Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Sovereignty means being sovereign to decide: two decisions Israel makes differently

The New York Times has two very different but equally troubling stories. One is about Donald Trump and his relationships with women ; the other is about Hart Island, where the city of New York has dumped more than a million (!) dead people over the past 150 years.

Well, maybe they aren't equally troubling. The one about Trump has a bit more to redeem it than the one about the island. But they're both mighty troubling. Together, they tell something significant about how Israeli and American societies go about their business in very different ways.

Trump first. It turns out that he's quite the womanizer and always has been, no surprise there; that many women he's encountered over the years have come away hurt or mortified and sometimes scarred; that his memories differ significantly from those of the women; and also, perhaps a bit more surprisingly, that he has repeatedly promoted women, launched their careers, and supported them in important ways. None of these outcomes are mutually exclusive. Sometimes it was "all of the above".

As an Israeli, you look at this story with disbelief. Over the past 25-30 years Israeli society has put in place a series of stringent laws about sexual harassment, and powerful Israeli men who act the way Trump does go to jail. Itzik Mordechi, retired general, minister of defense, then a viable candidate for prime minister. Moshe Katzav, previously Israel's president. Nowadays there isn't even the need for due process: Yinon Magal, a charismatic young-ish MK, was banished from politics after a young journalist wrote on Facebook that he'd made a lewd comment to her; Silvan Shalom, one of Likud's top figures, was recently ejected from politics when a number of his erstwhile staffers alleged to the media that he'd made passes at them... poof, he was gone. And these are just prominent politicians who come to mind; were I to start naming the generals and police commissioners whose careers have ended abruptly this would be a long and repetitious post indeed.

The story of Hart Island is more depressing, and many shades darker. Over the past 150 years New York has dumped more than a million people in its trenches. Almost 7,000 a year, almost 20 people a day, decade after decade, generation after generation. Who are the people are buried there? The poor who can't afford a proper burial. The rich who have lost contact with their families. People with burial insurance who sink into dementia and are allocated by a court to the tender care of lawyers whose primary interest is to collect their fees. Regular folks who are sent to a medical school to serve as teaching props for future physicians, until there's no use in them any longer and they're cast into a trench, three boxes deep. If these are the dregs of society, you must have a very wide definition of dregs.

And even if dregs, what kind of a society treats its dregs thusly?

It's easy, as an Israeli, to read these two articles and feel smug. In Israel, powerful men who abuse the women around them cease to be powerful, they don't launch political campaigns and garner millions of votes. In Israel, the basic funeral service, paid for by the state, is good enough that almost everyone uses it, it being dignified enough; cadavers are treated with dignity and undertakers apologize to the deceased before covering their graves for any inadvertent indignity they may have caused. Most important of all, people don't slip through the cracks of society and vanish with no trace, not before they die, and not afterwards.

Better to refrain from the sensation of superiority, so as to make a more important point, which is that the single most important reason to have and maintain sovereignty is to make sovereign decisions. Israelis make different ones than Americans. Israelis care less about political correctness, they raise their children to be respectful of concepts such as enemies and using violence as a legitimate tool when others don't suffice; they don't think same-sex marriages are something they wish to have (civil unions have been legal for many years), and they live - while kvetching - with interventions by clerics in marriages and divorces in a way Americans cannot begin to accept. Ah, and the concept of  gender-free public bathroom seems as ridiculous to them today as it did to Americans a decade ago. We're told that Israel is distancing itself from the Liberal values many American Jews hold dearly, and this may be true. Yet this doesn't mean they don't have values. It means they've chosen different ones. Not to abandon anyone to limbo; not to accept sexual harassment at least in public figures and hopefully nowhere else, either; not to cast lost souls into trenches on remote islands within the view of a teeming city of millions.

Different values, not lack of them.

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