Analysis from Israel

The standard narrative about Israel these days goes like this: The current government is the most right-wing ever, the public is increasingly racist and anti-democratic, and the prime minister is either a right-wing zealot or a coward afraid to challenge his right-wing base. But the most remarkable part of this narrative is how durable it has proven despite all evidence to the contrary.

The latest such evidence comes from today’s Jerusalem Post report about a massive drop in construction in the settlements. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, housing starts in the settlements plummeted by 53 percent in the first quarter, compared to an 8.1 percent decline in housing starts nationwide. Needless to say, one would expect settlement construction to soar under Israel’s “most right-wing government ever” and a prime minister captive to his right-wing base. Yet in fact, as I’ve written before, the “right-wing” Benjamin Netanyahu has consistently built less in the settlements than any of his left-wing predecessors–a fact that never seems to disturb proponents of the “far-right extremist” narrative.

Even more noteworthy was a pair of reports in the left-wing daily Haaretz earlier this month about two unprecedented moves to boost equality for Israeli Arabs. The first report noted that the Council for Higher Education, chaired by Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the right-of-center Jewish Home party, is advancing plans for Israel’s first ever BA-granting college in an Arab town. Until now, the only institutes of higher education in Arab towns have been teacher’s colleges. But a tender to set up a BA-granting college closed on May 31, and the CHE is now reviewing the five bids it received. The winner is expected to be announced in another few months, and the new institution is slated to open next year. To help it succeed, the government has promised millions of shekels in start-up funds plus an annual budget of 20 to 40 million shekels (depending on enrollment).

The new institution is expected to significantly increase the number of Arabs, and especially Arab women, obtaining BAs, because many will now be able to live at home and commute to college. Not only will this eliminate the expense of renting apartments near campus, but it also solves the access problem for women from conservative Arab families who are barred by social norms from living away from home.

The second report described two moves to ease the housing shortage in Arab communities. First, a government planning committee decided to build a new neighborhood in the Arab city of Taibeh, which “will be one of the largest building plans in the Arab sector to have been approved for many years,” the report noted. Second, the Interior Ministry approved a decision to take land from the Jewish jurisdiction of Misgav and give it to the Arab town of Sakhnin. The report also noted that these decisions are merely the latest in “an increasing number” over the past year and a half intended “to accelerate development in the Arab sector, after many decades of neglect and inaction.”

Like the drop in settlement construction, these efforts on behalf of Israeli Arabs don’t exactly fit the narrative of a government and public mired in right-wing extremism. Indeed, they contradict it so blatantly that even Haaretz reporter Nimrod Bousso couldn’t ignore it. “One cannot help but wonder why this change is finally taking place under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the man who never seems to miss a chance to demonstrate hostility toward the group that makes up a fifth of Israel’s population … and whose government has a significant number of members with nationalist views,” he wrote in his news story on the Taibeh and Sakhnin decisions.

The answer, of course, is that the narrative is simply wrong on every count. Diplomatically speaking, as I’ve noted before, this government is actually one of the more left-wing in Israel’s history: Though Netanyahu doesn’t consider a two-state solution achievable right now, he does accept the idea in principle; in contrast, during Israel’s first 45 years of existence, all governments from both left and right considered a Palestinian state anathema. And Netanyahu’s policy of restraining settlement construction – which, contrary to his “cowardly” image, he has maintained despite considerable opposition from parts of his base – is consistent with his stated commitment to a two-state solution.

Moreover, as the examples above show, his past three governments have actually been among the most progressive in Israel’s history in terms of their practical efforts to improve Arab integration. And unlike his settlement policy, his efforts to advance Arab equality have sparked no significant opposition from either his cabinet or his electorate, even though Israeli Arabs overwhelmingly vote for his political opponents. The reason is simple: Any government which considers Israeli-Palestinian peace unachievable in the foreseeable future has no choice but to invest in Israel’s internal development, in order to ensure that the country is strong enough to survive without peace. And improving Arab integration is crucial to the country’s internal development because Israeli Arabs, currently underrepresented in both higher education and the work force, represent one of the main potential sources of future economic growth.

But proponents of the “far-right-extremism” narrative seem utterly impervious to the facts. So they can only scratch their heads in puzzlement over why Israel’s “most right-wing government ever” is precisely the one that’s taking far-reaching steps to improve the lot of Israeli Arabs.

Originally published in Commentary on June 20, 2016

2 Responses to The Israel Narrative Is Wrong

  • Scott says:

    The one objection I have to this post is the line “even though Israeli Arabs overwhelmingly vote for his political opponents.” The organized Arab community is certainly behind his political opponents, but obscures the fact that the town that voted most heavily for Likud in the last election is an Arab town.

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Jewsraelis: A Review of ‘#IsraeliJudaism’ by Shmuel Rosner and Camil Fuchs

Through 2,000 years of exile, Judaism survived because rabbinic sages reshaped it into a portable religion rather than one anchored to a specific land. But what happens once a Jewish state is reestablished? Judaism is changing once again, Shmuel Rosner and Camil Fuchs argue in #IsraeliJudaism: Portrait of a Cultural Revolution—only this time, from the bottom up.

The book, published in Hebrew in 2018 and English in 2019, is based on a survey of beliefs and practices among 3,005 Israeli Jews. The survey was commissioned by the Jewish People Policy Institute, where Rosner is a senior fellow; Fuchs was the project’s statistician. A book based on a survey could easily become an indigestible mass of statistics, but Rosner and Fuchs have produced a highly readable (and superbly translated) analysis of what this data actually tell us.

What they tell us, the authors say, is that a “new Judaism” is emerging in Israel—one that values Jewish tradition, though not strict adherence to halacha (Jewish law), and that views national identity as a crucial component of Judaism. For instance, 73 percent of Jewish Israelis say being Jewish includes observing Jewish festivals and customs. And 72 percent say being a good Jew includes raising one’s children to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, while 60 percent say it includes raising one’s children to live in Israel.

This fusion of religious and national identity characterizes 55 percent of Israeli Jews, whom Rosner and Fuchs infelicitously dub “Jewsraelis.” The rest divide roughly equally among people whose identity is primarily Jewish (17 percent), primarily Israeli (15 percent), and primarily universalist (13 percent).

Israeli Judaism necessarily differs from both the Diaspora and pre-state versions, since its national components, like army service, aren’t possible outside a Jewish state. Moreover, Judaism is present in Israel’s public square to a degree impossible elsewhere, from public-school classes on the Bible (since it’s part of Israel’s cultural heritage) to the country’s complete shutdown on Yom Kippur. Unsurprisingly, this produces fierce arguments over what Judaism’s public component should look like, including efforts to dictate it through legislative or executive action.

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