Analysis from Israel

If the world hasn’t yet grasped that Palestinians aren’t interested in peace, it’s certainly not because Palestinians haven’t been working hard to make it clear. Mahmoud Abbas’s “genocide” speech at the UN last week did get momentary attention, being too public to ignore completely. But an even more telling incident has been almost completely overlooked: the expulsion of Haaretz reporter Amira Hass–a woman who has spent decades promoting the Palestinian cause–from a conference at Birzeit University near Ramallah, solely because she is an Israeli Jew.

Nobody, in Israel or outside it, is more pro-Palestinian than Hass. To the best of my knowledge, she’s the only Israeli reporter so dedicated to the Palestinians that she has made her home among them for decades, first in Gaza and then in Ramallah. She reports relentlessly on Palestinian suffering under the “occupation regime” and is a tireless apologist for unattractive Palestinian habits such as stone-throwing. Her latest op-ed, for instance, was an apologia for Abbas’s genocide speech, and her report on her expulsion from Birzeit was similarly forgiving of the bigoted policy that bans all Israeli Jews–though not Israeli Arabs–from the campus simply because they are Israeli Jews. So if students and faculty at Birzeit, the Palestinians’ flagship university, can’t even tolerate having Hass on their campus, what does that say about Palestinian readiness to make peace with the Israeli majority, which doesn’t share her belief that their own country is evil and all justice is on the Palestinians’ side?

After all, universities are where the next generation of leaders is nurtured; this makes Birzeit’s position far more important than that of the 79-year-old Abbas, now in the tenth year of his four-year term. Abbas will soon be gone. But Birzeit’s students and graduates will be an influential force in Palestinian society for decades to come.

So how is peace possible when Birzeit is educating these future Palestinian leaders to believe all Israeli Jews should be shunned simply because they are Israeli Jews? And how is peace possible when these future leaders won’t even listen to any view of the conflict that contradicts their own, such as an Israeli Jew (though not Hass) might provide?

Needless to say, this is the polar opposite of how Israeli universities act: Their faculties overwhelmingly favor a two-state solution and educate accordingly, and Palestinian students are welcome regardless of their views. Even Omar Barghouti, leader of the BDS movement, famously (and hypocritically) obtained his master’s degree from Tel Aviv University and is now pursuing his doctorate there in between trips abroad to urge others to boycott the institution.

Under pressure from her many influential fans–including Germany’s Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, which sponsored the conference she was expelled from–Birzeit later said it would make an exception to its rule for “supporters of the Palestinian struggle” like Hass. But that doesn’t fundamentally alter either its bigoted policy or its unwillingness to listen to anyone who might challenge the Palestinian narrative.

Nor is Birzeit exceptional in this regard. In June, for instance, Prof. Mohammed S. Dajani Daoudi was forced to resign from another leading Palestinian institution, Al-Quds University, for having dared to take some of his students to Auschwitz to teach them about the Holocaust. If a leading Palestinian university won’t even let its students learn about the Holocaust because it might increase their empathy for Israeli Jews, what does that say about prospects for peace?

As Haaretz blogger Matthew Kalman perceptively noted, peace isn’t the only victim of Birzeit’s behavior: Palestinian universities’ unwillingness to confront students with any perspective that might challenge their preexisting views has also hindered Palestinian economic development, because students aren’t developing the critical thinking skills necessary for success in today’s high-tech economy. But that’s the Palestinians’ problem.

Birzeit’s education to hatred and prejudice, in contrast, ought to be the problem of anyone who claims to care about Israeli-Palestinian peace. Unfortunately, most of the world would rather look the other way.

Originally published in Commentary 

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Why Israel Needs a Better Political Class

Note: This piece is a response to an essay by Haviv Rettig Gur, which can be found here

Israel’s current political crisis exemplifies the maxim that hard cases make bad law. This case is desperate. Six months after the coronavirus erupted and nine months after the fiscal year began, Israel still lacks both a functioning contact-tracing system and an approved 2020 budget, mainly because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is more worried about politics than the domestic problems that Israel now confronts. The government’s failure to perform these basic tasks obviously invites the conclusion that civil servants’ far-reaching powers must not only be preserved, but perhaps even increased.

This would be the wrong conclusion. Bureaucrats, especially when they have great power, are vulnerable to the same ills as elected politicians. But unlike politicians, they are completely unaccountable to the public.

That doesn’t mean Haviv Rettig Gur is wrong to deem them indispensable. They provide institutional memory, flesh out elected officials’ policies, and supply information the politicians may not know and options they may not have considered. Yet the current crisis shows in several ways why they neither can nor should substitute for elected politicians.

First, bureaucrats are no less prone to poor judgment than politicians. As evidence, consider Siegal Sadetzki, part of the Netanyahu-led triumvirate that ran Israel’s initial response to the coronavirus. It’s unsurprising that Gur never mentioned Sadetzki even as he lauded the triumvirate’s third member, former Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov; she and her fellow Health Ministry staffers are a major reason why Israel still lacks a functional test-and-trace system.

Sadetzki, an epidemiologist, was the ministry’s director of public-health services and the only member of the triumvirate with professional expertise in epidemics (Bar Siman-Tov is an economist). As such, her input was crucial. Yet she adamantly opposed expanding virus testing, even publicly asserting that “Too much testing will increase complacence.” She opposed letting organizations outside the public-health system do lab work for coronavirus tests, even though the system was overwhelmed. She opposed sewage monitoring to track the spread of the virus. And on, and on.

Moreover, even after acknowledging that test-and-trace was necessary, ministry bureaucrats insisted for months that their ministry do the tracing despite its glaringly inadequate manpower. Only in August was the job finally given to the army, which does have the requisite personnel. And the system still isn’t fully operational.

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