A regular reader of Odeh Bisharat’s op-eds in Haaretz might reasonably conclude that the Israeli Arab author doesn’t like his country very much. So I was stunned by the advice he offered his fellow Israeli Arabs in his latest column. Aside from being something you rarely hear Israeli Arab intellectuals say, it’s good advice–not just for his own community, but also for both Israeli and Diaspora Jews:
The time has come for the Arab leaders of public opinion to say outright: In spite of everything, we have it good here. It’s true that there’s a mountain of problems, but we want to be citizens of the state. Here we can fight to improve our living conditions, to protest, mobilize Jewish public opinion and conduct a battle against the extreme right. After all, the program that unites most of the [Israeli] Arab movements is based on the principle that Arabs are citizens of the state in which they will realize their national and civil rights. And in that case, it’s important to convey that the Arabs care about the state, because they care about themselves and their future.
The irony is that even though you never hear their leaders say so, most Israeli Arabs already agree with Bisharat. Polls have shown this repeatedly (here and here, for instance). The latest evidence came from last month’s Peace Index poll, a monthly survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University. It found that Israeli Arabs are actually more optimistic than Israeli Jews about the country’s situation–in sharp contrast to what one would expect to find if, as both Israeli and foreign media outlets like to claim, Israel was suffering from a rising tide of anti-Arab racism.
Fully 40.3 percent of Israeli Arabs deemed Israel’s current situation “very good” while another 22.7 percent deemed it “moderately good,” meaning that 63 percent offered a positive assessment. By comparison, only 9.7 percent of Israeli Jews rated the current situation “very good” and 34.0 percent “moderately good,” for a total positive assessment of 43.7 percent. Israeli Arabs were similarly bullish about the future, with 32.9 percent predicting that Israel’s situation would be “much better” in the new Jewish year that began in October and another 21.5 percent expecting it to be “a little better,” for an overall positive assessment of 54.5 percent. The corresponding figures for Israeli Jews were 7.5 and 15.0 percent, for a total positive of just 22.5 percent.
Arab optimism extended across every field the pollsters checked: military-security (where 39.9 percent of Arabs forecast improvement), political-diplomatic (42.3 percent), socioeconomic (42.6 percent) and “disputes between different parts of the public” (31.6 percent). In every category, the proportion of Arabs who expected improvement far surpassed both the proportion of Jews expecting improvement and the proportion of Arabs expecting deterioration. Indeed, the proportion of Arabs who foresaw deterioration ranged from just 2.8 percent on socioeconomic issues to 13.2 percent on “disputes between different parts of the public.” Those last two figures are particularly noteworthy. If Israeli Arabs really felt threatened by rising racism, they would hardly predict improvement in “disputes between different parts of the public” by a ratio of almost 3:1 and improvement in the socioeconomic realm by more than 15:1.
Nevertheless, there’s one very real barrier to further improvement: Israeli Jews largely believe that most Israeli Arabs care more about the Palestinian cause than about their own country’s wellbeing, for the very good reason that this is what they hear, over and over, from Israeli Arab leaders. This obviously encourages anti-Arab sentiment and impedes integration. And as Bisharat correctly noted, it will be very hard to change this perception as long as Arab-Israeli opinion leaders refuse to say publicly that it’s false – that despite the “mountain of problems” Israeli Arabs face, and especially their deep disagreements with Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, they nevertheless feel they “have it good here” and really do “care about the state.”
Bisharat’s advice, however, is no less applicable to the Jewish world–there, too, the refusal to “say outright” that things are good in Israel despite the problems is causing serious long-term damage.
As evidence, consider Sara Hirschhorn’s op-ed in Haaretz last week, with the self-explanatory title “Liberal Zionists, We Lost the Kids.” In it, the Oxford University lecturer lamented that young British Jews are turned off by Israel–not, as so frequently claimed, by “the occupation or the settlements,” but by “the very premise of a self-defining State of the Jews, back to 1948.” And to her credit, she acknowledged that liberal Zionist adults are largely responsible for this development: If liberals are to convince their children that a Jewish state is worth having, she wrote, “Above all, we can’t only catalogue the (many) shortcomings—we must constantly and convincingly express what still makes us proud—in spite of it all—in the State of Israel today.”
But of course, they rarely do. All you hear from most liberal Zionists nowadays, both in Israel and abroad, is a vile caricature of Israel: occupation, settlements, racism, discrimination, every evil in the modern pantheon. And when that’s all the kids have ever heard, why wouldn’t they end up thinking a Jewish state is a bad idea?
Problems obviously shouldn’t be swept under the rug; Israel is a good place to live precisely because it tries so hard to keep improving. But you can have too much of a good thing, and with regard to obsessing over Israel’s flaws, that point was passed long ago for both Israeli Arabs and Diaspora Jews.
Thus in both communities, as Bisharat and Hirschhorn correctly pointed out, the road to beneficial change begins with ceasing to focus only on the negative and remembering the highlight the positive as well. Saying outright that even Arabs “have it good” in Israel, unlike in so many Arab countries, might be an excellent place to start not just for Israeli Arabs, but also for Diaspora Jews.
Originally published in Commentary on November 11, 2016
Once in a great while, Peter Beinart writes an article I actually agree with. It happens whenever he takes a break from Israel-bashing to write about Judaism, which he usually does around the High Holidays. His thesis this year was that the High Holidays are a bad way to introduce children to Judaism, because the lengthy synagogue services bore them. A much better idea, he argued, is to let them experience fun holidays like Sukkot or Purim, which involve activities most children love: eating and sleeping outside (Sukkot) or wearing costumes and exchanging goodies (Purim). But while he’s completely correct, his idea is probably unfeasible. And the reasons why it’s unfeasible make clear what the only feasible solution is.
Beinart’s proposal is impractical because only parents who are already very Jewishly committed are likely to be willing to celebrate such holidays. Those who already aren’t generally know next to nothing about these holidays, not even when they occur. Moreover, observing any Jewish holiday in America often means taking a day off from work and school, which parents who aren’t already very Jewishly committed won’t be willing to do more than once or twice a year, on the High Holidays. Finally, unless you already live in a Jewishly active neighborhood and/or send your kids to a Jewishly active school, observing any of these holidays means doing something nobody around you is doing–an experience many people find unpleasant.
If you could somehow eliminate these obstacles, getting Jews to observe other holidays would be much easier, as the Israeli experience shows. Though only around 20 percent of Israeli Jews self-identify as Orthodox, a whopping 85 percent attribute importance to celebrating Jewish holidays “in the traditional manner,” i.e. by doing some traditional activity associated with the holiday. As one example, around 82 percent of self-defined secular Israeli Jews attend a Passover seder, compared to just 47 percent of U.S. Jews of no denomination (the closest American equivalent).
But that’s precisely because in Israel, celebrating holidays like Purim and Sukkot is easy. First, all Jewish holidays are automatically days off from work and school. Second, kindergartens and primary schools (and sometimes higher grades) all teach about and have activities relating to the holidays before they occur–for instance, kids always come to school in costume before Purim. So the whole community is celebrating together, rather than observance making your child the odd man out. Finally, the combination of those first two factors means there’s never any doubt about when the holidays occur or how to celebrate them; all parents keep track of when their child has school vacation, and the child himself comes home with instructions: Send me to school in a costume tomorrow; hang up the sukkah decorations I made. In other words, all the obstacles that exist in America don’t exist in Israel.
There is, of course, a way to replicate all these conditions, aside from the days off work– sending children to a Jewish day school. And that solution works in Europe, where many nonobservant Jews do send their kids to Jewish schools, because they like the combination of Jewish content with excellent secular studies. But in America, that, too, is unfeasible: Most American parents can’t afford the sky-high day school tuition, and therefore, there isn’t enough demand even to justify starting such a school in many non-Orthodox communities.
In short, a proposal like Beinart’s is unfeasible unless you first build a Jewish community that makes it easy. And the only way to build such a community is to make Jewish day schools affordable.
In much of Europe, day schools are affordable because parochial schools get government funding. But in America, the only way to make this happen would be for American Jewish leaders–those who understand just how serious the crisis facing American Jewry is–to finally reverse their opposition to school vouchers and start actively lobbying for them.
It’s hard to overstate the impact that making Jewish schools widely available and affordable could have. The Israeli experience offers one example. But for another, consider something that happened almost 100 years ago: An Orthodox woman went to her rabbi and told him he had to back her in starting a Jewish school for girls, because girls at that time were already getting secular educations, and a girl who was secularly educated but Jewishly ignorant wouldn’t stay Jewish for long. The rabbi agreed, and today, Sarah Schenirer’s Bais Yaakov schools are widely credited with helping to fuel the stunning revival of Haredi Jewry after the Holocaust.
Most American Jews aren’t Haredi, but Schenirer’s insight is no less relevant to them: A child who is secularly educated but Jewishly ignorant won’t stay Jewish long. That, unfortunately, describes the vast majority of American Jews today, and the result is just what Schenirer would have predicted: Intermarriage rates have soared, to 71 percent of all non-Orthodox marriages, and so has the percentage of Jews defining themselves as “Jews of no religion”–who, as a 2013 Pew Poll showed, are on a fast track to leaving Judaism altogether.
Jewish day schools are one of the only ways — along with Jewish camps and trips to Israel — to ensure that American Jews don’t grow up Jewishly ignorant. And the only way to make Jewish schools widely available and affordable is through vouchers that can be used at parochial schools. Consequently, school choice is literally a matter of life and death for American Jewry; without them, even sensible proposals like Beinart’s will be to no avail, and the American Jewish community will continue to hemorrhage. Yet rather than supporting vouchers, American Jewish organizations have consistently opposed them.
Still, a new year is a good time to turn over a new leaf. So let’s hope the new Jewish year that began this month will finally be the one in which American Jewish leaders stop trying to make Judaism hard and instead start lobbying for the one policy that would make it easier.
Originally published in Commentary on October 16, 2016
The ban on wearing burkinis at the beach, which was recently enacted by some 30 French municipalities and even won support from French Prime Minister Manual Valls, was rightly deemed an unconstitutional infringement on several fundamental liberties by France’s highest court this weekend. Yet the French controversy highlights something about Israel that is too often overlooked: the degree to which being a Jewish state, far from undermining Israel’s democracy, actually reinforces it.
The burkini ban was enacted in explicit reaction to Islamist terror attacks in France and the concerns they have raised about the integration of the country’s Muslim minority. As Christian Estrosi, the deputy mayor of Nice, told the New York Times, these full-body swimsuits, worn mainly by religious Muslims, constitute “unacceptable provocations in the very particular context that our city is familiar with,” referring to a July 14 terror attack that killed 86 people.
Yet Israel has suffered far worse Islamist terror and over a far longer period of time. Terror attacks in France have killed 234 people over the last 18 months, according to one British newspaper’s tally. That is just over half the 452 Israelis killed by terror during the single worst year of the second intifada (2002). And since France’s population is 7.6 times the size of Israel’s, that means that as a proportion of the population, Israel’s losses during that one year–without even mentioning all its losses to terrorism in other years–were almost 15 times as large as France’s have been over the past 18 months.
Moreover, as a proportion of the total population, Israel’s Muslim community is much larger than that of France. Muslims comprise an estimated 7.5 percent of France’s population, but almost 20 percent of Israel’s population–and that’s counting only Israeli citizens and legal residents, i.e. the Muslims who would still be there even if Israel quit the West Bank tomorrow.
Finally, though Israel’s Muslim population has largely shunned terror, its leadership is actually far more radical than France’s Muslim leadership seems to be. Israeli Arab Knesset members openly back anti-Israel terror organizations, actively incite to anti-Israel terror, and tirelessly libel Israel overseas. The head of one of the country’s largest nongovernmental Muslim groups–Raed Salah, leader of the Islamic Movement’s northern branch, which has tens of thousands of supporters–routinely spews anti-Semitic blood libels such as accusing Jews of baking matzo with Christian blood. And all that is without even mentioning the Palestinian leadership in the territories, where both the main political parties, Fatah and Hamas, routinely deem killing Israelis to be their main accomplishment.
In other words, if any country were going to lash out in response to Islamist terror by restricting Muslims’ freedom to observe their religion in public, one would expect it to be Israel, not France. But in Israel, no one has ever even suggested banning burkinis. Nor has anyone ever suggested forbidding civil students or schoolgirls to wear headscarves, as stipulated by other French laws that the courts have upheld. Nor has anyone ever suggested barring mosques from building minarets–a law approved by popular referendum in Switzerland, even though that country has so far had no Islamic terror problem at all.
Clearly, Israel’s religious tolerance can’t be attributed solely to its democratic norms. After all, France and Switzerland have impeccable democratic credentials, but that hasn’t stopped either from passing anti-Muslim laws. Nor is it because Israeli Arabs are a powerful enough minority to prevent such legislation: Arab Knesset members’ anti-Israel positions make them unacceptable as coalition partners in any government, and they would actually have no power to block anything the coalition majority wanted to pass. And it certainly isn’t because Israelis are saints who remain serenely forgiving of Arab terror and anti-Israel incitement; there’s plenty of anti-Arab sentiment in Israel.
Rather, the main reason why Israel never has and never would consider legislation like France’s bans on burkinis and headscarves is precisely because it is a Jewish state. In other words, it was created to take Jewish interests into account, and those interests include the freedom to observe traditional Jewish praxis. But the moment a democratic country starts making allowances for one religion’s traditions, those allowances inevitably spill over to other religions as well.
For instance, Israel could never ban headscarves in the civil service, because religious Jewish women also wear head coverings. It could never ban modest swimwear because religious Jews also insist on modest clothing. It could never ban minarets because the analogy to banning synagogues would be all too apparent. In contrast, France and Switzerland can do all those things, because they have no interest in accommodating any religion in the public square.
In short, Israel’s identity as both a Jewish and a democratic state is the main reason why Islamist terror has never prompted the kind of anti-Muslim legislation that it has in secular democratic France. So the next time someone tells you Israel’s Jewish identity is inherently at odds with its democratic identity, remember the burkini. And remember that sometimes, Israel’s Jewish identity is precisely what protects its democratic one.
Originally published in Commentary on August 29, 2016
Reading the Israeli headlines lately, one can see why many American Jews are convinced that ultra-Orthodox extremism is getting worse. On Monday, the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties got the coalition to pass legislation barring non-Orthodox converts from using state-run ritual baths for their conversions; earlier this month, the Haredi-dominated rabbinical courts refused to recognize conversions by an esteemed American Orthodox rabbi, Haskel Lookstein; and for months now, the Haredi parties have blocked implementation of Natan Sharansky’s sensible compromise on non-Orthodox worship at the Western Wall. Yet to look only at these headlines is to miss a crucial part of the story: Younger Haredim, while remaining passionately committed to Orthodox Judaism, are increasingly rejecting their rabbinic leadership’s hardline positions on numerous issues, including work, army service, academic study, and communal isolation.
Let’s start with work. Officially, the rabbinic leadership still holds that men should study Torah full-time. But the proportion of Haredi men entering the workforce is rising steadily, and last year, it exceeded 50 percent for the first time since Israel started tracking the data. It’s now 51.2 percent, and the government hopes to raise it to 63 percent by 2020.
As for Haredi women, anyone who thinks they’re confined to the kitchen is way behind the times. Last year, 73.1 percent of Haredi women worked, up from 61.5 percent just five years earlier; that’s already far above the government’s target of 63 percent by 2020. And since the Haredi community can’t provide enough jobs for all these women, they are increasingly integrated into the broader economy, including high-tech. This obviously entails more contact with non-Haredim.
New attitudes toward work are also influencing a new generation of Haredi politicians. Today’s Haaretz has a fascinating profile of Yisrael Porush, the 36-year-old mayor of the Haredi city of Elad, whose father and grandfather were prominent Knesset members and deputy ministers. The elder Porushes focused on traditional Haredi concerns. But the young mayor has a different goal: In the words of reporter Meirav Arlosoroff, it’s “for as many of the city’s residents as possible to work.” To this end, he has not only brought business ventures like a software development center into town, but has negotiated agreements with two neighboring local governments–a secular Jewish one and an Arab one–to create joint industrial parks.
On education, the change is equally dramatic. Not only did the number of Haredim in college jump by 83 percent, to 11,000, from 2011-2015, but attitudes toward secular studies in high schools are also changing.
You wouldn’t guess this by looking at the older generation of politicians: On Sunday, at the Haredi parties’ behest, the coalition agreed to repeal a law imposing financial penalties on Haredi schools that don’t teach the core curriculum.
But the next day, the Jerusalem Post quoted a new survey which found that 83 percent of Haredi parents would like their sons to attend high schools that teach secular subjects alongside religious ones, as Haredi girls’ schools already do. Another 10 percent would consider this option. Moreover, the article noted, the number of Haredi boys attending yeshiva high schools, which prepare students for the secular matriculation exams, has doubled since 2005. Though the number remains tiny (1,400 enrollees last year), the survey results indicate that this may be due less to lack of demand than to lack of supply: Today, just over a dozen such schools exist.
The survey also lends credence to Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s claim that coercive legislation isn’t necessary to solve the secular studies problem. Helping other such schools get started, instead of putting obstacles in their way, might be equally if not more effective.
On army service, too, change is apparent. In 2014, 2,280 Haredim enlisted – about one-third the number that would have enlisted if all Haredi men joined the army at 18. And in some places, the numbers are higher: In Porush’s Elad, about 40 percent of men do army service.
Moreover, the stigma against army service is rapidly crumbling. As Rachel Levmore, a member of the government panel that appoints rabbinical court judges, noted recently, until this month, Israel’s highest rabbinical court had never included a judge who served in the army. But following this month’s round of appointments, fully half its judges are now veterans, including two Sephardi Haredim and one Ashkenazi Haredi. The latter is particularly noteworthy because army service is much less common among Ashkenazi Haredim.
As Levmore wrote, these appointments send an important message: Army service no longer disqualifies Haredim for prominent rabbinical positions. Today, you can serve and still be appointed to the Supreme Rabbinical Court, with the unanimous approval of a panel that includes the Haredi chief rabbis and a Haredi Knesset member.
Admittedly, these changes in Haredi society won’t lead to changes in attitude at the top anytime soon. The leading Haredi rabbis are in their nineties, and their replacements will be men of similar age. In other words, they are products of a very different world – one where the Holocaust had wiped out most of European Jewry, where Israel’s army and school system actively sought to create “new Jews” in the mold of the ruling secular elite, where rebuilding the Torah world was the overriding imperative, and where isolation from secular knowledge and secular society was deemed essential for achieving this goal. This is the worldview they imbibed in their formative years, and they won’t abandon it in their old age.
But younger Haredim grew up in a very different world–one where Torah study is flourishing, the religious population is growing, and state institutions from the army to the universities now welcome Haredim without trying to make them stop being Haredi. Consequently, this generation feels less threatened by the secular world; it’s confident of its ability to work, attend college and even do army service without losing its Haredi identity.
Bottom-up change is usually slower than the top-down version, but it also tends to be more lasting. And therefore, the headlines of recent months are misleading: Developments in Haredi society as a whole actually provide strong grounds for optimism.
Originally published in Commentary on July 27, 2016
Following last week’s terror attack in Nice, a Belgian Jewish organization issued a highly unusual statement charging that, had European media not spent months “ignoring” Palestinian terror against Israel out of “political correctness,” the idea of a truck being used as a weapon wouldn’t have come as such a shock. But it now turns out that European officials did something much worse than merely ignoring Palestinian attacks: They issued a 39-page report, signed by almost every EU country, blaming these attacks on “the occupation” rather than the terrorists. The obvious corollary was that European countries had no reason to fear similar attacks and, therefore, they didn’t bother taking precautions that could have greatly reduced the casualties.
The most shocking part of the Nice attack was how high those casualties were: The truck driver managed to kill 84 people before he was stopped. By comparison, as the New York Times reported on Monday, Israel has suffered at least 32 car-ramming attacks since last October, yet all these attacks combined have killed exactly two people (shootings and stabbings are much deadlier). Granted, most involved private cars, but even attacks using buses or heavy construction vehicles never approached the scale of Nice’s casualties. The deadliest ramming attack in Israel’s history, in 2001, killed eight.
Firstly, this is because Israel deploys massive security for mass gatherings like Nice’s Bastille Day celebrations, forcing Palestinian assailants to make do with less densely-populated targets, like bus stops or light rail stops, which greatly lowers the death toll. As an Israeli police spokesman told the New York Times, an Israeli event comparable to the one in Nice would entail “a 360-degree enclosure of the area, with layers of security around the perimeter,” including major roads “blocked off with rows of buses, and smaller side streets with patrol cars,” plus a massive police presence reinforced by counterterrorism units “strategically placed to provide a rapid response, if needed.”
Secondly, Israeli security personnel have no qualms about using deadly force against terrorists in mid-rampage if less lethal means would take longer to succeed because they understand that the best way to save innocent lives is to stop the attack as quickly as possible. This lesson was driven home by a 2008 attack in which a Palestinian plowed a heavy construction vehicle into a crowded Jerusalem street. A policewoman tried to stop him without killing him; she wounded him and then climbed into the cab to handcuff him. But while she was trying to cuff him, he managed to restart the vehicle and kill another person before he was shot dead.
Now consider the abovementioned EU document, first reported in the EUobserver last Friday, and its implications for both those counterterrorism techniques. The document is an internal assessment of the wave of Palestinian terror that began last October, written by EU diplomats in the region and endorsed in December 2015 by all EU countries with “embassies in Jerusalem and Ramallah,” the EUobserver said.
And what did it conclude? That the attacks were due to “the Israeli occupation… and a long-standing policy of political, economic and social marginalisation of Palestinians in Jerusalem,” to “deep frustration amongst Palestinians over the effects of the occupation, and a lack of hope that a negotiated solution can bring it to an end.” This, the report asserted, was “the heart of the matter”; factors like rampant Palestinian incitement and widespread Islamist sentiment, if they were mentioned at all, were evidently dismissed as unimportant.
The report’s first implication is obvious: If Palestinian attacks stem primarily from “the occupation,” there’s no reason to think anything similar could happen in Europe, which isn’t occupying anyone (at least in its own view; Islamists might not agree). Consequently, there’s also no need to learn from Israel’s methods of dealing with such attacks.
In contrast, had EU diplomats understood the major role played by Palestinian incitement—for instance, the endless Internet memes urging Palestinians to stab, run over and otherwise kill Jews, complete with detailed instructions on how to do so—they might have realized that similar propaganda put out by Islamic State, urging people to use similar techniques against Westerners, could have a similar effect. Had they understood the role played by Islamist sentiments—fully 89 percent of Palestinians supported a Sharia-based state in a Pew poll last year, one of the highest rates in the world—they might have realized that similar sentiments among some European Muslims posed a similar threat. And had they realized all this, the crowds in Nice might not have been left virtually unprotected.
No less telling, however, was the report’s explanation for Israel’s relatively low death toll. Rather than crediting the Israeli police for managing to stop most of the attacks quickly, before they had claimed many victims, it accused them of “excessive use of force… possibly amounting in certain cases to unlawful killings.”
If the EU’s consensus position is that shooting terrorists in mid-rampage constitutes “excessive use of force,” European policemen may understandably hesitate to do the same. In Nice, for instance, the rampage continued for two kilometers while policemen reportedly “ran 200 meters behind the truck trying to stop it”; the police caught up only when a civilian jumped into the truck’s cab and wrestled the driver, slowing him down. Yet even then, an eyewitness said, “They kept yelling at him and when he did not step out – they saw him from the window taking his gun out.” Only then did they open fire.
Not everyone shares the EU’s blind spot about Palestinian terror. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Africa earlier this month, the leaders he met with said openly that one of the main things they want from Israel is counterterrorism assistance. They understand quite well that anti-Israel terror isn’t some unique breed that other countries can safely ignore; terror is terror, and any tactic tried by Palestinians is liable to be quickly imitated by Islamist terrorists elsewhere—from airplane hijackings to suicide bombings and, now, car-rammings.
But European officials, entrenched in their smug belief that anti-Israel terror has nothing to do with the terror they face, are incapable of acknowledging that Israel’s experience might be relevant. And therefore, people died who might still be alive had the lessons of Palestinian terror against Israel been learned.
Originally published in Commentary on July 20, 2016
Mosaic magazine has been running a fascinating series about why American Jews are drifting away from Israel. All the contributors (correctly) ascribed this drift primarily to the dilution of American Jewish identity through a combination of rampant intermarriage and attempts “to universalize every aspect of Judaism,” as one contributor, Jack Wertheimer, put it. But among the secondary factors contributing to this development, one has been oddly overlooked: the difference in lived experience between Israeli Jews, still surrounded by enemies who truly want to kill them, and American Jews, currently enjoying an era of (possibly short-lived) safety almost unprecedented in Diaspora Jewish experience. To understand just how significant this experience of safety is, it’s worth comparing American Jewish attitudes with those of Jewish communities in Europe.
Haaretz reporter Anshel Pfeffer, who covers European Jewish communities extensively for his paper, once summarized attitudes toward Israel as follows: “the further east you go, all the way to the Caucasus, Jews become steadily more right-wing, more stridently pro-Israel, and less prepared to countenance any form of concessions or compromise towards Israel’s enemies and rivals.” Nor is the reason hard to find: In places where anti-Semitism and persecution are lived experiences or fairly recent memories, Jews consider a strong Israel an asset.
Pfeffer said Russian and Ukrainian Jews have told him that “When Israel bombs Gaza and kills Palestinians, our neighbors here fear and respect us.” But there’s a simpler reason why Jews who feel threatened want Israel to be strong: A strong Israel is one that will still be around to welcome them if the day comes when they need someplace to flee. And many European Jews consider this a real possibility.
Daniel Ben-Simon, who wrote a book about French Jews’ response to anti-Semitism, estimated back in 2012 that “almost one in two French Jews maintains a residence in Israel. It’s a sort of insurance policy, just in case the situation in France gets even worse.” Today, some of those Jews have started moving: Immigration to Israel hit a 15-year high last year, and French Jews led the pack, with 7,900 immigrants, an all-time peak.
Not far behind, however, were Ukraine and Russia (7,000 and 6,000, respectively), where Jews were fleeing political instability, economic turmoil and conflict in eastern Ukraine. This is particularly noteworthy because intermarriage rates in Ukraine and Russia are even higher than in America, and many immigrants from those countries are either intermarried themselves or the children or grandchildren of intermarriages. In other words, the drift away from Israel caused by intermarriage in America hasn’t been replicated in Eastern Europe, for the simple reason that there, unlike in America, intermarried Jews and their children can still imagine needing the refuge Israel provides.
The anomaly of American Jews’ feelings of safety is also reflected in voting patterns. Not long ago, Jews in other Western countries supported left-leaning parties as reliably as American Jews did. But today, they are increasingly shifting their support to center-right parties; in Britain, France, Canada and Australia, for instance, most Jews now vote conservative. This isn’t because they’ve become less economically or socially liberal than their American peers; it’s because the specter of anti-Semitism (initially masquerading as anti-Zionism) has suddenly risen from its very shallow grave and is concentrated mainly in two communities: Muslims and the hard left. A prime example is the recent spate of anti-Semitism scandals in Britain’s Labour party, which prompted former BBC director Danny Cohen to declare last weekend that he couldn’t imagine any Jew voting Labour today: “it would be like being a Muslim and voting for Donald Trump, how could you do it?” Thus outside America, Jews have increasingly reverted to the age-old practice of voting for the party they think will protect them.
And this brings us to a third reason why Jews who feel less secure are more likely to sympathize with Israel: Anyone who has experienced insecurity understands that sometimes it leaves you with no good choices; only a choice between two evils. How, for instance, is a British Jew to vote if he loathes the Tories’ economic and social policies but also abhors Labour’s increasingly open anti-Semitism? For him, both choices are bad; he can only try to pick the lesser evil.
And having faced that situation, he’s more likely to understand that Israel, too, faces unpalatable choices in dealing with very real threats. The status quo in the West Bank clearly isn’t ideal, but withdrawing would likely make the situation worse, as it did in Gaza. Bombing Gaza in response to Hamas rockets isn’t ideal, but letting Hamas bombard southern Israel with impunity would be worse.
American Jews never experienced as much anti-Semitism as their European counterparts did, but even for them, fear of persecution was at least a living memory until recently. They had parents or grandparents who fled persecution in Europe, or who had experienced the genteel anti-Semitism of the “gentleman’s agreement,” whereby Jews were quietly excluded from many American companies, hotels, clubs and even colleges.
Thus, those American Jews could still imagine needing Israel as a refuge – if not for themselves, then at least for their brethren in Europe. They could still feel, like Ukrainian and Russian Jews today, that Israel’s military victories made them more respected by their neighbors (it’s no accident that American Jews’ affection for Israel soared after its stunning victory in the 1967 Six-Day War). And they could still understand that Israel, confronted by enemies who genuinely want to destroy it, has no ideal solutions available; instead, it must choose among multiple evils.
Given what is happening on American campuses nowadays, I’m not convinced those bad old days won’t return. But for now, basking in the safety America has provided, too many American Jews have forgotten the lessons of millennia of Jewish history. And in the process, they have also forgotten one of the key universal values they so pride themselves on upholding, that of compassion for those not blessed with similar safety – all the Jews who may yet need the refuge Israel provides, and the Jews busy ensuring that refuge will still exist when it’s needed.
Originally published in Commentary on April 20, 2016
Like every major Islamist attack in Europe, last week’s terror attacks in Brussels left many Israelis wondering whether Europeans will finally understand what Israel faces. Unfortunately, such attacks are more likely to intensify anti-Israel activity in Europe. To understand why, it’s worth reading an article from the Islamic State magazine Al-Naba that propounds a surprising thesis: Jihad against Israel doesn’t take precedence over jihad anywhere else.
The article, translated by MEMRI, argued that the “Palestine first” slogan, which has reigned supreme for almost seven decades, has led good Muslims to ignore all the other places where jihad is no less necessary, or even more so. Indeed, it said, Muslims’ top priority should be purifying lands already under Islamic control, for both religious and practical reasons. Religiously speaking, “The apostate [tyrants] who rule the lands of Islam are graver infidels than [the Jews].” And practically speaking, defeating Israel won’t be possible without first destroying neighboring Arab regimes that are its “first line of defense.” Consequently, “Waging jihad with the aim of replacing the rule of the Jews with a regime like that of those who currently rule Gaza and the West Bank is jihad that is null and void,” because it would just replace infidel Jews with infidel Muslims.
But fighting Jews also doesn’t take precedence over “fighting the Crusaders and all the polytheists in the world,” the article stressed. In fact, “Muslims everywhere should fight the infidels nearest to them,” since that’s where they have the best chance of succeeding.
That last sentence sums up why Islamic State’s approach is Europe’s worst nightmare. For decades, Europe had a cushy arrangement: All the world’s jihadists were so fixated on Israel that they were willing to overlook longstanding hatreds against “Crusader” Europe, as long as Europe would help them wage war on Israel. As Manfred Gerstenfeld pointed out this week, many European countries — including Switzerland, Germany, France and Italy — tried to take advantage of this offer: They sought deals under which Palestinian terrorists could operate freely in their countries – usually without fear of arrest, but with swift release guaranteed if arrests were necessitated by American pressure – and in exchange, the terrorists wouldn’t attack those countries.
Not only did this largely protect Europe from jihadist terror, but it even seemed to avoid the main pitfall of most appeasement deals. The usual problem with appeasement is that the aggressor, after gobbling up the prey the appeaser threw him, then goes after the appeaser from an even stronger position, since one enemy is already out of the way. That, for instance, is what happened when Europe gave Hitler first the Sudetenland and then the rest of Czechoslovakia in 1938-39, only to see him turn around and gobble up the rest of Europe a year later.
But Israel, against all odds, showed no sign of collapsing; it kept getting stronger despite decades of unrelenting attacks. So to Europe, it must have seemed the perfect solution: The crocodile could keep attacking Israel forever, and Europeans would be permanently safe. All they had to do was make sure the beast remained fixated on Israel by maintaining a steady drumbeat of anti-Israel outrage.
Yet now, suddenly, that tactic no longer works – and like any weakling confronted with a bully, Europe is cravenly trying to divert the bully’s attention back to his former victim.
That’s precisely why Islamic State’s rise over the last few years has coincided with an upsurge in anti-Israel activity by European governments, including the European Union’s discriminatory decision to start labeling settlement products, moves by several European parliaments to recognize a Palestinian state, and France’s recent push for both an anti-Israel Security Council resolution and an international conference conducted under threat of recognizing “Palestine” if Israel doesn’t capitulate completely. All these are frantic efforts to restore the jihadist status quo ante – first, by refocusing world (and especially Muslim) attention on Israel, and second, by weakening Israel enough that it once again looks like a tempting target for jihadists, rather than one too strong to be tackled without first bringing down several other countries.
Eventually, a new generation of European politicians might figure out that this won’t work. Even if Islamic State is eventually pushed out of Syria and Iraq, its ideas are now loose in the jihadist universe and can’t be put back in the bottle; thus Europe would do better to team up with Israel against the common threat rather than helping the jihadists play divide and conquer. But for older politicians, veterans of decades in which diverting the crocodile’s attention to Israel actually worked, this paradigm shift will probably prove impossible. They are far more likely to keep escalating against Israel in a desperate effort to bring back those halcyon days when jihadists believed, as Al-Naba put it, “that no other issue should be raised until Palestine was liberated.”
And this brings us to the left’s standard recipe for improving relations with Europe – quitting the West Bank. As I’ve noted before, all available evidence rebuts the theory that territorial concessions can buy European love. But that’s doubly true if Europe is now seeking to divert the jihadists’ attention to Israel because it won’t be able to stop at giving them the West Bank. It will have to move on to encouraging them to attack pre-1967 Israel, which the jihadists also consider “occupied territory,” for the same reason Europe had to give Hitler the rest of Czechoslovakia six months after giving him the Sudetenland. Appeasement requires keeping the crocodile fed, so once he’s gobbled up one juicy tidbit, you have to throw him another.
In short, Israel’s relations with Europe will probably get much worse before they get better, if they ever do. All it can do is protect itself from the fallout as best it can by continuing to bolster economic and diplomatic ties with the rest of the world.
Originally published in Commentary on March 30,2106
The Israeli media were virtually unanimous yesterday in headlining a new Pew survey of Israeli opinion. All highlighted the finding that nearly half of Israeli Jews support expelling Arabs. The only reporter who thought to ask an expert what this figure really means was Haaretz’s Ofer Aderet. But to understand the expert’s answer, one other fact is helpful: Just a day before Pew published its survey, two of the Knesset’s three Arab parties publicly condemned the Gulf Cooperation Council for declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organization, on the grounds that this declaration might benefit the country in whose parliament they serve.
Aderet queried Professor Sammy Smooha about the Pew finding because he’s Israel’s leading expert in Jewish-Arab relations, having tracked the subject since 2003 through a series of comprehensive annual polls. Smooha said Pew’s results disagreed with his own polls, which consistently found that about three-quarters of Israeli Jews support coexistence with Arabs. He offered two explanations for this divergence.
First, the Pew question was vague and confusing. Respondents were asked simply whether they agreed or disagreed that “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel.” That’s easy to answer if you believe that Arabs should either always be expelled or never be expelled. But what if, like many Israelis, you believe the answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no?
Many center-rightists, for instance, favor expelling Arabs who openly support terror or seek to undermine Israel’s existence as a Jewish state, but not other Arabs. Many center-leftists believe East Jerusalem Arabs (most of whom are permanent Israeli residents but not citizens) should be forced to become part of the Palestinian Authority whether they want to or not, but not other Arabs. Thus for these respondents, the answer would depend on whether they interpreted the word “Arabs” in Pew’s question to mean “all Arabs” or “some Arabs.”
Smooha argued that most respondents who agreed with the statement interpreted it as meaning “some Arabs,” because if you read it to mean expelling all Arabs, the idea “is unrealistic and unfeasible.” Indeed, no Israeli party advocates expelling all Arabs, and very few individuals do; even diehard anti-Arab racists tend to make exceptions for the Druze, for instance.
His interpretation is reinforced by looking at voting patterns. According to Pew, rightist and religious Jews overwhelmingly support expelling Arabs. But the only right-wing party that actually advocates expelling sizable numbers of Arabs – Yisrael Beiteinu, which wants to swap certain Arab towns for the major settlement blocs under a final-status deal with the Palestinians – won a mere six seats in the last Knesset elections; the other rightist and religious parties, which advocate no such thing, won a combined 51.
In contrast, Pew found little support for expelling Arabs on the left. Yet the leading center-left faction – Zionist Union, with 24 seats – is also the one Israeli faction that advocates expelling large numbers of Arabs right now, as opposed to under some distant final-status agreement: The Labor Party, which accounts for most of Zionist Union’s seats, recently adopted a plan to unilaterally hand East Jerusalem over to the PA, thereby removing hundreds of thousands of Arabs from Israel.
In short, Pew’s results don’t fit actual voting patterns at all unless you conclude that most center-leftists interpreted its question as meaning “all Arabs,” and therefore disagreed, while most rightists interpreted it as meaning “some Arabs,” and therefore agreed.
This brings us to Smooha’s second explanation: He believes Pew’s finding primarily “reflects alienation and disgust with the Arabs more than it attests to agreement to grant legitimacy to the government to expel them.” In other words, many Israelis chose to interpret the question as meaning “some Arabs” – a position they could support – because they wanted to demonstrate their “alienation and disgust.”
But why would Israeli Jews want to do that? And why would they want to expel “some Arabs” to begin with? First, because they’re sick and tired of hearing Israeli Arab leaders openly support anti-Israel terror. And second, they’re sick and tired of ordinary Arabs – the ones who claim to support coexistence, and who I believe in many cases genuinely do – not only refusing to disavow these leaders, but reelecting them to the Knesset year after year.
The Hezbollah controversy, which broke after Pew’s survey was conducted, is a perfect example. Hezbollah has killed thousands of Israelis and tens of thousands of non-Israeli Arabs. Yet the Balad and Hadash parties both condemned the GCC for declaring it a terrorist organization, because Balad thought the decision “serves Israel and its allies in the region” and harms “anyone acting against Israeli aggression,” while Hadash thought it serves Israel’s interests, helps maintain the “Israel occupation” and “proves that Gulf states are totally loyal to neo-colonialist and Zionist forces, the enemies of Arabs.”
All this was too much even for the far-left Haaretz, which usually defends Arab MKs’ every outrage. In a blistering editorial, it pointed out that Hezbollah attacks also kill many Israeli Arabs (most of whom live in the north, which is Hezbollah’s primary target) and demanded, “Could it be that the representatives of the Balad and Hadash parties are willing to accept this, just as long as Jews are killed too?” It then lambasted “the absence of diplomatic logic” in claiming that Hezbollah fights the “Israeli occupation” when it actually does no such thing, being too busy dominating Lebanon and helping to slaughter hundreds of thousands of Syrians.
Finally, it wrote, these parties, “with their own hands … are crushing Israeli Arabs’ struggle for equal rights and recognition of their unique status in the Jewish state” by lending support to the claim “that Israeli Arabs are enemies of the Jewish people and the Jewish state.” Memo to Arab MKs: When even Haaretz won’t support you, you’ve really lost every last Israeli Jew.
I’ve explained before why Israeli Arabs keep reelecting these parties despite claiming that they don’t reflect the voters’ priorities. But however justified the explanation, the combination of ever more outrageous behavior by Arab MKs and the growing “alienation and disgust” reflected by the Pew poll clearly creates a combustible situation. And at some point, if a new and different Israeli Arab leadership doesn’t emerge, it’s liable to explode.
Yet rather than helping to cultivate such a new leadership, both American Jews and Israeli leftists have been enthusiastically supporting the very Israeli Arabs who are doing the most to destroy coexistence. Hadash chairman Ayman Odeh, for instance – who condemned the GCC for declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organization, but won’t condemn Palestinian knife attacks because “I don’t think it’s my place to tell the people how to resist” – was feted by Jewish groups when he visited America last year.
Thus, it’s high time for Arabs and Jews alike to realize that supporting arsonists like Odeh is no way to foster coexistence. Otherwise, the “alienation and disgust” reflected in the Pew poll will only keep growing.
Originally published in Commentary on March 9, 2016
NGO Monitor has just published an important study of the funding of Israel’s premier left-wing “nongovernmental” organizations. The first fact that arises from the study is no surprise to anyone who has been following the issue: Far from being “nongovernmental,” these groups are wholly-owned subsidiaries of the European Union and its member states. But the second fact did surprise me: The New Israel Fund, which has become the bête noire of pro-Israel activists both in Israel and abroad in recent years, is actually a comparatively minor donor to these groups. If it closed up shop tomorrow, its grantees would still manage just fine.
The study examined the funding of 27 organizations from 2010 to 2014, using the financial reports the groups filed with Israel’s registrar of nonprofit organizations. It also compiled a complete database of all donations to these groups during those years. The groups in question are the usual suspects, including B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence, Adalah, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel and many others whose main activity nowadays seems to be trying to tarnish Israel’s name overseas.
Overall, the report said, these groups raised more than 261 million shekels in 2010-2014; at current exchange rates, that comes to $66 million (all dollar conversions are my own). Of this, a whopping 65 percent – some $43 million – came from foreign governments (primarily European), either directly or indirectly.
Twenty of the 27 groups received more than 50 percent of their funding from foreign governments, and three of them – Yesh Din, Terrestrial Jerusalem, and Emek Shaveh – received over 90 percent of their funding from these governments. The largest governmental donor was the EU, followed by Norway and Germany.
In contrast, the NIF accounted for only 12 percent of these organizations’ total funding, less than a fifth of what they received from their governmental sponsors. Indeed, the EU alone – not including its member states – provided more than two and a half times as much as the NIF did. The NIF isn’t even the largest private-sector donor. That honor, unsurprisingly, goes to a European group: the Sigrid Rausing Trust, a London-based foundation started by a Swedish philanthropist, which provided the groups in question with 14 percent of their funding.
Based on the very small selection of NIF supporters I know personally, I’ve always suspected that most NIF donors are well-meaning, pro-Israel Jews who genuinely seek to make Israel a better place according to their own lights. I dislike many NIF grantees and many NIF officials, and I wish those well-meaning Jews would find a more constructive channel for their donations, but they clearly have as much right to donate to their preferred Israeli causes as Jews of any other political persuasion have to donate to theirs.
Yet even if I’m wrong in my assessment of the NIF’s supporters, it’s hard to argue with the numbers. And those numbers lead to an unavoidable conclusion: Pro-Israel activists have been busy picking fights with fellow Jews when the real enemies are hostile foreign governments. By focusing so much of our ire on the NIF, we have effectively been giving the real culprits a pass. And it’s long past time for us to correct this error and start focusing our ire where it belongs – on the EU and its member states.
Originally published in Commentary on January 19, 2016
Ever since an arson attack apparently perpetrated by Jewish extremists killed three members of a Palestinian family last July, the left has used it to launch a sweeping assault on religious Zionists in general and religious settlers in particular. The perpetrators weren’t mere “wild weeds,” leftists asserted, but a product of systematic racism and incitement in the religious community. And as long as the perpetrators remained unknown, this claim was hard to refute: Without knowing who they were, it was impossible to know their motives. But with the suspects having finally been indicted this week, it’s now clear this assertion is bunk. Nor is that my verdict alone: It’s the verdict of none other than the reporter covering the case for the far-left daily Haaretz – a paper that can’t be accused of any sympathy for either settlers or the religious community.
Last week, when reporters already knew who the suspects were but the rest of us were still in the dark due to a gag order, Haaretz ran a front-page analysis by settlement reporter Chaim Levinson titled “Jewish Terror Doesn’t Happen Because of Radical Rabbis, but in Spite of Them.” It’s worth reading in full, but here’s the gist:
Today’s Jewish terror doesn’t happen because of the rabbis. It is a protest against the rabbis, staged by young Jewish extremists … They regard the rabbis as too moderate and willing to compromise. They consider rabbis Dov Lior and Yitzchak Ginsburgh – whose names are whispered in the television studios as the arch-terrorists of our generation – as moderates because they don’t back violence.
The problem with the Jewish extremists of today is not the places they study, but the fact that they don’t study. If they were students in Lior’s much-maligned Nir Yeshiva in Kiryat Arba instead of wandering the hilltops of the West Bank, probably they wouldn’t have gone out and set fire to a family home in the dark of night.
The proof is crystal clear: None of Lior’s students are involved in the current terror activities. If he were to teach this, his students would probably follow his teachings. But that is not his way…
Yosef Haim Ben-David, who burned Mohammed Abu Khdeir to death in July 2014, did not grow up in the religious Zionist movement. Nor did the minor who stabbed several Palestinians in Dimona last October. Neither did Shlomo Pinto, who mistakenly stabbed a Jewish man in Kiryat Ata that same month.
Ginsburgh and Lior’s students, who imbibe their racism with gusto, may share their worldview but understand that burning and killing Arabs is not the way.
This week, after the gag order was finally lifted, Levinson published a profile of the main suspect, Amiram Ben-Uliel. And the profile proves his point. Ben-Uliel actually is the son of a mainstream religious Zionist rabbi and grew up in a settlement. But he dropped out of school as a teenager, left his family’s home, and largely severed contact with them. In fact, he largely severed contact with the entire mainstream religious community, as evidenced by what I personally consider the profile’s most telling detail: When he married a fellow extremist two years ago, the only guests at the wedding were the couple’s parents.
That might not sound shocking to American ears, since private weddings aren’t unheard of in America. But Orthodox Jewish weddings are massive community affairs. Guest lists typically number in the hundreds, and it’s considered a mitzvah to attend and help the bride and groom rejoice. Nor does community involvement end there: A traditional Orthodox wedding is followed by seven nights of parties, the sheva brachot, at which the newlyweds are the guests of honor. Each is typically hosted by a different relative or friend, and each must include at least one guest who didn’t attend the wedding or any of the earlier parties.
In short, in Jewish tradition, weddings aren’t private affairs; they are communal events deliberately designed to welcome the young couple into the community. Thus, by having a private wedding, Ben-Uliel and his bride were explicitly and pointedly turning their backs on their community and its religious traditions.
Other alleged members of this hardcore radical group have similar profiles. Mordechai Meyer, for instance, also grew up in a mainstream religious home in a mainstream settlement. But like Ben-Uliel, he dropped out of school and abandoned his family home as a teenager.
Indeed, these radicals are the antithesis of mainstream religious Zionists and settlers, who view the Israeli state as “the beginning of the flowering of our redemption” (to quote the prayer for the state), and therefore as something to be cherished. The radicals, in contrast, view the Israeli state as “The Kingdom of Evil” – the title of a tract written by one, Moshe Orbach, which details their methodology: using terror to sow such chaos and create such deep internal rifts that it will eventually destroy the state, clearing the way for them to build a religious kingdom in its stead. It’s the methodology embraced by every terrorist organization in history. But it has nothing to do with either the tactics or the goals of mainstream religious Zionism.
In fact, “inciting rabbis” have never had anything to do with Jewish terror. As Levinson correctly noted, this “is a cliché that took root in the 1990s after the assassination of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.” What he didn’t note is that it was wrong then, too. Michael Ben-Yair, the attorney general at the time, investigated the matter thoroughly and concluded that assassin Yigal Amir wasn’t influenced by any rabbi or by any broader “climate of incitement.” And like Haaretz, Ben-Yair can hardly be suspected of rightist sympathies; he’s a radical leftist who accuses Israel of “apartheid” and urged the European Union to recognize a Palestinian state even without an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty.
As Levinson aptly concluded, “The way to deal with terror is to stop terrorist activity. Investigating rabbis might make Meretz chairwoman MK Zehava Galon happy, but it is not connected to today’s reality.”
Yet unjustly smearing an entire community isn’t simply irrelevant; it’s downright counterproductive. The only thing it will ever achieve is to further deepen Israel’s internal divides. And that’s exactly the outcome the Jewish terrorists are seeking.
Originally published in Commentary on January 7, 2016