Analysis from Israel

According to a front-page story in today’s Haaretz, everything you thought you knew about the Jewish terrorists suspected of perpetrating last week’s horrific murder of a Palestinian baby is wrong. The accepted wisdom, propagated by everyone from Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to Haaretz’s own editorial pages, is that the terrorists are motivated by a “climate of incitement,” in which extremist statements by right-wing rabbis and politicians lead them to believe that anything, even murder, is permissible to achieve their goals. But Israel’s premier counterterrorism agency – which, unlike espousers of the accepted wisdom, has spent years studying the terrorists up close – doesn’t buy it.

These few dozen hardcore terrorists, the Shin Bet security service told Haaretz, heed neither rabbis nor politicians; they are “anarchist anti-Zionists” who consider even “extremist” rabbis too moderate. Moreover, their goal isn’t to promote Jewish settlement or stop territorial withdrawals or any other goal shared by the “extremist” rabbis and politicians; rather, it’s to overthrow the State of Israel itself and replace it with a religious “kingdom.” In this, they differ fundamentally even from the “price-tag” vandals, whose goal was limited to deterring house demolitions in the settlements and whose tactics – albeit completely unacceptable – were generally confined to vandalism, “with no clear intention to cause bodily harm.”

In other words, these terrorists don’t reflect a widespread “sickness” in Israeli society, as Rivlin likes to say; they are no more representative of mainstream Israel than neo-Nazi fringe groups are of mainstream modern Germany – and perhaps even less.

So how racist and extremist is mainstream Israeli society? Well, consider the following collection of news items from the last few days alone:

  • The OECD just issued a report praising Israel’s efforts to increase Arab employment, though noting that much remains to be done.
  • Israeli government figures show a sharp rise in the workforce participation rate among Arab women over the last 20 years, from 19 percent to 32.5 percent.
  • The Economy Ministry just inaugurated special scholarships for Bedouin engineering students, the latest in a series of affirmative action programs for the Arab community. Under another program, the government funds 85 percent of research at Arab high-tech startups, compared to only 50 percent at Jewish startups.
  • The government recently started investing in tourism development in Arab communities; inter alia, it sponsored Ramadan events in various Arab towns this year and ran a nationwide campaign encouraging Jews to visit them. As Ron Gerlitz, co-executive director of Sikkuy – the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality, noted, this doesn’t erase past discrimination, but “On the symbolic plane, this represents a significant step forward in government policy.”
  • The Druze Arab town of Beit Jann had the highest pass rate in the country on the 2013-14 matriculation exams.
  • Salah Hasarma just became the first Arab coach of a Jewish soccer team in Israel’s top league.
  • While a few Israeli Arabs have joined Islamic State, they aren’t flocking to do so at the same rate as Arabs from other Western countries. This, argues Prof. Hillel Frisch of Bar-Ilan University, indicates that Israeli Arabs are less dissatisfied with their lives than Arabs in many European countries – or at least, more aware of how lucky they are not to be living in the chaotic hell across the border.

To understand why the above news items are so important, consider a Biblical analogy I heard from rabbi and journalist Yishai Fleisher last week. When the king of Moab wants the prophet Balaam to curse the Jewish people, he deliberately takes him to a place where “you will not see them all, but only the outskirts of their camp” (Numbers 23:13). Why? Because when you focus exclusively on one tiny fringe element of Israel, it’s easy to curse it. But when you see the whole of Israel in all its complexity, it’s much harder.

In this case, the tiny fringe is perpetrating horrific attacks on Arabs in an effort to overthrow the state. But the state it seeks to overthrow is investing heavily in trying to better integrate its Arab citizens and rectify past discrimination against them.

And if you’re going to choose a single part of Israel’s mosaic to represent the whole, the mainstream that promotes integration is surely a more representative piece than a lunatic fringe trying to overthrow the state.

Originally published in Commentary on August 3, 2015

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Israel’s unity government may prove a constitutional time bomb

That Israel will soon have a government is good news; almost any government would be better than the political dysfunction that has produced three elections in the past year. But aside from its existence, there’s little to like about this “unity” government.

The biggest problem isn’t that many important issues will perforce go unaddressed, though that’s inevitable given the compromises required when neither bloc can govern on its own. Nor is it the risk that the government will be dysfunctional even on “consensual” issues like rescuing the economy from the coronavirus crisis, though this risk is real, since both sides’ leaders will have veto power over every government decision.

Rather, it’s the cavalier way that Israel’s Basic Laws are being amended to serve the particular needs of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his new partner, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz.

Though Israel’s Supreme Court wrongly claims the Basic Laws are a constitution, they were never intended as such by the parliaments that passed them. Indeed, some were approved by a mere quarter of the Knesset or less.

But they were intended as the building blocks of a future constitution should Israel ever adopt one. That’s why this handful of laws, alone of all the laws on Israel’s books, are deemed “Basic Laws,” and why each addresses a fundamental constitutional issue (the executive branch, the legislature, the judiciary, human rights, Israel’s Jewish character, etc.).

In other words, though they aren’t a constitution, they do serve as the foundation of Israel’s system of government. And tinkering with the architecture of any democratic system of government can have unintended consequences, as Israel has discovered before to its detriment.

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