Bits of Israeli politics and society

Several of the items in today''s news are not of the world shaking variety that will provoke unrest in the Middle East, Washington, or even among the American Jewish community, but each contributes their increment to understanding this country.
First is the proposal of the Prime Minister to move forward with one of the ideas that came out of last summer''s social protests: to provide free education from age three onward.
No free lunch. The money has to come from somewhere.
The Prime Minister''s proposal sounds reasonable: to cut each ministry''s budget in order to provide the money to begin paying pre-school fees and to construct the new facilities required. However, it has brought across the board opposition that reflects the reluctance of sitting ministers to contribute their share, and underlying social tensions. Lots of Israelis may feel sympathy for young families with two working parents who are stretched to afford child care. Nonetheless--
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has proposed to limit the aid to families where both parents actually work, and where both have served in the IDF. He has made it clear he does not want to support the families of Arabs who work against the interests of Israel, or the families of ultra-Orthodox Jews who contribute neither to the IDF nor to the workforce.
Lieberman may be firming up his posture as the most anti-clerical of Israeli politicians, positioned to gain from the wave of anti-Haredi sentiment provoked by events in Beit Shemesh and Mea She''arim.
Political activists from the Negev and the Galilee ask why should programs meant to promote their underdeveloped regions be cut in order to provide more free education for up-scale Israelis in Herzelia, Caesaria, and North Tel Aviv.
Ultra-Orthodox politicians do not want to cut the social programs that subsidize housing and other services for their communities. They are also positioning themselves against Lieberman, and letting us know they they won''t roll over to any campaign meant to serve secular Israelis.
The Defense Minister comes out of the Labor Party, and continues to express support for social objectives even though he broke with that party rooted in socialism. However, Iran is just over the horizon; Syria is unstable; Hamas and Hizbollah are not far away. This is not the time for him to volunteer any defense money for education.
One can wonder about the sincerity of the Prime Minister. He speaks warmly about the need to reform Israel''s social agenda, but he also opposes major new expenditures or causing problems in the delicate balance of his governing coalition. All those social protesters, and perhaps especially those well-educated, upper-income young Israelis who want things even better may have to wait, and work for a change in the country''s politics.
Outside the realm of electoral politics, but not too far from it, is controversy over the composition of Israel''s Supreme Court. The court is an active, or hyper-active body open to any citizen who objects to a decision of a governmental official or local authority, and is willing to pay a modest fee and wait until the court gets around to the matter presented.
Activists from the right accuse the Court of being overly concerned to keep Israel within a narrow and left of center view of what is politically correct. They have sought, so far without success, to alter the procedures for selecting judges in order to give more weight to their conception of democracy. Against them are sitting court members, retired judges, and others who defend what they describe as the professional view of judges who consider the law and not politics.
We sceptics smell old fish. We know that there are a lot of legal provisions with enough complexities to provide room for judges'' social and political norms. There is no lack of political science that testifies to the tendency of judges to decide in one direction or another consistent with standard conceptions of social, economic, or political rights and wrongs.
Israel''s procedure for selecting judges is more subdued than that employed in the United States. A Judicial Selection Committee includes four politicians coming from the Knesset and Government, two members of the Bar Association, and three sitting judges of the Supreme Court. So far the establishment has resisted efforts to employ the kind of public hearing seen in the US Senate that probes the inclinations of candidates with respect to hot social issues likely to be on the court''s agenda.
However, the nuances of politics are only a bit beneath the surface of legal objectivity.
The most recent sitting of the Judicial Selection Committee appointed four new members of the Supreme Court, representing a compromise between contending forces. So far the line up is being praised by individuals from different camps who are speaking about balance and professionalism. The right wing Justice Minister got his favorite, a lower court judge inclined to conservative decisions, whose curriculum vita is stained in the view of the left by virtue of his residence in Gush Etzion. That is a "settlement," albeit one of the older ones not commonly identified with Land of Israel extremists. The organization Yesh Gvul (There is a Limit) has asked the Supreme Court to nuffify his appointment due to a violation of international law. The left of center retiring Chair of the Supreme Court emerged with two appointees who are identified as close to her perspective. The fourth appointee is a lower court judge who fits into the slot of Sephardi, Oriental, or non-European Jews, as demanded by activists of those communities who feel themselves insufficiently represented in the elite.
So far the Supreme Court has twice considered the demands of 82 year old Shlomo Avni, who wants to control what happens after his death. Not for him a conventional religious burial that is the fate of the vast majority. Nor a cremation--opposed by the religious but possible to obtain--that that would add to air pollution. His initial request to be thrown onto a field and be food for animals raised too many problems. A Supreme Court judge ruled that it would create environmental problems, offend one''s respect for human dignity, as well as to counter the traditions of both Judaism and Islam. It might also have led some of Israel''s carnivores (i.e., wild dogs, jackals, hyenas and a small number of leapords) to appreciate the taste of humans.
Still alive and kicking, the man is trying his luck with a demand that his body to be thrown into the sea as fish food beyond Israel''s territorial waters. A district court ruled against him on account of the Supreme Court''s ruling on his earlier request about being thrown to the animals, but a second Supreme Court decision held that his request was different, suggested a reasonable balance between personal preference and public policy, and sent it back to a district court for decision.
We can wish Mr. Avni many more years, while wondering about his preferences. Israeli burials occur without the chemicals and containers meant to preserve the body until whatever. There is nothing but a washing and then a shroud to separate a departed from the crawly things that are no less natural than distant cousins that prowl the land or swim in the sea.