Monday, December 31, 2012

A Boring and Dangerous Election

A Boring and Dangerous Election

by Donniel Hartman
Published originally in the Jerusalem Post

As an optimist, new elections generally inspire me to hope. As new parties and new personalities enter into the fray I find myself anticipating the new ideas and thinking that will enter into our political discourse and open up new horizons for Israel. This optimism often causes me to vote for the latest new party, the one that has not yet disappointed me. My track record hasn’t been that great, but as an optimist I am not inclined to allow past failures to color my hope for the future.

This election season started with great promise, and indeed new parties and very talented individuals have emerged across the political spectrum. The problem is that this influx hasn’t generated the expected new ideas. It is possible that this is the consequence of an election whose outcome is already clear, with the only issue up for grabs being the elements that will constitute the right-wing bloc which will lead the country afterward - whether Likud-Beiteinu will get 35 or 38 seats, or the Bayit Hayehudi, 12-15. The parties aren’t campaigning to win, for who will win is already clear. The campaign is about increasing one's party size by one or two seats over the latest projections and most significantly, avoiding mistakes which might lead to a decline of one to two seats.

These elections are boring. They are not only challenging for an unrepentant optimist such as me, but they are dangerous for Israel and its future. Israel and Zionism are about ideas, about ways in which the national homeland of the Jewish people will represent and embody aspirations for justice, decency, and intelligence within our foreign, military, economic and social policies. They are about creating an exemplary society, which while grounded within real politik, nevertheless continually aspires to change it for the better. When Israel stops leading with ideas, and our politicians are the great protectors of the status quo, Israel becomes ever-more distanced from its true purpose.

One of the more exasperating examples of the mediocre rut into which our political thinking has descended is the debate within the Likud-Beiteinu Party as to whether to include in the party platform Prime Minister Netanyahu's 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech supporting a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians. The speech put an end to the affiliation of the Likud Party with the dreams of a Greater Israel and tacitly admitted that settlements in certain areas of Judea and Samaria would have to be dismantled for the sake of peace.

The reason given by some of the more moderate voices within the party for removing it from the platform is that given Palestinian Authority President Abbas's apparent policy to sidestep direct negotiations with Israel, we should not "reward" him with such a prize. There are others, who today play a far more central role in the leadership of the Likud Party, who want it removed for it contradicts their ideology, which still holds fast to the fantasy of a Greater Israel.

What both hold in common is the belief that the current status quo is sustainable and plays in Israel's favor. They are at home in a politics devoid of new ideas and may consider expending effort to produce them only after they are inspired by evidence of new thinking on the other side. This is not a path which produces a greater Israel but a smaller one.

A second example of mediocrity is being exemplified by the Labor Party's decision to avoid speaking about foreign policy in its current campaign, under the hope that a focus on economic and social justice disconnected from the party's past peace platform may "fool" one or two mandates away from the Center-Right. This is a policy well at home in the current election culture and may ensure Labor the accolade of being the biggest party amongst those who lost. It is, however, a poor service to a party which in theory aspires to lead, and an even poorer service to the country.

In a democracy the opposition plays a central role as generators of ideas and as watchdogs against stagnation. When the opposition is leading the charge down the path of complacency the dangers to Israel's future are multiplied.

When functioning well, an election season serves to put forth noble and naive ideas, which everyone knows need to be and inevitably will be tempered by the reality of the day after the elections. Cynics may argue that a campaign is about putting forth the lies that the population wants to hear. I believe that its purpose is to set forth the goals which give the electorate a window into the minds and hearts of those who aspire to represent us, the goals to which they are committed so long as reality doesn’t get in the way.

We need to reconnect to the political discourse of hope and aspirations. Of course we have peace plans. Let's talk about them, debate them, and figure out which ones best serve our values, goals, interests, and concerns. The fact that we may have nobody to talk with has never stopped Jews from talking. We are the People of the Book, who have spent 3,000 years putting forth ideas and chiseling away at the rock of reality until we penetrate it.

Let the dreaming and talking begin. May the next month until the elections be filled with a competition over innovation, a rivalry to discover new ways to change the status quo and place Israel on a trajectory to a better future. The job of the politician is to lead. Please begin to do your job.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Moral Animal

The Moral Animal

By Jonathan Sacks

Alain Pilon

IT is the religious time of the year. Step into any city in America or Britain and you will see the night sky lit by religious symbols, Christmas decorations certainly and probably also a giant menorah. Religion in the West seems alive and well.

But is it really? Or have these symbols been emptied of content, no more than a glittering backdrop to the West’s newest faith, consumerism, and its secular cathedrals, shopping malls?

At first glance, religion is in decline. In Britain, the results of the 2011 national census have just been published. They show that a quarter of the population claims to have no religion, almost double the figure 10 years ago. And though the United States remains the most religious country in the West, 20 percent declare themselves without religious affiliation — double the number a generation ago.

Looked at another way, though, the figures tell a different story. Since the 18th century, many Western intellectuals have predicted religion’s imminent demise. Yet after a series of withering attacks, most recently by the new atheists, including Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, still in Britain three in four people, and in America four in five, declare allegiance to a religious faith. That, in an age of science, is what is truly surprising.

The irony is that many of the new atheists are followers of Charles Darwin. We are what we are, they say, because it has allowed us to survive and pass on our genes to the next generation. Our biological and cultural makeup constitutes our “adaptive fitness.” Yet religion is the greatest survivor of them all. Superpowers tend to last a century; the great faiths last millenniums. The question is why.

Darwin himself suggested what is almost certainly the correct answer. He was puzzled by a phenomenon that seemed to contradict his most basic thesis, that natural selection should favor the ruthless. Altruists, who risk their lives for others, should therefore usually die before passing on their genes to the next generation. Yet all societies value altruism, and something similar can be found among social animals, from chimpanzees to dolphins to leafcutter ants.

Neuroscientists have shown how this works. We have mirror neurons that lead us to feel pain when we see others suffering. We are hard-wired for empathy. We are moral animals.

The precise implications of Darwin’s answer are still being debated by his disciples — Harvard’s E. O. Wilson in one corner, Oxford’s Richard Dawkins in the other. To put it at its simplest, we hand on our genes as individuals but we survive as members of groups, and groups can exist only when individuals act not solely for their own advantage but for the sake of the group as a whole. Our unique advantage is that we form larger and more complex groups than any other life-form.

A result is that we have two patterns of reaction in the brain, one focusing on potential danger to us as individuals, the other, located in the prefrontal cortex, taking a more considered view of the consequences of our actions for us and others. The first is immediate, instinctive and emotive. The second is reflective and rational. We are caught, in the psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s phrase, between thinking fast and slow.

The fast track helps us survive, but it can also lead us to acts that are impulsive and destructive. The slow track leads us to more considered behavior, but it is often overridden in the heat of the moment. We are sinners and saints, egotists and altruists, exactly as the prophets and philosophers have long maintained.

If this is so, we are in a position to understand why religion helped us survive in the past — and why we will need it in the future. It strengthens and speeds up the slow track. It reconfigures our neural pathways, turning altruism into instinct, through the rituals we perform, the texts we read and the prayers we pray. It remains the most powerful community builder the world has known. Religion binds individuals into groups through habits of altruism, creating relationships of trust strong enough to defeat destructive emotions. Far from refuting religion, the Neo-Darwinists have helped us understand why it matters.

No one has shown this more elegantly than the political scientist Robert D. Putnam. In the 1990s he became famous for the phrase “bowling alone”: more people were going bowling, but fewer were joining bowling teams. Individualism was slowly destroying our capacity to form groups. A decade later, in his book “American Grace,” he showed that there was one place where social capital could still be found: religious communities.

Mr. Putnam’s research showed that frequent church- or synagogue-goers were more likely to give money to charity, do volunteer work, help the homeless, donate blood, help a neighbor with housework, spend time with someone who was feeling depressed, offer a seat to a stranger or help someone find a job. Religiosity as measured by church or synagogue attendance is, he found, a better predictor of altruism than education, age, income, gender or race.

Religion is the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age. The idea that society can do without it flies in the face of history and, now, evolutionary biology. This may go to show that God has a sense of humor. It certainly shows that the free societies of the West must never lose their sense of God.

Jonathan Sacks is the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth and a member of the House of Lords.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Why Israel Has No Newtowns

Why Israel Has No Newtowns

It’s the Jewish state’s gun culture, not its laws, that prevents mass shootings like the one in Connecticut
By Liel Leibovitz

Israeli girls wear automatic rifles as they dance together during the celebrations for Independence Day in Jerusalem on April 19, 2010

Why? In the days since 27 innocents, most of them children, were murdered in Sandy Hook Elementary School, all have been asking that question, trying to make sense of an ultimately senseless act. Simpler minds insisted that anyone who has ever argued in favor of anything but the absolute abolition of firearms was complicit in the murder of innocent children, while more astute thinkers tried to look past their indignation and heartbreak in search of sensible policy alternatives. Not surprisingly, they often ended up looking to Israel, a nation, went the argument, whose citizens are heavily armed yet rarely use their guns to shoot each other. This, more than one report noted, was due largely to Israel’s surprisingly strict gun-control legislation: Assault rifles are banned, registration is necessary, and a whole system of checks and requirements is in place to keep weapons out of the wrong hands. A popular statistic spread like wildfire on Facebook and Twitter: Only 58 Israelis were killed by guns last year, compared with 10,728 Americans.

It’s a compelling story. It’s also wrong: There’s much that we can learn from Israel when it comes to firearms, but it’s the state’s gun culture, not its gun laws, that keeps its citizens safe.


Let us, for the sake of argument, put aside the fact that nearly all Israelis serve in the army, and that virtually all soldiers are armed with semiautomatic weapons that they carry on their person at all times, even when back home on vacation. Most men continue to enjoy this unfettered access to arsenals for the duration of their service as army reservists (at least a few weeks out of each year until they’re 45). If we disregard the glut of guns facilitated by the Israel Defense Forces, we are left with strict-sounding laws that require anyone who wants a firearm license to register with the government and meet a list of seemingly stringent conditions.

To receive a gun license, one technically needs to meet two sets of criteria. First, the basics: A gun owner must be a citizen or a permanent resident and speak some Hebrew. The person can’t be a minor and can’t have any physical or mental problems hindering him from operating a firearm. Second, one must show cause to carry a weapon, a privilege limited on paper to about a dozen categories of people whose work conditions are perilous enough to justify carrying a firearm.

These are the strict gun laws that many commentators have been citing as the reason the Jewish state has no Newtowns or Columbines. But take a closer look, and that second set becomes quite porous: Security guards, obviously, are permitted their guns, but so are men and women who work in the diamond industry, or who handle valuable goods or large sums of cash. Anyone who lives or works in an “entitled residency”—code for a high-risk area, meaning the settlements—is permitted a weapon, no questions asked. Retired army officers can easily obtain a license, as can anyone who has inherited a gun from a friend or a relative. And sportsmen can easily get shotgun permits if they claim that they wish to use it to hunt pheasant or boar.

The upshot: Anyone can come up with an excuse to legally own a gun. I have personally witnessed more than one friend apply under false premises, claiming that their work required that they travel to settlements and other high-risk areas, and walk out, a short while later, with pistols much like the ones used in Aurora or Columbine. Assault rifles, admittedly, are harder to come by in Israel. If you are not a soldier or a reservist or don’t have one in your family—again, nearly the entire population—the only way to obtain semiautomatics is if you reside, or claim to reside, in a settlement.

It doesn’t take much of an expert to realize that these restrictions, in and of themselves, do not constitute much by way of gun control. And even though there have been no Newtown-style mass shootings in Israel, the Israeli government has tightened the reins over the past decade, passing a series of additional restrictions and placing further emphasis on enforcement. The result was clear: In 2000, there were approximately 400,000 legally owned firearms in Israel, the majority of them handguns, and the number of illegal weapons stood at about 150,000. Ten years later, thanks largely to the new strictures, the ratio was reversed: 180,000 firearms were legally licensed, and more than 400,000 were illegally obtained, most of them assault rifles like the M-16 and the Galil, stolen from the Israel Defense Forces. Naturally, this led to an increase in the number of casualties, as it placed far mightier tools in the hands of criminals who were previously content to handle their affairs using the perfectly legal and readily available guns at their disposal.

ISRAEL21c’s year in videos

ISRAEL21c’s year in videos

Posted By Abigail Klein Leichman 

ISRAEL21c is committed to providing a window onto the many ways Israeli innovation is changing the world for the better. We also share a glimpse of how Israelis simply let their hair down and have a really good time despite – or perhaps because of – living in a part of the world that isn’t ordinarily equated with fun. The best way to show that is through action. This year, we’ve produced and posted more than 45 short films that you can view on our site or directly on YouTube – where ISRAEL21c’s channel has gotten more than three million views since 2007. We’ve brought viewers to an olive-spitting contest, to roller derby in Tel Aviv, to a “live statues” festival in Rehovot and to a desert bike race at the Dead Sea. To watch the 10 most-watched ISRAEL21c videos in 2012, go tothe website at:

1. What does Made in Israel mean to you?
Produced in celebration of Israel’s 64th birthday, this video gives a rapid-fire visual overview of 64 years of amazing achievements. You’ll learn that amniocentesis was invented by an Israeli, as was an ultrasound device to melt tumors; a treatment for multiple sclerosis; a device to help paraplegics walk; a pain-free dental laser; and non-invasive treatments for ADHD, depression and Alzheimer’s. Israelis are helping you mow your lawn robotically, defend yourself with Krav Maga, turn your dog’s droppings into harmless powder, stay safer in the car, put bubbles in your soda, get rid of unwanted hair and enjoy a whole new crop of TV shows, musicians and artists. 

2. A cardboard bicycle?
Izhar Gafni is crazy about bikes – he makes them, fixes them and rides them. But three engineer friends thought the chain had really slipped from the gears when Gafni suggested making a cheap and environmentally friendly bicycle out of 100 percent recyclable materials, 95% percent of which is strong cardboard. With six prototypes already manufactured, Gafni hopes to interest corporate or governmental sponsors in helping to spark an urban environmental project or perhaps an affordable mode of transportation for schoolchildren in Africa. 

3. Tel Aviv, home to the world’s most beautiful people
Travelers Digest readers included Tel Aviv on its 2012 list of Cities with the Best-Looking Men and on its companion list of Cities with the Best-Looking Women. We show you why the mag says: “Tel Aviv has become a hot spot for trendsetters worldwide. Local cuties flaunt their fit bodies – made all the better by their year-round tans – at any of the numerous beaches and cafés found on the 10-mile seaside strip.” 

4. Hannukah in Jerusalem
Walk the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City during the eight days of Hannukah and you’ll see why the holiday is called the Festival of Light. Along its dark and ancient alleyways, hannukiyahot (eight-branched candelabras), are set outside everyone’s doorways. Every night of the eight-day holiday, a new flame is set alight. But Hannukah isn’t just about light, it’s also about food and fun. 

5. Israel, the new ice cream capital?
Israel’s not known as a destination for great ice cream, but as this video illustrates, maybe it’s time to rethink that. After all, the average Israeli eats about 10 liters of ice cream per year, compared to 6.2 liters per capita in Italy, home of gelato. We’ve got our own takes on the frozen treat –for instance, hummus ice cream, made with chickpeas and topped with olive oil and pine nuts; or 10-spice ice cream, reminiscent of chai latte. 

6. Krav Maga: World’s best defense system
Imrich Lichtenfeld probably didn’t envision that the style of street combat he invented would become so popular outside of Israel, where it has long been taught in the military. In the 1980s, this defensive martial art went international and is taught to people from six to 60. Many students prefer to come to Israel to learn or perfect Krav Maga at its source, and this video features some disciples explaining why they made the trip. 

7.Neta Rivkin: Olympic gymnast
Neta Rivkin got her start in rhythmic gymnastics at age six, when her future coach saw her walking in Petah Tikvah with her dad, a basketball coach. The expert saw right away that Neta’s body was made for gymnastics. She’s been perfecting her rhythmic gymnastic routine ever since, becoming one of only two Israeli gymnasts to win medals at international competitions. London was her second Olympics. “Representing Israel makes my heart flutter,” she says. 

8. Jerusalem on ice
Tons of ice made for tons of fun during Jerusalem’s first Ice Festival in 2012. Keeping the frozen water at minus-10 degrees Celsius was no easy feat in the early spring in Jerusalem, but the Israelis and tourists who came marveled at the life-size giraffes, scenes from Noah’s Ark, “The Wizard of Oz” and other children’s books, as well as an ice windmill and the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, all crafted by 31 ice sculptors from China. 

9. 3D street-painting festival
Chalk artists, painters, environmental sculptors and musicians from Israel and Holland, Italy, the United States and Russia contributed their diverse talents to the inaugural Festival of Street Painting in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Hasharon, which celebrated its 90th anniversary this year. The highlight of the street festival, expected to become an annual event, were 3D sidewalk chalk drawings that cross the line into the genre of performance art. Take a look at the artists at work in our video. 

10. Touring the Carmel Market
Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market is “the” place to go for everything from souvenirs to cutting-edge café cuisine. Top chefs from the city’s eateries come here to purchase raw ingredients, including Israeli staples such as bountiful varieties of fresh herbs, chickpeas, cheeses, olives and eggplant. This video also illustrates deliciously why Carmel Market is the destination for freshly made regional delicacies including flatbread, hummus and falafel.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The connection between good health and a religious lifestyle

The connection between good health and a religious lifestyle that incorporates faith in God and prayer has been puzzling the Western medical community over the last few years, as studies have shown that such factors as synagogue attendance are predictors of better all-round health.

A new article, released in the October 2012 edition of the Israel Medical Association Journal, examined data collected by a comprehensive European study.

The Survey of Health, Aging and Retirement in Europe, or SHARE, collected data relating to health and aging from 1,287 Israeli Jews over age 50 as part of a wide-ranging study conducted in 10 European countries and Israel between 2004-2006.

When Dr. Jeff Levin from the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University in Texas analyzed the data, he found that regular synagogue attendance is a predictor for good medical health. Levin reached this conclusion by examining the data concerning the relative incidence of chronic medical problems, diseases and disabilities, as well as physiological symptoms such as heart problems, respiratory difficulties and sleep impairment.

Regularly attending synagogue services was linked to lower rates of sickness, even after adjustment for variables such as age. The study linked lack of support outside of the home to worse medical outcomes, a finding that reflects the isolation experienced by older patients who lack regular social interaction.

The findings also pointed to synagogue attendance as a disease-preventing factor for elderly Jews, and prayer was reported even to have a therapeutic and healing effect on sick patients.

“In summary, the present study offers modest evidence of a health benefit from Jewish religiousness – whether as a protective factor or a coping response – that is consistent with results from previous studies among other religious groups and in other countries,” wrote Levin.

Evidence of the connection between religion and improved health has been more prevalent as of late. In July, researchers from Tel Aviv University reported that prayer decreases the chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other memory-related disorders. Researchers from Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem reported over a decade ago that death rates from heart disease and tumors are higher within secular kibbutzim than among religious kibbutzim.

By Alejandro S. Bloch

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Losing Hope on Israeli-Palestinian Peace

Losing Hope on Israeli-Palestinian Peace

By Leon Wieseltier

Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP/Getty Images

LOST CAUSES are not wrong causes, unless winning is the measure of right. The historical victory of an idea reveals nothing about its merit: power has uses for fictions, and the popularity of lies is an ancient feature of human affairs. I am always stirred, when I read the medieval disputations between Jews and Christians, by the boldness of the Jewish retort to Christian triumphalism, to the arrogant Christian insistence that the lowly social status of the Jews was proof of their lowly spiritual status—was any argument ever more rigged?; and always offended by the Hegelian view, which survives in many forms, that it is for history to vindicate philosophy. There is no shame and no error in a minoritarian existence. If one is in error, it is hardly because one is not in a majority. For this reason, the legitimacy of lost causes is one of the gifts of a democratic order, in which heresy is merely another opinion and dissent does not require an extreme of courage. The beauty of lost causes may be hard to appreciate, though, in a society such as ours, with its pornographic obsession with winners, and its harsh assumption that failure is a blow to dignity. In my eyes, the pursuers of lost causes possess an extra measure of dignity, because one really should be intransigent about what one believes to be true. This confers an inner strength that cannot be defeated by circumstances. The spine owes a great deal to the mind, even if one should not think with one’s spine; and so the pursuer of lost causes can be, paradoxically, the most stubborn of fighters. Yet I would not exaggerate the glamor of lost causes. Sadness always attaches to the deferral of a dream.

I HAVE BEEN THINKING about lost causes because I have concluded that one of my causes is lost. I no longer believe that peace between Israelis and Palestinians will occur in my lifetime. I have not changed my views; I have merely lost my hopes. I am still quite certain that the establishment of the state of Palestine is a condition for the survival of the state of Israel, as a Jewish state and a democratic state, and that for Israel not to be a Jewish state would be a Jewish catastrophe, and for it not to be a democratic state would be a human catastrophe; and that the only solution there has ever been to this conflict is the solution that was proposed by the Peel Commission in 1937, that is, the partition of one land into two states; and that the Jewish settlement of the West Bank was a colossal mistake, and the occupation (and the indifference to it) corrodes the decency of the occupiers; and that the Jewish state is a secular entity; and that anti-Semitism, which will never disappear, does not explain the entirety of the history of the Jews or their state, or exempt Israel from accountability for its actions. An impenitent Zionist and an impenitent dove, in sum; but to the consternation of some of my comrades, a hawkish dove, too, since I see that Israel has enemies and I believe in the ethical primacy of self-defense. I have irritated some of my comrades also with my unglowing view of the Palestinians and their inability to recognize the historical grandeur of compromise. Since 1977, and really since 1947, they have refused one proposed solution after another, as if the “unviability” of an imperfect state is not preferable to the unviability of statelessness. In recent decades they have added a new religious maximalism to an old secular maximalism. But still I concur in the necessity and the justice of their demand for a state, and still I yearn for a serious Palestinian diplomacy.

ALL THESE BELIEFS, however, are beginning to seem pointless. Reality appears to have other plans for itself. Hamas maintains its terrorist and theocratic sway over Gaza, and criminally fires hundreds of rockets at Israeli civilians, and extols the destruction of its arsenal and its infrastructure by Israel as some sort of apotheosis. Mahmoud Abbas celebrates the attainment of observer-state status at the United Nations with a mean and small speech in which he accuses Israel of “one of the most dreadful campaigns of ethnic cleansing and dispossession in modern history,” and of unprovoked “aggression” in Gaza, and of “an apartheid system of colonial occupation, which institutionalizes the plague of racism.” Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian leader for whom we longed, is a tragic figure, undone by Palestinians and Israelis together. In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu petulantly responds to the General Assembly vote with an outrageous proposal for Jewish housing in the area east of Jerusalem known as “E1,” which would scuttle any cartographically meaningful state for the Palestinians. He allies his party with the party of Avigdor Lieberman, the fascist face of Israel, who has proposed loyalty oaths for Israeli Arabs, and then his party, I mean the Likud, demotes its moderates and promotes theodious likes of Moshe Feiglin, who refers to Arabs as Amalek and advocates their “voluntary transfer” from Israel. As these anti-democratic maniacs flourish in Netanyahu’s base, one increasingly hears in those quarters the ugly old refrain that Jordan is the Palestinian state. And there is no significant opposition to Likud, only a petty and fragmented and pathetic assortment of self-interested figures and parties. People assure me that all this can change if there is the political will to change it; but I do not detect the political will. So what if the two-state solution is the only solution, when nobody is desperate to solve the problem?

I HAVE BEEN RE-READING The Shepherd’s War by my old friend Meron Benvenisti, his controversial essays of the 1980s, in which he described “the virtual permanence of the present situation,” and reported that “after implementing a project which concerns people’s lives, one may discover that it is irreversible,” and contested the progressive view that “there is no such thing as an irretrievable loss, options are never closed, there is no need to trouble our conscience over what we have wasted, no reason for perpetual sorrow.” He was vilified for his fatalism. I think he is owed an apology. It has been almost half a century since Israel acquired the territories in a war to save itself, and more than half a century since the birth of Palestinian nationalism. Those were the allegedly provisional decades, the cost-free interim in which both sides were to come to reason. Sure, the struggle continues. The debate must go on. But how long is an interim? What if reason never comes? When does hope become illusion?

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Right Way to Play The Game: Keep Our True Goals In Mind

The Right Way to Play The Game: Keep Our True                Goals In Mind

By Donniel Hartman

The game, Red Light, Green Light 1-2-3, like most children's games, has clear rules, an achievable goal, and is relatively easy to play. The goal is to be the first one to touch the wall without one's progress being detected. To succeed one must take small, incremental steps, coupled with moments of boldness when the opportunity arises. An interesting feature of this game is that one doesn’t get to determine for oneself whether one has been caught moving. It is a game of interaction in which someone else reviews one's actions and calls you on them. Individual protests, such as, "I wasn't moving," or "You didn't see me," are of no avail, unless, of course, one wants to break up the game.

There is often something very childish about the way Middle Eastern politics plays itself out, and it has often been compared to playground squabbles. The problem with this analogy is two-fold. The deadly consequences of "the game" and what is at stake is one of them. The second is that in the playground, one's actions are defined by the goals, which are agreed upon and very clear: for example, in "Red Light, Green Light," to be the first to touch the wall. One of the great failings of both Palestinian and Israeli actions this past week is that we aren't functioning adequately even by playground standards.

Both Israeli and Palestinian leadership have professed loyalty to the following aspirations and goals: for Palestinians, to achieve real, national independence and prosperity for their people alongside Israel; for Israelis, to attain real peace and viable security within the context of a two-state solution. If this is truly agreed upon, the question is, "how to touch the wall" together.

If Palestinians are really committed to national independence alongside Israel, negotiations with Israel would be the self-evident and recognized path to achieve this end. Unilateral action is never conducive to the cooperation and partnership essential for a viable Palestinian entity alongside Israel. If Israel's aim is to achieve peace and security within the context of a two-state solution, at the very least, no policy would be adopted which would sabotage this aspiration. Settlement expansion which undermines the viability of an independent Palestinian state and our ability to one day separate from each other into two distinct entities is simply self-destructive to Israel's own stated goals. Instead of playing with each other we seem to be more committed to playing by ourselves, to adopting actions which "play well" to the home audiences but get us no closer to our goals.

As a Jew and as an Israeli, I am deeply frustrated by much of the actions of the Palestinian Authority and leadership and have serious doubts as to the Palestinian people's commitment to live alongside me in mutual peace and security. This has caused many of us here in Israel to question whether our goals are achievable in our lifetime. In this context, it is understandable to respond with caution and to avoid potentially self-destructive policies which put Israel at risk. It is another thing altogether, to be self-destructive and to put our own goals at risk.

The dramatic declaration of Israel's government on settlement expansion this week is akin to making a bold dash in "Red Light, Green Light," but running in the wrong direction. Settlement expansion within the settlement blocs and in Jerusalem is one thing, and is in accord with a very broad Israeli consensus, commensurate with our and much of the world's notion of the borders which will ultimately demarcate the two-state solution. Settlement building in E-1 or in any area which will eventually be a part of the future Palestinian state is simply stupid, harmful to Israel, and legitimately questions what game we are really playing.

When Israel's actions reflect our legitimate security concerns and we act in a measured and thoughtful manner toward a clear and justifiable goal, as we saw in the recent Operation Pillar of Defense, not only are we not called "out," but we find ourselves supported by our friends around the world. We can make a case regarding our significant security concerns in the context of a future Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria alongside Israel. We can also make a case that realities on the ground, such as the settlement blocs and Jerusalem where 80 percent of the settlers live, whether initially justifiable or not, must factor into any future border demarcations. When we make these cases, and only these cases, we clearly align ourselves with the values of peace, human dignity, freedom, and democracy on which the State of Israel is founded. When we make these cases, and only these cases, we align ourselves with the best of what our tradition stands for. When we do so we are also not alone.

However, when we align ourselves with policies devoid of vision and hope, policies grounded on our own internal narratives of holiness of the land and messianic politics, policies which pander to shallow nationalistic delusions in an election season, we have no case to make. It should not take us by surprise, therefore, that in light of our recent decision we find ourselves aligned with no one and playing alone. Just as in “Red Light, Green Light” it is useless to argue, "I didn't move," it will be futile for Israel to attempt to justify its recent decision. This is not faulty public relations but faulty policy. It was a power play aimed at responding to a Palestinian power play. It was not merely inappropriate for the playground, but unbefitting to the State of Israel and our values.

Israel was founded on a noble and large dream. Our future will be secured when we stay loyal to our foundations and aspirations. As in "Red Light, Green Light," we have to move cautiously. However, if we want to win, truly win, and by that I mean to create a viable, productive, prosperous Jewish democratic state at peace with our neighbors, we are also going to have to keep our eyes open for opportunities to dare, when a bold move can change the outcome. Let's play this game. Let's play it well. Let's always remember our true goals. If we do so, we will constantly progress is the right direction. There will be stops and starts, and at times we will be sent back to the beginning. But at the end, we will touch the wall together.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Israeli politics in America get lost in translation

Israeli politics in America get lost in translation
By Vered Kellner

In New York, American Jews, unable to resist temptation, try to set me straight on Israeli politics, though I as an outsider tread cautiously on their home turf of U.S. politics.

On the front page of last Saturday’s New York Times was a photograph of an American soldier in his wife’s arms. Their lips were joined in a kiss as their baby daughter looked on in wonder. This kind of photo should seem familiar to Israeli readers: another hero returns from the battlefield. But the caption seemed to come from another world completely. “Who’s that man, Mommy?” was how the editor chose to describe the girl’s feelings at that moment. Later in the piece, he explained that the soldier had returned home to Colorado after ten months on the front.

Ten months with no weekend leave? What’s wrong with this picture?
I got the first hint of an answer about two weeks after my family and I landed in New York in the middle of this August, during the tumultuous days between one party political convention and another. The American presidential election campaign was in full swing, and I became addicted to countless hours of pathos-filled speeches. With that in the background, I quickly found my way to Barack Obama’s Facebook page and gave it a “like.” That was how an invitation to a lottery, where the prize was dinner with Michelle and Barack, appeared in my Facebook feed one day. To me, it seemed like an excellent idea, particularly with my husband’s birthday just around the corner. That could be a great surprise, I thought.
A quick double-click and I was in. I typed in my private information as I wondered whether it was worthwhile to mention anything about kosher food or my gluten-free diet, just to be on the safe side. But then, at the bottom of the page, there was a note in parentheses from the campaign staff reminding everyone that the sole condition for participation was American citizenship. Oops – haven’t got that. I left the page disappointed, reminding myself that feeling at home on the Upper West Side and a subscription to The New York Times weren’t really enough.

It was an important reminder. In this global environment, we all live under the delusion that borders are an archaic relic of an age when you needed a walking stick, a backpack and a small inherited fortune to get to know different worlds. Today, with one friend telling me about his daily routine in Berlin and another sending updates from Florida every ten minutes, it’s easy to feel as though the world were in the palm of our hands. That we have enough information to put together a well-informed opinion in every controversy. Even if it’s on another continent. Self-confidence, a trait that has always been attributed to Israelis, definitely doesn’t help to hold back this feeling of belonging, imaginary though such belonging may be.
For example, if I’d stayed in Israel, I’d content myself with watching the foreign news segment of Channel 10’s news broadcast, plus a Jon Stewart skit or two that a friend put up on Facebook, so that I could firmly assert that the Tea Party is nothing but a bunch of lunatics cut off from reality. If I wanted to seem like I was really in the know, I could always quote some translated essay by Maureen Dowd. Nobody would argue with me after that. But here’s the problem: I know how these opinions sound to somebody for whom American politics are their home ground. I know that because I saw what happens on the other side of the barricade when American Jews, unable to resist temptation, try to set me straight on Israeli politics.
This is a routine dialog where Jews who are liberal on all the current issues in America try to convince me how much Israel wants peace and that it’s gotten to where it is only because there’s no one to talk to on the other side. He supports Obama’s health-care reform. She thinks that the people in charge of Wall Street are a bunch of money-grabbers whose greed knows no bounds. But when the elections approach, they will consider voting for the Republican candidate “because of Israel.”

This out-of-tune piano plays on every scale of the political spectrum. It also sounds jarring when J Street breaks out of internal American discourse and tries to hold a dialog with Israelis and Palestinians. More than a year ago, Jeremy Ben-Ami and his colleagues on J Street’s board came to Israel for a series of meetings and tours, and I accompanied them for two days as a journalist. Their efforts to inject some momentum into the dormant negotiations were really touching, but the general feeling was that they were talking in a foreign language. They completely missed that over the past few years, the Israeli mood has been one of despair, of giving up. They were still practicing their accents from the optimistic Oslo days while the locals, Israelis and Palestinians alike, responded to their good intentions in fluent Skeptic.

The mini-war in Gaza also lost a lot in translation – from the frustration of many citizens over Netanyahu’s latest spin for the election campaign, to the deep despair that comes from feeling like we live in a centrifuge of events spinning out of control, to the news of the rocket alert in Tel Aviv, which left us badly shaken. That’s my home. My community. The anchor of my sanity. It’s where my children took painting classes until three months ago. Nobody wants to hear the smooth-tongued, patronizing opinion of an outsider, for whom Tel Aviv or New York are nothing but tourist destinations.

So to keep from falling into the trap of rudely translating my opinions from the old country, I tried to do my homework. I watched the party conventions with Google open in my browser so I could find out who Sandra Fluke was (answer: a feminist who worked to get contraceptives included in the health-insurance law), and why Rush Limbaugh was so annoyed with her (answer: for the same reason). When I met physicians, I cautiously asked whether they could tell me what was included in Obama’s health-insurance law, and what the difference was between Medicare and Medicaid. Now that the elections are over, I’ve been focusing my efforts on NPR’s economics program to learn what on earth people are talking about when they mention the “fiscal cliff,” only to find that not even the descendants of the pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower have any idea.

But even after all that, I realized that as an outsider, I was better off listening than talking. That’s no simple matter for a person who has politics in her blood. In Israel, I had three solid opinions a day, and I knew who would respond and how when I shared them. In New York, I have to feel my way carefully. It turns out that no banker on Wall Street wants to hear that Obama saved his job and scooped him off the trash heap. And an American soldier, even when he’s smelling of the sweat of the battlefront and embracing his wife, is not my neighbors’ son who’s just come back from a two-week stint at the Qalandiya checkpoint. I learn pretty quickly that intuition is a matter of geography.

On election day, I got a ride to a parent-teacher meeting with two other mothers. From the back seat, I asked with some hesitation whether in America, it was all right to ask people whom you’d met ten minutes ago whom they’d voted for. “No,” said one. “I voted for Obama,” said the other. “And I cancelled out your vote,” the first one said, “because of Israel.”