Kadima Marches Backwards

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 7-24-12

Can you split fog? Apparently you can in Israeli politics, as four Kadima MKs leave their faction to support Likud.

As of this writing—and it being Israeli politics, anything can change–Otniel Schneller, Avi Duan, Arieh Bibi, and Yulia Shamolov Berkovich will be voting with the governing Likud coalition, even though their vague, undefined, ideologically obscure party bolted the coalition last week. This shift has their former Kadima comrades trying to strip them of privileges by appealing to the Knesset House Committee, as Kadima’s leader Shaul Mofaz accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of “pimping” Kadima MKs—although I think he meant seducing.

The defection of the four is only a partial victory for Bibi, who continues to show more enthusiasm for politicking than governing. Had he wooed three more Kadima MKs for a total of seven, he would have triggered an official party split. Now, he has just made a royal political mess. Even some Likud loyalists are unhappy.  “The Likud is not a political garbage can,” Likud MK Danny Danon growled. “We won’t allow slots to be reserved for opportunists who left a sinking ship.”

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Shaul Mofaz (C), Chairman of the Kadima party, arrives for a special faction meeting at the Knesset (Gali Tibbon / AFP / GettyImages)

The irony is that Danon’s “opportunists who left a sinking ship” line could apply to Kadima’s start as well as whaKadima Marches Backwardst now may be its finish.  Many Kadima MKs were former Likudniks who abandoned that party when Ariel Sharon was alive and well and maneuvering politically, seeking support for the disengagement from Gaza.  Kadima became labeled the “centrist” party because it was to the Likud’s “left” on territorial compromise. But the labeling dismayed those of us who seek muscular moderates, politicians deeply committed to the idea of center-seeking.  Kadima’s mock moderates’ entrance into a marriage of convenience with Netanyahu, which has now dissolved, were motivated by expedience, not principle or vision.

Apparently, the Knesset House Committee will reject Kadima’s call to sanction the deserters. But their defection raises fascinating legal questions—is an individual elected to the Knesset or is the party simply authorized to fill a particular slot based on the number of votes it received?  One of the biggest problems with Israeli politics is that Knesset legislators are too beholden to their parties and rarely act as free agents. Israel needs some regional representation and more personal legislative accountability.  The parties are too powerful and individual constituents do not have a real Knesset address for particular problems, adding to the general cynicism and disaffection.

Sometime these kinds of party defections can be part of a helpful ideological realignment. Unfortunately, this spectacle appears to be one more round in a perpetual series of political maneuvers, and seems more destined to discourage than inspire, to alienate rather than activate.  Netanyahu will emerge a little stronger after this round but not strong enough, or courageous enough, to confront the Ultra-Orthodox on the draft issue. The Knesset, alas, continues to be more like a cross between the Chicago City Council and an Arab souk, rather than the suitably sacred yet secularized update to the Sanhedrin the early Zionists envisioned.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Intstitute Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism,” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

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Get Creative For Yossi Falafel

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 7-17-12

Shaul Mofaz’s decision to lead his centrist Kadima party out of Israel’s broad coalition government shows that there is at least one politician left in the Western world who has a bottom line, which he called a  “red line.”  Standing on principle, refusing to delay military or national service to age 26, Mofaz proclaimed: “He who says 26, doesn’t want true equality.” Mofaz’s departure–supported by all but three Kadima Knesset members–spotlights both the ideological fight over the Ultra-Orthodox role in Israel, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s surprising failure to lead.

Using the “E” word–equality–mounts the ideological issue on two pillars. First, Mofaz and Kadima are fighting to make Israel a liberal democracy, which is a collection of individual citizens with equal rights and responsibilities, rather than a democratic republic, which is a coalition of competing groups. The “Haredim” should not have group rights–even though some legal wiggle room respecting their collective sensibilities is in keeping with Israel’s public character and the Zionist vision.

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Ultra-Orthodox Jewish children wear handcuffs as they protest against a uniform draft law to replace the Tal Law on July 16, 2012 (Lior Mizrahi / Getty Images)

 

The second pillar is the “equity” part of equality. Mofaz is playing to the many middle class, non-Arab, non-Haredi Israelis who are tired of being “freirim,” the Hebrew word for suckers. Although the plain-speaking former general is not one for high-falutin’ phrases or philosophy, he is defending one of the modern democratic state’s fundamental building blocks–the Lockean social contract, wherein individuals sacrifice certain rights and take on particular responsibilities, including defending the collective against harm.

Mofaz’s move once again makes a mockery of all the Churchillian aspirations that Benjamin Netanyahu writes about in his books, casting the Israeli Prime Minister as more Chicago ward heeler than courageous statesman. Netanyahu’s deferral to Ultra-Orthodox sensibilities is curious. Ideologically, he is more of a liberal nationalist in the Menachem Begin-Ze’ev Jabotinsky tradition, and has blocked many of the more undemocratic and anti-libertarian moves proposed by some of his more authoritarian coalition colleagues. But on this issue of Haredi service his pusillanimous silence has been disappointing and self-defeating. If Netanyahu mimicked Mofaz and grew a backbone on this issue, he could not only calm the broad Israeli center, he could all but guarantee his re-election.

This issue demands more creativity and bolder leadership. For example, Netanyahu could demand all Haredim take on service as responsible Israeli citizens, while allowing a marriage exemption. This would protect the principle but give many Haredim, who marry young, an out that might be more palatable to the Israeli version of Joe Six Pack–call him Yossi Falafel–who in Israel too would be married to a soccer mom. Netanyahu could also pressure the Haredi rabbis, taking advantage of the hierarchies within the community. And, for someone who is so proud of his silver tongue, he could try addressing the people, articulating core principles, proposing a decent compromise, and affirming the kind of national vision so many Israelis yearn to hear from a heroic leader who does not fear his coalition members and does not succumb to Ultra-Orthodox threats.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Intstitute Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight against Zionism as Racism,” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

Haredi draft dodging is an individual crime

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-3-12

 
The Keshev Committee seeking to replace the unconstitutional Tal Law which protected most Ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews from Israel’s universal draft has imploded, apparently due to tensions regarding potential personal sanctions on draft-dodging Yeshiva students. Haredi Knesset members reportedly threatened “all out war” if Ultra Orthodox 18-year-olds are drafted along with their Israeli Jewish peers. These extortionist threats are despicable while imposing group-think and rejecting individual rule of law here is unacceptable.

I am not anti-Haredi, but I am pro-liberal democracy. I respect the Ultra-Orthodox lifestyle.  I appreciate the challenge of maintaining their traditional values and rituals amidst modernity’s seductions.  The children of my Haredi friends serve in the army. I have written in The New Republic and elsewhere rejecting what we at the Shalom Hartman Institute Engaging Israel project call the Demography of Fear, and I abhor the rampant stereotyping caricaturing this segment of Israeli society.  Threats of a Haredi demographic takeover of Israel are exaggerated — and the attendant hysteria is demonizing.  But democracy entails more than consent of the governed expressed through mass voting rights.  Every Israeli citizen should have individual rights and responsibilities – even as certain group indulgences occasionally have to be granted too, but under extreme circumstances, and as infrequently as possible.

In the spirit of compromise, I accept different educational systems for Haredi children and Israeli Arab children, even as it offends my Zionist sensibilities and strains Israeli democracy. As a realist, I understand that Israeli Arabs should not be drafted and that a small symbolic group of Haredi Jews may hold onto their community’s historic draft exemption. But every young Israeli should be compelled to serve in the army or complete national service as an individual obligation to the nation, with some getting rare free passes for compelling reasons.

And yes, the need to insulate Israeli Arabs from the complexity of Israel’s military conflict with their Arab cousins is compelling, especially if Israeli Arabs take on national service.  By contrast, the claim that Haredi draft dodging defends Israel by maintaining the Lord’s good graces through Torah study is an absurd fig leaf – despite my veneration for the Torah and traditional Judaism.

In Israel today, 114,000 students learn in government-funded Torah institutions. Even if all 54,000 full-time yeshiva students exempted from military service under the Tal Law enlisted immediately, approximately 60,000 full-time, government-subsidized Torah scholars could still provide the divine protection they believe their studies deliver. These scholarly masses are joined by tens of thousands of others, in Jerusalem and elsewhere, who are shaping the extraordinary Torah study renaissance occurring today throughout Israel.

Modern Israel 2012, particularly Jerusalem, has a scale and intensity of learning that rivals the historic Babylonian Talmudic academies of Sura and Pumbedita, Maimonides’ Egypt, the Baal Shem Tov’s Poland, or the Gaon’s Vilna. I am not daring to suggest that we have greats to equal those gedolim, those giants – I cannot judge. But I acknowledge the great work so many serious Jews and the Israeli government have done to revive Jewish learning on a mass scale after the Holocaust. And I resent the implication that this vast, impressive Torah study effort is so fragile it will collapse or fail to achieve its holy mission, if Haredi 18-year-olds do not serve in the army as other Israeli youngsters do.

More profoundly, this Haredi exemption is based on a misreading of Jewish history, the Bible, and, dare I say it, the Torah and Talmud too.  Jews were rarely Spartans reveling in blood and violence to celebrate our values. Jews have long been reluctant fighters, who understood, however, that we could not shirk our duties when history imposed the burden of fighting on us.  The Bible is filled with famous fighters who defended Israel and the Jewish people, including David and Joshua, Barak and Gideon. Less well known are Biblical figures such as Benayahu ben Yehoyada and Adino HaEtzni, King David’s fierce warriors – like lions, who were leading Torah scholars of their generation.

In the Torah, Deuteronomy 20 exempts from military duty cowards as well as willing soldiers who did not yet dedicate their homes, enjoy the fruits of their vineyards, or marry their betrothed. Yet, the Mishnah in Sotah 8:8 rules that an obligatory war overrides even those exemptions for males over 20. Maimonides himself in the Mishnah Torah writes that anyone who could save a fellow Jew yet fails to do so violates Leviticus 19:16: “You shall not stand aside while your fellow’s blood is shed” (Hilchot Rotzeach 1:14), while the standard codification of the Shulchan Aruch in Orach Chaim (329:6) justifies desecrating the Sabbath to save lives if the community is attacked.Haredi draft dodging implicitly accepts the anti-Israel position that Israel’s wars are not obligatory.

A frustrated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared, “Let us take the reins and bring about a solution.” I would love to see Bibi grow a backbone on this crucial issue – and then use it for solving other problems as well. Netanyahu’s wall-to-wall coalition gives him the power to make historic changes. He can revise the basic Israeli social contract, emphasizing individual rights and responsibilities, with just enough group protection to acknowledge Israel’s special status, unique history, and fragile constellation of constituent groups. But he should not succumb to political blackmail. Israel should draft Haredim as individual citizens and proud Jews. The Jewish people must reject a medieval, misleading, and misanthropic reading of our Bible, our heritage, our history, and our unfortunate burden today, wherein too many of us must send our precious children into the army, not because we delight in violence but because we know the consequences of cowering, dodging, and shirking this most painful yet noble of responsibilities.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight Against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press in the fall.