Its twin coronavirus and budget crises are problems caused by—and only fixable by—political leaders, not bureaucratic maneuvering.
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.
None of this absolves Netanyahu, who could have overruled Sadetzki but didn’t because he also opposed involving the army, out of reluctance to share power with his defense minister. It merely shows that letting the “professionals” take charge wouldn’t guarantee a better outcome.
Nor is that the only problem. Civil servants are also just as vulnerable as politicians to letting extraneous considerations influence their decisions. Both often abhor sharing power. Health Ministry bureaucrats opposed outsourcing contact tracing to the army for the same reason Netanyahu did: they didn’t want to cede control. Both can also have conflicts of interest.
Shaul Meridor, the treasury budget director whose resignation opens Gur’s article, is a perfect example, as a Ha’aretz report in September shows. Back in 2012, as a less senior treasury official, he was actively involved in the Tzemach Committee, which drafted Israel’s natural-gas policy. He pushed for letting more gas be exported rather than reserving it for domestic consumption, a position the gas companies favored. The lawyer representing the companies at that time was none other than his brother, Mattan Meridor. Later, in 2015, Shaul was appointed director general of the Energy Ministry and put in charge of implementing the new policy. Mattan therefore stopped representing the companies in negotiations with the ministry, but his firm continued to do so.
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was convicted of breach of trust in 2012 for not dissimilar behavior: in his previous role as industry minister, he made decisions benefiting corporate clients of a lawyer friend rather than recusing himself due to a conflict of interests. But there’s one significant difference: ministry bureaucrats had opposed some of Olmert’s decisions, which was considered evidence that he was motivated by favoritism rather than policy considerations. Meridor can never be accused of disregarding the bureaucrats’ judgments, because he is the bureaucrat making the judgments.
To be clear, I don’t think Meridor did anything criminal. (I wouldn’t have convicted Olmert in that case, either; I think politicians are allowed to disagree with bureaucrats.) Nor do I blame him for the sweetheart deal the companies received, which left Israelis paying well above market rates for natural-gas even as promised billions in royalties never materialized; Netanyahu badly wanted to get the gas flowing and pushed for major concessions to the companies to do so.
But it’s hard to deny that Meridor had an egregious conflict of interests, of the type that would have outraged the legal establishment and the media had he been a politician. (The Justice Ministry did eventually step in, but very belatedly.) Being an apolitical civil servant doesn’t immunize anyone against extraneous considerations.
A third problem is that bureaucrats are often poorly attuned to political sensitivities. Granted, that’s sometimes an advantage: Netanyahu has repeatedly gutted measures to curb the spread of the virus because he’s overly attentive to his ḥaredi allies. But sometimes, it’s a huge disadvantage—as demonstrated by that very same issue.
One reason the Ḥaredim have repeatedly resisted such measures is because they feel singled out for censure from other Israelis who also haven’t been paragons of good anti-viral behavior. Objectively, they haven’t been singled out. Health officials have targeted yeshivas and synagogues rather than, say, the mass anti-Netanyahu demonstrations that have been taking place in Israel for months because infection is more likely to spread indoors than outdoors. And officials have sought tighter restrictions on ḥaredi communities because Ḥaredim account for a disproportionately high share of COVID-19 infections.
Nevertheless, ḥaredi grievance didn’t emerge from nowhere. Even during Israel’s first lockdown, long before evidence emerged that demonstrations pose a limited infection risk, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and other senior legal officials insisted that protests be exempt from lockdown rules—not on health grounds, but because protesting is a fundamental democratic right. That remains their position to this day.
But legally speaking, it’s not clear why freedom to demonstrate trumps free exercise of religion or freedom to earn a living—all are fundamental rights. Indeed, the last could arguably claim precedence in Israel’s legal system, since it’s the only one explicitly protected by a quasi-constitutional Basic Law (the Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation). Thus by according the right to protest special privileges, legal officials were making a value judgment—one that happened to favor the needs of secular leftists, who comprise the bulk of the anti-Netanyahu protesters, over the needs of Ḥaredim, for whom yeshiva study and synagogue worship are far more important than demonstrations. That rankled deeply, and it bolstered ḥaredi opposition to the latest restrictions.
The bureaucracy obviously isn’t solely to blame for anyone’s noncompliance. Ḥaredim are far from the only people flouting the rules. And their legitimate grievance doesn’t excuse the prime minister’s capitulation to their demands. Nevertheless, this is a classic example of how bureaucrats’ political tone-deafness can undermine their ability to implement the apolitical policies at which they ostensibly excel.
The final problem is that unless Israel abandons democracy entirely by stripping elected officials of any real power, civil servants’ ability to compensate for politicians’ follies will always be inherently limited. Indeed, Gur’s article underscores that point: the fight between the “treasury youth” and the politicians over Israel’s coronavirus spending ended in the bureaucrats’ complete defeat. They resigned from the treasury, while the politicians are still riding roughshod over budgetary norms.
For all these reasons, governance salvation cannot come from bureaucrats; it can only come from inculcating greater responsibility in our politicians. And in this regard, the bureaucrats’ already immense power is clearly counterproductive.
As Gur correctly noted, the fact that unelected bureaucrats now decide the “fundamental questions that . . . are considered the heart and soul of politics” has produced a “trivialized” politics and irresponsible politicians. Once, people entered politics to shape the country’s future. But for today’s Knesset members, convinced that they have little chance of actually affecting policy, garnering media attention through ever more outrageous statements and bills is one of the few things they can do to feel like they matter. Thus if Israel wants a responsible political class, it must reduce the bureaucrats’ power and thereby enable politicians to make their names through policy rather than sensationalism.
It also needs to create personal accountability for MKs. Israel is virtually unique among Western democracies in that its MKs aren’t directly elected and therefore never answer to the voters for their conduct. Since Israelis vote only for parties, MKs’ political futures depend solely on their placement on their party’s slate. In parties without primaries, that placement is determined by the party leader. In parties with primaries, it’s determined largely by so-called vote contractors—representatives of special-interest groups who can mobilize large numbers of party members behind their preferred candidates.
Solving this problem doesn’t require replacing Israel’s current proportional representation system with an Anglo-American constituency system. There are various methods of directly electing MKs while maintaining proportional representation, and most Western parliamentary democracies use them. It’s long past time for Israel to do the same.
Finally, there’s simply no avoiding the fact that Netanyahu’s current behavior, following four terms of largely responsible leadership, is due entirely to his criminal indictment. As Gur noted, he’s played politics at the expense of both virus-fighting efforts and the economy because the only way he can secure immunity from prosecution is by holding new elections that he hopes will give him the parliamentary majority needed to amend the law and save him from standing trial.
Thus, even though an indicted prime minister is an unprecedented event for Israel that hopefully won’t recur, legislation is needed to address the possibility. One option is to bar anyone under indictment from forming a government, but that would give the legal bureaucracy far too much power to determine who may or may not be prime minister. The other option is the route taken by most Western democracies: immunity from prosecution while in office coupled with term limits to prevent that immunity from becoming permanent.
If Israel wants to remain a democracy, expanding civil servants’ already excessive power is no solution. The only option is to start the long, hard work of building a more responsive and responsible political class.
Originally published in Mosaic on September 29, 2020
Last week, I thought something I never dreamed I could think: that perhaps I owe former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon an apology. Not that I’ve altered my conviction that he bears direct, personal responsibility for every rocket fired from Gaza over the last nine years, every cross-border tunnel, every soldier killed there, every bit of damage done to Israel’s global standing by the periodic wars with Gaza and even many Palestinian casualties of these wars; all are the bitter fruit of the unilateral “disengagement” from Gaza that he conceived, bulldozed through the Knesset and finally implemented in August 2005. Yet if an apology is owed – and I’m still not sure it is – it’s not despite his responsibility for these evils, but because of it. Here’s why:
During the second intifada, then-IDF chief of staff (and now defense minister) Moshe Ya’alon used to talk about the need to “sear the Palestinians’ consciousness” – to make the intifada so costly for them that they would never again resort to violence. The Gaza pullout now looks uncannily like a similar exercise in consciousness-searing. But it wasn’t the Palestinians’ consciousness Sharon seared; it was our own.
Sharon understood his countrymen. He understood that many Israelis desperately wanted to believe peace with the Palestinians was possible despite all evidence to the contrary. He understood that Israelis’ desire to be loved by the world made the country far more vulnerable to international pressure than economic or strategic considerations alone could ever do. He understood Israelis’ demographic fears – that absent a two-state solution, a single Palestinian-majority state could someday replace a Jewish state. And he saw how, even as the intifada still raged in autumn 2003, the mere fact that Israeli casualties had dropped markedly since its peak in early 2002 sufficed to enable these other considerations to regain their sway. Consequently, various schemes to cede land to the Palestinians were already making a public comeback.
Sharon also understood one other thing: Important as control of Gaza was to Israel’s security, it paled beside the importance of the West Bank. Gaza primarily threatened Israel’s sparsely populated south. The West Bank threatened not only Israel’s major population centers, but also its industrial and commercial base, its main international airport and its seat of government.
Sharon assuredly didn’t belittle Gaza’s importance. He was an army officer during the 1950s, when Palestinian terrorists used Gaza as a base for staging bloody attacks inside Israel, and after Israel captured it in 1967, he spearheaded construction of the Gaza settlements precisely to ensure it would remain Israeli and never revert to being a Palestinian terror base. That’s why the unilateral withdrawal plan he unveiled in December 2003 was so shocking: It contradicted the fundamental security doctrine to which he had hitherto devoted his life.
Nor was he naïve enough that he could possibly have believed the rosy promises he sold the Israeli public about the pullout: that it would promote peace with the Palestinians, enhance Israel’s security, give Israel international legitimacy to fight Palestinian terror and buy American support for retaining parts of the West Bank. Indeed, the exact opposite occurred: The unilateral pullout bolstered Hamas, which rode to victory in the Palestinian parliamentary election in 2006 partly by claiming credit for driving Israel out of Gaza; it drastically decreased Israel’s security, resulting in 16,500 rockets and mortars fired at Israel from Gaza since the withdrawal and more soldiers dying there since the pullout than before; it severely eroded international support for Israeli counterterrorism measures, because once Hamas could entrench its rockets, tunnels and booby-trapped buildings amid Gaza’s civilian population, military operations against it necessarily caused far more Palestinian casualties than they did pre-withdrawal; and US promises of support for Israeli retention of parts of the West Bank evaporated the minute a new American president took office.
All this seemed to leave only the most cynical of explanations for Sharon’s about-face: He sacrificed Gaza, its 8,000 settlers and Israel’s security solely to ensure his own reelection and/or the end of the criminal investigations against him. At best, perhaps he convinced himself that since he was (truly) head and shoulders above all his possible successors, his reelection would benefit Israel enough to compensate for this sacrifice.
I still can’t rule this explanation out. As the fantasies he peddled about the disengagement show, he was plenty cynical enough (and megalomaniac enough) to make it plausible.
But I now think there’s an alternative explanation: Seeing that even the second intifada hadn’t sufficed to cure Israelis of their susceptibility to territorial concessions, he concluded that unless he did something drastic, Israel would someday quit the West Bank. So he sacrificed the less-important Gaza to teach his countrymen a lesson they couldn’t possibly disregard. He bequeathed us a metastasizing horror in Gaza to ensure that Israelis never, ever made that same mistake in the West Bank.
For Sharon also understood one final thing about Israelis: Much as they crave the world’s love, once a critical mass of them is convinced that something is vital to their country’s survival, they are capable of defying the entire world to secure it.
The Gaza experiment’s deadly results may finally have convinced that critical mass of Israelis. Outside the radical left, not many would be willing to risk a repeat in the West Bank right now. And while nothing else that’s happened justifies the disengagement, averting a far more dangerous withdrawal from the West Bank actually might.
Except for one minor problem: The success of the operation doesn’t matter if the patient dies. And it’s not yet clear Israel can survive the success of Sharon’s operation. It’s not clear it can survive the security consequences – which, for the first time since 1948, have turned Israeli communities within the Green Line into ghost towns – and it’s not clear it can survive the cumulative toll on its international legitimacy that repeated applications of Hamas’ wildly successful “dead baby strategy” are exacting.
That’s why I haven’t yet decided whether Sharon actually deserves that apology. I’m waiting to see whether anyone finds a cure for his operation’s deadly side effects.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post
Last week, I noted that Israel’s unilateral pullout from Gaza has cost the lives of more Israeli soldiers than remaining in Gaza would have. But no less significant is the fact that Israel’s pullout has cost the lives of far more Palestinians than remaining in Gaza would have.
Here, too, a comparison to the second intifada is instructive. According to B’Tselem’s statistics, 1,727 Palestinians were killed in Gaza between September 2000, when the intifada began, and the August 2005 pullout. Since then, the numbers have soared. Another 1,271 Palestinians were killed between the pullout and December 2008, when the first Israel-Hamas war in Gaza began; 1,391 were killed during that war, and 481 between then and the start of the current war. That’s 3,143 Palestinian fatalities in total, and Palestinians claim another 1,600 or so have been killed during this war. So even if you assume, which I do, that B’Tselem’s numbers are exaggerated (it tends to believe Palestinian reports far too uncritically), the trend is undeniable: Since the pullout, Israeli-Palestinian fighting has produced more than twice as many Palestinian fatalities as the peak years of the second intifada did.
Moreover, as in the case of Israeli fatalities, this increase represents a sharp contrast to the trend in the West Bank, which the Israel Defense Forces still control: There, Palestinian fatalities have fallen from 1,491 between September 2000 and August 2005 to 395 in the nine years since August 2005, meaning annual fatalities have fallen by more than 85 percent (they haven’t dropped to zero because neither has Palestinian terror; terror attacks still kill Israelis every year, but the level is dramatically lower than at the height of the intifada).
The question is why Palestinian fatalities in Gaza have risen so sharply. The anti-Israel crowd will doubtless cite this fact as “proof” that recent Israeli premiers are even more bloodthirsty than “the butcher of Beirut,” as they fondly dubbed Ariel Sharon, the prime minister during the second intifada. But anyone not convinced that Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu are simply monsters who like eating Palestinian children for breakfast will have to consider the obvious alternative: Palestinian casualties have soared because the IDF’s departure from Gaza allowed terrorist organizations to entrench their rockets, tunnels, and explosives among the civilian population in a way that simply wasn’t possible before.
In the current war, Palestinians have stored rockets in schools and launched them from hospitals and from amid civilian houses. They have built cross-border tunnels to attack Israel that pass under civilian houses and emerge straight into a mosque. They have booby-trapped civilian houses and even health clinics. In short, by embedding their war material among the civilian population, Hamas and other terrorist organizations have made it impossible for the IDF to target them without also hitting civilians.
This Hamas strategy increases Palestinian casualties in another way as well: by magnifying the impact of any Israeli strike. Precision bombs can sometimes take out a building without touching the ones next to it. But precision strikes don’t work when the building they hit is booby-trapped or serves as a rocket warehouse; in that case, secondary explosions will create a much broader swathe of destruction. And Israel has no way of knowing when a target has been booby-trapped; Hamas doesn’t provide it with maps.
Problems like this didn’t arise when the IDF still controlled Gaza, because it could take preventive action to keep Hamas from entrenching war material in civilian areas to begin with. And that’s precisely why counterterrorism operations in the IDF-controlled West Bank have produced vastly lower Palestinian casualties.
Hamas certainly isn’t going to abandon its “dead baby strategy” voluntarily; conducting operations from amid a civilian population so as to maximize civilian casualties has proven wildly successful in turning the world against Israel. The conclusion is thus inescapable: Should the IDF ever leave the West Bank, the pullout won’t just result in more dead Israelis. It will certainly result in more dead Palestinians as well.
Originally published in Commentary
On Friday, the always perceptive Walter Russell Mead termed the FAA’s decision to suspend flights to Israel last week “the biggest political mistake of the war so far.” Mead was referring to the decision’s impact on a cease-fire, but it actually has far larger political implications. In one fell swoop, it destroyed the main diplomatic return the Obama Administration hoped to earn on its years of generous support for the Iron Dome anti-missile system: increased Israeli willingness to withdraw from the West Bank.
While Congress’s motive in supporting Iron Dome was mainly to save Israeli lives, the Obama administration always had an additional motive: countering Israeli fears that ceding the West Bank would lead to “rockets from Nablus, Ramallah and Jenin onto Ben-Gurion Airport,” as Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon put it, just as leaving Gaza resulted in massive rocket fire on Israel’s south. If Iron Dome could protect Israel from rocket fire, the argument went, then Israel needn’t fear a West Bank withdrawal.
Until last week, that argument might have had a chance: True, Hamas was sending rocket barrages all over Israel and forcing Israelis into shelters several times a day, but the combination of Iron Dome and civil defense measures kept Israeli casualties negligible.
Last week, however, Israelis learned that even Iron Dome can’t keep their main airport open when their neighbors are launching rockets at it. No anti-missile system is foolproof, and one intentionally missed rocket proved enough for most of the world to suspend flights to Israel.
As Mead correctly noted, the discovery that Hamas’s rockets can threaten its main transportation link to the outside world makes it much harder for Israel to end the fighting without eliminating Hamas’s rocket capabilities. But it also makes it much harder for Israel to quit the West Bank as long as there’s any chance of it turning into a rocket launching pad like Gaza has.
The vast majority of Israel’s foreign investment and trade comes from the West, and Israel’s geographic distance from the West means this commerce depends on aerial traffic. With its airport shuttered, investors can’t come in and time-sensitive exports can’t go out. Thus Israel simply cannot afford to have its air links with the West at the mercy of a terrorist organization. Its economy wouldn’t survive.
Whether the FAA’s decision was actually political I don’t know. Perhaps the agency was merely spooked by the previous week’s downing of a commercial airliner over Ukraine. Yet the fact that the ban was reversed two days later even though the security situation hadn’t changed, combined with the fact that major airlines like British Airways never suspended flights to begin with, support the contention that the decision, as Haaretz military analyst Amos Harel put it, “had no substantive professional basis,” and was intended primarily to browbeat Israel into accepting Secretary of State John Kerry’s completely unacceptable cease-fire proposal.
If so, to quote Harel again, it reflected “a fundamental lack of understanding of the Israeli mindset”–and not just about the cease-fire. That single FAA decision did more than any political argument ever could to ensure that Israel won’t be leaving the West Bank anytime soon.
Having long argued that such a withdrawal would be untenably dangerous, I’m certainly not sorry. But for the Obama administration, it was definitely an own goal.
Several commentators have already noted that foreign airlines’ suspension of flights to Israel due to Hamas rocket fire may mean Israel will “never-ever hand land to Palestinians ever again,” as Shmuel Rosner put it on Twitter; Israel can’t afford to have its sole air bridge to the world be at the mercy of a terrorist organization’s whims. But blaming Hamas alone for such a development would be unfair, because the problem isn’t just that Israel evacuated every last inch of Gaza and got 13,000 rockets (and counting) fired at its territory in exchange. It’s that after evacuating Gaza and getting 13,000 rockets in exchange, Israel discovered it still had zero support from the West for any military steps sufficient to actually suppress this rocket fire.
Western leaders seem curiously oblivious to the fact that the promise of “international legitimacy” was the trump card played by every Israeli premier who executed territorial withdrawals to refute critics who worried (correctly) that the evacuated areas would become hotbeds of anti-Israel terror. Yitzhak Rabin, in withdrawing Israeli forces from parts of the West Bank and Gaza under the Oslo Accords; Ehud Barak, in the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon; and Ariel Sharon, in the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza all made the same simple argument: If Israel is subsequently attacked from these areas, it will then have full international legitimacy to do whatever is necessary to stop the attacks. And most Israelis believed them.
Today, no Israeli believes this anymore. Those prime ministerial promises were made in 1993, 2000, and 2005–i.e., before the Second Lebanon War of 2006, Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008, or the current Gaza operation. And what Israel discovered in all those wars was that Western leaders, diplomats, journalists, intellectuals, and other opinion leaders indeed declared loudly that Israel has a right to defend itself–but only on condition that it not kill civilians. And since it’s impossible to avoid civilian casualties in any war, much less one against a terrorist organization that deliberately uses civilians as human shields, that effectively means Israel has no legitimacy for military action at all.
This lack of legitimacy is evident in countless ways. Virulently anti-Semitic demonstrations against the Israeli operation have swept the Western world, though no such demonstrations were ever held against the far greater slaughter in, say, Syria. The UN Human Rights Council is working on launching an inquiry into Israeli “war crimes” in Gaza–though not, needless to say, those of Hamas; a similar inquiry after the last Gaza war produced the infamous Goldstone Commission, whose report accusing Israel of “war crimes” was opposed by only eight Western countries in the UN General Assembly, despite being so libelous that even its lead author subsequently repudiated it.
Leading European intellectuals have declared on public radio that all “Zionists” should be shot and the West should arm Hamas. Ostensibly sober diplomats have made witless statements (to borrow Peter Wehner’s apt term) about how Israel is losing “moral authority” by “overdoing” its military operation, when in fact, the ground operation has been limited to a small stretch of Gaza near the Israeli border, leaving the rest of Hamas’s military infrastructure untouched. Both Washington and European capitals are demanding that Israel “do more” to prevent civilian casualties, without explaining what more it could do short of abandoning the military operation and simply letting Hamas launch its rockets undisturbed, while also demanding an “immediate” cease-fire that would leave Hamas with much of its military capability intact.
In short, Israel has learned that once it cedes territory, it’s at the mercy of any terrorist organization that chooses to attack it from that territory, because it will never have international legitimacy to conduct the kind of military operation necessary to suppress such attacks. And that’s not Hamas’s fault at all. It’s the fault of that same “enlightened West” that claims its top priority is an agreement that would get Israel out of the West Bank.
On Tuesday, I discussed how Israel Apartheid Week, which is taking place this week and next, feeds off latent anti-Semitism. But it’s a truism that anti-Semitism never harms the Jews alone, and IAW is a classic example. To understand why, consider three news reports from the last two weeks.
Some 500,000 Syrian civilians, or perhaps even more, have fled Aleppo in response to the government’s aerial bombing campaign, “creating what aid workers say is one of the largest refugee flows of the entire civil war”–an impressive achievement for a war that’s already created 2.4 million refugees and caused 6.5 million to be internally displaced. Tens of thousands of Muslims are fleeing spiraling violence in the Central African Republic, “in what human rights groups and a top United Nations official characterized … as de facto ethnic cleansing.” And in South Sudan, where a fragile truce has broken down, almost 900,000 people have been displaced, while “millions could go hungry if fields remain unplowed before the coming rainy season.”
And those are just samples. Altogether, millions of people round the world are being killed, displaced, and/or facing starvation. Yet IAW activists are blanketing campuses throughout the West with a campaign aimed at persuading educated young people that the world’s biggest problem, the one they should focus on persuading their governments to solve, is a low-level conflict that isn’t generating mass slaughter, mass displacement, or mass starvation–one whose total casualties over 65 years are barely a tenth of those produced by Syria’s civil war in less than three. And because the miserable Syrians, Central Africans, and South Sudanese have no comparably well-funded and well-organized group to press their cases, a great many well-meaning Westerners have become convinced that Israel’s “oppression” of the Palestinians truly is the world’s most pressing problem, and are lobbying their governments to direct their efforts accordingly.
In democracies, governments tend to react to public pressure. A classic example is the “Kony 2012” video, which detailed the atrocities committed by Joseph Kony’s militia, the Lord’s Resistance Army, in Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan: The video went viral, and its popularity is credited with spurring Western governments to make hunting down Kony a higher priority, which in turn helped persuade the African Union to launch a mission to do so. Yet any government has only so much time, energy, money, and political capital to spend; thus a greater investment in one cause inevitably comes at the expense of other causes for which there is less public pressure.
Consequently, to the degree that groups like IAW succeed in generating public pressure for Western governments to make “Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians” a top priority, they inevitably cause these governments to devote less attention to real crimes happening in places like Syria, Central African Republic, and South Sudan. In other words, they are contributing directly to the ongoing slaughter, displacement and hunger in those countries by persuading Western citizens, and hence Western governments, that far more effort should be invested in trying to create a Palestinian state than in trying to ease the much greater distress elsewhere in the world.
Thus while Israelis are IAW’s main targets, they are far from being its main victims. The real victims are the millions being massacred, displaced, and starved while the West ignores them, because it’s too busy obsessing over Israel.
It’s no accident that “Israel Apartheid Week,” an annual two-week extravaganza that began this week, focuses on Western college campuses. It’s not just because that’s where young, impressionable future leaders can be found. It’s also because, as a new study reveals, the educated mainstream is the mainstay of good old-fashioned anti-Semitism in today’s West. That counterintuitive finding explains why college campuses are such fertile ground for attacks on the Jewish state.
Prof. Monika Schwarz-Friesel of the Technical University of Berlin reached this conclusion after studying 10 years’ worth of hate mail–14,000 letters, emails, and faxes in all–sent to the Central Council of Jews in Germany and the Israeli embassy in Berlin. In an interview published in Haaretz yesterday, she said she fully expected to discover that most of it came from right-wing extremists. But in fact, right-wing extremists accounted for a mere 3 percent, while over 60 percent came from educated members of “the social mainstream – professors, Ph.Ds, lawyers, priests, university and high-school students,” she said. Nor were there any significant differences between right-wing extremists’ letters and those of the educated mainstream, Schwarz-Friesel said: “The difference is only in the style and the rhetoric, but the ideas are the same.”
To be clear, these letters weren’t just criticizing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians; we’re talking about classic anti-Semitism–as evident from the samples Haaretz cited:
“It is possible that the murder of innocent children suits your long tradition?” one letter said.
“For the last 2,000 years, you’ve been stealing land and committing genocide,” said another.
“You Israelis … shoot cluster bombs over populated areas and accuse people who criticize such actions of anti-Semitism. That’s typical of the Jews!”
That modern anti-Semitism is propagated mainly by mainstream intellectuals shouldn’t actually be surprising, as Schwarz-Friesel noted in the original Hebrew interview: “Throughout history, anti-Semitism and Jew-hatred never began in the street, but with educated people – in the writings of the Church, in poems, in novels and fairy tales” (a quote regrettably omitted from the abridged English version). Yet this fact has been forgotten – or deliberately obscured – in the modern West, which still sees anti-Semitism as the province of the far right.
Her research, originally published in German but due out in English next year, also led Schwarz-Friesel to another unambiguous conclusion: “Today, it’s already impossible to distinguish between anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism. Modern anti-Semites have turned ‘the Jewish problem’ into ‘the Israeli problem.’ They have redirected the ‘final solution’ from the Jews to the State of Israel, which they see as the embodiment of evil.”
This conclusion is borne out by the samples Haaretz quoted. It’s obviously easy to believe Israel murders innocent children if you think “the murder of innocent children suits [the Jews’] long tradition”; easy to believe Israel steals land and commits genocide if you think Jews have been doing this “for the last 2,000 years”; easy to believe Israel shoots cluster bombs indiscriminately if you think “that’s typical of the Jews.” Modern-day anti-Semites simply assume the Jewish state commits all the evils they deem it “natural” for Jews to commit, and no evidence will persuade them otherwise–just as no evidence will persuade them that child-murder isn’t part of the Jewish tradition.
Hence the genius of Israel Apartheid Week’s organizers: They’re hawking a blood libel against the Jewish state (the apartheid canard) precisely where it will sell most easily, because the educated mainstream found on college campuses contains a reservoir of people primed to believe blood libels against Jews. Then, thanks to the myth that modern-day anti-Semitism exists only on the far-right fringes, these people can in turn market it to their peers–the decent folk who would never knowingly traffic in anti-Semitism–secure in the knowledge that the libel’s anti-Semitic roots will never be suspected.
Thus to counter such libels, we must start by countering this myth. That means we must start challenging anti-Semitism in the places where it primarily lives: not in the far-right fever swamps, but among the educated mainstream.