Many Israelis are willing to tolerate a racist party in the Knesset because they fear that the alternative is a government that will make life-threatening territorial concessions. And when voters think human life is at stake, telling them to “just say no” won’t work.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s midwifing of a joint ticket that will bring a far-right extremist party into the Knesset was quickly superseded by new scandals. Yet the fundamental problem that prompted his move remains, and contrary to popular belief, that problem isn’t growing racism. Rather, it’s Israel’s electoral system.
The party in question, Otzma Yehudit, has run for Knesset several times under various names and never gotten in. On its own, it wouldn’t make it into the next Knesset either. In other words, its positions are no more popular than they ever were.
What has changed is Israel’s electoral threshold—the minimum number of votes a party must receive to enter the Knesset. In 2014, it was raised to 3.25 percent of the total vote, equivalent to 3.9 Knesset seats. That sounds like a minor increase from the previous threshold of 2 percent (2.4 seats), but it’s enough that in both the last election and this one, a small mainstream party which could easily have passed the old threshold found itself hovering just below the new one, and consequently hooked up with Otzma in an effort to boost itself over.
The higher threshold also threatens the entire bloc to which an at-risk party belongs since the main electoral blocs are fairly evenly balanced. Either bloc might be able to afford two seats’ worth of wasted votes. But neither can afford almost four seats.
That’s why Netanyahu used a combination of arm-twisting and sweeteners to persuade a veteran religious Zionist party, Jewish Home, to partner with Otzma this election (last election, Otzma’s partner was Yachad, a breakaway from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party led by former Shas leader and six-time minister Eli Yishai; their joint ticket still failed to clear the threshold). Jewish Home was in danger of falling below the threshold because its former leaders, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, jumped ship in December to form their own party.
With a lower threshold, Netanyahu would have no interest in promoting a merger between Jewish Home and Otzma: By definition, any party that couldn’t get elected on its own would win few enough votes that the bloc could probably spare them. Today, however, Jewish Home could easily fail to pass the threshold while still wasting enough votes to cost the right its majority. So for anyone who considers a continuation of rightist policy essential, as Netanyahu and Jewish Home both do, shoring up the latter through a joint ticket suddenly looks essential as well.
Many people would obviously argue that partisan interests can never justify mainstreaming an extremist party like Otzma. Others might dismiss the policy justification as a pretext, given that Netanyahu and his main rival, former general Benny Gantz, largely seem to agree on key issues like security and the peace process.
The problem is that a critical mass of Israelis patently disagrees. When Netanyahu staked his prestige on the Otzma merger, he was betting that the number of votes his bloc would gain by boosting Jewish Home over the threshold would outweigh the number he’d lose from people disgusted by Otzma. And so far, the polls have proved him right.
To understand why, some history is needed. In the 17 years preceding Netanyahu’s 2009 victory, Israelis thrice elected former generals who campaigned against diplomatic concessions, which they promptly turned around and implemented once in office. Yitzhak Rabin promised no negotiations with the PLO in 1992, then signed the Oslo Accords in 1993. Ehud Barak promised not to divide Jerusalem in 1999, then offered the Palestinians half the city at the Camp David summit in 2000. Ariel Sharon campaigned against a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2003, then implemented one in 2005.
These U-turns reflect a fundamental fact of Israeli life: All prime ministers are under massive, continuous international pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians. Premiers with leftist coalition partners—which Rabin, Barak and Sharon all had, and Gantz almost certainly would as well—are also under pressure from their own coalitions to make such concessions. And most people simply can’t withstand such immense pressure.
But Netanyahu has proven for 10 years now that he can. Thus anyone fearful of further territorial concessions has good reason to stick with him rather than gambling on Gantz.
And given what previous withdrawals have cost, such fear is unquestionably justified. Rabin’s Oslo Accords and Barak’s failed summit both sparked upsurges of terror that together killed some 1,500 Israelis. Sharon’s disengagement led to 20,000 rockets being launched on Israel’s south.
In short, voters who worry that Gantz will be unable to withstand pressure for concessions see Otzma as the lesser evil because they believe that the alternative entails against a significant risk of many dead Israelis. And when voters think human lives are at stake, expecting them to “just say no to racism” won’t work. The only way to return Otzma to the political fringes where it belongs is by lowering the electoral threshold.
I’ve long favored a lower threshold for other reasons as well. First, as researcher Shany Mor persuasively argued in 2013, a low threshold provides a safety valve for fractured societies like Israel’s. By offering the possibility that even small groups can win representation in parliament, it encourages them to pursue their goals through politics as opposed to violence.
Second, as I’ve explained in more detail elsewhere, a lower threshold would facilitate the entry of new parties that Israel actually needs, like a moderate Arab party and a moderate haredi one. Demand exists for such parties in both communities. But a higher threshold discourages voters from taking a flyer on a new party, since it means the party will have less chance of getting in and will waste more votes if it fails.
Yet as the last two elections have counterintuitively proven, a lower threshold also reduces the likelihood of extremists entering the Knesset by eliminating a powerful incentive to merge with them. Thus anyone who wants to see Otzma relegated back to the sidelines should lobby for lowering the threshold. That would be far more effective than expecting voters to nobly shun extremists, even if they think doing so risks Israeli lives.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on March 13, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org
Israel is currently preoccupied with its election campaign and America with its newly divided government, leaving both countries little attention to spare for issues beyond day-to-day politics. But moments of change are excellent times to pause and consider the fundamentals of the Western political tradition. And as a recent contribution to the growing scholarly genre of political Hebraism reminds us, one of those fundamentals is the surprisingly large role the Hebrew Bible has played in Western political thought.
In John Locke’s Political Philosophy and the Hebrew Bible, Yechiel Leiter (full disclosure: a friend and neighbor) convincingly argues that the Bible heavily influenced Locke’s thought. Since Locke’s work, especially his Second Treatise on Government, is widely considered to have significantly influenced America’s founding fathers, this is further evidence that when people talk about America’s “Judeo-Christian” roots, the “Judeo” half is no mere courtesy. Judaism in fact contributed significantly to America’s political traditions.
Nevertheless, this raises an obvious question. Locke and his fellow 17th-century political Hebraists (including John Selden, Hugo Grotius and Thomas Hobbes) were Christians, not Jews. So why, in developing their political thought, did they rely far more on the Hebrew Bible than the Christian New Testament?
In Locke’s First Treatise on Government, for instance, he “quotes the Hebrew Bible more than 80 times,” yet there’s a “near total absence of quotes from the New Testament,” Leiter writes. And even in the Second Treatise, which has fewer biblical quotes, “nothing is quoted with any comparable frequency as the Hebrew Bible.”
Nor are these biblical references mere padding, Leiter argues. Locke uses them to develop several key concepts.
For instance, Locke posits a “natural law” superior to any human law—one man can grasp through ordinary reason—and argues that men are entitled to overthrow governments that violate this natural law. The Second Treatise illustrates this concept with the Cain and Abel story, in which Cain, having just murdered his brother, complains to God that “everyone that findeth me, shall slay me.” Yet God only explicitly prohibits murder five chapters later. This, Locke explains, is how natural law works: No explicit prohibition was needed because Cain’s own reason sufficed to understand that murder is unacceptable.
Locke uses this same story in developing his doctrine of individual executive power, which holds that in the absence of a legitimate governing authority, anyone has the right to punish crimes like murder (“everyone that findeth me, shall slay me”). By extension, people are entitled to punish tyrannical governments (which are inherently illegitimate) by toppling them.
Indeed, as Leiter notes, Locke’s belief in the legitimacy of rebelling against tyrants is a recurrent theme in the Hebrew Bible, yet contrasts markedly with the New Testament’s doctrine of obedience to authority. The latter is epitomized by Paul’s dictum, “The powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God” (Romans 13:1-2).
Leiter argues that Locke’s view of human equality similarly derives not from the New Testament—where equality, to quote the Book of Galatians, stems from being “One in Jesus Christ,” seemingly excluding anyone who doesn’t accept Christianity—but from the creation story in Genesis, where all people are created by “one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker,” in Locke’s words.
The Jephthah story bolsters Locke’s argument that unless God directly appoints a leader, this power devolves to the people: Jephthah, unlike most biblical judges, was appointed by the people rather than God. The transfer of kingship from Saul to David, rather than to Saul’s son Jonathan, is cited as evidence that a ruler’s son has no inherent right to succeed him.
Locke uses Jephthah again to claim that it’s legitimate to appeal to higher authority against an unjust government; Jephthah’s “appeal to heaven: before going to war to evict a foreign occupier thus serves him as a precedent for the English Revolution. And so forth.
So why does Locke rely so heavily on the Hebrew Bible rather than the Christian one? Leiter shows that Locke himself answered this question in an earlier work, Two Tracts on Government. The New Testament, Locke wrote, “is for the most part silent as to governmental and civil power,” since Jesus “seems to refuse deliberately to involve himself in civil affairs” and left “the civil government of the commonwealth … unchanged.”
The Hebrew Bible, in contrast, is anything but silent regarding “governmental and civil power.” A significant portion of the Pentateuch consists of laws that are supposed to govern the soon-to-be-established Jewish commonwealth. And a significant portion of the subsequent books describes how Jewish self-government played out in practice.
These biblical stories explore various types of government, from anarchy through limited monarchy to tyranny, and show the pitfalls or benefits of each. Nor are they simplistic morality tales; they show politics in all its complexity. One of the Bible’s greatest moral and political leaders, the prophet Samuel, sees his model of leadership rejected towards the end of his life, when the people demand a king. One of its wickedest kings—Ahab, who famously had a subject murdered in order to steal his vineyard—presides over a flourishing, prosperous kingdom. King Solomon’s dominion reaches unparalleled heights of both hard and soft power, but collapses into civil war under his son. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Thus for anyone interested in how politics works, the Hebrew Bible is a treasure trove. Nor is belief in God necessary to derive insights from it, just as faith isn’t necessary to derive insights from Locke or Shakespeare. As with any great work of literature or philosophy—and the Bible, quite aside from its religious significance, is both—all that’s needed is close and careful reading of the text.
Leiter’s book thus reinforces what should already have been obvious: The Bible is too important to the Western political tradition to be as widely ignored by serious students of politics, as it currently is in both America and Israel. The West’s greatest political philosophers believed that the Hebrew Bible had something worthwhile to say about politics. Both countries’ dysfunctional political systems might benefit from following those philosophers’ lead.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on February 27, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org
It’s easy to see why political polarization is so bitter today in both Israel and America these days: Moderation is a “lose-lose” proposition, winning politicians no credit from their opponents while alienating elements of their own base. This problem exists on both sides of the aisle. But two unusually candid left-wing assessments of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu provide a particularly clear example of how it works and why it’s bad for both sides.
In an interview with Haaretz last month, senior opposition politician Tzipi Livni noted (as I have repeatedly) that Netanyahu built very little in the settlements during his 10 years in office. “Why hasn’t Netanyahu built up until now? Because he gets it,” she said, referring to the Palestinian issue.
Moreover, she continued, “Bibi will not go out and start a war. In that respect, he is responsible.”
His problem, she charged, is that he’s under pressure from his rightist base on various issues, and sometimes, “he caves in to them. I’ll say it again, it isn’t him. I’ve spent hundreds of hours with him [as justice minister in the previous Netanyahu government, in which she was responsible for diplomatic negotiations]—his actual positions are different.”
What makes this astounding is that Livni and her compatriots on the left have spent most of the past decade saying exactly the opposite—that Netanyahu is responsible for massive settlement construction, that he’s anti-peace. And this has serious real-world consequences.
The first and worst is that this narrative, which Livni now admits is false, has been widely embraced by American Jews and the Democratic Party. That’s bad for Israel as a whole, as it has contributed to growing anti-Israel sentiment among both groups.
To be clear, I don’t think either group’s alienation stems primarily from Israel’s policies, whether real or alleged. Nevertheless, had prominent Israeli leftists told the truth—that Netanyahu was doing very little settlement building, that his “actual positions” are far from his hardline image—it might have slowed the process.
Second, this false narrative hurts leftists themselves since it impedes Netanyahu’s ability to adopt policies they favor. Many such policies, like the dearth of settlement construction, are indeed very unpopular with his base, but he could justify them if they were achieving something important for Israel, like maintaining its bipartisan support in America.
In reality, however, they don’t achieve anything. For instance, despite his restraint on settlements, the Obama administration repeatedly accused him of “aggressive” settlement construction, with full-throated backing from Israeli leftists. That makes it impossible for Netanyahu to justify restraint to his unhappy base, which is precisely why he sometimes “caves in to them.”
Finally, this false narrative hinders his ability to form a broader-based government. Far from being the “right-wing extremist” leftists term him, Netanyahu is a center-rightist, and he desperately wanted the Labor Party in his current government to balance the right-wing parties. But after months of negotiations with former Labor Chairman Isaac Herzog, it became clear that Herzog had no support for such a move within his own party. So Netanyahu ultimately brought in the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu instead.
Nor is this surprising. Having told its own voters for years that Netanyahu was anti-democratic and anti-peace, Labor would have trouble persuading them that joining the government was justified. But had it instead told the truth about issues like Netanyahu’s settlement restraint and diplomatic moderation, joining the government (and thereby pulling it further to the left) might have been an option.
Two days after Livni’s interview ran, Jerusalem Post columnist Susan Hattis Rolef, who has worked for various senior Labor politicians, published a column lamenting that “in the past Netanyahu could be trusted to block legislative proposals that were blatantly undemocratic,” but today, he “no longer seems to bother himself with acting as a barrier against threats to democracy coming from the direction of his own coalition.”
Here, too, what’s shocking is that Rolef and her compatriots on the left have spent the last decade saying exactly the opposite. Netanyahu has indeed allowed legislation in his current term that he would previously have quashed (most of which isn’t actually undemocratic, but that’s a separate argument). Nevertheless, the claim that he’s responsible for “anti-democratic” legislation didn’t just arise this term; prominent leftists have accused him of that for the last 10 years, even though, as Rolef now admits, he spent most of those years blocking proposals the left considered “anti-democratic.”
Again, the damage is threefold. First and worst, the false narrative that Israel is becoming increasingly undemocratic has contributed to growing anti-Israel sentiment among American Jews and the Democratic Party.
Second, it hurts leftists themselves, by reducing Netanyahu’s ability to adopt policies they would prefer. It’s hard for him to justify killing legislation his base supports unless doing so achieves something useful for the country. But in fact, his years of quashing bills the left disliked accomplished nothing since Israeli leftists still accused his government of being anti-democratic, and American Jews and non-Jewish leftists believed them.
Finally, this false narrative impedes his ability to form a broader-based government. Had Labor joined the government, it would have been able to kill any legislation it considered undemocratic, as coalition agreements usually give every party veto power over issues particularly important to it. But after falsely telling its voters for years that Netanyahu himself was anti-democratic, how could it justify doing so?
Many of the same evils obviously derive from Israeli rightists’ favorite trick of calling left-wing opponents “anti-Zionist,” though most Israeli leftists are no such thing. Inter alia, the false narrative that anti-Zionism is widespread on the Israeli left helps legitimatize anti-Zionism as a normative left-wing position overseas.
But since Netanyahu has led Israel for the last decade, the greatest damage has come from the left’s false narratives about his beliefs and conduct. And in the end, everyone has lost by it. Netanyahu, and by extension the entire center-right, has been unjustly tarred as anti-democratic and anti-peace. The left has forfeited its ability to block policies it opposes and promote those it supports. And Israel as a whole has seen its image overseas undeservedly tarnished.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on January 16, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is being assailed by his own base for his restraint last week following Hamas’s massive bombardment of southern Israel. But in considering what Israel’s policy should be, it’s important to realize that for now, the option of permanently ending Hamas terror doesn’t exist—not because it’s beyond Israel’s capability, but because it lacks sufficient public support.
If someone came up with an idea for destroying Hamas that could be executed quickly and with minimal casualties, Israelis obviously would support that, but nobody has. Thus the only plan with proven capability to suppress terror over the long term remains the one Israel executed in the West Bank in 2002 in response to the second intifada: The army goes in, and it never leaves. That’s how Israel defeated the second intifada, and how it has kept West Bank terror within tolerable limits ever since.
But doing the same in Gaza would have very high costs—in soldiers’ lives, in international opprobrium and possibly in saddling Israel with responsibility for Gaza’s civilian problems. It would be far more costly than it was to reoccupy the West Bank because Hamas has used its 11 years of total control over Gaza to become far better armed and far more deeply entrenched than West Bank terrorists were in 2002.
No democracy could undertake such a costly plan without widespread public support, but especially not Israel, because any major military operation requires a massive call-up of reservists, and Israeli reservists tend to vote with their feet. They’ll show up in droves for an operation with broad support, but an operation widely considered unjustified will spark major protests.
That’s exactly what happened when, during the second intifada, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon thought Israelis’ overwhelming support for reoccupying the West Bank created a golden opportunity to do the same in Gaza. He was forced to scrap that idea after a massive public outcry, especially from reservists.
The crucial difference Sharon had overlooked was the level of pain that Israelis were experiencing. The West Bank was wreaking havoc nationwide at that time. A wave of suicide bombings and other attacks in cities throughout Israel killed 452 Israelis in 2002, including 130 in March 2002 alone. But Gaza was causing most Israelis very little pain. Though there were attacks on soldiers and settlers in Gaza itself, there were almost no attacks from Gaza inside Israel. Consequently, most Israelis weren’t willing to pay the price that a major operation in Gaza would have entailed.
And for all the differences in today’s situation, that same basic fact remains true: Gaza isn’t causing most Israelis enough pain to make them willing to reoccupy the territory. It has made life hell for residents of communities near the border for the last seven months, and it did the same for the entire south during last week’s rocket barrage. But the vast majority of Israelis have been completely unaffected. For people in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem and most other major population centers, life continued as normal.
Hamas understands this very well. That’s why it deliberately confined itself to bombarding the south, despite having missiles capable of reaching most of Israel. It wanted to cause as much pain as possible without crossing the threshold that would provoke Israel into war—and it succeeded.
But with the option of reoccupying Gaza unavailable, the two main options left are both short-term fixes.
One is a smaller-scale military operation. The last such operation, in 2014, bought the south three-and-a-half years of almost total quiet, but at a price (for Israel) of 72 dead and massive international opprobrium. Another such operation might buy a similar period of calm, but at a similar or even higher cost. And it would have to be repeated again in another few years, by which time Hamas may be better armed and capable of exacting an even higher price.
The second option, which Netanyahu evidently favors, is to negotiate a long-term ceasefire. This might buy a similar period of quiet, though since it hasn’t been tried before, there’s no guarantee. And it has several obvious advantages: no deaths, no international opprobrium, and most likely, greater support within Israel (though judging by past experience, not abroad) for a more forceful response once the ceasefire collapses, as it will at some point.
But it also has some obvious downsides. First, it’s devastating to Israeli deterrence, since it shows that firing rockets is a good way to get Israel to capitulate to your demands. Second, it ensures that when the inevitable next round arrives, Hamas will be able to inflict much more damage than it could today.
To grasp just how much, consider that since the 2014 war, Hamas has been under a tight Israeli and Egyptian blockade. Yet according to Israeli intelligence, it has nevertheless managed to completely rebuild and perhaps even exceed the arsenal it had then. Indeed, Hamas fired more than 450 rockets in just two days last week, almost three times the daily average of 85 rockets during the 2014 war. If it managed such a massive rearmament despite the blockade, one can only imagine how much more military materiel it would acquire under a long-term truce that would relax the blockade and pour cash into Gaza (ostensibly for civilian projects, but Hamas makes sure to take a cut of every dollar that enters).
Either of these options would only postpone the inevitable: Barring a miracle, Hamas will eventually become overconfident and cause Israel enough anguish to provoke it to reoccupy Gaza. By postponing that day, and thereby allowing Hamas to further arm and entrench itself, Israel merely ensures that when it comes, it will come at a much higher price—in Israeli casualties, in Palestinian casualties and in international opprobrium.
But knowing that doesn’t change the political reality that such an operation isn’t possible now. In today’s reality, the most that Netanyahu can do is buy a few more years of quiet. And his only choice is whether to do so via a ceasefire or a limited military operation, each of which carries its own major price tag.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on November 21, 2018. © 2018 JNS.org
Ever since Israel’s nation-state law was enacted in July, one constant refrain has sounded: The law should have included a provision guaranteeing equality to all Israelis. It’s not only the law’s opponents who say this; so do many of its supporters, liberals and conservatives alike. But they are wrong.
Adding a provision about equality to the nation-state law sounds innocuous because civic and political equality is already implicitly guaranteed through the 1992 Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. Basic Laws are Israel’s closest approximation to constitutional legislation, and the 1992 law, which protects the “dignity of any person as such,” has been consistently interpreted by the courts as enshrining equality on the grounds that discrimination violates a person’s dignity. So what harm could it do to offer an explicit guarantee in the Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People?
The answer is that doing so would elevate Israel’s democratic character above its Jewish one. And that would negate the entire purpose of the nation-state law, which was to restore Israel’s Jewish character to parity with its democratic one—not superiority, but merely parity.
To understand why this is so, it’s first necessary to understand why adding an equality provision would violate basic constitutional logic. This argument was cogently made from the liberal side of the political spectrum by Haim Ramon, a former senior Labor Party Knesset member and former justice minister. Writing in Haaretz’s Hebrew edition last month, Ramon argued that if anyone thinks equality isn’t sufficiently protected by the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, they should work to amend that law rather than the nation-state law, as the former is where any provision on equality belongs.
This isn’t mere semantic quibbling. A constitution, being a country’s supreme instrument of governance, isn’t supposed to be a jumble of random provisions thrown together with no more thought than a monkey sitting at a keyboard might provide; it’s supposed to be a carefully crafted document. That’s why constitutions typically group all provisions relating to a given topic into a single article or chapter. Each article has equal status; none is more or less important than the others. And together, they create a comprehensive document that addresses all the basic questions of governance.
Israel has largely followed this logic to date. It doesn’t have a finished constitution, but every Basic Law is considered to be one article of a future constitution. So Israel has, inter alia, a Basic Law on the legislature, one on the executive, one on the judiciary, one on basic human rights, and now, one on Israel’s Jewish character: the nation-state law. And just as details of how to choose the prime minister belong in the article on the executive rather than the article on the judiciary, so, too, provisions on universal human rights, like equality, belong in the article on human rights, not the one on Israel’s particularistic Jewish character.
But precisely because this is the normal constitutional procedure, any glaring deviation from this norm would have moral and legal significance. So what would it tell us if, contrary to all constitutional logic, a provision on equality—something already implicitly guaranteed in an earlier article of Israel’s constitution-to-be—were to be explicitly restated in a subsequent article dealing with Israel’s Jewish character?
It would tell us that Israel’s universalist democratic character trumps its Jewish character. That would be the natural implication of equality being the only principle deemed worthy of being stated not once, but twice—not just in the article where it naturally belongs, but also in an article dealing with a completely unrelated topic. That would also be the natural implication of Israel’s Jewish character being the only constitutional issue deemed unworthy of a Basic Law entirely to itself, the only one forced to share its Basic Law with material that properly belongs, and in fact already exists, in a different one. Indeed, the implication would be that Israel’s Jewish character is so illegitimate that it can be allowed in the constitution at all only if its legal significance is diluted by adding a restatement of Israel’s universalist character.
In short, the clear message of adding “equality” to the nation-state law would be that Israel’s Jewish and democratic identities aren’t equal; rather, its democratic identity has primacy and its Jewish identity is subordinate. That’s exactly the situation that existed prior to the nation-state law’s enactment, when Israel had several Basic Laws setting out its democratic character but none at all setting out its Jewish character. And that’s the very situation the nation-state law was meant to correct.
Nothing in the nation-state law gives Israel’s Jewish identity priority over its democratic one; the law was intended merely to put these dual identities back on an equal footing. Adding “equality” to it would thus be antithetical to its purpose.
In one sense, this entire discussion is moot. As Ramon noted, an explicit mention of equality was omitted from the Human Dignity and Liberty law due to haredi opposition, and almost certainly couldn’t be enacted today for the same reason, regardless of whether it were proposed for that law or the nation-state law.
But the broader issue of parity between Israel’s Jewish and democratic identities isn’t moot at all. It’s an ongoing battle, and a crucial one.
The vast majority of Israelis wants Israel to be both Jewish and democratic, and a plurality believes that these two elements should be equally balanced. But being a democracy isn’t Israel’s raison d’être; there are plenty of other democracies around. There would be no reason to have made the effort of establishing and sustaining Israel in the teeth of regional and, often, international hostility in order to have just one more democracy, indistinguishable from all the others.
Israel’s raison d’être is that it’s the world’s only Jewish state—the only place in the world where the Jewish people can determine their own fate. That’s what makes it worth having. Thus a Basic Law that contradicts this raison d’être by subordinating its Jewish character to its democratic one is something no one who values Israel should want in its constitution.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on September 12, 2018. © 2018 JNS.org
With the Trump Administration reportedly planning various steps against UNRWA—the U.N. aid agency devoted solely to Palestinian refugees—Israeli defense officials have leaped to UNRWA’s defense. A rapid cutback of U.S. funding would create a vacuum in basic services, especially in Gaza, that Hamas might fill, and could even spark violence, they warned.
But their argument is wrong on at least three counts. First, U.S. cutbacks won’t actually cause a financial crisis. Second, forcing Hamas to provide basic services in UNRWA’s stead would be a plus, not a minus. Third, their policy would sacrifice long-term strategic interests for minuscule tactical gains.
As I’ve written before, I’d support plunging UNRWA into financial crisis, since that might force it to reform. But Washington can’t cut its donations much more than it already has—from $360 million last year to just $60 million this year. And judging by the results, it hasn’t caused a crisis at all.
Admittedly, you wouldn’t guess this from listening to UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Kraehenbuehl or from reading the numerous media reports that uncritically parrot his claims. Kraehenbuehl has repeatedly said the organization faces “its worst crisis ever,” a genuinely “existential” danger. He even threatened not to open UNRWA schools this year, though he later backtracked.
But in real life, the agency has laid off 113 workers in Gaza, 154 in the West Bank and around 100 in Jordan—about 370 in total. If that sounds like a lot, then you haven’t read UNRWA’s website, which proudly declares the agency “one of the largest United Nations programs, with over 30,000 personnel.” In short, these “extensive” cutbacks, as one media report termed them, total a little more than 1 percent of UNRWA’s enormous staff. That’s not something most organizations would label a crisis.
Moreover, UNRWA wouldn’t have any crisis at all if it weren’t outrageously overstaffed. It has almost three times as many employees as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, though the latter agency, which cares for all non-Palestinian refugees and displaced people worldwide, serves 12 times as many people. In other words, UNRWA has one employee for every 167 “refugees,” while UNHCR has one for every 5,200.
Nor would UNRWA have any problem if it didn’t endlessly expand its refugee rolls by including every refugee’s descendent for all eternity, even though most aren’t refugees at all, since they’re either citizens of other countries or residents of the West Bank and Gaza, which the United Nations itself deems the “State of Palestine.” The agency doesn’t even bother delisting many who are dead. In short, it has many ways to cut costs without causing a crisis.
Defense officials’ second fallacy is that Hamas providing services in UNRWA’s stead would somehow be bad. In reality, if Hamas had to provide services to the people it governs, it would have less money to spend on its endless military build-up, which would improve Israel’s security.
That’s exactly what happened last year, when the Palestinian Authority, which had previously financed all civilian services in Hamas-run Gaza not provided by UNRWA, stopped doing so. For the first time, Hamas had to pay for civilian needs like fuel for Gaza’s only power plant out of its own pocket. Consequently, according to Israeli intelligence, it slashed its annual military budget from $200 million in 2014 (the year of the last Hamas-Israel war) to $50 million last year. Even $70 million in military aid from Iran, then still flush with cash from the 2015 nuclear deal, couldn’t make up that shortfall.
UNRWA cutbacks would force Hamas to spend even more on civilian needs in order to preserve its rule in Gaza. And that would further reduce its ability to invest in rockets and cross-border tunnels.
Granted, Hamas-run schools and summer camps would indoctrinate children in anti-Israel propaganda. But so do UNRWA-run schools and summer camps. UNRWA textbooks teach that Jews have no right even to pre-1967 Israel, that all Jewish holy sites are actually Muslim, that Molotov cocktail attacks on Jewish civilians are a “barbecue party.” UNRWA summer camps teach that even pre-1967 Israel belongs to the Palestinians, and they should seek to “liberate” it through force of arms. Thus on this score, Israel would be no worse off than it is now.
The final fallacy is defense officials’ desire to postpone conflict at any cost. Obviously, preventing war is usually desirable. But war with Hamas isn’t an existential threat, and in any case, virtually all Israeli analysts consider it inevitable at some point.
The refugee crisis, in contrast, remains a potentially existential threat. Should the Palestinians ever succeed in mobilizing international support behind their demand that all 5 million “refugees” relocate to Israel, this would eradicate the Jewish state.
Hence Israel has a major interest in defusing this crisis by taking most of these “refugees” off the rolls—where, as noted, they don’t belong in any case—and permanently shuttering UNRWA, whose main mission in life is to endlessly expand those rolls. Since no previous U.S. administration has ever been willing to address this issue, Israel would be foolish not to take advantage of the Trump administration’s apparent desire to do so, even at the price of war with Hamas.
But that’s especially true given that defense officials think war will happen anyway. They merely seek to postpone it so that Israel can finish building its anti-tunnel barrier. And for a few months (or even years) of delay and the minor tactical advantage of an anti-tunnel barrier, they’re willing to sacrifice an existential Israeli interest.
It’s foolish beyond belief. But unfortunately, it’s not surprising. As Einat Wilf and Adi Schwartz argue in a new book, the defense establishment has been UNRWA’s top lobbyist for decades.
All this merely proves a point I’ve made before: Military men are good at solving militarily problems, but they’re no better than anyone else, and often worse, at understanding political problems. Yet their facade of expertise often cows politicians into deferring to them.
Let’s hope Israel’s current government resists this temptation and takes full advantage of the Trump administration’s plan. It’s an opportunity that may not recur for a very long time.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on August 29, 2018. © 2018 JNS.org
A new book argues that the nation-state is the best form of political organization humanity has yet discovered.
When Israel adopted a Basic Law in July defining the country as “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” opposition was instantaneous and widespread. The objections fell into two categories. Some opponents agreed with the law’s basic premise but objected to specific provisions. Others, however, were dismayed by the very idea of defining Israel as a Jewish nation-state, believing that this definition inherently discriminates against non-Jews. Indeed, liberal opinion today increasingly views the nation-state as a relic of an unsavory past that the West has thankfully moved beyond.
It’s this view that Dr. Yoram Hazony, a longtime friend, challenges in his new book, “The Virtue of Nationalism.” Hazony argues that for all its flaws — and he’s far from blind to them — the nation-state is the best form of political organization humanity has yet discovered.
In the process, he also challenges a conception of Judaism increasingly popular among liberal Jews: the view that “universal values” like equality and human rights are the essence of Judaism. By definition, universal values aren’t unique to Judaism; they are equally applicable to and accessible by non-Jews. But Hazony argues that Judaism celebrates what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has called “the dignity of difference.” It’s the only great civilization in history that never sought global application of its laws, customs, and religious practices; rather, the Bible explicitly envisioned a limited Jewish state surrounded by other, non-Jewish states.
It’s worth emphasizing just how exceptional this is. The other two great monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam, both sought global domination. At its height, the Muslim empire stretched from Spain to India; Christianity had the Byzantine Empire in the East and the Holy Roman Empire in the West. Almost every major non-monotheistic civilization was also imperial, including Persia, Rome, Greece and China. And empires continued straight through to modern times‑ recent examples include the British Empire and the Soviet Union.
The Hebrew Bible, in contrast, assigns the Jews a limited territory with specific boundaries. Like everything in Judaism, their exact location is disputed. But even the maximalist conception of this territory is minuscule compared to Biblical empires like the Assyrian, Babylonian and Egyptian.
Moreover, Hazony notes, the Bible explicitly forbids the Jews to exceed those boundaries. In Deuteronomy, for instance, God warns, “Meddle not with [the children of Esau], for I will not give you of their land. No, not so much a foot’s breadth. Because I have given Mount Seir to Esau for a possession … Do not harass Moav, nor contend with them in battle, for I will not give you of their land for a possession, because I have given Ar to the children of Lot for a possession … And when you come near, opposite the children of Ammon, harass them not, nor contend with them, for I will not give you of the land of the children of Ammon any possession, for I have given it to the children of Lot for a possession.”
Nor is Judaism’s self-limitation merely physical. Unlike Islam and Christianity, Judaism hasn’t traditionally been a proselytizing religion; it sees no need for the entire world to be Jewish. And aside from the seven Noahide laws, Judaism’s extensive legal code is meant to govern Jews alone.
This doesn’t mean Judaism has no universal moral principles. Indeed, Hazony argues that the biblical idea, later adopted by Protestant nation-states like Great Britain and the Netherlands, requires any legitimate government to satisfy a “moral minimum,” and he considers any theory of nationalism that doesn’t include such a moral minimum unviable. Nevertheless, the Bible recognizes that how these principles translate into specific laws and practices might differ from nation to nation.
All of the above leads Hazony to argue that the Hebrew Bible gave the world the very idea of the nation-state, at a time when the surrounding world consisted of either empires or tribal societies. The rest of his book is devoted to explaining why he believes this biblical political model is still the best we have.
Cohesion and trust
A nation-state is one in which a substantial majority of the population shares certain characteristics, like a common language or religion and a common history, especially of uniting against outside aggression. These shared characteristics, transmitted from generation to generation, provide nation-states with a level of cohesiveness and trust that’s difficult to achieve in states lacking such commonalities, Hazony argues.
This cohesiveness and trust in turn make many other moral goods possible. Indeed, Hazony says, it’s no accident that most of the civil and political liberties we take for granted today developed in nation-states like Britain and the Netherlands.
I’m naturally sympathetic to that argument, not least because I chose as an adult to relocate from America to the world’s only Jewish nation-state. But until recently, that sympathy was widely shared. For centuries, Hazony writes, “a nationalist politics was commonly associated with broad-mindedness and a generous spirit.”
What changed this was World War II — or more accurately, a post-war narrative that blamed nationalism for the war’s outbreak. But before discussing why that narrative is wrong, let’s consider some of the positive goods the nation-state bequeathed us.
First, Hazony argues, the nation-state is the largest political unit in which rulers and ruled can still feel a connection — not a personal connection, since government officials obviously won’t know most citizens personally, but the connection that derives from a shared history, language, religion or culture. And only that sense of connection, in which a shared heritage creates bonds of mutual loyalty, can make a ruler or dominant faction willing to circumscribe its own power.
Since circumscribed power is a necessary condition for democracy, it’s no surprise that democracy first developed in nation-states like Britain. Clearly, not all nation-states have been democracies. But no larger political unit ever has.
The nation-state’s cohesiveness and trust is also a necessary foundation for freedom, tolerance and individual rights, including for minorities, Hazony argues. That may strike many people as counterintuitive. But historically, majorities have usually felt confident enough to circumscribe their power and grant equal rights to all only when they felt that minorities posed no serious threat to the majority’s shared heritage. When dominant groups feel threatened, they often seek to suppress competing groups.
That’s why nation-states like Britain, India and Israel — as well as ostensibly “neutral” states that are effectively nation-states, like the United States, Canada and Australia, with their strong Protestant Anglo-Saxon cores — have historically proven comparatively free and stable, Hazony says. In contrast, countries lacking the cohesion provided by a clear majority with a shared heritage have typically either become dictatorships, torn themselves apart in civil wars, or both — think Yugoslavia or Syria. And every multinational empire in history has ultimately done the same.
Moreover, because a nation-state, by definition, is surrounded by other states with different languages, religions, cultures and laws, it has no choice but to tolerate these differences, even if it loathes them. Not only does this inculcate habits of tolerance, but “this formal grant of legitimacy to political and religious diversity among the nations then became the basis for the toleration of dissenting communities within the state,” Hazony argues.
Obviously, this doesn’t mean every nation-state will be tolerant and respectful of minorities; hatred appears to be endemic to human nature, and no form of political organization is immune to it. But despite sometimes horrific abuses, Hazony argues that nation-states overall have a better track record than multinational empires.
Indeed, precisely because the latter control so much more territory, they can often wreak far greater devastation: See, for instance, the centuries-long persecution of Jews throughout Europe under the Christians’ Holy Roman Empire, or Communism’s decades-long persecution of minorities throughout the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. At worst, nation-states can persecute minorities in one country. Empires can do so across entire continents.
The value of diversity
Another significant advantage of nation-states is that they provide scope for national experimentation, not just in politics, but in science, economics, art and other fields. A multinational empire, in contrast, will necessarily converge toward uniformity, at least on certain issues. And because no individual or group has yet attained perfect wisdom, the experimentation allowed by a world of nation-states is more likely to produce new or improved ideas and practices that other states can adopt.
A salient example, though not one Hazony cites, is the idea that instead of hereditary monarchs who rule for life, executives could be elected by the people and periodically replaced by them. Many countries eventually adopted this idea. But it entered the world only because America broke away from the British Empire, giving it the freedom to launch what was then a revolutionary experiment.
Granted, when nation-states experiment, the results will sometimes be disastrous. But if a nation-state adopts a failed policy, the consequences are limited to that state. When empires adopt failed policies, the suffering is much more widespread. Soviet Communism, for instance, created economic havoc and political persecution across a vast territory stretching from Eastern Europe to central Asia.
Finally, and perhaps also counterintuitively, nation-states have an inherent disincentive to aggressive expansionism. Empires typically seek to bring as many countries as possible under their aegis. But because the nation-state’s cohesiveness depends on the existence of a sizable majority with certain shared characteristics, conquering other states whose populations don’t share those characteristics would inevitably undermine this prized asset.
This, incidentally, is why no Israeli government, including several wrongly branded as annexationist, has ever annexed the West Bank and Gaza, why numerous governments sought to negotiate peace deals ceding them, and why polls have consistently shown a majority of Israeli Jews favoring such a deal in principle. Israelis understand that permanently annexing millions of Palestinians is antithetical to maintaining a Jewish nation-state.
Because Arab states repeatedly attacked Israel from these territories before Israel captured them in a defensive war, it’s understandably unwilling to cede them without good reason to believe that situation won’t return. Thus the fact that every bit of land ceded to the Palestinians so far has become a launching pad for attacks on Israel, coupled with the repeated failure of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, has increasingly led Israelis to question whether a Palestinian state is a viable solution to this problem. Yet even so, support for annexation remains minuscule.
Hazony’s arguments raise one obvious question: If he’s right that the nation-state has historically fostered freedom, democracy and civil rights, why is it widely viewed today as inherently aggressive and oppressive? The answer is World War II, whose horrors are commonly blamed on nationalism — or in Hazony’s words, on “German soldiers using force against others, backed by nothing but their own government’s views as to their national rights and interests.”
Yet in reality, he says, Nazi Germany wasn’t a nation-state, but a classic imperial state. Its desire to conquer all of Europe, and then the world, was the age-old goal of every imperialist, whereas the nation-state, as noted, inherently requires limited borders. Indeed, Hazony writes, the Nazis understood themselves as imperialists. They explicitly sought a “Third Reich,” the German word for empire, inspired by the “First Reich,” aka the Holy Roman Empire (which, despite its name, was dominated by Germanic states for much of its history).
In fact, Hazony argues, every large-scale war in history has resulted from imperial ambitions; other examples include the Napoleonic wars and the Cold War, in which Communist expansionism and Western efforts to contain it sparked hot wars worldwide. That’s because imperial states typically seek to enlarge their empires, and therefore necessarily draw many other countries into their wars. Nation-states also obviously fight wars, but because they require limited borders, those wars are necessarily limited in scope.
Hazony’s recurrent comparisons between nation-states and empires may seem like a straw man. The bloody empires of old, with their expansionist wars and persecution of minorities, appear to have little in common with modern forms of multinational or global governance like the European Union (EU) or the United Nations. And it’s the latter that modern liberals believe should replace the nation-state.
But Hazony sees little fundamental difference between older empires and what he terms the “liberal empire” envisioned by many Westerners today — “one in which liberal theories of the rule of law, the market economy, and individual rights … are regarded as universal truths and considered the appropriate basis for an international regime that will make the independence of the national state unnecessary.” And nothing illustrates this better than the EU itself.
Unlike previous empires, the EU was formed by member states’ consent — a nontrivial distinction. Yet it suffers from many of the same ills that have historically plagued empires.
First, it lacks the cohesiveness and trust generated by a shared heritage. Consequently, after a mere few decades, it’s already under strain from centrifugal forces. Unhappiness over “dictates from Brussels” is widespread throughout the union’s periphery — Greece, Italy, Hungary, Poland and, of course, Britain, which in 2016 became the first country to vote to quit the union.
Pundits often deem this griping irrational, arguing that many of the problems these nations decry stem from national policies rather than EU policy. But that merely underscores Hazony’s point: People find it easier to believe ill of “the bureaucrats in Brussels” than of their own politicians precisely because they believe their own politicians are more likely to care about their country’s welfare than politicians with no connection to their country. Nor is this mere self-delusion. By definition, EU officials are concerned with what they consider the good of the union as a whole; often, that will end up being the good of its dominant members, which may not be good for weaker members. See, for instance, EU austerity policies, which benefited strong creditor states like Germany but hurt peripheral states with weaker economies.
Nor is it surprising that one of the most consistent gripes about the EU is its “democratic deficit.” As noted, no political unit larger than a nation-state has yet managed to be democratic. Certainly, the EU is more democratic than previous empires. But voters still have no way to oust EU policy-setters when they dislike EU policies.
Moreover, like all empires, the EU has steadily aggrandized its power, far beyond what most member states originally envisioned. It now governs large swathes of its members’ political and economic life, from setting monetary policy to dictating rules on labor, education and the environment to running courts that can and do overrule national laws.
Thus while the division of power between the EU and its member states originally left space for national experimentation, this space is steadily shrinking. Indeed, Hazony argues, in any federative arrangement, the federal government will tend over time to centralize power and restrict member states’ autonomy.
Even the EU’s most touted achievement, preventing war, doesn’t hold up under scrutiny; it has escaped war for decades solely because it was protected by American troops. Without this protection, it would have faced the same military aggression as states not under America’s umbrella, first from the Soviet Union (see Eastern Europe) and then from Russia (think Ukraine and Georgia). At that point, it would either have fought back or collapsed.
Finally, Hazony argues, empires typically believe their own solutions merit universal application, and indeed are the only “correct” ones. Therefore, they constantly strive to impose these solutions on others and cannot tolerate dissent that challenges the universality of their core truths.
In this regard, liberal internationalism is no different from communism, religious fundamentalism or any other ideology that believes itself the sole possessor of a universal truth. The salient example is liberal internationalists’ intolerance of nationalism itself.
Because the EU and other multinational institutions are predicated on nation-states ceding their own sovereignty, Hazony argues, they cannot abide supporters of national sovereignty. As he notes, this is evident in the “public shaming campaigns” now common in the West against anyone who challenges liberal internationalist dogma, as well as in the loathing for nation-states like Israel, post-Brexit Britain and the U.S. (the latter long predates the presidency of Donald Trump).
The Brexit negotiations are a good example, albeit not one Hazony cites. Brussels adamantly refuses to grant Britain the same deal the EU has with dozens of non-European countries: free trade but no free movement of people or contributions to the EU budget. Yet the scope of EU-British trade means the EU has an interest in preserving free trade with Britain, and it clearly doesn’t object to such agreements in principle. Thus it’s hard not to see this as a classic imperialist attempt to punish Britain for rejecting the empire’s core truth, the wisdom of multinational government, and discourage other parts of the empire from following suit.
In Israel’s case, Hazony cites the obvious example of Gaza. Today, Israel is vilified far more over events in Gaza than over events in the West Bank. But if hatred of Israel were really “because of the occupation,” one would expect the opposite. Unlike in the West Bank, in Gaza Israel did exactly what the world claimed to want, removing every last settler and soldier; ever since, the territory has been a launching pad for nonstop attacks on pre-1967 Israel. Yet hatred toward Israel over Gaza has only intensified since the pullout.
Hazony considers it no surprise that the Jewish state is a particular thorn in liberal internationalists’ side. First, this is because Judaism insists on the value of its own unique laws and traditions, and hence implicitly on the value of national uniqueness in general. Second, it’s because of World War II’s special significance in antinationalist thought.
Because many liberals view the Nazis as the ultimate proof of nationalism’s evil, they find it particularly galling that the Nazis’ principal victims drew the opposite conclusion — that the Nazi genocide was made possible not by nationalism, but by Jewish powerlessness, and therefore, the creation of a new, Jewish nation-state was an inherent good rather than an evil. Or in Hazony’s blunt formulation, Israelis see Israel as “the opposite of Auschwitz.” But to many liberals, “Israel is Auschwitz,” because it embodies the nationalism which they wrongly believe produced Nazi Germany.
This explains not just the often pathological hatred of Israel, but also the fact that more and more liberals believe a Jewish nation-state has no right to exist. Of course, they enthusiastically champion a Palestinian nation-state, but Hazony explains this seeming contradiction through Immanuel Kant’s theory of progress toward enlightened world government: Tribal societies must first become nation-states before advancing to global government. Thus liberals who view the nation-state as a step forward for non-Western countries think that Israel, as a Western country, should know better, and consider its refusal to continue down the road to enlightenment unconscionable.
Yet given the widespread view of global governance as the “moral” choice, perhaps Hazony’s most surprising indictment is his stark formulation of what this choice means: “Here, ‘moral maturity’ is equated with the renunciation of one’s own judgment as to what is right, and of one’s own power to act in the service of what is right.” It’s truly astounding that liberals, who claim to value moral autonomy, have now become the strongest advocates of ceding it.
Why the nation-state law?
Though Hazony’s book was written before the nation-state law was enacted, his arguments underscore a fact that was once widely understood but clearly no longer is: Israel has always been a democracy that generally protects minority rights not despite its self-definition as a Jewish state, but because of it. Indeed, its record on protecting non-Jewish minorities sometimes surpasses that of “liberal” Europe. For instance, Israel has never forbidden civil servants to wear headscarves, like France, or barred mosques from building minarets, like Switzerland. Also, unlike Europe, it funds semi-autonomous Arabic-language public schools to help its Arab minority preserve its language and culture. And that’s precisely because its sensitivity to particularistic Jewish interests allows it to empathize with others’ particularistic interests.
Nothing in the nation-state law changes this. Indeed, the most puzzling aspect of this law is that it says nothing that hasn’t been axiomatic for decades: Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, and within its borders, only Jews will exercise national self-determination — a provision that neither negates equal social and political rights (as opposed to national rights) for non-Jews nor precludes the possibility of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, which are outside its borders. Israel’s capital is Jerusalem. Its language is Hebrew. It is open for Jewish immigration. It will strive to preserve the heritage of Diaspora Jews and strengthen their ties with Israel. It will seek to rescue Jews or Israeli citizens anywhere (the term “Israeli citizens” includes non-Jewish citizens). It views Jewish settlement as a value (where isn’t specified, but the Hebrew word used usually refers to inside Israel rather than the territories).
In fact, many of its provisions are already codified in existing legislation. And even the one ostensible novelty, the “downgrading” of Arabic’s status, isn’t really much of a change, as legal scholar Netanel Fisher noted: Arabic has never been equal to Hebrew (for instance, court cases can’t be filed in Arabic), and such status as it had was preserved through a clause stating that nothing in the law “undermines the status enjoyed by the Arabic language in practice before this Basic Law came into effect.”
Moreover, the law in no way supersedes existing Basic Laws enshrining Israel’s democratic system of government and basic human rights. Most notably, the 1992 Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty explicitly protects “the dignity of any person as such,” and courts have consistently interpreted this as barring discrimination, on the reasonable grounds that discrimination violates a person’s dignity.
In Israel’s constitutional system, each Basic Law is merely one article of a constitution-in-the-making, and is meant to be read in concert with all the others, not in isolation. Therefore, as in any constitution, protections enshrined in earlier articles — in this case, for democracy and human rights — need not be reiterated in subsequent articles addressing different issues, such as Israel’s Jewish identity.
All this explains why even the heads of the Israel Democracy Institute – a left-leaning organization not enamored of Israel’s current government – said at a media briefing in July that the law “doesn’t change anything practically,” “won’t change how the country is run” and is merely “symbolic and educational.” There’s simply nothing in it that undermines democracy, equality or minority rights; these values are no more vulnerable today than they were before the law passed.
Yet if the law truly did nothing but reiterate old truths, why did many Israelis suddenly feel a need to codify these truths in quasi-constitutional legislation? And why was it vehemently opposed not just by people who wish to erase Israel’s Jewish identity, but by many who genuinely want to preserve it?
Primarily, because the very idea of a Jewish nation-state has been under growing assault — from international institutions, liberal intellectuals both in Israel and abroad, increasingly assertive and stridently anti-Israel Arab activists, and above all, Supreme Court justices. Many justices believe, in former court president Aharon Barak’s famous phrase, that the “Jewish” half of Israel’s Jewish and democratic identity should be interpreted at a “level of abstraction so high that it becomes identical to the state’s democratic nature.” Consequently, they have repeatedly issued rulings undermining Israel’s ability to preserve particularistic aspects of its unique heritage.
Many Israelis therefore felt a need to reassert Israel’s Jewish identity in a Basic Law that would give this identity equal standing with the state’s democratic nature. But many others, not without cause, feared the consequences of flaunting this identity in a world increasingly hostile to it.
The very fact that reiterating truths held self-evident for decades could cause such an uproar today shows just how far the idea of the nation-state has been eroded. And it also shows why, far more than we need new laws codifying the Jewish nation-state in particular, we need a vigorous intellectual defense of the nation-state in general. Hazony has offered just such a defense.
Originally published in the Jewish Journal on August 15, 2018
Ever since Saturday night’s demonstration against the nation-state law in Tel Aviv, which was organized by Israel’s Arab community, people have been talking about the presence of Palestinian flags. But too little attention has been paid to something even more disturbing—the enforced absence of Israeli ones.
Certainly, demonstrators who wave Palestinian flags while chanting slogans like “With blood and fire, we will redeem Palestine” merit attention. As Jonathan S. Tobin noted earlier this week, those protesters clearly weren’t seeking to reform Israel, but to eradicate the Jewish state.
Nevertheless, the demonstration’s organizers explicitly asked people not to bring Palestinian flags since they hoped to attract Jewish moderates rather than just the usual far-left fringe, and understood that Palestinian flags would make Jewish moderates uncomfortable. Nor is it their fault that some people ignored this request; at any demonstration with tens of thousands of participants, some people will disregard the organizers’ instructions. So while the chants and Palestinian flags certainly say something about the intentions of those particular demonstrators, they don’t necessarily indicate the views of the majority.
What’s far more telling is that the organizers also banned Israeli flags at the protest, arguing that they would make Arab demonstrators uncomfortable (here, too, some people disobeyed). They did this knowing that it would undermine their goal of strong Jewish participation since many Jews opposed to the nation-state law would still feel uncomfortable at a protest where Israeli flags were unwelcome. And this wasn’t a decision by a few rebellious protesters; it was made by the Arab community’s most representative body—the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, which consists of elected mayors, Knesset members and other community leaders.
In other words, the organizers believed that Israeli flags were unacceptable to most of their community. So they informed Jews that no partnership was possible, even over an ostensibly major shared concern, unless the Jews agreed to forgo even the most basic symbol of their Israeli identity.
If this doesn’t immediately strike you as outrageous, try imagining, say, a protest against U.S. President Donald Trump’s immigration policy at which protesters were forbidden to wave American flags. It would be ridiculous. After all, most of the policy’s opponents consider themselves proud Americans who object to the policy precisely because they think it contradicts America’s best values, and most of the immigrants themselves would like to become proud Americans. So why would anyone mind if American flags were present?
For the same reason, Israeli flags were much in evidence at the Druze community’s protest against the nation-state law the previous week. Those demonstrators, Druze and Jews alike, considered themselves proud Israelis, nor did they have any objection in principle to Israel’s Jewish identity. They merely thought the law as currently worded contradicts Israel’s best values as a Jewish and democratic state.
By banning Israeli flags, the Arab community’s protest sent the opposite message. Arabs didn’t come as proud Israelis who felt that Israel was betraying its best values; they came because they oppose the very existence of a Jewish state, up to and including its most innocuous symbol: the flag. And they object to the nation-state law not because of any infelicitous wording, but precisely because it enshrines aspects of Israel’s Jewish identity in a quasi-constitutional law, thereby making it harder (at least theoretically) for the Supreme Court to continue eroding this identity by interpreting “Jewish” at a “level of abstraction so high that it becomes identical to the state’s democratic nature” (to quote former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak). In other words, Arab demonstrators were dismayed because they fear the nation-state law will impede their decades-long effort to erode Israel’s Jewish identity—which, of course, is precisely why the law’s supporters favor it.
Lest anyone think I’m reading too much into a flag ban, the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee said all this explicitly in a document it commissioned in 2006. The first operative paragraph of “The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel” reads as follows: “Israel is the outcome of a settlement process initiated by the Zionist-Jewish elite in Europe and the west and realized by Colonial countries contributing to it and by promoting Jewish immigration to Palestine, in light of the results of the Second World War and the Holocaust.” In other words, Israel is an illegitimate colonialist enterprise that has no right to exist.
The document then proposed various mechanisms for eradicating Israel’s Jewish identity, such as demanding that the Arab minority be given veto power over any policy adopted by the Jewish majority. This, incidentally, would also destroy Israel’s democratic character: Countries where ultimate decision-making power rests with the minority rather than the majority aren’t generally classified as democracies.
Nevertheless, over the past decade, there’s been a slow, grassroots movement toward greater integration in the Arab community. So one could simply argue that more time is needed before this sentiment trickles up to the community’s leadership.
But it’s never been clear whether this integrationist movement represented growing acceptance of a state that’s both Jewish and democratic, or merely a growing belief that efforts to erase Israel’s Jewish identity were gaining momentum. After all, many Jews feel that the state’s Jewish identity is under siege, which is precisely why many supported the nation-state law. Thus it wouldn’t be surprising if many Arabs had reached the same conclusion.
Unfortunately, the Israeli flag ban at Saturday’s demonstration indicates that the pessimistic interpretation may be more accurate. The worrying part isn’t that Arab demonstrators didn’t want to wave Israeli flags themselves; nobody has to wave flags at a demonstration. It’s that any Jew who wanted to do so was declared persona non grata. In short, the Arab community wasn’t willing to countenance any form of Jewish-Arab cooperation that didn’t include the Jews completely abdicating their identity.
That is the real message of the missing Israeli flags. And it’s one that anyone dreaming of a glorious new era of Jewish-Arab civic partnership should keep in mind. Because no such partnership is possible as long as the price of entry for Jews is abandoning Israel’s Jewish identity.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on August 15, 2018 © 2018 JNS.org
Israel’s new nation-state law has elicited a storm of criticism since it passed on July 19. Some of this criticism is justified; a law that manages to unite virtually the entire Druze community against it, despite this community’s longstanding support for Israel as a Jewish state in principle, clearly wasn’t drafted with sufficient care, as even the heads of two parties that backed the law (Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett and Kulanu’s Moshe Kahlon) now admit. Nevertheless, much of the criticism stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of Israel’s constitutional system.
Israel doesn’t have a constitution. What it has is a series of Basic Laws to which the Supreme Court unilaterally accorded constitutional status. Many people, myself included, disagree with that decision, inter alia because constitutional legislation should reflect a broad consensus, whereas many Basic Laws were approved by only narrow majorities or even minorities of the Knesset. Nevertheless, both sides in this dispute agree on one thing: Each Basic Law is merely one article in Israel’s constitution or constitution-to-be. They cannot be read in isolation, but only as part of a greater whole.
Consequently, it’s ridiculous to claim that the nation-state law undermines democracy, equality or minority rights merely because those terms don’t appear in it, given that several other Basic Laws already address these issues. The new law doesn’t supersede the earlier ones; it’s meant to be read in concert with them.
Several Basic Laws, including those on the Knesset, the government and the judiciary, detail the mechanisms of Israeli democracy and enshrine fundamental democratic principles like free elections and judicial independence. There are also two Basic Laws on human rights, both of which explicitly define Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.”
Of these human rights laws, the more important is the 1992 Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. It includes general protections like “There shall be no violation of the life, body or dignity of any person as such” and “All persons are entitled to protection of their life, body and dignity,” as well as specific protections for liberty, property and privacy. Though the law doesn’t mention “equality” or “minority rights,” the courts have consistently interpreted it as barring discrimination on the eminently reasonable grounds that discrimination fundamentally violates a person’s dignity (the one exception, which all legal systems make, is if discrimination has pertinent cause, like barring pedophiles from teaching).
Granted, there are things this law can’t do, such as breaking the rabbinate’s monopoly on marriage and divorce, because it explicitly grandfathers all pre-existing legislation. But it applies to all legislation passed after 1992.
Thus to argue that the nation-state law is undemocratic because it doesn’t mention equality or minority rights is like arguing that the U.S. Constitution is undemocratic because Articles I and II confer broad powers on the legislature and executive without mentioning the protections enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Everyone understands that the Constitution’s provisions on governmental power aren’t supposed to be read in isolation, but in concert with the first 10 amendments, so there’s no need to reiterate those rights in every other article. Similarly, the nation-state law isn’t meant to be read in isolation, but only in concert with other Basic Laws enshrining Israel’s democratic system and basic human rights. Thus there’s no reason for it to reiterate protections already found in those other laws.
Nor are any of the law’s specific provisions undemocratic. For instance, the provision stating that “The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people” doesn’t deprive Arabs of individual rights within Israel, nor does it bar the possibility of Palestinian self-determination in the West Bank and Gaza, which aren’t part of the State of Israel. The only thing it prohibits is an Arab state within Israel’s borders, which is problematic only if you favor replacing Israel with another Arab state.
As for the provision making Hebrew the state’s only official language, many other democracies also have a single official language despite having large minorities with different mother tongues. For instance, 17 percent of America’s population is Hispanic, only slightly less than the 21 percent of Israel’s population that’s Arab, yet Spanish isn’t an official language in America, and few people would argue that this makes America undemocratic.
Indeed, Israel’s new law goes much farther than many other democracies in guaranteeing minority language rights, thanks to one provision according Arabic “special status” and another stating that nothing in the law “undermines the status enjoyed by the Arabic language in practice before this Basic Law came into effect.” The latter provision actually preserves Arabic’s status as an official language de facto. It may have been stupid not to preserve it de jure as well, but “stupid” isn’t the same as “undemocratic.”
All of the above explains why even the heads of the Israel Democracy Institute—a left-leaning organization usually harshly critical of the current government—said at a media briefing this week that the law “doesn’t change anything practically,” “won’t change how the country is run,” and is merely “symbolic and educational.”
The law was meant to solve a specific constitutional problem: The courts have frequently interpreted the Jewish half of “Jewish and democratic” at a “level of abstraction so high that it becomes identical to the state’s democratic nature,” as former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak famously said. Yet no definition of “Jewish” can be complete without recognizing that Judaism has particularist, as well as universal, aspects because it’s the religion of a particular people with a particular history, culture and traditions. By emphasizing some of those particularist aspects, the law is supposed to restore the intended balance between the Jewish and democratic components of Israel’s identity. But it doesn’t eliminate those democratic components, which are enshrined in numerous other Basic Laws, nor was it intended to do so.
I’m skeptical that the law will achieve its intended purpose, but I see no good reason why it shouldn’t exist in principle. Israel isn’t just a generic Western democracy; it’s also the world’s only Jewish state. And its constitution-in-the-making should reflect both halves of its complex identity.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on August 1, 2018 © 2018 JNS.org
In January 2017, the Ipsos Mori research company published a shocking poll headlined “Six in ten around the world think their society is ‘broken.’ ” Out of 23 countries surveyed—13 Western democracies and 10 non-Western democracies, most with relatively strong economies—only in six did a majority of respondents disagree with that statement.
Moreover, almost four in 10 respondents agreed another troubling claim: “These days I feel like a stranger in my own country.” Though the proportion topped 50 percent in only two countries, it exceeded a third in all but three.
Pollsters then asked several questions designed to elaborate on those general sentiments—some exploring trust in national institutions and others exploring attitudes toward immigration. Their theory was that low trust in institutions would correlate to high levels of belief that society was broken, while negative attitudes toward immigrants would correlate to high levels of feeling like a stranger in one’s own country. And there was, in fact, some correlation, albeit not perfect. Notably, countries with both high trust in institutions and low concern about immigration had among the fewest respondents saying either that society was broken or that they felt like strangers in their own land.
And then there was the one glaring exception: Israel.
A majority of Israeli respondents voiced little or no confidence in all seven categories of institutions—international institutions, banks, the justice system, big companies, the media, the government and political parties. In five of the seven categories, more than 70 percent did so. Israel was among the top 10 most distrustful countries in all but one category; in most, it was in the top six.
Yet when it came to the summary question of whether society was broken, Israel suddenly plummeted to the bottom of the negativity rankings, with only 32 percent of Israelis agreeing (Japan and India, at 31 percent and 32 percent, respectively, were in a statistical tie with Israel for the bottom slot).
The same thing happened on questions about immigration, which Israeli respondents almost certainly interpreted as referring to non-Jewish immigrants (the ostensibly neutral Hebrew word for immigration, hagira, is actually used only for non-Jews; Jewish immigration, for which Israeli support has traditionally been high, is called aliyah). Israel was among the six most immigrant-averse countries in all four categories: belief that employers should prioritize hiring locals over immigrants, concern about immigrants’ impact on social/public services, concern about their impact on jobs and opposition to uncontrolled immigration.
Yet when it came to the question about feeling like a stranger in your own country, Israel again suddenly plummeted to the bottom of the negativity rankings, with just 20 percent of Israelis agreeing. Only Japan, at 14 percent, was lower.
Two factors help explain Israel’s exceptionalism in this poll. One is simply that complaining is Israel’s national sport; Israelis routinely gripe about every aspect of their country. Many of those grievances relate to real problems. Nevertheless, the reality is rarely anywhere near as bad their complaints make it sound (a fact that American Jews, who often accept the Israeli left’s complaints at face value, should bear in mind).
Indeed, Israel’s flourishing economy, high standard of living, and high levels of both personal security and personal freedom are all testaments to the fact that its institutions aren’t nearly as dysfunctional as Israelis deemed them in this poll. Countries with truly dysfunctional institutions rarely score well on any of these fronts.
And despite their complaints, Israelis actually do know this. That’s why Israel consistently ranks as the 11th happiest country in the U.N.’s annual “World Happiness Report,” and why on overall assessments of the country—like whether society is broken or whether people feel like strangers in their own land—Israelis were far more upbeat than respondents in most other countries Ipsos Mori surveyed.
But there’s also a deeper reason. Israelis understand that there is only one Jewish state, and for all its flaws, its very existence is something precious and worth preserving. That’s why 90 percent of Israelis define themselves as Zionist. For Zionism, at bottom, is simply the belief that the Jewish people has a right to its own state, and that a Jewish state therefore ought to exist.
This has enabled Israel to escape one of the modern West’s besetting ills. In a world where elite opinion scorns both religion and the nation-state as anachronistic but has failed to provide any compelling source of identity to replace them, many Westerners have grown increasingly unsure of their identities. Hence, it’s no surprise that they feel like strangers in their own land—or as if their societies were broken.
Israelis, in contrast, are very confident of their identity: They are Jews living in the world’s only Jewish state. Thus, it’s impossible for most Israeli Jews to feel like strangers in their own country; this is the state created precisely so that all Jews, anywhere, will always have a home.
Similarly, it’s difficult for most to feel that their society is broken when, against all odds, it has not only successfully maintained the first Jewish state in two millennia, but also turned it, in 70 short years, into one of the world’s most thriving countries. Israel has successfully absorbed Jewish refugees from all over the world and continues to provide an insurance policy for Diaspora Jews nervous about their own countries’ future. It has built one of the world’s 20 wealthiest economies per capita. It has maintained a robust democracy despite being at war since its inception. And its growing economic, military and diplomatic clout led American analysts Walter Russell Mead and Sean Keeley to rank it last year as one of the world’s eight great powers.
Thus, despite arguing bitterly over what policies their country should pursue and complaining endlessly about its many shortcomings, Israelis are overwhelmingly glad that a Jewish state exists, and committed to both preserving and improving it. And that’s why most will be celebrating on Israeli Independence Day next week. Because the very existence of a Jewish state, whatever its flaws, is grounds for rejoicing—and all the more so when that state has so many real achievements to celebrate.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on April 11, 2018 © 2018 JNS.org