Sex, Lies, and Judicial Appointments

A sex scandal juicy enough to be the plot of a Hollywood movie is currently roiling the Israeli justice system. A powerful man, multiple women, possible involvement in the highest places, and it all came crashing down. It could end well or badly for the nation, although it is definitely going to go badly for those involved. First, some background:

In most democratic countries, judges are appointed by the elected representatives of the people, or even elected directly. Supreme Court Justices in the US are appointed by the President and then confirmed by the Senate. But in Israel, almost every judge from the lowest local magistrate to the Justices of the Supreme Court, are picked by a nine-member Judicial Selection Committee. The committee consists of:

  • The Justice Minister (currently Ayelet Shaked), and one additional minister, chosen by the cabinet members.
  • Two members of the Knesset, customarily one each from the coalition and the opposition, chosen by the Knesset.
  • Two members of the Israel Bar Association, chosen by a vote of the Association’s national council.
  • The President of the Supreme Court, plus two other Justices of the Court.

The Justice Minister chairs the committee. Since 2014, at least one in each of the four categories must be a woman.

The first thing one notices is that there are five members of the legal profession and four politicians. The second thing is that the largest bloc is that of the Supreme Court members. The result has been what is often described as “the Supreme Court appointing itself.” Since legal establishment tends to lean Left, the makeup of the Court has also tended leftward.

Israel doesn’t have a constitution, and in place of one has several Basic Laws. Some of them – in particular the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty – are relatively broad (compared, for example, to the American Bill of Rights), and have been interpreted quite creatively by the Supreme Court. In fact, the court has interpreted the Basic Laws to give itself the power to cancel laws passed by the Knesset, and to intervene in almost every area of Israeli life.

Many Israelis on the right side of the spectrum, including myself, find this extremely worrying. Where is democracy, if an unelected elite, especially one that is diametrically opposed to the will of the electorate, is given almost unlimited power to run the affairs of the nation?

Of course, if you ask them they will say that real democracy means following their instructions. It’s that redneck (whatever the Israeli equivalent is) Knesset which is anti-democratic. As philosopher-princes (and princesses), they know better.

Since becoming Justice Minister in 2015, Ayelet Shaked has tried to restore balance in the judicial system in general and on the Supreme Court in particular. Unable to change the system of selection, or (so far) to get a law passed that will enable the Knesset to override the court in some circumstances, she has worked to have somewhat more conservative Justices appointed to the Supreme Court.

But the real problem is the selection system. Not only is it undemocratic and heavily biased in favor of the existing judicial system, but there is a built-in conflict of interest: lawyers have great influence in choosing the judges that hear their cases.

Now for the juicy part. In the past week a scandal has erupted in which the (former) chairman of the Israel Bar Association, Efraim (Effi) Naveh, has been accused of arranging for the promotion of a female judge from a Magistrate’s Court to a District Court in return for sex with her; and also of trying to obtain a promotion for a male judge with whose wife – also a practicing lawyer – he was having an affair. Naveh also allegedly advanced the career of legal interns in return for sex.

Until last December, when Naveh was indicted for smuggling a woman in and out of the country without proper documentation – a story in itself rife with cinematic possibilities – he was a member of the Judicial Selection Committee. Of course, even if he had not been a member, as Chairman of the Bar Association, he had great power to influence it.

Although few details have come out – the police have hobbled the feverish Israeli media with an order not to publish the names of the women involved and other facts (although anyone with access to Google can quickly find out) – it’s beginning to look like these cases are the tip of a very disturbing iceberg, which can destroy confidence in the entire judicial system. Radical surgery will be necessary to rip out every trace of corruption, and we don’t know how deep it goes.

Naveh was a friend of the Attorney General (who had to recuse himself from this case). Worse, he worked closely with Justice Minister Shaked in her project to see fewer activist judges appointed to the Supreme Court. The Left is jumping up and down with glee trying to tar the previously squeaky-clean Shaked with Naveh’s brush. It is inconceivable to me that she could have known about his corruption without taking action, but everyone who could have any information is being called to give information to the police, including Shaked, the President of the Supreme Court, Esther Hayut, and every other member of the Judicial Selection Committee.

Naveh himself is probably going down, although his lawyer claims credibly that his cell phone, which contains incriminating text messages, was stolen and hacked. The female judge involved will likely argue that she was coerced by the powerful Naveh. If she can be convincing enough, she may escape bribery charges. Either way, her career is almost certainly over. The other woman, the male judge’s wife, has noted that her husband in fact was not promoted, despite her affair; hence, there was no crime committed. We’ll see.

The Bar Association, which also provides the Prime Minister with a short list of choices for Attorney General, has far too much power. The Attorney General, for that matter, has too much power and too much independence. These things should change.

It will be a disaster if Ayelet Shaked, who has been considered by some as a possible future Prime Minister, will turn out to have been aware of any of this. Naturally, her enemies – the unelected left-wing elite in the legal establishment and the media – already have their knives out.

But there could be a happy ending to the movie. That would be if the undemocratic selection committee could be abolished for once and for all, and a system for appointing judges that would be more responsive to the will of the Israeli people introduced. It would be a change long past due.

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American Jews and Israel: Can this marriage be saved?

A great deal has been written lately about the problematic relationship between American Jews (the non-Orthodox majority) and Israel. Everyone wants to get into the act.

I don’t have any magic bullets. But as an American-Israeli I can’t help thinking about it.

From an Israeli perspective, American Jews don’t meet our expectations as Jews. We shouldn’t be surprised. This is because most non-Orthodox American Jews are politically either liberals, progressives, or extreme leftists. For most of them their Judaism is either a very small part of their lives, or is a version of Judaism that barely exists in Israel, Tikkun-Olam Judaism.

When American members of If Not Now or Jewish Voice for Peace seem to echo the propaganda of Israel’s deadly enemies, Israelis are shocked that Jews could speak that way about the only Jewish state. But note that while anti-Israel Jews may add “as a Jew…” to their attacks, for rhetorical purposes, either they are really speaking “as progressives,” or worse, “as Tikkun-Olam Jews,” secular humanists with some vestigial trappings of Judaism.

There are strong political pressures driving American Jews away from Israel as well. Most Jews are Democrats, and strongly supported Barack Obama. Israel began to become a partisan issue in America when the Obama Administration made it so in the fight over the Iran deal. Obama quite deliberately introduced an element of anti-Israel ideology into the conversation, and his surrogates directly accused Jewish lawmakers that opposed it of dual loyalty or warmongering.

Anti-Israel attitudes in the Democratic Party also received a strong boost in 2018 from the election of several new Muslim and far-left members of Congress who are outspokenly anti-Israel.

Republican President Donald Trump has adopted some high-profile pro-Israel policies, such as moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, cutting funding to UNRWA and the Palestinian Authority, and most importantly, taking the US out of the Iranian nuclear deal. For Democrats today, whatever Trump is for, they must oppose, and that, too, is having an effect.

Liberal American Jews are sticking with the Democratic Party, and moving leftward – and away from Israel – along with it. It’s not just politics. Assimilation and intermarriage is increasing, and Jewish identification is decreasing. There is no special reason to oppose the drift of their party. These changes make it likely that the trend pushing American Jews away from Israel will intensify.

Our expectation as Israelis is that as Jews they should feel some connection to Israel. But the reality is that they are no different in this regard from other American liberals, progressives, or extreme leftists. And why should they be?

Just as we don’t know who they are, they don’t know us. Most of their information comes through American media, much of which – for example, the NY Times and NPR, both favorites of liberal-to-leftist Jews – is biased to the point of complete disconnection from reality. They present an image of a powerful nation almost gleefully exploiting and punishing a weak, victimized minority, while ignoring the broader context of threats against Israel. They often reproduce charges made against Israel by her enemies without verification, and don’t make corrections when their stories are proven false.

American Jews are also targeted with disinformation from their own institutions: the Reform Movement in particular has pushed the Israeli Left’s position that Israel is becoming illiberal and theocratic, and has magnified and even provoked crises over issues like mixed-gender prayer at the Western Wall and non-Orthodox conversion, in order to pressure the Israeli government into fully recognizing and supporting their movement – something impossible in Israel’s political climate. Nevertheless, the campaign has damaged Israel’s image as a free and liberal society (which it mostly is).

Israel is not America. The language, the security situation, the population (containing 12% Haredim and 20% Arabs), the legal system, and the culture – as much Middle Eastern and African as European, and certainly not North American – mean that many aspects of our society will be unfamiliar to them. Americans who expect, for example, that Israel will provide the degree of freedom of expression to citizens that they have in the USA will be disappointed.

It’s very unlikely that American Jews will abandon the Democratic Party. And it’s equally unlikely that they will make the effort to get to know the state that claims to be their homeland, but that they don’t like very much.

There is one thing that could change all of this. The earthquake that could propel the American Jews into our arms would be the mushrooming of anti-Jewish attitudes in the Democratic party and the broader society. Could it happen? Something similar seems to have occurred in the UK with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. The expression of antisemitism and outright Jew-hatred promoted by Labour-linked political operatives has become worrisome enough that some British Jews have decided to leave the country. Could this happen in the US? I’ve been away too long to feel confident enough to predict that.

Short of that – and I devoutly hope it will remain short of that – we can expect the disconnect, divide, whatever you want to call it, to get worse, not better.

“Can this marriage be saved?” was a popular column in the “Ladies Home Journal” until the magazine’s demise in 2014. It was based on true stories from a family counseling practice. Both sides presented their stories, a counselor made suggestions, and there was a follow-up. My wife says that usually the marriage could be saved by improved communication, but I remember that sometimes the answer was no, it could not.

So I will play the counselor, and here’s my advice: stop criticizing each other so much. Live with your differences. And stay together for the sake of the children.

Posted in American Jews, Israeli Society, US-Israel Relations | 1 Comment

Ben-Gurion, Zionism, and democracy

During the acrimonious debate over the Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, opponents claimed it was defective because it didn’t mention “democracy” or “equality,” concepts that are found implicitly or explicitly in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, proclaimed by David Ben-Gurion on May 14, 1948. Here is the relevant passage from that Declaration:

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

“What the hell,” stormed Tzipi Livni, “has Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got against the Declaration of Independence?” Members of what was then her party waved copies of the Declaration for emphasis.

Supporters of the law argued that it was not necessary to add such a reference to the new Basic Law, because the concepts were enshrined in other Basic Laws, and this law was intended to explicate the idea of a Jewish state – something that also appears explicitly in the Declaration.

The tension between the Jewishness of the state and the commitment to democratic governance and equal rights for all its citizens, some 21% of whom today are not Jewish, is a tightrope that Israel has been walking since 1948. It isn’t made easier by those who oppose the very idea of a Jewish state, like the Arab intellectuals who want to convert it into a binational state, the secular Left that would like it to become a democratic “state of all its citizens” like the US, or former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, who thinks that the meaning of “Jewish state” is just “democratic state.” The Nation-State Law can be seen as an attempt to maintain the balance that these forces would destroy.

In my opinion, there has to be a priority assigned to the concept of “Jewish state” to prevent it from disappearing under the waves of equality and democracy. And to my surprise, apparently the man who proclaimed the independence of the State of Israel in 1948 agreed with me (h/t: Lise Rosenthal).

In 1929, David Ben-Gurion made an agreement between his Zionist and socialist Histadrut Hatzionit (Zionist Union) and various non-Zionist and non-socialist Jewish organizations, particularly in the US, to form the Sochnut Hayehudit, the Jewish Agency that would represent the Jewish people of the world in the creation of the Jewish state. He was not at all happy about the compromises that were required, but he needed the money, particularly from the American capitalists – his bitter ideological enemies. Left-leaning but careful historian Tom Segev, in his book David Ben-Gurion: A State At All Costs (Keter, 2018 – Hebrew, pp. 219-220), wrote:

Ben-Gurion declared: “My heart isn’t at peace with the [Jewish] Agency […] but regardless, we accept the Agency because we believe that Eretz Yisrael will be built by a partnership of all the Jewish forces. Democracy for us isn’t an empty phrase, but we have a principle more holy than democracy, and that is the building of Eretz Yisrael by Jews.” Thus, democracy joined socialism and peace: in the ideological world of Ben-Gurion, like them it was graded below the objectives of Zionism [my translation and emphasis. The quotation is from Ben-Gurion’s diary, 26 December 1930].

Some people might find this surprising, just like they find Rabin’s real opinion about a sovereign Palestinian state surprising (he was opposed to it). But that’s the way political winners write history: they put their words in the mouths of a people’s heroes.

There is only one Jewish state. There are numerous versions of the democratic “state of all its citizens” in the world, but as time goes by and it becomes harder and harder for Jews to live in them, we are finding that Herzl, Ben-Gurion, and other Zionists were correct: a Jewish state is essential for the survival of the Jewish people. It was essential to create it then, and it is essential to preserve it now.

Ben-Gurion was single-minded and ruthless toward all of his opponents. I’ve criticized him harshly for his actions toward his right-wing rivals before and after the founding of the state; it was unfortunate that dedicated Jewish patriots like Begin were cut out of political life in this country for so long. I would have preferred that the state had been built according to the principles of Jabotinsky, rather than Marx.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t agree with Ben-Gurion more about the importance of “the principle more holy than democracy.” Today that’s the preservation of the state – as a Jewish state.

Posted in Israeli or Jewish History, Israeli Politics, Zionism | 1 Comment

Silent Ben and Pragmatic Bibi

Benny Gantz wants to negotiate a two-state solution with the PLO and divide Jerusalem. No, wait, he wants to annex Area C and offer the Palestinians autonomy in less-than-a-state enclaves. Who knows? Nobody, because Gantz won’t say. But more important, nobody seems to care what Silent Ben’s actual positions on anything are. A recent poll shows that in a contest between Gantz and PM Netanyahu, Gantz came in a close second with 38% of respondents favoring him to Netanyahu’s 41%. Apparently, Gantz’s experience as a former IDF Chief of Staff plus his prime ministerial appearance is enough to make him a viable alternative to Netanyahu, who is certainly one of the most successful Israeli prime ministers in history.

But maybe that’s because Netanyahu’s legal problems are deterring voters? Nope, polls show that, like Gantz’s extreme reticence, Bibi’s possible indictment on several counts of corruption simply doesn’t matter. Those who like him believe that the accusations are either stupid – I mean, after all, so what if someone gave him expensive cigars and champagne? – or criminalization of politics as usual, such as the government’s granting benefits to the Bezek communications conglomerate and its owner, Shaul Elovitch, in return for favorable coverage of the Prime Minister on its Walla website. Supposedly, the personal benefit for Elovitch was in the millions of shekels. The cases against Bibi are based on evidence provided by state’s witnesses, or, if you prefer, rats who will say anything to save their own skins.

There seem to be two kinds of people that dislike him. There are those who hate him for being instrumental in keeping the Left from realizing what it believes is its natural right to rule the country, all the more so insofar as he has been far more successful than they were in avoiding war and guiding the economy to its best condition ever. And there are those who simply dislike his personality, seeing him as shady and manipulative. One day I was waiting to cross the street when several people crossed against the traffic light. A man was standing next to me with a small boy:

Man: “We don’t cross on red. We are not Bibi.”
Boy: “Who is Bibi, grandpa?”
Man: “Bibi is one who always crosses on red. Don’t be like him.”

Monday night Bibi  made what he had said was going to be a dramatic announcement. Speculation ranged from “he is going to resign” to “he is going to invade Syria,” but it turned out that he wanted to demand the right to confront his accusers publicly. The speech was treated very negatively in most of the media, and I don’t think it especially helped (or hurt) him, but he has a point. For – literally – years, there have been almost continuous leaks to the media about how any minute now there will be stunning revelations of corruption that will bring down the Prime Minister; but in fact, until recently none of it amounted to a hill of beans. For example, who remembers the “deposit bottle scandal” in which Sara Netanyahu was accused of – can you imagine? – returning empty bottles that had been bought for official functions and keeping the money!

Every time – and there were dozens of times – that Netanyahu or his wife were questioned by the police, illegally leaked stories about what had transpired appeared on the evening news. Nobody in the police seems to have been punished, or as far as I know, even investigated about the leaks.

Nevertheless, there seems to be a general feeling that Bibi “has been Prime Minister long enough.” At age 69, he is possibly a little tired. If he isn’t ready to retire today, he certainly will be in a few years. One of his foibles is that he has never been able to abide anyone in his party that he suspects could challenge him, which means that there are few natural successors. The danger is that when he does step down, the majority of Israelis who have supported a right-wing coalition in recent years will fragment and the result will be that the Left will return to power. This could be facilitated by so-called “centrist” parties who lean to the right during the campaign, but when elected implement left-wing principles. This is the approach taken by Yitzhak Rabin in 1992, who promised during his campaign that there would be no direct talks with the PLO, no return to the pre-1967 lines, and no additional state between Israel and Jordan. As everyone knows, a year later he was shaking hands with Arafat on the White House lawn. So when Bibi says of Gantz – another former soldier like Rabin – that someone who won’t say whether he is left or right is probably left, right-wing Israelis are understandably worried.

Bibi himself has sometimes taken actions that can’t be understood from a right-wing perspective. For example, the illegal Bedouin settlement of Khan al-Ahmar, which can fairly be described as a joint provocation by the European Union and the Palestinian authority, and which the Supreme Court has (surprisingly) agreed ought to be demolished, still stands. Why? Perhaps Bibi has been threatened by the UK or other European countries, but it seems to me that a strong stand on this issue would be both good policy and good politics. Bibi doesn’t see it that way.

Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, who have recently separated from Beit Yehudi to form a new party called Hayamin Hehadash (The New Right) have sharply attacked him over his extended delay in removing the settlement. They have contrasted it to the recent violent removal of right-wing squatters from the wreckage of the community of Amona that was dismantled in 2017 by order of the Supreme Court over controversial Palestinian claims of ownership of part of the land.

In addition to the security concern posed by the location of Khan al-Ahmar, next to the strategic Route 1, there is the aspect of honor/humiliation/deterrence that I’ve written about so many times. From Israel’s point of view, it has a perfect right and a legitimate reason to enforce its building regulations in Area C. By allowing the Arabs and their European backers to thumb their noses at our sovereignty, we yield it to them, sending a message that we are too weak to defend our land, and therefore don’t have the right to keep it. Or perhaps Bibi doesn’t think that Judea and Samaria, even Area C with its Jewish majority, should be part of Israel. It’s hard to know what he thinks, which is one of the reasons many Israelis have a problem with him. If you hide your principles under a rock, people think that you are ashamed of them.

This is why I am disappointed with him. He is a pragmatist who tends to ignore the psychological and spiritual dimensions of power, which, especially in the Middle East, can be as important as the power of your air force or the number of tanks you can deploy. I see Bibi accepting too much humiliation, losing too much status, and not fighting the information war at all. He would say that our military and economic power has never been greater, and he would be right. But the degree of respect that we can command, both from our friends and our enemies, has declined in recent years.

I’ve always supported Bibi and Likud. But this April, I might vote for a party with more clearly articulated principles – and one that is likely to stand up for them.

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The first Palestinian-American in Congress

Rashida Tlaib is being called the first Palestinian-American woman elected to Congress. There have also been several congressmen claiming Palestinian descent: Justin Amash who represents Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District, and John E. Sununu, who served in the House from 1997-2003.

But did you know that there was a Palestinian-American in the House long before any of them, who was in fact the only one who was actually a citizen of “Palestine,” and who had a Palestinian passport? And that he was Jewish?

A word about what “Palestinian” means. There have been between three political entities that could be called “Palestine:” the first was a Roman province created when the Romans joined what was formerly called Judea to Roman Syria and called it “Syria Palaestina,” in order to irritate the Jews left alive after they sacked Jerusalem. That didn’t stick, and Judea went back to being called Judea. Then there was the British Mandate for Palestine, which existed from 1923 to 1948, and encompassed several provinces of the former Ottoman Empire. It was replaced by the State of Israel. Finally there is today’s Palestinian Authority, which was created by the Oslo Accords, and governs some 95% of the Arabs in Judea and Samaria, and theoretically all of Gaza. It is not a state and cannot issue legal passports.

John Krebs’ photo from his Palestinian passport (courtesy of Hanna Krebs).

John Hans Krebs z”l (born Hans Joachim Krebs in Berlin, Germany, in 1927) moved to Mandate Palestine with his parents in 1933. As a young man he served in the pre-state Hagana, and then came to the US to study law at the University of California at Berkeley in 1946, when he was almost 20. He got his law degree in 1950, served in the US Army from 1952-54, and received US citizenship in 1954. He also married his wife, Hanna in that year.

John’s Palestinian passport. Note stamp near the bottom indicating that he was a Palestinian citizen (courtesy of Hanna Krebs).

John held several political jobs in Fresno, California in 1965-74. He was elected to Congress from California’s 17th district as a Democrat in 1974, and served until 1979.

John was simply the nicest guy you could ever meet, soft-spoken, but very intelligent and knowledgeable; not at all a typical politician. I can’t imagine what he would have thought about Rashida Tlaib’s vulgar remark about the president. Although I suspect John thought I was a bit extreme politically, he always had a big smile for me.

And he was the first Palestinian-American member of Congress.

Thanks to Yisrael Medad and of course Hanna Krebs.

Posted in American politics, Israeli or Jewish History | Leave a comment