Wednesday 29 October 2008

She'll be Back

With less than a week to go until the 2008 US presidential election, the polls are currently pointing to a comfortable victory for Barack Obama over John McCain. The latest gap between the candidates is shown to be fairly large in view of the very close-run campaign thus far.

From the perspective of an outsider, it seems that Obama is not leading as much as McCain is trailing. Obama has played a safe game and made sure that he has not made any mistakes. His campaign appears to have been sure-footed and error-free without being startling in any respect. It seems that, instead of offering voters reasons to vote for him, he has offered them reasons why not to vote for his competitor.

From the external view, it appears as though factors beyond the control of the candidates will ultimately be the difference between them. The credit crunch and ensuing finanical crisis has damaged John McCain more than Barack Obama. It is my conclusion that this will probably be factor that gives Obama the White House ahead of McCain.

Each candidate's vice presidential running mate has made for some interesting analysis. In keeping with his "safe and steady" campaign, Obama selected Senator Joe Biden as his running mate. In truth, he has hardly been visable in the campaign coverage as the Democrats do all that they can to focus on Obama. In stark contrast, McCain chose Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin. She has enjoyed a great deal of media coverage, not all positive. She has contributed to McCain's campaign remaining highly visible in the media at all times.

Despite the obvious disadvantages that she comes with and the mistakes that she has made, Sarah Palin has made a positive impression on me. I like her feisty style and determination to continue with her job to the best of her ability despite many trying to trip her up and find another negative headline to write about her. True, she is highly inexperienced on the national and international stage. True, her teenage daughter's pregnancy could not have come at a more inconvenient moment for he mother's vice-presidential hopes. True, it did not help her when it was revealed that she was spending $10,000 a month of campaign funds on her clothing and beauty treatments. But she has still provided the best entertainment and has been a breath of fresh air in an otherwise very boring campaign. Her name is today internationally recognised whereas 3 months ago, nobody beyond the borders of Alaska had heard of her.

Once the campaign has been fought and lost, I find it difficult to believe that Sarah Palin will simply retire to the Governor's residence in Anchorage and go back to what she used to do. I think that we will hear more from this interesting lady in the future, no matter what the outcome of the 2008 election will be. I think that she has it in her to go back to the drawing board and to evaluate her strengths and weaknesses in light of her experiences over the past few months. She may know little about international diplomacy today, but she has plenty of time to learn what she is lacking. After all, at only 44 years old, she could easily go through an extended learning process and still be running in an election 20 years from now.

I think that we will see a lot more of this lady and, who knows, she may even break the ultimate glass ceiling in the USA and be the first lady to occupy the Oval Office. Watch out for Sarah Palin - she'll be back!

Monday 20 October 2008

The Problem with Akko

The recent outbreak of violence in the northern Israeli city of Akko (Acre) on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, gives a great deal of food for thought.

Akko is a seaside town in the Western Galilee with a rich history stretching back to Biblical times. It is considered the key to the Levant due to its strategic coastal location. During the War of Independence in 1948, a typhoid outbreak in the town led the Arabs to accuse the Jews of using biological weapons against the Arab population. Although this was never proved, Egypt executed Israeli soldiers that it claimed were responsible for this. Approximately three-quarters of the Arab population at the time, amounting to about 13,000 people, left the town when it was captured by the Jews and became displaced as a result. Akko currently has a population of just less than 50,000, approximately one third of whom are Israeli Arabs. Only about 15% of the current Arab population are descendants of the families who lived there prior to 1948.

The actual events on Yom Kippur of 2008 are reported to have been triggered by an Arab resident of Akko who drove his vehicle into a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood on the holiest day in the Jewish year. Those who have been in Israel over Yom Kippur will know that vehicles are not driven at all on this day, particularly in Jewish towns and cities. The driving of this vehicle sparked outrage amongst the Jews of Akko who then went on a rampage in response. Arabs were targeted in their attacks that lasted for five days, and were only brought under control when police reinforcements were drafted in from other areas. Arab residents of the town were forced to leave their homes as buildings were set on fire and homes gutted. People were also injured in the process. The annual Akko Festival, an important event in the town, was cancelled inflicting further economic hardships on the business community.

It is my view that both parties need to take responsibility for this embarassing and unnecessary chain of events. The Arab driver, who subsequently expressed profound regret for his actions, should never have been driving his vehicle into a Jewish neighbourhood on Yom Kippur. At best, it is a show of grave insensitivity and at worst, an act of intentional provocation. The Jewish response is equally unacceptable, particularly around the time of Yom Kippur when foregiveness is sought for sins committed during the previous year. To initiate a rampage that damages property and hurts people and their livelihoods amounts to thuggery and is intolerable.

So why does this happen in a town like Akko? Well, the problem with Akko is that it is a microcosm of the Middle East and represents everything that is wrong with the Middle East. This is a region where people, who otherwise may be tolerant, act in an intolerant way. This is where every action is assumed to be done in order to provoke other parties. This is where small genuine errors are not tolerated, and people feel immediately offended. This is where previous events have such a huge bearing on what happens today, that any small action serves to build upon years of pent-up frustration. This is a region which singularly lacks tolerance and mutual respect. In short, this is a region which requires the tiniest of sparks to light the volatile keg of dynamite. Every act by any citizen, as insubstantial as it may seem, serves to add insult to injury and seems to give the other party more justification for his next action. A never-ending cycle of claim and counter-claim, attack and counter-attack which ultimately helps neither one party nor the other.

As has been discovered during a 2,000 year history, there are no magical answers to resolve this conflict. I cannot pretend to have all the answers or even any of them. If I did, I would be writing more than this blog!! It seems to me, though, that the first stage needs to involve mutual and self respect. To respect one's self and fellow citizens is a basic human trait that appears to have become severely diluted, and even lost in the Middle East. How can we expect people to have any respect for the enemy when they are struggling to respect themselves?

If converted into Israeli terms, this would involve getting people to think about other fellow Israelis at least as much as themselves, and perhaps even more than themselves in everyday situations. This would work well when driving motor vehicles, when shopping in supermarkets and standing in line at the post office. Every situation currently causes people to feel like they are in a war zone doing their best to protect their own interests. Why is it that people cannot be honest and say "you were here before me", when in line at the bank? Instead, if you are not prepared to fight to protect your position, a hundred others would push in front of you. This consequently turns everyone into a combat soldier at the bank after they have been taken advantage of once too many. If 50 million people in the United Kingdom manage to get along with mutual respect, why can 7 million Israelis not achieve the same? Once we have perfected the art of respecting our own, it would make it much easier to consider the possibility of offering some respect to our enemies too.

It is equally true that our enemies could take some lessons of their own. When the Gaza Strip gains access to a limited amount of fuel, the first ones to take their share are the politicians and connected people. Thereafter come the hospitals, power generation plants and other emergency services. Needless to say, the ordinary man in the street never gets his turn. No small wonder that he feels escalating hatred towards the Israelis. For the Arab leaders, this is a good thing and they ensure that the man in the street feels just as angry, if not more, the next time any fuel is made available.

The concept of a parent offering a child (or anybody) as a suicide bomber to martyr him or herself in the name of a political cause is incomprehensible. This is surely lack of self respect at its very worst?

The longer this lack of respect continues, the greater the escalation of tensions between the parties. And to reverse a trend that has been running for decades and centuries is a little like asking an individual to stop a freight train with his bare hands. But we cannot give up on the dream of making this happen. Even small corrections and amendments placed in critical parts of the education system can make a difference. To achieve this, we need to have enough people who recognise what needs to be done, and are committed to making this happen.

Unfortunately, from where I am sitting, I do not see enough of these people or the required commitment. Perhaps, this is the problem with Akko?

Wednesday 15 October 2008

Some Parts of the World are Flat

The Jewish festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles) has arrived and, with it, the tradition of building a Sukka. A Sukka is a temporary dwelling that is constructed outside of the usual home, and is required to have a roof made of branches to reinforce its temporary nature. Jews are expected to undertake as many of their usual daily activities as possible in the Sukka over the week-long holiday, and it is from my Sukka that I am currently writing this blog (fortunately my wifi network extends to my Sukka). There are numerous symbolisms that are associated with this temporary dwelling, but suffice it to say that is a fun time of year in Israel with better weather conditions and increased interactions with friends and neighbours due to be being outdoors.

I was struck by an advert which I saw in the local newspaper last week. It appeared in all the local newspapers, Hebrew and English, as it does every year at this time. The advert was in the form of an invitation and requested the company of the citizens of Israel in the Sukka of the President of the State of Israel, Shimon Peres. The invitation stated that all citizens are invited to the President's Sukka, and provided details of the day and time that the public are invited to attend. Parking details were advertised along with the statement that one should bring an ID document or passport to secure entrance to the President's residence. Certain security details were also published.

During the course of reading this invitation, I wondered to myself how many other countries in the world would invite its residents to the home of the President. I suspect not many. I was also struck by how unsurprised the citizens of Israel are to see such an invitation. For the average Israeli, it is the most natural thing in the world to be invited to visit the Sukka of a friend or neighbour. I have heard it said that the President whilst being in an important position, is after all only human. So why should one not be invited to visit his Sukka as well?

This line of thinking fits well into Israel culture. Israel is a very flat society without any of the airs and graces that are common practice in other countries. It is a country where it is not out of place to call anybody and everybody by their first names, no matter who they are and who you are. Teachers in the schools are known to all students by their first names, even in the kindergartens and primary schools. Adults do not feel disrespected when a kindergarten child calls them by their first name on their first meeting. This is also true when adults meet others who may be in a position of seniority e.g. Prime Minister or President. Although it is acceptable to address the Prime Minister as Prime Minister of something similar, it is equally acceptable and usual to call him or her by their first name.

When a child addresses an adult as Mr. or Mrs., it does automatically indicate a level of respect on the part of the child. It often, however, indicates a false type of "respect" as it is also possible for a child to disrespect an adult despite referring to him as Mr. It is my view that allowing children and adults alike to refer to each other by their first names removes a barrier between them which promotes a different type of relationship between them. Communications between the generations is difficult enough without creating further barriers. I believe that a child can respect an adult even whilst referring to him by his first name. As always, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Israel, where all people refer to each other by their first names, is one of the flattest societies I have come across. It is a society where the most simple and uneducated people would not feel out of place dining and associating with those from the upper echelons of society. I believe that this is most certainly facilitated, at least in part, by the equality created by using first names.

I feel sure that the kibbutz movement has also had some influence on this characteristic of Israeli society. Kibbutzim were established as collective farms, and operated strictly according to socialist ideals. This naturally creates a very flat society where all people are equal to each other. The kibbutz movement has proved to be a financial failure, and most kibbutzim have been forced to adopt certain capitalist practices in order to stay alive. There can, however, be little doubt that the egalitarian principles, upon which the kibbutzim were built, have permeated into Israeli cities and towns.

The natural attempts by some elements of Israeli society to set themselves apart from the rest have been largely ineffective, and it remains an extraordinarily flat society. This sets it apart from most countries around the world, and particularly from British and American societies that have clear class systems and hierarchies, each predicated upon a different base.

The invitation issued by the President to citizens to join him in his Sukka accentuates two concepts. The first is the flat Israeli society which does not blink twice when invited to the President's Sukka. The second is the festival of Sukkot, which serves to bring everybody to a similar level when constructing and living in their temporary dwelling for the week, and which encourages the inviting of guests into your Sukka. Whilst being accepted as an annual event of no extra significance beyond other annual events, for me it is an outstanding symbol of a special and positive quality of Israeli society.

Sunday 5 October 2008

Justice for Deri

The District Court in Jerusalem ruled at the end of last week that Aryeh Deri should not be allowed to run in the upcoming election for Mayor of Jerusalem in November. This ruling is a victory for the rule of law and a defeat for corruption, so endemic in all levels of Israeli political life.

Deri, a former leader of the Shas Party and former Minister of Internal Affairs, was found guilty in 2000 on several charges of bribery. He was sentenced to four years in prison, which was later reduced to three years. He ultimately served two years of this sentence before being released in 2002.

When Deri was sentenced, the law that prevents citizens convicted of crimes involving moral turpitude from serving in a public position provided for an exclusion period of 6 years from the day of their release from prison. By the time Deri was released, the 6 year period had been extended to 7 years. This change formed the basis of Deri's appeal to the court, as a 6 year ban would have allowed him to run in the 2008 election. He put forward the argument that he should be subject to the laws in place at the time that he was convicted and sentenced. Any subsequent change to this affected him retroactively, and retroactive punishment is a concept not supported in law.

In dismissing Deri's petition to the court, Judge Moshe Sobel found that Deri was sentenced to 3 years in prison. If he had served his full term of imprisonment, even the previous period of 6 years would have prevented him from running in the upcoming election. His early parole, the judge ruled, could not have been foreseen. More important than this, the judge found that a crime of moral turpitude is not consistent with the moral level appropriate to holding public office. " Only when enough time has passed to blunt the impression created by a crime, will public confidence in elected officials be guaranteed", wrote Sobel.

Arye Deri was born in Morocco and arrived in Israel at the age of 9 years old. After receiving Rabbinical ordination, Deri was one of the founder members of the Shas party in 1984 under the leadership of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Deri's charisma was precisely the type of attraction that the party needed in its quest to assist and uplift Israel's religious communities that originated in Arabic Middle Eastern countries. The party saw this population sector as downtrodden and abused by the Ashkenazi European elitests, who have dominated the country's Knesset and upper echelons of society since independence in 1948. Shas set about giving this underdog community pride, assistance and representation at the highest levels. Grass roots organisations were established to provide practical daily help to the working class people by providing daycare, religious learning institutions for children and food programs at highly subsidised rates. This, in turn, provided the popularity to allow the party to hold as many as 17 seats in the Knesset in the 1999 elections. As is the case with many of the minority parties in the Knesset, Shas has managed to extract significant value from successive governments in turn for agreeing to join the coalition. Inevitably, its power in the coalition has significantly exceeded its number of seats.

Unfortunately, no fewer than 6 Shas Members of the Knesset have been convicted of crimes involving bribery, forgery, fraud and obstruction of justice to name a few. This seems wholly inappropriate for any Knesset member, not least one that represents a party that bases its ideology on religious adherence to Jewish law.

Whilst fully supporting Judge Sobel's decision, I only half agree with his judgement. I don't believe that there is any amount of time that can pass to guarantee public confidence in elected officials after being convicted of a crime of this nature. In this respect, I agree with Haaretz's Ze'ev Segal when he writes, "Weighing the possibility of changing the existing law, so a public official who has been convicted of a serious crime involving government corruption (one that naturally carries with it a mark of moral turpitude) is permanently prohibited from holding a senior public position, is seemingly in order."

Adopting a lifetime ban from public positions will certainly give a crime of moral turpitude the appropriate level of seriousness and weighting that it requires. Whilst it is true that people can change their ways and rehabilitate themselves, the question is whether the public can afford to have people like Deri back on their books to risk further inappropriate behaviour. I believe that, for elected officials, it should be "one strike and you are out".