March 31, 2016 § 1 Comment
There was a revealing debate that played itself out in the pages of Ha’aretz earlier this week after the Israeli government announced that it was appointing Dani Dayan to be the consul general in New York. For those unfamiliar with him, Dayan is the former chairman of the Yesha Council, a position that is the de facto leader of the settlement movement, and he has become in many ways the international face of the settlements through his willingness to write, speak, and engage with foreign audiences. Prime Minister Netanyahu had initially appointed Dayan as Israel’s ambassador to Brazil, but the Brazilian government was not willing to accept his credentials due to his settlement advocacy, so Dayan is now headed to the U.S., where many are looking at him askance.
Bradley Burston captures why Dayan is walking into a situation where he is already behind in the count, cataloguing the new consul general’s rejection of the two-state solution and his desire to annex the West Bank without any corresponding plan to grant the Palestinians living there any political rights. Burston consequently thinks that the American Jewish community should, like the government of Brazil, refuse to accept Dayan’s appointment and demand that he be replaced with someone who reflects American Jewish politics and values and is more in line with the outlook and communal mood of the majority of American Jews. As Burston writes, “To a Jewish community with grave reservations about the consequences of the settlement enterprise and its destructive impact on democracy and economics in Israel, and on peace, security, and human rights throughout the Holy Land, Israel is sending a man who declared, ‘The settlements of Judea and Samaria are not the problem — they are part of the solution.’”
Burston’s colleague Chemi Shalev takes a different tack. Shalev argues that the right way to approach Dayan’s appointment is not by looking at his audience, but by looking at his client. In Shalev’s view, since Dayan is being sent to New York to represent the government of Israel rather than the other way around and since Dayan accurately reflects the government’s views, he is in some ways the perfect envoy. Rather than pretending that the Israeli government embraces policies that American Jews would like to see, having Dayan as consul general in New York will make it clear that the government is not really interested in two states and put an end to the notion that the Netanyahu government is going to eventually come around.
I side with Shalev in this debate for a number of reasons. First, I don’t think it is appropriate to judge Dayan as a diplomat before he has even spent one minute in the job, and it is possible that he will surprise. I have observed Dayan in action on a few occasions, and while there is no question that he is an inveterate rightwinger, I found Burston’s description of him as vindictive and quick to anger as oddly off-base. Having watched Dayan address rooms where he is not only the most rightwing guy there but the only rightwing guy there, he is actually extremely diplomatic; he listens to the other side and then responds in a respectful and cogent way, with a heavy dose of humor. A diplomat isn’t supposed to nod and agree with everything his interlocutors say, but to listen well, argue well, and behave diplomatically. Perhaps Dayan’s intemperate and ill-timed comments on J Street being “un-Jewish” will turn out to be representative, but my limited observations of him point to the opposite.
More saliently, Shalev is right about what Dayan is here to do. A diplomat is supposed to reflect and advance his government’s positions rather than mold him or herself to fit the place where he or she is sent. The fact that Dayan may not be popular with American Jews doesn’t change the fact that he is a perfectly appropriate representative of the current government, and in some ways it would be more insulting to send a consul general to New York who would constantly dissemble and tell American Jews what they want to hear. There is a line between respectfully presenting unpopular positions, and obnoxiously asserting that you know better than everyone else. Some of Israel’s senior diplomats fall into the latter category, which is what makes them so ineffectual, but I don’t think Dayan is of the same ilk.
But the real lesson of Dayan’s appointment is a deeper one. His appointment is the clearest message that the Israeli government has sent yet that it does not view its policies as a problem, but rather the way in which they are presented. Dayan will not pretend to be anything but a rightwing one-stater who views the two-state solution as naïve and unrealistic. He will perfectly represent the current Israeli government as an unapologetic realist who views the bulk of American Jews as out of touch with the reality of Israel’s situation and neighborhood. Yet, the Israeli government sincerely seems to believe that forcefully and consistently presenting this message will change minds here, and that American Jews will eventually come around. Dayan as consul general lets us know that the Israeli government is blind as a bat to the damage caused by its policies, and that it is the naïve party here by assuming that it has a messaging problem rather than a policy problem. Israeli diplomats don’t need to be more forceful in pushing their message; they need a different message to push.
Nothing could illustrate this point better than yesterday’s news that Senator Pat Leahy and ten House Democrats have sent a letter to Secretary of State Kerry asking that he review U.S. military assistance to Israel and Egypt in light of alleged gross violations of human right by both countries. The fact that a relatively miniscule number of legislators signed a letter questioning military assistance to Israel will not matter in the scheme of things, but what is remarkable – and a bad harbinger of things to come – is that eleven members of Congress saw no problem lumping Israel with Egypt on the subject of human rights. It is a grossly inappropriate comparison, even if the intention was not to equate the two but to link their aid status as a legacy of the Camp David agreement, and there is no universe in which Israeli missteps are on the same plane as Egyptian killings and torture of political opponents. But Israel is not in Congressional crosshairs because its message needs to be more finely honed. It is in Congressional crosshairs because its policies in the West Bank are corrosive and inevitably lead to actions that no democracy should commit and that sully Israel’s reputation. This letter is a consequence of Israel mistakenly believing that it only has to explain itself better and give no quarter to its critics in order to make its problems go away. I wish Dani Dayan all the luck in the world, but he is sidling up to the table having already been dealt a losing hand.
March 23, 2016 § 5 Comments
Thursday is Purim, the holiday that commemorates the story relayed by the Book of Esther of the near destruction of a diaspora Jewish community. Jewish kids all over the world will dress up like Mordechai and Esther, the Jewish heroes of the story, and Jews will loudly boo and hiss at the mention of Haman, the story’s villain, whose plot to exterminate a Jewish community was foiled. Amidst all of this, the central character of the story, King Ahashverosh, will be largely ignored, but this year he shouldn’t be. If anything, this should be the Year of Ahashverosh, because if Donald Trump wanted to dress up for Purim, he could not pick a truer-to-form costume than that of the Persian king.
The Ahashverosh that we meet in the Purim story is a vain, superficial king, who lives in a palace festooned with gold and marble and is obsessed with throwing the greatest parties and having beautiful women at his beck and call. We know nothing about his policy preferences or what his thoughts are on the pressing issues of the day because he never expresses any. Everything is outsourced to his coterie of advisers, who are more concerned with the king’s image and how he is perceived than they are with any other matter. It is the king’s honor and public image that matter above all, and it is thus public slights that irk him the most, such as his wife Vashti refusing to obey his command to parade herself before his party guests. He is a preening, buffoonish, wholly undeserving king, someone to be laughed at rather than respected and someone who gives no indication that he is prepared or terribly interested in the deadly serious task of governance. He wants to be king because it’s good to be the king.
The main problem with Ahashverosh is not that he is evil – since he is not presented as such – nor is it his enormous ego and vanity. The main problem with Ahashverosh is that he is a know-nothing who is manipulated by his advisers and prone to taking drastic measures based on his mood or whatever information happens to be presented to him, whether that information is accurate or not. The initial decree to wipe out the Jews comes about when Haman tells the king that there is a group of subjects in the kingdom who are different from everyone else and don’t obey the king’s law, and casually asks if he can have leave to kill them all. Ahashverosh doesn’t ask for any more information, think about the consequences of the request, look into whether it’s feasible to wipe out a whole ethnic category of people for ten thousand talents of silver, or even bother to inquire about the group to which Haman is referring. He basically says, “Sounds good to me,” and goes back to his drinking. When Haman’s plan backfires because it turns out that Esther, Ahashverosh’s new queen, is Jewish, the king reverses his decree with about as much thought as he put into the initial one. Genocide, no genocide; the details don’t matter. Because he has never spent any time seriously contemplating issues more momentous than red wine or white, all that matters is the king’s mood and what he happens to be feeling at the moment.
Unfortunately for all involved, it is nothing but Ahashverosh’s whims that control the fates of all of his subjects and the fates of many others given his reign over a global superpower, and this is what makes him the central character of the Purim story. Haman can be scheming behind the scenes, and Mordechai can be engineering a plan to expose him, and Esther can use her relationship with Ahashverosh to tug on his heartstrings and bring him over to her side, but none of this is dispositive. Ultimately, everything comes down to the snap decisions of a sovereign who has no clear decision-making process, is surrounded by mediocre third-rate courtiers, has never exhibited an interest in anything but spending his wealth in the most ostentatious way possible, and is willing to make life-or-death decisions affecting hundreds of thousands of people based on information less extensive than what you find in a fortune cookie. Sound like anyone you happen to endlessly see on the news lately?
The AIPAC attendees who gave Trump a standing ovation following his speech because he managed to throw some red meat to a hungry throng – Iran is bad, the Palestinian Authority is badder, and President Obama is baddest – should think about the shallowness of this response. Leave aside whatever Trump has said about Israel before his AIPAC address this week, and just focus on what he himself chose to highlight in a prepared speech with a venue all to himself and a captive audience. Should American Jews or supporters of Israel be comforted by a presidential candidate who views sending his private plane to Israel – not that he was on it himself, mind you – following the September 11 attacks as some sort of grand gesture? Should we embrace someone who implies that Jews are so marginal and Israel so controversially toxic by congratulating himself for having “took the risk” of being the grand marshal of the Salute to Israel Parade in that well-known hotbed of violent anti-Semitism that was the Upper East Side in 2004? Should we feel safe in our beds knowing that Trump actually manages to say with a straight face – and make no mistake, he delivered this line entirely unironically before the crowd started laughing – when referring to the Iran deal that he has “studied this issue in great detail…greater by far than anybody else,” suggesting that the overweening narcissist consumed by those who insult the length of his fingers genuinely sees himself as a nuclear arms control expert? Not only is it clear that Trump is a menace to democracy in general, it should be clear following his AIPAC appearance that his views on Israel itself are, like every other subject on which he opines, about as well thought out as those of my three year old son’s.
AIPAC members and supporters are supposed to be a sophisticated audience who study the issues, pore over policy details, and know their JCPOA from their QME. Yet, they stood up to laud a man whose actual knowledge on Israel-related issues runs about as deep as a puddle, which leaves whatever views he happens to hold today subject to change based on whatever was last whispered in his ear. As evidenced by the inane word salad that spilled out of his mouth when he met with the Washington Post editorial board, he cares about “winning,” what people say and write about him, punishing those who criticize him, and making sure to note when the other people in the room are good looking. Everything else – you know, actual policies – are just details to be improvised and maybe filled in later if he gets around to it. Do we really want to entrust the U.S.-Israel alliance and American policy in the Middle East to Ahashverosh come to life, a guy whose mood can be instantly determined by whether his baseball cap is white or red? The Jews of the Purim story avoided being victims of Ahashverosh’s id through sheer luck. The American Jewish community of 2016 can’t afford to take a similar gamble in the casino of Donald Trump’s mind.
March 18, 2016 § 3 Comments
On Monday, Donald Trump is set to address AIPAC’s annual policy conference. Some think that he should never have been invited. Others want Trump’s appearance at AIPAC to be vigorously protested. Both of these positions are eminently understandable, and I will be very surprised if Trump’s appearance at AIPAC is a smooth one, marked by nothing more disruptive than a smattering of polite applause. Republican Jews’ attitudes toward Trump appear to range from nonplussed to horrified, and Democratic Jews’ attitudes probably start at the horrified end of the spectrum and continue further out. Trump should not expect the adoring, genuflecting audience that is typical of his rallies, even if Sheldon Adelson and the editors of Yisrael Hayom appear to be eager to fill the role of Lionel Bengelsdorf to Trump’s Charles Lindbergh.
There will be plenty of time next week to dissect Trump’s AIPAC address after the fact, but there are some important points to make ahead of time. First, Trump’s very appearance at AIPAC turns the thrust of Jewish history on its head. For centuries, Jews lived according to the whims of demagogues and tyrants. Not only were their opinions not relevant, it was often dangerous for the entire Jewish community for their opinions to be expressed at all. Jews were an exceedingly silent minority, just hoping to get through life without being noticed by the Gentile majority. If anyone would be expected to reinforce the idea that Jewish opinion doesn’t matter, it would be Trump. Leaving aside his comments in December about Jews not supporting him because he doesn’t want their money, Trump doesn’t appear to care about winning over anyone’s opinions, Jewish or not. This patron saint of blowhard braggadocio has offended too many groups to count, and while the only things bigger than his ego seem to be his monumental insecurities and desire to be praised, he is also either incapable or unconcerned with telling people what they want to hear. Yet, the man who blows off debates, refuses to do television interviews in person, and retracts the press credentials of reporters who challenge him still feels it necessary to show up at AIPAC’s annual gathering despite what is likely to be a less than welcoming crowd. To the anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists that seem to make up Trump’s core base of support, this will cause a contagious outbreak of confirmation bias that Jews control the country. To the rest of us, we should revel in the fact that Jewish and pro-Israel causes are deemed important enough to the bully-in-chief – who, like all bullies, cannot handle being denigrated or confronted – that he is willing to show up at the risk of being bullied himself. It says something about Jews in America at this moment of history, and while Trump’s appearance at AIPAC is distasteful, this is still something remarkable to note.
Second, while I agree with Jonathan Tobin’s assessment that AIPAC had little choice but to invite Trump when it invites every other presidential candidate, it is vitally important that AIPAC not be seen in any way as validating Trump’s candidacy. Here is a plausible, but hopefully far-fetched, scenario: Trump walks out onto the convention hall stage to widespread boos, gives a stem-winder of a speech about how wonderful Israel is and how crucial it is to stand with Israel, does his best insult comic routine targeted at the Obama administration and its policies toward Israel, and leaves the stage to applause and convention attendees remarking that Trump isn’t nearly as bad as they thought. Should this happen, not only will it be a disaster for this country, it will be a disaster for American Jews who will be seen as providing Trump with a springboard toward the Oval Office. AIPAC cannot be seen as legitimizing Trump, even if it provides him with a pulpit. If this means allowing the crowd to boo, or multiple anonymous quotes to journalists from AIPAC grandees about how odious they find Trump, or some other way of signaling that Trump is outside the boundaries of what is acceptable in the American political arena, it must be done.
The reason for this has nothing to do with Israel, which brings me to my final point. As I wrote last week, Trump has not provided a shred of evidence that he is committed to democratic governance beyond collecting votes in order to assume power, which is why his utterances are quite literally indistinguishable from Middle Eastern autocrats (and if you think I am exaggerating and didn’t read me on this subject last week, click on the link at the beginning of this sentence and take my quiz). Trump is a vicious race baiter who singles out religious and ethnic minorities, a misogynist who thinks nothing of belittling women with crude insults, a wannabe strongman who encourages his supporters to employ violence against those who look or think differently than they do, and a majoritarian demagogue who darkly warns of dangerous consequences should he and his supporters not get their way. He represents democracy’s nightmare, and the fact that he was the grand marshal of the Salute to Israel parade or has Jewish progeny or won an empty Jewish National Fund award means absolutely nothing. Jamie Kirchick said it best: “He is the candidate of the mob, and the mob always ends up turning on the Jews.” AIPAC is not only the largest annual gathering of Israel supporters in the U.S., but so far as I can tell it is the largest annual gathering of Jews in the U.S., and it is important for the American Jewish community to send a message. Trump must be rejected not on the basis of his approach to Israel; he must be rejected on the basis of everything else. What he does or does not think about Israel is ancillary to the conversation, because American Jews and the state of Israel do not need a friend who looks like this.
March 17, 2016 § 2 Comments
I meant it when I wrote last week that I could easily mine the Pew study of Israeli society for a year’s worth of material, but I’ll try to make this week the last post on the subject for awhile. Perhaps the most interesting part of the study to me is the section comparing Israeli Jews and American Jews. As Dov Waxman noted in a long breakdown yesterday on Matzav, there is a yawning chasm on many issues between Jews in Israel and Jews in the U.S., to the extent that anyone looking at the numbers without any identifying information on the two groups would have a difficult time guessing that they were members of the same family, so to speak. What issues the two groups of Jews differ on is fascinating in itself, but the more fascinating aspect for me isn’t the what, but the why.
Breaking down the numbers, it’s clear that Israeli Jews tilt more towards the political right than their American counterparts, but it isn’t political differences that illuminate what is going on. Rather, Israeli Jews and American Jews are separated by a fundamental difference in worldview that transcends the political sphere. It is much more of a philosophical divide that is driven by the divergent historical and present day experiences of Israeli Jews and American Jews. For shorthand, let’s call this divide universalism versus particularism.
American Jews are very well integrated into the larger American milieu. Because of this, they view their Judaism as part of a universal system where wider rules and values are more important than in-group relationships. They are unquestionably happy about their heritage – 94% are proud to be Jewish and 75% feel a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people – but the history of Jews in America is one of cultural assimilation. While anti-Semitism will always exist everywhere, the United States in 2016 is largely devoid of it, and Jews face very little discrimination overall (I reserve the right to revisit this point should we face the apocalypse ushered in on January 20, 2017, by President Donald J. Trump). American Jews are not treated as a minority, and are not thought of as one in many circles. American Jews themselves do not behave as religious minorities in their willingness to transcend group boundaries in unusually large numbers. The intermarriage rate for non-Orthodox American Jews is over 70% and 44% of married American Jews currently have a non-Jewish spouse; American Jews are likelier than any other religious minority group to have close friends of another religion and only 32% say that all or most of their close friends are Jewish; and American Jews are generally much less religious than their Israeli counterparts. The universal perspective of American Jews makes their Judaism less omnipresent and in some ways less important, so that even while being proud of their Jewish heritage it does not dominate their identity. As Michael Oren pointed out in his memoir Ally, it is no accident that alone among minority groups, American Jews place the “American” clause first.
Israeli Jews have a much more particularistic worldview that is rooted in Israel’s reality. Israelis live with a siege mentality emanating from the fact that they are in a neighborhood that does not accept them, which makes group relationships and solidarity more important. Furthermore, the fact that Israeli Jews are a majority in their own country creates a bubble filled with constant reminders that they are Jews, which reinforces the tribal sense that external hostility creates. Judaism shapes Israeli identity in a way that is almost impossible to replicate in the current American Jewish experience, and thus Israeli Jews are more attached to their Judaism. Israeli Jews are more observant and theologically religious by every measure than their American cousins, and view their Judaism as such a dominant and influential presence that more Israeli Jews describe themselves as Jewish first than as Israeli first (46% to 35%). Israeli Jews do not see themselves as ensconced in a wider system in the way that American Jews do; their Judaism is necessarily a narrower one that is not focused on what Judaism has to offer to the rest of the world. The history of Israel’s creation and fight for existence, along with its ongoing quest for legitimacy and normalcy, lead to a Jewish community that is more inward looking and bound by elements that are unique to Jews.
This is seen most acutely when comparing the responses of Israeli and American Jews on what it means to be Jewish. Both rank remembering the Holocaust as first on the list of essential parts of being Jewish, but after that the answers diverge. For American Jews, four out of the next five responses have nothing to do with Judaism as a religion or culture, but espouse universal values that can apply to anyone (leading an ethical life, working for justice and equality, being intellectually curious, having a good sense of humor), with the one outlier being caring about Israel. Israeli Jews prioritize items that are exclusively Jewish, with observing Jewish law coming in third at 35% (only 19% for American Jews), living in Israel coming in fourth at 33%, and eating traditional Jewish foods sixth at 18%. When Israelis were not limited to the eight choices provided by Pew but were allowed to mention anything they wanted, Israeli Jews’ priorities were even starker. The biggest group of 53% gave an answer in the category of providing Jewish education to or sharing Jewish traditions with their children, and the second biggest group of 45% gave an answer in the category of following religious traditions or being religious. While American Jews and Israeli Jews share a religious, cultural, and ethnic heritage, what it means to be Jewish is vastly different for them.
The direct implications of this are difficult to foresee, although it has the potential to affect everything from the U.S.-Israel relationship to the practice of Judaism itself. One element that is encouraging is that both groups rate the importance of caring about Israel highly – 33% for Israelis, 43% for Americans – and more crucially, the two groups care about each other. 68% of Israeli Jews say they have something in common with American Jews, 75% say there is a common destiny, and 59% view American Jewry’s influence on Israel as good. As Joel Braunold wrote in Ha’aretz, these results show that American Jews and Israeli Jews aren’t yet sick of each other. While the way in which the two sets of Jews view their Judaism seems like it is at odds, Israeli views on American Jews ratifies and demonstrates the need for continued engagement, not shying away from controversial issues while being careful not to impose on Israelis, and jointly working toward the best version of Israel that can be.
March 14, 2016 § 3 Comments
Shaul Arieli has a smart op-ed in Ha’aretz today arguing that the concept of the sanctity of settlement blocs is leading Israel astray. Arieli goes through the history of how the blocs came to be, and more importantly demonstrates the way in which their contours have changed, from security zones in the Jordan Valley and Jerusalem envelope to settlements intended to obliterate the Green Line to more recent efforts on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s part to include areas that bifurcate the West Bank and make a contiguous Palestinian state impossible. Arieli argues that the blocs have no security, demographic, economic, or political logic, and that in fact the idea of these inviolate blocs that Israel will keep in any permanent status agreement actively harms Israel by establishing an incoherent and unstable border. Were Israel to adopt a border that incorporated only settlements not separated by the Green Line from Palestinian towns or infrastructure, Arieli writes that it would significantly shorten the length of the border, leave 75% of Israelis living over the Green Line in their current homes, and create a border that is more secure without hurting the social fabric and contiguity of Palestinian locales.
It’s an excellent piece and I want to highlight it so that people go and read it, but I also want to make two brief complementary points. First, the history of the changing definition of blocs to include, in Netanyahu’s current formulation, places like Ofra, Kiryat Arba, and Kfar Adumim demonstrates the urgent need to define the border of the blocs. The idea that negotiations for two states proceed with an assumption about Israel keeping blocs and nobody knows what those blocs entail means that an agreement in principle might easily blow up once the details have to be hammered out. Furthermore, allowing the blocs to gobble up more and more area destroys any semblance of trust among the Palestinians, and is fundamentally unfair to Palestinian society in the West Bank. The current government’s definition of a border for the blocs would be a very different one than I would draw, but limiting things at all would still be a positive step. It would also force the Israeli government to provide a visual for its current settlement policy, which would make it more difficult for it to insist that everything is fine as is. “Blocs” cannot continue to be an amorphous concept that everyone tiptoes around as if it is – pardon the pun – settled, when in fact the blocs continue to be defined differently depending on who’s doing the talking.
Second, Arieli’s rundown demonstrates to me why a complete settlement freeze is unworkable. I get the argument that any deviation from the 1967 lines as a starting point undermines the core Palestinian conviction that agreeing to negotiations on that basis was their key concession. But Israeli politics cannot be ignored either, and a complete settlement freeze that includes Jerusalem neighborhoods like Gilo is going to be anathema to 95% of Israeli Jews. Each side is going to have to bend on something, and defining the blocs in a fair manner and then freezing everything outside of them – along with a concurrent declaration that everything, including territory inside the borders of the blocs, is subject to future negotiation – is my view of what constitutes a reasonable and likely way of moving forward. Just as the Palestinians view their core concession as recognizing the 1967 lines as relevant at all, Israelis view their core concession as recognizing the PLO and agreeing to negotiate towards a Palestinian state. The reality is that both sides are destined to be deeply disappointed in some manner, and that is how agreements are forged.
March 10, 2016 § 2 Comments
Pew on Tuesday released its study of religion in Israeli society and there are enough interesting findings and figures in it for me to mine a year’s worth of posts. The headlines have focused on one finding in particular though, which seems like a good place to start. Pew found that 48% of Israeli Jews agreed with the statement “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel” while 46% disagreed. Looking at the poll’s crosstabs, this difference of opinion is reflected among most demographic groups with a few exceptions, and it has led people to understandably raise the question of what this means for Israel’s non-Jews and whether Israel has already chosen to prioritize Jewishness over democracy. It is a question that must be dealt with, and it goes to a larger question of what it means to have a Jewish state.
There is context to Pew’s findings on Israeli Jews’ attitudes toward Arabs. The interviews were conducted between October 2014 and May 2015, so while the current lone-wolf terrorism phenomenon is not responsible for the numbers on Arab expulsion or transfer, the polling did begin a couple of months after the most recent war in Gaza and concurrent with the start of vehicular attacks in Jerusalem and the particularly horrific massacre at a synagogue in Har Nof. The polling question itself is also more ambiguous in the original Hebrew used by Pew in the actual questioning than in the English translation and uses wording that is often interpreted by Israelis to refer to compensating Arabs to leave rather than expelling them (מישראל ערבים להעביר או לגרש צריך). The wording also leaves unclear whether this means all Arabs, or only Arabs that commit or support terrorist attacks. In addition, this comes against a backdrop of some Israeli Arab politicians openly cheering on Israel’s avowed enemies, which was demonstrated starkly this week when MKs from Hadash and Balad condemned the Gulf Cooperation Council’s decision to label Hizballah as a terror group on the laughable theory that Hizballah only seeks to defend Lebanon’s territorial integrity (that Israel is not occupying any part of Lebanon according to the United Nations doesn’t appear to matter).
Nevertheless, none of this really matters. It explains why Israeli Jews responded ithe way they did, but it does not and cannot justify it. The number of Israeli Jews that expressed support for expelling Arabs needs to prompt serious introspection. It is the ugly equivalent of Trumpism, no less worthy of condemnation and concern than the nativist throngs who cheer Donald Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. or tell non-white protesters at his rallies to go back to where they came from. The ongoing terrorism against Israeli civilians and the 67% of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who support knife attacks on Israelis are only going to harden Israeli Jews’ attitudes toward Arabs and make this situation even worse, but it is an impulse that must be resisted. Israel is a Jewish state rather than a state for only Jews, and Israel’s founders never envisioned it otherwise. Part of having a Jewish state is running that state in accordance with Jewish values, which involve treating the Arab minority in Israel with respect and absolute equality. Democracy demands no less.
Part of having a Jewish state is also focusing on the state’s raison d’être, which brings me to whether democracy also demands that Jews receive no preferential treatment in Israel at all. Shibley Telhami in the Washington Post noted that 79% of Israeli Jews agreed that Jews in Israel deserve preferential treatment, and added, “so much for the notion of democracy with full equal rights for all citizens.” This may seem to make sense at first glance, but the analysis quickly breaks down. As Brent Sasley wrote for Matzav last week, Israel is an ethnic democracy and debating what it means to be Israeli is not a rejection of democracy but a quest to figure out the social and political boundaries of the state. Unless one believes the canard that Zionism is racism, the fact that Israel gives equal rights to all citizens but gives advantages to Jews when it comes to immigration – or that Israeli Jews would like to receive official preferential treatment in other areas – does not make Israel non-democratic, nor does it make Israel racist. It is a manifestation of why Israel exists, which is to right the wrong of millennia of persecution, discrimination, expulsions, and attempts at extermination around the world.
To understand why Israeli Jews believe they should receive preferential treatment, one only needs to look at the Pew numbers on anti-Semitism. 99% of Israeli Jews view anti-Semitism around the world as common, 64% view it as very common, and 76% say it is increasing. The first instance of religious persecution in recorded history was committed by the Seleucids against Jews, giving rise to the Hasmonean revolt and the Hanukkah story. Jews during the Middle Ages were expelled at various times from England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Hungary, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine. History’s most devastating and unprecedented genocide was carried out against Jews. Israel was and is deemed necessary to guard against the historically inevitable, and to suggest that Jews should not be able to ensure that Israel remains majority Jewish or that Jews don’t deserve a little affirmative action is to be remarkably blind to Jews’ travails. Few fair-minded people deride the United States’ claim to providing full equal rights for all its citizens because of admissions and hiring preferences for minorities who were subject to past injustice or mistreatment. That Jews have their own state rather than being a minority elsewhere does not change the basic rationale that makes it acceptable to give Jews in Israel a boost the way that affirmative action is acceptable here. It is not racist to have a Jewish state, and it is not racist to worry about what happens if that state one day is no longer majority Jewish.
Nobody should downplay the survey results showing unacceptable levels of intolerance toward Arabs in Israel. Intolerance of minorities is indeed fundamentally antidemocratic, and those attitudes can never be allowed to manifest themselves in Israeli policy. But nobody should turn other numbers in the study into an indictment of Israel as an inherently racist or antidemocratic project. To do so is not only to ignore acceptable practice right here at home, but to ignore the long and terrible history of why Israel is necessary in the first place.