Tuesday, June 30, 2015

How Israel avoided its Grexit moment

30 years ago today, on June 30th 1985, Prime Minister Shimon Peres convened the Cabinet for a dramatic meeting. Israel had been living with monthly double-digit inflation for a number of years; now, less noticed by the populace but more dangerous, the money had run out. Within days the economy was expected to collapse. It was essentially the last possible moment to avert catastrophe. For weeks Labor PM Peres, and Likud Finance Minster Yitzchak Modai, had been overseeing the formulation of a complex package of measures, some of them quite harsh and most of them politically explosive or worse, and now the Cabinet was called to adopt them.

The meeting went on, almost unbroken, for 20 hours until the early morning of July 1st, at which point the ministers, most of them visibly exhausted, narrowly voted to adopt the plan.

On the anniversary of the event the Israel State Archives has declassified and published the transcript of the meeting (300-some pages). We have also put online recordings of some of the meeting, so you can hear the deliberations, not only read them. And we've asked two economic historians to write their impressions of the documents. If you know Hebrew it's worth your time to peruse some of this.

I've put all the links here.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Henryk Gorecki, Catholic

I don't write much on this blog anymore; when I do it tends to be about impersonal matters. Israel, books, stuff. This post is very personal, but it's important enough for to put somewhere.

Earlier today I stumbled upon a Youtube link to Henryk Gorecki's Symphony nr. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs).

It is overpowering. Overwhelming.

While I think I've encountered parts of it in the past, this was the first time I ever listened to it. Now that I'm consciously aware of it, if it's ever played at a Jerusalem theater I won't go. Who could sit in a hall full of people and publicly listen to such a piece of music?  The danger of losing emotional control in the presence of all those strangers would be too great.

So I did a spot of googling, and came upon this website. And on the website I found this picture:

Where I grew up, Polish people were suspect of having been nasty to Jews. Crucifixes were not suspect, they were known with certainty to have been wielded with fury by pogromists or with hatred by inquisitionists. Poles with crucifixes were, at best, to be avoided.

That was half a century ago, but childhood rumours are generally more powerful and rooted than much of what we pick up later.

Yet listening to that soul-arresting music, looking at the Pole sitting in his room full of Catholicism was profoundly comforting. There's a connection between his religion and his soul and his ability to create music that touches my soul. In a world awash in rampant soulless secularism, arrogant ignorance, rabid relativism and all-conquering vacuity, here's a man who sat under a wall of crucifixes and achieved transcendent beauty which touches eternity.

Update: It turns out that Gorecki explicitly tied his symphony to the Polish history of the 20th century in general, but also to Auschwitz in particular; and that the three sorrowful songs are between a mother and her son and daughter, perishing in the maelstrom. Here's a recording of the symphony interspersed with takes of Gorecki himself, wearing a heavy homey sweater.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

On completing Creation: on the 48th anniversary of liberating Jerusalem

It's the evening of 28th of Iyar, the Hebrew date of the Battle of Jerusalem in June 1967 on which the IDF captured the Old City of Jerusalem from the Jordanians (June 7th 1967).

In my study of the Bible I recently passed the chapters in the Book of Kings relating the story of King Solomon, and how he built the (first) Temple in Jerusalem. After a long and detailed description of the construction, and just before telling about Solomon's prayer to God upon opening the Temple, there's one of those many verses which contain more in the original Hebrew than in the translations: ותשלם כל המלאכה, Vatishlam kol hamelacha, When all the work was finished. (Kings 1 chapter 7 verse 49). The modern Daat Mikrah interpretation of the Bible points out the relationship between the word Vatishlam and shalem - became complete and complete, and the name Shlomo (the original of Solomon). It then brings an interesting Tana'itic comment, according to which it was not the construction of the Temple which was completed, but ALL the work. By completing the construction of the Temple, Shomo had completed the divine project of creation.

Historian that I am, I found this commentary particularly poignant. The Tanaim lived after the destruction not only of Solomon's Temple, but also after the destruction of the 2nd one; actually, they lived shortly after that second destruction, and in the world created by the wars against the Romans. Their world was anything but complete. Yet there it is, a theological statement that completion of the construction of Solomon's Temple had completed Creation.

This interpretation came to mind when I then read Yossie Klein Halevi's
Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation. Klein Halevi tells the story of the group of young reserve paratroopers who fought in Jerusalem in June 1967, and were the first to reach the Temple Mount and then the Kotel, the Western Wall. In a typical Israeli twist, it turns out that the small group of a few hundred young men included figures that were to be household names in Israel for decades, but were spread all over the map. Left-wing kibbutzniks such as Arik Achmon and Avital Geva, who grew up to be a founder of Israel's free-market economy and a kibbutznik artist, and both members of the peace camp; Yoel Bin Nun, Hanan Porat and Yisrael Harel, three very different leaders of the settler movement, Udi Adiv, a kibbutznik who spent years in an Israeli jail after being convicted of spying for Syria, and Meir Ariel, a maverick songwriter who fit into no-one's pigeonhole at any time until his death in 1999.

Following Yoel Bin Nun onto the Temple Mount on that historic morning after a night of battle, Klein Halevi tells how the event seemed to be the end of history, the culmination of Jewish history. As close as one can imagine to a Vatishlam kol hamelacha moment. Yet the book itself was published in 2013, and most of it is a recounting of the complications the young men lived through since that historic moment. If the morning of June 7th 1967 could have seemed like the happy ending to Jewish history, it certainly doesn't look like it today, 48 years later. History continues with a vengeance.

Unless you take the perspective of those post-destruction Tanaim looking back 1,200 years, not a mere 48.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Mishehu Pa'am, Someone Once

In the coming months you'll be hearing even more than previously about nationalist, chauvinist, nigh-fascist and of course extreme far-right Israel and its ghastly government and policies. Since I'm forbidden to deal with overtly poitical issues, I won't be required to pontificate about any or it. To be honest, I don't even expect to spend much time listening to the cacaphony, nor worrying about it. I'm too busy, at work and in life, and am slowly weaning myself from decades of political junkie-ism. It's not that I no longer care, but I'm learning to control my need for a permanent stream of poitical data. Better to wait a bit and think, rather than inbibe limitless quantities.

(Followers of my Twitter account will have noticed that I'm much less active than previously. About two months ago I experimentally deleted it from by mobile phone, and have never looked back.)

So here's an installment in the Shirim Ivri'im thread that was once popular on this blog. (Explanation here and here). I present it because it's an interesting shir, but mostly because it's from one of the many parts of Israeli life which aren't about the stuff you get from the media.

Ivri Lider Is a talented and popular writer and preformer of Hebrew songs. Here's his website. The piece is called Mishehu Pa'am, Someone once. It has nine stanzas, eight of which begin with the line Mishehu pa'am ahav oti kacha, which seems a straightforward sentence until you look closely. It means someone once loved me this way. Or perhaps loved me as I am. Or loved me in the way I'm about to tell. Or even, possibly, someone once loved me in spite of (our difference in age, or our incompatability, or the sheer recklesness of it all, or...)

Not a bad trick, to have more than seven or eight possible meanings to a three-word half-sentence. Upon reflection, even the first unequivoal two words, Mishehu paam, aren't that unequivocal. They mean a man once loved me, a woman (the gender formultion is clear). Or do they? Lider is unabashed about his homosexuality, and his voice is a bit feminine. So who is he really talking about?

The first seven stanzas describe the evolving relationship they once had, in which the un-named Someone pursued Me intensely and in spite of all obstacles, and it was nice, and powerful, and wonderful, and complicated, and painful. The eighth stanza says "so somone once left me kacha and got on a plane and went to live his full life elsewhere". Which brings us to the final, subdued and sad stanza, about someone who once loved me kacha and played me Mozart from old records, but I wasn't listening to the music...

Now watch the official Youtube version. It has been watched two and a half million times, mostly by Hebrew spearkers I assume, so the number is all the more impressive, though it really does speak for itself in a universal language. And remind yourself how silly those media reports are, how narrow-minded and blinkered.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The grandchildren of '73

Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day for more than 23,000 Israelis killed in the wars. One of the most meaningful days of the year. A central part of it is listening to hours of Shirim Ivri'im in minor keys which flood all the media channels.

One of the most important shirim (songs is an inadequate translation) is "The Children of '73". It is sung by a group of soldiers who were conceived in the dark months after the Yom Kippur War ("the winter of '73") to shellshocked fathers and relieved mothers clinging to each other in mourning. You promised us no more wars, sing the soldiers, and you promised us peace. You promised we'd not need to be soldiers. Well, we're young men and women ourselves now, and we're soldiers, and you needn't worry. We're strong, and we can shoulder the burden.

Do the maths. Those soldiers concieved in the winter of '73 are the parents of today's soldiers. The ones who were killed in last year's war.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

This is what a Jewish state can be for

Various folks have been kvetching recently about the growing incompatibility of nice American Jews and perhaps less-nice Israeli voters. Kvetching is a time-honored Jewish pastime, and you wouldn't want to deprive anyone of its pleasures.

Earlier today I participated, mostly as an observer, in a discussion about policy and the implementation of it in an (Israeli) government agency. Those present were disagreeing about technology, change, adaptation of the bureaucracy and the bureaucrats to new conditions, rate of change, hierarchies and decision making, consultation with stakeholders and participants... the works. Organizational consultants make a fine living from this sort of stuff.

Except that at one point the top bureaucrat present branched off into a discussion of Biblical exegesis. When Moses headed off into the desert, did he ask the Israelites if they liked the idea? One of the people disagreeing with him about the present day issue also disagreed about his interpretation of Exodus, but he shot down her interpretation, then someone else suggested a different reading.

After four or five minutes they all trooped back to the 21st century and the desirability  of using machine intelligence in the processing of large bodes of data.

There are many reasons why the Jews need a state, but this, to my mind, is one of the top ones. That Hebrew-speaking secular officials use their cultural heritage as it should be used: as part of everyday life.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Tarek Abu Hamed appointed to a senior position

Tarek Abu Hamed was appointed today to the position of Deputy Chief Scientist in the Ministry of Science. This is big news. Not gigantic, not an historic event to be recorded in the annals of the Levant, but significant nonetheless. In order to understand why, I need to tell a bit about Israel's Civil Service.

The Civil Service is a formidable place. Over the years it has acquired layers of complexity far beyond what non-civil servants recognize, making it much harder than necessary to get things done. Cabinet ministers, for example, usually have only very little long-lasting influence. They're not in the system long enough to figure it out, and even when they're experienced operators the system is geared to slow them down and limit their ability to do things. (There are some exceptions). The folks who have real power are the ones who are high in the system, but not so high they'll be moved within a year or three. The ones who are high enough to be in regular contact with many others of their general rank, as well as with the really top figures when they have the need.

The job Dr. Abu Hamed has just landed, therefore, is potentially a powerful behind-the-scenes mover, in a corner of the bureaucracy which itself has real significance: the allocation of funds and apportioning of government support in developing scientific and technological programs. Not anything to be sniffy about.

Dr. Abu Hamed is Arab, as his name indicates, but that's not the surprising part. There are higher ranking Arab civil servants, including some in positions which require high security clearance. The thing about Dr. Abu Hamed is that he's not an Israeli citizen. He's a Palestinian of East Jerusalem, a permanent resident by legal status, but not a citizen. Yet look what job he has just won.

Noteworthy. I certainly wish him the best.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The convoluted process of electing an Israeli government

Being a civil servant I'm not allowed publicly to express political opinions. But I don't see why that should stop me from explaining how the political process happens. So, just a few hours before voting begins, here goes:

All citizens from the age of 18 can vote. Each citizen has one vote, which is cast for a party list. Not for an individual. There's no mandatory process to construct the list. It used to be that each party appointed a team of power-brokers who met in a smoke-filled room, and a list emerged from the room. In the 1980s some parties began experimenting with ways to appear more receptive to public opinion or at least to aspire to some sort of transparency, and they replaced the Vaada hamesaderet, the organizing committee, with elections in a large central committee, or eventually even with a primary election by all card-carrying party members. Nowadays some parties have primary elections (Likud and Labor, Meretz and Beit Yehudi), others have rabbis who choose for them (the various ultra-orthodox parties), lots of backroom deals (the Arab list, I think), or simply powerful leaders who decide between their two ears (Lapid, Liberman, Kahlon, Livni).

The lists are submitted to the Central Election Committee a month or six weeks before the elections, and then locked until the next election. If at any point from then on someone drops out for whatever reason - boredom, say, or death - they're replaced by the top candidate from the list who is not yet in the Knesset. This means there are no by-elections or special appointments to the Knesset. In the past there have been cases of MKs who resigned days before the elections and were thus replaced for those remaining days; in this election Uri Orbach passed away a few days after the lists were submitted, and everyone below him (he was 5th in Bayit Yehudi) moved up one notch.

This system means MKs are responsible to various constituents or political strongmen, but not directly to voters in a national election.

There are 120 seats in the Knesset. Until not long ago the threshold for entering the Knesset was 1% of the votes, which means not much more than the 1/120th required in any case. In recent elections the threshold has been rising (well, the Knesset keeps passing laws to raise it, it doesn't happen of its own accord), and this time it stands at 3.25%, which means a list must have enough votes to garner four seats, or else it doesn't enter the Knesset and all its votes are regarded as disqualified. The first result of this change is that the three Arab lists, none of which were certain they'd pass the threshold on their own, created a joint list which may end up the third largest party.

The actual act of voting is done by inserting a small rectangular piece of paper into a blank envelope. There are no hanging chads in Israeli elections. The funny thing about these ballots is that each of them bears a letter or combinatoin of letters which are not the name of their party. This goes back to the early years of the state, when large numbers of new immigrants couldn't be counted on to be able to read the names of parties in Hebrew. This was resolved by allocating a letter to each party. By an astonishing coincidence the top political party of the day, Ben Gurion's Mapai, ended up with the letter A (aleph). The National religious party got B (bet), the ultra-orthdox got C (gimel) and so on. There have since been about 1,456 permutations of parties, and today the only party which still has its original latter is the Gimel party, which has however changed its name from Agudat Yisrael to Yahadut Hatorah (more than once, I think). The distant descendant of Mapai, which in this election calls itself the Zionist Camp, somehow acquired the letters aleph-mem-tav back in the 1960s; since these letters spell the word Emet, Truth, the party changes its name just about each electoral cycle but always holds on to its letters. A matter of superstition, perhaps.

The polls are open from 7am to 10pm, tho in cases where people arrived before 10pm the voting sometimes goes on for another bit. At 10pm sharp the various TV stations publish their exit polls, based on something like 25 voting stations of thousands. These exit polls are rarely precise, and tend to differ from each other by one or three seats, and also from what will eventually be the official results. This makes for fine and nail-biting drama for many hours into the night, but doesn't effect the real results.

The bulk of the ballots are counted by early next morning. There are still no final results, however, since the soldiers of the IDF, many tens of thousands of them, have voted on their bases in what are called double envelopes, because they're double. Each anonymous vote goes into a blank envelope. Each envelope then goes into a second envelope on which the soldier writes his or her full name and ID number. These envelopes are all sent to the Knesset, where large teams of folks check each name against the names of people who voted in the polling stations. Having identified the voter and ascertained they didn't vote twice the outer envelopes are discarded and the real envelopes then sent to a different table where they're counted. This takes a few days, so the final results are unknown. Even then there can be last-moment changes, since there are elaborate mechanisms to divide the final portions of MK seats which are left hanging - say, between a party with 5.6 seats and another one with 38.4. The larger party will probably get the entire seat, but not always. Don't ask.

When results are close it can happen that the outcome of the election remains hanging for almost a week after polling day. Which isn't as bad as it sounds, since in any case elections are merely a milestone along the road to creating a new government, not a final outcome.

Once the official results are in, and then another few days pass for the central election committee to prepare a letter to the president containing the information everyone already knows, the next stage of the process can begin.

In theory, the president chooses an MK - any one of the 120 new MKs - and tasks him or her (should I say "it"?) with creating a government which will receive 61 votes of support from the 120-member Knesset. If only it were remotely so simple!

No party has ever won 61 seats, so every Israeli government ever has been a coalition. (And this will most likely remain so for the next few centuries, opinionated and argumentative Jews being opinionated and argumentative Jews). The thing is, it used to be a mildly predictictable coalition of three parties, say, or four. These days it's rather more challenging. I'll write about the present alignments in a follow-up post; here I'm simply describing the mechanism.

The president invites each party in the Knesset to send him a delegation which will recommend whom he should task with building a coalition. Often the outcome of these deliberations is clear in advance, when there's a large party and a reasonably plausible set of parties to build a coalition from. Sometimes this isn't the case. Two elections ago Zipi Livni "won" the elections with 28 seats, but Netanyahu, having "lost" with 27 seats, set up a coalition and ruled because he had more potential partners, and they recommended him to President Peres.

This time all polls suggest this stage will be nightmarish. Which means the results of the elections may prove to be no more than general guidelines, or vague recommendations; the real result will be hammered out much later.

Once the president (his name has recently changed from Peres to Rivlin) tasks someone with building a coalition, that someone has about 5 weeks to get the job done. This ensures that it won't happen in less than five weeks: what politician would agree to finalize such fun negotiations before the end of the allotted time?

Having convinced at least 61 MKs to support him, the fellow goes to the Knesset, presents his new cabinet and is voted in, thereby becoming Prime Minister. All the while until then the previous one is still on the job. There was one case in the late 1980s when Shimon Peres (he who was later president) found out he lacked 61 votes only at the very last minute, when he was already in the Knesset building. Zipi Livni in 2009 was tasked with creating a coalition but failed. So it ain't finished till it's finished.

I think that more or less covers it all, except for the intricacies and crucial minutiae. In the next post I'll try and talk about who's running this time and who they'll never join in forming a coalition. All the while without indicating where my own preferences might lie, which I'm not allowed to tell.