Monday, January 26, 2009

The good Knesset members are the ones who are steadfast in their loyalties and commitments, but still know how to find common ground with others. MK Harav Avraham Ravitz, who passed away yesterday, was one of the good guys.

On matters of religion and state, he knew what was important and what was not. One example, of which I have personal knowledge, involved discussions between Ravitz and a certain MK from Shinui, who would go at each other quite viciously in committee meetings on constitutional issues involving religion. When the chips were down, though, the two of them reached important compromises that protected the key interests of their respective constituencies.

Ravitz struggled to get Haredi education funded on the basis of clear and measurable principles, rather than intrigues behind closed doors. Unfortunately, his struggle was not against the chilonim, but rather against Haredi makhers, who -- as he well understood -- preferred that matters be settled in the smoke-filled rooms so that the yeshivot would be dependent on their wheeling-dealing. In general, he was brutally honest about Haredi politics. He once commented to me with some embarrassment that a certain reasonable compromise had been killed by the Haredi side because "some kanoi fed narishkeit" to a certain rov.

With MK Harav Ravitz's passing, the Haredi world lost an effective spokesman. But more broadly, the Knesset lost an effective and thoughtful parliamentarian and the Jewish People lost a devoted servant and mentsch.

Friday, January 23, 2009

To the surprise of absolutely nobody, the Supreme Court accepted the appeals of the Arab parties Ra'am-Ta'al and Balad against the decision of the Elections Board that had disqualified them from running in the upcoming elections.

The background is this. Basic Law: The Knesset makes quite explicit who is ineligible to run for the Knesset. Paragraph 7a states that any party (or candidate) that has among its aims (1) the negation of the Jewish and democratic character of the State, or (2) incitement to racism, or (3) support of an armed struggle against the State is ineligible. The Elections Law clarifies that the determination of in/eligibility is made by the Elections Committee (which consists of representatives of the parties, though not necessarily MKs).

Now, Balad, which was lead for many years by Azmi Bishara, who has fled the country amidst charges of spying for Hizbollah during the Lebanon war, would seem to be a prime candidate for disqualification on points (1) and (3) (and possibly (2) as well, even though that item is intended for Jews). Armed with plenty of evidence, Aviad B began pushing the case for disqualification. Yisrael Beiteinu, which knows a good thing when it sees one, quickly took over the case. Ichud Leumi jumped into the fray and sought disqualification of Ra'am-Ta'al (Ahmad Tibi's party) as well.

In the end, the committee voted 26-3 to disqualify Balad and 21-3 to disqualify Ra'am-Ta'al. (Representatives of the Labor party supported the disqualification of Balad but not that of Ra'am-Ta'al. BTW, this didn't stop Ofir Pines-Paz from attacking the decision as if his own party hadn't voted for it.)

According to Paragraphs 63-64 of the Elections Law, the determination of ineligibility with regard to an individual candidate requires confirmation by the Supreme Court (which means they can rule on substance), while determination of ineligibility of a party can be appealed to the Supreme Court (which sounds like they can only rule on procedural grounds). In any event, the Court over-ruled the disqualification, but has not yet given the grounds for their ruling.

Don't hold your breath that any legal grounds are forthcoming, since there aren't any. The Attorney General opined that the cases lacked evidence. This is a stretch to say the least. In the case of Balad, the party's response to the charges essentially confirmed them. The only argument that can be made in defense of Balad is that the Court holds that the law should say that a party is disqualified only if it advocates violent means to negate the Jewish and democratic character of the State. But, of course, the law does not actually say that.

The Court's over-reaching aside, I doubt that we stand to gain much by keeping marginal extremist parties out of the Knesset. It won't change the balance of power in the Knesset, nor will it diminish the dissemination of pernicious views. These views should be thoroughly discredited as vile, anti-Semitic and dangerous; outlawing the parties that promote them is one way to achieve that goal, but hardly the most effective one. Law is a poor substitute for substance.

In general, the law for disqualifying parties should be exceedingly difficult to invoke. The temptation for political parties to disqualify each other must be quite great and allowing them to disqualify on the basis of intentions is surely an invitation to mischief. And, if the religious parties ever get their act together and threaten the powers that be, you can bet that someone (probably Ofir Pines-Paz) will get the bright idea that they wish to negate the democratic character of the State.

Monday, January 19, 2009

A few comments on the just-ended war in Gaza and how it has and will effect our relationships with Europe, with Hamas and with each other.

By far the most important lesson from this war is that Israelis have the will and the ability to fight and fight well. This war showed that many of the weaknesses exposed by the Lebanon fiasco have been addressed. Also, whether or not Rachel Imeinu actually showed up to give combat tips, this war will -- in retrospect -- come to be seen as a salient step in the ascendancy of traditionalism as the cornerstone of a new Israeli ethos. (Ironically, the imminent demise of sectarian Religious Zionist politics is another key step in this ascendancy; more about this another time.)

In terms of its impact on Hamas, it obviously would have been better if we bombed them until they cried Uncle. We could have made a laundry list of demands including the release of Gilad Schalit, the beginning of the disbanding of UNWRA and so on. But, the truth is that that was never a realistic goal and further fighting is unlikely to have achieved it. A realistic goal that was not achieved, and for which we will pay a huge price, is retaking the Philadelphi route. This was a blunder, plain and simple. Other than that, the war restored our deterrence and destabilized the Hamas regime in the long run. My guess is that we will not be seeing many rockets for a good while now. (I hope tomorrow's headlines don't prove the foolishness of publishing predictions.)

On the diplomatic front, a few good things and a few bad ones. The bad ones all are closely tied to our Foreign Minister being a complete moron. The main culprit in the events that made this war inevitable is Egypt, which aided and abetted weapons smuggling into Gaza from the beginning. But instead of shouting this from the rooftops and taking measures to pressure Egypt into allowing others to prevent smuggling, our Foreign Ministry allowed Egypt to take center stage as peacemaker and negotiator. In the end, as many times before, Livni placed her faith in worthless paper and photo-ops for preventing smuggling from Egypt into Gaza instead of ensuring a physical presence on the border that might actually achieve this. (Olmert had a moment of pleasure at her expense when he sent her off to the U.S. to sign a meaningless document so that she'd miss the press conference where he declared victory.)

The good development on the diplomatic front is the one that, to my amusement, gets most people of good will rather exercised. Europeans (and Jewish apostates) are truly threatened by our moral superiority. The obviousness of this superiority so frightens them that they twist themselves into pretzels trying to level the playing field. Trust me, friends, you needn't shout yourselves blue in the face explaining that the goyim wouldn't set up humanitarian corridors for their enemies' benefit in middle of a war. For God's sake, who knows this better than them? They are the Goyim; you think they don't know what goyim would and wouldn't do? The more hysterically they try to tear us down, the more certain you can be that they get the point.

All I want from the Europeans is that they fear and respect us. That roving band of clueless European Ministers posing for photos today wasn't here after Lebanon, if you know what I mean. Fear and respect.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

When rockets started to land in Ashdod, the heads of the Grodno Yeshiva (a satellite of Ponevezh in Ashdod) asked the great sage Rav Elyashiv shlit"a what to do. This is what Rav Elyashiv shlit"a said:

Under no circumstances should the yeshiva leave Ashdod. First of all, the zechus of their Torah learning would protect them. It is incumbent upon them to have bitachon in Hashem. Second, it would harm the morale of others in Ashdod if the Yeshiva were to abandon them, especially as the people of Ashdod are extremely cognizant of the great merit that the Yeshiva brings to their town. Third, since the bochurim are young and able-bodied and many people in the town are elderly or sick, it is important for the bochurim to do all they can to help those people who need assistance. Of course, since the reason that the bochurim are not involved in the war effort as soldiers is that they are immersed in learning, it is especially important that every moment not spent on chessed be spent on learning.

The kiddush Hashem that the Grodno Yeshiva caused through their exemplary behavior in Ashdod during the course of the war in Gaza is no doubt one of the reasons that Tzahal has been zocheh to such success in the war effort. May Hashem grant Rav Elyashiv arichus yamim veshanim and continued ability to shepherd Klal Yisrael with the wisdom and compassion that has characterized his leadership for so many years.

Monday, January 12, 2009

I've been deliberately avoiding politics during the war but I want to test out a piece I was asked to write about why I'm voting for Likud. Any comments will be duly note for the final version.

The core of the next government will consist of Likud and Kadima. From Netanyahu's point of view, it would be madness to try to hold together a narrow majority including Yisrael Beiteinu and three or four religious parties, each with its own agenda. Once he brings Kadima into the fold, the other parties will line up to join the coalition at virtually no cost.

What then remains to be decided? Only the extent of Likud's leverage in the negotiations with Kadima. If Likud can wield a plausible right-wing alternative in its negotiations with Kadima, it will be the dominant partner; otherwise, it will pay a steep price to land and keep Kadima.

The difference between a Likud-led government with Kadima in it and a Likud-Kadima government may sound subtle, but it is crucial. The next government will be faced, inter alia, with two central tasks. First, it will need to reframe the terms in which the Arab-Israeli conflict has been so recklessly conceived since the Oslo days. It is not a dispute that requires a solution, it is a war that requires victory. Second, it will need to remedy the systemic flaws, beginning with a selectively hyperactive justice system, that permit a self-appointing post-Zionist elite to wield inordinate power over state policy.

I confess that it is not clear that, with regard to these two issues, Likud is the solution. What is clear is that Kadima is part of the problem and Likud offers an upgrade. With regard to the first issue, Bibi, and especially some of his defense advisors, at least appreciate the lunacy of the negotiations in which Kadima, and especially the ever-desperate Livni, are so over-invested, though it is admittedly unlikely that they will withstand American pressure to keep these negotiations on the agenda. With regard to the second issue, Bibi and most of the Likud may fear the ruling elite, but at least -- for the most part -- they don't identify with them. (Unfortunately, I need to temper even that modest claim with the observation that three of the Likud's leading candidates for Justice Minister are poodles of Bagatz -- one out of convenience, one out of willful naivete, and one out of sheer snobbery.)

As unattractive as are the two options -- a Likud government with Kadima in it or a Likud-Kadima government -- it is clear that our objective must be to achieve the former option. There are no others. And the best way to strengthen Likud vis-a-vis Kadima is to vote for Likud.

Those who believe that Mafdal or Ichud Leumi can "restrain Bibi from the right" might consider the real difference between those parties. The Mizrochnikim in Mafdal imagine that failing to kowtow to the powers-that-be is a repudiation of Zionism itself. (For those who've forgotten, Mafdal's failure to leave Sharon's government even on the eve of the Knesset vote on the hitnatkut bill facilitated passage of that bill.) They will sit in any government and will have absolutely no influence. The ideologues of Ichud Leumi, on the other hand, only know what ought to be done lechatchila, and have nothing useful to contribute to politics, which is the art of the bedieved. They will not sit in any government and will have absolutely no influence. For precisely that reason, the more seats they have, the less the chances of a narrow right-wing coalition and hence the less leverage Likud has against Kadima.

In fact, the only party that can restrain Bibi from the right is Likud. So, hold your nose and vote Likud.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

I've been feeling awful about going on with my everyday life, while people in the south are suffering and soldiers are fighting. So I went down to Sderot to visit my friend Miki who has been living there for the past year. I hoped that I might somehow make myself useful there, even if only by showing the locals some solidarity.

You'll have to forgive me but I'm going to have to slide into sappy cliches here because there is no other way to describe what I experienced. I think I met a fair number of the world's lamed-vav tzadikim there. Miki himself is a well-known figure who could spend his time seeking publicity. But, as I shlepped around Sderot with him this is what transpired:

As we walked through the streets, your typical development town bench-sitters came over to discuss the matzav. The standard hello is "If we had done this eight years ago after the first Kassam, or at least after the first Kassam after the hitnatkut, we wouldn't be in this mess." There ends the "duh" part of the dialogue. Here's the continuation. First guy: "Since the Kassam hit my house last year, my wife has been paralyzed and I have to take care of our four kids by myself. And three weeks ago I had to close my shop, since there's no street traffic." Second guy: "But, baruch hashem, we're not miskenim. I'm just worried about my son in Gaza. Oh, and my daughter. Ever since she was injured by a Kassam two years ago, she hasn't been able to go to school."

Then, suddenly a loud recorded voice "Tzeva Adom, Tzeva Adom" sends everyone scurrying for the nearest shelter. A few seconds later there's a loud boom and everyone resumes what they were doing without comment.

Miki takes me to check out a bomb shelter outfitted as an after-school hangout where Ethiopian kids can get help with homework and play on computers Miki managed to find funding for. A fellow in his early twenties with a nose ring who directs the activities calmly explains to Miki what problems need attention and Miki makes a few calls to try to solve them.

As we drive to another such shelter, another Tzeva Adom sends us racing to the nearest bus shelter. Wait for the boom, resume life. I'm beginning to get the idea.

Another shelter better outfitted than the first with board games, art supplies, computers and mattresses. A young fellow with three earrings is taking care of Yisrael Meir and a few other kids of varying ages and backgrounds. He tells me that the shelter functions 24 hours a day since some families are afraid to stay in their apartments at night. Miki listens to the list of problems, makes some calls to solve them. No reporters, no photographers.

Next we head to a bomb shelter to which City Hall has relocated. This is headquarters also for pikud ha-oref, in charge of dealing with the fallout from the Kassams. As soon as we enter, another Tzeva Adom and then, immediately after, another. Everyone jumps into action. No need to run-- this shelter could probably withstand a nuclear warhead -- but presumably everyone down here has some job to do when a rocket lands.

Then we head over to a hill on the edge of town that overlooks Gaza. Various photographers, police and just gawkers come and go. One local couple has brought a lawn chair and binoculars and provide commentary. The routine is machine gun fire ("That's our guys trying to prevent an imminent rocket launch") followed by a puff of smoke ("We missed. The black smoke means it's a grad, the angle of the smoke show's it's headed towards Beer Sheva.") Up here, we have time to talk some politics and Miki asks me to explain to him again why I think Feiglin was ripped off by the decision to lower him on the list. He gets it.

Another Tzeva Adom. I'm beginning to get blase.

On the way back to my home planet, I stop in Ofakim to visit my son, who's with a bunch of teenagers volunteering. They're taking care of kids in a shelter. He hasn't got a nose ring or earrings, but he's a good kid.