Analysis from Israel

Kudos to the ADL’s Abe Foxman for having the guts to say the obvious. After a Pew Research poll released earlier this week found that only 38 percent of American Jews think Israel “is making a sincere effort to establish peace with the Palestinians,” the Jewish Daily Forward concluded that American Jewish organizations have a problem: Since “American Jews are far more critical of Israel than the Jewish establishment,” shouldn’t the establishment change its positions to better reflect those of its constituency?

Most Jewish leaders the Forward interviewed rejected that position. But Foxman demolished it in two short sentences. “You know who the Jewish establishment represents?” he said. “Those who care.”

Foxman, of course, is exactly right. The 38 percent who believe in Israel’s peacemaking bona fides is statistically indistinguishable (since the poll’s margin of error is 3 percent in either direction) from the 43 percent who deem “caring about Israel” an “essential part of what being Jewish means to them,” and actually exceeds the mere 28 percent who consider “being part of a Jewish community” essential to their Jewish identity.  Belonging to a Jewish community, incidentally, was outranked in American Jews’ list of Jewish essentials not only by “remembering Holocaust” (the chart-topper at 73 percent), “leading ethical/moral life” (69 percent) or “working for justice/equality” (56 percent), but even by “having good sense of humor” (42 percent) and “being intellectually curious” (49 percent). Only “observing Jewish law” and “eating traditional Jewish foods” came in lower.

But organized Jewry can’t plausibly represent people with good senses of humor or intellectual curiosity, or who “work for justice/equality,” since the vast majority of Americans in these categories aren’t Jews. Indeed, no organization can claim to represent anyone who has no interest in belonging to an organized community. Hence the only people Jewish organizations can reasonably claim to represent are that alarmingly small minority who care about “being part of a Jewish community.” They are the people who provide these organizations with the cash and volunteer hours needed to run them, and they are the people whose views these organizations exist to represent.

But they are also the people most likely to care about Israel, and as the American Jewish Committee’s Steve Bayme noted, they “are also [the] most knowledgeable” about it. Thus they are less likely to believe simplistic narratives of the conflict such as that settlements are the main obstacle to peace. Indeed, even the Forward‘s reporter admitted that the 22 percent of self-identified Jews who said they had “no religion”–who are far less Jewishly committed than other Jews by every criterion Pew measured, including such basics as raising Jewish children–are also “far less likely to believe that the Israelis are sincere in their peace efforts than those who said that their religion is Judaism.”

Left-wing critics of Israel like Peter Beinart have recently been pushing the narrative that Israel’s behavior, and the Jewish establishment’s failure to criticize it sufficiently, are driving young Jews away from Jewish life. That was the implicit point of the Forward article as well. But what the Pew poll shows is that the opposite is true: The problem isn’t that Israel is driving Jews away from Jewish life; it’s that Jews for whom “being Jewish” means nothing but the Holocaust and a sense of humor are inevitably less pro-Israel. In contrast, those who care about Jewish communal life are far more supportive. And as Foxman said, Jewish organizations represent the latter group–”those who care.”

Thus contrary to Beinart, J Street, and their ilk, the problem committed American Jews ought to be losing sleep over isn’t how to increase pressure on Israel. Rather, it’s how to produce more Jews who actually care about being part of the Jewish community.

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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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