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Sunday, March 4, 2012

Shlomo Benizri and Political Particularism

Former Shas minister Shlomo Benizri is a convicted felon who was found guilty of breach of trust, accepting bribes and obstruction of justice. After release from prison on the 1st of March 2012 he gave an interview with an ultra-orthodox radio station in which he pronounced the mental anguish he suffered for being 'wrongfully imprisoned' greater than that which Gilad Shalit suffered. Benizri was jailed for four years and served two.  Gilad was incarcerated in a windowless cell for five years and four months. He was held by HAMAS, the racist, misogynistic and genocidal anti-Semitic Arab organisation that governs Gaza.  He was, in effect, living under a sentence of death for all of his confinement. One readers’ judgment on Benizri’s post release delusional rant says it all; he called it a 'Classic Narcissistic Personality Disorder'.,7340,L-4197436,00.html

But the psycho-babble acts as a deterrent to addressing the real threat in the man because we dismiss his demagoguery as the words of a buffoon, which he is not.  Benizri is an obscenity; a delusional, self-obsessed narcissist.  His words should make him ineligible from holding any public office not because he does not have the right to express how he feels but because he is divisive and confrontational and politics should be about healing, reconciliation and inclusion. Clearly, this is not a space in which Mr. Benizri feels comfortable. A rabble rouser belongs in the gutter, not in the halls of power.

The issue that is implicit from the interview he gave is the desperate state of Israeli politics. For a nation of thinkers, philosophers, scientists and workers too – the parlous condition of Israel’s political and moral leadership is one of incompetence and narrow sectarian superficiality.  We can look for policy but instead we receive cant.  How can a state that has survived so many trials in its short history have such a pathetic gaggle of leaders?  Shlomo Benizri represents unreason and bigotry, superstition and intolerance. That we continue to hear from him fills me with despair and horror.  He fails to acknowledge the bankruptcy of his own constituency where there is so much poverty and frustration.  Israel needs to unite its citizens but instead, (and the militantly secular that dwell amongst us are equally guilty of this crime of tribal separation) on his first day out of prison he reaches out to the extremists in anger rather than in calling for a new dialogue towards reconciliation.

The more I consider his words, the greater my contempt for him grows.

In order to understand where the ultra-orthodox fit into the melange of meaningless political poseurs that inhabit the Israel political landscape one must begin with the understanding that in a nation built on competing aspirations, recognition means acceptance. The rights and wrongs of competing narratives make a refusal to recognise the humanity of an adversary easier than any discussion on a revisionist history.

For instance, the Arab ‘Magic Show’ defines all non-Jewish Arab immigrants as Palestinian by birth, perpetually classed as ‘refugees’ and this is supported through UN complicity and Western funding. It provides sanction to Arab particularism which has in turn blossomed into an entire field of Political and Ethical particularism encouraged by the Left. Perhaps this is because the Left is itself morally ambiguous and therefore, promiscuous in choosing its friends and allies.

How does this connect to Shlomo Benizri? Let me explain.

Jews that fled Arab persecution did not have the luxury of UN ‘protection,’ formalised refugee status endowed on them.  Although their numbers exceeded those of the Arabs that fled before their brother and sister ‘freedom fighters,’ from Israel in 1948, their persecution was the normal state of Arab behaviour towards any minority living in their midst and it was thus, never of any humanitarian concern.

The Western Jewish Leadership of the nascent State of Israel already had a tradition of secular enchantment with art and literature, revolutionary politics and science.  They saw their Arab Jewish cousins as uncouth and uncivilised.  They viewed them as ‘less than’ the Arabs that for over a thousand years had kept them politically and socially disenfranchised.  They were ‘weak’; they had not fought their oppressors as Secular Western Jews had done. It is an all too common failure of all revolutionary winners that they are blind to their own arrogance and to the pain they inflict for the greater good.

But within a generation of Jewish independence, in Israel, the intermarriage rate amongst ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ (Arab) Jews was over 20% and increasing at a percentage point every year.  Arab Jewish culture flourished in spite of the ignorance of the ruling administration. Arab Jews became successful politicians, generals and business leaders.  The professions were never deliberately closed to them they just had further to travel to get there.

Today, most Secular Israeli Jews in their teenage years or twenties would laugh at you if you suggested a marriage based on ethnically particularistic lines.

There does remain though, a justifiable chip on the shoulder of many Arab Jews. A large number turned to the Western Orthodox elite for religious guidance and the ultra-orthodox tradition for their pride. The Western ultra-orthodox elite were successful because they aggressively sought political power for its concomitant economic benefit, not the least of which was patronage.  Coming from a conservative background that emphasised tradition, Western Ultra-orthodoxy offered comfort in what was for the first two generations, an alien and unwelcoming environment.

Israel would best be served by lancing the boil of ethnic anger.  Initiate a ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ starting with examining internal Jewish conflicts that continue to simmer to this day.  Israel should strengthen anti-discrimination legislation by taking funding away from any group that is found guilty of deliberate prejudice and applying those funds to combating this prejudice.  An easy early win would in this case be Western ultra-orthodox schools that discriminate both against Arab Jews and Ethiopian Jews.

Arab Muslims and honorary ‘Arab’ Christians have a different issue.  Any attempt at truth and reconciliation would first require revisiting their history and a renunciation of their religious hegemonic pretensions. As members of the two missionary faiths, dominance is more than a national aspiration; it is a theological imperative, even for those that profess a secular affiliation.  It is unlikely to happen any time soon.

Let us start with lancing that Benizri boil then perhaps the confrontational character of Israeli politics may finally dissipate and Israel’s boundless energies will be channeled into more productive areas of interest.

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