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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Democracy in peril

When I first stayed in Israel, almost 40 years ago, I observed the behaviours of Western verses Mizrahi sects of ultra orthodox Judaism as being synonymous with the conflicting visions of modernity and conservatism that divided the nation of secular and religious Jew.   Tainted by centuries of persecution and displaying a reactionary response to modernism much of the orthodox world ejected Judaism’s humanistic values and embraced the misogynistic narrative of the cultures from which they so scrupulously stood apart.  But not the Mizrahim (the Jews of Arab lands).

They, like their western cousins were discriminated against, occasionally they were persecuted and killed.  In Israel almost 40 years ago I observed two male Mizrahi ultra orthodox Jews seated next to each other on a bus. It was a long journey from Jerusalem in the South to Safed in the far north. A pregnant woman got onto the bus and one of the men immediately jumped up to let her sit down.

Today, on a bus filled with the ultra orthodox, that woman would remain standing for the entire journey.  Prejudice has triumphed over piety and we in our naivety and indifference excuse this behaviour and call it ‘respect’. We have allowed ignorance to flower.

Israel, as ‘light unto the nations,’ or at least as a light unto its immediate neighbours, is not doing a good job in Parliament.   Verbal violence and the compulsion to call ones rivals ‘Nazis’ and ‘traitors’ is neither congruent with moderation in speech nor demonstrably classifiable as restrained behavior. Our parliamentarians should lead by example. They do not.  Israel needs an independent Standards committee with powers of enforcement that is able to define Knesset ethics.  Provide them with the greater authority to examine standards for all bodies and individuals receiving public funds, and to determine standards of public discourse for everyone drawing on state monies. Calling MK and Science Minister Daniel Herskowitz a Nazi and threatening him, because he is a member of a right wing government that evacuated three illegal settlements, is a frightening development.

The conceit of some to propose legislation against left wing organizations that are in receipt of overseas donations while excluding donations received by the ‘right wing,’ is similarly alarming. I recall Amos Elon writing that four years after World War One had ended Germany had suffered 376 political murders; 22 by leftists (sentenced to a combined total of 248 years in prison) and 354 murders by rightists who between them received a total of 90 years in prison.  Terror begins with the variable application of the rule of law.

A national debate on standards is required if Israel is not going to end up as just one more sad Near Eastern dictatorship.  Left and Right are equally at fault in this failure of debate.

There are those that will argue against any self-control because in the interlude of passionately held belief it is wrong to conceal ones true feelings or fears. But when we call our adversaries ‘Nazis’ or dismiss them as ‘traitors’ we are expressing more than our beliefs, we are labelling our enemy and rejecting debate as without any value. The British parliamentary model of decorum may be an extreme but it has lasted for almost a thousand years.  It works.

Abuse encourages corruption.  The intent of David Ben-Gurion and his ruling party in enshrining the religious / secular status-quo in 1948, leaving religion to the religious instead of formally separating synagogue and state was that they assumed congruence between ethics and religiosity. The problem is that values are a set of beliefs by which you live your life and beliefs are no more than a structured system of values.  Notice the absence of universal ethical constraints.

When an unrepresentative group holds disproportionate political and economic power against the public interest it damages democracy and the best will flee. Israel cannot afford to encourage separation between religious and secular Israelis in education, housing, the military and the workplace.  Without equality resentment festers and violence grows. Secular Israelis must have a voice in their religious destiny because the multiple Jewish sects are too busy defending their own special interests to be morally responsible for our welfare, or the States.

Universal conscription should be without exception and I would excommunicate the Neturei Karta. You cannot live in a country and actively work against its survival. That they justify their actions on religious grounds does not cancel out the crime against the State or its people. MK’s must sign an oath of allegiance and that means they are Israeli and if they are not, they cannot be a member of parliament. They represent not only their constituents, they also represent the nation. If they do not, then they should find employment elsewhere.  This would create problems for some of the more racist Arab MK’s who stand shoulder to shoulder with their racist Arab brothers against the Jewish population of Israel.  But democracy cannot survive unless it has a core set of beliefs to which all are wholly committed.

To desegregate communities, students should be bussed in until populations cease to be islands of prejudiced uniformity or ghettos of ignorant bliss.

I recall the horrified look on the face of a Hasidic friend when I attempted to scribble down his telephone number on the back of my hand. He explained that it was wrong to do so because we are all human and to write on our bodies is to scribble on Gods work. This universalism did not apply to one people, one race, one religion or one orientation.  It is an extreme view but essentially it is an expression of humility before the creator. Now the ultra-orthodox burn down bus shelters that display what they have decided is inappropriate; they spit at women dressed ‘immodestly’ and they spit on people different to them. They have forgotten the teachings of the Torah and it is they who today defile the creator.  Humility has been replaced with intolerance and spite.

Israel with its imperfect and dysfunctional democracy is threatened by extremism and intolerance no less than its neighbours. A series of legislative efforts by the extreme right and orthodox measures accepted by local authorities are a threat to freedom. It is only right for foreign donors whether they are individuals, charities or nations to be registered and that the public should know who they are. Some of them work with the State; many of them are working against it. In the USA all foreign funding must be registered. That is fair. There is nothing intrinsically wrong in being a lobbyist for a foreign entity. But let it all be out in the open.  If it is not, it undermines the level playing field that is part of the fabric of a democratic nation’s strength.   Foreign financial intervention can have the intent to rend the fabric of national consensus or support an antagonist against the consensus.

But the extreme right demands that only “Left wing” donations be registered in its currently debated legislation. This is a grotesque attack on democracy.  A law that targets one group or another is not just a bad law; it is an anti-democratic law.

And to limit the presence of women in the public domain is to encourage the talibanisation of Israel and the Islamisation of Judaism. It is an obscene reaction by a community that is afflicted with an obsessive self worth bordering on idolatry. The oppression of women and their exclusion from society is symptomatic of a community that has lost its Jewish identity and sociopathically externalised its own neurotic fears.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that “an ideological battle must not be waged at the expense of someone who refuses to be sacrificed on its altar.”   The violence of language has not diminished and ideological exuberance remains a poor excuse for libel.

Israel desperately needs an independent public standards authority that is mandated by Parliament to oversee Parliament. Contempt must have its penalties.  To suspend without pay those people in public employment who are unable to control their speech is a good start. And impeachment should be the response we offer to those people who sail with our enemies or attempt to erase our history. It is time to rein in ‘Lashon ha ra’ – the evil tongue.

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