Tuesday, December 27, 2011


On a sun-drenched day the week before Christmas, Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre was crowded with pilgrims from Nigeria taking turns kneeling and praying at the marker where sacred history has it that Jesus was crucified, entombed and resurrected. (Other Christians consider the place to be the nearby Garden Tomb.) Back in Nigeria, on Christmas Day a wave of murderous bombings by Muslim extremists hit several churches. Plainly, the faith is at once thriving and struggling as a new report on Global Christianity from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life makes clear.

Jews have more than a passing interest in the state of Christianity not only because of the religion's origins and its fraught relationship with Judaism but also because nowadays many believing Christians consider themselves friends of the Jewish people and Israel. Consider, for instance, that growing numbers of Hispanic Americans are embracing Israel-friendly evangelical Christianity. And that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans in the coming months to visit several African countries with substantial Christian populations.

Given trends in Muslim civilization, it certainly matters to Jews that there are more Christians than Muslims and that demographically Christianity makes up about the same portion of the global population today (32%) as it did a century ago. Almost 80 percent of Americans are of Christian heritage. Post-modern Europe has become the second largest bastion of Christianity. It cannot claim to have the most Catholics or Protestants though it remains home to the majority of Orthodox Christians (thanks to believers in Russia, Ukraine, Greece, and Romania). The report does not address the continent's declining commitment to its heritage which led Prime Minister David Cameron to tell Britons not be afraid to assert their country's Christianity.

Around the world, half of all Christians are Catholic; Protestants, broadly defined, make up 37%; Orthodox Christians comprise 12%. Catholicism is strong in Brazil, Mexico, Philippines and United States (where about one in-four is Catholic). Italy ranks fifth.

As for Protestantism, the U.S. is home to the most Protestants followed by Nigeria and – somewhat surprisingly – China. Germany is evenly divided between Protestants and Catholics totaling about 70% of the population (five percent are Muslim). The percentage of Protestants is greater in the Congo than where Luther launched the Reformation in the 16th century. Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa appears robust.
While the CIA places the Christian population of Nigeria at 40%, Pew figures it at 50%.

The picture is quite different in the Middle East where Christianity was born – it is now home to less than 1% of believers. Put another way, just 4% of Middle Easterners today are Christian (mostly Catholic or Orthodox). The country with the largest percentage of the population that is Christian is Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon (38%).

Further afield, newly independent South Sudan is 60% Christian. In raw numbers, however, about half of all Christians in the Mideast reside in Egypt and the Sudan even if they comprise just 5% of those countries' respective populations. These figures contrast with CIA data which places the percentage of Coptic Christians in Egypt at 9%. Pew's numbers crunchers said Egypt's Christian population is actually less than half of that estimate and shrinking. The reason may not be hard to deduce: Egypt's Sunni Muslim majority has not been particularly tolerant of Christianity. With Hosni Mubarak's fall and the rise of Islamist parties the prospects for Christianity in an Islamist Egypt hardly leave room for optimism.

Intriguingly, the Pew study counts substantial numbers of Christians in Saudi Arabia: 1,200,000 or 4.4 percent of population. Left unsaid, however, is that these are mostly Filipino and Indian expatriates not Arabs. And they may not openly practice their faith. Curiously, the U.N. does not seem preoccupied by such state-sanctioned intolerance.

Pew reports that the number of Christians living in the West Bank under Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority is 100,000 almost all Arabs. Those who speak for them such as the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, tend to be PLO marionettes. This time of year, for instance, the Sunni-dominated PLO cynically promulgates the fairy tale that Christmas is a Palestinian holiday and that Jesus was a "Palestinian." Over in Hamas-run Gaza live just several thousand besieged Christians. Israeli authorities granted West Bank and Gaza Christians passage into Israel to visit family for the holidays and 400 separate permits to travel abroad from Ben-Gurion Airport.

As for Christians in Israel proper, Pew places their numbers at 150,000 (up from 34,000 when the state was founded but down 10,000 from the Central Bureau of Statistics 2008 figure). Eighty percent are Arabs and the remainder emigrants from the former Soviet Union. Israeli Christians naturally enjoy full freedom of worship.
By tradition, the Jerusalem municipality even distributes free Christmas trees to all comers. The Pew figures do not count thousands of foreign workers (Filipino and African caregivers; Romanian laborers) or foreign clerics assigned to the country.

Life is not always easy for Christian evangelicals, many of whom have been treated shabbily by officious bureaucrats at the Shas Party-controlled Ministry of Interior. The ostensible justification is (mostly) unfounded dread of missionary activity; actually, most Christian fundamentalists are in Israel as part of their personal spiritual journeys or expressly to build support for the Jewish state in the larger Christian world.

Making strange bedfellows, many liberal and ultra-Orthodox Jews – insecure in their different ways – have demonstrated an unseemly intolerance toward fervently believing Christians. Though from time immemorial Jews have been treated with contempt by the Christian world, it seems myopic and counterproductive to view 21st century Christianity (and its 2.18 billion adherents) as if it was continuing robot-like that benighted legacy. In fact, as fate would have it, Christian and Jewish civilizations at the present time have every reason to seek possibilities for collaboration.

Strangely enough, what's "good for the Jews" – and the Jewish state – is to see Christianity thriving.


Further Reading:

Marranos in Reverse? Elliot Jager, Jewish Ideas Daily.
Though ardent in their faith, Jewish followers of Jesus in Israel are usually discreet about sharing their beliefs.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Should Jews Have a Mormon Problem?

The religious values of presidents seldom satisfactorily explain their attitudes toward the Jews. Franklin Roosevelt's Episcopalian faith could not have reasonably foretold his hard-hearted policies during the Holocaust. Baptists both Harry S Truman and Jimmy Carter went their separate ways with Truman quick to grant Israel diplomatic recognition and Carter conspicuous in his anti-Israelism. Who knows to what extent President Barack Obama's affiliation with the United Church of Christ provides any insight into his administration's erratic often disquieting policies toward Jerusalem?

Still, it is hard to completely disregard the religious and moral values of the leading presidential candidates. The narrowing of the Republican nomination field to Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich (with the latter's lead dwindling) has made barely a ripple in Israel. Israel's media dutifully covered Romney's complaint that Obama has been too quick to chasten the Jewish state and his pledge to make Israel his first foreign destination if elected. Likewise the flak Gingrich took for noting that Palestinian Arab identity was a comparatively recent historical phenomenon.

Israeli attitudes toward Obama have fluctuated. Preferences are sure to jell once the Republican nominee is determined. For now, Israelis know little about Gingrich's personal foibles, political baggage or his religious outlook. In any event, his spiritual journey from Lutheranism to Southern Baptist and now Catholicism has little resonance for Israelis. However, should Romney manage to capture the nomination, Israelis – like Americans before them – will probably find themselves getting a crash course on his Mormon faith.

They might begin at the strikingly handsome campus of the Jerusalem Center of Brigham Young University belonging to Mormons (formerly known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) situated on the slopes of the Mount of Olives. Over the Christmas holiday the school is even more sedate than usual. The Sunday evening classical concerts and Thursday night jazz divertimentos that take place in the congenial auditorium -- which offers panoramic Jerusalem views -- are in hiatus until the New Year. Even during the regular semester, the well-bred Mormon students and staff do not draw much attention -- and that is the way everyone likes it.

Mormonism has not been spotlighted in a big way in Israel since 1985 when Brigham Young first sought to establish a presence and drew vociferous hostility from the ultra-Orthodox sector over the Mormons' earlier missionary activities in Israel. Ultimately, the facility, which had the support of the late mayor Teddy Kollek and then-prime minister Shimon Peres, opened to students in 1988 after Church authorities pledged in writing not to engage in missionary activities in Israel. There is every reason to believe that they have honored their commitment to "show Israeli Jews what the Church is about by example rather than by proselytizing."

Within a few decades of its founding by Joseph Smith in New York State, in 1841 the Church dispatched Apostle Orson Hyde to Jerusalem on a fact-finding tour. Only with the city's liberation in 1967, however, did the Church begin to routinely send believers to the Holy Land for religious studies. Nowadays, 160 students can be accommodated at the Jerusalem campus. (The school closed for six years during the second intifada due to safety concerns.)

Mormon theology is philo-Semitic. Metaphorically --if not literally --the faithful consider their Church to be part of the House of Israel and themselves spiritual descendants of the Israelite tribe of Ephraim who escaped Babylonian captivity by migrating (circa. 586 BCE) to North America. The Book of Mormon has them fleeing Jerusalem prior to the Babylonian conquest. Mormons believe their scripture was revealed to Smith by an angel and that it contains the writings of ancient prophets including Lehi whom God commanded to lead those Israelites to America. This civilization disappeared in 400 CE. Smith was assassinated when he was only 39 in 1844 while running a quixotic campaign for U.S. president.

Mormons attribute significance to the Jewish calendar. Not only was their founder born on the eighth day of Hanukkah other spiritual milestones parallel the Jewish festivals. Worship services are conducted according to the local work week. There are also dietary laws; eating meat is restricted; alcohol, tobacco, and coffee are prohibited. The cross does not commonly adorn a Mormon house of worship. And like Christian Zionists they believe that the Jewish return to the Land of Israel is a precursor to the second coming of the Christian messiah. Polygamy has been forbidden since 1890.

Mormonism is emphatically a missionary faith. Indeed, Romney was almost killed while a missionary in France in a bizarre traffic accident that involved a head-on collision with a vehicle driven by a Catholic priest. To this day, Mormons take – what will strike some Israelis as – an unnerving delight in converting American Jews. Moreover, in a rite that looks odd to outsiders and has drawn Jewish ire the Church formerly engaged in virtual baptisms of Jews murdered in the Shoah (to provide their souls with post-mortem salvation). To be fair, "Baptism for the Dead" is not limited to Jews and once Mormons learned of the depth of Jewish objections to this practice they agreed to stop it.

At the same time, to the consternation of Christian fundamentalists, Mormons see themselves as Christians though some of them identify Jesus with the God of the Hebrew Bible and hold a schismatic view of the trinity in which God (the Father), Jesus, and the Holy Ghost are held to be three distinct deities. Unlike Christianity or Judaism, Mormons believe that the canon remains open and that God still communicates directly with the righteous.

Not of this should present a problem for Jews comfortable with their Judaism. Theologically, Jews anyway tend to be libertarian about other faiths while politically, a third of Jewish voters were disposed already by September 2011to vote for Romney over Obama.

What might this mean for the pragmatic Romney? Utah State University historian Philip Barlow has argued that Romney's faith might inform but would not presage his Middle East policies. "His character was in part shaped by Mormonism, but one only needs to compare Romney, Jon Huntsman and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to note that Mormons are not made from cookie cutters."

Regarding Romney's profession of friendship to Israel, Barlow pointed out that, "Mormons' history, popular culture, and theology really do give them a sense of regard for Israel's role in history and world affairs, and a sense of" --from their perspective – "shared identity."

As a former governor Romney has no real foreign policy track record. How does he understand the Islamist threat to Western values? What are his thoughts on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's approach to a two state solution? Does he back President George Bush's 1967-plus approach to Israel's boundaries? This and much more remains to be revealed.

Other presidents have entered the White House with an innate sympathy for Israel only to see their policies towed in an opposite direction. The righteous live by their faith, but a statesman operating in the real world also needs to be guided by a conceptual framework. In the course of the unfolding presidential campaign, Americans – and Israelis observing from afar – may learn more about Romney's politics, values and the way he understands the world.


Monday, December 12, 2011


Apologia for Ben-Gurion

At the yahrzeit ceremony for David Ben-Gurion (1886 -1973) held earlier this month at Sde Boker and with Iran clearly on his mind, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invoked -- no fewer than eight times -- Ben-Gurion's faculty for making hard decisions. It's a theme that also permeates Ben-Gurion: A Political Life, a "conversation" – a "fusion of memory and history and multiple competing narratives" – between President Shimon Peres and advocacy journalist David Landau. Here we have truth in labeling. For this slim volume is neither reliable history nor dependable biography.

Peres's first consequential encounter with Ben-Gurion took place on the sidelines of the 1946 Zionist Congress. In a huff over Chaim Weizmann reticence to insist on the immediate fulfillment of the Balfour Declaration, Ben-Gurion was fixing to walk-out. Pere seizes his opportunity: "I had incredible chutzpah. Ben-Gurion hardly knew me, but I said, 'Yes, we'll go with you…'" From then on, Peres was Ben-Gurion's indispensable man.

Peres had made a smart bet. Even before the creation of the state and his subsequent long premiership, Ben-Gurion would come to control a powerful politico-military machine that encompassed the Histadrut Labor Federation, Jewish Agency government-in-waiting and Haganah.

Moreover, the two men were kindred spirits. The Old Man had arrived in Palestine in 1906. Young Peres came in 1934. Both were opinionated, conceited, single-mindedly ambitious and coldly pragmatic. Though not observant, they hearkened back to lineages of piety and learning. They ruthlessly battled foes within their own political camp though Ben-Gurion was arguably the more vindictive. Where Ben-Gurion was feared Peres was despised. Moshe Sharett, Israel's second prime minister found him revolting; Yitzhak Rabin untrustworthy; Yigal Yadin insolent, and Gold Meir found him an unwanted nuisance.

Guru and acolyte were both voracious readers and polymaths. Both ultimately rebranded themselves. Ben-Gurion shifted his socialist Mapai Party toward the center. Peres, defeated for Labor's leadership, aligned with Ariel Sharon in the formation of Kadima. Both were Big Idea men: Ben-Gurion wanted to fashion the ethos of renascent Israel along vaguely biblical principles; Peres, more ambitious still, sought to create an entirely "new Middle East." Both men knew how to turn a phrase. With the doors to Palestine slammed shut by Mandate Britain making escape from Hitler impossible, Ben-Gurion famously pledged: "We must help the British in their war as though there were no White Paper, and we must resist the White Paper as though there were no war." Peres's variation on a theme – as Hamas bombers detonated themselves on Israeli busses in the wake of the Oslo Accords – was: "We must fight terrorism as if there was no peace process, and we must continue the peace process" with Yasir Arafat "despite the acts of terrorism." Needless to say, neither man had much capacity for self-criticism.

It's not always obvious where Peres's voice trails off and Landau's takes over. Synthesizing some of the voluminous history available on Ben-Gurion, the authors move from BG's early (and brief) days laboring in Palestine's fields to his emergence as a socialist Zionist polemicist and politician focusing on his disputations with Weizmann and Ze'ev Jabotinsky.

Even as he consolidated his power, BG travelled widely spending time in England, America and Russia. There he became infatuated with Vladimir Lenin (though he would loath Stalin). He esteemed Lenin's "decisiveness" which made up for the fact that Leon Trotsky was the more intellectually gifted, he told Peres. There is no question that Ben-Gurion was often wise and decisive, for example, in accepting the flawed 1947 UN Partition Plan. With equal aplomb, he disregarded the 1949 General Assembly resolution that called for the internationalization of metropolitan Jerusalem (meaning Jewish west Jerusalem to Ein Karim and the Arab-occupied east from the Old City to Abu Dis and south to Bethlehem).

Ben-Gurion made the unpopular but economically responsible call to accept reparations from West Germany against Menachem Begin's fierce and principled opposition. He showed hesitation against preemptive military strikes. And he ordered the capture of Adolf Eichmann and disregarded resultant UN criticism. Perhaps his most long-lasting contribution to Israel's survival was that he gave Peres the green light to build Israel's nuclear capacity; though Peres implies that he mostly left Ben-Gurion in the dark about all that.

The more he concentrated power in his own hands, the more he accused his opponents of anti-democratic tendencies. As if channeling his own subconscious wishes, he slammed Jabotinsky as a fascist who had dictatorial ambitions. In practice, when the IDF supplanted the Haganah BG ensured that all command decisions would be in the hands of his loyalists not the politically suspect Yigal Yadin or Israel Galili. Years later, well out of office BG schemed to replace his party comrade Prime Minister Levi Eshkol in the lead up to the 1967 Six Day War. Those altogether outside his socialist orbit including Menachem Begin and his Irgun would be violently quashed. The sinking of the Irgun arms ship Altalena typified the Old Man's capacity to conflate his political needs with the national interest. Rather archly, the reader presumes, Peres tells Landau that Ben-Gurion did not engage in political patronage.

It's hard to know if Ben-Gurion abhorred Jabotinsky more than Weizmann. True, differences of principle separated these Zionist founders. Ben-Gurion had been enamored with class struggle and building an agrarian economy; Jabotinsky was a classical liberal who wanted to foster an urban middle class. Peres grants that the two men saw eye-to-eye on many social welfare issues. But Ben-Gurion scorned Jabotinsky's demand for the territorial integrity of Eretz Israel as much as Weizmann's hesitation to move boldly. He schemed with Weizmann against Jabotinsky then sidelined the elder statesman. He professed to "love" Weizmann and pledged "genuine friendship" to Jabotinsky. Peres takes him at his word. The Ben-Gurion-Jabotinsky dispute was cut short when Jabotinsky died of a heart attack in 1940 in upstate New York. As premier, Ben-Gurion mean spiritedly refused to allow Jabotinsky's remains to be reinterred in Israel. Among those, according to Peres, that Ben-Gurion also didn't hate "personally" was Menachem Begin. Odd then that he could not bring himself to utter Begin's name for most of the years they served together in the Knesset.

The most unsettling pages of this book are Peres's (and Landau's) paroxysms of partisanship in covering the Holocaust era. They would have the reader know that in 1933 – the year the Nazis came to power – Jabotinsky had pooh-poohed Hitler's Mein Kampf while the prophetic Ben-Gurion by 1934 had warned of the enormity of the threat to Europe's Jews. There is half-truth in that. The fuller truth, according to Jabotinsky scholar Yisrael Medad, is that already in August 1933; Jabotinsky's men on the World Zionist Organization were defeated and sabotaged by the Ben-Gurion clique in every attempt to force a "vigorous attitude on the German situation." The same year, Jabotinsky told the 18th Zionist Congress in Prague, "The present Congress is duty-bound to put the Jewish problem in Germany before the entire world…We are conducting a war with murderers. [We must] destroy, destroy, destroy, them – not only with the boycott…"but also politically.

At one point Landau to his credit challenges Peres on whether Ben-Gurion as leader of the Yishuv throughout the war had really done enough on behalf of European Jewry? Peres does not waver: We didn't know; there was nothing we could have done. As for the Jabotinsky loyalists operating in the U.S. during the war who tried to shake heaven and earth, Peres's cold-hearted assessment is: "What did they achieve? Nothing."

It is in their conversation about the pre-state Jewish underground that Peres and Landau achieve a moral nadir, disgracefully embracing what is essentially the Palestinian Arab narrative which blamed Begin's Irgun for a litany of "outrages" such as "deliberately killing civilians" in Deir Yassin and "helping to spark the Palestinian refugee crisis."

So it is a relief that toward the end of Ben-Gurion: A Political Life the authors turn to other matters including the intriguing claim that Ben-Gurion had wanted to reform Israel's electoral system away from proportional representation. There is also the historically tone deaf Peres taking "credit" for having been Ben-Gurion's emissary to the ultra-Orthodox world in institutionalizing IDF exemptions for yeshiva students.

Peres and Landau close by acknowledging that Ben-Gurion would under no circumstances agree to have Israel pullback to the 1949 Armistice Lines. If anything, he favored extensive settlement in metropolitan Jerusalem and in Hebron. Maybe their point is that Ben-Gurion had no interest in ruling over the Palestinian Arabs; though Peres and Landau can't bring themselves to say so, neither does Netanyahu. His dilemma is that the same Arab rejectionism that made peace unreachable in Ben-Gurion's day continues to grip the contemporary Palestinian leadership.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Israel's High Court of Justice, Supreme Court and the Political System

Full Court Press

Israel Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch recently excoriated legislators critical of the judiciary as "robbed Cossacks" who were guilty of "incitement" and waging a "campaign of delegitimation" against the court. An unnamed associate close to the justice told reporters that Israel was heading down the same path as Germany in the 1930s.

What accounts for this tirade? Beinisch was reacting to a political backlash that has buffeted her institution that's been engineered mostly – but by no means exclusively – by Orthodox and populist right-wing politicians fed up with the court's left-wing judicial activism. In fact, however, the issues go beyond left and right, liberal and conservative, Orthodox and secular. The political system as structured is finding it difficult to deliver civil liberties and democratic values in a way that is perceived as legitimate by all sectors of society.

The immediate impetus for the controversies swirling around Beinisch relates to a slew of proposed legislative initiatives in the Knesset that – taken together – has unnerved many who are not considered garden-variety leftists.

The first involves how three soon-to-be open seats on the Supreme Court, including Beinisch's own when she retires in February, will be filled. Another would limit the legal standing of foreign pressure groups before the court; there is also a bill that would restrict the ability of European governments to bankroll proxy groups staffed by secular left-wingers and which EU countries have used to sway Israeli policies via the court; still another would rescind a relatively recent eligibility requirement that prevents a justice from being appointed president of the court unless he is within three years of the mandatory retirement age of 70. This backtracking seems tailored made for Justice Asher Grunis who is five weeks short of meeting the current requirement. Some on the right would be glad if Grunis, a proponent of judicial restraint became the court's next president.

Yet another bill would have dramatically increased the fines a mostly left-leaning media would have to pay for publishing patently false stories about a person or group. Like the existing libel law, compensation would be allowed even if damage isn’t proven.

Arguably the most important bill, however, in the view of veteran court observer Evelyn Gordon is one to let the Knesset Constitution Committee vet Supreme Court candidates, "like every other democracy in the world does."

More is involved here than a rightist push back against a perennially assertive leftist institution. At its most raw, this is a power play pitting irresponsible liberal elites against no less irresponsible illiberal counter-elites. It reflects a sense that Israelis are questioning the legitimacy – the worthiness – of their political system. It's been long in coming. As Israel has become less secular and more inward looking, especially since 1977 when the Labor Party lost its lock hold on the state, the court has evolved into the ultimate bastion not just of liberal values but for the exercise of left-wing political power.

The problem therefore is not that the court does not reflect the passions of the majority – that is how high courts in representative democracies are intended to function – but in the way the court has frittered away its political legitimacy. In short, the court has permitted its natural mandate the protection of democratic values, to be undermined by relentlessly enabling leftist interest groups to co-opt and, in the public's mind's eye, dominate its agenda.

Israel's 16-member Supreme Court (unlike Beinisch most justices are quite anonymous) typically operates in panels of three justices, primarily hearing appeals from the lower courts. More potently, sitting as the High Court of Justice (known as Bagatz) and operating as a court of first instance, not an appellate court, the justices exercise judicial review over Knesset and governmental authorities applying Israel's still-in-the-making "constitution." The court's ethos established by former Chief Justice Aharon Barak that "everything is justiciable" infuriates not only right-wingers and not only because the court generally leans Left. Judicial review is a worthwhile principle whose legitimacy is best protected when exercised with comparative restraint and when judges are not perceived as blatantly partisan. Neither is true in Israel.

In contrast to the US Supreme Court which hears fewer than 100 cases annually, Israel's High Court of Justice handles over a thousand petitions each year. There is essentially no need to establish legal standing in order to bring a case, a peculiarity exploited by EU-funded pressure groups that aim to thwart government policies. In this way, the court has lost any appearance of standing above the fray.
The court's critics complain that it is comprised mostly of like-minded types: politically, socially, academically and religiously. Gordon noted that one study found that minority opinions were handed down in only three percent of all Israeli Supreme Court cases from 1948-1994 compared to about 60% in the United States. Not only are the justices homogenous, they basically replicate themselves through a nine-member Judges Selection Committee that is chaired by the Minister of Justice (who in the current instance happens not to be a Knesset member) and is comprised of one cabinet member, three sitting justices (including President Beinisch), two Bar Association delegates and two Knesset members.

Indeed, yet another contentious bill under Knesset consideration would require Bar Association representatives to be chosen in a manner that would reflect rank-and-file sentiment instead of its top echelon. The current selection process has meant that candidates who do not neatly fit the mold – Prof. Ruth Gavison for instance – do not stand a chance of becoming justices on the grounds that they have an "agenda."

Liberals counter that in Israel's fractious society, where the Knesset frequently shirks its responsibilities on such matters as protecting religious pluralism, civil liberties, and providing a legal umbrella for the Palestinian Arabs in Judea and Samaria, the court has no choice but to fill the moral and legal vacuum. The court, they say, has become the last bastion for democratic values of tolerance and respect for minority rights. Pure majority rule, they say, could well result in a fundamentally intolerant outcome. And giving politicians a greater role in vetting justices put forth by the selection committee would destroy this albeit imperfect division of powers.

Furthermore, the court's defenders point out, on genuine national security issues the justices rarely intervene and when they do tend to back the government.

Where does all this leave classical liberals in the Jabotinsky mold who are unhappy with the court's overreaching and its codependent relationship with foreign funded leftist pressure groups? At least some of them would rather accept a flawed hyperactive court than a runaway populist Knesset.

The Likud's Dan Meridor, for instance, has stridently supported judicial prerogatives against political criticism of the judiciary which, he pointed out, originated not in Likud but during the tenure of Daniel Friedmann as Justice Minister in Ehud Olmert's Kadima government. Benny Begin, another member of the inner cabinet, referred to the Knesset majority's effort to hamstring the court as "political gluttony" and called on them to show restraint. And even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who allowed the issue to fester, ultimately announced that he sided with Meridor and Begin against opponents of the court within his own party and beyond.

Netanyahu made the right call. Israelis can't convincingly disparage pure democracy in the Arab world – as it catapults one Islamist party to power after another – as being inimical to authentic democratic values while carrying the banner of majority rule "no matter what" in Israel. Indeed, given the machinations of the Knesset, there is today no majority to block separate sidewalks and buses for men and women or prevent women from being marginalized in the IDF by religious obscurantists. It is questionable whether there would be a Knesset majority to stand behind Education Minister's Gideon Sa’ar's decision to forbid separate and unequal elementary schools for Ethiopians in Petah Tikva or to overturn the segregation of Sephardi ultra-Orthodox girls from their Hassidic classmates in Emmanuel. And the list goes on.

As in most democracies, tolerance, pluralism and respect for minority rights can't always be left to "the people" or, exclusively, to their elected officials.
Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, noted that "Scarcely any political question arises in the United States that is not resolved, sooner or later, into a judicial question." Similarly in Israel, the issue is not that the court is called upon to make tough and controversial decisions but that it is politically tone deaf in going about its work. If Israel's Supreme Court is to restore badly needed legitimacy --like its critics -- it too must abjure political gluttony. The country's judicial elites and their supporters need to internalize rather than delegitimize pervasive criticism.

Ultimately, however, Israel's High Court can only be safely revamped not salami-style by the Knesset but as part of an overall reform of the political system.


Tuesday, November 29, 2011


From Bucharest to Jerusalem

The cabinet of Romania headed by Prime Minister Emil Boc came to Jerusalem on November 24 to hold a joint session with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government. Boc spoke eloquently of the two countries' common security concerns and shared views on peace and security. In February 2011 Poland's cabinet held a similar joint meeting in Jerusalem – a further indication of the close ties between post-Communist East Europe and the Jewish state.

Still, Romania is a unique case. Firstly, Israel and Romania have had continuous diplomatic relations since 1948.

Whatever the other sins of the country's Communist ruler Nicolae Ceausescu, who reveled in a cult of personality along with his wife Elena, Romania did not join other Soviet satellites, Arab and so-called non-aligned nations in their efforts to isolate Israel. If anything, Ceausescu -- who came to power in 1965 and met his bitter end in 1989 -- heightened diplomatic ties and even established air and sea links with Israel. That this decision was coordinated with the Kremlin and had ulterior motives does not detract from its significance, according to Israel's former ambassador to Romania, Yosef Govrin. To complicate the picture, Bucharest had recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1974 and provided it with training and logistical support.

In recent years, Romania, with its population of 22 million (mostly Eastern Orthodox) and an EU member since 2007, seems to have moved even closer toward Israel. In July 2011, Netanyahu became the first Israeli leader to visit Bucharest since Ceausescu's fall. Security cooperation between Jerusalem and Bucharest came under scrutiny in July 2010 when an IDF helicopter practicing flying over unfamiliar, steep terrain (not unlike Iran) crashed in thick fog into a Carpathian mountain ravine killing six IDF and one Romania soldiers.

Romania is also distinguished by the fact that alone among East European countries during the Soviet period, it did not engage in state-sponsored anti-Israelism or anti-Semitism. Its Jews were allowed to openly study their heritage and (for a price) to make aliya. "Romania never voted in the U.N. for equating 'Zionism with Racism' nor for negating Israel's participation in the General Assembly, as did other Soviet satellites," said Govrin. The 400,000 Israelis of Romanian heritage also contribute to a sense of mutual affinity.

The country has had an outsized part on the international stage dating back to the enlightened role played by Nicolae Titulescu (1882-1941) at the League of Nations, according to historian Rafi Vago of Tel Aviv University. It had sought to bridge East and West and to broker an Arab-Israel peace. Well-intentioned or not, Ceausescu helped convince Israel's Labor Party leaders that Yasir Arafat had the capacity to moderate his views. In this sense, Ceausescu helped pave the way for the ill-fated Madrid Conference (1991) and in the (1993) Oslo debacle. More constructively, he helped encourage Egypt's Anwar Sadat (1977) to make peace with Menachem Begin. Then as now, Romania steadfastly opposed an imposed solution preferring direct negotiations between the parties.

Bucharest's backing for Israel remains adroitly modulated. In a U.S.-vetoed Security Council resolution in 2004 condemning Israel for targeting Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin, Romania joined other EU countries in abstaining. In November's UNESCO vote in favor of full membership for "Palestine," Romania abstained (after having cast a negative vote in a preliminary round of voting). With less gusto than some other EU countries, Romania continues to help stoke Iran's economy even as it takes criticism for being a jumping off point for Iranian-run global narcotics being moved to Western Europe.

On balance, however, Romania is tallied among Israel's allies. Its opposition to a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood within the EU favorably counters erstwhile friends like Denmark and Sweden who exhibit scant patience for Israeli diplomatic and security concerns. Romanian-Israeli bilateral relations have progressively improved. In January 2001, at the start of the second intifada, the two countries signed a free trade agreement. Annual commerce in 2010 stood at $428 million though ties go far deeper as Israeli investment in Romania – not all of it trouble-free -- reportedly runs at $3 billion.

Part of what motivates Romania's desire for closer relations with Israel today is its long failure under Ceausescu to come to grips with the Holocaust. "During World War II no country except Germany was involved on such a scale in the massacre of its Jews as was Romania," according to Walter Laqueur's Holocaust Encyclopedia. Between 1941 and 1945 under the fascist Iron Guard rule of General Ion Antonescu Jews in many parts of the country were savagely persecuted. Of the 757,000 Jews who lived there in 1930 -- 4.5% of the population -- some 420,000 was killed (not counting the multitudes murdered in territory ceded to the Soviets as part of the Nazi-Communist Pact). Many other thousands were conscripted into forced labor battalions.

Now, there is a remnant community, mostly elderly, of between 6,000-12,000 souls; of whom fewer than a thousand are under the age of 25. Then again, the head of the community Aurel Vainer sits in the Romanian parliament representing the Jewish minority and a modern Jewish Community Center serves the population concentrated in the capital. In fact, the community is presently marking the 130th anniversary of Romania's Zionist movement.

Despite a strong residue of anti-Semitism still prevalent scholars familiar with the country tend to agree that the current political leadership – including President Traian Basescu -- is doing a mostly satisfactory job to dampen that oldest of hatreds. Indeed, the government helps fund the Elie Wiesel National Institute for Studying the Holocaust in Romania and is cooperating with Israel in training Romanian teachers in Holocaust education. While in Jerusalem, Boc and his ministers also visited Yad Vashem. All this, said Vago, reflected the regime's way of grappling with the country's sordid history during the Shoah.

Beyond assuaging its historical conscience and maintaining a Ceausescu legacy that it can be singularly proud of, Romania derives other benefits from its relations with Israel. Though in the EU, Romania leans more toward Washington than Brussels (it is not yet part of the Euro currency zone). It has signed a deal with Washington to base an array of interceptor missiles intended to protect Europe from Iran. Bucharest not unreasonably hopes that its ties with Jerusalem abet its credentials on Capitol Hill. On a purely practical level, thousands of Romanian workers have found employment in Israel doing mostly construction.

As distinct from Israel's fair-weather friends in Western Europe, Romania like Poland and other East European nations share a sense of responsibility for the decimation of their Jewish communities; tend to be pro-American; reject the anti-Zionist legacy of the Soviet empire and, tellingly, lack a significant Muslim population (66,000 in Romania). Moreover, the local media is less swept up in anti-Israelism so public opinion is less poisoned against the Jewish state.

None of this should be taken for granted, as Ambassador Mark Sofer, a former deputy director-general of Israel's Foreign Ministry responsible for Central Europe and Eurasia, told scholar Manfred Gerstenfeld of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs: "The goodwill exists on both sides and it is up to us all to capitalize on it.”

Monday, November 21, 2011

A New Book About Abraham Stern and Lehi's campaign against Britain

Terror Out of Zion

There is no love lost between the British Foreign Office and Israel. London's consideration for Israel's politico-security interests seems ever more limited. In a report to parliament earlier this month Foreign Minister William Hague condemned Israel for building in Jerusalem, being in the West Bank and for treating Hamas-controlled Gaza like the enemy it is. His only mention of Hamas was to blame Israel for the Islamist group's obduracy. Meantime, Britain's ambassador in Tel Aviv Matthew Gould, who has tried to put the best possible face on his government's harsh line, recently warned the Knesset not to pass legislation that would constrain London from funding pressure groups such as Peace Now as a way of influencing Israeli policies.

A long list of factors helps explain official Britain's less than fraternal attitude toward the Jewish state, but no inventory would be complete without reference to the bad blood left by the legacy of the Mandate and particularly the violent struggle waged against British rule by the pre-State underground Lehi (Freedom Fighters for Israel or Stern Group) and Irgun. Nations have interests; they also have long memories.

Now, a new book by Zev Golan, Stern: the Man and His Gang, brings into fresh focus the nasty fight waged by the Lehi against British policymakers and security personnel. Lehi fought Britain beginning in 1940, against the wishes of the Zionist establishment and the dissident Jabotinsky movement which supported Britain's war effort against Nazi Germany. "In this war, it is clear we want England to win, regardless of all her crimes against Zionism; she is decidedly the lesser of two evils," said Ze'ev Jabotinsky. Not so for Abraham Stern and his FFI followers who broke with the Irgun because he did not want the Jewish underground reporting to Jabotinsky or any political overlord.

Golan's sympathetic narrative, of what was an extremist and fringe movement that never numbered more than 900 members, begins with Stern's arrival in Palestine (1926). It concisely covers his student life at Hebrew University; love affair with his future wife; developing commitment to Jewish observance, and break with the Haganah over its policy of "restraint" in the face of murderous Arab riots against the Yishuv as well as Britain's breach -- more than ever in the 1939 White paper -- of its League of Nations commitment to foster a Jewish homeland.

Golan's book comes precisely 65 years after the FFI's bloody November 1946 offensive that claimed a score of mostly British lives. Take for example November 17 when Lehi operatives detonated a mine that killed three policemen, one airman and wounded several others. The next day's Palestine Post reported that the victims had been returning from a night at the cinema when their truck was blown up. In the course of the month, Lehi gunmen sabotaged rail lines, shot at trains, blew up military vehicles, destroyed international telegraph lines, attacked police stations, robbed Barclays Bank in Tel Aviv and set off an explosion at a British military base.

British authorities retaliated with a heavy hand while renegade British soldiers ran riot shooting and assaulting Jewish passerby and even murdering a Jewish constable. Zionist officialdom condemned the Sternists as terrorist "gangs" and called for their "liquidation," according to a November 18, 1946 JTA dispatch from Tel Aviv.

While the Stern Group's tactics were clear and its motivations comprehensible, it is debatable whether Stern had a rational strategy. He sent overtures to German intelligence in Beirut in the naive hope that Berlin would permit Europe's Jews to leave for Eretz Israel in return for Lehi's continued war against England. He further assumed England could not afford to fight in Palestine while it waged a war for its survival when in fact it had little alternative but to hunker down. And after World War Two, the group's strategy unwisely sought to align the Zionists with Stalin's "anti-imperialistic" Soviet Union.

As Golan tells it, Stern's "Revolutionary Zionism" did not dwell on the persecution of the individual Jew – not even by the Nazis – because Lehi's struggle was for the militant liberation of the homeland and political redemption of the Jewish people in its entirety. Stern could not have known details of Hitler's plan for the total annihilation of European Jewry (which had not been systematized until January 1942 at the Wannsee Conference), yet he knew that the Jews' plight was hanging by a thread. And still he pursued his campaign to eject the British from Palestine as if it "had nothing to do with the Holocaust."

Stern's bombastic vision was for a Greater Israel (from the Nile to the Euphrates!) whose legitimacy would be grounded in having been conquered by force. This Israel would nevertheless take neutral and pragmatic positions in its foreign relations. As for the Arab population, it would be "exchanged" -- presumably for Jews in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Stern was hunted down and executed in Tel Aviv by British security men in 1942. Thereafter, FFI's leadership was assumed by the more methodical Yitzhak Shamir (later to become Israel's prime minister) who undertook its painstaking renewal. He ordered the November 1944 assassination of Lord Moyne, the top British official in the Middle East responsible for keeping the doors to Palestine closed to Jews fleeing Hitler. And in mid-1948, with Shamir's approval, Lehi also assassinated UN envoy Count Folke Bernadotte who had promoted a scheme to neutralize the 1947 Partition Plan which had codified the creation of Israel.

The Lehi leadership ran the political gamut from old-line socialist to hard line nationalists. In common, they believed that a small vanguard group could achieve the liberation of the entire Jewish people. "It is permitted to liberate a people even against its will, or against the will of the majority," Shamir would say many years later.

In practice, Zionist unity did not seem to be a paramount value for Stern and the FFI. "The Sternists rejected the idea of obeisance to Jewish leaders not committed to independence in the name of unity," according to Golan. Only during the War of Independence would the Sternists be incorporated into the IDF. After the war, FFI's bickering leaders unsuccessfully sought to create a political platform; Shamir and several others eventually aligned with the Likud.

Golan provides capsule biographies of other key Lehi figures – whom he calls "people of principles" – including Nathan Yalin-Mor, the movement's top propagandist and Israel Eldad, its foremost theoretician. This workmanlike book is neither a hagiography nor a critical treatment of Stern and his movement. The author, who directs the Center for Public Policy at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies and has written books on history, philosophy and economics, has instead provided us with a narrative told from the unique perspectives of former Lehi fighters (including Shamir and Eldad) as well as Stern's brother and widow, all of whom he interviewed.

As for all the bad blood engendered by their anti-British struggle, Golan insists that Lehi for the most part – and certainly before 1947 -- did not authorize attacks against British civilians who were not "official" representatives of the regime. Yes, its credo was "terror," Golan argued, but unlike today's Palestinian Arab terror groups Lehi's targets were not primarily innocent civilians.

Stern was a maximalist who maintained that even Jabotinsky was insufficiently committed to Jewish independence. Today, on the radical fringes of Israel's extreme right, there are those who reject loyalty to the state and IDF on the grounds that the nation's leaders are insufficiently committed to the Land and Torah of Israel. Would Stern – who at age 35, six years before the state came into being, sacrificed his life – have rejected such fanaticism on the grounds that it jeopardizes the Third Commonwealth? We will never know.

Monday, November 14, 2011

My Rather Civilized Conversation with Larry Derfner About Iran


Balfour & Weizmann Remembered

In November the Arabs Said 'No'

There are no uneventful months in the tortured history of the Arab-Israel conflict. November is no exception. It was on November 2, 1917 that Chaim Weizmann won the backing of the British government for "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people" famously codified by Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour (1848-1930) in his letter to Lord Rothschild, titular head of the British Jewish community, as the Balfour Declaration. And as if to bookend the month, November 29th will mark the 64th anniversary of the UN General Assembly's adoption of the 1947 Partition Plan: the two-state solution that was recklessly spurned by the Arabs; a rebuff that has embodied Arab rejection of a Jewish homeland ever since.

On November 9th the Israel Britain and Commonwealth Association held a gala anniversary dinner in Tel Aviv to mark Balfour's pronouncement. Guests included Britain's ambassador to Israel, the EU head of delegation and ambassadors from several commonwealth countries (including those who reflexively vote against Jerusalem at the U.N.). The Israeli government does not make too much of the occasion though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made passing reference to the Balfour Declaration in his September 2011 remarks to the UN General Assembly and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon did address the Tel Aviv banquet.

For its part, Hamas makes it a point to issue an annual denunciation of the declaration accompanied this year by a blood-curdling montage. Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, the official daily newspaper of the Palestinian Authority, routinely condemns Balfour claiming his declaration granted rights to "those who had no connection" to the land – meaning the Jewish people.

Chaim Weizmann (1874-1952), then a distinguished chemist living in London, was instrumental in fashioning the Zionist-British alliance that resulted in the declaration. Fittingly, it was in November 60 years ago that Weizmann was re-elected to the presidency of Israel despite failing health. In fact, both Weizmann's 59th yahrzeit and the 137th anniversary of his birth are also commemorated this month.

Weizmann's achievement was never preordained, as Jonathan Schneer, by no means a Zionist sympathizer, notes in his The Balfour Declaration. The early Zionist leader had to overcome influential assimilationists Jews, including Edwin Montagu, who strenuously lobbied their government against cooperating with the Zionists, as well as Grand Sharif Hussein of Mecca and his sons the emirs Abdullah and Feisal who lobbied through British proxies. (The family ultimately lost control of Arabia to the Saudis.)

While the Palestinian Arabs had scarcely any unique identity at the time, Arab intellectuals in Syria pressured against Zionism on the grounds that Palestine was an integral part of Syria and could therefore not be delinked from Britain's magnanimous territorial bequest to the Arabs.

At the end of the day Britain, the preeminent power during and in the aftermath of World War One (1914–1918), promised the Jews a sliver of the Middle East, while the Arabs would get everything else. Even these commitments to the Jews and Arabs would have come to naught had secret talks conducted between Britain and the Ottoman Empire led to a separate peace, according to Schneer.

After World War I, both the Paris Peace Conference (1919) and the San Remo Conference (1920) ratified Britain's mandate for Palestine. France's presence in Syria notwithstanding, Britain's role assured that both Arabs and Jews would be on their way to self-determination. Balfour's expectation was that the Arabs would be willing to share a small sliver of the vast Mideast landscape with the Jews. Indeed, on March 3, 1919 Faisal encouragingly wrote Zionist leader Felix Frankfurter: "We Arabs, especially the educated among us look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement."

Tragically, pragmatists like Faisal did not carry the day. Instead, anti-Zionist Arab riots instigated by the fanatical Husseini clan were launched in 1920. London immediately went wobbly and embarked on a series of moves that first backtracked and then reversed its Balfour Declaration commitments.

To assuage Arab demands, Britain brought Abdullah from Arabia to Eastern Palestine in November 1920. This immense area – today's Jordan – comprising four-fifths of the Palestine mandate promised to the Jews by Balfour was ceded to the Arabs by 1921. Put another way, 80 percent of Palestine as defined by the League of Nations was lopped off leaving the Jews only the area between the Jordan River and Mediterranean.

In 1937, in response to intensified Arab violence, Britain's Peel Commission called for further splitting the remaining 20% of Palestine to create an additional Arab state within what was supposed to be Jewish Palestine. The Zionists reluctantly acquiesced; the Arabs said no. By 1939, Neville Chamberlain had completely reneged on the Balfour Declaration and blocked Jewish immigration to Palestine just as the Nazi killing machine was going into lethal gear.

None of this can be blamed on Balfour who deserves to be remembered as a friend of the Jews. Statesmen do not act purely out of altruism and he like other British politicians were partly motivated by an exaggerated sense of Zionist influence in the international arena which they hoped to exploit for the war effort. At the same time, Balfour believed that Christian anti-Semitism had been a "disgrace" and wanted to make amends by providing the Jews with a "small notch" of territory, according to his biographer R.J.Q. Adams. In 1925, he famously helped dedicate the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus. Like Theodor Herzl, Balfour may have assumed that British Jews would either thoroughly assimilate or choose to live in the Jewish homeland.

Ninety-four years after Balfour's declaration the right of the Jewish people to re-establish their national homeland is still rejected by even Palestinian Arab "moderates." The unremitting threat of renewed violence remains the Arabs' default position. Emboldened by the Gilad Schalit deal, Arab violence in Judea, Samaria and Gaza has seen an upswing. Cairo's renewed efforts to bring Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal and Fatah chief Mahmoud Abbas together will perforce necessitate more militancy from Fatah rather than greater flexibility from Hamas. In the words of Mahmoud Zahhar, the notion that Hamas will ever make peace with Israel is "insane."

Sixty-four years after Palestinian Arabs rejected the partition plan, Abbas claims to be having second thoughts. Yet instead of negotiating with the Jewish state he is forging ahead at the UN for unilateral statehood without making peace with Israel.

Sadly, Abba Eban's 1973 quip that the Arabs "never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity" holds stubbornly true. To be fair, time does not stand completely still. Abbas-like moderates are operating only 64 years behind real time though for the "militants" of Hamas it's perpetually 1917.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Finally, A Palestinian 'Peace Now?'


What if a group of youthful Palestinian activists fed up with Hamas and Fatah for leading the Palestinian Arabs -- over and over again -- down bloody, self-defeating dead ends was to emerge as a new political and social force? We might think of them as a sort of Palestinian "Peace Now."

Imagine a Palestinian movement revolted by militarism, religious fanaticism, chauvinism and bloodlust; exasperated with Ramallah-based Fatah chief Mahmoud Abbas for placing a wreath on Yasir Arafat`s grave – of all places -- to mark the sacrifice festival of Eid al-Adha and challenging his decision to spend lavishly on violent Palestinian inmates released from Israeli prisons in the Gilad Schalit exchange. Imagine their necessarily more cautious compatriots in Gaza feeling put-off by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh for telling Eid al-Adha worshippers that "sacrifices are sometimes not only [for] sheep [but as] a way in which we praise God."

Could not a Palestinian "Peace Now" emerge out of recognition that neither depraved violence nor automatic UN majorities has brought the Palestinians what they want? If anything, the Palestinians' effortless victories at UNESCO with more predicted in the General Assembly seem only to stoke Palestinian frustrations. Now, Palestinian expectations for obtaining Security Council recognition for a state -- without recognizing the rights of the Jewish people to a national homeland of their own -- are set to fizzle.

Sure enough, The Washington Post recently ran a feature about an avant-garde generation of activists on the West Bank and Gaza, men and women in the 20s, not Islamists, who are disillusioned with both Fatah and Hamas and uninspired by symbolic victories at the UN. These youth were born around the time of the first intifada and entered their teens during the second intifada. The newspaper's Joel Greenberg, a veteran Israel-based advocacy journalist, came upon this "still-undefined, embryonic group of a few hundred" which Post headline writers billed as a potential "new political and social force."

Had Greenberg come upon a group of radical future Palestinian leaders ready for painful concessions to achieve reconciliation, mutual recognition and coexistence with the Jewish state? For his narrative hook, he focuses on an attractive 22-year old university student named Hurriyah Ziada who has been "active in protesting the Israeli occupation of the West Bank." We are rapidly disabused of any notion that Ziada merely wants to push Israel back to the 1949 Armistice Lines. In fact, creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza alongside Israel is for her "inadequate." She is not interested in exchanging territory for peace and certainly not in pursuing a two-state solution. Instead, her activism is directed at creating a single Muslim-majority country from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea that would be demographically boosted by the "return" of some 750,000 Palestinian refugees from the 1948 War plus millions of their descendants now living in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. As for the six million Jewish Israelis, Ziada would munificently grant this new minority in Greater Palestine "equal rights."

Instead of rolling his eyes at such warmed over Arab rejectionism, Greenberg presents Ziada's vision for the disappearance of Israel as a "human and civil rights" breakthrough something like the "American civil rights movement" and the "struggle to end apartheid in South Africa."

Why would the Washington Post attempt to sanitize the old Palestinian Arab agenda and present it as something practically progressive? Perhaps because their man in Israel so opposes a Jewish presence over the Green Line that he once served as a spokesman for Hamoked, yet another EU-funded NGO devoted to promoting Palestinian interests in the "Occupied Territories." While he served in the Israeli army (though reportedly refusing reserve duty in Lebanon), Greenberg's soft-spot for the Palestinian narrative has long permeated his reporting. He'd like to think that Arab opposition to the occupation "generally refers to bombing and shooting attacks on Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza." He adhered to this blinkered view even in 2004 when Israelis within the Green Line were daily being targeted. While no one denies that the Arabs in Judea and Samaria feel themselves "occupied," the possibility that the land itself is "disputed" has seldom been integral to Greenberg's reporting.

As for Ziada, Greenberg tells us that her father is a member of a "militant leftist faction" and her brother is a "member of Fatah's armed wing. Militant? Armed? The apple does not fall far from the tree for Ziada rules out -- albeit disingenuously – any compromise with the Zionist enterprise: “When I have kids, I don’t want them stuck in the West Bank,” Ziada declares. “I want the right to move freely. I want to go to Jerusalem, the city where I was born and to the village my family was kicked out from in 1948.”

What the 22 year-old may not recollect is that before the suicide bombers of the second intifada West Bank and Gaza motorists could drive unimpeded throughout Israel. If, as she claims, she was born within the Jerusalem municipality to parents who were legal residents chances are she would have a blue Israeli ID cards and could move freely about the country. She told Greenberg that her family had been "kicked out" of the subsequently "destroyed" village of al-Falauja (not far from the Gaza Strip). But her family might be living there still had an earlier Palestinian leadership not rejected the UN's 1947 Partition Plan for a two-state solution and, more to the point, had gunmen from al-Falauja not laid siege to neighboring Jewish communities and attacked Haganah food and water convoys delivering them aid.

Greenberg's spotlights the "wall of apathy" Ziada and her comrades in this imagined new political and social force need to overcome in agitating against Israel. The older generation is "exhausted" while her other cohorts are "alienated from established political movements." Ziada, though, is committed to "creative nonviolent action" doublespeak for violent confrontation with the IDF. "The cost of getting rid of the occupation" -- by which she means the Jewish state in its entirety -- "is far less than the cost of living under it for a long time to come.” For now Ziada appears content to build "mud houses for people whose homes" were capriciously razed by the Zionist authorities.

Truth be told, Ziada's supposedly new ideas meld perfectly with the standard Palestinian mindset. An October 2011 poll conducted by Nabil Kukali's Palestinian Center for Public Opinion found that a staggering 89.8 percent of respondents said they would rather have "no peace deal" and no "independent state" if it meant giving up "the Right of Return."

Far from uncovering a new political and social force among the Palestinians, Greenberg's story demonstrates that across the generational divide the Palestinians remain appallingly unrealistic and intransigent. The reason is all too plain: The moderates have been assassinated leaving Fatah and Hamas in-charge. Sadly, in opposing the "limited political horizons of the Palestinian leadership" Ziada and her comrades are not pushing Abbas and Haniyeh to reconcile with the Jews but toward war without end.

Monday, October 31, 2011

To Be a Jewish University Student in Britain

One way to think of British Jewry is to focus on its slow and steady decline: 270,000 souls, demographically graying; synagogue affiliation on a downward spiral; out-marriage running at between 30-50 percent. The possibility of anti-Semitism a constant with 283 verified incidents reported in the first six months of 2011. Of these 41 were categorized as "extremely violent" and 11 took place on campus. The line between despising Israel and holding Jews in contempt has been blurred beyond recognition with the Guardian and Independent leading the way and even the once respectable Times joining in.

A more nuanced take, however, would view the community as a sort of gradually dying star: moribund yet illuminated. The "strictly Orthodox" are growing in number. Culture is thriving. Next month there will be another Jewish Film Festival. Over the Christmas holidays hundreds will gather in Coventry for the 30th annual Limmud Conference, which bills itself as a "carnival of Jewish learning." Construction will soon begin on a new Jewish community center in northwest London. There are more kosher restaurants in London today than there was after World War II when the Jewish population crested at about 450,000. It is not remarkable nowadays to spot young men openly wearing kipot on the London Underground – surely a sign of a community at ease. Hundreds gather every fall at the Regent's Park Bandstand to enjoy Kletzmer music in the shadow of London's Central Mosque.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, British Jewish life can be "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." To flip through the pages of the Jewish Chronicle one could erroneously conclude that its readers are desperate for any scrap of news about anti-Semitism, mesmerized by features on the Holocaust and famished – despite a steady diet in the British press – for more critical reportage of "east Jerusalem settlements" and uprooted Palestinian olive trees.

How the fate of British Jewry will play itself out will depend greatly on its next generation of leaders -- today's university students comprising a miniscule 0.5% of the country's 1.6 million undergraduates. Their attitudes have now been mined in a comprehensive survey conducted by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, a think-tank with loose ties to the Board of Deputies of British Jewry. As one would have expected, the younger generation is mostly pessimistic about their community's future and troubled about the way current leaders are managing its affairs, according to the report.

The survey authors, David Graham and Jonathan Boyd, note that the formative experiences of today's university cohort – all born in the late 1980s and early 1990s-- encompass the July 7, 2005 London bombings (by Islamist terrorists) and Operation Cast Lead (the 2008-2009 IDF campaign to halt Hamas rocket fire from Gaza into Israel).
It is a generation that came of age in a "multi-cultural" England where Judeo-Christian values are not dominant. Britain's Muslim population stands at 2.87 million and growing; Islam is ascendant and Christianity in decline. Mohammed is most popular name for baby boys in London. On a good month, perhaps 1.7 million, mostly older worshippers attend Church of England services. The Church's hierarchy is riddled by clergy who do not believe in God.

In this milieu, and like their cohorts elsewhere in our post-modern, post-industrial, digital age being Jewish is mostly a personal lifestyle choice. With all that, the report's findings are generally encouraging. Seventy-nine percent agree that having a "religious identity" is integral to being Jewish; 95% basically embrace the idea of Jewish peoplehood. Though like many young Jews they conflate what it means to be Jewish with the Holocaust (83%) and anti-Semitism (75%).

By the time they reach university a majority will have had some formal Jewish education (though some will have been barred from attending day schools such as JFS over not being Orthodox). Nearly all will have been members of youth movements; about half arrive at university Jewishly observant, eating only kosher meat at home, for example. Remarkably, 27% are Sabbath observers. Most (59%) say their closest friends are Jewish. At the same time, of those who have had romantic relationships, just 40% have had exclusively Jewish partners. A clear majority of traditional respondents, but only a minority of progressives, agreed that it is important for Jews to marry other Jews.

Whatever their views, most Jewish students cluster (whether consciously or not) around a small number of universities mostly Leeds, Birmingham and Nottingham, Manchester, Cambridge, Oxford, and Bristol, and various London-area colleges. On campus, the majority professes to be open about their Jewishness and 72% say "supporting Israel" is integral to their Jewish identity. (Among the broader community, 80 percent feel a "commitment" to Israel.) An overwhelming majority has visited Israel and, no less important, hold predominantly positive attitudes. Eleven percent, however, is indifferent, ambivalent or negative toward the Jewish state. The key variable in attachment to Israel is level of commitment to tradition. The more observant students are the more emphatically pro-Israel.

In focus groups students found fault with the Jewish media and establishment for overemphasizing anti-Israel sentiment on campus, according to the report. Yet 42% nationwide say they have experienced anti-Semitism. And fully a third of Jewish students in London (where British Jewish life is centered) have experienced Jew-hatred. Indeed, a former head of the National Union of Students (NUS) who has a Jewish-sounding name but is not Jewish had to be escorted away from a Manchester demonstration against tuition hikes last year when louts in the audience chanted “Tory Jew scum."

This year, under different leadership, the NUS first adopted and then scrapped a range of anti-Zionist resolutions.

And last week, Mike Freer a pro-Israel Member of Parliament (yes, such a species still survives) was threatened in his London constituency offices by a Muslim crowd. While most non-Jewish university students are indifferent to Mideast issues, Jewish undergraduates prefer to keep their pro-Israel sentiments to themselves rather than risk the opprobrium of pro-Arab rabble-rousers on campus. Muslim extremists are disproportionately the perpetrators of anti-Semitic outrages.

Perhaps it is in this context -- rather than the dovish views of British Jewry generally -- that we should ponder the pathetic plan by the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) leadership to distribute both Palestinian and Israeli flags on campuses. The risible idea is to prove that Jewish students, too, support "freedom, justice and equality." It will be interesting to see whether the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) begins distributing Israeli flags to prove it has come around to supporting a two-state solution.

To be fair, when University of College London President and Provost Malcolm Grant outrageously declared that campus anti-Semitism was not a problem, the UJS called on him to "stop ignoring the harmful influence of extremists," though the former head of the Jewish student union at UCL said more plainly: "He knows this is an outright lie." In any event, it is left to unapologetically pro-Israel groups like "Stand With Us" to proactively campaign for Israel and against Palestinian Arab intransigence.

The authors of the report, David Graham and Jonathan Boyd, argue that it's time to put campus hostility toward Israel into perspective. "Anti-Semitism continues to be a significant issue on campus, but it is also subtle and complex" and on the whole, a reader might conclude, students have become inured to toxic hatred of Jews and Israel.

Boyd acknowledged that Jewish students can't articulate pro-Israel sentiments without "grief." Non-Brits might read it as quintessential British understatement, but the report takes cold comfort in finding that students are more concerned about grades, relationships and future aspirations than day-to-day anti-Semitism. The problem may be so endemic, crushing and discouraging that pondering it for too long can sap morale.

Or as Boyd argues more delicately, anti-Israel hostility "should not dominate our view, not least because over-emphasizing it appears to be affecting the Jewish identities of this young generation."

Israel Labor Party Rises as Kadima Falls

Ladies in Waiting

Being Tzipi Livni can't be easy. The Kadima Party chair and leader of the opposition knows that were elections held now – instead of 2013 when technically scheduled – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party would once again be positioned to lead a right-of-center coalition with 66 out of 120 Knesset seats. What she might be loath to acknowledge is that as her political fortunes wane the woman to watch is Labor's newly elected leader Shelly Yachimovich.

Livni will be lucky if she holds on to the Kadima leadership. That's quite a come down for someone who garnered one more seat in the 2009 elections for her party than Netanyahu did for his and who fully anticipated the government's collapse – with a little help from the Obama administration – by 2010.

The ascendant Yachimovich, age 51, began her career as an advocacy journalist focusing on the social welfare beat. She formally entered the political area in 2005 at the behest of her mentor-turned-adversary Amir Peretz. Her leadership chance came when the abrasive Ehud Barak quit Labor to establish the breakaway (and moribund) Atzmaut Party in May 2011. Polls show Yachimovich could catapult "new" Labor from its current 13 mandates to 26 easily supplanting Kadima as the official opposition party.

As a writer and politician she has campaigned against privatization and neoliberal economics though not in conventional Marxist terms but as a betrayal of "Zionist ideals" and as a form of "post-Zionism." Under her leadership Labor will emphasize domestic issues and seek to harness the diffuse energies unleashed by the summer's massive economic protest movement. She knows she'll need a long period in opposition to rehabilitate Labor and develop her own leadership capabilities. Even as she's dovish on security issues, unlike Livni she has not obsessively berated the government's handling of the Palestinian front.

If anything, Yachimovich takes flack from the hardcore left for being uncomfortable with liberal universalism. She scandalized hardliners by her refusal to demonize the settlement enterprise. "I certainly do not see the settlement project as a sin and a crime. In its time it was a completely consensual move. And it was the Labor Party that founded the settlement enterprise in the territories. That is a fact. A historical fact," she told Haaretz.

Nor does she tend to engage in gratuitous haredi-bashing. In fact, Yachimovich is easily the right's favorite woman on the left. Confirmed left-wingers for whom principle is more important than influence will likely be drawn to Zehava Gal-On, effectively the new Meretz leader.

All the while, Kadima has fretted away one third of its Knesset seats to Labor, polls show. Ariel Sharon intended Kadima to be pragmatic, but Livni has ineptly maneuvered it further to the left only to discover that in any "left-left" contest the more authentic Yachimovich comes out ahead. For instance, Livni failed to capitalize on the summer's economic protest movement. Visiting a Tel Aviv tent encampment, she told protesters – not incorrectly – that their real goal should be to establish more rational budgetary priorities. Livni claimed she'd parse national spending more equitably than Netanyahu and be less beholden to special interests. Yet without reforming the electoral system – a structural reform that would necessitate collaboration between Likud, Labor, Yisrael Beitenu and Kadima – no government has much of a chance of passing a budget not weighed down by pork barrel politics. If truth be told, Livni squandered an opportunity at electoral reform when she refused to partner with Netanyahu and Lieberman.

For Livni, foreign policy does not stop at the water's edge. She recently told a British audience that the Netanyahu government was chiefly responsible for failing to inveigle Mahmoud Abbas back to the negotiating table. Her visit to London had been intended to be the first test of Britain's amended universal jurisdiction law which has seen anti-Zionist Jews collaborating with the pro-Arab lobby in waging lawfare -- threatening the arrest of visiting Israeli officials on contrived "war crimes" charges. But Livni's efforts fizzled when it was revealed that the Foreign Office had simply granted her special diplomatic immunity.

Her now legendary indecisiveness – as foreign minister she repeatedly hesitated to call for Olmert's resignation though he was paralyzed by scandal and discredited for his handling of the Second Lebanon War – was again on display this week. With Gilad Schalit home and a fresh spike in Palestinian violence already being felt, Livni revealed to Yediot Aharonot that she had been opposed the deal. Why had she kept silent for two weeks after the Cabinet voted to move forward? Because she didn't want to "turn this matter into a political issue," was her lame explanation. Yachimovich – who openly supported the deal – took Livni to task for sitting out the debate.
Now, Livni's best advice to Netanyahu's "extreme right wing government" is to add fuel to the fire: release 550 Fatah terrorists to bolster Abbas's popularity on the Palestinian street. She further grumbles that Netanyahu has been too tough on Turkey but too soft on Egypt.

Prospects are fair that she will not lead Kadima in the next elections. Party founder Ariel Sharon could square Kadima's intrinsic ideological contradictions and squash vicious personality conflicts by force of his bulldozer personality. Olmert held the party together with Machiavellian maneuvering. Livni just does not have the right stuff.

Her most immediate threat comes from Saul Mofaz, Kadima's number two, who will try to oust her in party primaries to take place by early 2012. His penchant for double-speak – "the Schalit deal sets a dangerous precedent" and I support it – and lack of popularity foretells that he will not be the one to salvage Kadima's fortunes.
Of course, politically Netanyahu could yet falter if, for instance, the Schalit deal – still to be concluded – realizes its critics' worst nightmares. Still, any real challenge to his leadership will probably come from security hawks such as the Likud's Moshe Ya'alon or Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu not from any of the ladies or gentlemen on the left.


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Conservative Judaism in America -- Where the movement's next generation of rabbis are heading

Centrist No More?

For all the theological, ritualistic and institutional differences separating Orthodoxy, Conservatism and Reform, for all their divergent approaches to revelation, halacha, decision making and politics, what outwardly distinguishes the streams in the minds of many ordinary American Jews comes down to branding: Orthodoxy is on the right; Reform on the left; and in the middle stands Conservative Judaism.

But can the movement still be thought of in those terms? A recent report conducted by the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary that examined the political views of its Generation Y rabbinical students, and those of its older alumni ordained since 1980, implies that the new crop of Conservative rabbis are unlikely to want the movement anchored in the center. At first blush, the report purports to show what one would hope to find in examining the views of those committed to the rabbinate: a solid Jewish identity and strong attachment to Israel.

On closer examination, this identity appears increasingly filtered through a universalistic perspective. And it seems as if the rabbis' support of Israel is more and more conditioned upon redefining what it means to be pro-Israel. It is hard to uphold the center when you are not in it. American Jews identify themselves as liberal (38 percent) or moderate (39%), according to the Pew Forum. In contrast, 58% of the Conservative rabbis surveyed identified themselves as liberal. The rabbinical students were even more tilted to the left with 69% calling themselves liberal. As liberals, who by definition hold an optimistic view of human nature, the rabbis would find it hard to acknowledge the zero-sum nature of the Arab-Israel conflict no matter what the Palestinians say.

To understand events in Israel, they seek out ideologically reinforcing left-oriented sources, according to the report: liberal media outlets, Facebook posts and Haaretz. This helps explain the conspicuous disconnect between how mainstream U.S. Jews and the next generation of Conservative rabbis understand the conflict. Strikingly, only 30% of JTS rabbinical students believe that the Palestinian Arabs seek "not just the disputed territories, but Israel's [ultimate] destruction." In contrast, the latest American Jewish Committee survey showed that 76% of American Jews believe that the Arab goal is not the return of the "occupied territories" but "rather the destruction of Israel."

Disappointingly, 12% of the students are "uncomfortable" with Israel being a "Jewish state." Moral relavatism comes more naturally to those of a universalistic bent. The movement's future rabbis – all of whom have spent time studying in Israel -- mostly do not see Palestinian leaders as enemies: 56% say the Palestinian side is no "more to blame" than Israel for the ongoing conflict. In stark contrast, most Israelis – regardless of their political views – simply do not believe that today's Palestinian leadership is capable of making peace with Israel.

Sure Hamas dominates Gaza and the Fatah leadership in the West Bank refused to negotiate with the Netanyahu government during a 10-month settlement freeze, nevertheless a majority of the rabbis surveyed wants – at this juncture – an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 "borders" with "land swaps" and a freeze on "expansion of settlements in the West Bank." Compare this to where most U.S. Jews stand given unremitting Palestinian intransigence -- 55% oppose a Palestinian state, an AJC poll revealed.

The rabbinical students, by a 68% margin see the "settler movement" – mind you, not just extremist among the settlers – as a "threat." Oddly, the JTS survey did not bother to ask whether the Palestinians should be required to accept Israel as a Jewish state (a position adhered to by 96% of rank and file American Jews) or whether Mahmoud Abbas should abandon his demand for the Palestinian "right of return." Still, it's not hard to discern the rabbis' political orientation: AIPAC is not liberal enough; J-Street, whose platform practically mirrors that of the Palestinian Authority, is closer to their hearts (58%), and the New Israel Fund is the absolute cat's meow (with an 80% approval rating).

The survey tells us that 72% of rabbinical students have engaged in dialogue efforts with Arabs; we read that some head to Ramallah for the opportunity to socialize with Palestinians; others take excursions with New Israel Fund-supported activists to West Bank Arab villages. The survey – for reasons we can intuit – tells us nothing about commensurate efforts to understand the "settler" mindset. Many of the student rabbis report having visited a "settlement" though it is left to our imagination under whose patronage or indeed how the study defines "settlement."

The 63-year-old Zionist enterprise is a work-in-progress and no Israeli would suggest it is beyond criticism. Thirty percent of Reform rabbinical students return to the U.S. feeling “hostile” or “indifferent” toward the Jewish state. We don't know what makes 53% of JTS rabbinical students report being "sometimes" or "often" ashamed of Israel. Is it the ultra-Orthodox stranglehold on state-controlled religious life that's alienated them? Too bad, then, that one sees so few future rabbis volunteering extensively at existing Masorti congregations in Israel.

Seminaries and professors have been unable or unwilling to provide their students with the necessary moral compass that might profitably help them navigate between worthy universalistic values and particularistic Jewish standards. By the time they get to seminary it may be too late. Most of today's rabbinical students did not attend Jewish elementary or high-schools (though they were likely to have attended Camp Ramah). The attitudes revealed in the JTS survey hammer home the need – now more than ever – for the community to find the means of providing its youth with a parochial education.

The JTS report concludes that the younger cohort of rabbinical students is "no less connected" to Israel than their elders. Yet, for too many, this connection seems compromised by the felt need to reconcile attachment to Israel with uncritically assimilated universalist ideals, and in extreme cases, with left-liberal dogma that is anti-Zionist. No amount of redefining what it means to be pro-Israel can paper over the predicament facing Conservative Judaism's future leaders: What is the place of the movement in Jewish life if not as the centrist stream embodying political and theological moderation?

Monday, October 10, 2011


Political Contrail

This month marks the 30th anniversary of an emotionally fraught and bitterly waged political confrontation between the Reagan administration and the organized Jewish community that culminated in the U.S. Senate approving, 52 to 48, an $8.5 billion sale of sophisticated airborne radar planes (AWACS) and F-15s to Saudi Arabia.

Now, the Pentagon is overseeing the phased sale -- unveiled in 2007 with nary any opposition-- to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates of warplanes, helicopters, missile defense upgrades and layers of anti-missile weaponry worth over $67 billion. The Obama administration's desire to sell Bahrain bunker busting missiles and other weapons has been criticized -- not by Israel's friends, but -- by opponents of the sheikdom's handling of internal protests.

How to explain the fact that ever since the 1981 AWACS debacle massive arms sales – including offensive systems – to Arab countries have faced no real domestic opposition?

For one, the American Jewish community simply does not have the stomach to fight such sales. For another, geostrategic circumstances have changed: Iran now poses a clear threat to both Gulf States and Israel. And finally, Israeli decision makers are broadly convinced that the Washington really is working to maintain the country's qualitative military edge.

Politically, there's no question that the AWACS battle wilted the resolve of Israel's friends to confront any U.S. administration head-on. True the Saudi ambassador may no longer enjoy unfettered access to the White House as Prince Bandar once did in the Reagan era. Then Arab lobbyists shamelessly called on senators to choose between "Begin and Reagan." But the whiff of anti-Semitism injected into that row has apparently had a long shelf-life. Even then-Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger said -- apparently with a straight face-- that criticism of Jewish lobbying efforts against the AWACS deal had taken on "an ugly tone." His cabinet colleague Alexander Haig claimed to have been worried that if the deal were blocked there would be "a dangerous potential for anti-Semitism." And then Senator Joseph Biden said he had the "feeling that American Jews are being made a scapegoat by supporters of the sale." It probably did not help that the president himself warned "other nations" not to meddle in "American foreign policy.”

In geopolitical terms, at the height of the AWACS controversy Iran had been ensnared in a devastating war with Iraq (that was to claim staggering numbers of casualties on both sides). In contrast, the Saudis today find themselves besieged by imperialistic Persian ambitions which have instigated unrest in their Eastern Province, threatened nearby Bahrain, added fuel to endemic instability in bordering Yemen and undermined Sunni interests far and wide.

It is widely understood that King Abdullah has found the Obama administration's approach to blocking Iran's drive for a nuclear weapons capability not good enough. Arms sales to Saudi Arabia send an important signal to Teheran of Washington's commitment to the kingdom, according to Stephen Schwartz, author of The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror.

Back in 1981, Jerusalem feared that its overall qualitative edge was indeed being eroded; that armed with the latest American military jets the Saudis might feel compelled to join the next Arab war against Israel, and that despite their refusal to help lead the Arab side toward peace with Israel Washington had unfairly rewarded the kingdom. At the time Israel also faced wall-to-wall international opprobrium – not least from the White House – for having destroyed Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor.

In the midst of the AWACS storm, Reagan wrote Prime Minister Menachem Begin: "You have my reassurance that America remains committed to help Israel retain its military and technological advantages." Significantly, that pledge -- discounted by some at the time as a political maneuver -- has been by-and-large kept ever since, according to Joshua Teitelbaum, a senior lecturer of Middle Eastern History at Bar-Ilan University and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.

On the other hand, it is regrettably clear that selling weapons to Saudi Arabia has had no hoped for impact on moderating its stance toward Israel. The kingdom remains in the vanguard of the 60-year-old Arab League boycott of Israel. In any event, Schwartz argued that the House of Saud, given its custodianship over Mecca and Medina, simply cannot be seen to be at odds with what passes for the Palestinian Arab consensus on Israel.

On top of deterring Iran, the U.S. military hardware bolsters the prestige of the Saudi ruling class and solidifies its power (though the regime's ultimate domestic guarantor is the National Guard – not the armed forces), said Schwartz. He argues that King Abdullah has decided to rein in Wahhabi extremists and wants the kingdom to be part of a "crescent of normality" that would extend from Kuwait to Oman.

The possibility that current comparatively moderate rulers will be replaced by extremists is a chance Washington has been willing to take -- with Israel's tacit approval. In calculating the risk-benefit ratio, the threat of Iran weighs more heavily than an extremist putsch in Riyadh, said Teitelbaum. Moreover, precisely because U.S. weapons technology is so complex American advisers necessarily play ongoing training and support roles, what the Pentagon calls "interoperability." That also means that U.S. forces can step in to use them in case of emergency.

Such assurances go only so far. What if the virulently anti-American Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz were to come to power in Riyadh? According to Schwartz he despises the U.S. and Israel no less than Iran. Nor can Israelis take comfort from events elsewhere in the region. Who, after all, would have imagined that a Turkish premier would intimate that U.S. military hardware might one day be aimed at the IDF? And while Egypt's ongoing military build-up has always been suspect in Jerusalem – after all the country has no enemies on its borders -- who today could reasonably promise that its post-Mubarak, American-supplied armed forces will not someday turn against Israel?

In this volatile situation, AIPAC has been warning that the United States security assistance, pledged at $30 billion over a 10-year period, is facing growing budgetary threats. Most of this money is spent in the United States yet America's economic woes could make it politically impossible for Washington to honor its pledge of maintaining Israel's qualitative military edge. Shouldn't this new fiscal reality be part of the decision making calculus as Washington moves ahead with arms sales to the Gulf States?

Monday, October 03, 2011


An Officer And A Professional

Last month, under the auspices of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and the Technical Command College, several hundred IDF officers – including scores of freshly minted lieutenants along with a sprinkling of top brass – packed an auditorium on the campus of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan to hear ranking commanders and scholars talk about military life as a profession. What qualities does a fine officer need to possess? Does character still play a role on the 21st century battlefield where technological prowess can be more devastating than physical dexterity? How can officers better understand the politicians they need to advise?

The United States army has its military academy at West Point; British officers are trained at Sandhurst. These are essentially military colleges that graduate cadets as junior officers complete with undergraduate degrees.

In contrast, IDF officers usually start their careers straight out of high-school as conscripted privates. The road leading to a junior commission in the Israeli military typically begins when a private is identified as having leadership potential or some other desired skill and is invited to make a further service commitment – periods vary – by enrolling in a course of less than six-months at the Haim Laskov Officer Candidate School (BAHAD 1) near Mitzpe Ramon.

Ground forces cadets pursue an area of specialization (armor, Special Forces, logistics and so on) while navy and air-force enrollees undergo their own expert training. In addition, there are a variety of other training programs for elite units within the IDF. A separate pre-recruitment selection system operates to tap high-school youths bound for elite volunteer units who may or may not become officers. Most officer cadets will anyway not make a career in the permanent army. No matter their path toward a commission, officer cadets must ultimately complete their undergraduate degrees. Those who do want to move up the ladder of command must ultimately pursue further advanced security and academic credentials. While today's officer training is more structured than in Israel's early years the Jewish state has never had the luxury of sending its officers off to years of uninterrupted study.

Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, head of the Northern Command, a plain-speaking rising military star, said the qualities he looks for in an officer are the ability to think creatively, plan meticulously, and instill morale through personal example. For

Maj.-Gen. Sami Turgeman, the Ground Forces Commander, the key is an officer's ability to execute doctrine learned in the classroom under actual field conditions. "Even when you know what needs to be done, applying it is the hard part." Good officers have to build their forces for war 365 days a year. Continuing military education is essential, Turgeman asserted, adding that he was intent on protecting the army's training budget from recently proposed austerity measures.

Prof. Christopher Coker of the London School of Economics challenged the military men and women to consider how waging war from behind computer consoles, for example sending remotely piloted aircraft (drones) on targeted killing missions, might affect their ethos as warriors. Cyber-warfare may remove a soldier from immediate danger yet they must nevertheless struggle not to allow technology to diminish their humanity. Human behavior is invariably inconsistent depending on circumstances so character-building matters. This places added demands on building esprit de corps. In Iraq's Abu-Ghraib prison, for instance, highly motivated U.S. Navy fighters refused to take part in ongoing prisoner abuse.

Officers should also know how to give advice to politicians, Prof. Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins told the assembly. There is no straightforward training for the role of strategic adviser; expertise is developed mostly through self-education. Cohen, who counseled former U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, noted that "advice is a dangerous gift even when given from the wise to the wise." Since war is a constantly evolving situation, advice-giving officers need to time after time ask – precisely because they may not get satisfactory answers – "What are we trying to do?" "What are our priorities?" "Why do we think this will succeed?" "What else is happening in the political and security environment?" and "How will we define victory?"

A professional officer needs to muster the courage to disagree with his superiors – something that, paradoxically, may be easier within the military system (especially in Israel) than when advising the political echelon. For this, a good liberal arts education and overseas experience is essential. Those who understand an organization's sub-culture (be it the White House or the Prime Minister's Office) are better positioned to sway decision makers. Courage and character come fatefully together as life-and-death decisions are made in the absence of complete information.

Meanwhile, the scope of what Israeli warriors are required to know keeps expanding though there is little time for extended educational breaks. Ideally, a good officer should study philosophy (as a means of enhancing clarity of thought) while achieving mastery over ever more complicated machines of war. Doctrine must be constantly updated and disseminated especially to reservists.

Though the IDF remains primarily a people's army, the unremitting threats the country faces has long demanded that it be professionally organized. Its officer corps – standing army and reserves – is rightly renowned for the legendary battle-cry “Acharai!” – “Follow me!” All the same, Israeli parents who send their children into the army have every right to expect that officers' decisions will be informed – less by idealistic notions of heroism – than by the skillful application of the art and science of warfare.


Thursday, September 22, 2011

Misguided Quest for Stability -- The Arab - Israel 'peace process' is mostly irrelevant to Middle East Stability

Diplomatic dogma has it that the lack of a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians contributes "dangerously" to regional instability. Still, no matter how much the international community caters to the Arabs on "Palestine" the truth is that the benefits of trading Israeli security for regional stability will prove ephemeral.

For the Mideast boils for reasons altogether unconnected to the Jewish state.
The number of Arab League member-states not riven by violence and upheaval can be counted on one hand – with fingers to spare. Misguided U.N. action on the Palestinian issue will not provide breathing space for Arab and Muslim rulers threatened at home or abroad or both. It will have no constructive impact on regional turmoil.

Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, remains a desperate place where unemployed teachers have threatened to commit suicide. Ascendant Islamists have agreed that a yet-to-be elected assembly will write the country's new constitution. Given their imprimatur the odds are low that Western-style democracy will emerge from the process.

In post-Mubarak Egypt, visiting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was reminded that the benefits of Israel-bashing go only so far. Having won the adoration of Cairo's masses, old guard Muslim Brotherhood leaders pointedly warned non-Arab Turkey against making a play for Middle East hegemony. "We welcome Turkey and we welcome Erdogan as a prominent leader, but we do not think that he or his country alone should be leading the region or drawing up its future," said Essam El-Erian, deputy leader of the Brotherhood. The Turkish leader was discouraged from visiting Gaza or Tahrir Square and his Obama-style Opera House speech was not broadcast live in Egypt. No matter who rules Egypt, Cairo will view Persia and Turkey as rivals.

In near forgotten Iraq, Sunnis and Shi'ites are still at each other's throats. Over in Syria, violence has claimed more than 2,200 lives with no end in sight. Shi'ite Teheran will stand by its client Bashar Assad come what may (though it has moderated its public backing). In contrast, Saudi Arabia has sided with the Sunni Syrian street. And Sunni Turkey has brashly hosted disparate anti-regime opposition groups. The possibility that Syria will fragment can't be ruled out. Israel is nowhere in the picture.

Lebanon's fate remains ever more precarious; its Syrian hegemon lies politically stricken while Beirut's more distant Persian overlord is riven by acrimony between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. No wonder that Hezbollah's puppet Prime Minister Najib Mikati has railed against the “unhealthy mood” within Lebanon's waning polity. Lebanon's Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai’s, Hezbollah's boot on his neck, found himself praising the Assad regime. Yet other Christian leaders have felt emboldened to challenge Hezbollah's corruption.

Israel or no Israel, instability driven largely by the absence of political legitimacy is endemic throughout the region. Take oil-rich Libya. It's anyone's guess how well the country can hold together in a hoped for post-Gaddafi era. Centrifugal tribal forces, fractious Islamists beholden to the Gulf States and comparative modernizers all vie for control. Neighboring Sudan has been partitioned yet north-south fighting along the new border continues. The situation in Yemen is no less bloody. Saudi Arabia has been trying to finesse a deal that would protect Riyadh's Sunni interests there against those of the Iranian backed Shi'ite Houthis. Can the war-ravaged country hold together? Iranian-Saudi rivalry plays itself out, too, in Bahrain. Israel is not in this equation.

Nor are Palestinian advances at the U.N. likely to secure the long-term stability of Jordan's Hashemite Kingdom. Ostensibly angered over remarks by a former Israeli aide implying that Jerusalem might promote a "Jordan is Palestine" strategy, King Abdullah last week lashed out at Israel and protested his fidelity to Palestinian statehood.

Yet the king surely knows that Israel is his bulwark, that the threats to his throne come from Jordan's Islamist opposition, from deep-seated economic woes, and the kingdom's episodically restive Palestinian Arab majority, not to mention the nightmare scenario of a Hamas takeover in the West Bank.

Speaking of Hamas, it is ironic that prospective U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood, on the PLO's terms, won't guarantee stability even within the Palestinian polity. Can anyone imagine Hamas granting Mahmoud Abbas safe passage to visit Gaza?

Irrespective of what happens on the Palestinian-Israeli track, the turmoil in the Arab world also continues to produce foreboding among the Christian, Druze, Alawite, and even Berber minorities in the region. Not to forget the Kurds whose homeland stretches across parts of Iran, Iraq and Turkey, and whose rightful case for self-determination has been oddly shunted aside by champions of the Palestinian cause.
To be gripped by the delusion that solving the "Question of Palestine" will deliver stability to the Middle East requires overlooking intrinsic regional, tribal, ethnic and religious fault-lines.

The Middle East will continue to boil no matter how much "Palestine" is empowered; no matter the extent to which Israel's security interests are denigrated; and no matter how much diplomatic capital is invested to assuage the bottomless pit of Palestinian victimization.



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