Israel Center scholar shares his gripes about native land

It's common knowledge that most problems in Israel — the environment, the tax system, the high number of traffic accidents, to name a few — are often overlooked because of the existential issue of security. Gil-Ad Harish has called it a "bad excuse."

"It doesn't work anymore," Harish said from his home in Tel Aviv. "There are so many issues that are f—-d up that have nothing to do with the Arabs. It's an abnormal country."

A lawyer, author and social reformer, Harish recently joined the board of the Amuta, which advises the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. He will be the Israel Center's next scholar-in-residence, and will be speaking in the Bay Area the first week of March.

Harish and his wife, Sharona, have founded a soup kitchen and homeless shelter in Tel Aviv. They also have overseen the opening in impoverished neighborhoods of youth centers for both Jews and Arabs.

"People are not that happy," he said. "Things are not as good as they should be. And this is all contributing to a worsening of the quality of life in our country."

As a result of having people from 70 different countries, cultures and languages, the government works on a principle of "compromise and compromise and compromise" and as a result, he said, nothing gets done.

The government wasn't formed the right way, he charged, and therefore its ministers are receiving on-the-job training. Not only that, but he called the government frozen and corrupt.

"The prime minister can declare war on any country he wants, but he cannot cut one percent from one ministry or move one official from one room to another. Our political system does not empower the prime minister nor the government to change."

In the American system, Harish said, the cabinet is comprised of people who — for better or for worse — are chosen by the president, and therefore, can collectively make decisions. In Israel, the decision-making process is left to the prime minister's cabinet, comprised of 28 ministers of every political party, many of whom are in opposition to each other.

"It's like we have 10 drivers in one car and each one holds the wheel."

He wasn't any kinder to politicians, saying that their actions were motivated solely by what would get them re-elected. Most of them operate by the principle of "If it's good for my reputation and the media, fine; if not, I don't have time for it."

Name a sector of Israeli society, and Harish will criticize it. In a book that came out in Israel in 1999, he blasts the institutions, from the government on down, taking on such sacred cows as the Israel Defense Forces and religious establishment. Smaller institutions are also included, like the police, insurance industry and tax system. Although a lawyer himself, he doesn't leave out the legal profession. And with the high death toll from traffic accidents, he also takes on Israeli drivers.

Called "Double Parking," the book identifies every single problem that Harish saw in Israeli society. Each chapter was only a page, because the author didn't feel the need to expound on each topic. "Everyone agrees with me," he says.

He criticizes Israelis on other fronts, pointing out the fact that they prefer foreign-made products over those made in Israel, which hurts the Israeli economy.

Yet he didn't feel like he was exposing the country's dirty laundry; he thinks most people agree with him. Besides, he said the book was for Israelis only, not for foreigners. The country and its problems are "our product, it's not for export."

And he knows that criticizing is the easy part. Actually offering concrete ideas to try and correct problems, is another. So he's done that, too. Called "Ten Drivers for One Car," his new book, now being edited, offers his suggestions to solve the problems he outlined in the other book.

Harish claims he has no interest in running for public office. But if anyone is inspired by what he suggests, he welcomes them to run on that platform. Saying "right now I'm a movement of one," he pointed out that "not everyone who knows how to write a song is able to sing it."

Harish is optimistic that things in Israel will change for the better. He also joked that he's not a prophet, yet ended by saying, "Whatever I said is really correct."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."