Israel experiencing revival of democratic life thanks to Winograd

Something good is happening to Israeli democracy these days. Precisely when several indicators seem to show that Israelis are becoming weary of their democratic system; when the
Index of Israeli Democracy, published by professor Asher Arian and his team from the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), reveals that many citizens prefer a “strongman” over “all those deliberations in the Knesset”; when there are complaints that the Supreme Court, with its “judicial imperialism,” has taken over the political arena; in light of all this — and despite all this — we are experiencing today a surge of rejuvenation in our democratic life.

The trigger, of course, was the interim Winograd Report, which severely criticized the decision-making of the Israeli leaders, both political and military, during the second Lebanon War. The report set in motion a formidable democratic machine, and some 100,000 Israelis came to Rabin Square last Thursday to call for the resignation of two government leaders — Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz.

If you think about it in American terms, it’s like having 6 million people marching on Washington, D.C., to rally for a certain cause (in the largest rally against the Vietnam War in 1969, 250,000 people showed up).

Apart from this impressive show of citizen involvement, the Winograd Report brought back to the Israeli political sphere the essence of democracy, originating in ancient Greece: free citizens engaging in a serious discourse on their most crucial public affairs.

For years, this discourse in Israel has been contaminated by partisan politics, consumer craze and attack journalism — not uncommon in other societies, except that Israel is maybe the only country in the world whose existence is threatened, and therefore, it cannot afford to just lie back like others. The decline in voter turnout from 68 percent in 2003 to 63 percent in 2006 and the decline in the public’s trust in state institutions — both indicated by IDI’s Democracy Index — signaled the weakening process of democracy in Israel.

But the Winograd Report sounded the alarm. With a clear voice, this commission of one woman and four men told us exactly what went wrong last summer and who is responsible for it.

The commission not only criticized the military flaws and the poor decision making exposed in the war but also put on the table for discussion the key fundamental issues: Who should qualify to be a prime minister or defense minister in Israel? Should leadership that failed step down or rather be given a chance to fix what had gone wrong? What is the true meaning of responsibility in the public arena? What is the unwritten contract between the electorate and the elected? How should we balance between accountability (resigning of failed leaders) and stability?

All these issues and more are now at the center of a lively debate in Israel. Whether eventually Olmert resigns or not is beside the point. The public has already taken its cue from the Winograd Commission. It has called its leaders to order by rallying in big numbers and by expressing its opinions in the polls. Now the struggle switches to the Knesset, where the representatives of the people will have to decide how they respond to the wishes of the electorate.

There have been voices criticizing the whole idea of a commission of inquiry taking over the roles of the regular organs of government. Furthermore, the critics say that the commission, headed by a former district judge, is another example, or an extension, of the judicial imperialism, in which the courts decide about public affairs, instead of the representatives of the people.

Yet the Winograd Commission has done nothing of the sort. After laying the facts on the table — and few question the seriousness and professionalism of the inquiry — the commission members stopped short of making any personal recommendations. That’s the role of the public, they reasoned.

Indeed, the public stood up to the occasion and now is vigorously debating the Winograd findings, pondering what’s best for Israel: letting Olmert carry on and implementing the report, re-shuffling the government or new elections.

This is a major event, where Israeli citizens are once again debating real issues, not products of spin meisters, and there is a fresh feeling of the people being able to freely decide about its crucial matters.

Democracy in Israel is being invigorated.

Uri Dromi is director of international outreach at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem.


Kollek a British Spy?
The late Teddy Kollek reportedly spied for Britain against the hard-line Jewish underground in British Mandate Palestine. Citing declassified documents, the Israeli newspaper, Yediot Achronot, reported last week that Kollek, who is best remembered as Jerusalem’s longest-serving mayor, had spent much of the 1940s passing information to the British authorities that helped them crack down on Etzel and Lehi fighters.

At the time, Kollek was a senior figure with the Jewish Agency, which was largely aligned with the more moderate Haganah and Palmach Zionist movements.

One of Etzel’s leaders, Menachem Begin, topped Britain’s wanted list, eluded capture and went on to become Israeli prime minister. According to Yediot, Israeli diplomats asked Britain’s government archives to keep the files on Kollek sealed while he was alive.

Asked about the report, Kollek’s son, Amos, told the newspaper, “Dad never spoke of his activities during that period.”

U.S. Lawmakers Want Insurance Firms to Release Names of Shoah Policyholders
Congress wants to force Holocaust-era insurance companies to disclose lists of their insured survivors. The Holocaust Insurance Accountability Act of 2007, introduced by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), seeks to supersede international agreements brokered by the State Department to settle insurance claims through the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims.

The proposed legislation asserts that commission, which officially ended its nine-year efforts last week, “did not make sufficient effort to investigate” or compile the names of Holocaust-era insureds or the claims due to survivors. The measure would require insurers to disclose comprehensive lists of those they insured during the Hitler era.

The legislation also authorizes federal lawsuits to recover monies from insurers, thus overruling the commission’s authority and a variety of adverse Supreme Court rulings that have denied survivors the right to sue.

The bill was spurred by survivors groups, following revelations in the Jewish media that the secret International Tracing Service archive in Bad Arolsen, Germany, contains thousands of uninvestigated documents relating to insurance and corporate complicity.

Briton Wins Largest Jewish Literary Prize
The largest-ever Jewish literary prize, the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature that was inaugurated this year, has been awarded to British writer Tamar Yellin, author of “The Genizah at the House of Shepher.”

The award carries a grant of $100,000. Individuals cannot apply but instead are recommended by an anonymous team of nominators. Many Jewish literary awards have modest, if any, honorariums attached.

The prize was established by Sami Rohr’s children and grandchildren to celebrate his 80th birthday and is presented to an emerging writer, whose work of exceptional literary merit stimulates an interest in themes of Jewish concern.

Yellin has won a triple crown of major Jewish literary awards this year. In addition to the Rohr Prize, she received Hadassah’s Ribalow Prize and the Reform Judaism Prize, both awarded for Jewish fiction.

When asked about how the latest award might change her life, she replied, “I’m carrying on with my writing. I’m working on a new novel.”

She explained that because of her supportive husband, she was able to give up teaching several years ago and become a full-time writer. She continues to visit schools in northern England as a Jewish Faith Visitor, teaching about Judaism in schools where there’s a large Pakistani Muslim community and many of the children have never encountered a Jewish person.

“It’s very important to connect with them, for them to meet someone Jewish and to learn about our traditions to break down the barrier of ignorance,” she said.

The daughter of a third-generation Jerusalemite father and a Polish immigrant mother, she studied Hebrew and Arabic at Oxford. In her novel and stories, she writes of identity, community, belonging and exile, which, as she explained, are themes that grow out of her experience of being Jewish in England.

Rohr was a real estate developer in Bogota, Columbia, for more than 30 years and now lives in Miami. His lifelong love of Jewish writing includes the work of Lion Feuchtwanger and, in Yiddish, Israel Joshua Singer.

The two runners-up, who will each receive $7,500, are Amir Guttfreund of Israel, author of “Our Holocaust,” and Michael Lavigne of San Francisco, author of “Not Me.” Other finalists are Yael Hedaya from Israel, author of “Accidents,” and Naomi Alderman from England, author of “Disobedience.”

Administered by the Jewish Book Council, the prize will be given annually, with awards to fiction and nonfiction writers in alternate years.

The Rohr family will also establish the Rohr Family Jewish Literary Institute, a forum devoted to the continuity of Jewish literature. The institute will convene a biannual retreat, meeting for the first time after the next round of award recipients are announced in 2008. All of the finalists will be invited to participate.

Judges for this year’s award were professor Jeremy Dauber, Columbia University; novelist (and MacArthur Fellow) Rebecca Goldstein; Daisy Maryles, Publishers Weekly; novelist Jonathan Rosen; and professor Ruth Wisse, Harvard University. — Sandee Brawarsky, The Jewish Week

Briefs courtesy of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Fast and Loose With Facts at Ha’aretz


The Israeli daily Ha’aretz, a favorite of the intelligentsia in Israel and the West, and widely cited by the North American press, is frequently referred to as “Israel’s New York Times.” But a New York Times it is not.

Since the Jayson Blair scandal, the state-side Gray Lady has stepped-up its commitment to accountability, hiring public editor Daniel Okrent, who rigorously investigates complaints about the paper’s reports, dialogues with readers about their concerns and diligently ensures that the necessary corrections run.

Don’t expect comparable accountability at Ha’aretz, which describes itself as “an independent newspaper with a broadly liberal outlook,” but which allows its writers to espouse extremist views unfettered by the facts.

Why, exactly, should this Tel Aviv media outlet be of concern to Boston-based CAMERA, whose mission is to promote an accurate and balanced press in North America?

As Eric Weiner, former Jerusalem bureau chief for National Public Radio, once told a Palestinian media symposium, he began every working day by scanning local papers for stories. He leaned especially on what he termed the “very respectable newspaper” Ha’aretz. He is not alone. This September, Ha’aretz was cited by the Western press corps more than five dozen times.

And, for a close-to-home example as to why Ha’aretz’s prominence in Western media outlets is our problem, readers may recall the July 30 column in this newspaper by Ha’aretz writer Gideon Levy (“If the Situation Were Reversed”). The column, which originally appeared in the July 18 issue of Ha’aretz, was filled with factual errors, both substantive and incidental.

Levy claimed that Golda Meir “said that after what the Nazis did to us, we can do whatever we want.”

Challenged for a source for the virulent quote, Levy acknowledged in an Aug. 12 e-mail he had none.

“Therefore we dropped the quotation in the original version in Hebrew and by mistake it was printed in the English version,” he stated.

Neither CAMERA nor the editor of The Jewish Journal were able to obtain a correction from Levy or Ha’aretz.

That’s not all. Arguing that Israelis are utterly indifferent to Palestinian suffering, Levy cited the killing of Ibrahim Halfalla, an elderly Palestinian in Gaza, and claimed that Yediot Achronot “didn’t bother to run the story at all.” In fact, Yediot deplored the killing in a hard-hitting editorial July 14. Again no correction.

Levy also misinforms when he alleged “our Education Ministry announces that it will not permit Arabs to attend Jewish schools in Haifa….” However, the decision regarding where particular students attend particular schools is the responsibility of the Municipality, not the Education Ministry. Last academic year, parents of students at the Arabic public schools had lobbied the Municipality for improvements. After negotiations, the improvements were agreed to. At no point did the Ministry or Municipality prohibit Arab attendance in Haifa’s Jewish schools.

Levy’s journalism is likewise substandard when he stated as fact: “Last week settlers poisoned a well at Atawana, in the southern Mount Hebron region, and the police are investigating.”

Indeed, the police were investigating the poisoning of a well with dead chickens but they had not determined that settlers were the culprit. Palestinians accused settlers, and the police suspected settlers, but it was not a foregone conclusion as Levy asserted.

For instance, The Jerusalem Post quoted a police officer: “We are also investigating the possibility that the chickens were thrown inside the well as part of an inner Palestinian dispute.”

Unfortunately, nobody at Ha’aretz is investigating how Levy’s numerous errors, many of them egregious, made it into print, despite the fact that CAMERA and The Journal both provided editors with the substantive counterpoint.

The newspaper’s silence regarding Levy’s defamatory distortions is no surprise in light of the observation of Nahum Barnea of Yediot Achronot, who wrote about Israeli reporters who flunk the “lynching test.”

These are writers who refused to criticize Palestinians even when two Israeli reservists were brutally lynched in Ramallah by a Palestinian crowd. They are: Amira Hass, Akiva Eldar and Levy, all from Ha’aretz.

In November 2000, Barnea wrote: “And then the lynching test came, and before it the test of the shooting and fire bombs of the Tanzim fighters, and before it the test of the violations of the Oslo agreement by Arafat, and it turns out that the support of some of the prominent reporters [for Palestinian positions] is absolute. … They have a mission.”

We at CAMERA also have a mission. And as long as Ha’aretz continues to shape — and distort — Western news reports, that Israeli media outlet is fair game for this American outfit.

Tamar Sternthal is senior research analyst for CAMERA.


World Briefs

Kerry to Get Holocaust Records

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) will be given records about relatives who were killed during the Holocaust. The presumptive Democratic nominee recently learned that his paternal grandmother’s brother and sister, both Jewish, were killed by the Nazis. During a visit to New York on Sunday, the chairman of Prague’s Jewish community, Tomas Jelinek, presented the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research with copies of the original transport lists for Otto and Jenny Loewe. Jelinek said he had decided to track down the records in Prague after learning from U.S. media reports about Kerry’s Jewish roots. “I presented copies of the records to YIVO as a gift and asked them to pass them on to Sen. Kerry,” Jelinek told JTA. “We know how touching this kind of information is for Jewish communities in Europe and thought it would be of interest to Sen. Kerry’s family.”

Powell, Fayyad Meet

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell encouraged Palestinian finance minister Salam Fayyad to increase accountability.

“What they talked about was improving the transparency and accountability of Palestinian finance, with a recognized goal of making sure the money didn’t go to the terror — none of the money ended up in the hands of the terrorist groups,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said after Powell met Fayyad. The United States reprimanded Israel for a recent raid on Palestinian banks believed to be holding terrorist money. U.S. officials said such actions undermine moderate reformers like Fayyad.

Purim Attack Foiled

A major terrorist attack planned against Purim revelers in Jerusalem was foiled. According to the Shin Bet, a raid on a Palestinian terror cell in Ramallah prevented a suicide bombing in Israel’s capital on Saturday. Further details were not immediately available, but the reported arrests allowed Israel to lower a high alert in Jerusalem that had caused massive traffic jams as police searched incoming cars.

French Mosques to Be Protected

French mosques will receive the same police protection as synagogues, the country’s interior minister said. Nicolas Sarkozy made his remarks Monday after two mosques were destroyed by arson last Friday. Muslim leaders accused the government of a late response and suggested that Jews were given better protection by the state than Muslims. Jewish groups were among the first to condemn the attacks. The chief rabbi of Lyon, Richard Wertenschlag, expressed his shock in a letter to the head of the region’s Muslim Council.

Bombing at Moscow School

A small homemade bomb shattered windows at a Jewish educational center in Moscow. The attack at the Mekor Haim Institute occurred last Friday night. The bomb was planted inside a vacant building next to the Jewish facility that belongs to Mekor Haim Institut. The building was given to the Jewish community in 2002 and was eventually to be torn down and replaced by a larger Jewish educational and community complex. Police opened an investigation. A police spokesman told JTA that investigators had no evidence so far that anti-Semitism motivated the explosion.

Denver Synagogue Vandalized

More than 100 people cleaned swastikas off a Denver synagogue. Sunday morning’s cleaning at the BMH-BJ Congregation came after the swastikas were painted on the synagogue last Friday night. The synagogue’s rabbi, Daniel Cohen, said the vandalism might have been sparked by Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” which critics say blames Jews for the death of Jesus.

Poll: Southerners Like Jews

Few people in Alabama blame Jews for the death of Jesus, a new poll says. A Mobile Register-University of South Alabama poll of state residents found 7 percent blamed Jews for the death of Jesus, while 10 percent held the Romans accountable and 64 percent pinned the blame on all of humanity. The poll also showed that just 11 percent held a “somewhat” or “very unfavorable” opinion of Judaism; 61 percent said they would not be uneasy “at all” if a close relative converted to Judaism. There are 9,000 Jews in the state.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

What’s In a Name?

I check surnames. It’s a reflex, and I can’t help it. If you’re like most Jews I know, you do it too. You can’t help but wonder, for instance, if some of the people at the center of the latest financial scandals are Jewish or not. We kvell at Shawn Green and cringe at Andrew Fastow, although it’s hard to figure just what being born Jewish had to do with Green’s batting average or Fastow’s alleged misdeeds.

But still, I check.

Andrew Fastow, former CFO at Enron? Hmm. Fastow. Yes, Jewish.

L. Dennis Kozlowski, former CEO of Tyco? Hmm, could be but — no.

Mark Belnick, the ousted general counsel of Tyco? Maybe … have to check.

Then there is Gary Winnick, founder and chairman of bankrupt telecommunications group Global Crossing, who testified this week before Rep. L. Billy Tauzin’s (R-La.) House Energy and Commerce Committee. The committee wanted to know whether Winnick knew his company was in financial trouble and failed to alert investors while selling millions of dollars worth of his own stock in the meantime. According to The Financial Times, Winnick grossed $512 million since 1999, a period in which Global Crossing has lost $9.2 billion and eliminated 5,020 jobs.

Winnick has been charged with no crime and has denied any wrongdoing. “Global Crossing’s bankruptcy,” Winnick told the committee, “based on the facts known to me, is a result not of any fraud, but of a catastrophe that befell an entire industry sector.” Winnick’s lawyer says his client’s stock sale was proper and approved by Global’s counsel.

Reading Gary Winnick’s name splashed scross the national papers hits especially close to home. Three years ago to the day that I write this, the cover of The Journal featured a photograph of Winnick and this headline: “Gary Winnick Steps Out Front: ‘The Wealthiest Man in Los Angeles’ is driven to succeed and to give to the Jewish community.” In it, Tom Tugend reported that Winnick’s fortune of $6.2 billion made him Los Angeles’ richest citizen, according to The Los Angeles Business Journal. The story documented Winnick’s rise as the grandson of a one-time pushcart peddler on New York’s Lower East Side to financial whiz at the side of Michael Milken to visionary leader in the telecommunications industry.

More pointedly, it reported on the billionaire’s seemingly inexhaustible charity: a $5 million-pledge by the Gary and Karen Winnick Family Foundation to erect exhibit galleries at the Skirball Cultural Center, Hillel center endowments at three East Coast universities and a children’s zoo at the Los Angeles Zoo. His pledges and donations to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Birthright Israel, Chabad and at least 54 other groups totaled $100 million over the past three years. The Foundation’s largest single donation is the $40 million pledged to the Simon Wiesenthal Center for construction of the Winnick Institute in Jerusalem, to be designed by Frank Gehry.

All this largesse, the lion’s share of it directed toward the Jewish community, set an example for others of similar wealth to follow.

Now, of course, in the court of public opinion, Winnick is being held up as an exemplar not of philanthropy, but of 1990s greed. Though he’s worth considerably less than $6.2 billion these days, he still built a home worth an estimated $60 million to $90 million, and he may never provide satisfactory enough answers for the people whose financial worth evaporated along with Global Crossing’s.

I’m assuming this is a source of anguish to Winnick, whom I don’t know and have never met. He must know that, in light of Global Crossing’s reverses, a good many people will forever see his philanthropy, his words of contrition, his offers of recompense, as utilitarian ploys to win favor, to buy back his good name.

He is now in a place where others, including some from this community, have traveled before. How does one emerge from such a fall? The answer, surprisingly, may come from Winnick himself.

Speaking three years ago of the criteria by which he chooses philanthropies, Winnic told The Journal: “I must believe in the cause, and I demand accountability from the recipient.”

Accountability. The lack of it is what lay at the heart of the numerous financial scandals that have rocked the stock market and shaken investor confidence. It is at the heart of the endless post-boom congressional hearings at which former CEOs put on their best Easter Island faces and can rarely, if ever, account for what was taking place in the companies they headed.

There are signs that Winnick does expect accountability of himself. Heads of charitable organizations to which Winnick pledged contributions, contacted this past February by The Journal, said they were in receipt of the monies or fully expected the pledges to arrive. His offer to replenish depleted employee retirement funds by $25 million was unprecedented in the current climate of CEO duck-and-run. Having set an example with his giving, Winnick can now set one with his candor.

This would be a good thing, because employees and stockholders are not, according to Jewish tradition, the only stakeholders in our business behavior. God also calls us to account for our actions. When we die, the Talmud says, the first question God will ask each one of us is, “Nasata v’netata be’emunah” — “Did you conduct your business affairs with honesty?”

In an article on Jewish law, Rabbi Eliezer Breitowitz elaborates: “Business ethics is the arena where the ethereal transcendent teachings of holiness and spirituality confront the often grubby business of making money and being engaged in the rat race …. It is the acid test of whether religion is truly relevant or religion is simply relegated to an isolated sphere of human activity.”

Justly or unjustly, Gary Winnick is undergoing that acid test quite publicly.