Analysis from Israel

According to official data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, housing construction in West Bank settlements fell by a whopping 52 percent last year–far greater than the 8 percent decline in construction nationwide. Moreover, the bureau said, settlement construction throughout Benjamin Netanyahu’s six years as prime minister has been significantly lower than it was under his predecessors: Overall, the number of housing starts in the settlements was 19 percent lower in 2009-2014 than it was in 2003-2008, under prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, while the number of housing completions was 15 percent lower.

This, of course, doesn’t match the popular perception of Netanyahu: The accepted wisdom among international journalists and diplomats is that he’s a major backer of the settlements who has presided over massive building there. Indeed, just last year, President Barack Obama declared that “we have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we’ve seen in a very long time”–a claim belied by the official data at the time and once again belied by the new statistics released yesterday. But it was nevertheless widely believed, because it fit the accepted narrative of Netanyahu as “hardline” and “right-wing.”

And this is just one example of a far broader problem: Too many international journalists and diplomats see Israel and its leaders through the prism of a preconceived narrative, and any facts that don’t conform to this narrative are simply ignored. Netanyahu is “right-wing,” so he must be building massively in the settlements, even if he isn’t. Israeli voters have elected him twice in the last six years, so the country must have become more right-wing, even if in reality–as I explained in detail in my article for COMMENTARY this month–most Israelis have moved so far to the left over the last two decades that they now hold positions formerly held only by the far-left Arab-Jewish Communist Party. Netanyahu is “hardline,” so he must be to blame for the failure of peace talks, even if in reality–as was evident from American officials’ own testimony at the time and confirmed by a leaked document just last week–Netanyahu was prepared to make dramatic concessions, while Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas refused to budge.

And of course, settlement construction itself is another salient example of this problem. It is almost universally considered the major obstacle to peace. Yet as Elliott Abrams and Uri Sadot explained last year, the vast majority of settlement construction is in the major settlement blocs that everyone knows Israel will end up keeping under any deal with the Palestinians, so it doesn’t affect the contours of a deal at all. Annual construction in non-bloc settlements amounted to only a few hundred houses even in Netanyahu’s peak construction year. And since the non-bloc settlements already contain some 80,000 Israelis, the idea that a few hundred additional families would be a deal-breaker is fatuous even if you think the PA’s demand for a judenrein Palestine is legitimate and all these settlements should indeed be evacuated.

Over the last six years, while the Obama Administration was wasting its time and energy complaining about “aggressive” settlement construction that was actually far less aggressive than it was under Netanyahu’s predecessors, Israeli-Palestinian relations have deteriorated drastically. That outcome might have been averted had the administration focused on the real problems in the relationship rather than inflating the settlement issue out of all proportion.

But that’s the problem with bad facts; they usually produce bad policy. And it’s hard for journalists and diplomats to obtain good facts if they systematically ignore any data that conflicts with their preconceived narrative.

Originally published in Commentary on March 11, 2015

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Physicians, Heal Thyselves

It’s no secret that many liberal Jews today view tikkun olam, the Hebrew phrase for “repairing the world,” as the essence of Judaism. In To Heal the World?, Jonathan Neumann begs to differ, emphatically. He views liberal Judaism’s love affair with tikkun olam as the story of “How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel.” In fact, he believes tikkun olam endangers Judaism itself. Anyone who considers such notions wildly over the top should make sure to read Neumann’s book—because one needn’t agree with everything he says to realize that his major concerns are disturbingly well-founded.

Neumann begins by explaining what he considers the modern liberal Jewish understanding of tikkun olam. It is taken, he says, not just as a general obligation to make the world a better place, but as a specific obligation to promote specific “universal” values and even specific policies—usually, the values and policies of progressive Democrats.

He then raises three major objections to this view. The first is that the only way to interpret Judaism as a universalist religion with values indistinguishable from those of secular progressives is by ignoring the vast majority of key Jewish texts, including the Bible and the Talmud, and millennia of Jewish tradition. After all, most of these texts deal with the history, laws, and culture of one specific nation—the Jews. The Bible’s history isn’t world history, nor are its laws (with a few exceptions) meant to govern any nation but the Jews. Judaism undeniably has universalist elements. But to ignore its particularist aspects is to ignore much of what makes it Judaism, which therefore corrupts our understanding of Judaism.

The second problem is that if Judaism has no purpose other than promoting the same values and policies touted by non-Jewish progressives, there’s no reason for Judaism to exist at all. Consequently, the tikkun olam version of Judaism really does threaten Judaism’s continued existence, and it’s no accident that the liberal Jewish movements that have embraced it are rapidly dwindling due to intermarriage and assimilation. After all, why should young American Jews remain Jewish when they can do everything they think Judaism requires of them even without being Jewish?

This also explains why, in Neumann’s view, tikkun olam Judaism endangers Israel. If there’s no reason for Judaism to exist, there’s certainly no reason for a Jewish state. Indeed, Israel is anathema to the tikkun olam worldview because it’s the embodiment of Jewish particularism—the view that Jews are a distinct nation and have their own history, culture, and laws rather than being merely promulgators of universal values. Thus it’s easy to understand why tikkun olam Jews increasingly abhor the Jewish state.

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