September 13th, 2012 by Gershom Gorenberg · Politics and Policy
I admit to being AWOL from South Jerusalem recently. So I’m catching up, posting several columns I’ve published elsewhere in the past week or so. This one is from The American Prospect – written before the embassy riot, but all the more relevant now:
Dear President Morsi,
I know you have a lot on your mind….
So relations with Israel may be at the edge of your peripheral vision. Still, I hope you’ll take this Israeli’s suggestion: You should do more to preserve Egyptian-Israeli peace. Rather than imply commitment to the peace treaty, express it clearly. Egypt’s welfare depends on it, as do future Mideast peace efforts.
In domestic terms, you certainly did not waste the first crisis on the Israeli border. Just a month ago, the armed forces still had more power than you did. Then militants attacked a base at the eastern edge of the Sinai, killed 16 Egyptian soldiers, and crossed into Israel, where Israeli troops finished them off. Stunning the world, you used the blow to the army’s prestige to dismiss the top commanders and to void the military decree limiting your authority. Afterward, the army began its crackdown on Islamic extremists in the chaotic Sinai, sending troops, and reportedly tanks and helicopters.
There was a glitch, though. The Israeli government has an unavoidable ambivalence: It wants Egypt to impose order in the Sinai, so that neither jihadists nor Palestinian militants can attack Israel from there. But to prevent war between Israel and Egypt, the 1979 peace treaty restricts the forces and weapons that Egypt can deploy in the Sinai. Changes have to be coordinated with Israel. This time, it seems, your side skipped consultations, at least at the outset. [Read more →]
September 7th, 2012 by Haim Watzman · Culture and Ideas
A hand passed before my face and I jerked out of my reverie. A cool, almost chilly breeze was blowing from Bethlehem. The muffled sound of the wedding band, playing Levantine-tinged pop settings of verses from the Song of Songs and Jeremiah, filtered through the glass doors, blaring for a few seconds when a child ran in or out.
illustration by Avi Katz
The face to which the hand was connected belonged to Vardit, the bride’s best friend. Unlike the Aviya, whose demure pearl-white dress reached to the floor and had sleeves below the elbow, Vardit was sleeveless and in red. Her arms and face glowed from dancing.
“Bored?” she asked.
I removed the buds from my ears. “I needed a break,” I said.
“I needed some air.” She removed a pack of cigarettes from a small macramé bag she had slung over her shoulder and jokingly offered me one. I leaned back against a marble-faced pillar and surveyed the Judean hills. On this hill in southern Jerusalem you can see the Dead Sea on a clear day. At night, the hills to the southeast are mostly dark shadows, but most of the panorama is alive with the lights of Arab cities and Jewish neighborhoods.
“You look a little sad,” she said. [Read more →]
Tags: Brahms·classical music·Judaism·Religion
One very large hand landing on your shoulder is not a good sign at McCloskey’s on 46th Street. Two hands, one on each shoulder, is red alert. And that is what I felt Wednesday night as I was downing a shot of Wild Turkey and wondering whether the blonde doll behind the bar had health insurance. Mrs. McCloskey runs a good bar, but does she provide employee benefits? Could I risk making a pass at a good looker who might not have seen a doctor since she was last in the emergency room with a bloody nose?
illustration by Avi Katz
I did not look right and I did not look left, just crooked a finger at the girl to show her I needed another shot in my glass. But I could feel the two goons settling onto the stools on either side of me. I could feel their emanations, I mean. What was emanating was “red state,” and “shaft the poor,” with a dash of “corporations are people.” Goons do not need to be seen to be felt, and I mean even before they shove a piece in your backside.
The blonde poured me a shot. I glanced up at her and said: “Gorgeous,
you see these two guys on my either sides? Would you mind telling them to move on?” [Read more →]
Tags: 2012 campaign·Obama·political satire·Republican
My new piece, just up at the Daily Beast:
Eavesdropping from afar on the debate about how American Jews will vote this year is a slightly surrealistic business. Not just the claim that Jews will vote Republican because of Israel. Anyone who has passed Polling 101 knows that few Jews choose their presidential candidate based on the Israel issue. What’s truly strange about the idea of Jews–especially Jews connected to Jewish religious tradition–voting Republican is that the GOP is rather obviously committed to the quality of Sodom.
Sorry. Let me clear up the confusion caused by the English language and its religious history. I am definitely not referring to sexual orientation. The idea that sodomy has to do with sex is one more piece of evidence that Judaism and Christianity are two religions separated by a common scripture. In Judaism, Sodom stands for economic injustice, selfishness and refusal to redistribute wealth. [Read more →]
My new article in Hadassah magazine:
A few months after Avihai Ronski retired as the chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces in 2010, the media reported that he was moving temporarily to a village founded several years before 20 miles south of Beersheba in the Negev.
The news value was that Ronski was moving, at least temporarily, from controversy to consensus: For years he had been a prominent resident of Itamar, a West Bank settlement known as a bastion of the far right. In his role as the military’s top rabbi, he came under criticism for allegedly politicizing the Army rabbinate.
But developing the Negev is a mom-and-apple-pie value in Israel, respected all the more because few people act on it. Moving to an isolated community expressed the Zionist ideal of pioneering—while avoiding the political tempest over West Bank settlement. If Ronski had also become a farmer, he would have completed a trifecta of old-time values.
And yet, maybe the ideals behind Ronski’s move should also stir debate. Does it make more sense in 21st-century Israel, starved for open space, to start new communities anywhere, or should we be building denser and higher? Should developing the Negev still be seen as a Zionist obligation or, as some environmentalists assert, as an ecological disaster? For that matter, what about making the desert bloom or even farming in general: Do Jews need to be farmers when Israel lives on its software successes? [Read more →]
July 20th, 2012 by Gershom Gorenberg · Politics and Policy
Why did the Great Coalition That Would Solve Everything come undone in a mere 70 days? I explain in the American Prospect.
In France’s Fourth Republic, it was said that tourists in Paris made sure to take in the daily changing of the government. According to myth, a deputy who dozed in the National Assembly might wake up to be told that he’d been premier twice during his nap. The coalitions that rule countries with multiparty systems can be flimsy things. But outside the realm of myth, Israel’s most recent coalition was particularly short-lived: It ruled for ten weeks, just seventy days, before collapsing this week.
By bringing Shaul Mofaz’s centrist Kadima Party into his government in May, Netanyahu sought to avoid early elections. Among the big things that new friends Shaul and Bibi promised to do were ending the widely resented draft exemption for ultra-Orthodox men and jump-starting the peace process with the Palestinians. In other words, Netanyahu would show that he was really a moderate, and that he had been waiting for Kadima’s support to rule as one.
The explicit reason that Kadima left the coalition on Tuesday was irresolvable differences on the draft issue. Turns out that Netanyahu is not any kind of moderate. He’d like to maintain a façade that he is willing to agree to a two-state arrangement, and that he’d sadly compromise on the West Bank eternally belonging to Israel, if only the Palestinians were willing to talk without setting preconditions. But the façade is crumbling. [Read more →]
illustration by Avi Katz
Yes, that’s my seat, but don’t worry about it, just let me squeeze past, I’ve gained some weight and the belly doesn’t squeeze like it used to, I’ll sit over there next to you. No, really, it’s just fine, yes, that’s my name on the seat, but how could you know, you’re a stranger, and who would bother to tell you because I hardly ever show up. Anyway, I built this synagogue, with some help from my brothers and sisters, so all the seats are really mine. Do I smell bananas or is it just my imagination?
That young rabbi gets on my nerves. See the way he parades behind the Sefer Torah, looks just like Eli Yishai from Shas, I think at the yeshivot they bring in plastic surgeons and acting coaches to make them all look that way. Same short-trimmed beard, same beanpole physique, same clothes, same words coming out of their mouths. You think it’s not polite for me to talk to you while everyone’s blowing kisses at the holy scroll? Don’t let it bother you, like I said, I built this place and I can do whatever I want.
You know why I’m here? To say kaddish
for my father. Died 27 years ago today. And not a day too soon, believe me. He was a domineering bastard. You know the kind, from the old generation, no education, no knowledge of the world, no interests beyond telling his wife and kids what to do every day of their lives and every minute of their days. Each year I tell myself that, enough, I won’t go this year, [Read more →]
Tags: Balaam·Balak·fiction·Holon·Israeli literature; Israeli culture
So Mitt is coming. How appropriate. I explain in The American Prospect:
If Mitt Romney visits Israel this summer, it’s a safe guess that his tour will avoid demonstrations against the government’s economic policies. When Mitt and Bibi dine together, the Israeli prime minister probably won’t show clips of riot cops dragging away Daphni Leef, the woman who ignited the economic protests, as she tries to re-establish a tent encampment in downtown Tel Aviv. Meeting the media, Romney may mention his old friendship with Benjamin Netanyahu, which dates back to the time when the two of them, fresh from business school, worked at the Boston Consulting Group. Journalists will dutifully ask him and Netanyahu about Iran, ignoring the fact that Israel has an economy and that running it is Netanyahu’s passion.
This is a shame, because Israel can be seen as a laboratory where tests have been conducted in managing a country as if Bain Capital had bought it—and the lab results aren’t pretty. [Read more →]
My take on Yitzhak Shamir is up at The Daily Beast:
In mid-October 1986, Yitzhak Shamir was about to begin his second term as Israel’s prime minister. In anticipation, a top settlement planner from his Herut party prepared a map hand-marked with sites for new settlements in the West Bank. I’d seen the map, because the planner accidently handed it to me during an interview, then had an aide call me to ask desperately for it. His boss needed it for a meeting with Shamir.
Shamir was returning to the premiership under a power-sharing agreement with Shimon Peres’s Labor Party. Shamir didn’t adopt the settlement proposal, which would have required a loud fight with Labor. He didn’t need to, because Labor acquiesced as a government-financed housing boom continued in existing settlements. From 1983, when Shamir succeeded Menachem Begin and began his first stint as premier, until 1992, when he lost to Yitzhak Rabin, the number of settlers in the West Bank and Gaza quadrupled. (That’s based on government figures, which don’t include East Jerusalem.) During the 1992 campaign—despite U.S. pressure to stop building—his government launched bus tours to suburban settlements where homes were on sale for a bit more than nothing.
Shamir, who died Saturday at 96, was a very quiet, utterly relentless man, devious but incorruptible, rigid as rock. [Read more →]
June 22nd, 2012 by Gershom Gorenberg · Politics and Policy
My new column is up at The American Prospect:
The polls had closed a few hours earlier in Cairo, after two days of voting for a president who may or may not have any power. The Muslim Brotherhood was preparing to claim victory. Meanwhile, in the desert to the west, three gunmen crossed the border between Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Israel, attacked an Israeli crew building a border fence, and killed a worker, an Arab Israeli named Saeed Fashafshe.
The human mind likes to make connections, so it’s easy to draw a thick black line of cause-and-effect between these events: One could conclude that the revolution alone is at fault for the Egyptian regime losing control of the Sinai desert—or worse, that the ascendant Islamicists are encouraging the border violence. Those reflexive interpretations ran through Israeli media reports this week.
The reality is more complicated. Nonetheless, the fact that the border and Egyptian politics are heating up at the same time demands attention. For Egypt’s wrestling political forces, the lesson should be that foreign policy problems don’t take vacation because you are busy with a revolution. For Israel’s government, the proper conclusion is that restraint is triply necessary when a revolution is in progress next door. [Read more →]
It was Timothy Asfal’s fingers that caught my eye when I boarded an overloaded 21 bus at Davidka Square on the way home to Talpiot. I could see them clearly because he was seated in the front row, on the aisle just behind the driver, clutching a plastic DVD box. Tim has the slender, agile digits of the artistic weaver he is, so finely-shaped that you want them to touch you.
illustration by Avi Katz
Tim and I have been friends since the 1980s, when we were both lonely and dreamy young men new in Jerusalem. I valued his company then because he had the wit of a sad clown and could see deep into my soul. Even then the beauty of his fingers stood out, but I barely noticed the way he looked then, or that the rest of his body was out of proportion. Now that he lives in Beit HaKerem we don’t see each other that often, even for a year at a time. And I admit that these days, when I run into him, I am taken aback for a moment. I notice all the things that friendship once led me to disregard. His body is thick, fleshy, and hirsute. His head is long and angular, with a protruding nose and ears that are two sizes too large. Maybe, in part, these physical flaws are even more noticeable now because when he was young he had hope. He could be ironic about love because he believed deep down that despite everything he would find it. Now, in middle age, he is unhappy and lonely.
It was late on a Thursday afternoon in mid-June and the bus was packed back to front with shoppers from the Machaneh Yehuda shuk
, the open-air produce market. Their baskets sprouted basil and leeks and the fragrance of raw carrots filled the air. I pushed myself onto the bus and, while I couldn’t get far, I managed to wedge myself right up against Tim’s seat, standing between a teenage couple grooving to their Ipods and each other and a Kurdish grandmother who sighed intermittently as if the entire world’s sorrows were on her shoulders.
Tim barely smiled when he saw me. His head swung back and forth slowly, first to me, then toward the fair-haired woman in a blue summer dress who sat on the seat to his left, deeply absorbed in a paperback. His head halted just where he could see her out of the corner of his eye. [Read more →]
Tags: A Midsummer Night's Dream·fiction·Life in South Jerusalem·Shakespeare
My new column is up at The Daily Beast:
The great airlift is on. Around the time I tap out the last word of this post, a plane will take off from Israel carrying South Sudanese refugees—the people whom Benjamin Netanyahu calls “illegal infiltrators”—back to their home country. The “infiltrators” must go, the prime minister explained in the cabinet, lest they “inundate” Israel and “largely put an end to its character as a Jewish, democratic state.”
The Hebrew word for “infiltrator” connotes people slipping across the border to perpetrate terror. Nonetheless, such rhetoric puts Netanyahu on the mild side of his party and coalition. [Read more →]