Thursday, January 12, 2012

Chapters in a Tragicomedy

If the tall cedar tree is aflame, what can the lichen on the wall do?
(Fifth Century Talmudic saying attributed to Bar Kipok)

Chapter One

For the past two and a half years, the Foreign Minister representing the State of Israel towards the rest of the world is a settler, living in the Occupied Territories and thereby blatantly violating International Law, day by day. This is one of the reasons why Israel's Foreign Minister is not exactly the most welcome of guests in most world  capitals (though, to be sure, also the minister's personality and conduct have something to do with it). Year after year, there is an increase in the number of settlers serving as officers of the IDF, the army responsible for maintaining and expanding their enclaves.  Among other sections of Israeli society, there is less and less  inclination to devote a life to a military career... But the Supreme Court did not have a settler among its judges. Until this week.

By the "deal" agreed last Friday between the rival factions in the Judicial Nominations Committee, Noam Solberg will be one of the new judges  added to the bench of the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, and it is possible that in the future he will also become the President of this court. Every morning His Honor, Justice Noam Solber, will rise at his home in the settlement of Alon Shvut on the West Bank near Bethlehem. He will enter his car and drive along the road which is reserved for Israelis only, directly to his new workplace in Jerusalem. On the way he will swiftly pass the long column of Palestinians waiting for hours under the blazing sun to be inspected at the IDF checkpoint. What, if one of these Palestinians would present to the Supreme Court an appeal because of the expropriation of his land and its being handed over to settlers...

Attorneys Omer Schatz and Yiftach Cohen presented, on behalf of "Yesh Gvul", an appeal to prevent the appointment of Noam Solberg. Gush Shalom – of which the  writer is a member - was asked to add  its voice to this petition.

The two lawyers noted that Noam Solberg, has at his own free will taken up permanent residence in the Occupied Territory, an act contrary to the morals to which a decent person can be expected to adhere. To settle in occupied  territory is a manifest violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention as ruled by the International Court in The Hague – a body which Israel's Supreme Court recognizes as the highest authority in the field of International Law.  Therefore, the settler Noam Solberg is not endowed with the integrity expected of a Supreme Court judge.

I would not be revealing a great secret in disclosing that none of those involved had nurtured any great hope that the petition would be accepted. Still, we were a bit surprised by the lightning speed with which the justices threw away this hot potato. Within a bare few hours from when the petition was filed, Justices Hayut, Fogelman and Amit gathered and rejected it unanimously and out of hand. They noted dryly that having examined the Basic Law on the Judiciary and the Rules of Ethics for Judges, they have found "no legal precedent indicating that the choice of a place of residence constitutes a violation of integrity in general or judicial integrity in particular". Clean and Pure the  new Supreme Court Judge Noam Solberg, along with his fellow settlers. Integrity is in no way impugned.

And International Law? The Fourth Geneva Convention? The International Court of Justice? In the ruling of three judges, they  were  completely absent, vanished into thin air. Present absentees. All this, even before Their Honors were joined by their new colleague.

Chapter Two

Benny Katzover is one of the founders of the settler movement. Immediately in 1967 he took part in the group of settlers who established themselves in Hebron and created a fait accompli.  Indeed, there was some obstruction from the military governor – who was rightly apprehensive that the presence of extremist settlers would make Hebron the permanent focus of tensions. Katzover and fellows had to make an appeal directly to the ministerial level in the then Labor Party government, playing on the power struggle between Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and his great rival Yigal Allon. Ten years later, when Katzover took part in attempts to expand the settlement project northwards into the Nablus area,  again good use was  made of contacts in the political establishment (including with the Defense Minister whose name was Shimon Peres). And later, when the settlement movement grew and expanded and became institutionalized, Katzover was elected as Head of the Samaria Regional Council. As such, he for many years got a salary from the state treasury and used his good contacts in the government (by then controlled by the Likud Party) to gain very, very generous resources and budgets allocated to a further expansion of the settlement project.

Throughout all these years, Katzover and his fellow settlers declared their loyalty to democracy. They angrily rejected any assertion that they were opposed to democracy or seeking to harm it. But not anymore. This week – as it happens, on exactly the same day when the Justices decided to take settler Noam Solberg to their bosom - Katzover made his position crystal clear: "I would say that today, Israeli democracy has one central mission, and that is to disappear. Israeli democracy has finished its historical role, and it must be dismantled and bow down before Judaism. All the events nowadays are leading to the realization that there is no other way except putting the Jewish issue before any other issue, that that is the answer to all the situation and the threats."

In other words: For forty years and more, democracy gave most generously to us settlers - abundant funds and lands expropriated from Palestinians and military protection at every step we took. We ate our fill and blessed democracy for all these nice gifts, and now that we're big and strong enough, we do not need democracy anymore.

If one regards democracy as being represented by the majority of Members in  Israel's Knesset, elected by Israel's citizens in free and eminently democratic elections, strictly, it seems that democracy in Israel is indeed about to do as Katzover asked.

Chapter Three

A few months ago Education Minister Gideon Saar sent a circular to the principals and teachers of the schools in Israel, in which he called upon them to educate their pupils to uphold and respect Human Rights. The principal of the high school in the village of Ar'ara took seriously the Education Minister's directive and took his pupils off to Tel Aviv, there to take part in the Human Rights March held on the International Human Rights Day.

But probably, that was not what the Minister of Education meant. Maybe he did not mean the same Human Rights which the Tel Aviv march was intended to promote, or perhaps he did not mean teachers and principals to take his circular that seriously, or that he specifically did not intend an Arab principal in an Arab village like Ar'ara to send Arab pupils to demonstrate. For when it is Arabs who speak of Human Rights, it might become a bit subversive.

Anyway, the Ministry of Education immediately sent a severe reprimand to the principal of the Ar'ara school. The Knesset Education Committee met to discuss this serious incident, and Members from the right wing  demanded the immediate dismissal of the notorious Human Rights enthusiast. Knesset Member Ghaleb Majadleh - who happens to be an Arab, just like the principal, and who knows him personally - got up to answer. And this defense by MK Majadleh so infuriated MK Anastasia Michaeli that she poured over him a glass of water. Immediately, all the media was filled with reports on the Glass of Water Incident, which completely overshadowed the issue of Human Rights education.

Michaeli's party, the Israel is Our Home Party led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, felt a bit uncomfortable and rushed to dissociate itself and publish a reprimand of Michaeli. Tsk tsk, a Knesset Member should not pour water on a colleague, not even if he is an Arab.

But perhaps in the future MK Michaeli will be spared such dilemmas. Another Member of the same party, Moshe ("Mutz") Matalon, proposed a bill which would allow solely those who served in the army to be elected to the Knesset. If this bill is adopted (and nowadays, who can say just how far the majority in the Knesset would dare to go?), then in the next Knesset will be no Arabs. Nor will it include Jews who oppose the Occupation and for reasons of conscience are not willing to serve in an  army of occupation. Nor will there be Jews who believe that Torah study is more important than military service (a controversial opinion, but the IDF had given it considerable consideration since it was founded).

Moshe Matalon is the first disabled person to enter the Knesset in a wheelchair. In his legislative career since 2009 he was much praised by his fellow disabled Israelis, especially his efforts to introduce laws and regulations giving the disabled access to every location in the country and eliminate the barriers which exclude them.

But not to Arabs, and other undesirables...

Chapter Four

Lately the town of Kiryat Malachi is often in the news. Its favorite  son,   Moshe Katsav, rose to prominence and entered the Presidential Residence in Jerusalem. As is well known, from there he moved his residence for the next seven years to the Ma'asiyahu Prison, due to the  controversial things he did to women who worked under his authority and which the judges took very harshly, though many of his friends and  neighbors still consider him a hero - only targeted for his oriental origin. And just after the media completed its coverage of the journey of Moshe Katsav to prison, a new reason arose to re-direct the spotlight at Kiryat Malachi.

In recent years, an increasing number of Ethiopian Israelis have come to live in Kiryat Malachi, to which some other residents took a great objection. There were those who went out into the night and sprayed    on the walls graffiti expressing exactly what they think about the Ethiopians, using the most pungent expressions which colloquial  Hebrew borrowed from other languages ​​and developed for itself. And others acted also in broad daylight. There were the Tenants' Committees in four high rise apartment buildings who took action and established a formal Admissions Committee to which the application of any new tenant must be submitted. And the Admissions Committee formally and officially published its guidelines, namely "No Ethiopian need apply for residence".

And there was a great commotion which got into the headlines, and Ethiopians from all over the country rallied in their thousands and drove off to Kiryat Malachi and demonstrated and protested very loudly indeed, and with them also some who are not Ethiopians but do not like racism.

But basically, what all this fuss about? Why are the Ethiopian-haters in Kiryat Malachi to blame? Six months ago, the Knesset passed the Admissions Committee Law, empowering Communal Villages to set up Admissions Committees and exclude persons who "do not fit the social fabric." Why only Communal Villages? Why not urban apartment buildings as well? What kind of discrimination is this? So why can't the gates of Kiryat Malachi be shut in the to Ethiopians' faces? Are they less Black than the Sudanese and Eritreans? After all, just a few weeks ago, the government of Israel decided that stopping the entry of refugees and asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea and other African countries is in the supreme national interest of Israel, a purpose for which it is right and proper to spend huge resources on constructing  walls and fences and prisons, and to get the Knesset to pass stringent special laws.

Chapter Five

 "Thou shalt not wrong or oppress the Stranger, for you were Strangers in the Land of Egypt" (Exodus 22:21)

A bit of relevant family history, before I return to the present of this country. During the First World War Galicia - then a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, later part of Poland – was a deadly battlefield. Great armies passed though it back and forth, fighting and killing each other. It was most certainly not a pleasant place to be. All residents of Galicia suffered greatly, and the Jews there suffered even worse then the others, because war conditions gave a free rein to anti-Semites of all kinds.

It was at that time that my grandparents, Yehoshua and Sarah Keller, escaped from the flames of Galicia, and found refuge in Berlin, the capital of Germany. Germany was then considered a civilized and enlightened country, and after the 1918 Revolution which established the Weimar Republic it had a model Liberal and Democratic Constitution. My grandparents lived together with hundreds of other Jewish refugees and asylum seekers in a big, crowded building near the Alexanderplatz in the eastern part of Berlin. There, my father Ya'akov Keller was born in 1929.

Not all residents of Germany were happy with the fact that their country has become a haven for refugees. For example, at a rally which took place in the city of Hanover in July 1922, a minor local politician named Gustav Seifert got loud applause when he voiced a warning that the influx of refugees from the East was a time bomb and a serious danger to Germany. Who was this Gustav Seifert, and who were the people who applauded him? They were not complete  monsters. Just simple people, living through a difficult social and economic crisis, who felt threatened by this flow of refugees with their strange language and weird clothes, and who felt it just must be stopped. As the speaker on the podium said.

Gustav Seifert in himself was not any great political success, and his name remains an unimportant footnote in the history books. But he and many others joined a party which grew and gained political momentum and made to the citizens of Germany a solemn promise that the flow of refugees will be stopped, once and for all. The party gained a capable and highly talented leader, whose name became known across the country, later all over the world. And finally, this party came to power.

That was when my father was four years old. During the new government's first months in power, Jews in Berlin (as in all the world) celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles. Supporters of the new government, who very much disliked refugees, came in the evening to the big crowded building near the Alexanderplatz and destroyed the Sukka, the ceremonial hut which had been erected in the courtyard. My grandparents came then and there to the conclusion that it would be better not to stay in Germany.

Indeed, the party which came to power in Germany at that time fulfilled its promise to the voters, and stopped the flow of refugees from the East. It fulfilled that promise very thoroughly - in fact, in a much more thorough way than most of the voters could have imagined when they brought it to power. By the time when that party ended its twelve years of tenure in power, many of these voters were no longer alive. But that's another story.

Chapter Six

My father arrived at this country with his parents in 1933 and grew up and came to adulthood in Jerusalem, and I was born and raised in Tel Aviv, and this week I was at home and late at night witnessed on TV the  Knesset voting and passing the law which says that from now on, anyone crossing Israel's southern border would be liable to three years' imprisonment without trial.

37 Knesset Members supported this law and only eight opposed it. 73 other Knesset members just voted with their feet. The heated debate continued deep into the night, and the comfortable hotel beds paid from the state budget beckoned.

Even before it was definitely enacted, Minister Aharonovitch instructed the personnel of the Police and Border Guards and Prison Service to prepare for the expected flood of detainees. Prison slots have already been prepared for fifteen thousand people, and the government approved funding to build more prisons and detention camps. All infiltrators will automatically get three years in prison. Refugee? Asylum seeker? Just a migrant worker? First of all, get him in the cell and shut the door on him, and then (if at all) look into who he is and what he is looking for here.

Would it really deter them from continuing to come here? That is far from sure. Certainly, three years in an Israeli prison is not a picnic. But many of the people who come here by foot from faraway Africa have undergone such horrors in the places from which they fled and also at various places along the way, that they may still would insist on escaping into our territory.

"We have no choice. We had to pass this law. We are the only country in the First World which Third World people can reach on foot," said yesterday morning the Prime Minister's Chef de Bureau  on the radio.

Indeed, it is so. Israel is the first part of the First World, the rich and successful and prosperous part of the Earth. Even the poorest in our country (and there are many of them, and their numbers increase every year) live a better life than the residents of most African countries.

A hundred years ago, this country was a remote province of the Ottoman Empire. A clear part of what is nowadays called "Third World". How did Israel manage to become part of the First World, a place which people from Africa strive to reach (even for three years in prison...)? Of course, our own hard work and know how and the quality of our workforce was part of it. But the State of Israel also received considerable help to get that high up on the ladder.

For example, the aid to the tune of three billion dollars per year, generously granted to the State of Israel over several decades by the generous Uncle Sam. Three billion dollars a year – much more than the aid provided by the United States to any country in Black Africa.

So why do they continue coming, these damned infiltrators who go thousands of miles on foot and do not flinch from the horrors of the way nor from three years in nice Israeli prisons? Maybe they're looking here for the dollars which America did not send to their country of origin?