November 22, 2014
Politics as crap shoot

The more we know about politics, the less we should try to explain anything, or propose how to solve problems that have proven to be insoluble.

What limits us is the great variety of influences on what happens next.

That makes politics and policymaking a crap shoot.

It's not only the economy, stupid, but culture (including religion), the personalities who have climbed to the top of government and its major components (e.g., the military, finance ministry, and other bureaucracies), as well as what happens outside national boundaries to impact on what happens inside.

Then there is the unexpected crisis, coming from who knows what. Arab youths often throw stones at the Israeli police without anything more important happening, until a particular set of circumstances sets in motion a spreading conflict.

The first intifada (from 1987) was set off by a traffic accident. Those occur several times a day, but this one served as a spark to produced wider protests and violence.

The second intifada was worse in producing many more casualties. Some say that it resulted from Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount. Others say that it came as a result of planning at the summit of the PLO, with Sharon's visit deemed a good excuse to begin the violence. Who knows for sure? Explanations are also a crap shoot, insofar as there are too many elements likely to be involved to allow any simple conclusion.

Not only explanation but proposals suffer from the abundance of things that can happen, and go wrong. Barack Obama and John Kerry should have known better than to try solving Israelis' disputes with the Arab neighbors, insofar as every other effort had failed since the Peel Commission of 1937. Borders, Jerusalem, and since 1948 refugees have been the repeated reasons for failure. Perhaps the major reason is Israel's very existence, and the inability of Muslim clerics and politicians to accept a country of infidels in what they see as their region.

At the same time, Israel has made considerable, perhaps amazing progress since 1948. Its accomplishments have come not from visionaries (although there have been many, who have protested what exists and proposed a wide range of possibilities) as much as from people with more limited aspirations working hard. The background of the Holocaust made its contribution, provoking the Jews to work together in order to avoid another disaster. Menachem Begin's surrender to the Labor Party's Hagana, rather than pursuing the cause represented by the Altelena was a landmark of political savvy. The collapse of the Soviet Union was an international event that impacted positively on Israel. It brought about a massive immigration of people who could contribute professionally in many fields, in contrast to the many people who came earlier needing more help than capable of making immediate contributions, such as refugees from the Holocaust or from lesser developed Middle Eastern countries.

Progress is more assured if proposals are limited, and realistic in terms of conditions. Idealism is good for discussions in class or among friends, but is usually a waste of time in politics. Improving water supplies by recycling waste, maintaining the quality of education, planning a road connection, moving a toxic but essential industry away from a populated area are the kinds of proposals that advance a country. Also important is maintaining the delicate balance between individual initiative, opportunity, social justice, and economic capacity.

Efforts to solve the hot button issues of Jerusalem or refugees have stumbled against religious and nationalist emotions, and are best avoided for the sake of both Jews and Muslims.

If modesty is the recipe, it is likely to come up against the egos that are an essential ingredient of political success. The result is that most proposals fail. The US Congress and the Israeli Knesset, as well as other national legislatures receive many times the number of proposals from individual members that they consider seriously, they consider seriously many more than they actually enact, and much of what is enacted is not implemented, or implemented only partly.

Getting policy to actually work is part of the crap shoot, affected by economic limitations, the resistance of bureaucrats, the continued opposition of interest groups and well-placed individuals, and unexpected crises that pull efforts in other directions.

Politics is the essence of civilization, and one of its major tasks is to filter out those proposals that may seem brilliant and idealistic to those who promote them, but come up against the contrary views of others, or limited resources, contrary international pressures, or happen to reach the agenda just before a crisis develops that takes the attention and energy of too many among those who matter.

There is no shortage of examples to illustrate these points from the countries best known to me and most of the people reading this.

The Temple Mount is a place that few Jews visit, and even fewer aspire to pray there or construct the Third Temple with all it means for animal sacrifices, animal rights activists, and environmental pollution. Yet it has descended on us now as one of the provocations of Arab unrest, due to some religious Jews wanting to pray (while other religious Jews avoid the place on the instruction of their rabbis), and some who want to build a Temple.

One should quarrel with Muslim claims of there never having been a Temple, and their own monopoly of rights. Some say that we are on the cusp of a religious war. Let's hope that such a prediction, like almost all others, will not come to pass.

We Jews, who enjoy, by some measures, the highest standards of living in this world, with the largest share of Nobels and other awards for our contributions to it, and the decent country of Israel, may benefit by objecting to Muslim nonsense about history, but not pressing our claims for a greater share of the otherworldly.

While it has proven impossible to reach agreement with the Palestinians, Israel has a valuable agreement with Jordan, which includes rights of the kingdom with respect to Muslim holy places in Jerusalem.

The ascendance of ISIS represents another crisis. We can argue if it resulted from Arab Spring, which itself got a boost from Barack Obama's naive idealism calling for equality and democracy in Cairo during 2009. Whatever its origin, the levels of barbarism associated with ISIS may yet mobilize an international military effort, work against or in favor of a Palestinian state (who knows the unfolding of the future?), or wind down in response to limited military action, procedures to discourage young idealists (including some Jews) from joining the ISIS cause, and sanctions to keep ISIS from selling Iraqi oil to Turkey, Jordan, and Iran.

Obamacare is another kind of event. It deserves praise as having been enacted after the failure of several presidents since Harry Truman to bring the US closer to western standards of medical care, Implementation has been messy, and falls short of the President's promises, but this is typical in the early years of major programs. Somewhere in the explanations are the political-cultural constraints of American individualism and free enterprise, federalism and the efforts of individual states to opt out of national programs, and what may be the impossibility of enacting a national health program without allowing profit-making insurance to take their cut of the pie..

What about the presence of Jews living over the 1967 borders? Is it realistic to expect some 300,000 of us in the post-1967 neighborhoods of Jerusalem to vacate for the sake of Palestine? And what about the other 300,000 living in small or large communities throughout the rest of the West Bank?

Israeli resistance to moving us is as hot an issue as the Palestinians' demand for the return of refugees and their descendants. It may be best to forget both about the refugees and the settlements, and to continue making limited arrangements that have a chance of improving the lives of both Palestinians and Israelis.

We can argue about all of these. Dispute prior to decision it at the heart of politics.

The point of this note is the follies or even dangers inherent in idealism. Faith and vision are somewhere at the center of our civilization. But pragmatism is also there, and we should remember that the road to hell is paved with intentions too good to work.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: +972-54-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 11:18 PM
November 20, 2014
A game changer?

The killing by two brothers of four Jews praying at a synagogue in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem--as well as a Druze police officer who came to their defense--has brought forth wide condemnation.

But it has been mixed with support for the carnage.

A Palestinian member of the Jordanian parliament passed a resolution demanding a moment of silence for the martyrs who died for Palestine, while the Jordanian government condemned the attack on Jews at prayer.

As always in matters of politics, religion, and emotions, it is a lot easier to pose questions than to know with any certainty about what will follow.

We can ask if this killing will be a game changer, but we cannot answer it with any confidence.

The parliament of Spain enacted a resolution, non-binding on the government, in favor of recognizing a Palestinian state shortly before the attack. That put the Spaniards on the same side as several other European parliaments and the government of Sweden, but the synagogue attack may dampen enthusiasm for Palestine. Moreover, Israeli authorities demonstrated the problems of recognizing a state surrounded by a hostile and more powerful state. They have delayed or prevented the entry of diplomats to Gaza and the West Bank, and rejected a proposal that New Zealand appoint a joint ambassador to Israel and Palestine.

The attack has also produced actions and proposals from Israelis to harden its responses to Palestinian violence. They will not all have a smooth process of approvals by the government, the government's legal adviser, and the courts, but they have been endorsed by a variety of ranking security personnel as well as some Knesset Members from centrist as well as right of center political parties.

What links them is a strategy of using the strong family ties among Muslims against individuals who may be willing to lose their own lives for the sake of Palestine, but may be less willing to cause significant loss to their families.

Among the proposals
To expedite the destruction of the family homes of terrorists, without the delays of months or years caused by judicial proceedings that serve to lessen the effect. This proposal has the widest support, extending up to the Prime Minister, and supported by security personnel who claim that it has proven effective in the past to dissuade those inclined to violence. Among the issues is whether to extend the destruction not only to the apartment of the terrorist, but to whole buildings that may include dwellings of the killer's extended family of parents, siblings, and cousins as well as unfortunate others. The US State Department has said that destroying a family apartment would not be effective, and be judged inappropriate as collective punishment. Nonetheless, Israel managed to finish with its procedures and destroyed the family apartment of the man who killed a baby at a train station with his car on October 22. Procedures are moving forward to destroy the homes of Jerusalem Arabs involved in two recent attacks, including the killijngs at the synagogue a few days ago, and the non-fatal shooting of a Temple Mount activist a week earlier.
Prevent the return of the bodies of those involved in killing, who were themselves killed by security personnel. This is meant to frustrate the funeral celebrations of martyrdom by Palestinians.
Tighten roadblocks and impose serious inspections of pedestrians and vehicles wanting to depart from problematic Arab neighborhoods, along with house to house searches and seizure of people active in violence, including children who were identified throwing stones. Critics say that the roadblocks and inspections are collective punishment and ineffective against terrorists who would leave their neighborhood by an unguarded path. Advocates say that collective punishment is the point, meant to employ the pressure of unhappy neighbors against potential troublemakers and their families.
Removing from family members of terrorists Israeli citizenship or residence permits that allow non-citizens to live in Jerusalem, expelling them to Palestinian areas and causing the loss of Israeli welfare and health benefits.
Ending the employment of Arabs. The Mayor of Ashkelon said that he would dismiss Arab personnel working in city kindergartens, in response to demands of parents. We hear that some businesses in Jerusalem have dismissed their Arab workers. These actions have been condemned as a step too far by Knesset Members and government ministers, and might run afoul of a municipality's capacity to find Jews willing to perform menial tasks. Ashkelon's mayor has already ratcheted down from his initial bombast, saying that he intended to re-hire Arab workers after the present tension subsides.
Prevent the transfer of resources to Palestinian families of those who have earned the status of martyrs, or who have had their homes destroyed by Israeli authorities. This may involve the assertion of Israeli banking controls against Arab banks with branches in Gaza and the West Bank, but that also do business with Israeli citizens or firms, and more intensive inspections of the cash carried by travelers who enter Palestinian areas. Such actions might not be easy to implement, but would not be beyond Israel's capacity if officials become serious about applying intense pressures.
Note that all these actions would be less than a full scale invasion of Palestinian areas of the West Bank, with destruction and casualties similar to those in response to the suicide bombings that began in late 2000, or as in Gaza during July-August of this year. Should suicide bombings begin and be traced to the West Bank, then the Palestinians of that area should prepare themselves for what happened in Gaza.

A new feature of our skyline is a balloon with camera, quieter than the helicopters that otherwise hover over Isaweea.

Along with proposals to respond more forcefully to Palestinian violence, there remains the view,widely expressed among security personnel, that this wave of violence has not reached the level of the intifada that began in 2000.

Those expressing the view note that even while Islamic organizations trumpet their support of Palestinian violence and call for more, there is no clear indication that the attacks have been planned and executed by organizations or the Palestine National Authority, as was the case for several years from 2000. Moreover, the violence has not spread significantly to Palestinian areas outside of Jerusalem and throughout the West Bank.

Mahmoud Abbas condemned the attack on the Jerusalem synagogue, but has refrained from campaigning against violence. Individual Palestinian journalists have also condemned the synagogue attack in Arabic-language media, but the more prominent themes in those media are support for violence to advance the cause of Palestine.

Jews' visits and demands to pray on the Temple Mount have been widely condemned among Muslims. Israeli Jews are divided on the issue. The Prime Minister, Defense Minister, and Foreign Minister, among others, have urged Jews to refrain from inciting Muslims via their prominent visits and demands for religious rights on the Temple Mount. However, Knesset Members associated with the government parties Likud and Jewish Home, including the leader of Jewish Home Naftali Bennett, have insisted on Jews' rights to share access to the Temple Mount with Muslims.

A week ago an Arab driver for the country's largest bus company was found dead in his bus. Police concluded that the cause of death was suicide. However, this has not prevented a campaign of incitement, claiming that Jews killed the driver.

As is characteristic of problematic cases of death, a Palestinian pathologist was asked to participate in the autopsy. He accepted the conclusion of suicide, but has avoided making any public comments to the effect in the Palestinian community.

The lack of actions by Abbas and the pathologist resemble what we have seen from other Palestinians who express their personal willingness to cooperate with Israelis, but are reluctant to speak out against intense community pressure. Arab friends tell me that they would vote in Jerusalem's municipal elections, but cannot act against their community. Some individuals from Palestinian neighborhoods participate in joint committees with the residents of nearby neighborhoods that are largely Jewish, but only on condition that their names or pictures not be publicized.

Some or all of the above may prove to be significant, or simply run over in what comes next in achieving a place in the history of where we are now.

Some may be thinking about Baruch Goldstein in connection with the synagogue killings. Goldstein killed 29 and wounded more than 100 Muslims worshiping in the mosque at the Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994, before he was overpowered and killed by those who he did not manage to kill. No different from the Muslims honoring killers as martyrs are the Jews who honor Goldstein by making annual pilgrimages to his grave. Different, however, is the wide condemnation in Israel of those Jews who view Goldstein as a hero.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: +972-54-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 08:36 PM
November 19, 2014
Innocents abroad

In 1869 Mark Twain published his impressions of Jerusalem in The Innocents Abroad. Along with frequent assertions of respect for the city's history and its meaning to him and many others, he described a general level of filth, disease and poverty that surpasses just about everything in the contemporary Third World.

"It seems to me that all the races and colors and tongues of the earth must be represented among the fourteen thousand souls that dwell in Jerusalem. Rags, wretchedness, poverty and dirt, those signs and symbols that indicate the presence of Moslem rule more surely than the crescent-flag itself, abound. Lepers, cripples, the blind, and the idiotic, assail you on every hand, and they know but one word of but one language apparently--the eternal "bucksheesh." . . . . Jerusalem is mournful, and dreary, and lifeless. I would not desire to live here. . .

Renowned Jerusalem itself, the stateliest name in history, has lost all its ancient grandeur, and is become a pauper village . . . "
I thought about Twain's travelog during a recent visit to that land where so many aspire to achieve residence.

It's been almost 40 years since I began my Israeli career. I've gone back to various parts of the US frequently, and for several long stays, but as I get older I find myself more like Twain than a native. I still read and speak the language, but I don't think American as much as I think Israeli.

Impressions of my former homeland are not the poverty, disease and filth that Twain found in my current city, but are the cultural or intellectual differences between where I call home and where I called home.

If Twain was an innocent abroad in the 19th century, there are Americans today who claim an interest and love for Israel, and are no less innocent.

On a recent trip I met a seemingly educated American who confused Israel with Iraq, due perhaps with both being far away, troubled, and beginning with the same letter. This time a friendly man who engaged me in conversation admitted that he had trouble distinguishing Palestine from Pakistan.

Most of us are parochial. Americans are known for an extreme case, seemingly because their country is so big, relatively self-sufficient, and weak on foreign language as well as international travel.

Just before this trip I encountered an American physician who had come to Jerusalem as a volunteer to treat Palestinian children. We met and started talking at a point in French Hill overlooking the entrance to the Shaufat "refugee camp." It hasn't been a refugee camp for many years, but the name fits with the Palestinian narrative.

We heard the shots of police tear gas guns and the occasional boom of a stun grenade. There was no problem of our safety, insofar as we were a hundred meters or so from the action, and on a cliff at least 50 meters higher. The most serious weapons were those of the police, and they were firing in another direction.

The physician had no idea what he was seeing. He asked if it was a training exercise. I began a lecture about recent commotions and what could be described as the battle below us between Palestinians throwing stones in the manner of David with his sling shot and fire bombs, and the response of the police with weapons of crowd control and occasionally something more deadly. I began to describe the Border Police as a tough outfit with recruits from poor Jewish neighbors, as well as Druze and Bedouin. The doctor may have heard about Bedouin, but had never heard about the Druze.

The Druze may not be part of the American experience, but are important in Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. Just a week ago, some 35 people were injured, some seriously, in a clash between Druze and Arabs (or "Palestinians") in the Galilee, set off by one of the periodic insults among young people perceived as requiring a violent retort.

The principal stimulus of this note is a document distributed for the sake of discussion about Israel that was to occur in a Seattle Temple just after my grandson's Bar Mitzvah.

I glanced at the document and left the room.

My jet lag may have had something to do with my lack of patience.

The format also put me off. The audience was divided into groups, asked to comment as to which of three items were more or less friendly to Israel.

It reminded me of the coddled education received at Wesleyan, when tuition in the 1950s was the princely sum of about $600 per year. It is now somewhere near $45,000. From the college's web site, I sense it continues to suffer from one of its prime defects.

It may be great that classes are small and all are encouraged to talk.

However, going on to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, I firmed up my preference for listening to teachers who knew something, instead of fellow students who knew how to express opinions, but didn't add much to my education.

In my jet lagged state, I was not up to hearing talk about the blather I read. It may have been written by authors who loved an idealized image of Israel, but they did not especially like Israelis.

If that was the case, it would be a mirror image of Israelis who value immigration (עליה) but cannot tolerate immigrants, or who idealize the US but have had bad experiences with Americans.

The item that reminded me of Mark Twain book about innocents abroad came from two Seattle activists in the New Israel Fund.

That's a left of center organization with a limited audience among Israeli Jews.

"The New Israel Fund (NIF) helps Israel live up to its founders' vision of a state that ensures complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants. Our aim is to advance liberal democracy, including freedom of speech and minority rights, and to fight inequality, injustice, and extremism that diminish Israel.

From Israel's first rape crisis centers, to the passage of the law banning torture in civilian interrogations, NIF- funded organizations have driven positive social change and furthered justice and equality. Widely credited with building Israeli progressive civil society, we have provided over $250 million to more than 850 organizations since our inception in 1979."
If the Fund's activities are widely credited with bringing progress, I suspect that the credit comes mostly from its activists. Its support in Israel might be measured by the 18 percent of Knesset Members affiliated with Labor and Meretz, or only a few of them.

Fighting extremism and Intolerance in Israel and Seattle focuses on the recent military operation in Gaza, claims a sharp increase in social division and incivility, including gender segregation in some shelters, the barring of Arabs from shelters, and a lack of shelters provided for Bedouin.

"This summer was hard for any supporter of Israel. As members of New Israel Fund's local leadership, we shared in the turmoil of Israel under fire and its terribly destructive response. . . .

During the war, already gaping societal divides in Israel were widened. When it was learned that some bomb shelters were being gender-segregated by religious extremists and that others barred Arab citizens at the door, New Israel Fund's civil society grantees mobilized. Some Bedouin citizens who serve proudly in the Israeli Defense Forces but live in unrecognized villages lacked shelters entirely. NGOs representing the best of Israeli society quickly sought legal action to remedy this, cleaned away racist graffiti, and strove with municipal leaders to protect all lives under fire. . . .

Though Iron Dome can intercept rockets fired at civilians, no machine can protect Israeli democracy. The forces of equality and tolerance in Israel are human: Israelis with liberal values. They face an uphill battle, but one that is not hopeless if we come to their aid."

Surveys moe reliable than the impressions of Seattle activists with the New Israel Fund have shown that Israelis were more united about the Gaza operation than about any military action since 1967. Thousands of rockets aimed at civilians served to limit anything that could be termed "anti-war," even among Meretz or Labor voters and MKs.

In all the news I read and heard, I missed any reports of gender separation or Arabs being barred from shelters. I Googled after reading the claims from Seattle and uncovered an issue of gender separation in Ashdod. It troubled the Rabbinate as much as it troubled the New Israel Fund. The Rabbinical Courts Administration ordered an end to any such practice.

The authors appear woefully ignorant of the problems encountered in serving Bedouin populations, not only in Israel, but elsewhere in the Middle East. A quick glance at Egypt ' s current civil war focused in the Sinai could be lesson #1.

Fighting extremism and Intolerance in Israel and Seattle is a close cousin to the la la view of the world that led George W. Bush to destroy Saddam Hussein, his government and military in the hope of bringing democracy to Iraq, Barack Obama's Cairo speech calling for equality and democracy that helped along Arab Spring, which has morphed into the barbarism of ISIS, and the Obama-Kery-Indyk obsession to do with Israel and Palestine what had proved impossible time and again since 1937.

As a Jew and an Israeli, I not only tolerate dispute. I admire it as the essence of our culture. But tolerance reaches it's limit in the presence of ignorance.

To describe Israel as divided about the Gaza operation is false, as shown by one survey after another. To worry primarily about shelters for the Bedouin is to overlook efforts--and frustration--to integrate the various tribes into locatinos that respect for the landscape and environment.

Blather is part of the Jewish condition. While enjoying our culture, and Israel's democratic tolerance for dispute, we must pay the price of what seems to be some combination of intense ideology and ignorance of Middle Eastern realities. It is the work of innocents who look abroad, do not live abroad, and may not travel as widely as Mark Twain.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 02:16 AM
November 15, 2014
Goyim or Gentiles?

I have known Dick Sharkansky since my first memory. Our families lived for a while in the same building on Belmont Street, and sometime during our second year, I'm pretty sure that he bit my finger . He may have a differ set of memories. We were in the same classes from about fifth grade through high school.

Dick went the route of engineering and law, and we've drifted apart and gotten closer together over a half century or so.

What prompts this note is Dick's complaint about my using the word "goyim" in my notes.

I replied that the word has a pedigree of at least 2500 years in Hebrew. Among its first of many appearances in the Hebrew Bible is a passage in Genesis.

"Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, "As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations (גוים). " (Genesis 17:3)

Dick responded with what I knew well, that "goyim" is not necessarily neutral, and has been used by Jews as a derogatory term for non-Jews. Moreover, he pointed out that I was writing in English for an English speaking audience.

Among the complications is that the Biblical origins of goyim make clear that it means "nations," and is also employed to include the Jews, as in the passage above from Genesis.

No doubt I'm on slippery turf. That's not necessarily a problem. I've been there often in my career as learner and teacher. Here, too, there is something to learn and to teach.

My fascination with ethnicity goes back to Fall River. As a Jew I learned early on about insiders and outsiders. It may have helped that Fall River was a city of outsiders. Working class Portuguese, French Canadians, Poles, English, Italians, and middle class Jews who owned stores or small factories were most of the population. Thinking themselves on top were a few remnants of the WASP upper class who had owned the cotton mills that had long ago surrendered to competition from the lower wage South.

As a boy in a largely middle class neighborhood, I was wary of the "other," especially the Portuguese who lived "below the hill." I don't remember knowing any Portuguese kids in the Highland School. It was only in Junior High School when I began making multi-cultural friends and fantasizing about their beautiful girls. Later I chose The Portuguese of Fall River as the subject of my BA thesis at Wesleyan, which led me to survey their social and political developments over the course of some 80 years, and to interview the priests in the Portuguese parish churches as well as other prominent figures in the community.

The upper crust Protestants who dominated Wesleyan were as different from my roots as were the ethnics I encountered in Junior High School. Then years in Wisconsin, the Deep South on the cusp of integration, back to Wisconsin, with subsequent long stays in East Africa, South Africa, Australia, Utah, shorter stays in lots of other places, along with more half my life in Jerusalem have combined to make me sensitive and appreciative of the human variety.

Long before the recent note from Dick Sharkansky, the trait has gotten me into trouble.

When I made a point of expressing my pleasure about the Israelis of Iraqi origin who made their way to our family, I heard from several of my loved ones that I was causing problems. Against charges of insensitive arrogance I had a sense of pride that individuals derived from the riches of Judaism as it developed in Iraq (בבל) and produced the Babylonian Talmud (תלמוד בבלי) that is the essence of modern Judaism, and had also contributed to kids who are my nephews, nieces, and grandchildren. However, I was told that I was reminding the Iraqis of their marginal status among the European aristocracy of Israel.

Nonsense. We are all Jews. How can the grandchildren of less than estimable shtetles claim higher status than Iraqis, North Africans, Turks, or who else?

You're an Anglo-Saxon, I was told. You can't understand.

Anyone who called me an Anglo-Saxon in Wesleyan would have been laughed into the gutter.

Not all encounters with others are pure pleasure. Like other Israelis, I have acquired friends among Israeli Arabs/Palestinians, some of them my former students. Yet the frontier between cultures is greater than among ethnics in Fall River. Beyond personal rapport, it is obvious that a rift separates these communities that has defied the efforts of the best and the brightest to produce accord.

I'm drafting this on our way to Seattle, to celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of senior grandson David. His other grandfather, who I sadly never had the opportunity to meet, was Professor of Korean language at Michigan State University.

I see my task on this occasion to talk about the openness and opposition among Jews to outsiders. We are not only a religion but a people, whose religion is tribal, both open to outsiders and suspicious of them.

I will note that David's portion, חיי שרה includes the passage about Abraham being an outsider in a land that was not his own; that the Moabite Ruth was the great grandmother of David, and an episode from the Book of Ezra describes his effort--with limited sucess--to combat intermarriage.

David may be fated to be an outsider. I've been an outsider since my beginnings in Fall River, over the course of 10 years in Madison, Wisconsin, 40 years in Jerusalem, as well as in Nairobi, Melbourne, Kabul, Pretoria, Provo, Seoul, and elsewhere.

Looking backward over more that three quarters of a century, I think I've gained more than I suffered as an outsider, and I wish no less for David and others like him.

Will I continue to employ "goyim" in my notes, or revert to the more politically correct "Gentiles?" Maybe a bit of both, with this note meant to assert that no insult is intended.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 06:03 AM
November 10, 2014
Deja vu

The Arabs/Palestinians of Israel and the West Bank have another martyr that justifies continuing their wave of demonstrations that began when? Maybe with the recent wave of Jews going demonstrably to the Temple Mount. Now it's a young man, Kheir al-Din Hamdan, killed by the police in the village of Kfar Kana. According to the videos we've seen time and again he emerged from a larger demonstration, seemingly in the height of ecstasy or fury, with a large knife in his hand, yelling Allah Akhbar, and banging on a police van. Three officers came out of the van, the young man may have turned to leave, there was shooting, he was dragged into the police vehicle, and is said to have bled to death.

There may be a legitimate question as to whether the police fired when their lives were in danger. An investigation continues. The context was one of several days of violence, with stones, fire bombs and fireworks shot toward the police at various points points in Jerusalem, elsewhere in Israel and in the West Bank. When the police shot, it is conceivable that they felt themselves in danger. If the demonstrator happened to turn his back before the actual shot, it was a matter of seconds. It will not be an easy call.

Nonetheless, Arabs are calling murder, and justifying days of rage, mass strikes, marches, and more demonstrations of the same kind.

There has been at least two stabbing incidents. Along with plowing into pedestrians with a car, these appear to be the currently stylish ways of individuals expressing their rage. So far, they are still being called individual acts, and not something orchestrated by any higher source. On account of them being individuals, some of whom have seemed to live unremarkable lives until seized by a passion to kill Jews, without a support organization that plans and helps with transport and weaponry, they escape the network of informants managed by security units.

Outside agitators? Probably more likely inside agitators, with Hamas and Jihad leaning Israeli and Palestinian Islamists, including several Arab Members of Knesset, leading the incitement. They are linking the "murder" of in Kfar Kana, to Jews' desecration of al-Aqsa Mosque by their presence on the Temple Mount.

The history of Kfar Kana adds to the emotions. The Border Police opened fire on residents returning home from their fields on October 29, 1956. The residents were not aware that a curfew had been declared. Forty-three people were killed in the initial incident, and another six in clashes that lasted through the evening. President Rivlin spoke at the anniversary of the incident last week. He called it a "terrible crime," and said that "The Arab population in Israel is not a marginal group . . . We are destined to live side by side and we share the same fate."

Intifada or not, a change is likely to come if buses and restaurants start exploding along with their suicide bombers. Should that happen, then it probably won't be too long before buildings in the West Bank begin to explode. Some Palestinian cities may look, once again, like those of their cousins in Gaza.

Arabs are likely to lose a lot more than Jews, which may be keeping Fatah, Hamas, and other organizations from doing more than encouraging individuals to act on their own. Meanwhile, Arabs as well as Jews are suffering from the prospect of violence close at home and its consequences.

Recent incidents contribute to Israelis' sense of encirclement. Prominent is the recognition of a Palestinian state by Sweden, and the threats of other European countries to join the movement. Among those adding to the mood are spokespeople associated with the White House, who report that they hear from several Europeans that their governments are about to recognize Palestine. The claim, perhaps acceptable in the White House, is that such actions will spur the parties to respond to another Obama-Kerry initiative.

We've been here. We've done this. Who knows how many times?

Each Palestinian death is a time for screaming women, threats of revenge, prominent Palestinians urging more, and claiming justification for doing away with Israelis beyond the 1967 borders or altogether..

Not too long ago it was Hamas' celebration of civilian deaths in Gaza, at least some of them caused by using human shields for their munitions and military actions, with photography and reports about the carnage required for the journalists allowed by Hamas to operate in Gaza.

No doubt there'll be Americans and others, including Jews, who compare the incident in Kfar Kana to what happened in Jefferson, Missouri, demand holding the police responsible, and concluding that Israel has earned the condemnation of the world.

Against that is the view that anyone who participates in a violent demonstration is risking injury or death. Crowds, noise, smoke, the screaming of curses, wielding a large knife, stones, fire bombs or other weapons within a few inches of security personnel stretches their capacity to respond exactly as trained.

Early on, the Prime Minister exonerated the police. A professional inquiry is yet to conclude, and will determine what comes next from Israeli officials.

As I'm writing this note, there is a balloon with camera above Isaweea, and most likely other activity alongside or above the problematic neighborhoods of Jerusalem.

Perhaps the larger violence throughout the region (Syria and Iraq, with Egypt having to act against Hamas and their Bedouin allies in the Sinai and in the heart of its country), as well as Ukraine and Russia, will feed into the thinking of European and American governments, and take more attention than Israel and Palestine from international media. Yet Israel is its own magnet, not the least on account of its openness to media and the decency of accommodations available to journalists.

There is an element of pro forma in some demonstrations. Several have passed quickly with chants but limited screaming and no bloodshed. Their participants went back to work, to coffee houses, or to their classrooms. Most Israeli Arabs and Palestinians of the West Bank and Jerusalem appear to appreciate what Israel provides to them, even those they express the sense of being second class citizens, and object to what they may view has unjust hostility from the police. As in previous periods of tension, individual Jews have been saved from the prospect of severe injury or lynching by individual Arabs. Why? Humanity, or an Arab's calculation of the harm that would befall the community in the case of a killing.

The condition of Israeli Arabs/Palestinians in the context of Israeli Jews is not all that different from that of African Americans.

We can hope that calm will return, rather than individual acts develop into a mass uprising. And that we'll have some time until the next event useful as a trigger to be employed by those always anxious to incite Palestinians violence. Fatah joins the agitation, even while defending itself from Hamas.

The Paradise expected by those looking forward to the Messiah is not at our door. We'll continue with the Jewish experience, until it becomes the turn of the next generation of commentators.
We're about to depart for a brief rest from the land of half-hourly news broadcasts and several profound media commentaries each day. Enjoy the holiday from my notes.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: +972-54-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 07:47 PM
November 09, 2014
Chief Rabbis

Both Chief Rabbis are in the news, doing their part to soothe or disturb in different corners of the complex phenomenon that is Judaism.

The Sephardi Chief Rabbi has weighed in on the issue of the Temple Mount, and has aroused the ire of Naftali Bennett, head of what considers itself a religious political party (Jewish Home) by insisting that Jews stay away from the place. His reasons are partly theological, but more pointedly in the rabbinic tradition to avoid arousing the goyim.

The Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi has spoken out forcefully against those who are not Jewish according to Orthodox law, but who--in the view of this Chief Rabbi--are threatening Israel with what may be 15 or so million people who can claim a Jewish grandparent, thereby qualify for the Law of Return and could come and ruin the economy with their welfare demands. But many or not most of them are well-to-do. The rabbi does not mention that the real economic threat against Israel are the hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox already in the country, who are threatening its economy by virtue of their welfare demands, their insistence that that their countless children do not learn anything useful, and do little more than grow up to have more children, grandchildren etc etc who learn nothing practical and demand free meals and housing for endless generations.

Both Chief Rabbis are the sons of former Chief Rabbis, which is one insight into the politics involved in their selection. Also in the closet of the Chief Rabbinate is one predecessor said to be a womanizer, and another said to have an inclination toward little boys. The previous Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Yona Metzger, has been charged with bribery, money laundering and income tax violations.

There are lots of reasons for bribing a chief rabbi. An industrial importer, or an Israeli industry may want a flexible inspection of what is kowher. And a rich father might want his less than qualified son appointed to a distinguished post under the control of the Chief Rabbi.

Chief Rabbis have also sullied the reputation of their office by selling their willingness to officiate at the weddings of the rich and famous of Israel and Jewish communities abroad. Some of those extravaganzas rival the wedding scene in Goodbye Columbus for their tasteless opulence.

The Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef is certifiably ultra-Orthodox, being the son of Ovadia Yosef, the iconic founder of SHAS. His comments about provoking the goyim came at the funeral of a yeshiva student, the grandson of a senior Sephardi rabbi and a member of its rabbinic council, who died from injuries suffered in the most recent case of a Palestinian driving into a group of people waiting at a light rail station. According to Rabbi Yitzhak, it was provocation of the Muslims by misguided and extremist Jews wanting to expand Jew's rights on the Temple Mount that led to the boy's death.

The Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, David Lau, son of former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, currently Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, well-known as a Holocaust survivor and Chairman of Yad Vashem, fits in the category of Hardal. This is a recently created amalgam of Haredi and Mafdal (the name of the Orthodox party that melded into Jewish Home), signifying a posture with Orthodox roots but that has moved toward the ultra-Orthodox.

The Chief Rabbis sit atop bureaucracies and courts of rabbis with branches in every Israeli city with a population of Jews. Its various offices deal with matters crucial to our personal lives and the national economy. Inspectors of kashrut affiliated with the Rabbinate approve or question details of food processing in some of the country's major industries and in every restaurant and hotel that wants a certificate of kashrute to hang prominently on its wall. Rabbinical bureaus certify Jews as entitled to marry in Israel, and send rabbis to officiate at the ceremony. The Rabbinate along with the Ministry of Health provides trained and licensed mohelim (circumcizers) who in almost every case will perform one of Judaism's most ancient rites while leaving the baby able to enjoy his masculinity in years to come. Rabbinical courts provide Israel's principal option for Jewish couples who wish to separate from one another, divide their assets and access to their children.

Judaism being what it is, there are several options to all of the above.

Some of them exist to the right of the official Rabbinate. The ultra-Orthodox seek to control the election of Chief Rabbis at the same time that they ignore their rulings. They rely on their own rabbis, with each community having its hierarchy of who knows how they bestow the title of most learned, or most esteemed student and judge of the law. There are also institutions of kashrut that compete with that of the official Rabbinate, with claims (for which they charge the industries, restaurants, and hotels), that they of more reliable in insisting that the food and wine of the faithful meets every jot and tittle of religious law. Look at a bottle of kosher wine from Israel, and see at least three certificates of kashrut.

A bit to the left of the Rabbinate are organizations of Orthodox rabbis who seek to serve Israel's secular majority. They offer help in maneuvering through the hoops of the Rabbinate to obtain a marriage license, send rabbis to officiate at weddings who are known for personalities and flexibility likely to please a crowd not enthusiastic about an overly heavy dose of religious ritual, and make it clear that they do not charge for the service. Orthodox rabbis also work against their more assiduous colleagues to ease the processes of Orthodox conversion to Judaism, and speak out against those who take extreme positions on issues concerned with the status of women.

And for those of us who wish even more separation from the religious establishment, Israel facilitates overseas marriages (among Jews or with who cares what antecedents) and divorces via civil officials, which the Interior Ministry registers as official with no inquiry into whether the rabbis might approve. There are also secular family courts that take some of the misery about a former couple's property and children from the rabbinical courts.

There is a rich tradition enjoyed by secular Jews who take pride in a culture without rabbis. It may be a historical stretch to see their line going back to the Hellenized Jews who are among the bad guys in the Chanukah story. Yet most modern Jews--even those who pray according to Orthodox rites on their way to work in universities or high tech industry--are Hellenized in their education and analytic culture. Look under the kipot, or at successful Jews who are not religious, and you'll find individuals who are more Greek than Judaic in the way they think.

The bastions of non-Orthodox religious Jews in the Diaspora, mostly the Reform and Conservative congregations of the United States, have not made significant inroads with Israelis who have distanced themselves from the Rabbinate. We're not looking for another religion is the response of secular Israelis who reject approaches by the non-Orthodox.

Intermarriage may be a threat. Likewise, the Palestinians, ISIS, and the naivete of Barack Obama and John Kerry. The Chief Rabbis and their establishments, along with their competitors among Women of the Wall and non-Orthodox rabbis are not a threat, but for many they are a nuisance. Thinking in history, the list of what has threatened or only annoyed Jews is a long one.

We should not relax, but Jews may not know how to relax.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: +972-54-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 08:09 PM