Wednesday, November 24, 2004

There are actually some signs of good old-fashioned democracy at work in Israel. Sort of. This Sunday the Merkaz HaLikud held elections for its top positions. Essentially it was contest between those who oppose Sharon's hitnatkut policy but are scared of Sharon (Tzahi Hanegbi, Yisrael Katz, Danny Naveh) and those who oppose Sharon's hitnatkut policy but are not scared of Sharon (Uzi Landau, Michi Ratzon, Gilad Erdan). Avraham Hirshzon, the only candidate who actually supports Sharon of his own free will, was hardly a factor.

The scene is worth describing. The focus of the action is a giant warehouse on the Tel Aviv fair grounds. The long side of the warehouse is divided up into cavernous rooms open directly to the outside, each of which serves as ad hoc headquarters for one of the candidates. These rooms are filled with chain-smoking tea-sipping (this is Israel, not Ireland) volunteers manning phones and sharing idle speculation. The narrow side is the entrance to the polling station. To actually get in to vote one has to somehow get past dozens of teenagers paid to wear tee shirts with some candidate's name on it who are singing, shouting, littering and altogether making grand nuisances of themselves. Inside, the trail to the polling station is artificially narrowed to force voters through a via delarosa of candidates and their shamasim shaking hands and mumbling the kind of stuff candidates mumble. Needless to say, none of this activity has any purpose at all; rare is the voter who doesn't belong to some "camp".

And all around one sees democracy at work. All the Likud's Knesset members mill around shmoozing with the people who sent them to the Knesset and who might just as easily send them packing the next time around. Accountability can be demeaning. Intelligent and decent MKs like Yuval Shteinitz, Miki Eitan and Yuli Edelstein can be seen engaging in intense and earnest conversation with the kind of guys with whom, under all other circumstances, a typical conversation might begin with "you want humus and salad with that?" or "I should turn on the meter?". I, for one, fargin these guys their moment of glory.

The end of the story, for those who missed it, is that the better men lost. Uzi Landau will have his principles as a consolation prize, while Tzahi Hanegbi gets to bang the big gavel and do whatever Omri Sharon tells him to.

Friday, November 19, 2004

One of the popular frum chat groups has been abuzz lately with tsk tsking about, dare I even utter the words... people coming late to shul. Delicate souls are shocked, shocked. Some of these latecomers push right past other people to get to their seats. There's talking in the hallways. Some of these loud pushy people could very well be the same ones who make kiddush before davening is over and even drink alcohol in front of impressionable children. Special dispensation is available for those who come late out of solicitude for their wives with whom they are sharing the burden etc etc. But just who are those barbarians who just shamelessly waltz in at the crack of Barchu with no excuse?

IT'S ME! Yes, I'm the one they're all talking about. I like to sleep late in the morning. I have a leisurely cup of tea before shul on Shabbos morning and even some lekach, if I'm in the mood. I am happy to see my neighbors in shul and take the opportunity to share a kind word, maybe even a joke, with as many of them as I can. I occasionally even khap a shmooze during the most sacred and somber part of davening, the tefillah lishlom hamedinah (so holy that it must simply be recited, no melody befits it). At kiddush, I've been known to ply people with a shot of Booker's. How can I face myself in the mirror?! Oh, the humanity!

So, tzaddikim of the world, you can stop pussyfooting around the identity of the Evil One. It's me, Ben Chorin, you're after. Fling! Fling!

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Israel does not have a constitution. Once upon a time, it was understood that a constitution is meant to express a nation's deepest principles and aspirations and it was precisely with regard to these that Israelis were deeply divided. Hence, no constitution.

Nowadays, many Israelis are agitating for a constitution. It's not that some consensus on principles and aspirations has suddenly emerged. Rather, many Israelis -- following a European trend -- have become unaware of the fact that a nation is even meant to have principles and aspirations. Where once civil rights were thought to serve as a limit on the ways a nation might manifest its will, many people are now in the grip of an ideology in which the will to confer rights is the only legitimate will a nation may have.

There are two groups currently working on writing an Israeli constitution. One is the Knesset's Law Committee. The other is the Israel Democracy Institute, a private political organization with a huge endowment from Bernie Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot. The Knesset process moves rather slowly. So far, the committee has considered only that part of the constitution concerned with structure of government. Several alternatives have been prepared which are meant to serve as the basis for wider discussion at some later date. Now work has begun on rights and values. There are many interesting twists to this story which I hope to get to some day soon.

The IDI is about to finalize its proposed constitution and has already begun a splashy advertising campaign. One unseemly aspect of its PR is that the IDI slyly creates the illusion that the Knesset Law Committee has somehow conferred public legitimacy on the IDI initiative. This is simply not the case. More troubling, however, is the fact that the IDI's proposal is catastrophic. Their proposed constitution -- with minor changes -- could as easily be the constitution of Zimbabwe as of Israel.

Rather than get into the gory details of the two constitutions-in-progress, let me summarize five minimal criteria that must be satisfied by any Israeli constitution for it to be acceptable. Unfortunately, as things look now, this is not the direction in which things are going.

1. The process of appointment to the Supreme Court must be changed to permit greater input by elected officials. (I discussed the current insane system here.)

2. Justiciability (and standards of “reasonableness”) must be satisfactorily defined. If there is to be judicial review at all it must be balanced by a “political question doctrine” that establishes what stuff the court leaves to politicians. (As matters stand, this court happily substitutes its judgement for that of the legislature or executive on pretty much any topic under the sun.)

3. No social right should be conferred which would transfer power of the purse to the court. (Yuli Tamir and a whole gaggle of Marxist groups created and funded by the New Israel Fund are agitating for legislating a smorgasbord of social rights which would give the court entre into the last bastion still held by the Knesset: writing the budget.)

4. The constitution must reflect broad consensus on matters of religion and state and should permit the legislature the widest possible range of compromise on such issues. (The IDI constitution explicitly forbids any law that would constrain behavior on the basis of religion. Laws based on feminism, vegetarianism, Near Eastern culture, astrology or the rules of poker are acceptable until such time as any of these would attain the status of a religion.)

5. The current flawed system of elections -- which burdens MKs with minimal accountability to constituents -- must not be entrenched in a constitution. (Actually changing it is too much to ask; no MK will change the system which earned him his job.)

RG believes the situation is hopeless and all our efforts should be devoted to killing both proposals. She is probably right but this would be a tactical blunder.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

A text can only be understood within some linguistic tradition. As Hillel pointed out to the heathen who scoffed at the need for an oral tradition, even identifying the letters of the alphabet requires some tradition.

But how much is too much? Every now and then, I find myself wishing that I could read the chumash with fresh eyes, unencumbered by midrash, ethical traditions, and all the other layers that bias my understanding of every word. As I read Chayei Sarah this week, I felt this particularly acutely. Here are a few examples:

1. When Efron says to Avraham, "what's 400 shekel between us friends?", I would like the sounds of a typical negotiation in the shuk to resonate in my mind. The outer veneer of generosity, the subtle insinuation of the desired price into the conversation almost as an aside. In ordinary conversation we pick up oodles of subtle allusions all the time. But when I read just such a conversation in chumash, it's all formality. I can duly note that there's a "machloikes in the mefarshim" whether Efron was being kind or being sly, but I don't really hear it and capture the nuances anywhere near as capably as I do in a hundred conversations every day.

2. It took me until the age of, well until an advanced age, to realize that the Torah does not say that Avraham sent Eliezer to find a wife for Yitzhak. It says that he sent his servant (who is not named). Eliezer is mentioned but once in the whole book of Bereishis and not once in Vayerah or Chayei Sarah. Okay, so I'm myopic... but that's what they taught me in first grade, second grade, and forever after and I guess at some point I started to believe it.

3. Pretty much the only thing the Torah tells us about Rivka is that she's ... pretty. But our tradition is such that most of us are convinced that noting that a woman is pretty and valuing that fact, well, that's the yetzer hara talking. Surely attitudes to this vary greatly even within the frum community. Satmar and left-wing orthodox seem to devalue feminine beauty the most (at least officially and for very different reasons, but I digress) while some others hew closer to the plain meaning of the Biblical text, if you get my drift.

Of course, disconnecting from traditional reading to "read with fresh eyes" is probably nothing more than trading one set of biases for another (less legitimate) one. But still...

Monday, November 08, 2004

So just when I've finished trashing those creepy lefties and am feeling good and smug about being on the side of the angels, my neighbors force a reality check. In My Little Town, we've got one of those chat lists where you can find rides to the airport, offer used stuff, share dubious wisdom and ... diss the rabbi. Our rabbi is a very fine fellow with what some of my neighbors regard as a fatal flaw: common sense. He recently made two statements which popped some fuses. Try them on for yourself:

1. If it were to strengthen the State, it would be okay to make a strategic withdrawal.
2. A withdrawal would not be the end of the State.

Do you see the insanity here? No?! Well, my dear neighbors, NM and AR, must -- verrry respectfully -- tell you that you are an incorrigible weenie.

To make it perfectly clear: I am opposed to the withdrawal from Azza. But I'm not quite sure what those who disagree with the above two statements actually believe. That we are obliged to maintain a weak position even if a stronger one were available? That if the withdrawal goes through, we should turn out the lights and head for Canada?

Admittedly, the first sentence includes too many hypotheticals for an angry person to parse. Apparently, by the time that sentence reached my neighbors' kidneys, it was taken to mean that a particular withdrawal will strengthen the State and the usual hysteria ensued.

If there's still somebody normal out there with both a backbone and a brain, could you please give a shout.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

I have argued in the past that at the core of the self-destructive policies of some of Israel's leftists lies a crisis of Jewish identity. While I still find that argument compelling, I must confess that it must be reconsidered in light of one plain and obvious fact. Many of the most outrageous meshugassen of Israel's left have recently been mirrored by the Angry Left in the United States. (Yes, lots of them are Jewish but far from all.) The arrogant portrayal of religious people as country bumpkins, the attribution of all forms of self-defense to primitive bloodlust, the insistence of the privileged to speak in the name of the poor -- it's all way too familiar. A broader explanation seems to be called for. I do want to get this much off my chest, though:

Many of the angriest leftists in both Israel and the U.S. display great love for an abstraction called mankind but great contempt for actual people.

So there. I feel better already.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

I'm back at long last from my trip to the goldene medina. This trip was weird for me since I spent most of it working on a political project. OK, I was schnorring. I was working with a professional fundraiser who couldn't understand why I was cringing so much.

I learned lots of things on this trip:
1. There are many more astonishingly rich frum Jews than I realized.
2. Rabbis spend a good part of their time and energy serving as brokers between schnorrers and the aforementioned.
3. In a few short days a usually-totally-oblivious-to-wealth academic can assume the character traits of a grovelling always-on-the-make schnorrer.

I did get to spend Shabbos in the general vicinity of Rav Usher who seemed to have a grand time in Teaneck.

Details and other pearls of wisdom to follow.