October 29, 2011
A cynic's view of recent events and into the near future

My cynic's view of events sees a connection between Arab Spring/Summer/Fall/Winter and the protests in Tel Aviv and on Wall Street, also said to be happening in 900 cities of 80 countries. (Ha'aretz, October 16, p. 7)

Crowds of decent people, along with politically correct leaders, who seek improvements with little concern for details, priorities, or probabilities, are not likely to produce anything better. So far in this wave of reform efforts, they seem to be making them worse.

This from the current edition of The Economist

"AS THOUSANDS have gathered in Lower Manhattan, passionately expressing their deep discontent with the status quo, we have taken note of these protests," wrote Lloyd Blankfein, the boss of Goldman Sachs, in a recent letter to investors. "And we have asked ourselves this question: 'How can we make money off them?' The answer is the newly launched Goldman Sachs Global Rage Fund." This will invest in firms likely to benefit from social unrest, such as window repairers and makers of police batons. As Mr Blankfein explained: "At Goldman, we recognise that the capitalist system as we know it is circling the drain--but there's plenty of money to be made on the way down."

The next paragraph admits that this is a spoof. One is tempted to accuse the newspaper of not-so-subtle British anti-Semitism by virtue of focusing on a Jewish name at the head of a bank with a Jewish name and history, but the comedian cited as the source of the spoof also has a Jewish name. http://www.economist.com/node/21534759

The rest of The Economist article could have been written about Tel Aviv as well as New York. The decent people demonstrating here and there object to a lot that is wrong at the peak of capitalist democracies, but they are a long way from detailing a list of priorities that politicians and government technocrats can discuss with an eye to implementing reforms.

Israel's protesters are beginning to turn against themselves and their allies in the media. Showing the zealot's obsession with the perfect and being willing to kill what may only be good, self-appointed leaders are working against the modest proposals produced by a government commission and endorsed by the prime minister. Last night's demonstrations in several cities may have attracted 20,000. A month ago, before the production of the government's proposals, the demonstrations attracted several hundred thousands. The tilt in the media has gone from strong support of the protests to strong reservations. Several commentators project a scenario where zealots succeed in killing the government's proposals, without producing anything to take their place.

My cynic's view of events in the Arab world is no more optimistic. I have commented several times about the balance in Barack Obama's Cairo speech that won for him a Nobel Peace Prize. I also expressed wonder about his criticism of the Egyptian regime and calling for democratic reforms from a platform in its capital. It is a stretch to assign the president responsibility for all of the revolutions in process. However, subsequent analyses may well find that his comments made their contribution along with other causes.

The results?

Tunis is the most promising, but my cynic's view is worrying about the impressive election victory of Islamists called "moderate," and pondering if they can survive in competition with more extreme Muslims.

Egypt is not clearly heading is a direction more democratic than the Mubarak regime that the White House sought to unseat by joining in the spirit of Tahrir Square. Moreover, the lack of stability has had a cost in violence toward the sizable Coptic minority, as well as the freer movement of munitions from Iran and Libya through Egypt and into Gaza. An on-going dust-up between Israel and Gaza reflects the increase in Gaza weaponry, and portends what might occur both in northern and southern regions, as well as in Gaza, Lebanon, and maybe wider in Palestine and ranging as far as Iran if Western do-gooders seek to do in Syria what they did in Libya.

In Libya, the US and its NATO allies so far have replaced an occasionally brutal and marginally insane leadership with who knows what. Qaddafi's end does not suggest anything more judicial, humane, or democratic.

Syrian bloodshed is moving toward the multiple thousands estimated to have been killed by Bashar's father in 1982. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hama_massacre

The current Asad is threatening an "earthquake" if the West intervenes as it did in Libya. One can guess that that means rockets sent into Israel from Lebanon and perhaps Syria, with their friends in Gaza joining the party. If that happens, one should not underestimate what Israel might do to Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and perhaps Iran.

I'll refrain from expanding these comments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Bahrain, and Somalia. If you don't get the point now, another few paragraphs will not help. All of this dwarfs the magnitude of those movements of the early Middle Ages labeled "Crusades," but this of course has nothing to do with Islam. Neither does it have much promise of replacing effective, if inhumane and undemocratic regimes with anything clearly more enlightened.

I doubt that the protesters in New York, Tel Aviv, or some 900 other places will be any more successful.

I'm all in favor of decency in economics and government. I'm thankful to have spent my life outside of the dark places in this world, although I admit to having visited some of them. I have also escaped the worst sides of unfettered capitalism. I have benefited and maybe even contributed a bit to societies that are imperfect, but not as terrible as claimed by those chanting in protest. For much of my life, I have sought to avoid the mindless extremism of hope and decency that has produced Western contributions to Arab Spring/Summer/Fall/Winter, and the boundless demands of perfection coming from the streets of New York, Tel Aviv, and elsewhere.

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 10:38 PM
October 27, 2011
Ancient synagogures

There are enough assertions about the "essence of Judaism" to keep Jews and others arguing for another 3,000 years.

One of those essences is political. As I read the Hebrew Bible, and consider the holidays on the Hebrew calendar, Judaism provides a central sacred place to the history of the Jewish people, encounters with others, and survival despite the problems..

Passover is the most prominent feature of the calendar that celebrates Jewish history, in its case a wonderful story likely to be mythic. There is also Shavuot, Chanukah, the 9th of Av, with the modern additions of Holocaust Memorial Day and Israel Independence Day.

The political features of Judaism relate to that other "essence" of Judaism, which is tribal.

At the center of the enterprise is a people with a long history, set upon by others jealous of our existence, relative well-being, and Nobel Prizes. While Christians and Muslims are concerned with beliefs, Jews tend not to ask one another what they believe. They are Jews because they are Jews. Converts are a something else, affected by complexities in religious law and traditions.

The historical concerns of Judaism were prominent during our recent visit to the Galilee and Golan. At home we seldom visit any of the four synagogues within 100 meters. In the Galilee and Golan, however, it is difficult to avoid synagogues if the purpose is to walk and enjoy pleasant views, with an eye to historical significance. The Galilee and Golan were centers of the Jewish population that remained after the destruction of Jerusalem, as well as being important during the period of the Second Temple.

Israel's Ministry of Tourism along with other government units and private donors provide resources for restorations, as well as facilities to put them on the tourist's agenda.

The remnants in the Galilee and Golan came some years before the Enlightenment, the birth of Reform and Conservative movements, as well as Hasidic and other Haredi varieties of Judaism. Viewed in the long context, they lead us to ask about the orthodoxy of whatever is said to be "Orthodox Judaism."

High points of this tour were the remnants of Gamla, where Josehus himself organized an unsuccessful defense against the Romans, and the partially reconstructed synagogue at Um al-Kanatah, near the modern settlement of Natur. There we had the pleasure of an chance encounter with the restorer, who provided us with an explanation of the technology involved in knowing where to put each stone found in the rubble left from an earthquake in the 7th century, as well as the significance of the details reconstructed to date. Among his points was the lack of a separation between the sexes found in later synagogues.

So much for Orthodoxy. On this restoration, see http://www.yeshuat.com/ On the separation of the sexes in Judaism, see http://www.myjewishlearning.com/practices/Ritual/Prayer/Synagogue_and_Religious_Leaders/Architecture_and_Design/Synagogue_Geography/Mehitzah_Gender_Separation_.shtml)

We can mark the presence pf Jews in the Galilee and Golan without exaggerating their prominence. The region was always a mixture of peoples, sometimes antagonistic to the point of violence. There are archaeological remains of Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, local Christians, and various Muslim conquerors as well as Jews. Currently there are Arab, Druze, and Circassian villages, as well as Jewish cities, towns, kibbutzim, moshavim, and other settlements. The population in the region is 44 percent Jewish, 38 percent Muslim, 8 percent Druze, 7 percent Christian, and another 3 percent not identified by religion, including individuals who identify with Jews, but do not pass muster with the Rabbinate. (Statisticdal Abstract of Israel 2011, Chapter 2 Table 4)

There is much to see in the Galilee and on the Golan beside the remnants of Jewish and other settlements. It is arguably the most scenic of Israel's geography , with decent restaurants and easy access to the burgeoning industry of boutique wines.

In the same spirit, it is appropriate to note that Judaism is more than a celebration of important events in the people's history. Those with an inclination to moral norms ought to start with Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, and Isaiah where you find what Christians claim as the teachings of Jesus. Sceptics can look for their roots in Ecclesiastes, as well as the words of a great folk song (Turn, Turn, Turn).

Judaism now is involved with adversaries no less problematic than earlier enemies. Insofar as Muslim leaders promote the idea that the Jews never were prominent in Jerusalem or elsewhere in the Land of Israel, it is healthy for the spirit of a secular Jew to visit one or more of the old synagogues. And in light of Haredim whoi insist on the segregation of the sexes on buses and sidewalks, it is just as healthy to note the lack of a separate woman's section.


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 11:34 PM
Ilan Grapel

Ilan Grapel is not Gilad Shalit.

Grapel is an immigrant from the United States who served in the IDF, and was wounded during the Second Lebanese War of 2006. Egyptian authorities seized him in June of this year during the protests in Tahrir Square, and accused him of spying for Israel.

Descriptions of Grapel use terms like innocent (in the sense of simple rather than not guilty) and naive. A right wing Knesset Member called him an anarchist who had demonstrated against the IDF, for whom Israel should not pay the Egyptians with any prisoners. http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/149021

He is bright enough to have studied in institutions as distinguished as Johns Hopkins and Emory, but seems to be short on good sense. He hardly seems to be the kind of individual Israel recruits and trains as a spy.

According to reports, be was describing himself as an Israeli while urging on the demonstrations in Tahrir Square. One picture on the internet shows him in an IDF uniform, and another in Arab dress.

Perhaps his parents forgot the lesson about not playing in traffic.

While Israel eventually will pay more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Shalit, many of them prominent terrorists with Israeli blood on their hands, the price paid for Grapel is 25 Egyptians. Israel media described them as another country's criminals, the kind no country wants to keep in its jails. Most are Beduin from the Sinai, seized while smuggling drugs or prostitutes.

There was little else beside Shalit on Israeli media from a week before his release, when the deal was announced, until a few days after his release. From the announcement of the deal for Grapel until the actual exchange, Grapel received little more attention than a major traffic accident.

On the day of his release, the first 10 minutes of the popular discussion show London and Kirschenbaum was a comic routine dealing with Grapel's name, the folly of thinking of him as an Israeli spy, and the nature of the prisoners released in exchange for him. The program's military commentator ridiculed a report in the Palestinian news service that the Americans would give Egypt an F-16 as part of the deal. http://www.jpost.com/MiddleEast/Article.aspx?id=243340&R=R3.

After his landing at the Ben Gurion airport, Grapel met with his mother and had a brief snack, said to be hamburger and chips, appropriate for an American. Then there was a modest convoy to Jerusalem where he met briefly with the Prime Minister. Part of the London and Kirschenbaum exchange: "Would Netanyahu hug him? . . . Why is Netanyahu interested? . . . Could it be to improve his standing with the Americans?"

Within a day or two, Grapel is scheduled to fly home to New York, along with his mother.

Grapel had worked as a campaign volunteer for New York Congressman Gary Ackerman, and Ackerman urged a deal on Americans, Egyptians, and Israelis. Ackerman accompanied Grapel and his mother to the Prime Minister's Office. While Grapel received a brief handshake from the Prime Minister, it was Ackerman who got the hug.

Not included in this deal was Ouda Tarabin, also accused of spying for Israel, and so far languishing for more than 11 years in Egyptian custody. Tarabin has the disadvantage of not being an American. He is one of the countless Beduin who go back and forth from one country to another, without worrying about formal procedures or travel documents. According to his attorney, Tarabin was on his way to visit a sister in El Arish when picked up by authorities.

Israeli media have been active in Tarabin's case, perhaps even more active than in Grapel's, although far from the activity invested in Shalit.

In connection with Tarabin, an Israeli government spokesman emphasized the delicate relations between Israel and Egypt, and said that there was only so much that Israel could expect from Egypt at this time.

Officials and the media are saying that an Israeli must be wary when contemplating a visit to Egypt or other Muslim countries, where activity anything like Grapel's may render them a target for officials wanting to make a point about Israel, and where judicial procedures bare little resemblance to those in western democracies.

Here and there in the talk about Grapel and Tarabin have been questions about Jonathan Pollard.


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 11:23 AM
October 22, 2011
My Russian connections

Amid the public news dealing with the grand issues of Muammar Qaddafi and Gilad Shalit, our personal weekend brought me to recall my variious experiences with the Russians of Israel.

It began at an Absorption Center outside of Jerusalem in the Summer of 1975. It was the tail end of an immigration wave that seemed to signal one of the thaws in the Cold, until the Soviets ended it under the leverage or excuse of the Jackson Amendment, one of the several well-intentioned efforts of American politicians to influence things poorly understood, that produced the opposite of its announced intentions.

My significant encounter was with Mikhail Argursky, a prominent refusenik and associate of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Mikhail became a colleague and friend at the Hebrew University, and I learned early on that he had an American background. His father migrated in the same pre-World War I wave as many other Eastern European Jews, but returned home to participate in the Communist revolution. His story ended badly in the purges of the 1930s. Mikhail and his son Benny seemed fated for the same tragedy. Both died on visits to their former homeland.

I knew Benny as a young teenager who traded language lessons with my son Stefan. Benny became a mountain climber, and died in an avalanche somewhere in the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan. Mikhail died of a heart attack in a Moscow hotel room, while on yet another unsuccessful effort to locate his son's body.

Going forward to 1987 or 1988, my cadre of the IDF's lecture corp assembled for a briefing on what was seen as the onset of a significant new wave of migration from the then crumbling Soviet Union. Israel had no idea about the numbers who would be involved, but it was likely to be significant, and maybe more than the country could handle well. Soldiers were starting to worry about having to compete for jobs with the flood of Russians, and there were some concerned that the migrants would outcompete them for girls. Varda's mother thought of her own move from Germany to Palestine in the mid-1930s. She was worried that the government would deal with a housing crisis by requiring each family to take some Russians into their home.

The task of the lecture corps was to tell the soldiers not to worry. Lots of Russians would mean more consumers as well as workers. It would be necessary to build a great deal of housing, as well as to increase the supplies of consumer goods and everything else needed by an expanding economy. There would also be Russian girls among the immigrants. If I then had the experience subsequently gained, I could have emphasized the beauty of all those Slavic faces. Religious Israelis worry about the infusion of non-halachic blood, but the rest of us enjoy the aesthetics that have made some of these Israelis players in the international community of fashion models.

It was the Fall of 1989 when first grader Mattan came home with the news that there was a new Russian girl in his school. Varda did her patriotic duty, and invited the family to dinner. We have since learned that the invitation was something of an intrusion, but one that the recipients felt obliged to accept. We sensed reluctance, perhaps due to a language gap, or maybe the family's lack of awareness of Israeli culture, where a strange family asking questions was not the agent of a security conscious regime.

The father of the family was trained in English, and Varda could communicate with the grandparents in something between German and Yiddish. After several visits we learned that Mattan's classmate was born with a heart defect. Physicians in Leningrad said that she was all right, perhaps reflecting a shortage of resources to deal with her problem. Their counterparts at the Hadassah Hospital said that an immediate operation was essential. That added to the family's sense of insecurity. Varda employed her status as a Medical School lab technician to urge compliance with the physicians' recommendations.

Before and after encounters were with the same little girl, but whose new face was pink rather than pale white.

The initial migrants who came in large numbers to the university were almost exclusively concerned with science, computers, and mathematics. Russian dominated the conversations I heard on the paths to the swimming pool located on the Givat Ram campus. It was some years before I heard Russian accents among the students in the Social Science Faculty on the Mount Scopus campus.

Now the children and grandchildren of those migrants are pretty much like the rest of the population. In the last semin I taught before retiring, about half the students showed a Russian background either in their accents (pretty light by that time) or names.

Over the years I have seen Mattan's first grade friend mature into a self assured Israeli. Some of our contacts have been at occasional family visits, and some chance encounters on campus. She now has a masters degree in sociology, and this weekend's dinner was to meet her fiance'.

I felt comfortable enough in her parents' home to get right to the young man's politics. Several degrees to the left of center, pretty much like the family he is joining. And no less a bright spot in any social gathering. The grandson of professionals, and the son of a Hebrew University professor, with serious personal and family involvement with music. We spoke about all of that, as well as Shalit, Qaddifi, the new publications of his future father-in-law, and whether protesting Israelis could accomplish anything against a crafty Prime Minister and reform proposals that deal with a small portion of the protesters' demands.

The young man is not Russian in his background. I overlooked the opportunity to comment from personal experience on the problems as well as the attractions of a mixed marriage, but Varda noted on the way home that, as usual, I had spoken too much as it was.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:29 PM
October 20, 2011
Pictures from the Middle East

You've heard that a picture is worth a thousand words. You've seen the pictures of Muammar Qaddifi's death.

Given the comments of Barack Obama and the analysis that appeared in the New York Times, I'm not at that sure that enough American understand what they have seen.

Recall George W. Bush's comments about bringing democracy to Iraq and elsewhere? http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A7991-2003Nov6.html

Now there is Barack Obama on Qaddafi's death. "This marks the end of a long and painful chapter for the people of Libya who now have the opportunity to determine their own destiny in a new and democratic Libya." http://news.yahoo.com/obama-gaddafi-death-ends-era-iron-fist-rule-182234538.html

The lead paragraph in one of the items in the New York Times: " For President Obama, the image of a bloodied Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi offers vindication, however harrowing, of his intervention in Libya." http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/21/world/africa/qaddafis-death-is-latest-victory-for-new-us-approach-to-war.html?_r=1&partner=rss&emc=rss

One must be careful. Not every Muslim is a blood thirsty, enthusiastic killer of those considered to be enemies, all the while screaming "Allah Akba." ("God is great" is a close, if not exact translation). However, one of the iconic videos of the intifada that began in 2000 shows a crowd in Ramallah killing two Israeli reservists who made a wrong turn. The massacre took place in a police station, more or less like the killing of Qaddafi. Prominent on the video is an ecstatic killer waving his blood soaked hands to the cheering crowd from an upstairs window.

That took place about five miles from here. Only a few hundred meters away were two cases of near lynchings in the recent year of Jews not familiar with the area, who made a wrong turn into Isaweea.

One has to wonder about American romanticism about Islam, the Middle East, and the magic to be produced by Israeli concessions to Palestinians. Is it simple ignorance about a distant land not well covered in schools and universities? Does it reflect the persistence of a frontier mentality that is nearly unique among western democracies in relying on a death penalty, long prison terms, and one or more guns in most homes for the sake of self-defense? Or is it nothing more than a cynical concern for the oil of places like Iraq and Libya, and the hope that soothing comments about Islam will keep enough Muslims quiet to allow business as usual?

None but the mindless should speak with confidence. Better to begin from the epigram that it is easier to destroy than to construct. And to recognize that while the Middle East (except for Israel's little exception) looks dismally similar, the reality is one of differences. Things among the Muslims are not so different that we should expect anything like enlightenment in the near or distant future, but details are important.

Egypt is beginning to look like more of the same, i.e., one military autocrat replaced currently by a committee of generals, seemingly reluctant to relinquish power. We'll know more the day after tomorrow about Tunisia's election. Predictions are that the competition between more than 100 political parties will see a large minority--perhaps a plurality--voting Islamic. Guesses are that Syria's current ruler has been sobered by the pictures of what happened to Qaddafi. Assessments are that he will try even more severe repression rather than personal flight or the convening of a representative convention to arrange forgiveness and build an enlightened regime. News about Yemen, Somalia, Bahrain, and Afghanistan are equally confused, are about as encouraging.

On this side of the street, we are preoccupied with pictures of Gilad Shalit, and reports about his physical and emotional health.

One of the more than 450 prisoners already released in order to bring him home (with another 550 scheduled to be let go in a month) has appeared before school children in Gaza to urge them toward a life of martyrdom.

That's the other side of the street.


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 11:42 PM
October 19, 2011
Succot in French Hill

It's hard to believe after a week of Gilad Shalit, but there are other happenings in this world that we share with the goyim. Today it was only necessary to reach page 12 in Ha'aretz to find something happening outside of Israel and its immediate neighbors. News from over the border concerned, of course, the receptions given to the Palestinian prisoners.

Tomorrow there will be no Ha'aretz. It is Simchas Torah. Jews will be dancing out of their synagogues with Torah scrolls.

Among the items in today's news: both Turkey and Syria, as well as Qatar, agreed to accept prisoners that Israel insisted be exiled beyond the West Bank and Gaza. While those governments will be touting their aid to Palestine, they are also cooperating with Israel.

Simchas Torah marks the end of Succot, a week-long holiday when religious Jews build temporary huts (succah, pl: succot) alongside their homes or on their balconies. It is a mitzvah (commandment) to eat or sleep in the succah, and Israel's weather makes that tolerable. It is customary to decorate them with fruits, pictures, childs' drawings, and the same kind of blinking lights (most likely of Chinese origin) that other folks put up on Christmas or Ramadan.

This year the holiday in French Hill has been marred by families thinking that the sidewalk is an appropriate place to erect their succah.

Agile walkers like us can make our way around the monstrosities. Not so the elderly religious man who lives a couple of doors away from one of them. He is confined to a wheel chair, and his neighbor's succah is on the way to his synagogue.

Complaints to the municipality and the neighborhood community center brought forth either no response, or the information that the relevant staff is on holiday vacation. Officials actions involve warnings before any decisive action can occur, and the offending succot will be dismantled before that happens. Our approach to the family building one succah produced the response that it would be taken down after a week, and before the any official could act.

Sidewalk succot are more than inconveniences. They reflect the increasing incidence of Haredim in French Hill.

Just on the other side of the highway from the Old City to Ramallah is the formerly secular neighborhood of Ramat Eshkol. That fell to the Haredim several years ago. Ramat Eshkol went first, because it borders the long standing Haredi neighborhood alongside Rehov Bar Ilan, which itself borders the neighborhoods of Bucharim and Mea Shearim.

French Hill is one of the neighborhoods (along with Ramat Eshkol) built soon after the Six Day war of 1967. According to the Palestinians and the White House, they are occupied territory. According to Israel, they are integral parts of Jerusalem.

French Hill borders the Mt Scopus campus of the Hebrew University. In years past, the university subsidized housing for new faculty in the neighborhood. It remains a convenient and pleasant location, with a sizable incidence of academics along with a mixture of other professionals, plus middle and upper-middle class families of various occupations. It has been a mutually accommodating mixture of secular and religious Jews, with a few Haredi families.

As original families aged and died or moved to elder housing, a number of units became rentals. Prominent among the clientele are university students, either singles or young couples. They include Korean and Chinese Christians taking courses concerned with Bible, religion, or Judaism at the Hebrew University or at one of the Christian Institutes in the city. There are also young Arab singles and couples, students and others. A few Arab families have purchased housing.

The wall built between us and Arab towns in the West Bank has made its contribution to an increasing Arab population is French Hill and other mostly-Jewish neighborhoods near the city's borders. Arabs Jerusalemites had moved to less expensive housing in nearby towns. The wall made their daily commute difficult, so they looked for housing within the city.

"Invasion" is a topic of conversation in French Hill. Some of the established residents object to all newcomers who would tip the existing mixture of secular and religious Jews, whether they be Arabs or Haredim. Some would accept a few more Arabs in preference over the Haredim. Others prefer the Haredim.

If the neighborhood becomes heavily Haredi, the ultimate threat would be a movement to block the roads on Shabbat and religious holidays, and the trashing of kiosks that dared sell secular newspapers. Less extreme, and more likely would be squabbles about the sounds of radio or television on Shabbat and religious holidays, and the insistence that buildings operate "Shabbat elevators." These operate throughout the Sabbath and religious holidays, stopping at every floor or every second floor. They make it possible for religious Jews to ride up or down without pushing any buttons. For non-religious residents, they mean greater expense and noise.

Already there is an increasing incidence of black suited men, women with long dresses and head coverings, often surrounded by clusters of children no more than a year apart in age.

This is the first year we have noticed succot blocking the sidewalk. Now there are three. We expect more next year.

Objections to Arabs deal with music that bothers some Jewish ears, as well as the entry into the neighborhood of people who threaten tension or worse. If the new residents themselves are not a problem, they may have relatives who would murder Jews at any opportunity.

Established residents can do nothing to prevent the entry of Haredim or Arabs to the neighborhood. Israel operates according to the laws of civilized western democracies, with a free market for real estate. One might urge a neighbor known to be selling an apartment to be concerned about the buyer, but that is about the limit of the actions available. Insofar as the early Haredim and Arab purchasers are likely to offer considerably more than the current market price of an apartment, a seller must have strong feelings in order to be concerned about the continued balance of the population.

Not an appropriate topic to compose on the eve of Simchas Torah?


But no less of an offense to Jewish civility than succot blocking the sidewalk.

Chag sameach.


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 01:40 AM
October 17, 2011
Ritual Shalit, but no assurance of Salvation

As I am beginning this note, it is 6 AM and the radio is reporting the many details of the transfer of prisoners toward their exchange for Gilad Shalit.

It is not the excitement that put me to work this early. Generally my old bones achieve the rest they need earlier than in years past, and I get to my desk about this time.

Israel media has been at this level of detail for the whole week since the announcement of the deal. It has moved from speculation about the process to the greater certainty of official reports, to this moment of actual description. Along the way reporters indicated that they were not getting the whole story, and were not expecting the whole story from those in charge. The concern has been to mask the actual moves and timetable in order to frustrate Israelis and Palestinians who might be inclined to interfere: Israelis who object to the freedom granted to murderers, and Palestinians who object to relatives who are not on the list of those to be exchanged.

Israeli media deserves some of the credit for the exchange. For much of the five years since Shalit's capture, the major networks have emphasized his imprisonment, and the suffering of his family. One looking for another approach should tune in to the right wing pirate radio networks that serve the religious communities.

The front page of Ha'aretz is featuring a large cartoon that captures the hysteria. It shows the Prime Minister in a helicopter over the Shalit family home, taking credit for what he has produced. This is Succoth, and generally is a time for Israeli families to visit the Galilee. The Shalit home has been a target of pilgrimage. Nightly news has shown families gathering around the building, pushing their children forward, and occasionally expressing their enthusiasm to one of another family member who ventured outside.

Part of the ritual observed in the most recent week is the airing of objections. While surveys have indicated upwards of 60 percent in favor of the deal, we have heard from the families of those killed by prisoners.

A member of the family that lost several members at the bombing of the Sbarro restaurant in central Jerusalem during 2001 was arrested for defiling the memorial at the site of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination. While some political activists called that a crime against the nation, the perpetrator was released from custody pending a judicial hearing.

Some security commentators have expressed their reservations, even while the theme from the pinnacle of the military and other security services is support for the exchange.

Political commentators have said that Prime Minister Netanyahu will benefit in the short run, but will be the first to be blamed when the inevitable happens and one or more of the released prisoners returns to violence and commits the first deadly act traceable to the exchange.

We have heard that one of the prisoners being exchanged said that he does not regret his previous actions. He has dedicated his life to killing Jews, and he looks forward to returning to that activity. A number of prisoners initially refused to sign the commitment not to engage in violence as a condition of their release. That news was part of last evening's coverage. Reporters suggested that it might affect the exchange. A few minutes later, however, something had caused those prisoners to change their mind and sign the document. One can guess as to whether that was the result of a spiritual experience or a response to pressures of the moment that might not influence whatever happens once the shackles have been removed.

At least one of the prisoners to be released comes from Isaweea, the not so friendly neighborhood across a meadow. We'll have to see how this affects our usual evening walk around French Hill. Currently there is a police helicopter circling overhead.

The routine applicable to such a process provides a period of 48 hours to inspect the list of prisoners about to be released, and to submit objections to the Supreme Court. Yesterday the Court heard testimony from mid-morning into the evening, and the judges chosen for the task announced their decision after I went to bed. As expected, and has occurred in previous occasions, they indicated that they would not interfere in a decision that was essentially political.

Other objections focused on the pardons signed by President Peres. A legal scholar criticized the mass nature of the signing, which differs from the deliberate and individual process of reviewing the crimes of those asking a pardon, along with testimony about the individual's intentions and professional assessments by psychologists and penal officials. Despite some kind words directed at the families of those killed, and a statement saying that he did not forgive and would not forget their crimes, the President put his name on the documents necessary to free some 450 individuals at this phase of the exchange.

The code name given to the operation is שואבה (vacuum cleaner). That can mean getting the problem of Gilad Shalit off the agenda, as well as sweeping more than 1,000 individuals out of Israeli prisons.

My own view is that five years of deliberation and negotiations most likely achieved the best deal that Israel can expect. Palestinians did not get all of the prisoners they wanted. Israel did not keep all the most objectionable off the list. Chances are that some will return to violence. Those enthusiastic about the exchange and those intense in their opposition will then have an opportunity to express themselves. One can hope for an end to this and similar processes, but one should not expect that to occur.

Optimists are talking about a new perspective in the Middle East. Hamas is up, Fatah down. Israel and Hamas have shown that they can deal with one another.

Is this the first stage toward mutual recognition. There are contrary reports about the imminent easing of the blockade on Gaza. What about those factions even more dedicated than Hamas to attacking Israelis at all opportunity, and the continued movement of weapons from Libya and elsewhere via Sinai to Gaza?

Shalit is not the Messiah, and he does not assure Salvation.

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 11:44 PM
October 16, 2011
Oy gevalt more appropriate than applause

A headline in today's Ha'aretz, "From New York to Tokyo, demonstrations in more than 900 cities and 80 countries against capitalism and in behalf of social reform. In Tel Aviv they blocked streets." Another item reports that a Reuters survey in the United States found 38 percent viewing the demonstrations positively, and 24 percent negatively. (page 7)

Journalists and academics who aspire to great ideas are seeing a movement in behalf of social justice. One political scientist sees a distinction between "civil disobedience" and "political disobedience."

"Civil disobedience accepted the legitimacy of political institutions, but resisted the moral authority of resulting laws. Political disobedience, by contrast, resists the very way in which we are governed: it resists the structure of partisan politics, the demand for policy reforms, the call for party identification, and the very ideologies that dominated the post-War period."

Academic careers may be made by seeing this kind of clarity in the noise of crowds.

"One way to understand the emerging disobedience is to see it as a refusal to engage these sorts of worn-out ideologies rooted in the Cold War. The key point here is that the Cold War's ideological divide -- with the Chicago Boys at one end and the Maoists at the other -- merely served as a weapon in this country for the financial and political elite: the ploy, in the United States, was to demonize the chimera of a controlled economy (that of the former Soviet Union or China, for example) in order to prop up the illusion of a free market and to legitimize the fantasy of less regulation -- of what was euphemistically called 'deregulation.' " http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/13/occupy-wall-streets-political-disobedience/?ref=opinion

Individuals promoting social reform via Facebook and Tweeter are saying it again. News and encouragement is spreading from place to place, this time around the globe and not only from one coffee house to another in Tel Aviv or through the neighborhoods of Cairo.

It is appropriate to pause, and consider some moderation in the inflation of rhetoric. Remember the predictions about unfolding democracy suring Arab spring? That was two seasons ago. People are still being killed in Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. Yesterday's New York Times headline was a long way from applauding the onset of democracy; "Egypt's Military Expands Power, Raising Alarms." http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/15/world/middleeast/egypts-military-expands-power-raising-alarms.html?_r=1&scp=6&sq=Egypt&st=cse

Tunisia appears more sedate, but the New York Times is now reserved rather than enthusiastic.

"Tunisia's electoral process appears more chaotic than the more staid expressions of the people's will in Europe and America. Some 11,000 candidates in more than 100 political parties, some of them hardly more than parties of one, are competing for 217 seats in a constituent assembly that will draw up a new constitution, form a parliament and choose a president. This is democracy in the rough . . . With 50 percent undecided, almost anything could happen." http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/13/opinion/13iht-edgreenway13.html?scp=6&sq=Tunis&st=cse

The numbers of people and places involved may excite the romantics, but should caution the rest of us. A couple of epigrams provide useful guidance:

It's easier to destroy than to create

Keep it simple. If you can't keep it simple, it simply won't work.

The numbers of people and the vacuous nature of their chants (e.g., social justice, equality) are likely to be barriers to change rather than assurances of change. The challenge is translating crowds and slogans into priorities and finding a leadership that can decide and impose discipline, and deal with established institutions of governments and political parties that already have leadership and discipline, and are likely to resist competition for control.

Hooligans and anarchists are playing their part in the protests, and complicate the effort to decide just what is being demanded.

This is not a note in behalf of the status quo, but only one that cautions expectations associated with diverse crowds.

Orderly change requires priorities, and the discipline to follow a leadership capable of selecting a few manageable goals, and following through with appropriate allocations of resources, administrative detail, and the monitoring of implementation.

This is the dull stuff of government, rather than the excitement of protest or the cheering of commentators. The people of Cairo and the tribes of Libya--the latter with considerable outside help--have succeeded in ousting their leaders, but are a long way from replacing them with anything other than a different group of autocrats.

The various people claiming leadership of Israelis' demands for social justice are hoping to rejuvenate a movement after a long pause for religious holidays. They will have to struggle against municipalities and a court that removed their tent cities and ordered medical residents back to work. Also to be dealt with are those among the earlier protesters who see promise in moderate proposals coming out of a government committee, and the uplift of the prime minister's standing due to a prisoner exchange that has swept everything else out of the media.

The latest monthly report of consumer prices has shown a dip of two tenths of one percent. It may be fair to link that with a boycott of food producers that grew out of initial protests against the price of cottage cheese (notably more precise than "social justice.") It is important to note that price cuts did not come from government now more beholden to the people, but from business firms concerned to gain something by actions that make sense in terms of public relations.

There is a lesson to be had in comparing the occupation of Wall Street or the Brooklyn Bridge with earlier movements against the war in Vietnam or racial segregation, or the more distant movement in behalf of Abolition.

None of those brought about change quickly, and all were relatively simple in seeking to stop easy to define activities: the end of military activity in Southeast Asia, slavery, or legally enforced racial segregation. The movement against segregation was more focused than "social justice." Not only did integration fail to produce "social justice," but that is something which still bedevils those who propose public policy. The need to pursue integration a century after Abolition, and the ongoing concern with African American poverty should be lessons to all who expect early gratification.

One can also quarrel with the accomplishment of the anti-war movement of the 1960's and 1970's. Their major feat was to end conscription. They did not prevent problematic adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is early to worry about American involvement in Central Africa, but a recent item should remind us old folks about John Kennedy's campaign against the evil of Communism in Southeast Asia.

"President Obama said Friday that he had ordered the deployment of 100 armed military advisers to central Africa to help regional forces combat the Lord's Resistance Army, a notorious renegade group that has terrorized villagers in at least four countries with marauding bands that kill, rape, maim and kidnap with impunity." http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/15/world/africa/barack-obama-sending-100-armed-advisers-to-africa-to-help-fight-lords-resistance-army.html?ref=global-home

"Oy gevalt" is more appropriate than applause, both for this humanitarian gesture of Barack Obama, and for all the expectations loaded on to the protesting crowds.


Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 12:16 AM
October 14, 2011
Paying terrorists

Estimates range between 6,000 and 11,000 security prisoners being held by Israel. This is one of those details that officials are not inclined to publish. Whatever the truth, you can can reduce both the lower and upper estimates by about 1,027 scheduled to be released in exchange for Gilad Shalit. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palestinian_prisoners_in_Israel

Almost the whole of Israeli news has been concerned with the details of the exchange since an agreement was announced on Tuesday evening. According to what we are hearing, Shalit will be in Israel this coming Tuesday. Assuming, among other contingencies, that the Supreme Court will rule against those families of terror victims and others who are petitioning it to reject the agreement.

President Shimon Peres will grant pardons to those prisoners included in the deal; a group of 450 or so will be transferred to Gaza or elsewhere; Shalit will go to Egypt and then to Israel. The reception here is likely to be overwhelming, but hopefully short. Individuals in the know, including Israelis who had been held as prisoners for a prolonged period, are warning that Shalit will need quiet and most likely extensive treatment.

Is it right to turn over hundreds of convicted murderers for the sake of one soldier?

This is not the first time Israel has traded its prisoners for those held by someone else, or even turned over convicted murderers for the return of dead bodies.

So apparently it is right.

The Palestinian view is that individuals held by Israel are prisoners of war, and all ought to be released now that the latest intifada is over. Palestinians assert, with some support among others, that they have little beyond terror to employ against the impressive but no less deadly weaponry of Israel.

If all is fair in war, why not the release of prisoners, despite their having been found guilty of the most heinous crimes? If not now, then perhaps as part of a peace agreement.

Some of those who reject the idea of "negotiating with terrorists" already have deleted this message.

Israel may be the country that has paid the heaviest price for what is widely called terror. Yet it has shown time and again that it negotiates directly with terrorists or indirectly via third parties, and pays a price in living captives or dead bodies in exchange for living or dead Israelis.

Decisions do not come easily. This particular deal required 5 years of negotiations. Ultimately Israeli negotiators refused to release prisoners who ranked as unavailable for trade on criteria employed by security personnel and ranking politicians. We can speculate that those criteria involve the likelihood of the individual returning to a campaign of terror, the viciousness of acts committed, and the time spent in prison.

As in previous cases, there is a movement to formally change the arrangements so that "next time" Israel will be tougher in negotiations. Some Knesset Members are proposing legislation to outlaw anything more than one for one exchanges.

The commentators reporting on that movement seemed hard pressed to avoid ridicule. They limited themselves to reciting the history of exchanges, and saying that public pressure for future exchanges would likely to be as irresistible as it has been in this most recent instance and in the past.

There is a long history of Jewish communities collecting resources for the release of Jews held captive. It was a device used, among other purposes, for the sake of traveling merchants who found themselves in the hands of pirates.

According to Maimonides:

"Pidyon Shevuyim (ransom of prisoners) takes precedence . . . There is no greater mitzvah than Pidyon Shevuyim, for the problems of the captive include the problems of the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and who is in mortal danger." (Mishneh Torah (Laws of Gifts for the Poor, 8:10,11).

This principle might have made Jews more likely to be targeted for captive than other travellers, but also might have made brigands more likely to keep the Jews alive for the sake of the ransom.

Individuals objecting to the payment of blood money should consider the success of Somali pirates, who have financed some impressive armaments and personal life styles as a result of their activity. The current issue of The Economist includes an article about the temptations--and problems--in arming merchant ships sailing in threatened waters. http://www.economist.com/blogs/schumpeter/2011/10/piracy

If the dominant Palestinian leadership--whoever that comes to be--ever gets its act together enough to approach negotiations with Israel prepared to actually give and take for the sake of peace rather than simply make its demands, one of the items on the table is likely to be the release of Palestinian prisoners. No doubt there will be arguments around that table, as well as in Israeli media and among ordinary citizens about the price to be paid for peace.

If that situation occurs while these fingers are still able to tap out the story, we are likely to see again that there are no absolutes in law or politics. The deal made will depend on the price demanded and the deal on offer, as well as the assurances provided (perhaps with the help of third party guarantors) that each side will actually deliver what it promises.

"Terror" is a label that carries some weight. Israel has employed tough measures against Gaza due to the widespread designation of Hamas as a terrorist organization.

Laws of war, to the extent that they affect activities, are said to be outdated due to the activity of non-governmental organizations engaging in violence, which it is politically incorrect in some quarters to label "terror" and in other quarters to label "Islamic."

Prominent among the factors preventing an adjustment in the laws to deal with non-governmental violence is the weight in international forums of governments that are friendly those those practicing what others call terror.

In all of this muddle is the issue of negotiating with terrorists, or negotiating with them indirectly via third parties, and paying the prices necessary to free prisoners, obtaining bodies, or other agreements.

It is not as respectable as haggling with a seller over a non-human commodity, but it has some of the same features.


Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 08:35 AM
October 11, 2011
The deal for Gilad Shalit and its lessons

I told you so.

A short while after finishing my note on politics (Every day you may have to eat --), Israel's leadership proved it was up to the task.

In a dramatic announcement timed for the evening news, including an on-camera announcement by the prime minister, we heard the details of an agreement between Israel and Hamas, via Egypt with help from Germany, France, and others, concerning the exchange of Gilad Shalit for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

Both sides showed flexibility from their earlier positions. Israel is releasing some prisoners with Israeli blood on their hands, but not those ranked most extreme by various criteria and security personnel. Hamas accepted the deal even though some of its high profile demands will stay in Israeli prisons. There was also compromise on the number to be released in Gaza or elsewhere, rather than to their homes in the West Bank (considered more dangerous by virtue of its access to Israel's population).

No doubt the numbers are imbalanced, but Hamas has only one Israeli prisoner and Israel may hold 11,000 or more prisoners who can serve as resources in such deals. Most of those being released are said to be individuals, not ranked highly on the criteria of being dangerous, who have served most of their sentences.

Why now, and not sometimes earlier in the five years of Shalit's imprisonment?

Both sides may have come to the decision that this is the best deal likely.

Instability in the region is said to have contributed. Both sides are concerned that things may get more chaotic, not necessarily in a way to benefit their position. Hamas will score some points among Palestinians, by being able to release more than one thousand prisoners. It will pay some costs with the families of those left behind. However, it is looking better than Fatah.

Israeli officials are sending a message to Mahmoud Abbas on the value of negotiations and compromise.

Negotiating with terrorists?

Of course. It is better than going to war, and it does not mean giving in to terrorists. This does not end the conflict between Hamas and Israel, from either side. Peace is not here.

Three Israeli ministers voted against the government majority supporting the deal. Before it can go into effect, there is a two day period in which individuals can petition the Supreme Court to reject the release of individual prisoners and thereby endanger this agreement.

Not everyone is happy. No surprise. But difficult and lengthy, off again, on again negotiations demonstrated the efforts of both sides to adhere to their important goals.

Is there is message in this for social justice?

It adds to the prime minister's stature, and whatever that means for his assertions that he is doing what is appropriate by way of social change and the benefits available to various sectors of the society, including Yuppie protesters and angry medical residents.

Politics will continue. Why couldn't you do this sooner? will be one theme. Now show your courage to do something for us will be another theme.

Who is this Gilad Shalit? The same young man captured, but not exactly. What has happened to him and how it will affect his future is still to be determined.

Next up, maybe, Jonathan Pollard. But that is a different story.

Lessons for the IDF. Some of its leaders will celebrate Israel's commitment to its soldiers. Some will lament the price paid. The lessons taught soldiers are to do everything possible to avoid capture, and to keep your comrades from being captured. Just what that means is something of a mystery. Life is tough. No perfect and simple answers.


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 10:32 PM
October 08, 2011
Not a time to expect great accomplishments

The New Year has begun and Yom Kippur is behind us. Two prominent issues wait for treatment: peace with the Palestinians and a response to domestic social protest. The Prime Minister says that he is working hard to achieve both goals. Optimists are asking themselves if they can expect decisive action a bit more than a week from now after we have passed through the holiday of Succot. Realists are echoing the comment attributed to Angela Merkel ("I don't believe a word he says"), and not expecting anything.

The issue of peace with the Palestinians is different from social protest, but what is common is the likelihood that neither will find a solution in the near future.

The peace process is best viewed as political theater rather than serious business. Not only should one temper expectations about Prime Minister Netanyahu's sincerity. One should also temper the credibility assigned to the choir singing Peace Now, being led by the Obama White House with the participation of just about every national leader expressing support for a Palestinian state.

It is wise to view the commitments of Washington and European capitals to peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and the establishment of a Palestinian state in the same way as we should view the insistence of the same worthies, expressed time and again since 9-11, that their quarrel is not with Islam. That is another theatrical performance, whose function is to do what is possible to sooth the feelings of Muslims who might be kept out of the fight, while the armies of western countries have invaded a number of Muslim countries and have spent more than a decade pursuing and killing those many Muslims defined as terrorists. The collateral damage has been considerable, and entirely suffered by Muslims.

One might wonder why Benyamin Netanyahu enrages the likes of Angela Merkel and others. A more honest posture would be to admit that there is no hope for peace given the problems within Palestine, and asserting that Israel will continue to build in the major settlement blocs and throughout Jerusalem. But that would get in the way of the chorus being led by the White House about the importance of peace and the goodness of Islam. Anyone expecting tiny Israel--or any European power--to issue a direct challenge to the leadership of the White House cannot claim to understand the ABCs (or Alephs and Bets) of international politics.

The Prime Minister's posture with respect to the social protest reflects another kind of calculation. Many of the protesters appear to be individuals who voted for losing parties at the last election, and intent on getting by street demonstrations what they could not achieve via their ballots.

Moreover, the demonstrators are weakened by lacking a mechanism for screening all of the demands being heard, as well as a tendency of many of them to distrust politicians. Leaders of opposition parties found themselves poorly treated when they went to the tents in order to show their support.

On the other hand, it is also taught in the primary school of politics that no politician should speak openly against a movement able to muster several hundred thousand marchers on two separate occasions.

For this reason, the Prime Minister appointed a committee to produce a program of reform, and has said that he wants the government to support its recommendations.

How serious is he?

That will be tested not only by a vote of the ministers comprising the government, but also to the extent that the Prime Minister and his colleagues work in tandem to enact the committee's recommendations in the Knesset, obtain the necessary funding from the Finance Ministry, and achieve implementation by the various administrative bodies to be given new responsibilities.

That will take a while to accomplish, even in the best of circumstances. Meanwhile, there are a host of weighty actors who have indicated their reservations. Ultra-Orthodox and Russian politicians have not found their primary concerns being addressed by the reform proposals being considered. Industrialists and other employers are speaking against provisions that will increase their taxes and constrain their employment practices. Key personnel in the Defense Ministry and the IDF oppose the proposal to obtain much of the money for the reforms by cutting their budgets. Various leaders of the protest movement have been loud in ridiculing the suggestions for not even making a dent on the problems they perceive in the economy or society.

You have heard of activists who will sacrifice the good in order to achieve the perfect. Individuals leading street demonstrations are speaking the language of perfectionists rather than politicians.

The issue of peace with the Palestinians and the holiday of Succot may come together to produce their own problem for the social protests.

Succot is one of the holidays (along with Passover and Shavuot) when Jews were ordered to Jerusalem in order to bring sacrifices to the Temple. There has not been a Temple for almost 2,000 years, but now thousands of Jews come to Jerusalem, the Old City, and especially the Western Wall during those holidays. On several occasions Arabs on the Temple Mount have lobbed stones down on the the crowds at the Western Wall, leading police and army units to respond. The looming issue of peace, and Palestinian efforts to gain their state via the United Nations may make this Succot an especially ripe opportunity for a problem that gets out of hand. Moreover, a radical Jewish movement has been desecrating Muslim sites under the heading of "Price Tag," presumably in retribution for Muslim attacks against Jews. One need not decide "who started it" in order to conclude that "Price Tag" will add to the tinder abuilding, and may set us on a road where neither a Palestinian state nor social reform is a likely outcome.


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 01:03 PM
October 04, 2011
A Jerusalem bus ride

Not all of Israel is bombast and threat. There are also conversations at bus stops.

This one began after a good meal at an Italian restaurant on Emek Refaim. There were two seats vacant at the stop. Varda was tired from her glass of wine and lasagna. I was tired of sitting and knew there would be another hour of sitting on the bus. So there remained one seat when a middle aged, overweight woman with a crossed eye and wearing a fancy kipa (yarmulke) and other odd clothes, asked if I wanted the seat. When I said no, she said, "But you are an old man" (זקן), so maybe you should sit. This brought an explosion from a older woman sitting next to Varda. "How can you be so crude to use such an insulting word?"

This began a discussion in which we learned that the newcomer was a recent immigrant from Nice by way of Montreal, who did not know enough Hebrew to use the more appropriate description for me of "mature" (מבוגר). By the time it was over, we learned that the woman who challenged her was from Kiev, came to Israel 20 years ago, was proud of her son associated with the Weizman Institute and occasional research in the United States. Varda shared her own stories as the child of immigrants, whose parents had their own problems with language and custom even though they had been in the country for more than a decade when she came into their world.

On the ride home we recalled one of my bus stop stories, from more than 30 years ago. I was unattached at the time, and before the bus arrived I had given my telephone number to a woman who was sure she had someone for me. The telephone rang a month later, when Varda and I were already established and hosting our first dinner party with her friends from the Medical School, one of them a future dean. I recalled my companion from the bus stop, expressed my thanks for her consideration, but responded that I had solved my problem. She didn't accept my answer, and asked how could I be sure that she would not supply someone even better. All this with a room alongside the telephone full of guest, and what Varda later described as me with a red face. I did what I could to end that telephone call, and my best with clumsy Hebrew to explain what it was all about.

The bus we take to town passes by Mea Sha'arim. Within a span of a few blocks, it goes from an upper-middle class, orderly neighborhood with greenery and space between the buildings to something out of Bashevis Singer's Warsaw prior to World War II. No greenery, or vacant space, small shops, apartments upstairs with makeshift partitions for extra rooms on what had been designed as balconies. Stores are open and the sidewalks crowded with shoppers, children, and baby carriages well into the evening. Prices for things we would buy a bit lower than elsewhere in the city. Most of what is on display we would not buy: black suits, shoes, hats, and belts for men, and long dresses, long-sleeve blouses, wigs, and other head coverings for women.

Each time the bus stops in this neighborhood there is a prolonged wait for the entrance of baby carriages through the broad back doors, then the passing of the ticket from passenger to passenger until it reaches the driver, is punched, and then gets back to the mother standing over the carriage in the cleared area near the back door meant for such things. There are also likely to be ancients (זקנים ממש) climbing on to the bus with difficulty, then causing a movement of others from the seats reserved for them near the driver. All this takes time, for it is inevitable that the bus will be crowded. Mea Sha'arim is among the poorest neighborhoods of the city, with few if any private cars and no place to park them even if resources permit their ownership.

Not all the passengers from Mea Sha'arim are its ancients or mothers with babies. Some of single women who chat with friends or, if they are alone, spend their time on the bus reading psalms or the prayer for the traveller.

Last evening there was a temporary pen on part of the sidewalk with live chickens. Animal lovers cringe. They are meant for the ceremony (Kapara) prior to Yom Kippur, when the man of a family (not ours) will swing the bird around his head while praying that the family's sins will be attached to the bird about to be slaughtered and turned into a meal. Think of these chickens are lower income versions of scapegoats.

Television news at home brought us back to 21st century Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu (about whom Angela Merkel recently said she could not believe a word he says) was having trouble with his coalition. Eli Yishai (Interior Minister and leader of SHAS) and Avigdor Lieberman (Foreign Minister and leader of Israel our Home) would not agree to approve the report of the committee recommending responses to the social protest. The subtexts in their claims that they needed more time to consider the details: Yishai--what's in it for the ultra-Orthodox? Lieberman-- what's in it for the Russians?

With or without the ceremony involving live chickens, may you all pass through whatever you do on Yom Kippur, and be inscribed by the Almighty for a good year.


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 12:30 AM