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
That Israelis are still arguing over the soldier who shot a wounded terrorist in Hebron three weeks ago isn’t surprising; the very rarity of the case naturally makes it the talk of the country. What is surprising, however, is how many left-wing pundits have used comparisons to the famous Bus 300 affair of 1984 to accuse today’s Israel of moral degeneration (two examples here and here). For by any reasonable standard, what this comparison actually shows is how much higher Israel’s moral standards have become over the last 32 years.
The Bus 300 affair began when Palestinian terrorists hijacked a civilian bus, Bus 300, and threatened to kill all the passengers. Israeli troops eventually stormed the bus, killing two terrorists and capturing two others. The Shin Bet security service then took the bound, captured terrorists to an isolated spot and killed them. It subsequently claimed all the terrorists were killed when the bus was stormed, but that claim was disproven a few days later when an Israeli daily published a front-page picture of one captured terrorist being taken off the bus, clearly very much alive. Thus ended Act I; we’ll get to Act II later.
Last month’s incident in Hebron, in which the soldier killed a terrorist who was already lying on the ground wounded, has some obvious similarities. But consider the differences:
First, in the Bus 300 affair, the extrajudicial execution was perpetrated by the highest ranks of the defense establishment: It was ordered by then-Shin Bet chief Avshalom Shalom – who would later be lionized by leftists for denouncing Israel’s presence in the West Bank in the documentary film “The Gatekeepers”– and carried out by the agency’s then-chief of operations, Ehud Yatom. In contrast, the Hebron shooting was the private initiative of a single, relatively low-ranking conscript, a sergeant.
Second, the defense establishment did its best to cover up the Bus 300 killings, and they would probably have succeeded absent that newspaper photo. In contrast, according to every media account of the Hebron incident thus far, the ranking officer on the scene reported the shooting up the chain of command less than 10 minutes after it happened, and his superiors promptly decided to open a Military Police investigation. That decision was made even before B’Tselem published its famous video of the incident.
Third, after the Bus 300 photo was published, the Shin Bet tried to frame an innocent man for the killing. That man, army officer Yitzhak Mordechai, stood trial but was ultimately acquitted. As far as we know, nothing remotely comparable happened in the Hebron case.
But the contrast becomes even starker when we consider Act II of the Bus 300 affair. It opened two years later when three senior Shin Bet officers told then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres that Shalom had ordered the killings. Peres – who also later became a leftist icon (and Nobel Peace Prize laureate) for his role in the Oslo Accords – not only refused to order an investigation but kicked the three out of the Shin Bet. They subsequently took their information to then-Attorney General Yitzhak Zamir, who did order a criminal investigation. But the government told him to drop it, and when he refused, he, too, was kicked out of office.
In the Hebron shooting, by contrast, not only has no one been fired for pursuing a criminal investigation but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, both from the center-right Likud party, publicly demanded a full and thorough probe. That probe is currently underway, and an indictment is expected shortly.
But the crowning glory of the Bus 300 affair occurred soon after Zamir’s dismissal, when then-President Chaim Herzog – like Peres, a member of the left-leaning Labor Party (which his son, Isaac Herzog, currently heads) – forestalled any further attempts at investigation by issuing a preemptive pardon to Shalom and four other Shin Bet officers. This is the only preemptive pardon in Israel’s history; usually, pardons are granted only after someone has been indicted and convicted. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court upheld it, so nobody ever stood trial for the killings except the innocent man who was framed.
In contrast, barring some unexpected development, the Hebron shooter almost certainly will stand trial, most likely for manslaughter.
So how can anyone comparing these two incidents possibly see evidence of moral deterioration? It boils down to one claim: The Israeli public was “shocked” by the Bus 300 affair, whereas the Hebron shooter enjoys strong public support. That claim, however, ignores two important facts.
First is the fact that social media didn’t exist in 1984; if it had, it would have shown plenty of anti-Arab racism then, too. This isn’t mere speculation; 1984 is the year Meir Kahane’s subsequently banned Kach Party first entered the Knesset, and his supporters used to chant racist slogans in the streets.
The more important fact, however, is that most of the Hebron shooter’s support stems not from anti-Arab racism, but from three elements that didn’t exist in the Bus 300 case.
First, whereas the Bus 300 terrorists were already bound and harmless, the Hebron terrorist was still unbound and free to move his hands. Since wounded terrorists in similar situations have used that freedom to kill – for instance, by detonating explosive vests – many Israelis felt the soldier might well have been justified in opening fire if, as he claims, he saw a suspicious hand movement.
Second, the initial evidence against the soldier – before testimony had been taken from his comrades – consisted mainly of Palestinian video footage disseminated by B’Tselem. Since it’s hardly unknown for Palestinian videos to be edited in ways that distort the truth (for instance, by showing a soldier’s response to some Palestinian action but not the action itself, thereby making the response seem unprovoked), many Israelis were unwilling to condemn the soldier based solely on the video.
Third, many Israelis felt the soldier was badly wronged when Defense Minister Ya’alon and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot did immediately condemn him, without awaiting an investigation of the facts. And frankly, any self-respecting liberal ought to agree. Since Ya’alon and Eisenkot are the people who must approve every senior officer’s promotion, this constituted gross interference in the course of justice. Military prosecutors have already decided they can’t win a murder conviction, but with their bosses having publicly declared the incident a crime, they might well feel compelled to charge the soldier with something even if they would otherwise deem an indictment unwarranted.
In short, the different public reactions stemmed from serious substantive differences in the cases rather than from any major change in Israelis’ moral values. In contrast, the establishment’s behavior reflected a real change in moral values – and that change was entirely positive.
Three decades ago, an extrajudicial murder was ordered by the highest levels of the defense establishment, covered up by the highest levels of government and ultimately never investigated or prosecuted. Last month, a manslaughter (at most) was committed by a low-level soldier acting alone and immediately investigated by the military itself, with full support from the highest levels of government.
How any sane person can call that evidence of moral degeneration is beyond me. But then, as I’ve shown before, claims of Israel’s moral deterioration rarely hold up well under scrutiny.
Originally published in Commentary on April 13, 2016
The Israeli media were virtually unanimous yesterday in headlining a new Pew survey of Israeli opinion. All highlighted the finding that nearly half of Israeli Jews support expelling Arabs. The only reporter who thought to ask an expert what this figure really means was Haaretz’s Ofer Aderet. But to understand the expert’s answer, one other fact is helpful: Just a day before Pew published its survey, two of the Knesset’s three Arab parties publicly condemned the Gulf Cooperation Council for declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organization, on the grounds that this declaration might benefit the country in whose parliament they serve.
Aderet queried Professor Sammy Smooha about the Pew finding because he’s Israel’s leading expert in Jewish-Arab relations, having tracked the subject since 2003 through a series of comprehensive annual polls. Smooha said Pew’s results disagreed with his own polls, which consistently found that about three-quarters of Israeli Jews support coexistence with Arabs. He offered two explanations for this divergence.
First, the Pew question was vague and confusing. Respondents were asked simply whether they agreed or disagreed that “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel.” That’s easy to answer if you believe that Arabs should either always be expelled or never be expelled. But what if, like many Israelis, you believe the answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no?
Many center-rightists, for instance, favor expelling Arabs who openly support terror or seek to undermine Israel’s existence as a Jewish state, but not other Arabs. Many center-leftists believe East Jerusalem Arabs (most of whom are permanent Israeli residents but not citizens) should be forced to become part of the Palestinian Authority whether they want to or not, but not other Arabs. Thus for these respondents, the answer would depend on whether they interpreted the word “Arabs” in Pew’s question to mean “all Arabs” or “some Arabs.”
Smooha argued that most respondents who agreed with the statement interpreted it as meaning “some Arabs,” because if you read it to mean expelling all Arabs, the idea “is unrealistic and unfeasible.” Indeed, no Israeli party advocates expelling all Arabs, and very few individuals do; even diehard anti-Arab racists tend to make exceptions for the Druze, for instance.
His interpretation is reinforced by looking at voting patterns. According to Pew, rightist and religious Jews overwhelmingly support expelling Arabs. But the only right-wing party that actually advocates expelling sizable numbers of Arabs – Yisrael Beiteinu, which wants to swap certain Arab towns for the major settlement blocs under a final-status deal with the Palestinians – won a mere six seats in the last Knesset elections; the other rightist and religious parties, which advocate no such thing, won a combined 51.
In contrast, Pew found little support for expelling Arabs on the left. Yet the leading center-left faction – Zionist Union, with 24 seats – is also the one Israeli faction that advocates expelling large numbers of Arabs right now, as opposed to under some distant final-status agreement: The Labor Party, which accounts for most of Zionist Union’s seats, recently adopted a plan to unilaterally hand East Jerusalem over to the PA, thereby removing hundreds of thousands of Arabs from Israel.
In short, Pew’s results don’t fit actual voting patterns at all unless you conclude that most center-leftists interpreted its question as meaning “all Arabs,” and therefore disagreed, while most rightists interpreted it as meaning “some Arabs,” and therefore agreed.
This brings us to Smooha’s second explanation: He believes Pew’s finding primarily “reflects alienation and disgust with the Arabs more than it attests to agreement to grant legitimacy to the government to expel them.” In other words, many Israelis chose to interpret the question as meaning “some Arabs” – a position they could support – because they wanted to demonstrate their “alienation and disgust.”
But why would Israeli Jews want to do that? And why would they want to expel “some Arabs” to begin with? First, because they’re sick and tired of hearing Israeli Arab leaders openly support anti-Israel terror. And second, they’re sick and tired of ordinary Arabs – the ones who claim to support coexistence, and who I believe in many cases genuinely do – not only refusing to disavow these leaders, but reelecting them to the Knesset year after year.
The Hezbollah controversy, which broke after Pew’s survey was conducted, is a perfect example. Hezbollah has killed thousands of Israelis and tens of thousands of non-Israeli Arabs. Yet the Balad and Hadash parties both condemned the GCC for declaring it a terrorist organization, because Balad thought the decision “serves Israel and its allies in the region” and harms “anyone acting against Israeli aggression,” while Hadash thought it serves Israel’s interests, helps maintain the “Israel occupation” and “proves that Gulf states are totally loyal to neo-colonialist and Zionist forces, the enemies of Arabs.”
All this was too much even for the far-left Haaretz, which usually defends Arab MKs’ every outrage. In a blistering editorial, it pointed out that Hezbollah attacks also kill many Israeli Arabs (most of whom live in the north, which is Hezbollah’s primary target) and demanded, “Could it be that the representatives of the Balad and Hadash parties are willing to accept this, just as long as Jews are killed too?” It then lambasted “the absence of diplomatic logic” in claiming that Hezbollah fights the “Israeli occupation” when it actually does no such thing, being too busy dominating Lebanon and helping to slaughter hundreds of thousands of Syrians.
Finally, it wrote, these parties, “with their own hands … are crushing Israeli Arabs’ struggle for equal rights and recognition of their unique status in the Jewish state” by lending support to the claim “that Israeli Arabs are enemies of the Jewish people and the Jewish state.” Memo to Arab MKs: When even Haaretz won’t support you, you’ve really lost every last Israeli Jew.
I’ve explained before why Israeli Arabs keep reelecting these parties despite claiming that they don’t reflect the voters’ priorities. But however justified the explanation, the combination of ever more outrageous behavior by Arab MKs and the growing “alienation and disgust” reflected by the Pew poll clearly creates a combustible situation. And at some point, if a new and different Israeli Arab leadership doesn’t emerge, it’s liable to explode.
Yet rather than helping to cultivate such a new leadership, both American Jews and Israeli leftists have been enthusiastically supporting the very Israeli Arabs who are doing the most to destroy coexistence. Hadash chairman Ayman Odeh, for instance – who condemned the GCC for declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organization, but won’t condemn Palestinian knife attacks because “I don’t think it’s my place to tell the people how to resist” – was feted by Jewish groups when he visited America last year.
Thus, it’s high time for Arabs and Jews alike to realize that supporting arsonists like Odeh is no way to foster coexistence. Otherwise, the “alienation and disgust” reflected in the Pew poll will only keep growing.
Originally published in Commentary on March 9, 2016
The global firestorm that has erupted over Israel’s “NGO transparency bill” can’t be understood without knowing one crucial fact: Israel’s leading left-wing “nongovernmental” organizations are actually wholly-owned subsidiaries of the European Union and its member states. This fact, which was incontrovertibly demonstrated by a new NGO Monitor study, explains both why the bill is so important and why it is so fiercely opposed by the organizations themselves and their European funders.
As I noted in Tuesday’s post, the study examined the financial reports filed with Israel’s registrar of nonprofit organizations by 27 prominent organizations from 2010-2014. The groups include B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence, Adalah, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel and many others actively engaged in trying to tarnish Israel’s name overseas. Overall, these groups raised more than 261 million shekels during those years; at current exchange rates, that comes to $66 million.
Of this total, fully 65 percent – some $43 million – came either directly or indirectly from foreign governments, primarily European ones. Foreign governments provided 20 of the 27 groups with over 50 percent of their funding, and three groups (Yesh Din, Terrestrial Jerusalem and Emek Shaveh) received over 90 percent of their funding from foreign governments. The largest donor was the EU, followed by Norway and Germany.
Moreover, this high level of European funding is absolutely unique, as demonstrated by a previous NGO Monitor report analyzing the years 2007-2010. That report found that the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights spends more on promoting “democracy and human rights” in “Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories” than in every other country of the Mideast combined. Indeed, the EIDHR spends more in Israel alone – excluding all the grants given jointly to “Israel and the OPT” – than it does in every other Mideast country, every Asian and Pacific country, all but one African country and all but one American and Caribbean country; grants to “Israel and the OPT” together exceed those to every other country worldwide, by a very large margin.
The “transparency bill” would require any NGO that gets more than 50 percent of its funding from foreign governments to state this clearly on any report or publication it issues, and also in any written or oral contacts with public officials. The government-sponsored version would not require representatives of these groups to wear special nametags in the Knesset; that idea was raised in a private member’s bill, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said it won’t be in the final legislation.
The bill’s supporters say it is similar to America’s Foreign Agents Registration Act. The U.S. Embassy in Israel disputes this, insisting that FARA applies only when groups engage in activities “at the order, request, or under the direction or control, of a foreign principal – not simply by receiving contributions from such an entity.” That claim, however, is patently false.
FARA’s actual text says a foreign agent need not be directly controlled by a foreign principal; he can also be acting “under the direction or control” of a third party “whose activities are … financed, or subsidized in whole or in major part by a foreign principal.” In other words, he could be employed by a local NGO financed “in whole or in major part” by a foreign government. Moreover, FARA says explicitly that no formal contractual relationship between the agent and the foreign principal is necessary.
Thus receiving substantial contributions from a foreign entity actually could be enough in itself to make someone a foreign agent, as long as he also engages in one of four actions specified by the law, of which the relevant one in Israel’s case is the first: engaging “within the United States in political activities for or in the interests of such foreign principal.”
The EU and its member states make no secret of the fact that getting Israel out of the West Bank is one of their top foreign policy goals. That contradicts the Israeli government’s position, which opposes further territorial withdrawals under the current circumstances.
The 20 NGOs in question similarly make no secret of the fact that getting Israel out of the West Bank is a top policy goal. B’Tselem, for instance, unambiguously titled one of its fundraising appeals “Help End the Occupation: Support B’Tselem.” Yehuda Shaul, the foreign relations director for Breaking the Silence, explicitly defined the organization in a 2014 article as “Israeli veterans who work toward ending the Israeli occupation.” And so forth.
In other words, these organizations are conducting political activity in Israel aimed at pressuring the elected government to adopt a key European policy goal, all while being financed “in major part” by European governments. That’s precisely the situation FARA’s provisions are meant to cover, and for good reason: When certain donors provide more than half an NGO’s funding, no explicit contract is needed to ensure the NGO’s compliance with its donors’ wishes; the threat of losing funding is sufficient.
But lest there be any doubt, even the explicit contractual relationship sometimes exists. Just this month, for instance, an EU-sponsored organization gave B’Tselem €30,000 to lobby the Knesset against the NGO transparency bill, which the EU openly opposes. In other words, it paid B’Tselem to lobby the Knesset to enact the EU’s preferred policies.
There’s also no doubt that these European donors are hostile to Israel. Norway – the largest individual government donor – is remarkably honest about this; its Foreign Ministry says explicitly, for instance, that it funds UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees, because it is “a guarantor that the rights of Palestine refugees, including the right to return, are not forgotten.” The “right of return,” needless to say, is Palestinian code for eliminating the Jewish state demographically by flooding it with millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees.
But the rest of Europe isn’t much more subtle. For instance, the EU recently adopted discriminatory labeling requirements that apply only to “Israeli-occupied” territory, but not to territory occupied by any other country. It gives higher priority to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than it does to other conflicts that are not only far bloodier, but have swamped it with an unprecedented refugee crisis. And the funding it pours into Israeli NGOs – more, as noted, than it gives the rest of the Mideast combined – isn’t because it thinks a 67-year-old democracy actually needs more help with democracy promotion than the world’s dozens of dictatorships; it’s because this money isn’t aimed at promoting “democracy and human rights” at all, but at subverting the policies of Israel’s democratically elected government.
By now, I doubt there’s anyone in Israel who doesn’t know these NGOs are wholly-owned subsidiaries of European governments; indeed, the main reason they conduct so much of their activity overseas these days is that they have little credibility left in Israel. But abroad, these groups are still viewed as Israeli organizations representing an authentic Israeli perspective, and they also benefit from the NGO “halo effect.”
That is why the transparency bill is so critical, and also why both the organizations and European governments are fighting so hard to kill it: Once these groups are required to state openly, on everything they do, that they’re primarily funded by European governments, it will be possible to expose them for what they really are – not independent Israeli NGOs with Israel’s best interests at heart, but agents of a hostile foreign power that is obsessed by Israel, discriminates against it and wishes it nothing but ill.
Originally published in Commentary on January 22, 2016
Ever since an arson attack apparently perpetrated by Jewish extremists killed three members of a Palestinian family last July, the left has used it to launch a sweeping assault on religious Zionists in general and religious settlers in particular. The perpetrators weren’t mere “wild weeds,” leftists asserted, but a product of systematic racism and incitement in the religious community. And as long as the perpetrators remained unknown, this claim was hard to refute: Without knowing who they were, it was impossible to know their motives. But with the suspects having finally been indicted this week, it’s now clear this assertion is bunk. Nor is that my verdict alone: It’s the verdict of none other than the reporter covering the case for the far-left daily Haaretz – a paper that can’t be accused of any sympathy for either settlers or the religious community.
Last week, when reporters already knew who the suspects were but the rest of us were still in the dark due to a gag order, Haaretz ran a front-page analysis by settlement reporter Chaim Levinson titled “Jewish Terror Doesn’t Happen Because of Radical Rabbis, but in Spite of Them.” It’s worth reading in full, but here’s the gist:
Today’s Jewish terror doesn’t happen because of the rabbis. It is a protest against the rabbis, staged by young Jewish extremists … They regard the rabbis as too moderate and willing to compromise. They consider rabbis Dov Lior and Yitzchak Ginsburgh – whose names are whispered in the television studios as the arch-terrorists of our generation – as moderates because they don’t back violence.
The problem with the Jewish extremists of today is not the places they study, but the fact that they don’t study. If they were students in Lior’s much-maligned Nir Yeshiva in Kiryat Arba instead of wandering the hilltops of the West Bank, probably they wouldn’t have gone out and set fire to a family home in the dark of night.
The proof is crystal clear: None of Lior’s students are involved in the current terror activities. If he were to teach this, his students would probably follow his teachings. But that is not his way…
Yosef Haim Ben-David, who burned Mohammed Abu Khdeir to death in July 2014, did not grow up in the religious Zionist movement. Nor did the minor who stabbed several Palestinians in Dimona last October. Neither did Shlomo Pinto, who mistakenly stabbed a Jewish man in Kiryat Ata that same month.
Ginsburgh and Lior’s students, who imbibe their racism with gusto, may share their worldview but understand that burning and killing Arabs is not the way.
This week, after the gag order was finally lifted, Levinson published a profile of the main suspect, Amiram Ben-Uliel. And the profile proves his point. Ben-Uliel actually is the son of a mainstream religious Zionist rabbi and grew up in a settlement. But he dropped out of school as a teenager, left his family’s home, and largely severed contact with them. In fact, he largely severed contact with the entire mainstream religious community, as evidenced by what I personally consider the profile’s most telling detail: When he married a fellow extremist two years ago, the only guests at the wedding were the couple’s parents.
That might not sound shocking to American ears, since private weddings aren’t unheard of in America. But Orthodox Jewish weddings are massive community affairs. Guest lists typically number in the hundreds, and it’s considered a mitzvah to attend and help the bride and groom rejoice. Nor does community involvement end there: A traditional Orthodox wedding is followed by seven nights of parties, the sheva brachot, at which the newlyweds are the guests of honor. Each is typically hosted by a different relative or friend, and each must include at least one guest who didn’t attend the wedding or any of the earlier parties.
In short, in Jewish tradition, weddings aren’t private affairs; they are communal events deliberately designed to welcome the young couple into the community. Thus, by having a private wedding, Ben-Uliel and his bride were explicitly and pointedly turning their backs on their community and its religious traditions.
Other alleged members of this hardcore radical group have similar profiles. Mordechai Meyer, for instance, also grew up in a mainstream religious home in a mainstream settlement. But like Ben-Uliel, he dropped out of school and abandoned his family home as a teenager.
Indeed, these radicals are the antithesis of mainstream religious Zionists and settlers, who view the Israeli state as “the beginning of the flowering of our redemption” (to quote the prayer for the state), and therefore as something to be cherished. The radicals, in contrast, view the Israeli state as “The Kingdom of Evil” – the title of a tract written by one, Moshe Orbach, which details their methodology: using terror to sow such chaos and create such deep internal rifts that it will eventually destroy the state, clearing the way for them to build a religious kingdom in its stead. It’s the methodology embraced by every terrorist organization in history. But it has nothing to do with either the tactics or the goals of mainstream religious Zionism.
In fact, “inciting rabbis” have never had anything to do with Jewish terror. As Levinson correctly noted, this “is a cliché that took root in the 1990s after the assassination of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.” What he didn’t note is that it was wrong then, too. Michael Ben-Yair, the attorney general at the time, investigated the matter thoroughly and concluded that assassin Yigal Amir wasn’t influenced by any rabbi or by any broader “climate of incitement.” And like Haaretz, Ben-Yair can hardly be suspected of rightist sympathies; he’s a radical leftist who accuses Israel of “apartheid” and urged the European Union to recognize a Palestinian state even without an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty.
As Levinson aptly concluded, “The way to deal with terror is to stop terrorist activity. Investigating rabbis might make Meretz chairwoman MK Zehava Galon happy, but it is not connected to today’s reality.”
Yet unjustly smearing an entire community isn’t simply irrelevant; it’s downright counterproductive. The only thing it will ever achieve is to further deepen Israel’s internal divides. And that’s exactly the outcome the Jewish terrorists are seeking.
Originally published in Commentary on January 7, 2016