Out Loud

  • 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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  • 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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  • Rabbi Amar is wrong. Now what?

    07 September 2012

    by Rabbi Seth Winberg, Assistant Director of the University of Michigan Hillel


    Israeli Chief Rabbi Shlomo Shlomo Amar says that non-Orthodox rabbis are “destroyers who have already brought terrible and horrific destruction on the Jewish People in the Diaspora.” Rabbi Amar issued his letter last month to protest Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein’s order for state funding of 15 non-Orthodox rabbis.

    Thousands of Orthodox rabbis already hold official positions within the Israeli Rabbinate; they receive state funding for their salaries. Rabbi Amar’s letter enraged plenty of Jewish leaders outside Israel, but almost no Orthodox rabbis outside Israel denounced the Chief Rabbi’s intolerant views. I am an Orthodox rabbi and I think Rabbi Amar is wrong. Other rabbis should think so too.

    After Rabbi Amar’s statement, MKs from haredi and National Religious parties — including Ya’akov Margi, Yisrael Eichler, Moshe Gafni, and Uri Ariel — called non-Orthodox Jews “unnatural manifestations that have proven themselves a disaster” and “clowns for whom Judaism is a mockery.” These MKs show that the problem is worse than just a chief rabbi’s disdain for non-Orthodox Jews. Some very prominent religious and political leaders in Israel do not value religious freedom for Jews.

    Reform and Conservative rabbis are understandably offended and upset. They have been speaking about Rabbi Amar’s letter in their synagogues and on websites. Their surprise is also a little surprising. For decades haredi leaders have denounced non-Orthodox Judaism and opposed democratic values such as religious freedom. The late Rabbi Elazar Shach, recognized as the leader of most of the haredi community until his death in 2001, also denounced non-Orthodox Jews. (He had nasty things to say about Modern Orthodoxy, religious Zionism, and Chabad, too.) And he opposed democracy, calling it “a disaster” and “a cancer.” Rabbi Shach makes Rabbi Amar seem rather tame.

    Some Orthodox rabbis in Canada publicly rejected Rabbi Amar’s intolerance. Rabbi Dr. Martin Lockshin of Toronto and Rabbi Reuben Poupko of Montreal, both Orthodox rabbis, said that Reform and Conservative rabbis provide potential avenues to develop Jewish identity for those not interested in Orthodoxy.

    Why aren’t more Orthodox rabbis speaking up? Some probably feel that Rabbi Amar’s sentiments are spot on, but not something to be said in public. Many, like me, feel that Rabbi Amar’s sentiments are way off, but assume people know that already. It should go without saying that open-minded Orthodox rabbis disagree with closed-mindedness. (Last week, Rabbi Amar attributed earthquakes to attempts to draft some haredi men for national service. Do I have to say on the record that I do not share this view, even though I too am an Orthodox rabbi?)

    Yet, American Orthodox rabbis have two good reasons to speak up. First, they are uniquely positioned for bridge building between haredi and non-Orthodox Jews. Second, American Orthodox rabbis committed to religious tolerance and democratic values like religious freedom can help Israelis — the majority of whom want religious freedom — to realize those same values and enact policies to safeguard those values. Israel’s critical alliances with the US and Europe are based on Israel’s being a democracy.

    It is tempting to sit back and tell ourselves that Rabbi Amar’s hatred of Jews who aren’t like Rabbi Amar will eventually make his office irrelevant in Israel and around the world. Or that Israelis bear most of the responsibility for Israel’s democracy. But American Jews — Orthodox and non-Orthodox — should be more helpful. We, their rabbis, should say loudly that Israel’s democracy depends on religious freedom for all Jews.


    This article was originally published in The Times of Israel and is reposted with the author's permission.

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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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  • Victory of ultra-nationalists in Israel may estrange U.S. Jews

    07 September 2012

    More and more, it seems as if the world's two largest Jewish communities are watching each other through the rear-view mirror as they move further apart. U.S. Jews must find ways to support progressive voices in Israel whose values we share as they fight to take back their country.

    By Daniel Sokatch | Jan.14, 2013

    For most of the past 64 years, Israeli and American Jewry enjoyed a close and mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship. Both sides gained a great deal from the arrangement. Israelis got a fierce and loyal funder and defender - one that happened to be an important constituency in the most powerful country in the world. American Jews got a sense of mission and purpose, and, through advocacy and philanthropy, got to participate in the epic Jewish national project. Even if we didn't really understand each other quite as well as we thought we did, the relationship between our two communities was predicated on shared values, a bedrock commitment to an unshakable American-Israeli alliance, and a vision of Israel that was both a Jewish homeland and a liberal democracy.

    But this relationship is changing. More and more, it seems as if the world's two largest Jewish communities are watching each other through the rear-view mirror as they move further apart. On some of the biggest issues, it is not clear how much we still have in common. The recent election in the United States and the coming election in Israel are a case in point.

    Two months ago, about 70% of the American Jewish community voted to reelect Barack Obama. This, despite an unprecedented multi-million dollar campaign by the Sheldon Adelson-funded Republican Jewish Coalition, Bill Kristol's Emergency Committee for Israel and other groups attempting to peel away Jewish votes from the president and the Democrats by arguing that Mr. Obama was bad for Israel. The attempt to present the election as a referendum on the president's pro-Israel bona fides flopped, but not before it furthered the perception that supporters and surrogates of the Israeli government were choosing sides and trying to influence an American election. This didn't go over so well with American Jews.

    That this effort failed so miserably came as a surprise to nobody, other than Mr. Adelson and the neo-cons. American Jews are liberal, and have been for a very long time. In fact, you have to go back to 1920 to find an election in which more Jews voted for the Republican candidate for president than the Democratic one, and then only because the Jewish vote split between the Democrat (19%) and the Socialist (38%). What's more, most American Jews don't disapprove of President Obama's position on Israel. In fact, a majority supports the president's handling of the Israeli-Arab conflict, and strongly supports a two-state solution.

    But while most American Jews report that they feel close to Israel, only a tiny percentage of them actually base their vote on it. Rather, the vast majority of Jewish voters cite the same priorities as other Democrats: the economy, health care, education. These American Jews care about Israel, but it is only one of many things they care about. And when they - the vast majority of the Jewish American community - perceive that Israel is acting in ways antithetical to what they assumed were shared values, the danger is that they will walk away.

    Which brings us to the Israeli elections. If the polls are correct, on January 22, Israelis will elect the most right-wing government in Israeli history. It is likely to be even more hardline than the current coalition, on whose watch Israel's relations with the Obama administration soured over disagreements over Iran, Israel's expanding settlement enterprise, and the moribund peace process. This coalition presided over an Israel in which Knesset members from the ruling parties pushed forward a raft of patently anti-democratic legislation, women fought attempts by some in the ultra-Orthodox community to exclude them from the public sphere, and government ministers vowed to make the lives of African refugees in Israel miserable and expel them. Criticism of these policies from Israelis was all too often characterized as treason. Criticism from abroad was merely proof that -the world is against us." None of this was lost on worried American Jews.

    The coming coalition is likely to redefine -right wing" in Israel. The authors of the most anti-democratic legislation in Israeli history are now positioned high on the Likud-Beitenu list, and we are sure to see a renewed attempt to restrict judicial independence, the media and civil society, especially the human rights community. The passage of the Boycott Law in the last Knesset is a worrisome harbinger of more attempts to limit freedom of speech and conscience. The Likudniks who guarded the flame of their party's traditional commitment to individual rights and democracy have been tossed off the party list, replaced by extremists and champions of the settlement movement. New parties, like Habayit Hayehudi, headed by opponents of the two-state solution who openly advocate annexation of the occupied territories, are gathering strength and will likely exert strong influence on the new government's agenda.

    I don't think that many Israelis understand just how badly all of this damages Israel's international standing, particularly its relationship with the overwhelming liberal Jewish community of a country that venerates its Bill of Rights. I'm sure many of the talkbacks to this article will say that they could not care less. But righteous indignation and name-calling are not substitutes for the advantages that come with a strong relationship with the American Jewish community. And that relationship is at risk. Luckily, there are reasons for hope. Millions of Israelis are deeply committed to Israel's founding democratic and Jewish values, and are concerned about the direction in which their country is headed. The same polls that predict a victory for the hard right also show significant, albeit divided, strength for a center-left bloc, and many still-undecided voters. An invigorated opposition championing democracy, peace, human rights and social justice could provide a critical check and an alternative direction for Israel.

    On the issues, recent polls show that Israel, much like America, is closely divided, with the values and policies of the left at least as popular as those of the right. Progressive political parties may be less popular in today's post-Oslo Israel; progressive ideas are not.

    This Israel still shares enormous common ground with the American Jewish community. Without engaging in the blatant electioneering shenanigans that damaged Israel's image during the American election, we must find ways to support those whose values we share as they fight to take back their country. And it is up to the leaders of the American Jewish community to speak truth to the new ultra-nationalist extremists of Israel, to tell them that the path they are on is damaging Israel and endangering its relationship with the American Jewish community that has always stood with it. It will be a difficult task. But that is what true friends are for.

    Daniel Sokatch is CEO of the New Israel Fund.

    This article was originally published by Haaretz.com.

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Israel's dilemma: Who can be an Israeli?

By Daniel Sokatch and David N. Myers

13 January 2014