Author Archives: Joshua Mitnick

About Joshua Mitnick

Joshua Mitnick is a freelance journalist living in Israel. His articles have appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Newsday, The Toronto Star, The Newark Star Ledger, and The Washington Times.

Agriculture in Israel

To learn more about agriculture in Israel in the 21st century, see Focus on Israel. Reprinted with permission from The AVI CHAI Bookshelf.

My family had the Sukkah de rigueur when I was a kid. There was enough room for four folding tables to seat 30. The walls were brown burlap to complement the pine branches overhead. Decorations of orange and yellow gourds along with purple and browned cobs of corn hung from above. And although I enjoyed their autumnal colors and strange shapes, the significance of the dangling vegetables was lost on a suburban kid who thought anything could be found in the supermarket.    

Reclaiming the Land

Israel agriculture

In Israel, however, the agricultural motif of the holiday isn’t missed, whether you’re from the city or the country. It’s part of the history here. For the many Zionist pioneers who first settled in the Land of Israel at the beginning of the last century, the most important theme of Sukkot was found in a biblical passage that called for a weeklong thanksgiving at the end of the harvest season: 

“You shall hold a festival for the Lord your God, seven days, in the place the Lord will choose; for the Lord, your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy” (Deuteronomy 16:1). 

Still, farming meant much more than providing a daily sustenance for Israel’s founders. They wanted to reclaim what they saw as a barren country and realize the vision of a “land flowing with milk and honey.” At the same time, the kibbutz movement spread its agricultural communes along the frontiers of the land in order to set up outposts that would one day be used in defense of the Jewish state. So when Sukkot came, the relevance of the holiday went beyond religion. It gave Israelis a chance to celebrate the agrarian enterprise and the national socialist values of the settlement movement.           

Israeli farmers have come a long way since the first pioneers began clearing away rock-strewn fields and draining the swampland. In the half century since Israel’s establishment, the country has almost tripled the territory used for farming and production has multiplied 16 times. About one-fourth of that output is exported. The best-known success is the Jaffa citrus fruit brand, but Israel is selling much more abroad than just oranges.  

The Israel Defense Forces

From the moment of Israel’s birth, the army has occupied a central role in society. In 1948, with the country in the throes of its War for Independence, the interim government ordered the establishment of one unified military that was called Tzvah Hagannah L’Yisraelabbreviated to TzahalHebrew for “Israel Defense Forces.” Within months, Jewish underground movements that had fought the British Mandate were dismantled and assimilated into the new military whose job it was to fend off invading Arab armies. 

A Jewish Military

During the first decades of the country’s existence the IDF was lionized by the public as the embodiment of Zionist values. The first Jewish military in 2,000 years was charged with protecting a nation still reeling from the genocide of European Jewry. And the stunning success of the small motivated army while surrounded by bigger enemies gave the military the image of a mythic David against Goliath.israeli soldiers

The army’s code of ethics features a section on “purity of arms,” reinforcing the image among Israelis that their army upheld humanistic universal values even under fire. This conceptcalled “toharat haneshek” in Hebrewrefers to a code of honor of the Israeli Defense Forces that states that arms are to be used only in defense, and even then judiciously with great care that innocent civilian lives be protected.

The army also performed (and continues to perform) in an important social role as a primary melting pot and equalizer for a country of immigrants. From the age of 18 every Israeli male and female is required to serve three and two years, respectively, of compulsory military service. That requirement brought the rural kibbutz resident together with the Tel Aviv urbanite, the modern Orthodox together with the secular, and the Sabra (native Israeli) together with the immigrant. The army was decidedly informal, with enlisted men of different ranks dispensing with the salutes and formal greetings of other militaries. This also served to reinforce the country’s egalitarian spirit.

The Israel-Diaspora Relationship

When the State of Israel was established in 1948, many Israelis expected Jewish communities in the Diaspora to relocate en-masse to their homeland in Israel. When they didn’t this posed a challenge to the Israeli-Diaspora relationship.

When the State of Israel achieved independence in 1948, Jews in the newly created country hailed the event as the realization of a 2,000-year old dream to resuscitate a Jewish homeland in the Holy Land. In the succeeding years, the influx of Jewish immigrants into the newly created state proved to that the young country that it could achieve kibbutz galuyot–an ingathering of the exiles that was one of the central ideals of the early Zionist thinkers.

Israel at the Center

Indeed, the Zionist ideology that informed the leadership and the citizens of the young state placed their country at the center of the Jewish world. The Hebrew word for “the land,” ha’aretz–originally part of a Jewish religious lexicon–became a common way to refer to Israel. Similarly the term hutz la’aretz, literally “outside of the land,” denoted any location abroad.

israel and americaThe Zionist movement had coalesced in response to a need for a solution to the dilemmas of the 19th-century European Jewish Diaspora. The antidote was the establishment of a Jewish state. But the sabras (native Israelis) went beyond that. They viewed Jewish existence outside of the Land of Israel as doomed and abnormal. The Holocaust was proof positive of this view, as well as endangered Jewish communities across the Middle East and the Soviet Union. The best way in which world Jewry could contribute to the Zionist enterprise as well as their own well-being was to relocate and join in Israel’s national project of creating the new Jewish paradigm of existence.

This attitude of placing no value on the Diaspora communities came to be known as shlilat ha’galut, or the negation of the Diaspora. The concept became infused into Israeli education about Jewish history and modern day Jewish life, making it the dominant prism through which Israeli society looked outward for decades after the founding of the State.

The Israeli Supreme Court

Israel’s Supreme Court is internationally known as the bulwark of civil and human rights in the country’s democracy. On numerous occasions it has used its muscle to scale back the initiatives of Israel’s legislature and executive branches. But it has taken decades for Israel’s top court to gather this power and stature. 

No Constitution

The main reason for this gradual build-up of stature is the absence of a constitution. In the country’s seminal legal document, the May 1948 Declaration of Independence, Israel’s founders called for the drafting of a constitution within a half year. But in the ensuing chaos of the country’s struggle to fend off invading Arab armies, the deadline passed.

Two years later, lawmakers fought bitterly over the nature of a potential constitution. Secular representatives wanted the document to reflect the legal values of Western liberal democracies, while religious lawmakers insisted that the Torah and halakhic (Jewish legal) tradition should serve as the basis for the legal system of the Jewish state. Failing to reach a consensus, the lawmakers decided the constitution would be constructed gradually, in a piecemeal fashion.

israeli supreme courtThey did this through establishing a special type of legislation known as “Basic Laws.” This type of legislation takes precedence over everyday laws, and these laws can only be changed by a special majority. It was envisioned that the Basic Laws would eventually acquire the force of a constitution, but for the time being, they would have a quasi-constitutional force: stronger than regular laws but weaker than a formalized constitution.

So, while the Basic Laws were put in place to organize various branches of government almost immediately, Basic Laws establishing a series of constitutional values like the ones enshrined in the U.S. Bill of Rights were delayed.

Today the Supreme Court has 14 members, though the number has been as low as 10 in the past. The judges are appointed for life but are required to retire at 70. In the effort to divorce politics from the appointment process, the justices are selected by a council made up of jurors, ministers, lawmakers, and legal professionals. The top court usually decides cases sitting in three-judge panels, though the number is often expanded for more weighty cases. The largest panel consists of 11 judges.

Israeli Popular Music

This article, written by a journalist in Israel, explores the evolution of Israeli popular music from the days of the pioneers in the pre-State period until today.

The story of Israeli popular music is intimately interwoven with the country’s history and culture. From the young country’s embrace of Zionist folk songs to the blossoming of Middle Eastern-tinged ballads, to the “Israelization” of imported hip hop songs, the music reflects the development and challenges of a young struggling country.

Land of Israel Songs

The earliest genre of Israeli popular music is known as “Shirei Eretz Yisrael,” or “Land of Israel” songs. The poetry and music were written during the 1930s and 1940s, the years leading up to the establishment of the state. The ideology of the nation-in-making centered on pioneering youth reclaiming the ancient land of their forefathers. For this reason, many of the songs included romantic themes about the new and mysterious natural surroundings of the new immigrants. A good example can be found in Natan Alterman’s Shir Ha’amek (Song of the Valley), which is a dark lullaby about Jezerel Valley in the voice of a pioneer. Although the lyrics spoke of building and defending the new land, the actual music was based on the folk music brought by many of the pioneers from Russia.

During Israel’s first two decades of existence, the country found itself perpetually threatened by hostile neighbors, and the Israel Defense Forces, which functioned as the country’s security blanket, was revered by the public. By organizing a handful of military bands whose job it was to travel throughout the country and entertain the troops, the army made a singular contribution in the history of Israeli music. 

A CD from the Israeli hip-hop group Subliminal and the Shadow shows a hand gripping a Star of David.

Adopting the names of the various units, the army entertainment troupe performed tunes that glorified battle and emphasized collective vales of the country like self-sacrifice. The Nahal Entertainment troupe’s “Hora He’achuzut” lionized the farmer-soldiers who set up the agricultural outposts near the country’s frontiers that served as military bases as well. When Israel captured the Sinai in the 1956 war against Egypt, the Nahal troupe performed “Before Mt. Sinai,” a tune that begins with a flourish of trumpets and a proud victory march, proclaiming “it is no dream” that Israel’s army had conquered the Egyptians just like in the Bible.

The Israeli Media

Israelis will often remark that there’s rarely a dull moment in the national life of their small country. Indeed, they live in a state whose existence has always seemed precarious–a predicament which has turned Israelis into avid news consumers. More than three-fourths of the population read a newspaper at least once a week.   

Press Freedom Sans The First Amendment

It’s this ravenous appetite for current events that has helped give rise to a vibrant and particularly aggressive media. On a daily basis, whether on television, radio or in newspapers, politicians and government officials are taken to task for their public stances and policies. Journalists at rival news organization face intense competition to come up with exclusives. Even the word “scoop” has been imported to vernacular Hebrew.

The country’s dynamic media is even more of a surprise when one considers that Israel lacks any legal parallel to the U.S. First Amendment, which institutionalized the notion of a free press as one of the America’s democratic bulwarks. In fact, Israel lacks any legal groundwork ensuring a press unfettered by government intervention. The freedoms enjoyed by Israel’s newspapers hinge on informal understandings worked out between the government and the editors of the country’s largest dailies.

israeli headlinesIronically, most of the laws on the books about the news media have been adopted to limit press freedom rather than protect it. The Press Ordinance of 1933, adopted by the British, requires all news organizations to register with the Interior Ministry. Under the law, licenses for news outlets could be revoked for endangering public order. The State Security Ordinance, an emergency regulation in place since the foundation of Israel, lays the groundwork for the country’s military censor–a body which has the power to snip news content deemed to threaten Israel’s security, “the well being of the public, or the public order.”

Press Restrictions

In a country that has lived in a constant state of conflict with its neighbors, the desire to enforce military censorship is not unusual. Israeli journalists have been known to pass their information to foreign journalists, who aren’t as dependent on keeping good relations with the censorship department. A useful example of the type of information subject to censorship can be taken from coverage of an enemy missile attack on Israeli cities. The military allows electronic media to inform their listeners of the general location of the strike. But, reporters are prohibited from naming the specific spot of the missile impact–even if it is the Mediterranean Sea–because it could provide vital information to enemy militaries.

Elections, Israeli Style

It’s Friday afternoon, and Tel Aviv’s Arlozoroff and Namir intersection is decked out in a rainbow of banners. As dozens of cars surge through the gateway to Israel’s metropolis, animated political activists dance their way through the traffic, shoving bumper stickers in the faces of curious weekend motorists. 

It Must Be Election Time

It must be election time again in Israel. Welcome to the war of the road junctions, where squatters from political parties of all shapes and sizes appraise every corner as potential real estate for their political grandstand. This is the homegrown brand of drive-through grass-roots campaigning, a microcosm of the carnival atmosphere that is Israeli elections.

A month prior to Election Day, Israeli election campaigns ramp up their campaigns. Under Israeli law, elections must occur at least once every four years in the fall. But since the country’s parliamentary system allows both the prime minister and the legislature to call for early elections, politicians rarely wait that long. There is no set electioneering season.

israeli style electionsThe campaigns are brief compared to the year-long run up to presidential balloting in the United States. Six months is considered an eternity. More often, campaigns are held within three to four months. The tight schedule makes the spectacle all the more intense.

At stake is control of the Knesset, Israel’s 120-seat parliament. On Election Day, every voter casts one ballot, selecting among about two dozen parties. A party’s Knesset size is based on a percentage of votes. The leader of the party that gets the most votes forms the government and becomes prime minister.

Often it’s the smaller parties that are the kingmakers in Israeli politics, holding the swing votes that can make or break competing alliances in the Knesset. It takes only 2 percent of the total vote, to get into parliament. The low election threshold ensures that voters get a smorgasbord of parties specialized to almost every constituency.

Democracy in Action

Forget about war and peace. For the religious voter, there’s Modern Orthodox, Ashkenazic (Eastern European) Ultra-orthodox, and Sephardic (Mediterranean) Ultra-Orthodox options. Secular Jews choose among parties of socialist bleeding heart doves or laissez-faire capitalists. There are four parties that target the county’s 20 percent Arab minority. The Green Leaf party promises marijuana legalization. The same for gambling with the Casino party.