‘National Home” Bill Raises Bitter Questions

As usual, the opposition to the bill currently before the Knesset, Basic Law: Israel – the National State of the Jewish People is overblown. As usual, opposition to a right wing-sponsored bill appears to be little more than a desire to poke right-wing MKs and voters in the eye. Once again we are treated to hysteria about “the end of democracy in Israel” and “one giant step for theocracy” if this bill is voted into law.

In reality, the current bill will have no impact on liberties guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence. The bill itself stresses fealty to “the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in the spirit of the principles of the Declaration of Independence” – nearly direct quotes from the Declaration. The current legislation emphasises “foundations of freedom, justice and peace in light of the visions of the prophets of Israel, and upholds the individual rights of all its citizens according to law” – very much in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. The bill provides protection for Holy Places and freedom of religion for all, and would prohibit any infringement “on freedom of access by worshippers to the places that are holy to them or on their feelings toward those places.” – hardly has the makings of the racist theocracy that opponents propose.

The supposed impact of the new bill on the Declaration of Independence

Supposed impact of the new bill on the Declaration of Independence, according to Tzipi Livni.

But do the commitments of the Declaration of Independence – which speaks of “the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State” and the declaration “of a Jewish state in Eretz Israel” – not make the provisions of the current legislation clear to all? What is to be gained by this restatement of those principles? Does the lofty phrase “Eretz Yisrael was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped” not indicate for all that the nascent state would be the national state of the Jewish People? And if so, is the current bill not superfluous?

More importantly: Is it not clear that Israel has indeed achieved the goal of a Jewish state? For whatever the (legitimate) comments about Israel’s democracy, is it not clear that Israel is a Jewish country, both in population and culture? Nearly four-fifths of Israelis are Jewish; the national language is Hebrew.  The country runs according to the Jewish calendar. What does the new legislation propose to add to this reality?

The State of Israel is also recognised around the world as a source of strength and pride for Diaspora Jews, both for those who dream of making aliya and for those who merely take deep fraternal pride in Israel’s accomplishments. Jewish anti-Zionists (Orthodox and academic alike) not withstanding, and not withstanding the drop in support for Israel amongst unaffiliated Jews in recent years, millions of Diaspora Jews continue to identify with Israel and to draw spiritual nourishment from the country. Birthright is thriving. A post-high school year in Israel has become de regeur for graduates of Jewish day schools, yeshivot and seminaries. Is there really a need to enshrine all this in law? Is there even a meaning to doing so?

Ultimately, ironically, this bill raises a bitter question, not for what it says, but rather for what it implies: Have right-wing politicians and activists along the lines of MKs Zeev Elkin and Ayelet Shaked lost touch with these realities? Is the reality of a Jewish state so insignificant to them that they need more and more confirmation that this is so? Could it be that the international boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) campaign – vocal on the international stage, but ultimately ineffectual and marginal to Israel’s wellbeing – has, ironically, left its mark on the very folks who profess the highest allegiance to the ideals of Jewish Israel – the right? Israel is a Jewish state, whether or not the Palestinians, the Arab world or the international community recognise that fact. What, exactly, will the current proposed legislation change?

None of which is to exempt the left, which has in too many instances made Israel’s Jewish character a poor sister to the democratic state – the inverse sin of their primary accusation against the right. Here, the Golden Mean is defined by Professor Ruth Gavison, who has spoken clearly and at length of the necessary partnership between Jewish and democracy in Israel. Gavison believes the Zionist movement won support from the international community for a Jewish state only on condition that the new country would emerge as a democracy. At the same time, the only way in the current climate (or in any imaginable climate) to ensure the democracy of Israel is to ensure the state’s Jewish character. Any other definition, says Gavison, will lead to anti-democratic measures against Jews.

Ultimately, the Jewish nature of Israel is clear – to Palestinians, I believe, as much as to Israelis. There is little real question that early Zionist settlers and pre-state Haganah and Etzel fighters devoted their lives (and often lost them) in service of creating a Jewish state. To argue otherwise is simply intellectually dishonest.

But it is unclear how the proposal Basic Law: Israel – the National State of the Jewish People contributes to this goal. In the best case scenario, the bill does little than preach to an already converted choir of Israelis about the need for Israel to remain Jewish. In the worst case, it seems to be an unnecessary poke in the eye to Arab Israelis who already feel themselves to be something less than fully equal citizens of the “only democracy in the Middle East”.


Hilary 2016? Don’t bet on it

Now that the mid-terms are behind us, the media will proceed with all guns blazing to the 2016 presidential election. There is lots of evidence that Hilary Rodham Clinton, the former senator from New York, first lady and secretary of state, will to try to win the Democratic nomination for president.

But I’ll go out on a limb: Hilary Clinton will NOT win the Democratic nomination in 2016. Here’s why.

1. Age
On January 20, 2016, Inauguration Day, Clinton will be 68 years old. That would make her nearly the oldest person to ascend the presidency, second only (by several months) to Ronald Reagan. (By comparison, Stanley Ann Dunham, Barack’s late mother, would have been just 66 years old when her son became president in 2008).

In some important ways, that should conceivably give Clinton an advantage over her competitors: With age comes wisdom, and the knowledge of how to choose political battles carefully, both on the international stage and in the domestic arena. After a stint in the Senate and four tough years as Secretary of State (not to mention eight more years as First Lady, spent in the inner circle of presidential decision making), she brings to the table a deep knowledge of American political and economic interests in Latin America, Asia, Europe and especially in the Middle East.

But at age 68, there will be strong questions about Clinton’s ability to withstand the day-to-day pressures of the presidency, her ability to command the US military through a difficult period of adjustment (and perhaps reduction, if Defence Secretary Hagel’s recommendations come to fruition) and her strength to clearly define and defend US interests in a rapidly changing world. Especially when there are serious questions about her…

2. Health
Unlike Ronald Reagan, who’s most serious health scare as president occurred as the result of an assassination attempt in 1981, Hilary Clinton had a scare in 2013 when doctors discovered a blood clot between her brain and her skull. Since then, rumours have persisted that the blood clot has developed into a tumor. Government officials and the Clinton family have strongly denied the rumours, but the notion that Clinton is simply not healthy enough to withstand the demands of the presidency, and certainly not for eight years, will dog her campaign. Even Bill Clinton’s insistence that he would only be “Hilary’s first husband”, and Chelsea’s insistence that her mother “exud[es] the energy, the vibrancy, and certainly the mental acuity” to be president” couldn’t mask the legitimate concerns that Clinton is up to the pressures of a campaign or of public office. The lady (or, at least, her minions) doth protest too much, methinks.

3. Not Likeable
There is no nice way to put this: Hilary Clinton is simply not likeable. She never has been. Starting in 1992 with her first term as First Lady, too many people have viewed her as an opportunist, not a public servant. Her husband, President Bill Clinton, appointed her to head a national task force to revamp America’s healthcare system despite the fact that she had no background in healthcare policy (or any policy background, for that matter).

Later, in 2001, she rode Bill’s coattails into the Senate despite never having lived in New York, and despite the fact that her primary qualification for the job seemed to have been eight years as the president’s wife (supporters will point out, correctly, that Clinton is an accomplished woman in her own right, having attended Yale law school. But that was nearly 30 years before her election to the Senate, and that qualification played little part in her campaign in New York).

More recently, her failure to answer substantive questions at a campaign stop in Miami in late February that media reports described as “stage managed” does not augur well for a presidential campaign (as president, Barack Obama appears wooden and devoid of emotion, but Candidate Obama was engaging and charismatic. Clinton is neither).

And the recent renaming of the Bill Clinton Foundation as the “Bill, Hilary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation,” seems to have been an opportunistic pre-campaign name change (could it also foreshadow a foray into politics by Chelsea?), more inspired by Hilary’s presidential hopes than deep passion about the Foundation’s worthy initiatives on women, kids issues and jobs

In short, Clinton is banking on the notion that the time is right for the American people to elect a woman president. She is probably right about that. But Clinton is never going to have a better shot at the Oval Office than 2008.

4. Stunning failure to understand politics
What? From the Clintons?

And yet, history suggests strongly that Clinton has made a fatal mistake (supported by her many friends in the media) by beginning her campaign too early. Conventional wisdom would suggest that Clinton has tried to keep her name in the public sphere while biding her time to formally announce a presidential bid, probably sometime in early-to-mid 2015.

But the 2008 candidacies of Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain, Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign and others suggest that the common comment made about American presidential campaigns – that they are simply too long – is true. Two years before the 1992 election, few people outside Arkansas had ever heard of Bill Clinton. George W. Bush did not become a serious contender for the Republican nomination until the primary season got under way in early 2000.

Here, too, I’m betting on an early peak-and-fizzle. Twenty-four-seven news cycle or no, I believe it will be impossible for her to “slowly build momentum” until the Democratic primaries begin in just under two years.

5. No Habla Español
Clinton is correct that Barack Obama’s presidency destroyed the old template for US presidential elections – two homogeneous tickets comprised of four white men aged 45-60. But Clinton’s gender will not be sufficient qualification to secure the nomination, let alone election.

The 2016 election is likely to be the first in American history that is truly bi-lingual. More than 37.6 million Americans, more than 10 percent of the total US population today, now speak Spanish at home, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey. Twelve-and-a-half million of these people live in California alone, making up 30 percent of the electorate there. In seven states – California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Florida and New York – Spanish speakers make up significant portions of the electorate. Together, their voices add up to 167 electoral votes – more than half of the 270 needed to win the presidency.

This fact has not been lost on Republicans, who will have a wealth of Spanish speakers to choose from as the race gets underway. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez are just two of the potential candidates with the ability to hit the campaign trail in Spanish and with inspiring rags-to-riches personal histories will resonate with voters and turn the campaign into a The Promise of America campaign.

Expect, then, for Spanish-language campaigning to become standard for both parties. That will put Clinton at an unsurmountable disadvantage against younger, bi-lingual Democratic challengers such as John Pérez, speaker of the California Senate and a veteran former union organiser. And even if she manages to win the Democratic nomination, her candidacy will pale in comparison to
Time will tell, obviously, but with the 2016 election 33 months away, this bookkeeper is offering odds away from Hilary Clinton. Yes, I think she’ll run, but the early money should move away from betting on her for the Democratic nomination two years from now.