New Book on Israeli Politics

Harold Waller and I have co-authored a text on Israeli Politics, due out with Oxford University Press in February 2016. The Politics of Israel: Governing a Complex Society serves as an introduction to the topic, and covers a wide range of issues and areas, including the impact of Zionism on Israel’s political culture, religion in politics, the politics of the Arab minority, interest groups and public protest, and debates over the meaning of Israel as a Jewish state.


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.

The Power of Nationalism: A micro-example

Whether one agrees with Samer Issawi’s politics or not, I thought his description of his family’s activism was a powerful illustration of what nationalism means at the individual level. Issawi, a Palestinian on a hunger strike in an Israeli jail, wrote

I am not the first member of my family to be jailed on my people’s long march towards freedom. My grandfather, a founding member of the PLO, was sentenced to death by the British Mandate authorities, whose laws are used by Israel to this day to oppress my people; he escaped hours before he was due to be executed. My brother, Fadi, was killed in 1994, aged just 16, by Israeli forces during a demonstration in the West Bank following the Ibrahimi mosque massacre in Hebron. Medhat, another brother, has served 19 years in prison. My other brothers, Firas, Ra’afat and Shadi were each imprisoned for five to 11 years. My sister, Shireen, has been arrested numerous times and has served a year in prison. My brother’s home has been destroyed. My mother’s water and electricity have been cut off. My family, along with the people of my beloved city Jerusalem, are continuously harassed and attacked, but they continue to defend Palestinian rights and prisoners.

The sense of broad family involvement and repeated sacrifice (as expressed primarily through jail time) tells us something about the level of commitment to the Palestinian cause and the belief in the idea of Palestinian peoplehood, self-determination, and nationalism. One can imagine other outs at certain moments such as emigration, political quietism, and a resigned acceptance to one’s fate. Yet none are mentioned here.

For Israelis who continue to believe that Palestinians are not a people worthy of self-determination or that Jordan may serve as the Palestinian state, Issawi’s statement provides a very inconvenient set of facts. Many Palestinians sure do think they are a people and seem determined to stand by that claim.

I am not suggesting this tells us everything we need to know about the likely outcome. Self-determination can be frustrated for a long time, perhaps indefinitely. But it does suggest to me that certain arguments just won’t have much traction. Pretending that we can go back to a time before Palestinian nationalism, or before Zionism for that matter, was a powerful ideology is pure fantasy.



The Resurgence of American Diplomacy in the Middle East

When President Barack Obama announced his trip to Israel, there was widespread speculation for the motivations. I thought it was a grab-bag of reasons, including for domestic political purposes, to connect (finally) with the Jewish-Israeli public, to improve personal relations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and to talk about Iran and Syria.

On these grounds the visit has already been a success. But it seems the trip was about American regional diplomacy at least as much as it was about the American-Israeli relationship. This makes sense: In his second term Obama is looking to shape his legacy, and can now be more proactive—as opposed to reactive, as he was at the onset of the Arab Awakening—in foreign affairs without having to worry about re-election. It’s clear now that the point of the visit was to set the conditions for an improvement in the U.S. position in the region.

For some time analysts have been convinced that the U.S. is on its way out of the Middle East, retreating or simply impotent in the wake of the Arab Awakening. But this argument rests on a consideration of American hard power only, reads Obama’s hesitation in his first term into his second, and ignores Obama’s own modus operandi.

To understand Obama’s foreign policy we need to look at the preference he’s had for engaging with Republicans on domestic policy. Here he’s adopted a patient, low-key role. His habit has been to let other prominent individuals or groups engage in public battles over a given issue, and at some moment near the end move quietly in to offer suggestions—not orders or demands—to both sides of a dispute. In this way, he persuades them that butting heads has not worked, but that compromise will.

Obama’s trip to Israel was an exercise in in this type of American soft power. First, during his time in Israel, he charmed Netanyahu, a man with whom he previously had very tense personal relations. Having created space with its leaders, Obama then gave a stirring speech to Israeli students at the Jerusalem Convention Center. He highlighted the Jewish connection to the area, bore witness to the Jewish/Zionist struggles over time (including their contemporary security concerns), and called on them to act now in the name of Israeli Jewishness and democracy, and justice for Palestinians. These themes were echoed in a shorter speech at Yad Vashem. His visit to sites of memory and identity in Israel also validated Jewish-Israelis’ Zionism.

While critics argue that this is pandering or represent the usual ignoring of Palestinians, connecting with Israeli public opinion is important. No final agreement will be ratified in Israel unless politicians know enough Israelis (particularly Jewish Israelis) are on board with it. Given the skepticism of the Palestinians and the peace process more generally among that cohort, laying the groundwork isn’t just good politics, it’s essential.

Second, at the very end of his trip, Obama brought together Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan through a phone call that, for all intents and purposes, settled the most outstanding of their immediate disagreements (an Israeli apology for and compensation over the deaths of Turkish citizens killed during the attack on the Mavi Marmara in 2010).

It’s not clear that Obama promised either of the two anything specific, but what he did do was remind Netanyahu and Erdoğan that the region is at a critical moment, and that the two countries have common interests that trump these kinds of disputes. Like a mediator, he made sure that they knew all of their interests—including that of the United States—required coordination, even if it didn’t include full agreement on all issues.

Third, Obama appears to have convinced the Israelis that the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority in the West Bank really is their only partner for peace, particularly as Hamas’s regional stature continues to rise. To this end, the Administration has managed to unblock $500 million in aid to the PA, which Congress had previously frozen, at the same time that Jerusalem has decided to resume transfer of tax revenues to the PA, also frozen after Mahmoud Abbas asked the United Nations General Assembly to grant the Palestinians non-observer member state status.

Finally, Obama has publicly discussed bringing the Arab states more directly into the peace process. This will provide political cover for the PA to make unpopular decisions about concessions during talks. But tying the Arab states to the negotiations further isolates Iran, and also gives them a stake in the outcome.

The conventional wisdom is that the Israelis and Palestinians aren’t interested at this point in resolving their conflict, and that the Arab Awakening, Syria, and Iran are forcing the White House to wait on events more than seek to manage them. But Obama’s trip to the region has demonstrated that this isn’t true.

Certainly there is a long way to go before Israelis and Palestinians make peace, before Saudis and Israelis overcome decades of hostility, or even before Israelis and Turks return to full normalized relations. But even still, it’s clear that Obama is preparing a network to support Washington’s leadership vis-à-vis Iran and Syria, and to better respond to the Arab Awakening.

He’s done all this quietly, by lowering expectations beforehand, and by convincing Israelis, Palestinians, Turks, and Arabs that they share common goals. This is the essence of persuasion. Obama’s ability to project American hard power in the region might be fading, but that’s not the case with American soft power.

Obama’s Successes in Israel

At Open Zion I argue that Barack Obama’s trip to Israel was very successful:

On Twitter, Blake Hounshell asked if President Barack Obama’s trip to Israel was a “huge” success or not. I think we first have to define what we mean by “success.” But by the definition that Obama himself set out, albeit vaguely, and the unforeseen consequences, I think it was, certainly, a “huge success.”

In fact, it was this very vagueness that underlined the success. By downplaying expectations of any dramatic new initiatives on any policy issue, Obama laid the groundwork for excitement whenever he did touch on these (whether Iran or the peace process). By pulling back from an active American role, he also helped Israelis feel in control of their foreign policy at a time when the country has been subject to intense demands from all corners about how to behave and what to do regarding Iran or the Palestinians.

He washed away some of the personal tension that existed between him and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which in turn builds the necessary capital for coordinating with him on Iran and pressing him on the peace process.

Obama gave Israelis the impression that he does care about them, he is looking out for their security, and he does understand them. His speeches at the Jerusalem Convention Center and at Yad Vashem both invoked the Jewish past and connection to the Land of Israel, the insecurity that drives much Israeli behavior, and the rightness of their Zionism. To this end he also visited all the right sites in Israel, tying together the Jewish-Israeli experience over centuries.

In a country with such fractured political and ideological opinions, Obama could never make everybody happy. But there was enough there for most: for leftists he laid heavy emphasis on the immorality and injustice of the occupation. For the right he repeatedly committed himself to Israel’s security, implicitly noting that it’s not just about the balance of material forces but also about perceptions and history. (Of course, his comments regarding the former undermined some of the goodwill his comments for the latter might have generated.)

We cannot judge the success of the trip by looking at the Palestinian reaction simply because the trip wasn’t about them. There was a small detour—and that’s what it was—to visit President Mahmoud Abbas and then Bethlehem, and this gave the impression of American support for the Palestinian Authority. But Obama wasn’t out to reassure the Palestinians. Fair or not, Washington thinks that it’s Israel that needs to be warmed up for negotiations; the Palestinians will probably come along (perhaps with some necessary arm-twisting) because they aren’t in a position to do anything but. And they can’t be bought off with a few speeches and visits to sites of identity because the occupation will still be there once Obama leaves.

But in his Jerusalem speech Obama did humanize the Palestinians in a way they rarely have been in Israeli political discourse. This might not seem like much from Hebron, but it can make a difference among the Israeli public, which will be needed to pressure Bibi into making any progress in peace talks.

Unexpectedly, Obama also brokered a reconciliation between Bibi and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Not only did they speak by phone, but Bibi apologized to Erdoğan for the deaths of Turkish citizens killed during the Mavi Marmara affair. The repairing of that relationship is good for everybody, but it also enhances Obama’s position as facilitator of regional diplomacy. This is necessary as the American position in the Middle East changes in the wake of the Arab Awakening, and as things with Iran come to a head.

So yes, this was a successful visit in the short term. In the longer term it’s obviously too early to say: regional events can take an unanticipated turn with unforeseen consequences. The politics of the new Israeli government have yet to play out, and it’s not clear what that will mean for Israeli foreign policy. But for now, Obama can deservedly bask in the glow of his trip to Israel—at least until his return to the drama of Washington politics snaps him out of it.

Jostling in the Religious Parties

I was going to write Part II of Who Are the Religious in Israel, but Benjamin Netanyahu’s call for early elections has sparked intense speculation about who will ally with whom and which party and bloc will come out on top. And I can’t help participating in these prognostications.

Two new polls are out today, detailing where each party stands. They more or less tell the same story—the rightwing bloc continues to gain more seats in the Knesset than the leftwing bloc. According to a Haaretz/Dialog survey, the former gets 68 seats while the latter gets 52.

A Teleseker/Maariv poll has the right at 64 Knesset seats and the left (or, more properly, the center-left) at 56. Interestingly, the same poll then asks about likely voting based on whether Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni form a new party. Under these conditions, the right wins only 62 mandates while the left gets 58, making the election much closer. It also puts the left in contention for forming the government, though it would require some tricky coalition bargaining with the religious parties.

It is what’s going on in these parties that is interesting. Although today there are three main religious parties/tickets (Shas, United Torah Judaism, and a new-ish National Religious Party), they are internally divided along ideological and personal lines. There are also intense differences over religious identity and norms, and it is a constant effort for each party to remain united.

For a long time there were four or five religious parties: a religious Zionist, a socialist-religious Zionist, a haredi, a socialist haredi, and often a minor breakaway from one of these four. By the mid-1950s these parties were consolidating: both religious Zionist parties became the National Religious Party (Mafdal), while the haredi parties were merging into Agudat Israel—though that didn’t become permanent until 1981, and by the beginning of the 1990s had merged more or less permanently with another haredi party to become United Torah Judaism (UTJ). In 1984 Shas entered the political scene, a breakaway from Agudat Israel that sought to represent haredi Sephardic Jews.

In the current Knesset, Shas holds 11 seats, UTJ has 5, and Mafdal—reincarnated as Jewish Home—has 3.

Shas is divided along personality and individual lines. Though it is still guided by the very old Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the party’s daily business is governed by several managers. The party was initially led by Aryeh Deri, considered a brilliant strategist. He was later convicted of corruption and replaced by Eli Yishai. Where Deri was open to working with others, Yishai is bombastic and has offended many with his seemingly uncompromising positions. Yet since Deri announced his return to politics, speculation has been focused on whether he will form his own party, while there are rumors
he might rejoin Shas. Either way he is a threat to Yishai. We can anticipate friction between them, especially if the secular parties start playing them off one another.

But both Deri and Yishai had joined coalition governments led by left and center-left parties. Given the right amount of incentives, Shas under either leader (or both) could support a Likud-led coalition or a center-left coalition. It remains, as it has since the early 1990s, in the role of kingmaker.

United Torah Judaism is composed of Agudat Israel, a party of Ashkenazi haredim and hasidim, and Degel HaTorah, a party of Ashkenazi haredim but that has problems with hasidism. In 1988, Chabad (a hasidic group) under the direction of its leader Rabbi Menachem Schneerson became involved in Israeli elections to help Agudat. Many groups and rabbinical leaders within Agudat do not think hasidism is an appropriate movement; the involvement of one of the major hasidic sects exacerbated these tensions, highlighting the different spiritual practices and theological ideas. One of Agudat’s long time leaders, Rabbi Eliezer Shach, had long had tense relations with Rabbi Schneerson and his followers. The intervention of Chabad in the election made a break political, and Rabbi Shach created Degel HaTorah as a new party out of Agudat.

Degel HaTorah and Agudat Israel have an on-again, off-again relationship. They combined in time for the 1992 elections, and have struggled to maintain unity since then. Currently at five seats, polls have UTJ staying at five or winning one more, but reports are circulating again about internal differences. The party likely won’t be a significant player in coalition politics, though it’s also likely to be in almost any government that is formed.

Jewish Home is a shadow of its former National Religious Party self. The most prominent religious Zionist party, it served in almost all governments since the establishment of the state. It began to break down in the 1970s, with the emergence of Gush Emunim and a post-1967 commitment to settling the newly-conquered West Bank, Gaza, and Sinai that put the radicalized younger generation at odds with the older one.

By the 2000s most of the party shared an increasingly hardline commitment to settlement in the territories. But the 2005 Gaza disengagement brought internal differences over tactics to the fore, and the party split over the best way to influence Israeli policy. Though it ran on a joint ticket with some smaller secular far right parties in the 2006 election, talks to officially merge into a new party fell apart and the party split again over personalities and tactics: Jewish Home, basically a new version of Mafdal, and National Union, which contains more members from the now-defunct far right secular parties.

Despite internal disputes within Jewish Home, efforts to merge with National Union continue as they had from 2006. Naftali Bennett, a newcomer to party politics, has sought to unite the two parties under his leadership. Bennett is well-connected among the settlers and the rightwing in Israel, and could prove an important force on the political right should he win Jewish Home’s leadership on November 6.

But polls show Jewish Home and National Union together still only getting seven seats, and Bennett is being challenged within Jewish Home by its current chair Daniel Hershkowitz as well as Zevulun Orlev, both of whom are at odds with National Union leader Yaakov Katz. Katz has proclaimed on more than one occasion that Israel would return to Gaza, and though Hershkowitz and Orlev are no softies when it comes to settlements, both are concerned about losing their leadership positions in a party under Naftali and which the larger National Union will probably dominate. At the same time, Katz himself doesn’t have the full support of his party; Arieh Eldad has expressed discontent with both Katz and Bennett. Finally, National Union takes a less compromising position on how to move the settlement enterprise forward than Jewish Home members have.

It’s likely that these three parties will continue on the divided path they’ve been on since the 2000s. Whether they can have an effect on coalition bargaining remains to be seen, but because the possibility exists it’s worth watching to see what they do.

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.

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.

What is Zionism?

At the Times of Israel, I argue that we need to re-think the meaning and future course of Zionism:

On re-invigorating the World Zionist Congress as a genuine place for discussion.

On alternate parameters for discussing Zionism.

On detaching the concept of exile from Zionism, which has relevance for the debate about Israel in the United States and elsewhere.

An exploration of Zionism isn’t only about Israel, but it does have critical relevance for that country and its position in and policies toward the Middle East.

Israel Under Bibi: A Failed State?

Bibi Netanyahu is no fascist, and Israel will not become a totalitarian state tomorrow. The country certainly has drifted rightward in politics, conservative in social and religious ideas, and toward a low tolerance for difference and opposition; but this is in line with similar shifts in many other countries around the world.

What Israel should be concerned about is Bibi’s approach to governance. After his shortened first term from 1996-1999, the widespread perception was that Bibi had mishandled just about every important issue his government faced.

When he returned to politics by winning leadership of the Likud in 2005 and then the premiership in 2009, he did seem a little different: more mature, more experienced, more willing to think before acting, and so on. But it was an illusion, and everything from the increasing visibility of extreme religious coercion, to settlers running wild across the West Bank and attacking both the state itself and Palestinians, to the efforts of coalition members to impose an ethnocentric and illiberal rule can be laid in part, though certainly not in total, at Bibi’s feet.

These worrisome trends are facilitated by Bibi’s inabilities. He is more concerned with holding on to power because he likes that position (with a lesser concern that he must ensure the country stays on the “proper” path); and he simply isn’t politically brave. (Unfortunately for Israel, many of the country’s politicians fit that same description.)

Bibi has refused to make tough choices regarding relations with the Palestinians. Worse, though, he has refused to do so regarding Israel’s domestic political and societal spheres, preferring instead to let matters drift toward their own conclusions. The Israeli state is certainly constrained in some areas. The ability of workers to strike seemingly everywhere and at will, and the influence that the military-security sector has in decision-making in foreign and security matters is more than normal for a liberal democracy.

But Israel remains a powerful state, as a set of authoritative institutions. Bibi has not used these institutions to maintain the rule of the state above all others.

Instead of meeting with settlers and haredi to discuss how to tone down their rhetoric, or telling his cabinet that he opposes the recent attacks by these groups, he should—he must—instruct his police, the justice system, and the security forces to immediately arrest and bring to trial anyone who violates Israel’s laws and norms. He should make multiple appearances on national television and radio to assert the state’s authority to do this; to loudly proclaim his government’s and his own personal commitment to Israel’s democratic norms and rule of law; and he should instruct his ministers to do the same—and if they don’t, to sanction them.

Bibi’s refusal to use the force of his own stature as Prime Minister and the state’s laws to denounce and censure those who consistently break it has facilitated an opening for tolerance of such acts of religious coercion, the exercise of violence by sub-state groups, and moves to change the accepted norms of liberal democracy. By not personally and consistently condemning such incidents, and then backing these condemnations up with direct action, Bibi has created the impression that things that used to be considered beyond the pale are now tolerable and even acceptable.

The lack of state authority in these matters is what positioned Israel (including the West Bank) at number 53 on a prominent list of failed states, in the “borderline” zone. Israel’s ranking has been rising—in 2009 it was 58, and 2010 it was at 54. The current trajectory will only put Israel higher in future rankings. The bulk of the countries listed above Israel is in Africa, Central Asia, and include other states such as Haiti, Iraq, and Afghanistan. This should not be the community that Israel puts itself in.

Israeli democracy is not on the precipice, but it is weakening. Certainly even if Bibi did the above it would not be enough—there are plenty of other issues and divisions in Israel that need to be resolved. But it is an important and strong start, and is necessary in a state that prizes its membership in the club of industrialized democracies.