Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Wrap: Refugees,Donating, Hamas, Iran, Electoral Reform & Traffic

The other Mideast refugees (June 25, 2008)

The world knows of the pain and dislocation experienced by roughly 700,000 Palestinian Arabs when Israel was established; it knows little about the trauma borne by some 850,000 Jews from the Arab world who were uprooted from their homes.

The precise numbers and exact impetus for the departures, in these linked cases, remain in dispute. The motivations of the displaced in promoting their respective narratives are easily suspect because both Jewish and Arab refugee conundrums are tied to claims of "inalienable rights," for restitution and reparations, and (in the case of the Arabs) demands for repatriation.
In any journey toward genuine acceptance and reconciliation that the quest for peace demands, the two narratives will need to be mutually validated in some fashion.

THE PLIGHT of Jews who left the Arab countries has drawn relatively little attention, notwithstanding the efforts of individuals such as Heskel M. Haddad, a New York-based ophthalmologist of Iraqi origin. Recently, however, this cause received a boost from a non-binding US Congressional resolution adopted in April which urged the administration to raise the Jewish refugee issue whenever the Palestinian one arises. And this week a group called Justice for Jews from Arab Countries has been holding a conference in London to ensure that the narrative of Jewish refugees is told alongside that of the Palestinian Arabs.

It would be a tragedy if this campaign were dismissed as an attempt at one-upmanship in an arena so long dominated by supporters of the Palestinian Arabs; suffering does not negate suffering.

One approach for fair-minded individuals is to consider the Jewish refugees as human beings rather than as pawns in a vitriolic political dispute.

This is why the recent publication of Lucette Lagnado's The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit is so welcome. In telling the affecting saga of her family's forced emigration from Cairo to New York, and by sharing memories of her proud father Leon's decline from boulevardier, poker player and businessman - who rubbed shoulders with King Farouk - to a refugee unable to raise the few thousand dollars necessary to open a corner candy store, Lagnado puts a human face on the other Middle East refugee tragedy.

Lagnado focuses on her own family's experiences, but let's not forget the episodic blood libels and riots that peppered the history of Egyptian Jewry, beginning in the early 1800s. As the Zionists moved ahead in creating a Jewish state in Mandatory Palestine, and as the Palestinian Arab leadership adamantly rejected a two-state solution, Arabs elsewhere began to turn against the Jews in their midst.

There were riots in Alexandria and Cairo in 1938-39, and again in November 1945, when 10 Jews were killed and hundreds wounded. Synagogues were ransacked. Egyptian Jewry carried on as best it could even when 2,000 Jews were arrested and their property confiscated on May 15, 1948 - the day Israel declared independence. In June 1948, the community was obligated to "donate" to Palestinian Arab refugee relief. In September, 20 Jews were killed and 61 injured as Cairo's Jewish Quarter was bombed. Looting followed, and more Jewish property was confiscated.

After the 1956 Sinai Campaign, 4,000 Jews were expelled; allowed to take only a single suitcase each and forced to renounce any financial claims against Egypt. In 1957 all Jews not in "continuous residence" since 1900 were deprived of citizenship. By 1960, many synagogues, orphanages and homes for the aged had been closed down.

The Lagnados held out until 1963, eventually arriving in New York with $212, the maximum they had been allowed to take out of Egypt. By 1967, Jews still employed in government were dismissed; hundreds were arrested, some were tortured. That is how a community whose population numbered 80,000 in 1920 dwindled to today's perhaps 200 souls, mostly elderly widows.

Yet Egypt's treatment of its Jews was in no way the most egregious in the Arab world.

ROUGHLY 580,000 Jews from across the Arab world ultimately found refuge in Israel. Another 260,000 Jews were absorbed elsewhere.

For the Palestinian Arabs, by contrast, the disaster of dislocation was compounded by the decision of the 21 Arab states never to absorb them, and to force the UN to create UNRWA, whose surreal mission - with the acquiescence of the international community - is to perpetuate their homelessness in perpetuity.

Wisdom in charity (June 21, 2008)

Nachum: One kopek? Last week you gave me two kopeks.
Lazar-Wolf: I had a bad week.
Nachum: If you had a bad week, why should I suffer?

- Fiddler On The Roof

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the overseas arm of the US Jewish philanthropic system, announced last week that it was cutting programming to 25,000 recipients in the former Soviet Union and laying off 60 workers in Jerusalem, New York and the FSU. The reason: The falling dollar has created a 20 percent hole, or $60 million gap, in its budget.

As the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported last week, the JDC's $325m. budget includes an $87m. contribution from the United Jewish Communities, which represents 155 federations and 400 independent Jewish communities across North America. The UJC's own operating budget stands at $37m., down from a peak of $46m. Other JDC money comes from individuals, foundations, Holocaust reparations, and the Israeli government.

The constraints now facing the JDC typify those of other organizations. The dean of a Jerusalem-based educational institute, which receives no government aid, told The Jerusalem Post that he had just returned from a successful fund-raising trip to the US bringing back pledges totaling $1m. Since he raises money in dollars but spends them in shekels, these funds are worth significantly less than just one year ago.

The crisis in the dollar, and how the organized Jewish world should respond, will be high on the agenda of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors when it meets today and Monday in Jerusalem. The agency is facing is own budget shortfall.

But the fall in the dollar is only one manifestation of the world economy's predicament. In New York City, for example, Jewish groups are being hard hit by municipal budget cuts that impact on their ability to deliver services to some 77,000 elderly Jewish poor. Funding for the homebound lunch program is being streamlined. The local Housing Authority says it can't continue to subsidize senior citizens centers in its buildings. And New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is grappling with a projected $3 billion-5b. budget deficit for the next fiscal year.
Philanthropists, who make their money in banking and on Wall Street in places such as Bear Sterns and Lehman Brothers, have taken a financial beating. Nevertheless, observers counsel that there is still money out there.

THIS BRINGS us to a new buzzword circulating in Jewish organizational life - "silo." At all times, but especially in these, it is essential that key players engaged in communal work communicate, coordinate and network. As with an isolated silo, communication that is only vertical, that does not interface with other entities doing similar work, is an extravagance the Jewish world can ill afford.

In the 21st century, we cannot put up with organizational duplication, unnecessary competitiveness and petty rivalries. It would be tempting to go through the lengthy roster of organizations, from the 51 members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, to the scores of others orbiting the Jewish world - some like spent asteroids - and ask whether each is essential for Jewish security, welfare, administration and continuity. In our nonhierarchical world, however, only those who foot the bill have the prerogative of telling an organization: Your time has passed.

As fewer affluent young Jews donate to Jewish causes, private philanthropists and "boutique" charities are sometimes better positioned than large organizations to target money where it is needed. And yet, a mature analysis of Jewish organizational life is bound to conclude that if at least some of the groups now on the scene did not exist, they would have to be created ex nihilo.
The legendary Jewish leader Ralph I. Goldman offered this advice in 1981. "What is necessary is... to recognize that immortality does not apply to organizations and institutions... that going out of business is an essential quality of community service - not change for the sake of change, but change because it is necessary and good."

Implementing this sagacious recommendation depends on individual donors, organizations and foundations using sound judgment to evaluate which groups merit continued support. In today's economic climate, the imperative for such pragmatism is more urgent than ever.

The brewing storm (June 19, 2008)

On a cold and drizzly December morning the Israeli cabinet meets to approve a renewal of the cease-fire in Gaza, which has proven so successful. There have been no rocket, mortar or shooting attacks into Israel since the tahadiyeh was proclaimed by Hamas six months ago.
The Erez, Karni, and Sufa border crossings, along with the Nahal Oz fuel depot, have efficiently funneled a cornucopia of supplies into the Strip from Israel, while the Rafah crossing for goods and people leaving the Strip for Egypt is functioning smoothly under the watchful eyes of Egyptian officials and Palestinian border guards loyal to Mahmoud Abbas's administration.
Thanks to intensified Egyptian efforts, the flow of illicit weaponry into the Strip has been reduced to a trickle. EU officials have steadfastly rejected dealing with Hamas. The Islamist government has never been more unpopular because, despite the end of the "siege," it has proven incompetent in delivering basic services to the people. Polls indicate that in elections scheduled for January, a reformist-oriented Fatah ticket is expected to capture a majority in the Palestinian parliament.
Meanwhile, Gilad Schalit's book, In Hamas Captivity, tops the best-seller lists.

THIS SCENARIO is one way to envisage the evolution of the cease-fire with Hamas, which came into effect early Thursday. It is not, sadly, the way events are likely to play out.

Stage one - the cease-fire - is now in effect. On Sunday, in stage two, Israel is expected to begin easing the economic blockade of Gaza by opening most of the crossing points. Stage three, the opening of Rafah, is supposedly tied to progress on the release of Gilad Schalit. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's pledge, however, that Rafah will not open until Schalit is released is hardly credible. Hamas has been explicit: There is no connection between the cease-fire and Schalit's freedom. It demands and will likely receive, judging by the government's lack of fortitude, hundreds of terrorists "with blood on their hands" in exchange for the IDF captive.

This newspaper has argued that any trade for Schalit should be limited to enemy prisoners - such as the Hamas "parliamentarians" now in custody - taken after Schalit's capture.

As for the cease-fire, it is true that Israel's dysfunctional cabinet had to choose from an unpalatable menu of choices. But it is far from clear, following the government's September 2007 designation of Gaza as a "hostile territory," that our politico-military echelon exhausted a long list of measures that could have been pursued, short of retaking the entire Strip in an Operation Defensive Shield-like campaign.

These measures might have included ongoing large-scale military incursions (mostly abandoned in favor of episodic battalion or company level operations), and relentless pursuit of Hamas leaders so as to diminish their capacity to govern and hammer home the point that Jerusalem will not tolerate an Islamist regime between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. They could have been accompanied by an intensified embargo on fuel and electricity - presuming the government's willingness to stay the course in the face of unsympathetic media coverage.
INSTEAD, we may be witnessing the establishment of a nascent Palestinian state

uncompromisingly committed to the destruction of Israel. With Gaza in its grip, the Islamists will turn their full attention to the West Bank. Hamas can now more easily send its gunmen for specialized training abroad, while foreign "experts" will find it easier to infiltrate into the Strip.

Even if the Egyptians, using newly arrived American tunnel-detection equipment and limited but better-trained forces, make a strenuous effort to intercept the flow of arms - and Cairo insists it is now genuinely committed to this goal - chances are that anti-aircraft and anti-armor missiles, long-range rockets and sophisticated explosives will find their way into the Strip.

Finally, this cease-fire accelerates Hamas's ascendancy among Palestinians, and more broadly throughout the Arab world, even as the relative moderates associated with Mahmoud Abbas look ever-more impotent. Yet so long as it ostensibly adheres to the cease-fire, there will be those in the international community who will push for engaging Hamas "moderates."
Israeli decision-makers have purchased temporary calm for the battered communities bordering Gaza. The fear, underlined by bitter experience, is that it comes at the cost of a devastating storm brewing over the horizon.

Prodding the glacier

The glacial pace at which Europe has been working to get Iran to end its enrichment of uranium and give up its nuclear weapons program is slowly picking up. Britain and Europe are expected to freeze the assets of Bank Melli, the Islamic Republic's main financial conduit to the world and its channel for cash transfers to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The EU is also weighing sanctions against companies that invest in Iran's energy industry.

For its part, Iran has reportedly begun shifting cash out of European banks - $75 billion so far. Melli is switching its reserves into non-dollar currencies; and Iran is calling on other revenue-rich oil states to follow suit. Separately, Islamist Web sites aligned with al-Qaida have been urging their supporters to dump dollars.

Meanwhile, the EU continues to "engage" Iran using charm, suasion and incentives. Its foreign policy czar, Javier Solana, has just been to Teheran offering economic assistance and civilian nuclear knowhow in exchange for a halt to uranium enrichment. Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani pledged to "carefully study" the EU offer, though other government spokespeople have reportedly already rejected it.

In Iran, there are no "moderates" on the nuclear issue, but there are differences over how best to stonewall. If Solana wants to cut to the chase and receive straight answers to his proposals, he might try meeting directly with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or Revolutionary Guard boss Mohammad Ali Jafari.

European apologists for Teheran are already saying Iran can't possibly accept the latest EU offer because Washington didn't formally sign on to it (though administration officials have endorsed EU diplomacy) and Washington hasn't publicly abandoned hopes for regime change. These apologists further claim that when the mullahs were (supposedly) not enriching uranium, Washington maintained sanctions nevertheless. And they argue that a more amenable president may replace Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in August 2009.

EUROPE IS Iran's main import and export trading partner. According to EU data, in 2006, EU imports totaled more than €14.12 billion, while the value of EU exports (with Germany, France and Italy leading the way) amounted to more than €11.19 billion. Iran is Europe's fifth-biggest oil supplier. This means that the EU could live without Iran, though Iran would have a hard time managing without Europe.

Europe is thus still instrumental in keeping Teheran's economy afloat, yet it is doing precious little to explicitly isolate Iran. Regular international flights to the Islamic Republic still take off from most major European airports, and European countries maintain active embassies in Teheran.

IT'S LONG been suspected that the father of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, A.Q. Khan, sold bomb-making material to Iran. And this week brought revelations of computer blueprints being de-encrypted - which suggests Khan may also have peddled technology for building small, easily transportable nuclear weapons. We do not know if he sold the Iranians a design for a bomb small enough to be fitted atop one of their ballistic missiles; we do know that they have delivery vehicles able to reach Israel - and beyond - and are openly, feverishly enriching uranium.

A variation on Rudyard Kipling's "If" comes to mind: If Europe can keep its head when the rest of us are losing ours, maybe it doesn't understand the seriousness of the situation.

EVEN THE US, with the best of intentions, has not found it easy to impose a comprehensive sanctions regime. Which is why we applaud US Senator Max Baucus for his efforts to plug existing loopholes in American law.

For instance, while the export of US goods to Iran is already forbidden, there is a long list of exceptions, including parts for civilian airliners. It's still legal to import Persian carpets, caviar, nuts and dried fruit; "independent" subsidiaries of US corporations can still invest in Iran. Moreover, even though Moscow assists Iran's nuclear program, it remains legal to sell Russia nuclear equipment.

Finally, Baucus's bill would deduct US contributions to the World Bank proportionate to the funds the bank provides for programs defined as humanitarian in Iran. After all, money is fungible.

Were this the summer of 2002, when Iranian dissidents first revealed the existence of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility and the heavy-water plant in Arak, we might be more upbeat about the pace of European sanctions. Six years on, we are anything but.

A voice for the citizen (June 16, 2008)

Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, but we have a long way to go before we can claim to have a genuinely representative form of government.

Our aspirations were set back on Sunday in the Ministerial Committee on Legislation, when a bipartisan Knesset bill to reform the electoral system and allow 30 to 60 Knesset members to be elected by district was torpedoed. The remaining MKs would have been chosen under the current proportional method.

Backing for the reform came from Kadima, Labor and Likud, while the torpedoing was the handiwork of MK Meshulam Nahari of Shas, the Sephardi Orthodox party. The wishes of a single party with 12 parliamentary seats proved stronger than the combined efforts of parties with a total of 73 mandates - 84 counting Israel Beiteinu, which also backs electoral reform - because, as a coalition member, Shas has veto power over legislation which would modify "constitutional" Basic Law.

Shas likely opposed the bill out of fear that its electoral fortunes would suffer under a reformed system, though it claimed it voted against because it had not been sufficiently consulted.
As reported in The Jerusalem Post - no other newspaper ran this story on its front page - the initiators of the bill included Knesset Law Committee chair Menachem Ben-Sasson of Kadima, Gideon Sa'ar and Michael Eitan of Likud, and Labor MKs Ophir Paz-Pines and Eitan Cabel. It is virtually unprecedented for so diverse a group of legislators to unite behind such far-reaching legislation.

THE CASE for electoral reform is painfully clear: A system which in the previous century brought the likes of David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin to power today attracts far more mediocre personalities even as it drives honest and decent people away.

The way we elect our leaders is also directly connected to why it is so hard to govern effectively, why so many Israelis feel alienated from the political system, and why average citizens have nowhere to turn with their grievances.

Public opinion surveys invariably show that a majority of Israelis support some form of district representation. And a commission headed by Hebrew University president Menachem Magidor which thoroughly examined our electoral system for 17 months also recommended, last year, reforms even more far-reaching than those now being put forward by Kadima, Labor and Likud. Magidor wanted to see half the Knesset - 60 MKs - directly elected in 17 districts. Each district would be represented by two to five MKs, the other half of the Knesset being elected by the proportional approach.

CONSTITUENCY representation is an essential ingredient in representative government. In the US, most members of the House of Representatives spend the bulk of their resources and energies on constituent services. Indeed, in just about every other democracy in the world voters have a particular politician who is accountable to them.

Moving away from the pure proportional system would also make Israeli politics less fragmented - and perhaps less ill-tempered - because a winner-take-all constituency system discourages single-issue parties that thrive on parochialism and abhor compromise. Smaller parties would fall by the wayside.

Major parties would focus on the good of the many over the interests of the few. Yet to attract voters, they would nevertheless have an incentive to embrace at least some of the causes of today's smaller parties.

With constituency representation comes direct accountability. It does not guarantee the absence of corruption, or that all politicians elected by district will selflessly devote themselves to the people they represent - but it does mean that good politicians could be rewarded and bad ones kicked out of office.

THE GOOD news is that the bill's defeat can yet be reversed. Ben-Sasson can still use the clout that comes with his committee chairmanship to maneuver around what observers suggest only appears to be a legislative dead-end. And as a last resort, the Knesset could support a private member's version of the bill vetoed by Shas.

Contrary to popular wisdom, the Hebrew language really does have a phrase for political constituency - mehoz bechira. Now if we could only convince our politicians that accountability is not an alien concept...

The road not taken (June 15,2008)

Ismail and Najuan Khualed and their seven-year-old daughter Eden, from the Galilee village of Sa'ab, were killed over the weekend a few hundred meters from their home on Road 70 between Karmiel and Acre. A truck driver traveling in the opposite lane lost control of his vehicle, which then overturned, slamming into the Khualeds' car. Their son Tamir is hospitalized in critical condition.

Not a weekend goes by, or so it seems, which does not close with awful news about traffic and road fatalities. This one was no exception: In addition to Ismail, 25, and Najuan, 22, three other citizens lost their lives.

In a three-month period his year, 89 people were killed; thousands were injured.
It is small consolation to the grieving families - or to our national psyche - that traffic-related fatalities have actually decreased. The statistics are mildly encouraging: In 2004, 428 were killed; 2005, 381; 2006, 373; and 2007, 351.

NO ONE would dispute that the main culprit is speed. Academic experts persuasively argue that as speed goes up, so does the frequency and severity of accidents. The police concur - speed is a factor in most accidents, directly causing 20 percent of fatalities.

Obviously, drivers must be more diligent about adhering to posted speed limits, and police need to do a better job of catching violators. Still, human nature being what it is, and since police can't be everywhere, experts argue that a state-of-the-art speed camera network ought to be installed across the country to detect and deter speeding. Such a network has been shown to reduce fatalities in the UK, Australia and France.

In Israel, cameras using comparatively archaic technology are in place along only relatively short stretches of road. Other "cameras" are actually decoys intended to fool drivers into thinking they're being monitored. Until now, budget constraints, red tape and a shortage of personnel (to retrieve and process the film) has hamstrung this old technology.
Why has the Finance Ministry failed to allocate the necessary funds for Israel to implement its own nationwide, state-of-the art speed camera program?

Dead citizens don't contribute to the economy, and shattered survivors often become burdens to society. The cost to tax-payers of medical care and rehabilitation for injured motorists can be staggering. So it makes economic sense - aside from being also the moral thing to do - to invest in safer roads.

We urge Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz to show leadership and lose no time in getting to work with the police and the Treasury. They must accelerate a viable timetable for making speed cameras a reality.

BUT SPEEDING is not the only problem. Even some major arteries are not properly lit at night. Some lack shoulders - including, villagers say, the area where the Khualed family lost their lives. Drivers also have a responsibility: to keep their tires inflated, their brakes in good condition and their windshields clean for good visibility. If there are population sectors which are disproportionately involved in accidents, remedial driver-education must be targeted where it will do the most good.

WHILE IT may be hard to quantify, most of us sense that there is also something about Israel's "culture" that contributes, if not to the actual carnage on the roads, then to the prevailing sense of intolerance and lack of consideration. Too many drivers fail to signal lane changes, or turns; rather than yield, they pursue self-defeating and dangerous "not-one-inch" tactics.

No one wants to be a freier - a sucker - and everyone is stressed. Yet it is intolerable that some people drive while cradling a cell phone, shaving, applying make-up or reading.

Public service ads have reeducated us about the need for passenger seat-belts, the danger of children dashing out between cars, and the benefits of keeping headlights on during the winter. The time is long overdue for a basic road etiquette campaign.

Driving in Israel, admittedly stressful, is still safer and less unpleasant than ever before thanks to improved roads, better lighting and, in urban areas, the growing utilization of roundabouts and speed bumps.

None of these improvements, however, makes us sanguine about the deaths of good people like the Khualeds.

Are you hearing us, Minister Mofaz?

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