Israel & Japan – Variance

I am on a very short visit to Israel (3 days), and here is an observation that came to my mind about one of the major differences between my country, Israel, and the country I currently live in, Japan.

In one word: variance.

In statistics, variance denotes how far a set of numbers are spread out from their average value. In other words, the higher the variance, the wider and more spread out things are.

In Japan, conformity and adherence to rules are the norm, which results in a pretty uniform experience when interacting with other people. There are prescribed phrases and norms of conduct governing almost every human interaction. For example, when arriving and leaving work, the same phrases are said to colleagues, every day for years. Or when buying in a store, the staff will invariably greet customers with the same set phrases or set questions. Very little is left to the imagination, let alone individual expression.

The opposite is true in Israel. When you meet a person, enter a store, or ask someone something – you never know what the response will be. It’s terra incognita every time. It might be a pleasant interaction which will bring a smile to your face, or it might be a confrontational one which will make you angry or disappointed.

Here are a couple of small examples from a visit to the supermarket today. I approached one of the staff members asking where to find a certain product. She shrugged her shoulders (no words spoken). I took that as an “I don’t know” and asked her if there was anywhere I could ask. She barked back at me along the lines of “I don’t know and stop bothering me”.

A few minutes later, as I was leaving the store, the guy checking the receipts at the door smiled heartily, wished me a great day, and a long and healthy life. I didn’t ask him anything or say anything; he bestowed me with these kind blessings unsolicited.

So, the variance in Israel is huge in comparison to Japan. This reminded me of something a visitor to Japan told me recently: Japan is great, people are very polite and kind, and service is unparalleled. But when it comes to everyday human interaction, it’s “devoid of colour”.

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Why Netanyahu Should Go (For His Own Good)

The flood of inquiries into activities associated with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is overpowering. Even ignoring the “noise multiplier” effect of the media frenzy surrounding the latest revelations, there is little doubt about the breadth and severity of the allegations about bribery and corruption.

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Nethanyahu should go. It’s the right thing to do. Ideally, he should resign. At the very least, he should take time off. Like all suspects, he is innocent until proven guilty. Unlike almost all other suspects, he is the prime minister. As he himself said about his predecessor, a prime minister “up to his neck in investigations… does not have a public or moral mandate to determine such fateful matters for the state of Israel”.

But Netanyahu should go also because it’s for his own good. I am not a fan of Netanyahu, but I recognize his long and, in the eyes of many, successful career. Not only as prime minister, but also as finance minister, foreign minister, ambassador to the UN and many other prominent roles. Whichever way these multiple investigations end, Netanyahu’s career will not end well. Even in the unlikely event of full acquittal from all allegations, he will be weakened within his own party and will need to fight to stay in power. His image in the eyes of the public, even among his staunchest supporters, is already tainted beyond repair.

The Hebrew language has an expression (mistakenly paraphrasing a Talmudic saying): “his old days put his youth to shame”. It is used to describe people whose bad actions later in life eclipse their previously good actions. Netanyahu may still be able to salvage his legacy by stepping down and fighting his legal battles as a ordinary citizen, and not as an embattled and cornered prime minister.

Amona – Something Positive

I have not written much about Amona, the West Bank outpost that was evacuated this week after being proclaimed illegal by the High Court of Justice. The reason is that there isn’t much to add to what has already been written and discussed ad nauseam about this topic.

At the end of the day it’s a simple open-and-shut case that should have been behind us years ago, were it not for a small but loud minority of settlers delaying the process through the right-wing government they hold hostage. Any other person in Israel building illegally on land owned by another person would have swiftly felt the full force of the law falling on his head, but as we know too well, settlers in the West Bank enjoy extra legem privileges not available to ordinary Israelis.

There is however one positive aspect to the sordid affair of Amona. The vast majority of the Israeli public expressed utter indifference to the plight of these law-breaking settlers. A long and very visible struggle against the evacuation, tireless efforts by senior government ministers (including the Prime Minister) to overturn the evacuation order, desperate calls by rabbis and leaders of the settlement movement for the masses to come to Amona and oppose the evacuation – were all met by a collective apathetic shrug. A bunch of bored young hooligans did turn up to occupy the local synagogue and delay the evacuation process, but that was it.

And this is a huge positive. The settlers have proven, once again, what is a well-known but little-spoken-of fact: the Israeli public does not have their back. In the famous words of one of their rabbis many years ago, they may have settled the land but they have failed to settle in the hearts of Israelis. And this is positive because when the day comes that many of the settlements will need to be evacuated, the settlers will not find sympathy in their fellow nationals. They will realize that their decades-long hijacking of Israel’s future in the name of a messianic ideology will end up in the ash heap of history.

Navel-Gazing Israelis

A very common human trait is navel-gazing, the tendency to think too much and too deeply about yourself and your circumstances and being incapable of taking a “bigger picture” look. A short and seemingly insignificant news item today demonstrates this navel-gazing trait among some religious Israelis.

Minister of Education and head of the national-religious party, Naftali Bennett, twitted something late afternoon last Friday. In his tweet he emphasized that although Shabbat has already started in Israel, he was abroad and it wasn’t Shabbat yet where he was tweeting from.

24 hours later, right after Shabbat ended, many attacked Bennett for tweeting during Shabbat in Israel. True to form, they quoted obscure halachot (Jewish laws) about making Jews read Twitter on Shabbat (as if Bennett’s tweets were the reason people were on the Internet on Shabbat) or making religious people enjoy/benefit from an action that desecrated the Shabbat (as if there aren’t dozens of such actions religious people benefit from during Shabbat in Israel).

More than anything, this over-reaction is an excellent example of how self-centered and self-absorbed many religious people have become in Israel. One of the downsides of the huge success of the Jewish State reviving Judaism to levels it have not known in history, is the almost complete unawareness of Israelis about the Jewish world outside of Israel. It is very obvious in the big issues –  the way they see (or more likely, don’t see) the non-Orthodox movements, the conversions done abroad, etc. But for me it is this small example that is so revealing about how deeply rooted this navel-gazing has become.

Who’s a Rabbi?

Hundreds of rabbis in Israel signed a letter supporting another rabbi, Yigal Levinstein, following the public outcry against him. Levinstein recently gave a speech in which he repeatedly referred to homosexuals as “deviants”.

Support from more than 300 rabbis. Sounds impressive.

Actually, not really.

A “rabbi” in Israel is someone who’s been ordained (received סמיכה). In ultra-orthodox circles this usually means that a prominent rabbi tests the knowledge of the aspiring rabbi – a matter of a few hours – and ordains him. In most cases there are no formal requirements and each community decides who to ordain. In national-religious circles (where most of the signing rabbis come from) this means undergoing a series of exams issued by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem. The exams are formally recognized by the State of Israel and are somewhat equivalent – in scope and difficulty – to a BA degree in Humanities.

In fact, I know several “rabbis” who were ordained after learning a couple of tractates in the Talmud and a few chapters in Shulchan Aruch (the leading Jewish Law textbook). Not only is their knowledge minimal; they lack the basic tools and skills to teach or guide other Jews, which is what rabbis are supposed to do. Some of them hardly open a book after their ordination.

The ease of rallying hundreds of rabbis to add their signatures to this letter is telling. It is a sign of the inflationary increase in the number of ordinations in Israel. If 300 rabbis can be asked to sign a letter in a few days, imagine how many rabbis are out there! As in all inflationary situations, the value of the goods decrease as they become more ubiquitous.

So I wouldn’t place too much importance on the title “rabbi”. Imagine a news headline about 300 people with a BA degree signing some petition. Would you be impressed? I guess not. Same here.

The Killing of Hope

I just came back from a short visit to Israel, after a year of being away. I met family and friends, and as is the norm with Israelis, the conversations also touched on the matsav – literally “situation” – a generic term for discussing current political affairs.

My foremost impression is unfortunately not a positive one. Almost everybody I spoke with expressed some kind of “giving up” attitude with regards to Israeli politics. Regardless of political affiliation (and many of my acquaintances are right-wing supporters), there seemed to be a general consensus that prime minister Netanyahu is bad for Israel, but there is nothing they can do about it. One of my family members, a young man in his twenties, said he doesn’t vote because nothing can be changed, adding that this is also the case with many of his friends. Others spoke about the daily grind of putting food on the table (metaphorically speaking, of course) which has become so hard as to leave no room for thinking, let alone doing something, to change Israel for the better.

To me, this is a strong indication of Netanyahu’s success in his ultimate goal: personal survival. I reached the conclusion long ago that Netanyahu cares more about securing his position than about the welfare of Israel’s citizens, and this is why I think he should be replaced (and it doesn’t matter by who). Now it seems that his success is beyond my worst dreams, as he has also succeeded in killing hope. The combination of fear politics with the elimination of any potential political rivals has placed Netanyahu in the same footing as some infamous 20th century rulers, living no room for his “subjects” to effectively protest. In those cases only a calamity, or outside intervention, eventually changed things.

I want to believe that not all hope is lost. I want to believe that Israelis, one of the most resourceful and forward-thinking group of people on the planet, will find a way to better their lives by getting rid of the worst prime minister in the country’s history.

Different Standards

A couple of months ago it was revealed that the governor of Tokyo, Yoichi Masuzoe, was using his official car to be driven to a weekend cottage. He was also accused of using public money for private spending, such as gifts for his family and accommodation in high-end spas. The investigators who looked into these expenses – which amounted to a few million Yen (tens of thousands of US dollars) – stressed that this conduct was improper, but not illegal.

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A few days ago, following a public outcry, the governor resigned from his position over an expenses scandal.

Now, imagine the following heading: “Israeli PM Netanyahu Resigns Over Expenses Scandal”. Hard to imagine, right?

Netanyahu and his wife have been the subject of various investigations about improper (perhaps even illegal) use of public funds. The accusations include expenses in their private residence in Caesaria (aromatic candles, pistachio ice cream) to double-billing of flights abroad for family members, and more. True, nothing has been proven in court yet – also because Netanyahu deftly placed several spineless Attorney Generals in office – but the mere allegations are such that an honest politician would have resigned long ago. However, King Bibi and Queen Sarah rule on.

Different countries, different standards.

Israel’s Labor Party – Cupio Dissolvi

Israel’s Labor Party’s propensity to self-destruct never ceases to amaze me.

After positioning itself as the main opposition party to the most right-wing government this country has ever seen, and after running an election campaign under the slogan “it’s us or him” (him being Israel’s Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu) – the leader of the Labor Party, Yitzhak Herzog, is doing his utmost to crawl into Netanyahu’s coalition and form a “unity government”. The fact that the vast majority of his party’s parliament members are opposed to such a move doesn’t seem to deter him.

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Today it transpired that Netanyahu – being the supreme political wizard he is – was apparently using Herzog as a bargaining chip to bring another right-wing party, Israel Betenu, into the fold. That, in itself, is not surprising. What is astounding is the fact that Herzog fell into this trademark Netanyahu trap so easily. He has now alienated pretty much anyone who supported him and, in the process, is tearing the Labor Party to shreds.

This wouldn’t be the first time. Past Labor Party leaders have done a tremendous job in steering their party into inconsequential oblivion. There is something about this party that makes it implode into itself every few years.

In Paul’s epistle to the Philippians he expresses the desire to be “dissolved”, to leave his corporeal and earthly life and join Christ in heaven. The Latin translation of this passage gave birth to the Latin phrase cupio dissolvi. In modern times, cupio dissolvi expresses a masochistic desire to self-destruct, often by suicide. After rendering its election campaign’s slogan irrelevant, perhaps Israel’s Labor Party should adopt cupio dissolvi as its new slogan.

Baffling Sense of Insecurity

Former US President Bill Clinton responded to a heckler at a recent event while campaigning for his wife, saying: “I killed myself to give the Palestinians a state. I had a deal they turned down”. He was referring to the failed 2000 Camp David peace talks he brokered between Israel and the Palestinians, thus putting the blame for the failure squarely in the Palestinian camp.

Ever since Clinton made this comment, Israeli (and Jewish) media and internet sites have quoted and re-quoted Clinton countless times, declaring this is proof – finally! – that the Palestinians are the bad guys in this story. Right-wing internet magazine Mida wrote: “16 years later, the truth is exposed“. Leading newspaper Yediot Aharonot labeled it “Clinton’s Zionist speech“. And these are just two examples.

The truth of the matter is that this is non-news. Clinton said many times in the past that the Palestinians were to blame. In a statement issued when Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat died, Clinton wrote: “I regret that in 2000 he missed the opportunity to bring that nation into being“. In his memoir “My Life”, Clinton wrote that he responded to Arafat who called him a great man, saying: “I am not a great man. I am a failure, and you made me one”. And not only Clinton. His key negotiator at the time, Dennis Ross, repeatedly wrote and said that the Palestinians are to blame for the failure of the peace talks.

So why are Israelis so excited about Clinton’s offhand comment this week? Why do they laud this comment as “proof” when it’s already been stated so many times in the past?

In my mind, this is all a sign of insecurity. Somewhat paradoxically for a nation that prides itself for inventing chutzhpah and for being overtly confident about everything and anything, this “we told you so” frenzy uncovers a deep sense of insecurity. Instead of moving on after such an obvious statement, many Israelis cling to it as if it were a life raft, to vindicate their opinions not only towards to the “world who is always against us” but also (perhaps mainly) to themselves.

This baffling insecurity is very telling and very disturbing.

Israel’s 68th Birthday

All year long, we Israelis are prone to highlighting the imperfect facets of our country. The vast majority of us do so out of a deep love for Israel and a wish for it to become a better place for us and for our children.

But today, on Israel’s Independence Day, criticism and cynicism take a day off, and we all celebrate our country’s birthday with unabashed and unreserved pride!