Home > Gaza, Ira Sharkansky, Israel, Palestinian Authority, United States of America > Direct peace talks will share Israeli dinner conversations with those about IDF, extremist rabbis and errant academics

Direct peace talks will share Israeli dinner conversations with those about IDF, extremist rabbis and errant academics

By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM–While the big news of the day is the impending start of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, to open with a blessing by Barack Obama, the news that has held Israel in its grip for two weeks is a document purported to influence the selection of the next commander of the IDF.

The document became public when trumpeted on one of the commercial television channels with a taste for yellow journalism. While I have not been able to locate the text of the document, there has been no end of commentary about it. Moralists condemn the appearance of a plot claiming to be the work of a professional public relations firm, laying out plans to influence the public, governmental officials, and key military officers in order to affect the selection of the next commander. 
The document may be a parody of the maneuvering that typically surrounds those occasions every four or five years when it is necessary to appoint the next commander of the IDF or the head of the national police. The obvious candidates, and individuals who feel themselves close to them and perhaps hoping for an eventual boost to their own careers, line up potential supporters in order to influence the government ministers with responsibility for nominating their chosen candidate to the entire government for the formal selection.

Both the IDF and the national police are led by a collection of Alpha Males with the talent and the elbows to get where they have gotten, and who aspire to go further.

Parody: a work created to mock or make fun by means of humorous, satiric or ironic imitation. 
Commentators have not been able to agree whether the figure prominently mentioned in the document is the person meant to be selected, or if the campaign is really meant to tarnish his reputation and render him unfit for selection. 
If the document it is a parody or a serious attempt at strategy, it has stepped on sensitive toes. The IDF is as close to the principal icon of civic religion as can be found in this hotbed of cynicism. The lieutenant colonel who has been identified as the likely source of the document is currently on vacation overseas. If and when he returns home, he can expect to be brought to the police station from the airport for questioning. 
Two other hiccups in the national culture have also occupied us.
One is a rabbi’s publication of a treatise that is said to identify the conditions when it is permissible according to religious law to kill a non-Jew. The police have summoned the rabbi for an investigation under the heading of incitement to racism, while a number of prominent rabbis have supported his refusal to appear. The debates are a bit murky to outsiders. Most of the rabbis who have spoken up distance themselves from the book in question. Some say that they regret its publication. However, they stand along with the author for his right to express his view of religious law, which he reaches according to conventional rabbinical exegesis. They are willing to let him play in his corner of the rabbinical garden, while letting the rest of us know that he is an outlier and should not be taken seriously. 
The problem is that Yigal Amir learned a bit of religious law and tradition in the yeshiva of Bar Ilan University, and extrapolated his understanding to a justification for killing Yitzhak Rabin. 
Two centuries before Christ, ancient rabbis had already neutralized “eye for an eye,”  death penalties, and other draconian provisions that can be found in the Hebrew Bible. Jesus preached what they ruled, and the early Christians who wrote the New Testament gave him credit for what they called new doctrines that they used to contrast with, and demonize Judaism.
The Talmud documents the rabbinic modifications and cancellations of what appears in Torah, but there are some who have not accepted the message.. There is enough that is dangerous in the attic of Judaism to be wary of fanaticism. The rabbi who published the book justifying the killing of non-Jews under certain circumstances presents the impression of a scholarly impotent, but the words he has written may stimulate those inclined to madness.
The other hiccup in these dog days of August appears elsewhere on the ideological spectrum, A movement from  the right has taken aim at university departments of sociology (at Tel Aviv University) and political science (at Ben Gurion University) for being under the control of anti-Israeli leftists. They have demanded that university administrators fire the ideologues, and threaten to urge donors to avoid contributing to any university that fails to purge the errant. In response, every university president interviewed on the subject has stood fast on academic freedom, emphasizing the professional criteria employed in selecting and promoting individuals through the academic ranks.
One suspects that this will blow over, along with the other issues. People will return from vacations in time for the start of school on September 1, and the country will go back to something approaching the Israeli normal.
No doubt that there are extremists in the universities as well as among the rabbis of Israel. However, a purge of either community led by outsiders is not in the cards. Just as leading rabbis have condemned their colleague while arguing for his right to write as he wishes, so university personnel know how to deal with individuals who go over the edge of good sense. There are islands of madness in Israeli universities, just as there are islands of madness exist in other academic centers. Religious and academic madness are among the prices paid for religious and academic freedom. Both allow the mad the freedom to demonstrate peculiarities to their colleagues and students. Occasionally there is damage, sometimes a tragedy like the assassination of Rabin, but more often there is a recognition of those who are extreme and their isolation by ridicule or silence.
The big news of impending negotiations between Israel and Palestine has produced yawns, shrugs, and doubts from a wide range of commentators. According to a prominent article in the New York Times:

The American invitation on Friday to the Israelis and Palestinians to start direct peace talks in two weeks in Washington was immediately accepted by both governments. But just below the surface there was an almost audible shrug. There is little confidence — close to none — on either side that the Obama administration’s goal of reaching a comprehensive deal in one year can be met.  
Just to mention a few of the knottiest of issues: Palestinian adherence to the pre-1967 armistice lines and the rights of refugees, along with their extremists who insist that those are illegitimate concessions, against Israelis who are not sure about what to do with 50,000 Jews scattered throughout the West Bank, intense distrust of Palestinians, and insistence that any Palestinian state be de-militarized and that Israel control the Jordan Valley.

It will take a miracle equivalent to the parting of the Red Sea or virgin birth to deal with these issues, even beyond the year that the Obama White House has alloted to the process. One should never say never in this land that has claimed great events in the past, but one can guess that a year and more from now commentators will be arguing as to who should be assigned the greater fault for the failure of the talks, or for making the Middle East even more dangerous than it was earlier. Already one can expect who will assign responsibility to the Palestinians, who to the Israelis, and who to the Americans.
On the other hand, the place that saw the reincarnation of Jesus, Mohammed’s ascent to heaven, and the rebirth of Israel may yet have something else to show the world. 
Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University.
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