Wednesday, December 29, 2010

What If Israel Ceases to Be a Democracy?

Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic asks: What If Israel Ceases to Be a Democracy?
Is it actually possible that one day Israelis -- Jewish Israelis -- would choose to give up democracy in order to maintain Israel's Jewish voting majority? Some people, of course, argue that Israel has ceased to be a democracy, because there is nothing temporary about the 43-year-old occupation of the West Bank. I believe it is premature to talk about the end of Israel as a democratic state -- mainly because the disposition of the West Bank is still undecided -- but I can't say that the thought hasn't crossed my mind that one day Israelis will make the conscious, active decision to preserve the state's Jewish character instead of its democratic character (I use the word "Jewish" in the demographic sense, not the moral sense, obviously).

As I wrote last week, there's very little Israel's right-wing government has done in the past year or so to suggest that it is willing to wean itself from its addiction to West Bank settlements, and the expansion of settlements bodes ill for the creation of a Palestinian state -- and the absence of Palestinian statehood means that Israel will one day soon confront this crucial question concerning its democratic nature: Will it grant West Bank Arabs the right to vote, or will it deny them the vote? If it grants them the vote, this will be the end of Israel as a Jewish state; if it denies them the vote in perpetuity, it will cease to be a democratic state.
And David Remnick of the New Yorker says I can't take the occupation any more.
A new generation of Jews is growing up in the US. Their relationship with Israel is becoming less patient and more problematic. They see what has happened with the Rabbinical Letter [proscribing rental and sale of property to Arabs -- DR], for example. How long can you expect that they’ll love unconditionally the place called Israel [sic]? You’ve got a problem. You have the status of an occupier since 1967. It’s been happening for so long that even people like me, who understand that not only one side is responsible for the conflict and that the Palestinians missed an historic opportunity for peace in 2000, can’t take it anymore.
“The US administration is trying out of good will to get a peace process moving and in return Israel lays out conditions like the release Jonathan Pollard. Sorry, it can’t go on this way. The Jewish community is not just a nice breakfast at the Regency. You think it’s bad that a US President is trying to make an effort to promote peace? That’s what’s hurting your feelings? Give me a break, you’ve got bigger problems. A shopping list in exchange for a two month moratorium on settlement construction? Jesus [sic].
Earlier this year, Yosi Even-Kama, an Israeli student at the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, produced his final project about the destruction of Israeli democracy through a right-wing revolt.
The controversial final project of a graduate of the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design has Israel's religious community up in arms. Yossi Even-Kama's "State of Judea" exhibit, which has been posted on Facebook and picked up by various religious websites, is a fictional depiction of the gradual death of Israeli democracy in the years 2020-2023 and the establishment of a religious, anti-democratic state in its place.

I'm not so sure that Even-Kama's scenario is the most likely - there certainly seem to be strong anti-democratic figures in Israel today who are not religious (like Avigdor Lieberman, surely the worst foreign minister Israel has ever had). But if Israel does abandon democracy, the extreme right-wing religious Zionists will probably also play a part.

Last summer, when I was visiting Israel, a right-wing group called Im Tirtzu attacked Israeli higher education for its supposed anti-Zionist bias. They sent a letter to the president of Ben Gurion University demanding that she change certain supposedly anti-Zionist academic programs within thirty days, and advising potential donors not to contribute to the university.
The Im Tirtzu Zionist movement is threatening to deter philanthropists from donating to the Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba if it doesn't change its "anti-Zionist bias in the Politics and Government Department."

The movement sent a letter to University President Prof. Rebecca Carmi threatening to ask donors to deposit their funds to a trust fund managed by a lawyer should the university fail to meet their demands within 30 days, and replace some of the staff and change the study program.

Im Tirtzu claims that the university employs more leftists that rightists in its academic staff. According to the activists, President Carmi allowed "the academic dictatorship to gain control of academic freedom and considerably limit intellectual pluralism."

Im Tirtzu director Ronen Shoval and Erez Tadmor, head of the movement's policy and PR department presented data from a report the movement issued which found a "post-Zionist bias" in the political science faculties in various Israeli universities.

According to the report, nine out of 11 academic staff members in the Ben-Gurion Politics and Government Department are involved in political activity which champions "radical Left" agendas. It is stated that three out of 6 doctoral candidates signed a petition supporting Dr. Neve Gordon who called for a boycott of Israel. "We implore you to put and end of the anti-Zionist bias and the exclusion of Zionist students and researchers from the department."

The Zionist movement also threatened to urge students to leave the university. "We shall employ all legal means at our disposal to bring this information to the attention of current and future students as well as elements supporting the university in Israel and aboard," it was stated.

"We want them to take the report seriously, check the claims and stop burying their heads in the sand thinking all is permitted to them," Tadmor told Ynet. "Their dismissive attitude attests to the severity of the problem. I don't want them to fire lecturers. I find it unreasonable that 90% of the senior staff are radical left-wingers just as it is unreasonable for a workplace to have a complete majority of men. It's obvious there is discrimination."

The Ben-Gurion University stated in response: "The university is not in a habit of holding periodical examinations of its staff members' political positions. Such a demand and a demand to "balance" the staff members' political views is extremely reminiscent of McCarthyism and goes against the democratic principles on which the State of Israel was founded. Can it be conceived that a university or any other institution fire or hire employees on the basis of their political opinions?"
The Israeli education minister, Gideon Saar, appeared to support at least in part the agenda of Im Tirtzu. He attended a conference earlier in the year organized by the group and said that he would take their report seriously. In remarks he made to the Knesset in late June, 2010, he stated the following:
Sa'ar said: "I think that the Im Tirtzu report is important in the sense that it generates public debate. It is important to examine the issues raised in the report." In his statements to the plenum [of the Knesset], Sa'ar referred specifically to professors who have backed calls to boycott Israeli universities.

"This is something that is impossible to accept," Sa'ar said. "I have already spoken about this with the head of the Higher Education Council's planning and budgeting committee [Manuel Trajtenberg], and there will be measures taken vis-a-vis the heads of these institutions. This matter is on our agenda - and we plan on taking action over the course of the summer."

Ariel seemed to understand Sa'ar as saying he plans to investigate the charges. His office released a statement reading: "The education minister said that he plans on thoroughly probing the charges made by Im Tirtzu this coming summer."

A spokesperson for Trajtenberg refused to comment when reached by Haaretz, deferring to Sa'ar's office.

"It would behoove the education minister to ignore the report, which emits an aroma of McCarthyism," said Professor Yossi Ben-Artzi, the rector of the University of Haifa. "I hope he will understand the gravity of the very fact of monitoring and informing on lecturers, and of whether he even needs to take seriously an organization like Im Tirtzu, which causes incitement." Earlier this year Sa'ar took part in a conference organized by Im Tirtzu. "I place great importance in this gathering," he said. "Campus activism is hugely vital, and this is what you are doing. For this, you will be blessed." "I very much appreciate this work, which gives expression to an authentic Zeitgeist felt by the public and is much needed on our campuses," Sa'ar said of Im Tirtzu. "I came to tell you: God speed.
Sa'ar on the other hand did oppose the ultimatum given to Ben-Gurion University by Im Tirtzu:
Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar's office stated that, "Regardless of the claims relating to pluralism within Israeli academia and other issues, Education Minister and Chairman of the Committee for Higher Education Gideon Sa'ar discounts any move that is liable to harm donations to universities in Israel and their conditions."

Friday, December 10, 2010

Westboro Baptist Church vs. sanity: picketing Elizabeth Edwards' funeral

Honestly, the world really is going to hell in a handbasket, as my grandmother might have said!

Elizabeth Edwards Funeral To Be Picketed By Westboro Baptist Church. Reading their insane announcement about Edwards' funeral, what seems to anger them most is that she said, "I'm not praying to God to save me from cancer."

In my opinion, what she said was admirable. Unlike so many people, she didn't try to fool herself into thinking that God would intervene to stop her cancer. NPR has an interview with Jonathan Alter, who spoke with her in 2007 about her life.
INSKEEP: When you sat down with Elizabeth Edwards how did the two of you talk about such a personal subject?
Mr. ALTER: Well, this was after her recurrence in 2007. And for those who are listening who've had cancer, had somebody close to them with cancer, you know, that it's kind of a club, almost. It's a way of looking at the world that is impossible if you haven't experienced it.
So we bonded, pretty quickly, even though I wasn't a particular supporter of her husband's campaign. And what struck me in that interview shortly after recurrence, was her brutal honesty, which I think the rest of the world came into contact with in later years.
INSKEEP: What do you mean?
Mr. ALTER: Especially struck by how honest she was on the issue of faith, which most presidential candidates and their spouses have - are required almost, by the world we live in, to talk with great sincerity about their religious faith.
And what Elizabeth said on that particular occasion, was that she couldn't see how she could believe in a god who would blow her 16-year-old son off the road and kill him in an auto accident in 1996. And that any god who could do that, was a god that she was not going to be praying to to cure her cancer. Because if he wouldn't save her son, he wasn't going to save her. And that just was reflective of the degree of honesty that she achieved after she had this horrible life experience.
From a profile of Edwards, quoted in Politics Daily:
"I have, I think, somewhat of an odd version of God," Edwards explained to an audience of women bloggers when asked how her beliefs inform her politics. "I do not have an intervening God. I don't think I can pray to him -- or her -- to cure me of cancer."

Edwards, according to Stan, laughed after describing God as "her" -- hardly a heresy and certainly understandable given her audience -- and continued on:

"I appreciate other people's prayers for that [a cure for her cancer], but I believe that we are given a set of guidelines, and that we are obligated to live our lives with a view to those guidelines. And I don't believe that we should live our lives that way for some promise of eternal life, but because that's what's right. We should do those things because that's what's right."
From an interview with Larry King:
In the weeks and months after Wade's death, she told King, "I had this idea that God was going to find some way to turn back time and he was going to be alive." She continued to ask herself, as many do, whether she had done something wrong -- did she not teach him well enough, not get him a safe enough car? And then when cancer struck, and her husband's affair was revealed, she agonized about the possibility of her own cosmic cooperation in it all.

"And I have to recognize with each of these things, they just happen," she told King. "You didn't have to do something wrong to justify them."

But she added, "You still sort of wonder: Is there some grand plan where you've done something someplace else?"

Edwards said she had to move on from such magical and negative thinking, and she quoted a line from the Bill Moyers PBS special on the Book of Genesis, to the effect that "You get the God you have, not the God you want."

"The God I wanted was going to intervene. He was going to turn time back. The God I wanted was -- I was going to pray for good health and he was going to give it to me," she said. "Why in this complicated world, with so much grief and pain around us throughout the world, I could still believe that, I don't know. But I did. And then I realized that the God that I have was going to promise me salvation if I lived in the right way and he was going to promise me understanding. That's what I'm sort of asking for . . . let me understand why I was tested."

Such openness to doubt and, in particular, to the persistence of suffering runs counter to powerful currents of American Christianity that stress the blessings (mostly material) that will flow to those who believe (and donate), as well as to the premium so many Christians place on voicing a confident and undiluted conviction, no matter what the reality.
It's that last point - the openness to doubt and especially to the persistence of suffering - that is so important. I don't think that religion should be used to shield us from the reality of suffering, to make us pretend that suffering doesn't exist - for each and every one of us, no matter how rich or successful we may end up being. We all die in the end, often in pain, often in loneliness. I don't see the point of religion which cloaks that reality. That's why the books of Job and Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) are so important - perhaps we need to read them more often, rather than wasting our time on spiritual pabulum that soothes us while at the same time lying to us.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Happy eighth day of Hanukkah! חג אורים שמח!

Enough with the serious business - here are some photos of my Hanukkah candles tonight (first two photos). The third is a close-up photo of one of the rooms on a shelf I created with my childhood dollhouse furniture - the cat crouched to strike is a new acquisition. And the fourth is my very own cat, Zachary, looking up at me as I sit in front of the computer.




Saturday, December 04, 2010

Wikileaks

As much as I don't like the both cynical and naive reasoning that those in charge of Wikileaks give for publishing the U.S. State Department cables, I'm coming to the conclusion that their doing so is not such a bad thing. There's fascinating information coming out: about our relations with quite a variety of countries, about how Iran is seen by Arab countries, about how the Chinese government in all probability has sponsored many hackers' attacks against U.S. government targets, etc. The release of the cables is clearly embarrassing for the U.S. government (and may make diplomacy harder), but to my eyes the cables reveal the government doing a lot of things right.

And I'm increasingly disturbed by the vindictive attacks on Assange (again, as much as I don't like him), including calls for his assassination.

If you're interested in perusing the cables that have been published thus far, they are currently available at: Cable Viewer.