It has been a while since I have had the chance to put together a new post. Things have been quite hectic, I suppose. I'm not complaining about that.
I have been meaning to write a review for a while - about Memories After My Death: The Story of My Father, Joseph "Tommy" Lapid, by Yair Lapid. This was quite an interesting read.
The book as written as an autobiography, yet it was written by Yair Lapid after the death of his father Tommy Lapid. As Yair Lapid indicates in the acknowledgements, much of the material came from a series of interviews conducted by Amnon Dankner with Tommy Lapid in the last years of his life.
Tommy Lapid was a remarkable figure. His story of survival from the Holocaust is powerful and chilling. The book details the incredible sacrifices his parents made and their efforts to keep Tommy alive as the situation became grimmer and grimmer for the Jews of Hungary. Lapid and his mother were rescued by Raoul Wallenberg and moved to Israel in 1948, while Lapid's father was murdered in a concentration camp.
The book also traces Lapid's immigration to Israel and the astounding challenges that he faced along with all of the other new immigrants as they moved one from one existential struggle to another. Through it all, Lapid became a lawyer, a journalist, a politician and a writer. He wrote for a Hungarian language newspaper in Israel but later became a journalist with Maariv, director of the Israeli Public Broadcasting Authority, founder of the magazine "At" (a women's magazine), a Knesset member and, eventually, chair of Yad Vashem.
The book is an often intimate look at Lapid's life and those around him. He doesn't shy away from telling stories of romantic and other sexual encounters - along with various stories of his travels and escapades. From eating shark-fin soup in Hong Kong to meeting royalty in England, Lapid certainly managed to come into contact with many influential figures. He covered the Eichmann trial as a journalist, he rubbed elbows with Arnon Milchan, Robert Maxwell (for whom he worked) and Ehud Olmert. Interesting group of characters. In fairness, he was also close with Ariel Sharon.
Lapid is a controversial figure in Israeli politics. He was avowedly secular and dedicated to fostering an increased separation between shul and state in Israel. This caused him to be a lightning rod for ultra-orthodox anger. Yet, as Yair Lapid tells it, Tommy Lapid's vision for Israel was a considered one. Here, for example, are some thoughts about his rift with the Ultra-Orthodox:
"a democratic society is not founded merely on rights but on obligations as well. I have no problem whatsoever with an Ultra-Orthodox Jew who serves in the army, goes off to work in the morning, then studies Torah all night if he wants. That man is my brother and I love him better than any non-Jew in the world. He was there with me in the ghetto and on the rickety boat that brought me to Israel, he sat with me on a boulder facing a ruined synagogue on the island of Rhodes when I sobbed at the memory of 500 Jews led from the building by the Nazis and drowned at sea in an Italian ship."
And he goes on:
"The fact that a man wears a shtreimel on his head and grows a beard does not absolve him from the responsibilities carried out by all the other citizens of the state. It was not with ultra-Orthodoxy that I have a complaint but with the fact that the Ultra-Orthodox turned it into a permit for ignoring all the chores were are obliged to carry out on a daily basis..."
These excerpts provide a window into the ideology of Lapid as well as his son Yair. While Tommy pushed for the Israeli government to make changes to laws in Israel that define the religious-secular divide, it was Yair Lapid who was actually able to institute some key changes for a fleeting period of two years during which he was Israel's Finance Minister. Once Yair Lapid was excluded from the government, the changes that had been made were reversed and the religious-secular landscape has shifted considerably with ever greater power accruing to the ultra-religious and the nationalist religious in Israel.
While I agree with Yair Lapid's past approach to these issues, an approach that was more nuanced than the vision that his father apparently espoused, I felt that little other philosophical ground was covered in this book. That is an ongoing criticism of Yair Lapid in Israel - that he is shallow and often seems more concerned with who he is meeting, where is speaking and how he looks - than the policy content that he advocates.
I was not able to conclude from this book that I had a solid understanding of Tommy Lapid's goals for the country, his aspirations or his dreams. Certainly I understood that he was successful, bright, engaging and often acerbic and determined. He enjoyed fine wine, high quality food and many other trappings of his self-described bourgeois life.
Yet I came away feeling that I had missed out on his real goals. Sure, Lapid was an ardent Zionist who was committed, unconditionally, to the survival of the State of Israel and to doing whatever he could to help it flourish. I have little doubt that his son Yair shares those aspirations, just as he seems to share, for the most part, Tommy Lapid's outlook on the Ultra-Religious and the religious-secular fault line in Israel.
But beyond that, this book provides little from which one might discern a further understanding of the real aspirations of either the father or the son. And perhaps that is by design. Simply a genuine reflection of reality. That shallowness, if you will, for lack of a better term, may well doom Yair Lapid to a comparable political fate.
Monday, November 20, 2017
Friday, July 10, 2015
|Chief Rabbs Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau|
The rabbis and their supporters have had a busy week, filled with lots of newsworthy items.
Last Sunday, they were successful in rolling back a conversion initiative that was intended to make it easier for people to convert to Judaism in Israel. This was rolled back at the behest of the Shas and Degel HaTorah parties which are major partners in the current governing coalition. The rollback has widely been viewed as an effort to consolidate power over religious affairs in Israel back to the Ultra-Religious and away from the Zionist religious (i.e. the "modern Orthodox").
On Tuesday, a woman from Colorado, Linda Siegel Richman, was ordered to leave the Kotel (the "Western Wall) in Jerusalem because she was wearing a kippah (a skullcap or yarmulke). The Western Wall ushers told her that she did not belong and asked her to leave the area. She had come from the U.S. to study at the Conservative Yeshiva in Israel and was at the Kotel to pray and to place notes in the wall. The notes had been given to her by her students at a Denver school. The incident attracted enormous public attention. The next day, Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch issued a half-hearted apology in which he noted that it was not clear that the incident had actually even occurred. Rabbi Rabinovitch has, of course, made concerted efforts over the past few years to prevent women from having access to Torah scrolls at the Kotel, from praying out loud and from wearing tallithot. So it is really no surprise that a woman wearing a kippah encountered such difficulties under his watch.
On Wednesday, the Israeli Minister for Religious Affairs, David Azoulai, (of the Shas party), lashed out at Reform Jews and stated that he did not even consider them to be Jews. He had other choice comments for Reform and Conservative Jews that were along the same lines. Prime Minister Netanyahu swiftly issued a condemnation of these remarks and called them "hurtful." Education Minster Naftali Bennett also condemned the remarks in no uncertain terms and stated that all Jews are Jews. Bennett went on to say the home for all Jews, including Reform and Conservative, is in Israel.
Is all of this related? Well, the current government includes 7 Shas members and 6 Degel HaTorah members as part of its 61 seat bloc, which gives the government the slimmest possible majority in the Knesset, facing 59 opposition Knesset members. Prime Minister Netanyahu paid an enormous price to enlist these Ultra-Religious parties into the governing coalition. Both parties were granted a range of powerful political portfolios as as significant policy and financial concessions.
This is in marked contrast to the previous government. After the 2013 Israeli elections, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid had won 19 seats. His party insisted that it would not join a government that would make so many concessions to to the Ultra-Religious parties. Lapid held out and an Israeli government was formed without the Ultra-Religious parties - for the first time in quite a while. As a result, the previous government began to make certain changes. These included mandatory military enlistment for the Ultra-Orthodox, reducing government grants for non-working Yeshiva students, ensuring that secular subjects like math and science are mandatory for everyone and numerous other changes. Many of these changes as well as other proposed changes that were in the pipeline were quite popular among secular and other non-ultra-Orthodox Israelis.
But when it came time to negotiate a coalition agreement this time around after the 2015 election, Prime Minister Netanyahu simply gave away everything. He agree to roll back all of the changes that had been made or proposed in the last government and to go beyond that by providing additional monetary incentives for the Ultra-Orthodox to join the government. The disappointing aspect of all of that is that Moshe Kahlon and his allegedly centrist Kulanu party simply agreed to all of these terms and conditions. This was in marked contrast to Yair Lapid in 2013 who had retained some principles during the previous round of coalition building negotiations.
As the Ultra-Religious establishment increases its power during the current mandate, many Israelis are becoming more and more disaffected with this turn of events. This will cause many Israeli voters to turn away from Kahlon and Netanyahu in the next election. Who will benefit? Bennett will be the winner among religious and more conservative voters and will take away some seats from Netanyahu and/or Kahlon on the right. But the big winner is likely to be Lapid. If he stays the course and continues to fight as an opposition member, Israelis will view him as one of the few principled politicians who is willing to stand up to the Ultra-Orthodox.
It is a fairly common viewpoint that the Labour party, Zionist Camp or other name that it might run under would be as willing as the Likud party to court the support of Shas and/or Degel HaTorah by making similar concessions in order to form a government. Only Yair Lapid and, perhaps, Tsipi Livni, have shown that they would be willing to hold out against these demands. It will be clear to Israeli voters that Kahlon will simply agree to anything in order to get a cabinet seat.
While there are many Israelis who simply do not care about many of these secular-religious issues or other issues of religious pluralism, more and more Israelis are starting to pay attention. Many Israelis are looking for alternatives to Orthodox weddings, which currently have a monopoly in Israel. Opening the door to civil marriage ceremonies could lead to widespread change and could also open the door to same sex marriages in Israel. Easing the conversion laws could benefit a large number of Israelis including thousands of immigrants whose religious status as Jews has been called into question. Still other Israelis would like to see public transportation on Shabbat, demonopolization of Kashrut authority, or more liberal laws in other areas affecting personal status.
The more that the current government acts in a fashion that is viewed as extremist, the greater the resentment will be among centrist Israelis. This may all lead to a large shift of voters from Kahlon and Netanyahu to Lapid and others.
The Shas and Degel HaTorah voters will not change. Those parties will continue to attract similar numbers in any given election. Their elected officials are doing a good job in advocating for policies that they support.
But the Israeli political landscape has a large number of undecided centrist voters who are mobile. These voters have swung around over the past number of years, from the Kadima party, to Tsipi Livni and Yair Lapid and now to Moshe Kahlon and Kulanu. Lapid and the Yesh Atid party make a strong case that the centrist voters should shift back to him and his party and that they are the only party that will stick to some principled positions on certain issues.
The current coalition is very tenuous. It is hanging on by a thread and Prime Minister Netanyahu's government even lost its first legislative vote this week, although that vote was not a "non-confidence" vote. We will probably see another election in Israel sooner rather than later. And if the current trend continues, Lapid and his Yesh Atid party are likely to be the big winners.
Thursday, January 1, 2015
Tenenbom has quite an interesting resume. In his introduction, he describes himself as having been born and raised in an ultra-Orthodox, anti-Zionist home, groomed to be the next in a family lineage of rabbis. His mother was a Holocaust survivor and he had an extensive ultra-Orthodox religious education. He left that world completely and went to study in the United States, accumulating degrees in computer science, math, theater and literature. From the book, it is apparent that he speaks English, Arabic, German, Yiddish and Hebrew.
In 2012, he published "I Sleep in Hitler's Room," a book in which he detailed his travels across German in the summer of 2010, exposing outrageously high levels of German anti-Semitism, as he saw it. Now, Tenenbom was recruited, as he puts it, to travel across Israel and write a book about his travels. Catch the Jew is a collection of chapters that summarize Tenenbom's interactions, observations and discussions with a very wide range of Israeli and Palestinian characters across Israel. It is witty, irreverent, satirical, and well written.
Although I had a sense that this would be somewhat like Amos Oz's landmark 1993 book "Here and There in the Land of Israel," there were significant differences. Tenenbom's book probably covers a wider range of territory, is significantly more cynical than Oz's and is even more pessimistic. But it is also funnier.
Given Tenenbom's educational and linguistic background, he was able to disguise his identity, somewhat, to gain access to a wider range of subjects, who were apparently somewhat disarmed by the persona that he adopted. So, while travelling throughout the Palestinian Territories and among Israeli-Arab communities in Israel, Tenenbom claimed to be "Toby the German" and spoke only English and German. For other interviews, he could put on a kippah and attend a Friday night dinner with some ultra-Orthodox hosts, using his own real name, Tuvia Tenenbom. At other times, he would simply be Toby or Tobias the German reporter, to gain access to prominent Israeli officials, including members of Israel's Knesset, Palestinian Authority leaders and other writers and well known personalities.
Tenenbom delights in posing difficult questions to his subjects, many of which are apparently quite unexpected. Although purporting to be a German reporter, highly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, he still manages to ask Palestinian leaders some very uncomfortable questions about the "facts" that they provide him in the course of interviews and discussions. Similarly, he asks pro-Palestinian NGOs all kinds of questions about the work they are doing, the claims they are making and their underlying motives and the answers are often quite fascinating.
Along the way, Tenenbom covers quite a wide variety of ground. He spends some time with anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Rabbis and asks them about many different subjects. He interviews Israeli prostitutes and winds up asking them about their views about Sudanese refugees. He spends some time with Israeli soldiers, wounded Syrians being treated in Israeli hospitals, Bedouins, Palestinians in Ramallah and Jenin and settlers in isolated West Bank settlements. He also speaks to quite a number of Israeli MKs including parliamentarians from several different parties.
Ultimately, Tenenbom offers some very pessimistic predictions for the future of Israel and its society. But along the way, the book includes some very interesting sections.
One of Tenenbom's major targets is the whole range of left-leaning pro-Palestinian NGOs, often funded by German and other European countries as well as American donors. He details the sources of the funds, the types of people working in these organizations and the rampant anti-Semitism that so often permeates these organizations. His targets include the IRC (International Red Cross and Red Crescent), Doctors Without Borders, the New Israel Fund, Adalah and many others. He exposes examples of falsified facts, doctored photographs and videos, hypocrisy, and other ways in which many of these organizations seem to be on a mission to delegitimize Israel. In one shocking example, he follows an Israeli born tour guide named Itamar taking a group of European "fact-finders" on a tour of Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum, at the expense of the EU. The tour guide uses the museum entirely for the purpose of trying to draw parallels between the Holocaust and modern day Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. Tenenbom has nothing but scorn and outrage after debunking this type of ridiculous and baseless propaganda.
Tenenbom also attacks what he describes as self-hating Israelis, particularly those who, in his view, spend more time working to benefit the Palestinians than they do trying to improve their own lives. He uses a number of exchanges with some of these leftists to demonstrate their lack of historical and/or biblical knowledge, or the difficulties with a black and white approach that they take to problems that are often far more complex. Some of his harshest attacks are aimed at Israel's major left wing newspaper, Haaretz and some specifically named writers. Another two page missive is aimed at Israeli writer Shlomo Sand. (I reviewed one of Sand's book's on this site here in 2011).
It is worth highlighting this section for a moment. Sand had recently published a book entitled "When and How I stopped being a Jew." Tenenbom attended a gathering with Sand along with a number of left wing Israelis. I couldn't help but include the last few lines of that section of Tenenbom's assessment:
"If you're a self-hater, if you have no capacity to love even yourself, how can you love anybody else? There ain't no room for love in your heart, man, and you had better start living with it. As I sit here and watch these self-haters, I hear a voice within me asking: Is there anybody out there who is brainwashing these Jews to hate themselves? Good question."
Some of Tenenbom's exchanges with Israeli MKs are quite amusing. He ridicules Labor MK Merav Michaeli for a stream of drivel that comes out of her mouth when he asks her to speak about Israeli challenges and her vision for the future of society. He is apparently much more impressed by Ayelet Shaked of "Habayit Hayehudi" party, who, in fairness, is far more coherent than Michaeli in these interviews. Tenenbom's descriptions of meetings with other MKs, including Yitzhak Cohen of Shas and MK Meir Porush of Torah Judaism, are biting and derisive.
There are several themes that appear throughout the book even though this is not an essay or a polemic. One theme involves the type of anti-Semitism to which Tenenbom is exposed as a German reporter when he is with Palestinians and European funded NGOs. He details numerous pro-Nazi comments, and many other exchanges that are targeted far more at Jews as Jews than at any political issues. Tenenbom also raises the very same type of question that Israeli MK Avigdor Lieberman has been asking for years. Why is it that in a Palestinian state - there should no Jews whatsoever (like in some other present day Arab states), whereas the state of Israel should accept and absorb even more Palestinian refugees in its half of the two state solution? Why is a Zionist state "racist" but Muslim states and Christian states are not? Tenenbom raises these questions with Palestinians, NGO workers and others but is not provided with any reasonable answers.
Another of Tenenbom's recurring themes is the enormous resources invested by Germany and other EU countries as well as investments by German donors to fund anti-Israel NGOs, anti-Zionist and anti-Israel films and all kinds of other anti-Israeli activities under the guise of "peace." Tenenbom wonders about where else in the world the Germans and other Europeans are so involved in such activities and poses these questions. He does not receive any reasonable answers.
These themes are strung together with many others in a collection of interviews that cannot be easily portrayed as "right" or "left" wing. There are targets on both sides of the spectrum, right and left, Israeli and Palestinian, religious and secular.
Over the course of his adventures, Tenenbom writes repeatedly about his enjoyment of food, both Israeli and Palestinian. Wherever he goes, he offers comments about the meals that he is served, and even nicer comments if it is accompanied by good whiskey or strong coffee. Certainly in this area, it sounds like he would be a fun guest to have over for a meal, despite his incessant, self-described chain smoking.
But having read the entire book, I am hard pressed to think of very many positive things that he has had to say about any Israelis, on any part of the spectrum. Some of his kindest words are for some hijab-wearing Palestinian women that he met. He also seems to have quite a bit of admiration for Jirbril Rajoub, a Palestinian political and militant figure. Tenenbom admires the fact that Rajoub has acted, unwaveringly, in support of his people. It is precisely this characteristic that Tenenbom finds so sorely lacking among Israeli leftists.
If that were really his viewpoint, one might have thought he could find some centrist, or slightly right of centre Israelis that he could present favourably. But those interviews are sorely lacking.
So ultimately the book is far more negative than positive, in its coverage of just about everything other than the beautiful Israeli landscapes, the food and, perhaps, the ancient history. Although Tenenbom seems to be able to present a reasonably disarming nature to people he meets such that he is able to make friends and gain access, his condescending assessment of just about everyone he meets must ultimately leave readers wondering about the type of person Tenenbom really is.
When Amos Oz wrote his book, as biting as it was in parts, it was written by a person dedicated to working on the various challenges that Israel faces, as difficult as these challenges might seem. While many Israelis might disagree with Oz on a whole range of issues, I would find it quite a stretch to describe Oz with language that is anywhere near "self-hating." Not that Tenenbom says that about Oz, specifically. But it is Tenenbom's general characterization of the Israeli left.
On the other hand, it is far easier to criticize everyone you meet as an outsider. And then to leave and go back to New York or Germany and continue to pose as Toby the German, Toby the Christian or just Toby; anything other than Tuvia the Jew or Tuvia the Israeli.
After finishing the book and considering the themes, as well as Tenenbom's self-described introductory background, I can't help but wonder whether the "self-hating" description is most aptly applied to Tenenbom himself rather than many of the subjects he interviewed. Hard to say. I tend to agree with his arguments regarding many of the subjects. But the "self-hating" description is applied so liberally, to so many, that I started to wonder.