Tuesday 14 April 2020

Leading By Personal Example

Attribution:  United States Department of State
 The problems that we have had in holding Israel's leaders to personal accountability is not new.  The notion that politicians are above the law and not subject to the same rules as everybody else is unfortunately one that pervades Israel's political system.  This has reached the highest echelons in the hierarchy with a former president and a former prime minister having already served jail time for criminal offences committed.  The current list of charges levelled against Prime Minister Netanyahu do not help in any way to restore our faith in politicians and their behaviour.

Against this backdrop, little should surprise me in the way of politicians and leaders misbehaving.  And yet, some things over the past few weeks have surprised me into giving this matter some further thought.  My disgust has finally reached levels that have compelled me to air my thoughts in public.
Attribution: Kobi Gideon / GPO Israel

I was absolutely horrified at the inaction of the ultra-Orthodox leadership on the issue of the Coronavirus, both in Israel and around the world.  While doctors, scientists and international leaders were pronouncing the necessity of social distancing as a way to avoid the spread of the virus and to save lives, the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community were imploring their followers to continue life as usual.  Their communities were advised to continue to attend wedding parties, brit celebrations, attend shiurim and study classes and to pray in a minyan, a quorum of at least ten men.  This extended even to Israel's Minister of Health, Yaakov Litzman, himself a follower of the ultra-Orthodox Ger Hasidic dynasty.  Soon after appearing live on the news laying down legal restrictions on the number of people allowed to gather in any place, he was attending wedding functions that hosted many more than the permitted maximum that he had earlier been responsible for imposing upon the nation.

By the same token, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, one of the senior leaders of the Israeli Haredi community, refused to consider the pleas of the civilian authorities for social distancing.  Instead, he instructed his followers to continue to pray in a minyan.  A number of weeks after the social distancing rules had been implemented in Israel, he was finally convinced to instruct his followers not to pray in a minyan.  In spite of this,  he was seen praying in a minyan himself at his home in Bnei Brak not long after that.  These life-threatening actions not only violated laws of the land that he lives in, they also directly contradicted his own instructions.  Perhaps, more tellingly, the act of endangering humans and taking action that could threaten human life goes against the highest-ranking principle in the religion of preserving human life at any price.

Prime Minster Netanyahu appeared on prime time TV on two separate occasions to prepare Israelis for the Pesach (Passover) holiday.  He told the nation that the government had taken decisions that would not allow Pesach to be Purim.  It was believed that Purim parties were attended by many carriers or sufferers of the Coronavirus, perhaps unknowingly, and were a source of many secondary infections.  The Pesach Seder is usually a time when friends and family gather together to celebrate the start of the holiday.  But not this year, said the prime minister.  "A small Seder is a healthy Seder", were his words on TV to convince people that they would be allowed only to celebrate the Seder at their registered place of residence and in the attendance of their nuclear family.  A full lock-down and curfew was imposed on the whole country to prevent anybody from venturing more than 100 metres from their residence on Seder night.  Police were deployed across the country to enforce the lock-down in the most determined manner possible.  Apparently, that applied to everybody except for members of the families of the prime minister himself and the president of Israel, who both hosted family members who were not part of their immediate household for Seder night.  Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman was also apparently exempt from the restrictions after it was alleged that he hosted members of his family at his Seder who do not live in his household.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman was forced to pay the price for his indiscretion having contracted the Coronavirus and passed it onto his wife.  He also succeeded in sending many members of the Ministry of Health into self-isolation to prevent them from the possibility of passing his virus onto other unsuspecting and innocent people.  Just at a time when the Ministry of Health needs all of its team at their healthiest, most available and strongest to fight the greatest health crisis in living memory.  And, while we wish the Netanyahu, Rivlin and Lieberman families good health in spite of their indiscretions, their actions are clearly unforgivable under the circumstances that we find ourselves.  Gushing apologies and excuses were naturally forthcoming, but this falls well short of the behaviour that we expect from our leaders.  We particularly expect more from those who stand in front of the TV cameras advising what people will be forced to do, at risk of fines or even prison sentences, then go about doing exactly the opposite themselves.  Leaders in earlier times were forced to resign and vacate their office for infringements far less serious than these.  I do miss the days of leaders who are held accountable and responsible for their words and actions.

This sorry episode demonstrates a two-tier system that spells future disaster for any country.  If the leaders are unable to adhere to the rules, how can they expect other citizens to do so?  The simple answer is that they cannot.  The leaders set the tone for how others will behave.  Actions speak louder than words, and it is impossible to expect that ordinary citizens will not follow suit in their actions too.  This ultimately creates an environment where the unacceptable will become acceptable by virtue of common infringement of the laws.  Time has come for a return to leaders who not only set the rules, but adhere to them as well.  If not, our society will unavoidably fall into decline.

Wednesday 8 April 2020

A New Modern-Day Plague

Image from calcalist.co.il
We are entering the Pesach (Passover) holiday in the midst of the greatest health challenge that the world has had to confront in living memory.  The Coronavirus epidemic has changed the world that we know in so many different ways.  It is almost difficult to see how things can ever go back to the way that they were a few months ago.

In Israel, in spite of having gone into lock-down at a relatively early stage of the outbreak of the virus, we are now having to deal with an infection rate in some ultra-Orthodox areas which is threatening to infect as many as one third of the citizens living there.  The government has already placed the city of Bnei Brak into a quasi-military rule in attempt to stem the further spread of the infection, and other neighbourhoods and towns are set to follow suit.  Much has been written about how it has transpired that the ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods in Israel, and indeed in other parts of the world, have become disproportionately infected by the Coronavirus.  Most of the theories range from the fact that this element of the population is disconnected from much of what surrounds them, including news media and online information.  These theories also discuss the fact that instructions are only respected when they come from the community's Rabbis, rather than from secular or governmental authorities.  And the fact that the Rabbis are generally reluctant to quickly assimilate the assessment of the civilian authorities, when they prefer to allow their religious-based responses to take effect.  In this case, the Rabbis ruled to keep schools, yeshivas and places of learning open when the government ordered them closed.  The Rabbis insisted upon praying in the presence of a minyan (a quorum of ten men) when the laws of social distancing implemented by the government prevented this.  Additionally, functions to celebrate weddings and other family events were ruled to continue when the civilian authorities decided that these presented a risk to life and limb.  One of the most recognised leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, 92 year-old Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, was found to be praying with a minyan at his home as recently as last week in spite of having finally publicly ordered his followers not to do so.

As a result of these actions and inactions, Israel heads into the Pesach holiday period with great uncertainty.  It seems as though the huge number of people who were recently diagnosed as suffering from the Coronavirus from the ultra-Orthodox community have set us on an irreversable track to a medical catastrophe that will result in tens, possibly hundreds of deaths from the virus in the coming weeks.  It is ironic that this is set to coincide with the first few weeks of the counting of the Omer (the 7 week period that links Pesach to Shavuot) during which it is traditional to observe rituals of mourning.  The reason for the observation of these mourning rituals is because of the events that took place in the first century AD when 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died in a plague.  It is believed that they stopped dying on Lag B'Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer.  In a strange but very sad and unfortunate déjà vus, we are on a path to relive this to some degree, although hopefully not nearly to the same extent.  The reason that is commonly given and widely believed for the death of Rabbi Akiva's students is lashon hara, the speaking of negative things behind people's backs, whether true or not.  Lashon hara is one of the reasons being used as a way to explain why the world is having to endure the effects of the Coronavirus.

There can be little doubt that lashon hara is prevalent in all communities, is undesirable and is a problem in our society.  It is a problem that has been in evidence over the centuries, and seems very difficult to control or reduce.  It has been used to explain the occurrence of many disasters in Jewish history over the centuries, including the destruction of the Temples.  To me, on this occasion, it seems too easy to use this as an excuse for the current pandemic that we are suffering, and to explain the deaths of those who are suffering from it.  It is simply not acceptable to explain this as being because of lashon hara, and not to take a deep introspective view about the community's general lack of adherance to the orders of the civilian authorities.

There can be little doubt that the leaders of the community chose not to take note of the deliberate and highly-justified restrictions that were quickly imposed on our society to retard the spread of the virus.  They decided, in direct contradiction, to command their followers to continue to behave as before.  Word went out to keep shuls operating when others in Israel were closed, to keep schools open when others in the country were closed, and to keep operating as usual without consideration of the instructions by which everybody else was living.  This indicates that the leadership knew exactly what the civilian authorities were ordering, and they took their own independent decision to ignore these orders.  The Israeli minister of health, himself a follower and Rabbi from an ultra-Orthodox sect, should have brought the government's message to the ultra-Orthodox leadership and ensured that they followed the instructions in the same way as all other citizens in the country were required to do.  Instead, he stands accused of ignoring these instructions himself, and attending public events at a time when this was expressly forbidden by the government that he is a minister of.  The fact that he is also now inflicted by the virus cannot necessarily be inferred from this, but it is certainly shameful that he did not take heed of his own government's instructions.  More than that, the fact that he did not take it upon himself to bring this critical message to all leaders within the ultra-Orthodox community will surely hang as a black cloud over his head when the final death toll is tallied.  This is equally true of all senior leaders within the ultra-Orthodox community, who simply chose to ignore and contradict the expert opinions that are unanimous in their views that staying home saves lives.

When the dust settles on this set of tragic events and things revert back to some semblance of what we knew before, it is my sincere hope that lessons will be learned.  It is difficult for me to believe that the ultra-Orthodox community will not be affected by what is happening in their neighbourhoods now, and the disastrous mistake in ignoring civilian warnings and instructions.  The tension between them and the democratically-elected government in Israel has been one of the enduring stories of the State of Israel from its founding moments, and the current evens have the possibility of changing all of that.  In spite of the tolerance that has been shown to the ultra-Orthodox community by successive Israeli governments, including exemption from military service, government funding in a significantly disproportionate manner, incorporation of ultra-Orthodox parties in government coalitions and many other leniencies and concessions shown over the years, the ultra-Orthodox community has incessantly battled against governments and civilian authorities.  There are many within the ultra-Orthodox community who do not recognise the existence of the State of Israel and its government, while still being willing to accept social benefits from the state.  The sight of members of the ultra-Orthodox community screaming insults at Israeli police and accusing them of being Nazis, while police were instructing them to maintain social distancing in order to protect their own lives, is part of this tense and unacceptable relationship.  If the events surrounding the Coronavirus cannot change that, it seems that nothing will.  It is my hope that one of the most important outcomes of the virus and its effects, is a change in the relationship between government and ultra-Orthodox.  And a general change in the relationship between the ultra-Orthodox and other sectors of the population.  There is enough space for all of us to live with mutual respect.  Are my dreams unrealistic?  I hope not.

 The leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community have been exposed and shown up during the course of this pandemic.  Their refusal to take heed of the advice of scientists and civilian authorities has cost some of them their lives, and has cost the lives of many of their followers.  It raises a real question regarding the direction in which their leadership is taking their community.  Their advice on many real-world issues must surely now be in doubt.  I hope that the new generation of leaders that rise up following this episode will never forget the failures of their predecessors, and will find a way to do things differently going forward.

Chag sameach.

Tuesday 13 August 2019

Why Does Iran Wish to Destroy Israel?

Part of the paradigm of accepted international diplomacy as it is presented today, is that Iran wishes to destroy the State of Israel and her people.  This is reinforced by the Iranian regime threatening to do so at every opportunity.  It has become a given fact, and everybody knows and accepts this situation.  It seems strange that there is no significant attempt to question the right of a nation to threaten to destroy another sovereign nation.  But more than this, there appears to be no attempt to understand what drives Iran to wish to destroy Israel.  The desire to conquer another nation, or the land belonging to another nation, is relatively common and can be explained in a number of understandable ways.  The wish to destroy a nation is entirely different, and I cannot recall another case in history where a country has been singled out for destruction in the way that Israel has been in recent times.  The fact that the world seems to allow this, and the fact that there would appear to be no logical reason for it, troubles me a great deal.

It is said that, in order to present the most effective defence against enemies, it is important to understand your enemies, their thoughts and what drives and motivates them.  With that in mind, I have been wondering why it is that Iran wishes to destroy Israel.  Given how common it is to hear Iran's threats of destruction, I expected to find much written and said about this in the literature and the press.  It turns out that it is exactly the opposite, and that there is very little written on the subject.  And I could find no convincing argument that explains why the Iranian regime has the obsession to destroy Israel  So, I have tried to formulate my own views and theories that I am sharing here now.

Many believe that Iran's hatred for Israel forms part of the Arab-Israeli conflict that has typified relations between Israel and the Arab world since the State of Israel was declared in 1948.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  In spite of Iran being a Muslim country in common with the rest of the Arab world, it is certainly not an Arab country.  As opposed to the Arab world that immediately launched a war when Israel declared independence, Iran recognised the State of Israel immediately in 1948, and was the second Muslim country after Turkey to do so.  Iran and Israel maintained close diplomatic ties until the revolution in Iran and the fall of the Shah in 1979.

Diplomatic relations were immediately broken off by the Islamist regime of Ayatollah Khomeini after the revolution, and Israel was labelled as the "Little Satan" following in the footsteps of the "Great Satan" which was the USA.  This seems to be the point at which the hatred for Israel really began.  Ironically, and in spite of the hateful rhetoric that emanated from the regime at that time, behind the scenes there was a great deal of close cooperation between Iran and Israel.  Much of this was driven by the 8 year-long war between Iran and Iraq.  Iraq was a common enemy of both Israel and Iran, and this created unlikely ties and reasons to cooperate.  Israel sold Iran vast quantities of arms and ammunition, in return for which Israel received Iranian oil.  It is believed that the Iranian air force continued to operate, after it was initially attacked by Iraq, only because of the assistance received from Israel.  Iran was also delighted when Israel audaciously succeeded in destroying Iraq's nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981 after the Iranians failed in their attempt to do the same.  The weekly insults and denunciations of Israel at Friday prayers by the Iranian leadership served conveniently to conceal the fact that there were no fewer than 100 carefully hidden Israeli advisers and technicians in Iran throughout the period of the war.

Since that time, Iran's leaders have continued to criticise, insult and threaten Israel at every opportunity.  And nobody has questioned for a moment why this is the case, and what justifies this vilification and extreme sentiment.  It has become a situation that simply forms part of the diplomatic landscape.  Can it be explained by Iran's hatred towards the USA, and the fact that the Israel is seen to be very close to the US?  It is difficult for me to accept that this explains all the public threats and the acts of terror that have been undertaken (and continue to be undertaken) against Israel.  Israel is not the USA's only close ally.  Why have other allies not been threatened for destruction in the halls of the United Nations in the way that Israel has been forced to endure?  And, while sentiment towards the US has wavered with different Iranian regimes (while always maintaining its negative bias), the hatred towards Israel seems unwavering no matter which Iranian president has been in power.  The threats against Israel have been the one pillar of consistency in Iranian foreign policy.  So I find it difficult to believe that this is purely driven by Israel's relationship and friendship with the USA.

The only explanation that I can offer to this extreme situation is the resurfacing of plain, old-fashioned anti-Semitism.  I use the term "resurfacing" because the Iranians/Persians do not have a long or consistent history of anti-Semitism.  The story of Purim that took place in Persia is a good representation of the relations that Jews and Iranians have enjoyed over the centuries.  While the king of Persia married a Jewess (Esther) and was prepared to take action to destroy Haman and his evil band for their anti-Semitism expressed against Mordechai, the fact was that anti-Semitism was clearly a common thing at that time.  In more recent times the Nazis declared Iranians immune to the Nuremburg Laws as they were considered to be pure Aryans.  In spite of this, the Shah and the Iranian government did not support the anti-Semitism of the Nazis.  With the rise to power of the Islamic extremists in Iran in 1979, we saw the rise to power of extreme anti-Semitism at a regime level.  Ironically, this anti-Semitism was not directed at Jews living in Iran as much as it was directed at Israel.  When Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in Paris to take up the leadership role immediately after the revolution, he declared, "We recognize our Jews as separate from those godless, bloodsucking Zionists" and he issued a fatwa decreeing that the Jews in Iran were to be protected.  This did not stop Iranian Jews from leaving Iran in large numbers.  The population of Iranian Jewry shrunk from around100,000 at the time of the revolution to around 50,000 in the mid-1980s, to around 25,000 in the mid-1990s.  Less than 10,000 Jews are left in Iran today.  Because of the "protection" afforded to Jews living in Iran, there are those who believe that the hatred that we see coming from Iran is not anti-Semitism, but anti-Zionism.  The problem is that the basis for this anti-Zionism is still unexplained.

In spite of the Iranians not being Arabs, they have enjoyed some ideals in common with the Arabs since the revolution in Iran.  The premise for the Arab-Israeli conflict is pure anti-Semitism.  The Arab world could not accept the notion of Jews living in the Middle East on their doorstep, and resolved to do all to destroy them and their state.  The holy city of Jerusalem has become embroiled in this war as a tool, rather than an end.  It is noticeable that no attempt was made to claim Jerusalem (and its Muslim holy sites) by the Arabs in the period prior to the establishment of Israel.  When the Jews took control of Jerusalem, and even in spite of granting control of the Muslim holy sites to the Waqf Council under the chairmanship of the King of Jordan, the Arab world and the Muslim world rose up to object.  Was their objection in favour of the Muslim holy sites, or was the objection against the presence of the Jews?  Everybody will reach their own conclusion.  What is clear is that Iran has firmly jumped on this anti-Semitic bandwagon.

Iran's brand of Shia Islam has been a huge source of conflict with the Sunni Islam practised by most of the Arab world.  In spite of this fundamental source of disagreement, they have found a common cause to fight against the Jews in Israel, to fight against the existence of the State of Israel and to use the claim of the holy city of Jerusalem for Islam as a means to their end.  The city of Jerusalem seems to be almost the only cause and rallying point that unites all different streams of Muslims around the world.  And, by extension, the fight against Israel, the Jews and the current regime in Jerusalem is equally a common point of agreement between them all.  Although distinct cracks are starting to show in this quest as individual Arab countries come to the realisation that Israel is going nowhere, and understand that cooperation with Israel may be a better option for them than fighting the futile battle of trying to destroy her.

The Iranians are, however, unwavering and unashamed in their battle against Israel and her people.  They continue to sponsor Hamas and Hezbollah, amongst other terrorist groups, that act as proxies for Iran to destroy Israel.  Iran is also responsible for numerous terror attacks orchestrated against Israeli and Jewish targets outside of Israel.  It's quest to build a nuclear weapon that could potentially be used against Israel is clearly a cause that any Israeli government will consider to be of highest priority.   So Iran has clearly not changed its mind, nor given up its desire to destroy Israel in any way.

My problem is that I am still not entirely clear why Iran wants to destroy Israel.

Tuesday 23 July 2019

Netanyahu Breaks the Record

Over the weekend, Prime Minister Netanyahu officially became Israel's longest-serving prime minister since the state was created in 1948.  And he could not have reached this historical milestone under stranger circumstances.

Netanyahu has achieved this notable record while currently governing the country without a mandate.  In spite of having been democratically elected to continue to rule the country in the elections in 2015, the most recent round of elections earlier this year did not produce any winners who could secure a mandate to rule.  A such, Netanyahu has remained in office as a caretaker prime minister until the next round of elections take place in September.  Without the support of the majority as required by our democracy.  And it is in this role as caretaker prime minister that he has overtaken David Ben Gurion's previous record of having ruled over Israel for 13 years and 127 days, in spite of the heavy cloud that hangs over his head.  He also holds the record as the prime minister to have the longest uninterrupted term as prime minister (10 years and 110 days and counting).

There can be no doubt or argument that Netanyahu has devoted much of his life in the service of the State of Israel.  Nor can there be any doubt about some of his significant achievements during this period.  Credit needs to be given for this.  As can be anticipated with any leader and public official, he has had his notable failures too.  And, as much as he would like to achieve the legacy of having been the protector of Israel during his term in office, it seems that he is likely to be remembered for the scandal that currently surrounds him, irrespective of how it ultimately turns out.  This is a real pity for the longest-serving prime minister in Israel's history.

Along with this record, come many unwelcome and undesirable effects of the length of time that Netanyahu has been in office.  "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."  This quotation by Lord Acton from 1887 seems as relevant now as it was then, and can easily be applied to Netanyahu in recent years.  He has behaved in a manner that indicates his sense of invincibility, that has only been strengthened by success that he has enjoyed at the polls.  The people gave him the power, but it seems as though this has been taken for granted as a result of it lasting for too long.  The feeling that he will have enough public support to rule irrespective of how he behaves, has led him to really test this out with behaviour by him and members of his family that is way beyond what could reasonably be tolerated from an elected leader.  It is no coincidence that other democracies, such as the USA, put a limit on how long the elected leader is allowed to be in office for.  I believe that such a limit is healthy and much-needed in Israel.

In addition to the promotion of unlawful behaviour, the lack of limit on time in office promotes another unwelcome consequence.  This is the lack of incentive to groom new young leaders to assume the senior positions.  In Netanyahu's case, he has done everything in his power to ensure that there are no pretenders to the throne who could possibly cause a threat to his continued rule.  He has no interest at all to ensure that a new generation of leaders is prepared to take over from him when he finally leaves office.  There is a huge chasm in his party and in the country at the moment between the current prime minister and those who may take over from him.  This is surely undesirable and unhealthy.

As a result of his extended term in office and the anti feeling that this has generated against Netanyahu, the upcoming election will ignore the main issues of the day that face Israel.  Instead of focusing on security, economy, education or health care, the election will be all about how to keep Netanyahu in office or, more likely, how to remove him.  The country is currently divided into three camps; those who support Netanyahu at any price, those who would vote for Mickey Mouse if he was a candidate only to remove Netanyahu, and those who feel forced to vote for Netanyahu simply because there is no alternative credible candidate.  This is surely not what our democracy is about.

Now that the record has been achieved and past, and Prime Minister Netanyahu has become Israel's longest- ruling prime minister, the time has come to change the laws to prevent anybody else from surpassing this record.  Democracy is not only about holding elections, it is also about ensuring that the best quality candidates are encouraged to come forward and have an equal chance of being elected on merit.  Our democracy is sorely missing this right now.

Saturday 13 April 2019

Crash But Not Burn

It felt a little like déjà vu on Thursday night.  My mind was transported back to February 2003 when the whole of Israel waited with baited breath as the Space Shuttle Columbia re-entered the earth's atmosphere with the very first ever Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon on board.  Despite feeling immense pride at the amazing achievements made by a tiny country and its first astronaut, the day was not to end well.  The space shuttle burned up during its re-entry to the atmosphere killing all on board in the process.  Ilan Ramon's memory remains a folk legend in Israel.  And so, too, there was disaster last night as Beresheet, Israel's first ever lunar craft, made its final approach to the Sea of Serenity.  Unfortunately another failure along Israel's route to becoming a superstar country in the area of space travel and exploration.  The quest to become only the world's fourth country to safely land a craft on the moon was not achieved yesterday by the Israeli lunar lander.

In spite of another setback for Israel in the field of space exploration, there were so many positive things that came out of Beresheet's trip to the moon that it is really difficult to see it as a failure at all.  Coming at the end of a week that also saw a general election that proved to be very divisive in many respects, it was heart-warming to see how the country and the Jewish world united in support of Beresheet.  Willing it to safely land on the surface of the moon.  Willing Israel to take up an important place as one of the handful of nations to achieve this.  This unified support was in such contrast to the previous few days over the period of the election, and would have seemed impossible only two or three days earlier.  This extended not only to those in Israel, but to Jews around the world.  We could feel a real sense of support from Jews around the world during the time of this project, something that is not taken for granted at all.

The fact that Israel became only the seventh nation on earth to send a spacecraft into orbit around the moon, is a huge achievement in itself.  And this was the very first project not sponsored by a national government, making the achievement quite unique.  This is a great response to those who use every opportunity to criticise Israel and to those who wish to destroy her.  This is the way to answer those who accuse Israel of being an apartheid state, and to demonstrate to BDS and its supporters that there is tremendous depth to Israeli ingenuity and huge desire to develop, to build and to make a real difference in science, technology and other fields.  This is the way to show that the Israel that is seen on BBC and CNN and that is castigated at the UNHRC, is not the real face of Israel.  Beresheet is a much truer face and a fairer reflection of what Israel really stands for and what she is truly about.  This shows Israel to be a nation that builds rather than destroying, and this stands in stark contrast to the lack of any positive achievements by many of Israel's enemies.

The attention that this project has drawn to the field of space travel and space exploration in Israel is almost on the scale of the attention drawn to it by Ilan Ramon and his exploits.  Surely, the interest of the next generation is almost assured in the process.  In spite of the slip-up at the final hurdle, young Israelis have been excited by this story sufficiently to ensure that they will be seeking ways of succeeding where Beresheet failed.  In the same way that we did not hear the last of Ilan Ramon when Columbia disintegrated and  he went on to become a household name and a legend, I am sure that we have not heard the end of an Israeli lunar landing.  It seems not to be coincidental that the name chosen for the spacecraft was Beresheet, the first word in the Torah with the meaning of "in the beginning".  Just as the name signifies, this seems to be just the beginning of great things to come.

Huge credit needs to go to the SpaceIL team, to sponsor and president Morris Kahn and to all those involved in the project.  They gave Israel and Israelis a dream and something around which to unite and feel proud.  And they gave thousands of Israeli children the little flame to ignite their interest and their desire and determination to ultimately succeed in the quest to have Israel successfully land on the moon.  This is a huge achievement and a very positive island in a huge sea of negativity that often surrounds Israel.

The Israeli flag and the Torah are on the moon.  They landed there with a crash rather than in the elegant way that we would have preferred.  But they are there to stay.  They may have crashed, but they did not burn.  A marker has been established, and this is certainly not the last that we will hear of Israeli ventures in space.  It is just the beginning.

Friday 29 March 2019

State Sponsored Anti-Semitism is Rife

Norwegian Attorney General Tor Aksel Busch last week decided that a comment cursing Jews, that was made by Norwegian Muslim rapper Kaveh Kholardi during a concert last year, is not anti-Semitic hate speech but rather legitimate criticism of Israel.  Kholardi made the comment "f*cking Jews" at a family-friendly concert in June 2018 to promote diversity.  It was not bad enough that Iranian-born Kholardi thought it was acceptable to make this comment at his concert.  This has been exacerbated by the fact that two different public officials in Norway have ruled that this comment does not constitute hate speech.  State Prosecutor Trude Antonsen found that,while derogatory and offensive, the remark did not constitute a criminal act.  This may well be the case under the laws of Norway, in which case the laws need some adjustment.  But the fact that the attorney general decided that this constitutes legitimate criticism of Israel, is perhaps more offensive than the original comment.

I am enraged by this decision for a number of reasons.  When a performing artist stands up at a public concert and says "f*cking Jews", it seems to me that his comment is clear and speaks for itself.  The fact that he may say afterwards that he was only joking does not unring the bell or make his statement any more acceptable.  Surely there can be no clearer example of anti-Semitic speech than this statement.  There is no interpretation required, and there can be no accusation that the statement was taken out of context.  Such a statement is anti-Semitic no matter what the context.  It is offensive, unacceptable and illegal in many countries around the world.

Why would anybody believe that this statement translates into criticism of Israel in any way?  Aside from the fact that Israel happens to be a Jewish state, and that many of the Jews there would be extremely offended by the statement, there is no link between this curse of Jews and criticism of Israel.  In my view, criticism of Israel may refer to particular policies of the government or actions of those acting on behalf of the state.  A blanket curse of all Jews in this way has surely nothing to do with legitimate criticism of Israel.  If, for one fleeting moment, I was to accept the fact that this curse was an act of criticism of Israel, could it in any way be considered to be legitimate?  I have my sincere doubts.  Just because I feel that the Norwegian attorney general has acted to embarrass his country and insult me and my people, I would not be justified to say "f*cking Norwegians" as a response.  And I would not do so.  Instead, I would be happier and more justified to say "f*ck Tor Aksel Busch for being an anti-Semite".

The notion that anti-Semitism can be justified and made politically correct by dressing it up as legitimate criticism of Israel needs to be opposed as strongly as possible.  It is becoming more and more accepted that anti-Jewish rhetoric and actions are OK because Israel is deserving of criticism.  It is equally common-place that anti-Semitism is expressed as criticism of Israel.  This legitmisation is reinforced when international bodies and representatives of national governments confirm its acceptability.  It should be clear that this is not acceptable, and that Jews and Israel will not tolerate it.  The fact that Israel gets involved in the protection of Jews and Jewish rights around the world, does not justify anti-Semitism being disguised as legitimate criticism of Israel.

Mr. Busch should be ashamed of his position and his statement on this matter.  He is clearly part of the problem, and not part of the solution.  It is shameful that people like him are left to be the guardians and judges of what is hate speech and what is acceptable.  This act requires the Norwegian government to fire him from his position without delay, and condemn him in the strongest possible terms.  The Norwegian government and Norwegian people should be embarrassed of this decision, and they become complicit by not acting to reverse it.

As Jews, we have come to expect anti-Semitic rhetoric from the general public, particularly those who come from backgrounds that typically hold an entrenched and natural hate towards Jews.  In recent years, laws have been enacted to protect us from having to tolerate hate speech, laws that also serve to protect other minority groups.  These laws become a joke if they are left under the auspices of people like Tor Aksel Busch to interpret and implement.  This effectively reinforces anti-Semitism at an institutional and governmental level.  The last time that this happened was in the lead-up to the annihilation of 6 million Jews as part of an anti-Semitic genocide sponsored by states and governments,  This will never be allowed to happen again, in spite of haters like Tor Aksel Busch.

Monday 4 March 2019

The Polish Dilemma

The recent diplomatic spat between Israel and Poland unfortunately raises a long, ongoing issue about Holocaust denial, and the denial by certain groups of their involvement n the perpetration of acts of genocide against Jews during the Shoah.  The Polish denial is already not new.  Israel finds it has something of a dilemma about how to respond to the unacceptable Polish position.

In early 2018, Poland passed a law that criminalised  any reference to Poland or Poles being involved or complicit in crimes committed during the Shoah.  In particular, the law criminalised use of the term "Polish death camps".  In essence, the Poles have denied that crimes committed on Polish soil during the Shoah were anything to do with Poland or Polish people.  Instead, the blame is being laid squarely at the door of the Nazis and the Third Reich, which occupied Poland at that time.  While the acts and influences by the Nazis is undeniable, there is also little doubt that Poles were complicit in some terrible crimes that were perpetrated in the Shoah against Jews.  This is true both in the death camps and ghettos that were on Polish soil, and in individual events that took place elsewhere.  Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, whose father was killed during the Shoah by Poles, adamantly claimed that "Poles suckle antisemitism with their mothers' milk".  This statement is considered to have significantly delayed the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Poland, but also shows the strength of his hatred towards the antisemitism shown by Poles.

The official Polish position on all that took place during the Shoah in Poland is that it was either perpetrated by the Nazis, or was perpetrated at the instigation of the Nazis.  This effectively absolves Poland and Polish people of any crimes committed against Jews, as the Nazis are blamed even for the crimes committed by Poles.  Why does Israel care about what Poland says now about acts that were committed more than 70 years ago?  Why does Israel feel that it has a dilemma about how to respond to Poland's position on Shoah-era actions?

Antisemitism is increasingly visible and rife around the world.  Much of it is dressed up as anti-Israel activity in an attempt to make it politically acceptable to express in public.  But the age-old antisemitism that was so prevalent in the years leading up to the Shoah and during the Shoah, is very visible again today.  And it is being too easily and broadly tolerated.   Poland is not exempt from this phenomenon, with highly visible signs of antisemitism evident all around Poland.  It is incumbent upon the Polish government to acknowledge and accept the actions of Poles during the Shoah as a platform to oppose it in the current day.  If Israel was to simply smooth over the role of the Poles during the Shoah, this would serve not only to insult the memories of numerous Jews and non-Jews who were killed or abused at the hands of Poles or where Poles were complicit or indifferent, but it would also serve to dilute the fight against antisemitism in Poland in the current day.

In spite of this, we cannot forget that there are more Poles who have been declared "Righteous Among the Nations" by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre, than any other nation.  This is a title bestowed upon those who helped Jews in spite of the overwhelming social pressures that influenced them to be antisemitic.  There is no attempt to paint the Polish people as universally antisemitic.  It is important to recognise both right and wrong.  The real dilemma for Israel presents itself in the form of the opposition to this by the Polish government that has an impact on diplomatic relations between the two countries.  Cordial diplomatic relations with Poland have helped Israel to educate many of its younger generation and young leadership by sending them to Poland to witness first-hand the atrocities that were committed at the death camps on Polish soil.  This education process culminates each year in the annual "March of the Living" during which Jews return to Auschwitz-Birkenau with Israeli Air Force planes flying overhead to proclaim "never again".  If this is all that Israel manages to get out of its diplomatic relations with Poland, it is a great deal.  And probably enough to justify maintaining diplomatic relations almost at any price.

The law in Poland has now been changed such that it is no longer a criminal offence to implicate Poland in the Shoah, but now "only" a civil offence.  The denial has been diluted in its severity rather than being cancelled, which is surely not enough.  This denial is unwelcome, and is supporting the resurgence of antisemitism in Poland, Europe and around the world.  The Polish government stands accused, once again, of being complicit to antisemitism.  And, while the Israeli government and officials will continue to speak out on this matter, this opposition is unlikely to be allowed to derail the diplomatic relations between the two countries.  With some justification.

Under current circumstances, I would forego diplomatic relations with Poland to protest their denial.  I would make a statement that requires Poland to recognise the role played by Poles in persecuting Jews, even if this comes at the expense of diplomatic relations with Poland.  I support Prime Minister Netanyahu in his insistence on taking the difficult decision to talk about this during his recent trip to Poland.  Anything less would be a statement condoning antisemitism.  Even though more than 70 years have passed since the Shoah, Poland should be forced to acknowledge the role played by Polish forefathers in this black period in Poland's history.