Friday 29 May 2015

Starting on the Wrong Foot

The entire process that led to the forming of Israel's 34th government in 68 years of independence was filled with drama and unexpected events.

Opinion polls in the weeks leading up to the election predicted that the two largest parties, the Likud and the Zionist Union (formed out of a pact between the Labour and Hatnua parties), would be fighting each other off to form the new government.  The feeling was that one or two seats would separate the parties.  Even the election's exit polls did not predict the extent to which voters ultimately favoured the Likud over Zionist Union.  When the election result was announced showing that the Likud won 6 seats more than the Zionist Union, it took everybody in the country by surprise.  Even the members of the Likud were shocked at the size of the victory, especially in view of the earlier predictions.

The pendulum of expectation swung in the opposite direction.  All of a sudden, there was the expectation that Prime Minister Netanyahu would form a broad-based, strong, right-wing coalition government in double quick time.  As it turned out, the formation of the government took way longer than expected, is the narrowest possible government and is not nearly as strong as people thought and hoped it would be.   With these fluctations came swings in the public's expectation about how long this government can reasonably survive, and whether it has the ability to govern and make the changes that are so needed in Israeli society.

If the lead-up to the new government contained its fair share of surprises, the process of forming the government has also been less than inspiring.  The prime minister has been forced to compromise on many fundamental ideas that his electorate stand opposed to, in the interests of attracting coalition partners into the government.  For example, he has been forced to go back on legislation, that was put in place during the previous government, to force ultra-Orthodox yeshivah boys to undertake military or national service like all others of their age.  He has also been forced to redirect huge sums of money to the ultra-Orthodox sector, at a time when the Israeli government has implemented large budget cuts as part of an austerity plan.  Many Likud voters are horrified at these and other concessions.

One of the persistent rumours that refuses to go away concerns the reported approach that Prime Minister Netanyahu made to Labour leader Isaac Herzog to join the coalition.  The prime minister is reported to have approached Herzog on condition that he agrees to abandon his pact with Tzipi Livni, and bring only the Labour faction into the new government while leaving Livni and her Hatnua members out of the coalition.  Herzog refused, thereby turning down the opportunity to be part of a national unity government, and provide Israel with a much more stable coalition.  Has he spited the people of Israel by preferring to see Prime Minister Netanyahu fail in his endeavours?  There are many who believe that he has chosen the egotistical path, rather than setting his ego aside in the interests of serving the Israeli electorate.

The make-up of the new cabinet is also not a huge source of inspiration.  For starters, there are a total of 21 ministers in the new government, surpassing the 18 ministers that were recently legislated as being the maximum allowed in any government.  Netanyahu was forced to pass an amendment law through the Knesset to allow him to appoint 21 ministers to have sufficient jobs to dish out to all coalition partners.  The important job of foreign minister has been left vacant and has been assumed by the prime minister.  He has also retained the communications ministry, ministry of health and ministry of regional cooperation for himself.  It seems as though Netanyahu may be reserving these in case he is able to convince Lieberman or others to join the coalition in the future.

Aryeh Deri, head of Shas, is the new economics minister.  He has recently served a jail sentence and now come out of an exclusion period, during which he could not serve in a public position, as a result of having been found guilty of taking bribes while a government minister.  Yoav Galant is the minister of construction.  This is highly controversial seeing as Galant was prevented from taking up his appointment as the IDF Chief of General Staff due to irregularities found in the construction of his personal residence on public property.  Miri Regev is the new minster for culture and sport, despite having made it quite clear that she really wanted to have the welfare portfolio.  Habayit Hayehudi's Ayelet Shaked is probably the most surprising and high profile appointment to the new government, having been appointed as the minister of justice.  In this position, she has a huge influence over the appointment of judges to the supreme court, as well as many other aspects of Israel's judicial policy and justice system.  She has also secured herself a seat in the security cabinet, the narrow inner cabinet that is responsible for formulating and implementing Israel's security, defense and foreign policy on a daily basis.  At 39 years-old, she is considered an extremely young appointment to a critical position, despite clearly being very capable.  It is reported that Likud old-timer Benny Begin only knew of his appointment to the cabinet, as minister without portfolio, at the moment that it was announced in the Knesset.

The Knesset session to present the new government was held on Thursday 14 May.  The session epitomised a circus more than a meeting of Israel's legislature.  At first, Arab members of Knesset created an intentional and sustained disruption during the prime minister's address, that resulted in  a number of them being evicted from the chamber.  A few other Arab members decided to leave of their own accord in sympathy, although they did return during the address by the leader of the opposition.  Miri Regev was also issued a warning for heckling and disruptive behaviour, although managed to survive without being ejected.  Leader of the opposition, Isaac Herzog, delivered a stinging rebuke and criticism of the prime minister and his new government.  He was heckled by members from the religious parties, who were also issued with warnings.  While the job of the official opposition (and its leader) is to ensure that the government is held to account, there are times when it is appropriate for the opposition to support the government and to show some unity in helping with its efforts.  There are many who feel that this occasion was the perfect opportunity to show some unity and support.

The inconspicuous start to the new government continued further with a reshuffle coming less than 10 days into the life of the new government.  Likud number 2, Gilad Erdan, decided that he would be better off working within the new government rather than from the back benches.  While his disagreement with Prime Minister Netanyahu has not been resolved, Erdan finally agreed to accept the ministries of public security, strategic affairs and public diplomacy.  Despite him trying to put a spin on why he changed his mind to justify his actions, it is clear to all that this is a big U-turn on Erdan's party.  Netanyahu was happy to reshuffle his new government in order to accommodate Erdan.  Benny Begin, who was asked to resign his position as minister without portfolio to accommodate Erdan joining the cabinet, was not happy to comply with the request.

Despite the problematic manner in which the government has finally come into office, it does not detract from the fact that new government has a lot of important work to do.  Israel is under much pressure on the international diplomatic front to move forward to a peace agreeement with the Palestinians.  It also has to maintain firm security against those who are determined to destroy her and her people while also addressing the social and welfare needs for the weakest members of society in a tough economic climate.  All of this needs to achieved in a climate of lower levels of government spending to manage the economy responsibly.  Israel needs a firm, stable and decisive government that can make the difficult decisions that confront it.  Even though the manner in which the new government has started out life does not seem to bode well for the future, we all hope that we will be confounded by the extent to which the government is able to achieve great things.  We wish them much success.

Thursday 21 May 2015

Is this Really Racism?

Demonstrations have taken to the streets of Israeli cities in recent weeks.  While demonstrations in Israel are not new, these demonstrations were different and unique.  For the first time since the first Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel in Operation Moses in 1984 and in  Operation Solomon in 1991, Ethiopian Jews have demonstrated against their plight in Israel.  The images of black-skinned Israeli Jews battling against mostly white-skinned Israeli policemen that were displayed across much of the media in Israel and abroad, were perfect to fuel those who accuse Israel of racism and even apartheid.  But nothing could be further from the truth.

While the treatment of the Ethiopians in Israel leaves much to be desired in many instances, the underlying reason for the treatment that they have been forced to endure has nothing to do with racism.  Instead, this a story of a cultural chasm between two groups of Jews that has left one group greatly disadvantaged.  It is a story of natural human behaviour and survival instinct, and it is a story of the integration into society of a minority group to the point that they finally find their voices to stand up for themselves.

The story of the immigration of the Ethiopian Jews to Israel is uplifting and depressing in equal parts.  They were rescued from the African desert out of the jaws of starvation and anti-Semitic genocide.  They had suffered from the severe famine that had affected the African continent for years, and had been subjected to horrendous anti-Semitic discrimination by their fellow country people.  After much deliberation, the Israeli government accepted their claims to be Jewish, and sent planes to airlift them to safety, shelter and nourishment.  The stories of thousands of people crammed onto aeroplanes, many of them seated on the floor, are now part of the legend of tales that are told about this phenomenal rescue mission.  The truth was, however, tough to confront.  Not only had most of these Ethiopians never seen an aeroplane before, they had no idea what a toilet was or how to operate any electrical appliance.  They were literally lifted from one existence to something completely alien to them.  This culture shock upon landing in Israel led to a huge change in their natural, nomadic, male-dominated lifestyle.  In many instances, the patriarchal head of the family was no longer able to fulfil this role and to provide for the family.  The role of the women in the family was elevated as many of them went out to work to earn the basic necessities.  Social breakdown in the society followed quickly, accompanied with domestic violence, substance abuse and petty crime.  Family murders within the Ethiopian community continue to be common due to the upheaval that family life has been forced to endure.  All of this is despite the fact that the community has now been housed within its Israeli culture for more than 20 years.  The process of adjusting to a culture and existence totally alien to theirs has exacted a very high price on the Ethiopian community.

Due to the criminal activities that have become commonplace amongst Ethiopians, they have become well-known to the police authorities.  In turn, the police have placed the most common offenders, and the community as a whole, under close supervision.  The relationship between the Ethiopian community and the police has become strained.  The repetitive nature of the unlawful behaviour on the part of the Ethiopians has frustrated the police.  The police have been charged with unacceptable behaviour towards the Ethiopian community.  Many of these charges are justified.  Even if they are frustrated, there can be no doubt that the police are always expected to adhere to the highest standards.  In this regard, they have failed.

Israel is a country where those who scream loudest get the most.  This unfortunate cultural trait has deep historical roots, and can be traced back to the difficulties that Jews experienced when living as second class citizens during the Holocaust in Europe, or during their persecution in Middle Eastern countries.  All of a sudden, Jews found a voice for themselves after having been denied this right in other countries for so long.  This voice continues to be used extremely loudly, and in competition to many others who are also trying to get their voice heard at the same time.  Visitors and more recent immigrants to Israel find this cultural trait to be rude and intolerable, despite the fact that it is not intended in a rude way at all.  For the Ethiopian community, the loud voice was even more extreme when compared to their upbringing and background.  The Ethiopians have a very gentle and withdrawn nature, that is at complete odds with the aggressive style of the rest of Israeli society.  Any sign of standard Israeli screaming and shouting results in the Ethiopians withdrawing in surprise.  As a result, they are less likely to get what they want and what they need.  Those who are more aggressive and shout louder are given higher priority at their expense.  This situation has led to immense frustration within the Ethiopian community, and an overall feeling of disadvantage on their part.  The fact that their leaders do not shout loudly means that their community gets a lower share of the budget allocations than they deserve to receive, and they get less attention than is deserved.

The change that has happened recently is that the new generation of Ethiopians has finally come of age.  The young adults in the Ethiopian community have either been born in Israel, or have grown up for most of their formative years in Israel.  As such, they are more versed and more comfortable with the Israeli culture than are their parents and grandparents who remain in some type of culture shock.  Despite the fact that the new generation is growing up with the influence of their elders who still carry with them the old timid Ethiopian culture, the new kids have learnt the tricks of surviving in their Israeli reality.  These are the kids who are comfortable with raising their voices to make them heard, and with mounting demonstrations in order to express their disgust and disdain at the bad treatment that their community has received.  We are now seeing the effects of this new generation who look like Ethiopians, but speak good Hebrew and have Israeli culture and chutzpah.  They are finally standing up for what their parents and grandparents have been denied over the years.

While the demonstrations look like a story of racism in their imagery, this is not a story about racism.  Israelis are not inherently racist, but are people who know how to fight for their rights and what is due to them.  For too many years, Jews were denied these as they survived amongst the nations.  Now, they have found the voices and will fight for their rights in the most determined way.  This also means that the quieter and more timid amongst others, whether they are Ethiopians or other cultures, get drowned out.  But our Ethiopian brethren have discovered their role in Israeli society.  We are immensely proud of how a community, which started from such a different and unsophisticated beginning point, is finding its place in our society. I feel immense pride when seeing Ethiopian soldiers in IDF uniforms, Ethiopian students at our universities, and Ethiopians who are members of Knesset, TV presenters, doctors, lawyers and those who fill many other roles in society.   I like the fact that the Ethiopian Jewish festival of Sigd has widespread recognition in Israel along with Pesach and Mimouna.  I am delighted that the Ethiopian community religious leaders, the Kessim, have recognition and respect alongside our Ashkenazi and Sephardi Rabbis and scholars.

If anything, this is a sign that our society ultimately presents equal opportunities for all its members, and I feel sure that the Ethiopians will continue to take their place in society over time.  This includes being on the front lines of demonstrations to secure the rights richly deserved by members of their community who are less comfortable to assert themselves.  This is the reason why I support their demonstration, and I feel extremely comfortable with the fact that they are causing disruption in the streets of Israeli towns and cities.

Sunday 10 May 2015

Converting the Missionaries

It may come as a surprise to some that missionary groups are alive and very active in Israel.  Groups like the Jehovah's Witnesses have been operating in Israel for some time, as they have operated all around the world for many years.  It is their belief that they should make every effort to convert as many people to their way of thinking as possible.  And their reason for being in Israel is entirely understandable.  When seeking out potential converts, it is known that the Jehovah's Witnesses consider the conversion of Jews is of much greater value than converting anyone else.  Now that Israel houses the largest community of Jews in the world, Israel is an obvious target for them.

The issue has become very public over the past few weeks, with the Jehovah's Witnesses trying to hire a hall in the city of Ra'anana for their meeting.  Some have labelled the meeting as an annual conference or convention, and others have described it as a baptism for some of their recent converts.  The Municipality of Ra'anana initially declined the request for a municipal hall to be hired to them, and then acceded to their request.  Their agreement to rent out the hall was challenged in a district court by those opposed to the municipality allowing such a group to hold a meeting in its hall.  The court decided that Israeli democracy is the primary issue at stake here, and that the Jehovah's Witnesses are as entitled as anybody else to rent a municipal facility, and have their right to freedom of speech, religion and expression.  An appeal lodged with the Supreme Court of Israel upheld this decision, and the event was allowed to go ahead.

Many hundreds of Orthodox Jews turned out to protest against the event, and held prayers outside the hall in which the meeting took place.  There were even sporadic outbreaks of violence against the Jehovah's Witnesses and their supporters when they arrived at the hall.  While such an event being held in the midst of a Jewish city certainly represents a provocation to those living within the proximity of the event and in the city of Ra'anana, the Supreme Court of Israel has made its decision regarding the important issue of democracy and how this ought to be applied in our country.  It is, of course, the democratic right of all those who oppose this, to voice their opposition.  This should, however, be undertaken within the confines of what the law allows.  If that was not enough, members of the religious community in the city have turned on each other to make scapegoats out of those who are held responsible for allowing such an event to take place.

For me, the question was not about the work that the Jehovah's Witnesses are doing to try to convert Jews to their belief system, or about the municipality for allowing their meeting to take place here.  They are fully within their rights to do this, even though many are affronted by their efforts.  The greater question is why so many Jews feel that they are forced to find their spiritual fulfilment with the Jehovah's Witnesses.  Nobody observed any Jews being forced against their will to convert to the Jehovah's Witness belief system.  This indicates that these Jews are doing so out of their own choice.  It also indicates that they have rejected the possibility of finding their spiritual home within Judaism.  Instead of protesting against the work that the Jehovah's Witnesses are doing to convert Jews, the religious community should be asking themselves why Orthodox Judaism does not provide this home to its own people?

It seemed to me not to be coincidental that these events took place in the same week as the United Torah Judaism Party signed a coalition with the Likud to enter the new government.  This coalition agreement is sprinkled with concessions that the new government will make to give religious Jews certain rights that other citizens of Israel do not have.  There are also agreements that will ensure that government funding is allocated to religious groups and institutions at the expense of others.  When considering that Israel is currently experience a period of austerity when the government does not have funding available for additional requirements, and when considering the relatively small amount that Haredi Jews contribute to government coffers, this agreement is highly controversial amongst many Israelis.  To make matters worse, the agreement requires the reversal of legislation that was recently passed in the Knesset in an attempt to bring the treatment of ultra-Orthodox Israelis in line with everybody else.  It seems little wonder that there is such a large stigma attached to the notion of secular Israelis reconnecting with their religious roots when seeking spiritual fulfilment.  The behaviour of those who are the public face of these religious roots is so unattractive and opposite to anything that good, law-abiding people consider to be acceptable, that they would not wish to be associated with anything that these people represent.

It would appear as though the success of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Israel has little to do with the authorities permitting them to operate here, or decisions made by the Supreme Court.  If there was no public need or desire to listen to the alternatives that they offer, they would have left these shores a long time ago.  The fact that they continue to be successful in Israel says more about the religious alternatives that Judaism offers, than it says about those public officials who allow them to hold meetings in our municipal facilities.

Judaism certainly offers attractive alternatives to those who wish to seek it out.  In order to attract people to seek this out, people need to be attracted to those who practise this Judaism as much as they are attracted to the Judaism itself.  It is extremely unfortunate that the lie of the religious land in Israel favours the ultra-Orthodox community at the expense of the secular and modern Orthodox Jews.  And as much as Jewry offers many different strands for those who are interested to choose from, the headlines that are attracted by the negative activities of the ultra-Orthodox serve to drown out the good aspects that Judaism can offer.  The storm created by the Jehovah's Witness event is an easy scapegoat for the failure of Judaism to make itself attractive to its own people.  This is a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

  of proselytising has raised its head again in Israel following attempts by a group known as