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.

Subscribe to Evelyn’s Mailing List

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.

Read more