FROM TOI ARCHIVE: Ticket inspectors to cease work aboard trains (Late March 2012)

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[Originally Published in The Times of Israel, “Israel and the Region” section, March 24, 2012]

In latest escalation of dispute, railway workers union continues to protest privatization decision

Starting Sunday, inspectors will stop checking for tickets on all Israel Railways trains in protest of planned transportation reforms, the railway workers union announced on Saturday night.

According to the union, the decision was made as a result of continued bilateral attempts to privatize Israel Railways. It follows an earlier decision to halt all railway development and maintenance work in protest of the government’s decision to privatize the rail service.

Gila Edrey, head of the railway workers union, is to attend a hearing Sunday morning along with four union members, concerning their conduct at previous protests. If found guilty of violence and threats, Edrey could be laid off.

Earlier in March, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz announced a series of transportation reforms which will privatize the rail service by splitting up the current company, Israel Railways, into three subsidiaries responsible for maintenance, cargo, and real estate development, respectively.


FROM TOI ARCHIVE: Fire erupts at day care center in Elad (March 2012)

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[Originally Published in The Times of Israel, “Israel Inside” section, March 4, 2012]

Initial reports say 18 toddlers taken to hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation

A fire broke out at a children’s day care center in the town of Elad in central Israel, Walla News reported on Sunday. Eighteen toddlers between the ages of one and three were rushed to Schneider Children’s Hospital in nearby Petah Tikva after sustaining minor injuries caused by smoke inhalation.

According to Nana10 News, initial investigations indicate that the fire was caused by a faulty air-conditioning unit. It is believed that one of the unit’s internal motor parts ignited, causing the fire that subsequently spread throughout the center’s building.

Sunday morning’s fire in Elad is the latest in a series of tragic fire-related incidents which have taken place throughout Israel. Nana10 points out that last week an elderly man died after a fire erupted in an apartment building in Ashkelon.

A week earlier a two-year old toddler was killed in a fire in Rosh Ha’ayin. Nineteen people were taken to hospital after suffering from the effects of smoke inhalation.

MUST SEE: Lapid lambasts Bibi-Mofaz deal in America, but could be ultimate beneficiary

Skip to 05:00 for start of Yair Lapid’s speech to congress of Rabbinical Assembly rabbis.

In an eloquent speech to the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism in Atlanta, US, Lapid passionately told the audience that most Israelis belong to the “conservative” [stream] but don’t know it yet”.

As I wrote in my opinion piece on the startling political turn of events which took place yesterday, I speculated that Mofaz took this initiative in order to bypass the ultra-orthodox parties and pass much needed electoral reform legislation to ensure that their power is permanently curtailed.

Lapid was highly critical of the move and bemoaned the fact on his facebook page that the deal represented a return to the “old politics” of corrupt practices and the sacrifice of “principles for jobs”.  On the contrary I would say that Mofaz’s actions could mean that Lapid will actually end up as a major beneficiary of this development in the medium to long-term.

What Lapid fails to understand is that Mofaz grasped a historic opportunity which doesn’t come around very often.  This unprecedented coalition provides the wide political cover necessary to make real changes away from the current proportional representation system which gives disproportionate power to the Haredi parties relative to their real electoral and demographic strength.  Current trends show the ultra-orthodox population is continuing to grow exponentially, so this problem is likely to only grow more pronounced in the coming years.  While we should respect the rights of the ultra-orthodox community to practice their form of Judaism as they see fit, they should not be granted the power to impose their extreme brand of the religion on the rest of the population. This is the current status-quo in Israel today, mainly because of how the system is set-up and their astute manipulation of rules of the game for their own narrow interests.

If Mofaz and Netanyahu can change the political status-quo by reforming the electoral system, it would actually benefit moderate parties such as Yair Lapid’s “Yesh Atid” (there is a future) which represent the views of the vast majority of moderate Israelis.  It is all very well and good standing up for such noble principles as ensuring equal rights for all streams of Judaism as Lapid declared, but if the requisite political power to make those decisions is not there, such principles turn into empty words without action.  The Netanyahu-Mofaz move may not have been pretty, but if you want to defeat your political foes and gain power to implement what you believe in, sometimes you have to play dirty and surprise the opposition.  This is exactly what the Prime Minister and the new honorable Minister without Portfolio have done.

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OPINION: The real motivations behind the Mofaz “zigzag” and the new national unity government

Mofaz’s controversial political manoeuvre may be part of a plan to radically undermine the ultra-orthodox stranglehold on power.

Official Announcement of National Unity Government by Netanyahu and Mofaz yesterday (screen grab from channel 2 video)

Official Announcement of National Unity Government by Netanyahu and Mofaz yesterday (screen grab from channel 2 video)

The Israeli media was full of criticism and outrage yesterday (May 8 2012) at the perceived “dirty trick” carried out by Netanyahu and Mofaz in the early hours of Tuesday morning when the whole political map was redrawn, a massive 94 seat national unity government was formed and early elections were called off at the last possible moment.

The indignation by analysts and commentators has been particularly pronounced against Mofaz, accusing him of acting purely for personal interests and losing all credibility in what many see as a spectacular turnaround.  Israeli television has played ad nauseum previous statements by Mofaz just days before claiming he would never form a government with Netanyahu and calling the Prime Minister a “shakran” (liar).

Most analysts from Haaretz, Ynet and the like have provided a very superficial explanation for Mofaz’s motivations in joining the Netanyahu government, arguing that he simply desired to be at the centre of power at all costs and took the move to postpone his Kadima party’s inevitable poor showing at the next elections.  Others have speculated that a national unity government will provide the added support Netanyahu needs to launch a military strike against Iran.

Shaul Mofaz in 2003 as Minister of Defense at a meeting with his counterparts in Washington. Today Mofaz assumes the considerably lower position of "Minister without Portfolio".

Shaul Mofaz in 2003 as Minister of Defense at a meeting with his counterparts in Washington. Today Mofaz assumes the considerably lower position of “Minister without Portfolio”.

One cannot help but see a hint of racism in the unrelenting criticism that Mofaz has been subjected to.  One commentator on Channel 2 News for example said that Mofaz had behaved like “a stall-holder in Mahane Yehuda (market) selling his produce at bargain-basement prices before Shabbat-eve closing time.” Any serious observer of Israeli politics and society can detect that these comments poke fun at Mofaz’s Mizrahi-Persian background, something which is unacceptable in this day and age.  The pundit obviously did not bother to delve more deeply into why Mofaz would accept the lowly cabinet position of Minister without Portfolio or in Hebrew “sar bli tik” (literally minister without a bag) when he could have held out for so much more. (More on this later).

This is not the first time such thinly veiled racism against Mofaz has been voiced in the Israeli media.  Months before during Mofaz’s primary race with Tzipi Livni, Haaretz opined in Hebrew that he did not stand a chance at gaining the Kadima chairmanship as such an outcome would prompt an immediate “white flight” of Kadima members from the party.  Alas, this Haaretz analyst was proven wrong: in the end Mofaz triumphed over Livni and the “white” members did not flee in haste from the “dark” Iranian menace of Mofaz as the commentator so brazenly predicted.

But of course some of the worst racism against Mizrahim in Israeli society has come from some in the Ashenazi Ultra-Orthodox community and the harmful teachings of their rabbis.  This was the chief reason for example that the former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Ovadia Yosef left the Askenazi United Torah Judaism party (formerly Agudat Yisrael) to form Shas.  And here on the subject of the Haredim, I return to the question of why Mofaz was prepared to accept such a minor cabinet position in order to join Netanyahu’s coalition.  In my view, Mofaz saw a historic opportunity to remove the perpetual stranglehold of the Ultra-Orthodox over Israeli politics.  For the first time in a long time (perhaps in the whole history of the state), the Haredi parties can no longer blackmail the Israeli government by threatening to bolt from the coalition if their financial demands are not met.  They simply do not have a significant enough number of seats with Kadima sitting in the government.  Lieberman too loses his kingmaker privileges and cannot hold the government to ransom over settlements if he desires.

While the talking heads endlessly discuss the renewal of the Tal Law, the real prize lies in changing the electoral system.  If Mofaz and Netanyahu can use the 18 months and their new-found majority to push through dramatic electoral reforms (to something resembling a British-style first-past-the-post system for example), they can change the whole rules of the game, and eliminate the Ultra-Orthodox’s disproportionate influence permanently.

Mofaz knows he may not stand a chance facing the Israeli voting public at the next elections with his credibility still in tatters, but at least he knows that if he works hard to implement far-reaching electoral reforms, he can safeguard the future for his children by undercutting the exploitative power of the Ultra-Orthodox for good.  If he achieves this, the Israeli public may forgive and see that maybe it was not political expediency which was motivating him after all.

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WATCH TRAILER: “Killing Kastner”

Documentary Film on the Life and Death of Israel Kastner, Broadcast on Israeli Television for Holocaust Remembrance Day

Who was Kastner?

Late last night (Wed 18 April 2012), the documentary film, “Killing Kastner” was broadcast on Israeli television, delving into the complex and controversial story of Israel Kastner, a Hungarian Jew who negotiated with Adolf Eichmann and the Nazis to save Jews during the Holocaust.  In exchange for valuable goods and such as diamonds, gold and hard currency, Kastner was able to secure the release of almost 1,700 Jews by train to Switzerland.  In terms of lives saved, this was the greatest single act by any Jew during the Shoah.  Historians also estimate that Kastner was responsible for saving the lives of nearly fifteen thousand other Hungarian Jews by enabling their transfer from Auschwitz to the relative safety of Strasshof labor camp.

Pre-war Life

From his early career in Hungary as a journalist, lawyer and aspiring politician devoted to the Zionist cause, it was clear that Kastner was an individual of great promise and ability.  Sometimes this talent bred a certain over-confidence which spilled over into arrogance.  It was perhaps this supreme confidence in his intellectual ability together with his charisma and good looks which instilled in him the daring and courage to take incredible risks.  Even before the war, despite great personal danger to himself as a Jew, he interviewed members of the anti-Semitic Iron Guard political party in neighbouring Romania while working for the Új Kelet newspaper.

Israel Kastner (Screen capture from Youtube)

Israel Kastner (Screen capture from Youtube)

Negotiating with the Nazis

Of course nothing would compare to his later involvement with the tiny group of Hungarian Jews known as the Aid and Rescue Committee or Vaada during the war.  Under what today seem like impossible circumstances, Kastner was tasked with the role of negotiating with the Nazi leadership, meeting with the duplicitous Adolf Eichmann on several occasions to release thousands of Jews from the clutches of the Nazis and the terrible fate of the concentration and death camps.  Although Kastner was merely part of a small band of Jewish individuals, he projected the image of a man of great power and importance.  How he was able to deceive the Germans in this way still beggars belief even today, but without this tremendous act, he would never have been able achieve what he did, or leave the heart of the Nazi headquarters unscathed each time he ventured inside to negotiate.

Life in Israel and Libel Trial

After the war, Kastner realized his dream of moving to Israel, starting his life afresh by first working for a Hungarian-language newspaper and then slowly rising up the ranks of Ben Gurion’s ruling Mapai party, finally becoming the spokesman for the Ministry of Industry and Trade in 1952.  It was at this point that his past came back to haunt him.  When an elderly amateur journalist with a criminal past named Malchiel Gruenwald, wrote a poisonous pamphlet alleging that Kastner was actually a Nazi collaborator who (among other things) provided assistance to members of the SS such as Kurt Becher, Kastner’s world began to fall apart.  Needless to say, Gruenwald’s stunning revelations involving a toxic mixture of lies, half-truths and innuendo was enough to bring considerable shame and embarrassment onto the unsuspecting Kastner.  As a serving member of the government, Kastner brought a libel trial against Gruenwald in a desperate bid to clear his name and put the whole affair behind him.  But Kastner was caught out lying on the Becher connection and the presiding chief judge ruled that by entering into negotiations with the Nazis he had “sold his soul to the devil”.

The Kastner trial was important in the history of Israel for a number of reasons.  It was the first time that Israeli society confronted the past of the Holocaust and attempted to come to terms with its impossible reality and the stark choices that had to be made by someone like Kastner – who to save and put on the train to Switzerland and who not.  The trial also clashed with the common Israeli perception of the time that the Jews of the Diaspora went to the slaughter without trying to take control of their destiny.  It would take the heart-rending testimonies of the survivors during the Eichmann trial to change that cruel perception once and for all.  In short, Israel’s nascent society at the beginning of the 1950s was not ready to fully understand and engage with the complexity of Kastner’s story and to view his unique circumstances in a sympathetic light.  Once the judge’s words had been spoken, for all intents and purposes, the case was closed and Kastner became a hate figure in Israel.

Ze'ev Eckstein, assassin of Kastner, in present-day Israel (Screen Capture from Youtube)

Ze'ev Eckstein, assassin of Kastner, in present-day Israel (Screen Capture from Youtube)


And then, even once Kastner retreated to a reclusive life of shame and desolation, the story was still not over yet.  In 1957 a 22 year old former member of the extreme right-wing Lehi group named Ze’ev Eckstein, assassinated Kastner together with two accomplices, in an event which is still to this day clouded in mystery and controversy.  In the documentary Eckstein claims that his gun jammed and the only shot that was fired by him was a blank.  This begs the question: who fired the shot which killed Kastner?  And why did Eckstein and the other two accomplishes receive the shortened sentence of just seven years in prison for cold-blooded murder?  And finally, why in 1958 did the Supreme Court over-rule the lower court and completely exonerate Kastner for his role during the Holocaust only one year after his death?  We may never know the answers to these questions and many more.

We can only hope that the re-showing of the Kastner film on Israeli public television in 2012, three years after it first premiered, reminds Israelis that we should not be so quick to judge, and that the truth is often more complicated than it might at first appear.  In 2007 Kastner’s documents were finally entered into the official archives of Yad Vashem.  There is still no street named after Kastner in the State of Israel today.

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UPDATE: Haaretz reports that Helen Thomas award ceremony may lead to censure by U.S. Congress

The award given to controversial journalist Helen Thomas by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has sparked anger not only in Israel, but in the U.S. Congress as well. Two senior Congressmen sent Abbas a letter denouncing the award and hinting that such a move may hurt U.S. assistance to the PA.

דעה מעולה חדש: האח הגדול בטלוויזיה הישראלית – המשמעות של הפוליטיקה

שים לב: המאמר המקורי הופיע באנגלית, זה לא תרגום מקצועי, אבל עיקר הטענות צריך להיות ברור בטקסט זה

באמצע ויכוח עם המתמודדים האחרים בבית של האח הגדול, לחץ על התמונה עבור וידאו מלא עם כתוביות על ידי ערן ורד

סער סקלי באמצע ויכוח עם המתמודדים האחרים בבית של האח הגדול, לחץ על התמונה עבור וידאו מלא עם כתוביות על ידי ערן ורד

התוכנית הריאליטי, האח הגדול, בין אם בישראל או בכל מקום אחר, לא ידוע בדרך כלל כפורום לדיון פוליטי סוער. השנה זאת הייתה שונה. כאשר ככל הנראה הרבה השמאלית סער סקלי ראיין מקום בתוכנית הישראלית הוא לא התיימר על כוונותיו. עבור סקלי, המטרה היתה ברורה: הוא ישתמש במראה שלו על האח הגדול לדבר על הסכסוך המתמשך של ישראל עם הפלסטינים הכיבוש הצבאי של הגדה המערבית.

כמו עמי קאופמן מציין ב – 972 המפיקים של חברת הטלוויזיה קשת של ישראל היו יותר מוכנים לשתף פעולה עם הגישה פוליטי מובהק של סקלי. בניסיון לכאורה כדי לשפר את הרייטינג, קיבל קשת סקלי לתוכנית בדיוק כפי שעשו בעבר עם אחרים “קרייזי” אנשי שמאל. אולי הם חשבו כי סקלי יהיה טוב לצחוק מהירה ושהוא להצבעה בקרוב את הציבור הישראלי בכעס מוכן להקשיב פטפוטי אבל ההשתוללויות של “לפטי” נפגע.

עם זאת, באופן מפתיע למדי עבור כל הנוגעים בדבר, זה לא כמה אירועים התרחשו. למרות נכונותו להתמודד עם כמה נושאים פוליטיים שנויים במחלוקת ביותר של היום, בדרך נס, סקלי זכה על חסדיה של הציבור והוא הגיע פרק הסיום של הסדרה. העובדה שהוא מהיר תפיסה, נואם רהוט יש כמובן לא נפגע הונו כאן.

בעוד קאופמן רואה בבירור במאמר שלו על הנושא של האח הגדול סער סקלי כמו קצת מוך קלילה הקלה, אני נאלץ שלא להסכים איתך. קליפ הדיון של סקלי עם המתמודדים האחרים האח הגדול חשוב מכיוון שהוא מספק תובנה כנה ומשכנע את רוח הזמן הנוכחי של הזרם המרכזי בחברה הישראלית.

בכל הכנות, התגובה הראשונה שלי כאשר אני הנצפים קליפ היה להתפעל ההגנה רטורית זריז של סקלי נגד מטח של התקפות על ידי המשתתפים האחרים. אבל בסופו של דבר מצאתי את הרשמים וההערות של חבר קרוב שלי להיות הרבה יותר חושפני. התגובה שלו לא היה אחד אופטימיות חיוביות. להפך זה היה זעם: לא את הדעות שהשמיעו רגישים סקלי אבל הסירוב טהור ידי חלק מחברי הבית כדי אפילו להקשיב למה הצעיר “השמאלנית” היה צריך לומר.

בשלב מסוים בסרטון, סקלי מספר במיוחד אירוע מטריד בבילעין מפגין כאשר נפגע ונהרג על ידי זריקה ישירה של רימון גז מטווח קצר כזה כי זה רק יכול להיות מכוון. ברגע זה, אחר האזנן מרחוק במהירות מתערב, והאשים סקלי של משמיצים את כל החברים שלו בצבא הישראלי כ”רוצחים”.

המצלמה ואז חותך משם לקבוצה אחרת דנים את המצב בתוך הבית. אחד אומר, איך הוא יכול לצאת בטלוויזיה מול כל ולהיות – נגד בני עמו – בני עמו. מבחינתי, הרגע הזה הוא המפתח לחלוטין המחשה לבעיה רחבה הרבה יותר.

כיום קונסנזוס הזרם המרכזי בישראל עובר לקראת צפה שזה פטריוטי לחקור את המדיניות של הצבא או הממשלה. אני טוען ההיפך הגמור. דיון חופשי, פתוח ונמרץ הוא דם החיים של כל חברה דמוקרטית בריאה. זה לא צריך להיות משהו זר לישראלים. למעשה, הנוהג של חקירה ודיון הוא בלב ליבה של לימוד המסורת היהודית. זה יכול להיות לא נעים לשמוע כמה עובדות סקלי יש להציג, אבל ברור שהתשובה אינו טמון התקפות אישיות הסירוב להקשיב.

העובדה סקלי נשאר בתחרות ארוכה זו היא הוכחה כי הציבור הישראלי פתוח מידע ודעות אשר לאתגר את הסטטוס קוו. למעשה, הייתי אומר, הישראלים משוועים זה.

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In wide ranging discussion assessing the impact of Peter Beinart on the Israel debate within the US Jewish community, Daniel Levy, Co-Director of Middle East Task Force at New America Foundation says history of anti-Semitism, Holocaust cheapened by influential voices in American Jewish establishment

Israel’s Mako Channel 2 TV station ran a prominent story on their website today (April 8, 2012) covering the recent interview of Saar Szekely, the so-called “radical leftist” Big Brother contestant appearing on Al Jazeera’s “The Stream” program in English.  The interview has been widely reported by many of the major Israeli media outlets including NRG (Maariv newspaper online edition), Nana (Channel 10 TV), Walla and of course Mako-Keshet which produces the Big Brother show in Israel.

The mainstream Israeli media has all led as their main headline: “Szekely says that he would not enlist in the IDF today”.  Although they all mentioned Szekely’s comments on friendship with Arabs as a “political act”, the Israeli press tended to do so right at the end of their articles, as a relatively unimportant footnote.

Saar Szekely entering the Big Brother house

Saar Szekely entering the Big Brother house

This morning, the presenters of the channel 2 morning show, “Yom Hadash” (new day), Dahlia Mazor and Yoaz Limor, expressed disapproval of Szekely’s appearance on Al Jazeera saying that it was wrong for him to criticise Israel on “Arab media,” (even though Szekely actually appeared on the channel’s English version).  However, they agreed that prior to that it was legitimate for him to express his political views on Israeli primetime television.

Another major contributor taking part in “The Stream” program together with Szekely, and completely absent from any Israeli coverage was Daniel Levy, son of controversial member of the British House of Lords, Michael Levy, and in his own right a serious figure in numerous Israeli peace negotiating teams.  Levy was a member of Israeli delegations from Oslo 2 in 1995, to the Taba summit in 2001 and most recently was one of the lead drafters of the Geneva Accords.  Today Levy spends most of his time in Washington D.C. working for the think tank, the New America Foundation, as the co-director of their Middle East Task Force department.

During the course of the Al Jazeera show, Levy made a number of provocative comments challenging the American-Jewish establishment regarding the debate on Israel in the US.  First he said that the accusation of “anti-Semitism” and the use of the Holocaust is “hurled around” too often thus cheapening the term and the history of the Jewish people.  Levy also referenced the response of Atlantic journalist, Jeffrey Goldberg to Peter Beinart’s Zionist BDS arguments as an example of the kind of unhelpful knee-jerk reactions in the Jewish community to deep criticism of Israeli policy.

Daniel Levy, Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation

Daniel Levy, Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation

Later in the program, Levy also heavily criticised Israeli government and military favouring security at all costs while compromising international ethical and legal norms.  He stated that “we’re all better off” in a rule-based society and a world in which rules and rights are not abused.  He also argued that such abuse in the name of security will only, “engender hate, anger and frustration”.  This will result in a “boomerang” effect which will be self-defeating, only serving to undermine our security interests in the long-term, Levy added.

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Opinion: The PA’s Disgrace

The latest shameful episode involving Helen Thomas shows that emotions are important: either as the basis for advancing relations between Israelis and Palestinians, or causing yet another setback on the road to peace 

Helen Thomas (photo credit: CC BY-SA rachaelvoorhees, flickr)

Helen Thomas speaking at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs (photo credit: CC BY-SA rachaelvoorhees, flickr)

The news this week that the PLO mission to the United States honoured the now infamous 91-year old veteran White House reporter, Helen Thomas, at a lavish journalism award ceremony, is incomprehensible just as it is outrageous.  As a progressive-minded Israeli still defending the possibility of peace against impossible odds, this latest piece of news is yet another cruel slap-in-the-face, providing further ammunition for an ever-strengthening right-wing camp, bitterly opposed to peace at all costs.

For those who need reminding, back in 2010 Thomas shocked the American public and the “inside the beltway” crowd when she told Rabbi David Nesenoff of the website, that the Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine.”  When the Rabbi politely asked where they should go now after over 60 years of statehood, Thomas snapped back that they should simply go “home” to “Poland, Germany, America and everywhere else.”

From the moment that Thomas uttered her vitriolic, simplistic and highly insensitive remarks, there was widespread consensus that what she said went far beyond the pale.  In Washington D.C, where the powerful AIPAC lobby and its message of unquestioning support for Israel is all-consuming, even informed and well-grounded criticism of Israel is rare.  But to suggest that the Jews of Israel should return to Europe, the scene of the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust strikes a visceral emotional chord with Jews everywhere and of all stripes.  It doesn’t matter if we are of European (Ashkenazi) or Middle Eastern (Mizrahi) descent, left or right. Even in Iran, the only Jewish member of the 290-strong parliament, who describes himself as an Iranian first and a Jew second, openly condemned President Ahmadinejad in 2006 for similar statements on Israel and the Holocaust.

The point here is that Thomas’ comments were not just anti-Israel, they were anti-Jewish.  How exactly her remarks represent a distinguished journalistic career of “supporting Palestine in the west” as per the PLO’s official statement, is a complete mystery to me.  It seems that animosity between Israelis and Palestinians at the diplomatic level today means that anti-Jewish comments such as these are automatically interpreted as pro-Palestinian.  They are not.

But, why does it matter that the once venerable “doyenne” of the White House press corps has been honoured by the Palestinian Authority in this way?  The fact is, after decades of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, emotions matter.  And what moment in history touches Jews the world over more than the Holocaust?  Lets face it, we Middle Easterners are an emotional people: this can either manifest itself as unrestrained hatred and anger or unrestrained warmth and love.  Anyone who has spent even a short amount of time here in Israel/Palestine knows that Scandinavia, it is not.

That is why new Palestinian voices such as those of Aziz Abu Sarah are so important. Recently he told a J Street audience that he doesn’t, “see us as Palestinians vs Israeli or Arabs vs Jews anymore, we are standing on the same side.”  On a very basic level this is emotionally powerful for me as a Jewish Israeli. To see a Palestinian who has suffered so much personally, make the transformation in his own words from “anti-peace” to “pro-peace” while stating clearly that there is no contradiction between being pro-Israel and pro-Palestine, can only be described as inspirational.  It is this emotional-inspirational basis which we need to capitalize on and galvanize our respective populations, in order to move forward.  If we don’t, we risk leaving the news agenda to the hollow diplomatic ceremonies of the Helen Thomases of this world.

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Opinion: Israeli Big Brother TV Show ‘Does’ Politics

‘Left wing’ reality show contestant Saar Szekely sparks intense debate, challenges the ‘consensus’ and gains popularity

Screen Capture of Saar Szekely in the midst of debate with other Big Brother contestants

Screen Capture of Saar Szekely in the midst of debate with other Big Brother contestants (click on image for full video with subtitles by Eran Vered)

The reality show Big Brother, whether in Israel or elsewhere, is not usually known as a forum for heated political debate.  This year however has been different.  When the apparently far-left Saar Szekely interviewed for a place on the Israeli show he made no pretense about his intentions.  For Szekely, the aim was clear: he would use his appearance on Big Brother to talk about Israel’s prolonged conflict with the Palestinians and the military occupation of the West Bank.

As Ami Kaufman points out in, the producers of Israel’s Keshet television company were more than willing to play along with Szekely’s distinctly political approach.  In an apparent bid to improve ratings, Keshet accepted Szekely into the program just as they had done in the past with other “crazy” left-wingers.  Perhaps they reasoned that Szekely would be good for a quick laugh and that he would be soon voted off by an exasperated Israeli public unwilling to listen to the rantings and ravings of an aggrieved “lefty”.

However, quite surprisingly for all concerned, this is not how events have transpired.  Despite his willingness to grapple with some of the most controversial political issues of the day, by some miracle, Szekely gained the affections of the public and has made it to the show’s finale.  The fact that he is a quick-witted, articulate debater has obviously not harmed his popularity.

While Kaufman clearly sees his own article on the subject of Big Brother and Saar Szekely as a bit of fluff and light-hearted relief, I respectfully disagree.  The clip of Szekely’s debate with the other Big Brother contestants is important because it provides a candid and compelling insight into the current zeitgeist of mainstream Israeli society.

In all honesty, my first reaction when I viewed the clip was to marvel at Szekely’s nimble rhetorical defense against a barrage of attacks by the other participants.  But in the end I found the impressions and comments of a close friend of mine to be far more revealing.  His response was not one of optimism and positivity.  On the contrary it was outrage: not at the sensitive views voiced by Szekely but at the pure refusal by some members of the house to even listen to what the young “leftist” had to say.

At one point in the clip, Szekely recounts one particularly troubling occurrence in Bil’in when a protestor was hit and killed by a direct shot from a gas canister at such close range that it can only have been deliberate.  At this moment, another housemate listening from afar quickly interjects, accusing Szekely of slandering all his friends in the Israeli army as “murderers”.

The camera then cuts away to another group discussing the situation inside the house.  One says, how can he come out on television in front of the whole and be “neged am shelo” – against his people – his own people.  For me, this moment is absolutely key and illustrative of a much wider problem.

Today the mainstream consensus in Israel is shifting towards the view that it is unpatriotic to question the policies of the army or the government.  I would argue the complete opposite.  Free, open and vigorous debate is the life-blood of any healthy democratic society.  This should not be something alien to Israelis.  In fact, the practice of questioning and debate is at the very core of Jewish learning and tradition.  It may be unpleasant to hear some of the facts that Szekely has to present, but clearly the answer does not lie in personal attacks and the refusal to listen.

The fact that Szekely has remained in the competition this long is proof that the Israeli public is receptive to information and opinions which challenge the status quo.  Understandably, after years of disappointment, war and terror, public opinion has hardened rightwards.  But perhaps Szekely’s new-found popularity is a small sign that things are changing.

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