Sunday 28 November 2010

Shas Shows its True Face

Two interviews published in local newspapers with ultra-orthodox Shas member of Knesset Chaim Amsellem have served to publicly expose some of the inner workings and beliefs of the Shas parliamentary party in a way not previously seen. Although operating within a democratic environment, the religious parties in the Knesset have a distinctly undemocratic way of working, and this has been challenged in the open by Rabbi Amsellem.

Israel's proportional representation system requires each party contesting Knesset seats to submit its list of prospective members of Knesset prior to any general election. The way in which the order of the names on the list is determined varies from one party to another. In the case of the non-religious parties, democratic primaries are held in which party members vote for those who wish to be placed on the list. The position the list of each prospective member of Knesset is determined by the results of the party vote. In the case of the ultra-orthodox Haredi parties, and the Shas party in particular, the list is drawn up by the "Council of Torah Sages". In the case of Shas, this is a council headed by the party's spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and includes rabbis and "wise men" who are members of Yosef's inner circle. Their decision is final and no appeals against it are offered. This council represents the final word on all major issues concerning the party, including decisions about participation in a coalition and policy on many important issues. It is remarkably undemocratic in its workings considering the democratic environment in which it operates.

The rebel Shas member of Knesset came out criticising some of the policies followed by Shas in a newspaper interview conducted a few weeks ago. In his interview published in Israel's Ma'ariv newspaper, he condemned strictures against conversion, growing joblessness and army evasion among yeshiva students and an absence of non-religious education for children. These criticisms amount to an attack on the very foundations and beliefs of the ultra-orthodox world. Their type of Jew is one who will study religious texts as a vocation in order to promote the religion in the most literal sense. This means that there is no need for secular education at schools - there will be no use for subjects that are not focused on the religion in their ideal world. In addition, young men and women are encouraged not to enlist for the army, but rather to attend yeshiva where they will further their religious education. This also sets the pattern for their future lives as young men are encouraged to remain for the rest of their days in this religious framework at yeshivas studying the religious texts. They are able to gain exemption from the army via a special deal struck between the state and the religious institutions many years ago. They are able to continue studying at yeshivas thanks to stipends granted to them out of government money, to allow them to continue their religious learning indefinitely.

Amsellem has recognised the effect on Israeli society of following this policy, which has resulted in a dramatic growth in the number of yeshiva students in Israel. Limiting the education at primary and secondary school level ill-prepares young people for the challenges of daily life, irrespective of the vocation chosen. The policy also reduces the number of young men and women enlisting in the army. In its current situation of being constantly under threat of attack, Israel needs all the soldiers it can get. Once these young men and women get married and begin to raise children, there is an increasingly unmanageable burden on the state arising from the responsibility to fund their stipends without receiving any contribution in return from employment.

To add insult to injury, it turns out that many of the young yeshiva students are not suited to religious study and have no desire to pursue it. There seems to be no exception for these young people, and they are forced to toe the line and be squeezed into the religious framework despite the obvious problem that they have no place there. The ultra-orthodox system does not make allowances for these young people to find alternative vocations and paths for development, where they may seek a more appropriate way for them to make their contribution to society. Chaim Amsellem was speaking out not only against the sausage machine system and uniform path expected from all Haredi young people, he was also speaking out in favour of directing these people towards a life that will allow them to have a useful place in society. This does not mean that they will be forced to leave the religious fold. On the contrary, their religious convictions may be strengthened by virtue of the useful contribution that they can make and the happier place they can have in society.

Unfortunately, the Shas leadership does not view things in the same way as Rabbi Amsellem. They were particularly unhappy about the manner in which he expressed his views, and the Council of Sages decided to expel him from his Knesset seat and from the party. By choosing him to be one of their members of Knesset, they expect him to toe the line. Failure to do so gives them the right to remove him from the list, and they did not hesitate to take action. Amsellem, however, took his rebellion against the party hierarchy to the next stage and has refused to relinquish his seat. Together with this, he issued his harshest criticism of the Council of Torah Sages yet. He expressed the view that each Knesset member should have the right to speak his or her mind, and that the upper echelon of spiritual leadership should be sticking to its role in the religious world and should not be meddling in politics. He accused the party's leadership of trying him in a "kangaroo court" where he had no opportunity to present his own views or defend his position.

Support for Rabbi Amsellem's position has not only come from the secular world. It seems that there is an increasingly large constituency of Shas supporters who agree with his view, but may be afraid to express it. Amsellem has now given these people a voice to express their opinions and frustrations. While many of them may not be minded to challenge the revered position of the Council of Torah Sages, they would be delighted to be given an opportunity to find a vocation that can give them a useful position in society that can bring greater value to themselves,their families and the State of Israel.

In dealing with Amsellem's revolt in this way, the Shas party hierarchy has shown its true colours. While working for the benefit of its own constituency and special interest group, the Shas party frequently works against the better interests of the State of Israel and her people. A country of little more than 6 million people cannot afford to carry passengers who do not serve to defend the national security of the country, nor contribute anything to her economy while all the time sucking on the state coffers. It is my hope that Rabbi Amsellem can succeed, not only in hanging onto his Knesset seat, but also in mobilising similar thinking people within his community to change the face of Shas and other ultra-orthodox parties alike.

Sunday 21 November 2010

How Relevant is NATO to World Security?

Member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) have been meeting in Lisbon over the past few days. This meeting of member countries is regarded as one of the most important meetings of NATO in recent times, as its purpose has been to define a new mission statement, and to sign up to a new strategic doctrine for the next decade. But how successful has NATO been in addressing the real security needs of its 28 member states, and how relevant is NATO in our current world order?

NATO came into being as an organisation for military cooperation in 1949, when the first 12 member states from Western Europe, Scandinavia, the USA and Canada signed an agreement in Washington DC. The parties agreed that an armed attack on one or more NATO members in Europe or North America would be considered an attack on all members. Under such circumstances, all member states would be obliged to assist the member under attack, although the nature of the assistance was left quite vague. It did not necessarily oblige member states to respond with military action against the aggressor in helping its fellow NATO members. This key concept was articulated in Article 5 of the NATO charter.

In the early years of NATO, it proved valuable in forging cooperation between the defence forces of the member states. This allowed for the standardisation of many pieces of equipment in use, and many processes and practices employed by the military. It created "best practice" across many military forces. NATOs first real test as an organisation came with the Korean War in 1950. The threat posed by the Communists forced member states to make available a NATO force, and the forced the organisation to formalise the way in which it ran itself. The Soviet Union was refused membership of NATO in 1954, and this resulted in the USSR setting up its own rival to NATO. The establishment of the Warsaw Pact to stand up to NATO laid the groundwork for the Cold War, which lasted until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. NATO's first Director-General, Lord Ismay, once famously stated that the organisation's goal was "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down". The Warsaw Pact was eventually dissolved in 1991, thereby removing NATO's main adversary and perhaps part of its reason for existence.

The collapse of the Soviet Union has brought into question NATO's relevance in the modern era of conflict and military threat. NATO took an active role in the Balkans War where NATO forces operated against the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The attack on US soil on September 11, 2001 resulted in NATO invoking Article 5 of its charter for the first time in its history. The attack on the US was considered an attack on all NATO members, and NATO responded by joining US forces in the war in Afghanistan. This war has occupied NATO for the last decade.

The Lisbon meeting seems to have been dominated by concerns of NATO members as to how their forces can be extricated from the quagmire of the war in Afghanistan. Afghan president Hamed Karzai also attended the NATO meeting to engage in this discussion. The difficulty in the relationship between NATO and the Afghan government was reflected in a difficult meeting earlier in the week between Karzai and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus. Karzai has expressed concern about certain tactics employed by NATO forces on the ground in Afghanistan. Although the war in Afghanistan has cost NATO member countries huge sums of money to support and significant loss of life to its soldiers, it has at least provided some relevance to NATO as an organisation over the past decade. This relevance is waning, and could run out completely with the approach of the the targeted withdrawal date of NATO forces from Afghanistan in 2014 or 2015.

To help define NATO's role in the future, NATO asked former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, to assemble a committee of experts and to draft recommendations for NATO's strategy over the next ten years. The Albright document makes interesting reading, not only for what it does say, but specifically for what it does not. In my view, it is far too bland and reflects a lack of willingness to tell things as they really are. In following this path, NATO runs the risk of being irrelevant and not addressing the real security and military risks confronting its member countries.

Interestingly and tellingly, the Albright committee document is indirect and weak when addressing the threats on NATO members arising from the Middle East. Although there is a reference to Israel's conflict with the Palestinians and her other neighbours, Albright's document calls upon NATO to be involved by adding value to dialogue groups in the region. This is tantamount to avoiding the issue at all. Considering that many security experts have gone as far as labelling this conflict as having a substantial impact on the stability and security of the free world, the recommendation of the NATO experts is surprising. More than this, the experts call upon NATO to help to implement a peace agreement consistent with conditions that have been laid down. There is no reference to playing a role in getting to this agreement. Is this something that does not interest or affect NATO as an organisation?

Most interesting of all is the way in which the nuclear threat posed by Iran is addressed. The document simply says that the allies should be open to discussion with its partners on the implications of a possible nuclear breakout by Iran. Surely, this is the world's greatest military and security threat. Considering the fact that most NATO members are situated in Central and Western Europe and, fall quite neatly into Iran's missile range, it is my view that NATO is simply ignoring the greatest threat to its member countries and to world peace. When adding to that its unwillingness to recognise the threat posed by Iranian proxies in the Middle East in the form of Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and others, NATO risks making itself completely irrelevant to its member states. One of the requirements for membership of NATO is that members must be democratic countries. As the only democratic country amongst a sea of nations seeking the downfall and destruction of NATO members, Israel is surely a natural ally and partner for NATO. Ignoring this fact risks the relegation of NATO to the trash heap of history.

One of the driving forces behind this policy of ambivalence is surely Turkey's membership of NATO. Once, Turkey was a critical member of the organisation in that it gave geographical access to locate missiles in critical positions to counter the threat of the Warsaw Pact. These days, Turkey's position on the world political stage is much more threatening and less in line with its NATO allies than ever before. Having had its approaches for membership to the European Union rebuffed, Turkey is increasingly moving into the clutches of its ally Iran. Both countries share the fact that vast majority of their populations are Muslims. Previously this was not a major factor, and now it is not politically correct to point it out. The truth, however, is that this is an increasingly important issue when evaluating the military and security risks of the modern world. Turkey has shown its true colours in recent months by working in NATO to prevent the sharing of critical security information with Israel. Such an act weakens the security of the vast majority of NATO members, and shows that Turkey's continued membership of the organisation, while moving increasingly closer to Iran, is a direct conflict of interests.

Since it came into being in 1949, NATO was never really called upon to exercise its main objective as set out in Article 5. Even though the article was invoked in 2001 for the first time, the circumstances in which the article was exercised were completely different from the situation that was envisaged 60 years ago. The attack on a NATO member was not by the army of a country, but by the army of a renegade terrorist group representing one of the world's major religions. NATO may now have agreed upon its strategy for withdrawal from Afghanistan, but it has failed to show what relevance the organisation will thereafter. The threat from Russia is long gone, and NATO now has the chance to establish itself a strong position in protecting its members from the Islamic threat. Attacks on London, Madrid, New York, Washington and other locations on the soil of NATO countries have already shown NATO to be ineffective against this threat so far. There is still time to respond to it by recognising the problem and taking actions to protect members against it. Failure to do so will, however, prove NATO's irrelevance, and ultimately spell the end of the organisation.

Sunday 14 November 2010

A Country Amongst the Nations

A family tragedy in my home town of Ra'anana has shocked Israel to its core, and reopened many questions about pressures under which people live in this country. The story involves two young girls aged 4 and 6 who were found dead in the flat in which they lived. The person under suspicion for strangling these two young girls is none other than their own mother. The events have left me feeling so shocked that I have been forced to delve deep into myself to try to rationalise how this could have happened.

The phenomenon of parents killing their own children seems, unfortunately, to be on the increase around the world and in Israel. The pressures of modern life along with a lack of coping mechanisms has ensured that more and more people see no alternative solution for their families. There can be no doubt that anybody who goes to such an extreme is suffering inordinate pressure, and probably some form of insanity. Quite frequently, this is also accompanied by the suicide of the murderer, and sometimes also the murder of the other parent. Most family murders are committed by the father of the family, which makes the Ra'anana tragedy even more horrific. The awful nature of this crime comes as a shock to many inside and outside of Israel, who have a different expectation from a Jewish country.

When Israel was established in 1948, it was expected that it would be an extension of a Jewish neighbourhood in Europe or America. All of the regular Jewish stereotypes came to the fore when anticipating the character of the Jewish country. It was expected that there would be an oversupply of accountants, doctors, musicians and scientists while there would be a shortage of farmers, bus drivers, carpenters and electricians. There was a notion that the worst crime that would be committed in the nascent Jewish state, would be that of over-eating! Most of those who had come into contact with the Jewish community in Europe, the USA and other countries knew Jews as white-collar workers whose mothers were more concerned about them getting a good university education than anything else.

As always, the Jewish stereotypes arose out of necessity. For many years in Europe, Jews had been prohibited from engaging in certain professions and taking on particular jobs. The Jewish spirit never gave up, and mothers insisted that their children received a good education wherever possible, as "they could never take this away from you". Jews did whatever they could to stay alive including trading and money-lending. These skills, born out of lack of alternative, ultimately gave rise to some of the world's greatest and best-known companies including famous names such as Rothschild's Bank, Salomon Brothers and Marks & Spencer. Even though these behaviour patterns gave rise to Jewish stereotypes, they showed that Jews could be adaptable, and were prepared to do whatever it takes in order to stay alive.

This survival spirit showed itself when Israel came into being, and served to defy those who expected Israel to be annihilated by her Arab enemy neighbours. The fact that Israel succeeded in surviving the onslaught of the Arab attacks and has gone on to build one of the most potent armies in the world has turned all Jewish stereotypes on their heads. After all, Jews were typically non-combatants whose mothers would prefer them not to get into fights. And yet, out of this arose a fighting force which, man-for-man, is arguably the strongest in the world. It is a force which has Jewish boys and girls at its front and at its rear, and not only in the back rooms.

The State of Israel was founded as a mostly agricultural economy. This, too, was surprising to many who had never heard of a Jew turning the soil. Agriculture was a way of demonstrating not only the close links to the physical land of the State of Israel, but also a way of reversing the stereotypes that had been forced on Jews for centuries before. Jews could also be farmers, and proved themselves to be good farmers who could produce food for their own communities and for export to the rest of the world. The Jaffa orange and large volumes of Israeli flowers seen every day in European cities bear testament to this.

Although the country in the early years was dominated by those who had arrived from Europe, the population was soon boosted by Jews arriving from other countries, particularly from countries in the Middle East. They arrived with their own stereotypes as well as behaviours inherited from the countries where they had been raised. Soon, these clashed with the dominant European behaviours to produce interesting, and sometimes bad, results. Over time, these behaviours were added to by those arriving from the former Soviet Union who had, over the period of Communism, been forced into different survival tactics. These immigrants were doctors, scientists and musicians in large numbers, but not accountants nor economists. They also seemed to consume larger quantities of Vodka than Israelis had ever seen before.

It was former prime minister Menachem Begin who saw this mix and clash of cultures as an inevitable part of the development of Israeli society, and an Israeli nation. Begin said that Israel would only be a country "amongst the family of nations" once it also took on all the negative characteristics of other countries in the world. He was of the view that Israel would only come of age when there were Jewish prostitutes.

In the most unfortunate way, Begin's "dreams" have come true. Not only do we now have Jewish farmers and bus drivers, we now also suffer from Jewish alcoholics, prostitutes and even murderers. While I would gladly live in a society that does not suffer these evils, I can see Begin's point. If Israel wishes to be integrated into the world structure and economy, it is inevitable that the pressures and strains suffered in other countries will also be felt in Israel. Having said this, it is incumbent upon us all to learn lessons from social decay experienced in other countries, to try to prevent it from manifesting itself in ours.

For me, it is pleasing that the level of crime on the streets in Israel remains lower than in many western countries. This means that it remains safe for our children to be out alone at night, and to be able to live independently from a very early age. This reflects the Jewish neighbourhood mentality where we all care for the country's children, even if they are not our own. I would also like to believe that we can learn lessons from tragedies like the one suffered last week, to respond in a way which reflects our Jewish heritage. Mothers, like the one in question, need more help from society in order to provide them with skills and coping mechanisms to overcome the inevitable stresses and strains of modern living. The social services and friends and neighbours are required to respond to prevent such tragedies happening in the future. This is where the Jewish adaptability and ability to respond will really be called upon to get over a tragedy like this, and to prevent this from happening in other families.

It is my prayer that the memories of little Roni and Natalie Aloni z"l, who were taken before their time, will be for a blessing. May Hashem comfort the mourners amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Monday 8 November 2010

The Irony of Israel's Benefits From International Terrorism

The scourge of international terrorism has affected the daily lives of many people around the world. Something that was once only the concern of those living in the Middle East or Northern Ireland has become the greatest threat to world peace in a few short years. This phenomenon affects more people around the world than the most widespread war. Even where terrorists do not succeed in detonating their devices or causing the death and destruction that they had intended, they do succeed sowing fear in the hearts of people trying to go about their everyday lives. This fear is enough to cause great disruption and inconvenience to all concerned, and to cost large sums of money while countries work to secure the lives of their citizens.

Not very long ago, terrorism was limited to certain countries around the world. Israel was viewed as being one of these countries. After her Arab neighbours failed to wipe the Jewish state off the map in wars in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1974, the tactics changed. Instead of using their armies for a direct confrontation with Israel, the Arab enemies decided instead to strike at the soft underbelly of Israeli civilian life. Numerous attempts were made to strike at innocent people going about their daily lives by planting bombs in coffee shops, on buses and in markets. There were even strikes against Israeli targets abroad including attempts on Israeli embassy buildings and an attack on the Israeli Olympic delegation to the Munich Olympic Games in 1972. Some attacks were not only reserved for Israelis, but were aimed at the wider Jewish population. The hijacking of Air France flight 139 which precipitated the raid at Entebbe in 1976, the hijacking of the Achille Lauro in 1985, the attack on the Jewish Centre in Buenos Aires in 1994 and the Mumbai attack on Chabad House in 2008 are only a few examples of attacks aimed at Jews around the world.

More recently, the attacks have spread in their reach to include not only Israelis and Jews, but members of the free world in general. The most visual symbol of these attacks was the destruction of the World Trade Centre on September 11th, 2001. Many other similar attacks have been carried out including attacks elsewhere in the USA as well as in London, Madrid, Mumbai and numerous other attempts that have been partially successful, or successful only in creating further fear and anxiety.

One may conclude that a country like Israel would suffer substantially from the activities of international terror groups. For those who have not visited Israel previously, it would be easy to surmise that the threat of terror causes people to be fearful in their everyday lives, and has a negative economic impact on a small democratic country in a sea of enemies. Ironically, the opposite is true. Terrorism has had a substantial negative effect on Israel and its citizens, particularly the loss of innocent lives and the injuring and maiming of thousands of others. Perversely, however, Israel has also gained a great deal from international terror.

The first thing that Israel has gained from dealing with terror is resilience. The people of Israel have shown a willingness to get up and dust themselves off after each and every terror attack that they have had to endure. More than that, people have been determined to continue with their daily lives as normally as possible, despite the ever-present threats from terror that exist. A classic example was demonstrated by the bus drivers on Jerusalem's line number 18 who came under concerted attack in 1996. Despite the fact that the drivers of the number 18 buses knew that the buses on their line were under threat, they took a philosophical view on things by insisting that they continue to carry out their duties in order not to give in to the threats of terror. During this period, they were witnessed praying together at the bus station in the morning before the start of their shifts. This same resilience has been shown by security guards who secure the entrances to shopping centres and other public areas, and many others like them.

In order to confront the threat of terror, Israel has been forced to develop tactics and technologies which help to secure the country and her citizens. These tactics and technologies continue be improved upon, and have shown themselves to the be the most sophisticated anti-terror capabilities in the world. At one time, the only consumer of these capabilities was Israel. As international terror has spread around the world, the number of customers for the anti-terror devices has grown dramatically. There is practically no country in the world today that is not forced to deploy security systems in its airports or other places considered to be a terror threat. Israeli anti-terror systems have shown themselves to be effective in the fight against terrorism, and present an obvious choice for other countries wishing to take advantage of systems that have proven themselves in the line of fire. Out of this has grown a massive industry satisfying the security needs of numerous countries.

Today, many security systems that are deployed around the world are Israeli systems, or are based upon ones developed and used in Israel. More than this, the job of securing major public events such as Olympic Games, UN General Assembly meetings and other major events has turned into an industry of its own. The leading participants in this industry are Israelis. Not only do they come with creativity, innovation and leading-edge technology, they also come with hands-on training and experience in securing the State of Israel. Security has become a large export industry for Israeli companies and individuals. Each time the security level is raised for any reason, Israeli companies are benefiting financially from the increase security requirements. Israeli companies are major beneficiaries of the enormous sums of money spent by the US Homeland Security and many other countries.

Each time a major terror attack takes place around the world, it allows the residents who are the subject of this attack to gain a better insight and understanding into the experiences and fear which plague Israelis all the time. It is a fact that those who have not been through similar experiences have less ability to understand the Israeli situation, and why Israel is often forced to act in defence in the way that she does. Those who have suffered from terrorism somehow have a closer and easier understanding and empathy with Israel and her citizens. Each time a terror attack takes place, there is a greater population of people who understand this evil phenomenon, and the Israeli situation.

Although it is my sincere hope and prayer that international terrorism is eliminated once and for all, it is currently the reality that terrorism is serving some perverse advantages for Israel. I do believe that Israelis are adaptable enough to find the next best thing when terrorism is finally eliminated for good and, with it, the security industry that has been built around this. Until then, Israel will continue to be well placed to help satisfy the world's security needs.