Israel and Democracy

Over the years, Israel the years has rightly taken pride in itself for being the only democracy in the Middle East. The nature of the enduring bond between Israel and the United is complicated and relies on a variety of factors. However, there can be no doubt that one reason for the close U.S.-Israel relations has been the sense of shared democratic values the two countries share.

I am not one of those people who goes around proclaiming,“our democracy is under siege,” or “the sky is falling, we are about to become a dictatorship.”  Nor (at this point in my life) am I going march about declaring – “our system of government is fatally flawed and I’m plan to change that. I am old enough to have been involved in the first serious attempts to revamp Israel’s dysfunctional political system (in 1977, through a party named “Dash”, led by Yigal Yadin.) Despite all of its efforts, I watched up close as Dash crashed and burned.

Yes, I do still believe that our system is very problematic and I could present any number of solutions that would improve it. Though I am enough of a realist to know how difficult it is to change a system in which too many parties and individuals have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo … making Israeli political reform most likely impossible to achieve any time soon.

That being said, I do believe that sustaining a democracy is not an easy proposition – especially in a young country whose democratic roots are not steeped in history.  In addition, the nearly 70 years of continuous state of war that have characterized Israel’s existence, together with our extended occupation of the West Bank present unique challenges for any democracy. To further complicate matters Israel’s unique definition of itself as a “democratic” and “Jewish” state poses its own set of obstacles.

All of these factors translate into is the need to strengthen the very foundation and understanding of democracy in Israel. Israeli students are never exposed to many of the philosophers of democracy, (such as, Locke and Rosseau.) Moreover, since Israel never had a constitutional convention – or even an extended debate over its Declaration of Independence – Israeli students are never presented the discussions that frame those foundational documents, which every American school-age student is taught. To many Israelis, Israel is to be considered a democracy solely because we have nation-wide elections every four years.

It has become clear to me that the way I can work best to strengthen Israel over the coming years is by working to reinforce Israeli democracy. Doing that does not mean fighting the day-to-day battles over legislation and civil rights; rather it means taking the long view, helping educate the coming generations on the meaning of democracy.

To this end, my wife and I, together with a group of like-minded Israeli friends have just founded a new organization, named “Arachim Laderech – Values in Action.”  The sole objective of Arachim Laderech is to educate Israelis of all ages (with special emphasis on high schoolers) regarding what democracy means. Our goal is develop an organization that will be able bridge the gaps between changing ministers and governments, and will be able to transcend the sense that democracy is a “leftist project.”

As we launched this new endeavor, we have been fortunate to work in conjunction with the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv on a number of projects, including a key venture educating Israelis on the American Presidential election system – a program that can be implemented without becoming involved in the sectarian right–left, religious-–non-religious divides that make achieving many educational aspirations so difficult.

We have an ambitious list of projects that we hope to accomplish in the next few years, including: developing and providing lessons plans, apps, educational resource materials and teacher training all focusing on education toward democratic values. We hope to work across all sectors of society with one goal – and only one goal – in mind, i.e. to strengthen the understanding of democracy in our society. I hope that as many of my readers as possible will become involved, either by helping develop material, giving financial support or taking on leadership roles in this essential enterprise.


Passover Eve in Tel Aviv

The week in Israel is coming to an end, as Pesach is   at our doorstep.  Tel Aviv tomorrow night will be a ghost city, with all of its young residents taking off for the homes of their parents usually outside of Tel Aviv.  Of course, many Israelis have left for vacations overseas, this week being the busiest of Ben Gurion Airport.  Once upon a time, the majority of travelers would be Jews coming to spend Passover here, but these days those numbers are way down.

Politically this week the career of the head of the opposition MK Bougie Herzog effectively came to an end.  At this point, he is what one would call the “walking dead”.  His final downfall was not the fact that the police are investigating him for campaign law violations, but rather, it was his statement two days ago in Ashdod that the problem with the Labor party is that it has been seen as worrying more about the Arabs and then about the Jews.  I understand what he was trying to say- but he is over as a politician leading the Labor.  His policy of trying to move to the right of Netanyahu seems pathetic, especially when Bennet cannot even do it.  Bennet actually succeeded this week in outflanking Herzog from the left.  After Herzog stupid statement Bennet stated I am the Minister of Education of all Israelis, Jews and Arabs and  I love them all.

This was a week of tunnels found,  buses being blown up by Hamas in Jerusalem; thankfully no one was killed. It was a week that Netanyahu decided to have a cabinet meeting on the Golan to declare that the Golan will always be ours, in the meantime he managed to get the world to say it was Syrian.  It was a week where the big story this morning was that Netanyahu threatened to fire Bennet at the cabinet meeting. Of course, he did not fire him and bring down his government.   Today, Netanyahu visited Putin for the third time this year and announced that he will return for another visit in two months.  Obama is in Saudi Arabia and Netanyahu is in Moscow- growing up who would have believed  it.

Tomorrow night we all sit down at our Seders, in the end, we traditionally say next year in Jerusalem.  As a nation, we no longer have to say it, as someone who lives in Tel Aviv it’s not something I wish for.  As a kid after the ’67 war we would say the rebuilt Jerusalem but after some of the architectural monstrosities that have been built in Jerusalem these past few years ( think about the Holy Land project)it’s hard to wish for that. We have been saying Jerusalem in peace and that is about as good as we can wish, and seemingly as unattainable as Zion was for the 17th centuries Jews. We did finally return and hopefully we will eventually be able to live in peace, I doubt our generation but I still hope for my grandson’s generation.

So I wish my readers a  Happy Passover, may you all have meaningful seders with friends and family!

My Dad in Jerusalem in the early 70's
My Dad in Jerusalem in the early 70’s

A Complicated Day

I just came back from the rally in Rabin Square that is being held in support of the soldier accused of killing a neutralized Palestinian terrorist.  It’s a complicated story.  Originally when the demonstration was announced  I thought I would have to write a Newsweek article about the demonstration, but yesterdays hard news stories trumped todays news, so I think I can pass.  Besides its late and i put much more effort into my Newsweek stories than I do for these blog posts.

It many ways it was a good day for Israel today, the court system worked.  This morning Yosef Chaim Ben David who was the leader of the group that killed Abu Khdier the Arab teenager burned to death  last year was found guilty of murder.  The court rejected his plea of insanity.  The judge hinted that he would be sentenced to life in prison.  A short time later, Yishai Schlissel’s was convicted of murder for his attack on participants in the gay pride parade in Jerusalem last year.

Rally at Rabin Square
Rally at Rabin Square

Tonight a more complicated environment took place in downtown Tel Aviv as thousands came to Rabin Square to show their solidarity with the soldier who is accused of killing the Palestinian terrorist who had already been neutralized.  The accused was not at the location at the time of the attack but arrived later.  The crowd was surprisingly not the average right wing gathering.  Only a small part of the crowd were religious.  I spoke to many of the participants and one theme kept repeating itself, the kid could be any our kids.  We sent him and we should stand behind him even if he made a mistake.  It was a sentiment that I could understand and even sympathize with.  My only problem comes down to the fact that he the soldier did not just make a mistake, he seemingly in cold blood killed the wounded terrorist.


People asked me at the rally how I would feel if it was my son, and when I heard both the Father and Mother of the soldier speak, my heart broke for the pain they are going through.  The Mother was crying throughout her short speech.  On the other hand, I would hope that my son whatever the circumstances and the general anger, would not go and just shoot someone.

It’s a hard story, there have certainly been many cases of soldiers losing it in war, killing POW’s and more.  Take a look at this story of British soldier in Afghanistan.  As I discussed with one religious woman from a settlement tonight, serving in Hebron is not easy for soldiers the pressures are high on all sides and its easy enough to just lose it.  But should there be consequences?  I worried after spending time on occupation duty in Gaza 35 years ago that the occupation would have terrible consequences for our society, it has whether we like it or not.  So maybe we cannot blame the soldier who was sent to do an impossible job but it’s our society at large who cannot come up with a solution.

The crowd
The crowd

In some ways my saddest conversation tonight was with a man who kept on saying that we have to beat the terror once and for all.  He was close to my age and when I reminded him that this has been going on in one form or another for our whole lives he just repeated but we have to beat it.

Some Reflections on Coming Events and a Survey of High School Students

Tomorrow night the right wing is having a demonstration in Rabin Square in support of the soldier who is accused of shooting a wounded and neutralized terrorist.  Nadav Eyal the chief foreign correspondent for Channel 10 news tweeted, what a bad idea this was, “it was going to cause the foreign press to start really covering the story.”  I tweeted back to him that yes it was indeed going to force me to write an article on the story, and he quoted my tweet.  A small twitter storm broke out on the subject, this time with me tweeting mostly in Hebrew.  It’s a problem, however, once again I will feel tomorrow night that there is not choice but to write a story about an embarrassing demonstration, with well known singers coming out to defend the soldier.  It was suggested to me that I tie into my story the story of a British soldier who in 2011 was accused of killing an already wounded Taliban fighter, and charged with his death. There were demonstrations in support of the soldiers although at first glance the incidents seem very different, I will research the story tomorrow before writing my column.

Unfortunately, tomorrow’s rally and the article I will no doubt write tie together with the survey I translated Friday from Yisrael Hayom.  That survey of Israeli high school students included answers by 60% of them that a terrorist who was wounded and neutralized should not get medical aid, with the same percentage believing that a soldier who then comes along and kills the terrorist should not be court-martialed. Those answers would not be so bad if 85% of the same respondents did not think that the IDF was the most moral army in the world and 48% did not think that Arab Israelis should have the right to vote.  I am quite sure that a very high percentage of the same respondents would also have said that they were proud that Israel was the only democracy in the Middle East.  Experts in polling tell me that I should not be surprised.  High school students are the most right wingers in the Israeli population.  Friends have told me the I should not be surprised, it represents the very real fear that people feel from attacks on the street by terrorists.  All of this is partially true.  But it’s also true as a new friend who I was having coffee with today said- Netanyahu has been very successful in turning everyone who oppose us into terrorist, every terrorist into ISIS and then turning ISIS into Hitler.  He has then thrown the Arab Israelis in with the terrorist and more recently any of the NGO who oppose his policies into  the same mix.  The success of that effort partially explains the opinion poll results.

The other part is a true lack of understanding of what democracy and democratic values mean.  To me, that is the most important problem that needs to be focused on, and it’s on that, that I intend to focus much of my efforts in the coming months and years. More on that in the near future.

My Article in Newsweek Set off a Storm of Comments

In the last 24 hours I have been called, a “self -hating Jews” , “ a hater of Israel”, a “Zionist Pig” and “spokesman for the Israeli Government”.  Those were just a few of the 107 comments made on my article that was published yesterday by Newsweek.

I have had a column in Newsweek now for almost two years called, Tel Aviv Diary, trying to give a perspective of Israel from Tel Aviv.  The column started during the Gaza War of 2014, but has since grown to cover a wide range of events, mostly, however, security and politically related.  This was the first time one of my articles created the storm that it did.  I wrote the article with a certain reluctance.  While my own preferences on the Israeli political spectrum would be considered by many left of center, I consider myself mostly a pragmatist.  Throughout my active life in the Israeli/Zionist world a period that now extends over 40 years I have always taken the position criticizing Israel should be done from the confines of Israel.  That said in all the articles that I have written, I have always striven to ensure that I maintain as high a level of journalistic professionalism as I can and have never tried to consciously slant a story one way or another.  For the last year my articles have appeared mostly under the section Opinion ( but that is a function of the fact that my editor moved from being the Foreign Editor of Newsweek to the Opinion Editor) which has given me the freedom to sometimes express opinions, but I have tried to follow the statement “just the facts”

My relationship with Newsweek does however, allow me to write on whatever topics I deem interesting and relevant to the readers, with the understanding that it will provide insight into Israel and Tel Aviv today.  Thus I am certainly not bound to write about everything that happens here, many of which would be considered “inside baseball” by many foreign readers.  It was thus with a certain reluctance that I decided to write a column about the separate rooms in Israeli maternity wards for Arabs and Jews and the incendiary statement made by MK Smotrich and the ensuing criticism of his remarks.  It was a story that had dominated Israeli news for two days and unfortunately reflected a certain reality in Israel. It was a story that I felt needed to be told.  I have often published articles that are more critical or more opinionated in the Times of Israel blog section, but the reality is their platform is such, that unless you become one of the “Featured Posts”, you disappear from view almost immediately, and thus the number of readers is often very limited.

I think I did a reasonable job in laying out the facts of the story without being overly critical of too many of the players and even presented a relatively flattering view of Minister of Education Naftali Bennet.  Thus, I was surprised by the comments that the article unleashed.  On one hand the minute I saw the headline, I should not have been surprised.  I should note- I have no control over the headline, something that critics of various correspondents do not seem to recognize.  We write a story and our editors or the headline writers choose the headlines.  Their choice is based on some connection to the story and a headline that they feel will get read,r to click on the article and read it.  In the days when media was mostly conveyed on paper medium, the headline was considered important, a way to get the attention of the reader. Today it’s much more important, readers do not read almost any publication linearly like they once did, but instead pick and choose the stories that strike their fancy, usually based on a quick look at the header.  While I disagreed with the choice of headline “Apartheid Arrives at the Maternity Ward”. It was an effective headline and at least reflected aspects of the story.  Of course, effectiveness is a function of the results and this article certainly generated the readership and level of interaction that a mostly web based news organizations desire.  So much so that the Editor and Chief of Newsweek wrote me an E-mail thanking me for the article.    Is it a fully accurate headline,? No its was not- Israel within the 1967 borders is not an apartheid state- Arabs are free to take any jobs go anywhere, live anywhere they desire.  Is there racism and discrimination in the Israeli society?Yes as there is in almost any society.  Is it codified in the laws? Something that is required to be apartheid, the answer is no.  Of course, the situation is completely different on the West  Bank but that is a different article.  What is true however, is that in our state of perpetual war, it is too easy to fall into the trap of becoming an apartheid state.

One final thought on what was planning to make a short posting- The level of discourse in the comments was clearly frightening on both sides. Those that were pro Israel immediately attacked me for writing the story, “what gave me the right to criticize Israel- and Israel that seemingly can do no wrong”  Of course, they obviously know little about me, but they immediate draw the conclusion that if someone is even mildly critical of Israel they must be an anti semite of self-hating Jew.  Second there seems to be no understanding that there is a clear difference between the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza and the Arab- Israelis who are full citizens of Israel. Something I will try to address with an article in coming weeks.

Finally, when it comes Israel’s critics, for them there are no half measures, our very existence remains the original sin, at least, based on the comments, reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians that would result in the partition of the land would be a half measure at best for them.

I truly do not know who seem scarier- our supporters who think we can do no wrong and our opponents who think we can do no right.

If you did not read the article or want to read the comments here it is