President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 8. Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters

I know how you feel about Trump


Remember when we couldn’t wait to say good riddance to 2016? We’d had it with that abusive spouse of an election year. We were sick of the emotional rollercoaster. We needed an armistice, a breather. We were desperate to rise from the political sewer to the shining city on the hill.

Fat chance. This 2017 thing is even worse. I know how you feel: beat up, battened down, fetal, furious. But just remember, there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s not you – it’s him.

Of course you’re depressed. You know that the news is toxic to your spirit, and you admit you’re addicted to it, but really, with all these nonstop horribles, who wouldn’t be obsessed by political disaster porn? Even though the news leaves you feeling not informed and empowered, but helpless and fearful; even if your neocortex knows that Trump’s game is to hijack your attention, and the media’s game is to monetize it; still, your reptilian brain won’t permit you to peel your eyes from the screen, won’t let you stop refreshing your feed, keeps you texting and posting and tweeting and screaming, “Can you effing believe this?” Your news addiction feels no less compulsive than, but is the reciprocal of, an opioid addiction. You’re hooked on pain.

No wonder you’re ambivalent. You have empathy for voters whose struggle to make ends meet and whose loathing of corruption helped put this president in office, but you find yourself rooting that the real harm he’ll do them – robbing their health care, wrecking their public schools, risking their retirement, rolling back their rights – will awaken them to the colossal con they’ve enabled and will eventually rouse them to resistance.

It makes sense to be incensed. You’re enraged by the cowardice of Republican legislators who’ve put protecting their political skins above protecting the Constitution. You’re livid that Trump’s pooh-poohing of “political correctness” has exempted racists, homophobes, misogynists, anti-Semites and other haters from being shunned and shamed. You’re infuriated by the toadies, fools, vipers and shmatta hucksters now wearing staff passes to the West Wing. You’re angry there’s no accountability for the Trumps’ blatant conflicts of interest, no punishment for stonewalling his tax returns, no penalty for his bullying, laziness, lying and ignorance.

It’s perfectly normal that you’re freaked out by how fragile American democracy is, how vulnerable the Enlightenment machinery our Founders designed turns out to be. It’s unsettling that the power of a free press to check political power has itself been checked by the conquest of journalism by entertainment, the displacement of reason by ratings, the substitution of Internet anarchy and networked nihilism for the norms of civil discourse. It’s chilling to concede that the separation of powers between executive and legislative branches can be so completely sabotaged by one-party rule. It’s galling to know that a switch from Trump to Clinton of only 38,873 of the 13,890,836 votes cast in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania – call it the Kremlin margin, or the Comey gap – would have thrown the Electoral College to Clinton. The whole master narrative of the 2016 election – Forgotten Americans Give Trump a Mandate! – would never have drawn a breath had there been a ridiculously tiny 0.28% flip. No wonder our so-called president keeps peddling a cock-and-bull voter fraud story; he knows how puny his legitimacy actually is.

True grit is truly exhausting. “I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” Samuel Beckett said, but it’s awfully draining to be whipsawed between despair and determination. One day you’re uplifted by millions of marching women; the next, another state outlaws abortion. You’re heartened to see so many town halls where the Indivisible movement, already more potent than the Tea Party, is holding congressional feet to the fire, but you’re powerless to prevent the most unfit Cabinet in our history from being confirmed. When a senator says a Supreme Court nominee told him he was “demoralized” by Trump’s attack on the judiciary, you let yourself be hopeful, but when cable yakkers call that a ploy to create an aura of independence for the judge, you feel spun like a chump.

The storm still gathering over Team Trump’s footsie with Putin invites us to imagine a sudden end to the 45th presidency. If evidence turns up that Trump swapped softer sanctions on Russia for Putin’s feeding his Clinton email hacks to Wikileaks, maybe Paul Ryan would let the House vote to impeach him. Or maybe Trump’s megalomania will be so undeniably sociopathic even to his own Administration that the 25th Amendment will be invoked to replace him. Maybe Trump’s misery in his job – White House aides are leaking he wishes he’d never run – will culminate in a resignation. Or maybe SNL, CNN and the dishonest New York Times will finally make his head explode.

Then again, maybe it’s just same old yoyo of hope and dread. You go up – okay, I go up – at the prospect that our national nightmare will be over sooner rather than later. Then I go down at the thought of President Pence. There’s a way out of that, though, and the prairie fire sweeping congressional districts points the way: fight like hell, right now, for a Democratic House or Democratic Senate, or both, in 2018. Implausible? No one knows. But pushing to make it possible is a sure-fire prescription for feeling better.


Marty Kaplan holds the Norman Lear chair at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Plato’s advice for the Trump years: Find God


Even more alarming than the rise of an intemperate real estate tycoon/reality TV star to our nation’s highest office has been the blunt realization that our democracy is fragile.

“Even democracy ruins itself by excess,” Will Durant writes in his book “The Story of Philosophy,” in the chapter summarizing Plato.

“Its basic principle is the equal right of all to hold office and determine public policy … at first glance, a delightful arrangement; [but] it becomes disastrous because the people are not properly equipped by education to select the best rulers and the wisest courses.”

Ring a bell?

Over the past several months, at least half the country probably has felt like we’ve been locked in a theater, forced to watch a political horror film. In this terrifying plot line, our established form of social organization — our hero, Democracy — has been threatened and undermined by a number of dark forces that seek its destruction, including, but not limited to, its future leader — The President.

If you doubt this, allow me to offer a few examples:

The first shock to the system came when a man, described by Atlantic magazine as “a demagogue, a xenophobe, a sexist, a know-nothing, and a liar” ran a successful campaign for president by pandering to white nationalists, inciting violence against his political opponent, praising authoritarian leaders, scapegoating minorities and immigrants, and maligning the country’s free press — a democratic institution if there ever were one — as the “crooked, dishonest media.” (How ironic that the progenitor of the decade’s biggest fake news story — that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States — is now inveighing against the dangers of fake news.) 

Next came the revelation that although this man triumphed in the broken system of the Electoral College, he lost the popular vote by one of the widest margins in American history. But it didn’t matter; he got the votes he needed where he needed them, and the rest will literally be history. 

“As to the people,” Plato writes, “they have no understanding, and only repeat what their rulers are pleased to tell them.” 

“To get a doctrine accepted or rejected,” Durant writes, paraphrasing Plato, “it is only necessary to have it praised or ridiculed in a popular play.” 

Between his ratings-winning reality TV antics and his vastly entertaining tweets (the only play I imagine Trump is capable of writing), we have seen him sell his policies, insult his critics and rile his base. He has made clear he speaks only to the PEOPLE. But as Durant reminds us, “Mob rule is a rough sea for the ship of state to ride; every wind of oratory stirs up the waters and deflects the course.” The outcome of this governing style is tyranny or autocracy, Plato teaches, because the masses so crave attention and affirmation, “that at last,” Durant writes, “the wiliest and most unscrupulous flatterer, calling himself the ‘protector of the people,’ rises to supreme power.” 

Thus the crumbling of democracy begins.

After winning the election, President-elect Donald Trump suggested the future direction of our country by assembling a government bent on certain destructions. So far, he has appointed a number of leaders who advocate dismantling the public school system, the Environmental Protection Agency and the government itself. His chief strategist and senior counselor, Steve Bannon, has described his vision for the future in the most dystopian terms: “I want to bring everything crashing down,” Bannon said in 2013. “And destroy all of today’s establishment.”

It follows then, that the country’s first (albeit deeply flawed) effort at socialized health care would come under threat, with the new president and his Congress promising to repeal legislation that will leave 18 million Americans uninsured. 

There also is Trump’s lack of reverence for the cumulative achievements that enabled his own, and for the sacrifices those before him made to Make America Great. Yes, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) insulted Trump by calling him “illegitimate,” probably not different from how Plato might describe him. But to not acknowledge Lewis’ contribution to the civil rights movement is irresponsible and dangerous. If the head of the country doesn’t acknowledge the sacrifices of its leaders, it not only discourages future sacrifice but dispirits the body politic that admires those leaders. Democracies raise their heroes; a government by the people means crediting all of those who help build it. Placing personal insult above the communal good is the self-serving work of an autocrat and undemocratic.

For the next four years, as at least some of the ideals, principles and foundations of our democracy unravel, many of us will live with the constant thrum of fear. Democracy requires the belief that a nation’s interests are in common; if the citizenry is vehemently divided, the upshot is civil war. 

What we need now is something that inspires hope, commitment and sacrifice; which offers comfort to the afflicted and courage to the faint of heart; the only thing that can humble kings reveling in their power and glory; the thing Plato considered an absolute prerequisite for every strong nation: We need God.


Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

Brexit and the global democracy deficit


I arrived in London early on the afternoon of June 24, already knowing the results of the Brexit vote. I had checked obsessively on the flight from Los Angeles through the wonders (or burdens) of airborne Wi-Fi. Like most locals in England, I was stunned. Even those opposed to remaining in the European Union assumed that, at the end of the day, the majority would vote to stay put. In this regard, I had figured that the Brits would do as the Scots had done in their independence referendum in 2014, pull back from the brink of rupture at the last minute.    

The results of the vote shocked to the core. Londoners, who voted 60-40 in favor of staying, were despondent and bewildered. All of the employees at the hotel where I stayed, every one of whom was a foreigner, gave voice to a mix of anger and fear.  They came to London in search of opportunity, education and stability. They no longer knew where they stood in their adopted country. Similarly, everyone I met in shul and at Shabbat dinner later that evening, to a person, was aghast at the self-inflicted wound of the British, shuddering at the prospect of Boris Johnson as Britain’s next prime minister. Many of us could not avoid asking ourselves: If so many of the British pulled the lever as they did, couldn’t Americans do the same and allow the unimaginable to happen in November?

It is quite easy to surrender to dark predictions of the imminent demise of Britain, the European Union and the world at this juncture. In a more sober moment, I realize that I don’t share the dire pessimism of many. While I believe the vote was a colossal political miscalculation by David Cameron and a bad decision by the electorate, it also strikes me that there is too much on the line for the EU to act impetuously and vindictively by freezing the United Kingdom out of Europe. It is important, then, that negotiations over the “divorce” proceed not in the heat of the moment, but rather deliberately, as the consistently surprising and sage Angela Merkel proposed, thereby assuring the best interests of both parties.   

And yet, in assessing the damage, it is clear that we must begin to connect the dots. What we are witnessing is not the venting of the wrath of British voters alone. We are witnessing a global phenomenon, a wide-scale pushback against the post-World War II ideal of liberal democracy. One sees this throughout the Continent, from Greece to Hungary, Spain to Poland, from Russia to Great Britain, and reaching across the Atlantic to the United States. One can even see the grave threats to the democratic order in Israel, to which politicians such as former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon have ominously referred, as part of this trend.  

The current democracy deficit has many causal factors, though two in particular seem worthy of mention. Each derives from a different version of liberalism. First, globalization, the idea of open global economic borders without national restraints, once upon a time seemed to be the perfect system for the fleet, wireless and borderless 21st century. It turns out, though, that globalization can and has run roughshod over the economic and social orders of old, rendering obsolete the local worker, shop and customs. What Britons who supported the Leave campaign said the day after the vote was that, at last, they had their country back. The sense of ceding power — and of a lost cultural identity — was profound.  

That feeling of cultural, economic and political loss results from a second factor: the extraordinary movement of populations in the world todday. Not since World War II have we seen as high a number of refugees: an estimated 65 million in 2015 (compared with 40 million in the 1940s), according to the United Nations. The arrival of new immigrants and refugees into Western countries, often from the Middle East or Central Asia, was initially welcomed — or at least permitted — in the name of a humanitarian, pluralist liberalism. There was a sense that the developed world had a responsibility to the developing world, a moral obligation to extend a hand to the less fortunate as a basic human right.  

Over time, locals in the absorbing countries came to feel displaced by the new arrivals. Their unease and fear are understandable and cannot be dismissed as misanthropy or a mere figment of their imaginations. Social services are strained, good jobs are scarce and new cultural norms challenge old ones. And yet, neither the challenges nor the dynamism of global movement are new.  

It is striking that the Western country that has absorbed the largest number of refugees and immigrants of late, Germany, with 1 million in recent years, is the most stable in the European Union. This should tell us something about the possibility of moving ahead into the 21st century without turning one’s back on liberal democratic values. To be sure, there do need to be reforms made in order to overcome globalization’s disregard for local workers in the name of the next cheap labor market. And there is surely a limit to the absorptive capacity of Western countries regarding new arrivals. But the answer does not lie in a closed-door policy. Hopefully, the British and European Union, after the bracing wake-up call of the Brexit vote, will return to their senses and recognize the mutual benefit of their partnership, even under a different name. 

David N. Myers is the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish History at UCLA.

‘Renew our days as of old’


Israeli democracy is under threat. Incitement against human rights organizations proceeds with little trace of official censure; cabinet ministers aim to impose new ideological litmus tests in the realm of education and culture; government-sponsored bills place Jews on a higher plane than other citizens; and the state’s Ashkenazic chief rabbi declares, “Israel is first and foremost Jewish, and only then democratic.”

These acts deviate sharply from principles that were clearly and forcefully articulated before, during and after Israel’s Declaration of Independence was approved May 14, 1948. Those earlier principles, drawn from a range of diverse perspectives, reflected the mix of enlightened Jewish and Zionist ideals at a crucial moment of formation. A number of these first principles figure centrally in a series of broadsides that are on display at the Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA. In observance of Israeli Independence Day, we present excerpts from them in translation below.

Sixty-eight years ago, in the face of intense pressure from inside and out, powerful voices were heard calling for the anchoring of robust democratic principles in the foundation of the new state. They figured in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which called for “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”

On the same day the declaration was issued and as the nascent state was confronting the invasion of five Arab armies, the provisional government published a decree calling on all residents to prepare for struggle and sacrifice in the coming days. Concomitantly, the decree proclaimed:

“Within the confines of our State, citizens of the Arab people continue to live — for most of them this war is loathsome. Their rights as equal citizens we are duty-bound to uphold. We look to peace. Our hands are extended to them as partners in building the homeland.”

This striking call to recognize Jews and Arabs as equals was offered in the shadow of the Holocaust and in the face of an ongoing conflict understood as a war of survival. Seven months earlier, an even more soaring expression of this principle appeared in a broadside published Oct. 19, 1947 in Hebrew and Arabic by the left-oriented League for Jewish-Arab Rapprochement in Jerusalem. It announced:

“JEWS AND ARABS! Let us end this Satanic dance! The Jewish and Arab masses do not want chaos and bloodshed! The Jewish and Arab masses do not want a war of one people against another! The Jewish and Arab masses want a life of peace and creativity, a life of freedom and progress! Whatever the ultimate political outcome of the question of the Land of Israel will be, it will be meaningful only to the extent that it will guarantee peace and cooperation between two peoples whose fate is linked in an unbreakable bond to the fate of the land. Only Jewish-Arab unity can create enduring facts in the Land of Israel; only Jewish-Arab unity can advance this land toward independence and true freedom, toward progress and efflorescence.”

Despite what some might assume, this sentiment was not confined to the secular left. A coalition known as the United Religious Front — comprising the religious Zionist Mizrachi party, the non-Zionist Agudat Yisrael, a range of yeshiva deans, the Chasidic rebbes of Belz and Ger and a host of municipal rabbis — published a broadside in 1951 that laid out its vision for the new state. While calling for the Torah to serve as a key pillar, the poster also insisted that the state be fully democratic and recognize the complete equality of non-Jews as a matter of nationality and religion. The following are two of the planks in its platform:

“THE DEMOCRATIC STRUCTURE OF THE STATE: BASIC RIGHTS AND FREEDOMS. Beloved is Adam (all humanity) who was created in God’s image” (Avot 3:14). We are commanded to guard with extraordinary care the sanctity of life, the freedom and the dignity of every human being. It is the task of the State of Israel to take pains to assure that the rights of the individual, and his/her freedom of speech and conscience, will not be compromised.”

“RIGHTS OF ETHNIC AND RELIGIOUS MINORITIES. In the State of Israel, full equal rights shall be extended to all citizens irrespective of their religion or race. Most especially, in the wake of our suffering and torment through millennia of wandering among the nations when we were bereft of civil rights, we ought to remember the exalted morality captured in the words of our Torah: ‘A sojourner (ger), you are not to oppress: You yourselves know the feelings of the sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt’ (Exodus 23:9).”

The passage of time has not been kind to these notions. Citizens in Israel today confront stiff challenges to the values of democracy and equality. Rather than lapse into despair, they would do well to recover the range of foundational principles that were present at the birth of the state and are contained in the above texts. They represent an important antidote to the current scourge of chauvinism and a repository of some of the most exalted ideals of the Jewish and Zionist traditions.

Chaim Seidler-Feller, who recently retired after 40th year as director of UCLA Hillel, is director of the Hartman Fellowship for Campus Professionals.

David N. Myers is the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish History at UCLA. Many of the posters in this article are from Seidler-Feller’s private collection.

Democracy needs to come to the court


The passing of Justice Antonin Scalia has put the political world in the US into  discord. The President has announced his nominee Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. Republicans are vowing to block any nomination before the election. This conflict highlights the vital consideration of voters in Presidential elections, some basing their vote for President on the issue of court appointments. In the US Presidents nominate judges and the Senate confirms the appointment. Those appointments can have a profound long term impact on American society.

In Israel it’s not that way. Democracy  is not part of the  procedure for selecting justices for the Supreme Court. The Prime Minister or President does nominate judges. The Knesset  does not ratify them. There are no public hearings for justices, or public debates.

In Israel a small  committee of nine  make the choices behind closed doors.  The Chief Justice and two other members of the Supreme Court, the Justice minister, a cabinet minister, two Knesset members and two representatives of the bar association.  The meetings are done in the secret, Israel  law mandates that minutes of the selection committee not be made public.  A super-majority of this small committee is needed to appoint a judge. Judges presently serving on the court have a major influence, making it to a large degree a process of self-selection.

In the US it’s an open process, Democratic Presidents tend to nominate judges more the left and the Republican Presidents the right. The senate publically debates the appointments and ratifies them. The process has created a judiciary that is representative of varied legal philosophies. The judges debate between themselves, many times finding compromise. In Israel the court does not reflect diversity. The Israeli Supreme Court is to a large degree self selected, politically its clearly tilted to the left, activist, claiming for itself powers never given by legislation. It attempts to impose its will on the diverse society. In particular when it comes to issue of religion and personal status. The Court has a tendency to reflect a judicial philosophy antagonistic to Jewish tradition. 

A case in point was the Courts activist stance in striking down the Tal Law designed to slowly integrate Yeshiva students into Israeli society (personally I think this integration is vital to Israel’s future).  The Courts dramatic intervention created a political crisis. It set back the goal of Haredi integration significantly, empowering those voices of insularity who said “look the secular are out to get us.' The community circled the wagons and stepped back from greater engagement in Israeli society.   

In a remarkable moment of candor, one of the leading Supreme Court judges who was instrumental in striking down the Tal Law told me “we saw it was not working so we had to make the decision.” The ruling that came in waning days of the Benisch court. Clearly a purely political decision masked in legalese.  The liberal judges used their position of power to advance their personal political agendas. This decision was clearly the province of the legislative process. If the judges on the Supreme Court felt the need to engineer social change they should of doffed their judicial robes, and run for office.

The time has come for Israeli democracy to take a cue from the United States. A more democratic process to appoint judges is needed to insure continued trust in the court. The present system of judicial cronyism and self-selection has led to serious imbalance in the Israel legal system. It undermines the status of the Court,  many citizens lacking confidence in its fairness. Let judges from the left and right, secular and religious debate the great issues of the day behind closed doors, seeking compromise and consensus.  A Haredi judge on the court might have quietly suggested to those activist judges focused on social engineering for Yeshiva students that their ideas would create the opposite effect.  A more balanced court would also bring about greater respect from the all parts of the Israel spectrum.

The political left have historically opposed any effort at judicial reform in Israel claiming it a threat to democracy. This is smoke screen for their agenda for retaining their hold on the Court. They know they do not have the votes in the Knesset to advance their social agenda, by directing the selection process of judges, they continue to control Israeli society by judicial fiat.

One the striking friendships in the US Supreme court is the well-known comradery that existed between Justice Antonin Scalia, the conservative constitutionalist, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the liberal jurist. They socialized together, and even jointly attended the Opera. One can imagine that beyond the social engagement was an intellectual one, where great legal issues were debated, and compromise reached.

American democracy can teach an important lesson to Israel.  A Supreme Court has a immense power, to have the support of the citizenry it must be balanced,  and reflect diverse legal philosophies. Behind closed doors, judges of varied viewpoints should  debate and dialogue and find the best path  to uphold the law. The time has come for Israel to learn from the US, only a court appointed via a democratic process can truly reflect the variety of legal philosophies and be respected by the public.

Rabbi David Eliezrie is President of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County. His email is rabbi@ocjewish.com

Kerry to New Yorker: Israel doesn’t know what it wants


John Kerry hasn’t given up on a two-state solution. But the party responsible for making it happen, the secretary of state and his subordinates make clear, is Israel.

A lengthy profile in the New Yorker traces Kerry’s work with Iran, Syria, Israel and the Palestinians, as well as his lingering bitterness over his failed 2004 campaign for president.

Despite Kerry’s relentless efforts, the nine-month American-led peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority led nowhere — arguably leaving the two sides further apart than when they started.

Kerry doesn’t blame Israel outright for the negotiations’ failure, but he and other State Department officials convey that a two-state solution could happen if only Israel willed it. He mentions settlements and demolitions of Palestinian houses in the West Bank as obstacles to peace. And he says Israelis need to decide whether they want a two-state solution, a democracy that isn’t necessarily Jewish or a Jewish state that isn’t democratic.

“I have no answer to that,” Kerry tells New Yorker editor David Remnick. “But the problem is, neither do they. Neither do the people who are supposed to be providing answers to this. It is not an answer to simply continue to build in the West Bank and to destroy the homes of the other folks you’re trying to make peace with and pretend that that’s a solution.”

The more colorful — and derisive — quotes about Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu come from anonymous State Department officials. One official says: “The frustration with the Israelis on a lot of issues has been sky-high,” and reinforces the idea that Israel is responsible for the lack of a solution. Palestinians “don’t have any power in this dynamic,” the official says. “The Israelis have all the cards.”

“American officials speak of Netanyahu as myopic, entitled, untrustworthy, routinely disrespectful toward the President, and focussed solely on short-term political tactics to keep his right-wing constituency in line,” Remnick writes.

Kerry also reveals that in 2010, Syrian President Bashar Assad offered peace with Israel, but Netanyahu said no. While still a senator, Kerry reached out to Assad, and Assad said he’d sign a treaty with Israel if Israel withdrew from the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria in 1967.

Kerry says Assad “was ready to make a deal with Israel” but Netyanyahu told him: “I can’t do this. I’m not going to — I just can’t.”

Kerry’s aspirations for Israel are more modest these days: to “bring down the temperature” in the conflict.

But even that effort, a Kerry’s subordinate said, gave him “a P.T.S.D. flashback” from last year’s negotiations.

Questions for the European Left


Why don't we see demonstrations against Islamic dictatorships in London, Paris, Barcelona?

Or demonstrations against the Burmese dictatorship?

Why aren't there demonstrations against the enslavement of millions of women who live without any legal protection?

Why aren't there demonstrations against the use of children as human bombs where there is conflict with Islam?

Why has there been no leadership in support of the victims of Islamic dictatorship in Sudan ?

Why is there never any outrage against the acts of terrorism committed against Israel ?

Why is there no outcry by the European left against Islamic fanaticism?

Why don't they defend Israel's right to exist?

Why confuse support of the Palestinian cause with the defense of Palestinian terrorism?

And finally, the million dollar question: Why is the left in Europe and around the world obsessed with the two most solid democracies, the United States and Israel, and not with the worst dictatorships on the planet? The two most solid democracies, who have suffered the bloodiest attacks of terrorism, and the left doesn't care.

And then, to the concept of freedom. In every pro-Palestinian European forum I hear the left yelling with fervor: “We want freedom for the people!”

Not true. They are never concerned with freedom for the people of Syria or Yemen or Iran or Sudan, or other such nations. And they are never preoccupied when Hamas destroys freedom for the Palestinians. They are only concerned with using the concept of Palestinian freedom as a weapon against Israeli freedom. The resulting consequence of these ideological pathologies is the manipulation of the press.

The international press does major damage when reporting on the question of the Israeli-Palestinian issue. On this topic they don't inform, they propagandize.

When reporting about Israel, the majority of journalists forget the reporter code of ethics. And so, any Israeli act of self-defense becomes a massacre, and any confrontation, genocide. So many stupid things have been written about Israel that there aren't any accusations left to level against her.

At the same time, this press never discusses Syrian and Iranian interference in propagating violence against Israel, the indoctrination of children, and the corruption of the Palestinians. And when reporting about victims, every Palestinian casualty is reported as tragedy and every Israeli victim is camouflaged, hidden or reported about with disdain.

And let me add on the topic of the Spanish left. Many are the examples that illustrate the anti-Americanism and anti-Israeli sentiments that define the Spanish left. For example, one of the leftist parties in Spain has just expelled one of its members for creating a pro-Israel website. I quote from the expulsion document: “Our friends are the people of Iran, Libya and Venezuela, oppressed by imperialism, and not a Nazi state like Israel.”

In another example, the socialist mayor of Campozuelos changed Shoah Day, commemorating the victims of the Holocaust, with Palestinian Nabka Day, which mourns the establishment of the State of Israel, thus showing contempt for the six million European Jews murdered in the Holocaust.

Or in my native city of Barcelona, the city council decided to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the creation of the State of Israel, by having a Week of solidarity with the Palestinian people. Thus, they invited Leila Khaled, a noted terrorist from the 70's and current leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a terrorist organization so described by the European Union, which promotes the use of bombs against Israel .

This politically correct way of thinking has even polluted the speeches of President Zapatero. His foreign policy falls within the lunatic left, and on issues of the Middle East, he is unequivocally pro-Arab. I can assure you that in private, Zapatero places on Israel the blame for the conflict in the Middle East, and the policies of Foreign Minister Moratinos reflect this. The fact that Zapatero chose to wear a kafiah in the midst of the Lebanon conflict is no coincidence; it's a symbol.

Spain has suffered the worst terrorist attack in Europe and it is in the crosshairs of every Islamic terrorist organization. As I wrote before, they kill us with cell phones hooked to satellites connected to the Middle Ages. And yet the Spanish left is the most anti-Israeli in the world.

And then it says it is anti-Israeli because of solidarity. This is the madness I want to denounce in this conference.

Conclusion:

I am not Jewish. Ideologically I am left and by profession a journalist. Why am I not anti-Israeli like my colleagues? Because as a non-Jew I have the historical responsibility to fight against Jewish hatred and currently against the hatred for their historic homeland, Israel. To fight against anti-Semitism is not the duty of the Jews, it is the duty of the non-Jews.

As a journalist it is my duty to search for the truth beyond prejudice, lies and manipulations. The truth about Israel is not told. As a person from the left who loves progress, I am obligated to defend liberty, culture, civic education for children, coexistence and the laws that the Tablets of the Covenant made into universal principles.

Principles that Islamic fundamentalism systematically destroys. That is to say, that as a non-Jew, journalist and lefty, I have a triple moral duty with Israel, because if Israel is destroyed, liberty, modernity and culture will be destroyed too.

The struggle of Israel, even if the world doesn't want to accept it, is the struggle of the world.

Elections in Egypt could begin transition to democracy


This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

Egyptians have gone to the polls in a vote which could show whether the country’s is able to transition towards democracy. Three years after a court disbanded parliament, the north African state will finally elect lawmakers who under the new constitution have the power to hold the president to account. The test will be how willing and how able the members of parliament (MPs) are to stand up to the general-turned-president who has been criticized for his perceived authoritarianism, say analyst here.

President Abdel Fatteh Al-Sisi was voted into power in the summer of 2014, months after he led a coup which removed the country’s first ever democratically elected leader, Mohamed Morsi. Weeks of street protests against the policies of the Muslim Brotherhood-backed president prompted the army to step in and arrest Morsi. Subsequently, Sisi was elected on a mandate to bring stability to Egypt, whose population had grown weary of the ups and downs of the Arab Spring, and to transition the country towards democracy.

But the question remains how meaningful is an election held in the country while the Muslim Brotherhood, the only party to ever have a leader elected by popular mandate in Egypt, languishes as a banned terrorist organization, and are not able to field candidates for office.

“The unprecedented restrictions reduce these elections to being a sheer gesture,” Lina Attalah, chief editor of the independent Egyptian news site Mada Masr, told The Media Line. Increasingly, she said, the actions of the government appear to be worse than those of Hosni Mubarak – who ruled Egypt for thirty years prior to Morsi being elected.

Following Sisi’s coup hundreds of Egyptian were killed and thousands arrested. Courts in the country have been repeatedly criticized for acting under the orders of the president and for arbitrary use of the death penalty. Media freedoms have also been heavily curtailed during Sisi’s rein.

Activists hope that the elections will mark a beginning of an end to such practices. Voting is due to take place in two stages — the first conducted this week and the second round due in December.

“According to the constitution the parliament has the power – but the president also has. So there is a balance,” Ibrahim Awad, a professor at the American University of Cairo and director of the Center for Migration and Refugees Studies, told The Media Line. If parliament is unwilling to exercise this power and simply supports the government, its relevance as a democratic institution will be limited, Awad said.

Egypt created a robust constitution with a strong parliament, one which was understood and widely supported by the population, an observer with a European political organization based in Cairo who asked not to be identified, told The Media Line. However almost as soon as the constitution was ratified, it was ignored by the government, the source said.

“This parliament can do a lot of things, up to the point where it can get rid of the president itself. (However) will the Parliament be strong enough to do this – that is a separate question,” the observer asked.

Media outlets based in Cairo have reported low election turnout, possibly as little as 10%, which contrasts sharply with the attitude of Egyptian youth during the early years of the Arab Spring in 2011 and 2012. At that time, images of student protests in Tahrir Square and long lines outside voting stations were seen as symbolic of the drive towards democracy in the Middle East.

A low turnout now could be a sign of the president’s slipping popularity. Mounting casualties among police and army units engaged in a counter-insurgency campaign in the Sinai Peninsula have cost Sisi politically. In Egypt there is a belief in a connection between military rule and stability, an idea that is encouraged through Sisi’s rhetoric, journalist Lina Attalah explained. Continued instability in the Sinai undermines the president’s image and could be one explanation for low turnout at the polls.

A second possibility is apathy among an electorate who see little choice among the candidates put forward for election. With the Muslim Brotherhood banned, there is little political opposition to Sisi.

“Democracy is about how different points of view can be reconciled,” Ibrahim Awad observed. If the government intends for democracy to truly develop in the country then the structure of its political system will allow a legitimate opposition to develop, the professor said. “(It) should allow these alternative ideas to crystalize and then you can speak of democracy. Until now this has not been the case,” Awad said.

For this reason the next six months will show if the government is committed to democratic transition, Awad explained. 

“Certainly under Mubarak you had a rubber stamp parliament,” he said. “In reality and under the constitution the parliament (then) had less power, so if the (new) parliament exercises the rights and functions that are reserved to it in the constitution it will be democratic.”

Rouhani says Iran ready to help bring democracy to Syria, Yemen


Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Monday that Tehran was ready to help bring democracy to war-torn Syria and Yemen, and blamed the spread of terrorism in the Middle East on the United States.

In a speech to the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York, Rouhani said Iran was prepared to assist in “the eradication of terrorism and in paving the way for democracy”.

“As we aided the establishment of democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are prepared to help bring about democracy in Syria and also Yemen,” said Rouhani.

Tehran has provided military and financial support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the four-year war against rebels, and supports Houthi rebels fighting for power in Yemen.

Rouhani, who has said previously that Iran would back the Syrian nation and Assad “until the end of the road,” did not mention the Syrian president's name in his speech.

Anti-Assad rebels enjoy the support of Saudi Arabia, Shi'ite-led Iran's regional rival.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Monday offered different views on how to resolve the Syrian crisis. But Obama said he was willing to work with Russia and Iran to end it.

Rouhani blamed the crisis in the Middle East on what he characterized as the United States' occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq as well as what he said was Washington's support for Israel against Palestine.

“If we did not have the U.S. military invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the U.S.'s unwarranted support for the inhumane actions of the Zionist regime against the oppressed nation of Palestine, today the terrorists would not have an excuse for the justification of their crimes,” he said.

Rouhani praised the nuclear deal reached in July between Iran and major world powers, which will lift economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for Tehran curbing its nuclear program.

“The deal is a brilliant example of victory over war that has managed to disperse the clouds of hostility and perhaps even the specter of another war and extensive tensions from the Middle East,” Rouhani said.

He criticized the “incompetence and mismanagement of those in charge” of the haj tragedy in Saudi Arabia, in which more than 700 Muslim pilgrims were killed, including many Iranians.

Rouhani is cutting his U.N. trip short, returning to Teheran later on Monday to take part in ceremonies for the return of the bodies of Iranian pilgrims killed in the tragedy.

At Tel Aviv’s first Limmud, participants confront Israel’s raucous politics


The debate over Jewish law’s role in Israel’s government has raged for 70 years. Should the state, above all, be Jewish, or should it put its democracy first?

Addressing a crowded room Thursday, Yotam Yizraeli argued that Jewish tradition suggested a third option: no government at all. When the Torah said to obey God’s law, Yizraeli claimed, it meant to denigrate kings, who would never measure up to divine rule.

“Theocracy means that I don’t accept anything,” Yizraeli said. “Theocracy is all around us. It continues with Israeli techies. Talmudic discussion has an anarchist quality to it.”

Yizraeli was teaching a class called “Judaism and Anarchy” at the inaugural Limmud TLV, a two-day pluralistic conference of Jewish learning that took place last week at a college in Jaffa. The 400 participants at the conference— many of them in their 20s and 30s — attended more than 100 sessions ranging from traditional Talmud study to yoga to the dissection of a popular satirical TV show. While most sessions were in Hebrew, several were in English, catering to the visible minority of English-speaking immigrants in attendance.

But many of the sessions used Jewish texts to address past and present Israeli political fissures. Sessions confronted topics like the source of Israel’s festering secular-religious divide, discrimination against African migrants in south Tel Aviv, political campaigns in the Bible and Israel’s controversial nation-state bill, which would enshrine into law Israel’s status as a Jewish state.

“There’s no doubt there’s an ability to have a deeper discussion because we live these issues,” said Limmud TLV Chairman Tal Grunspan. “There’s no doubt an Israeli will understand the nuances, because it’s meant for an Israeli audience. That’s part of the beauty of doing a Limmud in Tel Aviv.”

In hosting its first Limmud, Tel Aviv joins dozens of cities around the world that have held the Jewish learning conference — from London to Montevideo, Uruguay to Johannesburg, South Africa. Limmud TLV’s team hopes to make the conference an annual event.

Eight other communities in Israel have hosted a Limmud conference, from towns in the Arava, near Israel’s southern tip, to Limmud Galil up north. Cities with large religious populations, like Jerusalem and the central Modiin, have also held Limmuds, and Israel has hosted a Limmud for immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The conference’s arrival in Tel Aviv is one more sign that Israel’s secular mecca is experiencing a spiritual revival, driven in part by young religious Israelis who have come to the country’s economic capital for jobs, as well as immigrants with more traditional lifestyles. And though Tel Aviv is known as a left-wing stronghold, perspectives at Limmud spanned the political map.

The class on the nation-state bill was taught by one of the bill’s proponents, who argued against left-wing claims that the bill would weaken Israeli democracy. A later session on the haredi Orthodox view of Zionism posited that the haredi worldview will never accept modern Jewish sovereignty — even as haredi politicians serve in Israel’s government.

“The moment we build coalitions in the Knesset that have an ingredient of people who aren’t Zionist, that dictates the agenda of the state,” said Conservative Rabbi Jeff Cymet, who taught the class. “And that worries people who care about Zionism.”

The politics of fear threatens Israel from without and within


There was something surreal about visiting Israel last week. I had come to learn about Israel’s independent sector, and it was inspiring to see how nonprofits were taking up the task of shaping Israel’s future, regardless of who forms the next government.

Partisan politics still abounded, which wasn’t surprising in the run-up to an election. What was astonishing was witnessing how the politicization of issues had extended to the critical question of how to deal with the threat of a nuclear Iran.  

Rather than building consensus around one of the most momentous challenges facing Israel since its inception, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s miscalculated decision to address a joint session of Congress had transformed the issue into an object of partisan politicking. 

The controversy not only has exacerbated tensions between Israel and its most important ally, it also has diverted attention from serious challenges Israel is facing internally. It is an intermingling of strategic prerogatives and political maneuvering that would have befuddled Israel’s founders.

The pioneers of Israel knew they could not succeed in establishing a sovereign democratic state at peace with its neighbors without the support and strategic partnership of the world’s most powerful nation, which itself is grounded in a fundamental commitment to democracy. They could not have imagined a time when the question of whether the Israeli prime minister should address a joint session of the U.S. Congress would be a controversial issue.  

The founders of Israel also would not have imagined a time when legislation to limit the rights of non-Jewish citizens was proposed by members of its governing coalition. Israel’s Declaration of Independence — which, not coincidentally, recalls the words of America’s founding documents — proclaimed that the Jewish state “will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel [and] will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” 

Israel’s founders almost certainly would not have anticipated a situation in which Israel maintained control over millions of Palestinian Arabs without equal rights for almost half a century. They would have been heartbroken to know that, 67 years after it was born, dangerous currents inside Israel and serious threats from outside would threaten Israel’s existence as a democratic and Jewish state

The reality of this moment in Jewish history is that adherence to the principles of democracy does not carry the weight it did when Israel was created. In the eyes of many, including a significant percentage of Israel’s political leadership, the principles of democracy have become subservient to external threats.  

The synergy and interdependence of democracy and national security have been transformed into a zero-sum game. As a result, fear is progressively defining the ethos of the Jewish people — in Israel and the Diaspora — to the point of causing serious harm. 

Israel’s early pioneers believed it was dangerous to give disproportionate influence to fear or any emotional response to the profoundly painful past of the Jewish people. Rooted in the traditions of both Judaism and enlightened Western democracy, they were wary of allowing fear to skew their ability to discover and develop solutions at the most precarious time in modern Jewish history.

In the 21st century, fear has become an all-too-common tool for recruiting political support. It is the Achilles’ heel of democracy, the lowest-common denominator of a citizenry, which is why demagogues and fearmongers on both the right and the left have successfully exploited it. Fear, as Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz puts it, “overrides not only thinking but, more important, all other emotions.”  

In the case of Netanyahu, fear is a basic operating principle. He uses it deftly, invoking the Holocaust to frame virtually every threat Israel faces. I believe he does so because he is sincerely afraid of Israel being existentially reliant on another country or entity. He associates this dependence with weakness, rather than acknowledging that interdependence is a global phenomenon,  to which Israel is not and must not be an exception.  

Netanyahu presents himself as the only person strong enough to prevent a U.S./European-led agreement with Iran, which he asserts would jeopardize Israel’s existence. Rather than forging a positive relationship with U.S. President Barack Obama, he preaches fear of the intentions of the United States, Israel’s closest ally. He revives our collective fear of anti-Semitism and questions the viability of European-Jewish communities. He fuses his own fears with his penchant for manipulating others’ fears, resulting in an unnecessary political controversy, a diplomatic crisis and the absence of measured national discourse.

Fear is utilized so effectively in Israel because it fills a vacuum left by the absence of collective political norms rooted in democratic values. As the veteran Israeli civil libertarian Amos Gil observes, “There are no values and no rules of the game, there are only goals.” The challenge for Israel is to reaffirm its founding values and agree upon guidelines for political engagement.  Otherwise, its democracy will be truly imperiled, as will its greatest strategic asset — the Israel-U.S. partnership and the support of the Diaspora Jews. 

Amid protests, Rivlin visits Hebron and Kiryat Arba


Israeli President Reuven Rivlin delivered a speech at the inauguration ceremony for a new Jewish museum in Hebron amid protests.

Speaking Monday at the Hebron Heritage Museum, which commemorates the 1929 riots in which Palestinians in the West Bank city killed dozens of Jews, Rivlin said “we can and should try” to encourage “dialogue” there.

Several dozen demonstrators — a mix of Palestinians, leftist Israelis and foreign activists — protested the visit, and Palestinians said Israeli soldiers used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the demonstrators, Yahoo News UK  reported.

The Jerusalem Post described the  encounter between police and protesters as a “small scuffle” that ensued “until security forces dispersed the protesters.”

Also Monday, Rivlin visited the nearby Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba and the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a site holy to both Jews and Muslims. In 1994, a Jewish settler murdered 29 Palestinians during prayer services at the mosque there.

“We are in an election season. We are permitted to disagree, but we must not degrade each other, not on the right and not on the left,” Rivlin said in an address in Kiryat Arba. “Israel’s Arab and Jewish citizens are entitled to respect. We established a Jewish and democratic state here, a state that’s as committed to its Jewish principles as to its democratic ones. We are all equal and obligated by the law.

“Organizations on the left asked me to boycott the Jewish community in Hebron,” Rivlin said, adding that right-wing activists had asked him to decline an invitation to speak next month at an event organized by the Haaretz newspaper and partly funded by the New Israel Fund.

“I did not cancel my visit to Hebron as I would never cancel my participation at Haaretz’s conference on democracy,” Rivlin said.

Approximately 700 Jews and 200,000 Palestinians live in Hebron.

UN vote means we can’t choose democracy


The conventional wisdom assumes that if Israelis and Palestinians cannot work out a two-state solution, the Jews will someday have to choose between democracy and independence. The specter of that choice has upset many of my fellow center-right, centrist, and left-of-center Zionist friends, since it means to them the end of Jewish statehood. But yesterday’s vote in the United Nations has convinced me that when that dreadful day comes, I’m going to choose independence over democracy. 

Some Jews have celebrated the fact that the United Nations Security Council did not pass a Palestinian resolution demanding the establishment by 2017 of a Palestinian state in all of the West Bank with a capital in East Jerusalem. But under scrutiny, the vote displays the precariousness of Israel’s situation:

• Only the United States and Australia voted to protect Israel while negotiations continue. 

• France, where the Jews first gained political and economic equality in the eighteenth century, voted to put Jewish lives in danger.

• Russia, where Tsars and Soviets persecuted the Jews in their own ways decade after decade, showed continued callousness to Jewish needs by voting yes. 

• England – the land of the Balfour Declaration that a century ago paved the path for Jewish independence – just couldn’t make up its mind.

A key lesson of the Holocaust is the urgent necessity of an independent Jewish state with a strong standing army. Yesterday’s vote underscores how we cannot trust any country to be our protector – and how we cannot share sovereignty with a group whose leaders wish us dead.

For more than a decade, I’ve sympathized with Palestinian rights and supported a two-state solution. In fact, I have long expressed my anger at the mistreatment of Palestinians with my own personal boycott: I have refused to set foot on the West Bank even for important events like the weddings of friends.

A non-democratic Israel can still protect the rights of non-citizens to the fullest extent possible through its legislature and courts. An Arab majority in a future Israel run by Jews should have full freedom of speech and the press and religion. The checkpoints and curfews that currently create such a burden on Palestinians should be minimized. But we cannot grant the vote to people who would replace the Jewish state with yet another Arab nation.

It is agonizing to know that the Jews may someday have to choose between independence and the democratic system that, as an American and a citizen of the world, I hold dear. But if – as it appears – in my lifetime we will not be able to sustain both, I’m going to choose, in the words of Hatikvah (Israel’s national anthem), lihyot am chofshi b’artzeinu – to be a free people in our Land.

 

Follow David Benkof on Facebook, Twitter (@DavidBenkof), or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.

Israeli president criticizes divisive Jewish nation-state bill


Israel's president has said a bill promoted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that would anchor in law the status of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people runs counter to its founding fathers' vision of equality for Arab citizens.

The bill comes at a time of high tensions in Israel, the West Bank and Jerusalem, where a dispute over access to a religious site sacred to Jews and Muslims alike has ignited Palestinian streets protests and lethal attacks on Jews.

“The formulators of the (Israeli) Declaration of Independence, with much wisdom, insisted the Arab communities in Israel, as well as other groups, should not feel as the Jews had felt in exile,” President Reuven Rivlin said in a speech on Tuesday.

The 1948 declaration, while proclaiming the creation of a Jewish state, also emphasized its democratic nature and promised “complete equality” of social, religious and cultural rights for all, said Rivlin, whose office is mainly ceremonial.

The new bill won cabinet approval on Sunday, despite the opposition of centrist ministers, but several versions must still be merged and parliamentary ratification is not imminent.

Netanyahu's draft pledges to “uphold the individual rights of all of Israel's citizens”. But it also says only the Jewish people have “national rights” – the right to self-determination in Israel and to a flag, an anthem and free immigration.

Critics say the bill is anti-democratic and legislators from the Arab community, which makes up 20 percent of Israel's population of 8.2 million, have described the bill as racist.

On being elected by parliament to the presidency in June, Rivlin, a veteran right-wing politician who has had a rocky relationship with Netanyahu, said he would speak out on domestic issues. He ended his acceptance speech by proclaiming “Long live Israeli democracy”.

Many political commentators say Netanyahu's main reason for pushing the bill is to placate hardliners in his right-wing Likud party ahead of an internal leadership ballot in January and a possible early national election next year.

Netanyahu has said the legislation will serve as a counterpoint to anyone “challenging Israel's character as the national state of the Jewish people”. Palestinians have said accepting that definition could deny Palestinian refugees of past wars any right of return.

Rivlin's own views on Palestinian self-determination are controversial. He opposes an independent state for Palestinians, backing instead a confederation between them and Israel.

It’s still about democracy


[UPDATED on Nov. 26, 2014]

Against the backdrop of increasing terror in Israel, the right-wing bloc in the ruling coalition proposed legislation that seems to give Israel’s Jewish character primacy over its democratic nature, creating a rift with the coalition’s centrists.

For those interested in early elections, apparently including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the bill’s content may be less important than the political crisis it is creating. For others, particularly on the nationalist and religious right, it is an opportunity to unravel the democratic fabric of Israel. For them, Jewish already trumps democratic.

Ironically, as this debate was taking shape in Israel, Sheldon Adelson, the American political mega-donor, was himself publically expressing doubts about the value of Israel remaining a democratic state. Speaking in Washington at a gathering of the Israeli-American Council on Nov. 9, Adelson said that “God talked about all the good things in life [but] He didn’t talk about Israel remaining as a democratic state.”

It’s not surprising that the latest attack on Israel’s democratic character is taking place when violence in Israel is on the rise. Our own experience after 9/11 reminds us that civil liberties often get sacrificed to fear.

When I was in Jerusalem during the week before the horrific Nov. 18 attack by Palestinian militants at a synagogue in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood — in which four beloved and esteemed rabbis, and a courageous Druze policeman were murdered — I could already feel the tension palpably rising in Israel’s capital. Spasms of Palestinian terror were being dubbed the “car intifada”; religious Jewish extremists were stepping up the violent rhetoric, against Arabs and Jewish “traitors” alike; and civilians were beginning to feel a familiar trepidation in public places.

The Har Nof terror attack will no doubt be used by proponents of the latest anti-democratic legislation to buttress their case. It will also spur others — in and outside of Israel — to question the wisdom of maintaining democratic norms when Israelis are feeling besieged by the bombastic words and actions of Palestinian extremists. If Arabs support the killing of Jews, the ultranationalists argue, they have no rights, civil liberties and due process, even though, as the leader of the religious-right HaBayit HaYehudi Party, Naftali Bennett acknowledges, the vast majority of Palestinian-Israelis are nonviolent and peaceful.

Assaults on democratic principles and institutions have indeed been on the rise in Israel. But those very dangers underscore how integral democracy is to Israel’s character and to its future as a safe haven and homeland for the Jewish people.

One of the best places to witness the clash over democratic values is on the floor of Israel’s Knesset. Three years ago, in 2011, when members of Israel’s ruling coalition proposed draconian legislation limiting the ability of nonprofit organizations to receive funding from foreign sources, the U.S. ambassador to Israel personally conveyed the administration’s view that the bills were too extreme and outside the standards of a western democracy.

The Knesset debate was heated and the proposed legislation was ultimately defeated largely due to the efforts of a coalition of civil liberties and grass-roots advocacy organizations — working in cooperation with many Jewish groups in this country as well.

Some Knesset members have also gone beyond their parliamentary walls in order to subvert democracy and the rule of law. In recent weeks, tensions in Jerusalem have been stoked by MKs who ascended the Temple Mount, pressing for the imposition of Israeli sovereignty and the commencement of Jewish prayer, in contravention to Israeli law.

Certain elected officials have taken the lead in racial incitement as well. In its 2013 annual report, the Coalition Against Racism (CAR) in Israel identified 107 incidents of racial incitement by elected officials and other public figures, almost double the amount reported the previous year.

The CAR is made up of just the sort of nonprofit groups that were targeted in the 2011 proposed legislation. Its very existence demonstrates the critical importance of the freedoms of inquiry and speech, which are still protected in Israeli democracy. Following the disclosure of these events and the community organizing efforts of the CAR and its partners, a significant decline was registered in incitement by public figures. The CAR’s 2014 report showed only 22 such instances.

But that report only covered events up until the end of this past February. Incitement and subversions of democracy are on the rise again, both as a result and a cause of the spike in Israeli-Palestinian violence this year.

To be sure, expressing radical views and even verbal incitement are not the moral equivalents of cold-blooded murder. But the environment they create — and re-create in response to the incitement and brutality of Arab fanatics — helps perpetuate a vicious circle in which innocent victims are inevitably trapped.

Finding the right balance between democratic and defensive measures is not easy. Many of Israel’s neighbors simply outlaw dissent, especially in times of conflict. Many of Israel’s neighbors also outlaw freedom of religion, assembly and expression. Israel not only has these rights, it has and needs organizations and institutions that make sure those rights are protected.

Take the example of the Israeli university that prohibited a group of students from hanging posters and distributing leaflets against Israeli government policies, on the grounds the group’s activities were offensive (and could lead to a libel suit). The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) represented the student group and the case ultimately reached Israel’s Supreme Court, where the ban was struck down. In the words of Supreme Court President Asher Grunis: “An academic institution entrusted with academic freedom ought to recognize freedom of expression.”

This example of democracy in action is familiar in the U.S. and other Western democracies. But unlike its democratic allies, Israel is in a constant state of conflict with its neighbors, one that is frequently violent and brutal. The inclination to limit democratic rights and freedoms is understandable. But doing so is no less harmful than it would be to subvert democracy in a time of peace.

In times like these, when a public figure says that a “terrorist who harms civilians shall be killed,” as Israel’s Minister of Public Security said after a Jerusalem terror attack earlier this month, it may not be so easy to object. Nevertheless, ACRI asserted “a command to kill a terrorist when it is not necessary in order to neutralize the present threat is a manifestly illegal order that must not be obeyed.”

There are those who say that ACRI’s actions, when vicious extremists are killing innocent civilians, were ill timed. But democracies insist on the rule of law precisely so that it will be applied at times like this. As ACRI put it, “The expectations raised by the Minister’s remarks — that police officers will act as jury, judge and executioner — is improper and unacceptable.” We know this at times of peace, and we must remember it in times of conflict and war.

A few days after Adelson questioned the value of democracy for the State of Israel, I met with Talia Sasson, an Israeli attorney who will soon become president of the New Israel Fund, which supports ACRI and other Israeli nonprofits that analyze the impact of government policies, develops alternative policies for dealing with the untenable status quo in the West Bank and Gaza, promotes inclusivity and protects the rights of all Israelis. After 25 years of service in the State’s Attorney’s office — half of which were spent representing the government of Israel in the Supreme Court — her perspective is different than Adelson’s. “If we give up on democracy,” she said, “we give up on Israel.” 

Jonathan Jacoby is Senior Advisor to CEO and  VP for Southern California of the New Israel Fund.

Peres at Rabin memorial: Ruling over others against Jewish values


Israel cannot protect its Jewish and democratic character without peace, former President Shimon Peres said at a memorial for Yitzhak Rabin.

“Peace has become a derogatory term. There are those who say that those who believe in peace are naive, not patriots, delusional,” Peres said Sunday night to thousands of people gathered in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv for the event. “But I say to all those in a clear voice, those who give up on peace are the ones who are delusional.”

Rabin was assassinated 19 years ago by Yigal Amir, who remains in jail. Wednesday marks the anniversary on the Hebrew calendar of the assassination.

“Ruling over another people is against our values as Jews. To pursue peace is a mitzvah. It’s also very practical, very Jewish,” Peres said.

The Israeli Peace Initiative and November 4th groups were among the organizers of the memorial, which featured a more political overtone.

A second memorial, sponsored by a coalition of groups from the left and right, including youth movements, is set for Saturday in Rabin Square. President Reuven Rivlin will serve as keynote speaker at the rally, which will remember Rabin’s life and legacy, the Dror Israeli Movement announced Sunday.

 

Israel must export self-criticism


It was unsettling to hear Israeli President Reuven Rivlin say last week, “The time has come to admit that Israel is a sick society, with an illness that demands treatment.”

Rivlin was referring to the resurgence of animosity between Israeli Arabs and Jews in the wake of the Gaza war, but he could as easily have been referring to any number of Israeli “ills” that demand “treatment.”

I used to be really bothered by this kind of harsh self-criticism, especially when it came from Israelis themselves. Do our enemies really need more ammunition against us? Do we Jews really need to wash so much of our dirty laundry in public?

I still have sympathy for those sentiments, but only because Israel is the only country in the region engaging in such self-reflection and self-criticism. 

Imagine for a second the shockwaves throughout the world if we heard these words from the leader of Saudi Arabia: “The time has come to admit that Saudi Arabia is a sick society, with an illness that demands treatment.”

We would have to pinch ourselves if any Arab leader would declare, for example: “Decent societies depend on human rights, women’s rights and gay rights; on freedom of speech; freedom of religion; accountable government; an independent legal system and great universities.”

Imagine if the young people who risked their lives protesting during the long-gone Arab Spring would hear their Arab leaders say things like: “It’s time we stop blaming others for our problems and start taking responsibility for our own people and our own future.”

This kind of talk can only happen in cultures that encourage people to speak up and think for themselves. It can’t happen in a culture of fear, as we see now in Egypt, where political activist Sanaa Seif was sentenced last week to three years in prison simply for protesting what Amnesty International has called “Draconian” anti-protest laws.

As much as I admire the freedom to protest in Israel, it saddens me that of the 21 countries and territories in the Middle East and North Africa monitored by Freedom House, Israel is the only country classified as “free.” We seem to take for granted that Arab countries can’t catch up to Israel on the freedom front, but isn’t that the bigotry of low expectations?

Yes, Israel is paying a price for this imbalance. After all, if only one country in the region routinely points out its shortcomings — and much of the world picks on that country as well — how can one not conclude that Israel is deserving of the worst condemnations?

In the long run, though, it’s worth paying that price. It’s not a coincidence that Israel is a global leader in scientific and cultural innovation and that its economy is so far ahead of any other in the region. Behind this phenomenal success is a restless culture of self-criticism and responsibility that keeps the country on its toes and propels it forward. 

Israel’s shortcomings are legion — from social and economic injustices, to ethnic discrimination, to the high cost of living, to its failure to resolve its conflict with the Palestinians — but so are its armies of critics and activists who fight to expose these faults and to make the country a better place. This makes for a noisy and messy society, with much of the noise coming from the criticism itself.

Sometimes it’s tempting to look at this criticism — as when President Rivlin called Israel a “sick society” — and throw your hands up in disgust. But it’s the second part of Rivlin’s statement — the part where he said the illness “demands treatment” — that is really Israel’s secret sauce. The very conference at which Rivlin was speaking, “From Hatred of the Stranger to Acceptance of the Other,” is evidence of that secret sauce. Such efforts at self-correction happen throughout the country on every issue. It’s not always pretty, and it often fails, but that is Israel — an imperfect country in a continuous state of correction. 

Now, imagine if all the countries of the region had the chutzpah — from the top down — to openly admit that their societies are sick and demand treatment. Imagine if they emulated Israel’s messy system and created a social and legal culture with the power to tackle chronic problems like the oppression of women and the absence of economic opportunities. The freedom and power to make things better is the beginning of true hope. 

Israel may have a lot of good things to export to its Arab neighbors, but for my money, its most essential export should be its culture of relentless self-criticism.

A truly sick society is one that refuses to call itself sick. 

Is Obama’s presidency done?


Is it too early to declare Barack Obama’s presidency a failure?  It seems to be the talk of Washington pundits lately and a new poll showed a clear majority thinks so.

When Obama came on the scene, I like others, warned that someone who had pretty much done nothing of significance short of giving a great speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and that alone did not show any gravitas, was not a good choice to be leader of the free world and commander in chief.

Before I continue, let me say this.  Although I did not vote for Obama, either time, I think it was a great thing for the country to elect a black president.  And because it was so historically significant, I even recorded his first inauguration, and I still have the tape.

But by the same token, I will also say, I get very tired of people who accuse critics of the president of being mentally deficient in some way, unpatriotic or worse, racist.  And the word “racist” continues to be the excuse du jour of those who just can’t say, “Yeah, our guy screwed up.  Again.”  Are there bigots who castigate Obama because he is black?  Of course.  Every ethnic and religious group has their haters.  There are white racists and black racists, and Christian and yes, even Jewish racists.  But the histrionics of many liberals to find the race card every time Obama is denounced, and he deserves it, believe me, is way out of control.

When Obama started his presidency in 2009, his popularity was close to 70%, even higher in some polls.  Now it is in the low 40’s, sometimes lower.  Did 30% of the country all of a sudden become stupid, unpatriotic or heaven forbid, racist?  Is Jimmy Carter – and in my opinion, Obama is mimicking his ineptitude – who just criticized Obama for waiting too long to confront ISIS, a racist?  (Wow, when even Jimmy Carter thinks you are too slow to act forcefully, Barack, you have a problem.)  Is Leon Panetta, the well-respected and highly experienced public servant (Army veteran, Congressman, Bill Clinton’s Office of Management and Budget Director and White House Chief of Staff, Obama’s CIA Director and Secretary of Defense), a racist?  It was OK to lambast both Bush’s and Ronald Reagan when they were president, and even call them racists (and a lot worse), but say Obama has screwed up, and well, you are a racist.  By the way, it is hard for some Democrats to label Panetta a racist so he is being called disloyal and even unpatriotic.  Right.  A guy who has devoted nearly his entire life to serving our country is unpatriotic.  And if he is being disloyal, good for him.  Loyalty to one’s country comes before loyalty to one’s boss.

[And I am sure we will hear more about the so-called “war on women” when Hillary Clinton finally ends her “tease tour” and officially announces her presidential candidacy.  I would like to remind all who support her of her own words, forcefully given, words that can be used now regarding the current president: “I am sick and tired of people who say that if you debate and you disagree with this administration, somehow you’re not patriotic.  We should stand up and say we are Americans, and we have a right to debate and disagree with any administration.”  Of course if Hillary becomes president, many who criticize her will be called misogynists rather than patriots.]

Look, both sides make ridiculous assertions when defending their own, and Republicans have had, and yes, do have, their own irrational and obstinate pols and supporters, but some people on the left are just so hysterically biased and unreasonable that it is impossible for them to be objective and fair.  They hurt their credibility when they yell, “Racism!” at every turn, and it only makes those who legitimately condemn the president and others, more angry and reactive, and the political discourse even more poisonous than what it should be in a normal democracy.

Has Obama done anything right?  Certainly he has.  And I will list a few things.  Ordering the killing of Osama bin Laden, even though I think any president would have, was a very good thing.  Increasing the drone attacks against terrorist targets another good thing.  Ordering the navy to kill Somali pirates back in 2009 who were holding the captain of a US cargo ship hostage, yep.  The surge in Afghanistan, although it took him way too long to approve and order it, and so, keeping and putting US troops there in danger.  Requesting funding for Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system.  And by the way, its development and initial funding was done by Israel itself.

But what else?  Our foreign policy is a mess; the list of mistakes and failures keeps growing.  And domestically, yikes.   Don’t get me started. Either Obama has done the wrong thing, domestic or foreign, not done or given up on doing the right thing, or just plain waited too long to do the right thing, as with ISIS.  And this newest mission is still confused and weak.  Obama’s incompetence is no surprise to me.  He did not have the right experience; in fact he had hardly any experience.  And he had had some very questionable associations to say the least.  Our president was just the “perfect storm” of a candidate in 2008.

As loyal as his base is to him, and the Democratic base is more loyal to their own than the Republican base, Obama has caused major damage to his party much like George W. Bush did to his.  The current president lost his House of Representatives majority because of Obamacare among other things in 2010, when the Republicans claimed victory in a landslide of 63 seats gained.  And he will lose his Senate majority, which could have already been in Republican hands had that party not fielded weak and even laughable candidates in the last couple election cycles.

In this election cycle, Democratic Senate (and other) candidates are doing their best to distance themselves from Obama.  He is so radioactive that a couple days ago, Kentucky’s Democratic Senate candidate even refused to say, when asked repeatedly, if she had voted for him.

And it’s not just Republicans chastising Obama.  Liberal pundits and other Democrats have been disapproving.  David Axelrod, Obama’s former chief campaign strategist said it was a mistake for the president to say that he may not be on the ballot this election cycle, but his policies are.  Sometimes, even the script shown on the teleprompters can be sloppy and not well prepared.

So is it too early to say Obama has had a failed presidency?  Yes, I think it is.  He has a couple more years to turn it around.  The odds are not in his favor considering how I think he just doesn’t care anymore.  I have said it almost from the start, and I will say it again, Obama wants to be president, he just doesn’t want to “do” president.  And I think the chances of him leaving as a successful leader are about as good as Joe Biden going two weeks without saying something insulting, offensive or just downright nonsensical.

Time will tell.

Why do people hate Israel?


We live in a bad world.

There is nothing new about that. The world has been pretty bad since its inception. That’s why God destroyed it and started all over again (with little to show for the new experiment, one might add).

From a moral perspective, look at the world since 2000.

North Korea remains an entire country that is essentially a large concentration camp. 

Tibet, one of mankind’s oldest cultures, continues to be occupied and destroyed by China.

Somalia no longer exists as a country. It is an anarchic state in which the cruelest and strongest (usually one and the same) prevail.

In Congo, between 1998 and 2003, about 5.5 million people were killed — nearly the same as the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust.

In Syria, about 150,000 people have been killed in the last three years, and millions have been rendered homeless. 

In Iraq, there is a mass murder from terror bombings almost every week.

In Mexico, since 2006, approximately 120,000 people have been killed in the country’s drug wars.

Iran, a genocide-advocating theocratic dictatorship, is very near having the capacity to make nuclear weapons.

Christian communities in the Middle East are wiped out; Christians in Nigeria are routinely massacred.

Of course, the 20th century was even bloodier, but we are only in the 15th year of the 21st century. Nevertheless, showing how awful the world is for so many of its inhabitants is not my point. My point is that, despite all this evil and suffering, the world has concentrated its attention overwhelmingly on the alleged evils of one country: Israel.

What makes this so worthy of note is that Israel is among the most humane and free countries on the planet. Moreover, it is the only country in the world that is threatened with annihilation. 

This is the only time in history when people in free countries have sided with a police state against a free state. One cannot name any time in modern history — the only time in history when there have been free societies — when, in a war between a free state and a police state, the free state was deemed the aggressor. That’s because it never happened before Israel and its enemies.

The question, of course, is why?

Why, during a time when a Kenyan mall is blown up, Islamic terrorists massacre Christians in Nigeria and thousands more die in Syria, is the world preoccupied with 600-some Palestinians killed as a direct result of their firing thousands of missiles in order to kill as many Israelis as possible?

Why has obsession with Israel been the case since its inception, and especially since 1967?

It can’t be occupation. China occupies Tibet, and it merits virtually no attention from the world. And Pakistan’s creation, coming at the same time as Israel’s, led to millions of Muslim (and Hindu) refugees. Yet, that country, too, merits no attention. 

There are only two explanations for this moral anomaly.

One is the nearly worldwide embrace of leftist thought and values. According to this way of thinking, Westerners are almost always wrong when they fight Third World countries or groups; and the weaker party, especially if non-Western, is almost always deemed the victim when fighting a stronger, especially Western, group or country. Leftism has replaced “good and evil” with “rich and poor,” “strong and weak,” and “Western (or white) and non-Western (or non-white).” Israel is rich, strong and Western; the Palestinians are poor, weak and non-Western.

The only other possible explanation is that Israel is Jewish.

There is no other rational explanation because the fixation with, and the hatred of, Israel are not rational. Israel is a particularly decent country. It is tiny — about the size of New Jersey and smaller than El Salvador; and while there are more than 50 Muslim countries, there is only one Jewish one. She should be admired and supported, not hated to the extent that there are dozens of countries whose populations would like to see Israel annihilated — again, a unique phenomenon. No other country in the world is targeted for extermination.

As hard as it is for modern, rational and irreligious people to accept, Israel’s Jewishness is a primary reason for the hatred of it. 

Ironically, this fact — just as with the fixation on the Jew before Israel’s existence — confirms for this observer the divine role the Jew plays in history. Few Jews are aware of their role, and even fewer want it. But, other than the influence of the left, there is no other explanation for all the animosity toward Israel.


Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

A Marshall Plan for Ukraine: A dream or reality?


Ukraine is on the verge of a civil war. Although the government resigned and the former Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov left for Vienna to visit his son, the rest of the Cabinet carries on anti-Ukrainian politics implemented by President Yanukovych and vigorously endorsed by the Kremlin. The Opposition leaders refused to take part in the to-be-formed new government realizing its imminent puppet role under Mr. Yanukovych's leadership. Yanukovych himself is not free in a geostratigical game, for he is on a short leash from the Kremlin and the main leash-keeper is Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation.

Neither the European Union nor the United States wants the escalation of the conflict, or, in historic terminology, the “Balkanization of Europe.” So far, Russia has always been one step ahead, overplaying the EU, in keeping Ukraine in the orbit of Russia's geopolitical interests. The question so far remains unanswered whether or not the western democracies will take an initiative to secure the rising Ukrainian democracy, or, as it was in the past,  continue issuing declarations of support.

Ukrainian Opposition leaders expressed regret at European and American indecisiveness. Nowadays, the situation may change. At the Munich Security Conference, Arsenii Yatseniuk, the chairman of Bat'kivshchyna (the Fatherland) party, a main political opposition force in the Ukrainian Parliament, called for actions–“We need deeds not words.”

He also challenged the EU and US governments with a new Marshall Plan. The course once outlined in the Marshall Plan helped rebuild postwar Western Europe and contained the spread of Stalinism beyond the “Iron Curtain.” A new Marshal Plan should create a collective effort to stop the escalation of the conflict, to protect Ukrainian democratic institutions, to ensure the new parliamentary and presidential elections and to put police and security forces under public control–not to mention garner economic and humanitarian aid for Ukraine. If enacted, it may, after 22 years of desperate Ukrainian nation-building, eliminate a Kremlin leash that so far has been strong and short.

US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has expressed solidarity of the US and EU with the people of Ukraine. His European counterparts also pledged to support Ukrainian democracy and self-determination. Ukrainians are not sure if these statements will materialize into actions. The time is running out, for after the Sochi Olympics, Russia may commence political and military pressure against the Ukrainian Opposition. In the words of one of Putin's advisors, President Yanukovych should subjugate the rebellion.

The Yanukovych regime as well as the Russian pro-governmental circles like to play an anti-Semitic card, blaming the right wing of the Opposition in anti-Jewish rhetoric and interpreting the slogan 'Ukraine above all' as a Nazi-like motto. By-and-large it is another propagandist trick on the part of corrupted Ukrainian authorities and the Russian political technologists.

Another anti-Ukrainian concept is a notion of a so-called Russian brotherhood with Ukrainian people. It works in the South-East of Ukraine. While the very notion of the one nation is historically incorrect, the Russians who live in the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine, still do not regard themselves as Ukrainian citizens of Russian descent. On the contrary, they rather identify themselves with the Russian Federation, often denying the Ukrainian statehood.  One can hardly imagine a person of African or Asian descent living in France, Germany or United States who would not self-identify himself as French, German or American in terms of national affiliation.

In Ukraine, a nation is still to be built. In this regard, an interview with a Jewish girl from EuroMaidan in Kyiv is of utmost significance. Her outlook demonstrates a new vision of Ukrainian nation composed of all ethnic groups living in Ukraine. In perfect Ukrainian language she emphasized, “We stand for the principles, for democracy, for freedom and security and we stand against the corrupt government and police brutality. We do that because we believe in the new and democratic Ukraine.”

The time has come for the new Marshall Plan for Ukraine. The EU and US have lived up to the so often declared principles of democracy and freedom. It is not Wellbeing Above All and it is not Ukraine Above All, but it is Freedom and Democracy Above All.

In court, defiant Morsi says he is still Egypt’s president


Ousted Egyptian leader Mohamed Morsi, given his first public forum since his overthrow in a trial where he could face execution, declared on Monday he was still Egypt's legitimate president and shouted: “Down with military rule!”

Morsi, an Islamist who was toppled by the army in July after mass protests against him, spoke with anger and passion, interrupting the first day of his trial repeatedly from his cage during an unruly hearing that the judge adjourned to January 8.

State television aired brief footage of Morsi, the first public sighting of the president since his overthrow in July. Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, had been kept in an undisclosed location since then.

“I am Dr. Mohamed Morsi. I am president of the republic,” said Morsi.

Inside the courtroom, anti-Morsi Egyptian journalists chanted “execution”, “execution” as the deposed leader did his best to challenge the authority of the court, shouting repeatedly at the judge whose legitimacy he refused to accept.

“We are in a state, not a (military) camp. Down down with military rule,” said Morsi. “I am a witness that what is happening is a part of a military coup. I ask the Egyptian judiciary to not act as a cover for the military coup.”

The judge repeatedly asked Morsi to stop giving long speeches. “Please answer the question, do you agree to have a lawyer representing you?” judge Ahmed Sabry said.

Opponents of Egypt's army-backed government deride what they call a “show trial” as part of a campaign to crush Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood movement and revive the police state of Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule that ended in a 2011 popular revolt.

Hundreds of people were killed in the months that followed Morsi's overthrow, including many hundreds shot dead by police and troops who cleared out a weeks-long protest vigil by Morsi's supporters. Thousands of followers have been rounded up.

Egypt has become fiercely divided, with state media lionizing the military and police for their crackdown on “terrorists”, while the Brotherhood, once the country's most powerful political force, has retreated to the shadows where it spent more than 80 years as an underground movement.

Morsi, 62, who like many Islamists was also jailed under Mubarak, now faces charges of inciting violence that could carry the death penalty.

It is the second time Egypt has put an ousted president on trial since 2011, and taking place in the same venue – a police academy hall – where Mubarak has faced retrial over his conviction for complicity in killing protesters.

Morsi and 14 other Islamists face charges of inciting violence relating to the deaths of about a dozen people in clashes outside the presidential palace in December after Morsi enraged his opponents with a decree expanding his powers.

After stepping out of a white van and buttoning his jacket, he appeared in a cage in the courtroom beside other Islamist defendants, who were in white prison garb. They applauded when Morsi arrived, gave the Brotherhood's four-fingered salute, and at times turned their backs on the court.

“This trial is illegitimate,” said Morsi, who was dressed in a dark suit. “This is a criminal military coup.”

Hundreds of Morsi's supporters gathered outside the court building. One sign read: “The people's will has been raped”.

SECURITY PRESENCE

Trial proceedings were not aired on state television and journalists were barred from bringing telephones into the courtroom. Senior Brotherhood figures among the defendants used the chance to tell reporters they had been mistreated.

“I have been kept in my cell for 60 days,” Brotherhood leader Mohamed El-Beltagi told Reuters in the courtroom from inside a cage holding defendants. “I have been held under water in my cell and this has happened to other members.”

Another Islamist in the cage, Alaa Hamza, said he was tortured and lifted his shirt to show reporters what he said were torture marks.

After the hearing, Morsi was taken to Borg al-Arab prison in Alexandria.

The military establishment's return to the forefront of power prompted Washington to cut some military aid, although Washington has not said whether the overthrow was a “coup”, language that would require it to halt aid to one of its biggest clients. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, visiting Cairo on Sunday, expressed guarded optimism about a return to democracy.

The uprising that toppled Mubarak in 2011 had raised hopes that Egypt would embrace democracy and human rights and eventually enjoy economic prosperity.

Instead, the power struggle between the Brotherhood and the army-backed establishment has created more uncertainty in the country of 85 million which has a peace treaty with Israel and controls the Suez Canal. Tourism and investment have collapsed.

INCITING VIOLENCE

The Brotherhood won repeated elections since Mubarak's fall. But millions of Egyptians grew disillusioned with Morsi's troubled one-year rule and took to the streets to demand his resignation. They accused Morsi of usurping power and mismanaging the economy, allegations he denied.

“We didn't see as much misery in the 30 years of Mubarak as much as we saw in one year of Morsi,” said Ali, a driver who was sipping morning tea at a cafe in downtown Cairo.

“He fooled us with his year in power.”

The army, saying it was responding to the will of the people, deposed Morsi and announced a political road map it said would lead to free and fair elections.

But the promises have not reassured Western allies, who had hoped six decades of rule by military men would be broken. Army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who toppled Morsi, is very popular, and few doubt he would win if he runs for president.

The Brotherhood maintains Morsi's removal was a coup that reversed the democratic gains made after Mubarak's overthrow.

Mohamed Damaty, a volunteer defence lawyer for Morsi, said:

“It is clear that the goal of this trial as well as any action against the Muslim Brotherhood is to wipe out the group as well as any Islamist movements from political life.”

Additional reporting by Hadeel al-Shalchi, Asma Alsharif, Shadia Nasralla and Shaimaa Fayed; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Michael Georgy, Giles Elgood and Peter Graff

Democracy for Egypt? Come back in 20 years…


Let's try to make this simple:

For both the United States and Israel, the most convenient situation amid the inconvenience that is current Egypt is for the military to be in charge. Not just now, but for the foreseeable future, as well. Alas, however, the more the military is visible as the institution in charge, the less possible it is for the United States to maintain such a cynical position (Israel doesn’t need to talk about such things, and, surprisingly, was able thus far to keep its mouth shut). In other words — but still keeping it simple: Policy makers in Washington and in Jerusalem have very little faith and very little interest in Egyptian democracy. But they need to pretend that they do. And as they pretend, they need to make sure such pretense doesn’t end up hurting the military. Thus, on July 8, the White House ruled out the suspension of assistance to Egypt following (what it still refuses to call) the military coup. As its moral cover, the administration argues that it will use financial leverage to press for restoration of democratic rule. 

Now the longer version: 

Of course, all American and Israeli leaders want democracy for Egypt, they all want Egypt to thrive as a liberal and democratic and prosperous country — but they don’t believe any of that is feasible at this time. What Egypt needs is someone to rule it, someone to attempt to gradually pull it out of the ditch in which it is half-buried, and only then, maybe, eventually, someday, to give it back to the “people” — contingent on the “people” being a transformed “people,” meaning more educated, more ready for democracy, less prone to send one another flying off roof-tops or using guns to make a political point. 

In Egypt, illiteracy is rampant, unemployment is pervasive, and the majority of its populace holds views hardly compatible with a functioning democracy. As pundits and the occasional commentators talk about the “camps” — supposedly traditional and more liberal — competing for dominance, would also be useful to look at the numbers of which each camp consists. Dividing Egypt into two camps — those believing democracy is preferable to other kinds of government and those who don’t — gives some reason for hope: 59 percent of Egyptians favor democracy, and only 38 percent don’t. 

But what if you make a slightly different division — this time dividing the two camps between those supporting and those opposing the stoning of adulterous women? That division offers a different, far less encouraging result (according to a December 2010 poll): 82 percent favor stoning. And what about a division of Egypt into camps of those believing that “a wife must always obey her husband” and those who think otherwise? According to a 2013 Pew report, this division finds 85 percent of Egyptians agreeing that she should always obey. So, yes, there are two camps, but on many issues one of them is quite tiny compared to the other, and relying on that to be the beacon of democracy in this vast nation can prove risky. 

Given such a starting point, there is little wonder that the sudden show of democracy in Egypt was quickly proven to be nothing more than a passing mirage. And it is also not surprising that policy makers in Washington don’t really have much desire to rein in the military or attempt to reinstall the Muslim Brotherhood’s President Mohamed Morsi — albeit a democratically elected president of Egypt who was toppled in a military coup. Currently, the military is Washington’s only hope for an Egypt that is cooperative, attentive to American sensitivities and relatively stable (it is also Israel’s only hope for an Egypt that isn’t a constant headache, security wise). The one problem that the military poses for the United States and President Barack Obama — how to save face on the issue of democracy — is hardly comparable to the plethora of problems posted by any other scenario. 

“I’ll be blunt: This is an incredibly complex and difficult situation,” Obama’s press secretary, Jay Carney, said when asked if what occurred in Egypt should be called a coup. Note: It isn’t the question that’s complicated, but rather the “situation.” That is, a situation that prevents the press secretary from giving an honest answer. Of course, Carney knows that a week of chaos in Egypt that began with a relatively unified response from the United States was coming to an end a couple of days ago, with more pundits and leaders beginning to wonder aloud about the hypocritical policy of the Obama administration. 

“Reluctantly, I believe that we have to suspend aid [to Egypt] until such time as there is a new constitution and a free and fair election,” Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona declared. 

“We need to suspend aid to the new government until it does, in fact, schedule elections and put in place a process that comes up with a new constitution,” Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on July 8. Robert Kagan, writing for The Washington Post, argued that the United States failed the “very difficult test” of having to live with an Egyptian democracy headed by Morsi. “But was a military coup the best answer? The good news is that a bad leader is gone. Yet that is where the good news ends. People talk cheerfully about starting over in building an Egyptian democracy. But the slate is hardly clean, and the obstacles to Egyptian democracy are greater than they were before the coup,” Kagan wrote.

Kagan is, of course, right: There is no “starting over” in the new situation — a situation that is becoming bloodier by the day, and that, at the time I am writing (Tuesday afternoon), seems quite scary. He is probably wrong, however, if he truly believes that “starting over” is the end game of the Obama administration, when in fact the true goal is twofold: Preventing chaos and saving face — in that order. 

Whether the Egyptian military can provide such an end result — keeping Egypt orderly while putting on some kind of show that will enable the world to pretend democracy is coming soon to Egypt — is a question that will likely remain unanswered in the coming days or weeks. This is a continual nuisance of the so-called Arab Spring (and, I’m afraid, also a recurring, and possibly annoying, theme of this column): Even as events rapidly unfold, they reveal little of the likely outcome of each new situation. 

Egypt was revolutionized unexpectedly, and then was taken democratically by the Muslim Brotherhood, then it erupted again, and now it is in danger of deteriorating into civil war. Thus, it presents Washington with a familiar question: Whether to support the principle of democracy in the hope that a long-term and very painful process would eventually lead to that end result. Or, rather, maybe it is better to forfeit long-term ambitions and dreams in an attempt to make the short term as painless as possible.

For Israeli administrations, the short term has always been the choice. Having to live with a possible chaos closer to home, they tend to postpone dreams in exchange for stability and calm. And, yes, they might also be less caring about whether the Arabs — often a hating enemy — get their dose of freedoms. For the more idealistic Americans, this has never been an easy question, but in Egypt — where stakes are very high and realistic expectations are currently quite low — the answer has already been given. 

What’s next for Egypt then? Putting one’s chips on a truly democratic start-over would be a risky gamble.


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/Rosnersdomain

Egyptian women struggle to fight sexual harassment


Despite its calls for democracy, freedom of speech and revolution against traditional Egyptian society, the current anti-government demonstrations have witnessed one negative phenomenon – an increase in harassment of women.

Women have been attacked and in some instances raped in public during demonstrations in Tahrir Square which have escalated in recent days, with some rumors claiming that the government of President Mohamed Morsi is behind the attacks. Women were previously beaten by members of the army in past protests.

In response, groups of Cairo-educated women have undertaken to protect women.  Both the Tahrir Bodyguards and Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment were organized by women with a strong belief in fighting sexual harassment by raising awareness, empowering women, and creating groups on the ground to patrol marches and demonstrations.

Historically Egyptian women have made great strides in obtaining their rights. They enjoy a 77 percent literacy rate and are making an impact in the work place. They were granted rights, in some cases, way before their Western counterparts, including the right to vote and widespread participation in protests, going back to the 1919 revolution which saw leaders like Safiya Zaghloud and Nahawiya Moussa lead the call for equal rights.

According to UN rape statistics reports and per capita cases of recorded rapes, Egypt is in 50th or last place, with 87 rape-reported cases in 2008. In the past, many sexual assaults, rape, and sexual harassment went unreported, many times due to the women's fear of the stigma that comes in a society that puts a social value on virginity. What is feeding the existing alleged sexual harassment is the seemingly uneducated Egyptian men's attitude towards women. These sudden cases of harassment of women are new to Egyptian society and didn't take place before 2008, and include incidents of assault against women during Eid Festivals and in public gardens and cinemas.

There are many physical training centers that teach self-defense to women, but the Tahrir Bodyguards and Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment are leaders in fighting current sexual harassment during protests past the Arab Spring.

“I was never physically assaulted, but I was harassed, albeit without any direct connection to the revolution. It happened to me many years before,” Soraya Baghat, a full-time member of the Tahrir Bodyguards and a women's rights activist, told The Media Line. “The motive behind our group is that we don't want women to risk getting attacked and for those of my fellow activists who were attacked, to go through this again.”

She said she believes that sexual harassment can happen at all levels of society, regardless of economic and social standing, but there is hesitancy to report it when it happens to people from the same economic class because of the embarrassment involved and the social consequences of the scandal in Egypt's closed society.

Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, co-founder Dalia Abdel Hamiid, 31, a graduate in anthropology from the American University in Cairo, says its aim is to “break the silence and take the problem outside of Tahrir Square.” She says the main difficulty is society “accepting” such harassment. “It's a patriarchal society where males are preferred over females. I am sexually harassed on a daily basis on my way to work. It is annoying but I learn to live with it,” she told The Media Line.

One woman, a Californian living in Cario, said that “If anyone ever tries to touch me against my will, you won't see that person in one piece again.” 

Neveen Bishay, a woman dentist working in Cairo's upscale Zamalek area, noted that “Sexual harassment in Egypt is flirting. Touching body parts is sexual assault, and not just harassment.”

However, Dr. Heba Qoth, a professor at the Cairo Faculty of Medicine and renown sociologist who has her own radio show on how to have a healthy sex life, argued that harassment has many degrees and is understood differently by different people. Some even consider flirting as sexual harassment  As for the Tahrir Square incidents, she said “I wouldn't call it sexual harassment. It's an organized assault to scare women and sometimes attack them, but we cannot confirm it's sexual.”

There is no severe punishment in Egypt for sexual harassment or sexual assault and it's hard to prove, according to legal experts.”The law considers sexual harassment and assault as a misdemeanor, and usually the assailant is fined about $5, or three months in jail, or both,” one lawyer told The Media Line. Asked about the Tahrir Square incidents, he said: “There is more propaganda than fact, and a few people wanting to be in the spotlight. The sexual assault cases that I saw were merely groups of individuals assaulting another individual, who happened to be female.”

Some Egyptians interviewed said sexual harassment isn't a growing concern compared to other countries they visited. They claimed that rising aggression now and in the past few years can be attributed to the deteriorating economic situation.

“When you and I flirt, it is acceptable. When lower class folks do it, it's called harassment – might makes right, or money makes right,” an academic researcher who chose to remain anonymous said.

“Rape isn't intended just for females at the protests, males get harassed as well, and it's symbolic and intended to rape the revolution as a whole. The whole idea behind the systematic assaults is to make the victims feel ashamed,” Alaa Alaswani, an Egyptian novelist, and a founding member of the political movement Kefaya said in an interview on ONTV.

“Egypt's current status quo has made men lose their sense of manliness. To me it's an assault by a stronger creature against a weaker creature who happens to be a woman, and we can't pinpoint if it's sexual or not. What is happening now happened early in the revolution, when the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) was ordering soldiers to conduct virginity tests and attack women at the protests,” Lobna Monieb, a female activist and correspondent for the Japanese newspaper Asabi Shenbum., told The Media Line. She also noted that men get assaulted too, with incidents during riots in which men were physically and sexually assaulted in public by the riot police, the military or private citizens.

The issue, which has gotten a great deal of media coverage, therefore is whether what is happening in Tahrir Square is an organized event by pro-regime elements, where “sexual assault mobs” are determined to deter women – who represent 52 percent of the population and can therefore have a strong bearing on events and perhaps even topple the government — from participating in the ongoing protests.

Editorial Cartoon: Egyptian Democracy Now!


Clinton says no going back on democracy in Egypt


The United States expects Egypt’s military authorities to fully transfer power to a democratically elected civilian government as planned, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Thursday.

“There can be no going back on the democratic transition called for by the Egyptian people,” Clinton told reporters, declining specific comment on an Egyptian court ruling to dissolve the country’s newly elected Islamist-led parliament.

Egypt’s supreme court ruling plunged a troubled transition to democracy into turmoil just two days before an election to replace ousted leader Hosni Mubarak.

Islamist politicians who had gained most from Mubarak’s overthrow have decried what they called a “coup” by an army-led establishment still filled with Mubarak-era officials.

“Throughout this process, the United States has stood in support of the aspirations of the Egyptian people for a peaceful, credible and permanent democratic transition,” Clinton said at a news conference of the U.S. and South Korean foreign and defense ministers.

“Now, ultimately it is up to the Egyptian people to determine their own future and we expect that this weekend’s presidential election will be held in an atmosphere that is conducive to it being peaceful, fair and free,” she added.

“In keeping with the commitments that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces made to the Egyptian people, we expect to see a full transfer of power to a democratically elected civilian government,” she said.

“The decisions on specific issues, of course, belong to the Egyptian people and their elected leaders, and they’ve made it clear that they want a president, a parliament and a constitutional order that will reflect their will and advance their aspirations for political and economic reform,” Clinton said. “That is exactly what they deserve to have.”

Clinton also voiced concern about a decree issued by the military council on Wednesday allowing the military police and intelligence service to detain civilians and refer them to military tribunals.

“We are concerned about recent decrees issued by the SCAF,” she said. “Even if they are temporary, they appear to expand the power of the military to detain civilians and to roll back civil liberties.”

Reporting By Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Jackie Frank and David Brunnstrom

The Arabpreneurs


Last week, I wrote about innovative ideas for addressing poverty and the class divide in America.

This week I will solve the Middle East crisis.

OK, maybe I’m over-promising.

But on stage in a large ballroom at the Beverly Hilton Hotel earlier this month, two Israelis, a Jordanian and an Egyptian sat together and discussed investment strategies with an investor from Dubai and a Palestinian moderator.

This took place at the Milken Institute Global Conference in front of an audience of some 300 people at a breakout session titled “The Changing Face of the Middle East.”

It should have been called “How to Change the Face of the Middle East.”

The fact is, the Arab Spring that destroyed the stagnant and oppressive status quo unleashed many forces, both positive and negative.  We are well aware of the negative: the rise of Islamic parties in Algeria, Egypt and elsewhere; the chaos and anarchy unleashed when dictators fall; the anti-Israel rhetoric, sown by decades of propaganda, flowering in uncensored media.  Being Jews, that’s what we focus on.

What we neglect are the positive forces: the voices of democracy and women’s rights. The unleashing of creativity and the drive for free enterprise.

It’s that last one that the men and women in the room at the Hilton believe will make all the difference.

“Many of you have heard of the book called ‘Start-Up Nation,’ ” said Chemi Peres, managing general partner and co-founder of Pitango Venture Capital, Israel’s leading venture capital firm. “But,” he added, “there is a more important book to be written, which is ‘Start-Up Region.’  I think we are on the verge of a very important era. The Middle East is the last region in the world that has not experienced dramatic growth. Those who will not participate in the game will be left behind.”

Yes, Peres is the son of Shimon Peres, the eternally optimistic Israeli president who, 20 years ago, was talking about high-speed trains from Beirut to Beersheba.  But while the father dreamt, the son invested.

Recently, Pitango started a $50 million fund to invest in the Israeli Arab sector, whose GDP has grown by 7 percent through the recession.   He said that’s just a small example of what opportunities await investors in the region as a whole.

The numbers are mind-boggling. There are 400 million people in the Middle East. Arabic is the fastest-growing language on the Internet. Some 65 percent of the world’s Arab population is under 30 years old, and they want work and opportunities.

“The Arab Spring is two springs,” Peres said. “There’s the political one, which I’m not so positive about in the short term, but very positive about in the long term. There is more power shifting toward the people. The second Arab Spring is what the young generation is doing.”

The Internet has enabled Arab youth to go from being job seekers to become job creators, said Abdul Malek Al Jaber, the Palestinian entrepreneur who founded and is chairman of MENA Apps.  In Jordan, his company invested $100,000 in an e-commerce site that is now worth $30 million.

Al Jaber’s company has created office spaces in cafes across the region, where entrepreneurs can develop their ideas for free.

“We call them Arabpreneurs,” the Palestinian said. “We want to re-create the high-tech ecosystem of Israel.”

In Egypt, Mohamed Seif-Elnasr, chief investment officer and managing partner of Safanad SA, said, the tech sector is up 18 percent during a time of great turmoil.

That turmoil is the “froth at the top,” Seif-Elnasr said. “Don’t look at the country,” he said, “look at youth.”

Abdulla Mohammed Al Awar, the CEO of the Dubai International Financial Centre Authority, said that in his country oil now accounts for only 2 percent of the GDP. They are making massive investments in high-tech. Focusing only on the turmoil misses the big picture.

“Look at young people,” Al Awar said.  “Look at entrepreneurial spirit. Invest in innovation.”

An hour into this panel, I realized no one had mentioned “peace process” or “settlements” or any of the other sinkholes of Middle East hope. Yet the subtext seemed clear: Rising wealth and opportunity will increase regional cooperation and decrease conflict. The Internet, Al Jaber said, is a land of no passports and no borders.

And even where those exist, investment and innovation can triumph.

Zika Abzuk, senior manager of Cisco in Israel, told of sponsoring a Palestinian-Israeli tech conference with 40 entrepreneurs.  The Palestinians were stopped at a border crossing, so everyone met in a Bedouin tent in a no-man’s land pointed out by a helpful Israel Defense Forces soldier.

“Both Israel and Palestine have educated people as their only resource,” Abzuk said.

These panelists certainly didn’t sound like wild-eyed optimists. They weren’t just describing digital opportunity in a flat world, they were placing multimillion-dollar bets on it. 

Crazy? Peres pointed out that if you had invested in China in 1989, during the Tiananmen Square crackdown, your friends would have thought you were nuts, but you would have made 25 times your investment by now. If you had invested in Turkey when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan took power in 2003, your friends would have warned you that the man is a radical who declared, “The mosques are our barracks.” But by now you would have quintupled your money.

And if you had invested in Israel during the crippling turmoil of the First Intifada, in 1987, now, three wars and another Intifada later, you’d be — well, you’d be rich enough to follow this panel’s advice.

Letters to the Editor: Hollywood, Israel, Democracy, survivors


The Hollywood-Israel Relationship

I read with interest the cover story “Zionism and the Three-Picture Deal” (Feb. 3). After decades of efforts to engage prominent Hollywood Jewish celebrities and executives for Israel, it is satisfying to feel that the leaders in the industry are becoming more responsive and positive.

While giving kudos to those who were quoted in the article, I was struck by the chronology of how and why things have changed. I would not characterize any of the participants in the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership’s Master Class as the “B list.” In fact, those who were ready to take a chance on this creative initiative deserve to be acknowledged as willing to identify with Israel when it wasn’t popular.

This year will mark the 64th anniversary of the Jewish state. Some of your readers will remember a previous cover story on the 50th anniversary culminating in an extraordinary show at the Shrine Auditorium featuring an amazing group of performing artists from film, television and music celebrating five decades of our Jewish state. It was one of many successful efforts to engage Hollywood.

Not everything was a “bull’s-eye,” but the process culminating in today’s changing relationship of Hollywood Jews to Israel was the result of hard work of dozens of communal and entertainment leaders. Unlike the article suggests, the process of engagement never ceased. Those who are quoted in the article undoubtedly have contributed to today’s “new” successful relationship to Israel, as did their predecessors.

But let’s not forget that it did not magically occur in a few years nor was it due to a single individual but was part of a collective strategic effort, which needs to continue.

John Fishel
former president The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles


Defining Democracy

You have to love David Suissa’s insistence that we should accept Israel as a democracy by emphasizing the good and accepting the flaws (“The Liberal Case for Israel,” Feb. 17). Actually, “allowing enormous freedom for people to challenge the system” is only a part of a “democracy.” As a liberal, the part of Webster’s definition of “democracy” that I prefer is ”a principle of equality of rights, opportunity and treatment.” This should apply to all citizens, including non-Orthodox Jews.

Martin J. Weisman
Westlake Village


The Media’s Flip, Flop Politics

Marty Kaplan is the first pundit to point out at length the nonsense of today’s mainstream (or rather “mainscream”) media, which covers every flip, flap and flop of presidential contenders (“Political March Madness,” Feb. 17).

It is disturbing how media influences polls, how polls then influence voters, yet voters still do not settle for one candidate. Do we really want our government being decided by the opinions logged on Facebook or fired off on Twitter?

These sound bites are certainly biting away at our political discourse. Indeed, human beings love narratives, and with the expansive amount of technology making up-to-the-minute storytelling even more minute (and ultimately secondary), it is no wonder that the attention spans of many voters hinge and switch so capriciously.

I do see a silver lining to the stormy clouds of political discourse crowding our future election years. Republican strategist Matthew Dowd has pointed out that Super-PAC advertising has whittled down the effect of campaign ads. As the narrative shifts ever so quickly and arbitrarily, individual political hucksters and pundits will forgo the up-to-date follow-up from the mainstream outlets. We will have no choice but to analyze issues for ourselves, for the multiplicity of information will be too daunting for us to accept passively.

Arthur Christopher Schaper
Torrance


Praise for Survivors Column

I want to personally thank and commend The Journal for bringing Jane Ulman to your staff (“Liselotte Hanock,” Feb. 17). She is a fine journalist. After spending over four hours with my wife, Lotte, gathering personal background about her survival experiences, she put a marvelous article together. Considering the space allocation within which she had to work, Jane captured the very essence of my very wonderful, courageous and loving wife, whose strength and perseverance has made our family strong enough to overcome many of life’s adversities. Jane’s finished product truly reflects her outstanding journalistic talent. The Survivors series is a wonderful addition.

Franklin N. Hanock
Valley Village


CORRECTION

An obituary for Norma Katz was published in error in the Feb. 10 issue.


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Right-wing legislation democracy debate in Israel


Legislation promoted by right-wing lawmakers in Israel is raising concern that democratic values are under threat in a country that has long billed itself the only democracy in the Middle East.

One bill could potentially paralyse dovish Israeli advocacy groups by imposing sharp limits on funding they receive from foreign governments, while others could deal a blow to the independence of the Supreme Court, an institution seen in Israel as a watchdog over civil rights.

Nothing has been passed into law and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under international pressure to quash some of the measures proposed by members of his Likud party, has moved to stall one of the more controversial bills.

But critics of the legislation say damage to some democratic rights and the nation’s image has already been done, pointing at three other laws passed in the past year widely seen as anti-Arab and attempts to quash dissent against government policy.

One of these laws already on the books would penalize Arab citizens for teaching about Israel’s birth in 1948 as a “nakba”, or catastrophe, allow courts to revoke citizenship of those charged with “terrorism” and ban calls to boycott Israel or any of its settlements built in occupied territory.

“Anyone who may have fallen into a coma during the period of McCarthyism in the United States might find himself quite comfortable these days in Israel,” said Reuven Hazan, political scientist at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, referring to one of the worst eras for political freedoms in America sparked by the hunt for Communist sympathisers led by Senator Joseph McCarthy.

“This is an attack on the democratic nature of the state,” Hazan said.

Backers of the latest legislative initiatives which seek to severely restrict funding for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) say the money received largely from abroad permits foreign interference in Israel’s internal affairs.

A separate bill calling for an investigation of funding for NGOs passed a separate vote in parliament several months ago.

Critics denounce these bills as bids to mute left-wing groups such as the settlement-watch Peace Now and human rights organisations that document policy toward Palestinians in land they seek for a state.

After complaints from U.S. and European diplomats, Netanyahu last month appeared to bury the legislation in its present form by putting off further cabinet discussion of the proposal.

Yet he has hinted at support for yet another controversial proposal to bar Muslim clerics from publicly summoning the faithful to prayer over loudspeakers, which some Israelis complain are too noisy.

Netanyahu told fellow ministers behind closed doors that some Western nations had noise-control regulations affecting mosques and “there’s no need to be more liberal than Europe”, an official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Criticism of these measures has come from as high up as the government’s attorney-general and President Shimon Peres, a Nobel peace laureate for his role in a 1993 deal with the Palestinians.

Peres told Israel’s most widely read newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, this month he was “personally ashamed” at the legislation aimed against NGOs and Arab citizens.

DISMAY

Without explicitly targeting them, the funding measure would mainly affect leftist groups who receive most of their money from U.S. and European governments. Many right-wing Israeli organisations are funded locally or by private donors abroad.

“Foreign governments interfere in our political discourse by contributing huge sums of money generally to one side of the political map, the left side,” said Likud lawmaker Ofir Akunis.

Danny Danon, a senior Likud lawmaker and sponsor of the bills in question, is confident they will eventually pass.

“In substance the prime minister is with us on the fact that we must advance the agenda for which we were elected,” Danon said in an interview.

But even some of Israel’s most ardent, long-time conservative supporters have voiced their dismay.

Abraham Foxman, head of the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League, which describes itself as dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism and defending “democratic ideals and civil rights for all”, called the bills “an assault on basic democratic values”.

Some analysts dismiss the proposals as attempts by Likud legislators to bolster their standing in the right-wing party as it prepares for internal elections next month that could be a harbinger of an early national election, due in 2013.

Foxman, speaking to Reuters in an interview, thought the legislation could be part of a backlash against international criticism of the Netanyahu government’s policies.

He also saw it as a sign domestic issues were filling the vacuum in parliament’s agenda left by the current freeze in talks with the Palestinians on a peace deal, which may require lawmakers’ approval.

“They feel they’re in a bunker and the world is against them so they bunker themselves a bit more,” Foxman said.

INDEPENDENCE OF THE COURT

While the legislation aimed against NGOs has stirred the most criticism abroad, a separate list of proposals with regard to the operations of Israel’s Supreme Court has raised even more concern at home.

Some of the proposals seek to impose limits for the first time on eligibility to petition the bench, as well as to reduce the tenure period for its top judge and give lawmakers a role in vetting judicial candidates.

Another would require all justices to have served in the Israeli military, effectively barring the country’s Arab citizens from the bench. Under Israeli law, Arabs are exempted from compulsory military service.

While in other countries it is common for politicians to have a role in choosing judges, Israeli justices are picked by a committee of judicial peers.

Israel does not have a constitution—a void blamed on deep social divisions—and the high court is often seen as the ultimate defender of civil rights, its independence sacrosanct in a highly politicised society.

In a rare outburst, Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch publicly denounced interference with the judiciary as a “delegitimisation campaign” that had “reached the point of incitement” against the Supreme Court.

Amnon Rubinstein, a former justice minister and now a law professor at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Institute, a college near Tel Aviv, described the Court as “a shield protecting Israel”.

“Any attempt to infringe upon the independence of the court is dangerous from every point of view,” he said in an interview.

Rubinstein blamed the controversy on what he called “militant minorities” waging ideological battles across the floors of an increasingly polarised parliament.

Netanyahu has moved to try and quash legislation relating to the courts, telling his cabinet he would bar any efforts “that stand to harm (their) independence”.

Many Israelis have defended the calls for changing the vetting process for justices, and said a more open process may lead to a more ethnically-balanced bench by adding more judges of Sephardic or Middle Eastern descent.

They also point at dissatisfaction among a predominantly right-wing Israeli electorate with some of the decisions the court has made in recent years, including rulings against land seizures for Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

“I see no attempt being made to politicize the bench, nor do I think see these proposals as anti-democratic,” Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv. “You don’t have to be liberal to be a democrat.”

Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Sonya Hepinstall

Egypt’s Islamists claim most seats in run-off vote


Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood said on Wednesday it won most seats in a first-round parliamentary vote, with early tallies suggesting liberals had backed some of its candidates to block hardline Salafis.

The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), which has promised to work with a broad coalition in the new assembly, secured 34 individual seats out of the 45 it contested in the run-offs on Monday and Tuesday, a party source told Reuters.

The Islamist group, which was banned under ousted president Hosni Mubarak, had already won 37 percent of the vote in an initial phase of the multi-pronged election, meaning it is well on course to have the largest bloc of seats in the new assembly.

Its success confirms a trend set by Islamist election wins in post-uprising Tunisia and in Morocco, disappointing many of the democracy activists who led protests that toppled Mubarak.

But the real surprise in the opening ballot was the success of the ultra-conservative Salafi al-Nour party, which secured 24 percent of the vote and went head-to-head with the Brotherhood in 24 of the run-offs.

Official results are not due until Thursday, but leaked tallies suggested secular moderates might have rallied behind the Brotherhood to thwart the Salafis.

Sayyeda Ibrahim, 52, a cook from Cairo, said she voted for a Salafi candidate in last week’s first round but regretted her choice later when she saw him debate with a liberal candidate.

“That bearded fellow is too radical,” she said.

Among the Salafis who lost out was Abdel Moneim el-Shahat, a prominent spokesman for the movement in its base in Egypt’s second city of Alexandria, who was defeated by a Brotherhood-backed rival, local media reported.

Shahat caused uproar among liberal Egyptians for suggesting democracy was “haram” (forbidden) and the country’s ancient Pharaonic statues which draw millions of tourists to the country should be covered up or destroyed as they are idolatrous.

The strong showing by Islamists has unnerved Israel, which called on Egypt this week to preserve their 1979 peace treaty, and also the United States which has backed the peace deal with billions of dollars in military aid for both countries.

The Brotherhood and Salafi al-Nour party share much of the same rhetoric, focused on applying Islamic sharia law as the solution to Egypt’s problems.

But the Brotherhood has emphasized the political reform agenda it shares with a broad range of groups that took part in the uprising at the start of the year and is sounding more open to compromise with liberal forces in parliament.

Some 56 individual seats were up for grabs in the first round of the election, with others assigned to party lists that will eventually account for two thirds of all seats on offer. Two more rounds follow, with the last run-off in mid-January.

Divisions between Islamist rivals has given liberals hope that they might take part in a post-election government and help shape the future constitution.

Parliament’s popular mandate will make it difficult for the military council to ignore, but the army will keep hold of the levers of power until a presidential election in June, after which it has said it would hand over power to civilians.

The army announced on Tuesday it would give more decision-making powers to its new prime minister, Kamal al-Ganzouri, in an apparent attempt to deflect criticism that it is seeking to control the political transition.

Ganzouri, tasked with forming a “government of national salvation” after violent street protests last month, announced a new cabinet with many incumbents keeping their portfolios.

A state-owned newspaper said on Wednesday that Ganzouri had nominated General Mohamed Ibrahim, a former regional security official, to the sensitive role of interior minister, tasked with reforming the police.

Additional reporting by Dina Zayed, Tamim Elyan and Patrick Werr; Editing by Crispian Balmer

Israel’s Supreme Court is danger to democracy


Listen to the defenders of Israel’s system for selecting judges for the supreme court and you might think democracy is coming to an end. They are strongly opposed to a legislative initiative that would change the process to one reflective of the US. Arguing that the status quo be retained. A process that is elitist, self-selective, and gives no room for public debate. It produces a court with a narrow ideological perspective that marginalizes vast segments of Israel society. In the US, Abe Foxman, head of the ADL, has warned against tampering with the present system. One has to wonder what would he say if the US adopted the Israeli model. Imagine a committee of nine, three members of the existing court, including the Chief Justice, representatives of the American Bar Association, and a few congressional leaders. The would meet in private, seven votes would be required to choose a judge, insuring sitting judges a virtual veto of new candidates. Locked in a closed room, they would select the next Supreme Court Justice. There would be no public oversight and no debate. A self-selecting process that insures that whoever is chosen has a judicial philosophy reflective of those already sitting on the bench. This is how things are in Israel today.

There is no question that the ADL would lead the battle against such a proposal if brought to US. They would be on the forefront to insure that justices are endorsed by the Senate, after review by the Judiciary Committee. The Israeli secular left,  and its allies in the US,  are not really concerned with democracy. The government is in the hands of the Likud. The religious population is growing along,  with their power at the polls. The only way for the left to retain its control is by judicial fiat. By keeping the existing back room closed system, they will continue to wield power.

The Israeli Supreme Court is the most elite private club in the country. It’s dominated by secular Ashkenazim, an old boy’s network that excludes Sephardim and religious judges. There may be a token religious justice or Sephardi.  It’s not much different than the lone black policeman you would find in southern towns in the US during the nineteen thirties. The white sheriff would always claim, “of course we do not discriminate we have a black policeman”.

Democracy in Israel is undermined by the present system. The court should be a forum for varied judicial viewpoints. Just as in the US, liberal, conservative and centrist should battle it out behind closed doors of the Supreme Court. Society is better served by this debate, allowing the justices to find consensus and compromise on crucial societal issues. Former justices on the Israeli court who are religious have confided to me about their frustrations. Their viewpoints were marginalized, the liberal secular judges lacked appreciation for classical Jewish values and legal precedent.

Israel’s Court President Dorit Benish claimed last week that those demanding balance are “guilty of incitement and damage the court”. She stated; “They undermine its ability to protect the country’s democratic values.”  She did not answer the real questions.  How does it benefit   Israeli democracy to have a small elite group decide who sits on the bench ?  What is it incitement to have a public debate about this crucial issue ? Why not adopt a procedure like the US that allows for vigorous public debate about court candidates ?  Why should sitting justices have veto power over new nominees? Why does the court only reflect one judicial philosophy? Why should such a small group of nine wield such power over Israeli society? Why does the court have almost no Sephardim or religious justices? Her shrill attack against this present legislative initiative could imply that her true concern is maintaining her power over who sits on the court.

Israeli democracy is threatened when an exclusive group imposes its judicial philosophy on the country. In Democracy it is crucial that we debate, discuss and find a compromise. In Israel where the society is deeply divided, it’s even more essential that the court should be a place where judicial compromise can be reached. Sadly, today that is not the case, the philosophy of judicial elitism has caused the court to lose the respect of many Israelis. If the Israeli Supreme Court is to have a moral voice, if it is to be a place where citizens can turn when government overreaches, when human rights are endangered, when an injustice has been committed; it must reform. Failure to do so will only put Israeli democracy at risk.

Rabbi David Eliezrie is the President of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County. His email is rabbi@OCJewish.com