Saturday, February 27

Disappearing Checks and Balances

Many incidents have occurred in Israel which somehow gives cause for concern. This also has a great bearing on Israel's future as a democracy of which Israel pundits take great pride. The well worn cliché,” Israel is the only democratic state in the Middle East", is questionable and relative.

There are more similarities between Israel and its Arab neighbors than one would like to imagine or perhaps admit.

One of the great problems that exist in Israel and this affects the personal freedom of choice of every Jewish Israeli citizen is the total absence of religious freedom. (The non-Jewish minorities in Israel have their own religious institutions which decide on their religious welfare without interference by Israel and are therefore in a different category for the purpose of this article). There are raised eyebrows undoubtedly at this statement. While it is true that nobody is forced to live one's personal life according to Halacha (Jewish religious laws), in practice there are situations whereby one has to rely on the religious establishment for solving problems. I shall enlarge on that later.

One of the problems in Israel is the lack of separation between church and state (perhaps it is more accurate to say synagogue and state). This has a number of ramifications. There is no civil marriage in Israel. Mixed marriages between Jew and non-Jew cannot be performed in a civil ceremony as in most progressive democracies in the world. The reason is very undemocratic - the preservation of Israel as a Jewish state would be endangered. Those who are not Jewish, but have a Jewish partner, whom they wish to marry, are unable to do so. This means in practice that the fear of assimilation of the Jewish people into the non-Jewish world must prevented at all costs and the separation of synagogue and state must never be considered even in its enactment as law. Judaism, like all monotheistic faiths, is not democratic. Religion by its nature can never be democratic. It has rules and doctrines which are unquestionable. You either accept it or you don't. Democracy gives you freedom of choice without coercion or ostracism. This is largely denied in the all powerful rabbinical establishment in matters of marriage and divorce.

The ramifications of this are far reaching in one's personal life as a secular or non-observant Jew. This gives the establishment Orthodox Rabbinate immense powers to influence government decisions as well as one's private lifestyle. Some of the political tools that the establishment rabbinate has are the religious ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset that hold political power far beyond their numbers. This is true of the Shas and Torah Judaism Parties who stoop to blackmail to preserve their fundamentalist brand of Judaism.

Now with Pesach (Passover) just around the corner, the secular Jewish community will be forced to eating "Kosher for Pesach" stamped foodstuffs. Any supermarket selling food not kosher for Pesach during the Pesach week will be heavily fined. This does not apply to food stores in the Arab villages where the situation does not apply.

The reason for this legislation is to preserve the Jewish identity of Israel preventing it from becoming like "the other nations" that are considered inferior. Preservation of Jewish identity in Israel by legislation is not democratic and this does not allow free choice of lifestyle. Surely we have borderline racism here in favour of the Jewish identity in Israel. The justification for this by Israel's supporters is that the preservation of Jewish identity is of the utmost importance for the survival of the Jewish People for all time. It can only be achieved by legislation to prevent assimilation. Is this freedom of choice enshrined in democratic values?

Because of this religious legislation to prevent ("God Forbid") assimilation, the rabbis have immense powers and many of them have become charismatic religious leaders of the right to extreme right wing persuasion. They are supporters of the occupation and view the occupied territories as part of Greater Israel according to the will of the Almighty and that Palestinians are inferior and are not entitled to basic human rights. Their influence amongst the so-called religious community in Israel is enormous. These people live their lives according to the rulings of these charismatic rabbinical bigots who spew hell and brimstone if they stray from the fold. Cursing is part of their lexicon towards those who do not hold their world view. The revered Shas spiritual leader and demagogue, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, is an example. There are many others.

As we have seen over the past few weeks, rabbis with this electrifying charisma are also hiding a rather sinister side that is now beginning to come to the surface as a result of investigations by organizations such as Takana (even they are rather clumsy in their investigations). Suspicions of pedophilic practices and sexual harassment of young women prior to their marriage are becoming known. Many observant religious prenuptial brides seek the advice of charismatic rabbis, who to them are God's messengers, on how they should conduct their new marital relationship. These lecherous rabbis are not averse to giving practical demonstrations in order to satisfy their own sexual desires.

Another example is the sexual harassment of young yeshiva (religious orthodox schools devoted to Torah studies) students by their charismatic rabbinical mentors who hold high positions in the yeshiva hierarchy. Slowly but surely, the dark side of these charismatic rabbis are coming out of the cupboard as more witnesses to these pedophilic acts are revealing what really goes on.

All these incidents occur because of the extreme power that establishment rabbis have because there is no separation of state and synagogue. Here there is a close similarity to pedophilic priests and bishops in the Roman Catholic Church (and the Holy Sea). No doubt this also exists in Islam wherever religious doctrines are part of state rule. Israel is no different.

Many of these rabbis, because of the immense powers they have to prevent assimilation of the Jewish people, view themselves as God's messengers and are beyond the law thanks to the religious political parties in the Knesset who represent them. This means in practice that they have liberties and powers of religious coercion beyond what they are entitled. There are no checks and balances when it comes to rabbinical exploitation of the secular Jewish community. Secular Jews have to marry in an orthodox religious ceremony which is against their lifestyle and belief (or lack of it). Divorce has to go through rabbinical courts even for the secular Jewish community. Freedom of religion exists in name only in Israel. Judaism in Israel has become the monopoly of the right wing. Today Israel is ruled by a right wing coalition. The left wing has been virtually wiped out. There is no opposition in the Knesset, apart from the Arab Parties, who have their own agenda, which does not include all Israel's citizens irrespective of race, colour, creed or religion. An exception is Hadash - a party that is represented by both Jews and Arabs.

A country that has no separation of church and state can never be a true democracy. This is applicable to most (if not all) Arab states and Israel.

Monday, February 8

Is Democracy in Danger in Israel?

A despicable cartoon that portrays the sign of a witchhunt equating Naomi Hazan as a traitor to Israel. This is reminscent of anti-Semitic "Der Stuermer" Cartoons of the notorious Nazi rule in Germany. It is not surprising in view of much right wing thought in Israel these days.

Israel has a right wing coalition and this can be a potential danger to democracy. Israel has Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman of the right wing Israel Beiteinu Party who speaks plainly. Every time he opens his mouth he saber rattles and creates controversies. Is it necessary to make war-like threats against Syria? What purpose does it serve? His deputy, Dan Ayalon, is not much better. He resorts to insulting the Turkish Ambassador when there is a problem between Turkey and Israel.

Now, more than ever before, the idea of checks and balances on the right wing government's activities is important to safeguard democracy. The left wing in the Israeli political spectrum is weak and almost non-existent. The Labour Party under Ehud Barak is destroying itself while Defense Minister Ehud Barak has sold out to the right wing and is becoming a Likud figurehead. Meretz has been virtually wiped out and what is left is weak, ineffective and not very vocal on human rights issues as it was in the past. It is more involved in fringe issues that are not political such as green issues that enjoy wide support across political lines.

A very serious result of the erosion of democracy in Israel is the limitations on the free press over the last couple of days due to the increased power of the right wing. An example of this is the attack on the New Israel Fund (NIF). A right wing group, Im Tirtzu, has attacked the NIF accusing it of being a subversive anti-Israel group. It is the largest financial supporter of human rights groups in Israel.

The NIF gives financial support to the watch dogs of human rights in Israel such as Adalah, Breaking the Silence, B'tzelem, and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Public Committee against Torture in Israel, Yesh Din and the Israeli branch of Physicians for Human Rights. These organizations are legitimate and work within the framework of the law and are not a threat to Israel's security.

This despicable right wing group, Im Tirtzu, made an attack on this organization because it supported the demand for an independent investigation into Operation Cast Lead as the Goldstone Report had requested. The fact that this organization did not join the mass national hysteria against the Goldstone Report had turned them into an undesirable anti-Israel and an anti-Zionist organization in the eyes of this right wing group.The result of this even overflowed into other areas of the right wing Israeli establishment.

One of the results of this self righteous right wing hysteria is the ousting of Naomi Chazan, the president of NIF, from writing columns for the Jerusalem Post. She had written regular columns in the Jerusalem Post for more than a decade. She was a member of the Knesset for Meretz from 1992 to 2003.

There were erroneous claims by Im Tirtzu according to a newspaper report that 92% of negative references to the Israel Defense Forces in the Goldstone report came from organizations sponsored by NIF.

There seems to be a paranoid trend in Israel these days concerning anybody who fails to slam the Goldstone Report or demands an independent investigation into Operation Cast Lead in order to ascertain the truth as to whether there were war crimes committed by Israel as the report claims. They are viewed as traitors, Hamas supporters and anti-Semites. Naomi Chazan was depicted as such by a right wing caricaturist as having a horn coming out of her head.

This could have serious consequences that could snowball into demonization of the left and a possible assassination Yigal Amir (PM Rabin's assassin) - style. There is also a similarity to McCarthyism prevalent in the US in the early 1950s.

It seems that the Jerusalem Post is now filtering out left wing views from its pages. Those columnists whose views are too critical of the right wing government and its views are on the firing line. The action of the Jerusalem Post surely endangers the freedom of speech and the Press.

As Israel’s standing in the world has reached a new low because of Operation Cast Lead, there are those Israeli pundits who view dissenting views within Israel as anathema and treacherous. It is as if there is an unofficial call to Israel’s citizens, (who are largely indifferent anyway) to support its leaders without question. This means that dissent can be dangerous to one’s health in Israel these days especially if it is critical of the government’s policies towards the occupation and its decisions regarding the Goldstone Report. This in no way reflects the infallibility of the Goldstone Report. The Goldstone Report is an important UN document rightly or wrongly that has gained legitimacy and a lot of international influence. It has to be regarded as such and demands that Israel conducts an independent inquiry into war crime accusations. This is not only the demand of the so-called “left wing traitors”, but also the demand of the previous attorney-general Menachem Mazuz and MK Dan Meridor of the centre right Likud Party.