Analysis from Israel

Sovereignty poses tough problems, as last week amply showed; but lack of sovereignty poses worse ones.

By any standard, the past week has been terrible. We buried three kidnapped teens after 18 days of hoping against hope that they were alive. Rocket and mortar barrages from Gaza escalated to levels unseen since November 2012. An Arab teen was horrifically murdered by Jewish extremists, sparking the worst Israeli Arabs riots since October 2000. And the situation could yet deteriorate in countless ways.

All of which makes this a fitting moment to recall how lucky we are to have these problems, rather than the ones Jews endured for two millennia before Israel’s establishment. And no, I’m not being sarcastic.

Take, for instance, the Arab riots. Rumors about Jews abducting and/or killing non-Jews have sparked riots for centuries, and as recently as the first half of the last century, such riots routinely produced scores of dead Jews. Prominent examples include the 1903 Kishinev pogrom, which killed 47 Jews; the 1946 Kielce pogrom, which killed 42; and the 1929 Arab riots in British-ruled pre-state Israel, which killed 133.

The current Arab riots, in contrast, have so far killed nobody – because unlike in previous cases, we now have a sovereign Jewish state with its own police force rather than being dependent on the goodwill of other countries’ legal authorities.

Far more remarkably, however, no lethal anti-Jewish riots have occurred anywhere in recent decades – and that isn’t because the rest of the world has become so civilized; sectarian and ethnic massacres happen almost daily in the Middle East, Africa and parts of Asia. Rather, it’s because there’s now a Jewish state ready to take in any Jew threatened by such violence.

If Jews were still living in, say, Iraq and Syria, they would undoubtedly be slaughtered alongside (or ahead of) their Christian, Sunni and Shi’ite countrymen. And had there been no Israel, they would still be living there: America and Europe would never have taken in hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees.

Even today, when most Diaspora Jews live in “safe” countries, Israel’s role as refuge remains very much alive. Consider, for instance, this remarkable May 28 report by New York Times contributor Masha Gessen about her first visit back to Russia after emigrating to the US.

A new kind of conversational shorthand has appeared in Moscow: “What’s your month?” people ask one another. They mean the month for which you are signed up for an interview at the Israeli embassy to receive initial immigration documents. The nearest available slot for people booking an appointment now reportedly is in November, but most of my friends have appointments in August or September. Even getting an appointment is an ordeal: The embassy’s phone lines are so overburdened that getting through to the right department can take hours. And according to a recent, leaked picture, inside the embassy, it is a mob scene reminiscent of 1990-91, the peak years of the Soviet Jewish exodus.

This was at the height of the Ukraine crisis; if it dies down, most of those Jews will likely remain in Russia. But they want the reassurance of having somewhere to flee if necessary. And only Israel can give them that.

Calling Israel a refuge might seem like a bad joke when Palestinians are bombarding it from Gaza and recently murdered three teens in the West Bank. But it’s not.

No country can promise 100 percent security all the time. America couldn’t prevent a neo-Nazi from murdering three people at Jewish sites in Kansas City in April; Belgium couldn’t prevent a jihadist from murdering four at Brussels’ Jewish Museum in May; France couldn’t prevent a jihadist from murdering a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012; and Israel couldn’t prevent Hamas from kidnapping and killing the three teens. Throughout Jewish history, some people have sought to murder Jews just because they are Jews, and as long as such people exist, sometimes, they’ll succeed.

But the very fact that we can decide how to deal with such attacks is a tremendous privilege. In previous centuries, Jews under attack had only two options – flee or die. And so millions fled to other countries as impoverished refugees, and millions more were slaughtered. Today, we have a third option: self-defense.

We may wait far too long to exercise this option, or make a mess of it once we do; both are true of successive governments’ responses to the rocket fire. But these are our choices, which means we can change them. And even our abysmally inadequate response to date, consisting mainly of civil defense measures, is an improvement over millennia of powerlessness: Such measures have decreased rocket casualties by an estimated 86%; as a result, very few Jews are either fleeing or dying in southern Israel.

Finally, having power means having responsibility when it’s abused. But refraining from harming others because you lack power to do so isn’t morality; it’s impotence. Thus only sovereignty creates the possibility of a moral Jewish society – one that voluntarily shuns evil rather than simply being powerless to commit it. We haven’t achieved that yet. But without sovereignty, we couldn’t even try to do so.

That Israel still falls so short of our aspirations isn’t surprising; 66 years old is young for a country. America at that age was rent by a bitter divide over slavery that ultimately produced a devastating civil war; Germany and Italy were under Fascist rule and preparing to launch World War II; Yugoslavia just seven years away from a civil war that tore it into five separate countries.

So instead of despairing that Israel isn’t yet the country of our dreams, we should redouble our efforts to make it so. And meanwhile, we shouldn’t belittle what we’ve already achieved.

For the first time in 2,000 years, we have the ability to exercise self-defense and provide a haven for endangered Jews worldwide. True, sovereignty has brought a whole new set of challenges: Jewish hate crimes, terrorists launching rockets from amid civilian populations, international condemnations. But we should never forget how privileged we are to have these challenges rather than those of previous generations. They’re vastly superior to the choice between fleeing and dying.

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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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