Analysis from Israel

I admit to getting a kick out of seeing anti-Semites inadvertently help the very Jewish state they dream of destroying. And it happens more often than you might think, as was driven home by three very different news reports this week.

The first is that some 8,000 French Jews moved to Israel this year, topping last year’s all-time high of 7,000. Immigration is always good for Israel. Not only does each group of immigrants bring its own ideas and strengths that contribute to making Israel a better place, but the country simply needs a critical mass of people to survive as a Jewish state in an Arab region. Indeed, had it not been for the millions of Jews who immigrated since 1948, Israel might not have survived.

Most immigrants to Israel are Zionists; they genuinely care about the Jewish state. But even so, most of them wouldn’t have left comfortable lives elsewhere had there not been a push factor as well as a pull factor; that’s why most American Zionists still don’t come. And usually, anti-Semitism has been part of that push factor, just as it is for French Jews today.

So thank you, anti-Semites, for turning a country of 800,000 people into one eight million strong. It would never have happened without your help.

The second news item was the announcement of a planned trilateral summit between the leaders of Israel, Greece, and Cyprus. For most of its history, Israel’s relationships with Greece and Cyprus were chilly; in contrast, it had close ties with their longtime enemy, Turkey. It was only when Turkey, under the leadership of the virulently anti-Semitic Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, turned against Israel that a rapprochement with Greece and Cyprus began, since all three countries now had a common enemy.

In other times, this might have seemed a poor strategic bargain. Greece and Cyprus have weaker militaries than Turkey, offer smaller economic markets, and don’t provide diplomatic entrée to the Muslim world. But in a month where the West has just given Iran a pass on two major violations of its shiny new nuclear deal – failing to come clean on its past nuclear work and conducting a banned missile test – it’s a godsend.

Why? Because Iran now knows for certain that it can cheat its way to nuclear weapons with impunity, which means Israel will someday face a choice between bombing Iran or letting Iran get the bomb. But bombing will be harder than it would have been before the nuclear deal because the deal gave Russia a green light to finally supply Iran with its advanced S-300 aerial defense system. And Israel lacks experience with the S-300; the allies its air force traditionally trained with, including Turkey, mainly use American weapons platforms.

But Cyprus, which has long had close ties with Russia, bought an S-300 back in 1997, which it later transferred to Greece. And since Israel, Greece, and Cyprus are now friends that conduct joint military exercises, Greece reportedly let the Israel Air Force practice against its S-300 this spring to devise ways of defeating it.

So thank you, Erdogan, for enabling the IAF to get the training it will need if it ever has to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. It wouldn’t have happened without your help.

Finally, there’s the annual UN Human Development Index, which was published this week. Israel ranked 18th on this index, which is based on income, education and life expectancy; that puts it above both the EU average and the OECD average, and also above several individual countries (like France, Belgium, and Austria) that have higher per capita incomes, have been around much longer, and haven’t been at war for the last seven decades. Inter alia, Israel has the world’s second-lowest infant mortality rate (though since Belarus ranked first, I admit to wondering about the veracity of some of the UN’s data); it ranks fourth in life satisfaction; and it has the highest fertility rate of any country in the “Very High Human Development” category (2.9 births per woman), compared to fertility rates below replacement rate in every EU country, and even in America.

What do any of these statistics have to do with anti-Semitism? Two things. First, Israel has benefited tremendously from the generosity of overseas Jewry; in particular, many of its hospitals and universities were built with help from abroad. All these donors were obviously motivated by Zionism; they wanted to contribute to building the Jewish state. But the fact that Israel’s very existence has been under threat since its inception served as an additional spur. Helping fellow Jews in a very powerful Jewish impulse, and even today, overseas donations to Israel spike whenever there’s a war. In other words, had it not been for the constant threats, the Diaspora Jewish generosity that has helped Israel grow and thrive so impressively might not have reached the proportions that it did.

Second, precisely because of those constant threats, Israel simply couldn’t afford mediocrity in certain areas. To fight wars against enemies who were vastly numerically superior, for instance, it needed the very best military technology, and its investment in weapons development ultimately spurred a civilian high-tech boom. Similarly, for decades it was unable to import agricultural produce from its neighbors, so it had to be able to grow food despite having very little water; hence, innovations like drip irrigation and wastewater recycling (in which Israel is the undisputed world leader) were born.

In short, without the constant hostility, Israel probably wouldn’t have come as far and as fast as it has since 1948. So thank you, anti-Semites, for spurring Israel to become a pretty amazing place to live. We couldn’t have done it without your help.

Originally published in Commentary on December 17, 2015

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Why Israel Needs a Better Political Class

Note: This piece is a response to an essay by Haviv Rettig Gur, which can be found here

Israel’s current political crisis exemplifies the maxim that hard cases make bad law. This case is desperate. Six months after the coronavirus erupted and nine months after the fiscal year began, Israel still lacks both a functioning contact-tracing system and an approved 2020 budget, mainly because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is more worried about politics than the domestic problems that Israel now confronts. The government’s failure to perform these basic tasks obviously invites the conclusion that civil servants’ far-reaching powers must not only be preserved, but perhaps even increased.

This would be the wrong conclusion. Bureaucrats, especially when they have great power, are vulnerable to the same ills as elected politicians. But unlike politicians, they are completely unaccountable to the public.

That doesn’t mean Haviv Rettig Gur is wrong to deem them indispensable. They provide institutional memory, flesh out elected officials’ policies, and supply information the politicians may not know and options they may not have considered. Yet the current crisis shows in several ways why they neither can nor should substitute for elected politicians.

First, bureaucrats are no less prone to poor judgment than politicians. As evidence, consider Siegal Sadetzki, part of the Netanyahu-led triumvirate that ran Israel’s initial response to the coronavirus. It’s unsurprising that Gur never mentioned Sadetzki even as he lauded the triumvirate’s third member, former Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov; she and her fellow Health Ministry staffers are a major reason why Israel still lacks a functional test-and-trace system.

Sadetzki, an epidemiologist, was the ministry’s director of public-health services and the only member of the triumvirate with professional expertise in epidemics (Bar Siman-Tov is an economist). As such, her input was crucial. Yet she adamantly opposed expanding virus testing, even publicly asserting that “Too much testing will increase complacence.” She opposed letting organizations outside the public-health system do lab work for coronavirus tests, even though the system was overwhelmed. She opposed sewage monitoring to track the spread of the virus. And on, and on.

Moreover, even after acknowledging that test-and-trace was necessary, ministry bureaucrats insisted for months that their ministry do the tracing despite its glaringly inadequate manpower. Only in August was the job finally given to the army, which does have the requisite personnel. And the system still isn’t fully operational.

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