Thursday, December 27, 2007

PREDICTIONS FOR 2008

Watch out, Amos Oz and David Grossman, I'm propheysing too


British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks told Haaretz last week that when visiting Israel he prefers to spend time with what the paper termed the new prophets of the Jewish people. "I've tried to begin a serious conversation with Amos Oz and David Grossman, either of whom would have been prophets if they were religious," said Sacks.

This leads me to reveal here (for the first time) that along with Grossman and Oz, I too have prophetic talents. With the New Year just around the corner, and with a tip of the hat to Jeane Dixon, here are my own predictions for 2008.

January: To the surprise of some and the chagrin of others, Mahmoud Abbas tells the London-based Asharq al-Awsat that the Palestinian Arabs indeed recognize the right of the Jewish people to a national homeland in Palestine.

"Let us share the land in harmony; we in our state and you in yours. Just as Arabs live as citizens in Israel, I invite Jews to stay in their West Bank communities and enjoy dual citizenship. You have returned to the heartland of your civilization. Whatever our differences over this disputed land, we can work them out."

Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayad declares that with the billions Palestine is receiving in international aid, his goal is to turn the West Bank and Gaza into "the Singapore of the Middle East."

Several hundred thousand Palestinians demonstrate in Nablus under the banner: "A Demilitarized Palestine." Rally organizers say the people want Palestine's leadership to pour the bountiful resources provided by the international community into building civil society, blending Islam with modernity, creating representative democracy and inculcating tolerance and pluralism.

Meanwhile in Gaza, Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh and Mahmoud Zahar, along with top Islamic Jihad, Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade and Popular Resistance Committee chieftains, complain that Israel is moving too slowly to process the tons upon tons of collected weapons, bombs and ammunition now decommissioned.

An exasperated Farouk Kaddoumi, the PLO foreign minister, tells reporters: "We need to tear down the refugee camps to build permanent housing, but our efforts are hampered because of the vast stores of weapons and explosives in every nook and cranny. Let us be rid of these instruments of bloodshed. Sixty - no, 100 years have been squandered!"

February: Speaking with an upper-crust British accent, Syrian President Bashar Assad, who trained as an ophthalmologist in London, admits to the BBC's Zeinab Badawi that his country has long been engaged in a campaign to destabilize Lebanon. "We're awfully sorry for the assassinations and bombings and for robbing Lebanon of its sovereignty. Dirty pool. Bad business. That's done with."
Were Assad in Israel's shoes, Badawi inquires, would he give up the strategic mountain ranges of the Golan Heights?

"Heavens, no." Assad replies. "That's why I propose that Israel 'return' the heights to us then we will immediately lease them back to the Jewish state for 100 years. Assuming things go smoothly, the next generation can sort things out."

March: London's Independent breaks the story that Peace Now, founded in 1978 to uproot every vestige of Jewish presence in Judea, Samaria and those areas of metropolitan Jerusalem liberated in the Six Day War, is finally closing its doors, grounding its spy helicopters and ceasing operations.

Peace Now has come under increasing scrutiny from the Israeli tax authorities for having accepted millions of dollars over the years from foreign governments and foundations who want to influence Israeli security policies. Several Peace Now leaders seek asylum in Norway.

April: Israel Radio reports an announcement by Rabbi Yona Metzger and Rabbi Shlomo Amar that they are jointly stepping down as Israel's chief rabbis to devote their lives to Torah study and good deeds.

The Degel Hatorah party newspaper, Yated Ne'eman, reports that Metzger and Amar "are obviously correct in pointing out that the mixture of politics, patronage and Judaism has undermined yiddishkeit and created one desecration of God's name after another."

In an editorial headlined "Goot G'zooked" - well said - Hamodia, the hassidic daily, praises the two outgoing chiefs for advocating the separation of "synagogue from state."

"Opposing pluralism and tolerance," Hamodia writes, "has been bad for the Jews. It's time to end the rabbinate's control over marriage, divorce and over defining 'Who is a Jew' for purposes of immigration and naturalization. Away with both hegemony and dependency."

Yom L'yom, the Shas newspaper, adds: "The two chief rabbis are paving the way, baruch Hashem, for more Ashkenazi haredim to serve in the IDF or do other forms of national service. It's about time."

May: The Jerusalem Post reports that a Haifa truck driver began a better driving movement that's spread like wildfire. Rafi Shaked placed a notice in the windshield of his lorry declaring that he would "yield the right of way - absolutely."

A grandmother in Beersheba, Ludmilla Chertok, noticed the sign while driving on Route 6 and promptly put a large notice on the door of her car: "I will always signal."

A tipping point was reached when an Army Radio personality persuaded upwards of 350,000 motorists to stop their cars for one minute during the Thursday evening rush-hour in support of "always giving pedestrians the right of way at a crosswalk."

Traffic police say that if the "sanity on the roads continues into 2009, it will be necessary to shift resources into other areas." By the end of 2008, failing to signal, not yielding the right of way, and driving above the speed limit is frowned upon as "un-Israeli" behavior.

June: JPost.com reports that an increasing number of students in secular schools are insisting on calling their teachers Mr. or Ms. or "teacher" instead of by their first names. Such deference has long been the tradition in the national-religious system.

Meanwhile, Finance Ministry officials insist that the education minister accept a 20 percent increase in funding. The new moneys come from funds heretofore earmarked to support avant-garde art, alternative filmmaking and other cultural projects that ministry officials now claim are heavily laden with post-Zionist messages.

September: The Islamic Republic News Agency reveals that after returning from the haj in Saudi Arabia some eight months ago, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told aides that he experienced an epiphany and now believes that Islam forbids terrorism, nuclear proliferation and Jew-hatred.

After months of behind-the-scenes consultation among the country's leading mullahs, Ahmadinejad was authorized to appear on television to tell the nation: "In the name of God the almighty and merciful, when I was on haj, I saw a light around me. I was placed inside this aura. I felt the atmosphere suddenly change, and as I was performing tawaf around the Ka'aba, my eyes were opened. The Jewish people are not our enemies, they are our brethren. They must not be harmed. We must provide Israel - may her years be many and serene - with free petroleum. All praise is to Allah."

November 4, 2008: In the US, presidential race exit polls indicate that the independent ticket's Michael Bloomberg and Barack Obama have been elected president and vice president.

I'M ALSO predicting these less earth-shattering, but still consequential events in the course of 2008:

• HOT, the Israeli cable provider, brings back CNN. CEO David Kamenitz explains, "Let's be frank. We're raking it in. We can't just cut out a popular and essential station and not reduce our charges. So, CNN is back."
• Rabbi Eric Yoffee, head of the Reform movement, embraces Sufi Islam and takes the name "Cat Stevens."
• Meteorologist Robert Orlinsky is named chair of the Academy of the Hebrew Language in appreciation for making the language more accessible to new immigrants.
• Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei retires as director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and takes up a senior leadership position at Lighthouse For The Blind in New York City.

FINALLY, in December 2008, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks authors an "Open letter to Amos Oz and David Grossman," which London's Jewish Chronicle publishes.

The chief rabbi thunders: "What has systematically derailed Israel's efforts for peace is the fact that every concession it has made, every withdrawal it has undertaken, has been interpreted by its enemies as a sign of weakness, and has led to more violence, not less.

"The Oslo process led to suicide bombers, Ehud Barak's offer led to the so-called Al-Aksa intifada. The withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza led directly to the onslaught of Katyushas and Kassams. How does any nation make peace under these conditions?"

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Celebrating skepticism

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of
Louis Jacobs's 'We Have Reason to Believe'


Who could disagree with Pope Benedict XVI's statement in his just-released second encyclical that "a world without God is a world without hope"?

Well, I suppose there are some, but for most of us balancing modernity and its intrinsic absence of absolutes with religion, which demands belief in a divine power, is what struggling with God is all about in the 21st century.

Isn't it paradoxical that in our post-modern world the search for God continues? A recent survey by the Guttman Center of the Israel Democracy Institute reveals that most native-born Israelis consider themselves either traditional or religious. Younger people nowadays, more than older folks, identify themselves as religious. So there's little question that Israelis are searching for God and hope.

Yet, how are we to reconcile the hard data with our intuitive sense that Israelis are mostly non-practicing Orthodox or altogether secular; that the average Israeli (like his American Jewish cousin) is so unfamiliar with the liturgy that if thrown into a Shabbat morning service, they'd be clueless.

Part of the answer, I suppose, is that while some Israelis reject organized religion which they associate with the corrupted official rabbinate - Israel's established church - many retain a deep cultural need for traditional customs in marking life-cycle milestones, thereby keeping God (however defined) and hope in their lives.

ONE MAN who was ahead of his time in this great effort to balance faith with modernity was Rabbi Louis Jacobs, who died in London last July at 85. This week marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of his We Have Reason to Believe.

Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Jacobs was at the epicenter of a hullabaloo for - what seems in hindsight - his rather diffident attempt to coax Orthodox Judaism into the 20th century.

For his troubles, Jacobs lost a shot at becoming chief rabbi of Great Britain, but his imagination gave further impetus to the development of centrist Judaism worldwide and, in Britain, of the Masorti movement.

On December 2, some of his admirers gathered at the New London Synagogue on Abbey Road in St. John's Wood, which Jacobs founded and where he held the pulpit for many decades, to inquire whether there is still reason to believe.

What set off the "Jacobs Affair" half a century ago was the rabbi's suggestion that maybe, just maybe, not every word and every letter of the Pentateuch was literally dictated by God to Moses. This audacity cost Jacobs his Orthodox pulpit in the late 1950s, and by the end of 1961 he was also forced to resign his position as "tutor" at London's Jews' College, then the training ground for Orthodox ministers, rabbis and cantors.

Here is what Jacobs said in bidding farewell to his students: "Doubt is the source of inquiry. Yet large sections of Jews live in self-assured ease. Their religion was part of their contentment, but who wants a life of contentment? Religion throughout the ages has been used to comfort the troubled. We should now use it to trouble the comfortable..."

DEBATING WHETHER the Torah is min hashamayim (from Heaven) may seem oddly esoteric from the vantage point of the 21st century. On the one hand, for today's Orthodox (and certainly among the thriving numbers of the newly religious), Torah min hashamayim isn't debatable - it's dogma. A strict-constructionist interpretation of God-given texts, and belief in divinely inspired precedent, continues to propel the Orthodox approach to Jewish law and custom.

On the other hand, for most non-Orthodox Jews - meaning the majority of Jewish people - there is no debate about Torah min hashamayim. That's because the Jewishly illiterate, the secular and the assimilated are oblivious to the issue. At the same time, practicing Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews continue to grapple with the Torah min hashamayim dilemma in their own ways.

Generally, Reform Jews say that the Torah is a compilation of both the divine and human; Conservatives say that the Torah is divinely inspired; while a Reconstructionist might fudge matters further by saying, as Rabbi Arthur Green does, that there may not be a Force out there, but there is a "deep consciousness" that underlies our existence.

ALL THIS matters, because Jewish civilization and with it our raison d'etre - for being Jews and for being Zionists - cannot reasonably be detached from Judaism's religious legacy. We either wrestle with this issue or we cease being Jews.

In his day, Jacobs was denounced as an apikoros by the Orthodox establishment. His so-called heresy, however, was in practice an authentically Jewish approach in struggling with God. Not everyone can or wants to take the leap of faith which unvarnished Orthodoxy demands. Take the highly educated - the Guttman survey showed that the more education people have the less religiously inclined they tend to be. It needn't be that way - perhaps we should redefine what it means to be "religious." We need to give people legitimate and enlightened options apart from Orthodoxy.

Reading Jacobs today, he hardly strikes me as much of a radical. Where Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan's Reconstructionist philosophy saw "Judaism as civilization" and God as a sociological construct, Jacobs argued that we ought to avoid, "when thinking of God, the extremes of both anthropomorphism and 'de-personalization.'" God can never be comprehended, Jacobs insisted. His creatures will find Him if they seek Him.

That reads pretty traditional to me.

FOR THE middle-of-the-road Jacobs, Conservative Judaism came with a small "c." He believed in God and in the possibility (at least) of an afterlife. As best as I can tell, he opposed abortion (with some exceptions), capital punishment, homosexuality and, perish the thought, even smoking. He acknowledged the validity of the theory of evolution, and he was said to champion women's rights.

Without question, however, some of his message was and remains radical. Jacobs argued that belief in the literal resurrection of the dead was not central to Judaism (Maimonides thought otherwise). He appeared not to subscribe to the idea of a personal messiah, nor did he hope for a concrete rebuilding of the Third Temple and the resumption of animal sacrifices.

Perhaps most iconoclastic of all, Jacobs - like many of today's observant non-Orthodox - understood mitzvot as binding only to the extent that they serve as a pathway to Godly behavior.

In some ways, it may have been easier to embrace centrist Judaism in his day than in our own. Today defining the middle ground - to the right of Reform and the left of Orthodoxy - is increasingly difficult. Certainly, the Conservative movement's inability to articulate a unified centrist dogma has been costly in membership and prestige.

And yet, precisely by not defining absolute parameters the movement is being true to itself. In Emet v'Emunah, the 1988 statement of principles of Conservative Judaism, proponents of centrism argued that "given our changing world, finality and certainty are illusory at best, destructive at worst. Rather than claiming to have found a goal at the end of the road, the ideal Conservative Jew is a traveler walking purposefully towards 'God's holy mountain.'"

In the quest for God and hope, centrist Judaism has had little choice but to emphasize observance over dogma, and in so doing has doubtlessly moved to Jacobs's left - even as Orthodoxy has lurched to the right of where it was when it ostracized him.

Still, if you ask me, we do have reason to believe. Whatever our doubts, prayer and ritual give us an essential framework for living spiritually. And that's vital because for all its heterogeneity, Jewish civilization cannot survive absent God and hope.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Treacherous crossings

There's a tradition of switching sides in politics.
The trick is not to switch to the wrong side


Toward the end of what is probably John LeCarre's finest espionage novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), Jim Haydon, a Soviet mole at the pinnacle of British counter-intelligence, justifies his betrayal of Queen and Country to George Smiley ­ the spymaster who exposed Haydon ­ by blaming London's relationship with Washington.

Writes LeCarre: "He hated America, very deeply, he said, and Smiley supposed he did."

"'It's an aesthetic judgment as much as anything,' he explained, looking up. 'Partly a moral one, of course.'

'Of course,' said Smiley politely."

THIS SCENE came to mind after Moscow announced that George Koval, who died last year at 92, was on November 2 posthumously awarded the title of Hero ofthe Russian Federation by President Vladimir Putin ­ -- himself a former spy -- having infiltrated America's Manhattan Project, the secret plan to develop an atomic bomb during WWII and funneling its most precious secrets to Stalin.

Putin's announcement said Koval's work "helped speed up considerably the time it took for the Soviet Union to develop an atomic bomb of its own," which it exploded in August 1949.

Experts surmise Koval may well have been the most significant Soviet mole in the Manhattan Project.

George Koval's family was active in Jewish communist circles. He was born in Sioux City on Christmas Day, 1913. The family moved to the Soviet Union in 1932 during the Depression to help build a secular Jewish homeland -- Stalin's solution to the Jewish problem ­-- in Birobidjan, Siberia.

A bright boy, George ended up at Moscow's Mendeleev Institute of Chemical Technology and in 1934 was recruited ­-- not by the KGB, but apparently by the GRU (military intelligence) ­ -- as a deep-cover agent. He was sent back to the United States to conduct scientific espionage.

As Russia's luck would have it, Koval was drafted into America's top-secret nuclear program. He gained extraordinary access to the Manhattan Project largely because he was assigned to health and safety work ("making sure stray radiation did not harm workers").

As The New York Times put it last week, Koval had the perfect cover ­ "born in Iowa, college in Manhattan, army buddies with whom he played baseball."

Alas, there was no George Smiley to unmask this double agent. Instead, US counterintelligence agencies bickered among themselves (just as they did prior to 9/11) while Koval managed to escape back to the USSR.

Add Koval to the embarrassingly long list of Jewish-born spies and agents of influence who betrayed America for the Soviet Union. They did so not necessarily because they hated America, but because they were intoxicated by the messianic ideal of Marxism-Leninism.

WHETHER IN politics, sports, religion or in our private lives, it's hard to think of anything worse than duplicity.

In LeCarre's Tinker, Tailor, Haydon not only betrays Britain as a Soviet double agent, he also carries on an affair with Smiley's wife, Ann ­ -- a double betrayal.

Still, not every shift in loyalty is necessarily treasonous.

Giving aid and information to the enemy clearly is; so is violating oaths of allegiance or acting clandestinely on behalf an enemy power. Taking money from a foreign power to influence the policies of your own country is, arguably, a form of betrayal.

But abandoning one's political or religious orientation, going from Right toLeft (or vice versa), or from secular to ultra-Orthodox (or vice versa), maybe a "betrayal" of earlier values, it may hurt those close to you ­ but it'sno crime. It's not treason.

People change sides. Sometimes they cite ideology when the motivation may be purely personal (an affront of some sort, perhaps). Sometimes we never know the motivation.

Take Tom Dine, for instance, who once headed the America Israel PublicAffairs Committee (AIPAC), went on to run Radio Free Europe, later took charge of the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation, and has now gone over to AIPAC's dovish counterpart, the Israel Policy Forum.

There he joins MJ Rosenberg ­ another former AIPAC staffer ­ and, for my money, the single most articulate advocate for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice Lines now engaged in Israel-related polemics.

OF COURSE, AIPAC doesn't need a dovish counterpart because it never was the right-wing bastion its critics claim.

Indeed, AIPAC does not lobby forIsrael ­ it lobbies on behalf of the pro-Israel American community ­-- both liberal and conservative.

It has always sought to balance the desires of this heterogenous constituency while attempting to work in sync with whatever Israeli government happens to be in power ­-- Left, Right or center.

AIPAC never, to my knowledge, supported Jewish sovereignty in Judea, Samaria or Gaza, or the retention of the Territories in perpetuity. That makes AIPAC the quintessential centrist organization.

Nevertheless, the Israel Policy Forum was established in 1993 in the wake of the Oslo Accords and is today a sort of shadow opposition to AIPAC. Like Americans for Peace Now, the New Israel Fund and others, the Israel PolicyForum could be accused of being intoxicated by a messianic ideal of its own: Palestine and Israel living side by side in celestial harmony.

The group is led by the esteemed Park Avenue lawyer Seymour Reich, who is a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American JewishOrganizations.

As I understand it, IPF lobbies US decision-makers to pressure Israel into making what IPF sees as concessions to foster peace. They tell House members, senators and White House policymakers that far from there being negative political repercussions to such coercion, American Jews want what amounts to an Israeli pullback to the 1949 Armistice Lines (with minor modifications).

Maybe there's truth to that argument.

Most US Jews have never been to Israel, and can't possibly comprehend the strategic implications of the 1949 boundaries. And public opinion is malleable: Ask questions the right way and you can get the desired answers.

There's little doubt that having the IPF's Jewish imprimatur helps Washington politicians and policymakers get tough with Israel.

But let's be fair, with Vice Premier Haim Ramon a featured speaker at the group's Annual Leadership event set for December 3 in New York, no one can legitimately complain that the Israel Policy Forum is working at cross-purposes with the Kadima-led government.

This allows IPF to robustly champion the creation of a Palestinian state today, right now, in the West Bank, as if the Palestinian Arabs were genuinely geared up to live alongside Israel in peace; as if Ben-Gurion Airport could safely operate with sovereign Palestine situated on the adjacent hills; as if even moderate Palestinians had already accepted the existence of a sovereign Jewish state within the 1949 Armistice Lines.

THE FOLKS formerly with AIPAC or the Presidents Conference who have gone over to the IPF have every right to change political course, and even to try and redefine what being pro-Israel is all about.

Let's face it, there would have been no neo-conservative movement had people such as Irving Kristol not abandoned the moral relativism of Leon Trotsky.

Winston Churchill changed parties from Conservative to Liberal, and back again; Ronald Reagan went from the Democratic Party to the GOP.

Yet switching sides ­-- especially in the Jewish context -- ­ is only defensible if your move enhances Jewish continuity and the Zionist enterprise.

In other words, whether it's done transparently out of well-intentioned conviction, or surreptitiously and deceitfully, a la Hayden and Koval, crossing political lines, like everything we do, has consequences.

The consequences of the line the Israel Policy Forum has taken just happensto place the organization largely in harmony with the Palestinian negotiating position going into Annapolis.

And the last time I checked, the Palestinian negotiators weren't looking out for Jewish continuity or the welfare of the Zionist enterprise.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

So, you want to write an op-ed?

Here's what you mustn't do


When you read them for a living, it's natural to form some opinion about what makes a good op-ed. For me, it's clear writing, a focused argument, the introduction of fresh facts, top-notch analysis and a good opener.

Perhaps it's easier to detail the makings of a bad op-ed: long, complex, meandering sentences, plodding prose, pretentious or jargon-heavy language, categorical statements that can't be backed up, or the absence of a clearly enunciated opinion. You'd be surprised how many writers beat around the bush, insinuating, without actually saying outright, what they want readers to believe.

Finally, op-eds that fail to take into account the opposing view, or do so in a cursory, condescending or dismissive way, also get a poor grade.

Former Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief Bret Stephens, now back at the Wall Street Journal, drummed into his staff that an op-ed has to be proleptic - anticipating what the other side would argue, and then knocking down its claims. Such an approach demonstrates that your stance is based upon substantive reflection.

Another no-no: Writers who make use of exclamation points! or CAPITALS. They're like the guy poking his finger in your belly to make a point; all you want to do is create some distance from them.

The same is true of shrill writing that's replete with name-calling, exaggerated (or patently untrue) claims, and the manipulation of statistics. Savvy readers intuitively sense when they're being hoodwinked.

I'M BORED by writers who are completely predictable, who preach to their own amen-corner and whose product is intended primarily as "red meat" for true-believers. Hey, what about the rest of us?

Granted, there's no shortage of folks who keep coming back for what amounts to a slight variation of the same argument, week in and week out. Which means columnists with a purposefully narrow repertoire had better be extra good at what they do.

This isn't to argue that all ideological writing is inherently bad. The views of, say, a Maureen Dowd or a Paul Gigot may be foretold - but they are invariably well-argued, informed and entertaining. Plainly, there are writers who push a coherent, consistent view of politics and people, yet nevertheless manage to deliver columns that are almost always engrossing.

At the end of the day, good op-ed writing is a combination of art and skill; you may be able to deconstruct a piece to explain why it works (or doesn't), but there's no off-the-shelf template for novice writers to follow.

WOULD-BE op-ed contributors need to consider very carefully what they're going to write about. Most of the unsolicited op-eds we receive at The Jerusalem Post fall broadly into two subject categories: the Arab-Israel conflict (and related issues), and the intramural wars of the Jews (over identity, theology, the nature of the Jewish state, and the like).

Thus if everyone is writing about, say, Annapolis, unless you happen to be a world-renowned Mideast expert you should probably find another topic to address. (Assume, too, that our regular columnists won't let this little conference go unmentioned.)

I'm amazed by how many unsolicited submissions we get that simply cover old ground, regurgitate stale arguments, or fight yesterday's ideological battles when the rest of the world has moved on.

Then there are the folks who write about a topic that has no immediacy, neither news nor chronological hook - in fact, nothing to pique the readers' interest.

But don't lose heart. We sometimes reject a piece not because there's anything inherently wrong with it, but because (a) there is no available space; or (b) to maintain the range of our pages. Regular readers know that Post policy is to provide viewpoints from across the political and religious spectrum. And we trust local readers will have noted that their newspaper also publishes op-eds on music, art, science and popular culture - because there is a world out there, and we can't obsess about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for example, to the exclusion of all else.

EVERY OP-ED writer develops his or her own voice. The question of who's worth reading - and emulating - is largely subjective. Over the years I've found myself drawn to the work of an eclectic bunch of op-ed writers, even though - looking back - I can't honestly claim they meet all the criteria outlined above.

I'm excluding Jerusalem Post columnists and contributors from this discussion for obvious reasons: I don't want to get beaten up in the hallway.

THE FIRST columnist I recall making it my business to read was Pete Hamill. This was when I was in high school and the street-smart Hamill was writing something like three or four columns a week for Dorothy Schiff's New York Post.

I enjoyed Hamill's down-to-earth style. He wrote with a liberal passion that appealed to my adolescent sense of justice. Hamill penned a column in 1970 endorsing Bella Abzug in the Democratic congressional primary on Manhattan's Lower East Side for the US House of Representatives. He argued that Abzug would actively oppose the war in Vietnam, while the incumbent, Leonard Farbstein, was an old fuddy-duddy who wouldn't stand up to Richard Nixon. Because of that column, I went out and volunteered for Abzug's campaign, handing out leaflets on East Broadway near my yeshiva.

Some time later, however, when Hamill wrote a column which - if memory serves me all these decades later - excused the behavior of a punk who mugged his mother on the grounds that the root cause of crime was poverty and discrimination, I abandoned Hamill and never really warmed to him again.

Fortunately, in the natural course of development, adolescent liberals mature into healthy adult centrist pragmatists.

THERE WERE some writers I used to read because they wrote fluidly and I agreed with them. The late Eric Breindel, who was editorial page editor and columnist after Rupert Murdoch took over the New York Post, fell into that category.

Others I read today because they have interesting insights even though I might not agree with them, such as the Paris-based William Pfaff, who publishes in the International Herald Tribune.I'll make time to read Frank Rich of The New York Times even though almost every column takes up most of the op-ed page and is devoted to bashing George W. Bush. Rich is one liberal polemicist who can't be ignored because he marshals his facts so skillfully.

Some writers I read for the sheer pleasure of enjoying their carefully crafted and reported opinion. For instance, Roger Cohen, who writes the "Globalist" column for the Tribune. I always ask myself how a guy so good on other topics can be so wrong about the Palestinian Arabs.

I also read Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal, for the same reason I like a good glass of wine, or a fine cigar.

Then there are the op-ed writers I'll keep an eye out for because their work often contains tidbits of information unavailable elsewhere. These include: John K. Cooley (who first caught my attention when he reported on, and championed, the Palestinian cause for the Christian Science Monitor); Robert D. Kaplan, who traverses the world to produce longish op-edy features for, among others, The Atlantic Monthly; and The Washington Post's Jim Hoagland, for his knowledgeable inside-the-beltway reportage on US foreign policy.

In other words, I prefer columnists who research, report and synthesize rather than exclusively pontificate.

Finally, a word about brevity: Do as I say, not as I do. Almost any argument can be effectively made in roughly 750-850 words. If you are just starting out - and especially if you want to reach people under 30 - aim for staccato writing and paragraphs of no more than a few short sentences.

We're several decades into the Internet age, so keep in mind that many of your readers won't be mulling over your words in hard copy while sipping a cup of coffee; they'll be gulping them down in a frenzy of click-and-scroll.One wrong move, and you lose their attention.

REGARDLESS of your intended audience, to achieve an op-ed worth the readers' time, carefully edit what you write. Few writers can produce anything worth reading on the first draft.

One last thing. Publishing your opinion carries with it the danger that you will contribute to your readers' ignorance. To paraphrase the communications theorist Marshall McLuhan, some people use a point of view as a substitute for true insight. Don't contribute to their stupidity.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

In Praise of James Madison

As Americans mark the 220th anniversary of their nation's

charter this week, Israelis can only look on in envy

YOU COULD be forgiven for having missed it, but Monday, September 17, marked Constitution Day in the United States. In schools across America students commemorated the 220th anniversary of the Constitution. A presidential proclamation has designated September 17 through September 23 as Constitution Week.

According to the Center for Civic Education, children in American kindergartens are being taught how and why "authority is useful in society," while high-school students are expected to examine how and why the Constitution reorganized America's original form of government.
As most American youngsters (though, I suspect, fewer adults) can attest, for 11 years - between the time it gained independence from Britain on July 4, 1776, until September 17, 1787 - the United States didn't have a constitution. It operated instead under guiding principles known as The Articles of Confederation.

THE PHILOSOPHICAL foundations of the American Constitution deserve to be studied not only by students of American politics, but also by those who wish to spread democracy to the Middle East; and by Israelis debating whether and how to craft a constitution for the Jewish state.

Though the US Constitution begins memorably with "We the people..." the founding fathers adhered to a cynical view of human nature, which in practice meant that the last thing they wanted was to hand raw power to "the people."

Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton, whatever their differences, agreed that men loved power and would, if left to their own devices, act exclusively in their own interest, unmindful of the collective good. That's why the founders concluded that power concentrated in any one place - whether with a majority, a minority or any single branch of government - would be abused.

Thus the architect of the American Constitution, James Madison, argued for a system in which "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition." Power should be set against power, so that no one faction, group, or institution could overwhelm any other.

For Madison, the secret of good government was balancing contending groups. So long as no one center of power could capture the entire government, tyranny could be avoided. This explains why Madison's constitution called for a complex system of checks and balances, and separation of powers ensuring that neither "the people" nor the self-interested elites (meaning Madison and his contemporaries) could hijack the American regime.

THE FAR-SIGHTED founders came up with a framework in which power would be diffused among the elite and the masses. An electoral college - not "the people" - would elect the president; state legislatures would elect the senate. Power in the Congress would be divided between two houses, and a Supreme Court would balance the executive and legislative branches.

Indeed, in one of its first actions, the new Supreme Court gave itself the power of judicial review.

What America's sages produced was not a participatory democracy, but a republican form of representative government. They did this not to hoodwink the masses but to protect them from themselves. The founders held that der oilom is a goilem.

Or as Madison put it, a little differently: The "public voice, pronounced by representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves."

Elsewhere he argued that "You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself." He knew that "enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm," so the US political system was designed for the worst of times, not the best.

Men were not angels, in Madison's assessment of human nature, thus the constitution's architects needed to design a regime which would take the harsh reality of human nature into account. However, he wanted the people granted maximum personal liberties, while constraining the government's ability to impose itself on the individual citizen.

TO SUM UP, the main features of the Madisonian model of democracy include:

Secularism. The preamble invokes "the people," not a deity.

Enlightenment. The manifesto is a product of the 18th-century movement which rejected orthodox social, religious and political ideas in favor of an emphasis on rationalism. The men who wrote America's political rules had read Locke and Montesquieu.

Republicanism. The ethos of the Constitution is representative government, not popular democracy; this explains the intricate system of checks and balances, and the separation of powers intended to prevent both masses and rulers from concentrating too much power in any one set of hands.

Adaptability. The founders designed a system that could be modified as time and circumstances demanded, but not one that could be radically altered with abandon. They did not want lurches in popular opinion during periods of upheaval to set the stage for changing the fundamental rules of America's political game (though as the 1919 18th Amendment outlawing alcohol proved, the Constitution wasn't completely immune to populist pressures).

Elite-driven alterations to the original manifesto were in fact ratified within just four years. Ten new amendments, spearheaded by Congressman James Madison himself and now collectively known as The Bill of Rights, were added to make explicit provisions for freedom of religion, press and speech.

Over time, the American Constitution required further modification to - among other things - belatedly outlaw slavery (1865); provide for federal supremacy over the states in matters of political liberty (1868); give women the right to vote (1920); and, in 1971, lower the voting age to 18 (which, counterintuitively, helped Richard Nixon defeat George McGovern in the 1972 presidential elections).

WHILE THE philosophy that went into crafting the US Constitution ought to inform 21st-century proponents of representative government, let's be mindful that America's Constitution was and remains a product of a particular time and political culture.

Americans can be grateful to Madison (and to several centuries of Supreme Court case law) for helping to create a relatively egalitarian polity that encourages political as well as socioeconomic upward mobility. In my book, this history of what I'd call responsible elitism helped make America the greatest country in the world.

Yet it would be dangerous to think America's unique experience could serve as a template for spreading democracy in the Middle East.

First off, the architects of the American political system would probably be aghast at the notion of tyrannically-oriented masses voting in an ambiance that lacked permanent rules and political institutions. They would, rightly, see such balloting as contributing nothing to political development, minority rights, civil liberties or stability. Using the Madisonian yardstick, the January 2006 elections held in the Palestinian Authority that brought Hamas to power would, I suspect, be the antithesis of representative democracy. The same would probably apply elsewhere in the region.

USING THE US experience as a template for an Israeli constitution is also a nonstarter. Creating permanent political rules for a 59-year-old polity may appear long overdue, but when that also society happens to be an ancient civilization risen from the ashes - prudence should trump speed.

Israel faces this constitutional dilemma: how to conserve and develop the state's Jewish character, while not impinging on the civil liberties of individual citizens. And regrettably, there are no altruistic and wise elites to lead the way. Instead, Israeli politics is largely dominated by small-minded politicians, phoney holy men and moneyed oligarchs. Not surprisingly, they can't agree about where we've come from, where we are, and where we should be heading.

THE DEFICIENCIES of the Articles of Confederation led America's Founders, in 1787, not just to modify their broken system, but to radically overhaul it. A parallel approach in today's Israeli setting would be dangerously destabilizing. This country's hyper-pluralist system - in which narrow-minded and single-issue groups are empowered to run amok while irresponsible, benighted and self-interested elites profiteer - has led many Israelis to lose faith in our regime's legitimacy.

Given the dearth of Madisonian-like wisdom and the fractiousness of our society, perhaps the way ahead is for the Jewish state to first reform its election system (for instance, by raising the electoral threshold and introducing constituency representation), and only afterwards turn to overhauling the permanent rules of the political game.

This week, America's youngsters are fortunate in having the opportunity to study anew why their Constitution deserves to be cherished. It's too bad there's no Madison anywhere on the horizon for their Israeli counterparts.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The taxi ride during which nothing happened

'Yediot Aharonot' claims Israel is a racist society.

I say it doesn't know the meaning of the word


Last Tuesday night I gave in to fatigue and took a taxi home from The Jerusalem Post building. I told the driver where I was going, he clarified my destination - in perfect Hebrew - and off we drove.

As I settled into the back seat, I heard a melodic recitation of the Koran playing low on the radio. Along the way my driver conducted a brief conversation in Arabic. For all I know he might have been saying, "OK sweetie, I'll pick up some feta cheese on the way home," but the fleeting thought crossed my mind that he could be arranging my kidnapping and that I wouldn't be eating supper at home that night. Yet here I am to tell the tale.

I wouldn't even have recalled this non-incident but for the fact that a few days later Israel's main tabloid, Yediot Aharonot, devoted its front page, plus the first four inside pages, to an "exposé" of Israeli racism.

"Racist Country" the headline lamented. "Discrimination in Israel 2007: This is what we're like," ran the intro, which continued: "We sent an Ethiopian, a Russian, a Moroccan, an Arab, a haredi, and an Ashkenazi throughout Israel to search for work, rent a flat, sign up a child in kindergarten..." - and, lo and behold, the newspaper unearthed the startling revelation that Ashkenazi Israelis faced virtually no discrimination, while Arab Israelis encountered lots of it.
That, in the eyes of Yediot, makes the country "racist."


And I suppose Yediot would label me racist because of the neurotic scenario I played out in my head during that evening taxi ride. Or is Yediot confusing prejudice, which is both understandable and mostly curable, with racism, a scourge that is essentially untreatable (think Ahmadinejad) and could lead to genocide?

I'm not being picayune. But if everything is "racism," then nothing is "racism." The term loses all meaning - which only serves the interests of genuine racists.

My gut instinct tells me that Israel isn't "racist" relative to other Western societies, and that the problem Yediot "exposed" was wrongly diagnosed.

YEDIOT HAD six Israelis of similar age and educational background approach a total of 400 restaurants, cafes, rental apartments and kindergartens in 22 cities, from Kiryat Shmona in the north to Eilat in the south in search for work, apartments or play-school slots for their children.
The Ashkenazi candidate received overwhelmingly positive feedback, with the Moroccan (Sephardi) applicant not too far behind. In third place came the haredi, followed closely by the immigrant from the former Soviet Union.


But - and here is where the tabloid thinks it uncovered our "racism" - the Ethiopian immigrant and Israeli Arab candidates lagged far behind. Doors open to the other applicants were slammed shut in their faces. (The Arab was rejected 66 percent of the time; the Ethiopian 44%.) An inexperienced Ashkenazi was invariably taken over the qualified Arab; ditto for the Ethiopian.

When he applied to be a barman, one cafe demanded a "certificate" from the Ethiopian certifying that he could operate a "complicated" espresso machine. The inexperienced Ashkenazi was invited to come down for an interview.

The so-called racism, incidentally, went both ways: Some places preferred Russian speakers over native-born Hebrew speakers.

Strikingly, Yediot's sample group didn't include a "settler." It would have been interesting to see what chance a youth from a community in Judea or Samaria would have had of landing a barmen's job in, say, the trendy Sheinkin neighborhood of Tel Aviv.

In his adjoining comment on the admittedly unscientific survey, columnist Yair Lapid, a quintessential north Tel Aviv yuppie, concluded that Israel had gone astray. Then, quite unselfconsciously, Lapid went off at a tangent, ranting against settlers, haredim and politicians who attend (Moroccan) Mimouna festivals.

I give more gravitas to the newspaper's in-house analyst Sever Plocker, who pointed out the obvious: Four of the participants could not have encountered "racism" because "there is no such thing as a haredi race" or a "CIS immigrant race," or Ashkenazi and Sephardi races.

Haredim, Plocker argued, themselves have a history of intolerance (in housing, transportation, education), so it wasn't shocking that there were cases where they got what they gave.
Plocker's conclusion: "So are we racists? Very much so toward the Arab minority [and], to a troubling extent, toward immigrants from Ethiopia. [But] only to a small extent toward other sectors... in Jewish Israeli society. This is a consolation of sorts."


ACTUALLY, PLOCKER can take greater consolation than he imagines. Because Israelis aren't "racist" toward Arabs either, and the idea that we're "racist" toward Ethiopians is ludicrous.

Need I point out that the Ethiopians got here in the first place because we rescued them from starvation and discrimination? And isn't it at all relevant that Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel - "Israeli Arabs" - have all the rights Plocker and I enjoy despite their (communal, theological and political) affinity for the Palestinian Arabs, who happen to be engaged in a century-long war with the Jewish population of this land?


I'm not saying I would want to switch places with an Ethiopian immigrant or a Palestinian Israeli. But the bias they face needs to be understood for what it is; and what it's not.
Yediot has conflated racism with prejudice and discrimination - of which, alas, there is plenty in Israel. But get the diagnosis wrong and addressing the problem becomes impossible.


Hit the dictionary and this is what you'll learn: Racism, a term first coined by Ruth Benedict in 1942, is a doctrine or teaching - without scientific support - that claims to find racial differences in character or intelligence. It asserts the superiority of one race over another, or seeks to maintain supposed racial purity of a race or of the races.

WHO KNOWS? That Tel Aviv cafe manager who demanded a diploma in espresso machine operations from the Ethiopian job applicant might well be a latent racist - or he might be a garden-variety putz. And no, I don't kid myself: If the Falashas were a white African tribe - all other things being equal - they would integrate a lot more easily. But the fact that we Jews are a people and a civilization, and not a race, means that, with time, today's discriminated-against Ethiopian Jews (assuming we invest smartly in their education and social advancement) will become tomorrow's Moroccans.

Prejudice can dissipate. Racism is largely incurable.

And while prejudice dissipates too slowly, let's understand what it really is: a judgment or opinion formed before the facts are known. It's unreasonable bias, suspicion, intolerance or irrational hatred of other groups, races or creeds. Thankfully, personal experience and proper socialization can alter people's prejudices. You can learn that Moroccans - or Ethiopians - are as good as anybody else.

So my argument is that while Israelis may be biased - meaning that they have mental leanings in favor of or against some group - this isn't at all analogous to being racist. Closed-mindedness and intolerance may be all too prevalent, but time and proper socialization can cure the disorder. That's largely been the case in the West when elites encourage inclusivity and upward mobility.

I am not saying there are no Israelis who subscribe to theories of blood superiority or inferiority - but these people are on the fringes of society, just as they are in the US or Europe. They don't exemplify "what we're like."

I SPENT a good chunk of Sunday in the out-patient department of Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus. Let me suggest that any fair-minded observer wanting to test the canard that Israel is a racist society observe the goings-on at an Israeli hospital. Haredim, Russians, Arabs, Ashkenazim, Sephardim - even native-born New Yorkers - receive (and give) identical, and mostly compassionate, care. Not only is there no "racism," I've never seen even a vestige of bias or favoritism.

Besides, and this is no small matter, it's hard to conceive of Arabs and Jews as being separate races. A race, and here I hit the dictionary again, is distinguished by "form of hair, color of skin and eyes, stature, and bodily proportions." Many anthropologists now consider that there are just three primary racial groups: Caucasoid, Negroid and Mongoloid, each with its various subdivisions.

Arabs and Jews are Semitic peoples. In fact, both traditions maintain that Arabs and Jews are the children of Abraham. Trying to understand what divides us on racial grounds is not only foolish, it's mean-spirited and deceptive.

Oh, and for the record: I really don't like taxi drivers. Never have. Not here, or back in New York City. Call me biased, prejudiced, closed-minded, street-savvy - whatever - but don't call me racist.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

'Perfidy' revisited

YadVashem says it's time to end

the vilification of Rudolf Kastner.

Is it?

ONCE IN a very great while you read a book that forever changes your perspective. For me that book was Ben Hecht's Perfidy, which I devoured sometime in 1974 or '75 after it appeared on a recommended reading list issued by the Jewish Defense League, of which I was a member.

Perfidy means treachery; the deliberate breaking of faith. In 1961, when Hecht published his aptly titled exposé about events in the Holocaust, Hitler's war against the Jews was a repressed memory in the American Jewish consciousness.

Perfidy sold well enough to go into a second edition, though by the time I procured a copy it had gone out of print and was rumored to have been blacklisted.

PERFIDY IS a devastating account of how, toward the end of the Shoah, the Jews of Hungary were betrayed by Rudolf Kastner, deputy head of the Relief and Rescue Committee, an ideological affiliate of Mapai (precursor of today's Labor Party).

Hecht tells how after the Nazi invasion of Hungary in March 1944, Kastner brazenly collaborated with Dieter Wisliceny, a top aide to Gestapo Jewish Section chief Adolf Eichmann, to save the lives of cronies and family. Eichmann allowed Kastner to organize a rescue train which brought 1,685 of these people to safety in Switzerland, in return - so goes Hecht's damning accusation - for keeping the rest of Hungarian Jewry in the dark about the fate that awaited them. He thus facilitated the Nazi genocide.

Hecht charges that Kastner, despite his connections with the SS, didn't lift a finger to help Hanna Szenes, the Palestinian Jewish heroine who had parachuted into Nazi-occupied Hungary on a rescue mission.

Perhaps most damning of all: After the war, Kastner testified on behalf of SS officer Kurt Becher (a Nazi he'd been dealing with), though Becher had taken part in the genocide of Hungarian Jewry. With all this under his belt, Hecht wrote, Kastner eventually wound up in Israel vying for a spot on the Mapai Party's Knesset list.

HECHT REVEALED additional treachery that purportedly reached beyond Holocaust-era Hungary, and thus transformed everyone else's Zionist heroes - David Ben-Gurion, Chaim Weizmann, Moshe Sharett - into villains for me.

For, according to Hecht, the entire Mapai leadership was part of an enormous betrayal: They failed to alert the Jews of the Yishuv to the enormity of the genocide taking place in Hitler's Europe. Had they done so, goes the argument, there would have been an uprising of Palestinian Jews demanding that the gates of Eretz Israel be opened and that the Allies do something to save their doomed brethren. Instead of raising the alarm, the Mapai leaders, who dominated the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, pursued an accommodationist policy toward the British Mandate authorities.

That wasn't all. In the Joel Brand Affair, Mapai chieftains collaborated with the British in torpedoing the Hungarian Jews' very last chance of avoiding the gas chambers. For in April 1944, Eichmann allowed Relief and Rescue Committee member Joel Brand to leave Occupied Europe with a stunning proposal: The Nazis would trade a million Jews for 10,000 trucks to be used only against the Soviets on the eastern front. Rather than facilitate the mission, Hecht wrote, Mapai leaders conspired with the British to have Brand detained.

As if all this weren't enough, the Mapainiks betrayed Irgun and Lehi fighters to the British both during and after the war, culminating, in their relentless duplicity, in the sinking of the Altalena and the attempted murder of Menachem Begin.

IT ALL TIED obscenely together. From the vantage point of the mid-1970s (when I first read Perfidy), the villains were of a type - quisling Jewish establishment leaders, the same kind of people who were telling JDL activists not to confront black and Puerto Rican hoodlums in the urban badlands of New York City; not to harass Soviet diplomats in an effort to pressure the Kremlin into freeing Soviet Jewry, and not to demand that money raised by the Jewish federations be earmarked for Jewish causes.

No wonder Rabbi Meir Kahane wanted us to read Perfidy, and no wonder we were enraged.
ALL THESE recollections welled up again last week as I read an Associated Press dispatch which reported that Yad Vashem had received "Kastner's private archive" from his family in the hope that it would clear his name, once and for all, and end his "vilification" by proving that Kastner was a hero and not the villain portrayed by Hecht and others.

"There was no man in the history of the Holocaust who saved more Jews and was subjected to more injustice than Israel Kastner," Yosef (Tommy) Lapid, chairman of Yad Vashem's board of directors, told the AP. "Kastner's backers," the AP reported, claimed his actions were on a par with those of Oskar Schindler. Robert Rozett, Yad Vashem's top librarian, asserted that Kastner was indeed a rescuer - not a collaborator.

Was it time for me to reevaluate, to face the possibility that Hecht might have been mistaken in his interpretation of the Kastner case? And if Hecht was mistaken about Kastner, was he also wrong in his portrayal of Mapai's motives?

HECHT BASED Perfidy largely on a libel case brought, contrary to Kastner's wishes, by Israel's attorney-general Haim Cohn against right-wing gadfly Malkiel Grunwald.

In the summer of 1952, Grunwald disseminated a mimeographed newsletter accusing Kastner of collaborating with the Nazis. When "Pamphlet 51" was released, Kastner was working as a spokesman for the Ministry of Industry and Trade - hence Cohn's (and the governing Mapai's) determination to quash the charges.

The trial opened in January 1954 and quickly transformed itself from a libel case against the hapless Grunwald into an indictment of Kastner and the entire Mapai apparatus.
Shmuel Tamir, a leader of the Herut Party, Mapai's bitter foe and precursor to today's Likud, represented Grunwald before Jerusalem District Court judge Binyamin Halevi.

The case lasted 10 months. The court heard 60 witnesses, saw hundreds of documents submitted in evidence and generated 3,000 pages of testimonies.

On June 22, 1955, Halevi delivered his verdict which took all day to read: Kastner had collaborated in facilitating the Nazi destruction of Hungarian Jewry; and his "rescue train" was a "gift" for services rendered - 388 of those on board were family and friends from his home town of Cluj.

Judge Halevi: "Kastner sold his soul to the devil."

IN JANUARY 1958, however, the Israeli Supreme Court, in a split decision, overturned Halevi's decision. In an opinion written by Justice Shimon Agranat, the high court said the task before it was not to give Kastner "a clean bill of health" but to examine whether Grunwald had proved his contentions beyond reasonable doubt.

Hecht summarized: "All five Supreme Court judges upheld Judge Halevi's verdict on the 'criminal and perjurious manner' in which Kastner after the war had saved Nazi war criminal Becher - 'without justification.' Two of the judges further upheld Judge Halevi's findings that Kastner had collaborated with the Nazis during the war. Three did not."

KASTNER - WHO had been working as night editor for the Hungarian-language daily Uj Kelet - never lived to see the lower court decision overruled. At 12:10 a.m. on March 3, 1957, Ze'ev Eckstein, Yosef Menkes and Dan Shemer ambushed him as he was parking his car outside his Tel Aviv home at 6, Sderot Emanuel.

He succumbed to his wounds on March 16, leaving a wife and 11-year-old daughter. Two thousand people attended his funeral.

The three attackers were convicted, served time and were released by 1963. Eckstein, the shooter, was said to have been a paid informer of the Shin Bet.

OVER THE years the case continued to make ripples, with books, plays and documentaries - none definitive.

In 1981, for instance, "documents" were reportedly discovered which were said to "prove" that Kastner had saved the lives of 200,000 Jews - and that Kurt Becher had collaborated with Kastner, not the other way around. In 1982, Israel TV broadcast a fair-minded documentary about the affair. Several plays were written about the trial; one by Motti Lerner was even performed in West Germany in 1985. Another, in 1987, was by the virulently anti-Israel British playwright Jim Allen, who claimed "The Zionists" were "Hitler's favorite Jews."

Paradoxically, there was something - albeit with crucial variations - that the Jabotinsky Right, the anti-Zionist Left and the mad hatters at Natorei Karta could all agree on: Kastner had been a villain, and his behavior emblematic of what could be expected from Mapainiks.

At the same time, I never came across a reputable Holocaust history that embraced Hecht's line about Kastner's dealings with the Nazis - whether Raul Hilberg's classic The Destruction of the European Jews (1985), Saul Friedlander's just-released and widely acclaimed The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945, or anything in between. Friedlander, for instance, writes that it is simply impossible to know why Kastner testified on the Nazi Becher's behalf.

AND THAT'S where things more or less stood when the Kastner "archive" - which Yad Vashem hopes will end his vilification - was delivered to the Holocaust museum on July 22.

In an interview at Yad Vashem, librarian Rozett told me that the "Kastner archives" amount to just several boxes, and that the material contains no smoking gun - or, in terms of what I was looking for, no unsmoking gun that would demonstrate Kastner's pure intentions.

Nevertheless, Rozett argued, "Ben Hecht's book is not a work of history" and his
interpretations are simply wrong.

Take the train that brought 1,685 people to safety. Rozett: "They were a group chosen by Hungarian [Jewish] leaders, Kastner, members of the Jewish council, [and] leaders of Orthodox Jewry." Everybody put on people from their own camp. In fact, the train carried Joel Teitelbaum, the Satmar rebbe, as well as leading Betar activists.

Sure, Kastner packed as many friends and family on board as possible, but so what? He didn't do it as part of a plot, Rozett affirmed.

Understanding the context is everything if you want to evaluate Kastner's behavior, he emphasized. For instance, the impetus for Kastner's dealings with the Nazis in the first place was the fact that Dieter Wisliceny, Eichmann's envoy, had arrived in Budapest with a letter of introduction from Rabbi Michael Dov Ber Weissmandel. The Slovakian Orthodox leader had been bribing the Nazis with money to stop deportations.

WITH GERMANY'S defeat just over the horizon, it became commonplace for Third Reich figures to pursue authorized and freelance negotiations: about a separate peace, to enrich themselves or to prepare alibis.

According to Rozett, the May 1944 Joel Brand affair is now understood to have been part of a far more complex gambit than Hecht described. What most people forget about Brand is that he was accompanied by Bandi Grosz - a double, triple or even quadruple agent. D-Day was just weeks away, and the real purpose was to offer the US and Britain a separate peace with Nazi Germany, leaving the Soviets out in the cold.

In this version, Brand's trucks-for-Jews mission was - unbeknownst to him - just a cover story. "So we have," said Rozett, "this [attempt at] driving a wedge between the Allies and Germany" at a pivotal point in the war. It was the British commitment not to allow the Nazis to divide the Allies at this pivotal juncture that killed the Brand mission.

"And the Mapai leaders didn't cry out because the official position of everybody is that this deal was not workable, but that the Germans needed to be strung along. Hecht's view is predicated on the idea that the Jews had a certain amount of serious power. [In fact,] they had very little power."

In The Seventh Million, popular left-wing journalist Tom Segev also addresses the trucks-for-Jews affair: "The matter had gone from the Jewish Agency executive in Jerusalem to the desks of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. None of them wanted the deal, each one for his own reason, and for one common reason: They did not know what to do with a million Jews. Eichmann ordered the trains to roll to Auschwitz."

In Jews for Sale, Yad Vashem's Yehuda Bauer argues, contrary to Hecht, that Chaim Weizmann and Moshe Sharett wanted the British to allow Brand to return to Hungary in order to buy time with Eichmann. They also pleaded for radio warnings to the doomed Jews, and for the bombing of the rail lines leading to Auschwitz.

But the British weren't interested; incredibly, London suspected, writes Bauer, that the trucks-for-Jews proposal "was a major German-Zionist plot to introduce a million Jews into Palestine."

IN A telephone interview, I asked Tommy Lapid, who was in Hungary during the Kastner period (though not involved in the rescue train), why he is convinced that Kastner should be remembered as a hero, not a villain. While Lapid is not a follower of Jabotinsky, neither is he a Mapainik, so his views carry some weight.

Lapid recalled that he first met Kastner in Israel, and that they worked alongside one other at the Uj Kelet Hungarian daily.

"I saw Kastner in the office the week he was killed," Lapid recalled. He was personally sympathetic to Kastner, whom he remembered as an extraordinarily intelligent man.
Why, I asked, did he testify for the Nazi Becher after the war? Because, said Lapid, Kastner promised Becher: If you help me save Jews, I will do my best to save your neck after the war.

He didn't need to keep his word, Lapid argued; who would know the difference? The fact that Kastner did honor his promise proved his ultimate decency.

Yes, he lied in Halevi's court about not having testified in Becher's favor - because in 1950s Israel it would have been impossible to publicly justify his actions. No one would want to listen.

Lapid feels strongly that anyone who didn't personally experience the Shoah - and he was thinking especially of Kastner trial judge Binyamin Halevi - was in no position to evaluate Kastner's actions.

Kastner had immense "sacred hutzpa," Lapid told me. It gave him the strength to deal face-to-face with Eichmann in an effort to save Jews - only to have the surreal nature of those negotiations dissected years later, in the comfort of a Jerusalem courtroom.

Even though during the war Kastner reached the safety of Switzerland, he nevertheless chose to return to Germany and Hungary, Lapid reminded me. And even with Becher's promised personal protection, who but a hero who wanted to save Jewish lives would put himself in harm's way at the height of the Allied offensive against Germany, with bombs exploding all over the place?

But why, I challenged, didn't Kastner warn the Jews of Hungary of the fate that awaited them? There was no point, said Lapid. "A revolt by Hungarian Jewish women and children would have resulted in an immediate massacre. (The men had already been taken for forced labor.) The object was to buy time in any way possible."

Finally, what about the insinuation that the Shin Bet killed Kastner to keep him silent and Mapai in power? "Absolute nonsense," declared Lapid, if for no other reason than because the then head of the Shin Bet was Amos Manor, a close personal friend of Kastner's from Hungary.

HAVING REVISITED these issues, I'm still in no position to determine whether - or to what extent - Hecht may have been wrong in his interpretation of Labor-Zionist behavior during the Holocaust. But I am left with the sense that their contradictory conclusions notwithstanding, neither the historians, nor Hecht, nor the folks at Yad Vashem, who are intent on clearing Kastner's name, are out to deceive.

Today, I see no value in willing ourselves to remain embittered, perhaps in perpetuity, over Zionist ideological divisions during the Mandate and the Shoah era. It's time to move on.
The true villains of the Shoah, let us never forget, were first the Nazis and their enablers, then those who barred the gates of refuge, and those who rioted to keep them barred.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The death of heresy

How do we define the parameters of
our civilization without
creating 'mutually exclusive Judaisms'?


The first heretic I encountered was an instructor who taught introductory philosophy at Brooklyn College. "There's no way to pass this course if you believe in God," he announced on the first day of class.

My cloistered yeshiva life barely behind me, I found myself in 1972 sitting in the same classroom with girls and goyim, and an atheist for a teacher.

The memory came to mind when I heard that another former Brooklyn College professor of mine, historian and Orthodox rabbi David Berger, was in Jerusalem. Berger, who will be assuming a new position at Yeshiva University this Fall, was here to lecture at a symposium entitled "Defining Heresy: The Shifting Boundaries of Religion" at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Hebrew University.

Berger's presence at Brooklyn College was immensely reassuring. He was a modern Orthodox Jew (by which I mean strictly observant, yet seeking to engage with modernity). Whether he knew it or not, he was a role model for many of the yarmulke wearers on campus.

Unlike the philosophy instructor, whose name I no longer remember, Berger wasn't all flash and no fire, but a scholar of substance. He came to class prepared and his lectures were lucid. To this day I've kept my notes from his courses on ancient and modern Jewish history.

I MET UP with Berger, who is also a leading expert on Catholic-Jewish relations, intending to ask him about Pope Benedict XVI's decision to make it easier for a minority of Catholic priests who want to celebrate the Tridentine Mass to do so. This mass, recited in Latin, was the prevailing custom from 1545 until 1962.

The Catholic mass is more than just a series of prayers; faithful participants believe they are literally experiencing Jesus's sacrifice.

The problem with the Latin mass, from the Jewish perspective, is that it once contained a reference (removed by Pope John XXIII) to "perfidious [or faithless] Jews."

The Good Friday liturgy of the Tridentine Mass includes, according to Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, the following prayer: "Let us pray also for the Jews that the Lord our God may take the veil from their hearts and that they also acknowledge our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us pray: 'Almighty and everlasting God, You do not refuse Your mercy even to the Jews; hear the prayers which we offer for the blindness of that people so that they may acknowledge the light of Your truth, which is Christ, and be delivered from their darkness.'"

Foxman argued that reciting this supplication would be "a body blow to Catholic-Jewish relations."

BERGER TOLD me he still wanted clarification on whether the prayer would indeed be included. If it's in, he would prefer the courteous lobbying approach spearheaded by the International Committee on Interreligious Consultations, which had already sent a letter of inquiry to Walter Cardinal Kasper, the Vatican's emissary to the Jews. It was signed by AJCommittee's Rabbi David Rosen, Rabbi Richard Marker, an academic, and veteran Jewish leader Seymour Reich.

Berger, who articulates his words in measured, thoughtful and precise phrases, isn't comfortable with the idea of telling Christians what to believe about their own religion. In a recent New York Jewish Week op-ed, he wrote: "While Christian revision of teachings that contain the potential of spawning anti-Semitism is very much the Jewish interest, Jews need to be cautious about making demands that can create resentment and backlash and even legitimize Christian demands for reciprocal revisions in Judaism."

Berger went on to argue that the "imperative of self-defense allows Jews to pursue a carefully formulated argument that Christians should refrain" from proselytizing. But just where to draw the line, he says, is something to agonize over - not yell about.

WHY IS the Latin mass important to Pope Benedict? It's because he wants theologically conservative Catholics, of which he's one, to feel spiritually at home in the Church.

A tiny schismatic faction led by the late French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre split from Rome in 1988 because it felt the Church was pursuing a wide range of heretical reforms - jettisoning the Latin mass being just one instance.

For the ultra-conservatives, making it easier to conduct the Tridentine Mass is too little, too late; while for theologically liberal Catholics the decision is seen as a capitulation to the Lefebvrists. Liberals worry that the Vatican is embarking on a journey that could reverse 40 years of innovation.

Today's mass is recited in the vernacular, priests face worshipers, there is congregational participation and various forms of religious music are allowed.

To add to his troubles, Pope Benedict has come under criticism from Protestants for proclaiming last week that there were "defects" in their beliefs. The Vatican holds that while Protestants are part of the "Christian community" they are separated from the true Church - meaning from direct lineage to Jesus's original apostles claimed by Rome.

BERGER AND I didn't talk much more about the Latin mass. His being in town lecturing on heresy led to the subject of Chabad. His book The Rebbe, the Messiah and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference is the most powerful polemic against what's become of the Lubavitchers.
As Berger sees it, their theology is distinctly at variance with the established religious beliefs of Jewish Orthodoxy.


Here's the rub: The Lubavitchers' beliefs are a problem for Berger precisely because he's a true believer himself. He takes to heart the Thirteen Principles of Faith, in which Maimonides (1135-1204) summarized Jewish dogma. Were Chabad not viewed by so many as "Orthodox," Berger would be less anxious about their inroads into Jewish life; the Lubavitchers would be just another schismatic group. The problem is that Chabad looks Orthodox, walks Orthodox, quacks Orthodox.

I asked Berger why the Chabad issue hardly makes any waves in the Orthodox world. His answer was that the Orthodox delude themselves into thinking that only a minority of Chabadniks are messianic - when a majority is. To the extent that there is a minority in Chabad, it is the faction that worships the Rebbe as an outright deity.

"The Orthodox are also insensitive to the key point that recognizing messianists as Orthodox rabbis legitimates this belief within Orthodoxy irrespective of the number of believers," he said.

Faced by Chabad's extraordinary theological assault from within, Orthodox leaders pursue the path of least resistance. Their approach is to avoid acrimonious confrontation (I suppose they save that for gays, Russians who want to convert, the secular, and the other major streams of Judaism).

Maybe, Berger surmised, the Orthodox tell themselves: This Rebbe-messiah business is a passing fad. Anyway, each Orthodox sect looks after its own interests, and there is no advantage in taking on Chabad. Conversely, the Orthodox world is interdependent. To openly challenge Chabad across the globe would be an undertaking of immense proportions and debilitating to Orthodox interests.

So when Orthodox people see Chabad doing good deeds, working with drug addicts, feeding the hungry, providing low-cost day care and bringing kosher meals and holiday services to places off the beaten track, there is no incentive in asking: But in the service of what religion are they doing all this?

No incentive that is - absent theology.

Berger has argued that Orthodoxy forbids the belief that the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who died in 1994, will return to redeem the Jewish people. There is no Second Coming in Judaism.

IT'S IMPOSSIBLE to detach Berger's efforts to sound the alarm in the Orthodox community about Chabad from his own Orthodoxy. What Berger is saying is that, even putting aside the Chabad issue, Judaism has a creed.

And for him, Maimonides's Thirteen Principles best provide the parameters of Jewish faith, although reasonable believers have differed about the application, interpretation or inclusion of one or another of the Thirteen.

Berger told me that while Halacha can be arrived at by consensus, dogma can't. You either accept that God dictated the Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai, or you don't; that He is incorporeal, or He isn't; that God knows everything we think, or He doesn't; that there is reward and punishment, or there isn't; that the Messiah will come, or that he is a myth; that there will be a resurrection of the dead, or that they will stay as they are.

To be a genuinely Orthodox Jew, according to Berger, it isn't enough to "do"; one must also "believe" in the doctrine.

Not surprisingly, there are other modern Orthodox scholars who disagree with Berger on the importance of Maimonides's Thirteen Principles. Marc Shapiro, a Judaic Studies professor at the University of Scranton, argues in The Limits of Orthodox Theology that Maimonides's principles never enjoyed universal acceptance in the rabbinic world - the implication being that even traditionalists can't agree on a clear expression of dogma.

University of Haifa professor Menachem Kellner in Must a Jew Believe Anything? goes further in arguing that not only doesn't Judaism have a dogma; we shouldn't go down that road because it could create a future of mutually exclusive "Judaisms."

IT'S HARD not to admire Berger's spiritual integrity and his fidelity to classical Judaism. I share his concerns about Chabad - not because they've shifted from Orthodoxy (so have I), but because they're starting to look too much like the competition. At the same time, I'm not comfortable with the idea of a Jewish catechism.

My hunch is Berger realizes his brand of modern Orthodoxy, which insists on blending modernity and dogma, is not on the ascent. If anything, it seems to be losing ground - to the progressive streams, which have modified (or discounted) classical dogma, and to the ultra-Orthodox world which, arguably, emphasizes ritual over theology.

There is, however, a larger issue at stake. It may well be that heresy is dead. Boundaries, as Prof. Kellner aptly cautions, would pave the way toward a world of "mutually exclusive Judaisms." And that's a disquieting prospect.

Yet the demise of dogma is not just a setback for true believers like David Berger. It poses a challenge for the rest of us in defining the parameters - maybe not of the Jewish faith, but of Jewish civilization.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Milestone

Why living in Israel
is like being a
recovering alcoholic


This will be my 10th Fourth of July as an American expatriate living in Israel. Compared to my colleagues, friends and neighbors, I'm still a greenhorn. Nevertheless, 10 years - and two weeks - is something of a milestone.

When people from the Old Country ask me what I miss most about my former Manhattan life, I can't give them a straightforward answer. Sure, I miss easy access to Manhattan's bookstores, bicycling along the East River, and above all else going to sleep on a Saturday night comforted by the knowledge that next morning is Sunday.

In other respects, fulfilling the Zionist dream - assuming you find work - scarcely demands much deprivation.

Most American Jews have never visited Israel, so I often get asked about the dangers of life here. The threat of violence concerns me, but only up to a point. There were years in New York when stepping outside the door involved a leap of faith. The worst was 1990, when 2,262 denizens of the five boroughs were murdered. Compare that to 2002, the worst year of the second intifada, when 451 Israelis were killed.

New York is a lot safer these days, but there are still rapists loose in Prospect Park and murderers on the Q train.

As for the mullahs, their rapacious appetites will hardly be satiated by an attack on Israel alone. In a clash of civilizations, it almost doesn't matter where you live.

I CAN'T profess to miss New York's unparalleled cultural attractions - theater, ballet, concerts and museums. Who had the time? Fact is, I've enjoyed more of these as a visitor than I did as a resident.

I do miss the water. The Big Apple is spending $700,000 on an advertising campaign to encourage locals to drink its tap water. Meantime, I've gotten used to lugging bottles of mineral water up the three flights to our apartment.

Which reminds me - I miss having an elevator.

There's plenty about Israel that's uplifting. Take electrical power. The Israel Electric Company generated a record 9,670 megawatts of power, an all-time record, during last week's heat wave. To its credit - and good fortune - the air-conditioners kept humming. (Oh, I also miss not having air-conditioning at home.)

At about the same time New York was experiencing its own heat wave, but Con Ed couldn't keep up with demand, forcing the utility to pull the plug on parts of Manhattan and the Bronx. The Metropolitan Museum of Art had to be evacuated and the Lexington Avenue subways were brought to a sudden halt for hours.

JERUSALEM is hardly immune to the frustrations that make urban life a challenge. Traffic congestion can be maddening. Hebron Road, a main north-south thoroughfare, is frequently bumper-to-bumper during my morning commute; the boulevard's been dug up, repaved and dug up so many times, locals are convinced the work has no real purpose other than to vex commuters and enrich contractors.

Forget about bringing a private car into the municipal center. City fathers have come up with "new traffic patterns" to keep motorists driving in circles. As for public transportation, don't get me started about all the time I waste waiting for the No. 7; or about Egged drivers who, with lead-footed acceleration and precipitous braking, seem to derive a perverse pleasure from keeping elderly passengers airborne.

If the Big Apple has kinder and gentler bus operators, its traffic is anything but. I'm reliably informed that the Van Wyck Expressway was so backed up last Thursday it looked like one very long parking lot. Meanwhile, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is pushing for an auto congestion charge (like the one in London) that would make driving in Manhattan even more brutish.

SO IT'S not the supposed deprivation, or the hassles of daily life that make living in Israel a pressure-cooker for me, but rather being out of tune with the Israeli psyche. Had I come at a younger age and gone though the army and college, I'd have been better acculturated. Instead, I'm often left perplexed. In New York, I was street-wise; here I'm a freier.

The biggest disappointment is the realization that Israeli Jews aren't just like their Diaspora cousins.

When someone behaved in a loutish manner on the F train, or carried on inappropriately, I would remind myself that "they" weren't Jewish; what could you expect?

Israel has cured me of that prejudice. Here the yobs are almost exclusively Jewish. In the Diaspora we felt a bourgeois responsibility to deport ourselves properly "in front of the goyim." Living in Israel, in contrast, is like living with a large dysfunctional family. No one, and I mean no one, is embarrassed to behave in a boorish manner.

THERE IS also the discomfiture that comes with not having native-level Hebrew. The other day, I needed a chest X-ray and could've sworn the technician mumbled something about whether I was a fox.

I later figured out she was inquiring if I had a cough.

The inscrutable Israeli psyche is particularly in-your-face on the roads. Signaling before switching lanes is frowned upon, and I'm still not culturally attuned enough to comprehend why someone with a "Peace Now" bumper sticker won't trade a car-length for peace, or why a fellow with "A Jew does not expel another Jew" anti-disengagement sticker has no compunction about forcing this Jew off the road.

Bottom line? The hardest part about living in Israel is adjusting to the mores of the natives, and remembering that I would be setting myself up for endless grief to expect native-born Israelis to embrace the values I brought with me.

Which is why making aliya is a little like being in a program for recovering alcoholics - you've gotta take life one day, one Fourth of July, at a time.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Caveman politics

Liberals and conservatives have been at it for eons
– maybe it's time to move on?

Scholars may have uncovered the root causes of political ideology. We can today better understand why a William F. Buckley, a Harold Macmillan or a Binyamin Netanyahu grows up to be a conservative, while a George McGovern, a Tony Benn or a Yossi Beilin develops into a liberal.

Prof. Randy Thornhill and his graduate student Corey Fincher from the Biology Department at the University of New Mexico, writing in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, argue that all "ancestral humans" are genetically predisposed to either liberalism or conservatism, with the environment serving as a triggering mechanism.

Thornhill and Fincher report: Those with secure childhoods, low stress and strong parental attachments turn out conservative; those who experience stressful childhoods and weaker parental connections (an absent father, for instance) develop into liberals. Evolution required a mix - humans who crave stability, as well as those willing to experiment with new frontiers. For our species to perpetuate, there was a need for both "conservative" family and community builders, as well as "liberals" ready to reach out to humans beyond their own "ingroup."

In their study, Thornhill and Fincher also found that firstborns (who receive a great deal of parental investment) tended toward conservatism, while later- and middle-borns (who, presumably, receive less parental attention) were prone to turn out liberal-oriented.
They conclude that "the relative magnitude of childhood stressors experienced sends conservatives [with secure attachments] down one life track, and liberals [with avoidant attachments] down another."

THEIR NOTION of what makes liberals and conservatives tick flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which holds that insecure children grow up to be conservatives, while confident youngsters become liberals. Indeed, in liberal-dominated academia, liberalism is identified as the "default" normal, while conservative tendencies are viewed as the aberration.

The pre-Thornhill and Fincher distinctions between liberals and conservatives had "optimistic liberals" believing human nature to be essentially good and malleable. This explains why they are always gung-ho on talking, negotiations and peace processes - liberals think people are fundamentally cooperative.

Conservatives, in contrast, are inherently pessimistic about human nature; they assume that no amount of social tinkering can transform man's fundamental make-up. This leads them not to entrust raw power into the hands of the people because "pure democracy" will end up in a tyranny of the mob.

Now along come Thornhill and Fincher to suggest that optimistic liberals had stressful (not to say deprived) childhoods, while distrustful conservatives (like myself) were spoiled with attention.

IN AN e-mail exchange, Fincher clarifies: Conservatives do trust, but only their ingroup - extended family, other conservatives, leaders - but not people who think differently, act differently, pray to different gods.

"You call [them] pessimistic conservatives because they don't believe in the goodness of everyone; while a liberal does believe that everyone has value. We see this as supportive of our findings. Consider that alliances are fundamental to individual survival. Liberals are strategic specialists in developing alliances with just about anyone from their immediate family to former enemies; while conservatives are strategic specialists for developing alliances and maintaining those alliances only within their ingroup."

Individuals who recall growing up in an environment that included a great deal of familial investment and closeness, Fincher wrote me, are primarily conservative and demonstrate a secure attachment style as adults, so they are primarily interested in close, enduring relationships. People who recall growing up in an environment with reduced familial closeness and investment are primarily liberal, and demonstrate a more avoidant style of attachment, meaning they are aloof and lack concern about the permanency of their relationships with others.

"So back to your question, someone is conservative because, in part, their tie to their ingroup is significant and must be maintained. For liberals their tie to any one ingroup is significantly malleable. They have to see goodness in everyone in order to facilitate this kind of mobility."
Broadly speaking, then, what makes people either liberal or conservative is that these are the only two cards evolution has dealt us. How we actually turn out depends largely on the individual nature/nurture experience.

Both liberalism and conservatism are ideologies - or a "coherent and consistent set of beliefs" about politics, according to the venerable political scientists James Q. Wilson. It strikes me, however, that if the liberal-conservative divide is just an accident of the nature/nurture experience, maybe ideological consistency need not be sacrosanct.

MOST ISRAELIS, you'll agree, are not coherent and consistent ideologues. Truth is, you don't much hear the terms "liberal" and "conservative" in the Israeli setting. Instead, people are pigeonholed as right-wing ("bomb the Arabs to smithereens"), or left-wing ("hand the Arabs everything they want on a silver platter, and be nice about it"). Such shallow labeling tells us nothing useful about genuine ideology, or about how thinking Israelis see events.

Speaking personally, I've long known that I'm neither "left-wing" nor liberal because my take on human nature is darkly Freudian. When I lived in the US, I was, like a good conservative, dubious about the government's role in regulating business. I worked in government and knew we didn't always have the answers. I tended to disdain the latest welfare program; I opposed affirmative action, favoring the merit system instead. Still, I was never a social conservative because I opposed government involvement in the personal sphere, and generally favored a broadminded approach to civil liberties.

IN THE decade or so that I've lived in Israel, remaining ideologically "coherent" and "consistent" as a conservative has become ever more difficult. In the Israeli setting, where oligarchs control the bulk of the nation's wealth, I'm not convinced that less government regulation of big business - cable television, telecommunications, transportation, utilities and medicine - is such a good idea.

New York City in my day had nearly 1 million (out of 8 million) residents on the public dole. This struck me as socially debilitating. Plainly, there was something wrong with a system that saw, not atypically, three generations of unmarried women sharing a household, collecting welfare checks and making babies.

There's nothing remotely like that kind of in-your-face abuse of the system here in Israel; no epidemic of welfare queens. But there are plenty of working stiffs earning way below the (modest) average gross salary of NIS 7,491 per month, and they deserve whatever help the state can give them. Certainly when it comes to the truly indigent living below the poverty level, I don't want the state to be parsimonious. And if that breaks with my inherent conservatism - so be it.

In America, like any good conservative, I valued tradition. But here in Israel "tradition" has morphed into religious coercion with ultra-Orthodox rabbis employed by the state controlling citizenship, marriage, divorce and even burial. The bloated religious bureaucracy mixes the worst of liberal big government with the worst kind of personally intrusive social conservatism.

WHATEVER THE answers to the problems of this society, they are not going to be uncovered by an adherence to this or that political ideology. Maybe lockstep ideological consistency is a luxury only people living in a properly functioning political system can afford. But in a system as fundamentally wrecked as ours, adhering to liberalism or conservatism for the sake of consistency seems senseless. And it goes without saying that sticking to even more vacuous left-wing and right-wing distinctions when what most of us really disagree about is managing the Arab-Israel conflict is especially unhelpful.

I'm not saying that there aren't any genuine left-wingers and right-wingers. I'm saying that for most of us they are irrelevant.

MY OWN diagnosis is that Israel's political system suffers from "hyper-pluralism," or group politics run amok. Contending groups are stronger than the government itself. When political parties with diametrically opposing views merrily collaborate in raiding the public purse, the outcome for the overall collective is bad.

In a broken system, ideology offers transparently false choices. After all, say there are new elections tomorrow, and the pro-business Likud Party comes out ahead, does anyone imagine that it would not invite the social-democratic Labor Party to become its coalition partner? And wouldn't both parties gladly bring the centrist Kadima Party into their government? And wouldn't they - disregarding ideology - cut deals with the single-issue parochial parties in return for political backing?

Every Israeli who agrees that this is no way to run the Zionist enterprise has a preferred solution. Mine is James Madison's model of representative democracy, checks and balances, and separation of powers, as embodied in the US Constitution. That comes part and parcel with constituency-based elections.

I'm not holding my breath, but such an idyllic outcome would promote a two-party democracy and pragmatic centrist policies. There would be one large, liberal-oriented party and one large conservative party. Highly ideological single-issue parties would fall by the wayside in a winner-take-all electoral system, and their activists would seek to shape policy within one of the two large amalgamations.

In that long "meanwhile" before the political system is overhauled, both Left and Right need to abandon their dead-end "never-forget-never-forgive" partisanship. When consistency prevents out-of-the-box thinking on both domestic and security issues while tearing the fabric of society apart, it's time to jettison the chains of ideology.

It took a combination of liberalism and conservatism for the human species to evolve. Likewise, Israeli leaders with wisdom must be willing to exploit the best characteristics of both liberal and conservative ideologies in developing a novel, pragmatic survival strategy.

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