Analysis from Israel

Hateful graffiti targeting a minority have repeatedly been scrawled on cars and buildings, including houses of worship, yet police frequently fail to arrest the culprits. Innocent people have been viciously attacked and occasionally even murdered just because they belong to this minority. Clearly, this is a country awash in racism and prejudice that it’s making no real effort to stem, so it deserves harsh condemnation from anyone who cares about such fundamental liberal values as tolerance and nonviolence, right?

That’s certainly the conclusion many liberals leaped to about a similar wave of anti-Arab attacks in Israel. But what I actually just described is the recent wave of anti-Semitic attacks in the United States, and there has–quite properly–been no similar rush to denounce America. Since the American government and people overwhelmingly condemn such attacks, and America remains one of the best places in the world to live openly as a Jew, liberals correctly treat such incidents as exceptions rather than proof that the U.S. is irredeemably anti-Semitic. But somehow, Israel never merits a similarly nuanced analysis.

Consider just a few of the attacks I referenced in the first paragraph: This past weekend–on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year–swastikas were spray-painted on a Jewish fraternity at Emory University in Atlanta, and also on a synagogue in Spokane, Washington, on the other side of the country. In August, a Jewish couple was attacked in New York by thugs who shouted anti-Semitic slogans, threw a water bottle at the woman, and punched her skullcap-wearing husband. In July, pro-Israel demonstrators were attacked by stick-wielding thugs in Los Angeles. On August 9, an Orthodox rabbi was murdered in Miami while walking to synagogue on the Sabbath; police insist this wasn’t a hate crime, though they haven’t yet arrested any suspects, but local Jews are unconvinced, as a synagogue and a Jewish-owned car on the same street were vandalized with anti-Semitic slogans just two weeks earlier. And in April, a white supremacist killed three people at two Jewish institutions near Kansas City, Kansas.

A Martian looking at this list, devoid of any context, might well conclude that America is a deeply anti-Semitic country. And of course, he’d be wrong. Context–the fact that these incidents are exceptions to the overwhelmingly positive picture of Jewish life in America–matters greatly.

Yet that’s no less true for anti-Arab attacks in Israel. As in America, both the government and the public have almost unanimously condemned such attacks. As in America, culprits have been swiftly arrested in some cases, like the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir in July; also as in America, the failure to make arrests in other cases stems not from tolerance for such crimes, but from the simple fact that some cases are harder to solve than others.

Finally, as in America, these incidents belie the fact that overall, Israeli Arabs are better integrated and have more rights not only than any of their counterparts in the Middle East, but also than some of their counterparts in Europe. Israel, for instance, has no laws against building minarets, like Switzerland does, or against civil servants wearing headscarves, as France does. Arabs serve in the Knesset, the Supreme Court, and sometimes the cabinet; they are doctors, university department heads, judges, and high-tech workers.

Clearly, anti-Arab prejudice exists in Israel, just as anti-Jewish prejudice exists in America. But a decade-old tracking project found that it has been declining rather than growing. And successive governments have been trying hard in recent years to narrow persistent Arab-Jewish gaps: For instance, an affirmative action campaign almost quadrupled the number of Arabs in the civil service from 2007 to 2011. Indeed, as Ron Gerlitz, co-executive director of Sikkuy – The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality, argued in August, it’s precisely the Arab minority’s growing integration that has outraged the anti-Arab fringe and helped spark the recent rise in hate crimes.

So it’s past time for liberals to give Israel the same courtesy they extend America: Stop looking at hate crimes in a vacuum and start seeing them for what they are–isolated incidents that don’t and shouldn’t condemn an entire country as “racist.”

Originally published in Commentary 

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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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