Speaking at official ceremonies marking Israel’s Independence Day, both President Reuven Rivlin and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein warned of the dangers of internal rifts in Israeli society. Yet, in fact, the run-up to Independence Day provided eloquent evidence that two of Israel’s deepest internal schisms are slowly healing.
Watching the Israeli government convulse itself over 40 homes in the illegal settlement outpost of Amona, an outsider could be forgiven for wondering whether it had gone mad. If you don’t understand the underlying politics, there’s no rational explanation for why top government officials have devoted more hours to finding a way to avoid razing those 40 houses than they have to numerous weightier issues. The politics of it all makes more sense than the policy, and it also shows why Barack Obama’s approach to the settlements issue is ultimately destructive to the very two-state solution he claims to favor.
As Israeli commentator Yossi Verter noted last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hasn’t previously had problems taking steps that upset his base. In 2009, he instituted an unprecedented 10-month freeze on settlement construction, and he’s removed other illegal outposts with relatively large populations. Settlement construction has been slower on his watch than under any previous prime minister, as even the far-left Haaretz admits. He even imposed an undeclared–and unprecedented–building freeze in large Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. So what suddenly changed?
The answer, which became clear to me during a discussion over Shabbat lunch, stems from a generational divide. My generation’s most searing political memories are the 1993 Oslo Accords and the ensuing upsurge in terror; the failed Israeli-Palestinian summit in 2000 and the ensuing bloodshed of the second intifada; and the 2005 disengagement from Gaza and the ensuing rocket fire on Israel, which has so far led to three wars. So, from our perspective, Netanyahu is basically doing great. Unlike all his predecessors, he has resisted massive international pressure to make further territorial concessions that would be similarly disastrous for Israel’s security. Consequently, we’re willing to cut him slack on other issues, even when we disagree with him.
But people who were children during most or all of the above events have a very different view of Netanyahu. Lacking the memory of how quickly other prime ministers reversed themselves under pressure–Yitzhak Rabin on his promise of no negotiations with the PLO, Ariel Sharon on his promise of no unilateral pullout from Gaza–they don’t see Netanyahu as courageously holding the line against disastrous territorial withdrawals. They take this for granted.
What they see instead is the way he has ceded control of the land de facto by giving the international community veto power over when and where Israel builds. To take the most glaring example, what other country refrains from building desperately needed housing in its own capital because of fear of international pressure? Doesn’t that make a mockery of Israel’s claim to sovereignty in Jerusalem?
So after almost eight years of declared and undeclared construction freezes, younger activists are boiling over with frustration. They want to see Israel acting like a normal, sovereign country and building where it sees fit–which, for many of them, means all over the West Bank. That Amona has become the vehicle for their frustration is a simple accident of fate. Because the Supreme Court mandated its demolition by December 25, the government’s usual trick of postponing any decision won’t work anymore; it has to either raze the outpost or legalize it within the next three weeks.
But what does any of this have to do with Obama’s settlement policy? The answer is simple. Previous U.S. governments distinguished between areas Israel would almost certainly keep under any deal with the Palestinians–like large Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem or the major settlement blocs–and isolated settlements that would have to be evacuated under any such deal. Since building in the former areas didn’t actually impede prospects for a two-state solution, previous administrations didn’t raise much fuss about it.
The Obama Administration, in contrast, objects to new houses in large Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem just as vociferously as it does to new houses in the most isolated West Bank outpost. Nor has it given Netanyahu any credit for his unprecedented restraint on settlement construction; instead, it has consistently and falsely accused him of “aggressive” construction and then used this false accusation to blame him for the impasse in the peace process.
Had Obama quietly acquiesced in building in Jerusalem and the settlement blocs and given Netanyahu public credit for his restraint, Netanyahu would have had a solid case to make to his party’s angry young activists. It’s true we aren’t building everywhere, he could have said, but at least we’re building in some places that are important to us. Restraint in other areas is worth it for the sake of good relations with Washington.
But in the face of Obama’s actual policy, Netanyahu has no case at all. You aren’t building anywhere, the young activists justly retort, and if you’re going to generate just as much international outrage by building in Jerusalem as by building in Amona, why not build everywhere?
Netanyahu has striven desperately to find some sort of compromise over Amona, and he may succeed. But the young activists’ anger isn’t going to go away, so at some point, he’ll have to choose: start building and risk the international community’s displeasure, or continue his restraint and risk losing his own base. And when politicians in democratic countries are forced to choose between their voters and foreign leaders, the latter usually lose.
Thus, if the international community wants to ensure that settlement building won’t undermine a two-state solution, it needs to stop opposing construction in areas where construction does no such thing, like Jerusalem and the settlement blocs, and start giving Netanyahu credit for his restraint. Otherwise, he’ll have no ammunition with which to fight his base’s angry young activists. And if he can’t beat them, he’ll almost certainly join them.
Originally published in Commentary on December 5, 2106
A regular reader of Odeh Bisharat’s op-eds in Haaretz might reasonably conclude that the Israeli Arab author doesn’t like his country very much. So I was stunned by the advice he offered his fellow Israeli Arabs in his latest column. Aside from being something you rarely hear Israeli Arab intellectuals say, it’s good advice–not just for his own community, but also for both Israeli and Diaspora Jews:
The time has come for the Arab leaders of public opinion to say outright: In spite of everything, we have it good here. It’s true that there’s a mountain of problems, but we want to be citizens of the state. Here we can fight to improve our living conditions, to protest, mobilize Jewish public opinion and conduct a battle against the extreme right. After all, the program that unites most of the [Israeli] Arab movements is based on the principle that Arabs are citizens of the state in which they will realize their national and civil rights. And in that case, it’s important to convey that the Arabs care about the state, because they care about themselves and their future.
The irony is that even though you never hear their leaders say so, most Israeli Arabs already agree with Bisharat. Polls have shown this repeatedly (here and here, for instance). The latest evidence came from last month’s Peace Index poll, a monthly survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University. It found that Israeli Arabs are actually more optimistic than Israeli Jews about the country’s situation–in sharp contrast to what one would expect to find if, as both Israeli and foreign media outlets like to claim, Israel was suffering from a rising tide of anti-Arab racism.
Fully 40.3 percent of Israeli Arabs deemed Israel’s current situation “very good” while another 22.7 percent deemed it “moderately good,” meaning that 63 percent offered a positive assessment. By comparison, only 9.7 percent of Israeli Jews rated the current situation “very good” and 34.0 percent “moderately good,” for a total positive assessment of 43.7 percent. Israeli Arabs were similarly bullish about the future, with 32.9 percent predicting that Israel’s situation would be “much better” in the new Jewish year that began in October and another 21.5 percent expecting it to be “a little better,” for an overall positive assessment of 54.5 percent. The corresponding figures for Israeli Jews were 7.5 and 15.0 percent, for a total positive of just 22.5 percent.
Arab optimism extended across every field the pollsters checked: military-security (where 39.9 percent of Arabs forecast improvement), political-diplomatic (42.3 percent), socioeconomic (42.6 percent) and “disputes between different parts of the public” (31.6 percent). In every category, the proportion of Arabs who expected improvement far surpassed both the proportion of Jews expecting improvement and the proportion of Arabs expecting deterioration. Indeed, the proportion of Arabs who foresaw deterioration ranged from just 2.8 percent on socioeconomic issues to 13.2 percent on “disputes between different parts of the public.” Those last two figures are particularly noteworthy. If Israeli Arabs really felt threatened by rising racism, they would hardly predict improvement in “disputes between different parts of the public” by a ratio of almost 3:1 and improvement in the socioeconomic realm by more than 15:1.
Nevertheless, there’s one very real barrier to further improvement: Israeli Jews largely believe that most Israeli Arabs care more about the Palestinian cause than about their own country’s wellbeing, for the very good reason that this is what they hear, over and over, from Israeli Arab leaders. This obviously encourages anti-Arab sentiment and impedes integration. And as Bisharat correctly noted, it will be very hard to change this perception as long as Arab-Israeli opinion leaders refuse to say publicly that it’s false – that despite the “mountain of problems” Israeli Arabs face, and especially their deep disagreements with Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, they nevertheless feel they “have it good here” and really do “care about the state.”
Bisharat’s advice, however, is no less applicable to the Jewish world–there, too, the refusal to “say outright” that things are good in Israel despite the problems is causing serious long-term damage.
As evidence, consider Sara Hirschhorn’s op-ed in Haaretz last week, with the self-explanatory title “Liberal Zionists, We Lost the Kids.” In it, the Oxford University lecturer lamented that young British Jews are turned off by Israel–not, as so frequently claimed, by “the occupation or the settlements,” but by “the very premise of a self-defining State of the Jews, back to 1948.” And to her credit, she acknowledged that liberal Zionist adults are largely responsible for this development: If liberals are to convince their children that a Jewish state is worth having, she wrote, “Above all, we can’t only catalogue the (many) shortcomings—we must constantly and convincingly express what still makes us proud—in spite of it all—in the State of Israel today.”
But of course, they rarely do. All you hear from most liberal Zionists nowadays, both in Israel and abroad, is a vile caricature of Israel: occupation, settlements, racism, discrimination, every evil in the modern pantheon. And when that’s all the kids have ever heard, why wouldn’t they end up thinking a Jewish state is a bad idea?
Problems obviously shouldn’t be swept under the rug; Israel is a good place to live precisely because it tries so hard to keep improving. But you can have too much of a good thing, and with regard to obsessing over Israel’s flaws, that point was passed long ago for both Israeli Arabs and Diaspora Jews.
Thus in both communities, as Bisharat and Hirschhorn correctly pointed out, the road to beneficial change begins with ceasing to focus only on the negative and remembering the highlight the positive as well. Saying outright that even Arabs “have it good” in Israel, unlike in so many Arab countries, might be an excellent place to start not just for Israeli Arabs, but also for Diaspora Jews.
Originally published in Commentary on November 11, 2016
If there’s one thing that infuriates me about Israeli leftists, it’s that they spend so much time howling about nonexistent threats to Israeli democracy that they have no credibility left when they actually warn about real ones. Two controversial legislative initiatives of the past week–one a genuine problem and one a manufactured one–exemplify the problem.
The manufactured crisis, which has the entire left in an uproar, begins with the fact that the Judicial Appointments Committee is reportedly deadlocked over the choice of new justices to fill the four Supreme Court vacancies that will open next year. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has strongly implied that, if this impasse isn’t resolved, she will back another legislator’s bill to change the appointments system. The current system requires Supreme Court appointments to be approved by at least seven of the appointments committee’s nine members, while the bill would allow such appointments to be approved by a simple majority of 5-4.
According to liberals, this proposal is massively undemocratic. Leftist MK Shelly Yacimovich, for instance, accused Shaked of “unruly and destructive behavior … toward the justice system.” Opposition leader Isaac Herzog accused the bill’s proponents of seeking to purge “the judiciary, the media, all criticism and fair democratic processes.” A Haaretz editorial termed the proposal “another step in the trampling of the proper balance among the branches of government” and an effort to undermine the court’s ability to protect “human rights and fundamental democratic principles.” And Supreme Court President Miriam Naor, who accused Shaked of putting “a gun on the table,” announced that she and her two judicial colleagues on the appointments committee will henceforth boycott negotiations aimed at trying to end the impasse.
But here’s the incredible thing: The simple-majority system that the bill proposes was, in fact, the one in place for more than five decades. The law was amended eight years ago to require a majority of at least 7-2 for Supreme Court appointments. In other words, what the left considered a perfectly appropriate and democratic system for all the years until 2008 is suddenly a major threat to democracy.
If you actually believe the simple-majority system is undemocratic, it would mean that every Supreme Court until 2008 was appointed via an undemocratic and illegitimate process, and therefore, none of its rulings should be considered valid. In addition, since many current justices–including Naor and both her colleagues on the appointments committee–were appointed prior to 2008, they too would be illegitimate, undemocratic appointees, so all current Supreme Court rulings would also be illegitimate and invalid. Is that what the left, the court’s self-proclaimed champion, actually wants?
Moreover, legislation gets repealed all the time when it turns out that what seemed like a good idea in theory doesn’t work in practice. In this case, Shaked’s argument is that the new system has created a deadlock that’s preventing the vitally needed appointment of four new justices–more than a quarter of the 15-justice court. That’s at least arguably a serious enough problem to justify a legislative remedy. Or is the left suggesting that legislation, once passed, must remain on the books in perpetuity, even if it proves detrimental?
As it happens, I think Shaked is wrong on the merits. The amendment was sponsored in 2008 by her fellow conservative, Gideon Sa’ar, for two reasons. First, it’s simply more appropriate for Supreme Court justices to be appointed with wide support than by a narrow majority. Second, the bill’s main purpose was actually to protect conservative interests: Given the composition of the appointments committee, which consists of four politicians, two Bar Association representatives and three sitting justices, conservatives are in the minority on the panel far more often than they’re in the majority. That’s because the three justices are almost always liberals (in the sense of favoring judicial activism), while the other six seats float. Requiring a seven-vote majority thus made it much harder to appoint ultraliberal candidates during times when liberals were in the majority. And neither of these reasons has lost its validity just because conservatives now hold a temporary majority on the panel.
But the fact that I disagree with something doesn’t make it undemocratic–a basic truth that most Israeli leftists unfortunately have yet to grasp. They have a nasty habit of deeming any proposal they dislike “anti-democratic.” And in this case, as with the vast majority of what they deem “anti-democratic,” nothing could be further from reality.
The problem is that once in a great while, they’re actually right–as is the case with another bill that hit the headlines over the past week. That bill, sponsored by the government, would expand the defense minister’s powers to impose movement restrictions and other restrictions on Israeli citizens whom he deems a threat to national security or the public welfare. It’s an appalling idea (though I suspect it ultimately won’t pass), and leftists are fully justified in raising a storm about it. I only wish conservatives were doing the same.
But after years of ranting about nonexistent threats to democracy like the Shaked proposal, leftists have destroyed their credibility, with the result that most Israelis simply tune them out. It’s the old problem of the boy who cried wolf: Raise false alarms often enough and no one will believe you when a real one comes.
Israel thereby loses out twice over: Leftists tarnish its image overseas by repeatedly making false claims of anti-democratic legislation, while also destroying their ability to raise justified alarms about the occasional real problems. It’s the worst of all possible worlds. And it’s precisely why Israel desperately needs a sane, responsible left rather than the one it has.
Originally published in Commentary on November 6, 2016
The ban on wearing burkinis at the beach, which was recently enacted by some 30 French municipalities and even won support from French Prime Minister Manual Valls, was rightly deemed an unconstitutional infringement on several fundamental liberties by France’s highest court this weekend. Yet the French controversy highlights something about Israel that is too often overlooked: the degree to which being a Jewish state, far from undermining Israel’s democracy, actually reinforces it.
The burkini ban was enacted in explicit reaction to Islamist terror attacks in France and the concerns they have raised about the integration of the country’s Muslim minority. As Christian Estrosi, the deputy mayor of Nice, told the New York Times, these full-body swimsuits, worn mainly by religious Muslims, constitute “unacceptable provocations in the very particular context that our city is familiar with,” referring to a July 14 terror attack that killed 86 people.
Yet Israel has suffered far worse Islamist terror and over a far longer period of time. Terror attacks in France have killed 234 people over the last 18 months, according to one British newspaper’s tally. That is just over half the 452 Israelis killed by terror during the single worst year of the second intifada (2002). And since France’s population is 7.6 times the size of Israel’s, that means that as a proportion of the population, Israel’s losses during that one year–without even mentioning all its losses to terrorism in other years–were almost 15 times as large as France’s have been over the past 18 months.
Moreover, as a proportion of the total population, Israel’s Muslim community is much larger than that of France. Muslims comprise an estimated 7.5 percent of France’s population, but almost 20 percent of Israel’s population–and that’s counting only Israeli citizens and legal residents, i.e. the Muslims who would still be there even if Israel quit the West Bank tomorrow.
Finally, though Israel’s Muslim population has largely shunned terror, its leadership is actually far more radical than France’s Muslim leadership seems to be. Israeli Arab Knesset members openly back anti-Israel terror organizations, actively incite to anti-Israel terror, and tirelessly libel Israel overseas. The head of one of the country’s largest nongovernmental Muslim groups–Raed Salah, leader of the Islamic Movement’s northern branch, which has tens of thousands of supporters–routinely spews anti-Semitic blood libels such as accusing Jews of baking matzo with Christian blood. And all that is without even mentioning the Palestinian leadership in the territories, where both the main political parties, Fatah and Hamas, routinely deem killing Israelis to be their main accomplishment.
In other words, if any country were going to lash out in response to Islamist terror by restricting Muslims’ freedom to observe their religion in public, one would expect it to be Israel, not France. But in Israel, no one has ever even suggested banning burkinis. Nor has anyone ever suggested forbidding civil students or schoolgirls to wear headscarves, as stipulated by other French laws that the courts have upheld. Nor has anyone ever suggested barring mosques from building minarets–a law approved by popular referendum in Switzerland, even though that country has so far had no Islamic terror problem at all.
Clearly, Israel’s religious tolerance can’t be attributed solely to its democratic norms. After all, France and Switzerland have impeccable democratic credentials, but that hasn’t stopped either from passing anti-Muslim laws. Nor is it because Israeli Arabs are a powerful enough minority to prevent such legislation: Arab Knesset members’ anti-Israel positions make them unacceptable as coalition partners in any government, and they would actually have no power to block anything the coalition majority wanted to pass. And it certainly isn’t because Israelis are saints who remain serenely forgiving of Arab terror and anti-Israel incitement; there’s plenty of anti-Arab sentiment in Israel.
Rather, the main reason why Israel never has and never would consider legislation like France’s bans on burkinis and headscarves is precisely because it is a Jewish state. In other words, it was created to take Jewish interests into account, and those interests include the freedom to observe traditional Jewish praxis. But the moment a democratic country starts making allowances for one religion’s traditions, those allowances inevitably spill over to other religions as well.
For instance, Israel could never ban headscarves in the civil service, because religious Jewish women also wear head coverings. It could never ban modest swimwear because religious Jews also insist on modest clothing. It could never ban minarets because the analogy to banning synagogues would be all too apparent. In contrast, France and Switzerland can do all those things, because they have no interest in accommodating any religion in the public square.
In short, Israel’s identity as both a Jewish and a democratic state is the main reason why Islamist terror has never prompted the kind of anti-Muslim legislation that it has in secular democratic France. So the next time someone tells you Israel’s Jewish identity is inherently at odds with its democratic identity, remember the burkini. And remember that sometimes, Israel’s Jewish identity is precisely what protects its democratic one.
Originally published in Commentary on August 29, 2016
Note: Because this piece was posted belatedly, events referred to as “last week” actually happened two weeks ago, and those referred to as “this week” happened last week
It’s unclear why, 16 months after the election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suddenly decided last week to apologize for his Election Day warning that Arabs were “going to the polls in droves,” especially since his explanation – that he was referring to “a specific political party” rather than Arabs as a whole – may seem like a distinction without a difference: The vast majority of Arabs vote for that specific party, and the vast majority of that party’s voters are Arabs. Nevertheless, in one sense, his remarks proved very timely: The previous few weeks had provided ample evidence of just how right he was to warn against that party, the Joint List, and this week, even more evidence arrived.
This week’s news was that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had actively worked to turn out the vote for the Joint List. That isn’t actually surprising, since the party’s own voters have long complained that its primary concern is the Palestinian cause rather than the welfare of Israel’s Arab citizens. But given Abbas’s energetic campaign against Israel in international forums, Israelis are understandably unhappy that he effectively also has representatives in Israel’s parliament.
Even more outrageous, however, is what happened during the two weeks preceding Netanyahu’s apology. Twice during those weeks, one of three parties that ran together as the Joint List took the unprecedented step of publicly condemning a leading Arab state for forging warmer relations with its own country, the one in whose parliament it serves. Then, not content with trying to undermine Israel’s foreign relations, it even voiced support for anti-Israel terrorist groups. And these statements were made not by the Joint List’s radical fringe, but by Hadash, the party generally considered the most moderate of the three – the one whose chairman, who also heads the Joint List as a whole, likes to compare himself to Martin Luther King, Jr.
The first condemnation came after Egypt’s foreign minister visited Israel last month for the first time since 2007. In a press statement, Hadash not only bewailed the fact that the country to whom its parliamentary representatives swear allegiance seems to be paying “no diplomatic or economic price” for following policies Hadash opposes, but even accused the burgeoning Egyptian-Israeli alliance of being “an alliance that undermines a just peace and real stability in the region.”
Think about that for a minute: A party sitting in Israel’s parliament has just declared that peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors – something one would think every Israeli would welcome, and its Arab citizens above all – actually undermines regional stability. Does Hadash think Israeli-Egyptian hostility, which led to no fewer than five wars in the 30 years before the countries signed their peace treaty, would somehow be better for regional stability? Or is it simply so hostile to the country it ostensibly represents that it views anything beneficial to Israel, like peace, as evil by definition?
That question was effectively answered the following week, when Hadash issued its second condemnation – this time, of the first-ever visit to Israel by a Saudi delegation. Israel has no diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, so the fact that a group of Saudi academics and businessmen, headed by a retired general who formerly held senior posts in the Saudi government, obtained Riyadh’s permission for this visit was groundbreaking.
Once again, Hadash condemned the visit on the grounds that it would “legitimize” Israel’s policies. But this time, it went even further: The visit deserved condemnation, its press statement said, because it “is part of the normalization of cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel against Iran, Syria and resistance movements in the region.”
In other words, Riyadh’s great sin in Hadash’s eyes is cooperating with Israel against groups openly sworn to Israel’s destruction – Iran, which constantly reiterates its desire to wipe Israel off the map and backs anti-Israel terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, and the “resistance movements,” an Arab euphemism for those same anti-Israel terrorist groups, which also endlessly declare their desire for Israel’s eradication and have repeatedly attacked it. Evidently, Hadash would prefer to let these groups pursue their goal of destroying Israel unmolested. It’s the exact equivalent of a U.S. congressman condemning other countries for aiding America against Al-Qaeda after 9/11.
This isn’t the first time Hadash and its leader, Ayman Odeh, have revealed their true colors. Odeh also notoriously refuses to condemn Palestinian terror: “I cannot tell the nation how to struggle … I do not put red lines on the Arab Palestinian nation,” he said last year. Yet this never seems to stop either Israeli or foreign journalists from fawningly parroting his own comparison of himself to Martin Luther King while scrupulously ignoring all evidence to the contrary. The obvious facts that King had no trouble condemning violence and would never have supported terrorist organizations against his own country seem to elude them.
It’s hardly surprising that Netanyahu, like most other Israelis, isn’t thrilled by having a party so openly hostile to Israel sitting in the Knesset and getting funding from the Israeli taxpayer. But one might ask why it really matters, given the Arab parties’ seeming impotence: After all, Hadash’s press statements clearly didn’t discourage either the Egyptian or the Saudi overtures.
The answer is that while Arab Knesset members have very little power to harm Israel’s foreign relations, they have enormous power to harm relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel. When Israeli Jews hear statements like those above from parliamentarians who have repeatedly received the vast majority of the Arab vote, they naturally assume ordinary Arab voters must share their MKs’ views – that they, too, support anti-Israel terror and seek Israel’s diplomatic and economic isolation. As I’ve noted before, this assumption isn’t necessarily correct, but it’s perfectly rational. And it’s a huge barrier to Arab integration, because normal human beings will always be reluctant to welcome a minority into their workplaces, neighborhoods and governing institutions if they have good reason to suspect that minority of wanting to destroy their country. That isn’t prejudice; it’s common sense.
Netanyahu, as I’ve written before, has actually tried hard to further Arab integration, and he understands that Arab politicians, with their endless flow of anti-Israel vitriol, are poisoning this effort. That’s why he was entirely justified in warning against that “specific party,” and why American Jews eager to promote coexistence should do the same. Far from being the solution, existing Arab parties are a huge part of the problem, and endlessly calling them “moderates” won’t make them so.
What Israel desperately needs is a truly moderate Arab political leadership. But it will never have one as long as people who favor coexistence insist on embracing radicals rather than shunning them.
Originally published in The Jewish Press on August 7, 2016
Reading the Israeli headlines lately, one can see why many American Jews are convinced that ultra-Orthodox extremism is getting worse. On Monday, the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties got the coalition to pass legislation barring non-Orthodox converts from using state-run ritual baths for their conversions; earlier this month, the Haredi-dominated rabbinical courts refused to recognize conversions by an esteemed American Orthodox rabbi, Haskel Lookstein; and for months now, the Haredi parties have blocked implementation of Natan Sharansky’s sensible compromise on non-Orthodox worship at the Western Wall. Yet to look only at these headlines is to miss a crucial part of the story: Younger Haredim, while remaining passionately committed to Orthodox Judaism, are increasingly rejecting their rabbinic leadership’s hardline positions on numerous issues, including work, army service, academic study, and communal isolation.
Let’s start with work. Officially, the rabbinic leadership still holds that men should study Torah full-time. But the proportion of Haredi men entering the workforce is rising steadily, and last year, it exceeded 50 percent for the first time since Israel started tracking the data. It’s now 51.2 percent, and the government hopes to raise it to 63 percent by 2020.
As for Haredi women, anyone who thinks they’re confined to the kitchen is way behind the times. Last year, 73.1 percent of Haredi women worked, up from 61.5 percent just five years earlier; that’s already far above the government’s target of 63 percent by 2020. And since the Haredi community can’t provide enough jobs for all these women, they are increasingly integrated into the broader economy, including high-tech. This obviously entails more contact with non-Haredim.
New attitudes toward work are also influencing a new generation of Haredi politicians. Today’s Haaretz has a fascinating profile of Yisrael Porush, the 36-year-old mayor of the Haredi city of Elad, whose father and grandfather were prominent Knesset members and deputy ministers. The elder Porushes focused on traditional Haredi concerns. But the young mayor has a different goal: In the words of reporter Meirav Arlosoroff, it’s “for as many of the city’s residents as possible to work.” To this end, he has not only brought business ventures like a software development center into town, but has negotiated agreements with two neighboring local governments–a secular Jewish one and an Arab one–to create joint industrial parks.
On education, the change is equally dramatic. Not only did the number of Haredim in college jump by 83 percent, to 11,000, from 2011-2015, but attitudes toward secular studies in high schools are also changing.
You wouldn’t guess this by looking at the older generation of politicians: On Sunday, at the Haredi parties’ behest, the coalition agreed to repeal a law imposing financial penalties on Haredi schools that don’t teach the core curriculum.
But the next day, the Jerusalem Post quoted a new survey which found that 83 percent of Haredi parents would like their sons to attend high schools that teach secular subjects alongside religious ones, as Haredi girls’ schools already do. Another 10 percent would consider this option. Moreover, the article noted, the number of Haredi boys attending yeshiva high schools, which prepare students for the secular matriculation exams, has doubled since 2005. Though the number remains tiny (1,400 enrollees last year), the survey results indicate that this may be due less to lack of demand than to lack of supply: Today, just over a dozen such schools exist.
The survey also lends credence to Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s claim that coercive legislation isn’t necessary to solve the secular studies problem. Helping other such schools get started, instead of putting obstacles in their way, might be equally if not more effective.
On army service, too, change is apparent. In 2014, 2,280 Haredim enlisted – about one-third the number that would have enlisted if all Haredi men joined the army at 18. And in some places, the numbers are higher: In Porush’s Elad, about 40 percent of men do army service.
Moreover, the stigma against army service is rapidly crumbling. As Rachel Levmore, a member of the government panel that appoints rabbinical court judges, noted recently, until this month, Israel’s highest rabbinical court had never included a judge who served in the army. But following this month’s round of appointments, fully half its judges are now veterans, including two Sephardi Haredim and one Ashkenazi Haredi. The latter is particularly noteworthy because army service is much less common among Ashkenazi Haredim.
As Levmore wrote, these appointments send an important message: Army service no longer disqualifies Haredim for prominent rabbinical positions. Today, you can serve and still be appointed to the Supreme Rabbinical Court, with the unanimous approval of a panel that includes the Haredi chief rabbis and a Haredi Knesset member.
Admittedly, these changes in Haredi society won’t lead to changes in attitude at the top anytime soon. The leading Haredi rabbis are in their nineties, and their replacements will be men of similar age. In other words, they are products of a very different world – one where the Holocaust had wiped out most of European Jewry, where Israel’s army and school system actively sought to create “new Jews” in the mold of the ruling secular elite, where rebuilding the Torah world was the overriding imperative, and where isolation from secular knowledge and secular society was deemed essential for achieving this goal. This is the worldview they imbibed in their formative years, and they won’t abandon it in their old age.
But younger Haredim grew up in a very different world–one where Torah study is flourishing, the religious population is growing, and state institutions from the army to the universities now welcome Haredim without trying to make them stop being Haredi. Consequently, this generation feels less threatened by the secular world; it’s confident of its ability to work, attend college and even do army service without losing its Haredi identity.
Bottom-up change is usually slower than the top-down version, but it also tends to be more lasting. And therefore, the headlines of recent months are misleading: Developments in Haredi society as a whole actually provide strong grounds for optimism.
Originally published in Commentary on July 27, 2016
In the three days since Israel passed a law mandating new reporting requirements for NGOs that are primarily funded by foreign governments, there’s one question I have yet to hear any of its critics answer. If, as they stridently claim, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with NGOs getting most of their funding from a foreign government, then why would simply being required to state this fact in all their publications exercise a “chilling effect” (the U.S. State Department) or “stigmatize” them (the New Israel Fund) or result in “constraining their activities” (the European Union)?
The obvious answer is that the critics know perfectly well it isn’t alright: An organization that gets most of its funding from a foreign government isn’t a “nongovernmental” organization at all, but an instrument of that government’s foreign policy. In fact, with regard to the EU, that’s explicit in its funding guidelines: For an Israeli organization that conducts activities in the territories to be eligible for EU funding, it must comply with EU foreign policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This, incidentally, also explains why 25 of the 27 organizations affected by the law are left-wing: The far-left is the only part of Israel’s political spectrum that shares Europe’s opinions on the conflict, and hence, that Europe is willing to fund.
Yet if an organization is an instrument of a foreign country’s foreign policy, it’s very hard to argue that it’s an objective “human rights organization,” as the organizations in question bill themselves. Rather, it’s an overtly political organization that seeks to pressure Israel into adopting the foreign government’s preferred policies. And making this known definitely could be “stigmatizing,” in the sense that Israelis might be less willing to trust an organization’s assertions once they realize it has a not-so-hidden policy agenda that could be influencing its reports.
That, however, is precisely why Israelis have a need and a right to know where these organizations’ funding is coming from–especially given this funding’s sheer scale. And it’s also why there’s nothing remotely undemocratic about the law, as explained in depth by legal scholar Eugene Kontorovich here.
Nevertheless, if this is really what the law’s critics fear, then they’re behind the times. In the years since the idea of legislating this law first arose, most of the organizations in question have made themselves so toxic that it’s hard to see how information about their foreign funding could make Israelis view them any more negatively. Thus the more likely impact of publicizing their funding sources won’t be to delegitimize the organizations, but to delegitimize their donors–which is precisely why Europe, which provides most of this funding, is so worried.
Currently, a nontrivial portion of Europe’s influence in Israel comes from the fact that Israelis still admire it and, therefore, want it to like their country, not merely to trade with it. The fact that Europe is Israel’s biggest trading partner obviously also matters greatly, but the emotional angle, which stems mainly from Europe’s role as part of the democratic West, shouldn’t be underrated.
Now consider how that admiration might be affected by the discovery of how much money Europe gives, say, Breaking the Silence. This organization, which compiles “testimony” by Israeli soldiers about alleged abuses, is unpopular in Israel for many reasons–because Israelis don’t think its reports accurately reflect their army’s actions (see here for one egregious example); because its “testimony” is strictly anonymous, making it impossible to investigate its allegations; and because it spends most of its time and effort marketing its reports abroad, convincing many Israelis that it’s more interested in tarnishing Israel’s image than in getting the army to improve its behavior. But last month, two incidents brought its reputation to a new low.
The first was Mahmoud Abbas’ infamous address to the European Parliament, in which he repeated a medieval blood libel by claiming rabbis were ordering their followers to poison Palestinian wells. This accusation originated in a report by a Turkish news agency that cited Breaking the Silence as its source, which sounded highly unlikely. Except then the Israeli website NRG published a video showing one of the organization’s founders claiming that settlers had engineered the evacuation of a Palestinian village by poisoning its well. And a respected left-wing journalist, Ben-Dror Yemini, published a column with further documentation of both the organization’s claim and its falsity. So it turned out BtS actually was spreading a medieval blood libel.
Then, the following week, a group of reservists went public with their experiences of how BtS collects its testimony – which turns out to entail both harassment and deception. After their discharge from the army, the organization called them repeatedly to urge them to talk about their experiences in the 2014 Gaza war; one man said he was called eight or nine times. But when they finally acquiesced, they discovered that the organization had cherry-picked from their accounts to present the army in the worst possible light.
To grasp just how toxic BtS has become, consider the fact that the president of Ben-Gurion University–who has scrupulously defended its right to speak at university seminars–nevertheless overturned a departmental decision to grant it a monetary prize last month. What Professor Rivka Carmi essentially said is that while she will defend its right to speak, she isn’t willing to have her university finance the organization. And when you’ve lost the universities, which are among the most left-wing organizations in Israel, you’ve really lost the whole country.
Originally published in Commentary on July 14, 2016
It’s pure chance that Amir Tibon’s lengthy essay on “Netanyahu vs. the Generals” appeared just 10 days after the Brexit vote, but both demonstrate the same blind spot on the part of the so-called elites. After thousands of words describing the Israeli defense establishment’s years-long, no-holds-barred war against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Tibon’s verdict, shared by everyone he interviewed, is that Netanyahu has succeeded in curbing defense officials’ power to thwart his policies. Yet Tibon seems at a loss to explain why the widely loathed Netanyahu was able to defeat the most respected institution in Israel. In fact, the reason is the same one that produced the Brexit campaign’s victory: Experts, however respected, will never be able to persuade voters to disregard the lessons of their own lived experience.
As Tibon readily admits, the defense establishment consists “mostly of men who grew up in the strongholds of the left-leaning Israeli Labor Party” and hold dovish views. Thus they were understandably appalled by many of Netanyahu’s positions, such as that Israeli-Palestinian peace isn’t currently achievable, or that the Iranian nuclear deal was a disaster.
What is neither understandable nor acceptable, however, is that they then proceeded to flout one of the fundamental norms of democracy: Instead of respecting the elected government’s right to set policy, they sought to undermine Netanyahu’s policies in every conceivable way. For instance, at the very moment when Netanyahu’s government was lobbying Congress for stiffer sanctions on Iran, then-Mossad chief Tamir Pardo met with American senators and lobbied against new sanctions, claiming they would cause another Mideast war. His predecessor as Mossad chief, Meir Dagan, “had a direct communication channel with Obama’s first-term CIA director, Leon Panetta, over the head of Netanyahu,” Tibon wrote. While Tibon doesn’t specify what they discussed, Panetta himself, interviewed by Israel’s Channel 2 television in May, implied that Dagan was passing on information about the government’s internal debate over attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. In any normal democracy, both Pardo and Dagan would have been promptly fired for such insubordination–and Dagan might well have been investigated for espionage.
Nevertheless, for most Israelis, the top voting issue isn’t proper democratic norms, but security. And this, remarkably, is where defense officials really lost the Israeli public.
As Tibon acknowledges, the defense establishment overwhelmingly backed the Oslo Accords. But most Israelis consider Oslo a disaster since it led to a massive upsurge in terror. Palestinians killed more Israelis in 2000-04 alone than in the entire previous 53 years of Israel’s existence.
Tibon also acknowledges that defense officials overwhelmingly supported the disengagement from Gaza. But most Israelis think that, too, was a disaster: It led to thousands of rockets and mortars being fired at Israel from Gaza over the last decade, compared to zero from the Israeli-controlled West Bank.
Finally, as Tibon painstakingly documents, almost every single defense official who served under Netanyahu publicly challenged his position on the peace process. They argued that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal should be Israel’s top priority and that it was achievable if Netanyahu would just do it. But most Israelis disagree. They’ve seen the Palestinians reject repeated Israeli final-status offers over the past two decades; they’ve seen the upsurge in terror that followed every territorial cession to the Palestinians, the massive incitement perpetrated by our Palestinian “peace partners,” the consistent denial of any Jewish rights in the Land of Israel. And consequently, like Netanyahu, they have overwhelmingly concluded that peace isn’t currently achievable.
This disconnect between the defense establishment and ordinary Israelis was even more glaring in a riveting article that appeared in Haaretz just two days after Tibon’s piece ran in Politico. It consists largely of interviews with numerous former senior Israeli defense officials about Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life sentences in Israel for the murder of five Israelis.
Almost without exception, these officials agreed on two things. First, although the court managed to convict him of only five murders, Barghouti was, in fact, the person in charge of Fatah’s armed wing throughout the second intifada, meaning he was actually responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israelis killed by Fatah members. And second, despite all the Israeli blood on his hands, he shouldn’t be in jail: Israel should never have arrested him to begin with; once it did so, it should have released him quickly; and having failed to do that, it should at least release him now, or very soon. Why? Because, these experts say, he’s the one who can deliver a Palestinian peace deal.
Needless to say, most Israelis don’t share this enthusiasm for releasing vicious killers. But even more importantly, they don’t buy the theory that a mass murderer is the key to making peace–because Israel already tried that theory 23 years ago, and it failed spectacularly. This, after all, was precisely the argument for signing the Oslo Accords with Yasser Arafat: Only a leading anti-Israel terrorist had the credibility to make peace with Israel. Instead, it turned out that despite his glib talk of peace in English, what Arafat really wanted to do was what he had always done–kill more Israelis. And there’s no reason to think Barghouti is any different, because he, too, glibly talked peace during Oslo’s heyday, yet returned unhesitatingly to organizing mass murder just seven years later.
But too many defense officials seem to have learned nothing from the Arafat experiment, just as they have evidently learned nothing from the failures of Oslo, the disengagement, and all previous Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Faced with a conflict between reality and their preconceived political notions, they have overwhelmingly chosen the latter – proving that for all their “expertise,” they are no more than human.
And that is why, despite having enormous respect for the defense establishment’s expertise in the narrow field of counterterrorism, Israelis unhesitatingly side instead with the despised Netanyahu when it comes to broader political judgments like the prospects for peace or the wisdom of ceding more territory. Those judgments are based on hard experience, and no amount of “expert” advice will ever trump that.
Originally published in Commentary on July 8, 2016
The standard narrative about Israel these days goes like this: The current government is the most right-wing ever, the public is increasingly racist and anti-democratic, and the prime minister is either a right-wing zealot or a coward afraid to challenge his right-wing base. But the most remarkable part of this narrative is how durable it has proven despite all evidence to the contrary.
The latest such evidence comes from today’s Jerusalem Post report about a massive drop in construction in the settlements. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, housing starts in the settlements plummeted by 53 percent in the first quarter, compared to an 8.1 percent decline in housing starts nationwide. Needless to say, one would expect settlement construction to soar under Israel’s “most right-wing government ever” and a prime minister captive to his right-wing base. Yet in fact, as I’ve written before, the “right-wing” Benjamin Netanyahu has consistently built less in the settlements than any of his left-wing predecessors–a fact that never seems to disturb proponents of the “far-right extremist” narrative.
Even more noteworthy was a pair of reports in the left-wing daily Haaretz earlier this month about two unprecedented moves to boost equality for Israeli Arabs. The first report noted that the Council for Higher Education, chaired by Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the right-of-center Jewish Home party, is advancing plans for Israel’s first ever BA-granting college in an Arab town. Until now, the only institutes of higher education in Arab towns have been teacher’s colleges. But a tender to set up a BA-granting college closed on May 31, and the CHE is now reviewing the five bids it received. The winner is expected to be announced in another few months, and the new institution is slated to open next year. To help it succeed, the government has promised millions of shekels in start-up funds plus an annual budget of 20 to 40 million shekels (depending on enrollment).
The new institution is expected to significantly increase the number of Arabs, and especially Arab women, obtaining BAs, because many will now be able to live at home and commute to college. Not only will this eliminate the expense of renting apartments near campus, but it also solves the access problem for women from conservative Arab families who are barred by social norms from living away from home.
The second report described two moves to ease the housing shortage in Arab communities. First, a government planning committee decided to build a new neighborhood in the Arab city of Taibeh, which “will be one of the largest building plans in the Arab sector to have been approved for many years,” the report noted. Second, the Interior Ministry approved a decision to take land from the Jewish jurisdiction of Misgav and give it to the Arab town of Sakhnin. The report also noted that these decisions are merely the latest in “an increasing number” over the past year and a half intended “to accelerate development in the Arab sector, after many decades of neglect and inaction.”
Like the drop in settlement construction, these efforts on behalf of Israeli Arabs don’t exactly fit the narrative of a government and public mired in right-wing extremism. Indeed, they contradict it so blatantly that even Haaretz reporter Nimrod Bousso couldn’t ignore it. “One cannot help but wonder why this change is finally taking place under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the man who never seems to miss a chance to demonstrate hostility toward the group that makes up a fifth of Israel’s population … and whose government has a significant number of members with nationalist views,” he wrote in his news story on the Taibeh and Sakhnin decisions.
The answer, of course, is that the narrative is simply wrong on every count. Diplomatically speaking, as I’ve noted before, this government is actually one of the more left-wing in Israel’s history: Though Netanyahu doesn’t consider a two-state solution achievable right now, he does accept the idea in principle; in contrast, during Israel’s first 45 years of existence, all governments from both left and right considered a Palestinian state anathema. And Netanyahu’s policy of restraining settlement construction – which, contrary to his “cowardly” image, he has maintained despite considerable opposition from parts of his base – is consistent with his stated commitment to a two-state solution.
Moreover, as the examples above show, his past three governments have actually been among the most progressive in Israel’s history in terms of their practical efforts to improve Arab integration. And unlike his settlement policy, his efforts to advance Arab equality have sparked no significant opposition from either his cabinet or his electorate, even though Israeli Arabs overwhelmingly vote for his political opponents. The reason is simple: Any government which considers Israeli-Palestinian peace unachievable in the foreseeable future has no choice but to invest in Israel’s internal development, in order to ensure that the country is strong enough to survive without peace. And improving Arab integration is crucial to the country’s internal development because Israeli Arabs, currently underrepresented in both higher education and the work force, represent one of the main potential sources of future economic growth.
But proponents of the “far-right-extremism” narrative seem utterly impervious to the facts. So they can only scratch their heads in puzzlement over why Israel’s “most right-wing government ever” is precisely the one that’s taking far-reaching steps to improve the lot of Israeli Arabs.
Originally published in Commentary on June 20, 2016