Analysis from Israel

According to a front-page story in today’s Haaretz, everything you thought you knew about the Jewish terrorists suspected of perpetrating last week’s horrific murder of a Palestinian baby is wrong. The accepted wisdom, propagated by everyone from Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to Haaretz’s own editorial pages, is that the terrorists are motivated by a “climate of incitement,” in which extremist statements by right-wing rabbis and politicians lead them to believe that anything, even murder, is permissible to achieve their goals. But Israel’s premier counterterrorism agency – which, unlike espousers of the accepted wisdom, has spent years studying the terrorists up close – doesn’t buy it.

These few dozen hardcore terrorists, the Shin Bet security service told Haaretz, heed neither rabbis nor politicians; they are “anarchist anti-Zionists” who consider even “extremist” rabbis too moderate. Moreover, their goal isn’t to promote Jewish settlement or stop territorial withdrawals or any other goal shared by the “extremist” rabbis and politicians; rather, it’s to overthrow the State of Israel itself and replace it with a religious “kingdom.” In this, they differ fundamentally even from the “price-tag” vandals, whose goal was limited to deterring house demolitions in the settlements and whose tactics – albeit completely unacceptable – were generally confined to vandalism, “with no clear intention to cause bodily harm.”

In other words, these terrorists don’t reflect a widespread “sickness” in Israeli society, as Rivlin likes to say; they are no more representative of mainstream Israel than neo-Nazi fringe groups are of mainstream modern Germany – and perhaps even less.

So how racist and extremist is mainstream Israeli society? Well, consider the following collection of news items from the last few days alone:

  • The OECD just issued a report praising Israel’s efforts to increase Arab employment, though noting that much remains to be done.
  • Israeli government figures show a sharp rise in the workforce participation rate among Arab women over the last 20 years, from 19 percent to 32.5 percent.
  • The Economy Ministry just inaugurated special scholarships for Bedouin engineering students, the latest in a series of affirmative action programs for the Arab community. Under another program, the government funds 85 percent of research at Arab high-tech startups, compared to only 50 percent at Jewish startups.
  • The government recently started investing in tourism development in Arab communities; inter alia, it sponsored Ramadan events in various Arab towns this year and ran a nationwide campaign encouraging Jews to visit them. As Ron Gerlitz, co-executive director of Sikkuy – the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality, noted, this doesn’t erase past discrimination, but “On the symbolic plane, this represents a significant step forward in government policy.”
  • The Druze Arab town of Beit Jann had the highest pass rate in the country on the 2013-14 matriculation exams.
  • Salah Hasarma just became the first Arab coach of a Jewish soccer team in Israel’s top league.
  • While a few Israeli Arabs have joined Islamic State, they aren’t flocking to do so at the same rate as Arabs from other Western countries. This, argues Prof. Hillel Frisch of Bar-Ilan University, indicates that Israeli Arabs are less dissatisfied with their lives than Arabs in many European countries – or at least, more aware of how lucky they are not to be living in the chaotic hell across the border.

To understand why the above news items are so important, consider a Biblical analogy I heard from rabbi and journalist Yishai Fleisher last week. When the king of Moab wants the prophet Balaam to curse the Jewish people, he deliberately takes him to a place where “you will not see them all, but only the outskirts of their camp” (Numbers 23:13). Why? Because when you focus exclusively on one tiny fringe element of Israel, it’s easy to curse it. But when you see the whole of Israel in all its complexity, it’s much harder.

In this case, the tiny fringe is perpetrating horrific attacks on Arabs in an effort to overthrow the state. But the state it seeks to overthrow is investing heavily in trying to better integrate its Arab citizens and rectify past discrimination against them.

And if you’re going to choose a single part of Israel’s mosaic to represent the whole, the mainstream that promotes integration is surely a more representative piece than a lunatic fringe trying to overthrow the state.

Originally published in Commentary on August 3, 2015

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Israel’s constitutional crisis has been postponed, not resolved

After years of leftists crying wolf about democracy being endangered, Israel finally experienced a real constitutional crisis last week. That crisis was temporarily frozen by the decision to form a unity government, but it will come roaring back once the coronavirus crisis has passed.

It began with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s refusal to let the newly elected Knesset vote to replace him as speaker and culminated in two interventions by the High Court of Justice. I’m one of very few people on my side of the political spectrum who considers the court’s initial intervention justifiable. But its second was an unprecedented usurpation of the prerogatives of another branch of government, in flagrant violation of legislation that the court itself deems constitutional.

Edelstein’s refusal, despite its terrible optics, stemmed from a genuine constitutional concern, and was consequently backed even by Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon, who had opposed Edelstein many times before and would do so again later in this saga. The problem was that neither political bloc could form a government on its own, yet the proposed new speaker came from the faction of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party that adamantly opposed a unity government. Thus whether a unity government was formed or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s caretaker government continued, the new speaker would be in the opposition.

But as Yinon told the court, speakers have always come from the governing coalition because an opposition speaker can effectively stymie all government work. And once elected, he would be virtually impossible to oust, since 90 of the Knesset’s 120 members must vote to do so. An opposition speaker would thus “hurt democracy,” warned Yinon. “We’re planting a bug in the system, and this, too, undermines our constitutional fabric.” That’s why Edelstein wanted to wait, as Knesset bylaws permit, until a government was formed and could choose its own speaker.

Yet despite this genuine and serious concern, the fact remains that a newly elected majority was being barred from exercising its power. Moreover, it had no parliamentary way of solving the problem because only the speaker can convene parliament and schedule a vote. Thus if you believe majorities should be allowed to govern, the court was right to intervene by ordering Edelstein to hold the vote.

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