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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‘We need to talk’ about the role of non-Orthodox movements

The Jewish Federations of North America are holding their annual General Assembly this week under the title “We Need to Talk,” with “we” meaning Israel and the Diaspora. In that spirit, let’s talk about one crucial difference between the two communities: the role of the non-Orthodox Jewish movements. In America, these movements are important to maintaining Jewish identity, something Israelis often fail to understand. But in Israel, they are unnecessary to maintaining Jewish identity—something American Jews frequently fail to understand.

A 2013 Pew Research poll found that by every possible measure of Jewish identity, American Jews who define themselves as being “of no religion” score significantly worse than those who define themselves as Reform or Conservative Jews. For instance, 67 percent of “Jews of no religion” raise their children “not Jewish,” compared to just 10 percent of Reform Jews and 7 percent of Conservative Jews. Only 13 percent give their children any formal or informal Jewish education (day school, Hebrew school, summer camp, etc.), compared to 77 percent of Conservative Jews and 48 percent of Reform Jews. The intermarriage rate for “Jews of no religion” is 79 percent, compared to 50 and 27 percent, respectively, among Reform and Conservative Jews.

Indeed, 54 percent of “Jews of no religion” say being Jewish is of little or no importance to them, compared to just 14 percent of Reform Jews and 7 percent of Conservative Jews, while 55 percent feel little or no attachment to Israel, compared to 29 percent of Reform Jews and 12 percent of Conservative Jews. And only 10 percent care about being part of a Jewish community, compared to 25 and 40 percent, respectively, of Reform and Conservative Jews.

Granted, the non-Orthodox movements haven’t done very well at transmitting Jewish identity to subsequent generations; Orthodoxy is the only one of the three major denominations where the percentage of 18- to 29-year-olds isn’t significantly lower than the percentage of people over 50. Nevertheless, these movements do vastly better than “Jews no religion,” which, for most non-Orthodox Jews, is the most likely alternative. Not surprisingly, any Jewish identity is better than none.

Yet the picture is very different among secular Israeli Jews, the closest Israeli equivalent to “Jews of no religion.” The vast majority marry other Jews, if only because most of the people they know are Jewish. Almost all raise their children Jewish because that’s the norm in their society (fertility rates are also significantly higher). More than 80 percent consider their Jewish identity important. Most obviously care about Israel, since they live there. And because they live there, they belong to the world’s largest Jewish community, whether they want to or not.

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