Saturday 31 October 2009

Where to Draw the Line

I read an article entitled "Democracy check" written by Naomi Chazan and published in The Jerusalem Post magazine this weekend . In her article, Ms Chazan argues that the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin 14 years ago came as a result of a lack boundaries in Israeli democracy and society. She claims that increasingly threatening, aggressive and violent behaviour patterns have become commonplace and acceptable in Israeli society as a tool for people to get what they want.

While reading her article, I began to realise how correct she is. There are so many elements of Israeli society that are affected by this issue of lack of boundaries that Ms Chazan discusses. Even though she raises only negative aspects to this phenomenon, I have also identified one or two positives that arise from it.

The most basic and common behaviour that reflects lack of boundaries is the lack of personal space in Israel. Whether you are standing in line for the post office or withdrawing cash from an ATM machine, you can be sure to have somebody standing right on top of you. It also manifests itself when strangers look through your shopping trolley in the supermarket to ask your opinion regarding items that are there. Many even ask whether you should be eating something with so many calories. There are those who object to this sort of behaviour as being too intrusive and not respecting privacy and private space. These are usually new immigrants to Israel who find this type of intrusion totally unacceptable. Some immigrants find this behaviour endearing in the sense that it shows a caring and warm side of the Israeli culture. Even though people may be insulting you, they are doing it because they want to show that they care. People born and bred in Israel seem to find this completely normal and they know no different.

Israel is regarded as a place where laws, rules and prescribed methods of behaviour are all open to negotiation. This usually means that timid or polite people are considered "freiers" (the Hebrew word for suckers) and are the ones who wait in line patiently whilst more aggressive, persistent and convincing people seem to get away with pushing their way to the front of the line. These aggressive people are also the ones who get their own way in all other aspects of life, be it in business, when driving on the roads or other daily activities. It is unfortunate that this gives rise to the Israeli notion that the way to get anything done in this country is to "tip the table over". This literally means going along to the person who you wish to convince or who you require some service from, and remonstrate with them to the point of tipping their desk over until you get what you want. Usually, it works. This means that, the next time you wish to get a bank or government clerk to do something that may not be quite part of what they are allowed to do, you do what you know works best which is adopting bullying tactics. This notion clearly promotes aggressive and even violent actions, and breaks down the boundaries of reasonable and acceptable behaviour. This is handed down to the next generation when children witness parents and teachers getting their own way by bullying others.

The "lack of boundary" behaviour is clearly evident amongst our politicians. The lack of respect afforded by members of Knesset to each other, even on the floor of the Knesset, is a shocking example to Israeli adults and children. If this is the way that the society's leaders behave, what hope is there for future generations growing up in Israel who witness this unacceptable behaviour?

Despite the negative and often shameful behaviours that are seen in Israel, I am equally convinced that Israel would not be experiencing some of the successes that it enjoys if the boundaries were adhered to. A good example is the Israeli hi-tech industry which has developed and successfully sold some significant firsts. For example, the voicemail that most of us have on our mobile and fixed line phones was first thought of and developed in Israel. Similarly, an Israeli company was the first to produce a firewall to prevent unauthorised accesses to our private networks at home and at the office. It is no accident that companies like Intel and Microsoft have significant development labs in Israel. The fact that Israeli scientists and engineers refuse to be limited by restrictions that are regarded by others as insurmountable means that Israelis are producing new and improved products and technologies that would not be developed elsewhere. The lack of boundaries in society promotes free thinking and creativity in business and technology with astonishing results.

As is usual with such things, the real answer often lies between the extremes. In this case, it would be fantastic if we could ensure that boundaries are adhered to in our daily behaviour, whilst ignoring them in scientific or engineering developments. Inevitably, this is difficult to achieve.

Ms Chazan concludes that the lack of boundaries threatens Israeli democracy. There may be some element of truth in her contention. I find people who behave this way in everyday life to be intolerable. We cannot ignore, however, the contribution that this behaviour style has made to the building and successes of the State of Israel. Even though many of us find this attitude difficult to live with, it seems somehow to be an integral part of the culture of modern-day Israel. It will not change any time soon, so I am forced to focus on the positive elements of which they are many.

Sunday 25 October 2009

Health Care Israeli Style

The subject of health care seems to be in focus at the current time for a number of reasons. The Obama administration is spending a huge amount of time and effort trying to reform the US healthcare system to provide more affordable healthcare to a broader spectrum of people. This, added to the H1N1 pandemic that is sweeping across the world, and the significant burden that has been placed upon healthcare systems around the world has brought the issue of healthcare to the attention of many of us.

I had experience of the South African health care system and the British system before coming to live in Israel. Each system is entirely different from the others. The South African system works well for those who have medical insurance. The quality of treatment available to those with the right insurance is generally very good. Private doctors and hospitals and medication are used by those with the right insurance. The problem is that the premiums to cover the medical insurance policies are not within the reach of the average citizen. As such, first world medical care is available to the privileged classes whilst many others are forced to endure much lower quality of medical care, or none at all.

The National Health system in England is held up in many countries in the world as an ideal example of universal health care. This system provides a minimum level of health care for all citizens of the UK. The problem with this system is that it is overburdened and waiting times can be very long for simple appointments, procedures or operations. As a result, those who are able to afford private health care or who have insurance to cover it, prefer to get private treatment. This creates a type of two-tier system of health care, once again favouring the wealthy and leaving the poorer classes with inferior care.

The Israeli system is different, and quite an interesting way of providing health care. There are four health maintenance organisations (HMOs) in Israel. Every citizen of Israel should be a member of one of the HMOs. They are private organisations for the provision of health care to Israel's citizens. Employees have a health tax deducted from their salaries according to their earnings. The tax deducted is handed over to the employee's chosen HMO. This provides a basic level of health care of the employee and members of his family. Members of the HMO can also upgrade their membership to packages that give greater benefits to the members such as access to better specialists and better quality hospitals. Those who are unemployed have their health premiums paid by the National Insurance Institute. New immigrants are provided with free health care for a period of six months until they have managed to establish themselves and arrange their premium payments. Health cover is extended equally to all Israeli citizens, Arabs and Jews alike. All of this means that those who have even the most basic health package still have access to some of the best medical care available with reasonable waiting times. In addition, with the significant research and development that is undertaken in medicine in Israel, Israeli patients can be assured of the most up-to-date technology and medical treatment. It was recently published that Israeli patients have the highest rate of cancer survival in the world.

As a Diabetic, I am forced to make maximum use of the medical system of the country in which I live. I observed that my Diabetes was accepted by my HMO when I applied to them, and not excluded as a pre-existing condition. As such, I have fully coverage of all treatments relating to my Diabetes. The treatment that I receive in Israel is not only high quality, intensive and easily available to me at all times, my Diabetes is treated using the latest technology and in a high quality way.

The life expectancy for people living in my home town is over 80 years old for both men and women. This is the case for a country that is constantly at war and losing young men and women in wars and terror attacks. Most of Israel's taxes have had to be spent on the military to guarantee her continued existence, which has left much less funding available for medical and other expenditure. This is surely a remarkable achievement, especially for a country which has been in existence for barely 60 years. President Obama could do a lot worse than establish a similar system in the US.

Saturday 17 October 2009

Refusing to Serve

Israel is a democratic country, and I would be one of the first to defend its democratic principles. This includes the right to free speech even when the statements being made are illogical and immensely damaging to the state. These are my views about the statements made by groups of high school seniors and other objectors who speak out against being drafted into the Israel Defence Force (IDF), and carrying out their duty to serve their country.

Israel is one of the few countries in the world which has a compulsory military draft for both boys and girls. Boys are currently required to serve in the IDF for 3 years whilst girls are required to serve for 2 years. There is a good reason for this compulsory draft. Israel is a country under an immense existential threat, with more than one of its neighbours openly voicing the wish that Israel will be destroyed, and indicating the willingness to destroy the Jewish state and all its inhabitants given the chance. There can be little doubt that the IDF is the reason why Israel is still in existence today more than 60 years after its independence. More than this, the IDF protects the freedom and liberties of Jews around the world. I have stated on these pages on more than one previous occasion that I believe that the only reason why another holocaust has not taken place is due to the existence and the power of the IDF. With rising anti-Semitism around the world, the strength of the IDF will also be the only thing that will prevent a future holocaust.

The IDF does not provide any flexibility for conscientious objection against the draft. Objectors are tried in a military court and are usually jailed if they continue to refuse to serve. With the vast majority of Israelis having served in the IDF at one time or another, Israeli society has a strong relationship with the IDF. There is often a stigma attached to people who choose not to undertake their service, and they may find it difficult to further their careers or be accepted in the local society.

I find myself getting really angry at this time of year when the annual letter is written to the Prime Minister, signed by a "group" of Israeli high school students speaking out against being drafted to the IDF. The letter, this year signed by 80 students, received its fair share of press coverage. It speaks of their refusal to serve in an "occupying force" and in a force that treats civilians badly and makes life difficult for millions of others. Whilst respecting the rights of these students to speak out, along with other conscientious objectors including the so-called "Shministim" who have travelled around the world speaking out against the IDF, I do not respect their point of view nor the way in which they choose to express it.

Like the objectors, I would also prefer for the IDF not to have to blockade millions of civilians into the Gaza strip. I would also prefer for IDF soldiers not to have to establish checkpoints for civilians crossing out of the West Bank, and being forced to search each one before allowing them to continue on their way. The requirements to behave in this way come because of the experiences that Israel has been forced to suffer to date. The fact that Palestinian civilians are trying to smuggle explosives into Israel every day with the objective of killing and maiming Israeli civilians forces our soldiers to have to search each and every one of them. The fact that civilian areas in Gaza are being used to fire missiles towards Israeli civilians in a random manner, forces the IDF to respond to this threat accordingly. The style of the IDF's behaviour is not out of choice, it is out of necessity.

So our Shministim and their colleagues are happy to live in Israel and to be protected by the IDF, to allow them and their families to live a safe and free Jewish existence. All of this is OK as long as other people's children are protecting them, and are risking their lives in the process. Unfortunately, some of these people even die in the course of the service of protecting Israel including the objectors. The minute, however, it comes time for them to serve their country and to protect the families of those who have protected them, then they come out as conscientious objectors. This is the moment they choose to object to the "occupation". In my opinion, this is unacceptable.

Like in every large organisation, there will undoubtedly be soldiers in the IDF who behave contrary to the rules and in a shameful manner. These soldiers are dealt with accordingly. This fact is not enough of a reason for people to object to serving in the IDF. Without the IDF, we have no Israel. People who object to the IDF, object to Israel. In my view, people who refuse to serve in the IDF should lose their right to live in Israel. With a Jewish population of less than 6 million people, there is no room for passengers.

Whilst I am infuriated each time my attention is drawn to the conscientious objectors, I do manage to keep this in perspective. Thankfully, the vast majority of high school students are not only willing to serve in the IDF, they are keen and eager to play their role in the defence of Israel and Jews around the world. I have the privilege of being exposed to my son and his friends who are all looking forward to their opportunity to serve. It is a pity that these young men and women don't get the same press coverage as the objectors. They certainly deserve it.

Tuesday 13 October 2009

Soldiers Speak Out

The Goldstone Commission has brought into sharp focus the behaviour of the Israel Defence Force (IDF) during the recent Gaza War, Operation Cast Lead. It has questioned the culture of the IDF and the conduct of individual soldiers in carrying out their orders.

Goldstone has painted the IDF as an army without morals. He has depicted it as a force that purposefully pursues civilian targets in the worst case or, in the best case, disregards the consequences on civilians of the actions it takes. Those of us who are closer to the daily activities of the IDF know that nothing could be further from the truth. We know that the IDF is an organisation that often takes risks to protect enemy civilians even though this could risk the lives of Israeli soldiers and civilians. How can it be that Goldstone and his associates do not see this. After all, comparing the behaviour of Hamas to that of the IDF is like comparing day to night.

I have been sent details of an interesting website that illustrates this point (thanks Ivan). The website - Soldiers Speak Out - carries the testimonies of various Israeli soldiers from their combat experience. Some of the stories worry me because it sometimes seems that the care for the enemy civilians far oversteps the line of reasonableness. In some of the stories, the risks to Israelis by protecting Palestinian civilians was far too great. In my view, the IDF is there to protect Israelis in the first instance, then consider the protection of Palestinian civilians. On the other hand, I gained great strength from realising that the IDF has morals, has a conscience and a heart. This is both at an institutional level as well as at the individual level. Even though the job of a soldier demands a certain amount of heartlessness, the IDF has shown that it is not required to lose your humanity to do a good job as a soldier. In fact, sometimes being human adds to the qualities of a soldier.

Please go to the website and please listen to the stories. It is important to show just how wrong and unjust the Goldstone Report really is.

Saturday 10 October 2009

Three South African Jews and the Gaza War

A side story arising from the Goldstone Report on the Gaza War has run in newspapers in certain parts of the world. The story surrounds the role played by Lt. Col. David Benjamin, an Israel Defence Force (IDF) reserve officer serving in the Military Advocate General's office during Operation Cast Lead. In these stories it is alleged that Benjamin committed war crimes in this role during the Gaza War.

I have known David Benjamin since we were at university together in Cape Town during the late 1980s. We were both leaders in different Zionist youth movements encouraging the Jewish children in South African to identify more strongly with their Judaism, and with Israel as the Jewish state. After completing his law degree in South Africa, he moved to live in Israel. Soon after making aliyah, Benjamin joined the IDF where he held many legal positions during the time of his service. He ultimately was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel when serving in the Military Advocate General's office as the head of the international law department. Although he had already resigned from the IDF prior to the outbreak of Operation Cast Lead, he is reported to have returned to his former position in the Military Advocate General's office during the Gaza War.

So why the focus on Benjamin? After all, he was not the Military Advocate General. Surely any accusations of war crimes directed against lawyers who advised field commanders as to what actions were allowable should be directed against the legal chief rather than somebody like Benjamin?

The twist is in the fact that Israel did not sign up to the 2002 Rome Treaty that brought the International Criminal Court into existence. As such, the ICC does not have jurisdiction to indict its citizens. South Africa, however, did sign up to the Rome Treaty. When Benjamin immigrated to Israel, he retained his South African citizenship whilst taking on Israeli citizenship. By virtue of the fact that he is still a citizen of South Africa, Benjamin falls under the jurisdiction of the ICC. It is claimed that the ICC in the Hague had been alerted to this fact by various pro-Palestinian groups and had begun an investigation into Benjamin's role in committing "war crimes". This was initiated following an interview that Benjamin conducted with In this interview, he confirmed that the international law department was intimately involved in the planning of the Gaza War.

An opportunity to act further on this case presented itself when Benjamin travelled to South Africa after he was invited by the South African Jewish community to attend a conference on international law during war time. During his trip, South African prosecutors were asked to open an investigation that Benjamin had committed war crimes. In order to avoid any confrontation, Benjamin departed South Africa earlier than he had planned.

Whilst this opportunistic behaviour is no less than could be expected from those whose sole purpose in life is to damage and discredit Israel at every opportunity, some of the responses by members of the South African Jewish community were less than acceptable. In particular, the remarks issued by the director of the conference, Professor Dennis Davis, were shameful. Davis is a district court judge in South Africa and a lecturer in international law at the University of Cape Town. Davis is an outspoken and active member of the Jewish community in Cape Town and formerly had Benjamin as a student in his class when he was a law student. Davis spoke out against the comments made by Benjamin at the conference that Israel did not commit war crimes. Davis is quoted as saying that if Benjamin was still a student in his class, he would fail him!

It is not enough that a Jewish South African called Richard Goldstone is responsible for publishing a report into the Gaza War that does not attempt to reflect the extremes to which
Israel went in order to fight a war of necessity in a fair and moral way. His report accuses Israel of war crimes, and recommends the indictment of Israelis on these charges. We now have a Jewish South African judge in the form of Dennis Davis who adds insult to injury by going further than Goldstone in singling out an individual like Benjamin on such crimes.

Although both Goldstone and Davis are great legal minds, unfortunately their legal acumen is misguided in this case. There is no harm in holding Israel and the IDF responsible for its actions when these actions are independently contrary to accepted norms and standards. In the case of the Gaza War, however, the extremes to which the IDF went in order to protect the innocent civilians despite the despicable behaviour of Hamas in trying to exploit this fact, is deserving of commendation and not criticism. The time has come to speak out in favour of the wonderful job done by Benjamin and his colleagues. The time has also come to speak out against Goldstone, Davis and other self-hating Jews. I am ashamed to be a South African Jew when I am classed alongside such individuals.

It is my fear, with the increasing threat to Jews around the world and in South Africa, that the Jews living outside of Israel will be forced to turn more and more towards Israel to protect them and their Jewish heritage. Perhaps this is what is required for individuals like Goldstone and Davis to recognise the wonderful job done by Benjamin and other soldiers in the IDF to protect Jews and Jewish freedom around the world. It is a shame that certain Jews in the diaspora still cannot appreciate the value of the risks taken and sacrifices made in Israel to keep them safe wherever they are. Be assured that, in the unfortunate event of a Jewish emergency anywhere in the world, Israel will always take seriously its responsibility to protect and provide a safe haven for all Jews, even those who have turned their backs on Israel during a time of need.

Saturday 3 October 2009

How Do We Respond to the Gilad Shalit Video?

The release of a video clip of captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, by Hamas on Friday has given the Israeli government and Israeli public much to think about. It is the first real sign of life provided by Hamas since Gilad was captured more than 3 years ago. But should we read any significance into this first sign of life? Is there anything that we should interpret about the timing of the release of the video?

The release of the video came on the eve of the Jewish festival of Tabernacles (Sukkot). One of the symbols of the festival is the four species which are taken and blessed on each day of the festival. Each one has different characteristics and the significance of making the blessing on all four of the species is that all individuals in the Jewish nation are important, irrespective of their characteristics. This message is extremely important in the context of Gilad Shalit. He is an important part of Israel and the Israeli people, and has not been forgotten by his parents, friends, ordinary Israelis and government ministers alike. That one individual can capture the attention of an entire nation is entirely consistent with the message of Sukkot.

Where does the release of the video sit in the process of the negotiations for the release of Gilad? There have been various attempts to try to play down the significance of the release of the video. Messages from Hamas, the Israeli government and the Shalit family have all indicated that the public should not anticipate any further significant news on the back of the release of the video. There have also been conflicting messages from each of the parties, at least expressing hope that this act signals possible progress in the negotiations for his release.

To me, it is clear that such an act does not take place in a vacuum. It is obvious that Prime Minister Netanyahu was eager to show some early visible progress in the negotiations for Gilad's release. Even though the release of a video is far from gaining his release, it is more progress than has been shown to date. So Netanyahu will chalk this up as something of a success for himself. I see this act as more than a simple success for Netanyahu. I can imagine that the Israeli side, with help from the unnamed German negotiator, will have said to Hamas that there seems little point in continuing to discuss lists of names of Palestinians who may or may not be released in any deal if the Israelis cannot be sure that Shalit is still alive. So, as part of the larger process, a sign of life is critical. Prisoners were even released in exchange for the video, so this seems to be an initial step in wider negotiated deal. It may be true that the next steps are still not fully agreed, but this certainly feels part of a process.

More important than all of the above is the fact that there would seem to be a channel of communications open, facilitated by the Germans and the Egyptians. This channel has also demonstrated itself to be working, as evidenced by the receipt of the video. It is ultimately this successful channel that will bring Gilad home. For this reason, I have been delighted to see the arrival of the video. I am sure that it also brings some comfort to his family, especially during the festival of Sukkot.

The history of this sad case forces me to be cautious in my optimism that Gilad will be released any time soon. I cannot help, however, feeling more optimistic now than at any time in the past since his capture. It is his safety and the well-being of his family that are foremost in my mind. I trust that they will be taking strength from recent events. For the sake of Gilad and for that of his family, I sincerely hope that my optimism at this time will prove to be justified. I know that the Israeli public is with me in this hope.