Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Jerusalem Postcard
Maimon Schwarzschild

I'm in Jerusalem for a conference at the Hebrew University on judicial independence.  The conference really starts tomorrow, but the conference-goers were invited to the Knesset - Israel's parliament - today to meet the chairman of the Constitution and Law Committee, Menachem Ben-Sasson, a former history professor and an unusually quick, engaging, and intellectually lively man.  There's a rancorous debate in Israel (for anyone who knows Israeli politics that last phrase is very, very unsurprising) between the Supreme Court, which up to now has itself essentially controlled who would be appointed to fill vacancies on the court, and the government, especially the Minister of Justice, who wants to reform the self-perpetuating appointments and much else about the court.  The subtext is that the Israeli Supreme Court is leftish and secularist in outlook and increasingly activist on what it considers human rights issues.  So the court may have more in common with academic opinion, and with conventional opinion in Europe and elsewhere outside Israel, than it has with Israeli public opinion.  It's a recipe for a clash.

Ben-Sasson was unexpectedly interesting.  But it was also an extraordinary day to visit the Knesset.  I was cleared through the security gate - news flash: security is tight - just as German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived for her visit to the Knesset.  I hung back from the meeting with Ben-Sasson long enough to watch the arrival ceremony.

There were Israeli and German flags lining the entrance-way to the Knesset.  Merkel walked up a red carpet, reviewed an honour guard (the bayonets weren't real, I noticed) and then we all stood while the band played the Deutschlandlied, the German national anthem, and Hatikvah, Israel's anthem.  It is a moment in history, of course - and strangely, or not so strangely, moving - to hear those anthems played at the Knesset in Jerusalem, for a visiting German chancellor who was about to address the Knesset in German.  Horrific history, and a hopeful but desperately uncertain present and future for Israel, for the Jewish people, and of course for the rest of the world as well, all seemed to come together in that moment.

History takes bizarre turns, sometimes horrible, but sometimes wistful and touching as well.


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Maimon Schwarzschild