run the media or exert undue influence on French politics still hold sway among the general population. He furthermore argues that this is uniquely a French problem since the word ‘Jew’ did not  come up in the American or Spanish versions of the search engine, given similar inputs. Therefore, he concluded that Google had laid bare the French people’s latent anti-Semitism.

But what does this experiment really reveal?  Much of the answer to that question relies on the nature of Google searches.  Search results are derived from an algorithm designed to avoid a small group of people, intentionally manipulating the system to associate one word with another.  Common search words that pop-up in the search window cannot, according to a Google’s spokesperson, be created by a small group of people wishing to influence larger searches.  For example, a neo-Nazi group in Paris could not force the Google search engine to automatically link the word ‘Jew’ when someone types in ‘get out of France.’  Instead, Google judges the popularity of searches based on those carried out by each unique IP (Internet Protocol) address.  In order for a search term to grow in popularity, then, it must be typed in on a significant number of distinct computers each time for it to be recognized by Google.  Thus, the reason ‘Jew’ comes up so often in tandem with public figures is because a significant number of French people are entering those terms into the Google search engine on their own computers.

But Foucart ends his inquiry too soon.  If one actually clicks on the search term in question—let’s say ‘Nicolas Sarkozy’ + ‘Jew’—the picture become more complicated.  Contrary to what Foucart might expect, the top three links that come up are not, in fact, to extremist organizations.  Instead, they are links to Sarkozy’s Wikipedia page, a pro-Jewish personal blog praising the French president’s ascension to power, and an article in Haaretz.  Similarly, ‘Bill Clinton’ + ‘Jew’ (another automatic paring) brings up articles about his daughter’s marriage to Marc Mezvinksy. Because the most popular sites that appear in a Google search are those that appear at the top of the page, it seems that more French-speakers are more interested in reading Sarkozy’s Wikipedia page or about Chelsea Clinton’s wedding than anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. If ‘Jew’ is a common search term in the Google French engine, but the most popular pages are innocuous or even laudatory, as in the Sarkozy example, it is questionable that can we confidently conclude that the ‘Jew’ search, however discomforting it may be, is the most trustworthy indication of wide-spread anti-Jewish feeling in France.

Without detailed study, it is impossible to know why the French conduct the searches that they do or what they are hoping to find.  Perhaps they are obsessed by their leaders’ supposed Judaism.  Or perhaps they turn to the internet, just as Americans do, to confirm or deny rumors they might hear from the media or others about certain public figures.  Reports of increasing anti-Semitism in France, like anti-Semitism anywhere is always troubling, but sometimes the supporting facts are more ambiguous or are simply not borne out by deeper examination.  Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.