The Space Between

We have national elections coming up in Israel on April 9.

**To my American readers: Try to wrap your mind around an election campaign that is only three months long!


My mom asked me why I don’t seem to be so interested in the Israeli political scene, especially since I seem to have a lot of opinions on the US political scene. (To be fair, I think everyone in the world is interested in the US political scene. Every day there is some new shocking thing.)

The thing is that Israeli politics are very different from US politics.

In the US, you have two parties, three branches of government, and each state follows a similar pattern.

In Israel, for the upcoming election there are at least 11 parties. You might think that it would be easier to find a party to support, but I find it harder. The principles of each party tend to be so specific that I find myself agreeing with several principles from several parties. But in Israel, you vote for the party, not for people or on specific issues. The percentage of votes the party gets is reflected in the number of seats each party gets in the Knesset. Because one party is not usually strong enough to get a simple majority (61 seats), Israel is ruled by coalition governments. If the coalition is weak, you have elections sooner; if the coalition is strong, you have a full term of government (4 years).

You don’t vote for the Prime Minister either. The leader of Israel is the head of the party that got the most votes – again, it’s the party that matters not the person or the issue.

Israel is the size of New Jersey, but the country has snow-covered mountains in the north and desert in the south, hi-tech in the city, and agriculture in the country. But rather than have regional representation, you can only choose the party and hope that the party represents you.

Right now, people are breaking away from parties, creating new parties, getting fired from parties, getting nominated to parties (not to mention the corruption scandals and possible indictments). Only in February will we have an idea of who is on each party list.

And that’s another thing: some parties have elections within their parties to determine who is on their list; other parties just present their list. That means that if you are a member of a party, you can vote in the primary. The list is numbered by how many votes each person got (sometimes they add special interest places on the list that are likely to get a seat in the Knesset). Then, the number of seats the party gets in the Knesset (based on the percentage of total votes in the election) determines who goes to the Knesset. In parties that don’t have primaries, the leadership determines the list. If you are not a member of any party, you can still vote for any one of the parties in the main election with the knowledge that the list was determined by other people and may or may not represent you, your region, or your interests.

Israel is a little country in a hostile neighborhood, so it’s also really hard to understand how a political swing here or there will affect the country in the short, medium, and long term. As a voter, you have to trust that the coalition that the head of the leading party came up with will protect the citizens, will strengthen the economy, and will do what is right for Israel.

So, it’s not that I’m not interested in the political scene; it’s more that I can’t find myself in the political scene. I do my civic duty by voting (it’s hard not to, it’s a day off!) in the hope that the party I choose will do the best it can for Israel. I don’t feel that any party represents me personally, so from the space in between the parties, I allow myself to be an observer of the process.

It’s gonna have to be complicated

What? Hm? What is that noise? Urf. Phone.


“Where are you? What are you doing?”

“I’m sleeping.  It’s two o’clock in the morning.  Where else would I be?”

“Oh, thank God!  Mike’s Place was bombed.  Have you talked to our friends?”

“What?  Are you serious? Where did you hear this?  Oh, my God!  Wait!  Where are you?”

“London, of course.”

And that’s how I heard about it.  On April 30, 2003, my friend in London called me in Jerusalem to tell me that the bar we always went to in Tel Aviv was blown up by a suicide bomber.  I called our friends who lived in Tel Aviv and confirmed that they had been there that night and thankfully, they were okay.

Terror in the shadow of the US Embassy

Three people died and dozens were injured but it would have been a lot worse if the guard at the door had not put himself between the bomber and the customers.  He absorbed the blast and spent much of the next week on life support, but when I saw him in the hospital a week later, he was alive, awake, and able to walk around.

I visited him on the way to the reopening of Mike’s Place.  Yes, the math is correct.  They had a ceremony a week after the bombing to remember those who died and then in a celebration of life and not living in fear, the bar was reopened, they served drinks and partied through the night in the shattered, burned-out remains of the bar.

Mike’s Place is a bar on the beach in Tel Aviv and sits in the shadow of the US Embassy.  It’s known for and prides itself on being a slice of Americana where you can get a double bacon cheeseburger and fries if you want to.  Everyone speaks English and everything feels familiar to any American or Canadian.  In an odd coincidence, many of the bartenders were named Dave.  Today there are seven branches of Mike’s Place all over Israel.

From a friendly country

Why tell this story now?  Because the perpetrators of this bombing were British citizens travelling all around Israel and in and out of Gaza and Jordan on British passports.  Israel did not put a ban on all British citizens travelling to Israel.  They didn’t put a ban on Muslims travelling to Israel.  They didn’t stop all people affiliated with radical left organizations from coming into Israel either.

Here’s what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs says:

The fact that the attack was perpetrated by a foreign national, and that another foreign national was supposed to have perpetrated an additional attack, sharply raises the issue of how to deal with the involvement of foreign nationals – citizens of friendly countries – in terrorist activity designed to maim and murder innocent civilians. This was not the first time that the State of Israel has been the target of foreign terrorists bearing British passports.

This is one of the most disturbing and complicated issues to deal with from a security-intelligence point-of-view, due to the fact that no Western country is capable of providing an effective answer without the full cooperation of all countries that are threatened by Islamic fundamentalist terror.

Due to the seriousness of the threat, as reflected in the April 30, 2003, attack, the entry of foreign nationals into the State of Israel – both via Erez checkpoint [from Gaza] and the international crossings – is being reexamined.

Policy should be longer than 140 characters

I don’t have an answer to how best to deal with potential threats crossing a nation’s borders, but I can say that a blanket policy that is uncomplicated enough to fit into the 140 character Twitter limit is not going to work.

I remember that around this time Shaul Mofaz was Israel’s Minister of Defense and on a diplomatic trip to the US he was stopped at JFK and refused entry because he also holds an Iranian passport.  Only high-level diplomatic intervention allowed him to enter the US.  Today this doesn’t happen very often, but this is what a blanket application of a simple policy looks like.  Don’t let anyone in with an Iranian passport.  Result: Not even a diplomat from a friendly country is allowed entry.

If you are not “us,” you are the enemy

One of the worst cases of applying a blanket policy like this is Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin Roosevelt during World War II, which gave the Secretary of War the power to exclude people from military areas.  Quickly following this was Public Law 503 based on a variety of Public Proclamations having to do with Military Areas 1 and 2, or the western states.

The US was at war with Japan, Germany, and Italy, but 120,000 Japanese found themselves in internment camps (refusal meant a large fine and a year in jail), yet only 14,000 Germans and Italians were sent to these camps.  Of the 120,000 Japanese, two-thirds were born in the US who should have had full citizenship rights like any other person born in the US.

Japanese citizens were sent to camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards in spite of two reports that said that there was no evidence whatsoever that they would rise up and join Japan in the war or undermine US efforts.  They would be loyal.

The excuse of “we were at war” doesn’t fly.  If that was the case, the proclamations and laws should have applied equally to Germans and Italians.  Were there so few Germans and Italians in the western United States?  The law was suspended in December 1944, but the war with Japan did not end until August 1945.  Was it still about the war and questions of loyalty?  The law stayed on the books until 1976 when President Gerald Ford officially rescinded it.  Only in 1988 did the Japanese get (paltry) compensation for the property that was taken from them and the years that they spent in the camps.

I found out about this chapter in American history by accident when I was in junior high.  I read a book about a girl in an internment camp in the US.  I was confused and stunned.  This was dystopian fiction, right?  I asked my mom and she told me that there were people put in camps in the US during World War II.  In MY United States?  In the land of the free and home of the brave?  How could this be?  The Holocaust was in Europe, and even with that knowledge, people were put into camps.  Here?  Did no one speak out?

I think the Japanese were interned because it was easy to mark them as enemies.  They don’t look like “us.”  Anthropologists use the word “other” to explain the “us” and “them” mentality.  They are “other;” they are not “us.”  Italians and Germans are part of “us,” but the Japanese are visibly and undeniably “other.”

And there’s your simple Twitter policy.  “They” are not “us.”  It’s so obvious you can see it.  You don’t have to understand nuances, you don’t have to ask questions, and you don’t have to think.  You just have to believe that the “other” is evil and you’re done.

This is the point where we remind ourselves that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  That’s why there are no simple answers and no simple solutions.  It’s gonna have to be complicated or we will find ourselves in the dystopian future we fear so much.

Sources on Japanese internment:




A simmering pot

Last week Israel’s cabinet agreed to have a mixed gender prayer area near the Western Wall plaza that would be administered by Israel’s government not the (ultra-Orthodox) foundation that administers the Western Wall .

Yay for plurality! Hoorah for equality!

This is widely seen by the Jewish community outside of Israel and many inside Israel as a good thing because it feels more inclusive and is more open to the non-Orthodox communities who don’t feel connected to the Orthodox vibe of the Western Wall open air plaza. Now they have their own place. It’s close to the plaza, but at the same time they are not in each other’s faces about how they choose to commune with God.

But hang on…

First of all, this space has existed for quite a while. It’s not new. What is new is the entity that would administer it and the fact that it would be expanded. Until now, it was just a tacitly agreed upon space for Reform, Conservative, and various other streams of Judaism to gather and pray as they wish (mostly by not separating the genders).

Women of the Wall have been advocating for plurality and equality and part of the organization agreed to the mixed-gender space. The members who don’t agree feel that they should be allowed to pray in the women’s section as they wish – they don’t really want a mixed gender space. The problem they’ve been facing is that the Orthodox do not agree that a woman can be allowed to put on tefillin, wear a prayer shawl, or read from the Torah. They have fought this battle in court (and won), but have been harassed by both men and women at the wall and arrested for disturbing the peace for gathering at the Western Wall to pray.

Then there are the archaeologists who say that the new construction would damage the archaeological evidence that exists there – specifically, evidence of stones from the wall that fell during the Roman conquest.

Like any other decision, it’s complicated and there are naturally positives and negatives. Decisions get made with compromise and everyone has to give a little.

But there’s more. And this is why this article is called “the simmering pot.”

The violence (aka the knife intifada) that began last year is based on a perception that Israel is trying to change the status quo on the Temple Mount. In October 2015, UNESCO voted on a draft proposal that tried to declare the “Western Wall an ‘integral part’ of the Al Aqsa mosque compound.” That was eventually dropped, but in November Mahmoud Abbas insisted that Israel was trying to change the status quo on the Temple Mount by protecting “settlers” who were “violating” Muslim and Christian holy sites. (The “violation” being prayer. Jews are not allowed to pray on the Temple Mount and are arrested by Israeli police for doing so.) And now, with the vote on the mixed gender prayer site, the Waqf (the Jordanian authority administering the Al Haram al Sharif [Temple Mount]) has declared this vote Israel’s newest intention to change the status quo by “Judaicizing the holy site.” The “holy site” in this case being the Western Wall.

Let’s look back to September 2000. Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount to show that all Israelis have a right to visit the site. And then we had the Second Intifada. (Yes, that is a wild oversimplification.)

A vote for a mixed gender prayer site seems like a small thing. But this is Israel. The Western Wall supports the Temple Mount compound where the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock stand. Context and interpretation are everything. And so the pot simmers on.