December 12, 2018

Israel’s response to Charlottesville: On morality, leadership and unity

Charlottesville posed a dilemma for Israel. On the one hand, there were anti-Semitic demonstrations – and Israel does not condone anti-Semitism. On the other hand, a friendly American president was under attack because of his awkward response to these demonstrations – and Israel has no interest in getting under President Trump’s skin.

What should Israel do in such cases?

Here is what Israel – and, of course, “Israel” is a broad term, so I will focus on Israel’s politicians – did and did not do:

Politicians who have no responsibility for U.S.-Israel relations were more prone to condemn the demonstrators and the presidential response to them. Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid said: “There aren’t two sides. When Neo-Nazis march in Charlottesville and scream slogans against Jews and in support of white supremacy, the condemnation has to be unambiguous.” That’s direct criticism of President Trump.

Politicians who have no responsibility for these relations but do have experience and understanding of their crucial importance were more cautious. For instance, the Zionist Camp’s Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister, criticized Prime Minister Netanyahu for his slow response, and not President Trump for his problematic response: “We must stand up against such phenomena immediately, and without hesitation.”

Politicians who wanted to pander to a specific group of voters made the usual foolish attempts to seem smart. Some showed disrespect to the way America works. “The neo-Nazis in the United States should be prosecuted. This was not what the American constitution was meant for,” said Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, hardly an authority on U.S. constitutional law. Others on the right end of the spectrum decided that it’s their place to align themselves with Trump’s problematic stance. Oren Hazan, a Likud MK, wrote that “Trump is right. Violence and extremism from any side is prohibited and must be condemned!” Netanyahu’s son, Yair, was one of them: he paralleled neo-Nazi “scum” with the leftist “thugs” of Antifa and Black Lives Matter.

Then there were those with responsibility. And they were indeed cautious. President Reuven Rivlin sympathized with the Jews of the U.S., but did not direct any criticism at the U.S. or its political leadership: “The very idea that in our time we would see a Nazi flag — perhaps the most vicious symbol of anti-Semitism — paraded in the streets of the world’s greatest democracy and Israel’s most cherished and greatest ally, is almost beyond belief.” Netanyahu waited for Trump before issuing a clear condemnation. Deputy Minister Michael Oren said Charlottesville is an internal affair.

It did not take very long for puzzled, and at times angry, reactions to this cautious approach to appear. These reactions referred to three aspects of Israel’s response:

1. Morality: Some claimed that the Prime Minister has lost “any semblance of a moral compass,” as MK Stav Shafir of Labor phrased it. This argument, simply put, says that when facing anti-Semitism, all other considerations should be cast aside. Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan, a member of Netanyahu’s coalition, was not far from Shafir in saying that Israel “must not stammer or hesitate in the face of anti-Semitism.”

2. Leadership: Some argued that Israel cannot claim to be the leader of the Jewish people and hesitate at such times. “I think it is a shame that the prime minister himself did not criticize Trump’s moral equivalence speech, because Israel claims to be the protector of Jewish communities everywhere,” said Prof. Eytan Gilboa of Bar-Ilan University.

3. Unity: some focused on how Israel, by not being forceful on Charlottesville (including Trump’s response to it), is splitting the Jewish people. Chemi Shalev of Haaretz made this argument: “It portrays Netanyahu as a leader willing to sacrifice American Jews in exchange for continued support for his policies and for the occupation.”

Talking unpassionately about these three criticisms of Israel – and especially of Netanyahu – is very difficult because of the clear political undertones that make this debate more about partisan maneuvering than about substance. In other words, for a great number of critics this is just another day at the Bibi-bashing office. Still, the issue is one of importance and merits consideration. Looking at these three criticisms of Israel’s response is a good way to start discussing it:

Morality: Israel is not a philosophical enterprise; it is a country, with interests and concerns. Being morally just is one of them, but so is surviving. Expecting Israel to be pure, to be morally perfect and to avoid any semblance of a detached, calculated approach to policy is expecting Israel to do something that no other country in the world does. This is, in fact, one of the most vivid symptoms of anti-Israel bias.

Morality is one consideration among many that guide the state and its leaders. It is a consideration that needs to be measured against other considerations. David Ben-Gurion cast morality aside when he decided to accept reparations from Germany after the Holocaust. Ben-Gurion, as prime minister, “saw the payments as a boost to the newly-established state’s economy.” His fierce opponent Menachem Begin “saw them as the beginning of a process of absolving the Germans.” Was Ben-Gurion being immoral? He believed that the moral cause of building Israel trumps the moral cause of denying Germany absolution.

The current Israeli dilemma is not nearly as complicated as the one of German reparations. But in some way it is similar: on the one hand, there is the always-present urgency in condemning anti-Semitism; on the other hand, there is the always-present urgency in currying favor with Israel’s allies. Did the prime minister properly balance these two conflicting interests? Maybe he did, maybe he did not. My point is not that Netanyahu struck the perfect balance; it is that this is a balancing act, rather than a case of “moral” vs. “evil” responses to world events.

Leadership: Israel often claims to be a leader of the Jewish people, but it often acts selfishly as if it isn’t. This is an unhappy reality, but it is a reality nonetheless. In ditching the Kotel compromise, Israel’s leaders proved that short-term political considerations are more important for them than being leaders of the Jewish people. Because the “leadership” claim – much like the moral claim – is one of nuance and degree, not one of absolute clarity.

Israel’s government is first and foremost responsible for Israel. It also claims to have responsibility of some kind over the well-being of the Jewish people. But note the following caveats:

A. Its responsibility for Israel is greater than its responsibility for non-Israeli Jews.

B. Its responsibility for Jews stems from its understanding of what’s best for the Jewish people.

C. Naturally, its understanding of what’s best for the Jewish people often begins with what is best for Israel.

Simply put, the government of Israel could make the calculation that if keeping Trump as an ally is good for Israel’s future, then it is also good for the Jewish people’s future. Thus, being cautious with Trump is a true act of Jewish leadership, and the complaints of Jewish Americans are merely the result of their misunderstanding of the true interests of the Jewish people (or of them putting the interests of Jewish Americans before the interests of the Jewish people).

Unity: The unity complaint is intellectually dishonest. It is based on the assumption that there is a Jewish American expectation of Israel. According to this view, Israel doesn’t always meet this expectation and thus it distances itself from the Jewish American community.

This complaint is dishonest because the premise is wrong. Israel is under no more obligation to meet Jewish American expectations than U.S. Jews are to meet Israeli expectations. And in the case of Charlottesville, Israel is not distancing itself from U.S. Jews by not condemning Trump more than U.S. Jews are distancing themselves from Israel by not accepting Israel’s sober judgment of its priorities.

So, one can argue that the current political situation – a situation in which Israel is forced to work with a president that most U.S. Jews disrespect – puts these two groups on a collision course. In fact, I made this argument half a year ago in the New York Times. Trump makes it difficult for U.S. Jews and Israeli Jews to see eye to eye on some issues, the same way Barack Obama and George W. Bush did.

Still, one must accept that the supposed collision, if there is such a collision, is not the result of Israel behaving badly by not doing what some U.S. Jews want it to do. As in every accident, there are two cars involved, and Israel isn’t necessarily the car driving on the wrong side of the road.