Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Well, something happened in yesterday's election but a lot less than the pundits seem to think. Let's break up the previous Knesset according to a somewhat more informative grouping than the usual party breakdown. The first number is the number of seats held in the outgoing Knesset and the number in parentheses is the (estimated) number in the incoming Knesset:

Center-Left (=Sharon + Shinui) -- 31 (28)
Secular right (=Likud [non-Sharon] + Lieberman) -- 28 (23)
Left (=Labor + Am Echad + Meretz) -- 28 (24)
Haredim (=Shas + Agudah) -- 16 (19)
Religious right (=Mafdal + Ichud Leumi) -- 10 (9)
Arabs (=Balad + Raam + Chadash) -- 7 (10)
Pensioners -- 0 (7)

(A detail: For Sharon, I counted the 14 Likud MKs who ultimately defected to Kadima, as well as Inbal Gavrieli -- who voted with Sharon but was the only human being ever rejected by Kadima -- and Michael Nudelman, who defected from Lieberman to Sharon early on.)

When you look at it this way, you see quite how little has changed. Haredim and Arabs benefitted from high birthrates (18 years ago) and immunity to the apathy and cynicism that affected the mainstream. The Pensioners benefitted from that cynicism. Everybody else lost between 10 and 20 percent of their base.

Yes, the nominal realignment is meaningful, as are the redistributions within each group. But most significant is the fact that the Sharon-Shinui group consisted of two groups each with strong leadership (if you didn't look too closely under the hood), while Kadima might prove to be a rudderless mess.

So the early results are in and the parties that are pro-withdrawal (Kadima, Labor, Meretz) seem to have about 56 seats. That won't cut it.

I think Olmert's headed in a different direction with the coalition. He'll bring in Gimlaim, Shas, Agudah and Yisrael Beiteinu, which gives him a government. After that whoever joins will get some crumbs. To get these parties he doesn't need to deal with lots of egos; for each of them, he needs to only speak to one person: Rafi Eitan, Rav Ovadia, Rav Elyashiv (or a surrogate) and Lieberman, respectively. This makes them awfully convenient to negotiate with.

He can't get much done with this lineup but Olmert was never in it to get things done. He's in it for the game.

Monday, March 27, 2006

I'll get to Yisrael Beiteinu eventually but what I really want to do is luxuriate over this little story so I'll meander a bit.

In my undistinguished army career as a combat medic, there was one thing I resolutely refused to do: wear gumiyot, those rubber bands that keep the cuffs of your pants tight around the boots. We all have our red lines. In fact, once I was doing all-night guard duty at one of the border crossings with Jordan together with another fellow and we were both standing in position when some guy with falafels on his shoulder (I never bothered learning the names of the ranks in my many years in the army) shows up to check on us at 4:00 AM. (The fact that we were both awake and in position is not to be taken for granted and the only reason it happened is that my partner was engaging me in learning and being mefalpel in some difficult sugya. This wouldn't be remarkable except that the only things this fellow had less use for than amhaaratzim were shabbos and kashrus.) Anyhoo, this officer had to do something to assert his superiority in this particular situation so he had me tried and convicted for not wearing gumiyot. The jail sentence was suspended but I do believe it is on my Permanent Record.

All this I mention only as an introduction to an introduction to my story. During the early days of Oslo, on a different stint of reserve duty, this time in Elon Moreh, my commander took me up to the very isolated top of nearby Har Kabir, which overlooks the whole area of Shechem (including Har Brachah, Itamar, Yitzhar, Tapuach). There we met the Machat (Battalion Commander) of the Shechem area. He looks me up and down and says "where are your gumiyot?". My commander says, "This is Dr. Chorin; he doesn't wear gumiyot." The Machat says, "you'll be securing the area for a big meeting today, so just for an hour or two you'll need gumiyot." I buckled.

Finally, to the point. It was indeed a big meeting. A helicopter lands next to me and out hop the head of the Shabak, Carmi Gillon (then known as "Kaf"), his deputy, "Yud", the head of Army Intelligence, Rabin's security advisor, Yossi Ginosar (actually serving illegally since the High Court had disqualified him for one of the crimes for which he'd been caught), head of the Central Command (Aluf Pikud Hamerkaz), Ilan Biran, and a couple more Generals. I was the only person there who was armed. Except for Biran, who said hi, the rest acted as if I were made of glass.

Anyway, they were up there to discuss the route of a new road from Elon Moreh, via the other settlements, down to Tapuach Junction. Biran, who knew what he was talking about, was carefully explaining the issues. The braintrust of the Israeli military began asking questions such as "where exactly is Shechem?". You've got to understand that from Har Kabir, this is something like standing on the observation deck of the Empire State Building and asking where the Chrysler Building is. They fretted about Arab claims to the barren land on which the road would be built. They all sounded exceptionally clueless but by far the biggest idiot was "Yud", who kept asking why another road was necessary. What's wrong with the existing road? Finally, Biran couldn't take it any more and blurts out, "You don't get it, do you? The existing road goes through Shechem. Tzahal is leaving Shechem. We can't leave these people to the mercy of the terrorist in Shechem. Get it?!" He didn't.

I mention this now because "Yud" is Yisrael Hasson, number 3 on the Yisrael Beiteinu list for the Knesset.

The NU/NRP campaign made two egregious mistakes that will cost us dearly.

First, they attacked Likud and portrayed Netanyahu as weak and unreliable. This may have brought NU/NRP a few votes but, by playing on the uncommitted public's worst fears about Bibi, it undoubtedly sent many more votes from the right to Kadima. The right's only chance of forming a coalition is a strong Likud (and that's as close as I'm coming to announcing whom I'm voting for), so NU/NRP has again shot itself in the foot. That's what happens when you think you're the only tzaddik in Sodom. They're becoming the Briskers of Israeli politics.

Second, they actively campaigned against Marzel on the grounds that he wouldn't cross the minimum threshold and would waste votes. This is an entirely self-fulfilling claim. In fact, a more reasonable argument goes the other way: since Marzel is flirting with the minimum and failing would cost the right dearly, we should encourage people to vote for him to ensure that those votes are not wasted. As it happens, Marzel will be quite useless in the Knesset since he can't be part of any coalition but at least he'll take mandates from the left simply by sitting on them. And I think he has an excellent chance of getting in. (The surprises in this election will be down in the little parties; pollsters don't have the tools to deal with them.)

Soon a few words about Yisrael Beiteinu.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

The problem with Kadima is not its policies or even its lack of policies. Rather, the problem is that the method and motivation of Kadima’s conception, gestation, birth and infancy are all testimony to the power of the totalitarian impulse.

The earliest germination of the Kadima idea can be found in Omri Sharon’s destruction of the Likud Central Committee (LCC). LCC was always a rowdy and unaesthetic organization but when all was said and done, it was a reasonable expression of popular democracy. Omri brought in hard-core criminals, introduced tactics of intimidation and provocation and ran the whole thing like a personal fiefdom. All the while he knew that in the end he’d bolt and leave the Likud with the mess.

In the meantime, Papa Sharon showed contempt for his party members (e.g. ignoring the referendum), for the Likud MKs and his own cabinet (which he never consulted and whose members were under constant threat) and for all those who voted for him under false pretenses. Instead, his advisors were spinmeisters (Eyal Arad and Reuvain Adler) and a cabal of corrupt businessmen and their equally corrupt lawyers (Martin Schlaff, Dubi Weissglas, the late and unlamented Yossi Ginosar). Sharon fired those security people who weren’t old family friends (Boogi Yaalon) and replaced them with cronies (Meir Dagan, Dan Halutz, et al). He cultivated relationships with select press hacks who set the tone (Yoel Marcus et al) and otherwise never directly addressed the public.

Kadima was created for the purpose of avoiding the hassle of dealing with party institutions that force discussion, negotiation and compromise. Such institutions exist in democratic countries for a reason: they slow progress in order to prevent costly errors and force consensus building. The impulse to destroy such institutions in order to get things done is precisely what sets weak democracies on a course towards totalitarianism. If messy popular institutions don't serve as an engine and filter for policy-making, their place is taken by a smaller, self-interested oligarchy of rich and powerful cronies of politicians.

Sharon's – and Kadima's – choice of Olmert to lead the party is no accident. Olmert’s entire career has been distinguished by his ability to trade influence for money. He has cultivated the rich and powerful and represented their interests at both the municipal and national level. As Minister of Industry and Commerce, he mostly looked out for monopolies and largely undid Bibi’s efforts to liberalize and democratize the economy. Ari Shavit’s article in Haaretz a few days ago should send shivers up anybody’s spine.

Kadima’s takeover of the government and, in particular, Olmert’s ascendance to power are further manifestations of the totalitarian impulse within Kadima. Kadima constitutes a minority faction of the party within which it was elected. Moreover, after Sharon’s permanent incapacitation, a new Prime Minister should have been chosen via procedures that were never enacted. Olmert’s takeover was close to a coup d’etat by Olmert and Attorney General Meni Mazuz, who declared Sharon “temporarily incapacitated for an extended period”. One would imagine that a caretaker government that took charge under such extraordinary circumstances would govern with restraint and a touch of humility. Instead, Olmert et al acted as if they inherited the country from their Papa (which they did). Olmert concocted the Amona fiasco as a show of strength. Then Shaul Mofaz and Gideon Ezra (neither of whom is nearly intelligent enough to think this up on their own) thumbed their noses at a duly appointed Knesset committee investigating the matter. One wonders what model of democratic governance informs such behavior.

There is a single unifying rationale for all of Kadima's maneuvers during this campaign. They wish to create the impression of an unstoppable juggernaut that will solve the nation's problems with cruel efficiency. Their first announced policy was electoral reform. But rather than to seek means for increasing accountability, they wish to institute a presidential system that would diminish accountability. Olmert then announced that the election was in the bag. Both these maneuvers were carefully planned to create the illusion of unstoppable momentum, an illusion that seeks to take advantage of a popular weakness for totalitarianism.

Finally, the latest Kadima bon ton is defining Israel's borders. This is a perfectly reasonable idea except that it consists of a major part and a minor part. The major part is consolidating Israel's hold on the land it wishes to keep. This is the important part but it is difficult and requires genuine grit and the determination to resist pressure from the mighty, qualities Olmert and company manifestly lack. This part of the retrenchment idea is never mentioned and will never be carried out. The minor part is determining the dispensation of lands outside the proposed border. The only aspect of this part that Kadima will discuss is the dispossession of the Jews there. The image of a strong and determined majority destroying the lives of a weak minority takes advantage of the momentum created by Sharon in the disengagement from Gaza and further projects the wickedly attractive image of decisive forward movement. It is just the sort of pointless muscle flexing of which Olmert is perfectly capable.

Those with a weakness for totalitarianism should be aware that they might soon find themselves under the wheels of the runaway train they are now helping to accelerate.


Friday, March 24, 2006

There is much talk these days about Israel's particular method of allocating mandates based on election returns. The relevant law is known as Bader-Ofer (after the two MKs who proposed it). So here comes a little tutorial on the much misunderstood Bader-Ofer Law.

First of all, Bader and Ofer didn't invent the system; they simply proposed the adoption of a vote allocation system known as the Hagenbach-Bischoff method, which itself is a variation on the D'Hondt method (both named after 19th century physicists).

How does the method work? If I could easily insert equations into this blog, my life would be easier. I'll do my best.

Step 1: Let's call the total number of votes cast T. Any party that doesn't get at least T/50 votes is eliminated. (50 is an adjustable parameter; last time it was 66.666.) Let T' be the number of votes left after all the votes for eliminated parties are discarded.

Step 2: Let M = T'/120. This is the nominal cost of a single mandate. Let Xn be the number of votes received by party n. Then party n should in theory get Xn/M mandates. The problem is that Xn/M is almost certainly not a whole number but rather something like 13.356. So the first thing we do is give party n, the integer part ("floor") of Xn/M. In our example, that would be 13.

Step 3: Well, since the fractional mandates that each party theoretically got remain unallocated, the total number of mandates given out in Step 2 will be somewhat less than 120. In fact, since the fractional remainders should distribute normally around 1/2, the total number of unallocated seats should be equal to approximately 1/2 the number of parties that cross the threshold in Step 1. (This year that means around 5 mandates.) Now you might think that these should be distributed according to the size of the fractional remainder that each party got. But no! Rather, we use a recursive procedure in which the unallocated mandates are allocated one at a time in the following way:
Let Yn be the number of mandates allocated to party n so far. Initially, Yn is simply the integer part of Xn/M. (By the way, here is the difference between D'Hondt and Hagenbach-Bischoff; in D'Hondt, Yn is initialized to 0 rather than Xn/M.) Now (drum comes the main point) the next mandate is allocated to the party for which Xn/(Yn+1) is maximal.
The idea is that Xn/Yn is the average cost paid by party n for a mandate and this method keeps the range of such costs over the different parties as narrow as possible.
For example, suppose the total number of votes is 120,000 and party 1 gets 32,340 votes and party 2 gets 14,550 votes (for simplicity, let's ignore the other parties). The nominal cost of a mandate is 1000 so initially party 1 gets 32 mandates and party 2 gets 14 mandates. Now, we want to allocate the mandates lost to the fractional remainders. So we compare 32,340/33 (=980) to 14,550/15 (=970). The result is that party 1 gets the next mandate even though party 2 had a higher remainder.

(Note that the denominators in the above fractions are always 1 more than the current allocation for that party; the point is to determine the hypothetical cost of a mandate after a party were to get it. Another way to think about this is to let Qn be the number of votes that party n is missing to reach the next mandate. Instead of giving the mandate to the party for which Qn is minimal, we give it to the party for which Qn/(Yn+1) is minimal.)

Overall, as is evident in our example, this favors larger parties to a considerable extent (the larger Yn the better your chances of having the minimal Qn/(Yn+1)). For that reason, two parties can agree to be treated as a single party for the purpose of the above calculation. The entire procedure remains otherwise identical. Once, the combined party has been allocated its additional mandates, these are divided between the two consitutent parties using the same method. So when a party makes such an agreement, they should ideally do so with a like-minded party that is smaller than them but still big enough to cross the threshold in Step 1.

The main part of all this that should impact on how you vote is Step 1. If you vote for a party that doesn't make the cut in Step 1, the total number of votes that count (T') is diminished and therefore so is the nominal cost of a mandate (M). So all the other parties increase their mandates proportionally. The increase for larger parties is proportionally greater than for smaller ones. All the rest is just details.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

If you're an American, to be a Religious Zionist (RZ) means roughly that you're frum and you think that living in Israel is a good thing. You might even think that the State of Israel is an important step towards the ultimate redemption. That's about it.

Unfortunately, if you're an Israeli, you're talking about something altogether different. Here, Religious Zionism is weighed down by a whole lot of 19th century ideological baggage, thanks in good part to the takeover of the RZ education system by students of Rav Kook, as well as unhealed scars left by long moribund battles with anti-Zionist Haredim.

In brief caricature it goes like this:
Every nation has an "essence" which is inevitably distilled by certain historical processes. In the case of the Jewish People, the State lies at the heart of just such a process and as such is imbued with sanctity. Consequently, the State is the sole proper vehicle for advancing the objectives of the Jewish People: social welfare, enlightenment, religious education, etc etc.

This is the sort of Bolshevik claptrap the danger of which is painfully obvious to anyone not in its ideological grip. Unfortunately, most Israeli RZs are exactly in its ideological grip, whether they are aware of it or not. Every time I sit down with Mizrachi makhers here, whether they be rabbanim or politicians or just plain folk, the conversation founders on this issue. They are all convinced that the State should be solely responsible for curing the ill and supporting the poor, the State should be building shuls and mikvaot, the State should be appointing rabbanim and dayanim, the State should be legislating religion, the State should decide who is a convert, who is married, what is kosher.

You can talk yourself blue in the face demonstrating how the result of all this is that an anti-religious oligarchy is bastardizing Judaism and holding financially dependent religious communities by the balls. Try and explain that impoverished Jewish communities everywhere in the world independently supported shuls and mikvaot for thousands of years and only in Israel do mikvaot close because the moetzah datit hasn't sent the check. Blank stares. It's like suggesting that toilets should be fastened to the ceiling instead of the floor. Does not compute. That Kookian ideology is like an operating system -- not visible but every thought in the Israeli RZ universe passes through it.

So now the RZ world here is suffering from a major case of cognitive dissonance. Everything we have seen here over the past few years highlights the clear advantages of limiting state control over vital institutions to which the oligarchy is hostile. But this thought can barely be entertained. The result is the politics of immaturity. Some suddenly wish to cut themselves off from the State entirely, as if such a thing were even remotely possible. Others insist that the State remains wholly sacred no matter what outrages it perpetrates. Hatzofe, Makor Rishon and a zillion rags for reading bein gavra legavra are full of adolescent huffing and puffing. Some vastly overestimate their own power and some vastly underestimate it. Some think that if a stuttering yeshiva bochur knocks on a random door shilling for votes, Joe Israeli will be so overwhelmed by the radiance of Pure Truth that, shazam!, he'll switch his allegiance to Ichud Leumi. Others think that if they don't vote -- so there! -- somebody somewhere will give a damn. And some think it urgent that they dance ma yafis before the oligarchy and announce their everlasting loyalty to Kadima (or some such) because otherwise we'll be "distancing ourselves from the nation" -- as if only decadent secular leftist Ashkenazim qualify as constituting the "nation".

So it will continue until the RZ world lightens up a bit and stops taking the State so damn seriously. The State isn't the solution to all our problems and it isn't the sitra achra. It's a political organization run mostly by jerks. What we should be shooting for in the political arena is what informed citizens in normal places usually shoot for: to get the State off our backs a little and from time to time to replace these jerks with slightly better ones.

Friday, March 17, 2006

I'm slowly recovering from two full days of Purim -- one in My Little Town and another in nearby Al Kuds. The Tish on Monday night was better attended than usual due to the tireless efforts of My Eishes Chaver, who didn't want me to forget that I was hitting a significant birthday.

We took advantage of the speakerphone to call the Neturei Karta guys who visited Teheran last week to tell the regime that Neturei Karta stands foursquare behind them in their struggle against the Zionists. In my finest Hungarian Yiddish I asked various family members to please make sure the message gets to Ahmadenijad that the atomic bombs aimed at Tel Aviv steer clear of Bnei Brak (faran dort etlicher erlicher yiden).

We also spoke to Israel's Minister of Police, Gideon Ezra, to clarify quite how far the cops had to walk barefoot in the snow to get to Amona. We also spoke to Bibi Netanyahu to try to get a handle on his exact position on disengagement. I can't say we got any smarter but they did both answer their own phones and neither one sounded at all surprised that we were calling at 1:30 AM. Oh, did I neglect to mention that I was drunk and overbearing?

For me one highlight of the evening was Treppenwitz playing Miserlou on the trombone -- and not the Pulp Fiction version, but rather a slow shmaltzy Jewish wedding version that I gamely tried to get 50 drunken men to do the moves to in their seats. I think you had to be there. Or not.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Both my parents are long-time members of the chevra kadisha. In years past, my father, in particular, would be frequently called by Mr. Czapnik to come down in middle of the work day to do a taharah and kevurah. The big payoffs were the honey cake we'd get on Erev Rosh Hashanah and the annual Zayin Adar bash my father would attend at the Moriah. (This latter seems to have been a dubious treat since I mainly remember my father complaining about the length of the drashos.) So I'm generally sympathetic to pious paeans to the glories of the chevra occasioned by Zayin Adar.

But a few years ago I got to see Zayin Adar from the consumer side -- and in Israel where the members of the chevra kadisha are paid professionals, not volunteers.

My Tanta Zophie passed away in New York, childless and having already been widowed. The aron arrived in Israel around noon of Zayin Adar. The only melavim were me (I had taken the bus to the airport) and Uncle Duvid (Tanta Z's brother, who had accompanied the aron). The chevra told us to hop in the back of the van with the aron. Whatever. The only problem was that the van didn't turn off at Har Hamenuchot. Instead we went winding through the streets of Geulah until we came to a stop in some alley. It seems the gang was not about to miss the big Zayin Adar bash just for Tanta Z. They were kind enough to invite Uncle D and myself to partake. By the time the boys were ready to get to work and we drove out to the field, it was dark. They put Tanta Z in the ground without fanfare and covered her up in about thirty seconds. As they began to pile back into the van, Uncle D asked if they had a minute for a quick hesped. Everybody waited on their heels as he mumbled a few sentences in Yiddish about his departed sister (a gantz feiner froi). Then we all got back in the van and one of the boys pulled out plastic cups and a bottle of schnapps from the glove compartment and passed around shots. No reason to be cheated out of the last shot just because of work.

Don't be shocked. That really is just how Tanta Z would have wanted it.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

I just got back from almost two weeks in the States, most of which was spent in one of those sprawling suburbs north of Miami. I just don't get why anybody would want to live in places where nobody walks on the street because there's no place you can walk to and nothing to see on the way. It sort of reminded me of Los Angeles just without the film industry to make it even slightly distinctive. OK, so it was about 50 degrees warmer than New York.

Apart from being professionally productive, the visit did inspire a thought. Rabbinical schools should be abolished. Instead all potential Rabbis should learn only the following:

1. When a guest introduces himself to you, ask him where he's from, what has brought him to your town and if he has somewhere to eat. (Here's where my train of thought began...)
2. When people come to you with problems, listen and empathize. If anybody is too sick, weak or helpless to come to you, go to them.
3. Sermons: Start with a joke. Quote Rashi. Don't quote the New York Times. Over-enunciating (especially the long o) sounds pompous. Seven minutes tops.
4. Shailos:
shabbos -- look it up in SSK (1st ed.);
kashrus -- milchig with milchig or fleishig with fleishig - ok, milchig with fleishig - bad;
nidah -- reddish on white and bigger than a penny - bad; missed the first or seventh day bedikah - bad, middle days - ok.
pesach -- microwave soapy water until it boils and spills over;
aveilus -- during shiva, it's probably assur; after that just wing it, nobody has a clue;
mamzeirus -- pick up the phone at once.

I don't care if you know Siman Kuf Yud in Yoreh Deah by heart with all the nosei keilim. If you can't manage the above, find a different profession.