Five Uneasy Pieces
12/27/02
Associate Editor
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The first casualty of any war is truth, but there are other casualties ó important stories and issues that are obscured by the daily coverage of Israelís battle against the Palestiniansí more than 2-year-old uprising. Here are five issues this year that have been covered only to some extent, considerably more so in Israel than here, but are deserving of greater conversation and examination.
1. Israelís Economy
Israel needs more than just tourists and cookie sales. Thereís been a runaway gap between rich and poor ó the second largest differential in the world. A Knesset committee recently reported that 66 percent of Israelís private wealth is in the hands of 10 percent of the population, with these 10 percent having assets of 800 billion shekels and the other 90 percent having 340 billion. Unemployment has quadrupled since 1987, and is rising at the rate of 47,000 a year.
The committee advised that Israel needs tax reform, welfare reform, wage policies that encourage work, a reduction in the vast armies of foreign workers and more money for education. The Wall Street Journal Europe warned that Israelís economy ìbadly needs reform-minded leadership.î In November, the editors of Yediot Achronot warned that ìIsrael is moving in leaps and bounds towards a situation where it will be classified a third world country in everything connected to education, the economy and the health system.î
Itís not just the fault of the war. Prime Minister Ariel Sharonís economic policies have been criticized by Israeli economists, who know full well that there is a war. The newspaper Hatzofeh called Israelís government ìthe most bloated governmentî that Israel has ever had. ìNo government has been more wasteful,î Hatzofeh said.
Evidence contradicts the presumption that the problems are the result of Israelís isolation in the world. In the last decade, Israel was the beneficiary of more foreign investment than Greece or Turkey; 51 percent of foreign investment came from countries other than the United States or Canada. Business is coming in, but more Israelis are drowning rather than rising with the tide.
Micha Odenheimer, who has written extensively on Israelís economy, says that ìIsrael has had its sense of solidarity and mission corroded by the insatiable greed of its economic elite and the politicians that serve them.î
The early Zionists were wrong about the economic viability of socialism, but they were right that Zionism cannot demand an almost religious fidelity from all Jews or claim to be ìthe flowering of our redemption,î if so few Jews can buy a ticket on that train bound for glory.
2. Israeli Traffic
On Dec. 8, to take one day at random, the headlines in Maariv and Haaretz blared: ìSeven killed in weekend road accidents.î The story earned no mention in the Jewish or American media.
From the start of this war there have been two contradictory impulses in the Jewish community. The first is to complain that we are victims on a scale comparable to the Hitler years. The second is to insist that Israel is so safe that one is more likely to die in traffic than from terror, so what are the non-tourists so afraid of?
Well, which is it, genocide or a fender bender?
Ironically, the Arab media have taken up this very same dismissal of terror with articles, most recently in the Jordan Times, shrugging off that more folks die from accidents than from terror, so whatís the big deal?
Few arguments may be more vulgar in the face of the dead. Yet the traffic argument hasnít been examined for its morality or scope. If it is true that more people die and are disfigured in traffic, how is that comforting to those who are dead or disfigured by terror?
In 2002, Israel expects to see from traffic alone more than 600 dead and 35,000 injured. This has ballooned 35 percent in a decade when traffic fatalities actually decreased by at least that much in several other Western countries through better policing and traffic laws.
During the recent High Holy Days season more than 1,000 Israeli cyclists held a memorial protest ride on behalf of two Israeli bikers killed last year by an Israeli driver under the influence of drugs. Here in America we couldnít cycle alongside them but, out of respect for the dead and the severity of the situation, it may be time to elevate the traffic-terror comparison out of the realm of cliche and into the chambers of horror.
3. Domestic Jihad
Yes, we know ìIslam is a religion of peace,î but according to the American Correctional Association, the number of Muslims in the federal prison system has tripled in the last decade, and Muslims now comprise some 20 percent of all New York prisoners.
The magnitude of what happened on 9-11 so dwarfs lesser acts of terror that the media has sometimes ignored the lesser acts altogether. There seems to be no common standard. For example, on Dec. 1, Reuters sent out on its international wire a story from Belgium about Molotov cocktails that attempted, but failed, to ignite an Antwerp synagogue. By contrast, two weeks later, The New York Times had no coverage at all of the conviction of local Palestinians who threw Molotov cocktails that failed to ignite a shul in the Bronx.
Numerous ìminorî incidents in 2002 never received any serious coverage, yet they paint an ominous picture.
On April 8, a caller to the ADL said he defended a religious Jewish woman on an N train from two girls who were yelling obscenities in her face. They had Palestinian flags on their pocketbooks. Later that month, six young Palestinian youths threw rocks at a chasidic manís car while yelling ìAll Jews must die, we will get you.î When the man stopped to make a phone call, one of the Palestinians punched him in the head.
And more: This summer, a Jewish medical student was hospitalized after being jumped outside a Manhattan bar by five young Arab men, who prefaced the attack with anti-Semitic remarks. In November, workers at a Lower East Side deli chased an elderly Jewish man with a broomstick, yelling, ìJews are not served in this store.î
The extent of attacks by American Muslims against Jews has not been explored as it might have been.
4. Israelís Political System
Supporters of Israel have long bragged that Israel is the most vital democracy in that part of the world. In fact, a recent editorial in Yediot called the political system ìdespicable and corrupt,î an opinion shared by many Israelis of all parties and persuasions.
The unstable system has led to five prime ministers in less than 10 years; a bribery and horse-trading scandal regarding Likudís current electoral slate; and a parliamentary system that has no district representation but encourages special interests and splinter groups who at times donít have the greater national interest at heart. The daily Hatzofeh says Israelís odd political machinations ìshow us to be a corrupt banana republic.î And all this in wartime, when the country can least afford it.
At the same time, the Arab vote in the last election approached 13 percent of the total, meaning issues of Jewish destiny may hinge on those whose dreams are not our own. There may be a dozen non-Zionist Arabs in the next Knesset. If the United States had a dozen senators who sympathized with the Taliban and Saddam Hussein and who felt the American flag wasnít their own, Americans would recognize a grievous problem that wouldnít lend itself to self-congratulation.
Itís a Knesset that begs for a Jefferson but keeps coming up with Jefferson Davis-types who care less for the union than sectional self-interest.
The greatest democracy in the region? Compared to what?
5. The State of the Jews
Israel was created to be a preserve for an endangered species ó Jews. The recent numbers, though, arenít pretty. Seven out of 10 new immigrants, particularly from the former Soviet Union, are not Jewish, by even the most liberal definitions. In 1960, Jews comprised 89 percent of the Jewish state. In 2002, itís down to 78 percent. Aside from West Bank Arabs, demographics and Jewish illiteracy threaten the Jewish character of the state within its most narrow boundaries.
The death of Abba Eban points up that emigres from the United States and the British Commonwealth ó who have a high degree of Zionist and Jewish commitment, and can greatly contribute to a modern, tolerant, serious Israeli Judaism ó have not become major influences on the political or religious scene. For some reason, Sephardic emigres to Israel are thought of as pure Israeli by American Jews, but Eban types are thought of as ìoutsiders.î In Israelís ethnically Balkanized political system, there is no political party that speaks to ìAnglo-Americanî values ó they alone out of all of Israelís groups have no special interests. In the coming elections, the highest slated American-born Jew is Eli Kazhdan of the Yisrael BíAliya party, in the fifth slot.
Unlike Sephardim who proudly bring the traditions from Arab lands with them, many American Jews seem to want to leave America behind. After the young American-born Koby Mandell was horrifically killed by Palestinians last year, the New York Daily News quoted his father, Rabbi Seth Mandell, who said, ìI didnít admire the value system of America, the materialism, the kind of issues people thought were important, the work ethic.î His emotions were not atypical of many American olim who then would be hardly inclined to fight for precisely those American political, religious and social values that Israel could use more of.
This summer, the Education Ministry expressed concern that too many Israeli children donít know the basics, let alone the sophistication, of Judaism or Zionism; some children of bar mitzvah age cannot identify a pair of tefillin or basic biblical story lines. Two weeks ago, Yediot Achronot noted the widespread breaking of the Sabbath laws around the country.
ìThe battle by religious groups for keeping the Sabbath in Israel has been lost,î the paper said.
Not that thereís anything wrong with that. Or is there?
In the arts, Israel is emerging from a decade when its artists had more of a Eurotrash orientation than a spiritually Jewish one. One singing group waved Syrian flags after a European concert. The Batsheva Dance Company wanted to strip naked for a performance celebrating the nation. It was Israelís own pantomime of surrender. In America, movies celebrate the ìgreatest generationî of World War II veterans; in Israel, movie after movie features chain-smoking, sulking war veterans who experienced only personal ruin after fighting in any of Israelís wars for survival. American Jews stopped paying attention to Israeli popular culture.
As Leonard Cohen explained in song, ìItís hard to hold the hand of anyone who is reaching for the sky just to surrender.î
But change is coming, perhaps brought on by the truths of this war. Esta, a musical group that is not religious in the traditional sense, can title an instrumental piece ìTekia, Shevarim, Teruah,î after the notes of the shofar, or can base another piece, ìTikvateinu,î on the ìHatikvah,î with the words, ìWe havenít lost our hope yet ... Play on, speak to God.

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