Monday, 15 January 2018

Israel and Shabbat

The Knesset passed into law last week, the controversial so-called "Shabbat law", also labelled by some as the "minimarket law".  This new law requires local municipalities to first get the approval of interior minister before allowing stores in their municipal area to open on Shabbat.  Given the fact that the current interior minister is Shas leader Arye Deri, the immediate expectation is that such approval would generally be withheld, forcing stores across the country to be closed on Shabbat.  And furthermore, the extent to which stores are allowed to be open on Shabbat or not, will seem to depend upon who occupies the seat of the interior minister at any moment in time.

The issue of Shabbat in the Jewish state is a complex one.  The religious community will always wish to see the Shabbat respected to the fullest as set out by Jewish law.  This dictates, amongst other things, that stores will be closed from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday each week, and similarly on religious holidays.  Aside from the issue of violating Jewish law by opening stores on the holy Shabbat, the religious community also argues that the opening of stores on Shabbat forces people to work there on Shabbat.  These workers, they believe, would be better off spending Shabbat at home with their families resting, rather than being forced to work.  On the other hand, there is a substantial secular community living in Israel which prefers to have greater choice as to when they shop for their groceries and other items.  Many of them work long hours during the week, and find it impossible, difficult or inconvenient to do their shopping after work during the week.  For them, shopping on Shabbat is preferable.  Why should they not have the right to choose for themselves when the best shopping time is for them?  What about those people whose work during the week does not afford them enough to make a living, and who welcome the additional work hours at double time that the law allows on Shabbat?

Does Israel, as a democratic Jewish state, have the right to impose Jewish law on its citizens?  Does it really want to impose Jewish law?  How important is the observance of the Shabbat to the Jewish nature of Israel?  Israel's Jews are a mixed bunch.  Some are observant, and some are not.  Most of them are fiercely proud to be Jewish and to live in the Jewish state, and each expresses their Jewish identity in a different way.  The statistics show that between 20% and 30% of the Jews in Israel consider themselves to be ultra-Orthodox or Orthodox.  On the other end of the spectrum, around 40% of Jewish Israelis consider themselves to be secular.  So the balance of power rests with those who consider themselves to be traditional.  From this, we can see that there is no obvious single view that emerges concerning the importance of Shabbat observance.  This was reflected in the law that was in force until now, that allowed each municipality to choose for itself what its policy regarding store-opening on Shabbat would be.  This was also borne out in the High Court decision that confirmed this method of deciding.  Each municipality can decide, according to the demographics of its local area, whether stores will be open on Shabbat or not.  Some decide yes, others decide no.  Some have a mixed policy of forcing stores in certain areas to close, while allowing stores in other areas to be open.  One thing that remains certain is that there will also be those who disagree with whatever happens in their local vicinity.  There is no possible way of satisfying all the people in any particular locality.

The authorities have previously intervened in some ways in order to impose some element of Shabbat observance in Israel.  El Al, Israel's national airline does not fly on Shabbat or on Jewish holidays.  Banks, supermarkets and many other facilities are prohibited from opening on Shabbat.  All hotels in Israel that wish to be certified by the Ministry of Tourism, are forced to serve food that is kosher.  This requires a certain level of observance of Shabbat.  Much of Israel's public transport does not operate on Shabbat.  It seems to me, however, that this has extended a little too far with the government passing the recent Shabbat law.

It seems that Interior Minister Arye Deri also feels the same.  Despite his personal views that Shabbat should be observed, he has pledged not to exercise the power that the new law gives him to enforce Shabbat observance.  Instead, he has indicated that he will allow each municipality to decide for themselves as they have done before.  This view does not, however, remove the possibility that a future interior minister may exercise his power under the law in one direction or the other.  For this reason, the law seems to me to be a step too far.

Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, the law has become mixed up in Israeli party politics.  Essentially, the enactment of this law has served to give Health Minister Yossi Litzman a path back to his ministerial position, after resigning from the government over his opposition to work being undertaken on Israeli railway infrastructure on Shabbat.  Now that the new Shabbat law is on the statute books, he can prove to his party and electorate that he has forced a change to the government policy on Shabbat, and is justified in returning to the government.  The illusion seems to hide the reality in this case.

The often remembered Ahad Ha'am quote says, "More than the Jews have kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept the Jews".  There is no doubt that Shabbat observance has been a central tenet around which Jews have focused during the thousands of years of exile, and which has helped to maintain some element of identity and unity.  It is interesting that, during the years of exile, Shabbat was observed out of free will, and not out of being forced on anybody.  It seems to me that it is desirable to continue the observance out of free will, now that we have a Jewish state that enables this more than at any time during Jewish history.  Forcing it on anybody seems counterproductive. 

The real question is whether Shabbat observance and the traditional Shabbat atmosphere in Israel can survive the law, or whether the law will potentially force people away from it.  I have no doubt that free will is much stronger than laws that are imposed.  The Shabbat is no exception.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

My Person of 2017

I have never really been a fan of the whole idea of nominating "people of the year".  I know that it has been popular and common-place for all respectable publications and newspapers to choose their person of the year.  Time Magazine's annual choice of person of the year is a highly anticipated occasion, with the chosen person given the privilege of gracing the publication's cover.  Is it really possible to choose one person who epitomises the year, and who can lay claim to having had the largest influence on events in that year?  I am not sure about that.  For some reason, however, this year I feel differently.  For me, there is one person who has emerged from the shadows during 2017 and truly stood out on the international stage.  That person is US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley.

Before even talking about Haley's achievements in her role as US Ambassador the UN, it is interesting to know a little more about the person behind the ambassadorial figure.  She is the daughter of immigrants from India, who came to the US after her father travelled from India to complete his PhD in Canada.  Nikki's parents are Sikhs, with all the visible differences that are associated with being a Sikh in a western environment.  It seems to me that growing up as a child in a minority family in a southern US state has given Haley the character and skills to be a leader who is sensitive to others, particularly minority groups.  After graduating from Clemson University and a short career in business, Haley began her political career in the South Carolina House of Representatives in 2004.  In 2010, she was elected Governor of South Carolina, and served in this capacity until she resigned early in 2017 to take up her new role as ambassador to the UN.

Over the years, the USA's  position at the UN has become a little confused.  There can be no doubt that the US was by far the strongest power and influencer when the UN was originally set up, and has continued to be the most powerful nation on earth during the years of the UN's existence until today.  The main organs of the UN are based in the US, and the US is also by far the most substantial financial contributor to the UN.  In its position as one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, the UN also has the ability to veto any resolution that is brought before the Security Council.  All of this bears testament to the US being the most powerful country amongst the community of nations.  In the General Assembly and in other UN organ bodies, however, the US is an equal member like every other nation with much less power to influence.  As a result of this, there are many examples where US interests (and those of US allies) have been trodden on.  Israel, as an ally of the US and as the favourite target of many UN organisations, has suffered more than its fair share of unwarranted negative attention and condemnation.  Of late, the UN has become a tool for local interest groups to gang up on individual countries for the purpose of furthering personal political agendas.  Israel is certainly a victim of this.  And this unfortunately detracts substantially from the main reason why the UN was established in the first place.

Nikki Haley appeared to understand all of this very well from the first day that she stepped foot into her office at the UN.  Not only did she understand this, she has been willing to stand up for what she believes to be just and equitable.  It was clear to her that the US was being asked to contribute far more to the UN than it was receiving in return.  It was also clear to her that Israel, a key ally of the US, was being unjustly bullied at every opportunity by UN organisations.  She has been prepared to take on the world at the UN to put this right.  In the process, I believe that she has brought some respectability to America's status at the UN and in the international arena in general.  She has also been willing to tackle the unfair treatment of Israel by the UN.

Undoubtedly, Haley has been given the drive and incentive by President Trump, who seems determined to redress the imbalance of the US position at the UN.  But there is also little doubt that she has taken her role seriously, and has been prepared to take on the powers at the UN.  She has shown the willingness to say and do the difficult things required to reinforce the US position at the UN.  Last month, she was prepared to exercise the US veto at the Security Council to vote down another anti-Israel resolution, after a lengthy period of time during which the US veto was not exercised.  Not only that, but she was vocal in threatening those who voted in favour of the US-critical resolution at the General Assembly of the risk that they would lose funding that they receive from the US.  The way in which she has been supportive of Israel's position at the UN is very much recognised and appreciated.  She has shown the guts to swim against the tide, and take actions which are roundly criticised by the majority.

There is no doubt that international politics and diplomacy these days is a game of interests rather than having for consideration for what is just and right.  And, while this contradicts the original intention that lay behind the UN when it was first set up, we see this permeating through all parts of the UN.  The Arab lobby at the UN has been used very effectively to make Israel the bad guy of the UN.  No other single country has had more resolutions and condemnations against them than Israel.  Surely this says it all.

Nikki Haley has been prepared to take on the world in defense of the US position at the UN, and also in defense of Israel's position.  Her passion in doing this, and her unwillingness to compromise her beliefs stands out against the background of mediocrity that is evident in international diplomacy.  Her heroic acts in sticking up for what she believes in makes her, in my opinion, the stand-out person of 2017.  Nikki Haley will be a voice to be heard on the international stage for some time, and I am looking forward to following her activities.

Monday, 18 December 2017

How Important is Trump's Recognition of Jerusalem?

President Donald Trump's announcement to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital, and his decision to instruct the US embassy to be moved to Jerusalem, have dominated world headlines in recent weeks.  Many have analysed what lies behind his decision, and why he chose to take these steps now.  Amidst the speculation about these points, there appear to be no clear answers to these questions.

The reaction from around the world has been almost universally critically.  Except, of course, Israel's reaction where Prime Minister Netanyahu has lauded Trump's announcement as courageous, just and historic.  It is interesting to understand why western countries have been so opposed to this announcement, and why so many countries have responded in criticising Israel when Israel was not party to this action at all.  Not to speak of the anger shown by the Arab world with riots being held in many countries.  And the launching of missiles towards Israel in a way that one may have viewed Israel to be the offending party here.

Why has there been such a huge reaction to this announcement?  Previous American presidents, most notably Democratic Presidents Clinton and Obama, are on record stating the Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. The Jerusalem Embassy Act has been on the US statue books since 1995, and dictates that the US embassy should be moved to Jerusalem.  In reality, Trump has said and done nothing new.  He has simply followed in the footsteps of others before him by reiterating the obvious. 

The fact that Jerusalem is Israel's capital cannot be disputed.  The decision as to which city is the capital city of any country, is one that is taken by the country itself.  It is almost unheard of for any country's choice of a capital city not to be recognised or respected by members of the international community.  Israel declared Jerusalem to be her capital in 1948, a fact that was entrenched in the Basic Law in Israel in 1980 with the Jerusalem Law.  The Knesset sits in Jerusalem as do all government ministries.  Both the prime minister and the president have their offices and residences in Jerusalem, and foreign dignitaries are received in Jerusalem as the nation's capital.  Trump's announcement, or lack of announcement, makes no difference at all to the situation.  The fact that Jerusalem functions as the country's capital cannot be denied even by the most anti-Israeli person.

So why the furore over Trump's announcement?  It stems back to 1947 when the Arabs refused to accept the UN Partition Plan for Palestine that envisaged the sharing of Palestine, as it was, between Jewish and Arab states.  It also envisaged Jerusalem being a city under international control that would be shared between the Jews and the Arabs.  When the Arabs rejected this plan and grabbed whatever they could for themselves (including East Jerusalem), one would have thought that the UN plan was effectively rejected and binned.  Following a number of wars in the intervening period which saw the Arabs trying to grab more for themselves, but ultimately losing ground, the Arabs ironically still reject this plan as being not enough for them.  Perhaps this is because the Arabs continue to plot for the takeover of the entire city of Jerusalem, and the expulsion of the Jews from all parts of it.  In spite of all of the history, the international community has continued to pressurise Israel to honour the plan, even though it was formally rejected by the Arabs.  In this context, the international community refuses to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital, believing instead that the Arabs have some right to it.  They continue to demand a piece of Jerusalem for an Arab country, that seems unlikely to arise in the near future.  What has suddenly changed since 1947 when the Arabs rejected the plan to share Palestine and Jerusalem?  I don't think that anything has changed since then, and I suspect that the same plan would be rejected today by the Arabs as it was then.

For those who continue to insist that the Arabs have some rights to Jerusalem, Trump's announcement has been interpreted as reducing the possibility of this becoming reality.  They consider that Trump effectively took Jerusalem off the table from any peace talks that may take place.  If they were more honest, I believe that they would acknowledge the fact that the Arabs have no current plan or intention to sit down in peace talks anytime soon.  In my view, this means that Jerusalem was never really on the table at all.

Jerusalem has never been freer, than since the city was unified under Israeli rule in 1967.  All religions are free to worship at their holy sites, providing that they come with intention of behaving respectfully and peacefully.  While Jews were denied the right to visit the holiest site in Judaism when it was under Arab rule, Muslims have been assured the rights to their holy sites under Israeli rule.  The Israeli government has rebuilt the city of Jerusalem, improved its infrastructure and made it more desirable for all those who wish to live in and visit the city.  This should surely be something that influences the views of the international community regarding the most appropriate entity to rule over Jerusalem.  The argument that many of the citizens of Jerusalem, particularly in East Jerusalem, are Arabs who have no desire to be citizens of Israel is also used as reason why this area of the city should be ruled by a future Palestinian state.  It should be known that these residents were offered the right to Israeli citizenship, and have many rights as permanent residents of Jerusalem and Israel in spite of their rejection.  Just because entire neighbourhoods of Paris are dominated by Muslim residents, does not mean that these neighbourhoods should form part of an Arab state. Why is this different in Jerusalem?

The Trump announcement is not a trailblazer, and changes nothing in reality.  It is essentially an insignificant act for Israelis, Arabs and the international community.  Israelis may appreciate the statements of support for the Jewish right to Israel and Jerusalem, but are essentially indifferent to Trump's announcement.  They care little about what was said, and would have cared the same if it was not said.  Israelis are determined that the united city of Jerusalem be the capital of Israel, and nothing has changed.

There can be no doubt that the announcement by Trump has been seized upon by those who are determined to destroy Israel.  They have taken the opportunity to further their aim of ultimately ridding Jerusalem and Israel of Jews.  Trump's announcement is being used to justify this in a manner that is politically correct.  It seems entirely acceptable to launch rockets into Israel, to attack Israeli soldiers and to riot in Bangladesh in response to the Trump announcement.  The announcement itself was of no consequence, and nothing has changed.  Jerusalem will continue to be the capital of Israel whether the world accepts this or not.  Perhaps this is what Trump came to realise.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Stretching the Limits of Self-Hatred

This was a statement issued on 6 July 2017 in South Africa.  My response follows below.

South African Jews welcome downgrading of SA Embassy in Israel

We as Jewish South Africans warmly welcome the ANC National Policy Conference resolution and recommendation to downgrade the South African Embassy in Tel Aviv. This is a concrete step beyond rhetoric. Israel must be held accountable for its crimes against the Palestinian people and a clear message must be sent that there are no normal relations with an abnormal regime.
The ANC National Policy Conference, which ended yesterday, has called for “the downgrading of the SA Embassy in Israel to send a strong message about Israel’s continued illegal occupation of Palestine and the continued human rights abuses against the peoples of Palestine”.
We would like to draw attention to the letter that our Jewish Israeli counterparts sent to the ANC ahead of its recent National Policy Conference. In their letter supporting the call for a downgrade of relations and support of the BDS boycott of Israel, our Israeli friends explained that:
“After many years of trying to change our society from within, we have come to the conclusion that an international campaign, such as the boycott against apartheid South Africa, is necessary to change the situation here. We believe that the time has come for further measures. Governments including the South African government should be downgrading diplomatic relations and their embassies in Israel, to send a clear message to Israel that its violations of international law are unacceptable. Ultimately we call on the ANC to strengthen its support for the BDS movement and Palestinian struggle.”
We welcome the fact that the ANC has heeded the call by Palestinians as well as those progressive Israelis who are working towards a just peace in Israel-Palestine.
Finally we would like to add that we stand against all forms of racism and antisemitism and for the freedom, dignity and full human rights of all. To boycott Israel today is not antisemitic, it is an affirmation of these principles.
For more information please contact:
Allan Horwitz 0825128188
*South African Jews for a Free Palestine (SAJFP) is an organisation of South African Jews wishing to see a just resolution to the conflict in Historic Palestine. We strongly believe in the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, “Repairing the World” which embodies social action and the pursuit of social justice. Historically Jews have been involved struggles to achieve social justice and we are proud to continue this tradition. Furthermore, as Jews, we feel obliged to speak out against injustice purportedly carried out in our name.



Dear Allan and SAJFP members,

I was somewhat surprised to read your need to put out a statement, in which you expressed support for the resolution passed by the ANC National Policy Conference to downgrade the South African embassy in Tel Aviv.  This resolution was passed by the ANC conference "to send a strong message about Israel’s continued illegal occupation of Palestine and the continued human rights abuses against the peoples of Palestine".  According to your statement, "This is a concrete step beyond rhetoric. Israel must be held accountable for its crimes against the Palestinian people and a clear message must be sent that there are no normal relations with an abnormal regime".

There are a number of points in your statement that I feel need to be challenged.  Why do you consider Israel to be an "abnormal regime"?  Having lived in Israel for the past almost 20 years, and having travelled extensively to other countries during that time, I have no doubt that Israel is a perfectly normal regime forced to deal with an abnormal situation.  Israel is the only country in the world that constantly has its right to exist challenged unashamedly, and is frequently threatened with destruction.  This is abnormal.  Not only that, but the terror attacks and threats that Israel is subjected to on a daily basis can surely also not be considered normal.  Despite this patently abnormal situation, Israel has done a remarkable job of surviving and growing, even when compared to so-called normal regimes.  It seems unjust that Israel's actions to defend herself against the abnormal threats that she faces, are judged by normal countries according to scales that can only be relevant in their normal situations.  Surely the time has come for the international community, and Jews around the world like you, to recognise this fact and to give Israel the support that she needs to survive under the abnormal threat in which she finds herself?  It is disappointing that you choose not to recognise this in your statement, and fail to criticise those who have the audacity to threaten the existence of a sovereign nation.

I would like to pick up on your reference to "Israel’s continued illegal occupation of Palestine and the continued human rights abuses against the peoples of Palestine".  At the current time, Israel has ceded land in Judea and Samaria to be governed by the Palestinian Authority.  Additionally, Israel gave the entire Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Authority, which was later taken over by Hamas.  It is on record that Israel would have already given this to an internationally-recognised state of Palestine, as long as the Palestinians would recognise the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state along its border.  This recognition has been withheld, and no peace agreement has been reached as a result.  Why do I not see any recognition by you of the ongoing attempts by Muslims to take over the entire State of Israel?  This is in the charter of both Hamas and Fatah, and is plain for anybody to see.  Where is the recognition of the fact that Israel has ceded land to be governed by the Palestinians, only to find that this land has been turned into a launchpad for missile attacks against Israel?  If it was your family living under this constant missile barrage, how likely would you be to give more land to them to be used in this way?  So please would you explain what you mean by "illegal occupation" and "human rights abuses".  How can Israel be guilty of human rights abuses against Palestinians when their own authorities govern over them?  I think that it would be more accurate for you to accuse the Palestinians of human rights abuses against Israelis for the constant terror attacks that Israelis are forced to endure.

I am not sure who the "progressive Israelis" are that would have sent the letter to the ANC ahead of the policy conference.  Why did you not say who they are?  What are their names?  How many Israelis are really represented by the letter?  I believe that you will find that all Israelis, and not only "progressive Israelis", are eager to work towards supporting a just peace.  But it needs to be that - a just peace.  Just for both sides.  This means recognising the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state.  Failure to receive this formal recognition would be unjust.  And I cannot imagine any nation, that has its wits about them, that would agree to allow the formation of a country along its borders that has the intention of destroying it.  Why would you think that this ridiculous step would be OK for the Jewish state?

If you truly stand against all forms of racism and antisemitism, and for the freedom, dignity and full human rights of all, why is it that you do not support the rights of Jews and Israelis to live in freedom and with dignity?  Why do you choose to be self-hating and only find reasons to criticise Israel?  If you were not self-hating, I would expect you to call out acts of anti-Semitism and other abusers of human rights.  I did not notice you speaking out against anti-Semitism in Hungary and France and the UK?  Your silence on this is deafening.  And where is your criticism of human rights abuses in North Korea or Russia or China or Burma or Saudi Arabia or Zimbabwe or Soweto or Nkandla?  Why has Israel earned the special right to be singled out by you?  You claim to feel obliged to speak out against injustice purportedly carried out in your name.  I am sorry to burst your bubble, but none of this is carried out in your name.  It is carried out in the name of self-respecting Israelis who wish to survive as proud Jews.  You are just the fortunate beneficiary of these actions.  You are a just a lucky South African Jew, who has been gifted the opportunity to live in peace and security by virtue of the existence of a strong State of Israel, that is willing to defend and give power to Jews around the world, even the self-hating ones.

The anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli actions carried out by our enemies around the world, could be compared in many ways to the Shoah perpetrated against our people by the Nazis.  The fervour with which terrorists rise up to murder our people, with no qualms about risking their own lives in the process, surpasses anything that we saw during the Nazi regime.  The amount of money and the national resources of governments that are devoted to endeavours to murder Jews and destroy Israel as the Jewish state, are equivalent to those seen during the Nazi regime.  The national infrastructure that is being built in Gaza (and in other countries), with the sole purpose of destroying Israel, can be compared to the scale of the concentration camps, railway systems and crematoria built to destroy Jews in Europe.  There is only one key difference today, that makes all of what we are experiencing different from the terrible years of the Shoah.  That difference is the existence of the State of Israel and the Jewish army.  Without this, Jews would today be experiencing a Shoah of the proportions experienced during the time of the Nazis.  So you are extremely fortunate to benefit from this.  The State of Israel, that you so vociferously criticise, is exactly what gives you the freedom to live in safety in your comfortable existence South Africa and express your misguided opinions.  Where is your recognition of this fact?

I find it ironic that you choose to express your criticism of Israel, and your call for a boycott that is supposedly not anti-Semitic, by supporting the decision taken by the ANC National Policy Conference.  It is almost as if this is the body that represents the gold standard of upholding human rights.  We all know that nothing could be further from the truth, and the ANC representatives at the conference may be better advised to examine the situation nearer to home before choosing to criticise a country that only has the desire to defend itself to survive.  I would have thought that you, as a Jew in South Africa, would understand that.

I would like to conclude by recognising that the State of Israel is not beyond criticism, nor is every action that it takes worthy of support.  Like every country and every nation, Israel has its moments, both good and bad.  And she has a legal system and a judiciary that is designed to police this.  Feel free to say what you wish about that.  But please save your ill-considered criticisms of Israel's attempts to survive.  You place yourself firmly in the camp of those who are fighting for the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people.  Jews in the Shoah were forced to understand the hard way that criticising their fellow Jews would not save them from the hands of the Nazis, and from suffering the same fate as all the others.  You should learn from history, because you will not be saved from this fate either.

Yours
Anthony Reich

Thursday, 13 July 2017

The Unifying Wall That Divides

Image from tcjewfolk.com
A decision by the Israeli government not to approve the construction of an egalitarian prayer area at the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple Compound in Jerusalem and Judaism's holiest site, has opened wounds between the Israeli government and the American Jewish community.  It is ironic that, only weeks after celebrating the 50th anniversary of the return of the Kotel to Jewish hands, this iconic landmark and holy site is giving rise to huge divisions between different groups of Jews.  How differently the Kotel is being viewed now, as opposed to 50 years ago when Jews around the world were rejoicing in unison at the prospects of being able to visit and pray at this site.

Things have clearly changed over the past 50 years that we are fighting amongst ourselves over this matter.  Fifty years ago,  Jews would have been happy simply to be able to visit and pray at the Kotel. It would not have mattered if this would have been by a group of men or women on their own, or by mixed groups and families.  After so many years of having been denied the right to visit the site of the Temple, the details of how prayers would be offered there were unimportant.

Fast-forward fifty years, and the Kotel Plaza has been developed to allow and encourage Jews to visit the site for historical and religious reasons.  It was developed according to the tenets of Jewish religious law as befits a site of prayer.  This means that men and women have been provided with separate prayer areas.  This separation is not a new or alien concept amongst Orthodox and traditional Jews.  It is something that is expected at holy sites and areas of prayer.  And while Orthodox or traditional strands of Judaism are dominant in Israel amongst those who wish to identify with the Jewish religion, the same is not true outside of Israel.  There, the Reform and Conservative strands of Judaism are more popular.  These strands follow a somewhat less stringent interpretation of the Orthodox Jewish laws, either because followers have studied the laws and rejected some of the stringencies arising from Rabbinical interpretations and pronouncements over the years, or because it is simply easier to follow.  In a world where the rate of assimilation amongst Jewish communities around the world is running at alarmingly high levels, any form of identification with Judaism can be considered to be positive.  It is for this reason that the Reform and Conservative communities, particularly those in the USA, have gathered enormous power as they manage to stem some of the massive flows of Jews away from the faith.

The battle lines between Orthodox and Reform/Conservative Jews have long been drawn.  The Orthodox communities have done all that they can to reject the dilutions that are inherent with the Reform/Conservative view on the Jewish world.  They have worked to discredit and delegitimise them, even accusing them of not being Jews.  The Reform and Conservative communities, particularly those in the US that command power and have access to large sums of money, have used this to fight back against the Orthodox world view.  The battle over the Kotel is simply an extension of this power struggle between the different groups.  The Reform/Conservative strand believes that their followers (and other non-religious people) would prefer to visit and pray at the Kotel in an area that is mixed with men and women - an egalitarian area.  This would also allow families to enjoy this experience together.  The Orthodox are absolutely opposed to this, claiming that the Kotel is a religious place of prayer that requires separation of the sexes according to the traditional Jewish Law.

The State of Israel has set out not to distinguish between different groups of Jews.  In fact, the Law of Return that grants immediate Israeli citizenship to Jews, has chosen to use Hitler's definition of Jews rather than going by Jewish religious law.  Hitler decided that any person who had one Jewish grandparent would be eligible to be treated inhumanely by his regime, and to be part of his plan of extermination.  The Israeli government decided that if a person was good enough to be exterminated by Hitler, they would be good enough to be granted immediate Israeli citizenship.  This means that some of those who have been granted immediate citizenship under this law, are not Jewish according to Jewish Law.  This demonstrates the extent to which the State of Israel has opened its arms to many different groups of Jews - and even to some non-Jews.  Under the circumstances, it seems as though the government would be sympathetic to the claims of the non-Orthodox groups at the Kotel.

Even though the government would probably wish to be more accommodating to the demands of the non-Orthodox lobby, and even previously agreed to their demands for an egalitarian prayer area at the Kotel, politics always seems to come first.  The current government coalition can only exist with the support of the ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset.  Upon hearing of the government's plan to accommodate an egalitarian prayer area at the Kotel, the ultra-Orthodox parties flexed their muscles and threatened to bring the government down if the plan was implemented.  Prime Minister Netanyahu went into survival mode, even at the expense of his relationship with US Jews, and acquiesced to the demands of his coalition partners.  At least for now.  American Jews responded in disgust by withdrawing their support for the Israeli government.

Does the Reform/Conservative lobby have a valid case in declaring open warfare on the Israeli government as a result of this decision?  The Israeli government has said that an egalitarian prayer area does already exist, but it is just not in the premier Kotel Plaza area.  The non-Orthodox lobby claims that this is not good enough, and effectively treats some Jews as second-class.  Their demand is to have the egalitarian area front and centre alongside the other prayer areas in the Kotel Plaza.  The battle is one of power and of wills. This is a battle between different groups of Jews, each of whom demands that their way is accepted, and with the Israeli government being called upon to act as referee.

Is the Kotel a Jewish national asset that should be required to accommodate all groups of Jews in a way that is to their liking?  Or is it an asset that belongs to the religious, as the holiest religious site in Judaism?  Does creating an egalitarian prayer area alongside the other areas serve to dilute its importance and religious status?  Is this issue important enough to be worth creating a rift amongst different groups of Jews?

I don't have answers to any of these questions.  And even if I did, I feel sure that the warring parties would not consider my point of view in formulating their reactions to the situation.  Of course, the Israeli government will always act in way that promotes its own best interests.  At the moment, that requires it to take the side of the ultra-Orthodox parties and freeze the egalitarian prayer area.

In my opinion, the situation requires tolerance and understanding by all parties.  It is natural to expect that the holiest site in Judaism should have some of the most stringent rules attached to it, and that Orthodox Jewish law should apply.  We live at a time, however, when Jews around the world should find reasons to unite, and not reasons to be in conflict with each other, especially over a site as central as the Kotel.  The ultra-Orthodox parties are not generally known for making efforts to unify different strands of Judaism, but it is never too late.  They should know that no man is in a position to judge another one, nor judge his interpretation of the religion.  So they should be taking the moral high ground on this matter in an attempt to accommodate the requests of the non-Orthodox groups.  Surely accommodating an egalitarian space could be acceptable, as long as they continue to have their separated areas?  The situation now requires unity and not conflict.  It is incumbent upon the parties to sit down, and find a compromise that will be acceptable to all.  Is this too much to expect?

Friday, 2 June 2017

Trump - Saviour or Poison Chalice

The visit to Israel by US President Donald Trump has come and gone, and the analysts will undoubtedly still spend some time considering their verdicts dissecting each aspect of the visit.  At first glance, the visit appears to have been filled with symbolism but short on substance.  Following a turbulent first few months in office for the US president, there are many who wonder whether his support for Israel is welcome, or whether it is turning out to be more of a poison chalice than a helping hand.

Trump has been openly and publicly supportive of Israel's position, even from before he was elected.  His high profile campaign promise to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has been the subject of much debate and controversy.  When his victory in the presidential election was revealed, the Israeli government (and many other Israelis) welcomed his election with the hope and expectation that this would change the anti-Israel bias within the US government and elsewhere that was such a feature of the Obama administration.  And changes have certainly been felt since his election.

The current atmosphere at the United Nations is entirely different from the one that ruled during 2016 and before.  Part of this change can be attributed to new UN Secretary General António Guterres, who is much less inclined to entertain the constant barrage of anti-Israel sentiment that prevailed under Ban Ki Moon.  Much of the change is, however, thanks to new US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley and the change in policy that she represents.  She has imposed the Trump administration's support for Israel at the UN in the strongest possible terms.  The days of raising frivolous anti-Israel resolutions at the UN Security Council are over for now.  The international community has understood that these will be vetoed by the US, and that there is little point in raising them under the current administration.  Haley has been vociferous in her condemnation of the constant attempts to paint Israel in a negative light.  There can be little doubt that the changes at the UN have a great deal to do with the new man in the White House.

President Trump's visit to Israel was highly symbolic.  He made Israel one of the stops on his maiden foreign tour since becoming president.  He visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem during his visit, becoming the first US president to make this visit while in office.  He emphasized to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that funding terror is not acceptable.  He reinforced the support that Israel will always enjoy from his administration.  In spite of this, he stayed clear of the key substantive issues confronting Israel and the region now.  He did not raise the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem.  No mention was made of the constant accusations against Israel regarding construction in Judea and Samaria.  Nothing was said about Palestinian claims to Jerusalem, or accusations regarding Israel's claims to Jerusalem as its capital.  His outward shows of support were all seized upon, recognised and appreciated by the majority of Israelis.  The lack of meaningful progress in getting Israelis and Palestinians to sit down around the peace table is what the international community has seized upon.

The issue that Israel needs to consider is Trump's overall standing within the USA and further afield.  It was clear before he arrived in Israel that Trump has many enemies at home, and that they are determined to keep him on the back foot by levelling all types of accusations against him.  Trump's own conduct in defending these accusations has certainly not helped his cause.  And Israel was dragged into the crossfire when Trump was accused of sharing secret intelligence received from Israel with Russia.  If true, this would be a serious violation of trust, and norms associated  with the sharing of intelligence information.

Distrust for Trump appears to be spreading rapidly within the international community as well.  Trump's recent appearances at the G7 and NATO meetings did not show him to be in accord with any of the other western leaders.  On the contrary, there are indications that Trump is being sidelined from the key international organisations.

Winston Churchill famously said, “Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.”  This is an art that Trump has clearly not yet mastered.  Even though Trump frequently says things that many people are thinking, he has not yet discovered how to say it in a way that does not create enemies.  While Israel has no particular issue with Trump's popularity (or lack of it) in the international community, there is a danger that Israel will be tarred with the same negative brush if she is seen to be too closely associated with Trump.

There is no doubt that Israel has already gained a great deal from the change of administration in the White House.  Trump's influence over US domestic and international policy towards Israel, and his influence over proceedings at the UN cannot be under-estimated.  Israel will certainly wish to see more of that in the future.  There is a danger, however, that the association with Trump could prove to be negative in Israel's relationships with other countries around the world.  If Trump continues to completely ignore the accepted rules of international engagement while representing his contrary views, he will quickly became a pariah in the international community.  And, even if Israel wishes to stay close to Trump to benefit from his supportive views and actions, the association with him may proved negative. 

The prime minister and the Israeli government has a tough job to navigate a careful path to take advantage of the emerging situation, without losing too much in the process.  Will Trump prove to be the good things for Israel that were predicted, or a poison chalice?  Only time will tell.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Damned If You Do, and Damned If You Don't

Much has been written and discussed about Marwan Barghouti's article in The New York Times, trying to explain why prisoners in Israeli jails have embarked on a hunger strike.  Most of the comments have surrounded the factual inaccuracies in Barghouti's statements and accusations against Israel.  Or they have questioned why The New York Times had the audacity to allow such subversive trash to be published at all.  My question is a different one.  I ask whether it is right that Israel should allow its prisoners (whether they are criminal or political prisoners) the freedom that it does, and that allows people like Barghouti to make such ludicrous claims in public?

It is somewhat ironic that Barghouti accuses Israel of operating an "inhumane system" in its attempt "to break the spirit of prisoners" and of "grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions against the Palestinian people", while still having the freedom to publish these accusations in The New York Times.  Surely this is a contradiction in terms?  If Israel was so intent on breaching the Geneva Convention, it would surely do more to ensure that prisoners do not have access to publish their articles in international publications.  Or at least opppose violations more vehemently than it has.  It is common knowledge that prisoners in many systems, even in countries that pride themselves on their democracy, are not allowed access to go unpunished when they publish their complaints and accusations in public.  And yet, Israel has hardly responded to Barghouti's article to punish him.

In many countries around the world, even in democratic countries, prisoners have significant restrictions placed on them.  This is even more true of those convicted of terror-related crimes, or who are considered the most dangerous after committing very extreme crimes.  In some cases, these restrictions can result in the opposite outcome of the one that the authorities hope to achieve.  In the case of Nelson Mandela who spent 27 years as a political prisoner in South Africa, his popularity grew substantially while he was in prison and isolated from the outside world.  He had no access to the media, and his likeness was not allowed to be published at all by the press.  Despite this, the campaign for his release only grew more over time.  The same was true of Prisoner of Zion Natan Sharansky when he was imprisoned in the Soviet Union.  Despite these examples, the act of isolating prisoners seems, in the most part, to keep them out of the public view.  This raises the question as to whether a stronger reaction to Marghouti would not be in Israel's best interests?

In spite of accusations of Israel acting in a racist way towards Arabs, and even being called an "Apartheid country", Israel values its democracy and freedom of speech almost above everything else.  And while security considerations are always of paramount importance in every situation, the notion of preserving democracy and freedom has a very high priority.  The Jewish people have suffered so much discriminatory behaviour over the generations that it would be anathema to have a Jewish country that does not embody democracy and freedom in every respect.  Even if it means being tolerant of those who seek Israel's destruction.

It seems as though the furore over the article has died down, and the hunger strike in the prisons has been abandoned by large numbers of prisoners.  It is ironic that some of the most important facts about the treatment of prisoners in Israeli jails seem to have been kept low-key in the whole uproar.  The system of housing prisoners in jails is well demonstrated in the list of the improvements that the prisoners are striking for.  These include;
- increasing family visits from the current 45 minutes a time, to 90 minutes a time
- increasing the frequency of family visits from once a month to twice a month
- allowing the prisoners an increased selection of TV channels in the prisons
- allowing the prisoners greater education facilities.
Comparing this to the way in which Israeli prisoners have been held by Arab states over the years seems a joke.  And yet, The New York Times sees it fit to cover this matter.  This hardly points to the systematic violations of the Geneva Convention that Barghouti accuses of.

With the story having almost burnt itself out, perhaps it was the right decision by the Israeli government not to respond more actively to the article that was published.  In Israel's case, the criticism seems to come whether she has done something, and equally when she has not.  Ultimately, we need to feel good with ourselves that we are doing what allows us to feel good when we look at ourselves in the mirror.  I believe that this is what has been achieved in this case.