Analysis from Israel

Did you know most Americans would be considered fascist by a significant portion of Israel’s left? Neither did I, until a few days ago. But that’s the inescapable conclusion from the left’s reaction to a new Israeli Education Ministry directive requiring Jewish kindergartens (Arab schools would be exempt) to start the week by raising the Israeli flag and singing the national anthem, Hatikvah.

“It looks like a competition between members of the Likud [the ruling party] to see who can push us faster into the arms of fascism,” thundered Prof. Gabi Solomon of the University of Haifa.

“Part of a growing trend of inculcating nationalistic and militaristic values,” screamed an Arab nongovernmental organization.

“This directive is reminiscent of education in a totalitarian society; it gives me the shivers,” charged a lecturer at a leading teacher’s college [Hebrew only].

“It’s brainwashing,” added a kindergarten teacher.

Like millions of other Americans, I attended a public kindergarten and elementary school that raised the flag every day and had its students recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning.  I certainly never thought that made the American school system fascist, nor, I imagine, did most Americans. But by comparison, the Israeli directive is mild: It’s only once a week; it only applies to kindergartens; it a priori exempts an entire sector of society (the Arabs) that might be expected to find the practice uncomfortable; and unlike the Pledge, with its controversial reference to “one nation under God,” Hatikvah includes no mention of God at all. So if this directive makes Israel a fascist, totalitarian state, I can only conclude the America I grew up in was even more so.

Because the roots of Israel’s legal system are European rather than American, certain Israeli laws understandably make Americans uncomfortable. Like most European states, for instance, Israel allows greater restrictions on freedom of speech than America’s First Amendment would permit; hence certain statements that would be protected speech in America could be prosecutable as incitement to violence or incitement to racism in Israel. These differences make it easier for Americans to believe Israeli leftists who claim Israel is becoming an undemocratic country.

But what most Americans don’t realize is that what Israeli leftists term “anti-democratic” includes a lot of things Americans would consider perfectly legitimate. For instance, Israel’s leading civil rights organization, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, asserts that a law denying state funding to commemorations of the Nakba (literally, “catastrophe,” the Arabic term for Israel’s establishment) “crosses a red line in suppressing freedom of expression.” Yet how many Americans would feel that “freedom of expression” required their government to actually finance ceremonies mourning their country’s establishment as a catastrophe?

So next time you hear Israeli leftists talking about how Israel is turning fascist, just remember: If you don’t have a problem with schoolchildren reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, then in their eyes, so are you.

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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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