Tuesday 29 May 2012

The African Migrant Problem Needs to be Solved Quickly

Israel has become inundated with African migrants, and this has raised some very difficult questions for the government about how to deal with them.  The problem started out as a humanitarian one.  Individuals and groups of people began turning up along Israel's southern border with Egypt.  They were filled with horrifying stories about the countries that they had run away from, and the murder and destruction that was taking place there as part of the series of ongoing civil wars that are plaguing the African continent.  The experiences that these individuals were forced to endure along their route to Israel was equally as horrendous.  Marauding groups of thugs in the deserts and soldiers from national armies, most notably the Egyptian army, stripped these poor people of the few belongings that they had, and raped and murdered many of those with them.

The Israeli authorities remembered too well the experiences that Jews were forced to endure during the Holocaust, when few nations were prepared to accept Jewish refugees who had nowhere to go to escape the evil Nazi extermination camps.  The African migrants were admitted across the border, given food shelter and basic medical treatment.  They were also allowed to seek out employment despite their exact status being unsure.  Children were sent to local schools, and policies regarding how to deal with this new phenomenon were being established on the fly.  It is astonishing how quickly the desert telephone works.  Word soon got back to Sudan and to Eritrea that the pot at the end of the rainbow is buried somewhere between Eilat and Tel Aviv.  Within no time at all, thousands of migrants were clambering across the border in search of the pot of gold.  Although they were running from horrendous situations in their home countries, these people could be classified more as economic migrants than as asylum seekers.

Fast-forward a few years to the current time, and the situation is extremely complicated.  In some areas like Southern Sudan, the civil war is over, a new country has been established and Israel was one of the first to move to recognise the new country.  Despite this fact, the citizens of Southern Sudan seem to have no intention of leaving Israel and returning to their newly-established homeland.  Instead, more and more seem to be arriving at the borders.  They have established communities of their own in towns and cities around Israel.  They are working in hotels, running coffee shops, Internet cafes, bars, restaurants and market stalls and their children are attending Israeli schools.  Their presence is becoming increasingly permanent in spite of the fact that the government has still yet to determine their legal status.  Suddenly, the African migrant community numbers 60,000 people and is beginning to make its presence felt in Israeli society in every possible way.

An undercurrent of dissatisfaction has been building below the surface about the newest of Israel's immigrant communities.  Economic times are tough, and there is a feeling amongst the weaker members of Israeli society that the African migrant community is receiving resources that should be channelled towards Israeli citizens instead.  Many charities have decided to route their efforts to help African migrants, often at the expense of Israeli citizens.  Cheap housing units are occupied by African migrants and often lead to price rises, making it difficult for others around.  There are accusations that school places that should be available to Israeli children, are being occupied by African children.  The character of some of Tel Aviv's oldest neighbourhoods is reported to have changed dramatically to reflect the increasing number of Africans living there.

The situation came to a head in the past few weeks with a number of incidents of violence having been blamed on African migrants.  A few rape accusations have been made against Africans, while reports have surfaced from areas where they live accusing them of burglary and other violent crimes.  While none of these accusations have yet been proven, it has allowed the undercurrent of dissatisfaction amongst some Israelis to boil over into full-blown rage.  Protests have taken place across Israel to demonstrate against the continued presence of African migrants, and the government is now being forced to take a stand.  Unfortunately, the protests have turned violent showing a really ugly side to Israeli society.  African migrants and their businesses and homes have been attacked as part of these protests, some of which were also attended by members of Knesset and other politicians.

In the first instance, the violence against others living in Israel should not be tolerated.  It is right that the police have arrested some of the perpetrators of this violence, and that they should be prosecuted under the law.  In the second place, it is right that the government should be held to account for the lack of policy on the migrants.  While the migrants had no alternative safe haven, it was acceptable and desirable for Israel to give them shelter.  Now, however, they have place to return to, and Israel should insist that they do so.  No visitor to Israel should be allowed to outstay their welcome, particularly if they will be utilising scarce resources that should be made available to the weakest in Israeli society.  The fact that the economic and social conditions in Southern Sudan or Eritrea are not quite up to the same level in the State of Israel is not the consideration.  If they are able to return in a manner that does not risk their personal safety, this should be enough to justify their repatriation.

Over the years, Israel has been forced to deal with a number of migrant communities.  There are thousands of Filipinos working to look after the elderly and the weak who require close care.  There are also thousands of Chinese workings employed in agriculture and construction.  Once these people have lived and worked here for a few years, and even had families here, the decision to deport them becomes much more difficult.

I feel really proud that Israel was willing and able to open its doors to people in desperate need, and in immense physical danger.  This reflects our empathy as a nation for the homeless and the weak in the world.  Now that the job has been done and the charity administered, the migrants should return home to allow Israel to put her own house in order.  After all, we wish to be there again should the need arise in the future.  By sending the migrants to their places of origin, it will mean that Israelis will be able and willing to help again if required.  By allowing them to remain indefinitely, it puts this help at grave risk, and risks a great deal in our own society.

Sunday 20 May 2012

Keeping Jerusalem Unified

Today, Sunday 20th May, we celebrate 45 years since Jerusalem was reunified in the Six Day War according to the Hebrew calendar.  These have been 45 eventful but happy years, which have seen the holy city of Jerusalem quickly regain its central place in Israeli and Jewish life.  After 2,000 years of exile from the Land of Israel and the city of Jerusalem, and a further 19 years of being denied access to the holiest sites in Judaism, Jews around the world celebrated when the IDF paratroopers finally reached the Kotel and Motta Gur announced the famous words, "The Temple Mount is in our hands".  That moment is being savoured and celebrated today on Jerusalem Day.

The important place that Jerusalem occupies for Israelis and for Jewish people all around the world has strengthened over the past 45 years.  Once again, we have had the merit and the joy to be able to visit the holiest site in Judaism.  It is impossible to consider a possibility that Jerusalem would not remain unified in the future, and that Jews could be denied access to visit the holy sites in the way that we were forced to experience in the past.  This is almost certainly one of the reasons why discussions on the final status of Jerusalem in the peace talks with the Palestinians are so fraught.  It seems as though the Palestinians understand the strength of feeling that we have for Jerusalem, and continue to demand it for themselves.  This may enable them to extract major compromises in return for giving up on Jerusalem in the final agreement.

There can be no escape from the centrality of Jerusalem in Judaism.  Even those who wish to prevent Jews from having access to Jerusalem would struggle to the deny strong links that Jews and Judaism have to this holy city.  The holy nature of the city was arguably only established during the time of David and Solomon when the temple was built.  It is no mere coincidence, however, that the temple was built in this city and on Mount Moriah.  This is the site of the dream of Jacob's ladder, the site of the almost-sacrifice of Isaac and possibly even the site from which the which the world was created.  Whether or not one believes in these biblical links, it is simple to refer to Jewish texts that have been written and passed down over thousands of years, and which bear testimony to the close links that Jews have to the city.

Over the past 45 years, the city of Jerusalem has developed and grown in a way that makes it unrecognisable from the city that was reunified 45 years ago.  The Kotel (the Western Wall), the only remnant of the remains of the temple, was quickly transformed into an area that could be host to the many millions of visitors that wish to visit the heart of Judaism.  It is believed in Judaism that the divine presence emanates from Jerusalem.  In order, however, for the divine presence to be felt, it is required that there will be those to receive and bask in its glory.  The Kotel has truly fulfilled that purpose.  It plays host to state and military ceremonies of great importance and significance.  It also hosts all manner of religious worship, celebration and heartbreak.  The Kotel plaza is often filled with tens of thousands of people as they cram themselves in to take part in the merit that our generation enjoys to have free access to this place.  The surrounding parts of the Old City, and stretching out well beyond into the new city and further, have seen a renewal and redevelopment that has transformed the face of Jerusalem, without changing its character.  The modern Chords Bridge at the entrance to the city, numerous luxury hotels and the sight of the Jerusalem light rail show the face of a contemporary city keeping up with the times, while allowing residents and visitors to get close to its historical roots.

Over the years, conquerors of Jerusalem have denied access to other religions as a punishment, and as a sign of their supremacy over the city.  It is, after all, a city that is holy to all three monotheistic religions.  Contrary to this trend, it is interesting that Israel decided to allow all religions access to their holy sites in the city.  Rather than weaken Israel's grip on the city, I feel that it has served to strengthen Israel's position in Jerusalem.  I believe that most Israelis are proud that this is the case, as much as they are determined to ensure that Israel's rule over the city continues well into the future.

The truth is that it is difficult to try to predict what the future holds for the holy city.  There seems to be no real reason for the Palestinians to wish to rule over the city.  While it is a city that is holy to Muslims, it ranks only third in its holiness to the cities of Mecca and Medina.  Muslims have access to, and complete control over all Muslim holy sites in the city through the Waqf.  This stretches even to having control over the Temple Mount and the Al Aqsa mosque, despite this also being the site of the holy Jewish temple.  I imagine that the only benefit that can be gained from ruling over Jerusalem, or parts of the city, is that it may give them the right to deny access by others to these areas.  We can never risk this situation coming to fruition.

Despite the fact that a great deal of thought has been given to the possibility of creating Jerusalem into something of an international city that is owned by everyone, but nobody in particular, there is no real precedent for a successful implementation of such a model.  This gives rise to a great deal of scepticism, and suspicion as to what the true intentions of the Palestinians may be with regard to Jerusalem.

For now, the united city of Jerusalem is the capital of the State of Israel, and the centre of the Jewish world.  It also plays host to Muslims, Christians and members of other faiths that may wish to visit, live and study in the city.  There seems little wrong with this model, and no individual is denied any rights that he may wish to have.

It is my hope and prayer that Jerusalem will continue to play its role as a central part of so many faiths, and that all faiths will continue to have free access to all corners of this ancient and fascinating city.

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her skill.
                                                                (Psalm 137)

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Bibi Does Election U-Turn

Within the space of three short days, early elections were on and then off again.  The timescale of this U-turn was quite astonishing.  On Sunday evening, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced to his Likud party convention that early elections would be held.  On Monday morning, the first reading of the bill to dissolve the Knesset was passed.  In the early hours of Tuesday morning, the new coalition agreement was signed with Shaul Mofaz and the Kadima Party, and early elections were cancelled.  By bringing Kadima into the coalition, Bibi has almost created a government of national unity.  The only main party which is now outside of the coalition is the Labour Party, and its new leader Shelly Yachimovich becomes the leader of the official opposition.

There are a number of people, both within political circles and outside, who feel that Bibi's conduct on the issue of the elections has been less than fair and honest.  It transpires that he was holding coalition discussions with Shaul Mofaz for at least a week before the announcement that an agreement had been reached.  This begs the question why Bibi decided to make a public announcement about early elections and allow the Knesset to debate the first reading of the dissolution bill, when he was on the verge of concluding a new coalition agreement?  Was this a negotiating tactic to force Mofaz to make the final concession?  The formal announcement that an early election would take place certainly put the cat amongst the pigeons.  No sooner had electioneering got into full force, when it was all frozen.

Even though the way in which it was done raises big questions, I believe that the act of delaying the election is probably more beneficial for the State of Israel and its citizens than proceeding to early elections.  Israel is currently confronting a number of critical issues, and there was a huge danger of these issues becoming too wrapped up with a general election.  Despite the international focus having been moved away from Iran over the past few months, this issue probably remains Israel's largest challenge in the short to medium term.  Some parties are taking a much more aggressive approach advising Israel to take military action against Iran.  Others are advising a more cautious and conciliatory approach.  Even former heads of intelligence have weighed in with their "words of wisdom", only in an attempt to exact political revenge on those that they don't like.  This is a fraught subject that has major implications for Israel and her citizens.  A decision taken by a stable almost-unity government is surely better than airing this issue in election platforms.

There is also the controversial issue of the replacement to the Tal Law.  This is an issue which is split down party political lines as the religious parties are doing their utmost to convince lawmakers to enact a replacement law that will still allow yeshivah boys to be exempt from military service.  Opponents wish to see at least some minimum form of national service which will apply to all of Israel's citizens, without exceptions.  This is a messy political hot potato that is best kept out of election platform politics.

The passing of the new budget is almost always held to ransom by coalition negotiations.  Parties negotiating possible inclusion in the coalition frequently predicate their support of the budget on receiving key concessions in the coalition agreement.  At a time when the economic stability of many countries in the world is so much under threat, economic high jinks cannot be afforded in Israel.  It would be good to get the budget approved without the need to bow to parties looking to extract value from the coalition negotiations.

For Kadima, the extension of the Knesset term has saved it from election decimation.  There is little doubt that a general election at this time would have substantially reduced its Knesset faction.  At the same time the new coalition agreement has raised doubts in the minds of many Kadima members, particularly those who came from parties on the left of the political spectrum, about whether this is a first step towards uniting with the Likud.  The most senior of these doubters, Kadima council chairman Haim Ramon, immediately tendered his resignation from the party.  He was followed by many grass-roots members of the party in a move which threatens to split the party, even before a single ballot is cast in a general election.

The big winner in this move is Prime Minister Netanyahu.  He has shown himself to be a shrewd political player, even though he has trodden on more than a few toes in the process.  The upshot of all of his political manoeuvring is that Bibi is king of Israel, just as his supporters like to chant at public gatherings.  He currently holds all the cards in his hands, and has a very strong political position to see him through to the end of the Knesset session and into the next general election.  He will need to see out at least one more summer, which is promising to be a summer with greater social protest than we saw last summer.  This is certainly a threat to him, but the electorate has little or no alternative choices to select from.  Opposition parties to the Likud are disparate and decimated.

The electorate has been spared an election this summer.  This will save a substantial sum of money, and will delay the inevitable filthy negative politics associated with election campaigns for at least another year.  I hope that, by the time we reach the start of the next campaign in a year or 18 months from now, many of the critical issues mentioned above that urgently require attention will have been dealt with.

Sunday 6 May 2012

A Little Election Excitement

Despite the fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu has been out of circulation as he has been sitting shiva following the death of his father, the Likud machine is working hard to arrange the next general election.  According to the law, the election could be called anytime until November 2013.  The prime minister and his advisers, however,  have decided to accelerate the date to September this year.

A bill to dissolve parliament ahead of the next election is due to be discussed in the Knesset today (Sunday 6th May) which could see the Knesset dissolved in one week’s time.  Even before the Knesset has been dissolved, I notice that campaigning has begun.  Advertisements have already been plastered onto buses and primary campaigns have sprung into action.  The election campaign has gained such rapid momentum that it is difficult to believe that only two weeks ago, there was no official speak of an election at all.

The prime minister has decided to call an election now because he is obviously riding something of a wave of popularity right now.  He has had a fairly stable term in office without any major ups and downs.  He has done nothing remarkable, but has also not really put a foot wrong.  His popularity seems largely to have depended on the things that have been happening in the other parties rather than actions of his government.  The other parties have been very helpful in assisting Netanyahu’s fortunes over the term of this Knesset.  The contest for the leadership of the Labour Party resulted in considerable damage to the party as the two main rivals bitterly vied for the top position.  Since then, the new leader, Shelly Yachimovich, has not really asserted herself in any major way in the public eye.  Now that there is talk of an early general election, she has suddenly made a public statement saying that Labour could defeat Likud in the election.  This is nothing more than wishful thinking.  Tzipi Livni’s defeat as leader of Kadima and her subsequent resignation from the Knesset have left the party languishing.  Opinion polls suggest that Kadima could be demoted from the largest party to the fifth largest after the next election.

In addition, the prime minister would have been dreading another summer of social protests.  He managed, somehow, to cling on last summer during the height of the tent protest when his government was being held responsible for the constant and dramatic increases in the cost of living.  He certainly would not wish to repeat that experience if he can possibly avoid it.  The election campaign over the summer months is, I think, partially designed to divert attention away from the social protests and bring other parties into play in the economic discussion.

It will take the Israeli public a little more time to get enthusiastic about the election.  The truth is that it would be very surprising if Netanyahu is not reelected as prime minister.  Most people have already resigned themselves to this outcome, and have moved on.  So what is there to be excited about in an election that is not expected to deliver anything new?  Many will be voting for Netanyahu to register a protest vote against the others, who all seem unelectable.  Even Ehud Barak, who is a previous prime minister, seems a million miles away from the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem’s Balfour Street in the eyes of most voters.  The minor details of whether the Likud gains 31 seats in place of its current 27 seats, or if Kadima is the largest or the smallest party in the Knesset all seem unimportant in the grand scheme of things.  Voters may be tempted to vote for one of the smaller parties if they believe that strengthening this party’s position within a coalition government may help to promote certain policies or legislation.  This been proven to be effective by the Yisrael Beiteinu party in the existing coalition, which has been prepared to vigorously pursue issues that are of unique interest only to its voting constituency.  It has enjoyed some success where this is concerned, and this fact is likely to secure it a similarly strong position in the next Knesset.

Despite the fact that the election seems not to inspire much excitement amongst the Israeli voting public, especially at this stage of the campaign, there are many reasons why Israelis should be excited and motivated by the election.  We need always to bear in mind that this is the only true democracy in the Middle East, a fact for us all to be proud of.  The election campaign is the greatest example of this democracy at work.  This is also, uniquely, a Jewish democracy.  This gives the chance to debate and vote on issues that are particular to us as Jews, and especially issues that concern our ongoing safety and security within the family of nations.  In this respect, the Israeli elections have an impact on Jews living outside of Israel as well as within her borders.  The more democratic the outcome of the election, the greater is our security and the more secure our future as Jews in the world.  We should remember that the Arab citizens of Israel are also voters, and have their own parties which will send representatives to the Knesset as they have done since Israel was founded.

This democracy is not only important to Israelis and Jews, but is also important to the free world.  Israel is a beacon of light in a dark Middle Eastern ocean that supports and finances Muslim extremism and terrorism in all corners of the earth.  The fact that Israel contributes to a first line of defense against the threats of Iranian nuclear plans, Syrian government violence and Hamas and Hezbollah terrorism amongst others things, will always be a source of comfort and relief to many in the free world.

Unfortunately, democracy does not always deliver the right or the desired result.  There are times that it could be argued that democracy has got things wrong.  The best thing about democracy, however, is that it ensures the people the right to have their say again within a few years, and to hopefully put the wrongs right.  This is certainly the character of Israel’s democracy, and is a cause for celebration.  For so many years, Jews were denied the right to vote in the countries of their residence, and yearned for the opportunity to control their own destiny even in the smallest way.  With the birth of the democratic State of Israel, Jews have been granted the opportunity to exercise this right under the Law of Return.  It requires simply to prove that you are the grandchild of a Jew, and to turn up at the immigration desk at Ben Gurion Airport.

So, while Israelis consider who will deliver the best economic solution for them for the next four years or who will give them the best religious or ecological answers, we should not lose sight of the big picture that this election represents for Jews within and outside of Israel.  Many generations of Jews would have been astonished and grateful for the little things that we take for granted.  We are living their dream.  Long live democracy in the State of Israel.