Three seemingly unrelated incidents occurred last week, yet all share a common denominator: They exemplify the way anti-Israel politics has corrupted the concept of human rights.
Let’s start with best-selling British novelist Richard Zimler’s report that two British cultural organizations recently refused to host him for lectures about his new book, though he has lectured many times on previous books. “They asked me if you were Jewish, and the moment I said you were, they lost all interest,” he quoted his publicist as saying.
It’s not that these groups have anything against Jews per se. They simply feared that hosting a Jew would make them a target for anti-Israel protesters.
Zimler isn’t Israeli, has no relatives or investments in Israel and doesn’t write about Israel. His latest book is set in the Holy Land 2,000 years ago, but its storyline is Christian rather than Jewish (it’s called The Gospel According to Lazarus). So he wouldn’t seem an obvious target, given BDS apologists’ repeated claim that anti-Zionism isn’t anti-Semitic.
Unfortunately, much of the anti-Israel crowd hasn’t gotten that memo. See, for instance, the German courts which ruled that torching a German synagogue wasn’t a hate crime, but an understandable anti-Israel protest. Or the student organizations which demanded that a South African university expel all Jewish students to show its pro-Palestinian bona fides. Or the Norwegian attorney general who ruled that “F*** Jews” isn’t hate speech, but an expression of “dissatisfaction with [Israel’s] policies,” although the speaker never mentioned Israel. Or the dyke marches that banned Jews from holding Jewish pride flags because they remind some people of Israeli flags. And so forth.
So despite deploring the unnamed organizations’ cowardice, I can’t dismiss their fears as unfounded. And that’s the problem.
Human-rights groups and liberals worldwide rush to defend the “rights” of BDS activists; see, for instance, their opposition to anti-BDS legislation on the false grounds that it violates freedom of speech (it actually applies only to actions, not speech). Yet they’ve shown no interest in defending Jewish rights in most of the examples cited above. Evidently, Jewish rights are acceptable collateral damage in the sacred cause of anti-Zionism.
The second incident was the Palestinian Authority’s harassment of Palestinian businessmen who attended the U.S.-sponsored economic workshop in Bahrain on June 25-26. One was arrested, but eventually released under American pressure. Another escaped arrest by fleeing to the Israeli-controlled section of Hebron. And the P.A. raided the homes of several others, confiscating documents like credit cards and passports.
These roughly 15 businessmen traveled legally to Bahrain to participate in what one reporter termed the conference’s “real, unofficial” purpose—closing legal business deals, mainly with fellow Arabs. They explicitly said they represented only themselves, not the P.A, and refused to talk politics, saying only the P.A. was authorized to do that. In short, not only did they commit no crime, they made no attempt to undermine the P.A.’s political positions.
Indeed, the P.A. didn’t even try to pretend that any crime was committed. As one Palestinian security official told Haaretz, there was “no specific charge” against the arrested businessman; the arrest “was a warning. He must understand the implications of this sort of collaboration.”
In other words, this was pure political persecution, which is standard P.A. practice. Palestinian journalists, activists and businessmen have all been arrested for such “crimes” as saying P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas should resign.
Human-rights groups and liberals worldwide incessantly condemn Israeli violations of Palestinian rights (real or imaginary). They also frequently condemn Israel for utterly fictitious violations of Israeli rights. But innocent Palestinian businessmen arrested and harassed by the P.A. for doing legal business? You won’t hear a peep about that. Palestinian rights are evidently acceptable collateral damage in the sacred struggle against Israel.
The third incident was the estimated 100 fires that incendiary balloons flown from Gaza ignited in southern Israel. That’s an unusually high number for a single week, but incendiary devices from Gaza—courtesy of Hamas’s “balloon unit”—have been wreaking havoc for more than a year. In the six months ending in October 2018, such devices destroyed some 3,000 acres of forest and 4,000 acres of farmland. Since the winter rains ended, additional thousands of acres have been destroyed.
This is a war crime, according to both the Geneva Conventions and the treaty governing the International Criminal Court. Both define “extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly” as a war crime; the latter also lists causing “widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated.” Palestinian arson attacks do both, while serving no military purpose whatsoever.
The ICC is looking into numerous alleged Israeli crimes against the Palestinians and has even begged Palestinians to provide it with more complaints. Human-rights groups and liberals worldwide incessantly condemn these alleged Israeli crimes, including settlement construction, which, even if it were a genuine crime (it isn’t), is far less destructive than scorched-earth tactics (evacuated settlements could theoretically be given to the Palestinians under a peace deal). But I haven’t heard a peep about the destruction of large swaths of southern Israel, nor has the ICC considered probing it. Environmental devastation is evidently acceptable collateral damage in the sacred fight against Israel.
What all these cases show is that human rights have ceased being an objective standard applied equally to all. Instead, they’ve become a political tool to bash groups that liberals dislike. So Jewish rights matter when targeted by right-wing extremists (whom liberals loathe), but not when targeted by anti-Zionists. Palestinians’ rights matter when targeted by Israel, but not when targeted by the P.A. And Israeli rights never matter, except when violated by Israel.
This problem isn’t unique to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, of course. It’s just particularly blatant there.
Liberals and human-rights groups frequently complain that human rights are becoming devalued worldwide, and they’re right. But their own politicization of these rights is the chief culprit. And until this changes, contempt for human rights will only keep growing.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on July 3, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org
Distorting the meaning of language is a seductive but dangerous game. It’s seductive because it provides enormous short-term benefits. It’s dangerous because, as two recent examples show, it can ultimately eviscerate fundamental values.
One example comes from this week’s Israeli election, in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party actually gained seats despite multiple corruption cases against him. A survey published in February by a Haifa University political scientist explains why: Most voters for Likud and allied parties don’t believe the allegations because they don’t trust the legal system. Fully 65 percent of Likud voters and 75 percent of haredi voters think law-enforcement agencies are simply trying to oust Netanyahu.
On one level, this is shocking. But on another, it’s not shocking at all because the Israeli left has spent decades successfully subverting the concept of “the rule of law” for its own political benefit.
For instance, Israel’s Supreme Court repeatedly overturns government policies not because they violate any law, but because the justices deem them “unreasonable.” Whether or not a policy is reasonable is a question other democracies leave to the voters. But the left has successfully branded all efforts to curb such judicial policy interventions as “contrary to the rule of law,” and thereby managed to stymie proposed reforms: Most legislators don’t want to “sabotage the rule of law.”
Moreover, in almost every Western democracy, the executive and legislative branches choose Supreme Court justices; only in Israel do sitting justices have veto power over the choice of their successors. Yet the left has branded every attempt to align Israel’s judicial appointments system with this Western norm as “contrary to the rule of law,” and thereby successfully staved off change.
Israel is also unique among democracies in treating the attorney general’s views as binding on the government. Thanks to a 1993 Supreme Court ruling, whenever the attorney general opposes a policy, he’s entitled to represent his own position in court rather than the government’s, thereby leaving the government’s position unrepresented and ensuring that it loses cases by default. Letting an unelected attorney general dictate to an elected government is patently undemocratic and preventing any group, even the government, from defending itself in court violates a fundamental democratic right. Yet leftists have successfully branded this, too, as “the rule of law”; consequently, attempted reforms have repeatedly failed.
Finally, there’s the unequal application of laws, as epitomized by a pre-election ruling that disqualified a Jewish Knesset candidate but nixed the disqualification of an Arab party, Balad. The law lists three grounds for disqualification: inciting to racism, rejecting Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic state, and supporting armed struggle against Israel. Balad, as the court itself has acknowledged, openly rejects Israel’s Jewish character. Several of its MKs have also faced criminal proceedings for abetting anti-Israel terror. Yet the Supreme Court chose to ignore all this, thereby effectively declaring the law a dead letter except when used against Jews.
So here’s how your average rightist voter understands the rule of law today: It means that unelected legal officials—justices and attorneys general—can veto any government decision, thereby making a mockery of democratic elections. It means that laws meant to apply to Jews and Arabs alike are only enforceable against Jews. It means letting justices select their own successors, keeping the court ideologically monochromatic. In short, it’s just a trick for ensuring that the left can continue imposing its views no matter how many elections it loses.
That trick has successfully thwarted all legislative efforts at reform. But the price is that many rightists now distrust and despise “the rule of law” to such an extent that they dismiss pending indictments against a prime minister as just another attempt by the legal establishment to subvert democracy.
This is a tragedy because the rule of law, in its original meaning, is an essential foundation for democracy. Inter alia, it means that the bounds of legitimate action are defined not by the ruler’s whims but by laws whose content is public knowledge; that those laws apply equally to all; and that disputes are settled in court according to those laws rather than by force. In short, it’s a shared framework that protects the individual and enables diverse groups to live together.
The second example is last week’s National Council of Young Israel gala. When a speaker mentioned “the leftist progressive tikkun olam ideology,” the American Modern Orthodox audience booed.
On one level, this is shocking since tikkun olam just means “repairing the world,” and Jews have always believed that Judaism is supposed to make the world better in some fashion. Indeed, the Bible itself says so repeatedly, from God’s promise to Abraham that “through thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” to Isaiah’s dictum that Israel should be “a light unto the nations.”
Haredi Jews may believe that doing so requires scrupulously obeying Jewish law, while Reform Jews may believe it requires adopting progressive policies. But Jews across the spectrum should be able to say, “Fine, we agree on the goal of improving the world; now let’s argue about the means.”
Yet those boos weren’t actually shocking because Jewish leftists have spent decades trying to conflate tikkun olam with a particular set of progressive policies, such that anyone opposing those policies ipso facto opposes tikkun olam. And as evidenced by that speaker’s choice of words, they’ve succeeded: Even their Jewish opponents now view tikkun olam as a “leftist progressive ideology.”
But by appropriating tikkun olam as their own exclusive property, leftists have discredited the entire concept; many Jews now see it as a stand-in for ideas that they (and many other reasonable people of goodwill) consider destructive. That’s a massive own goal. But it’s also a tragedy for the Jewish people, which has lost a shared moral language that could have been a unifying factor.
The left’s subversion of language has thus wreaked long-lasting harm on both Israel and the Jewish people. And all of us will be paying the price for many years to come.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on April 10, 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
Like most pro-Israel commentators, I’m appalled by U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American forces from Syria. Nevertheless, this is the wrong issue for pro-Israel activists to pick a fight over. Criticizing the decision on grounds unrelated to Israel—of which there are many—is fine. But to imply that U.S. troops should remain in Syria for Israel’s sake is to betray the fundamental tenet of the American-Israeli alliance: Israel will defend itself by itself; it will never ask America to put soldiers in harm’s way for its sake.
It’s worth underscoring just how unique this makes Israel among American allies. America has fought to defend Europe repeatedly. It fought for South Korea in the 1950s, South Vietnam in the 1960s, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in 1991. And there’s an understanding, often anchored in bilateral or multilateral treaties (such as NATO), that America would fight for many other allies if necessary, like Japan, Canada or Australia.
But with Israel, the agreement has always been that Israel would see to its own defense, while America would provide it with the means to do so. That arrangement suited both sides. For America, it was much less costly in terms of both lives and money than having to defend Israeli militarily (a point I explained in detail here). And for Israel, it satisfied a deeply ingrained lesson of Jewish history: Relying on others for protection always ends badly for the Jews.
In that sense, Trump was right, but only partly so, when he rejected claims that the withdrawal would hurt Israel by saying, “We give Israel $4.5 billion a year. And they’re doing very well defending themselves.” Enabling Israel to defend itself is indeed why America gives it such generous aid ($3.8 billion annually, plus $700 million for missile defense in 2018). If Israel relied on American troops to defend it, that aid would have no justification.
But money alone isn’t enough to enable Israel to defend itself. In fact, it’s far less important than two other critical needs.
The first is a reliable arms supplier—one not only willing to sell Israel top-quality weaponry in peacetime, but also to keep the supplies coming during wartime, when they’re most needed. America is irreplaceable in this regard, as Israel has learned through bitter experience. France, for instance, famously halted arms shipments to Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War. Britain has done so repeatedly, most recently by threatening an arms embargo in 2014 if hostilities in Gaza resumed. This, even more than the fact that most American aid must be spent in America, is why Israel buys little military equipment from either country.
The second is support in the diplomatic arena, where Israel is highly vulnerable. Every time Israel fights, it comes under tremendous international pressure to stop immediately before it can defeat or even damage the enemy. Moreover, it’s routinely threatened with international sanctions over issues ranging from spurious war-crimes’ allegations to the settlements. America’s diplomatic umbrella, especially but not exclusively at the United Nations, is thus critical both to buying Israel the time it needs to fight and to protecting it from sanctions.
This brings us to the second reason why a pro-Israel fight with Trump over Syria seems counterproductive. Though Israel benefited significantly from the American troop presence in Syria, its most pressing needs are diplomatic support in general and support for its ability to defend itself in particular. And on both, Trump remains a vast improvement over his predecessor.
Granted, Israel hasn’t fought any wars since he took office, so there’s no guarantee of how he would act. But there’s no reason to think that he wouldn’t provide the needed support, given his administration’s staunch defense of Israel at the United Nations to date.
In contrast, Israel did fight a war while Barack Obama was president, so it knows what it’s like to be without American support. During the 2014 Gaza war, Obama’s administration famously refused to resupply Israel with Hellfire missiles. It sought to pressure Israel into a cease-fire agreement that met all of Hamas’s demands and none of Israel’s. It issued an endless stream of condemnations of Israel during the fighting, rather than supporting Israel’s right to self-defense against the thousands of rockets Hamas fired at Israeli cities.
Then, in 2016, Obama also stripped Israel of America’s diplomatic protection. The U.N. Security Council resolution against the settlements, which he allowed to pass, laid the groundwork for international sanctions against Israel and even prosecution at the International Criminal Court.
And that’s without even mentioning the minor detail that it was Obama who abandoned Syria to Iran and Russia to begin with. Tehran financed its massive Syrian intervention with the billions of dollars it reaped from Obama’s flagship act of diplomacy, the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. And Moscow entered the Syrian war only after waiting more than three years to make sure that America wasn’t planning to get involved. By the time Trump took office, Russian-Iranian domination of Syria was a fait accompli to which America’s scant 2,000 troops could make little difference.
None of this justifies the Syria withdrawal. It’s a terrible idea, and not only, or even primarily, because Israel benefited from having American troops blocking Iran’s long-desired land route through Syria to Lebanon. It further empowers Russia, Turkey and Iran—none of which wish America (or Israel) well. It also may enable a resurgence of the Islamic State, just as America’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 did. Abandoning the Kurds to Turkey’s tender mercies after they have been America’s best foot soldiers against the Islamic State for years is not only a moral crime, but a strategic one, as it will undermine America’s ability to recruit local allies in the future. And America will save little in terms of either lives or money by ending this low-cost, low-casualty mission.
But from a pro-Israel perspective, none of this changes two basic facts. First, there are things Israel needs from Trump more than troops in Syria. And second, asking America to keep soldiers anywhere for Israel’s sake violates a sine qua non of both the Israeli ethos and the bilateral alliance—that Israel defends itself by itself.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on January 3, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org
For the second time in two months, a major study has shown that anti-Semitism in Europe is surging, and the far-right isn’t primarily to blame. Yet American Jewish leaders remain fixated on the idea that right-wing anti-Semitism is the principal threat to Jewish life.
Last month’s study by the Joint Distribution Committee surveyed 893 Jewish leaders and professionals from throughout Europe. Inter alia, it found that Jews felt safer in right-wing Eastern Europe than the liberal West by a 20-point margin.
The new study, by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, surveyed almost 16,500 Jews in the 12 E.U. states where most European Jews live. Overall, 89 percent of respondents said anti-Semitism had worsened in their country in the last five years, 85 percent considered anti-Semitism a “very” or “fairly” big problem, and 38 percent have considered emigrating because of it. Additionally, 28 percent always or frequently avoid “wearing, carrying or displaying” anything identifiably Jewish, and 43 percent sometimes do.
But though every single country scored poorly, countries commonly viewed as liberal generally fared worse than those viewed as having “right-wing” governments. The highest proportion of respondents deeming anti-Semitism a big problem was in France (95 percent), followed by Belgium (86 percent), Germany and Poland (85 percent), Sweden (82 percent), Spain (78 percent), Hungary (77 percent), Britain (75 percent), Austria, Italy and Holland (73 percent) and Denmark (56 percent). Thus of the countries perceived by their own Jews as having the worst anti-Semitism problems, all but Poland are considered liberal bastions.
In contrast, the lower end of the scale consisted almost exclusively of countries widely deemed to have populist or even borderline fascist governments: Italy’s coalition of the right-wing League and the populist Five Star Movement, Austria’s coalition of traditional conservatives and the far-right Freedom Party, Britain’s pro-Brexit conservatives, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and in Denmark—home to some of Europe’s most draconian anti-immigration laws—a minority government dependent on support from the far-right Danish People’s Party.
Moreover, of the seven countries covered by a previous E.U. study in 2012, the proportion of respondents deeming anti-Semitism a major problem declined in only one: Hungary, which registered a drop of 12 percentage points, whether despite or because of being under Orbán’s rule that entire time. France, Germany, Belgium, Sweden, Italy and Britain all registered substantial increases. Britain’s was the biggest, propelled mainly by Jeremy Corbyn’s far-left Labour Party. Close behind were the liberal bastions of Germany and Sweden, up 23 and 22 percentage points, respectively.
In fairness, more specific questions produced murkier results. Some faithfully mirrored the overall pattern: The three worst countries for “expressions of hostility … in the street or other public places” were liberal France, Belgium and Germany (with 91, 81 and 80 percent deeming this a problem); the best were conservative Poland, Hungary and Austria (37, 46 and 46 percent). In contrast, the worst countries for “anti-Semitism in political life” were Britain, Poland and Hungary (84, 77 and 74 percent).
Nevertheless, two questions in particular help explain why liberal countries fared worse overall.
One relates to who actually perpetrates anti-Semitic harassment. Though respondents frequently couldn’t identify perpetrators’ political views, when they could, it was most often a “Muslim extremist view” (30 percent). Next came “left-wing political view” (21 percent), and trailing in the rear was “right-wing political view” (13 percent).
In short, despite the widespread perception that anti-Semitism comes mainly from the far right, in Europe, Muslim and left-wing anti-Semitism are bigger problems. And both are more prevalent in liberal Western countries, simply because the liberal West has much larger (and more influential) populations of both Muslims and hardcore leftists than the conservative, anti-immigrant East.
The second illuminating question showed that “feelings of being blamed” for Israel’s actions were far more common in liberal countries than conservative ones. In Hungary and Poland, only 8 and 19 percent of respondents, respectively, said this happens frequently. In Germany, Spain, Belgium and France, 50 percent or more deemed this a frequent occurrence.
Non-Israeli Jews obviously shouldn’t be blamed for anything Israel does. But it’s hardly surprising that this happens more often in countries where antipathy to Israel is greater to begin with. And since both Muslims and liberals are generally more anti-Israel than conservatives nowadays, countries with large Muslim and left-wing populations are more prone to this problem.
None of this means right-wing anti-Semitism should be ignored. But given two major surveys showing that Muslim and left-wing anti-Semitism are bigger problems in Europe than the far right variety, and that liberal countries consequently have worse anti-Semitism problems than conservative ones, American Jewish leaders’ continued fixation on the far-right is shocking.
Take, for instance, the reaction to the latest survey by World Jewish Congress President Ron Lauder—someone deeply involved in supporting European Jewish communities, and therefore ostensibly familiar with European realities. “How can one be surprised by these results,” Lauder said, “when in Chemnitz, Germany, anti-Semites practicing the Nazi salute were allowed to march while the police stood idly by; when in France, Marine Le Pen, whose father was a virulent anti-Semite was almost elected president; when in Austria and Hungary, the FPO and Jobbik, both of which were originally founded by neo-Nazis, are now the second-largest parties and members of the governing coalition; and when in the U.K., Jeremy Corbyn is the leader of the Labour Party.”
In other words, aside from in Britain—where the anti-Semitism spewing from Corbyn’s Labour has become impossible to ignore—Lauder was concerned solely about the far-right. He completely ignored the two more serious sources of European anti-Semitism.
Since most American Jews lean left, it’s understandable that they would rather focus on right-wing anti-Semitism, which comes from the enemy’s camp, than left-wing and Muslim anti-Semitism, which come from their political allies. It’s also understandable that they’d rather worry about right-wing Hungary and Austria than liberal Germany and Sweden.
But if they actually want to combat anti-Semitism, removing these ideological blinders is essential. Anti-Semitism is hard enough to fight under the best of circumstances. It’s impossible when you ignore the facts.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on December 19 2018. © 2018 JNS.org
The narrative adopted by many American Jews these days is that rightist governments enable anti-Semitism, while liberal governments allow Jewish communities to flourish. A corollary of this thesis is that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s open friendship with rightist governments in Eastern Europe has enabled anti-Semitism. Thanks to a poll of European Jews published last week, we now have some facts by which to judge this thesis. And the facts appear to belie it.
The Joint Distribution Committee’s International Center for Community Development surveyed 893 Jewish leaders and professionals from throughout Europe and found that in general, Jews felt safe everywhere. Nevertheless, there was a stark difference between Eastern and Western Europe.
In the east, a whopping 96 percent of respondents felt safe, while only four percent felt unsafe. In the West, 76 percent felt safe, and 24 percent felt unsafe. Thus respondents from places like Poland, Hungary, and Romania—countries routinely accused of having anti-Semitic, borderline fascist governments—felt safer than Jews in liberal countries like France and Germany by a 20-point margin.
Moreover, “Western European respondents were more likely to consider antisemitism as a threat than were Eastern Europeans, and to report deterioration in the situation from earlier surveys,” the JDC’s report said. Nor is this mere subjective perception: Other studies have found that Jews are much more likely to experience physical violence in Western Europe than in Eastern Europe. In 2017, for instance, Hungary’s 100,000 Jews didn’t report a single physical attack, while Britain’s 250,000 Jews reported 145.
Jews in both regions expected anti-Semitism to worsen over the next five to 10 years, with the result that combatting anti-Semitism “ranked among the top three communal priorities” for the first time since the survey began in 2008. Nevertheless, the East fared better than the West on this score, too. “A significant regional difference emerged on expectations of increasing antisemitism with those in Western Europe considerably more pessimistic (75 percent) than those in the East (56 percent),” the report read.
There are two reasons for all these seemingly counterintuitive results, which, as the report noted, are a “reversal of the situation … over the past two centuries.” The first is the politically incorrect fact that violence against Jews in Europe comes mainly from Muslim anti-Semites rather than either the right-wing or the left-wing variety (see, for instance, the shootings at a Jewish museum in Brussels, a Jewish school in Toulouse, and a kosher supermarket in Paris). And in Western Europe, liberal governments spent decades implementing liberal immigration policies that have produced large Muslim populations. Eastern Europe has very few Muslims, initially because decades of Communist rule made these countries economically uninviting and more recently because rightist governments have imposed restrictive immigration policies.
The second reason is more speculative, since correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causality. Nevertheless, as the report noted, the findings are suggestive: “Hostility towards Israel in the general society is perceived to be fiercer in Western Europe; 88 percent of leaders from Western Europe considered that the media in my country regularly portrays Israel in a bad light, as opposed to only 36 percent from Eastern Europe [italics in original]. This might be a contributing factor to the higher antisemitism in the West.” Here, too, objective data seems to support this hypothesis: Whenever Israel launches a major counterterrorism operation, anti-Israel sentiment spikes, and so do anti-Semitic attacks.
Everyone except anti-Semites understands that Israeli actions don’t justify attacks on Jewish citizens of other countries, but rampant anti-Israel sentiment often makes anti-Semites believe that society will tolerate such attacks as long as they can be portrayed as “anti-Israel.” And this belief is hardly unfounded. To take just one example, consider the notorious case of a German synagogue firebombed in 2014. Both the trial court and the appeals court ruled that this wasn’t an anti-Semitic crime, but merely an overly zealous form of political opposition to Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza. Consequently, the perpetrators received mere suspended sentences.
In short, hostility toward Israel in the surrounding society encourages anti-Semitic acts among people who already hold anti-Semitic beliefs. And since hostility toward Israel emanates primarily from the left these days, it’s no surprise that such hostility is higher in liberal Western Europe than conservative Eastern Europe. Thus, both of the main contributors to anti-Semitism in Europe today—Islamic anti-Semitism and left-wing hostility toward Israel—are more prevalent in the liberal West than in the allegedly “fascist, anti-Semitic” countries of Eastern Europe.
None of the above implies that right-wing anti-Semitism isn’t a real problem; it obviously is. Nor does it imply that Eastern Europe’s right-wing governments have a clean bill of health on anti-Semitism; they have been responsible for some undeniably problematic acts and statements. It certainly doesn’t guarantee that nationalist parties won’t turn against the Jews tomorrow, as a prominent European rabbi warned last week. The British Labour Party’s swift transformation into an anti-Semitic cesspool shows just how quickly Jew-friendly attitudes can disappear. And it doesn’t mean America’s situation is necessarily analogous; the U.S. is too different from Europe for easy parallels to be drawn.
Yet to pretend, as many American Jews do, that right-wing anti-Semitism is the only kind we need to worry about flies in the face of reality, at least as it has played out in Europe. The European reality similarly belies the claim that rightist governments are, by definition, bad for the Jews. And given that reality, Netanyahu’s close relations with conservative European governments could actually help combat anti-Semitism in those countries by bolstering their positive attitudes toward Israel.
The world is a great deal more complex than the simple “left-wing good, right-wing bad” equation so prevalent among American Jews today. And recognizing that complexity might help liberal Jews be more understanding of their conservative brethren, both at home and in Israel.
Originally published in Commentary on November 26, 2018
Note: This article was published on October 24 but was posted on my site only 10 days later
The Jewish Federations of North America are holding their annual General Assembly this week under the title “We Need to Talk,” with “we” meaning Israel and the Diaspora. In that spirit, let’s talk about one crucial difference between the two communities: the role of the non-Orthodox Jewish movements. In America, these movements are important to maintaining Jewish identity, something Israelis often fail to understand. But in Israel, they are unnecessary to maintaining Jewish identity—something American Jews frequently fail to understand.
A 2013 Pew Research poll found that by every possible measure of Jewish identity, American Jews who define themselves as being “of no religion” score significantly worse than those who define themselves as Reform or Conservative Jews. For instance, 67 percent of “Jews of no religion” raise their children “not Jewish,” compared to just 10 percent of Reform Jews and 7 percent of Conservative Jews. Only 13 percent give their children any formal or informal Jewish education (day school, Hebrew school, summer camp, etc.), compared to 77 percent of Conservative Jews and 48 percent of Reform Jews. The intermarriage rate for “Jews of no religion” is 79 percent, compared to 50 and 27 percent, respectively, among Reform and Conservative Jews.
Indeed, 54 percent of “Jews of no religion” say being Jewish is of little or no importance to them, compared to just 14 percent of Reform Jews and 7 percent of Conservative Jews, while 55 percent feel little or no attachment to Israel, compared to 29 percent of Reform Jews and 12 percent of Conservative Jews. And only 10 percent care about being part of a Jewish community, compared to 25 and 40 percent, respectively, of Reform and Conservative Jews.
Granted, the non-Orthodox movements haven’t done very well at transmitting Jewish identity to subsequent generations; Orthodoxy is the only one of the three major denominations where the percentage of 18- to 29-year-olds isn’t significantly lower than the percentage of people over 50. Nevertheless, these movements do vastly better than “Jews no religion,” which, for most non-Orthodox Jews, is the most likely alternative. Not surprisingly, any Jewish identity is better than none.
Yet the picture is very different among secular Israeli Jews, the closest Israeli equivalent to “Jews of no religion.” The vast majority marry other Jews, if only because most of the people they know are Jewish. Almost all raise their children Jewish because that’s the norm in their society (fertility rates are also significantly higher). More than 80 percent consider their Jewish identity important. Most obviously care about Israel, since they live there. And because they live there, they belong to the world’s largest Jewish community, whether they want to or not.
Secular Israeli Jews also engage in more Jewish practice than American “Jews of no religion.” For instance, 87 percent attend a Passover seder—more than double the rate among “Jews of no religion” (42 percent), and even surpassing Reform and Conservative Jews (76 and 80 percent, respectively). A third of secular Israeli Jews keep kosher at home, putting them on a par with Conservative Jews (31 percent) and vastly ahead of both Reform Jews (7 percent) and Jews of no religion (11 percent). And 47 percent fast on Yom Kippur—more than double the rate among American “Jews of no religion” (22 percent), though below both Reform and Conservative Jews (56 and 76 percent, respectively).
In short, by almost any measure of Jewish identity, secular Israeli Jews aren’t equivalent to “Jews of no religion”; they’re roughly on a par with Reform and Conservative Jews. And on some issues, like intermarriage, they even significantly outperform those movements. It turns out that just living in a Jewish state is sufficient to maintain a Jewish identity equal to or greater than those of non-Orthodox American Jews.
Nor is this surprising because in Israel, maintaining a Jewish identity is much easier. In Israel, you’re surrounded by other Jews; in America, you’re surrounded by non-Jews. In Israel, Shabbat and Jewish holidays are automatically days off from work and school, and celebrating the holidays doesn’t mean standing out from your friends and neighbors; in America, observing a holiday entails taking vacation from work, pulling your children out of school and being different from almost everyone around you. In Israel, all (non-Arab) public schools teach Bible and other basics of Judaism like holiday traditions; in America, children who don’t attend a Jewish day school or after-school Jewish-studies program may never open a Bible or learn anything about such traditions. In Israel, most supermarkets don’t even stock non-kosher food; in America, keeping kosher requires effort.
But because Israelis don’t need the non-Orthodox movements to maintain a Jewish identity, they often fail to understand why these movements are genuinely important for American Jews. And because American Jews do need those movements, they often fail to understand why many Israelis dismiss them as unimportant.
This mutual misunderstanding goes a long way toward explaining controversies like the one over the Western Wall deal, which would have given the non-Orthodox movements equal space and visibility at the site. The non-Orthodox movements believed that this deal would bolster their members’ Jewish identity by making them feel more welcome in Israel in general and at the wall in particular; thus they were understandably outraged when the government scrapped it. But the deal was irrelevant to secular Israelis’ Jewish identity, so they weren’t upset by the government’s decision to cancel it in exchange for ultra-Orthodox support on issues more important to most Israeli voters.
If Israelis understood the gaping void the non-Orthodox movements fill in America, they might have realized that the Western Wall deal was genuinely important. And if American Jews understood that no such void exists in Israel, they might have realized that Israelis’ indifference to the deal wasn’t a slap at American Jewry, but merely a reflection of the issue’s irrelevance to Israelis’ Jewish identity, which inevitably made it low priority for them.
This understanding probably wouldn’t resolve many Israel-Diaspora disputes, but it might at least make them less bitter. And that, in itself, would be a step forward.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on October 24, 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
Review of ‘To Heal the World?’ by Jonathan Neumann
It’s no secret that many liberal Jews today view tikkun olam, the Hebrew phrase for “repairing the world,” as the essence of Judaism. In To Heal the World?, Jonathan Neumann begs to differ, emphatically. He views liberal Judaism’s love affair with tikkun olam as the story of “How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel.” In fact, he believes tikkun olam endangers Judaism itself. Anyone who considers such notions wildly over the top should make sure to read Neumann’s book—because one needn’t agree with everything he says to realize that his major concerns are disturbingly well-founded.
Neumann begins by explaining what he considers the modern liberal Jewish understanding of tikkun olam. It is taken, he says, not just as a general obligation to make the world a better place, but as a specific obligation to promote specific “universal” values and even specific policies—usually, the values and policies of progressive Democrats.
He then raises three major objections to this view. The first is that the only way to interpret Judaism as a universalist religion with values indistinguishable from those of secular progressives is by ignoring the vast majority of key Jewish texts, including the Bible and the Talmud, and millennia of Jewish tradition. After all, most of these texts deal with the history, laws, and culture of one specific nation—the Jews. The Bible’s history isn’t world history, nor are its laws (with a few exceptions) meant to govern any nation but the Jews. Judaism undeniably has universalist elements. But to ignore its particularist aspects is to ignore much of what makes it Judaism, which therefore corrupts our understanding of Judaism.
The second problem is that if Judaism has no purpose other than promoting the same values and policies touted by non-Jewish progressives, there’s no reason for Judaism to exist at all. Consequently, the tikkun olam version of Judaism really does threaten Judaism’s continued existence, and it’s no accident that the liberal Jewish movements that have embraced it are rapidly dwindling due to intermarriage and assimilation. After all, why should young American Jews remain Jewish when they can do everything they think Judaism requires of them even without being Jewish?
This also explains why, in Neumann’s view, tikkun olam Judaism endangers Israel. If there’s no reason for Judaism to exist, there’s certainly no reason for a Jewish state. Indeed, Israel is anathema to the tikkun olam worldview because it’s the embodiment of Jewish particularism—the view that Jews are a distinct nation and have their own history, culture, and laws rather than being merely promulgators of universal values. Thus it’s easy to understand why tikkun olam Jews increasingly abhor the Jewish state.
The third problem, according to Neumann, is that tikkun olam Judaism offers a warped interpretation even of the Jewish sources its advocates quote to support it. He analyzes several of these sources in depth, and some of his analyses are illuminating. The best chapter is his deconstruction of the view that the prophets rejected Judaism’s particularist ritual aspects in favor of its universalist ethical aspects. His argument is too complex for me to do it justice here, so I’ll cite a simpler example—the Joseph story.
Liberal Jews often treat the account of Joseph’s work for Pharoah as a model of successful government action. Yet in reality, as Neumann points out, it is also a warning about the dangers of excessive governmental power. True, Joseph uses this power to avert famine in Egypt. But in exchange, he first takes the Egyptians’ money, then their livestock, then their land, and finally their freedom: “Then Joseph said unto the people: ‘Behold, I have bought you this day and your land for Pharaoh’” (Genesis 47:23).
Moreover, Neumann is undeniably right that nothing in Jewish tradition dictates the specific policy prescriptions beloved of liberal Jews. For instance, Judaism certainly cares about helping the poor, but it offers no guidance on whether higher minimum wages are an effective way to do so. Thus when liberal Jews insist that any good Jew must back this prescription, that is indeed a corruption of Judaism.
Nevertheless, Neumann’s analyses suffer from one major flaw: In his distaste for tikkun olam Jews, he sometimes mirrors their error by downplaying parts of the Bible that could be construed as supporting their message. For instance, he’s right that if the universalist principle of equality embodied by Genesis 1:27, “God created man in his own image,” were really the essence of Judaism, as the rabbi Arthur Green argues, it’s hard to see the point of the rest of the Bible, with its story of one particular nation. Yet neither can one ignore the fact that God, or the Bible’s editor (take your pick), decided to begin his largely particularist narrative with this universalist idea, indicating that Judaism also has messages that go beyond this one particular nation.
Similarly, significant portions of both biblical law and the prophetic texts are concerned with proper interpersonal behavior. As Neumann correctly says, most of these dictums are specifically about how Jews in a Jewish commonwealth should treat their fellow Jews. But once you acknowledge, for instance, that Jews in a Jewish state have responsibilities toward the Jewish poor, it’s hardly far-fetched to extrapolate from this that Jews in America have responsibilities toward America’s poor.
In other words, tikkun olam Jews haven’t fabricated their social-justice theology “almost out of whole cloth,” as Neumann writes; many of their concerns do exist in Judaism. They just aren’t the whole of Judaism, by a long measure, nor do they actually mandate most of the specific values and policies liberal Jews have saddled them with.
Because Judaism does have universal as well as particularist aspects, any convincing account of it must address both. And Neumann actually has a good answer for how to do so. Unfortunately, he buries it in a few throwaway paragraphs at the end of his third chapter. As he correctly notes, God tried a world based solely on universalism twice, first with Adam and then with Noah. But after those two failures, God evidently concluded that human nature itself doesn’t work that way, and He therefore tried a third time by working through one particular nation—an effort to which the rest of the Bible is devoted. In other words, Judaism argues that universal problems can best be addressed through a very particularistic method: a particular nation in a particular state practicing its own particular laws.
And this is one final reason that the tikkun olam movement’s abandonment of particularism is antithetical to Judaism: It’s a return to a method that God Himself tried twice and couldn’t make work.
Neumann deserves credit for mounting an unapologetic challenge to a worldview that has gone unquestioned for far too long. I can only hope it inspires others to tackle this subject in a way more likely to persuade the people who most need to hear it.
Originally published in Commentary on August 15, 2018
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