Monday, May 19, 2014

Tea and Antipathy

The Japanese tea ceremony is an important characteristic of traditional Japanese culture - the ceremony of preparing the tea, presenting it to the guests and drinking. It is an aesthetic and precise ritual, in which every movement is carefully calculated. One of the founders of this unique Japanese art was the Sixteenth Century monk and poet Sen no Rikyū, who included in the ritual elements a bit subversive of the feudal society of his time. For example, at the entrance to the tea room guests were required to wash away the dust from their hands at a water basin which was located low and close to the ground. Thus the ceremonial rules forced the most powerful and influential people in the Japan of those days to bend down, reminding them that they were equal to other guests. Eventually Sen no Rikyū aroused the ire of Japan’s ruler who ordered him to commit suicide – which command the monk obeyed, after inviting all his friends to one last tea ceremony.

During his visit to Japan last week, Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his wife Sarah were invited to participate in a traditional Tea Ceremony conducted by a Grand Master of this art , heir to the centuries-old tradition. The Israeli TV reporter accompanying the Prime Ministerial couple remarked that despite the ritual being designed to stimulate spiritual uplift and disperse  negative energies, Netanyahu 's face looked troubled and it appears that his thoughts remained focused on pressing political issues back in Israel.

Samurai 2014  (Biederman, "Ha’aretz”, May 16)

True, this week the Tel Aviv District Court did definitely remove the threat which the Prime Minister faced from his predecessor Ehud Olmert - the man who less than a year ago still presented himself in all seriousness as the only leader who could overcome Netanyahu. After the judge's ruling this week,   Olmert will be engaged in a desperate effort to appeal the six-year prison term  imposed on corruption charges. His dream of a Prime Ministerial comeback must, in all likelihood, be definitely scrapped. (There are those who say that we thus lose a great chance for peace with the Palestinians, which Olmert meant to bring us when returning to power . It might or might not be so – we will never know... )

Nevertheless, Netanyahu is far from being able to rest on his laurels. This week, his senior partner in the governing coalition, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, took another step to erode and undermine the Likud Party's alliance with the ultra-Orthodox Haredim, which had been a key factor in Menachem Begin sweeping to power in 1977 and in Begin’s successors retaining power later.  Like his late father Tommy, Yair Lapid must periodically demonstrate to his voters how he lands a new blow on the Haredim and punishes them for not  serving in the army (incidentally also hitting at the Arabs, whom Lpaid and his  voters do not really like either). While the PM was en route to Tokyo, Lapid announced with great fanfare that those who served in the army would get an exemption from VAT when buying an apartment, a substantial benefit from the state treasury. Those who had not served because the army did not call them up - i.e. Arabs and Haredim - will not get the discount. Rather, the Finance Minister did declare himself graciously ready and willing to give also to members of these groups the discount – provided they find an apartment which costs less than six hundred thousand Shekels. Only, apartments at such prices are not be found in our country...

In the short term, Lapid garnered some credit among his specific electoral constituency. But how long will Lapid and his party survive in Israeli politics? That is very much in doubt. The Haredim, on the other hand, were in politics long before Lapid’s advent and are quite likely to survive his demise, too – and they have a very long memory for those who had wronged them. After the next general elections, are the Haredim going to recommend to the President that also the next cabinet be formed by Netanyahu , who had left them out of the current cabinet and gave a major role in it to Lapid? Not very likely. So who will recommend him? Whom will the President entrust with forming next cabinet? Far from sure - especially if the President elected to replace Shimon Peres would be Reuven Rivlin, Netanyahu's bitter rival within his own party...

Thus, reported the political commentators, Netanyahu conceived the brilliant idea of completely abolishing the Presidency in Israel , just a month before the next President was to be elected. During his entire stay in Japan, he was vigorously promoting this initiative in an endless stream of long-distance phone calls from his luxurious suite at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, and apparently it also greatly preoccupied him as he sat politely in the Grand Master’s traditional Tea Ceremony. But it seems the Prime Minister was unable to muster enough support in the political establishment for this revolutionary idea...

In fairness , it should be noted that Netanyahu did not go all the way to Japan just in order to conduct  Israeli political intrigues by remote control. He did have a definite political, diplomatic and economic agenda there, too. This was well described by Hagai Segal , the man who once planted explosive devices in the cars of Palestinian Mayors and served prison terms on terrorism charges and is nowadays a respected political commentator who accompanied the PM's entourage to Tokyo . On the pages of "Makor Rishon" he wrote: "With  negotiations with the Palestinians deadlocked and relations with the United States rather moody, the Prime Minister turns his face to the non-European and non-American sphere, to China and Australia and Japan. He believes that economic ties with suitable partners can be a substitute to Israel ‘s  deteriorating strategic relations with the Old World, or at least an adequate compensation until the storm passes. This is Netanyahu 's solution to the premonition of Western boycotts of Israel. "

Will the Japanese be ready to fill the role assigned them by Netanyahu? Many people in Japan itself are not fond of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who plays   dangerous games of Japanese Nationalism and waves some military muscle in the face of the Chinese. When I was there a year ago I heard some Japanese activists call him – and not fondly - "The  Japanese Netanyahu".  Prime Minister Abe definitely gave Netanyahu a cordial welcome and discussed options for economic cooperation, and also introduced Netanyahu to leading business executives. And yet , even at their cordial meeting Abe did not neglect to mention Japan’s concern at the collapse of the negotiations and at Israel’s unilateral settlement activities. So what was really behind the smiles in Tokyo?

Indeed, just as Netanyahu was at the press conference at the Prime Minister’s bureau in Tokyo, a concrete small example burst out of these deteriorating strategic relations with the Old World: a public crisis in the relations with Germany. Following the breakdown of negotiations with the Palestinians, the Government of Germany – which in the past generously provided vessels to the Israeli Navy at the expense of their country’s taxpayers – cancelled a discount running to hundreds of millions of Euros which had been earlier promised on a deal of having German shipyards provide Israel’s new gunboats. "After the failure of the negotiations, there is no chance of the Bundestag approving those subsidies" the Germans explained to Netanyahu. It turns out that someone had presented to the Members of the German Parliament a detailed long list of the incidents in which the Israeli Navy’s existing gunboats opened fire on Palestinian fishermen off the Gaza coast. Netanyahu’s bureau soon found the culprit in the hostile new German stance, linking it with the private talks conducted in the Oval Office when Chancellor Merkel  came visiting Washington. But viewed in this light, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also represents an old and valued ally of the U.S., and he too would eventually pass by the White House ...

The citizens of Israel did not give much attention to all these matters of high diplomacy and strategy. They were much more concerned with the issue of hatred and hate crimes, or "Price Tag" which is the usual terminology used in the Israeli public discourse. What started as young settlers raiding nearby Palestinian villages, uprooting and burning their crops and olive groves , escalated into a systematic attack on Arab villages inside Israel proper.
More than the hate crimes themselves, public opinion was preoccupied with the words of the renowned author Amos Oz, who dared to make a scandalous comparison with none other than the neo-Nazis in Europe. All sorts of commentators and public figures reacted with great fury: how could he  possibly compare the anti-Semite bastards who desecrate synagogues and Jewish cemeteries and daub evil racist graffiti with some confused young Israelis whose only sin is to desecrate mosques and churches and daub some stupid mischievous graffiti? (Neo-Nazis in Europe also occasionally profane mosques, but that is of much less interest to the Israel  public opinion...)

In Afula there was a week ago a rally expressing pure hatred towards Arabs. Those who disseminate hatred had no need to skulk in the dark night, but could rampage openly in the streets looking for Arabs on whom to vent their anger. This rally was effectively initiated by the anonymous “high source in the Israel Police” who told the media that “The murder of Shelly Dadon was committed for Nationalist Motives”. The code words "Nationalist Motives” were more than enough to convince very many people that it was “Arabs” who murdered a young Afula woman when she went looking for a job in a neighboring town. More than that, “The Arabs”, all Arabs as such, were saddled with blame for having murdered her. Only after a week and a half did the Police remember to officially announce that the investigation has reached a dead end, and that the background and motives of the murder are still not quite  clear. Far too late to restrain the unleashed passions. Not even when on the next day members of "Shining Tag" - an activist group diligently making solidarity visit to the victims of each and every hate crime - brought hundreds of Jews and Arabs to demonstrate and protest together outside the Prime Minister in Jerusalem, calling for an end to hate crimes and to hatred itself.

Rabbi Yechiel Grenimann at the demonstration against “price tag” hate crimes

Then came the May 15, when the Palestinians wherever they are commemorate  the Nakba , the catastrophe that befell them when in the aftermath of the  creation of Israel hundreds of thousands of their people became refugees and lost their homes and their land, their villages and cities. Just as Israelis stood at attention to commemorate their Fallen a week earlier, throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territories people stood at attention as a siren sounded for sixty-six seconds - the number of years since the Nakba. Demonstrations and clashes with the army occurred in many places. Not by coincidence, the most heavy confrontations occurred outside the Ofer Prison .

The Ofer Prison is a living and tangible symbol of ongoing occupation and oppression. More than twenty years after the Oslo Accords, which were supposed to lead the Palestinians to statehood, the State of Israel maintains a large detention center behind high concrete walls on the very outskirts of Ramallah, the city which is supposed to be the capital of the autonomous Palestinian Authority. Every night fresh detainees arrive there, blindfolded and hands tied behind their backs, who were detained in the nightly army raids across the West Bank.

A young prisoner en route to Ofer

On Nakba Day, big Palestinian crowds arrived at the gates of Ofer Prison, and the soldiers stationed there opened fire, killing two Palestinians. Did they fire live bullets? The Palestinians claim they did, the army denies it. Live bullets or not, two young people were shot to death and buried in the Palestinian soil,  their funerals attended by frenzied crowds and sparking another big wave of demonstrations and protests across the West Bank. In the official view, the soldiers at the prison gates might have been just a bit over-enthusiastic, but no one accused them of actual wrong-doing. Certainly no one used the term "hate crime". In the Israeli discourse, this term is not used for the acts of uniformed soldiers carrying out their military duties.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, on his return from Japan, did not referr to the two dead Palestinians. He took an altogether different slant: "There in Ramallah they stood at attention to mark the tragedy which they consider the creation of Israel to be. This is incitement! Our answer is to continue to ever more build our country, especially Jerusalem the Capital of Israel, and to quickly enact the Jewish State Law." There were also some reports that Netanyahu is looking for alternative diplomatic initiatives to replace the stalled negotiations, but no one took that very seriously.

So what next? It now is the month of May. There is likely a hot summer ahead, not just regarding physical temperatures.