Labor Chooses an Electoral Slate

Israel’s Labor Party has selected its electoral list. It has provided for a strong role for women, and a concentration on social-economic issues. After party head Isaac Herzog, in second place is Shelly Yacimovich; in third is Stav Shaffir; in fourth is Itzik Shmuli; and in ninth is Merav Michaeli. The slate will be combined with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua, and Livni herself will be in second place on the joint list.

A few thoughts on what the results might mean for the election:

It’s a bit weak on security and foreign policy issues. In sixth place is Omer Bar-Lev, who has considerable experience in both. But I am not sure he commands the wide respect other prominent former military and intelligence leaders have in order to make up for the death of security people on the list. The twelfth spot is reserved for a candidate of Herzog’s choice, so the person appointed there could bolster the party’s security credentials. Combined with Livni’s obvious focus on the peace process, it could provide a strong basis on which to assert a foreign policy message.

But with no foreign policy crisis on the agenda, and economic issues continuing to be of great concern to Israelis, at this point it is likely that social justice, rather than foreign policy issues, will be the core issue of the campaign. The prominent role of women on the list will also enhance Labor’s claims to better represent Israeli society. These are Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud’s weaknesses, and Labor could hammer at them on these domestic issues.

That said, in 2013 Labor also had an electoral list strong on social and economic issues. But several other factors intervened to prevent Labor from taking full advantage of it. This included a general suspicion among voters that the left is naïve and irresponsible on security issues; the appearance of Livni and Yesh Atid, who fought for the same leftwing and centrist votes; a surge of support for Bayit Yehudi; and a shift away from what has become its traditional policy issue—the peace process. A crowded political field is bad for Labor.

All of these factors remain in place today. Though Livni is now tied to Labor, the center is still crowded: Despite a drop in the polls, Yesh Atid is still around; Koolanu has appeared as the new Yesh Atid; and even Avigdor Liberman has been reimagining his image as a centrist. Bayit Yehudi is continuing to poll better than its 2013 showing, and is still making an intense play for non-religious Zionist votes. And, as mentioned above, Labor is still a bit weak on security issues, while Herzog hasn’t been able—or willing—to craft a simple and consistent message about the peace process or the occupation that is all that different from Likud’s position.

That brings us back to foreign policy. It’s possible Herzog will let Livni talk up security in the form of peace talks while he focuses on social justice. But Israeli leaders don’t compartmentalize well; they normally like to retain ultimate control over events. That Livni is seen as a political equal to Herzog, while Herzog doesn’t exhibit the same high level of ego most Israeli politicians do, might mean they could pull it off. In addition, they could combine their messages: Problems in the relationships with Europe and, to a lesser extent, with the United States could be tied to social and economic issues through the effects of Israel’s presence in the West Bank, while spending on housing and security in the West Bank could also be tied to problems in government development of cities, towns, and regions within the Green Line.

It’s still a long way to the end of the election campaign, and lots can—and probably will—happen before March 17. It’s become a cliché to say that we cannot predict anything about the Israeli election, and that’s true. But identifying trends during the campaign is useful, and can tell us something about Israeli political parties and the contours of its politics.

Defining Zionism in the Aftermath of Charlie Hebdo

The attacks on French Jews in the aftermath of the attack on Charlie Hebdo have clear implications for the Zionist project, and they should spark a bigger, broader transnational conversation on what Zionism means and entails in the era of Jewish statehood, power, and normality (in the classic Zionist sense).

Some have pointed out such a conversation is already taking place in Israel, and indeed has been since 1948. To the extent that (some) Israelis have debated the laws and borders of the Israeli state, I agree, though I’m not sure the fundamentals have been addressed. It’s also true that other efforts to figure out how to define Zionism and diaspora-Israel relations have been taking place that do incorporate non-Israelis. The Jewish People Policy Institute is one good example. Another is the effort by several leftwing diaspora organizations to form a bloc at the World Zionist Congress in order to promote a more critical discussion and reinvigorate global Zionist organizations. (Specific moments when the diaspora has mobilized against a particular Israeli policy, for example regarding “who is a Jew” or a Jewish nation-state bill, are more like exceptions rather than the rule.)

Still, the calls by many on the political right for French Jews to return “home” to Israel indicates a lack of interest in recognizing that the conditions that led to the emergence of Zionism have changed.

The assumption that Jews as a people cannot live anywhere else contains an implicit (and worrying, because of its political implications) eschatological element. Not in the Christian dispensationalist sense but in the underlying notion that Jews—as a national community, an important but not exclusive element of which includes the religion of Judaism—must live only in the Land of Israel. The idea that a group of people can only exist in one place for both spiritual and material reasons—and those who call for diaspora Jews to come “home” do indeed see the two as indistinguishable—displays a religious-like imperative that means the social construction that is human history is irrelevant compared to larger forces beyond our control.

There is nothing inherently unique about the Jewish people’s attachment to a particular piece of territory. Many national communities maintain a similar connection. Their history, collective memories, narratives, and myths center on a particular land. Yet the movement of people around the world is also longstanding. Particularly in an age of advanced technology that allows people to travel and communicate quickly, easily, and cheaply, the idea that one must “return” to a live in a particular territory because that is their “home” is unrealistic.

Such an assumption also ignores the historical and contemporary fact that states are never “finished”—they are constantly in a process of construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction. There are the obvious cases: we once thought Czechoslovakia was a completed state project. But more common are the less stark changes: domestic shifts in population make-up, identity, and public policy. The discussion on internal borders and political autonomy taking place in many states (e.g., Canada, Britain, Spain, Belgium, Iraq, and Turkey) is a good example of this. These are the questions that deserve attention.

At its emergence, Zionism was perceived by its leaders and adherents as a movement of no or little choice. Anti-Semitic persecution required a safe haven. At the same time, the belief that the Jews could never be a normal people so long as they lived among host societies and didn’t have their own state meant that national redemption was a necessary process, not an optional one.

An effective conversation about Zionism can only begin if participants recognize that things have changed over time. While the events in France reinforce for some the notion that they haven’t, this is a misunderstanding of world, Jewish, and Israeli history.

The Zionist project has largely been completed—Israel as a Jewish state exists, is among the more prosperous and powerful in the world, and is a focal point of pride among Jews around the world. Obviously there are details to be worked out, and challenges to be faced; but the basic goal of Zionism has been met. This should be the starting point for the conversation, rather than an assumption that it hasn’t.

Reaction to Reactions to Reflections on the Arab Uprisings

In Jay Ulfelder’s reactions to Marc Lynch’s reflections on the Arab Uprisings, I was struck by Ulfelder’s discussion of motivated reasoning. Ulfelder’s notes a problem: “When we try to forecast politics in real time, we tend to conflate our feelings about specific events or trends with their likelihood.” I want Egypt to become democratic after Mubarak’s fall so, gasp, my deeply-informed analysis says Egypt is likely to become democratic. [Or insert your own favorite example.]

Ulfelder proposes a solution, or at least a coherent mitigation plan:

Whenever we’re formulating an analysis or prediction, we can start by ask ourselves what result we hope to see and why, and we can think about how that desire might relate to the conclusions we’re reaching. We can try to imagine how someone with different motivations might view the same situation, or just seek out examples of those alternative views. Finally, we can weight or adjust our own analysis accordingly. Basically, we can try to replicate in our own analysis what “wisdom of crowds” systems do to great effect on a larger scale. This exercise can’t fully escape the cognitive traps to which it responds, but I think it can at least mitigate their influence.

Sounds reasonable.

But what if the extrinsic motivation is the main guide to how we select or interpret the factors that point us toward our conclusion? In any given political situation, scholars can point to a myriad of factors or draw on a wide range of historical precedents. How do we know which tradition is most relevant and which variables to consult? If we want the process to conclude with democracy, that suggests a certain way of looking at the problem.

In other words, maybe the scientific (analytical) process is hopelessly tainted by our own preferences and hopes. Perhaps “feelings” and analytic outcomes co-vary more than we like to admit.

About the New NGO Bill

Far-right members of the Israeli government are planning to submit a bill that requires any Israeli NGO receiving funds from foreign governments to register as a foreign agent. The bill would require, as Lahav Harkov explains, groups

to report any aid they receive from countries overseas and any commitments they have to them, as well as any “foreign activity” they conduct or plan to conduct, and any communication relating to the activity and commitments, among other details, all of which will be accessible to the public, with exceptions like national security or professional secrets.

In short, organizations will have to spend considerable time wasting engaged in reporting their activities and meeting the government’s approval, and will be unable to keep their discussions and planning out of the public eye. The bill will also limit the ability of Israeli NGOs to raise funds abroad. All this while Israel’s existing Amutot Law (Law of Associations) is already more intrusive than comparable laws in other countries. In Israel, NGOs are subject to the supervision of the state, which sets out rules for things like membership and board requirements. An NGO also cannot be formed or maintained if “any of its objects negates the existence or democratic character of the State of Israel.”

Let’s put aside the point that a mature democracy can handle criticism and even calls for new political arrangements. Some have argued that because the bill is modeled on an American version, it’s really nothing so drastic and is well within Western political norms.

The problem with this argument is that it completely ignores context. It’s disingenuous to pretend this isn’t about shutting down criticism from left-wing groups and defining acceptable political discourse. A glance at those sponsoring the bill (and the rhetoric they regularly employ against those they disagree with) should make this obvious enough.

A second argument is that because many leftist NGOs receive funding from European governments and European institutions, and because they often cooperate with outside agencies or organizations to provide information on the Israeli occupation, they are, in effect, foreign agents and undermining the interests of the State of Israel.

But it should also be obvious that it’s acceptable for domestic groups to perform watchdog duties on the government, particularly when government policy has clear moral and physical consequences for Israelis and for others. Indeed, this kind of accountability and citizen participation should be encouraged. There is no indication that Israel is weakened because Israeli organizations want to end the occupation, or even call for the prosecution of Israeli soldiers; indeed, Israel has never been more accepted into world affairs through economic integration and participation in political institutions. Nor has there ever been evidence that European entities control or direct the activities of Israeli NGOs.

An argument might be made that groups focused on the Arab community and Arab political demands undermine the “Jewish and democratic nature of the state.” But a close look at the politics of the Arab minority indicates that the demands most worrisome to rightist politicians (changing the Jewish state into a “state for all its citizens”) occurs primarily at the level of the political and intellectual leadership, not in the community more broadly. These demands are also predicated on the decades of marginalization and discrimination the Arab community has faced. Addressing these underlying conditions would do far more to engender acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state than coercive measures. Finally, since comparisons to the West are common, it should be noted that Canada’s political system has for a long time included a party devoted to breaking up the country–the Bloc Québécois–while other Western democracies have their own legitimate separatist movements. In any event, Arab-oriented NGOs are primarily engaged in protecting and expanding the civil and communal rights of Arab citizens.

Finally, regarding context, comparisons to the U.S. law are misleading. American non-profits and NGOs have a very large source of potential funding to draw on—the American people. The Israeli population is much smaller, and there is no history or norm of widespread giving to support NGOs or other similar institutions. This makes it difficult for any NGO to rely on domestic sources for funding.

This connects back to the first point about the bill serving as a vehicle for shutting down left-wing activity, rather than being applicable to all Israeli groups. In theory, legally, of course, the bill doesn’t distinguish between left and right. But it does in practice: most right-wing NGOs get their funding from private sources abroad, rather than public sources. Leftist groups get much of their support from public rather than private sources. So the bill’s effect is designed to apply primarily to certain organizations only.

It’s hard, then, to avoid the conclusion that this is another effort—in a long line of efforts stretching back to the second Netanyahu government—to define Zionism, patriotism, and loyalty very narrowly.

Open Hillel and the potential for change to US Jewish life

I was able to spend half a day at the Open Hillel conference, including speaking on a panel on “Potential Solutions.” One thought: I’d be worried if I were part of the “pro-Israel” American Jewish establishment. These leaders of tomorrow are not going to quietly accept stale dogma.

The students I met and heard talk at the conference are smart, attend elite universities, and are thinking hard about these issues. They are exposed to a range of organizations that not only includes AIPAC/JCRC/Federation/CAMERA etc but also groups with alternate views such as J Street U and Jewish Voice for Peace.

The Jewish tradition was long one of deep intellectual curiosity. In addition, college is one time when many students get to explore ideas. This combination of being party to the Jewish tradition and in college makes for a double dose of curiosity. That’s crucial if one is asking these students to blindly accept narratives or avoid peeking outside the existing opinion tent; they’ll push back, as they did by even establishing Open Hillel and organizing this first conference.

I’m not an expert on American Jewish institutional life. Moreover, there was a selection effect – the kind of student who would be at an Open Hillel conference lends herself/himself to my claims. Students who are outsiders and questioners now certainly might be co-opted later. Fair points.

So rather than an airtight argument, take this as impressionistic…but plausible. Let’s revisit in 20 years and see where things stand.

(I’ll write more about the conference tomorrow @BeaconReader).

Carter and Camp David

A quick thought. I have not read Lawrence Wright’s Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David. (Can I claim to be Camp David-ed out?) But in reading a review by Jordan Chandler Hirsch, I was struck by one of the reviewer’s phrasings.

Hirsch does not want us to over-emphasize the US role in bringing about Egyptian-Israeli peace: “Washington, in short, played the role of consolidator, not catalyst.”

In the hopes of not over-emphasizing the US role, the risk is that Hirsch minimizes the US role. In the end, I think two things are true about the diplomacy of 1978-1979:

There would not have been the Camp David Accords and the Egyptian-Israeli treaty had not Egyptian and Israeli interest been moving in the same direction.
There would not have been the Camp David Accords and the Egyptian-Israeli treaty had the US/Carter not mediated (especially in September 1978 and March 1979).

Hirsch’s line does not fully capture my sentiments.

Why the Israeli Government Isn’t Going to Western Africa

It came as a bit of a surprise to me that Israel refused the American government’s request to send government aid to western Africa to contend with the outbreak of Ebola. After all, Israel has long prided itself on the immediate relief aid it provides to stricken countries, as well as its successful cooperative programs in Africa (longstanding but interrupted in the 1960s and 1970s). Others on Twitter were equally surprised, and wondered whether, because Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon made the final decision over an initial Foreign Ministry recommendation, this was a poke in Barack Obama’s eye.

According to one government official familiar with the details of the decision, it was indeed the case that the Foreign Ministry first recommended acceding to the request. But once the bigger picture was sketched out, it was decided that other considerations as laid out by the Defense Ministry were relevant enough that the request should be turned down. There is, according to the source, “[n]o friction between ministries or ministers on this one.”

The decision not to get involved at the governmental level was made in light of the “tough summer” Israel just experienced. The Israeli military, which typically runs the large-scale aid interventions, is focused right now on building up its own capacities given the lessons of the conflict with Hamas as well as existing and perhaps expanding regional threats to the state. In any event, the IDF’s area of expertise is disaster relief, rather than helping develop a healthcare structure to deal with an ongoing epidemic. The decision not to participate was underlined by the fact that the non-governmental sector, including IsraAID, is active there; indeed, Jerusalem supports their efforts.

A reasonable decision, I think, under the circumstances.


It appears that discussions on the topic continued after Ya’alon officially rejected the request. Some in the Foreign Ministry, particularly in the sustainable development division, pushed back hard to send aid. It was eventually agreed that the Ministry would contribute a modest effort through MASHAV, but there would be no IDF involvement.