Heads must roll for marathon tragedy

It is outrageous that the City of Tel Aviv, Gillette, Addidas, Neviot water and the rest of the sponsors have refused to take responsibility for the death of Michael Michaelovitch, the runner who died during this morning’s half-marathon in Tel Aviv, and for the dozens more who suffered moderate-to-serious heat stroke during the race. Meterologists have been warning for the past week that a powerful, one-day heat wave was due to hit Israel today; to their credit, marathon organisers postponed the full marathon competition, but said they could not push off the entire event because US President Obama’s visit next week.

While Mr Michaelovitch z”l had a responsibility to monitor his physical well-being while running, it is also true that heat stroke can affect even the most physically fit athletes, often with little warning. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai must take responsibility for ignoring pleas by the Health Ministry and allowing the race to proceed. Furthermore, the City of Tel Aviv should let the event’s sponsors that the municipality will no longer back athletic events with their support. There is no shortage of major corporations that would happily sponsor the Tel Aviv Marathon in future years.

Lastly, the ultimate test of how “sorry” Mayor Huldai, Tel Aviv city hall and the sponsors are for today’s tragedy will not be in the coming days and weeks, but in 2014. Next year’s marathon is scheduled for 4th April. Will the City of Tel Aviv demand that the race be rescheduled for late January or early February? 

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No deal till there’s a deal

Could Bibi Netanyahu pull a Labour-Likud-Haredim government out of his hat at the last minute?

There are certainly signs that it could happen, despite Labour Chairwoman Shelly Yechimovitch’s determined stance that her party will not be joining a Likud-led government. Cynics will look at Yechimovitch’s strong position as clear proof that she’d consider a good offer from Netanyahu; realists out there (including veteran political journalist Sima Kadmon, writing in this morning’s Yedioth Aharonoth), say that the deal has already been drafted and shelved. It doesn’t take a huge leap of faith to imagine that that deal could be dusted off and presented to the Knesset at the last minute.

Yes, in many ways the notion of a Likud-Labour partnership seems absurd, until you think of it in this light: The last headache Netanyahu needs is a government with the Jewish Home party, and not only because of his personal animosity for Naftali Bennett. He’s already the leader of a Likud faction that is vocal, strong and considerable to the right of the prime minister. It is hard to imagine that he will agree to a situation in which he promises US President Barack Obama to renew negotiations with PLO Chairman Abu Mazen, only to have to fight an “anti” block consisting of Orit Struck and Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, together with Danny Dannon and Yariv Levin.

And then there is Yesh Atid. If there is anything that Netanyahu should have learned from the past month-and-a-half, it is that the upstart new party is fiercely determined to change the face and practice of Israeli politics. That may be the greatest threat Netanyahu faces as he desperately tries to maintain the old-style politics that has worked for him for 25 years.

Yesh Atid ‘s revolution is happening in little and big ways: American-born MK Dov Lipman has announced that he would hold regular office hours for community relations, in order to increase accountability to constituents. Party leader Yair Lapid agreed to forego the prestigious foreign minister’s job, but refused to compromise on his demands to exclude the haredi political parties and to limit the size of the government. As of this writing, the party appears prepared to sit in opposition unless Netanyahu agrees to appoint Yesh Atid number two Rabbi Shai Peron as education minister.

Of course, with politicians it is always hard to identify the border between honest community service and narrow political ego, but the issue does seem consistent with Yesh Atid’s determination to create a government that responds to the needs and desires of the electorate. For the Likud, which has built a political empire on the notion that the government is responsible primarily to the party at the top, there is no greater threat.

It is important to remember: There is NO chance that Israel will hold new elections. The two parties who have the most to lose from an election “do over” – Likud and Labour – are also the groups that could prevent that from happening.

But time is running out. Netanyahu has until this Shabbat to present a government, and he has not managed to convince Yesh Atid to abandon its election platform in order to join the coalition.

On the other hand, in many ways Labour and Likud are a natural partnership. While there are sharp differences of approach on economic issues, there is broad agreement between the two parties on other issues such as the religious status quo, funding for haredi yeshivot and even on foreign policy: Yes, Labour would push for a resumption of peace talks with the current Palestinian leadership, but that’s something Netanyahu could live with, particularly because he does not believe the negotiations would lead anywhere.

Furthermore, both parties recognise the political expediency of having a large government. These areas of agreement, coupled with the fact that both stand to lose significant numbers of Knesset seats if there are new elections, all point to the fact that come-what-may, there will be no new election.

Lastly, Netanyahu has been loathe to alienate his long-time allies in the United Torah Judaism and Shas parties. That alliance is the reason he balked last May when the Plesner Committee presented its plans for drafting yeshiva boys, and it’s the reason he tried hard to convince Lapid to accept the haredi parties in the new government. My guess is that Netanyahu believes that Yesh Atid is only the newest incarnation of the Centre, Third Way, Pensioners and Kadima parties – a one-election wonder that will be gone by the next time Israelis hit the polls.

If that assumption is correct, then it makes perfect sense for Netanyahu to ditch Yesh Atid and Jewish Home in favour of Labour and the haredim. The only question left to ask if it all goes down that way is what happens after that?

Likud Still Doesn’t Get It

Could it be that the LIkud has failed to understand the main message of the 22 January elections? Is it possible that veteran party MKs are so stuck in the “old politics” that they simply cannot fathom the degree to which ordinary Israelis want a new politic, and the degree to which political newbies Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett are committed to making that happen?

If one listens to Environment Minister Gilad Erdan, the answer to that question would appear to be “yes.” Speaking on this mornings “Hakol Dibburim” radio show with Keren Neubach, Erdan praised Prime Minister Netanyahu for agreeing to the joint Lapid-Bennett demand to exclude ultra-Orthodox (“haredi”) parties from the government, calling it a “tremendous concession”. Erdan then proceeded to warn the upstart politicians that they are playing with fire (my phrase, not his) by dragging out coalition negotiations.

“Netanyahu has already made tremendous concessions,” Erdan said. “The public will remember who made the concessions and who was stubborn”, insinuating that voters would punish the Yesh Atid and Jewish Home parties in favour of the Likud, were a second round of elections to be held.

From where I sit, however, Erdan has got it perfectly backwards. There is a strong majority of Israelis – secular and religious alike – who want fundamental change, both with regard to the way politics are conducted here and especially with regard to the country’s relationship with the haredi minority. Few Israelis will see Netanyahu’s decision take Lapid and Bennett over Yaakov Litzman and Eli Yishai as a “painful concession.”

Rather, most people will see it as a move that expresses – horror! – the will of the people. As I’ve written before, the party that stands to lose the most from new elections would be the Likud. Were that to happen, the public would indeed remember a) just how badly Netanyahu wanted to keep the haredi parties in the coalition, b) the fact that he’s promised to save the foreign minister’s job for Avigdor Lieberman, and c) the fact that he has promised both to evict and not to evict Jews from their homes in Judea and Samaria.

Divisive Hot Potato

It should be noted, however, that the exclusion of haredi political parties from the government will not necessarily translate into far-reaching, fundamental change on issues like haredi military or civilian national service, welfare payouts to adult kollel students (“avreichim”) or demands that all educational institutions that receive public funding teach the core Israeli curriculum and prepare students for matriculation exams.

It remains to be seen whether or not the Yesh Atid faction will make good on its promise to begin to deal with these issues, but if it does, the issue is sure to become a divisive hot potato between the two largest factions in the presumptive government, Yesh Atid and the Likud. Netanyahu may have agreed to exclude the haredim from the government this time around, but this does not mean he has broken his historic partnership with them, and he will be sure to keep an eye out for their interests as the new government takes shape.

One last point: One of the major Hebrew-language columnists (I think it was Yedioth’s Sima Kadmon, but I could be wrong) suggested the following scenario: Netanyahu leaves the haredi parties out, but assigns the ministries they would want – interior, religious services, housing – to the Jewish Home party. Three months from now, he could orchestrate a crisis to prompt Bennett to quit the government (start thinking settlement evictions), thus making room for Shas and United Torah Judaism to ride in to save the day. At that point, Lapid would be unlikely to bolt (standing strong to get the government you want is one thing; bringing down a government that you’re a part of is something else), and Netanyahu would have what he desperately wants now: A centre-right government, clearly prepared to sacrifice settlements if need be, without alienating the Haredi parties.

To play (the system) or not to play?

Without a doubt, choosing a high school for my 13-year-old son is the most frustrating thing I’ve had to do since making aliya 18 years ago. 

Except for a two-and-a-half year period in Australia, I’ve lived my whole adult life in Israel. That’s brought a lot of advantages – I’ve never really lived abroad as an adult, and I very rarely visit the United States, so I don’t really think about the “difficulties” of life in Israel unless they are pointed out by my Aussie or American friends. I’m fortunate to have built a good life here, and on the rare occasion I do compare Israel to the Old Country, I find that Israel stacks up pretty well. Very well, in fact.

Which is why I’m so traumatized about choosing a high school for Gilad. As opposed to my hometown of Irvine, California, where all the teenagers in a clearly-defined geographic area went to the local high school, religious Zionist communities in Israel require young people to take entry exams, sweat out personal interviews in order to get into elite yeshiva high schools, and to deal with the pain of rejection if they aren’t accepted.

Worse, nobody but school officials know what the criteria for acceptance are. I’m not actually sure there are clearly defined criteria. Test scores and seventh grade report cards are said to count for a lot, as are the personal interviews, complete with questions about the student’s level of religiosity, the family’s level of observance and a nebulous impression of whether Student A is the “sort of young man we’re looking for here.”

And that’s for the boys high schools. One mother of an eighth grade girl said her daughter’s teacher wouldn’t actually spell out the entry requirements for the two local girls high schools. Rather, the principal said that representatives of the each high school would meet with their elementary school counterparts for a briefing about which girls are more suited for the elite school, and which ones would be better suited to a “less academic” environment.

The drawbacks of the situation are clear to all, and it also isn’t clear exactly what the benefits of the system are. Accomplished men and women in their late 20s and even their early 30s say they still bear the hurt of having been rejected by the “top” schools a decade or more ago.

Furthermore, the local model of creating micro-high schools to suit every narrow segment of the population prevents us from offering our children the academic and extra-curricular opportunities that a larger regional high school would be able to. A simple comparison: Gush Etzion, with fewer than 30,000 residents, is home to four high schools for boys and two for girls. None offer formal music programs, sports teams, drama programs or other extracurricular activities. One school offers foreign language instruction in Arabic.

In contrast, Irvine, California is home to 219,000 people, with four regional high schools. There, each school has enough critical mass to offer students all of the above, plus a wide range of academic options to challenge university-bound students and to ensure that weaker students get the basic education they will need to enter the work force after high school.

It’s an elitist system that will necessarily hurt many of children and by definition fails to offer them the educational and cultural opportunities all parents would like them to have. As a result, many parents are forced to shuttle their children to twice-a-week band rehearsals or swimming competitions in Jerusalem, or to French lessons closer to home. As outside activities, these groups carry additional costs, usually heavy ones.

In our specific case, it happens that all the high school options are excellent. Neveh Shmuel is a text-heavy yeshiva high school that seems cold to the outsider and prides itself on stiff competition amongst students to achieve high matriculation scores in Torah and secular subjects alike. Mekor Chaim is similar, with more of a focus on Chassidic thought and spirituality.

Orot Yehuda is less academic and is built around the yeshiva’s dynamic founder and dean, Rabbi Shlomo Kimche. The physical surroundings are sparse, but Rabbi Kimche and his staff more than make up for it with a warm, encouraging atmosphere and a clear message about the beauty and joy of Orthodox Judaism. Parents and students alike say the fourth option, Derech Avot, has the best staff and curriculum of any school around, but the school has a bad name amongst many parents because it caters to troubled teenagers as well as to academically-minded kids. It’s also the continuation of Gilad’s junior high school, meaning he’d be accepted without a test or personal interview. But many students can routinely been seen smoking just outside the school grounds during school hours without kippot on their heads, two facts that scare many religious parents.

Which ever option Gilad chooses will be a good option that will serve him well, but I’ve come to resent the entire system, and I find myself conflicted. Do we pull out of the system, notify Derech Avot that he’d be honored to attend and hope that some of his friends follow suit? Or do we let him take the national test, thereby keeping the other options open in case none of the other families want to give Derech Avot a chance but feeding a system with no clear benefits? 

© The Jerusalem Post