Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Quite independently of any advantages one might wish to impute to the withdrawal from Azza, the decision-making process that lead to it was an unmitigated catastrophe that has exposed severe cracks in Israeli democracy.

In representative democracies, the Executive, once elected, is empowered to make decisions with far-reaching consequences without consulting the electorate. What checks are there on the abuse of such enormous power?

Obviously, the first line of defense is the legislature. Thus, for example, in the U.S. the President can sign a treaty only with the "advice and consent" of the Senate. Also, except in cases of emergency, the President can declare war only after specific statutory authorization by Congress. In Israel's parliamentary system, the Knesset's check on the Prime Minister is more general: a majority of the Knesset can simply terminate the Prime Minister's tenure by a vote of "no confidence". (Since the last election, such a vote must be constructive, that is, it must include a replacement candidate.)

The legislature, in turn, is typically responsive to public sentiment, if not as a matter of statute or principle, simply because legislators generally wish to get re-elected. Public sentiment is, in turn, informed by and expressed through public discourse in all its forms: academic debates, public advocacy, popular media, mass demonstrations, etc.

In addition to all this, heads of state need to work together with administrative and advisory bodies, which -- although subordinate -- can make life difficult for those who push them around and who hold significant sway over public opinion.

Thus, for example, when Bush wanted to go to war with Iraq, he was forced to sweat to sell the idea. Whether or not you found his arguments persuasive then or borne out by the facts subsequently, you can't deny that he and his appointees and advisors stood before Congress and before the nation and made their case. Advocates of both sides had ample opportunity to use the public media to debate each other; Congressmen who wished to get re-elected were accountable to their voters.

Finally, I get to the point: None of this, none of this, took place in Israel prior to the withdrawal.

If you weren't here, you will find this hard to believe: Prime Minister Sharon did not appear before the public a single time to explain why he was intent to ram through a policy that he had campaigned against. Even his speech the day before the withdrawal was uninformative and taped so that he would not have to answer questions.

Likud Ministers who stated publicly that they oppose the withdrawal voted for it in the Knesset because -- and they made no bones about this -- Sharon threatened to fire them if they voted their conscience. This is possible because in Israel's parliamentary system, voters vote for a list and not for specific candidates and Ministers are usually also MKs. Thus, MKs are primarily concerned about getting on the party list, which is determined -- in the case of Likud -- by the Central Committee. So a slime-bucket like Tzahi Hanegbi (forgive the language but there is no other way to describe this guy) spends all his energy handing out patronage to his cronies on the Central Committee rather than attempting any kind of accountability to his voters. (The other day, one ex-Minister described to me how Hanegbi would sit at Cabinet meetings focused not on the relevant documents but rather on lists of Central Committee members.) Even when the Likud held a referendum, which Sharon vowed to honor, that went against the withdrawal by a 60-40 margin, no Likud Minister other than Landau and Sharansky took a stand against the withdrawal.

Chief of Staff Boogi Yaalon and head of the GSS, Avi Dichter, warned of the security dangers of withdrawal and were fired.

The press did all in its power to suppress any debate of the actual issues. To be sure, they spoke incessantly about the withdrawal and indeed invited opponents as well as supporters. But the discussion always, always, focused on some arcana -- refusal to serve, hooliganism, compensation, whatever -- and never on the simple question: is withdrawal good for Israel.

In the end, all decisions regarding the withdrawal were in fact made by the following people:
Omri Sharon -- Sharon's semi-autistic son, recently indicted on bribery charges but in fact also up to his neck in racketeering with his friend, convicted felon Shlomi Oz.
Dov Weisglass -- lawyer for Austrian casino czar, Martin Schlaff, who -- through Cyril Kern -- bribed Sharon and who is now planning a casino in Elei Sinai, one of the settlements in Azza from which all Jews have now been exiled.
Eival Giladi -- main architect of the withdrawal and, simultaneously, head of the Israel office of the Portland Trust, a London-based venture capital fund planning to invest 500 million dollars in Azza.
(Weasely disclaimer: insert all appropriate "allegedly"s and "reportedly"s in the above descriptions.)

Finally, the elementary right to demonstrate against withdrawal without being intimidated, threatened or arrested, was violated frequently and systematically. Most frightening of all is the fact that the police, the prosecution and the courts were all party to these violations. I do not make this charge casually. An organization that I am involved with is issuing a full report on these violations in a few days. In my next post (I know, I promised something else; I'll get to it), I'll summarize parts of the report.

Monday, August 22, 2005

An excellent analysis of the whole Azza withdrawal fiasco can be found in the essay by Josh Ragen posted on Jeff Woolf's blog.

The two most significant aspects of the Azza withdrawal are the human tragedies and the failure of all of Israel's major institutions. In this post and the next I'll discuss these aspects, respectively, and in the one after that I'll outline what I believe needs to be done.

One of the true gedolei hador (affiliated with the Haredi world) was in my house this week and several of those present were lamenting the uprooting of Jewish graves and the destruction of batei knesset in Azza. His response, with which I agree entirely, was that these are minor issues compared to the suffering of families uprooted from their homes. (He also lamented the fact that a certain elderly Rosh Yeshiva was recently shlepped all the way from Benei Beraq to New York and Chicago but couldn't find his way to Nevei Dekalim to show support.)

Try and imagine every family in Teaneck simply being thrown out of its home and left to its own devices. What is being lost here is not simply four walls and a roof but an entire fabric of life. Each house is a home, each shul is a focal point of community life, each business is an organism painstakingly grown over decades. None of this can simply be reconstructed elsewhere. Those who are evicted cannot choose if and when they will move elsewhere. They can't choose under what circumstances they wish to move. They can't sell their property because it is being destroyed and would in any case be worthless.

Those who signed up for government assistance are no better off than those who didn't. The horrendous caravans that they were promised are tiny, crowded close to each other, too cheaply constructed to withstand winter weather and are not even ready. There is no single place with sufficient housing available that communities can stay together. The compensation they are supposed to receive is woefully inadequate to even begin to reconstruct the lives they lead and they don't even know when they will actually receive it. (And the cost of their own eviction -- containers, moving vans, rent for the caravans, applications, etc. -- is being deducted from the compensation.)

In some cases, insult was added to injury. Those exiled were thrown on buses and then dumped at various shelters. Often children and parents were separated and dumped in different cities. In some cases, they were dumped on the side of the road in middle of nowhere. In one Kafkaesque case, a fellow named Nimburg was under house arrest in Nevei Dekalim after having been arrested at a demonstration last March. He was evicted from his home, dumped in Jerusalem and then arrested for violating the terms of his house arrest. (You can't make this stuff up. I'll discuss the civil rights aspects of all this in my next post.)

Anyway, if anyone can pull through a tragedy like this, it is the courageous Jews of Azza. Last night, I went to the kotel to join those who were there to greet the families exiled earlier in the day from Atzmonah and Katif. Past midnight, thousands and thousands of people continued to stream into the area of the kotel. As the exiles arrived, tired, bedraggled, with children and babies in tow, the crowd parted slightly to let them pass. As they passed the crowd sang softly: ki lo yitosh hashem amo ve-nachalato lo ya'azov. Words are inadequate to transmit the power and dignity of the moment. I can only say that the people there -- the exiles and those who greeted them with songs, with snacks, with hugs -- are the kindest, most authentic, most dignified people I have ever seen. It was an honor to stand among them.

[If you object to nasty screeds skip this paragraph: It astounds me that there are some bloggers who can be so insensitive to the suffering of others that they compare this eviction to people who come on aliyah under circumstances of their own choosing. I appreciate the democratizing influence of the blogosphere but there is a downside to it. Any unhinged, never-been-kissed nerd with a big mouth is liable to discover that behind the cloak of anonymity provided by a blog he can actually get some attention. This seems to act like a narcotic and pretty soon he's publishing every half-baked, uninformed, insensitive, glib "idea" that passes in the vicinity of his consciousness. Please don't encourage these people. End screed.]

Saturday, August 20, 2005

The Jewish world lost one of its greatest personalities last week. Rabbi Yehoshua Zvi Shmidman was a rare combination of largeness of spirit and greatness of intellect. Among his students/followers were hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of people of all ages and backgrounds. They were drawn to him because he exuded love and warmth for each person, great psychological and emotional insight that allowed him to help each person who sought his counsel and profound understanding of all facets of human knowledge. First and foremost, he was a great talmid chakham. To hear one of his drashos was an exhilarating experience. He could be mefalpel with Reb Akiva Eiger, cite an existentialist philosopher and tell a side-splitting joke in a single derashah, weaving all these together into a single work of artistry.

He learned with, and had close personal relationships with, all the gedoilim of the previous generation. He taught a class on Jewish philosophy at YU in the early Seventies to a motley collection of bright rebels and from those classes emerged a cadre of some of today's leading scholars, many of whom still cite that class as the singular influence that determined the trajectories of their lives. He was Rabbi of large kehillos in New York and Montreal, where he was loved and admired, but most people, especially his congregants, thought of him more as a teacher, guide and friend than as a Rabbi in the formal sense.

He combined the wisdom of a great sage with the simplicity, guilelessness, sweetness and curiosity of a child. He was niftar with Shma on his lips on the 7th day of Av. Tehei nishmaso tzerurah be-tzror ha-chaim.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Where is the line between legitimate protest and illegitimate havoc-wreaking? Not a simple question. If you believe, as I do, that the withdrawal from Azza will bring only harm and that, moreover, the process by which it has been carried out is not only flawed but corrupt (the individuals involved most directly in the decision-making process all have direct or indirect financial interests in the withdrawal), you might be inclined to push the boundary pretty far out there. But that would be a mistake.

This week's events in Sderot and Ofakim generated lots of positive energy. This is what many people didn't like about them. I think such positive energy has a very important galvanizing effect and it will serve us well in the future.

There were some memorable moments. Natan Sharansky was so moved that he was put in mind of occasions in Soviet prisons when he'd sing hinei mah tov umah na'im to keep up morale. He asked the crowd to sing it and then suddenly realized that they were waiting for him to lead the singing (he had the mike, after all). Faced with no choice, he began to sing. What can I say? In Soviet prisons, you do what you have to do but the other prisoners must have begged to be put into solitary. Conveniently, Ariel Zilber was on hand to take over the singing. Unfortunately, Rav Druckman spoke shortly after Sharansky and came to the very not-inevitable conclusion that every speaker had to sing. Suffice it to say that compared to Rav Druckman, Sharansky is Freddy Mercury.

Anyway, all that was good clean fun and, I believe, helpful in the long- term, even if not decisive in the short term. I think that large masses of people going down to Gush Katif is also legitimate. That's exactly how people should express themselves in a democracy. Where, then, is the line?

There are two criteria. First, the objective must always be to get the government to change its decisions (or to resign), rather than to prevent it from carrying out its decisions. There is a fine, but critical, line, for example, between: 1. the army reporting to the government that low morale and over-extension are such that it would be advisable for the government to reconsider the mission it has assigned to the army, and 2. the army trying and failing to carry out its mission due to insurrection and sabotage.

Second, we should not win the battle in order to lose the war. I am astounded by the amount of long-term damage people are willing to inflict on the country and its institutions and citizens, all for some dubious short-term advantage. Perhaps some of these are Shabak provocations. But let's not delude ourselves. I personally know otherwise-normal people who are responsible for some outright insane statements and actions. (In at least two of these cases, the right-wing press has made claims that these were Shabak provocations, but I know for a fact that this was not the case. I'm not referring to the ninjas on the road, which I believe was simply a fabrication.)

I'm convinced that some of the destructive attitude comes from a sense of alienation informed by a misunderstanding of the amount of power that our community really has. Let me explain this with a fable. A wealthy man raised two sons on his estate, one a biological son and the other a stepson. The stepson was exceedingly loyal to the father, praising him profusely on every occasion and catering to his every whim. As the boys grew into adolescence, they began asserting themselves in the manner that teenagers are wont to do. The father grew increasingly intolerant of the stepson's antics but indulged the biological son. As the father grew old, the stepson began to realize that, despite his abiding loyalty to the father, he was likely to be shunned in the will. He grew bitter and began to do damage to the estate.

One day a wise old man saw him cutting down a tree. He explained to the bewildered man that this was the only way he could express his anger and disappointment. The wise old man said to him: Foolish one, you are chopping down your own trees. Can't you see that your brother is a dissolute, gambling, drinking, womanizing bum? Your father may treat you poorly but there is no one here to take over this estate but you. You'd be well-advised to take good care of it.