Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Big Picture

A couple of weeks ago, Melitz and Otzma asked me to provide their students with a view of 'the big or bigger picture'. That is, to facilitate a Israeli Politics 101 session which helps them to grasp the idea that there is more to Israel and Israeli current affairs than just Disengagement, Terrorism and Peace Processes.

Frankly, it's often difficult to decipher what exactly constitutes the bigger picture when it comes to Israel. What do I mean? Are the societal ingredients in Israeli society small fish in comparison to the bigger fish of terror, war, peace and everything in-between? Or does intra-Israel politics more clearly define Israel as it is today and provide a clearer bigger picture than the things that more often than not get CNN and BBC executives giggling with joy and excitement?

In this ten days of personal introspection and evaluation, highlighted by Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur at either end, it was very nice of the Shinui party and others to provide us with the opportunity for a little national self-evaluation on topics outside the army, borders and fences. The issues themselves raise questions about the Jewish character of the state and Judaism's relationship with democracy. In addition, the way the issues are beng handled gives us an uncomfortable reminder of how desperately controversial and hurtful such issues can become.
One can always rely on politicians to bring things to a head.

The Ganot interchange, as big and busy as it is, may not have thought she would attract quite the attention that it now finds itself swimming in. I am no halachic expert so I do not wish to comment in that regard, other than to say that I am, in general, in favor of maintaining strong Jewish character in the state. The lines between flavour and in fact enforcing views of one on another remain blurred. There is a great deal of sensitive legislative work to do in that regard.

Regardless, I am not impressed with the pretty horrific insults flying from Shinui mouths. Claims of extortion and blackmail and the like lead us nowhere but to hatred and hurt. I actually struggle to fathom the Shinui attacks in light of their own attempts to convince Sharon to carry forth the controversial policies that suit their supporters - civil marriage laws, for example. In reality, is there any difference between Shinui and ultra-Orthodox approaches to coalition building and power battles? Doesn't Shas have an equal right to push for extra benefits to the poor as well?

When it comes to the crunch, there is probably just one man enjoying this jostling for power. I am sure Ariel Sharon can still taste the sweetness of his upset victory over the Likud rebels - small but sweet nonetheless. As he looks to reshuffle the Cabinet seats, he will be playing fairly hard to get.

The other Shinui-inspired issue is less difficult for me. Like last year when their MKs made similar complaints, Avraham Poraz and friends are now demanding that any Government-backed initiatives to encourage involvement in Yom Kippur observance and prayer be cancelled and rejected. I might not go as far as Shas' Eli Yishai (in the above link), but certainly I am uncomfortable with this Shinui policy. A simple reading of the information provided by MK Rabbi Melchior makes it clear that the program's intention is by no means to "persuade people to become observant Jews". Rather, it appears to be a refreshing and creative means of allowing Israeli Jews to discover or rediscover aspects of their heritage and traditions and to mix with other Jews of different persuasions. Creative tefilah/prayer is a key element of Jewish education worldwide and would not do any harm here.

Of course the line between State and Synagogue in Israel is blurred and sometimes impossible to navigate. Still, a government of the Jewish state should be congratulated for supporting such seemingly harmless Jewish projects. How silly it would be if non-Jewish governments around the world encouraged maintenance of religious observance and culture but our own state refrained from doing so. I know that in New Zealand, we often applied to the government and the Lotto Grants Authority for Jewish educational funding and in fact the Government there supports the Jewish schools only if they maintain their Jewish character.

I hope all kinds of Israelis take advantage of 'Judaism for All' on Thursday.

Here we are then, just before Yom Kippur and I am still not sure what exactly anyone means by 'the bigger picture' - but that does not really matter.
What is important is that we are finding time to look at other issues and topics that require discussion and evaluation. It is important that Hamas Incorporated does not always dictate our lives and our thoughts.

As well as these intra-political issues, there is so much more that we Israelis should commit ourselves to working on post-Yom Kippur. The road toll is horrific, a full ten times greater than the terror toll. We still leave our weakest links to struggle. (A statistic that presents average salary as 7500 shekels per month means nothing to two-thirds of the population). Last but not least, crime and violence continue to spiral out of control. Work has begun and it is reaching the top of Israel's policy agenda slowly - better late than never.

Yom Kippur is always a special day in Israel. Streets are almost empty and there is a real sense of introspection. There is a lot of positive here and we need to do some good national self-evaluation on Thursday to make sure that the optimism can be harnessed and led down a path of tolerance, responsibility, national pride and security.

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