Archive for ‘Israel & the Territories’

June 7, 2012

Jews Should Have an Open Way to Buy Land in the West Bank

by Gedalyah Reback

I just posted on my new column at The Times of Israel about this topic in relation to the legal crisis of Ulpana. Ulpana, a single neighborhood in the Israeli settlement of Beit El, is one of six spots in the West Bank scheduled to be demolished because they have no legal standing to exist. It’s not that they are settlements in general. It isn’t that they were built without permits. It’s that they were built on private Palestinian land, something that is actually relatively rare despite the propaganda that Israeli settlements are grabbing territory owned by Palestinians.

An essential to stability in any country is property rights. The American Declaration of Independence cites “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as reasons to pursue a free United States. But that line is a modification of an earlier John Locke quote: “life, liberty and property.” Israelis have been evicted from houses they’ve bought in cities like Hebron which they’ve actually bought. East Jerusalem Arabs often struggle to get building permits for land no one argues they don’t own. The Palestinian Authority maintains not only that it’s illegal to sell land to Israelis, but that it is punishable by execution. The result is a thriving underground market in Jerusalem, Hebron and elsewhere. The entire process is “extra-legal,” daring settlers and Palestinians to go more extreme in their strategy to acquire land outside of conventional legal means. Hence, the entire atmosphere invites more daring action by builders, contractors and people who want land. There is only a minority of cases reaching the courts in Israel, but the docket could be dealing with other issues if only there were an open approach to acquiring and securing property for both Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and in Jerusalem.

Religious Zionists, mostly Orthodox, have a religious obligatlion to live in the Land of Israel. By extension, there’s a strong imperative to own land in the country, enabling stability in the country, being able to build a family and openly pursue other religious precepts and principles like the harvest of first fruits, tithing and of course being able to earn off the value of property via farming or otherwise in order to give charity. Diplomats search in vain for a way to cool tension between lay Jews and Arabs, but they stoke the flames by pushing a dynamic property market underground outside the watchful eye of governments who want to minimize the movement of property that would complicate a sleek, convenient two state solution. That’s to say that powerful parties don’t want land freely changing hands because it could influence drawing an international border between Jewish and Palestinian neighborhoods on the West Bank of the Jordan River.

Courts exist to channel disputes and rivalries through a civilized structure. Property disputes are a common case load for any legal system. Minimizing them goes far to ensure stability by making sure few cases ever have to be brought to court – much less a constitutional, non-claims court like the Israeli Supreme Court.

May 23, 2012

Are Orthodox Jews Diluting the Debate on Homosexuality and Judaism?

by Gedalyah Reback

Orthodox Jews are well aware of the issues homosexuals face, thank God. At least in Modern Orthodox circles, sympathy has become the main theme of the discourse on gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgendered Jews. Sympathy has picked up momentum in my short time living in the community. Without being able to relate, and only really being able to speak for myself though I think it applies across the community, there is an appreciation for the conflict so many people go through trying to balance religiosity with the way they are. Few think people are choosing to create personal conflict within themselves. The community has finally gotten the point.

Living as a gay man while trying to adhere to the constitution that is the body of Jewish Law is a dramatic and possibly a traumatic task. The experience is emotionally grueling and testing. The Jewish community, now indisputably among much of Orthodoxy, understands that, even if they have not reconciled this reality entirely with the religion they practice.

Dovetailing into another issue, speaking only on the intellectual side of things I’ve wondered how my generation is handling it theologically. The mere idea that thousands of people are gay, lesbian or otherwise through no choice of their own runs counter to the spirit of law. If a law can be legislated regulating its practice, that implies there is choice in the matter. But conventional wisdom right now states there is no choice in the matter of sexual orientation. Gay men have no option, so either they are exceptions to the rule or the rule is void. Personally, I don’t think my generation appreciates the dichotomy. My age demographic, maybe one among others, is ignoring this issue.

There has been a lot of talk about gay marriage in just the last month in the Jewish community, both because of Barack Obama’s public support for the idea and the sudden coming out of the closet by Jewish rapper Y-Love. The outpouring of support for Jordan has been immense. He dared to declare very publicly in a community which is going through a quiet crisis over the issue, and people down all the community’s corridors have remained there to support him for who he is. And here the road diverges. Does the support for gay Jews necessarily mean Orthodox Jews will have to recognize gay marriage and gay sexual relations as legitimate, simply because of the existence of gay Jews in the community’s midst? There are few ways to ask this question without provoking some sort of emotional reaction, and I’m not sure I’ve asked it in the best way. But this is indeed where things have become murky for me.

Orthodox Jews my age are frequently coming out in support of gay marriage. Certainly there must be a reasoning to support it given that the Torah is quite explicit regarding gay sex, the necessary corollary to gay nuptials. I don’t see much of the reasoning being based on some in-depth consideration of Jewish law. Instead, I see Jews dancing around the issue entirely.

In the US, it seems like there is a tremendously hefty amount of opinions that since the US is a ‘separation of religion and state’ country. It certainly isn’t a Jewish country and it is not located in the Promised Land, the Land of Israel. There is no concern to get involved in the political affairs of the ‘goyishe medineh’ if there is no need to.

But in Israel, the argument is similar. Last week I read a posting in the Times of Israel arguing that since Israel isn’t a Halachic state, there should be no concern about the issue. Though coming from a Dati Leumi Jew, that seemed to be going way beyond to dance around the issue.

I think both views are sort of cop-outs to the larger theological implications of the entire inyan. On rare occasions have I read a genuine grappling of the reality with the Halacha, which is seldom the approach being taken in the Jewish blogosphere.

I feel like every time I try to write this it always stings at least one person that I’m even putting it out there, as if I’m taking away from the emotional gravity of the issue. I’m fully aware of it and I don’t diminish the weight these issues have. But the discourse from the intellectual side seems to be substantially lacking in my personal opinion. Perhaps there is more literature than I am aware of, but I’m not seeing it as a factor in the Jewish world.

Orthodox Jews, thankfully, recognize the emotional weight of what’s happening. But importantly, there is an intellectual discourse accompanying what is nothing short of a crisis for Orthodox Judaism. As I mentioned earlier, there are massive implications for the religion itself based on the existence of homosexuals. For some reason, this period of history is choosing to mark a dichotomy more than previous ones. Homosexuality has been acknowledged throughout human history. For whatever reason, this debate on how to grapple with homosexuals’ existence is challenging Judaism now.

The most compelling opinion I’ve read has been that of Rabbi Zev Farber. He offers both an important point and an important answer to my question. First, he clarifies homosexual relationships aren’t immoral. They are indeed a problem for Jewish law but not because they create some sort of moral dilemma. Gays don’t perform an immoral act when and if they get together. But more relevant to what I mention above, he states homosexuality is something that might be “beyond the person’s control.” More specifically, he refers to a concept called in Aramaic, “oness rahmana patrei.” Loosely translated, it’s “compulsion God mercifully exempts.” That brings up precedent in Jewish Law that Rabbi Farber says serves to justify the principle’s application here, including emotionally distressing situations involving sex. I urge you the reader to visit this paragraph’s link to get more insight into the idea.

Whether or not Rabbi Farber’s approach is actually correct, it certainly adds to a discourse I feel is lacking. Orthodox Jews are emotionally in the right place, but should invest more consideration into how discourse on the religious side of things and the religious law’s side of things is developing. It is hardly a closed discussion in the world of Jewish Law – the world of Halachah. Certainly, if today’s social developments are to occur in tandem with Orthodox Judaism’s prosperity, appreciating both the situation of devout gay Jews and the foundational laws of Judaism simultaneously is going to have to take place.

May 20, 2012

Israel Deploys Heavy on the Egyptian Border

by Gedalyah Reback

The prospects for the future between Israel and Egypt are still ambiguous. Egypt’s Sinai is more of a worry than it’s been at any other point in the past 30 years. Since last year’s Egyptian Revolution, Egypt’s natural gas pipeline exporting fuel to Israel has been attacked 14 times. Amidst Israel’s lacking popularity with Egyptians, their government suspended its gas deal with Israel two weeks ago, claiming the deal undervalued the exported fuel and demanded renegotiation. But without the threats to the pipeline, there would have been little motivation to implement the move.

This is the first significant move by Israel’s military to prepare for engagement along the Egyptian border. Two major concerns hang over the heads of Israeli security personnel, on the one hand something a near-term concern and on the other a long-term one. Firstly, like with the pipeline, Bedouin in the Sinai desert might present a threat to Israeli tourists in Egypt. There have been terrorist attacks on resorts in the Sinai before, but the concern is more acute now. Egyptian police initially abandoned the Sinai during the revolution last year. They’ve slowly returned to respond to local instability, though after months of sabotage attacks. With some Bedouin motivated by Islamic militancy, the concern is more terrorists might try to infiltrate Israel.

But, Israel took the initiative last month when the high brass of the IDF requested the Knesset authorize a larger reserve call-up than usual to patrol not just the Syrian, but also the Egyptian border. According to the Reserve Duty Law, updated in 2008, veterans can be called up once every three years unless the IDF requests permission to call up more people more frequently. In this case, six battalions will be split between the two borders with permission to call up 16 more if necessary. The threat from armies is not the priority, but the one posed by smuggling and border raids by terrorists. In the words of Deputy Chief of Staff Dan Harel, “The army needs a better ‘answer’ than in the past to the threat.”

There is a fading worry Bashar al-Assad would start a war with Israel to distract Syrians from instability at home, focusing rage on an external tormentor. That would probably split the feeble Syrian army at this point. The real concern is Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Here’s why:

Guns to Gaza

The peninsula is home to two different concerns. In Northern Sinai, Bedouin manage smuggling routes into Gaza. In the beginning of May, the Egyptian government captured a massive cache of weapons heading there. That includes huge caches of captured weapons Libya’s rebels sold to Hamas last year. The north’s main city is slowly slipping out of reach of the rest of Egypt. El-Arish is littered by pictures of the fundamentalist presidential candidate Hazem Abu-Ismail, showing where Egypt’s Sinai is headed. Construction supplies are stolen by corrupt workers and sold off to be smuggled to Gaza. But most unsettling of all, human trafficking is enforcing the industry of these same crime rings, including kidnapping for ransom, torture, rape and organ theft.

Bedouin leaders are unsettled by where their tribes are going. With unemployment as high as 90% in the Sinai, they receive a lot of lip service from the country’s leaders but little practical help. Consequently, smugglers continue to invest in their businesses, the more and more brutally. Despite whatever imperative local chiefs have, they don’t have the power and few have the will to make progress.

Human Trafficking, Organ Trafficking and Slavery

Egypt’s Bedouin are closely related to the tribes in the Israeli Negev. The international border between the two territories is only 100 years old, and for much of that time Israel had control of both areas and no fence separated the areas. Bedouin still wander the desert, crossing borders with ease and without hesitation. Consequently, crime syndicates on the Egyptian side would be well-connected on the Israeli side.

Sudanese and Eritrean refugees are caught in the middle. Escaping the conflict zones in their countries, they head for the closest First World state they can – Israel. Traveling north through Egypt, they hire Bedouin trackers to get them across the desert to an unguarded gap in the Israeli border. Presumably they can restart new lives or head to Europe. But many of them are turned on and kidnapped by their handlers. Taking $3,000 for the service of guiding them through the desert, their relatives are called with demands of $30,000 or even $40,000 for their release. Contacts report the captives are tortured with electric cables, even as they are put on the phone to plead for their families’ help. With Egyptian police failing miserably to enforce order, families are left to sell all their possessions with slim hopes anyway. The European Union has a resolution on the table demanding Egypt do more, acknowledging the situation.

On the Israeli side of the border, the situation is being overlooked. Ministers are actually more concerned with deporting refugees already in Israel than they are about the ones already lost on their way. Concerns, however exaggerated, range from thinking Islamic militants are sneaking into the country to parts of the country being over-run by refugees. No matter the motivation, it is a PR nightmare for the country that the focus is on gettign rid of the refugees rather than saving their brethren from an apparent common enemy.

South Sudan

Israel has built a relationship with South Sudan. The country only went independent last year and has seemed to be the natural ally, being the enemy of Arab northern Sudan. It’s that Sudan, the north, which has fueled much of the conflict that drove refugees to Israel in the first place. Jerusalem has been concerned with arranging deportation with the South Sudanese government, but has invested little into fighting a Bedouin threat that South Sudan also wants stamped out.

Israel will need to shift its focus if it wants to get ahead of the game in the Sinai Peninsula. Bringing attention to the human component of Bedouin crime rings in the Sinai will go a long way in pressuring Egypt to be more aggressive in policing what is supposedly its own territory.

Without more aggressive measures from Cairo, Israel’s different branches of military will have to do the work themselves. That should not mean a full scale invasion, but it would imply a lot more covert activity, making alliances with certain tribes and not others, as well as working with South Sudanese to penetrate and neutralize groups that are smuggling as much armor as they are human cargo.

May 10, 2012

Bringing Kadima into the Government Increases the Possibility of a Multilateral Strike on Iran

by Gedalyah Reback

Shaul Mofaz‘ win in the Kadima primaries just three weeks ago was about a lot more than the survival of Tzipi Livni. Read the postmortem reports about Tzipi Livni’s political career and you find that her inability to compromise with other politicians was what ultimately doomed her candidacy to remain at the top of Kadima. When Ehud Olmert resigned his post in 2008, she couldn’t form a coalition with other political parties and had to hold a new election. Even after winning those elections in March 2009, 28 seats versus Likud’s 27, she still couldn’t compromise enough for any parties in order to get them to agree to joining a new coalition. That’s why second-place Likud ended up leading the government. Livni made things worse by opposing everything Likud did in power, even though they were often continuing a lot of the same policies she supported while she was in power the previous administration.

In reality, this primary was about whether or not to join the Likud-led government. Now Mofaz, former head of the IDF and Minister of Defense, is a member of the administrative Cabinet and Deputy Prime Minister. He has been revered for his performance during the Yom Kippur War and an appropriate leader in the event there were a war with Iran.

And that might be what has made this deal happen. Benjamin Netanyahu would have won the September elections easily, with few parties offering much opposition or alternative. But instead of going to elections and refreshing his term as Prime Minister, which would then be guaranteed to last at least until September 2016, he will lead the largest coalition in Israeli history and its largest cabinet (94/120 Knesset members; 33 members of the cabinet – over a 1/4 of the Knesset). Why? Perhaps because he wants political strength to strike Iran.

When the government he formed took power in Spring 2009, worries circulated worldwide about the direction of policy and particularly the influence of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Leading Yisrael Beitenu, he has been extremely outspoken about the uselessness of the peace process and applied enormous social pressure on Israeli Arabs. Many on the political scene thought there would be massive diplomatic boycotts of the figure, and they’ve been right. Ehud Barak has met with a number of Western leaders in place of Lieberman. Avoiding Lieberman preceded the actual diplomatic crisis two years ago when Israeli commandos killed 9 Turks on a boat running the Gaza blockade. Many people wanted Kadima to join the government in order to blunt Lieberman’s influence and impact policy on the peace process.

What impact this will all have on policies toward settlements and relations with the Palestinians remains to be seen, though the first hints of change are breaking through. But Shaul Mofaz is important for the reason he effectively opposes a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran. His coming in gives the government a number of things. On the one hand, it eases Israel’s trigger finger, which many have speculated has been on the verge of a strike. But on the other hand, Mofaz is a defense man, and a unity government like this might signal leaders’ preparing for a strike and ensuring near universal political approval. Regarding diplomacy, Mofaz becomes the instrument others have hoped for since 2009. He opposes striking Iran, but has called striking Iran under certain scenarios “unavoidable.” He is rational and flexible. He enhances the image of Israel’s government abroad, even by just a bit. Bringing a qualified voice of caution into the mix brings Israel’s position closer to the Western powers negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program. Closing the gap, Israel’s aggressive stance is going to start sounding more rational as Mofaz probably will cool the rhetoric, talk about calculated steps and especially emphasize multilateral, international opposition to an Iranian nuclear weapon.

So if things do break down, Mofaz and his Kadima Party will make it easier to talk alliance with other countries, and maybe even increase international support for a future unilateral Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

May 7, 2012

The Importance of Water: The Ancient Key to Power in the Middle East

by Gedalyah Reback

Historically, the Middle East hosted the most well-known empires known to us today. The Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians and rulers from modern Turkey dominated the region. Rarely if ever was there a power centered in the Land of Israel or Syria that dominated the region. Only with Islam’s Caliphate, centered in 7th century Damascus, did that change. The reason is simply because this area doesn’t have the natural resources to support a large population that Egypt’s Nile or Anatolia’s forests or Iraq’s rivers do. All that is changing today and Israelis should be well aware of it. There are key elements to Israeli technological innovations and its military policies that make it an unprecedented phenomenon in Middle Eastern power.

Water

The main reason Egypt, Anatolia (Turkey) or Iraq have been the homes to the major Middle Eastern powers is because of the access to natural resources. Egypt & Iraq don’t have much in terms of wood or stone – as a matter of fact many of the bricks common citizens used in construction were mud bricks. What they lacked in such things they maintained in water. In the desert Middle East particularly, that has been the fundamental element to power. The Assyrian and Babylonian empires both centered themselves on the Tigris & Euphrates rivers of Iraq. Egypt, of course, has had the Nile. Israel has only the Jordan and it hardly supports a massive population.

But two things have changed the game that give Israel a power advantage. For one, Israel has developed the desalinization industry, converting sea water to fresh drinking water to support a rapidly growing population. Secondly, Egypt and Iraq might be overpopulated. Without this Israeli technology, its use of the aforementioned rivers is excessive. Even though Israel, Jordan & the Palestinians have decimated the health of the Jordan River, desalinization replaces the supply, in fact increasing it and even making Israel a possible exporter of water.

The more Israel increases this resource, the greater its power might become. The fact that producing more water is tied to continuing to develop and refine new technologies also speaks well to the economic power of Israel. This is one of many reasons that Israel’s diplomatic issues and impasse with the Palestinians does not undermine Israel’s strength as much as it would a small state centuries ago.

Navy

Indisputably, that power would be nowhere if it weren’t for the stimulus of Western weapons that have enabled Israel’s modern army. But it’s not just the most capable air force in the Middle East that is giving Israel its might. Israel might control the most powerful navy in Israel’s history. While it has nowhere near the manpower that Turkey has, it does own 4 Dolphin submarines bought from Germany with 2 more on the way. Further, because of Israel’s newly found natural gas wealth resting miles off the coast, its navy is considering an unprecedented build-up of armor to defend against Lebanese and Turkish attacks.

Historically, the empires of the Middle East relied on land power – infantry & cavalry – to conquer and defend. In fact, between 1100 & 1500, the Ayyubid and Mamluk Empires of Egypt had virtually no naval power. The Crusaders had such an advantage that those empires decided to desert the coast of modern Israel and move cities inward, merely to avoid giving their enemies usable ports and a strong foothold on land. Every time a ruler would have the initiative to build a fleet, budget cuts or pressure from conservatives ended the project early. The Ottoman Empire did not repeat this mistake, but they did not possess the power to defeat European naval powers like the Portuguese & Spanish in the early 1500s to stop the rapid expansion of European colonies and thus European power.

With increasing threats from smuggling, terrorists and even Turkey, Israel is on the verge of creating the certifiably strongest navy in Middle Eastern history. Merely maintaining one that can tango with the other powers in the region reads well for Israel’s future in the region, certain to solidify military abilities that historic powers have lacked.

If Israel continues its water projects and rehabilitates the Jordan River & Dead Sea, it would consequently be extending its technological abilities and the ecological health of the country. In so doing, it would enhance the natural strength of the country and the availability of natural resources. If that is an indicator of where countries can go, the Jewish State would theoretically be on the path to becoming, at least on a regional level, a superpower.

April 30, 2012

Considering the Holocaust, Will Israel Have the Balls to Recognize the Armenian Genocide?

by Gedalyah Reback

Originally posted in The Beacon Mag

Last May, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin pledged he’d recognize the Armenian Genocide in the Knesset. Rivlin’s a moderate in the Likud Party, but he’s been a hawk on the issue. For five years, the Knesset has been debating commemorating the Ottoman Empire’s crimes. In 2011, they finally made the discussions public. So why is it so hard to acknowledge something that even Hitler supposedly did as early as 1939? According to one translation, the scumbag put it this way:

“Only thus shall we gain the living space (Lebensraum) which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

So until now what’s kept Israel from acknowledging the disaster? Quite simply, it would piss off Turkey.

Jews in other places around the world recognize the crime, and the Turks aren’t around to bully them into not. The USC Shoah Foundation, which sports many high-value Jewish donors, is adding 400 recorded testimonies from survivors of the Armenian Genocide to its archives. This is a major change for the foundation’s Institute, which has only focused on the Holocaust till now. In 2007, the Anti-Defamation League recognized the WWI massacres. The Zionist Organization of America also recognizes it. But the ADL’s head Abraham Foxman did so only after pressure from inside his organization. While Foxman wanted to protect Israel’s diplomatic position, his own organization pressured him to face the facts. Inside Israel, now that Turkey’s on the outs with Jerusalem, what could possibly justify continuing this ridiculous policy?

Azerbaijan. Despite whatever denials the government here in Israel cooks up, the security asset the Azeris are in the fight against Iran is tremendous. Israel might use Azerbaijan as a staging ground to attack nuclear sites, so reports say, so now denying the Armenian Genocide seems as important as ever. On April 6th, an Azerbaijani news outlet got to interview the country’s ambassador from Israel. What he said was revealing:

Question: Recently, the committee of the Knesset has discussed so called “Armenian genocide”. Will this issue come to the agenda of the Israeli parliament?
Ambassador Michael Lotem: The committee will discuss, but I think it will not go beyond. This issue should be kept to historians, not dealt by the politicians.

No matter how many meetings there are in the Knesset, Israel’s Foreign Ministry still seems to be revealing the country’s intent. Any Knesset meeting on the subject is a publicity stunt aimed at scaring the Turks. It’s not serious. It’s embarrassing as a country so intent on highlighting the devastation of the Holocaust that its leaders are apathetic to the idea of recognizing other crimes. Benjamin Netanyahu has used the Holocaust as a point of comparison to Iran’s intent regarding Israel’s Jews, so what good could it possibly do to diminish another genocide and risk diluting the significance of the Holocaust in the eyes of the world?

Turkey still refuses to recognize the magnitude or viciousness of the slaughter, arguing the numbers of those killed and the circumstances – battle as opposed to systematic murder. But a wave of European countries do not just recognize the event but criminalize denying it. On April 9th, it was reported the head of the Slovakian Supreme Court would have any Turkish official prosecuted if he dared deny the genocide on Slovakian soil. France pissed off Turkey several year ago when it passed its own version of the law. France’s statute was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court there, but the attitude toward the event is clearly on equal terms to how countries treat denial of the Holocaust. Europe is awash with these laws. Germany is the most famous for it, but in other countries the statutes exist: Austria, France, Poland and Portugal. Spain is more lenient about denial per se, but specifically prosecutes justifying the Holocaust. Israel has its laws outlawing Holocaust denial, but hasn’t even brought itself to acknowledge the mere happening of the Armenian tragedy.

Recognizing it will deepen Israel’s relationship with Turkey’s rivals: Greece and Cyprus. Turkey usually threatens consequences for diplomatic ties if another country recognizes the genocide. That threat means little these days in Jerusalem. Without leverage on Israel, the Jewish voice on the matter will weigh heavy against Turkey in the court of international opinion. Whatever problems Israel has diplomatically, its authority on genocide issues and its intimate connection to the Holocaust make the Jewish point of view extremely important to advocates of genocide prevention and recognition (see Armenia, Rwanda, Darfur).

Otniel Schneller, a member of the parliament, rolled out the identical argument for avoiding the issue as others had in the past, saying “Sometimes our desire to be right and moral overcomes our desire to exist, which is in the interest of the entire country.” But it’s more paranoid than proven that Turkey or Azerbaijan could have such a devastating effect on Israeli security. Turkey’s relationship has gone to crap with Israel, Syria and Iraq over the last several years, leaving it with little leeway for its own foreign policy in the region and thus little to threaten Israel with. Regarding Israel, the Jewish state lets other countries dictate its talk in the strangest ways, and the state is only undermining its assertiveness letting pressure from a non-ally, Turkey, bully the Jewish state into avoiding a simple moral statement. Turkey and Azerbaijan still need Israel as an ally against Iran; not just the other way around. Not acknowledging Jewish sovereignty on the issue is not merely impotent, but hits at the ‘galus’ mentality.

Recognizing the “Forgotten Holocaust” this year is a promise of Rivlin’s, but he’ll have to put his money where his mouth is to end this embarrassing situation. Rivlin and the entire Knesset will soon get their shot. It’s disgraceful it’s taken so long, but perhaps this year the ball will drop.

April 29, 2012

Israel Heading toward Elections over Ultra Orthodox (not) in the Army

by Gedalyah Reback

For the first time in years, a serious threat has been levied at the Israeli status quo on the issue of Ultra Orthodox Jews serving in the Israeli army. Ultra Orthodox Jews, for many reasons, often won’t serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), needless to say rarely approaching units like infantry or tanks. Many instead spend their early adult years attending Yeshivas with their tuition & livelihoods subsidized by government grants. There is indeed a substantial bureaucracy which regulates the practice and therefore is employed to deal with it. The mechanism by which the machinery runs is a piece of legislation called the Tal Law, named after the head of the committee that researched how to reform the practice of exempting Ultra Orthodox Jews from the IDF.

The Tal Committee was run by Tzvi Tal, a Justice on the Israeli Supreme Court, starting in 1999. By 2002, the committee was set up because on the one hand, the exemptions weren’t exactly legal. The Supreme Court itself had decided that there needed to be a formal law regulating it. At the time, since the early 70s, it was by a sort of executive order from the Minister of Defense that had granted the exemptions.

One might ask though why this has gone on so long. This is one of, if not the main issue characterizing social and political differences between secular & religious Israelis. The non-involvement of Ultra Orthodox Jews in the military characterized their rejection of the state. Continuing the practice seemed not just to be a rejection of Israelis’ patriotic sentiments, but also a sort of apathy for the Israelis who would go out and defend the Jews living in Israel from external threats. This week, a protest camp has been set up outside the Knesset called “The Suckers’ Tent,” referring to the apparent position of people who must enter the army and not enjoy both exemption and simultaneous financial benefits for attending Yeshivas.

The Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional in February. The law was supposed to create a framework where Yeshiva students would go to school and then decide between limited forms of military service or non-military national service. In practice, students have been able to indefinitely postpone doing either.

Evolved Problem

In the early 70s, the amount of army-eligible males taking the exemptions was negligible. That number increased steadily as the community became more entrenched and even moved steadily more right. Today, the projected growth of the Ultra Orthodox population, combined with the rising proportion in number of exemptions, has the issue pushing Israel toward dissolving the current governing coalition and launching early elections. How likely the elections are is actually a question though, since most members of non-Orthodox political parties want the Tal Law or anything that allows massive exemptions from national service to be dissolved.

Israel has many political parties that break down along ethnic and religious lines, as well as political philosophy. Kadima seems to be the largest left-wing party while Likud is the largest to the right. But National Union & HaBayit HaYehudi are religious, pro-Zionist parties. Shas and United Torah Judaism are Ultra Orthodox parties. Hadash and the United Arab List are Arab parties. It is Shas we would think has the clout to create a new election cycle, but in fact it is the radically secular Yisrael Beitenu that is threatening pulling out of the government if its version of a reformed law doesn’t pass the Knesset. Their version would require universal national service, whether in the army or in some designated alternative.

Yisrael Beitenu and Shas are both members of the governing coalition, more because they have similar outlooks on security more than on social issues. Negotiating between the two parties would force Likud and Benjamin Netanyahu into an uncomfortable mediating position that would either end in nothing or essentially rehash the compromises that are so unpopular and deemed illegal today.

Ultra Connected

Israeli politicians aren’t often creative thinkers so much as they are overly pragmatic and businessmen. Even though most countries’ parliaments and congresses would respond to such a Supreme Court ruling in the same way – rehashing the old law in a new format and with new language – in Israel the status quo is extremely tough to break. The culture created by the military exemptions has created other social and education problems seemingly unconnected to the IDF service issue. For one, the quality of Ultra Orthodox Yeshiva students is diminishing. In a classic case of quantity versus quality. As one might expect slackers to take advantage of some individuals’ ideological reasons for wanting military exemption, indeed there are underachievers occupying the halls of the seminaries. Many servicemen would consider those few Ultra Orthodox who have entered the military to be of that stock, mostly because their own Yeshivas’ administrators have kicked them out of the seminaries for behavior or laziness. In my mind, expanding the mechanism where Religious Zionist students split time between Yeshivas and the military would be part of if not much of where the answer lies. But it would serve the Ultra Orthodox to have students split time between studying and serving, enabling the brightest students to continue their studies toward inevitable Rabbinical positions.

Secular Israel & College Students

The other side of the issue concerns secular Israelis. While Yeshiva students get stipends to attend their seminaries, non-religious or religious university students are not given the same treatment. University tuition is extremely low compared to the United States, but students still struggle to find sufficient work and pay with such hectic class schedules. I, myself, have had to turn down full time job offers because I cannot meet their desired amount of hours while in school and am working two part time jobs right now. Last year, there were protests by students in the middle of Jerusalem demanding equal treatment by the government, recognizing their academic endeavors.

It’s that demand for equality under the law driving many of the protests by civic engagement groups and individuals. Ultimately, ideology has taken a backseat to the politics of patronage where a bureaucratic normality has taken hold. It will take a sincere and daring effort to undermine that bureaucracy and force a demographic to be more involved in the services of the government.

Other issues I haven’t covered involve the behavior of people in the army. Religious Zionist Jews, who want to serve in the army, have developed their own units and the Hesder program mentioned above (combining Yeshiva learning with military service), in order to answer issues of men & women having increased contact and avoiding the apparent immaturity (sex & other concerns) or secularism of young soldiers in other units. Ultra Orthodox raise these concerns as well on the oft-cited list of reasons to avoid the IDF.

April 25, 2012

Israel’s Navy Could Be Fighting off Africa

by Gedalyah Reback

Despite the fact India lacks what might be becoming a standard element of modern navies, its services have been in high demand from other countries seeks its help in the Indian Ocean. The European Union wants to protect shipping along the African coast, for example against Somali pirates. European countries are trying to build the naval abilities of “Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, Kenya and Tanzania.” Where Israel is in this project is a question for market researchers as much as it is for Israel’s political leaders. The project is trying to hand over responsibilities to local actors, and India is the natural choice. But Israeli private contractors have operated in the region for years, even preventing one pirate attack on an Italian ship.

Israel has strong relations with Kenya & Tanzania, so she’s perfectly placed to make an impact with its own thriving defense industry. Even Russia & China are part of international efforts to patrol the area, joining NATO’s (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) Operation Ocean Shield.

Where’s Israel’s leadership comes in is here, with NATO. Recently, Turkey refused to allow Israeli reps at a NATO conference in Chicago. Every country in the alliance has a veto on policy decisions, and Turkey has used its power several times in the past. Other Mediterranean countries who are not part of the alliance were also in attendance. Until the fallout with Turkey, Israel’s relationship had been growing with NATO, virtually to the point of being an unofficial member. As Israel’s naval powers grow, it will want to extend its reach further, especially off the coast of countries where Israeli diplomats have been attacked and Islamist militant organizations are operating, i.e. Somalia. Israel will get that chance this summer, when Turkey’s other rival and Israel’s new energy business partner Cyprus becomes the President nation of the European Union. That will put Israel’s navy in an optimal position to be more directly involved with the European Union in both the Mediterranean & the Indian Ocean defense project.

The European Union is the backdoor for the IDF to cooperate with European armies when Turkey is blocking its access to NATO. The two organizations, despite being headquartered in the same city and actually having 21 members in common, do not coordinate policy, projects or operations well at all. The main reason is actually the Turkish dispute with Cyprus, making the second half of 2012 one of the more interesting times for European politics in recent history. With disputes about the Euro, possibly a new French president and the relationships in the eastern Mediterranean deteriorating, diplomats will be busy trying to patch up Turkey’s faltering diplomatic relationships before they infect European initiatives in both the EU & NATO.

Israel's been aiming to expand its diplomatic footprint in Africa itself for years.

But Cyprus will be in command, and the Cypriots have used their political position against Turkey before. In 2005, Cyprus vetoed another idea, to invite Turkey to join the so-called “European Defense Agency.” That agency is more a loose accord to get armies from the EU and outside the EU to talk to each other. The contracts Cypriots have been signing with Israelis over joint exploration for gas & oil make it a real opportunity for Israel to get into the economic and security projects of the European Union.

Personally, while I’d like Israel and Turkey to patch things up, Israel needs more leverage in future negotiations over the two countries’ relationship in order to make getting back together worth it. This is an opportunity for Israel to do that.

April 25, 2012

Israeli Companies are Building India’s Robotic Weapons

by Gedalyah Reback

India has been beefing up its naval abilities ever since Pakistani terrorists landed in Mumbai in 2008 and killed nearly 200 people. It’s the latest in a mostly positive stringof encounters with Israeli military companies, especially welcome after what happened to IMI.

The latest Indian project involves unmanned drones, but this time in the water. Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd. (MM), an Indian sporting company, is teaming with Rafael to make the machine happen. India has been augmenting its navy since the 2008 attacks anticipating more break-in attempts, especially from Pakistan. Much of the development is focusing on defending the coastline of Gujarat, the largest state in India. The latest project adds to the efforts, announced in January, of adding a second aerial unmanned squadron to the Indian arsenal. That project involves Israel Aerospace Industries.

Robotics as a non-military venture is also gaining traction. Recently, the National Committee on Robotics and Automation and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) sent reps to Israel for further research and venture development with Israeli companies. They met with the head of the Israeli Robotics Association, Professor Zvi Shiller. According to his bio, he has been involved in projects with the Israeli Defense Ministry, Science Ministry and even its Space Agency. Meeting Shiller might not have any other political implications, but the fact he is on staff at Ariel University (in the West Bank) was not at all on the list of concerns, let alone the radar whatsoever, of the Indian delegation.

This is all happening despite obstacles in the Israeli-Indian relationship, including accusations Israel Military Industries, owned by the Israeli government, has been bribing its way to Indian contracts. Various reports range from $44 to $70 million in seized assets to serve as a fine for the breach in trust, which is actually included in the contracts India’s Defense Ministry signs. That action brought up issues inside Israel regarding the ethical conduct of its major companies in general. Now with another country taking notice of such business practices in a public way, it’s an especially humiliating prospect. In the meantime, IMI is appealing the Indian decision. It is unlikely they’ll make headway, since they are only one of seven companies India has blacklisted (India won’t make defense deals with these companies for at least 10 years).

April 24, 2012

Judaism’s New Holidays: Zionist or Not, Jews’ Religion are Increasingly Affected by Israel’s Celebrations

by Gedalyah Reback

Four new holidays, all in the span of a month, have smacked the Jewish calendar in the past two generations. One of them applies universally but has monumental impact on Israelis: Holocaust Memorial Day (Yom Ha-Shoah). Commemorating those who lost their lives in the Holocaust, it is a somber day in Israel and a day to be marked in Jewish communities around the world. It rests adjacent to Israel’s national holidays on the calendar, preceding them by a week.

This week marks the next two. Their are fundamentals for the modern Israeli: Memorial Day and Independence Day. Growing up in the United States, not only are the two days separated but they are treated the same way. Neither has as much emotional significance anymore, both are barbecue festivals and both are days you’ll get good deals on furniture. This is wear religion has played a nuanced role even for secular Israelis. Judaism, as I’m sure is very true about many religions, is careful to play to the themes of the subjects its holidays commemorate. While the Israeli Rabbinate is a thorn in the side of even many religious Israelis because of its bureaucracy and political patronage, it has played a significant role in the regulation and scheduling of Israeli national holidays.

For these two days, the oft-cited theme in religion of going from darkness to light is overt. The day before Independence Day, Israelis remember their fallen soldiers and officially the civilian victims of terrorism. Jewish consciousness extends that memorial to Jewish victims of terror who never carried Israeli citizenship, recognizing the intertwined fates of Jews and Israelis who have been targeted over Middle Eastern politics. Additionally, it reflects a true timeline. The day before Israel issued its Declaration of Independence, 38 civilians were killed defending Gush Etzion, a small group of towns south of Jerusalem. The Jordanians, who had already invaded the territory of the former British Mandate for Palestine before Israel declared independence, massacred those men in an incident that the Jordanians have never denied was an indecent act. It resonated throughout the Jewish population and was fresh news in the minds of everyone the next morning when the State of Israel was declared. Today, Gush Etzion has been rebuilt, but only after its land was recaptured in the 1967 Six Day War.

Reading that headline, Israelis went with heavy hearts through the light at the end of the tunnel to declare independence within 24 hours of the tragedy. But perhaps more symbolic is placement of Holocaust Memorial Day, Yom HaShoah, a week before both holidays. In 1945, after the Allied Powers had conquered Germany, the full scale of the disaster for Jews was still unimaginable. Survivors faced humiliating or impossible decisions, to move back to homes surrounded by anti-Semitic neighbors or to leave for greener pastures. Many chose the idealized guilded journey to the Land of Israel, facing three years of British actions against new immigrants and Holocaust survivors. Local Jews picked up the pace smuggling survivors into the country by boat and from the harbor. Thousands were jailed on British military bases on Cyprus. Eventually, the Jewish population doubled from about 300,000 before WWII to 600,000 on the eve of independence.

That week can symbolize those three years of adjustment. With no clear end to the plight in sight, Yom HaZikaron hits the Jewish mindset – intentionally – at a time when the community is still coping with the anxieties, humiliation and ruins of the Holocaust. But Memorial Day, Yom HaZikaron, has a very different atmosphere. While it seems to be an additional day of mourning and despair, the tone includes one of work left to be done and accomplishments yet to be achieved. The soldiers memorialized, many of them Holocaust survivors who picked up the pieces and settled in Israel after the War, died fighting. Israelis visit cemeteries even if they have no loved ones buried there. Many Jewish seminaries, Yeshivas, take the day off from classes and bring students to see the throngs of people visit memorial parks, events and loved ones’ final resting places. The most popular sight is Mount Herzl, Jerusalem’s local military cemetery which has taken on a de facto status as the national cemetery similar to the American one in Arlington, Virginia.

Independence Day

That’s the atmosphere that precedes Independence Day for Israelis. It is a truly religious experience in one of the most nationalist, patriotic countries in the world. In a mentality of utter darkness, there is suddenly a burst of light. Fireworks and barbecues light up the country. Schools empty across the country like the day before with kids streaming into the streets of cities and even small towns dressed in blue & white. The narrative of the country’s survival is ever present and effervescent when you walk down the streets. Teenagers, soldiers and Yeshiva students wrap the Israeli flag around themselves like a cape screaming and hollering in euphoria.

But it’s not Israel’s only Independence Day. Three weeks later, Israel celebrates a second. It isn’t celebrated by everyone because of the political implications people read into it, but Jerusalem Day, Yom Yerushalayim, has had a much larger significance for modern Judaism than any other newly marked day on the calendar. The reasons have to do with, on the one hand, the city’s vitality to Judaism itself. The second, though, has to do with the emotional rollercoaster I described above. The day incorporates all the feelings the other three exemplify and project.

Jerusalem Day & Preventing another Holocaust

Jerusalem Day is celebrated on the anniversary of the third day of the Six Day War when the city was captured. It’s intent was to be a day to celebrate winning that war without any other meaning attached to it, but the gravity of that war was too immense not to take on further meaning. In the three weeks preceding it, Arab radio made waves of it threats to do away with Israel and literally throw the Jews into the Mediterranean. The implication was there would be mass massacres and total annihilation of the institutions the Jews had created in Israel. Quite literally, some grim newspapers urged the last Jew standing to “turn out the light.”

So when at 8AM on June 5, 1967, the Israeli Air Force caught the Egyptians on guard duty lazily making a shift change, it combined the ingenuity of the military, preparedness and incredible faith to reverse the situation and mentality completely. In one swoop, a funeral turned into a birthday. Egypt’s and Jordan’s air forces were decimated on the ground, and the most incredible preemptive strike in modern military history re-declared Israeli independence. The sweeping UN condemnations of the Israeli action have enshrined Israeli distrust of the organization, considering it was the UN’s monitors who abandoned guarding a buffer zone between Israel and the advancing Egyptian army. Gamel Abdul Nasser never recovered, dying of a heart-attack three years later. Syria saw another coup before the Yom Kippur War six years later. Jordan never again went to war with Israel.

Religious communities, even going beyond the pro-Zionist ones, have had difficulty playing down the miracle that Jerusalem Day celebrates for Jews worldwide. Anyone with Jewish parents who were living in communities at the time – Brooklyn, Long Island, New Jersey, California, etc. – can learn from them that the jubilation of Israel’s survival combined with such an epic return to the capital city of Judaism has been unmatched in the younger generation’s lifetime. Not even the panic that gripped Jews worldwide when Israel was attacked on Yom Kippur, just six years later, could match the ecstatic electricity that channeled through the Diaspora when it was reported Israel had conquered Jerusalem on the third day of the war.

For these reasons, Jews in Israel and in many Modern Orthodox & Conservative communities today celebrate Israeli Independence Day as a religious holiday, fulfilling a religious obligation to thank God whenever surviving a threatening situation or obtaining something wonderful. In this case, both. More so in Israel but also abroad, Jerusalem Day gets its religious share more emphatically. Even Haredim, that is Israeli Ultra Orthodox Jews usually standoffish of Israeli national holidays, celebrate the redemption of the day and are overwhelmed by significance of recapturing Jerusalem. The title might seem controversial if you see the world through politics, but its significance for Jews and Judaism is much broader than even the threat Israel’s conquests might be given away to another, non-Jewish country.

Israeli newspapers are littered with religious ideas about Israeli independence, linking the event to the week’s Torah and Haftarah readings (recent example: here).

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