Posted by: denaroselankri | December 11, 2010

Impressions of Israel

By Yardena Lankri

I have just finished my second week at the Israel Democracy Institute and I have started to develop a routine and a sense of direction. In the morning, I walk down to work through the twisting alleyways of Nachlaot – where I live in a little bedsit – passing political graffiti, arty-boho-hippy-spiritual types and an overabundance of street cats.  The Institute is housed in a beautiful Jerusalem-stone building with a pomegranate tree out the front, and the employees are a mix of Israelis and ‘olim’ (immigrants) from around the world.

The IDI is “an independent, non-partisan “Think-and-Do Tank” that devises ways to strengthen the moral and structural foundations of Israeli democracy.” In practice this involves a lot of fascinating research and dialogue into the intersections that create tension in Israeli society – religion, security, politics, terrorism. I am working for the Vice-President of the IDI, Professor Kremnitzer, a constitutional and criminal law scholar and teacher, and former Dean of the Law Faculty at the Hebrew University. He runs the ‘National Security and Democracy’ project, examining the ability of democratic countries to deal with terrorism and the implications these measures have for human rights and democracy. I am currently researching Australia’s administrative detention regime as a basis for comparative analysis and review. It was pretty amusing on my first day to find myself looking up Commonwealth legislation on Austlii!

I live right next to Machane Yehuda – the big shuk (market) in Jerusalem – and I love shopping for dinner ingredients while the stallholders yell out daily specials and flirt shamelessly.  I wander around the little specialist stalls, smelling the mix of spices, seeing which fruits have come into season and tasting all the different varieties of olives on offer.

The Jewish festival of Hanukah has just finished and for a week, every night as it got dark, the streets of Nachlaot were full of families lighting candles and singing blessings, and the tempting smells of latkes (potato pancakes) being fried. The other night I was at a little boho soup bar full of arty types in there twenties, and when the staff lit the Hanukah candles everyone stopped their conversations and sang all the songs together.

A real perk of the job this week was having dinner with former NSW Premier Bob Carr. Listening to Bob Carr and Professor Kremnitzer discuss Israeli security concerns and the different models for democratic government was a real privilege. This week I also sat in on a roundtable with former Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner and heard her take on recent political controversies, such as the proposed ‘loyalty oath’ bill. The IDI runs a roundtable every Thursday (the last day of the working week) with different speakers from outside the Institute. Last week’s session by the former head of the New Israel Fund on the role of NGO’s in Israeli civil society was fascinating… and I understood at least 85% of it (it was in Heberew)!

Israeli society has been in a state of mourning and turmoil as a result of the recent bushfires in the Carmel, above Haifa, in which 42 people were killed. There has been a lot of political buck-passing, and a lot of grief and self-examination. As a Victorian, it has been eerie seeing the 24-hour news coverage of Israel’s version of Black Saturday. At the same time the headlines have been full of the story of a group of rabbis who have signed a letter forbidding Jewish Israelis from renting or selling property to non-Jews. The political left has been in uproar at this newest example of racism, and the Attorney General is looking into whether the letter can be considered a criminal offence, particularly as rabbis are state officials paid by the government and municipality. The country is in communal mourning in shared horror at the aftermath of the bushfire, and yet simultaneously divided by intolerance from within. The contradictions and conflicts inherent in these two parallel news stories run to the heart of the tensions of living in modern Israel. Perhaps it is best to focus on The Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial’s response to the rabbis’ letter: “Past experiments have taught us just how important, and at the same time how fragile, these basic values are to coexistence and honoring the other.”


Responses

  1. Dear Yardena,

    Its so wonderful to hear your insights about the political and environmental tensions that Israeli society faces on a daily basis. You are so lucky to have had dinner with the likes of the NSW premier- despite being so removed geographically from Australia. Wow and the roundtable sounds amazing. Keep up the amazing writing*) were you involved in any other Hannukah celebrations?

    cheers
    Smae

    • To be honest, my Hannuka contribution mostly involved eating doughnuts at the shuk..!
      It’s funny to have the opportunity to meet Carr while I’m here – probably wouldn’t have happened back home. There was a really interesting conversation about the pros and cons of introducing a Charter of Rights (Carr is famously against), especially as neither state has one.
      The weather’s turned miserable – icy winds and freezing rain. Jealous of you in the sun! How’s it all going? Love reading your (and everyone’s) pieces.. Makes me feel like we’re connected as a group!

      Best,
      Dena


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