Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Jewish Leadership

But now I'm back where you found me, Out in the cold again….(Out in the Cold Again, Lyrics by Ted Koehler, music by Rube Bloom)
“So aside from faith, or magical thinking ("somehow" it will all work out), what is your prognosis/advice?” One of my loyal readers, in response to my last article about the Great Debate, sent me back two questions. The first was easy, what is an rbi? It’s ironic that I take the trouble to explain virtually every Jewish-type reference, because I know that everyone who gets my articles is not learned in these matters; but it never occurred to me that someone wouldn’t understand this baseball statistic (which measures a player’s success in batting in runs, the whole point of the game). But the second: not just my prognosis/advice, but what I suggest – aside from faith. Now I’m in big trouble.
In between my various activities, tasks, and chores (which list I will not burden you with), as well as the vagaries of my computer, I have been pondering the matter of “Jewish leadership.” In fact, I will present to you two men with different points of view on this topic: one, that he is it; two, that it doesn’t yet exist. Of course, it would be beneficial to begin with a definition – although it is usually easier to start with a negative. So ‘Jewish leadership’ certainly doesn’t mean someone in a leadership position – either here in The Land or especially in the Exile – who happens to be Jewish; there are copious examples of that.
Actually, we ought to start with the term “leadership” itself, and my off-the-top-of-my-head definition would be something like “a leader is someone who unites people to solve agreed-upon problems and achieve agreed-upon goals.” Not bad, huh! Except it assumes that there are agreed-upon problems and goals, and you can begin to see the difficulty straight-away.
About a month ago, I came upon an article on Israel National News (Arutz 7) by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed (the esteemed chief rabbi of the community Har Bracha and the head of the yeshiva there) entitled “How Are Leaders Produced?” in which he discusses the leadership problem in the (Jewish) religious community. His first point is that in contrast to family life, where we have developed rich and successful traditions no matter how difficult the circumstances or environment, we have no tradition of real communal leadership. Instead, we have had a tradition, through no fault of our own, of what he terms shtadlanut (persuasive ‘entreatment’, although I’m not certain that’s a real word), centering on communal survival in a hostile world. As he puts it, “most religious leaders know primarily how to deal in intercession, to make declarations and condemnations, or to serve secular leaders.” In general, I like what he is saying – with one important modification. I can’t see what our parenting skills have to do with his argument, and, therefore, I would redefine his terms to communal vs. political leadership. If I had to give an example of shtadlanut, I would offer up the response of the American Jewish community during the Holocaust. While most rank-and-file American Jews were unaware of the impending disaster, several hundred rabbis and lay leaders who were aware of what was going on tried to persuade other Jews in official positions to use their access to help save their about-to-be-wiped-out-brethren abroad. Sort of like Mordechai asking Esther to go to Achashverus (in the Purim megillah) to cancel Haman’s decree against the Jews; except that she agreed, and in the 1940’s, almost none of the Reform and secular advisors to Roosevelt would lift a finger. But no one at that time and place was suggesting a political approach, for example, a mass march on Washington involving hundreds of thousands of Jews – even though in 1941, African-American leaders like A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin (representing a group even more oppressed and despised than the Jews were) threatened such a march to protest discrimination in the war industries, government agencies, and the American armed forces, a forceful campaign for equality which these leaders continued throughout the war, a precursor to the civil rights movement which exploded a decade later. I think you can see the difference in the two approaches; and while there is a time and a place for both of them, it is perhaps the forceful approach which better suits the leaders of a nation state. There can be no question that historically we have excelled at a communal level, developing and maintaining a rich religious and social structure through good times and bad, and that has been what kept us going. But I think it’s fair to say that self-government is not part of the Jewish skill-set. Anyone who doubts this assertion should turn in our Bible to the prophetic and historical writings about our sojourns in The Land from the conquest by Joshua. How many good kings did we have when we had a kingdom? Very few. Certainly during the almost two millennia of our exile, we had no opportunity to practice any kind of political activity, and the incredible achievements during the last 60 years in Israel seem to have been accomplished often times despite the government, the prime minister, and the Knesset.

Being aware of our lack of leadership, Rabbi Melamed suggests that “Therefore, the least we can do is ask the various religious movements and figures to spare us the tension and competition, to unite for the sake of the common goals of all sectors of the religious public.” Doesn’t sound that radical, does it? You are free to give your own estimates of whether this will happen or not – at least in our lifetimes.
However, continues our respected rabbi, “the religious-Zionist public has another problem, one which is more serious: our fundamental goals are not well enough defined.” What he is getting at is that the integration of our societal values is not clear. His examples: Torah and science, Torah and livelihood, Judaism and democracy, Torah justice and the law of the state, as well as yeshiva study and army service, and so on. (To which list I would add integration into or separation from Israeli society by the religious community.) And then Rabbi Melamed concludes with what unfortunately should be obvious: “We do not have leaders because we do not have clear goals, and we do not have clear goals because we lack able leadership.” What he doesn’t mention is that this lack of direction is pervasive throughout Israel and the rest of the Jewish World.
Perhaps now would be a good time to introduce (or re-introduce) Moshe Feiglin, the head of a faction entitled “Manhigut Yehudit” (Jewish Leadership), a most intriguing fellow with a lot of good ideas. What distinguishes him from many others on the political right in Israel is that he is a firm believer in the capitalist system and electoral reform and is not a supporter for religious parties. He advocates a state based on ‘Jewish values’ in the media, the courts, the educational system, the economy, and in how the affairs of state are carried out. He claims to be against religious coercion, although it is not clear to me how you could force rabid secularists to adhere to Jewish values and have their children attend schools in which Judaism is taught without the government making them do it. Anything that a government does, from building roads, collecting taxes, or having school children recite “The Pledge of Allegiance” involves coercion of some kind. Nonetheless, in many ways, Feiglin is on to something. Consider the following position (which I quote from the Manhigut Yehudit website):
“Our problems with the Arabs are a reflection of the problems between the Jews. The Left is fanatically anxious to 'solve' the Arab problem so that they will stop reminding them that they are Jews. They erroneously think that if the Arabs no longer hate the Jews, they will also be free of their Jewishness. This psychosis has accompanied the Jewish people for generations. The Arabs have subconsciously identified the obsessive need of Israel's leftist leaders for their recognition. This is a tremendous psychological asset that they use to manipulate us. That is why there will be no peace with the Arabs until we make peace with ourselves.”
If we change “for generations” to “for centuries,” and add to “Arabs” “everyone else in The Western World,” I think that we have created a good thumbnail sketch of a good part of the conflict in Jewish thought since ‘The Enlightenment’ in Europe in the nineteenth century.
The ‘Big Question,’ in fact the ‘Really Big Question’ is how you create a state in which ‘Jewish values’ are inculcated; or phrased somewhat differently, how do you create a government in Israel to do anything at all? For reasons that in hindsight seem unfathomable, The Jewish Agency in 1948, having many different models from which to choose, decided to pattern the fledgling Israeli system of government upon the most unstable model they could find, that of Italy: lots of parties, lots of factions, lots of elections. And never a clear majority. That’s what we’re stuck with; we can bemoan the fact and cry for changes, but it would be like trying to straighten a bent tree on which children have already fastened a swing. Political parties exist here because of the system; hence the system exists because of the political parties and their needs and their narrow constituencies. Here, individuals and groups have the opportunity – with all its many liabilities – to focus on the kind of political and especially the religious differences that would go virtually unnoticed when all political discourse is confined within the parameters of two political parties, into one of which most Americans find their place.
Moshe Feiglin, probably because he sees an inherent virtue in a two party system, has determined that his best course of action is to take control of Likud; and has been trying to do that for a number of years with little success, although his support within the party seems to be growing. The last primary election in December showed in great detail the problems that Feiglin has faced. I have described in a previous article the difficulty some of us have had in joining the Likud party or being a member long enough to vote in the primary. One might sense that the Likud is not that interested in attracting a large cadre of new voters who might be supporters of Feiglin. Even so, once the votes were counted, Feiglin was number 20 on the list, which would certainly have guaranteed him a seat in the Knesset. But lo and behold, the ‘big boys’ changed the rules of the game, and suddenly Feiglin kept getting dropped to a lower and lower slot, until he wound up at number 38, meaning the closest he would be getting to the Knesset would be a view from the sculpture garden at the Israel Museum nearby. Don’t ask me how this happened: it had something to do with other candidates (women, olim, regional candidates) who were guaranteed seats, and maybe they had done well enough not to need the slots allotted to them; but I really don’t understand it – even though it was explained in the newspapers – and for the sake of my sanity I hope I never do understand it. Anyway, this left our subject with an interesting dilemma. The only way he could get back his rightful spot would have been to go through the court system. However, he is on record as saying (correctly) that the Supreme Court in Israel has been hijacked by the Left, and he does not accept their jurisdiction. So he couldn’t go that route, which I imagine Netanyahu’s crowd understood – meaning that if the Likud leaders announced after the election that they had disqualified anyone whose name begin with a peh and ended with a nun, there is nothing that Feiglin could or would have done about it – except declare a moral victory and continue to maintain that he is on the way to taking over the Likud leadership, something which some of us would question.
Given these facts, and given the political reality, many voters in The Land – whether they are on the political Left or Right – were faced with a big (as Barbara’s late friend Miriam would have put it) “Vat to doo?” which can be translated literally into the Hebrew “ma l’assot.” Do you finesse your ideas into one of the larger parties which approximate more or less, usually less, what you want? Or do you stick to your guns and go with a smaller party that really represents you? A very interesting phenomenon occurred in the general election: The Left did one thing and the Right the other.
One thing became clear after all the votes were counted in February: a lot of people did not want Binyamin Netanyahu to be in control of the government. The Left was so scared that they abandoned their parties by the droves to support Tzipi Livni and Kadima. Several small parties didn’t even make it past the minimum threshold and won’t be represented at all in the Knesset. The real Left-wing party Meretz was reduced to three seats; Labor was down to an historic low of thirteen seats. But while these voters were afraid that the Likud leader would not be sufficiently conciliatory in negotiating with the Arabs, the voters on the Right believed just the opposite, that he would cave under increased pressure from the new American administration to form a ‘Palestinian’ state no matter what. Once the debacle in the Likud primary became clear, voters began to drift away from the party, mostly towards Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu, because he, in his far-from-perfect Hebrew, sounded tough. There was also an increased interest in the National Religious Party, which – because a Jew needs minimally two parties, one to vote for and one not to vote for; and ideally three parties, one to vote for, one not to vote for, and the third, he wouldn’t be caught dead voting for – had to, simply had to, split into two competing factions: National Union and the Jewish Home.
After hearing Aryeh Eldad’s lucid and compelling presentation on behalf of National Union and the (less than) Great Debate between candidates from the several parties (both discussed in previous articles), all that was left to do was to catch “Tuesday Night Live” (a ‘television’ program run by the now web-based Arutz7) which would host a quasi-debate between Feiglin, the still-dreary Daniel Hershkowitz of Habayit Yehudi, and for National Union, Ichud Leumi, its chairman, Yaakov Katz, known to friend and foe as ‘Katzele,’ (as opposed to all the other Yaakov Katzes in Israel, one a reporter for JPost, another a former Knesset member from Poalei Agudat Yisrael, and probably fifty other guys) one of the larger-than-life characters still inhabiting the scene in The Land. In 1970, when Katz joined the Israeli paratroopers, almost all of his comrades were secular kibbutzniks. Kippot were as scarce as the proverbial hen’s teeth. (Today, as we know, the kibbutz movement is in decline, and most of the young men in the elite fighting units are national religious, including Katz’ sons.) For his troubles, Katz lost a leg in the 1973 war (he didn’t actually ‘lose’ it; it got shot off), and he is now a big man with a small cane. He reminds me in a way of a religious version of Ariel Sharon, for whom he worked for many years: a resourceful man, a natural leader, a doer, not so much a thinker. He was the founder of the town of Beit-El and the yeshiva center there; he later founded Arutz7 as a radio station based on a ship floating in the Mediterranean and later as an internet based operation. So he is sort of “the boss” for Ari Abromowitz and Jeremy Gimpel, the hosts of ‘Tuesday Night Live.”
Actually, the two hosts regarded all three of these men as their mentors, and everyone greeted each other warmly, as if they were at a college reunion. This was not going to be an evening of contention and confrontation as virtually everyone in the auditorium was in substantial agreement on most everything – except whom to vote for. I cannot imagine that many in the audience changed their minds based upon any of the speakers’ presentation. In the end, I decided to stick with the party, Ichud Leumi, because Aryeh Eldad was number three on its list because of all the candidates from all the parties, he is the guy I would want to represent me in The Knesset.
But there were other considerations as well. My line of reasoning, for better or worse, went as follows. Supposing all of us in ‘our camp,’ (i.e., those of us who are ‘religious’ or at least ‘very traditional,’ and want the values, traditions, and history of the Jewish people to be the basis for universal education in our country, who want honesty and integrity in our government, and who are opposed to relinquishing any of the tiny amount of land allotted to us) got together and agreed to vote for one set of candidates. If we all voted for Likud and the party triumphed in the election, what would be the result? It would be seen universally as a big win for Bibi, a mandate for him to do whatever he is going to do – whatever that is – and a defeat for ‘The Right.’ Whether Likud garnered twenty seats or forty seats, it would not make any difference in the direction the party would take, because there are ‘leftists’ and ‘rightists’ scattered throughout the list; in other words, the ‘Right’ would be no stronger within the party even if all the national religious people voted for it. One might even argue that a Likud with forty seats would give Netanyahu more power than if it had only twenty seats.
On the other hand, supposing ‘everyone’ voted for Ichud Leumi instead. How would that have played out? We know in hindsight that between them, Ichud Leumi and Habayit Yehudi won seven seats and were 8,000 votes short of an eighth. Add to that the dati leumi voters who stayed with Likud or who voted for Lieberman and the total could well be close to fifteen seats. The Labor party got only thirteen seats and they now have been bribed handsomely to join the government. What a victory it would have been if a national religious party were as big as or bigger than Labor! Imagine the Op-Ed page in Haaretz the next day….. the next week, etc. Not only would it have been a clear statement about the wishes of a considerable segment of the electorate, but it would have created a formidable voting bloc that could not have been ignored, that could have thrown its weight around in forming a coalition government. (The idea just struck me: If our forces were sufficient to take control of Likud, why would we need to do so?) But, as we know, this didn’t happen. Instead, Bibi is angling to form a coalition which will not need either of the national religious parties, and if it wasn’t clear before, it is becoming clearer now, that Israel’s ‘foreign policy’ will be a hodgepodge determined by all the ‘cooks’ in the coalition who are stirring the broth, rather than the other way around; i.e., the coalition formed by agreement over a set of policies. Our votes were again scattered and, whether or not we are in the government, our voices once more will hardly be heard. We may indeed be “out in the cold again.”
We are back to the beginning, to the words of Rabbi Melamed, “We do not have leaders because we do not have clear goals, and we do not have clear goals because we lack able leadership.” To which I can only add, “How can we unite the country if we cannot unite ourselves?”
All of which might lead the loyal reader to infer that I am becoming pessimistic about the future of the-only-state-we-will-ever-have. The truth is that Barbara and I are in the process of plunking down a substantial amount of money to buy an apartment with a breathtaking view of the eastern hills of our eternal never-again-to-be-divided capital. (Sort of putting our money where are mouths are.) Those of you back in The States should be aware that the latest hot topic on our community Anglo chat group (with over 1300 members) is the ever rising cost of real estate in Mitzpe Nevo, the “religos” (that’s what the sign says!) neighborhood down the hill and the need for the Anglo community to continue spreading out throughout the other neighborhoods where real estate is less expensive.
I believe I have said this before, but it bears repeating: the greatest antidote to anxiety and depression is the ability and the willingness to go about one’s life from day to day. That is often the most provocative, the most radical, and the most effective thing one can do. Here in Maale Adumim, as in most places in our Land, Jewish men and women are waking up, getting their children ready for school or gan, going to work, and preparing for Pesach. Throughout The Land, homes are being built, and unprecedented numbers of men, women, and children are learning Torah. With great frequency, we read about amazing developments in science and technology (which may someday solve some of our economic and environmental problems); at the same time we are told about new archaeological finds that strengthen our historical connection to Eretz Yisrael. And all of this is going on while the Nations of the world find newer and more hypocritical ways of denouncing us, and 120 men and women in The Knesset are playing musical chairs over who will become the thirty or forty ministers in the new government.
What is so amazing is that there seems to be an inverse relationship between the economic and spiritual development of the country and the strength of its political and religious leadership. But, as we said before, that always seems to have been the case. Our strength comes from the fortitude of our citizens: the ones who, over the years, have waited patiently to board the same number bus that was blown up the day before, or stood on the same corner where an Arab worker had recently taken his tractor and gone on a rampage. And this fortitude is, I believe, based on two things: the realization that after two thousand years there really is nowhere else to go (which truly is the case: most people here don’t have American passports), and a much stronger belief in G-d than would be apparent at first glance. So what is my prognosis? Somehow, we here-in-The-Land will muddle through, one way or another, as we always have. (I am not so sanguine about many of the Jewish communities in The Galut.) Now I’m fully aware that I haven’t answered the question, except by resorting to “faith or magical thinking,” which is what my reader specifically asked me not to. Again, ma l’assot, what am I to do? Were I to discuss this matter in terms of world history and diplomacy as conceived by The New York Times, I would have nothing to say. Many of us understand that there is no logical explanation for 2000 years of Jewish survival in exile, and there is no rational reason to believe that our ‘winning streak’ will continue when more and more of the other players are using marked decks. If I were to consider the matter primarily from the perspective of Bibi vs. Obama, or how the European Union is going to view us, let’s say I would be writing a very different article. Those of us zealots who believe that the renascence of a modern Jewish state is somehow part of G-d’s plan have no choice but look at things differently. Sorry about that. The second question: what is my advice? To whom: us or you? Let’s just say that we have taken our own advice, and leave it at that. And when you come to visit us, starting in the fall, G-d willing, not only will we be able to offer you even more deluxe accommodations, but a view from our balcony that one can find only a little bit East of Yerushalayim.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Great Debate?

Yes, you could imagine activities or events more dissimilar than the election forum with Aryeh Eldad of the National Union party which I reported on before and the “great debate” held several days later between eight different candidates, but at some point you are comparing turnips and pomegranates. Eldad’s appearance was brought about by the initiative of a handful of people here in Maale Adumim and was held in the small downstairs social hall of a modest local beit knesset. The speaker was free to speak about whatever he wanted for as long as the audience had the patience to listen. There was no problem getting in, and people arrived on Jewish time, meaning whenever they felt like it. But the great debate? This would be an entirely different ball of wax.
The Jerusalem Post, together with Barbara’s employer, the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, was hosting a series of widely publicized debates in a number of cities in which there is a large Anglo crowd: if memory serves me correctly, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Ra’anana, and perhaps one or two other places. But the really big show has been and we hope always will be Saturday night in Jerusalem….at the Great Synagogue.
Barbara had gotten the word from AACI vatikim (old-timers) to get there early – real early – otherwise we wouldn’t get in. So we had arranged for a taxi to pick us up ASAP after Shabbat ended and whisk us down to King George St., meaning we would get picked up at 6:15 so that we would arrive before 7 for a program that was scheduled to start at 8! Our main concern – as it always is – is getting through the machsom (checkpoint) on the way into Jerusalem, the purpose of which is to prevent terrorists and anyone-who-doesn’t-belong from entering the city and doing who-knows-what. In the process, however, it means that every vehicle coming from Maale Adumim also is inconvenienced. It is sort of like the toll booths on the Jersey turnpike used to be before EZ-pass; sometimes you would whizz by and other times you would sit on a line for an hour to deposit your dinky quarter in the stupid basket. Here, you never know what the instructions du jour will be for these young soldiers and police officers assigned to the checkpoints. Some days, everyone is waved through. Other days, soldiers board the buses checking for who knows what. For several days during the recent operation in Gaza, they stopped and inspected everyone’s car, causing a backup of over an hour during the morning rush hour. Using the usual laws of physics, the more in a hurry you are, the longer the delay (this worked back in New Jersey too, so I know it is a universal principle). Because we were definitely early, there was no more than a five minute delay getting through, and we arrived in front of the Great Synagogue at 6:45. The doors had not been opened, and yet there were at least fifty people already waiting. The crowd had swelled to about 200 people by the time they opened the doors about fifteen minutes later.
The few times in my life when it would have been logistically possible to daven at the Great Synagogue on a Shabbat morning, I chose not to do so; the poor quality of my prayers and the shortness of my attention span preclude me from participating in the kind of lengthy formal type of service – complete with a well-trained cantor and, I believe, a choir – that this house of prayer offers. I had never even been in the building before. It is no longer the largest synagogue in Jerusalem (the Belz hassidim have erected a replica of Herod’s temple which holds 4000 of their ranks; perhaps they think that when the time comes, their building will slide over to the Temple Mount – a lot less problematic than dropping down from the sky), but still, the minyon at the Great Synagogue could max out at 850 men (and 550 women), which would severely limit one’s chances of ever getting an aliyah. Of course, on the night in question, no one was getting an aliyah except for the candidates, and the evening’s program was not going to be in the main sanctuary, but in the ballroom downstairs. Somewhat bigger than the social hall in the “Down Shul” which could probably accommodate 100 or so people for a stand-up Kiddush on a Shabbat morning, this place might comfortably fit 500 people for a lavish wedding and a lot more for an event like this. By 7:20, every seat was taken, mostly by middle-aged or above men and women of the Anglo persuasion; by 7:30, the hundred or more seats on a mezzanine were filled; and by 7:45, we were informed, several hundred more seats upstairs (closed-circuit TV) were also taken, so if you merely arrived on time, you were too late to get in. The program actually started as close to on-time as is legal in Israel: the introducer was introduced, who in turn introduced the moderator, who introduced the candidates and explained the agreed upon format (each speaker, in alphabetical order would get an initial five minutes and a turn at answering questions from the audience), and we were off and running.
There is a special fascination to these election events; I see politics in general as great theater at no cost (except what you shell out as a taxpayer later on). Even though I was strongly leaning towards the National Union slate, I definitely wanted to hear what these would-be Knesset members had to say for themselves and their parties: were they for something, against something, trying to woo voters from a specific party, did they speak well, were they unduly defensive, did they lose their composure under the pressure of defending their position? The correct answer, as I discovered, was “all of the above.”
Leading off was Danny Ayalon, representing Yisrael Beiteinu. Many of us were wondering why someone who had been an ambassador to the United Nations (in which capacity he had made a lot of useful contacts in the American Jewish community) and then had been involved with Nefesh b’Nefesh would want to make his debut in Israeli politics in such a controversial fashion and what he wanted to accomplish. Instead, he came out swinging, speaking in favor of Avigdor Lieberman’s proposal to make Israeli Arabs take an oath of loyalty to the State. Talk about a waste of time: if you make every Israeli citizen take this oath, then many of the Hareidim wouldn’t agree either, nor would the Haaretz crowd on general principles, and you have accomplished nothing and wasted a lot of time better spent on improving our military strength, our infrastructure, our economy, our educational system, and perhaps getting Gilad Shalit released. One down.
The second batter was Uri Bank from the National Union. Having come here as a boy with his American parents – staying here alone as a teenager when his parents later returned to the States – Uri was the only mother-tongue-is-English candidate from any party with a realistic shot at getting elected. Playing to his strength, Uri made the point that he would serve as the personal representative of the Anglo community; he also made the point that his party was the only one unequivocally opposed to giving up one grain of our holy soil to anyone. No great orator, but he spoke clearly and to the point.
Perhaps because his family name is Begin, I expected a little more pizzazz from Benny ben (the son of) Menachem, and, perhaps, an explanation of why he was rejoining Likud after so many years in exile. He had a perfect opportunity to stir up the crowd. Instead we were treated to a debunking of a list of Kadima justifications for the Gaza expulsions, none of which had come to fruition. But not a word about why we should trust Netanyahu and vote for Likud. A perfect opportunity for an r.b.i. wasted!
Next, we were ushered into a parallel universe: the world of Meretz, the most left-wing ‘Zionist’ (i.e., in favor of maintaining at least a tiny fragment of a Jewish state) party we have. Now most of the Meretz crowd are rabid secularists; but there is always one ‘black sheep’ in every family. Tonight’s representative was Tzvia Greenfield, a sheitel wearing woman who considers herself Hareidi, even though she supports ending army deferments for yeshiva students and giving the Temple Mount permanently to our ‘cousins.’ I definitely wanted to hear what she had to say! In soothing tones – she reminded me of a school ‘marm’ or perhaps the fairy godmother in the Disney version of Cinderella – that if we really, really believed in peace, and we tried hard enough, we could achieve it. And that we were being ‘negative’ for thinking otherwise! Either this woman is privy to some dark secret that has eluded the rest of us, or she is off in la-la land. You can imagine what the audience thought.
How can I describe the performance of the next speaker, Daniel Hershkowitz, a mathematics professor at the Technion, a pulpit rabbi in Haifa, and newly chosen head of HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home) – the other half of the old National Religious Party? This is the best I can do: have you ever heard a rabbi or your history professor give a talk, and ten minutes later when somebody asked you what it was about, you had no recollection? I think that Hershkowitz was saying something about Jewish unity, but it made no impression on me, and I have no idea why he was saying whatever it was that he was saying.
You could never say the same about the next candidate, Michael Melchior, former chief rabbi of Norway, member of the Knesset, representing the hybrid Meimad (a left-wing religious party) and the one of the Green parties. If nothing else, he speaks clearly and passionately about his concerns. What distinguished him from every other speaker was his emphasis on social and environmental issues – things which unfortunately were otherwise ignored during the debate. You gotta admire the guy, even if you don’t agree with him.
The bravest speaker of the evening was Avraham Michaeli, the last-minute entry from the Shas party. Here’s a man with a cherubic face, looking a little like Natan Sharansky, who made aliyah from Soviet Georgia in 1971. His official Knesset biography lists his languages as English, along with Russian and Georgian (we can assume Hebrew), but that would be like my listing Hebrew as one of my languages! It would take a lot to get me to address a crowd of several thousand people in the language I m trying to learn, but Michaeli got up there and did his best in his halting English – and I give him lots of credit for trying. But it tells me how distant Shas is from the Anglo community.
The person with the greatest gap between his resume and his performance was good ol’ Nachman Shai for Kadima. Formerly the IDF spokesman and a big honcho for the UJC (another one of Barbara’s employers back in the States), he justified his decision to run for the Knesset by saying that Tzipi Livni had moved from the political right to the center, and he was doing the decent thing by moving from the left to join her. Nice of him to do that.
I suspect that very few people in the audience knew much about the last speaker, Einat Wilf, the representative for the Labor party, and I also suspect that few people there had walked into the hall planning to vote for the political arm of the Israel trade union movement. Nevertheless, she was by far the most effective speaker of the evening. Dr. Wilf is someone with impeccable scholarly credentials and an impressive background. Like Netanyahu, she spent time in prestigious American academia and has pitch-perfect English, the kind few American candidates can call upon. Like Netanyahu and like Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, she has that rare ability to command a room, so that everyone is paying strict attention. In five minutes, she painted a picture of her party as being the bedrock of Israeli society, a “boring” (her words) but effective political entity – and she made it sound exciting! I tell you, if I had just landed from the moon and didn’t know better, she would have convinced me to vote for her party.
I think it would be fair to say that there was no blood shed in round 1. Round 2, everyone getting a turn to answer pre-selected questions from the audience, proved to be a little more interesting. The main topic on virtually everybody’s mind that night was national security, and the questions reflected that concern. Uri Bank, representing the most hawkish party, raced to the microphone to be the first to respond, attacking the two-state solution as a recipe for disaster and accusing Benny Begin and Danny Ayalon of hypocrisy for disguising their parties’ support for such a solution (I would have been more tactful and suggested that they were ‘running away’ from their parties’ platforms). His tactic was very effective because he caught both of them off-guard (I don’t know why they were so ill-prepared). The former U.N. ambassador interrupted Bank (drawing a rebuke from the moderator) and denied that Avigdor Lieberman is prepared to divide Jerusalem, when it is clear that he is – a very poor performance by Ayalon. Benny Begin kept making snide remarks about the lack of credibility of ‘splinter’ parties, somehow ignoring the fact that his illustrious father was for many years the head of a small, discredited faction. (Bank was able to bring into the discussion the plan promoted by MK Benny Elon to return pre-1967 Jordanian citizenship to Arabs living “over the green line” without changing the borders of our country. This plan has two distinct advantages: it does not require us to commit suicide and, while the Jordanians will not say so publicly, they are less than thrilled with the idea of having a potential Hamas-controlled government on their now-quiet border. There are suggestions that they might be willing to give expatriate citizenship to ‘Palestinians’ if the world community ‘begged’ them to do so.)
But again, the worst performance of the round award went to Nachman Shai, who insisted on passionately defending the destruction of the Gush Katif communities – without bothering to explain why and how this seemingly self-defeating enterprise remains a good idea, but that is often the case when people put their brains on auto-pilot. The rest of the cast of characters gave a reprise of their first round performances: Hershkowitz seemed to be in another zone; Greenfield on another planet; Michaeli unable to express himself; Melchior unable to change the focus of the debate to other substantive issues; Wilf again giving a winning presentation for a losing proposition.
The final question, what should Israeli do to forestall an Iranian nuclear attack if one were imminent, brought a rare moment of consensus: everyone, including the Meretz candidate agreed that Israel should take whatever steps were needed to defend itself. We were then reminded not to trip over the electrical wiring on the way out, and a thousand or more people wended their way out to King George Street to find their way home and reflect on the words of the candidates. As with most events of this kind, the opportunities missed surpassed the successes and the loudest words were those not expressed. Looking back at this event in the hindsight afforded by the election results, I might have changed my opinion in this regard: rather than call the evening ‘grand theater,’ I might have better described it as watching “Night of the Living Dead” or some other captivating horror flic. The three pompous pugilists, Shai, Begin, and Ayalon were virtually guaranteed seats in the Knesset even though, judging by their performances, there is not one original idea amongst the three of them. Michaeli got the last seat that the linguistically-challenged Shas party won. Hershkowitz’s party managed to cross the minimum threshold; as number one, he will represent Bayit Yehudi like a ship without a rudder. Uri Bank was number five for National Union, which won four seats; he may enter the Knesset sometime down the road. The truly gifted Dr. Wilf was too far down on the Labor list to get elected; likewise the sheitel-wearing woman from Meretz. Rabbi Melchior’s party was shut out and his voice for environmental issues will no longer be heard in the Knesset.
It should be no surprise that we will not be looking to the Knesset for Jewish leadership. In fact, we could walk the streets of our cities, towns, kibbutzim, yishuvim, moshavim, and yeshivot holding a lantern and looking for positive leadership but rarely finding it. That this is true throughout the world is of small comfort.