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Saturday, January 18, 2014

Etgar Keret, "Sometimes ‘Nazi’ Is the Right Word": Sometimes Democracy Is Messy

Problems with Israel's fledgling democracy? You bet!

Where I live, there were recently elections for the regional council. There were three leading candidates for the position of head of the regional council (akin to county supervisor), and when I went to cast my ballot during the first round of voting, the incumbent candidate came into the room where my voting booth was situated and began to give a speech. No one stopped him. "You are forbidden from being here!" I shouted at the candidate, whereupon one of his aides, who had also accompanied him into the room, screamed at me that the candidate was within his rights.

I called my local newspaper and described this incident. They never got back to me.

The incumbent ultimately only received some 39% of the vote, necessitating a run-off election with the opponent who received the second highest number of votes. No fool, the incumbent decided to offer the candidate who had received the third highest total of votes to become his deputy, together with an existing deputy, during a future third term in office. I called the incumbent's staff to ask about the cost to the community of a second deputy, but they wouldn't give an amount.

One day before the second round of voting, an e-mail was sent from my local synagogue, exhorting members of the congregation to vote for the incumbent. Calling upon the congregants to vote for the incumbent, the e-mail stated (emphasis in the original):

"The willingness of the Council, and especially its head, to lend a sympathetic ear, is unquestionable. We owe it to ourselves to do all we can to ensure the continued cooperation and assistance from the Council during the next 5 years."

To which "continued cooperation and assistance" did this e-mail refer? I didn't know.

During the second round of voting, I again learned that the incumbent had been present in my town in the rooms where the voting booths were located. One of the proctors informed me that he had been instructed by the Voting Committee that the incumbent was permitted to do so, inasmuch as this constituted a "governmental visit."

I complained about all of the above to Israel's Interior Ministry, and they ultimately acknowledged that it was forbidden for candidates to be present in the polling places, but I was also told not to expect much in the way of redress.

I also submitted the details of these incidents to Israel's left wing newspaper Haaretz, but they never got back to me.

This coming week, I will complain to the State Ombudsman's Office and the police.

Yes, I am furious, and yes, I am something of a Don Quixote tilting at windmills, but I continually need to remind myself that Israel only came into existence in 1948, and its population includes many immigrants who, until they arrived in this country, lived in totalitarian states. Indeed, several people with whom I spoke didn't see anything wrong with candidates making their presence felt in polling stations.

Today, in a guest op-ed entitled "Sometimes ‘Nazi’ Is the Right Word" (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/18/opinion/sometimes-nazi-is-the-right-word.html?hp&rref=opinion), Etgar Keret derides an Israeli parliamentary bill "that would criminalize saying 'Nazi' under inappropriate circumstances." Keret writes:

"Imagine a different state of Israel, one very much like our own: This other Israel would also be sunny, with golden beaches, roadblocks in the territories, targeted killings, and rockets hitting the southern towns. The only difference between this new Israel and the current one would be that in the new Hebrew language that would be spoken there, you could say anything except 'Nazi,' 'fascist' and 'anti-democratic.' Wouldn’t that be a better place to live than our current Israel?

And now that we’re exercising our imaginations, let’s picture yet another new Israel — one where the word 'Nazi' is permitted but the government genuinely wants a peace accord and its members do not treat the Palestinians like 'shrapnel in your butt' — as our economy minister, Naftali Bennett, recently put it — but rather as neighbors seeking freedom and self-determination.

Let’s go one step further: Imagine that in this second new Israel, the government gives serious consideration to African refugees’ appeals rather than locking them up in camps while Knesset members like Danny Danon and Miri Regev call them 'a cancer,' or 'infiltrators,' and use racial epithets not unlike those my parents were subjected to in that miserable war in which my grandparents were murdered by you-know-who."

Okay, I agree with Keret that enforcement of any such law could prove extremely problematic and that freedom of speech needs to weigh in the balance. I also object to the epithets cited by Keret.

But unlike Keret, I continue to think that there is a lot that is "right" about Israel that deserves attention: women's rights, gay rights, science and industry, successful absorption of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union, and the list continues. An additional example that comes to mind: I remember how I was once riding in a crowded Chicago "L" train. Someone sprang a knife on me, and none of the other riders did a thing. This would not happen in Israel.

Keret, the child of Holocaust survivors, chose to express his objections in The New York Times. Perhaps Keret is unaware of Roger Cohen's New York Times op-ed "Obama in Netanyahu's Web" (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/28/opinion/28iht-edcohen.html), whose title was painfully in keeping with the anti-Semitic, i.e. Nazi, tradition of depicting Jews as voracious spiders. As Andrew Rosenthal, editorial page editor of the Times, later acknowledged to me, this "was not a good headline."

More about Cohen and The Times? In 2012, following my complaint by e-mail to Andrew Rosenthal concerning the title of Roger Cohen's op-ed, "The Dilemmas of Jewish Power," the title was quickly changed online to "The Dilemmas of Israeli Power" (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/14/opinion/cohen-the-dilemmas-of-jewish-power.html). Rosenthal did not write back to me, and when I protested to Jill Abramson, executive editor of the Times, she also failed to reply (see: http://jgcaesarea.blogspot.co.il/2012/02/stench-of-anti-semitism-at-new-york.html).

And then there were also the anti-Semitic rants and double standards of Thomas Friedman (see: http://jgcaesarea.blogspot.co.il/2013/11/thomas-friedman-what-about-us-is-thomas.html) and Nicholas Kristof (see: http://jgcaesarea.blogspot.co.il/2013/01/nicholas-kristof-retweets-obama-told-2.html and http://www.jsantisemitism.org/essays/GrossmanJSA210(4).pdf.

Not enough? Perhaps Keret is also unaware of how The New York Times made a practice of tolerating anti-Semitic readers' comments in response to its op-eds that would make Goebbels proud (see: http://jgcaesarea.blogspot.com/2009/06/open-letter-no-2-to-clark-hoyt-public.html; http://jgcaesarea.blogspot.com/2010/10/sanchez-dismissal-spawns-more-anti.html; http://jgcaesarea.blogspot.com/2010/08/charles-blows-obama-and-jews-part-2.html; http://jgcaesarea.blogspot.com/2010/08/vicious-anti-semitic-readers-comment-in.html; http://jgcaesarea.blogspot.com/2010/06/if-you-were-revolted-by-helen-thomas.html).

(By the way, this blog came into being after The New York Times, that would-be beacon of free speech, made a practice of censoring many of my comments.)

In a nutshell, Keret's laundry list of grievances concerning Israel was grist for The New York Times's mill.

But more to the point, let's think for a moment about the Israeli bill, which I also oppose, banning the use of the word "Nazi." Not too long ago, there was much controversy concerning the appearance of a different n-word in Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn," found in school libraries across the United States. You see, thorny issues involving language are not peculiar to Israel. Yes, democracy, and freedom of speech in particular, can be messy. But whereas I agree with most of the message in Keret's opinion piece, I question his choice of messenger, i.e. a newspaper seeking opportunities to demean the only true democracy, albeit flawed, in the Middle East.

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