Wednesday, August 10, 2011

"On Tisha B'Av"

Arlene Kushner

I write in the waning hours of Tisha B'Av.

Last night I listened to the chanting of Eicha (Lamentations) on the grassy banks of the Tayelet -- the pathway on a high part of Jerusalem that provides a magnificent view of the Old City.

Today I studied Kinot (elegies on the destruction of the Temples and other catastrophes of Jewish history), and then listened to a teaching -- by Rav Ari Kahn -- on feeling close to the Almighty on this day. All at Matan, an institute for serious Jewish learning for women.

My head, as it should be, is still very much with the import and the themes of the day. And so I wish to touch upon at least one more theme that speaks to us now, before I move on to mundane subjects such as tent demonstrations.
Yesterday I wrote about the sin of sinat hinam (causeless hatred), as the reason for the destruction of the Second Temple. But there are traditions that take us back much further than that -- to the sin of the spies, which is said to have occurred on the same day.

I've written about this before: When the children of Israel approached the land of Ca'anan, Moses sent out 12 spies, one from each tribe, to scout out the land before the people entered. Ten came back with negative reports regarding giants in the land, etc. "We were like grasshoppers in our own eyes." Why were they like grasshoppers to themselves? Because they forgot that the Almighty had promised them the land and was with them.

The people, listening to them, then became alarmed about going in.

God subsequently determined that they should not go in yet -- the children of Israel were required to wander the desert for 40 years, until the generation that had been afraid was gone. Then, even after the people entered the land, subsequent tragedies were traced back to this sin.


Today we as a people have begun to come back to the land, and this is seen as a tikun, a repair for the sin of the spies. It is a redemptive process, an expression of faith in what we have been given by God and in our ability to thrive here. The modern State of Israel is referred to as reishit tzmichat geulatenu -- the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.

Many -- I among them -- have established a life-commitment to the land. It's difficult to adequately put into words the meaning of being here: the heightened sense of life and sanctity in spite of all the difficulties. But it's very real, and I see God's hand in our return.


It brings great sadness then, if not alarm, that there are Jews in growing numbers outside of Israel for whom Israel has little or no import. (How is it that after 2,000 years of waiting, now that there is a State, the majority of American Jews has never so much as visited??)

Woe unto us as a people if we get it wrong this time.


There is an ancient drainage channel, which begins in the Siloam Pool and runs from the City of David to the archaeological garden near the Western Wall. The Israel Antiquities Authority has been doing excavations there -- in cooperation with the Nature and Parks Authority, and the City of David Foundation -- and has now announced two significant finds that touch upon the theme of Tisha B'Av:

First, a 2,000 year old iron sword, still in its leather scabbard, along with parts of the belt that carried it.

Directors of the excavation, Eli Shukron of the Israel Antiquities Authority and Professor Ronny Reich of the University of Haifa, have released a statement:

"It seems that the sword belonged to an infantryman of the Roman garrison stationed in Israel at the outbreak of the Great Revolt against the Romans in 66 CE [which preceded the destruction of the Temple]. The sword’s fine state of preservation is surprising: not only its length (c. 60 cm), but also the preservation of the leather scabbard (a material that generally disintegrates quickly over time) and some of its decoration."

And second, "a stone object adorned with a rare engraving of a menorah." It was found in the soil beneath the street, on the side of the drainage channel and in close proximity to the site of the Temple. Shukron and Reich speculate that "a passerby who saw the menorah with his own eyes and was amazed by its beauty incised his impressions on a stone." They consider "the portrayal of the menorah’s base [to be] extremely important because it clarifies what the base of the original menorah looked like, which was apparently tripod shaped."

The Israel Antiquities Authority press release can be seen here:

On this site is a link to high resolution photographs of the artifacts.


Now, the tent demonstrations:

Last Saturday night there were very significant demonstrations, centered, but not exclusively, in Tel Aviv. The number bandied about for the total is 250,000 to 300,000 people. I'm a bit dubious because exaggerations are frequent in such situations. (In fact, a number of activists have submitted a letter to the Israel Journalists Council charging that while the media -- set on pressuring Netanyahu -- had reported more than 20,000 demonstrators in Jerusalem, advanced imaging technology indicated a count of under 6,000.)

But the numbers were impressive, in any event.

What seems to have happened is that the economic themes of the original demonstrations resonated with a more broad-based group, so that the concerns of those gathered in some good part moved beyond the intentions -- radical, communist/take down the government -- of the leaders of the original demonstrations. Certainly there were statements made by leaders of some groups protesting that they didn't want to bring down the government, but simply have the government respond to their real needs.

This is not to say that political parties left of center -- certainly parties such as Labor and Meretz, but I include Kadima -- have taken this position: Livni is transparent in her eagerness to use this situation to her political advantage. This is more than a bit ironic, as the Kadima administration of Olmert that preceded the current government, and of which Livni was a part, did not promote housing.


The media made a good deal of the fact that very different elements had joined the demonstrations. At one point both MK Ya’acov Katz (National Union) and MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta’al) could be spotted on the scene on Saturday night.

The theme in certain quarters was one of national unity: see all the different people out in a democratic action that promotes togetherness. We cannot help but wish this to be so, and perhaps at some level, in some places, it was.

But across the board that's a facile description of what was going on. MK Katz encouraged people living in communities in Judea and Samaria to come out, to protest the lack of housing for them and to emphasize the degree to which building in Judea and Samaria would alleviate the national housing shortage. But those who are opposed to any Israeli presence beyond the Green Line were less than welcoming and not ready to embrace them as a legitimate part of the demonstrations. In fact, a couple of people were arrested on suspicion of setting fire to the tents of right wing protesters.


The bottom line here is that Likud recognized that the crowds could not be ignored and that some response would have to be forthcoming. But the term uttered over and over was "responsible":

It would be a huge mistake to rush to respond to all of the demands of the protesters in a manner that undercut the stability of the nation. If we are undercut, in the end, everyone will pay -- including those making demands right now. Israel cannot support all prices, subsidize all costs, etc. etc., and keep going.

Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, after meeting with Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer on Saturday night, said:

"It must be pointed out that the Israeli economy is doing well from a macroeconomic perspective. The influence of the global debt crisis has been limited, until now, thanks to the resolve that the attained, among other things, by the budgetary discipline of the past few years.

By Sunday, Steinitz had declared clearly:

"the government cannot respond to all these demands [of the demonstrators]. Just as we have been attentive to public sentiment and to the fight over the cost of living and housing, so to the public must be attentive to what is happening in the world.

We are still navigating the Israeli economy through difficult times. We must be responsible and cautious. We must maintain the general economic structure and budgetary framework. Countries that lived beyond their means are today paying the price. We do not want to be in the situation that Greece, Spain and others find themselves in today." (Emphasis added)

Even Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who has supported the demonstrations, has now come out against defense cuts:

"We must remember that security-wise we don't live in Switzerland or Finland. We are in a burning field, with everything that is happening in the states that surround us...and I'm not even mentioning Iran."


Prime Minister Netanyahu's decision by Monday was to appoint a team to meet with protest leaders and draw up a plan. His words echoed those of Steinitz:

"We will be unable to please everyone. It is impossible to take the sum total of the demands regarding all the distress and say, and boast, that we can meet them all.

"We will listen to everyone. We will speak with everyone. We will hold a genuine dialogue...we will really listen to the distress and the proposals for solutions. In the end, we will consider practical solutions. Practical solutions require choices. They also require balance. (Emphasis added)

"Yesterday, something happened which had not occurred in the previous 70 years, since countries began to receive credit ratings. The credit rating of the US, the greatest economic power in the world, was lowered by Standard and Poor's. This event joins with the crisis that is spreading to the major economies of Europe. It is possible that 120 - 130 million Europeans live in countries that are on the verge of bankruptcy and mass unemployment."

What has to be done in Israel, says the prime minister, is to "act with economic responsibility while making the corrections that express social sensitivity.

"It is impossible to ignore the voices coming from the public and there is no reason to do so. We want to give them genuine solutions. I would like to provide these solutions in a thorough -- not cosmetic -- way.


The team that Netanyahu has established will be headed by economist Manuel Trajtenberg, who was charged with appointing appropriate professionals to meet with the protesters. They are supposed to have intensive discussions with different groups and sectors of the public. The team will then make proposals to the 16-minister socio-economic cabinet headed by Steinitz. Final recommendations will be submitted to the prime minister, who will bring them to the full cabinet for approval on changes in the Israeli economy.

Netanyahu wants the team to focus on changing the nation's priorities; changing the mix of tax payments; expanding access to social services; increasing competition to reduce prices; and implementing the housing plan that has already been introduced.


Yesterday, Trajtenberg presented 22 names to Netanyahu. Of these, 14 will be full members and eight will participate in discussions. These are people, says Trajtenberg, who "bring with them professional expertise alongside social sensitivity, public experience, and youth who can understand the feelings of the public today." The team -- which includes economists, officials and academics -- will begin meeting with protesters this week, and present conclusions next month.


In response to this plan, Roee Neuman, a spokesman for the tent protest movement, said, "We didn't want any sort of committee. We wanted the government to take action right away."

You got it? Right away. Precisely what the government should NOT do -- act precipitously without deliberation.

"We are citizens, not politicians. It's up to us to give them concepts and principles, but for them to come up with a formulated plan to make it work."

Excuse me? Of course, "coming up with a formulated plan" takes time, so that this demand by Neuman flies in the face of his other demand, that response be instantaneous. So much for taking him seriously.

What I see is that he cares not a whit for the stability of Israel, for he expects every single concept coming from the street to be made to "work." No discussion, no compromise. This, I would say, tells us something about the tent protests.

Fervently is it to be hoped that Trajtenberg and Netanyahu will resist the impulse to give in more than is advisable.


© Arlene Kushner. This material is produced by Arlene Kushner, functioning as an independent journalist. Permission is granted for it to be reproduced only with proper attribution.

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