Analysis from Israel

If you’ve ever wondered why so many overseas Jews view democratic Israel as irredeemably racist, consider the following story: Knesset member Robert Ilatov justifiably made headlines last Thursday by declaring that Arabs who refuse to sing the national anthem, “Hatikva,” shouldn’t be appointed as judges. But several prominent English-language Israeli news sites didn’t even bother mentioning the swift, uncompromising rejection of his view by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked; you won’t, for instance, find a word of her response in Haaretz’s report, while the left-wing +972 website dismissed it as a “weak protestation” by omitting all the most significant parts of her statement.

Shaked’s response matters not only because of her position, but because she herself is no bleeding-heart liberal; she’s second-in-command of the religious Zionist Jewish Home party, the right flank of what the media routinely term a “hardline” government. And that’s precisely the point: While extremists always get headlines, the mainstream rejection of their views is ignored – even when that rejection is so sweeping that it encompasses the leadership of the most right-wing party in the governing center-right coalition.

Granted, Ilatov’s views can’t be dismissed as insignificant; the opposition back-bencher made his statement right after the Knesset chose him as one of the Judicial Appointments Committee’s nine members. But surely the contrary views of the other eight members – and especially Shaked, the panel’s chairwoman – should be considered no less significant when assessing Israel’s character.

Shaked, in her response, endorsed the compromise employed by Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran during his own swearing-in ceremony: Arab judges should stand for the anthem, because state officials must respect the state’s symbols, but they shouldn’t be required to sing along if they can’t identify with lyrics that, after all, are about the Jewish yearning for Zion. “A judge needs to stand during the national anthem, but I won’t be looking to see if he is mouthing the words to Hatikva or not,” she said.

She also endorsed the importance of maintaining the judiciary’s professionalism: “A judge needs to be selected first and foremost according to skills and criteria,” she stressed. Finally, she underscored the importance of having Arab judges in the system: “The fact that we have Arab judges is an admirable thing in a country where 20 percent of the population are minorities.”

In other words, the second-in-command of one of Israel’s most right-wing parties, who also happens to be the justice minister, said exactly what she should have said regarding Arab sensitivities, Arab representation in state institutions and judicial professionalism. But liberals who get their news from Haaretz or +972 will never know it; reading those reports, a well-meaning liberal would legitimately conclude that anti-Arab extremists are running around Israel unopposed.

The same is true of another important news item last week: Two brothers who torched Jerusalem’s Jewish-Arab Hand in Hand School last year were sentenced to 24 and 30 months in jail, respectively (the sentence reflects the fact that the attack endangered no lives, since it occurred overnight). The arson made headlines worldwide as evidence of Israel’s “racism.” But how many international media outlets bothered reporting the fact that the perpetrators were caught, indicted and sentenced to jail?

This isn’t a minor detail. No country on earth has ever managed to eradicate hate crimes; thus the difference between a decent society and an intolerant one is not whether such crimes occur, but how society responds. Are the perpetrators lionized and allowed to walk free – as, for instance, Palestinian terrorists are? Or are they universally condemned, brought to trial and given heavy sentences?

Israel is in the latter category: Not only was the arson universally condemned at the time, but the perpetrators are now doing jail time. But because the initial attack made headlines overseas while the subsequent sentence was either ignored or merited at most a brief mention, the impression left is the opposite: that Israel is a place where hate crimes are tolerated.

Neither Israel nor its supporters can change the media coverage. But liberal Jews who care about Israel can and must try to educate their fellows about the distorted image this coverage conveys. Because criticizing Israel for its minority of extremists while never even acknowledging the majority’s efforts to fight them isn’t “tough love”; it’s sheer dishonesty.

Originally published in Commentary on July 26, 2015

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Israel’s unity government may prove a constitutional time bomb

That Israel will soon have a government is good news; almost any government would be better than the political dysfunction that has produced three elections in the past year. But aside from its existence, there’s little to like about this “unity” government.

The biggest problem isn’t that many important issues will perforce go unaddressed, though that’s inevitable given the compromises required when neither bloc can govern on its own. Nor is it the risk that the government will be dysfunctional even on “consensual” issues like rescuing the economy from the coronavirus crisis, though this risk is real, since both sides’ leaders will have veto power over every government decision.

Rather, it’s the cavalier way that Israel’s Basic Laws are being amended to serve the particular needs of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his new partner, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz.

Though Israel’s Supreme Court wrongly claims the Basic Laws are a constitution, they were never intended as such by the parliaments that passed them. Indeed, some were approved by a mere quarter of the Knesset or less.

But they were intended as the building blocks of a future constitution should Israel ever adopt one. That’s why this handful of laws, alone of all the laws on Israel’s books, are deemed “Basic Laws,” and why each addresses a fundamental constitutional issue (the executive branch, the legislature, the judiciary, human rights, Israel’s Jewish character, etc.).

In other words, though they aren’t a constitution, they do serve as the foundation of Israel’s system of government. And tinkering with the architecture of any democratic system of government can have unintended consequences, as Israel has discovered before to its detriment.

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