Saturday, July 8, 2023

The Miracle and the Precipice

  (Originally published in The Times of Israel)

"In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles." Ben Gurion 1956.

It may not have risen to miracle status, but something virtually unheard of in today's world,  has happened in Israel.  Despite the current Israeli governing coalition having a 64-member majority, despite the Israeli system missing a lot of the avenues for public influence that the U.S. and other democracies have (e.g. legislative districts, two houses), hundreds of thousands if not over a million Israelis came together peacefully for six months to successfully stop legislation that would severely cripple Israel's world-respected judicial system and undermine its vibrant, albeit flawed, democracy.

In those six months of demonstrations not one person died, maybe a couple were injured, and property damage was minimal.  Compare that to Myanmar, Paris, many parts of Africa, the United States of America. Dissertations will someday be written about this.  And yet the world, including America and American Jews, hardly noted it.

The peacefulness and Israel's democracy are now both on the precipice of being lost.  Faced with massive opposition threatening to bring the country to a standstill, Prime Minister Netanyahu put the brakes on the proponents' original plan to jam through the massive assault on Israel's democracy in one fell swoop.  The intensity of the opposition naturally dissipated somewhat.

Now, Netanahu and the drivers behind the anti-judiciary movement, apparently thinking that the opposition would not be able to regain its prior strength and support, have opted to piecemeal the proposals.

On Tuesday the bill that would repeal the "reasonableness" standard used to adjudicate government agencies' administrative decisions passed out of committee and to the Knesset for its first of the three readings.

Having recently seen its candidate for head of the Bar Association, a convicted criminal, overwhelmingly defeated by an outspoken opponent of the assault on the judiciary, the proponents of the attack passed  a preliminary reading of legislation to eliminate the Bar Association including, of course, its role in the judicial selection process.

As former Likud member, Justice Minister, and now opposition Knesset member Gideon Sa'ar, a long-time advocate of thoughtful, reasonable judicial reform, said, "Those who cancel the elections in the Bar Association because they do not like the results, will not hesitate to cancel the results of the Knesset elections one day."

And just days after telling the Wall Street Journal that the proposal to allow the Knesset to override a court's decision on legislation was off the table--"I threw that out… it’s out”--, he told some angry Cabinet members in a private meeting that it was not completely out.

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

A Swim

(Originally published in The Times of Israel)

The swimming pool at the Zippori Center in the Jerusalem Forest is a gem.  A super-clean lap pool and a large children's pool with nice areas for lounging around, all with a view of the trees and hills of the forest, with the shiny gold domes of the Russian Convent in Ein Kerem and the sprawling helter-skelter of the Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital complex.

And like much of Israel, it is a potpourri of sites and experiences, even when you're out just to get a little exercise and fresh air.

My wife and I went out to the pool Wednesday morning.  After swimming my laps and flopping into a seat, looking up from my phone, five or six feet from me, on the stairs in the shallow end, clad in a fashionable black, apparently waterproof dress and head cover, was an Orthodox (or ultra-Orthodox--I've never quite figured out the official dividing line) woman.

First just her feet were in the water.  The next time I looked up she was up to her waist.  And about 10 minutes later she was all the way in.

Tuesday is one of the three days that is women-only.  The restriction, made so that religious women can swim without men around, goes into effect at 1:30.  I assume this woman would have preferred swimming in, shall we say, something more comfortable, but given that it was about 1:10 and I wasn't yet showing signs of packing up, and given that the pool looked beautiful, she decided to take the plunge, dress and all.

The woman's friend also wore the hair covering of an Orthodox woman, but she had on a one-piece swimsuit and evidently had no qualms about swimming in front of men or, since I was the only guy in the entire area, this one man.  In between dips and dunks, they spoke what, to my untrained ears, was a North African-infused French.

The Arab lifeguard sat in his special chair mid-way up the side of the pool, smoking despite the plentiful "No Smoking" signs placed around the area.  I’ve seen him and his colleagues enforce the prohibition.  But I suppose when the entire attendance at the pool is about six or seven people, and when no one is anywhere near the lifeguard, privileges can be taken.  Or, in short, you can get away with it.

That lifeguard, a man, will have remained there doing lifeguard duty for those two women and any others coming for a swim during the female-only afternoon. Even though religious women cannot swim with me there, they, or at least those who swim at Zippori, have decided they can swim with male lifeguards.

Friday, May 12, 2023

War--What is it good for?

War, with its death and destruction, is nothing to make light of.  But, as is usual, ours has its touching moments as well as some fairly strange ones.

I met a friend at Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station in the early evening yesterday.  She was coming back from the south.  She has some challenging mobility issues so I went to meet her and to give her a ride home.

Jerusalem’s bus station, like many transportation hubs, is a microcosm of society.  On a Thursday afternoon/evening, it is a very busy, hectic place.

Folks on the bus had obviously been helpful to my friend, and they continued to offer help as she disembarked.  Israelis, not generally known for their patience, were patient and understanding.

I carried my friend’s bags to my car.  A young soldier took the larger suitcase from me and put it in the trunk.  His buddy stood by looking for something to be helpful with.

After I dropped my friend off at her home in a nearby suburban neighborhood, I headed back into town on the way to our apartment.  Beautiful evening.  Weather cooling down.  Windows open.

Bruce Springsteen and the E St. Band on the radio belting their emphatic rendition of “This Land is Your Land.”  (I’m not sure their version is how Woody Guthrie imagined it, but it is stirring.)  Great night for the convertible I don’t own.

Then, back to reality:  an interruption and the monotone voice of the automated warning system: “Alert.  Sderot. Take shelter.”  Or something approximating that. About three seconds. Then back to “this land was made. . . .”

We’ve had over 800 hundred missiles directed at us in the last 48 hours or so.  We were in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, out at a cafĂ© with a friend at about 2:00 p.m. when things started up.  And then it happened again when we were out to dinner with our daughter.

We could hear the “boom” of the Iron Dome and sirens going off.  I turned my “Red Alert” App on.  Except for the middle of the night, it’s been going off pretty steadily from then on.  The great majority have been in the south, but the Tel Aviv area has gotten its fair share.  Today they also targeted some communities close to Jerusalem.

Saturday, April 29, 2023

Fools rush in

The Knesset will soon be convening for its summer session. None of the governing coalition’s proposed legislation aimed at eviscerating Israel’s judiciary and making it akin to a Hungary-type democracy was enacted prior to the Passover break.

Not because the proponents did not want to jam the legislative package through, but because of the widespread public opposition, culminating with huge, spontaneous protests in the streets the night Prime Minister Netanyahu announced he was firing Defense Minister Gallant for the offense of warning the country that the proposals and the division they have created were causing a security risk.

Apparently, the strong, broad-based, persistent opposition, perhaps coupled with the signs of adverse impacts on the economy and with clear warnings from Washington that it did not look kindly on the changes, gave some members of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud Party as well as Netanyahu himself reasons to pause.

One key piece of the coalition’s package, which would put all the power to appoint judges in the hands of the executive/legislative branch, i.e. the governing coalition, has been positioned for its final vote, which could be taken on virtually a moment’s notice.

In contrast to the American system, the executive branch in Israel is not separate and independent from the legislative branch. As in other parliamentary systems, the Prime Minister is the leader of the legislative coalition in power. Unlike in the U.S. system, the Prime Minister and the legislature are not checks on each other.

If the Knesset passes the legislation, the judicial system will essentially be a tool of the executive/legislative branch, i.e. the ruling coalition.  There will be no checks on power.

If one takes the pronouncements of Justice Minister Levin, the coalition’s chief advocate of the proposals, and many of his allies, at face value, that is exactly the objective. They resent a judicial system that interferes with what the majority coalition wishes to enact.

They do not want to hear about democratic niceties such as due process, minority rights, defendant’s rights, asylum seeker’s rights, and all those other features that make a democracy a messy and frustrating but cherished institution.  They view such nuances as nuisances.  They are not shy about so stating.

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

A "No" vote on Israel's 75th

Congressman Jared Huffman, a Democrat from California, was one of 19 members of Congress who voted against the just-adopted Congressional resolution recognizing the 75th anniversary of Israel's independence.  Since I've known the Congressman for a good number of years, and since we've exchanged views on Israel over the years, I wrote him to express my feelings.  Here is the letter:

Hi, Jared.  I hope you are doing well.

As you know from reading my blog, I am highly critical of the current Israeli government’s assault on Israel’s exemplary and independent judiciary and its democracy.  While you and I may disagree on some details, approaches, and who is at fault at times, I am also a strong supporter of a separation between Israel and the Palestinians and recognition of a Palestinian state, although I have no doubt that it will not be democratic and it very likely will bring us more violence, not peace.  I simply do not want to be responsible for another people.  I want them to achieve their own aspirations and be responsible for themselves.

Having said all that, here I am today on Israel’s 75th anniversary preparing to welcome friends for a celebratory barbeque.  Millions of my fellow Israelis will be doing the same.  There is a simple reason for that:  regardless of our many challenges and our shortcomings, there is so much to celebrate here.

After two thousand years of being the doormat of the peoples of the world, persecuted, tortured, dehumanized, and denied sanctuary by virtually every nation where we tried to live, culminating in the nearly successful and intentional murder of our entire people, we have reconstituted a free, Jewish, democratic, flourishing nation in our ancestral homeland.

We restored our language.  We defend ourselves in a very precarious neighborhood.  We’ve pioneered a new, unique and fascinating culture. We make untold contributions to the world in literature, culture, science, music, and on and on.  In short, we punch way above our weight.  We’ve ingathered and provided a safe and prosperous home to millions of Jews from Africa, the Arab world, Europe, and the former Soviet Union.

Despite extraordinary challenges, we are home to about two million Israeli Arab citizens.  They live with equal rights and in peace and security.  They are not without legitimate complaints which many Israelis, Arab and Jews, strive to ameliorate. I and millions of other Israeli Jews interact with them peacefully and civilly on almost a daily basis.

Although we sometimes fall short, we strive to make peace with our neighbors.  And we have been successful with a good number.  We have not yet come to a resolution with our Palestinian neighbors, but many of us still aspire to do so.

In short, Israel is undoubtedly a resounding success!  It is a miracle, albeit one borne of ashes, unbridled determination, and the goodwill and support of many around the world, most of all Americans and the United States of America.

With that perspective, and knowing you personally for a good number of years now, I cannot tell you how much it pained me to see your “No” vote on the bi-partisan resolution recognizing the 75th anniversary of the birth of the reconstituted Israeli nation, my people’s nation.

I know the resolution did not have everything you and I would have liked in it, i.e. reference to peace with the Palestinians and a two-state solution.  How many times did you vote for legislation in the California Assembly and the U.S. Congress that did not have everything you wanted in it?

I also know that the resolution is only “symbolic.”  But, that’s the point.  The resolution has no practical impact with or without the references you and I would have liked included.  Yet, you felt you could not overlook this one shortcoming to join in honoring and celebrating the most significant achievement and joy, the guarantor of every Jew's safety after 2,000 years of having no such guarantor, the reconstituting of the nation of the Jewish people and the creation of a place where we can live safely, charting our own destiny, creating the future we want for our children?

Despite my worries about Israel’s future, and despite the fact that I will be back out demonstrating in support of our democracy within a few hours or days, today I will be celebrating an unbelievable achievement:  the 75th anniversary of a free, democratic, miraculous Jewish nation.  I want you to know what a painful disappointment it is that you did not see fit to join with me and my people in this celebration.

Best regards,


Congressman Huffman kindly responded promptly to my letter.  Below is what he said, and below that is my response:


Here is the statement I put out on the vote, which may provide some missing context: 

“For many years, I have consistently supported resolutions, bills and foreign aid commitments that affirm the close relationship and strategic alliance the United States has always had with the state of Israel.  I was prepared to support H.Res. 311, as well, until I discovered two significant problems.  First, unlike previous resolutions, H.Res 311 conspicuously omits any reference to supporting a two-state solution.  And second, instead of acknowledging what is currently happening to democracy and the rule of law in Israel, the resolution praises the Israeli government’s commitment to our “shared values” and “democracy.”  Even though I am a longstanding supporter of the US-Israel relationship, I cannot in good conscience support a resolution that is so tone deaf regarding the actual state of “democracy” and our “shared values,” which are under assault by the current rightwing government in Israel.  Pretending that everything is just fine with democracy and the rule of law in Israel is an insult to the hundreds of thousands of brave Israeli citizens who have taken to the streets in protest because they know their democracy and our “shared values” are in jeopardy.  I stand in solidarity with those protestors, and believe Congress should follow the lead of President Biden and other world leaders who are conveying grave concerns about the Netanyahu government’s radical agenda, not gaslighting and pretending everything is fine.”

My response to the Congressman's response:

Thanks for your quick response.  I appreciate it, but I am still very disappointed. 

 I am one of those “hundreds of thousands of brave Israeli citizens who have taken to the streets in protest because they know their democracy and our “shared values” are in jeopardy.”  I do not feel, and I know that my friends who are also protesting do not feel that you “stand in solidarity” with us by voting against this resolution marking our independence.  It makes me and them fear that you and the others who voted against the resolution are abandoning us, not supporting us. 


Yes, our democracy is under attack (as it is in many countries, including the U.S.—will you not be celebrating the Fourth of July?  Did you not celebrate it during the Trump Administration) but there are hundreds of thousands if not millions of Israelis fighting to preserve it, and it is still very much alive and vibrant today.  We stopped the passage of the legislation prior to the Passover break, and we are going out to demonstrate at the President’s Residence tonight!  You could have just as easily signed on to the resolution that marked this wonderous occasion and that showed U.S. solidarity with Israel, and then issued a statement expressing your concerns about the attack on the judiciary and your solidarity with those of us who are fighting to defend our democracy.  I am sorry you did not see your way to doing that.



Friday, March 31, 2023

Making History--Unnecessarily

For the 30 or so years that I wanted to make Aliyah and didn't, I often said that, when history is written a thousand or two years from now, this period will still be viewed as the re-birth of the Israeli nation.  I wanted to experience that and, if I could, play some small role in it.

My wife and I did make Aliyah about 12 years ago.  And, in the last month, we did play a very small role in an historic moment, the effort to defend Israel's independent judiciary and democracy from a legislative "reform" package that is in no way a reform, but a decimation of Israel's independent judiciary.

It was the fulfillment of an aspiration that I would have been very happy doing without.

The last three months have been among the most consequential months in Israel’s history.  None of it was necessary.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has burnt so many bridges and has alienated so many potential partners, that he is left with a Likud Party that, in the words of Menachem Begin’s son Benny, is not his father’s party, and with coalition partners who are extremist, racist ideologues.  One proudly describes himself as a “fascistic homophobe.”  Netanyahu has given them some of the most sensitive positions with extraordinary power.

Whether one agreed with his politics or not, there was a time when Netanyahu was a responsible leader.  He defended Israel’s robust and world-respected judicial system, and he used restraint in the use of military power.  Now defending himself from criminal charges, his only objective appears to be to hold onto power and to stay out of prison.

If Netanyahu was not the leader of the Likud Party and Prime Minister, Likud could easily abandon the extremists and form a coalition with the center and center-right parties that will not join in a coalition with him.

It is with this background that Netanyahu’s coalition tried to jam through legislation that would definitively change the nature of Israel’s democracy and society.  Virtually eliminating the power of the judiciary to strike down legislation and empowering the Knesset to overturn judicial decisions by a simple 61-vote majority would be devastating to Israel’s democracy.

Israel has only one house in its parliament, the Knesset.  It does not have an independent executive branch; like other parliamentary systems, its prime minister is the leader of the legislative branch.  It does not have a constitution or a Bill of Rights.

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

The Stakes Could Not Be Higher

 As Haviv Rettig Gur pointed out so well a few days ago, we have a desperate, ineffective prime minister beholden to unqualified, extreme ministers and heading up a barely functioning, ineffective government.  It cannot maintain order and it cannot agree on a budget, two minimal requirements of any government.

Tens of thousands of Israeli citizens have been demonstrating in support of democracy every week for nine weeks in front of  the President’s Residence and at the Knesset in Jerusalem, in Tel Aviv, and on bridges and city squares throughout the country.

The crowds are diverse, and the size and determination of the protesters have not declined. The polls show a majority of Israelis against the legislation that would eviscerate Israel's judiciary.  They also show that if an election were held today, Likud would lose nine seats.

The proponents of the effort to destroy  Israel's independent judiciary have said they are willing to discuss the proposals. But they have not been willing to suspend the efforts to jam the proposals through the Knesset so that discussions are something other than a fig leaf.

The proponents have also tried to label the opposition leftists.  Prime Minister Netanyahu said they reminded him of anti-vaxxers.  If all of the people against these proposals were leftists and anti-vaxxers, Netanyahu and his allies would not be in office and Israel's hospitals would be overflowing with Covid patients.

Benny Begin, Menachem Begin's son and a long-time Likud Member of Knesset, has demonstrated against the proposals.  He has declared that the Likud party of his father is gone. Yossi Klein Halevi and Daniel Gordis, stalwart centrists and long-time explainers of Israel to the American Jewish community and to Americans in general, have called upon American Jews to weigh in on behalf of Israel's democracy.

Hundreds if not thousands of former judges, former Shin Bet and Mossad chiefs, former generals and other IDF officers, economic experts, venture capital leaders, former heads of the Bank of Israel, former Netanyahu appointees, former attorneys general, and top law firms have all spoken out against the attack on the judiciary.

These are not extreme people. They have all concluded that the proposals will basically neuter the judiciary and place unchecked power in the Prime Minister and the Knesset, and that they leave voting rights, minority rights, unpopular views, and minority populations unprotected.