June 18, 2010
Us and them

It is appropriate to ponder the significance of one hundred thousand ultra-Orthodox demonstrating in demand of their independence from the Israeli judiciary. While the Sephardim suffer discrimination in the ultra-Orthodox communities dominated by Ashkenazim, only a few of their leaders made that point. It was more common for prominent Sephardi rabbis and politicians to join hands with the Ashkenazim, overlook their plight, and insist on religious freedom from the hostile judges of the secular state.

Only about half of the parents ordered to jail actually arrived there. Most of the women disappeared while seemingly on their way. The police ordered a search, but prosecutors were considering a cancellation of their arrest orders. Appeals were being prepared to free all of the parents. Sabbath intervened. The police would not dare go after ultra-Orthodox mothers on the sacred day of rest.

What does this mean for the nature of Israel? Is there nothing the state can do to impose its orders on some 10 percent of the Jewish population? Due to their weight alongside the chronically balanced secular parties, must we continue to fund schools that discriminate ethnically, and do not teach what people need in order to support themselves in a modern society, all the while numbers creep upward as they cleave to "be fruitful and multiply," and they refuse to participate in the defense of a society beset by hostile others?

It is not easy to govern Israel. Alongside tensions and worse that come from Israeli Arabs, those of surrounding countries and their international supporters are the more prominent domestic tensions between the secular majority, the ultra-Orthodox minority, and floating "traditional" and "Orthodox" communities that can shift to support the ultra-Orthodox in behalf of Judaism.

The Zion conceived by Theodore Herzl was a lot simpler. He came only gradually to recognize the weight of Eastern European Jewry, more religious than the assimilated Western European Jews with whom he identified. He was even less aware of Jews from North Africa, Iraq, Yemen, and Iran, who have come to be a majority in modern Israel. There is no sign that he thought about Jews of Ethiopia, or that he contemplated the problem of Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox who insist to keep themselves apart from Sephardi ultra-Orthodox at a time when the larger society has moved beyond the acceptance of ethnic segregation.

Israel adheres to the rules of democracy and the nuances of politics. The results are seldom applauded widely and generally invite criticisms of being "undemocratic." Insofar as democracy pertains more to rules of the game than the nature of results, we can expect a democratic treatment of this latest hiccup in our national history.

Institutions will recognize the power of communities that can produce 100,000 demonstrators, and keep them in order on a hot day with nothing more untoward than a few cases of fainting and dehydration.

Cosmetic changes are more predictable than extensive reform in the management and finance of schools. Plans are underway for the government to spend more money to expand the colleges that serve the ultra-Orthodox community. The purpose is to induce them into a mode of higher education that will prepare them for work rather than to force them out of the religious academies. The IDF has programs to expand its recruitment of the ultra-Orthodox into units that are useful to the military while also accommodating their special needs.

Demographic projections are notoriously problematic. The ultra-Orthodox may not be impervious to economic constraints, and the support they receive from the state has never been more than what allows voluntary poverty. There is always a drift out of the community for personal reasons, as well as a drift into the community by individuals coming from secular Jewish and non-Jewish backgrounds.

These fingers will never see the distant future. We must leave some issues for later generations. The most we can do is to teach them Jewish lessons of coping with constraints, and not giving into the temptation of rushing the Messiah. He/She will come when appropriate.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 09:52 PM
June 17, 2010
The mother of all demonstrations

The ultra-Orthodox (or Haredim=God fearing) promised the "Mother of all demonstrations."

This does not signal the spread of feminism. The expression may have come from Saddam Hussein's proclamation of the "Mother of all Battles" when the United States invaded Iraq in 1991. The guess is problematic, insofar as the Haredim assert that they do not watch television or pay attention to other secular media, and many of them may not know that Iraq exists. Babylon is something else. It was crucial to Jewish history when its soldiers conquered Jerusalem 2,600 years ago, and again when its rabbis produced the Talmud that remains the heart of Orthodox Judaism.

This Mother of demonstrations derives from a decision of the Supreme Court requiring the jailing for 10 days of Ashkenazi Haredi parents who refused to send their children to school along with Sephardi children. The decision initially caused a demonstration of a hundred or so Haredim in the Supreme Court chamber. They prayed, danced, and cursed the State of Israel and its institutions.

The school in question is supported with government funds, but the parents and their rabbis insist on deciding who can attend. Reports have not indicated if it is one of the numerous ultra-Orthodox schools that also refuse to accept the demands of the Education Ministry to include basic instruction in mathematics, language and science along with sacred texts.

This incident came a day after another Supreme Court decision against the payments made to adult Haredi men who study in religious academies, and about the same time as a Haredi demonstration against a construction project in Jaffa that was going forward despite the discovery of ancient graves. The demonstration in Jaffa was as violent as the Haredim are likely to get. Five policemen and a number of demonstrators required medical treatment.

In preparation for a march by thousands of Haredim who promised to accompany the parents to jail, the police assembled their own thousands, closed the route of the march and adjascent streets to vehicular traffic, and urged Jerusalemites to stay at home. Emergency Medical Services went on high alert.

Lawyers asked the Court to modify its arrest order to include only one parent in each family, so that the second parent could remain home to care for the many children, and to excuse both parents where there is a handicapped child in the family. The group that brought the suit--Religious Jews Against Discrimination--asked the Court to delay its order to jail the parents--which came after months of trying to negotiate a settlement--until after the weekend in order to give more time to arrange a settlement agreeable to all. The parents rejected the delay, and said that they would go to jail as an expression of faith in the God of Israel.

The Haredim are a minority comprising some 10 percent of Israel's Jews, heavily concentrated in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak. Their demonstrations are noisy and disturb traffic, but their violence is seldom life threatening. The police and courts treat them more gently than they treat restive Arabs.

Ultra-Orthodox activists describe judges and the police as Nazis or something else taken from the rich Jewish memory of savage tyrants.

Many Israeli Jews who are not ultra-Orthodox can be swept toward support of them if the police act with excessive force. What that amounts to is not easy to decide when any action provokes loud prayers in behalf of God's protection, and curses directed at the authorities.

A popular web site asked readers about the decision of the Supreme Court. Of 6,500 respondents, 12 percent chose the response, "Justified. It is not acceptable that the parents violate a court decision against racism;" 88 percent chose the response, "Mistaken. The decision reflects the opposition of the Court to the Haredim."

Estimates of the numbers involved in the marches range from 50,000 to 150,000 in Jerusalem, and 15,000 in Bnei Brak. Medical personnel treated numerous cases of fainting and dehydration. http://news.walla.co.il/?w=//1687969 It will take some time to sift through the estimates of how many marchers were Sephardim. It is their daughters refused admission to the school run by the Ashkenazi Haredim of Emanual.

Ashkenazi rabbis claim that the judges did not give them a fair hearing, and violate "democracy" despite numerous sittings of lower and higher courts, and postponements that tried unsuccessfully to reach an accommodation. Rabbis that the Sephardim do not adhere to their standards of observance pertaining to kashrut and modesty of dress. Most refused to detail their claims, but one said that Sephardi girls do not button their dresses right up to the top.

The most prominent justification of their rejection of the court order is an insistence on the right to decide on their own children's education, and to follow decisions of rabbis who they see as superior to any secular authority.

Secular broadcasters had a field day interviewing leaders in the Sephardi Haredi community. Stuttering, mumbling, or hemming and hawing are the best descriptions of their responses. They did not break ranks with the Ashkenazi Haredim, stood with them on the priority of rabbinic rule, and urged continued efforts at discussion rather than court involvement as the way to deal with the controversy. The leader of the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Party SHAS expressed pride in his movement's own school system, and urged the government to increase funding for all ultra-Orthodox schools.

Mother of all demonstrations, or the onset of a Long Hot Summer? Payments for adult students at religious academies? Protection of those graves found at the Jaffa construction site? Continued segregation of Ashkenazi and Sephardi pupils in Emanual? The authority of the Supreme Court? Who knows what else will roil this otherwise placid country.

Opps. What about the Gaza blockade and the peace process?

They were last week's crises. And maybe those of the week after next.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 06:10 AM
June 15, 2010
Arabs, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and other residents of Jerusalem

Jerusalem's population is 764,000. Groups with high political salience are 269,000 Arabs (35 percent), and an estimated 155,000 ultra-Orthodox.

The Arabs have great prominence among overseas watchers of Jerusalem, but opt out of local politics by boycotting municipal elections. Almost none of them accepted Israeli citizenship when it was offered after 1967, and the vast majority refuse to exercise their rights, as residents, to vote in local elections. The ultra-Orthodox vote largely as their rabbis instruct, and turn out at levels exceeding 80 percent in local elections. Insofar as the turnout of other Jews seldom reaches 30 percent in local elections, the ultra-Orthodox can make their 30 percent of the city's Jewish population into a major force. They elected one of their own as mayor in 2003. Their rabbis split in 2008 and lost the office to a secular Jew.

Overseas media focus on Jerusalem as the meeting point of three faiths, and as a flash point in the conflict between Jews and Arabs. Incidents sure to gain prominence are those concerned with the Old City and especially the Temple Mount (or Nobel Sanctuary/Haram esh Sharif) and Western Wall, the movement of Jews into Arab neighborhoods, and Arab claims that their neighborhoods are denied a fair share of municipal resources.

Despite their international prominence, Jewish-Arab tensions do not appear at the top of the local agenda. Staying out of politics has its impact. In democratic settings, groups get benefits by voting. If they do not vote, they do not get. Jews avoid Arab neighborhoods without thinking much about it. The contacts with Arabs in professional and managerial settings, the mixture of Arabs and Jews among university students, and the limited number of Arab residents in Jewish neighborhoods generally occurs without incident. Things may heat up during periods of violence, but the peak of the most recent intifada passed five years ago. Arab friends stayed away from the university gym during last year's invasion of Gaza, but they returned to share space and banter.

Local tensions involving ultra-Orthodox Jews are more prominent and persistent. Distinctive dress assures their notice. They are more aggressive and more "in our face" in making their demands. Demonstrations are likely to be in places that matter to other Jews. Although serious analysis may not support the stereotype, it is widely claimed that the ultra-Orthodox use their voting power to gain an undue share of resources. Topics of complaint include the per-child payments to large families, payments to adult men who avoid work for study in religious academies, small classes and transportation for ultra-Orthodox primary schools, the almost universal avoidance by the ultra-Orthodox of military service, the spread of ultra-Orthodox families into neighborhoods that had been secular, then the demands of the ultra-Orthodox to close roads on the Sabbath and religious holidays, campaigns against secular newspapers, the noise of television, non-kosher food, and "immodest" clothing.

Ultra-Orthodox activities come in waves, sparked by an individual rabbi, politician, or other figure who succeeds in making an issue out of something that generally passes unnoticed. The early evening is the time to block major streets, burn trash containers, and tussle with the police. Demonstrations can come when there is a demand for an autopsy in the case of a suspicious death, the police intervene in a family accused of child abuse, an advertising poster features a woman in short sleeves, a shop too close to an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood sells pork, or a parking garage opens on the Sabbath. The ultra-Orthodox Knesset Member with responsibility for the Health Ministry made a national case out of the plan to construct a new emergency room at the hospital in Ashkelon. On account of ancient graves he felt could be Jewish, he ordered the facility to be built 300 meters from the hospital.

The ultra-Orthodox can make life difficult, but they do not dominate. Their campaigns generally get attention for several days, or weekends in the case of a Sabbath issue. They lost the struggle about the parking garage that opened on the Sabbath for tourists who visit the Old City, and the struggle over the emergency room at the Ashkelon hospital. A court imposed considerable restrictions on an ultra-Orthodox mother convicted of child abuse.

It is too early to guess the outcome of the most recent event. The Supreme Court dithered for 10 years before it ruled in favor of a case brought by former member of the Jerusalem City Council (who has since died) and a single mother (who has since received her Masters degree). They sued in behalf of university students denied the financial payments made to adult males who study in ultra-Orthodox religious academies. The Court agreed that the allocations violated principles of equality found in "basic law". Basic laws are labeled as such, and enjoy constitutional status in this country without a formal constitution. The lack of a constitution, and the device of basic laws that represent a constitution in everything but name owes a good deal to the insistence of the ultra-Orthodox. They oppose anything that might claim higher status than Torah.

The Court has not ordered the immediate halt to the payments received by adult students in ultra-Orthodox academies, but indicated that they cannot continue beyond the present budget without the enactment of a basic law.

Ultra-Orthodox Knesset Members are flexing their muscles. We will see if they can leverage their 15 Members of Knesset into an action that will attract more attention than conventional legislation. The decision may have come too late for an immediate bonfire of trash containers, but there is always another evening.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 12:01 AM
June 11, 2010
Israelis express themselves on Gaza

Of Israel's major newspapers, Ha'aretz is the least friendly to the present government. It is also the most likely to criticize the lack of empathy for Palestinian interests that it finds among officials and the population.

The journalist who wrote a long article in the weekend edition could have been referring to colleagues when he described how the local media "threw fire and brimstone on the national leadership" in connection with the interdiction of the flotilla to Gaza. The same sentence repeated what several previous editions of the paper had emphasized, that "the world turned its back to us."

The article was short of a mea culpa, but reported a survey commissioned by the paper, and conducted by a reputable organization.

It showed a large majority (59% against 25%) feeling that the blockade of Gaza was more useful than harmful, and a similar percentage giving high marks to the national leadership as a result of the interdiction: 57%, as opposed to 37%. A higher percentage of the respondents indicated that they would vote Likud if there was an election now than actually voted Likud in the most recent election (33% against 27%). The combined vote of the left of center parties, Labor and Meretz, would decline to 13%, compared to 16% in the most recent election..

Respondents took a strong stand against the Arab Knesset Member who sailed with the flotilla, and was outspoken against the interdiction. Thirty-eight percent would revoke her citizenship and 34 % would remove some of her privileges as a Knesset Member. Only 11% would not punish her.

The author of the article was not happy with the results. He wrote in his opening paragraph, ". . . more such flotillas, more Turkish bodies floating on the sea, and Netanyahu's popularity will reach the level of his predecessor's during the the second Lebanon war." Then he was more hopeful about what might happen to Netanyahu. "But that did not last long. Olmert's fall was quick and painful."

One can exaggerate the importance of a survey, or the weight of a journalist who editorializes while writing a news story. The material in the article reinforces one's view of Ha'aretz as the country's best newspaper, read by the economic, political, and intellectual elites, but having to be filtered for a marked tilt to the left. It is no surprise that Ha'aretz put the story about the poll it commissioned in an inner section of the paper, rather on the front page where it has featured criticism of the blockade of Gaza and the operation against the flotilla.

The poll results ought to penetrate the awareness of Israelis and outsiders who are singing the songs of Israel stupid and evil.

There is not a population in another western democracy with the Israelis' experience of serving in the military, and being exposed to a constant flow of news and commentary about national security and how the country is viewed by others. In the case of the current survey, skeptics can say that support for national leaders generally increases during a crisis, no matter whether the leadership handles the crisis well or poorly. No doubt that most soldiers have a worm's eye view of military action, and former soldiers are even less aware of all the considerations that go into strategic planning. Yet compared to what other populations know about the Middle East, Israelis deserve a hearing.

That being said, current public opinion will not determine policy here any more than it does in other stable democracies. Elected officials and senior professionals make the the crucial decisions. They pay attention to public opinion, but also ponder a range of other considerations.

Popular views about the Arab MK who participated in the flotilla are unlikely to produce a Knesset majority in favor of revoking her citizenship. If some MK's do promote a campaign to remove her citizenship or expel her from the Knesset, they are not likely to overcome the weight of the Supreme Court's bias in behalf of free expression.

Except for explicit cases of Arab politicians dealing with the enemy in wartime, the Court has been more protective of them than of Jewish extremists. The Court did not act against a Knesset measure to deny Rabbi Meir Kahane's Kach Party the right to run for election on account of incitement, while the Court struck down similar actions against an Arab party. A critic of the MK who sailed on the flotilla and other Arab MKs was not entirely off base when he asked how the United States Congress would respond to propagandists for the Taliban serving in the House or Senate.

No one in their right mind should expect the United Nations, or even J-Street to bend in response to an Israeli poll showing support for the Gaza blockade.

Perhaps we can hope that the leaders of other western democracies and commentators will at least pause in their rush to indict, and consider the possibility that Israelis may know their situation well enough to deserve a hearing.

Some of you may be optimistic.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 11:52 PM
June 10, 2010
Impartial inquiry? Not in Israel's case.

The current mantra is, "Israel cannot investigate itself." That is, an Israeli investigation will not satisfy those who sign on to one or another of what antagonists call the "Flotilla fiasco," "State terror," "Attack on a Turkish ship in international waters," or "Israeli murder."

The contrary mantra is, "The international community cannot investigate Israel." Goldstone and all those automatic condemnations from the United Nations and NGOs have emasculated whatever confidence Israelis might have in fair judgement.

My own view is that those who are fair can assess the situation without any investigation. Perhaps only to me is it clear that enough people on the MV Mavi Marmara had evil intent. If Israeli intelligence was not good enough to make the take-over more efficient with fewer casualties, that is a failing common to military operations.

Think of those Afghan weddings bombed by Americans with many more deaths. Opps. I guess they were not gatherings of terrorists. Or maybe there were a few terrorists among the dead. The scenario repeated itself several times without the intervention of the international community and demands for a non-American committee of investigation.

Were the deaths of nine Turkish fighters a tragedy? Not any more than that 15 year old Mexican boy recently killed by US officials on the Mexican side of the international border. But here, too, no demands for an international investigation, despite indications that there have been several of these incidents. http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5hVwK0KHNx8zNZllGOsezjfqUKoRAD9G82LR00

Critics who focus on the failures of Israeli intelligence ridicule the use of guns capable of shooting only paintballs. The purpose behind these weapons has not be clarified. Military secret or intentional ambiguity like that Israel's nuclear capacity?

Perhaps competing international and Israeli commissions of inquiry can break through the mystery and let us know why. One theory is that the munitions for these weapons were balls of pepper spray, meant for non-lethal crowd control. Another theory is that paintballs were meant to identify bad people for further treatment.

When viewed along with other events in the world, the attention to this is amazing. The blockade has been established for years, and is justified by the continued threat to Israel of the Hamas-Iran axis. People claiming humanitarian intentions were warned several times and provided with the option of transporting material after Israeli inspection. The rest of the ships in the first flotilla, and the Rachel Corrie were brought to an Israeli port without casualties.

The single most prominent conclusion I can make is that much of the world has signed on to the illegitimacy of Israel, and the illegitimacy of what it does to defend itself. The collection of motives includes Islamic fanaticism, anti-Semitism, and an excessive commitment to the procedures of internationalism no matter what they produce (i.e., Obama's engagement).

There is also a lack of information about the threat that Israel faces from Hizbollah and Hamas, the repeated rejections by Palestinians of Israeli efforts at compromise, and the opportunities of Israel's Arabs. The latter are arguably better than any other minority in the Arab world, better than enjoyed by Arabs in most Arab countries, and better on some dimensions than minorities in the United States and other western democracies.

The explanation for Jews' participation in the political assaults on Israel demands special consideration. For some, this may be nothing more than traditional Jewish obsession with absolute justice, an element in the culture since the Biblical Prophets. For others, it may reflect a lack of information, a wanting to participate in something fashionable and larger than themselves, along with a capacity to exploit their Jewishness or grandparents with a Holocaust experience in order to gain prominence.

No doubt some of these Jews--as well as non-Jewish opponents of Israel--have come to their conclusions as a result of careful study and an effort to be fair. If there are many of these, it is sad that their voices have been lost in the din created by so many others.

Israel is a political entity, and its government may go along with international demands for an inquiry.

Can an inquiry established by Israel satisfy the legions of deaf shouters? Or can an inquiry established by others claim fairness?

I await positive responses to either question.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 11:35 PM
June 09, 2010
The absolute standard of Israeli evil

There is no knowledge without comparison.

Better or worse are the keys to intelligence.

The principle applies to how we judge our health, bank account, personal relationships, the actions of a politician or an entire country.

We compare one event to another, or one time period to another.

Is X more desirable than Y? Are things getting better or worse?

What about principles, or absolute standards?

Here we must be careful. We all decide if something is "good enough," but this depends on what we have learned by years of comparison.

Some dress their comments in fancy words sound great while conveying personal preference. The casual use of "justice," "rights," or "international law" may be no more than a belief that others must accept. The Biblical Prophets provided an extreme standard. They heard the word of the Lord.

You may find wisdom in the Books of the Prophets, but you needn't say Amen to everything you read there, or what an interpreter says it means for the here and now. A Jewish view is that prophets spoke to their time, as severe critics, and were not predicting the future. The word "prophet" is tricky. Christians see in Isaiah the foretelling of Jesus.

If it is folly to accept the word of someone claiming to be a prophet, how much riskier to rely on a politician or commentator, especially one promoting the view of Allah.

The lesson for this sermon comes from responses to Israel's efforts to maintain a blockade on Gaza, and especially the seizure of the Turkish ship by the IDF.

Prophets of the modern world have derived from some higher source the Israel absolute. What this country does is unacceptable, no matter how it compares to the activities of others.

The Biblical penalty for false prophecy was death.

The rabbis who contributed to the Talmud pretty much neutralized death penalties and lesser corporal punishments. They transformed "an eye for an eye" into financial compensation.

They dealt with false prophecy by asserting that Malachi was the last prophet. If there were no more prophets, there could be no death penalty for false prophecy.

The same gimmick also protects the community from Jesus, Mohammad, Joseph Smith and a few others who have claimed to hear God.

The world is sanest, and safest, without prophets.

Judgments not backed up by comparison are suitable only in one's Paradise, or madhouse, where those who are certain claim that the voice in their head comes from God.

To our great misfortune, however, connection to the internet amounts to a prophetic license. There is no barrier to spreading madness.

The problem is intensified by the ease and speed of communication, but an episode from the Book of Jeremiah illustrates the timeless puzzle of judgement.

The Prophet said that it was God's word that the people of Jerusalem should accommodate themselves to Babylon's power. He urged soldiers not to resist their invasion. Officials wanted to kill Jeremiah as a traitor, but King Zedekiah gave him refuge in the palace, and listened to his arguments. The king vacillated between the direction demanded by Jeremiah, and his officials. He asked the prophet not to reveal the details of their conversation. The king told Jeremiah that the silence was to save the prophet, but the king may have feared for his own life against the possibility of a coup d'יtat (Jeremiah 37, 38).

On who to rely? Close advisors, friends, journalists who have been reliable, or someone claiming to hear the word of the Lord?

If nothing else provides a standard of judgement, there is always politics. Go along with what moves others. Join one of those mobs demanding the end to the Jewish state.

One might also go along with the demand made by A, in exchange for A's compliance with something that you favor. The United States wants Turkey to support sanctions against Iran, and Turkey is demanding that the United States insist on an international commission to investigate Israel. If President Obama engages in this, we can expect another Goldstone.

Israel's leadership, meanwhile, feels pressed to accept some kind of commission. Among the options is an Israeli committee of international lawyers, with an outside expert as observer.

And who will believe what such a commission concludes, beside those who accept Israel's word without a commission?

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 03:55 AM
June 07, 2010

The idea of being God's Chosen People has been as much of a burden as a blessing. Thanks to the prominence of the Hebrew Bible, the doctrine has not been something for us to cherish quietly. It has fueled the animosity and ridicule of adversaries as well as inspiring those who would admire and support our achievements.

"I will make you a great nation; I will bless you And make your name great; And you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, And I will curse him who curses you" (Genesis 12:2-3)

"you are a holy people to the LORD your God, and the LORD has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples who are on the face of the earth." (Deuteronomy 14:2)

In God's own language

בך בחר יהוה להיות לו לעם סגלה מכל העמים אשר על פני האדמה.

Michael Chabon joins the criticism of Israel's action against the Turkish flotilla. His headline is, "Chosen, but Not Special." http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/06/opinion/06chabon.html?emc=eta1

Chabon ridicules Jewish claims of abnormal intelligence and craftiness (seichel). In contrast to his claims, the article reads as self-directed Jewish humor, with Chabon as a schlemiel.

Chabon's Yiddish Policemen's Union is worth the effort for those who will not take it any more seriously than some of the stories our ancestors put into the Bible. In this article, which he does not present as spoof, Chabon calls the Gaza operation "botched," and Israel's efforts to explain itself "blockheaded." He ridicules claims of unusual achievement. He overlooks the growing indications of this operation's success, as well as the evidence of abnormal achievement amassed by individual Jews. All those Nobels are worth something. Israel's survival and accomplishments are even more noteworthy alongside the calumny and heavier stuff directed at it.

We need no more evidence of Israel's Choseness than what Chabon writes in his article, as well as the other efforts of commentators, politicians, and mobs to make an issue of the Freedom Flotilla.

Does anyone know--or care--how many Iraqis, Afghans, or Pakistanis died from violence on the same day that the IDF killed nine Turks who were intent on mayhem?

What other country has attracted the chronic concern of the United Nations and international NGOs, including the personal attention of the UN General Secretary, the President of the United States, and who knows how many other heads of states, journalists, clerics, and commentators. Chaos, death, and cruelty of much greater magnitude occur in other places without anything more than an occasional clucking of someone's tongue.

If I am exaggerating the animosity directed at Israel, it may reveal the paranoia that is a side effect of being Chosen. We can never achieve enough to meet our own expectations, those of our parents, or God.

Some may argue that our forebears erred in creating the God described in our Bible. Perhaps they should not have written so well as to provide the basis of Christianity and Islam as well as Judaism. "We've been Chosen long enough," goes the comic's routine. "Please choose someone else."

Others take the stories of Exodus and Mt Sinai as fact, and assign responsibility to the Almighty for keeping us at the center of attention.

Whether the result of chutzpah or reality, here we are, doing better than most, but said by many to be the worst of the lot.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 02:09 AM
June 05, 2010
Where are we?

The IDF brought the Rachel Corrie to Ashdod without the violence that marked the capture of the Mavi Marmara. The Irish government urged the blockade breakers to comply with Israeli demands, while Turkish leaders continue their charges of murder against those who dealt with the fighters on their ship.

A commentary in the Wall Street Journal links the Turkish regime with anti-Semitic and anti-American campaigns including blood libels that both countries have been harvesting organs from Iraqis killed in the violence that they provoked. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704875604575281392195250402.html?mod=rss_Today's_Most_Popular

It is too early to see any peace on Israel's Gaza front. Nine deaths have added to the picture that the country is out of control. Operations in its defense are less costly in terms of human rights than how the Turks treat the Kurds, or the collateral damage associated with American operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such comparisons are essential to any moral judgement, but there is no indication that people of note have done the arithmetic. Israel has a near monopoly of evil on the campuses of prestige universities and in the street demonstrations of major cities.

A good deal of Israel's problem derives from the Palestinians' possession of the David image: small and weak, fighting a more powerful enemy, while asserting the popular demand for a country of their own. Jewish pragmatists must make an effort to realize that big and powerful Goliaths are more likely to prevail.

Perhaps most of the people demonstrating against Israel have no awareness, or no concern for the actual record of vicious actions against Israeli citizens, and the sworn intention of many Palestinians to destroy Israel on their way to claiming their own country.

Does the widespread antipathy portend serious danger?

It does not help that the Obama administration has staked out a posture of engagement with its adversaries, including working through international organizations that have exhibited automatic "don't bother me with the facts" condemnations of Israel, far out of proportion to its actions in comparison with those of other countries.

Most disappointing is the American failure to produce anything serious against the Iranian nuclear threat, or Syrian-Iranian funneling of offensive weapons to Hizbollah. If the Americans' obsession with the Israel-Palestinian peace process has appeared naive, efforts to persuade Iran and Syria appears closer to madness.

It does help that Israel has friends. American public opinion has failed to show any clear shift in the direction of hostility, and highly placed individuals in European governments have shown an understanding of the threats that Israel faces.

President Obama and his advisors do not ignore Israel's concerns. One can quarrel with the lack of trust toward Obama and his administration expressed by many Israeli Jews, but it is one of the elements affecting any assessment of the near future.

Also in the mix is the strident style of Prime Minister Netanyahu, and the even more fervent comments from his Foreign Minister and Minister of the Interior, both of whom have operational responsibilities for issues of importance to Europe and the United States. Netanyahu and his colleagues have concerned themselves with settling Jews in hostile Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem, no matter what that might do to the willingness of others to help on the more vital topic of Iran.

It has not been a cheerful week. Speculation that Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan may board a warship and lead an assault on the blockade of Gaza raises the prospect that the near future will be worse.

On this, we can hope for assistance from countries not wanting a naval battle in this part of the Mediterranean.

We continue on edge, but that has been the Jewish fate for as long as we have written about our history. In those 2,500 years or so, there have been many weeks worse than the one just experienced.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:11 AM
June 02, 2010

Label me an ostrich with his head in the sand, or a blind ideologue if you will, but I think this is the time to call shame on the chorus of those who used the terms failure, massacre, or tragedy about Israel's operation against the "Freedom Flotilla."

Videos showing the preparation for violence by the Turkish militia and its use of staves and other weapons against the commandos are carrying their weight. The tone of media commentary and comments from prominent politicians appears to be changing. There is recognition of Israel's prior offer to transport humanitarian material after inspection, and Israel's right to defend itself against the development of an armed Iranian satellite in Gaza.

Do nine deaths amount to a tragedy or massacre, when all of them appear to have been members of a group allied with the nastiest of factions the civilized world calls "terrorists?" Perhaps only when the country doing the work is Jewish.

Members of the chorus demanding an international inquiry deserve no more respect than the Islamic leaders of the chorus in Turkey, Iran, and Gaza, plus those seeking gain from the hysteria in the West Bank and the Arab communities of Israel.

Overseas Jews claiming to be friends of Israel, and Jews of Israel are singing in the chorus of shame. I see no need to define their motives or fears, or to be surprised that they have been caught up by the noise. No doubt they will continue to claim the high ground even as the evidence indicates they are standing on nothing.

One of the insights of this week concerns the difference among Arab states. None of them can resist the temptation to condemn Israel, but while Syria has cooperated with Iran in flooding Hizbollah with missiles, Egypt has cooperated with Israel in limiting the flow to Gaza. Prior to Israel's operation against the Flotilla, Egypt echoed Israel's offer in proposing to accept the ships in an Egyptian port, and transferring material through its check points.

Hamas' rejection of the cargo from the Flotilla after its inspection by Israel suggests confusion as to how best exploit its opportunities. It has decided to try for another point against Israel despite the cost to the population of Gaza.

Mahmoud Abbas chose to participate in the chorus shouting massacre. He declared three days of national mourning for the members of the Turkish Islamic militia, and has approached Hamas with an effort of conciliation. Earlier he endorsed Israel's intention to keep the ships from reaching Gaza and strengthening the posture of his Hamas rivals.

This will not help the prospects of an accord between Israel and Palestine. If accommodation depends on the respect of Israeli Jews for Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, one can forget about early progress. Probabilities have declined from single digits to the smallest parts of one percent.

The Obama administration is making an effort to rescue its investment in peace. The most recent comments represent a concession to Israel. Vice President Biden has said that it has a right to stop ships from reaching Gaza and inspect their cargoes, given the rocket fire to Israel. The White House has distanced itself from the wildest demands for an international inquiry. One of its proposals is for an American observer attached to an Israeli inquiry.

The next ships are only a day or so away. One carrying the name Rachel Corrie seeks to gain something from one of the most pathetic of anti-Israel efforts during the height of Palestinian violence.

Israel's membership among the blessed is by no means certain. Yet it is far from deserving the damnation that so many others have called upon themselves.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 08:59 PM
June 01, 2010
A nation of prophets

When was the last time you met a happy Jew?

It has not been in our blood at least since the Biblical Prophets. They provide models of self-criticism on the border--or over the border--of obsession and just plain nutty. Nothing was good enough. Other prophets who seemed to agree with them on the major issues, but not on everything, earned the title of false prophet. That carried a curse of death. Modern prophets, and there are many among us, are only a bit more temperate in criticizing their rivals.

One need look no further than the Israeli press the day after the operation against the Freedom Flotilla. Ha'aretz could be predicted to have its reservations, but it exceeded expectations. The major headline on page one decreed that the operation was a failure, and would assure international complications. Above that headline were four op-ed pieces. One begins, "No explanation can justify the crime was was done, and no excuse can explain the stupidity . . ." Others carry the labels, "Smug sin," "Ship of fools," and "Inquiry Demanded."

Other papers were only marginally different. The print and electronic media include those who have reacted against their colleague, but the general picture is negative.

Criticism comes not only from the left, where there are Israelis who feel that the government must lift the blockade on Gaza, as well as do what else the Palestinians demand in order to make peace. Commentators not clearly on the left assert that the casualties will cause the country more harm in international politics than the blockade is worth. Some focus on the Turkish source of the Flotilla and the Turkish identity of those killed, and surmise that Israeli-Turkish commerce will diminish or stop altogether. One business publication worries that a Turkish embargo on trade with Israel will spread to other countries.

Other critics focus on the tactics employed by the IDF. One aging journalist cited his military training of 25 years ago to say that the troops were not prepared for what they faced.

I will not claim battlefield credentials, but years of lecturing at the tops and bottoms of two national armies taught me to avoid detailed criticism of tactics. Considerations are complex and depend on information not widely available. Decisions on how to prepare for a prominent operation come after discussions among military officers, often with input from politicians holding elective office.

This is not to say that we should leave all sensitive matters to officials, but some modesty is appropriate for those criticizing from the outside.

But modesty is no more a component of Jewish culture than a willingness to abstain from criticism.

My own view of the operation against the Freedom Flotilla is that it was both appropriate and successful. I see the blockade as justified by the determination of Hamas to replace Israel, and the capacity of Iran to supply it with serious weapons. Israel is already pressed by a substantial flow of missiles from Iran through Syria to the Hizbollah of Lebanon that continues despite the responsibility of UN troops to monitor the 2006 cease fire agreement. This experience cautions against any outside assurances to keep Gaza free of similar material.

Against those who say that IDF personnel were not properly prepared for the operation, it appears to me that they overcame resistance quickly without loss of life to themselves and with only a limited number of deaths among those who used force against them.

Nine deaths of the innocent or activists do not cause anything like this level of verbal violence when they come as the result of an American air strike in Afghanistan or a demonstration on the streets of Tehran.

Military activity is seldom sterile or surgical. Opponents who fight back invite the use of ever greater force. If these troops were not expecting the degree of violence that they encountered, it appears that they adjusted their behavior quickly and well.

No Jew should ever aspire to having the last word. But neither should he/she surrender the opportunity to be heard.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 03:37 AM