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.

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