Thursday, November 08, 2012

welcome back and thoughts on the election

I’m reviving my blog to make a couple of comments about the election and because I’ll be traveling again soon, always a good time for posting.   Some of these are comments I’ve already posted on Facebook et al.   Here we go:

.        1.  I don’t buy that this is the triumph of a new, more tolerant, racially diverse America.   It looks more like the triumph of more tolerant and diverse voters who were targeted by a very well-organized campaign that had a lot of money and no other race to worry about for a long time.   There’s nothing wrong with that—it’s the same as Bush did in 2004 (and about the same margin of victory)--but I don’t think it qualifies as a major realignment.

         2.    I’m skeptical about the calls for the Republican Party to “move back to the middle.”    They have two very specific problems, with Hispanics and younger voters, that have to be addressed in a systematic way rather than by a vaguely moderate approach.   A Chris Christie or Marco Rubio, who came across as culturally conservative but tolerant/nonjudgmental about diverse lifestyles (and in Rubio’s case speaking pretty good Spanish) would make more sense than another vaguely MOR nice guy.   This also applies to Senate candidates where the GOP performance is actually more disappointing than the Presidential race.

3       3.  I think—and I’m not alone in this—that the big loser is the political system.   Anyone who paid half attention can see that the campaign was nasty, insubstantial, and frequently trivial.   For the second time in the last three cycles, it appears to have been decided more by selective turnout than a real effort to convince undecided.   This is before you even get to the issues of campaign finance reform, gerrymandering, and so forth, many of which benefit Republicans but are mostly bad for the overall system.

Politics are a little bit like sex with elections providing the metaphorical climax (one speaks of the “morning after” politically for this reason).   Afterwards at least one, and perhaps both, parties feel elated or at least relieved that it’s over.   But as in a relationship that feeling can prevent one from examining longer-term problems with the relationship that are no less important to its long-term health.   I would like to think that the 2012 election will be different.   I wouldn’t bet the ranch on it.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Travails of the "Ultra-Orthodox"

Stories have been floating around the international media about various outrages attributed to Haredim or "ultra-orthodox" Jews in Jerusalem and other cities.   These include forced segregation of men and women on buses, efforts to keep women off the sidewalk (I'm not making this up), and so forth.   Most recently, in the town of Bet Shemesh, an 8-year old girl was verbally assaulted because she wore immodest clothing.

This kind of stuff is obviously unacceptable and has been rightly condemned.   However, I am concerned that such behavior, which involves a relatively small portion of Orthodox and even Haredi Jews, is being used as an excuse for a more general anti-Haredi prejudice that I think unfortunate.   Specifically, I question how much of this behavior is really "religious" as opposed to economic and social in origin.

Israel provides draft exemptions for Haredi men who are "studying" in approved institutions.   The Government likewise provides economic subsidies for young families that become larger as they have more children.   These policies, originally designed to benefit a few hundred scholars, now benefit tens or even hundreds of thousands.

Not surprisingly, when you provide a large number of people with powerful incentives to do nothing, nothing is precisely what they will do.   (Many of the "students," like those in Italian universities of the 1970s and 1980s, appear to do relatively little studying.)   More precisely, young men who are unemployed for extended periods will tend do what young men always do in such circumstances: make babies and get into political trouble.   The particular kind of trouble they get into will of course depend on circumstances: perpetual students in the US or Western Europe tend to drift into leftist politics and (perhaps) avoid pregnancy by means of birth control or abortion, while those in the Haredi communtiy are more likely to be right-wing and have children.   But the basic phenomenon is much the same.

If Israel wishes to solve this problem, it needs to change its incentive system and begin integrating Haredim (and especially Haredi men) into the economy and, eventually, the armed forces or other national service.    A model for this is, ironically enough, provided by the US, where the equivalent populations is economically productive and generally speaking well-behaved.   (When did you ever hear of someone trying to segregate a public bus in New York?)   Arguing about religious "extremism" is understandable but beside the point.    The devil, or the yetzer ha'ra, finds work for idle hands, and it doesn't much matter if they're Jewish or not.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Israel: my last few days

My class is over and I'm using the last three days to see parts of Israel that I might otherwise miss.   Last night I headed to Jerusalem for a workshop at the Van Leer Institute on Arab and Jewish demography, not normally one of my core interests, but one of timely importance and an opportunity to improve my vocabulary.   (You can only get so far saying “a short espresso and a cheese cake with crumbs, please.”)   Today I’m headed for Ramle, once a large Arab city and now a struggling but still fascinating mix of lower- to-middle class Israelis and Arabs who chose to remain when others fled in 1948.   (There are some funny, or not-so-funny, stories about the city being confused with Ramallah, on the West Bank, which I won’t visit this time but would love to when and if things calm down).   Tomorrow, if I haven’t collapsed, I’ll head to a talk on Italian Jewish architecture which will give me a chance to meet some of the small but spirited Israeli-Italian community.   You can’t say it’s not a diverse place.
The demography workshop was in part an excuse to walk through Rehavia, where my grandparents had an apartment until my grandfather—incensed that the owner was supporting herself wholly withh is rental payments—left for a noisy, entirely inferior apartment near the Jerusalem bus station.    (The Rehavia apartment was down the block from the President’s residence, leading my grandmother, noticing the armed men pacing in front of the gate, to utter the words “Sure, security,” a remark that has become the gold standard for obvious or trivial comments in my family.)   Memories aside, the conference was interesting for its distinction between myths and realities in the demographic issue and much else about the country.   For example, while Israeli Arabs have one of the world’s highest birth rates, it has been declining—radically—for more than thirty years, and varies tremendously between region, religion, and social class.   Indeed, Israelis living on the West Bank have a birth rate that, if present trends continue, will exceed that of Arabs or anyone else in the country within the next few years.   “If present trends continue . . . ;” but of course they never do, which is one reason predictions about the region are so difficult and so risky.   One of my strongest childhood memories is looking up “Jews” and “Germany” in my grandfather’s 1912 Encyclopedia Britannica, which had stayed with us when he moved to Israel in the 1970s.   There’s still some antisemitism in Europe, the encyclopedia said, but it’s a problem of declining significance and will probably be forgotten in the next couple of decades.    My grandmother would probably have made a better prediction.
You may be wondering why there is a Van Leer Institute in Israel altogether.  Well, probably for the same reason there are conferences financed by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (Foundation), the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, the Jean Monnet Foundation and an organization named for just about every famous European Jew, or non-Jew, that you can think of.    Whatever else you can say of Israel, it’s a pretty high-profile place, and it seems to be an irresistible temptation for foreigners of all sorts to set up shop here and tell people how to do things.   In recent weeks right-wing members of the Knesset have introduced legislation to force left-leaning lobbying organizations (B’Tselem, New Israel Fund, etc.) either to stop taking foreign money, to pay punitive taxes on foreign contributions, or both.   The problem is that, if you took this logic far enough, have of the country’s intellectual life—or certainly the more critical and thoughtful part—would come grinding to a halt.   Perhaps this is what the Netanyahu Government wants, but in the end it is self-destructive, as even some conservatives are coming to see.   I would personally rather see leftist intellectuals attend a series of poorly attended conferences—there were twenty people in the audience last night, barely outnumbering the presenters—than actually get angry enough to change things.   (Think Italy in the 1970s to get an idea what I mean.)   Besides, it’s the people who read Ha’aretz and go to snooty conferences that pack restaurants and drive up real estate prices --good for the economy if not necessarily its individual components.    If present trends continue, of course.
Addendum: Just back from Ramle which was delightful . . . a mix of Jews and Arabs, a bit downscale, but tons of history and a wonderful museum that the locals are obviously proud of.   The sad part: a wall with drawers for each person killed in one of the many wars, with a book of personal memorabilia inside    A vision of the brighter, more tolerant side of Israel with a reminder of what it took to get here.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

a day (or two days) in jerusalem

There's good news and bad news about the new light rail system in Jerusalem.   The good news is that it's efficient, spotless, and at least for the time being free of charge.   The bad news is it doesn't come very often and, when it does, doesn't go most of the places you would want to get to.   Oh, and a few stones were thrown at it when it passed through an Arab area recently.

The light rail is a good metaphor for the city itself.   Many Tel Avivians avoid Jerusalem, which they regard as backward, poor, overrun by religious zealots, and generally speaking out of the Israeli mainstream.  There's something to this: much of the city is indeed slumlike, it takes a surprisingly long time to get here (the rail line stops in the suburbs and the main road hasn't been updated since the 70s), and there appears to be an informal agreement to keep women--any women--off public advertising, leading to an aggressive countercampaign.   But the city has grown enormously--there are something like a million people if one counts all the Arab areas, certainly if one reaches out to nearby Bethlehem and Ramallah--and more to the city than first meets the eye.

Part of the variety, of course, involves those very Arab areas--the Old City and surrounding suburbs--together with the remaining secular enclaves (The German Colony, parts of Rehavia, etc.)   But there is also a surprising degree of diversity among the "religious" elements, who range from secular Zionists to ordinary Haredim ("ultra-orthodox" or "black hats") to sects actively opposed to the entire Zionist enterprise.   For example, the city is the birthplace of the Shira Hadasha minyan, which retains a division between men and women but allows each of them to lead various parts of the service.   Even among the Haredim, there are divisions: many of the complaints against religious excesses (e.g., separate sidewalks for mean and women) are brought by Haredi women themselves, and a recent poll showed that a third or more of Haredim disapproved of such zealotry.

There's also just an extraordinary amount of cultural activity going on in the city, although some of it is admittedly esoteric in nature.   Today I am visiting the Museum of the Italian Jewish Community, while already this week I've passed on lectures about the attitude of European rabbis to the Land of Israel between the two world wars (Hebrew University) and the poetry of Avraham Sutzkever (Agnon Institute).  Much of this, like the city itself, does not easily fit any category: it is "Jewish" (or "Arab") in a broad sense but moves easily across boundaries and challenges easy assumptions about people and categories.

The other day I saw the movie Footnote (he'arat shulayim), which tells a story about a father and son who share positions in the Hebrew University Talmud Department--and not very much else.  Unlike many other films that I've seen, the picture neither glorifies nor demonizes the study and practice of religion, but simply presents it as another aspect of life worthy of observing and retelling.   I saw it in Tel Aviv, but it is in a sense a quintessential Jerusalem story.  We need to hear more stories like it.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

a weekend in haifa

The choice in Israel is frequently framed as Tel Aviv--modern, fast-paced, and at least superficially secular--against religious and traditional Jerusalem.   There is a third city, Haifa, many outsiders don't bother with.  Perhaps they should.

Haifa is a port city constructed on various levels, with the better off mostly residing on the upper levels and the lower and middle levels somewhat more seedy.   The city had a large Arab population before 1948, and even today has a visibly larger Arab presence than Tel Aviv or the western half of Jerusalem; it is not unusual to hear Arabic (or Russian) spoken in stores and restaurants and there is at least some social mixing between the two populations, which is rather rarer in other parts of the country.  Not surprisingly, foreigners like this tolerant aspect, so such tourists as come to Haifa tend to flock to the German Colony, a formerly Christian neighborhood that has been restored with a mixture of Arab and Jewish residents, or else to the gardens adjoining the Baha'i temple, yet another religion that began in Persia but has its world headquarters, somewhat improably, here.  

Although picturesque and dotted with hillside neighborhoods, Haifa is also the most industrial of Israeli cities and has housing prices barely half that of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, which somewhat gives the lie to the idea that wealth creates tolerance.   Rather, the more relaxed nature of the city appears to owe more to who lives here--an electic mix of mostly European (including many Russian) Jews and frequently Christian or Druze Arabs, most with deep roots in the area--and who doesn't: there are relatively few extremists on either side and the refugee element, which so colors relationships in the West Bank and Gaza, is largely absent here.   Interestingly, the nearby city of Akko (Acre, Akka), while also having a mixed population, appears to attract more political stridency: the town was dotted with Islamic wall posters and had more of the feeling of a conquered Arab city than an authentic melange.

Haifa is at once the least and most American of Israeli cities.  There's a good bit less English here than in the middle of the country and, allowing for the occasional cruise ship, fewer foreigners overall.   But it also has an American-like, spread out feeling--a car seems more important than in other parts of the country--and is the undisputed leader in shopping malls.   Aside from the infamous Grand Canyon (a play on "Kanyon" or shopping center in Hebrew), there are a series of malls along the highway north to the Krayot (suburbs), Akko, and Nahariya, all with American-sounding names like Gulf Center (Lev Hamifratz), Gulf Approaches (Hutzot Mamifratz), and Gulf Springs (Ein Hamifratz) and all exceptionally ugly, at least from the outside.  A burgeoning protest against offshore gas exploration in the area--"Put the gas back in the water," one sign read--gave a further American feeling, as did the obvious contradiction between expressions of environmental concern and the long lines in local parking lots.  Still, it was nice to be in a place where the biggest story wasn't ethnic or religious tension, but plain old self-centered politics.   Maybe the rest of the country should spend more time here.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

israel iii: some thoughts on longer-term themes

I wrote previously of what I see as the biggest issue in Israel today: not the Palestinians, the religious-secular division, or even economic inequality--although these are all important--but the failure of the country's political and social institutions to keep pace with present-day reality.   Indeed, all of the other issues are to a degree parasitic on this broader failure.   I would like to develop this theme further.

One of the things that strikes you in Israel is the disconnect between the country's impressive people and its rather less impressive public debate.  The country had, in one accounting period, more high-tech startups than the entire EU combined.   The level of culture, even allowing for some rather dismal TV programming, is generally high.   Israel is astonishingly diverse and, with some obvious exceptions, surprisingly tolerant\; individual Arabs, in a restaurant or public place, attract virtually no attention, and even the much heralded split between religious and secular is a matter of degree rather than kind.

So why does the country always seem to be in trouble?  Leaving aside plainly simplistic answers--Jews are too contentious to run their own state, everyone hates us anyway, etc.--I think there are three basic reasons, each of which boils down to an institution inherited from the early days of statehood that has lost, or is in the process of losing, much of its original relevance.   To wit:

1.  The Army.--Everyone agrees that Israel needs a strong army.   But does it need to dominate the country in quite the way that it does?   It is not just a question of the absurdly large number of people in uniform at any given time (see previous post).  It is a question of a formative experience that colors perceptions of every conceivable problem and the choice of solutions.   A country that has 500+ combat planes will necessarily think that it can deal with any problem (Gaza, Iran, etc.) by launching an air strike.  A country close to half of whose political leaders have been former generals--and the percentage gets higher not lower with the passage of time--will inevitably have difficulty achieving true democracy.   The groups that are excluded from political power (Arabs, haredim, to a large degree women) are precisely those who are excluded from the army or its higher ranks.   When Ben Gurion was prime minister and defense minister he typically worked out of the latter's office in Tel Aviv rather than the former's in Jerusalem: it's hard to think of another country in which this would happen.

2.  The Predominance of the Coastal Elite--The division in Israel used to be Jews against Arabs, ashkenazim against sephardim, religious against secular.  Increasingly it is Tel Aviv--or a certain image of Tel Aviv--against everyone else.  Talk of tzedek hevrati (social justice) cannot mask the fact that virtually all of the country's wealth is controlled by a relatively small group of people, heavily European in origin, primarily secular or at least non-Haredi in orientation, and almost exclusively Jewish,  overwhelmingly concentrated
in Tel Aviv or small, mini-Tel Avivs in Jerusalem, Haifa, and other cities. But, you will argue, it is precisely the "liberals" in Tel Aviv who want peace and the others (religious, Eastern etc.) who are opposed to it.    Think again.  Blaming the poor and religious for the country's problems is like blaming the hard hats and rural southerners for the onset of the Vietnam War.  People who are excluded from economic and political power
will always take refuge in excessive patriotism, osentatious spirituality, and so forth.    The common wisdom is that social issues in Israel cannot be addressed until "the situation" (i.e., the Arab-Israeli crisis) is resolved. I would argue the opposite: the situation will never be resolved until everyone inside the country finds a common language with which to address it.
3.  The Ideology of a "Jewish State"--Israel was created to be a Jewish State and (not coincidentally) to provide a safe homeland for Jews after centuries of persecution.  To a remarkable degree that goal has been accomplished.  In two generations the country has amassed the largest number of Jews in the world; in another decade or two more than half the world's Jews will live here.   Notwithstanding residual fears, the likelihood of the country's outright destruction is minimal.   But ideologies--even (and perhaps especially) successful ones--sometimes outlive their usefulness.  At this point talk of the state's "Jewish character" serves mostly either to celebrate the past (which is irrelevant) or as a club to exclude people one doesn't like from discussions of its future (which is actively destructive).   No serious person thinks that Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank will suddenly come together in a "one state" solution that creates anything but more violence.   But even assuming a territorial compromise--hardly a small assumption--more than a third of the Israeli population will be Arab or Haredi and therefore outside the central Zionist consensus, a percentage likely to grow, not shrink, in the coming years.   This is not necessarily a reason for panic, any more than the coming of the Mizrachi Jews in the 50s or the Russians in the 90s; but it means that serious, constitutional change, to make the country a genuine medinat kol ezrakhekha--a state of and for all its citizens--cannot be indefinitely avoided.   Properly constituted, such a state would be more not less Jewish in its basic essence, and infinitely more attractive to those of us who remain in Galut, as well.

Skeptics will suggest that, by compromising on #1 and (especially) #3, Israel would be giving up on the "Zionist Dream" and surrendering its very reason for being.  But Zionism was supposed to make the Jewish people more normal, not less so.   It's hard to see how the current arrangements are achieving that goal.   Nor does the "reform" program of the coastal elite, which really means making the second problem worse so as to solve the remaining two, hold much promise either.   Rather it is time to transcend current debates and begin a serious discussion of underlying beliefs and practices--what Ze'ev Sternehll has aptly called the "founding myths of Israel"--in a fundamental way.   My guess is that the country, for a variety of internal and external reasons, is still a decade or so from this rethinking.   But in the long run it seems unavoidable.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

israel ii: notes on a conference.

Notes after attending a conference--well, part of a conference--sponsored by the INSS (Institute for National Security Studies, the sucessor to the old Jaffee Center at Tel Aviv Univeristy) on the EU, Israel, and the Palestinians:

1.   Sa'eb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator when there are actually negotiations is a very good speaker indeed.    His pitch to the (at least partially sympathetic) crowd--we are open to negotiations but will not be dicated to--was a point well taken if perhaps more emotional than logical in nature.   His handling of a heckler who asked would they accept Israel as a Jewish State--"it's ok, I'm used to it, that's the very point about dictation that I was making"--was masterful.   His fashionably late arrival, which he left people thinking might at least conceivably have resulted from an Israeli roadblock, only added to the allure.

2.   You can see why Europeans like Tzipi Livni: she's tall, speaks perfect French, and simply looks like a European professional woman.   Unfortunately she's a wooden speaker with a knack for saying the wrong things at the wrong time.   Neither her speech at the conference nor her general performance--she seems easily maneuvered into unpopular positions (opposition to Shalit deal, opposition to Iran attack) which she then has to wiggle out of--have impressed me in particular.   Avigdor Lieberman may be a thug, but he knows when to keep his mouth shut.

3.  Why do Israelis insist on giving retired generals positions in "think tanks" where they offer opinions on numerous subjects they are not expert on?   Most are poor speakers and, even if they weren't, it isn't exactly clear what their "expertise" consists of.    Nothing hurts Israel's image more than  a bunch of military people giving opinions in bad English on essentially political issues.

The event fed my growing conviction that the problems in Israel have less to do with any inherent flaw in the Israeli character than with the country's institutional structure (see previous post).   If you have a parade of "strategic studies" institutes, whatever that means, they are going to tend to see every problem as strategic (i.e., military) in nature.     If your political parties are organized around ethnic and religious divides, people will (surprise) tend to do things that exacerbate these differences.    The problem is that, right now, the pressure of day to day events--combined with a good bit of sheer inertia--prevents people from recognizing this problem and, instead, makes them pursue their own agendas even more aggressively.   The "left" is as guilty of this as the "right": Ha'aretz regularly puts rocket attacks in the south on page two which would never happen if its own readers, i.e. those in the coastal plain and Jerusalem, were affected.    But nothing lasts forever, and my guess is that when the dust settles many institutions and political parties will prove a lot less permanent than they now seem.   Maybe that's why peace makes some people on both sides nervous.