The above has appeared on walls around Tel Aviv as Israel’s election campaign begins to warm up, not that it will have the slightest effect on those who think that the central character is God Incarnate, as he himself seems to believe. However, as people in Israel—not least the Prime Minister, his family and his closest entourage—await the decision of the Attorney-General on whether or not to indict him for one or more crimes, I can’t help thinking back to Britain in November 1990. Then, many members of the Conservative Party had begun to regard Margaret Thatcher, who had served as Prime Minister for eleven and a half years and had brought some radical changes to Britain during that time (whether it was for better or for worse depends on your political viewpoints), as an electoral liability rather than an asset. She, like Bibi, was a highly divisive figure and in the end was given to understand that she had lost the support of a majority within her own flock of sheep.
Israel hasn’t quite reached that position yet but it is becoming more and more apparent that rumblings are beginning and that there might be a figure roughly parallel to Michael Heseltine who is lurking within the party to challenge Mr. Netanyahu when the time is right. Should the Attorney-General decide that it’s time to charge the Prime Minister and that that time is before the electorate enters the polling booths, then it will be interesting to see how that decision might be reflected in the polls and at the ballot box.
However, I really don’t want to start another political diatribe just now as things on the Israeli political scene are so fluid that at the moment we don’t yet know how many parties will contest the election or who will be allied with whom as there are still a few days left before the parties file their final lists of candidates to the electoral commission. The only thing that I will say at this stage is to repeat a point I made 30-40 years ago when I was an academic and really was interested in electoral reform in Israel, a foolhardiness that continued to occupy me until the early 1990s at which time I concluded that electoral reform was an academic topic par excellence and in extremis, i.e., as the politicians weren’t interested in changing a system in which they knew how to act and in some cases, manipulate, any serious change was never going to happen.
Without wishing to sound tedious (in other words, overly academic), Israel operates what is technically known as a list system for its elections. The parties choose a list of candidates by fair means or foul (some have very noisy, very democratic primaries, others have committees that select the candidates, and others yet have individual leaders who decide autocratically). Each list is nationwide; there are no constituencies or electoral districts. Each party gaining over 3.25% of the popular vote then share out the 120 seats in the Knesset in direct proportion to their share in the popular vote. (Those parties that fail to reach 3.25% (a minimum of four seats) get nothing. Looking and listening to the politicians as crunch day nears, it becomes more and more obvious to me that the man or woman in the street (i.e., the electorate) counts for very little. Yes, we do vote, so we do count for something. However, we don’t vote for a person but for a readymade inflexible list about which we can do nothing, not even express a preference for one or more of the candidates of the party we choose. What this means is that no elected politician is individually beholden to the electorate at large but only to the party whose members or leaders placed them high enough on its list to have them elected. Very simply, individual members of the Knesset are really unaccountable to the voters.
I could go on and on about this but a system that might have been appropriate to Jewish representative bodies in British Mandate Palestine is not really suited to represent the electorate two decades into the 21st century. That’s my opinion though I’m realistic enough to realize that the chances of it changing in my lifetime are as close to absolute zero as you can get.
Even though the news is full of reverberations from the election campaign, I haven’t really been paying too much attention to news these days as it’s really been little more than background noise for me over the past three weeks because I have been an involuntary observer of Israel’s public health system at work.
And in this context, I have some comments. Over half a century ago, when I was younger (obviously because 74-50=24), I knew quite a few people who were very keen on the letters BDS and most of them today are retired dentists, BDS indicating the acme of what they wished to achieve in life: the degree of Bachelor of Dental Science. Yet in the intervening years, the letters BDS have evolved into the sinister Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, a global campaign organized and coordinated by the Palestinian BDS National Committee, which promotes various forms of boycott against Israel until “it meets its obligations under international law”, obligations that include withdrawal from the Occupied Territories, removal of the separation barrier in the West Bank, full equality for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and “respecting, protecting, and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties [in what is today Israel].
I am no supporter of the rapid and rabid expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank yet when I hear and read spokespersons for BDS, it upsets me and for a variety of reasons. First of all, the term “Occupied Territories” means different things to different people. For many who even bother to think about it, it might mean those territories captured by Israel during the Six-Day War of 1967 (also over half a century ago) and as Israel withdrew unilaterally from the Gaza Strip 14 years ago it really means the West Bank. However, not everybody accepts this definition, supporters of BDS among them. For them “Occupied Territories” = “Occupied Palestine” and includes all the territory that became Israel as well. As for “promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties”, that is little more than a euphemism for the dismantling of Israel.
However, I become really perturbed when there are demands for “full equality for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel”. And why is that? Well, for all sorts of reasons, that’s why. This usually goes hand in hand with the labelling of Israel as an apartheid state, a sobriquet that has become more and more frequently used in some quarters in recent years and I find it objectionable.
Many years ago, I was Director of the Jewish-Arab Center at the University of Haifa. My predecessor was a Greek Orthodox professor of Arabic Literature and successor a Greek Catholic one; the current Director is a Muslim Arab who was formerly President of the Israeli Geographical Association. And just for good measure, a former Vice-President for Research at the university was a Muslim, too. All this is the apartheid state of Israel? Really?! Add to this, the fact that a former State President, jailed for seven years on charges of rape had his appeal to the Supreme Court rejected by a panel of judges headed by a Muslim Arab—in the apartheid state of Israel!
But one of the most moving experiences in this “apartheid state” is to observe a medical team at work in an Israeli hospital or clinic, something I’ve had ample opportunity to do recently, at Tel Aviv’s largest hospital and at a major day-care centre. Doctors and nurses, Arab and Jew, religious and secular, work as a team. Saeed and Christina work alongside Moshe and Ilana; Dr. Mustafa consults with Professor Daphna and nobody there asks questions about religious beliefs or ethnic origins. There were several cases when I looked and listened and tried to figure out who was what but it was only when I looked at the name tag that I began to have a inkling. And it was no different with several of the patients. Listening over several days to two of them conversing in Arabic, it was only when their wives and children arrived for a visit and spoke Hebrew and I heard their names that I realised that I was in error!
This is the side of Israel that nobody ever sees abroad and probably wouldn’t believe it if they did see it as the facts would only get in the way of the narrative. It actually reminded me of a stay in the Royal Free Hospital in London a few years ago when I kept a tally of where the doctors, nurses, cleaners and all the rest came from. If memory serves me correctly, during and after a three-day stay in hospital and the five days of post-hospital visits there were 18 different people of which two came from the UK and one from Ireland; the the other 15 hailed from all over the world. And still, immigration was probably the major issue in the Brexit referendum of 2016 with most Brits not very keen on immigrants. In London, at least, the National Health Service would collapse without them (as would the transportation system)!
I am not so naïve as to say that everything in the State of Israel is perfect. There is discrimination and there are inequalities—and it’s not just Arab .v. Jew. But show me a country in which there is no intolerance, prejudice or inequality. The spread of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the increasing lawlessness of some of those neo-fascist right-wing settlers contributes nothing to the well-being or security of Israel, not to speak of the Jewish people as a whole. The places where religious and secular persons of all persuasions, where Arabs and Jews are most likely to meet, are at the hospitals and the universities but contrary to what is commonly perceived to be the case, they meet in many everyday situations, too. Yet to think of Israel as the only state in the world that needs to be taken to task for perceived discrimination is hypocrisy working overtime.
And, as regards hypocrisy, I draw your attention to a recent opinion piece by Colin Shindler, Emeritus Professor in the Department of the Languages and Cultures of the Near and Middle East of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, which appeared in The Jewish Chronicle. Just so that we see things in perspective.
My morning walks and my photography have recently taken a bit of a hit but my phone is always handy so that when necessary, its camera can do a decent enough job for taking pictures on the fly.
At the entrance to Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv is what is purported to be the world’s largest mezuzah. (For those of in need of a definition or a reminder, a mezuzah comprises a piece of parchment in a decorative case inscribed with specific Hebrew verses—Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21—from the Torah, which is affixed to the doorpost of Jewish homes to fulfil the biblical commandment to “write the words of God on the gates and doorposts of your house”.) But besides the fact that this one is large, there was something else about it that seemed to be at odds with what I thought I remembered from Hebrew school about these icons. So I consulted the website I usually refer to when in need of confirmation or otherwise on Jewish religious issues, http://www.chabad.org, and learned that “A mezuzah is affixed on the right doorpost, approximately, at the bottom of the top third of the doorpost.”. It should also be “towards the outer edge of the doorpost, on a slant with the top pointing inwards to the room being entered.”
This one was neither on the top third of the doorpost nor was it pointing in, as had it done so, it might have brought the whole doorpost crashing down.
But then I noticed something else about this elephantine mezuzah, for inscribed in Hebrew at the bottom was: “Donated by Shmuel Flatto-Sharon who wishes everyone a speedy recovery.” Again, for those among you who might not be aware, Flatto-Sharon was a “successful” businessman but also a wanted man who emigrated from France to Israel in 1975, fleeing the French authorities who believed that he had embezzled $60 million. Though he spoke very little Hebrew and what he did speak was so frenchified that it was difficult to comprehend, he formed a one-man party to run in the 1977 Knesset elections, hoping to obtain parliamentary immunity to avoid extradition to France. He was elected, serving one term, but lost his seat in 1981. Three years later, he was sentenced to three months community service for bribery in the 1977 election campaign, having “bought votes by promising apartments to young couples and homes to others at reduced prices” as well as paying voters to vote Flatto-Sharon.
But to come back to the mezuzah. It should be set at a slant but this one stands upright. So the question is, as its donor was not quite straight but downright crooked but the mezuzah stands upright, does this mean that some things in life cancel out other things in the end and that this mezuzah is, indeed, fit for use (kosher)?
I sometimes neglect my own health issues and so it was some months ago that I noticed that I seem to be having a balance problem. The ENT specialist very kindly sent me to have a hearing test and to see a physiotherapist. Getting an appointment with the physiotherapist was no problem but the hearing test was something else. The first test in Tel Aviv, I was informed, was about three months off but if I wanted, I could have one in Bnei Braq within a couple of weeks.
Now Bnei Braq is a city in the Tel Aviv Metropolitan Area with a population of around 200,000; the distance from our house to the clinic where I had made the appointment is less than 4 km, 20-25 minutes by bus. However, that makes Bnei Braq somewhat different from other cities in the Tel Aviv area is that the vast majority of its citizens subscribe to a Strictly Orthodox (Haredi) lifestyle. So as I alighted the bus for the 12-minute walk to my destination, I knew I might see things that I don’t normally come across in predominantly secular T-A. I didn’t take my camera with me as I was going specifically to have a hearing test. However, as I have finally learned over the past three weeks, my phone has a camera and it’s capable of taking photos that are acceptable for use in this blog.
The first thing I came across as I walked up from the bus stop on the main road was this young man in front of me wheeling a suitcase held in his right hand while in his left, we was holding his black hat safely tucked away in its rigid black-hat-holder.
It was early on Sunday morning so in addition to young men returning to the yeshivot (religious seminaries) from a Sabbath at home, there were people all over the streets returning from morning prayers replete with prayer shawls and phylacteries.
There were shops that specialised in skullcaps (for men); there were shops that specialised in wigs (for women)
As someone interested in how the urban landscape looks and in photographing the occasional fire hydrant, there were things that at first glance appeared to resemble fire hydrants but there were too many of them too close together and they were of a shape I had never seen before. If they were fire hydrants, then I concluded that Bnei Braq must represent a fire hazard far greater than the Israeli norm and I wondered why; but if they weren’t fire hydrants, what were they?
On closer examination, it turned out that these were collection boxes for a variety of religious charities and, my goodness, there was intense competition amongst them, so much so, that some of them were even advertising that 100% of your donation went to charity — as if anyone might have thought otherwise, that someone might even contemplate creaming off a small percentage as a commission!
I had my hearing test, which proved what I already knew: that as an aging man, my hearing is not as acute as it was some years ago but it is also not sufficiently poor to make it essential that I wear a hearing aid. (I tried one of those devices five years ago to cancel out the shrieks of tinnitus, which worked until a few months later, when I started to photograph the contestants at the Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition. When that started, I was almost deafened by the crash of hammers on strings so that I removed the hearing aid and learned to live with the background noise of tinnitus with the occasional high-pitched squeal.
The outing on foot in Bnei Braq convinced me that I should return one day with a camera although given the issues that some of the Strictly Orthodox have with creating graven images, that might not be a very wise move. The 4 km chasm between Stricker Street in Tel Aviv and Rabbi Akiva Street in Bnei Braq represented less a trip to a foreign land and more a space odyssey to another planet.
And then it was back to the familiar scenes of Tel Aviv.
Walking west on Nordau Boulevard, I came across this rather large mobility scooter, which really has little place on a footpath, driven by a man who looked at least a decade and a half more decrepit than me. From the distance, I reckoned that there might not be room for him to squeeze his jalopy between the wall and the motor scooter parked on the pavement; as I got closer, I noticed him maneuvering the mobility scooter to the right in order to get through but hadn’t the heart to spoil his fun by telling him that I didn’t think he’d make it. And then, as I passed by I heard the scrunch as it scraped the wall. However, I didn’t hang around to observe the backward and forward movements that heralded the extrication.
And, penultimately, two photos taken in Central Tel Aviv.
And finally, it’s one thing having your granddaughter stick out her tongue when you raise the camera to take a photo.
However, when your freezer does the same thing, you begin to worry about your sanity.