Out Loud

  • A View from the New Knesset

    27 February 2013

    A View from the New Knesset

    Tamar Sandberg(Tamar Zandberg, a new Member of Knesset from the Meretz party, is our guest columnist this week.)

    What a couple of years we had! In the summer of 2011, I was marching in the streets, together with hundreds of thousands of Israelis, calling for a more just and equal society, one which cares for the weak and celebrates freedom and democracy. This was the most inspiring political moment Israel had in decades.

    Soon after, we were told that the protest has died. Crushed under the daily banalities of the Knesset and manipulated by "King Bibi," as some reporters began calling Prime Minister Netanyahu. The government seemed determined to hold on to the status quo on every front, isolating itself from the world and sowing fear and resentment among its own citizens.

    Then came the elections, with a result that could only signify a turning point. An unprecedented number of new members of Knesset, a record breaking representation of women (despite still being outrageously low) and a decreasing average age of MKs – all demonstrate the desire for a new era in Israeli politics.

    Make no mistake. There are more progressives in this Knesset, but also more members that support the settlements and still many that have little patience for the democratic principles on which Israel was founded. The clouds which have gathered over Israel in recent years are still there, but for the first time in a while, we also see hope. We see an opportunity. And that’s all we could have asked for.

    During the last Knesset term, we focused on blocking initiatives which threatened the most basic freedoms in Israel. We fought against the confrontational attitude our government has presented to the world, and against the moral corruption that the occupation has brought at home. Many of you have stood by us on those battles, and I can assure you that your voice was heard in Israel, loud and clear. Our success in the last elections is also your success.

    We could do even more now. We could answer the public call for change with a progressive vision of Israel: A country which provides for all its citizens, a place which views cultural variety and difference of opinions not as a threat but as its source of strength; A state which promotes tolerance and treat all people and religious with respect – including all members of the Jewish people; a nation which can replace the urge to conquer with a desire to care. And most urgent of all: A country which doesn’t deprive the freedom of another people.

    It won’t be easy. We are still faced with many – including some members of the future government – who do not share our values. Even among those who believe in change, some view this change in a very different way that we do. We need all the help we can get. I am sure that we will find you continuing your support for a democratic and caring Israel, because you know that Israel deserves better than what the last four years have offered. As the last elections have showed, Israelis know that too.

    Yours,

    MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz)

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  • Review of 2013 Election Results

    23 January 2013

    Review of 2013 Election Results

    Listen to the recording of a conference call NIF hosted on January 23rd featuring former Ha’aretz chief political columnist and editorial writer Akiva Eldar, in conversation with author and journalist Liel Leibovitz.  The two discussed the outcomes and potential effects of the elections.

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  • Government by Executing the Messenger

    15 January 2013

    Government by Executing the Messenger

    By Rachel Liel


    Ostensibly, a stormy debate is proceeding in Israel.  It’s “There’s no one to talk to” versus “Abu Mazen is a partner.”  It’s “Let’s not turn into Greece or Spain” opposing “The middle class has turned into the government’s ATM.”  It’s “Throw Hanin Zoabi out of parliament” against “Freedom of speech for all.”  But in reality there is no real discussion, as facts are created in the field.  The recent firing of Dr. Gilad Natan from the Knesset Research and Information Center is the last link in a chain of targeted terminations among those in the public sector who dare to stray from the government’s line.

    Natan was fired not because anyone doubted his professionalism or his integrity.  On the contrary, his research concerning migrants garnered praise and appreciation.  And according to Natan, his supervisors knew and granted approval when he wrote opinion pieces unrelated to his research work.  The sin Natan stands accused of is a “political slant” — laundered language veiling dissatisfaction with the criticisms implied by his research findings and with the way his personal opinions displeased those who are determined to please.

    Before Natan, it was Prof. Shlomo Yitzhaki, the government’s Chief Statistician.  He was fired by e-mail after he challenged the figures published by the Ministry of Finance and the privatization of the public’s savings, calling that privatization the “Great Pension Robbery.”  And so with a quick e-mail, a news item and a half, and regrets from the Prime Minister over the method but not over the dismissal decision, the matter is behind us.  One less subverter in our midst.

    And before Yitzhaki… Adar Cohen, the supervisor of civics studies at the Ministry of Education, who had no idea he was one of those subverters till he was fired — just like Gilad Natan — for a “political slant.”  Cohen had let through, heaven preserve us, material tinged with a critical hue:  content that dealt with pluralistic democracy, human rights, and equality.  Not on our watch.  Despite the petitions and the newspaper articles, another messenger found himself sacrificed on the altar of loyalty to the regime.  The next supervisor of civics studies presumably internalized the message.

    The same message was recently delivered to the ambassadors who represent Israel around the world, at their meeting with National Security Council head Yaakov Amidror.  Legitimate questions raised by some of the ambassadors regarding the wisdom of Israel’s political moves — including astonishment on the part of UN Ambassador Ron Prosor at the announcement of building in E1 — ran up against Amidror’s statement that “whoever disagrees with the government’s policy can resign or go into politics.”  In undiplomatic language, that’s called stifling dissent.

    Thus the commander’s spirit, hovering in the corridors of government, makes itself felt.  The current regime does not tolerate criticism and brooks no departure from the official line whether in the context of research (Natan), of statistics (Yitzhaki), of content (Cohen), or of outreach (the ambassadors).  The clear message is that everyone must speak in a single loyal and “patriotic” voice, and anyone daring to pursue their own professional truth to the limit is condemned to removal.

    As if that weren’t enough, the custom of vengeance against the messenger is part of a broader and far more worrisome norm.  The demand for an utterly obedient professional staff is merely part of how public discourse now suffers anti-democratic, nationalistic, and sometimes even racist erosion in the hands of extremist politicians and muffled journalists.  The firing of Gilad Natan reminded us how fragile Israeli democracy is and how near the threats to it are approaching for everyone who believed they were safe.  

    The writer serves as the New Israel Fund's Executive Director in Israel. This article was originally published by the Israeli news site Walla.

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  • Pre-Election 2013 Conference Call

    15 January 2013

    A recording of a conference call featuring former NIF President Professor Naomi Chazan, in conversation with NIF International Council member Professor Michael Walzer, offering their views concerning the upcoming elections in Israel.

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  • It Won't End with the Vote

    08 November 2012

    8 November 2012

    daniellevySome Israeli and American friends have undoubtedly spent the last twenty-four hours casting re-elected President Obama and Vice President Biden in the roles of Samuel Jackson and John Travolta from the classic Tarantino movie Pulp Fiction -- plotting how best to avenge Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s unseemly interventions in the American election. Make no mistake, the Israeli Premier’s blunt incursions into America politics were real, unbefitting of his office and did not go unnoticed in the White House.

    Equally, make no mistake that President Obama is not about to indulge in a round of tit-for-tat and that Israel’s path out of its current deep malaise ultimately depends on whether Israelis themselves can drive progressive change. Certainly those who care about Israel in America have a role to play, including President Obama himself. The President’s actions in the coming months regarding the Israeli/ Palestinian file and the Iran file and other Middle Eastern matters in his in-tray will clearly impact the Israeli scene.

    But perhaps the biggest impact will be a product of how Israelis and Americans relate to the subtext of the way in which Israel became entangled in American electoral politics and of the deeper questions on the Israeli ballot in January. The key issue in both, without wishing to over-dramatize, is that of Israeli democracy. Israel was never a perfect democracy (and neither is anywhere else, although Israel’s challenge in balancing a self-defined Jewish state and equality for all its citizens is particularly pronounced) but the democratic deficit Israel has recently experienced is of a whole new order of magnitude. The Israel-related shenanigans in Tuesday’s elections are only superficially about the super-donor who is shared by Israel’s prime minister and the GOP challenger. Something else was also going on here. It was partly an attempt to redefine American and Israeli shared values as being less about liberal democracy and more about some kind of civilizational struggle on behalf of a narrow view of the Judeo-Christian tradition, which would seemingly necessitate cutting certain corners when it comes to democracy. And, apparently, the current Israeli government has no intention of reversing the occupation and is on a path away from governing a democracy.

    The hope now is that in reasserting the American interest in resolving the conflict and being allied to a democratic Israel, that president Obama will also serve the Israeli interest by reminding Israelis of the democratic path its future must tread. It matters that President Obama should re-launch a credible drive to advance de-occupation and a resolution on Israel/ Palestine.  It is not for the President to interfere in Israeli politics – again, no tit-for-tat --  but he can certainly articulate clear goals and principles and remind Israeli voters of crucial issues that might otherwise disappear from the agenda for the convenience of leaders of both Likud and Labor.

    This can not only be about President Obama, it is also about us. The President made that much clear in his victory speech, when he turned to the crowd and the listening American public and said that “the role of citizen does not end with your vote.” Looking back over the last twenty years of struggle, for instance for gay rights, it seems remarkable the progress that has been made from ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ to a president promoting marriage equality.  Looking at the punishment voters meted out to Senate candidates espousing obscenities with allegories of rape and a woman’s right to choose- in states not known for social liberalism- proves again the potency of that fuller version of citizenship.

    That is the challenge that the president has set for many communities – and  not least the NIF community -- to create a moral, intellectual and public climate on our issues that disqualifies and makes inadmissible a set of policies that drive Israel further from the camp of liberal democracy and deeper into the murky waters of occupation, extremism and intolerance. A clearer, strong and committed voice from American Jews supporting the plethora of progressive voices struggling in Israel today is the best way to start responding to the divides between Israel and the U.S. made all too apparent by this week’s election.

    Daniel Levy is a board member of the New Israel Fund, directs the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations and is a fellow of the New America Foundation.

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Israel's dilemma: Who can be an Israeli?

By Daniel Sokatch and David N. Myers

13 January 2014