Putting Kerry’s Comments into Context

John Kerry’s use of the a-word (“apartheid”) to warn what Israel might become if a peace agreement establishing two states is not implemented soon has, unsurprisingly, ignited a firestorm from Israeli politicians (though, interestingly, Benjamin Netanyahu has remained quiet) and several American Jewish organizations.

It’s true that this kind of rhetoric really only serves to stoke the flames of intransigence and anger at a delicate moment in the effort to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks. (I actually think the under-reported story here is the diminished ability of leaders to talk openly amongst themselves.) But while I share Kerry’s concerns for the future of Israel, I’m not sure that the argument that Israeli leaders have used the same term to issue similar warnings of what will happen without peace is as strong as it first appears.

It’s to be expected that citizens of one country can say things about their state that is more problematic coming from the leaders of a close ally. It’s considered bad form, particularly when it’s such a sensitive issue and a loaded term—and even more when it’s said to third parties.

This isn’t unique to Israel: Canadians are sometimes very belligerent about Quebec separatism, but Washington doesn’t say much at all about the issue except to support the national government’s position. Similarly, the White House has largely remained silent regarding the Turkish government’s suppression of Turks’ individual and political freedoms. While the West Bank isn’t part of sovereign Israel, and therefore falls into the category of foreign affairs, it’s still closely tied to Jerusalem’s domestic politics.

Having said that, some of the criticism of Kerry—for example, that he should resign, that he’s not “pro-Israel” (whatever that means)—is over the top. The big takeaway here, I think, is that the taboo in the United States of using apartheid to describe a future Israel that maintains legal, political, and military control over the West Bank has been broken. Israelis long ago got over that taboo (which isn’t to say they like the term), but it’s natural that it took time to break down here. Kerry’s comment might just be—for good or bad—the beginning of a new conversation on Israel in Washington.

Bring J Street In

Theodore Sasson is right that while the Conference of Presidents has, in recent years, ceased being the consensus institution it was created to be, admitting J Street as a member-organization is the appropriate thing to do.

J Street’s inclusion will contribute to the Conference’s claim to represent American Jewry—all of the big national organizations are already members (the ADL, AJC, AIPAC, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Jewish Federations of North America). In addition, leaving J Street out of the communal tent because some consider it too partisan and left-wing ignores the fact that there are already several highly partisan member-groups from both ends of the spectrum (American Friends of Likud, the ZOA, JINSA, Ameinu, Americans for Peace Now).

But there’s another, more instrumental, reason to bring J Street in: it will bring its lobbying machine with it. J Street has close ties to the Democratic Party, including President Obama. Although far-right partisans have tried to tie being pro-Israel with being Republican, it’s a highly problematic and misleading equation. Nor is it an effective way to maintain the ability to advocate in a political system comprised of parties on both the right and the left. J Street also has a large, committed, and active grassroots organization that can be mobilized for advocacy efforts.

As a side note, that grassroots base would provide more legitimacy to the Conference since it incorporates a much larger portion of the Jewish community than some of the other organizations that are already members.

Communal consensus has broken down within the US Jewish community along political, religious, and ideological lines. Excluding J Street with only help harden those divisions, but including it will go some way to helping overcome them.

Some Implications of the Geneva Deal

An interim deal between the P5+1 powers and Iran has just been signed. There is certainly a lot to talk about, but here are some implications for Israel and the American Jewish community.

1. From Israel’s perspective, there are some pretty big holes in the agreement. But that was to be expected: it’s an interim deal only, and could not have addressed all the big issues. The question that Jerusalem will be thinking about for the next six to 12 months is whether it’s a genuinely strong foundation for a final deal, or whether it’s just a façade for Iran to build a nuclear bomb.

2. Given these holes, what does this say about Washington’s commitment to Israeli security? I don’t expect the American-Israeli relationship to stumble or collapse. It’s simply too strong, rooted in too many areas (public opinion, shared interests, strategic cooperation, and more) to fall apart over this single issue.

Nor is there anywhere else Israel can turn for military aid or diplomatic cover. The notion that France could ever have replaced the United States was simply silly; not only are those ties not as intense, but you cannot replace the genuinely special relationship between the U.S. and Israel overnight with a country that is as interested in building ties with Iran as it might be in building them with Israel. And Israeli politics and society is oriented toward the United States, and has been for a long time; shifting such attitudes isn’t easy.

3. It’s unclear how Israel will react in concrete terms to the deal. The choice is between sitting back and letting the deal take its course, with some independent monitoring of the Iranian nuclear program; or continuing to take action against it, through covert means. It’s not an easy choice—doing the latter could prompt Iran to end up pulling out of the agreement, leaving Israel to blame and further isolating it in the international community on this issue.

4. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu handled the process leading up the Iran deal badly. In Raphael Ahren’s terms, he gambled and lost. He was belligerent and condescending; he threatened; and he directly called on both Congress and the U.S. Jewish community to fight against their president’s policy because he, Bibi, told them it was wrong.

It’s not clear he would have gotten much better terms, but he would have been more intimately involved in the process, demonstrated Israel is a responsible actor on an issue of critical importance, and been in a stronger position to make demands in the aftermath of the deal. He also would likely have garnered more sympathy for Israel’s position. It’s not that he cried wolf too often, but rather that he did it so belligerently and derisively, even hysterically. He doesn’t care that others started to roll their eyes by the end, but it is a problem if they start to think Israel isn’t being constructive but just obstructive; then it gets shut out of the process. This is important as Iran is now seen as a full partner in this process, rather than just the enemy against which sanctions and threats had to be applied.

Still, Bibi should be content that at least one part of his strategy paid off. It seems clear that without the severe economic sanctions and believable threat of military action, Iran wouldn’t have come to the table. Bibi can build on these in the time leading up to negotiations over a final deal.

5. Don’t expect this to change Israel’s domestic political conditions. Israelis might not be happy with a deal, but plenty of analysts and security officials have said it’s a good deal to begin with; it’s not at all clear that Israelis would vote Bibi out on this issue alone; and there’s still no serious challenger to him and to Likud. And there’s still some time to go before the consequences of the deal will be known and before the outcome of bargaining over a final deal; lots can happen in Israel between now and then to change Israelis’ minds one way or the other. That said, Bibi would be coming up on his fourth term—which would be unprecedented. It’s just as likely that he decision to step down before then or to lose an election would be the result of too much time at the top, rather than Iran.

6. Expect Israel to take a harder line in talks with the Palestinians. Bibi is angry and frustrated with Obama, and already thinks he’s been ignoring Israel’s concerns. It’s not that Bibi will stop the talks, but that he’s likely to become more intransigent.

7. Israel’s and AIPAC’s failure to change President Barack Obama’s mind on the negotiations underlines what serious observers of Jewish lobbying have long know: that the ability to “win” is conditioned by several factors, including external conditions and the determination of the president. Congress has always been more open to AIPAC’s (and other groups’) advocacy; but because Congress’s role in foreign policy is limited, so, too, is the ability to change the president’s mind when he is set on something. The Iran deal and the failure to get Congress to vote yes on Syria strikes are some good recent case studies to use in discussions of how American policy toward the Middle East gets made.

8. On the dynamics in Jewish advocacy more generally: The political polarization of the last several years hasn’t diminished, and that has made it easier for groups on the left and on the right to fight against each other, putting the big centrist groups in the difficult position of trying to maintain a balance between them. But I think the far-right groups (like the Zionist Organization of America and the Emergency Committee for Israel) will be weaker for it. Their loud and ultimately futile opposition to much of the Obama Administration’s agenda has demonstrated that while they get notice (see how often their claims are cited in news accounts), they don’t get results. The big question is whether groups like AIPAC and the ADL will recognize this and adjust their tactics accordingly. The evidence isn’t clear at this point. But like Bibi, they will have much to reflect on in the coming months.

Samantha Power and Israel On The Hill

Over at Open Zion I made a few comments about Samantha Power’s performance during her Senate confirmation hearing. I thought that overall she gave intelligent, honest answers, with some avoidance of certain issues–but hey, it’s an opportunity for Senators to grandstand more than anything else! Still, there was some serious discussion, and that’s a good thing:

I don’t know Samantha Power personally, but I’ve followed much of her work; I’ve used her seminal book A Problem from Hell in my university courses. Based on what I’ve read, her performance in the hearing, and everything that’s been written about her passion, sense of moral responsibility, and awareness of the constrains of actual policymaking, I’m not worried she’ll “throw Israel under the bus” (to use Mitt Romney’s favorite term), nor do I think she’ll give up American sovereignty in order to be ruled by the United Nations.

Follow the link for more.

Some Thoughts on the EU Decision to Separate Israel from the West Bank

Barak Ravid has a blockbuster story in Haaretz: The European Union will now require all its member states to forbid “any funding, cooperation, awarding of scholarships, research funds or prizes to anyone residing in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.” Even more importantly, the guidelines declare that “any agreement or contract signed by an EU country with Israel include a clause stating that the settlements are not part of the State of Israel and therefore are not part of the agreement.” (Some reports suggest the guidelines will also apply to the Golan Heights.)

In other words, the EU will now explicitly distinguish between Israel and the occupied West Bank; and if Israel wants to continue doing any business with the supra-national organization, it will have to admit to this division and lay the groundwork for a genuine separation of sovereignty.

The details of the guidelines have yet to be published, and Israel’s response could change things a little, too. But it’s hard to imagine the EU throwing out its new directives now. It seems to be something Israel will have to accept and adapt to. Here are some quick thoughts, then, on the implications of the EU decision.

1. It’s another signal that the international community is fed up with simply noting the Israeli occupation, and is taking concrete political, economic, and legal action to try and end it. (See also: Palestinian statehood efforts at the United Nations.) Unless Israel wants to be like North Korea, it will have to start recognizing and abiding by these changes.

2. Given that the European Union is Israel’s largest trading partner, Israel will have no choice but to comply with the guidelines—that is, it will have to admit, in legally binding contracts, that the West Bank don’t belong to Israel and will be excluded from the economic transactions. This builds the foundation for continued international efforts to separate Israel from the West Bank.

3. It’s hard to know exact figures when it comes to the place of settlement products in Israeli trade—one estimate put exports from the settlements to the EU at only about 2% of the overall trading relationship. That still adds up to $300 million; the loss isn’t something to sneeze at. The shortfall will have to be made up, either by increasing trade with other actors or by Israeli government subsidies. This, in turn, will have a negative effect on the government budget, which is already in dire straits, forcing Jerusalem to confront some serious financial and budgetary discrepancies.

4. I don’t think this was part of the EU’s intention, but an EU boycott of the settlements will probably energize the BDS movement—which seeks to isolate Israel (not just the settlements) in all of the areas covered by the new guidelines.

5. Paradoxically, at the same time the EU boycott of settlements might energize domestic forces in Israel and American Jewish or other external groups fighting against the occupation. Ravid quotes EU officials as noting that part of the motivation behind the exclusion of settlements is “to be sure that Israel’s participation is not put in question”—in other words, to make sure that Israel is not boycotted or excluded. The EU’s separation of the West Bank from Israel could be used as proof that the settlements are an albatross around Jerusalem’s neck, but that the country itself isn’t in danger just because others oppose the settlements.

6. Also on the Israeli domestic front, the EU decision might galvanize politicians and parties already predisposed to view the settlements as a major political problem. Yesh Atid’s leader Yair Lapid has already said that the decision “will enhance Israel’s isolation” and that time isn’t on Israel’s side. They may be more willing to take a more active position against the settlement enterprise, and in doing so add further pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make a serious effort to restart peace talks with the Palestinians. Similarly, it might breathe new life into the recent efforts by the Labor Party and Meretz to use the occupation as a stick with which to beat the government.

Update: Damien Cristofari, an EU official dealing with the Middle East, tweeted that the directives apply only to EU-funded programs, and won’t affect bilateral agreements between member states and Israel.

Update 2: The EU guidelines are now publicly available. See here.

Why Is Obama Going to Israel?

Yesterday I tweeted that I was pre-empting speculation and that no, Obama’s coming trip to Israel wasn’t about Iran. It was a response to the conventional wisdom that seems to always assume everything about Israel is about Iran—from last year’s short-lived Likud-Kadima government to the recent elections. But I did receive some pushback on the point, so here’s a fuller accounting of why I made the remark.

It should, though, be obvious that Iran will be near the top of the agenda. It’s a major issue for Israelis, including security officials, and despite the progress made on convergence of their positions, there are still gaps between the American and the Israeli understanding of how to deal with Iran. An Obama trip to the country gives him a direct sense of what the government is thinking and why, which could close some of this distance.

Beyond that, there is the fact that Colin Kahl, who worked for Obama during the election campaign, all but promised during a conference call with the media last July that there would be a visit if Obama was re-elected. Not following through would raise serious questions about Obama himself and his administration at a time when he’s facing all sorts of domestic pressure from pro-Israel Jewish groups and politicians to Republicans.

At the same time, the rest of Obama itinerary provides clues to his motivations. He’ll also be visiting with Palestinian and Jordanian leaders. These countries aren’t important for the confrontation against Iran, but they are for the peace process. Jordan’s domestic problems and its proximity to the Syrian civil war highlight its importance in other ways. In fact, given Israel’s growing concern about the consequences of the breakdown of central authority in Syria, that country is likely to be as high as Iran on the agenda.

The optics count, too. It’s the diplomatic version of smoothing things over and establishing a more personal basis with Benjamin Netanyahu on which to conduct the next four years of policy.

All of this raises the question of timing. In theory Obama could have gone later in the year. But reports are that he is going in March or April. I can think of several reasons.

His new Secretary of State, John Kerry, has already called Israeli and Palestinian leaders to tell them the peace process is one of his priorities. He’ll be visiting the region possibly within the month. An Obama follow-up will underline the importance of the relationship and demonstrate commitment to issues of concern to both countries.

Also, it’s likely that the new Israeli government will have been formed by the time of the visit. The weakening of Likud-Beiteinu and the strengthening of the soft right (Yesh Atid) and the left (Labor, Meretz) have opened up space for a different kind of government than the previous one. Although there is some debate over whether the likely inclusion of Yesh Atid can kick start the peace process, the unexpected priority that the administration has placed on this issue indicates that the president sees this as an opportune moment to remind Israel and Israelis that the US has their back, that peace is necessary for Palestinians and Israelis, and to provide some cover for Netanyahu on this issue against members of his own party, Yisrael Beiteinu, and possibly Jewish Home (if it’s included in the coalition).

Finally, Obama has been stung by accusations that his administration is at best insensitive to Israel and at worst anti-Israel. A visit to Israel is the most effective visible way to counter these attacks. We are constantly reminded by the president’s supporters that only four sitting presidents have ever visited Israel. Joining this small club is an effective way for Obama to address these kinds of domestic and Israeli concerns.

More specifically, the AIPAC conference is scheduled for March 3-5. It’s not clear yet whether Obama will be again speaking to the convention. If he does, he’ll be able to claim not only that he continues to show his commitment to Israeli security through military support, but can demonstrate a personal interest as well—the all-important kishkes factor. And if he’s not speaking at the conference, a visit to Israel is surely the next best thing.

Coordinating against Iran will be an important topic of discussion during Obama’s visit. But the president doesn’t have to travel to Israel for that; his political and defense officials can and do exchange visits with their Israeli counterparts for such purposes. I think, rather, that this convergence of factors explains the motivation and the timing of Obama’s visit.

Who Are the Religious In Israel? Part I

I have been reminded lately that “the religious” in Israel are not always clearly understood—their distinctions, divisions, and politics. But understanding these differences is important, because different groups within this broad social category want different things from the State of Israel. Moreover, considering them to be one large grouping is not helpful for understanding Israel, Israeli politics, or Israeli policymaking; or for comparing to religious groups in other countries.

The most recent Israeli Democracy Index (p.177) captures these differences well. Of self-identification among Israeli Jews, 6% classify themselves as ultra-Orthodox (haredi); 2.2% as Haredi-leumi (Orthodox-nationalist—the convergence between the haredim and the Zionists, sometimes called hardal); 11.8% as Orthodox; 12.7% as Traditional-religious; and 20.7% as Traditional-non-religious. (An additional 45.6% self-identify as secular.)

The traditional categories have been the haredim, the Hasidim,and the religious Zionists. The IDI question mentioned above doesn’t ask specifically about Zionism across this spectrum, but what is commonly called religious Zionism encompasses the Orthodox, the Haredi-leumi, and some portions of the haredi and the Traditional-religious. (Thanks to Dahlia Scheindlin for a clarifying discussion on this.)

The late and very keen observer of Israeli politics, Asher Arian, argued that the politics of the religious parties can be considered along three spectrums: the Zionist dimension (how Zionist), the ethnic dimension (Ashkenazi-Sephardic; indeed, each community has its own rabbinical structures), and the territorial dimension (position regarding the West Bank).

The haredi are sometimes called the ultra-Orthodox (though they reject that term—if you’re Orthodox, you’re already observing the customs and rules of halacha, Jewish law). Conservative in their social norms, they follow a narrow interpretation of Jewish law and scripture. They are further divided into several different sects and denominations, some of which are stricter in their beliefs and practices than others.

In general they are anti- or non-Zionists. Their worldview is categorized into two broad states of being: exile and redemption. Until the Temple is rebuilt and the Jewish people are reconstituted in the Land of Israel, Jews remain in exile. Redemption—a divinely-inspired and –driven process—occurs when these things fall into place. Because of this, some don’t support the state since it was created by human actions.

The haredim are further divided into Hasidic and non-Hasidic groups. Hasidic groups tend to be non-Zionist, though some, like Chabad, do engage in a more practical Zionism that allows for participation in state activities (like serving in the military). There are several different Hasidic groups, each of which operates according to its own dynastic leadership: a main rabbi or small group of rabbis governs the community, apart from the state religious officials.

Haredi politics is complex. Some haredi groups are so completely anti-Zionist and opposed to the state that they don’t recognize it in any way, including through taxes or participation in elections, or by obeying state religious authorities. Their social-political organization, the Edah HaHaredit, works to serve their needs so that the state doesn’t have to. It also maintains its own system of rabbis who look after the community’s spiritual needs. In recent years, the Edah has itself been divided over personality and organizational disagreements.

More extremist in its anti-Zionism is Neteuri Karta—its members are the ones who will meet with Iranian President Ahmadinejad at Holocaust-denial conferences. By some estimates it’s composed only of a few hundred families. It plays virtually no role in Israeli politics, trying to stay apart from the state as much as possible. Its unity, too, has broken down over increasing radicalism among some members

Others are non-Zionist—they don’t actively recognize the validity of the state (or its representatives) but they will recognize the reality of it, and they will participate in its politics. In the current Knesset there are three parties that represent this strain. Shas is the most well-known: it operates according to haredi guidelines but claims to specifically represent the Orthodox and traditional Sephardic community.

The other two parties are Agudat Israel, which is Ashkenazi with some Hasidism, and Degel HaTorah, which is also Ashkenazi but opposed to Hasidism. Despite their tension and bickering, they run in national elections on a single ticket called United Torah Judaism.

The demands of these three parties have always been focused on their own needs: obtaining resources for their community’s social and educational structures. They have successfully played off the secular parties against each other toward this end, offering to serve in a coalition government under one or the other in return for more money and more consideration of their demands.

Sometimes these parties have pressed hard for their secondary goal: to make Jewish law the law of the state. This is represented best by their efforts to enforce a halachic definition of “who is a Jew”—who can immigrate to Israel, who can control conversion processes, and who can dominant personal status issues like marriage. They have been less successful in this arena. The secular parties, sometimes under pressure from diaspora Jews, have resisted most of their efforts and even worked together at times to resist them, though the general trend toward religiosity and the political right in Israel has facilitated greater acceptance of their preferences among the population.

On foreign policy, these parties have been more agnostic than anything else. The major exception is the West Bank. In the past, only the religious Zionists held a strong political and policy position on this subject. After 1967 they pushed hard for settlements across the Green Line, in line with their understanding of the Land of Israel as sovereign Jewish territory. Indeed, the increasing radicalization among the religious Zionist youth has been one of the main drivers of the settlement enterprise.

Most non-Zionists were content to wait for the divine plan to reveal itself, and where they did take positions, this was contingent on other factors. At its beginnings in the 1980s, for example, Shas’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, often proclaimed that giving up territory was acceptable for the sake of Jewish lives. His position has changed over time, and it’s not clear what his final ruling will be in the event of a genuine peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Mostly, apart from the staunch anti-Zionists who call for Palestinian rule over the entire Land of Israel, haredi groups have simply mistrusted the Palestinians. Chabad, in particular, has been active in opposing land-for-peace formulae on this basis. Their role in foreign policymaking, then, is limited.

The Orthodox Question

 

As I headed to Israel from the US, I happened to take a United flight that leaves on Saturday afternoon. Because it left before the end of shabbat (the Jewish sabbath) on Saturday evening, the flight was devoid of outwardly observant Jews – no kippot, no long beards, no long black coats. No one held a minyan at the back of the plane.

I found this image particularly striking because it was at odds with something else I had on my mind, Dov Waxman’s recent op-ed in Ha’aretz. Waxman highlighted recent survey data on Jews in NYC that shows Orthodox Jews form an increasing proportion of the New York area’s 1.5 million Jews.
Waxman’s writing was focused upon the Jewish angle. He noted that such a demographic change might mean the end of broad Jewish connections to liberalism and the Democratic party.
I wonder, however, about another dimension of the issue: how the growth of Jewish fundamentalism (for lack of a better word) is embedded within a larger religious turn of the last forty years.  US Christianity has seen the rapid growth of evangelicals (which has its own meaning for the US-Israeli relationship). Hindusim and Islam have also witnessed a return to tradition or, to put it another way, increasing levels of individual observance and piety.
This was hardly expected in the immediate post-WWII era when, some thought, modernity would usher religion into the historical dustbin. Who needs God when we have technology and economic development?
Yet for whatever reason, it turns out many people did want faith (As a refuge from the alienating and isolating aspects of modernity? As part of a search for community? As proof of the resilience of ascriptive characteristics? In response to the failure of economic and social efforts in many countries?) The result has been a global resurgence of religion.
But so what if many religions experienced such a turn? I think it matters because Waxman’s portrayal of Judaism in the future is dependent on the continuation of this trend. However, what if factors beyond Judaism that affect all religions shift and religion writ large changes direction yet again? In other words, I find Waxman’s portrait of the future plausible. I think it is fair to argue it is the most likely scenario. That said, I think it is important to consider the fact that it could be re-directed by global trends of which we are not yet aware.

The Lesson of Ulpana

Today’s Israel news is focused on the failed Knesset bill to legalize the Ulpana neighborhood of Beit El, and thus set a new precedent for all settlement activity in the West Bank.  

There is some sense that Bibi came out on top, because he not only defeated the bill (which appeared to have support within the government coalition and his own party), but also because at the same time he ensured continued support from nationalists by promising to not only move the Ulpana families elsewhere in Beit El, but also to construct new buildings in Ariel, Ma’ale Adumim, Adam, and Kiryat Arba—for a total of 551 new housing units. And that doesn’t include the 300 units Bibi has promised to build elsewhere in Beit El, to make up for the “loss” of Ulpana.

For his part, Amir Mizroch wonders whether this is a pyrrhic victory, since the considerable expansion of settlement activity to offset Ulpana might lead to “a tangle with international legal and diplomatic ramifications.”

I don’t see any contradiction between these two assessments. In fact, I think the lesson of Ulpana is much simpler: that Bibi’s policies are more reactive than anything else.

Although he does believe in the Jewish attachment to the Land of Israel, and that at least parts of the West Bank belong (and will remain) under Israeli sovereignty, Bibi has no real strategic design and, without one, no set of tactical plans to achieve it.

At the same time, Bibi is the consummate politician (whether he is successful as one is another story). He works hard to balance out the multitude of pressures that all Israeli leaders face: external ones from the United States, American Jewry, and the Europeans; internal ones from party and coalition members, voters, and powerful interest groups like the settlement movement.

It’s true that Bibi has matured considerably since his first term as Prime Minister. He doesn’t stumble with his eyes anymore closed into messes like the opening of the Western Wall tunnel in 1996, which led to scores of deaths among Israelis and Palestinians. But given his modus operandi, he cannot exert control over developments in either Israeli domestic or foreign policy. The very act of creating his grand coalition was only to trade the uncertainty of upcoming elections for the certainty of a stable coalition, however long it could last.

Bibi is less a leader than a manager. His task, as he sees it, is simply to balance all these competing forces against each other, reconcile them with his own personal ideology, and remain at the top of the political hierarchy.

Given this, as other neighborhoods are built or expanded in the West Bank (and there is no indication that they won’t be), look for similar compromises to come out of the disputes over them.

Intolerance and Violence in Tel Aviv

Israel has been under attack in recent years on claims that its democracy has been weakened by a perceived resurgence of haredi oppression, and a string of bills and legislative efforts sponsored by right-wing nationalists designed to remove any criticism of the (right wing) government and the settlement enterprise, and to disenfranchise citizens and remove their political and civil freedoms.

I, for one, have argued that things were never dire: that some of these legislative efforts were defeated, that some accounted for the criticisms and were watered down considerably, that some are reflective only of the contemporary context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or that citizens still have ways around these constraints. I have become concerned over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s lack of effort to rein in some of the more egregious activities of some of his political allies, but still think things are not nearly as bad as many on the left have been insisting. And I still think Bibi has been unfairly targeted as the repository of all that people dislike about Israel, the settlements, the orthodox, and, well, everything else they don’t like.

The disgusting rioting against African migrants last night in Tel Aviv (excellent coverage and discussion of which can be found at +972 Magazine) has demonstrated that the anger, fear, resentment, and inability to accept difference operates at the societal as well as the political level.  

But we need to keep perspective. At Ottomans and Zionists, Michael Koplow reminds us that it was a small number of people at the demonstration-turned-riot, and that the MKs who spoke there were speaking against, not for, the government.

And, as with much of the legislative activity, voices have been heard denouncing both the rioters and the MKs who incited them. This includes the Prime Minister (Bibi) and the Speaker of the Knesset (Reuven Rivlin)—both of whom, it should be noted, belong to the same party as some of the MKs who incited at the protest (Danny Danon, Miri Regev). Already protests against racism in Israel have sprung up in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

But there is still a deeper problem here. It’s not about imposing a hegemonic vision of Zionism (a common explanation) but rather about intolerance—which has perhaps been so obvious that it hasn’t been given the credit it deserves.

This isn’t an Israeli thing or a Zionist thing, it’s a human thing.

There is a group in Israel (and the US) that is intolerant of Others. It is diverse, even fluid. It can consist of the religious or the secular, Ashkenazi or Mizrachi, Russians or Ethiopians, settlers or non-settlers, Israelis or American Jews.

What they have in common, at one time or another, is intolerance of an Other. The intolerant group is amorphous, but it perceives itself to be the real Israel, composed of the real pioneers and defenders of the Zionist dream, against a different and, subsequently, hostile world composed primarily of Gentiles, but also of left wing Israeli and American Jews who (they believe) hate the real Israel. In return, this ingroup feels intolerant of others who do not share its political or ideological agenda.

That’s why Peter Beinart has been attacked personally, for not being a good Zionist or even a good Jew, rather than on the merits of his argument. That’s why left-leaning human rights organizations are attacked as surreptitiously carrying out the instructions of Europeans who dislike Israel. And it’s why members of the Knesset can call African migrants to Israel vile names (“plague”) that evoke horror and disgust but that also suggest a particular method for excising them (violence through incision or operation), and incite a mob to riot against them.

It is not easy to get over one’s intolerance, and in fact much of the work falls to others to help demonstrate why the intolerance is a negative thing. Given this group’s diversity, this is not easy task. One way to do so is to avoid the rhetoric that many have used to describe settlers, trends in Israeli democracy, Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, its discussions of how to deal with Iran, and so on. Demonization is demonization, whether done in blunt or gentle terms.

This, of course, gets back to the levels of vitriol that characterize the debate over Israel. A reasoned, serious, and civil discussion is absolutely necessary. Obviously it must be done in conjunction with the imposition of law and order, the sanctioning of inciters, and careful policymaking. But it cannot be ignored. The fear- and hate- mongers cannot be allowed to control the conversation—or anything else.