Archive for September, 2009

`Free Iran’ Rally At UN: Deja Jew

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

Walking through the crowd at the “Free Iran” rally outside the United Nations this afternoon, one would think the Jewish community had spent a good deal of time, effort and money to provide hundreds of day school and yeshiva students with a summer camp reunion and social hour.

High school girls in long skirts screamed with joy and hugged friends they presumably hadn’t seen in weeks, and clusters of teens chatted animatedly amongst themselves as speaker after speaker from the podium - some of them quite eloquent - spoke about against the hypocrisy of a United Nations assembly that provides a podium, rather than a docket, for leaders like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The turnout at the rally was disappointing (though not surprising) because it was smaller than previous rallies of a similar nature, and because it primarily drew the usual cast of characters at such events: the aforementioned teens, bused in from a number of schools in the metropolitan area, and a disproportionate number of adults from the Orthodox community.

Where is the rest of the Jewish community, particularly those who protest about Darfur and climate control but don’t seem as motivated by the threat of a nuclear Iran wreaking havoc on the free world?

I have great respect for the organizers of the rally, including the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, UJA-Federation of New York, and a host of other mainstream groups. And I share their frustration, which some of them shared with me privately.

They not only reached out to the wider community, hoping that the specter of a nuclear Iran would be recognized as not only a danger to Israel but to the entire Mideast, and the West, especially after the world witnessed the travesty of the presidential election in Iran several months ago.

There was an ecumenical spirit on the podium as Christian as well as Jews addressed the crowd. But one Jewish professional whose group was a sponsor of the rally told me that the non-Jewish groups “are not as organized as we are and can’t attract big numbers.

“And how would it look if Ahmadinejad came to town and we didn’t hold a protest?” he added.

One reason for the disappointing turnout may be that most Americans are sated with foreign policy concerns, mostly centered on Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In addition, the pro-Israel community has been talking up the threat of a nuclear Iran for so many years that their message may have lost credibility to some - although the Obama administration seems to be increasingly concerned.

Some right-wing activists in the Jewish community were upset that the rally focused on the lack of freedom and human rights in Iran rather than on the danger Teheran represents to Israel.

But I thought it was a wise move to broaden the theme - not that it resulted in attracting a wider audience, alas.

In Israel, Rescuing Government From Itself

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

Arye Carmon, president of the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), says that one of Israel’s most serious existential threats comes not from Iran or the Arab world but from within.

A longtime leading figure in the movement for electoral reform, Carmon, who was visiting in New York this week, told me the Israeli political/electoral system - or lack of it - has caused the public to lose trust in its leaders. For the last eight years, he said, studies show that trust continues to decline, due largely to corruption scandals and a growing sense that pols and parties care more about self-interest than the collective good.

“The public feels that politics is `theirs,’ meaning the politicians, and not `ours,’” according to Carmon. And that, he said, is a dangerous thing, adding to a sense of “anti-political sentiment” that could spell the end of the parliamentary system.

In an effort to change such attitudes, the IDI is creating a forum, due to meet Oct. 25 for the first time, comprised of 90 leading legal, academic and former government and judicial leaders to advise the Knesset on the foundations of democracy.

“We hope it will establish authority and gain the respect of the public,” Carmon said.

But shouldn’t the Knesset be the body to establish a group to give it advice? And does it even welcome such advice?

That remains to be seen, Carmon implied. But it was clear that Knesset members were not about to form a group to tell it how to reform itself. After all, the results could mean shortened careers for the Members of Knesset now enjoying power.

One can see how the government is paralyzed by narrow-issue parties within the coalition, so that this week for example, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced plans to allow building 455 new housing units in West Bank communities before approving a settlement freeze. The seemingly contradictory move was motivated by politics, throwing a bone to both the right and left elements of the coalition.

In essence, the centrist efforts of any Israeli government are stymied by the small parties that need to be paid off, politically and at times financially, for their support.

This is no way to run a country, and the demographics are not encouraging. Carmon noted that 27 percent of Israeli Jewish second graders attend ultra-Orthodox schools, where democracy is not taught. And those numbers are expected to increase by one-third in the next 15 years.

The Arab Israeli population, now at 22 percent of the country, is expected to near 30 percent in the next 15 years.

“Our approach is inclusivity,” Carmon asserted. The goal is to integrate, not alienate.

The single most important goal for now, he said, is to ensure one-ballot elections (rather than voting twice - for parties and for prime minister - as was done from 1996 to 2003, which further splintered the government). Also crucial, Carmon said, was raising the threshold in elections to four percent of the vote, so that parties would have to win at least five seats, and have the head of the party with the most votes become prime minister immediately, without waiting to cobble together a coalition and gain approval from the president of the state.

(If that were the law now, Tzipi Livni would be prime minister, since her Kadima party won more seats than Netanyahu’s Likud.)

The IDI also would like to institute regional elections and a Constitution By Consensus, since Israel does not have a Constitution. The consensus would reflect the basic values of the populace, based on tolerance and compromise.

Carmon said reforms are most likely to happen either at a time of political crisis or around election time. But he is well aware of the lack of political motivation among Knesset members to jeopardize their own careers and of the electorate, which is so fed up with the status quo.

Is he simply an eternal optimist? I asked.

“Do I have a choice?” he replied.

`Money For Mitzvahs’

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

The “Cash for Clunkers” experiment has come and gone, but what was intended for car owners to benefit from increasing their vehicles’ fuel efficiency could be applied to improve Jewish life as well.

The premise would be the same - a valuable voucher or reward going to folks who trade in something less efficient for something on the next level - but our community could make use of it by having consumers of Jewish practice and education be rewarded for stepping up their commitment.

So, for example, the parents of a youngster who goes from a one-day-a-week supplementary Hebrew school to a five-day-a-week day school would receive a special break on tuition, and the child would be honored in some public forum.

Or, a family leaving the more comfortable confines of this country for the challenges and opportunities of life in Israel would receive gifts from their home community as a way of honoring the new olim and making their transition less difficult.

A man or woman who takes on a leadership role in the local synagogue would get a break on dues and receive recognition for the additional volunteer work he or she is assuming.

In essence, these people would be leaving their clunkier selves behind and making themselves into upgraded, sleeker and more efficient models of do-gooders.

And who, you ask, would be doling out the extra dollars, and where would that money come from? The idea would be to create a special fund for mitzvah work and distribute it to those who increase their level of engagement in Jewish life, and by doing so, improve themselves and the community.

Granted, it’s an idea in progress, but it could lead to a way to give folks an incentive to reach in and step up, leaving their old jalopy ways in the dust.