The king was a very good monarch, but he had one interest that bordered on obsession: his passion for horses. He had an equestrian stable that rivaled King Solomon’s with many noble steeds. But of all his horses, there was one that stood out, for it was by all accounts the finest stallion in the land. Of course the king was especially proud of this horse, but he began to develop a feeling of paranoia. He began to think that everyone in his kingdom wanted to steal his horse. And so, he reinforced the royal stables so that no one who didn’t belong could get in: he built a moat; he constructed an electrified fence around the stable. The more steps he took to protect his horse, the more insecure he felt and the more he believed that everyone wanted to steal it. Finally, he hired a special guard to keep watch over his prize, who would sit outside the horse’s stall every night to make certain that no one would steal it. If anyone would approach within fifty yards without the special password, the guard was to sound an alarm, and within three minutes, 100 of the king’s special forces stationed outside would be on the scene.
Did the king feel any more secure? Certainly not. The first night his new guard was on duty, the king, who could not sleep a wink, went down to the stable in the middle of the night. Of course, he had the password and so the guard admitted him. “Are you sure that you will be able to stay awake the entire night?, “the king inquired. “No problem,” said the guard. “To make certain that I remain awake and alert, I have at my disposal a large selection of riddles, puzzles, and conundrums to occupy my time and make certain that I do not doze off. For example, tonight I am considering a proposition which I found in the Talmud: that if one digs a hole and then tries to fill it with the original dirt or sand, the hole will never be completely filled. So I am wondering where the rest of the sand would go?”
The king was mightily impressed. He came back a second night, and the guard was pondering where the very real hole in a donut would go when the donut was consumed. The king, less concerned now about his horse, but fascinated by the powers of reasoning his guard possessed, began to show up in the middle of every night. Until one night, when it was obvious to the king that his trusty guard seemed especially perplexed. The guard looked at the king and said, “Here’s something I cannot figure out. How is it that with your moat and your electrified fence, and your hundred special forces surrounding the stable, and the secret password; how is it that, with all that, someone has stolen your horse?”
Do you suppose that the powers-that-be who decided that the Israeli elections would be on February 10 realized the close proximity of Tu B’Shvat one day before? I wonder. One might ask: Is there any connection under the sun between The New Year for the Trees and an election which may or may not be a new year for our beleaguered nation?
The election, which will determine the next prime minister and the makeup of the Knesset and maybe not much more, has been, off and on, the main focus of attention here for the last four or five months. I’m used to thinking about elections, but as a former Jew of the Exile, Tu B’Shvat never made much of an impression, and just like last year, I was astonished when I realized it was creeping up on me. Two or three weeks ago, I noticed that the center aisle in MisterZol –where they tend to put their seasonal displays – was filled with wine and dried fruits. Last week, the center area of the mall was filled with vendors selling the same dried fruits, nuts, seasonal baskets, and the like. Even the Mahane Yehuda shuk in Jerusalem had a greater concentration of these seasonal items. So ready or not, Tu B’Shvat, a tick on the Jewish calendar, was barreling our way. Last Friday, we could hear the voices of children, several classes from one of the local schools, heading down the service road right below our back yard on their way to the nature area to plant a few trees. I began to do some mental gymnastics along the lines of: if every schoolchild is Israel were to plant his or her own tree this year, how long would it take to make up for all the trees destroyed in the Galil by Hizbollah in the Lebanon campaign two years ago? And perhaps only when these children would be standing under their wedding canopy would these just planted saplings amount to much. You may draw your own conclusions from this line of reasoning.
According to recent surveys, environmental concerns are way down the list of priorities for the Israeli voter, which is really a pity and a shame. It’s easy to understand why: a constant state of near-warfare doesn’t do much to improve the eco-system; falling kassams don’t do much to improve the quality of air or water – or one’s state of mind for that matter. When life is uncertain, it’s hard to have the equanimity of our friend, the Old Man in The Talmud, who was planting palm trees for the benefit of future generations. Equanimity: that’s one of the things in short supply in this part of the world – just like water, in a year when winter and its attendant rain still has not really arrived.
There are two things which have not been in short supply around here: the number of political parties, thirty three (down from thirty four; one party, ‘Turnaround in Education,’ just dropped out), and the amount of campaign hot air produced thereby. (I am surprised that Al Gore and the global warming police did not descend en masse, but that might be a situation of the pot calling the kettle black.) Of course, all thirty three parties are not to be taken seriously. Only about a dozen of these slates have a realistic chance of getting elected. The rest (and the rest include parties with intriguing names like ‘Party for the Struggle with the Banks’ [in all cases, I will be giving you the official English translations] or amorphous names like ‘The Israelis’) are running………Why are the rest running? Unfortunately for them, some of these groups are caught in what I call the Marzel dilemma, named after Baruch Marzel, a well-known (very) right wing figure who has run unsuccessfully for the Knesset several times. “Baruch, you know we agree with you, but why should we vote for you? You’re not going to get in, so we’d be wasting our votes.” “If everyone who agrees with me would vote for me, I would get in.” This conforms to one of my iron principles of life, “Success begets success; failure begets failure.” I though this up well before I ever heard of game theory. Then there are the ‘moth around a flame’ type of parties like ‘The Pensioners’ which became enough of a cult favorite in the last election that they even managed to get themselves elected – although probably never again.
All of this would make more sense if I were to describe, as best I can, knowing that I’m not doing full justice to this arcane topic, how the electoral system works in Israel. First of all, every citizen is automatically registered to vote: you have an identity number and ‘They’ know who you are and where you live. All you have to do is show up at the polling place, identify yourself, stick a paper ballot with the slate of your choice (we vote for a slate of candidates for the knesset, not individuals) in an envelope, deposit the envelope in the box, and ze hu (that’s it). Deciding who won is a little more tricky. OK. Let’s say that there were exactly 1,200,000 valid ballots cast. As there are 120 seats in the Knesset, each seat, in effect, is worth 10,000 votes; except that to be a player, you have to cross the ‘threshold,’ meaning you have to get at least two percent of the vote to qualify. If you get fewer than that, you lose. Your paper ballots can then be saved for the next Lag B’omer campfire, or, in the spirit of Tu B’shvat, recycled until the next election – which may be sooner than we think. Those slates left standing have their votes reapportioned somehow to add up to 120 MK’s. Except that it’s never that neat and tidy. Let’s say your party has won five seats, and you have 3000 votes more than you would have needed. You can donate those 3000 to another party which is short 2000 votes to get an additional seat. Except that you must make this stipulation in advance; so before the election, all the parties routinely pair up to maximize their strength.
Now for the prime minister, the rosh hamemshalah. For three elections here, you could actually vote for the PM by a separate ballot, just as (gasp!) is done in America. This method was too simple for all concerned, and so we are back to the old, tried-and true way of doing business. It goes without saying that no party will have a majority. (If that ever happened, Moshiach would be arriving in a big, fat limo within three hours.) So the president, currently Shimon Peres, has to decide which large party stands the best chance of cobbling together a majority, a coalition. The head of the leading party (who will be the prime minister) has then about forty five days to convince parties which agree on almost nothing to form a coalition – usually by bribing them with cabinet positions. It just occurred to me that all this should be made into a board game. We could call it ‘Bechirot Balagan,’ (Election Confusion) for want of a better title. It might one day replace Monopoly as the game du jour.
Once we understand how the election is conducted, we can turn our attention to the sobering prospect of deciding who to vote for. Oy. In The States, you’ve got the Democrats and the Republicans and specific candidates whom you may like or dislike. But the choice is fairly simple, like shooting ducks in a barrel. Here it’s like one of the shooting games at the penny arcade. Parties keep popping up, changing their names, combining and recombining, so that in this election the ‘Holocaust Survivors’ are running on a joint list with the ‘New Leaf’ party – and they don’t mean: as in New Year’s resolutions.
Quite a few of us olim came over here intending to support The Likud party, partly out of nostalgia for Menachem Begin, a leader of unquestioned pride and integrity. One couple I know came over here and actually registered to join the Likud, specifically to support and vote for Moshe Feiglin and his Manhegut Yehudit (Jewish Leadership), a militant faction trying to take over the party leadership from Bibi Netanyahu. I also need to mention that, unlike the States, where you simply advise the election officials if you wish to register as a Democrat or Republican, here, at least with Likud, you have to contact the party, register with them, and pay dues – not a lot of money, but still………. Anyway, my friends managed to do all this and pay their dues for sixteen months, until, when the time came for them to vote for Feiglin and his representatives in the recent Likud primary, they were told, “Sorry, you haven’t been Likud members for eighteen months. You can’t vote in the primary.” Other people told me that they submitted their paperwork, and it never got processed. When I heard about this experience, I thought to myself, if this is how they run their party, then how can they undo the bureaucratic hurdles and fix the country’s problems, when they’re an example of the problem? Even without my friends’ votes, Feiglin managed to get himself up to the twentieth position on the Likud slate, when, WHAM, the rules suddenly changed, once and then again, so that the leader of Manhegut Yehudit was buried in the thirty-something slot, meaning he would never get elected. We can only wish that Bibi would have waged as strong a campaign against Tzipi Livni as he waged against Feiglin – but I am getting way ahead of myself.
At that point, I had no clue whom I would be voting for, and, rightly or wrongly, I have always felt uncomfortable if I don’t have a candidate to support. There would be a number of debates and other forums in which some or all of the slates could present their views, and Barbara and I determined to go to as many of these as we could, especially a debate co-sponsored by the Jerusalem Post and Barbara’s employer, the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, in the Jerusalem Great Synagogue, which would have representatives of nine of the parties which were viable and relevant to the audience. We were told to get to that one an hour early to make sure we could get a seat. But the first forum would a meeting in Maale Adumim which one of my shul buddies here was organizing, at which MK Arieh Eldad would be speaking on behalf of his party, Ihud Leumi [National Union], a new grouping of four right-wing factions (in this context, ‘right-wing’ means “we’re not giving away a sandbox worth of land to anybody”). I figured, why not? We could walk there, and, if nothing else, we would help Chaim fill the room. I knew nothing about Ihud Leumi, except that they were running a separate list from the other National Religious group, ‘The Jewish Home’ party (because if there was going to be two Arab parties and two ‘green parties,’ it would only be fair that there be two national religious parties.)
Meanwhile, some people I know had put a message on our local Anglo e-mail group, MA-chat, mentioning on on-line survey about the election. So, I’ll check it out. What I realized was that the Institute for Democracy in Israel and Ynet, the web version of a local newspaper, had put together a way for undecided voters to match their views on current topics with those of seventeen political parties. You could take this test in Hebrew, English, or Dutch – they were using the facilities of a group in Holland to host this venture, and, as it turned out, 600,000 Israelis took ‘the compass’, as it was called, probably few in Dutch.
The survey had twenty five very specific statements (none of them hinted at global, existential, or theological solutions) which covered the gamut from ‘territorial compromise,’ to the role of religion in the State, questions about the economy and environmental concerns; and you could strongly agree, somewhat agree, be neutral, somewhat disagree, strongly disagree, or completely cop out by saying you had no opinion. Some of the statements were easy for me to respond to: “As part of a peace settlement, Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem should be given to the Palestinians.” (No.) Some more problematic: “Civil marriage [in addition to religious marriage] should be instituted in Israel.” (Very mixed feelings on this issue.) or “The state should provide a security net for pensions, retirement, and long-term savings for its citizens.” (can’t begin to answer the question without knowing what kind of ‘security net’ is being discussed.) None the less, I gave this ‘test’ my full attention and somehow answered all of them. Now the Institute had, in effect, given this survey to all of the political parties by reviewing their campaign material; and so, in the end, my profile, broken down into three components, security, socioeconomic, and religion, was matched with the profile of each of the parties, and I was told “You have a substantive agreement of x%” with each one, in rank order. No one is telling me what I should think; they’re telling me who agrees with me. Can’t argue with that! In my particular case, while Likud and Israel Beiteinu (my home) had a respectable showing, my highest substantive agreement (77%), security, 95% [what question did I answer wrong?],socioeconomic, 63%, religion 80%, was with Ichud Leumi, the National Unity party. Wait a minute, isn’t that the group I’m going to hear? What about the other national religious party, The Jewish Home? Their ‘score’ was only 63% (two percentage points lower than Kadima, Ehud Olmert’s party), proving to me that these two groups do not agree on a lot of things. I have already indicated that I was less than thrilled with Likud, and I share with Barbara a general distrust of Avigdor Lieberman, the one-man rule of Israel Beitenu: cursing Arab MK’s does not to me constitute a political program. (Speaking of Arab MK’s, I almost forgot: my substantive agreement with Ra’am-Ta’al was 38%, with Balad, the other Arab party, 37%, and in last place with 35% – what a surprise! – was Hadash, the communist party. Of course, Meretz, the darling of Haaretz, didn’t do so badly either: they were up there at 40%.)
Anyway, I began to consider what Ichud Leumi had to offer. The evening of the forum, we met friends for dinner (the disenfranchised Feiglinites) in another part of Maale Adumim and walked the forty or so minutes down to Mitzpe Nevo (the ‘religos’ [that’s what the sign says] neighborhood), on the way meeting another friend, making a caravan of people going to hear MK Eldad. I still had a lot of questions: was it worthwhile to support a small party that would probably wind up with a handful of seats in the next Knesset? Was this a one issue group that only concerned itself with territorial integrity?
The forum was to take place in the social hall at the ‘Down’ shul (in Mitzpe Nevo, they have the ‘Up’ shul, the ‘Down’ shul, and the ‘Happy Minyon,’ and some other time when I have the strength, I will explain why they’re called that). The organizers had optimistically set up about 100 chairs, and by the time people finished drifted in, the room was almost filled up. I motioned to my friend Michael, “Let’s sit in the middle.” He didn’t understand my reference, so I explained, “It’s enough we’re at a meeting of the most right-wing party there is. Let’s at least be in the middle of the right-wing.” He got the idea and joined me. Introducing the main speaker was a young man, Yehuda HaKohen who works for Arutz Sheva Radio an on-line print, radio, and TV media center, appealing to a basically national religious audience. Yehuda spoke about Yigal Yadin, the Israeli archaeologist who was also the head of Israel’s first army in the War of Independence. On one of his digs, hidden away in caves in the Judean desert, Yadin found ancient documents, some of which turned out to be letters to his troops from Bar Kochba, the leader of the last revolt against the Romans in the year 132 C.E. And so, military instructions from the last Jewish ‘chief-of-staff’ somehow had been delivered to his successor, the first chief-of-staff of the modern Jewish state some 1850 years later. As always, you are free to consider this a mere coincidence, an historical anomaly. You are also free to discern something significant in this chain of events, and it would be fair to say that the audience assembled understood the implicit message which Yehuda HaKohen was giving. Perhaps we need to consider ourselves the legitimate heirs to an ancient legacy, and without question Aryeh Eldad considers himself as part of that tradition.
Eldad opened his remarks with a version of the anecdote which I rewrote 3000 words ago at the beginning of this article. And his question to us was, “How did we, the Jewish people lose the horse?” We were in Exile these long years, and throughout those dark periods, we had a collective belief that we would someday return to The Land. How, when, under what conditions, were the subjects of never-ending controversy; but that we would again be one day a Nation in our own Land was certan; in fact, it was often our sole bitter-sweet consolation for the bitter lives we led among the Nations. We understood what our Land was and where it was, and we certainly understood the centrality of Jerusalem. So how did we get to a point, when we actually are back in our Land, and we are on the brink of greatness (these are my words), and suddenly we have in our midst so many who are willing to give away our Land. “Har Habayit b’yadeinu” (The Temple Mount is in our hands, the famous words of Motti Gur, the troop commander who seized this holy site in 1967). How did we give it away? Eldad related to us, a mostly ‘religious’ audience, when he talks about “The people of Israel in the Land of Israel with the Torah of Israel” to a more secular crowd, and he senses people trying to look at the back of his head to see the kippah that he is not wearing, and their bewilderment when they cannot identify him as part of the ‘religious’ sector. For him, the People, the Land, the Torah are the inheritance of all Jews, regardless of their ‘lifestyle.’ How did so many of us lose this understanding?
Aryeh Eldad, MK is also Aryeh Eldad, M.D., previously the head of the plastic surgery department at Ein Kerem branch of Hadassah Hospital (where the Chagall Windows are; not the branch on Mount Scopus). He’s not the guy you would go to if you wanted a ‘nose job.’ He treated soldiers and civilian terror victims for their burns and wounds; and he began to think more and more about the standard concept of preventive medicine. Any sensible government would seek to prevent malaria rather than treat its victims. Why wasn’t the Israeli government more vigorous in eradicating terrorism within its borders? Most of us at this forum did not need to be convinced that setting up a terrorist Arab state within or current borders would pose an ‘existential’ threat to our continued existence, something we must absolutely oppose – and something which essentially all the existing political parties have not made clear in words and/or in deeds.
The second ‘existential threat our speaker chose to deal with is the endemic corruption within the Israeli government. Now Eldad knows something about this topic, as he has been the chairman of the Ethics committee within the Knesset, using the authority of the office to locate and read the many, many dossiers kept on file in government offices, which detail the illegal activities of various politicians, which information can be used at will against these officials. The most famous and egregious example is Ariel Sharon, who three days after his reported indictment, announced his plans to expel 8000 citizen from Gaza, a decision which I understand took the American government by surprise. Sharon was never indicted by the attorney general; he received his punishment in a different way. And then there is the story of an obscure Arab mayor of an equally obscure Arab town somewhere in the north, which for obscure reasons has 300 registered voters for the Labor party. During the last primary several years ago for the head of this party, which Ehud Barak won by several hundred votes, 299 of these 300 voters took the trouble to come to the polls, and in the spirit of camaraderie, all 299 of these like-minded Arab citizens voted for Barak. After a year of investigation, Eldad managed to find the file on this Arab mayor, detailing his corruption; although for obscure reasons, the helpful mayor was never put on trial, either.
Eldad finished his presentation and fielded a number of questions. By and large the audience, many of whom were ‘undecided’ at the beginning, left convinced or at least ‘strongly leaning’ towards Ichud Leumi – the latter group including your correspondent. I had decided not to make an absolutely final decision until I had heard the Great Debate the following week (which you will read about shortly). It was far from clear whether Eldad or members of his groups had a comprehensive plan to address these ‘existential’ threats, but at least they were clearly stating the problems from a Jewish perspective, and I was not convinced that any other party was even doing that. I was aware that some of the people in this ‘united front’ which Eldad was representing were even more right-wing than I am. But that would be OK; at least 100 of the 120 members of the next Knesset would be more left-wing than me. A few to the right wouldn’t be so terrible. And perhaps some of them would actually represent how I feel.
We got a ride home; it would have been a forty five minute walk up the hill from Mitzpe Nevo to the friendly confines of HaMitzadim where we reside. I was beginning to feel better; maybe, just maybe, we would have someone to back in the election, a proverbial horse in the race – one which we can only hope will not get stolen.