And Now for the Good News…


Israel: And Now for the Good News…

Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig

Schusterman Visiting Israeli Scholar, Brown University

Anyone following the news might think that Israel is the most dangerous place on Earth – and that it is a country torn by constant political and social strife. In fact, based on the media, one might wonder how it exists at all!

I don’t have any pretensions to definitively clear up this distorted perception but rather wish to offer parts of a picture that one hardly ever sees or reads about in the news (foreign or Israeli), mainly because the media do not deal with “good news” (and all of us are partly at fault – imagine our response to a newspaper that reported mostly good news…). Moreover, the media are not geared to offering a long-term perspective on matters of state – what happened 2 days ago (not to mention 2 years ago; forget about 2 decades ago!) is alta zakhen. But “good news” and “bad news” is a contextual matter – the real question is in which direction is the trend going, and how do things compare with the way they were in the past?

This is not merely an academic exercise but rather has important consequences. For example, if overseas Jews get the feeling that Israel is a basket case of bombs and internal turmoil, this will impact immigration into the country. If Gentiles get the same impression, that will influence for the worse their willingness to support Israel; people tend not to want to be on the side of a “loser”. Not to mention Israel’s enemies who have the impression that Israel will ultimate collapse of its own weighty problems – and thus these opponents have no incentive to compromise with Israel and end the conflict.

1) Ethnic Tensions

As a result of historical injustices, perceived and real, the Jews from Arab countries suffered greatly in their absorption process after the state’s establishment. By the 1970s a severe backlash ensued with second generation “Black Panthers” rioting in the streets of Jerusalem (and other slum areas). By the early 1980s, Israel was rife with election strife around this social issue, leading to the rise of the TAMI party and later SHAS.

Today, while perfect equality has not been achieved, there is little (if any) strife at all. Progress has been very impressive. On the political and public front, to name but a few high level positions, Israel has had 2 Mizrahi Presidents of the State (Navon, Katzav); a Speaker of Knesset (Itzik); 3 Chiefs of Staff (Levi, Mofaz, Ashkenazi); major businessmen (Gaon, Tshuva). Moreover, huge numbers of Mizrahim are highly prominent in the entertainment field, while there has been a significant narrowing of the higher education and income gap in society between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim.

2) Macro-Economic Policy

Unprofessional economic policy and poor decision-making under both Labor and Likud governments led to a complete banking system collapse in the early 1980s and subsequent hyper-inflation. At that point (1984), the newly elected National Unity Government with PM Peres and Finance Minister Moda’i at the head, called in the academics to try their hand at saving the country, and in 1985 the New Economic Program was promulgated under the leadership of Prof. Michael Bruno.

“Miraculously”, inflation was stopped cold in its tracks – and ever since, the “Finance Ministry Youth” have run Israel’s economy in practice, with spectacular results. This responsible macro-economic policymaking laid the foundation for overseas investment in Israel that in turn contributed to the high-tech miracle (“Silicon Wadi”) as a result of massive foreign investment. Obviously, Israel is not immune to the vicissitudes of the world economy, but it now is able to weather such storms without asking for emergency aid from Uncle Sam and other world institutions – indeed, lately the shekel has been stronger than the dollar!

3) Bureaucracy

Israel‘s early quasi-socialist, highly centralized approach to governance ultimately led to a huge, sclerotic bureaucracy. One example among all too many: by the 1970s, the average wait for a phone line was 2-3 YEARS!

Starting in the 1980s, Israelis decided to take matters into their own hands in what I have called the phenomenon of “alter-politics” – the quasi-legal and occasionally illegal establishment of alternative “social services” by the citizenry itself: Black Health (paying for medical attention in hospitals after hours), Black Dollar (illegal foreign currency transactions), Underground Economy (circumventing tax payments for services rendered), Gray Education (in-school, after hours, “private” classes), Pirate Cable TV (neighborhood wires strung from apartment to apartment for video movie viewing) and Pirate Radio (by the 1990s over 150 stations!), private “public transportation khappers” plying the same routes as the always-late buses, etc etc.

All this eventually forced the government into massive reform of the system (parallel to improving “macro-economic” policy), along the lines of decentralization and privatization. Today, citizens can get their blood test results on the internet, in a top notch health system (Obama Administration, take note); no one goes to the bank anymore (total online banking); one can get as many landline and cell phone numbers as one wants with much better reception than in the U.S.; Israelis can renew their driver’s license thru the internet; there has been an explosion of colleges (63 institutions of higher learning in a country of merely 7 million souls!); over a dozen licensed, regional radio stations are broadcasting; ditto regarding a plethora of cable & commercial TV stations. It’s a completely different, and radically improved, social service landscape.

4) Women

Despite the “myth” of female kibbutz equality, Israel has always been a very macho society (Golda Meir was a fluke – a “temporary” compromise candidate between two young males, Yigal Allon and Shimon Peres, on whom the party elders could not decide). Women had very little influence de facto and were not found in any important public positions. Today? True, because of the centrality of Israel’s army (and general security problems) the country remains male-“oriented” to a certain extent, BUT…

Women now serve in 90% of all army jobs (including fighter pilots); Israeli women receive 60% of all BAs and 50% of university PhDs; the country has enacted strong sexual harassment laws with heavy penalties (see: President Katzav and former army General Yitzchak Mordechai!); women by law cannot be fired if pregnant, and receive 3 months of paid maternity leave (with a guaranteed return to their job); there are a growing number of women mayors (e.g. Netanya, Herzliya) as well as women holding high level government positions (today’s Leader of the Opposition; the recent Speaker of the Knesset); they have even made impressive inroads in corporate Israel (e.g. CEO of Bank Leumi, the #2 bank in Israel, not to mention the owner of #1 Bank Ha’poalim)!

5) International Hasbarah

Because of the too close government / national-media relationship over the years as well as for other cultural reasons, Israel had almost non-existent overseas public relations, as government officials tended to believe that overseas media would print/publish whatever it sent them. The situation today has changed radically for the following reasons: a- the coming to power of a more media-sophisticated political leadership understanding the power of image and images; b- the clear, steady erosion of international support for Israel; c- a huge expansion of Mass Communication programs in the country’s universities and colleges – forming the core of a more media savvy public service corps.

The recent Gaza campaign is illustrative of this turnaround: Foreign Ministry emissaries were sent all over the world before the outbreak of hostilities to explain why and for what; the army now devotes significant ancillary resources to its media campaign (e.g. drones filming Hamas shooting from citizen’s homes to prove the enemy’s immoral war tactics, and immediately uploading such video evidence to YouTube); Israel’s Foreign Ministry updating the news media every few hours (not days), all the while responding immediately to the other side’s “accusations” of army “atrocities”.


Let there be no mistake: Israel is still far from being a social, political and economic “utopia”. Problems abound, and will not be eliminated for a long time to come. However, it is important to understand that despite massive security concerns, Israeli society has successfully dealt with, and in many cases successfully resolved, many of its original flaws and serious problems. With a clear conscience, I can honestly say about the State of Israel on her 61st birthday: “you’ve come a long way baby”!

April 27, 2009

Israel, Hamas and Gazan Democracy


Israel, Hamas and Gazan Democracy

Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig

Schusterman Visiting Israeli Scholar, Brown University

The military campaign in Gaza might be receding into the mist of history, but not so the political campaign to delegitimize Israel’s incursion or at least the “disproportionate” level of “civilian” destruction. Indeed, many critics have taken to accusing Israel of undermining democracy itself, for after all, didn’t Hamas come to power in legitimate democratic elections?

           This broad-based attack, a “throw in everything but the kitchen sink” form of propagandistic vilification, actually undercuts its own logic – and when one thinks about it, actually strengthens Israel’s case. Here’s how.

           If Hamas came to power through fair elections, then that means that the public supports its governance and policies. And if indeed Gaza remains a “democracy”, then certainly that same public could do much to make its displeasure known if Hamas were pursuing policies inimical to that public’s interests. One need not look further than Pakistan’s very recent mass protest and subsequent government concessions on the issue of the judiciary to understand how democratic extra-parliamentary activity can force policy change in Third World democracies.

           The picture in Gaza is quite different from what we have just seen in Pakistan: most Gazans voted for Hamas because of its anti-Israeli policy (correction: terrorist missile lobbing policy), continued supporting it up to the Israeli incursion, and continue to support Hamas despite the massive Israeli destruction which their government brought upon them.

           What that essentially means is that the concept of “innocent civilians” caught in the crossfire is meaningless or worse: it is outright misleading. Anyone supporting a combatant – not just militarily or logistically but politically as well – is fair game in war. Otherwise, FDR and the entire Allied leadership during World War 2 should have been held accountable as “war criminals” for bringing destruction on Germany’s civilian population, despite the fact that they voted Hitler into power and continued to support his regime for years thereafter. But of course, precisely that civilian support is what immunized the Allies from being “war criminals”. And lest there be no mistake, I am not over-reaching in such a parallel. From Israel’s (Jewish) perspective, Hamas is Hitler redux: a violent, ideologically-driven movement that has explicitly declared its policy of making Palestine judenrein.

           The critics of Israel’s attack on Gaza make a fundamental error in conflating legitimate democratic processes with the automatic legitimacy of any policy that derives from such a process. The second does not follow from the first: on a personal level I can sign a “legal” contract with another person (legal in the sense that all provisions and remunerations for such agency are properly spelled out), but if the contract is for murder, such legalistic niceties have no moral force in law! The same with Gazan democracy: those who voted Hamas into power and continue to support its murderous policies “democratically”, should remember Shakespeare’s warning of being “hoist with his own petard”. Such democratic support makes the supporter an accomplice to murderous-terrorist policies, and as such fair game by the rules of warfare.

           And when Hamas is not shooting missiles at Israel? Where is the legitimacy of Israel’s blockade (other than humanitarian supplies) when there’s a hudna (temporary truce)? Here too – to mix my metaphors – what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If Hamas refuses to recognize the “Zionist entity” in principle, why should Israel be asked to do anything that enables the “Hamas entity” to survive? And if Gazans support such a negation of Israel’s right to exist, why should Israel enable anyone from the outside to support the Gazans beyond the minimum necessary for human sustenance? Let Hamas publicly recognize Israel’s right to exist and we shall see how fast the borders open up and trade ensues (fror proof, see “Fatah: West Bank” as an example of Israel’s underlying philosophy of tit for tat, this time in a positive direction).

           The bottom line: those who use Gazan Democracy as “proof” of Israeli perfidy should think twice about their position. Democracy in Gaza that maintains Hamas’s hold on power only strengthens Israel’s case and provides ample legitimacy for its policies, past and present.

March 16, 2009

The Coalition-Formation Politics of Israeli Constitutionalism


The Coalition-Formation Politics of Israeli Constitutionalism

Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig

Schusterman Visiting Israeli Scholar, Brown University

Americans can be forgiven for missing the recent (Feb. 24) 206th anniversary commemoration of its revolutionary Supreme Court decision Marbury vs. Madison (1803), in which the principle of judicial review was officially incorporated into the political system. By now, everyone accepts that the Supreme Court has the authority to rule whether Congressional laws are constitutional or not.

           Israel should be so lucky. While foreign attention is focused on the peace process, Israelis have been involved for the past few years in an extremely and (even for Israeli politics) unseemly political brouhaha over this very question. Indeed, its reverberations are being felt in the present coalition formation negotiations, with Yvette Lieberman demanding the retention of the highly controversial Prof. Friedman as Justice Minister, and almost every other coalition partner not on the far right demanding his replacement. What’s the core issue here? There are two: overt and covert.

           Israel has a parliamentary form of government. As such, the principle of judicial review is not appropriate, as parliament is considered supreme – unless it explicitly sets up a Constitutional Court (as did Germany). Israel’s Chief Justice Aharon Barak (now retired), unquestionably the greatest constitutional expert in Israel’s history, thought otherwise. He pulled a “Marbury vs. Madison” back in the mid-1990s, claiming that Israel’s Supreme Court does have this power.

           The right-wing camp was not happy, because although the Court has not yet canceled any specific legislation, it has interfered in governmental policy-making, usually regarding national security matters (the Wall/Fence; expropriation of Palestinian land; etc.). But the broad left and center of the country, taking its cue from Uncle Sam, were quite pleased that finally there existed a real defender of civil rights in what had heretofore been an overly centralized polity, with almost unchecked power in the government’s hands.

           Matters came to a head in the Olmert government when Prof. Friedman – a noted academic legal scholar in his own right who had excoriated the court’s “usurpation” of judicial review – was appointed Justice Minister two years ago. He promptly set out to clip the Court’s wings in several ways (among them, changing the membership of the Appointments Committee that decides on new Supreme justices) – and all hell broke loose. Why did PM Ehud Olmert – by this time no right-winger – do such a thing?

           As is well known, Olmert has been under police and Attorney General investigation for several years, for a host of possible offenses. Speculation has it that appointing Prof. Friedman was his way of getting back at the entire judicial system. Reinforcing that impression is Lieberman’s demand that Friedman be retained – for Lieberman also has spent the last decade (yes, 10 years!) under police investigation for assorted white collar crimes. Of course, as a bona fide right-winger on national security matters Lieberman might also be worried about the Court’s overly activist, intervention approach. In any case, as he is under a police cloud of suspicion, Lieberman himself (or anyone from his party) cannot be appointed Justice Minister so that Friedman is the only alternative from his perspective.

           There is an irony of sorts in this. Let’s return to Chief Justice Marshall’s important ruling. Without going into the convoluted details, the bottom line back in 1803 was that he “created” judicial review by arguing that Congress’s law enabling any American citizen to turn directly to the Supreme Court for succor was itself unconstitutional because the Constitution clearly stated that the Court could only receive cases on appeal through the court system. Thus, to this day American citizens cannot turn straight to the Supreme Court for help.

           Not so in Israel! There the Supreme Court wears two hats: 1- Court of Appeals; 2- High Court of Justice (BAGATZ). Through the latter (that has existed from the start of the State of Israel), any Israeli citizen can directly petition the High Court against bureaucratic malfeasance, arbitrary decisions etc. It is actually under this hat that the Supreme Court has expressed its judicial activism and fomented the ire of the Right. In short, the Court is being formally attacked for something it is not in fact doing (nullifying legislation) and not attacked for what it is – legitimately – doing!

           So if you thought that the coalition negotiations are complicated by the peace process divide between Kadima/Labor and Likud/Yisrael-Beiteini, that’s only half the story. In the end, it might well be the “abstruse” constitutional issues of judicial review and control of the Justice Ministry that determine the character of Israel’s next government.

March 4, 2009

(Political) Resurrection in the Holy Land


(Political) Resurrection in the Holy Land

Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig

Schusterman Visiting Israeli Scholar, Brown University

When an American President or British Prime Minister leaves the scene after a political defeat, it marks the end of a political career (see: Jimmy Carter, George Bush the Elder, John Major, et al). The Land of Israel, however, is used to resurrections of all sorts – especially the political type.

How else to explain the incredible comebacks of Yitzchak Rabin (15 years after leaving the office after a minor financial scandal) and now Binyamin Netanyahu (after a disastrous electoral defeat in 1999 and an even worse election debacle in 2006), who has just been officially nominated by the State President to try and form a governing coalition? What does this say about Israeli society, the Israeli system, and/or the Israeli electorate?

First the good news: the Israeli public demands a long comeback and some proof of continued capability. As mentioned above, Rabin had to wait 15 years, in the meanwhile (re)proving himself as Defense Minister; Bibi has had to wait 10 years since the end of his former prime ministership, in the meanwhile serving as an excellent Finance Minister.  Moreover, Israelis do not automatically enable political resurrection. Thus, despite Ehud Barak’s professional work recently as Defense Minister (at least militarily-tactically, the Gaza campaign was carried out in almost exemplary fashion), the Labor Party with Barak at its head collapsed electorally in the recent election to the lowest point in the party’s history.

The bad news: such resurrections are further evidence of Israel’s broken election (and representation) system. Forget for the moment that coalition building has become an almost insuperable problem with so many parties needed to form a government, and that once formed the lifespan of recent governments has been short indeed. Beyond this is the underlying problem in which the Israeli electorate has no direct way of voting for its leaders and representatives. True, there are party primaries in which the candidates for the party list are chosen, but only a very small percentage of Israelis bother to register as party members (and it also costs some money to register as a party member), so that these lists are not very “representative” of the wider party’s constituency. And if a specific candidate does not function properly in the eyes of the broad electorate, as long as that party leader maintains party popularity among the narrow membership base, s/he can continue serving “forever”.

Put another way, it is extremely difficult for Obama-type new faces to make it relatively quickly up the ladder to a position of leadership. Even Tzippi Livni – a relatively “new face” – has been in the Knesset for ten years! And she became a candidate for prime minister only due to completely unexpected circumstances: PM Sharon’s coma and then PM Olmert’s corruption investigations.

This is not to say that only “the system” is to blame. One can well understand Israelis, constantly faced with existential threats to the nation, gravitating back to the tried and true (albeit flawed) – instead of the fresh but unknown (and perhaps even more flawed?) – leader.

So if you think that you have seen the last of Ehud Olmert, get ready for a surprise. Assuming that he can finalize the Gilad Shalit return to Israel before leaving office, and then can overcome his judicial problems, we might well see him running for the prime ministership in 2012 or 2016 at the head Kadima. If that thought does not get the new government moving seriously in the direction of major election reform, then nothing will!

Feb. 20, 2009

Israeli Coalition Building: There’s (Much) More than the Peace Process


Israeli Coalition Building:

There’s (Much) More than the Peace Process

Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig

Schusterman Visiting Israeli Scholar, Brown University

The American media may be forgiven for having focused on the national-security / peace process aspects of Israeli party platforms during the recent election campaign, and now during the complex negotiations to form a new government. But if the matter were merely “Right-Left” regarding the Palestinian conflict (Syrian negotiations too), the new government could be formed tomorrow with a coalition of 65 (out of 120) Knesset seats belonging to what is generally called the “national(ist) camp”. However, there is a lot more involved than this centrally salient issue – which is why there are going to be some “surprises” up ahead. Here, then, are some of the other important issues that will complicate the coalition-forming process.

1) Election Reform: I have already written about this issue in a previous post ( – Dec. 1) and predicted there that this would be an important issue for the coming government. I was “wrong” – it is THE central issue, if one can judge by the pronouncements of almost all the important parties once the election results became clear! Israel simply cannot continue on the path of fragmented politics with elections held once every 30 months or so. Who is against such reform? The smaller parties (e.g. MERETZ; Bayit Yehudi) and the sectoral ones (Arab; SHAS). As the entire right-wing has only 65 seats, this essentially gives SHAS and other smaller right-wing parties veto power over electoral reform – something that Lieberman’s party has clearly said that it will not countenance (it strongly supports electoral reform). Thus, there is very serious disagreement on this critical issue within the right-wing camp.

2) Child Allowance: I have discussed this profoundly important issue in a previous post as well (same URL – Dec. 9). Briefly, SHAS demands the return of the child allowance cuts; both Netanyahu and Lieberman are dead set against it. So once again, it will not be easy at all to get SHAS to join this coalition. Moreover, most of the right-wing parties have a relatively strong capitalist bent, as opposed to SHAS’s Socialist-type of governmental largesse. After having saved the Israeli economy from disaster in 2003 as Finance Minister, Netanyahu will not want to jeopardize his image by going on a spending spree – especially with the economic tsunami hitting the world and catching Israel in its backwash.

3) Conversion and Civil Marriage: If there is one issue that Lieberman’s constituency demands to be dealt with immediately, it is the problem of hundreds of thousands of former-Russian “Jews” who need to somehow be formally incorporated into Jewish society through an easier conversion process and/or legislation enabling civil marriage. On the other hand, the ultra-Orthodox parties (SHAS; Yahadut Ha’Torah) have drawn a line in the sand on this issue. Both sides see it as central to the continuation of the Jewish State – the Russian immigrants in order to strengthen the State with more “newly minted” Jews; the ultra-orthodox by maintaining Jewish “purity” through conversion exclusively by way of the traditional (and very arduous) process. One should also keep in mind the personal animosity that this election campaign engendered, with SHAS’s spiritual leader Rav Ovadia Yosef lambasting Lieberman’s supporters for their “pig-eating tendencies”.

           Therefore, left to their own devices, Netanyahu and Livni have the task of squaring the circle inside a triangle – an almost insuperable task without combining forces to form the core of the new coalition. If, on the other hand, they form the government’s foundational structure with their collective 55 seats, perhaps also adding Lieberman’s 15 seats to reach 70 in total, then they can turn to the other right-wing parties with a “take it or leave it” offer – and be certain that enough of the smaller parties will swallow hard and accept the Likud-Kadima(-Lieberman) principles of government that will call for election reform, civil marriage, and economic sanity. And if the smaller parties refuse? Even a coalition of 70 seats with three parties is more than enough to maintain a somewhat stable government for the foreseeable future, and certainly more stable than a 65 seat “right-wing” coalition spread over six parties!

Feb. 11, 2009

The Paradox of Israel’s Post-Gaza Election Polls



The Paradox of Israel‘s Post-Gaza Election Polls

Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig

Schusterman Visiting Israeli Scholar, Brown University

As far as the Israeli public was concerned, the IDF’s latest war campaign in Gaza was a resounding success. A huge majority of  (Jewish) Israelis supported the war in principle from the start, a similar majority still feels that the war was conducted in a professional manner (unlike the Second Lebanon War in 2006), and all three leaders – Defense Minister Barak, Foreign Minister Livni and PM Olmert – have seen their personal popularity ratings increasing significantly. The number of Israeli soldiers killed (10) was amazingly low, considering the nature of urban warfare, so even in this most vulnerable area of Israeli sensitivity, the campaign ended with very minimal harm to Israeli society.

           As a result, one would have expected the election survey data taken immediately after the cessation of hostilities to show the electoral strengthening of the governing parties. Instead, the party that has increased its strength is the Likud! Such a counter-intuitive development demands explanation.

           It seems to me that there are two different but complementary reasons for this “paradoxical” outcome. First, the “I told you so” factor. Benjamin Netanyahu, the head of the Likud party, has been arguing for several years that we will have to move into Gaza with military force to stop the missile attacks. The present Kadima-led government, especially, had been loath to do so, in large part due to the lack of army preparedness as exhibited in the Lebanon 2 campaign. This is not to say that the government was wrong to wait and try to exhaust all diplomatic channels before the incursion; it is to say that Netanyahu warned that diplomacy was not going to succeed when faced with an implacable enemy such as Hamas. So in a sense, to paraphrase the Bible: “the hand is the hand of Olmert (et al); the voice is the voice of Netanyahu”.

           The second factor – and to my mind even more important – is the “conclusion” of the campaign. Israel has (hopefully) achieved all of its explicitly stated goals: stopping the smuggling of arms and cessation of rocket attacks for at least a year and perhaps more (a la Southern Lebanon, which has been quiet for 30 months, notwithstanding a couple of token missiles shot over the northern border during the Gaza campaign). However, precisely because Israel is facing an implacable enemy that in principle will not recognize the right of Israel to exist, the most recent polls also show that an overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews feel that no matter how many Israeli soldiers died the war should not have been stopped at this stage but rather taken to its “logical” conclusion: the elimination and annihilation of the entire Hamas leadership. Given that with Hamas continuing at the helm, the missile attacks will sooner or later commence once again, the Israeli public wanted to see a strategic end to the Gaza problem and not merely a temporary, tactical one. However, as it is only the latter that the Olmert government achieved, Israelis are now turning to Netanyahu who will not make the same mistake if and when the IDF will once again have to fight in Gaza in the coming years.

           Many pundits have suggested that the current Israeli government wanted to end the war before Obama’s inauguration as a sort of good will gesture to the new administration. I think that Israelachieved the opposite. Had the war continued another week or two and the Hamas leadership decimated, the Barack/Hillary team would have had a far easier time of it bringing some semblance of a genuine peace process to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. With Hamas remaining in power, they might well find themselves talking to a wall – a true Middle Eastern “Wailing Wall”. In such a situation, the Israeli public has more confidence in Netanyahu/Likud than in Livni/Kadima.

Jan. 28, 2009 

Who is an Innocent Civilian?


Who is an Innocent Civilian?

Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig

Schusterman Visiting Israeli Scholar, Brown University

Does this story seem familiar to you?

The society is on the brink of economic and social collapse. Democratic elections are held and the public decides to vote for an extreme, ideologically-based party that views Jews as its mortal enemy. The party is not satisfied with its election victory and within a short time frame carries out a putsch in which all opposition is violently banished from the political system.  With no internal opposition left to block it, the extremist party goes on a militaristic binge, and among other things it fires hundreds of lethal rockets into populated areas of what it considers to be its enemy. Ultimately, the people fired upon decide to fight back and eventually invade the attackers’ land, causing massive destruction of army and civilians alike – far more of the latter than died in the initial rocket attacks.

I’m sure you are asking why I am repeating what every one is quite familiar with – the recent and contemporary history of Hamas in Gaza and its actions against Israel. In fact, however, I am actually writing about quite a different scene: the rise of Nazi Germany, its attacks on Britain, and the subsequent allied invasion of Germany with the ensuing total destruction of its infrastructure, not to mention the deaths of millions of German civilians.

My point is not to draw a direct parallel between Hamas and the Nazis, although one could make a good argument of (too) many parallels and similarities. Rather, I wish to raise another question: “who is an innocent civilian?”

Israelis are scolded for attacking Hamas which came to power in democratic elections. Precisely! This is an extremist party that did  not take power against the wishes of the local population, but rather was elected by the Gazan populace, due (in part) to its implacable hatred of Israel and everything Jewish. The policy of rocket fire into Israel these past few years was not opposed by Gazans but rather was tacitly – and occasionally actively – supported by Gaza’s civilians.

Does this mean that Israel can indiscriminately fire at anything and everything in Gaza? To judge by the precedent of World War II (Dresden anyone? How about Hiroshima?) – and numerous other wars (Vietnam etc.) in which the West did precisely that – the answer would seem to be a resounding “yes”. However, from a “just [moral] war” perspective that Israel tries hard to adhere to, the answer is obviously “no”. Nevertheless, given that civilians elected and supported Hamas’s casus belli policy from the start, it is also clear that the principles of “just war” have to be modified when dealing with a population that was not held ransom by its own political outlaws but rather consistently supported and condoned the policy of indiscriminate rocket attack against Israeli civilian targets.

Gazan civilians are being shot in the crossfire of war? Perhaps if they would have acted from the start a little more civilian and had tried to dissuade their duly elected leaders from pursuing an immoral policy of shooting at Israeli non-combatant citizens (i.e. “just warfare” morality), they would not find themselves in the present bind. As to the rest of the world looking on in “horror”, bewailing the Gazans’ plight, they would do well to consider whether these “innocent civilians” are indeed not at least partly to blame themselves for the present carnage.

Jan. 13, 2009

In Memoriam of Prof. Samuel Huntington: Israel vs. Hamas


In Memoriam of Prof. Samuel Huntington: Israel vs. Hamas

Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig

Schusterman Visiting Israeli Scholar, Brown University

Last week my PhD supervisor/mentor passed away. This would normally not be material for a blog post regarding Israel but the timing of his death is extremely interesting. Harvard’s Prof. Samuel Huntington – among other major studies he wrote – is famous as the author of what has come to be called the “Clash of Civilizations”. I can think of no better title for what is currently happening in Gaza!

His thesis runs like this: the world is currently divided into several “civilizations”, i.e. major groupings of peoples, each with a common world perspective and common values, goals etc. Thus, the Euro-American civilization is one such mega-grouping, the Sino-Asiatic another, and so on. Included among these contemporary civilizations is, of course, the Islamic one.

According to Prof. Huntington who wrote up this study in the early 1990s, well before Al-Qaida had become a household name, the Islamic and Euro-American civilizations are on a collision course – hence the clash of civilizations. When his book appeared, many scoffed and called his thesis overly simplistic. Certainly, it is somewhat over-generalized, but no one is scoffing anymore after Sept. 11, 2001 and subsequent mega-terror travesties – Mumbai being merely the latest one.

However, terrorism comes in many forms – sometimes even appearing as a “state apparatus”. Such is the case of Hamas that now rules Gaza. Despite massive economic and political pressure, it has consistently held to its stated ideology that the State of Israel is illegitimate and must be eliminated. Israel might have been able to swallow this bitter pill if Hamas’s actions had remained exclusively rhetorical, but this is a terrorist organization that puts its money (and guns) where its mouth is – firing missiles indiscriminately into civilian areas, the precise definition of “terrorism”.

Hamas is a microcosmic example of Huntington’s civilizational clash. He did not necessarily foresee a “world war” a la the 1940s but rather a decades-long war of attrition between the two politico-cultural adversaries from the (Middle) East and the West. And unfortunately Israel is caught in the middle. On the one hand, territorially it resides in the Islamic Middle East; culturally and religiously it is far more attuned to the (Judaeo)Christian West. Thus, Israel finds itself on the very front lines of the Huntingtonian clash of civilizations, doing what it has to do to protect itself well in advance of the day the rest of the West will have to do the same (Iranian inter-continental ballistic missiles anyone?).

A further irony can be found in earlier works of Huntington – dealing with the relationship of the military and the state. Here too the connection with current events is palpable. One of the major sources of Islamic fundamentalist resurgence stems precisely from the Middle East’s penchant to have the military control the state, thereby suppressing any nascent democracy and impoverishing the public that ultimately turned to Allah for succor. The examples are legion: the Shah led to Khomeini; Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak (all military men) have spawned a growing Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; Arafat’s leadership by the gun barrel has spawned Hamas; Assad father and son have been hanging on but for how much longer before radical Islam takes over there too?

What Israel is doing today in Gaza is necessary but in reality it’s only a holding action. What needs to be done over the long term is precisely what President Bush (W.) sought to do but carried out so incompetently: start the process of democratization in the Middle East (yes, we all know that “Islam can’t be democratic”; neither could “Catholic Italy” etc…). It is only when the Islamic world begins to share some values with the West (which is not to say that the West couldn’t learn a thing or two from the East about family values, social cohesion etc.) that Huntington’s thesis can be put to rest. Meanwhile, Israel has to do the best it can to ensure that it is not squashed in the violent vise of this mega-cultural clash.

As for Prof. Huntington personally, I can say that beyond his intellectual brilliance and vast scholarship, he was a model mentor for young scholars. I would inevitably receive back within 48 hours any chapter I submitted to him from my evolving PhD dissertation – a remarkable feat for someone (already back then in the 1970s) so busy and famous.

May he rest in peace – and may the day come that his major thesis rests in peace too. For the time being, as we can see from recent events in Mumbai, Gaza and elsewhere, it is unfortunately only too alive and kicking.

Dec. 30, 2008

The Paradox of Israeli “Democracy”


 The Paradox of Israeli “Democracy”

Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig

Schusterman Visiting Israeli Scholar, Brown University

The American tourist to Israel is immediately struck by how vociferous Israelis tend to be about their countries and the myriad issues that it has to deal with. “Opinionated” is probably too mild a word to describe Israelis’ penchant for mouthing off on any and all topics, large and small. And if that tourist were to dig a little deeper, s/he would be further impressed by Israel’s relatively high voting turnout – far higher than in the States (especially when one takes into account that Israeli voting percentages are artificially depressed by hundreds of thousands of Israeli emigrants living abroad who continue to appear on the voter register but are barred by Israeli law from voting while overseas). Israeli democracy, seemingly, is alive and kicking.

           However, when one looks at the whole picture, the scene changes drastically. Democracy is not merely the election campaign and Election Day – it is a matter of daily functioning throughout the year. Moreover, it is not only something that one “does” within the political realm; true democracy carries over into all fields of public life. From this dual (and wider) perspective, Israeli democracy has a long way to go in order to join the advanced democratic world.

           I shall start with an example from my own profession. As a visiting professor at Brown University this year, I too get mass e-mailings from the administration. Recently, I received a message that solicited faculty members’ input into Brown’s upcoming five-year policy and course structure reassessment – and several reminders followed urging the faculty to participate in this important process. I have been teaching at Bar-Ilan University for three decades and have never received such a request – not even when I was chairman of one of the university’s largest departments! My colleagues from other Israeli universities report exactly the same (non)experience. In other words, in Israeli academia the Rector and President decide what’s best for everyone, without asking their “public” – by all lights a most intelligent one – for educated input.

           This week the Israeli and American press offered another such example – from the world of journalism. The internet has upended many journalistic practices and dogmas, chief of which was that editorial content was to be written only by professionals; the public merely chose what to read from the menu offered. Today, however, the interactivity afforded by the internet (Web 2.0) has in theory empowered the reading public to become “prosumers”: producing and publishing what they and others will also read/consume. But when one compares Israeli journalistic practice with that of their American counterparts in the age Web 2.0, the difference is striking: 58% of all American newspapers on a regular basis publish editorial content (articles, op-ed pieces, news photos etc.) submitted by readers. In Israel, the percentage is close to zero – except for what Israelis call “Talkbacks”, i.e. on the papers’ websites, readers’ commenting on regular news items. In other words, the Israeli press is grudgingly willing to allow some semblance of reaction to its product, but does not countenance enabling readers to initiate news product.

           One could add example after example from all walks of Israeli life. Members of Knesset who almost never solicit their constituents’ opinions; planning commissions that consider public input to be a nuisance in the arduous process of approving projects; university professors who as a general rule view the teaching process as one of “I talk, you listen and write, then you regurgitate, and finally I grade”; and so on.

           How to explain this paradox of oral volubility and practical passivity? It strikes me that true Jewish behavioral culture is one of democratic participation, but in the early development of Zionism and then during the early years of the Jewish State itself, such natural activism became stymied as a result of what came to be called “mamlakhtiyut” – Statism, the idea that the government would provide for the (mostly uneducated and poor) populace that was immigrating to Israel in droves. At the time, such an approach may have even made sense given the very limited public resources that were stretched to the breaking point. But once the economic crisis passed, Israelis were ready to return to their more participatory culture – only to find an institutional structure that was built for top-to-bottom guidance and not bottom-to-top input.

           So Israelis continue to kvetch, and complain, and occasionally demonstrate in the streets, but it will be awhile yet until the “elites” in Israel begin to discover what has become conventional wisdom in the rest of the west: knowledge lies at the bottom of the pyramid, far more than at the top (see Wikipedia vs. Britannica); organizational hierarchy cannot compete with the efficiency of the network (the campaigns of McCain vs. Obama). May the Jewish State live a very long life, but may the ethos of Statism have a very fast demise…

Dec. 24, 2008

Israel and Chanukah: Then and Now


 Israel and Chanukah: Then and Now

Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig

Schusterman Visiting Israeli Scholar, Brown University

Note: The sharp of eye may have noticed that I have slightly changed the spelling of this blog from “Israelity” to “Isreality”. The reason: it was pointed out to me that there already exists a blog called “Israelity” at Israel21: So as not to confuse everyone, my blog’s name now has more “reality” and a bit less “Israel”.

Chanukah is upon us once again. Normally it is a time for reawakened national pride and spiritual uplift (not to mention gifts, games and jelly doughnuts). I would like to add some reflection to the proceedings.

It seems to me that Chanukah has much to offer the contemporary scene, for as Ecclesiastes opined: “there is nothing new under the sun”. I discern three separate but somewhat related themes in the original holiday that are relevant to present day politics and society in Israel.

First, the question of what precisely is “Jewish Heroism”: is this something military or spiritual? The Chanukah story itself seems to support the former but the Rabbis thought otherwise as can be seen in a key sentence from the Sabbath Haftorah reading that the rabbis decided to canonize on this holiday, of all possible holidays: “not by soldiers and not by power but rather by my spirit, sayeth the Lord of Hosts“.

Israeli society is also caught in the conundrum. On the one hand, it glorifies its generals (and soldiers); on the other hand, it is one of the few countries in the world (perhaps the only one!) that celebrates Independence Day with a Bible contest as well as handing out the Israel Prize to its leading intellectual lights. Indeed, the issue has become very prosaically political: to spend more on national defense or on education? The coming elections could well be decided by those who feel the latter needs more resources, after decades of feeding the former.

Second, the issue of “Hellenism”, or as it is called today: “Westernization”, “secularization”, “modernization” – to separate from the “modern” world or to integrate into it? Here too it is not coincidental that the Sabbath Chanukah Torah reading includes the story of Joseph in Egypt who does precisely that – changes his name and appearance to the extent that his brothers cannot even recognize him, but who ultimately returns to his family traditions.

Israel is awash in matters from the West. Even Hebrew is becoming unrecognizable to old-timers brought up on the Hebraically rooted poetry of Bialik and the prose of Agnon. And yet, as I have noted in a previous post, non-religiously-observant Jews in Israel have begun a quest for their spiritual roots (e.g. “secular yeshivas”). Basic customs are held as strongly as ever: Passover Seder, mezuzahs on the door, etc. Most Israelis are not seeking to leave Judaism but rather to find the right synthesis between modernity and hoary tradition.

Third and finally, the original Chanukah story started a process that raised the most fundamental political issue of all: sovereign independence at any cost? How should a small country like Israel (then and now) deal with the Great Powers? Is it better to have peace and mere political autonomy or risk all for ultimate political sovereignty? The eventual destruction of the Second Temple and subsequent catastrophic Bar-Kochba revolt argue for the former approach, but as the Holocaust clearly showed, a lack of political sovereignty can also be disastrous for the Jewish people. (Here too the Chanukah Torah portion shows what can happen when Jews leave their homeland: slavery in Egypt.)

Most interesting of all is the fact that Chanukah is the only significant Jewish national holiday that does not have its “story” canonized somewhere in the Bible – despite the fact that there are at least two extant versions of the “Book of the Maccabees” (in the Apocrypha). Of course, this does not mean that we today can’t or shouldn’t learn lessons from the Chanukah story; it just means that we have to be very careful (as were the Rabbis) what particular lesson we want to learn.

Dec. 18, 2008