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 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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