Jeremy Corbyn may become Britain’s next prime minister. If so, he could become one of the most challenging political figures Israel has ever encountered. And he could become the most hostile leader ever to head a friendly country.
Corbyn could pose a diplomatic dilemma of great magnitude for Israel: What do you do when an anti-Semite, a supporter of terrorists, a vehement anti-Zionist, an enemy — yes, I think Corbyn is Israel’s enemy — takes over leadership of a country that is both important and friendly.
Israel has a long history of dealing with unfriendly leaders of other countries. Many were heads of enemy countries. They were no surprise and no real challenge — you dealt with the leader the way you dealt with his or her country. Some leaders were not heads of enemy countries but of countries whose importance for Israel was marginal. Again, they posed relatively little challenge.
Then there were the skeptical or reluctant heads of countries that were both important and generally friendly. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was such a leader of the United States. Francois Mitterrand was such a leader of France. Israel was not always pleased when it needed to interact with these men, but no sane observer of foreign affairs would claim that they were enemies of Israel.
Israel has dealt with anti-Semitic leaders in the past. Luckily, most of them had one of two qualities: Either they made an effort to hide their tendencies, making it possible for Israel to ignore them, or they were leaders whom Israel could fairly easily ignore, such as Kurt Waldheim of Austria.
Corbyn is different. He is a vicious enemy of Israel and the Jewish people. He is an enemy who might head an important and generally friendly country. If he were to become Britain’s next prime minister, how could Israel deal with him? How could it not?
Litmus tests are important. They are signs of where the political winds are blowing.
It is not always easy to draw a clear line separating the ordinary critic of Israel — say, Barack Obama — from the hostile critic. Jimmy Carter? He worked for peace. Pat Buchanan? Ron Paul? As standard America-first politicians, had they been elected to a position of great power, they would worry Israel but not make it cringe in disbelief.
Corbyn, as a politician, is a clear-cut case — the clearest cut one can make in today’s world, when stating plainly that one hates Jews and Israel is still beyond a certain pale. Yet, Britain under Corbyn would be harder to pin down. If British voters choose to elect him, it will not be because of his attitudes toward Israel and Jews or a statement of their resentment toward Israel. It will be a statement of indifference. It will be a statement of “We have priorities other than Corbyn’s views on Israel.”
A Corbyn victory would not mean Britain is anti-Semitic. It would mean that Britain no longer has a litmus test that determines anti-Semitism to be a disqualifier of politicians (assuming it had such a test in the post-World War II era).
Litmus tests are important. They are signs of where the political winds are blowing. That’s why I am currently interested not just in British politics but also in the candidacy of Michigan congressional hopeful Rashida Tlaib, who last week lost the endorsement of J Street. Because of her views on Israel, not even the lefty Jewish group was willing to vouch for her. Tlaib won the Democratic primary and is running unopposed in the November general election race, so she is virtually assured of becoming a U.S. congresswoman.
To be clear, Tlaib is no Corbyn. Not close. She did not carry flowers to the graves of terrorists. She has expressed no anti-Semitic views that I am aware of. But she supports a one-state solution — in other words, the elimination of Israel. To me, this seems like a signal of the possible looming death of the Israel litmus test or the two-state-solution litmus test as we have known it.
She will not be a prime minister of a country. She will only be a congresswoman whose impact on Israel is little or none. Corbyn worries me. Tlaib doesn’t. But the erosion of a litmus test is the erosion of a litmus test in both cases.
Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.
I learned of the sudden arrest of Rabbi Dubi Haiyun via a phone call very early on July 19. “Did you hear the news?” the caller asked. “Why would I hear any news at 6:30 in the morning?” I replied. “Well,” the caller said, “your rabbi was arrested.”
I have no rabbi. From childhood, I have been suspicious of rabbis. I don’t dislike them — some of my best friends have the failing of being rabbis. But I never have considered anyone to be “my” rabbi.
So I said, “I have no rabbi.” And the caller said, “You know what I mean.” And I said, “No, I don’t what you mean.” So the caller got impatient. “Rabbi Haiyun,” he said. So I asked: “Rabbi Haiyun from Haifa? But he is supposed to speak today at the event at the president’s house!” Then I realized: It was, indeed, my rabbi — one of the rabbis I invited to speak at President Reuven Rivlin’s annual Tisha b’Av event. There was an Orthodox rabbi, a Reform rabbi, a Hebrew University professor and a Conservative rabbi — Rabbi Haiyun.
He was “arrested” (technically, detained for questioning) after a complaint by the rabbinate. The essence of this complaint was ridiculous: that Haiyun illegally officiates marriage ceremonies. The action taken by the police after the complaint — detaining the rabbi at 5:30 a.m. rather than asking him to schedule a time for questioning — was outrageous. Everybody knows that dozens of Conservative, Reform and, for that matter, unlicensed Orthodox rabbis officiate at unofficial, unrecognized-by-the-state weddings. In fact, there are celebrities who officiate such ceremonies — others who are even high-ranking politicians. Everybody knows that thousands of Israelis have such ceremonies every year, and that tens of thousands of Israelis are guests at such ceremonies. Never — not once — has anyone been detained because of it.
I was on the phone all morning, trying to ascertain whether Haiyun would make it to the event. I was relieved to discover he would be coming, and later pleased to see him embraced by the other participants, from the president on down. He heard calming words from outgoing head of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky, and from incoming head of the Jewish Agency Isaac Herzog. He shook hands with all of the other speakers, including the formidable Orthodox rabbi on the panel, Yaakov Medan. He was cheered when he ended his presentation, which was illuminating, but I suspected the cheers were for other reasons.
The rabbi’s detention was problematic, infuriating. The aftermath of the detention was calming, reassuring.
So it was a bittersweet day. On the one hand, something preposterous had happened. On the other hand, the reaction was quick and decisive: public condemnation, wide support and, most importantly, a note of clarification from the attorney general, that there will be no further investigation until and unless there is clear suspicion of criminal action.
There is often a part of the story that observers neglect to mention or take into account when instances such as this occur. “These are the actions of Iran and Saudi Arabia,” Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, wrote. That Haiyun, awoken in the early hours, was angry enough to compare Israel to Iran (reportedly in a Facebook post) that morning is understandable. But other observers would be wise to refrain from such comparisons because they are only half true: Iran might drag the rabbi out of bed, but would it also host him at the president’s home on the same day? Would it also halt the investigation hours after the rabbi was detained ?
Israel isn’t perfect but it is no Iran. The rabbi’s detention was problematic, infuriating. The aftermath of the detention was calming, reassuring. No — Israel didn’t rewrite its laws of marriage and divorce. There are many Israelis and non-Israelis who believe that such change is essential, but that is a matter for another day. No – Israel hasn’t yet figured a proper way to navigate the complicated world of many Jewish streams. That is also a matter for another day. No — Israel didn’t dismantle the falling-down castle of the rabbinate. It might do it some day. Or maybe — that’s what I believe is going to happen — the rabbinate will become obsolete by its own actions.
Don’t let the idiotic detention of a rabbi fool you. Don’t make the excessive decision of a local police more than it is. It was bad enough without overhyping it. That is to say: Being outraged is sometimes necessary. But moving on is also a useful quality.
Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.
Once every couple of years, we are reminded of the special relationship between Israel and American evangelical Christians. Often, it comes up in a form of scandal: This preacher said this, or that preacher said that — they tend to say shocking things. Shocking, at least for those who have little practice in listening to the words of religious leaders. Shocking, for those who are easily shocked. Shocking, for those whose political tendencies are different from those of the evangelical leaders.
The relationship came to the fore in the last two weeks because of the presence of evangelicals at the ceremony marking the move of the United States Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. “The dedication of the embassy in Jerusalem this past week doubled as the most public recognition yet of the growing importance the [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu government now assigns to its conservative Christian allies, even if some have been accused of making anti-Semitic statements,” The New York Times reported.
It is worth noting that complaints about evangelical anti-Semitism, and about evangelical evil-intentioned support of Israel (all they want is doomsday and Armageddon), always comes from the quarters that also happen to disagree with evangelical politics. And, of course, the opposite is also true: A tendency to ignore or dismiss problematic statements made by evangelical leaders always comes from the quarters that also happen to agree with evangelical politics.
So, this is more about politics than it is about religion.
If it is politics, then the politics are quite simple: Someone offers Israel friendship and Israel gladly accepts. Someone offers Israel not just friendship, but also influence in the world’s most important capital, and Israel gladly accepts. Is there a downside to accepting evangelical support? Of course there is — some of it inevitable, some of it not. For now, Israel seems to be willing to pay the price. It is willing to pay because the need for support is great and immediate, and the price is more vague and less immediate.
What’s the price? Neither Armageddon, nor doomsday. Israel has its own foreign policy that the evangelical leaders support (or don’t). It does not run the foreign policy of the evangelicals. The price is the identification of Israel with the Christian right in America. That is to say, what Israel gains on the right it loses on the left. And why did Israel decide to pay the price? Two reasons: 1) Because the Christian right supports the policies of Israel and the left would only support the policies of another Israel, not the real one. 2) Because the Christian right is supporting it already, while on the left it is not even clear if support is available for grabbing.
It is not the choice of Israel, or of evangelical supporters of Israel, to turn off American Jews.
And there is another price that Israel is paying. The Israeli government, the Times reported, “has made a historic and strategic shift, relying on the much larger base of evangelical Christians, even at the risk of turning off American Jews who may be troubled by some evangelicals’ denigration of their faith.”
Ah, the risk of turning off American Jews. Yes, it is a risk. And apparently, the government is ready to take the risk. But why is there such risk? Is it because the government would not accept the support of both Jews and evangelicals? Of course not. Is it because the evangelicals would not extend their support if Jews also support Israel? Again, wrong answer. If there is a risk, it stems not from Israel shunning the Jews or from evangelicals shunning the Jews; it stems from Jews shunning the evangelicals, and possibly shunning an Israel supported by evangelicals.
In other words, it is not the choice of Israel, or of evangelical supporters of Israel, to turn off American Jews. It is the choice of American Jews to turn off. It is their choice to see the support of evangelicals as a reason, or excuse, to turn off (and, of course, we do not talk in Israel about all American Jews, we only talk about those Jews who “turn off”).
In many ways, the story of turning off because of evangelicals is not much different than the story of turning off because of other reasons — the Kotel compromise, Netanyahu in Congress, the Orthodox, the occupation, Gaza shooting, you name it. Israel does what it does, not always wisely, not always perfectly. Still, the choice to turn off is made by those turning off. And evangelical support is a lame excuse to turn off, as there is no mandatory either-or situation when it comes to supporting Israel. Jews can support Israel. Evangelicals can support Israel. One does not negate the other — unless you want it to.
Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israel and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.
French Hill is the center of the universe of author and journalist Yossi Klein Halevi. It’s a neighborhood in East Jerusalem where his “apartment is in the last row of houses, which you see as steplike structures built into the hillside.”
I grew up not far from those “steplike structures.” When Klein Halevi immigrated to Israel as a young adult in the early 1980s, I was a teenager on the hill next to his, roaming the area with my friends, climbing the rocky terrain, walking for many miles, looking for mild trouble.
From his residence, Klein Halevi sees the “concrete wall that cuts through the landscape we share” — that is, cutting Jerusalem from the West Bank, separating neighborhoods, serving as a barrier, a deterrent and a reminder that not all is well on the Israeli-Palestinian front.
When I was growing up, it was not yet there. There was no need for it because Palestinian violence and resistance to the Israeli 1967 occupation was still mute. If, at that time, I had written “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” the title of Klein Halevi’s new book, they could have been hand delivered. Of course, because there was not much trouble, and because I was still young and more careless, the necessity of any such letters eluded me. Admittedly, I do not know if such letters can be helpful today.
Klein Halevi is a man who has very few, if any, enemies. He’s a man loved by everybody — a quality that can be annoying. While reading his book, you will fall in love with him, too, because the book very much reflects his admirable features: gentleness, soulfulness, cautious optimism. He loves people, friends and enemies alike, and they love him back. He loves his country, Israel; he loves his people, the Jewish people; he loves his culture and religion, Judaism. But then, he also loves Islam, its sacred sites and adherents, and he loves the Palestinian people. And he seems to think that we can all get along lovingly if we only …
His book makes the case that what Israelis and Palestinians need is to better understand one another and have more respect for their competing narratives. “I don’t believe that peace without at least some attempt at mutual understanding can endure,” he writes. “Whatever official document may be signed by our leaders in the future will be undermined on the ground, on your hill and mine.” And by understanding, he doesn’t just mean understanding what happened yesterday or 50 years ago. By understanding, he means understanding everything: What we believe in, what our values are, what our story is dating back thousands of years, what we dream at night, what we ask for in our prayers, and of whom.
In many ways, he turns the Western diplomatic formulation on its head. As he tells it, religion is not the problem, it is the solution; tradition is not the problem, it is the solution.
So his letters tell his side of the story — our side of the story — in the hope that Palestinians would read it. A translation into Arabic is available to download for free. Without asking him, I have no doubt that Klein Halevi is no less interested in the number of copies downloaded for free by Palestinians, than by the number of copies sold in English for a solid price. Yes, I suspect his motivations for writing the book are not material. Some might say that this is also annoying.
The book begins with the destruction of the Temple and ends with the holiday of Sukkot. On French Hill, Klein Halevi builds his sukkah, from which he can “clearly see three distinct political entities. The sovereign territory of the state of Israel ends at the wall. In the distance is the Palestinian Authority. And in the farthest distance, the hills of Jordan.” Yet, the book is hardly one about “political entities” in the naked, secular, businesslike sense. It is about the history of the Jewish people, about their beliefs and customs, about their traumas and fears, about their redemption and joy. It is a story from which a Palestinian could benefit, and also a book from which many Jews could benefit — a comprehensive, yet easy to digest, introduction to our story. The story of the Jews and their land.
Klein Halevi is a spiritual man, and his story of the conflict is a spiritual story, and his proposed remedy for the conflict is a spiritual remedy. In many ways, he turns the Western diplomatic formulation on its head. As he tells it, religion is not the problem, it is the solution; tradition is not the problem, it is the solution.
In fact, Klein Halevi might convince you that ignoring religion, ignoring tradition, ignoring myths, ignoring theological conundrums is the problem. The “peace process” tended to treat religious Israelis and Palestinians as obstacles to peace — they are the radicals, the conservatives, the belligerent, the ignorant, the non-forward-looking — without realizing that untying the knot of tradition is the only way to achieve real peace. Not a peace of signed papers — a peace of minds and souls.
In fact, this book is an attempt to fix this fatal flaw that mired all peace processes and all attempts at resolving the conflict. An attempt to fill in the gaps that negotiators and observers — most of whom are secular, modern, unburdened by traditions and theologies — tended to neglect. Klein Halevi doesn’t talk much about security arrangements, geopolitical considerations, economic agreements or legal complexities. He talks about myths and religion, about ancient texts and their contemporary meaning. He talks about a sacred land that cannot be traded offhandedly. He talks about traumas and empathy.
In the chapter about the Holocaust, Klein Halevi argues that its psychological aftermath is “devastating” not just for Jews but also for Palestinians. “The war against Israel’s existence has reawakened old demons in new form. When the worst Jewish fears are incited, your suffering becomes, for us, not a tragedy to redress but a threat to rebuff.” In other words, if the Palestinians or their supporters speak or act in ways that echo the tragic past, Israel’s instinctive response is to be aggressive.
Holocaust denial is a root cause of the ongoing conflict, Klein Halevi argues, including Holocaust denial in hard or soft forms (accusing Israel of committing crimes much like the Nazis is also a form of Holocaust denial). His book doesn’t mention it, but recent comments made by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas prove this point.
Yet, denying the Jewish narrative doesn’t begin nor end with the Holocaust. It begins with the allegation that Jews have nothing to do with the land of Israel. “When Palestinian Authority president Abbas would speak of Jerusalem, he’d invoke the Muslim and Christian historical presence and pointedly omit the Jewish presence,” Klein Halevi writes. His retelling of the story of Jewish connection to the land is aimed at convincing his Palestinian neighbor to reconsider, to accept that the Jews are an indigenous people.
“If you were in my place, neighbor, what would you do? Would you take the chance and withdraw to narrow borders and trust a rival national movement that denied your right to exist?” — Yossi Klein Halevi
Klein Halevi also retells the story of early Zionism, to rebuke the common myth that Israel is a compensation that the Europeans agreed to pay the Jews to remedy the damage of the Holocaust. He tells the tale of non-European Jews who fled their countries and are not living in Israel. He tells the stories of 1947 and of 1967 — the latter being the main actor in Klein Halevi’s previous book, “Like Dreamers.”
He explains how the Jewish settler movement began, the motivation behind it, and the moment when he no longer accepted its motivations and actions. It was “in Hebron that my romance with the settlement movement ended. On an autumn night in 1984, I went to report on a Jewish celebration that was happening in the streets of Hebron. It was the night after Simchat Torah, the festival when Jews dance with Torah scrolls to mark the completion of the annual cycle of biblical readings in the synagogue. … To accommodate the celebration, the army had shut the streets. … I saw Jews raising Torah scrolls, which contain the injunction to remember that we were strangers in Egypt and so we must treat the stranger fairly, dancing in the streets emptied of their Palestinian neighbors.”
It is easy to believe the author. He is a wonderful writer with an uncanny ability to be not just a good storyteller but also a good listener. “For me the compelling Palestinian argument against partition is the more straightforward one,” he writes. “As I’ve often heard Palestinians put it: If a stranger squatted in your home, would you accept dividing the house with him? Even if he gave you three rooms and kept ‘only’ two, would you regard that compromise as fair?”
Of course, it doesn’t end here. We’re not supposed to be convinced that the Palestinian narrative is more tragic than ours, but rather to be convinced that it is profound enough for us to take into account. Or, to put it more accurately: Palestinian readers are supposed to be persuaded that the author cares about their narrative, and they are also supposed to care about the author’s.
I suspect this message is tailored not just to catch the eye and gain the confidence of Palestinian readers, but also to gain the confidence of young liberal Jews in the United States (possibly the primary target audience of this book).
So it is easy to believe him, but in all honesty, it is also easy to question his message’s prospects for success. Klein Halevi prays a lot. While sitting at home or visiting the Cave of the Patriarchs, he prays the kind of prayer that has a disarming quality. Wrapped in his tallit, head bowed, lips whispering, eyes shut — there is nothing intimidating about his presence, nothing threatening. In the cynical world of politics, such a posture can be a surprise maneuver that catches everyone off guard — or it can be a naïve posture that catches no one.
To believe that this book can have an impact on Palestinians and Jews, one has to accept two premises: First, that people are ready to be convinced by the stories of others; and second, that what prevents Palestinians and Israelis from achieving peace is a lack of sufficient knowledge. “If you were in my place, neighbor, what would you do? Would you take the chance and withdraw to narrow borders and trust a rival national movement that denied your right to exist?” Klein Halevi asks. His supposition is that a negative answer — “No, I would not withdraw” — must prompt understanding and, hence, acceptance of Israel’s refusal to withdraw. Then again, I’m not sure this is how it works. Maybe a Palestinian answer would be: No, I would not withdraw, and I still want you to withdraw.
And there’s another problem — well, it’s not a problem, but it could seem like a problem to some readers. Klein Halevi wants something that many Israelis and Palestinians don’t currently want. He wants division of the land and separation of the people. He wants the “two-state solution.” Klein Halevi believes in an arrangement that many of Israel’s Jews have ceased to believe in (at least for now). In other words, by telling the story of the Jews the author attempts to convince the Palestinians to accept a deal in which many of his fellow Jews have lost faith.
The bottom line is obvious: No book can ever resolve an intractable conflict. We have yet to see if the Palestinian neighbors of Klein Halevi will read his letters. Let’s hope they do.
In the meantime, what’s left is you and me, the people who grapple with this issue, the people who have doubts and questions, the people who feel uncomfortable but aren’t sure why, the people with conflicting impulses about an unbearable conflict. By providing an honest, soulful and balanced recap of two emotional narratives, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” has given us a spiritual roadmap, if not to peace, then at least to hope.
Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.
On the night of May 14, the leading headline of The Washington Post said, “More than 50 killed in Gaza protests as U.S. opens its new embassy in Jerusalem.” Headlines of other newspapers were not much different.
There is no doubt the headlines were factually accurate. But so would a headline saying, “More than 50 killed in Gaza as the moon was a waning crescent,” or “More than 50 killed in Gaza as Arambulo named co-anchor of NBC4’s ‘Today in LA.’ ” Were they unbiased? Not quite. They suggested a causation: The U.S. opens an embassy and hence people get killed. But the causation is faulty: Gazans were killed last week, when the United States had not yet opened its embassy. Gazans were killed for a simple reason: Ignoring warnings, thousands of them decided to get too close to the Israeli border.
There are arguments one could make against President Donald Trump’s decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem. People in Gaza getting killed is not one of them. A country such as the United States, a country such as Israel, cannot curb strategic decisions because of inconveniences such as demonstrations. Small things can be postponed to prevent anger. Small decisions can be altered to avoid violent incidents. But not important, historic moves.
At the end of this week, no matter the final tally of Gazans getting hurt, only one event will be counted as “historic.” The opening of a U.S. embassy in Jerusalem is a historic decision of great symbolic significance. Lives lost for no good reason in Gaza — as saddening as it is — is routine. Eleven years ago, on May 16, 2007, I wrote this about Gaza: “The Gaza Strip is burning, drifting into chaos, turning into hell — and nobody seems to have a way out of this mess. Dozens of people were killed in Gaza in the last couple of weeks, the victims of lawlessness and power struggles between clans and families, gangsters and militias.” Sounds familiar? I assume it does. This is what routine looks like. This is what disregard for human life feels like. And that was 11 years to the week before a U.S. embassy was moved to Jerusalem.
A legitimate country is allowed to defend its border. A legitimate country is allowed to choose its capital.
Why were so many lives lost in Gaza? To give a straight answer, one must begin with the obvious: The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has no interest in having more Gazans killed, yet its mission is not to save Gazans’ lives. Its mission — remember, the IDF is a military serving a country — is to defeat an enemy. And in the case of Gaza this past week, the meaning of this was preventing unauthorized, possibly dangerous people from crossing the fence separating Israel from the Gaza Strip.
As this column was written, the afternoon of May 15, the IDF had achieved its objective: No one was able to cross the border into Israel. The price was high. It was high for the Palestinians. Israel will get its unfair share of criticism from people who have nothing to offer but words of condemnation. This was also to be expected. And also to be ignored. Again, not because criticism means nothing, but rather because there are things of higher importance to worry about. Such as not letting unauthorized hostile people cross into Israel.
Of course, any bloodshed is regretful. Yet to achieve its objectives, the IDF had to use lethal force. Circumstances on the ground dictate using such measures. The winds made tear gas ineffective. The proximity of the border made it essential to stop Gazan demonstrators from getting too close, lest thousands of them flood the fence, thus forcing the IDF to use even more lethal means. Leaflets warned them not to go near the fence. Media outlets were used to clarify that consequences could be dire. Hence, an unbiased, sincere newspaper headline should have said, “More than 50 killed in Gaza while Hamas leaders ignored warnings.”
So, yes, Jerusalem celebrated while Gaza burned. Not because Gaza burned. And, yes, the U.S. moved its embassy while Gaza burned. But this is not what made Gaza burn.
It all comes down to legitimacy. Having embassies move to Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, is about legitimacy. Letting Israel keep the integrity of its borders is about legitimacy. President Donald Trump gained the respect and appreciation of Israelis because of his no-nonsense acceptance of a reality, and because of his no-nonsense rejection of delegitimization masqueraded as policy differences. A legitimate country is allowed to defend its border. A legitimate country is allowed to choose its capital.
1. The Middle East suddenly looks different.
Note both the US and its controversial decision to pull out of the Iran deal – and Syria and the repetitive military blows that Iran absorbed in recent months.
Note these two developments and realize that something important has changed: Iran, after a long period of relative calm and easy choices, faces tough opposition from the US and Israel. Iran has to reconsider the benefit and the possible cost of its actions. On Tuesday – Trump drew a diplomatic red line. The status quo is over, and the ball is now in Iran’s court.
On Tuesday night, hours after Trump made his announcements, sites near Damascus were bombed again. Another red line was reemphasized: Israel would not permit a significant Iranian presence in Syria. The sites bombed were reportedly the sites from which Iran was ready to launch an attack on Israel. So the status quo of Iranian presence in Syria is also challenged.
Trump presented Iran with a choice: Resist and bear possibly grim consequences, or renegotiate a deal which the US is ready to accept.
Syria’s limited skirmishes present Iran with a choice: Insist and bear possibly grim consequences, or give up on your Syrian dream.
2. In February 2015, when Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel was about to speak about Iran before Congress, I pleaded with him to reconsider his speech. “Speaking up next month before the United States Congress”, I wrote, “would not serve Israel’s interests. Instead of being an opportunity to seriously address the risks of Iran’s nuclear program, such a speech would scuttle the discussion.”
Is now the time to say that he was right and I was wrong? I am not yet sure about that, but I think it is time to consider the possibility that he, indeed, was right. Yes, his speech was enraging to the administration. But at that point in time, Netanyahu correctly assessed that Obama and Kerry had crossed a point of no return concerning the agreement. They were going to sign it no matter what. Yes – Netanyahu also enraged Democratic legislators. It is still a problem for Israel that the Iran deal is perceived in the US (much less so in Israel) as a partisan issue. But at that point in time Netanyahu was ready to pay a political price with the Democratic Party to scuttle a deal he perceived as highly dangerous for Israel.
Did he achieve what he wanted? At the time of the speech he did not. A deal was signed. Israel was ignored. Netanyahu was ridiculed for his speech. Yet a seed was planted. His speech did establish Israel’s uncompromising position. And it did serve for many American politicians as an opportunity to state their own position on the Iran deal. Netanyahu can make a solid case that what we see today is at least partially the result of what he did three years ago. An honest observer must consider this case – and with it, his previous position.
3. Donald Trump made up his mind a long time ago that the deal was not an achievement but rather an embarrassment. He made up his mind a long time ago that what he wants is to ditch the deal. He should get credit even from rivals for being a man of his word – this is what we all want from our politicians, don’t we?
Well, that depends. We all like to commend the leaders who make good on promises they’ve made during election season. That is, unless we dislike these promises. If we dislike these promises, what we’d say is as follows: A good leader is a leader who can see the difference between promises given during election time, and the realities of having to govern.
In other words: Trump will be praised for doing as he said he’d do by those wanting him to do just that. He will be condemned by all others, and will not even get credit for, yet again, doing what he said he was going to do.
4. Trump deserves credit, but only if ditching the nuclear deal is a first step of many to follow. In fact, this is the most important fact we all need to understand as we assess the meaning of today’s news: These news items are just nuggets. They are but one step in a long process. Judging the wisdom and predicting the outcome of Trump’s action is something we all do, without noticing that for the time being, as we hear the sound of bombs going off near Damascus, and as Trump’s words still echo, our judgments and predictions mean little.
Think of it this way– a car beginning its journey to a faraway city. Is it going in the right direction? Maybe it did for the first ten miles– but if after ten miles it takes the wrong turn, or breaks down, or has no fuel, the car will never get where it needs to go. And, of course, the same is true if you believe that the car began its journey headed the wrong way. A sober driver can still recalculate and turn around. A wise driver might still take another way that is less crowded.
Is Trump’s car headed in the right direction? I think it is, but this doesn’t mean it will get to its final destination. You might think that it’s headed in the wrong direction, but this also doesn’t mean that Trump’s car is lost. One thing both supporters and opponents of Trump’s decision can agree on: It is a new day in the Middle East, a new day for Iran, and a day of reckoning.
American Jewish support is essential for Israel’s survival. This has been the tune we all have been singing for a long time, without much stopping to think, well, is this really the case?
Relations with Israel are essential for Diaspora Jewish survival. We’ve been singing this tune, too, but is it true?
Maybe stopping to think about these questions is too dangerous. What happens if we suddenly realize that Israel can do without Jews in the United States? What happens if U.S. Jews suddenly realize that Israel is a nuisance they can do without? What happens if this process of thinking ends up in miscalculation — “we” believe that we can do without “them,” when we can’t, or “you” believe that you can do without “us,” when you can’t?
On the other hand, maybe stopping to think about these questions could clarify some things.
For example, that Israel needs the support of U.S. Jews — but not as much if “support” means disruption and delegitimization.
For example, that U.S. Jews need the connection with Israel — but not as much if such connection means having to contend with insult and disrespect.
Understanding that the essentiality of connection holds true only if by connection we refer to a positive connection, is in itself an essentiality. As forgetting this seemingly obvious fact — we want to be friends, not “friends” — leads people to conclusions that are way off. It leads them to believe that they hold a stick that isn’t a stick. It leads them to believe that they can wave this stick and expect a result. Wave a Natalie Portman snub and get rid of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Wave an Anti-Defamation League protest letter and alter Israel’s immigration policy. Wave a Peter Beinart critique and Israel will change its Gaza modus operandi.
Israel is used to getting advice from U.S. Jews, sometimes reasonable, sometimes puzzling.
Consider this: Realistic people do not expect to see all of their preferences materialize. I am displeased with China’s record on human rights. Yet I understand that my disavowal matters little to the leaders of that great nation. I am not happy with trends in the classical music world — but I know that my power to alter these trends is limited (especially so since I rarely go to a concert). It could make me dissatisfied, but never angry. I cannot be angry at China for not taking my advice.
Israel is used to getting advice from U.S. Jews, sometimes reasonable, sometimes puzzling (you must resume the peace process, American Jewish columnists scold us, as if Israel neglects to do this because of mere forgetfulness). Advice can be helpful, and even criticism has its place in a healthy relations. Israel would be wise to invite advice and criticism, and would be wise to occasionally listen to advice and seriously consider criticism. Still, the fact that many Jews in the U.S. get angry when Israel doesn’t heed their advice stems from simple confusion: These Jews assume that they have power to sway Israel when they don’t. Not more so than I have the power to sway China or the masters of classical music.
Israelis are not immune from making similar mistakes. They wrongly assume, for example, that their political preferences ought to convince U.S. Jews to vote for a Donald Trump rather than a Barack Obama. When the next round of election proves them wrong — and it will prove them wrong even if the Democratic opponent is highly problematic in the eyes of Israelis (anyone for Bernie?) — they will get angry. Why? Because they assume a clout that they do not have over American Jewish political preferences.
Mutual anger is never good for any relations, and it is even worse when the core reason for anger is misapprehension of the nature of the relations. If you assume that to have good relations “we” need to follow “your” advice — and if “we” have no intention whatsoever to follow “your” advice — both of us are stuck. And this is true whether by “we” you mean we Israelis or we Americans, whether by “you” you mean you Israelis or you Americans.
Ask any marriage counselor and you will hear this: Reasonable mutual expectations are vital for keeping a healthy marriage. And you will be told that respect for the preferences of others is vital for keeping a healthy marriage. And ultimately, you will be advised that anger will not get you very far. That is, if you want a happy marriage.
On April 30, less than two weeks before President Donald Trump was to decide whether to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood in front of a huge cache of files, computer discs and a large screen of graphics at a news conference in Tel Aviv, and accused Iran of lying for years about its efforts to build a nuclear weapon.
You must admire the people in charge of gathering information for Israel. You must admire the fact that they can show you thousands of documents from within the Iranian archives. And as you admire these creative, bold and daring intelligence gatherers, you also must consider the fact that they say they have documents that you don’t. They say they have information that no one else could gather. They know Iran well enough to obtain half a ton of copied secret documents from inside Iran and ship them to Tel Aviv. Maybe this also means that their sense of what Iran was doing, where it might be going, what its ambitions are like, are better than yours and mine. If these people tell you that Iran is cheating, if they tell you that the nuclear deal doesn’t work, you ought to listen. Agree or disagree, but listen carefully and humbly. There is very little chance that you know better than they do.
Timing is everything. Netanyahu tried and failed to prevent the Iran nuclear deal by addressing Congress in early 2015. It was a controversial move. Many of the speech’s opponents alleged that the prime minister’s main motive was political, that his true audience was Israelis (the election in Israel was held a few weeks after that speech). In a phone conversation I had with the prime minister not long after that speech, he defended his decision to go to Washington, D.C. This was an important enough issue in Israel for him to utilize all possible means, he said, and if that made then-president of the United States Barack Obama unhappy, then so be it.
The timing was off. Obama had no intention of giving up. Perhaps he thought he had a deal worthy of a second Noble Peace Prize. Then-Secretary of State John Kerry perhaps hoped to earn his first. Netanyahu gave a strong speech, but not strong enough. One could only speculate: Would Netanyahu have be more successful had he showed Congress then what he revealed this week?
What did you think about Netanyahu’s presentation on Iran? Most likely, this depends less on the material shown (shocking intelligence, but no evidence that Iran is violating the current nuclear pact), and more on your established opinion about Netanyahu and the Iran deal.
Search the internet and try to guess in advance what each person, pundit or leader is going to say about the presentation. In most cases, if you are familiar with the views of these pundits and leaders, you can skip the comment or the article. You know what they’re going to say (I assume some readers might say the same about this article).
Would more evidence of Iranian malfeasance make a difference? Sure, if Israel had rock-solid proof of recent Iranian violations (if it has such information, Netanyahu did not reveal it). But even then, people always could argue that there’s no proof the documents are real, that Netanyahu’s word isn’t worth a dime, that Israel — and most other countries — were wrong on Iraq’s WMD.
So did Netanyahu change many minds? He surely achieved two objectives: showing Israel’s intelligence prowess, and making Iran a main topic of conversation, for at least a day or two.
If these people tell you that Iran is cheating, if they tell you that the nuclear deal doesn’t work, you ought to listen.
He also annoyed some leaders, but then, many leaders are easily annoyed by him. Some of them were quick to point out that the information discussed by Netanyahu on April 30 didn’t include anything that wasn’t previously known about Iran. The question is: Known to whom? Netanyahu’s presentation clarified things that experts already knew but that politicians didn’t always know and that the public might not have been aware of.
Reportedly, the files concerned an Iranian nuclear weapons program called Project Amad, launched in 1999 and shelved in 2003.
The question remains: Can you alter the opinions of world leaders by showing them information — whether it is old, new, repackaged or re-explained? Are world leaders capable of admitting an error?
The deal with Iran was a mistake made in haste. But let’s be realistic: Do you think Obama changed his mind this week if he watched Netanyahu’s news conference? Do you think Kerry did? Timing is everything. Information — evidence — is hardly as important. Many Americans blame President Trump for bringing about the age of fake news, yet what Netanyahu showed us earlier this week is proof that the Iran deal was fake news. It was fake news produced by people more sophisticated than Trump, and thus more successful in selling their make-believe diplomatic achievement to a receptive audience.
It will take time to assess the impact of Netanyahu’s dramatic revelation. But some things are clear:
Netanyahu was well coordinated with the Trump administration when he staged his news event. He spoke on the phone with Trump two days before the presentation. He met with the newly confirmed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo the day before the presentation. The Trump administration was not taken by surprise. It was well informed, and it was ready to respond — as Trump did half an hour after Netanyahu went off the air.
What was the exact plan? Maybe Trump told him: Give me something to work with; give me something with which to pressure the Europeans. Maybe Trump told him: I can’t convince the Europeans — you try. Maybe Trump told him: I am going to do what’s right; it would be helpful if you can give me some more ammunition.
Can the Europeans, Russians and Chinese, all of which signed the agreement with Iran, be convinced?
I am skeptical and here is why: They knew all along that Iran cannot be trusted. They knew its leaders were lying. They knew it had an earlier, established nuclear weapons program. They were cynical when they hailed the deal, and there’s no reason for me to think that they aren’t cynical now. They decided to compromise with Iran not because they think it is a country of great values and respected leadership. They decided to compromise with Iran because they see economic potential and because they think Iran — and its belligerent behavior — is not really their problem.
I’d like to think that Trump is going to change all this, but this is far from assured. Trump can dump the deal and then lose interest — which isn’t a good outcome. He can maintain the deal — possibly with cosmetic changes to save face — which isn’t a good outcome. He can begin a process of pressuring Iran, and then lose the 2020 election and be replaced by a less vigilant leader — which isn’t a good outcome. The battle against Iran is long, and to win it, the United States or Israel must be persistent and must have a strategy. News conferences, speeches, statements, impressive intelligence achievements — all these have a role in this long battle. But no speech can win this battle.
Do you think Barack Obama changed his mind this week about the Iran deal if he watched Netanyahu’s news conference?
To Israel’s credit — if one believes the unconfirmed reports by the non-Israeli media — it is not merely talking. The same day as Netanyahu’s news conference, suspected Israeli strikes hit Iranian targets in Syria. This was not the first, second or third time Iran was the recipient of a clear message: Its military presence in Syria will not be tolerated.
Israel has made that clear in public statements and to foreign dignitaries including, in recent days, European leaders who were trying to understand why Syria is suddenly becoming such a hot potato. Israel told even the Russians that it is dead serious about not allowing an Iranian presence in Syria. A senior diplomat told his counterpart: We will not let Syria become a second Lebanon. In Lebanon, Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, has thousands of rockets ready for use against Israel. This is hardly convenient, but since the war of 2006, the Israel-Lebanese border has been relatively stable and quiet. Israel has no interest in having to watch a second front to the east, this time not held by Iran’s proxies but rather by Iran.
Again, only time will tell if the Iranians got the message and decided that the benefit does not justify the cost — or maybe it’s the other way around: They got the message and are getting ready to up the ante.
What will Iran do if Trump scraps the deal? What will Israel do in response to Iran’s response?
What Netanyahu revealed was amazing, and also somewhat disappointing.
He told us that Iran is lying.
He proved that the official Iranian position was based on a pile of untruths.
Did we not know?
Netanyahu did not have a smoking gun. It’s disappointing but should be acknowledged. So, if you are still in the business of believing the Iranians — oh, they lied for three decades, they lied up until mid-2015, but now they are telling the truth and nothing but the truth — I would urge you to stay away from banks, insurance companies and flea markets. You are clearly easy prey for con artists. Still, Netanyahu can’t show you evidence that they are lying now. Or maybe he can:
Netanyahu did prove that Iran is still lying about its dishonest past. What he didn’t prove is that it’s lying about the present.
What Netanyahu revealed was amazing, and also somewhat disappointing.
If one wants to be suspicious of Netanyahu’s motive, it’s not impossible to do. The speech was made on the first day of the summer session of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Netanyahu stole the show. While other politicians were dealing with petty maneuvers, he presented himself as a man of action, determination and big things.
If he has no choice but to call for early elections — because the coalition can’t compromise on issues such as drafting the ultra-Orthodox, or the conversion bill, or the Supreme Court bill — he now will do it as statesman. If his coalition partners were toying with idea of testing his power, they now will have to reconsider.
These are tense days in Israel. Pundits and politicians rush to the microphones to calm down the public, which of course has the opposite effect. If times were truly calm, there would be no need for such appearances.
Remember Israel Independence Day? It was just a week ago. Remember Passover? Four weeks ago. May is here, and with it a mountain of worries:
Will moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, a positive and welcome decision by Trump, ignite protest and violence?
Is Israel ready for the main show in Gaza on Nakba (Palestinians’ Day of Catastrophe) in mid-May, when thousands likely will again attempt to cross the border?
What will the president decide to do with the Iran deal, and what will be the repercussions of his decision?
How will Tehran and Damascus respond to attacks on sites in Syria? What will Iran do if Trump scraps the deal? What will Israel do in response to Iran’s response?
If you are just an observer, you should fasten a metaphorical seat belt as you prepare to watch a possibly dramatic show. If you live in Israel, fastening a seat belt is less an expression and more a statement of sober fact: Fastening a seat belt is what you do to save lives.
You must admire the people in charge of gathering information for Israel. You must admire the fact that they can show you thousands of documents from within the Iranian archives. And as you admire these creative, bold, daring intelligence gatherers, you must also consider the obvious fact: They have documents that you don’t. They have information that no one else could gather. They know Iran well enough to master such stint – getting half a ton worth of secret documents kept inside Iran and shipping them to Tel Aviv. Maybe, just maybe, this also means that their sense of what Iran is doing, where it is going, what its ambitions are like, are better than yours (and mine). If these people tell you that Iran is cheating, if they tell you that the nuclear deal does not work, you ought to listen. Agree – or disagree – but listen carefully, and humbly. There is very little chance that you know better than they do.
Timing is everything. Prime Minister Netanyahu tried and failed to stop the nuclear deal giving a speech to Congress in early 2015. It was a controversial move. The Prime Minister was blamed by many of the speech’s opponents that his main motivation was political, that his true crowd was the home crowd (election in Israel were held a few weeks after the speech). In a phone conversation I had with the PM not long after the speech he defended his decision to go to Washington. This is an important enough issue for Israel for me to utilize all possible means – he said – and if this makes the President of the United States unhappy, then so be it.
The timing was off. Obama had no intention of giving up. He thought he had a deal worthy of a second Noble Peace Prize. John Kerry was maybe hoping to get his first. Netanyahu gave a good speech, a strong speech, but not strong enough. One could only speculate: would he be more successful had he showed them then what he showed us now?
What did you think about Netanyahu’s presentation on Iran? Most likely, this depends less on the material shown (shocking intelligence, but no smoking gun on current Iranian violations), and more on what you previously thought about:
A. The Iran deal.
Try this theory. Look around the web and try to guess in advance what each person, pundit or leader, is going to say about the presentation. In most cases, if you are familiar with the views of these pundits and leaders, you can skip the comment or the article. You know what they are going to say (I assume some readers might same the same about this article).
Would more evidence of Iranian belligerence make a difference? Sure, if Israel had rock solid proof of recent Iranian violations (if it has such information Netanyahu did not show it). But even then, even then… People could always argue that there’s no proof the documents are real, that Netanyahu’s word isn’t worth a dime, that Israel – and most other countries – got it wrong on Iraq’s WMD.
So did Netanyahu change many minds? He surely achieved two objectives: showing Israel’s intelligence prowess, and making Iran a main topic of conversation, for at least a day or two.
He also annoyed some leaders. Many of them are easily annoyed by him. Some of them were quick to point out that the information revealed by Netanyahu did not include things that were not previously known about Iran. The question is: Known to whom? Netanyahu’s presentation clarified things that experts knew before, but that politicians did not always know and that the public was not always aware of.
And anyway, the question remains: Can you alter the opinions of world leaders by showing them information – whether it is old, new, repackaged or reexplained? Are world leaders capable of admitting great error?
The deal with Iran was a mistake. It was a rush mistake. But let’s be realistic: Do you think Obama changed his mind the other day if he was watching Netanyahu? Do you think Kerry did? Timing is everything. Information – evidence – is hardly as important. Many Americans blame President Trump for bringing about the age of fake news, yet what Netanyahu showed us earlier this week is proof that the Iran deal was fake news. It was fake news produced by people more sophisticated than Trump, and thus more successful in selling their make-belief diplomatic achievement to a willing audience.
We have a few days before we can truly assess the impact of Netanyahu’s dramatic appearance of world events. But some things are clear:
Netanyahu was well coordinated with the Trump administration when he staged his press appearance. He spoke on the phone with Trump two days before his presentation. He met with the new Secretary of State not many hours before his presentation. The administration was not surprised. It was well informed, and it was ready to respond – as Trump did half an hour after Netanyahu went off the air.
What was the exact plan? Maybe Trump told him: give me something with which to work – give me something with which to pressure the Europeans. Maybe Trump told him – I can’t convince the Europeans, you try. Maybe Trump told him: I am going to do what’s right, it would be helpful if you can give me some more ammunition.
Can the Europeans, and Russians, and Chinese be convinced?
I am skeptical and here is why: They knew all along that Iran cannot be trusted. They knew its leaders were lying. They knew it was working on a nuclear program. In short, they were cynical when they hailed the deal, and there is no reason for me to think that they are not cynical now. They decided to compromise with Iran not because they think it is a country of great values and honest to god leadership. They decided to compromise with Iran because they see economic potential, and because they think Iran – and its belligerent behavior – is not really their problem.
I’d like to think that Trump is going to change all this, but this is far from being an assured outcome of what we see now. Trump can dump the deal and them lose interest – not a good outcome. He can keep the deal – possibly with cosmetic changes to save face – not a good outcome. He can begin a process of pressuring Iran, and then lose an election and be replaced by a less vigilant leader – not a good outcome. The battle against Iran is long, and to win it the US (or Israel) must be persistent and must have a strategy. Press conferences, speeches, statements, dazzling intelligence achievements – all these have a role in this long battle. But no speech can win this battle.
To Israel’s credit – if one believes the unconfirmed reports by the non-Israeli press – it is not only talking. The same day Netanyahu was speaking, someone was also shooting missiles at Iranian targets in Syria. This was not the first, nor the second, nor the third time in which Iran was the recipient of a clear message: its military presence in Syria will not be tolerated.
Israel made it clear in public statements. It made it clear to foreign dignitaries, including, in recent days, European leaders that were trying to understand why Syria is suddenly becoming such hot potato. Israel told even the Russians that it is dead serious about not allowing Iranian presence in Syria. A senior diplomat was telling his counterpart these exact words: We will not let Syria become a second Lebanon. In Lebanon, Iran’s proxy Hezbollah have thousands of rockets ready for use against Israel. This is hardly a convenient situation, but since the war of 2006 the Israel-Lebanese border was relatively stable and quiet. Israel has no interest in having to watch a second front to the east – this time held not by Iran’s proxies but rather by Iran itself.
Again, only time will tell if the Iranians got the message, and decided that the benefit does not justify the cost – or maybe it’s the other way around: they got the message and are getting ready to up the ante.
What Netanyahu showed was amazing, and also somewhat disappointing.
You are telling us that Iran is lying?
You are proving that the official Iranian position was based on a pile of nontruths?
Did we not know?
Netanyahu did not have a smoking gun to present. It is disappointing but ought to be acknowledged. So, if you are still in the business of believing the Iranians – oh, they lied for three decades, they lied up until mid 2015, but not they are telling the truth and nothing but the truth – I would urge you to stay away from banks, insurance companies and flea markets. You are clearly an easy prey for con artists of all types. Still – Netanyahu can’t show you evidence that they are lying now. I mean, this week. Today. Or maybe he can:
Netanyahu did prove that Iran is still lying about its dishonest past. What he did not prove that it is lying about the present.
Politics: if one wants to be suspicious of Netanyahu’s motivation it is not impossible to do. The speech was made on the first day of the summer session of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Netanyahu stole the show. While other politicians were dealing with petty maneuvers he presented himself as a man of action, determination and the big things.
If he has no choice but to call for early election – because the coalition can’t compromise on issues such as the draft of the ultra-Orthodox, or the conversion bill, or the Supreme Court bill – he will now do it as statesman. If his coalition partners were toying with idea of testing his power, they will now have to reconsider.
These are tense days in Israel. Pundits and politicians rush to the microphones to calm the public down – which of course has the opposite effect. If times were truly calm, there would be no need for such appearances.
Remember Independence Day? It was just a week ago. Remember Passover? For weeks ago. May is here, and with it a mountain of worries:
Will the moving of the US embassy to Jerusalem, a happy and well appreciated decision by Trump, ignite protest and violence?
Is Israel ready for the main show in Gaza, in mid-May, when thousands will once again attempt to cross the border?
All sober analyses must begin with simple facts we can all agree on.
Fact: Actress Natalie Portman agreed to visit Israel to receive the Genesis Prize, often called the “Jewish Nobel.” Terms were set, the date was set, and organizers were preparing. Portman appointed a person to be in charge of allocating the prize money to organizations in Israel that work to empower women — organizations of her choosing.
Fact: The Academy Award-winning actress then canceled. Her explanation remains vague. She indicated her decision was related to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s participation in the event. But she knew all along that he was coming. The actress’ representative said that “recent events in Israel have been extremely distressing to her and she does not feel comfortable participating in any public events in Israel” but didn’t specify which “recent events.” Is she snubbing Israel over the Gaza unrest, over the fate of recent non-Jewish immigrants, over Israeli Supreme Court battles, over Netanyahu’s hair style? I assume it’s not the latter but I don’t know what it is. Maybe she’s got something up her sleeve that we didn’t take into consideration. Maybe when the case is laid out it will seem more convincing than it is now.
These are facts. If you doubt these facts — if you think she never wanted the prize, or if you think she did have clear explanation of her motivation — there’s no reason for you to keep reading this column.
Now we move from facts to analysis, which must include three main questions: 1) What was Portman’s objective? 2) Did she meet her objective? and 3) What was the price for meeting her objective?
Because we agree that Portman never provided a clear explanation for her decision, we must try to guess her motives. Possibilities include: 1) She didn’t want to visit Israel; 2) She didn’t want to stand next to Netanyahu; 3) She wanted to protest one of Israel’s policies; 4) She wanted to change public opinion in the United States; 5) She wanted to change public opinion in Israel; 6) She wanted to please certain friends or fans. And the list can go on.
Portman made Israelis even more suspicious of liberal Jewish Americans.
Because her motive is unknown, it’s difficult to determine if she accomplished her goal. Portman, who holds dual Israeli and U.S. citizenship, won’t visit Israel nor stand next to Netanyahu. Maybe she changed some minds in the U.S., but about what is unclear. Some people are using her decision for their agendas — one assumes it’s about Gaza, another that it’s about non-Jewish immigrants. Portman’s decision didn’t seem to change the opinion of Israelis on any of the debatable subjects. But it’s possible that, thanks to her, more Israelis are now convinced that relying on the support of Jewish Americans would be a mistake. And yes, we can assume that a certain circle of friends is now satisfied — but perhaps there also also friends who are now angry.
What was the price we all pay for her miscalculated (my term) decision? Although alleging she is against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, Portman assisted those wanting to boycott Israel. She became a role model for those wanting to see U.S. Jews and Americans in general alienate Israel — a trend that could put Israel at increased risk. She made Israelis even more suspicious of liberal Jewish Americans, lowering the chance that they will ever heed the advice of those like Portman.
Portman’s cancelation enraged some Israeli politicians. Most of them aren’t policymakers, and they are merely utilizing Portman as a political punching bag. Netanyahu, to his credit, didn’t run with this issue (as of this writing). Portman deserves a harsh rebuke, but Israel will gain nothing from picking a fight with the popular actress. In fact, it ought to examine whether Portman’s move was deliberate, vicious and a first in a planned campaign — or whether it was truly a miscalculation.
Portman should have done her homework before insulting Israel. Israel would be wise to do its own homework before it insults her back.
With apologies to poet T.S. Eliot, May, not April, is the cruelest month. That is, if you care to believe the warnings — some grave, some not as dire — of Israeli officials and policymakers.
It will be the most dangerous month of the past 50 years, said former head of intelligence Amos Yadlin. It will be sensitive, but the 50-year pronouncement might be an exaggeration, said former head of intelligence — and also former lieutenant general, defense minister and prime minister — Ehud Barak.
And what “dangerous” means is that a war might break out, the result of deliberate designation or a miscalculation.
Why May? Because on May 12 President Donald Trump is likely to announce his decision to opt out of the Iran deal. He has said he hated this deal, was an early and fierce critic of it, and remained committed to see it dismantled. Some Israeli decision-makers are not pleased with the possibility of a vacuum; a better agreement is unlikely to materialize, they say, and with no agreement, the Iranians could decide to go back to enriching weapons-grade nuclear material. But the official government position, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reiterated, is that no agreement is better than a bad agreement under which the Iranians can advance their plans uninterrupted.
May is problematic for a lot of other reasons. The United States officially will move its embassy to Jerusalem mid-month; a few days later, the Palestinians will mark the Nakba — their Day of Catastrophe. More clashes near the Gaza border are expected around these dates, and a few days later, when Israelis mark Jerusalem Day — the anniversary of the city’s reunification.
All of this will be tense, and all of this comes in the wake of other tension-escalating developments. An attempted Iranian drone attack inside Israel, Israeli attacks on Iranian forces in Syria, the attack by the U.S., France and Britain on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces in Syria, Trump’s declared intention to pull U.S. troops out of Syria entirely, Russia’s role in the region, and the list goes on.
May is problematic for a lot of other reasons. The U.S. officially will move its embassy to Jerusalem mid-month; a few days later, the Palestinians will mark the Nakba – their Day of Catastrophe.
Would this lead to war? It might not. Last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, while blaming Israel for escalating “tension by violating Syrian airspace,” also negated the belief that “we are headed toward regional war.” But a warning followed: If Israel continues “to violate territorial integrity of other states, there’ll be consequences.”
Israeli military analysts believe that Iran already is looking for a way to punish Israel for previous attacks in Syria, and is not going to wait for another violation of “territorial integrity” to serve as a pretext for retribution. But even if Iran decides to wait for the next round before taking action, that doesn’t mean much because another Israeli attack is more a certainty than a possibility.
Of course, Israel is hardly keen about having a war with Iran, but it is even less keen about the alternative: letting Iran build a permanent base of operation in Syria, not far from the Israeli border. Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman described it colorfully by saying that “no matter the price, we will not allow a noose to form around us.” By “no matter the price,” he means war. The noose means Iran establishing its presence in Syria.
Simply put, the problem is that Iran seems determined to entrench in Syria, and Israel is determined to prevent this from happening. Thomas Friedman described it at The New York Times in similar fashion: “I’m sure neither side really wants a war. It could be devastating for Israel’s flourishing high-tech economy and for Iran’s already collapsing currency. But Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force seems determined to try to turn Syria into a base from which to pressure Israel, and Israel seems determined to prevent that.”
No one, or almost no one in Israel’s establishment, argues against the need to prevent Iran from building a base in Syria. Diplomats and officers, politicians and planners — all agree that a permanent and significant Iranian presence in Syria is a red line for Israel. And of course, when such consensus emerges, two possible conclusions can be reached: 1) this is a no-brainer: Israel truly has no choice but fight to remove this danger; 2) group-thinking prevents Israel from looking for alternatives or from realizing that Iranian presence in Syria is not such horrific scenario.
An anonymous former minister, quoted by columnist Ben Caspit, framed it in this way: “This arouses my suspicions. It creates an unhealthy situation in which the prime minister and ministers do not stop for a minute to ask themselves, ‘Is this scenario truly unavoidable? Do we have an iron-clad reason to embroil ourselves in a war that might cause thousands of deaths on the Israeli home front as well?’ ”
And remember — all this tension comes before the shockwave that could follow a decision by the U.S. to pull out of the nuclear agreement. All this comes before we know for sure what Iran’s response will be to this decision. Iran’s nuclear program is what makes some Israeli leaders lose sleep, makes them ponder doomsday scenarios, as Netanyahu did — he does almost every year — on Holocaust Remembrance Day. The agreement with Iran now under renewed consideration, “released the Iranian regime from its chains and since has devoured country after country, similar to what happened in Europe in the 1930s.” And while Israel continues to vow to prevent Iran from having the capabilities to annihilate Israel — Iranians continue to vow to do just that: ”If you provide an excuse for Iran, Tel Aviv and Haifa will be razed to the ground,” said Maj. Gen. Abdolrahim Mousavi of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Israel, he predicted, will be destroyed within 25 years. That is, five years short of its 100-year anniversary.
So what will Iran do if Trump opts out of the agreement? Iran’s leadership might say that if the U.S. opts out, so do we — and return to enriching uranium, thus rolling the ball back into Trump’s court. Or Iran could continue to operate as if there is still an agreement, so as not to give the U.S. or Israel a pretext to launch a large-scale attack on its nuclear infrastructure. A senior Israeli official who requested not to me named told me this week that he is quite certain that this will be the course Israel will take “because of Trump — they know that his actions cannot be predicted and do not want to risk war with the U.S. under him.”
Germany, Britain and France have tried without success to find a middle ground that will relieve Trump of having to make a decision on the agreement. This can still happen if the European Union hurries to impose a few additional sanctions on Iran, thus tossing Trump a lifeline he could use by announcing that he was able to strengthen the “weak” agreement signed by his predecessor, Barack Obama. Until now, the talks held in Brussels resulted in failure. It’s possible that Iran’s restrained response so far, amid Israel’s aggressive approach, is because of these talks. Iran does not want to give Trump more talking points with which to pressure Europe to alter the agreement.
The reluctance of the U.S. to have skin in this game of geopolitical battle for power sends an emboldening message to Iran. A less involved U.S. is Israel’s fear and Iran’s hope.
Trump’s role in this unfolding drama is interesting. On the one hand, he is the menacing presence that could tame Iran, merely because he is the current occupant of the White House. “They surely are more afraid of him than they were of Obama,” the senior official told me. On the other hand, it is Trump whom Israel can’t persuade to keep U.S. forces in Syria. The reluctance of the U.S. to have skin in this game of geopolitical battle for power sends an emboldening message to Iran. A less involved U.S. is Israel’s fear and Iran’s hope. A less involved U.S. means a more involved Russia — and Russia’s interests are not always easy to fathom.
Russia surely does not want an all-out war in the region. Not when it is about the host the World Cup, and political stability will play a major part in whether the event is successful. Not after the World Cup, when others might prompt Russia to urge calm. But calm under what circumstances? Will it be calm because Israel no longer worries about Iranian presence in Syria, or will it be calm because Iran no longer has to worry about Israel attacking its forces in Syria?
There is no way to confidently predict how this complex scenario will unfold. Iran must consider its weakened economy in its decision making. Israel must consider its whole northern front – Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Hezbollah — while keeping a watchful eye on Gaza and preventing any eruption of violence in the West Bank. Russia’s interests are global, and its decisions in Syria will be closely linked to its other objectives, including its relationship with the U.S. Trump has not made his intentions clear: Is he committed only to opting out of the agreement with Iran, or also to preventing Iran from gaining more power, including nuclear capabilities?
The reluctance of the U.S. to have skin in this game of geopolitical battle for power sends an emboldening message to Iran. A less involved U.S. is Israel’s fear and Iran’s hope.
For all of these players, war is a not an appealing prospect. For all of them, preventing war is a priority, but not necessarily the highest priority. Israel, wrote veteran military analyst Alex Fishman, “probably reached the conclusion the military and diplomatic tools it has been using so far to stop the Iranian entrenchment in Syria are not bearing fruit. What other avenues of actions are there? For example, putting out a fire using a lot of fire, in the hopes Israel could control the flames throughout the entire process of extinguishing the fire.”
In other words: Israel might decide that war, which is never desired option, is still better than the outcome if a war doesn’t break out. And what is true for Israel is also true for Iran (Iran doesn’t want war — it wants to win without having to fight a war), and for Russia (it doesn’t want war, but what will be the cost it pays for preventing it?), and the U.S. (why would the U.S. want war? Maybe to stop Iran from becoming a real threat to world stability), and Saudi Arabia (it already is fighting a proxy war with Iran in Yemen), and Lebanon (if Iran makes a decision, Lebanon will not have much choice), and Hezbollah (same as Lebanon), and Hamas (to divert the attention from its failure to govern) and all the others (yes, there are still others).
This policy of brinkmanship, of acceptance of the possible necessity of war, wrote Fishman, is one “with a very high level of risk and gamble.” He is right. May will be a dangerous month.
The fifth day of the month of Iyar is your Independence Day. Yes — yours! And by this, I mean you, Los Angeles Jews; you, New York Jews; you, Chicago Jews, Sydney Jews, London Jews, Paris Jews. That this day is my Independence Day goes without saying: I was born in Israel, I have lived here for most of my life, and my children have grown up and matured in this county. But I insist it is also yours, the Jews whose Independence Day is July 4, July 14, and all others. You fortunate cousins have two of these to celebrate. Independence Day of your respective countries and the Independence Day that all Jews share (except for those insisting on being annoyingly quarrelsome).
Last week, the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) published a summary of its recommendations based on a yearlong dialogue in which hundreds of Jews around the world participated. Titled “70 Years of Israel-Diaspora Relations: The Next Generation,” this study offers a framework for Israel-Diaspora relations in the coming decades of, one hopes, Jewish independence. The study showed us (John Ruskay and I served as heads of this project) that “Diaspora and Israeli Jews agree that all Jews have a ‘stake’ in the State of Israel and, therefore, the right and duty to help sustain it.” This means that Israel is both a cause for celebration (Independence Day is yours, too) and also a burden (“help sustain it”).
Embracing this burden is not always easy. Israel has problems, it has frustrating habits and questionable policies. Israelis are not always forthcoming, and rarely attentive, and sometimes condescending. For some Jews, having to battle with Israel over these things is torturous and exhausting. And that’s why it is necessary, even essential, that you celebrate Israel’s Independence Day. Israel ought not be just a burden, not just a cause of worry and apprehension, a distant dark cloud of Middle East reality. Israel must be a joy.
Do “Jews” truly believe that all Jews have a stake in the Jewish state? The data we collected at JPPI shows that indeed, they do — with the caveat that “Jews” means many Jews, but not all of them. (I assume there is nothing in the world on which all Jews agree.) But alongside the data, there is also a reality, filled with confusing signals coming from all sides. There are non-Israeli Jews pretending they no longer care (or maybe they truly don’t), and there are Jewish Israelis arguing that Israel and its interests is the only thing that matters (forgetting that Israel is a project for the Jewish people, not the other way around).
Israel ought not be just a burden, not just a cause of worry and apprehension. Israel must be a joy.
Consider the following reminder: Last year, representatives of world Jewry were invited to light a torch in the ceremony that opens the Independence Day festivities. Not all Israelis appreciated this move. Israeli author and pundit Irit Linur forcefully argued at the time that “the connection between Israel and Diaspora Jewry sometimes looks like the communications between a mother spaceship and mission control in Houston. But it’s the spaceship that has to get to Mars safely, when all is said and done, whereas the folks in Houston will head home at the end of the day whether the spaceship lands or crashes.” In other words: We Israelis live here and will die if necessary; you American Jews might care for us, but you don’t have real skin in the game. Hence, when the torches are lit in Jerusalem, “the proper place for anyone who’s not an Israeli is in the visitors’ gallery.”
Linur has a case. JPPI makes the opposite case by recommending that Israel “regularly take measures designed to show solidarity with Diaspora Jewry and the recognition of its importance,” including “regular symbolic participation of dignitaries in major Israeli public ceremonies.”
This year, Israel was too late to invite notable Jews (Mayim Bialik, Steven Spielberg) to light a torch and, hence, ended up having no Diaspora representative on its roster of torch lighters.
This ought to be considered a symbolic mishap: Israel’s last-minute-improvisation mentality meets the orderly Jewish-American mentality.
This ought to be considered a positive mishap: Better late than never. Next year, we might get it right.
This ought to be considered a lame invitation: Independence Day is yours, too — come celebrate it, even when the host isn’t the most gracious.
In Israel, the two weeks after Pesach are always emotionally packed. Holocaust Memorial Day comes shortly after the long holiday. Independence Day is a week-and-a-half later. The combination is intense, dizzying and confusing — especially so when Israel celebrates a symbolic number, such as 70.
The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot defines 60 as an old age and 70 as having lived a long life. But what’s true for a man is not true for a country or for a people. For them, the Holocaust was just yesterday. As demonstrated by Jews all over the world (see graph at right), the Holocaust is still very much on their minds. For them, Israel is still young, still making rookie mistakes, still dealing with the problems that have haunted it since its birth. It also still has people around who were there when it was born.
Marking Holocaust Memorial Day and Independence Day (attached to Memorial Day) in such sequence is problematic. For many years, Israel has been fighting the widely held, yet mistaken, belief that a Jewish state is compensation for the Holocaust.
In a 2009 speech, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emphasized that “the right to establish our sovereign state here, in the Land of Israel, arises from one simple fact: Eretz Yisrael is the birthplace of the Jewish people.” This was not a coincidental remark, but rather an indirect criticism of President Barack Obama’s famous Cairo speech, in which he seemed to suggest that Jewish rights to the land depended on Jewish suffering in the Holocaust (in later speeches he corrected this view).
The proximity of Holocaust Memorial Day and Yom HaAtzmaut should serve as a reminder for Jews of the great burden we all share.
Still, as Israel has been fighting this fight, it’s calendar has stood, and still stands, in the way: This week we mourned the Holocaust; next week we celebrate our independence. If this is not a confusing way to send the above, detailed message, I don’t know what is.
Earlier this week, when I was asked to speak to a group of Israeli officers about travel to Poland, this confusing reality was evident again. These officers would be traveling for Holocaust Memorial Day, then coming back for Yom HaAtzmaut — bringing along with them American members of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. The educational meaning of such a contrast is clear: From complete destruction in Europe to complete overhaul and success in Israel; from defenselessness to self-defense; from miserable dependence to proud independence. Still, it should be noted that utilizing this powerful proximity of events carries the risk of sending a problematic message.
Jews returned to their country not because of the Holocaust. They started building their state before the Holocaust. They started fighting for independence before the Holocaust. I assume that Israel was ready to happen even without a Holocaust. (Of course, there is no way of proving such a theory.)
But to argue that the Holocaust played no role in the way Israel was born would be insincere. It did, in two ways: One — the less important — is common knowledge and frequently mentioned. The other — of much higher importance — is rarely mentioned.
The common knowledge is that the Holocaust probably expedited and eased the way of the Jewish state to gain acceptance and recognition. To stand in its way merely three years after a third of the world’s Jewry was exterminated seemed tasteless even to countries that didn’t usually mix emotions and policymaking.
Yet, it is another reality stemming from the Holocaust that made the main difference for Israel: The complete annihilation of the most significant community of Jews, the demise of the old center of Jewish life, created a vacuum that needed to be filled. And Israel fast became the main, if not the only, prospective candidate to fill this civilizational void. Israel became the place in which Jews would re-form an essential center of gravity.
The proximity of Holocaust Memorial Day and Yom HaAtzmaut should indeed be utilized as a reminder. But not as a reminder to the world on why Jews deserve to have a state. As obvious and banal as it sounds, it should serve as a reminder for Jews of the great burden we all share to guard, support and defend this still very young epicenter.
It was as easy to figure out Israel’s two main objectives in Gaza last week as it was hard to meet these objectives. Amid a decision by Hamas to arrange mass protest near the Gaza-Israeli border, Israel’s aim was 1) To prevent protesters from crossing the border into Israel — at all cost; and 2) To do this in a way that prevents bloodshed.
Israel’s No. 1 goal was achieved as no Palestinian entered, and there was no mass attempt to cross the border. Israel made the point: Crossing the line (of the border) is crossing a line (Israel’s red line). Israel will make this point again if necessary because no country can allow people whose intentions are spiteful to cross its border unharmed.
Was Israel’s No. 2 goal achieved? That is a good question for which there is no answer acceptable to all observers. Sixteen Gazans were killed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) near the border. Palestinian leaders called it butchery. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called it terrorism. Left-wing Meretz party leader Tamar Zandberg proposed that Israel investigate the shootings. European Union diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini called for an “independent” investigation into the use of live ammunition by Israel.
Of course, every loss of life is a cause for disappointment. And, indeed, 16 people killed is a lot, compared to no people killed. But 16 killed is also a few, compared to 200 people killed, or 2,000 people killed.
If you ask Israel’s military chiefs about last week’s outcome, this is what they’d tell you. IDF needed to kill 16 to prevent the killing of 200, maybe more. IDF needed to kill the 16 to make it clear that Israel will not be tolerant of any attempt to cross its border. An IDF senior officer would tell you this: Had IDF not killed 16, the leadership of Hamas might conclude that it can up the ante and test Israel, and this would force IDF to kill many more under much tenser circumstances. An IDF senior officer would tell you this: By killing 16 — most of which were Hamas operatives —many lives were saved.
If you truly care about saving Palestinian lives, you ought to be pleased with the relatively low number of Palestinians killed last week.
Were all 16 deaths necessary? No one can guarantee that. The Palestinians, by deciding to stage demonstrations that will gain them nothing, knew that it is rare in such events to have everything go as planned. They knew that in such events, a so-called “strategic corporal” — be it a low-ranking soldier, or a hot-headed activist, or a confused officer — can begin an avalanche of events that ends with bloodshed without ever intending to do it. They know that controlling many thousands of demonstrators is difficult, and that supervising the actions of thousands of soldiers is also difficult. When the situation is tense; when the soldier is tired; when there’s smoke and confusion; when the two main objectives — preventing crossing and refraining from bloodshed — somewhat contradict; when all this happens, mistakes should be expected. Mistakes should be taken into account.
It is possible that the leaders of the Palestinian protesters took them into account. In fact, it is likely that they wanted mistakes to happen, as their only hope to achieve anything by staging demonstrations is by relying on these mistakes. If there is an incident of questionable killing, it will serve those calling for investigations, calling for restraint, delegitimizing Israel’s means of defense, delegitimizing Israel’s right to control its border.
If you want to know why Israel is so pleased with the Donald Trump administration, consider what happened in Gaza last week and the president’s response to it. Finally, a U.S. administration that will not buy into the notion of “strong is always wrong.” Finally, an administration that sees through the propaganda and understands that calling for restraint is akin to robing Israel of its means of defense.
Calling for restraint is also the recipe for much more bloodshed, because hesitation on the part of Israel could easily lead to miscalculation by Hamas. And miscalculation could mean more people testing Israel’s resolve. And more people testing Israel’s resolve means less room for maneuvering, less time for response, fewer options other than using live ammunition.
Under no circumstances could Israel let tens of thousands of Gazans march into its territory. So, if you truly care about saving Palestinian lives, you ought to be pleased with the relatively low number of Palestinians killed last week. You ought to hope that this sent a message clear enough to those thinking about next week’s demonstrations.
Why do we sit at a Passover seder? Why do we read the haggadah? Toward the end of my book, “The Jews: 7 Frequently Asked Questions” (not yet available in English), I presented this question in a general way and asked, Why be Jewish at all?
There is not one answer to this question, I wrote: “There are Jews by virtue of emotion, and Jews by virtue of reason. There are Jews who conduct an effortful investigation into questions of identity, and Jews whose identity is effortless, natural and uncomplicated. And there are Jews who make do with faith — and those who also need a mission.”
I recently asked a similar question for a study I’m working on for The Jewish People Policy Institute, called the “Israeli-Judaism Project.” The study aims to investigate the fine details of Israel’s Judaism — the practices and the beliefs, the dwindling habits and surging trends, the innovations and rigid traditions. My partner on the project is Prof. Camil Fuchs, Israel’s leading pollster, and together we are attempting to crack the code of this unique and very young cultural phenomenon. Compared to the 3,000 years of Judaism, the 70-year-old Israeli-Judaism is almost in its infancy.
So, we asked the Jews of Israel: Why do you keep traditions such as the seder or Yom Kippur? Most Jewish Israelis responded that they do, indeed, keep such traditions. A mere 4 percent of the respondents to our vast survey said they don’t. The other 96 percent of Jewish Israelis who participated in the survey were divided between selecting “the commandment of the Torah” as the defining factor (28 percent); those choosing a societal reason, “This is what the people around me do” (6 percent), and the vast majority whose tradition is based on cultural reasons (24 percent) and historical awareness, whether the emphasis is family history (18 percent) or the history of their people (21 percent).
Secular Israelis are the exception; a large majority of them do not read the haggadah all the way through.
For more religious Israelis, Torah is the reason to have a seder; the social reason is somewhat important only among “totally secular” Israelis (16 percent). This highly secular group (31 percent of Jewish Israelis) is also the only group of which a somewhat significant number (15 percent) “do not keep” traditions. And it is also the only group for which the reading of the haggadah ends when the meal begins.
We also asked Israelis if they read the haggadah in its entirety, including the parts after the meal, or just a part of it (see the graph on the right). Sixty-four percent of Jewish Israelis told us they read the haggadah in full — a sign of Israelis’ strong inclination to have a traditional seder, to stick with the script they heard as children in their grandparents’ houses. Secular Israelis are the exception; a large majority of them (78 percent) do not read the haggadah all the way through. I do not have parallel findings on American Jews, but we do have data that can give us a hint of where we are as we compare these two communities. According to the 2013 Pew study of Jewish Americans, 70 percent of U.S. Jewry participated in a Passover seder “last year.” In our JPPI study, we found that 97 percent of Israeli Jews responded “yes” to the question: “Do you host or participate in a Passover seder?”
Numbers can make your eyes glaze over, but they always tell a story. In this case, it is a story of people for whom the Pesach seder is still a central feature of their tradition — almost all Israeli Jews attend a seder. It is also a story of people who have many reasons to keep this tradition, but whose members maintain their own ways of observing it — that is, as they did among family and friends early in their life. And it is the story of people who read the haggadah because it is a wonderful text, they are used to it, it is easier than thinking about a substitute, or it just feels more authentic. I assume that for Israeli Jews this is because, among other things, they can read Hebrew and understand what the words of the haggadah mean, and can debate their meaning — another great Passover tradition.
One of the common myths about Israel’s last election (2015) is that the polls were way off. The people were expecting a win for Labor’s Yitzhak Herzog and ended up having Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister. Indeed, the 30-seat-win for Likud was a surprise, as on average the surveys before the election predicted a 22-seat loss for Likud. But the polls’ great error is a myth. Their error was in predicting the exact number of seats for each party. But they were successful in predicting the more important number — the number of seats for each political bloc.
A few days before the last election, I looked at these polls, which some Israelis interpreted as optimistic for the left because of Labor’s advantage. I then wrote the following sentence: “The numbers don’t really add up for Netanyahu’s competitors. For them to form a coalition would require an electoral miracle.” Herzog was riding high, but the math was against him. It still is. Not against Herzog personally, but against the bloc of which he is a part.
Voters shop around in the neighborhood, they move from Likud to the Jewish Home or from Labor to Yesh Atid. But they rarely vote for a party that would risk their political bloc. For such a thing to happen, there needs to be a formidable figure like Ariel Sharon. For such a thing to happen, there needs to be a tiebreaking crisis.
Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), Avi Gabbay (Labor) and all other self-appointed candidates to replace Netanyahu are no Sharon. They can steal one another’s voters, but they have a hard time stealing the voters of the other bloc. That is, if you believe the polls. The latest polls predict that the current 67-member coalition will get 67 seats, 63 seats, 67 seats, 67 seats, 64 seats, 66 seats, 63 seats.
Israelis rarely vote for a party that would risk their political bloc.
True, this is not a huge advantage. But coalition building is a tricky art, in which one has to count not only the number of seats available for the likely coalition but also the number of seats available for an alternative coalition. Counting these, one realizes that all alternatives still put the Likud Party as a likely winner. It can re-form the current coalition or turn to form a coalition with some of the more centrist parties. Its rivals do not have this option. Not if the numbers resemble (they don’t need to be exact) the polls.
There is another myth, or a common cliché, that should be treated with suspicion. It’s the election-surprise myth: An election is like a road trip without a map, where you have a starting point but the end point is unknown. It is true for Americans, because all that is needed is a 2-3-point deviation in the polls and you get Donald Trump instead of Hillary Clinton. It is not true in Israel, where we build coalitions and need them to be somewhat stable to survive.
When did we have election surprises? It is quite rare. 1996 comes to mind, because of the notion that half a year after the Yitzhak Rabin assassination it was incumbent on voters to give the Labor Party its victory. But 1996, when Netanyahu first became prime minister, was an exception. It was the first of only three rounds of elections in which the prime minister was elected directly by the voters. It was personally Netanyahu vs. Shimon Peres, and not Likud vs. Labor as we have today. When you have a two-way personal race, the too-close-to-know surprise is a constant feature. When parties are elected, and blocs counted, there are few surprises: Netanyahu was likely to win in the last three rounds, Ehud Olmert was likely to win before him, Sharon was not a surprise in 2001, nor was Ehud Barak in 1999 (the last two were elected directly).
Of course, this does not mean that surprises can never occur. But they are quite rare, and seem to be even rarer today. This explains why this week we saw a Netanyahu who wants an early election in Israel — he could win and form a coalition. This explains why this week we saw his coalition partners working hard to sabotage his plans — come election, they will be the ones having to fight harder to not lose seats to one another. On Sunday, the crisis was mild; on Monday, it was raging; on Tuesday, it was a roller coaster. On Tuesday night, it seemed almost over.
Then the newspaper was put to bed. You want to call it election surprise? These are exactly the kinds of nasty surprises we writers must bear: Having to write about a crisis when the deadline is near.
Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israel and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.
Shmuel Rosner died last Friday night. He was almost a hundred years old.
My phone buzzed with the news on Saturday night, when I was in New York en route to Washington, and my instinctive reaction was: So now there are just two of us left.
I was growing up as the third Shmuel Rosner, the most junior, in my extended family. There is me, born in 1968; there is my uncle, my father’s brother, born in 1940; and then there’s “Uncle Shmuel,” my great uncle, my father’s uncle, born in 1918. Most of his family, whom he left behind in Poland, perished in the Holocaust. But Uncle Shmuel had an older sister, my grandmother, who immigrated to Palestine in 1933 and then convinced her parents to let Shmuel join her a year later. He was 16 years old.
Whenever I saw him in recent years — which wasn’t much — he tended, as is the habit of old people, to repeat a story I’d heard many times before. You should know, he’d tell me, that only thanks to your grandfather I am still alive. The young Shmuel was an idealistic communist, and when the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, he became restless and decided to board a ship and join the anti-fascist forces. My grandfather spent a whole night of convincing to stop him from doing this. His trump card was an emotional plea: I promised your parents to keep you safe — and that’s why they let you come here. If you want to go to Spain, he said, you must go back to Poland first and release me from the commitment I’ve made.
We were three Shmuels. One of the pre-state generation, one growing up with the state, one born when the state was an established reality.
Instead of going to Spain, Shmuel joined a young group that established a kibbutz in northern Israel. The patron of this group was a legendary figure, Alexander Zeid, a founder of the first defense organizations of the growing Jewish Yishuv. Zeid was ambushed and killed by a Bedouin in 1938, on his way to meet with members of the kibbutz. When Uncle Shmuel celebrated his 80th birthday, almost 20 years ago, the family boarded a bus and visited the famous statute of Zeid on his horse, not far from where he was murdered.
On kibbutz Alonim, Shmuel met his future wife, they had three children, then moved around until they landed in the city of Ra’anana. His sister, my grandmother, died 45 years ago, but he kept going. Fifteen years ago or so, I remember bumping into him at a wedding. His hand was in a cast, broken. What happened, I asked him. Oh, he said, I climbed up a tree and fell. Maybe, I suggested, at 85 it is time to quit climbing trees. He waved me off impatiently. Yes, that’s what everyone says.
We were three Shmuels. One of the pre-state generation, one growing up with the state, one born when the state was already an established reality. I am not sure it is fair to expect more Shmuels in the next generation. The name Shmuel is hardly fashionable, and thus the children and grandchildren would be understandably reluctant to use it for their own children.
Uncle Shmuel had three children, 11 grandchildren. If I am not mistaken, the number of great-grandchildren is about the same, but keeping track becomes more difficult with every new generation. There are artists in his extended family, and business people, and accountants, and high-tech entrepreneurs and a former air force pilot. Most of his family lives in Israel, but some left and live in other countries. A hundred years is a long time. And the last hundred years were especially long for Jews.
I was thinking about Uncle Shmuel as I was making my way to Washington, to attend the annual AIPAC policy conference. As he was laid to rest, I was surrounded by people wearing suits, speaking English, discussing politics, getting ready to lobby the world’s most powerful parliament on behalf of the Jewish state. It was disorienting but also strangely comforting.
Eliezer Tauber is an Israeli academic who specializes in the modern history of the Middle East. In the past decade, he dedicated a lot of time to writing a book about the so-called “massacre of Deir Yassin.” The result was a book arguing that there was no massacre in Deir Yassin. A detailed account of a fateful day, minute by minute, hour by hour. A convincing account. I’d be surprised to find any scholar whose familiarity with this event is more intimate. Tauber knows the names of everybody, he knows the time and the place where everybody was fighting, or hiding, or wounded, or killed.
What happened in Deir Yassin in April 9, 1948, became a seminal event of Israel’s War of Independence. This Palestinian village was located to the west of Jerusalem, and was attacked by Jewish fighters of the Irgun, one of Israel’s pre-state underground forces (the main force, Haganah, was the established force; Irgun was an opposition force, under the leadership of Menachem Begin).
The battle was bloody and many Arabs were killed, including women and children. It was followed by a propaganda campaign, claiming that what happened in Deir Yassin was a massacre. This campaign was very much responsible for the decision by many thousands of Arabs to flee their homes. Their decedents are today’s Palestinian “refugees.”
What really happened in Deir Yassin? Tauber is not the first scholar to argue that the large-scale massacre story is a myth. Professor Yoav Gelber, in “Palestine 1948: War, Escape and the Emergence of the Palestinian Refugee Problem,” makes a similar claim. Still, Tauber was more thorough than all of his predecessors in looking into this specific day of carnage. The result is a gripping narrative.
Was the massacre a myth? That depends on one’s definition of massacre.
Deir Yassin in Tauber’s account doesn’t depict a day of poorly organized battle, with confusion playing a role in making a bad day even worse. He counts one clear case of unjustified shooting. An Arab family evacuated a house in surrender. An Irgun fighter opened fire while his commander was shouting at him, “What are you doing? Stop it!” This incident, Tauber believes, gave credence to later overblown stories of larger-scale massacre, rape, mutilation and barbarity.
But the myth was perpetrated not because of confusion. It was a deliberate attempt by the Palestinian leadership to force the Arab militaries of surrounding countries to intervene in the battle over Palestine. The leaders of the Palestinians sowed a wind and reaped a whirlwind. More than convincing the Arab states to intervene (they eventually did), they convinced their fellow Palestinians to flee.
Why am I telling you this story? Because there is no other way for you — Americans — to know about it. Professor Tauber believed that his story would be of great interest to American publishers. He contacted university presses in the United States, and their response left him stunned. A representative of an elite university wrote back: “While everyone agreed on the book’s many strengths, in the end the consensus was that the book would only inflame a debate where positions have hardened.” Another one wrote: “We could sell well to the right-wing community here but we would end up with a terrible reputation.” Apparently, a book questioning the Palestinian narrative is not a book that American universities feel comfortable publishing.
One American media outlet found Tauber’s account worthy of a review: the online Mosaic magazine. The review rightly included the sober conclusion: “It’s hard to believe that Tauber’s book will put an end to the use of Deir Yassin for propaganda and political purposes. Myths take on a life of their own and historical facts are but background sets for them.” If you need any proof of that, just look at what an American publisher had to say about that review: “Of course Mosaic loved it, they tend to be to the right of Attila …”
Maybe Mosaic is to the “right of Attila.” Maybe Tauber is a right-wing hack. But what about his argument — the facts, the research? Is this a worthy contribution to the debate that will never end about Deir Yassin? As a reader of Tauber, and of all the many responses to his book and of many other books describing this event, I have no doubt that it is. Was the massacre a myth? That depends on one’s definition of massacre, and on having all the facts set straight. The facts that no one provides with as much detail as does Tauber (and yes, he is still looking for an American publisher).
Israeli columnist Ben Caspit has not always had good luck with timing. In 2013, he penned a book about former Prime Minister Ehud Barak — his second. The first book was published in the late 1990s, when Barak still seemed fresh and promising. Caspit worked hard on the second book so that, among other things, he could correct the adoring nature of the first book. The second one, “Stealth,” was highly critical.
“Stealth” made some headlines and met with modest success, but the timing was clearly off. In early 2013, a new government was formed, and Barak, after many years as defense minister, was no longer a part of it. Caspit’s well-aimed ammunition was spent on a political corpse. The 76-year-old Barak is still with us, of course, and still makes waves occasionally, but very few Israelis believe that his dream of a comeback — which many suspect he still harbors — is a realistic one.
Caspit may have better luck with his latest book, “Netanyahu: Biography” (published in English in July under the title “The Netanyahu Years”). It has been Israel’s No. 1 best-seller for a few weeks now, as its protagonist, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, battles for his political survival and, possibly, his freedom.
“I realized there is a potential for a perfect storm,” Caspit told me recently in Los Angeles. Originally, the Hebrew version was supposed to be published first, but American publishers decided to publish the English version last year. Caspit’s Israeli publisher had a more flexible schedule that allowed it to time publication to coincide with news developments. The strategy proved successful — “More than I could ever imagine when I started working on the book four years ago,” Caspit said.
If Netanyahu serves the remainder of this term as prime minister, the book’s back cover reminds readers, he will become the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s short history.
Timing is everything. It’s true for books as it is for investigations and journalistic scoops. In the past three weeks, Israelis have had to stay alert if they wanted to keep pace with developments in the Netanyahu investigations. Every week, there is new scandal. Every week, there is new angle. A few weeks ago, the police recommended that Netanyahu be indicted for allegedly taking illegal gifts from wealthy people, such as Arnon Milchan, and attempting to trade favors with the publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth, a popular newspaper usually hostile to the prime minister.
Netanyahu fought back. Police recommendations do not impress him, and he will wait for the decision of the attorney general. Or maybe he will wait even longer, for a final decision by the courts. Until then, Netanyahu reminds his base, he is under no legal obligation to step aside, quit or suspend himself. Suspicions and allegations aside, he is innocent until proven guilty. He also has the support of the people — the many citizens who voted him in as prime minister for a fourth term and, according to polls, likely would elect him to a fifth.
The public had barely digested the police recommendations when new allegations arose. The latest case alleges Netanyahu worked to benefit an Israeli tycoon who controls a communications empire in exchange for positive coverage on one of the tycoon’s news sites. Then, another bombshell hit the news when Netanyahu’s former close confidant, Shlomo Filber, decided to become a state witness against his former boss. Filber was Netanyahu’s right-hand man in the Ministry of Communication. If there is a black box in which the secrets of the Netanyahu-tycoon relationship are hidden, Filber is the most likely person with the key.
So, the prime minister is done, right? Some pundits were quick to eulogize him, and they have strong arguments. Still, Netanyahu survives.
A series of polls has shown that the public still supports the current coalition and has no inclination to replace it with another. Netanyahu’s coalition partners have no incentive to topple their hold on power, and for now stand behind him. And even the media got off Netanyahu’s back for a few days this past week after a report of a problematic exchange of text messages between a prosecutor and a judge involved in the tycoon case. Their texts, exchanged in advance of court hearings, were caught by a reporter who photographed one of their cellphone screens. Obviously, their foul equips the Netanyahu camp with a new set of rhetorical arrows, enabling it to assert that the justice system is guilty of bias.
For three days, Israelis had to consider the implications of this prosecutor-judge communication — the text was more an irresponsible banter than anything else. For three days, the focus was not on Netanyahu, but rather on the justice system and its faults. The prime miniter could take a breath. Next week, he will be in Washington, enjoying another respite from the pursuing investigators. The police are asking to interview Netanyahu, but he has an elusive schedule. Today is not good; tomorrow might be problematic; next week, he’s traveling; the week after, who knows?
Netanyahu is buying time. Maybe he’s hoping to get more information before being questioned; maybe he’s strategizing before making his next move. There is a positive aspect to all of these revelations: the prime minister doesn’t seem tired, he seems ready for a fight, energetic, uncompromising. But the negative aspect is obvious: Netanyahu’s many affairs will cast a shadow over all political developments in the coming months. They will be a diversion. They will make politicians edgy and the public weary. They will raise suspicions that government officials are more concerned with survival than anything else. They will frustrate Netanyahu’s rivals and supporters and hence make the public discourse even nastier than it is now.
The prime minister is done, right? Some pundits were quick to eulogize him, and they have strong arguments. Still, Netanyahu survives.
And as Israel moves forward, it can expect a constant stream of news, scandals, leaks, revelations, maneuvers and spin — accompanied by the constant underlying question: Will he survive? Will he become the longest-serving prime minister?
A week ago, Haaretz editor Aluf Benn declared “the final days of Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule.” Benn is one of Israel’s wisest writers and, as usual, he made a solid argument predicting Netanyahu’s demise. Benn made a similarly solid argument in December 2010, foretelling the expiration of Netanyahu’s second government under a similar headline: “It’s over for Benjamin Netanyahu.” Indeed, new elections were called, but two years later. And now, more than seven years later, the “It’s over” prediction is still waiting to be fulfilled. Surely, it is only a matter of time. Netanyahu, like all politicians, and all humans, will not stick around forever.
The opposite argument, made by Bret Stephens at The New York Times, is also not foolproof.
“For all of his flaws, few have done it as well as Bibi, which is why he has endured, and will probably continue to do so,” Stephens wrote. His assessment of the prime minister’s achievements is fair, and his contemplation of public opinion — Israelis do not see a worthy heir to Netanyahu — is solid. But Israel is still a country of shifting political ground. The fact that Netanyahu has the support of his partners today doesn’t mean he will have it tomorrow.
Netanyahu is hardly beloved by his peers. Within his own Likud party, some of the ministers are eager to see him gone. He has dominated the party for many years, and a generation of young and promising leaders await their turn. The coalition is also edgy. The Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennet and Netanyahu have tense relations. Finance Minister Moshe Cahlon left the Likud Party because of Netanyahu. The Charedi parties are loyal to the prime minister, but they expect to be rewarded. Such rewards — the Charedis recently demanded legislation exempting Charedi youths from serving in the Israel Defense Forces — complicates relations between the Likud party and most of the country (the Charedi parties are highly unpopular with non-Charedi voters). Such rewards strengthen Netanyahu’s main political rival, Yair Lapid, whom the Charedis consider an archenemy.
To sum up, look at the fundamentals. Netanyahu’s options are few when it comes to the police and the justice system: They have witnesses ready to testify against him, recordings, documents, and the legal right, time and resources to keep investigating him. Netanyahu can slow them down, he can divert public attention, he can discredit the people investigating him, but stopping this train is beyond his power. This train is moving forward, and it is carrying a heavy load of toxic material.
But this legal train is not the only train on track. The political train is much faster and more agile. As long as the political calculations of Netanyahu’s coalition partners remain as they are today, he can survive. He can work to stabilize the coalition and wait patiently for the slow legal train — it might take a year or two before it reaches its next dangerous junction: the attorney general’s decision. Netanyahu can pre-empt a decision by calling for a new election, in the hope that reaffirmation by the public will make it more difficult for the attorney general to put him on trial. And, of course, he can try to forge a deal: trade his political future to escape a trial and possible conviction.
As disappointing as this scenario might be for pundits in need of catchy headlines, for a public in need of political stability, for coalition partners in need of political clarity, for international players in need of a reliable partner, no one knows how Netanyahu will play his cards. Like most politicians, Netanyahu is used to keeping as many options open as possible until emerging circumstances force him to act. For now, no major decision is required.
So, is the end of Netanyahu near? I know you want an answer, and I do, too. But as I write this, only one thing is clear: Netanyahu survived yet another stormy week.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was always obsessed with the media. He was always at war with the media. He always put the media market at the top of his list of needed changes. For a politician (as Americans must know), fighting the media is not a bad strategy. But Netanyahu did not just fight it — Netanyahu strived to use his power to redesign the media market to his advantage. With one hand, he fought the media that was critical of him; with the other, he nurtured a media that could glorify him.
Fighting the media is not always a virtuous strategy, but also not always a condemnable one. Netanyahu had many good reasons to suspect that the established media was against him — and had reasons to assess that fighting back will buy him support among the people.
Things got murkier, and more problematic, when Netanyahu was actively using his influence and power as the prime minister to get himself a more adoring media. Murkier, because it is not always to separate a legitimate policy preference (to have a more open media market) from a less legitimate private interest (to have a media that writes adoringly about Netanyahu). Problematic, because Netanyahu, as the prime minister, can find ways to reward the media that writes adoringly about him and punish the media that remains critical of him.
Of course, almost all politicians reward media outlets they like (by giving them scoops, by leaking information to their journalists) and punish those they dislike (by denying them information). But Netanyahu went beyond that — or so the police suspect. He rewarded the tycoons that own the media by carving rules and legislation to serve their financial interests. That’s the essence of Case 4000 — not to be confused with the two cases against Netanyahu that made headlines last week (on Feb. 20, another case was added to the mix: an alleged attempt by a man close to Netanyahu to appoint a certain attorney general in exchange for closing an investigation against his wife, Sara).
The criminal aspect of this new case will be more difficult to prove.
Case 4000 is simple: A tycoon, Shaul Elovitch, owns many businesses in Israel, among them a very popular news website, Walla. The police argue that in exchange for positive coverage on this website, Netanyahu used his power as the prime minister, and as the minister of communication — a position he insisted on keeping himself — to benefit Elovitch. One example: Netanyahu allegedly used his influence to override antitrust claims to make Elovitch eligible to take over the satellite cable provider Yes.
There are things that will be easy to prove in this case. As far back as 2015, Haaretz investigative reporter Gidi Weitz convincingly demonstrated that Walla was highly favorable to Netanyahu. But that is not a crime. Any owner of any media outlet makes rules for his company, and if this particular tycoon decided that his media company will have a certain political flavor, it is not yet a matter for the police to investigate.
The criminal aspect of this new case will be more difficult to prove: Was there a clear quid pro quo? Did Netanyahu help a tycoon (and hurt the public) to get positive coverage? Proving that Netanyahu assisted Elovitch is not enough. He might have assisted him for good reasons, because these were proper deals in line with his policies. There needs to be proof that Netanyahu aided Elovitch for bad reasons, that he aided him in order to get positive coverage.
Fighting the media is not always a virtuous strategy, but also not always a condemnable one.
But what if Netanyahu had good and bad reasons? What if he can demonstrate that his decisions were all in line with his policies — and still a suspicion remains that the positive coverage gave him the extra incentive to work for the deals? Like many such cases, a lot depends on interpretation, on weighing the evidence. But in this case, unlike many such cases, the outcome will not be something that concerns only the suspects, because the outcome is a public matter. It could topple a government. It could ruin a ruling coalition.
Last week, the police recommended to change Netanyahu in Cases 1000 and 2000 (another case involving Netanyahu and his relations with the media). The prime minister pushed back and got what he needed — more time. His coalition partners agreed to reserve judgment until the attorney general makes the ultimate decision whether to charge the Netanyahu. They did not yet change their minds, but the prime minister knows that they can quickly do it.
So, on the one hand, Case 4000 is just another straw in a large pile of many straws. On the other hand, it could be the straw that breaks Netanyahu’s back.
Truth, ‘Fake News’ and American Politics
Regarding the Journal’s cover story “Can Truth Survive?” (Feb. 9): Reporter Shmuel Rosner probably doesn’t believe it can. His story is devoted mostly to a critique of a Rand Corp. study called “Truth Decay.” I confess I have not read the study and therefore am unable to comment on it.
Rosner recounts many of President Donald Trump’s falsehoods, the intentional conflation of opinion with fact, the tedium of cable news and even the cost of the decay of truth. It wasn’t until the end of his story that he disclosed his opinion: that truth decay “stems not just from the evil doers but also from the do-gooders who drown us in so much information that we no longer know what’s true and what’s not.”
Is he kidding? Because if he is serious, he believes that we do not have the ability to understand, to judge, to evaluate, to choose, to be capable of rational thought, or simply that we are just too lazy and don’t care. For our collective sake, I hope he is dead wrong.
Louis Lipofsky via email
Shmuel Rosner laments the decay of truth and writes, “Trump is a result of this trend as much as its instigator.” But Rosner doesn’t state the obvious: Republicans voted this compulsive liar into office and Republicans have long had an enormous problem with truth.
Why do so many Republicans believe President Barack Obama is a Muslim, that he was born in Kenya, that global warming is a hoax, that there is widespread voter fraud, that the Russia investigation is a hoax? Because too many of them self-censor and listen only to conservative media like Fox News and conservative talk radio, so they are easily duped.
And why do they self-censor? Because they have bought into the argument that the mainstream media are biased. Yes, the mainstream media have a liberal bias. But it doesn’t invent outright lies like the ones listed above.
Trump doesn’t care about the truth because he knows his supporters don’t care about the truth. That’s why he calls everything “fake news” and gets away with it.
Michael Asher via email
Hysteria, Obscurity and the #MeToo Movement
Having just read Danielle Berrin’s column on male hysteria (“Male Hysteria,” Feb. 9), I’m now even more convinced of the female hysteria of the #MeToo movement, a movement that will quickly be hoisted by its own petard.
She claims that a few of these powerful and predatory men have actually been charged with a crime. I haven’t heard of any of these powerful men being charged with a crime, notwithstanding the fact that being charged with a crime is not the same as being found guilty of a crime.
Berrin complained that far too many female artists live and continue to live in obscurity. This might be true, but there are undoubtedly far too many talented male artists who also continue to live in obscurity.
Giuseppe Mirelli, Los Angeles
Table for Five Is Weekly Food for Thought
In your “Table for Five” section for Parashat Mishpatim (Feb. 9), Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, of Uri L’Tzedek: Orthodox Social Justice, argues for “the ethical imperative to protect and secure the needs of the stranger,” and “make the marginalized — rather than the elite — our priority.”
I am a Conservative convert to Judaism, having embraced Judaism more than 50 years ago. I am a dues-paying member at an Orthodox synagogue near my home, where I go daily to minyan. I am also a member of four other non-Orthodox synagogues, where I regularly go and lead services in Hebrew, and am a cantor at one during the High Holy Days. While I can fully participate in those other synagogues, I am not permitted to get an aliyah to the Torah or be counted for a minyan at the Orthodox one. If I were to go to Israel, I could not be married there or be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Non-Orthodox convert women also know that their children will not be counted as Jews in parts of the Jewish world. Yet Jews born of a Jewish mother are considered fully Jewish even if they repudiate their Judaism, castigate it and couldn’t care less about being counted for a minyan or getting an aliyah.
Our people were made to feel like invisible outsiders when we were slaves in Egypt. Why should those of us who turned our lives around to incorporate Judaism into it now be made to feel like we are invisible outsiders in some Jewish circles? I call on Rabbi Yanklowitz and his fellow Orthodox of conscience and morality to work to change what I feel is an unjust standard, so that those of us who have transformed our lives to embrace the Jewish people and God’s Torah are not made to feel like marginalized strangers within the Jewish world.
Peter Robinson, Woodland Hills
I was delighted at Rabbi Mordecai Finley’s teaching on the Torah portion in your Tu B’Shevat issue (“Table for Five: B’Shalach,” Jan. 26). He admonished the Israelis for their sarcasm. Indeed, rightfully so; such humor can be a sign of contempt.
Irony or sarcasm is indeed biting. Hurt people hurt people. The conclusion of Rabbi Finley’s commentary made the greatest impression: Because you have been done wrong does not give you license to do someone else wrong.
Thanks to your wonderful newspaper and your knowledgeable contributors and staff.
Daniel Kirwan via email
Remembering Ruth Ziegler, a True Community Supporter
We join the Jewish community in mourning the loss of Ruth Ziegler, a dear friend, supporter and member of Jews for Judaism’s board of governors (“Philanthropist Ruth Ziegler, 98,” Feb. 9).
For two decades, Ziegler supported our innovative educational services. After being honored at our 2005 gala, she funded a major endowment to ensure that Jews for Judaism’s life-saving counseling services would be available in perpetuity.
When I asked Ziegler what motivated her to make such a generous gift, she responded, “At the gala, I heard a mother share her pain after losing her daughter to another religion, and how you rescued her. I want to make sure no one else experiences that pain.”
Ziegler believed in saving a Jewish life and saving the world. Jews for Judaism is honored to play a role in perpetuating her legacy.
Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, founder and executive director of Jews for Judaism, International
Polish Law Demonstrates Dangers of Altering History
When any government, including Poland, attempts to whitewash its history, it usually ends up with paint stains on its hands (editorial cartoon, Feb. 9). Although we can’t compare the two, Americans should not be so quick to condemn others for their behavior without first checking our history. This month it will be 76 years since Franklin D. Roosevelt issued his executive order to intern Japanese-Americans after the U.S. entered World War II. Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court avoided answering whether these people’s constitutional rights were violated.
Barry Bereskin via email
Write, Larry Greenfield, Keep on Writing
I love reading Larry Greenfield’s work. If I was not married happily, I would want to marry his brain! Keep his writing coming!
Allyson Rowen Taylor, Valley Glen
Letter to the Editor Overlooks Certain Facts
In last week’s letter from Reuben Gordon, he completely misunderstood the media coverage regarding President Donald Trump’s comment that there were good people on both sides of the Charlottesville, Va., march. Gordon states that it was in regard to the Confederate monument debate and that there were good people in support of keeping Confederate statues. The people he is referring to were Neo-Nazis; there are no good people on that side and I guess Gordon did not hear or did not want to hear their continual shouts of “Jews will not replace us.”
Edward A. Sussman, Fountain Valley
Reuben Gordon’s letter supporting President Donald Trump just because Trump supports Israel is a sad example of tunnel vision. Trump is an aggressive, ignoramus racist who is in the process of inflicting severe harm on Americans (Jews included), … so to excuse his arrogant, narcissistic self because of his support of Israel is foolish and perhaps even dangerous.
Rick Edelstein via email
He Asked and He Received a Small Change in Journal
When I ran into my friend David Suissa a couple of months ago while strolling down Pico Boulevard, I congratulated him on his new position at the Jewish Journal and the upgraded look of the paper. I then told him that Rhina, my elderly parents’ non-Jewish caregiver, noticed that the time Shabbat ends was no longer listed. As their caregiver, she needs to know when Shabbat concludes, and she wants to consult the Jewish Journal for that information. Suissa promised to correct it. Sure enough, in the next week’s edition, the time of Havdalah was once again listed! So thank you, David, for magnificently upgrading the paper, and on behalf of Jews and non-Jews who care when Shabbat ends, thanks for the weekly notice! Keep on publishing a great newspaper. Kol ha-kavod!
Mark Goldenberg, Beverly Hills
The Feb. 9 edition of Moving and Shaking misreported the venue for the L.A. Jewish Home’s Celebration of Life: Reflections 2018 gala. The event took place at the Beverly Wilshire hotel.
In a Feb. 2 Calendar item, visiting scholar Andrew Porwancher was misidentified.
Feb. 12 was not a good day for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
He was slapped on his right cheek by the U.S. administration — “reports that the United States discussed with Israel an annexation plan for the West Bank are false,” said the White House. But these were no “reports,” it was Netanyahu bragging to Likud Party members about his supposed discussion with the administration.
He was then slapped on his left cheek by Israel’s Supreme Court. There is no reason, the court said, to prevent the police from publicizing the conclusions it handed the attorney general in the Netanyahu legal investigation. The police do not have the power to decide if Netanyahu will be indicted. They do have the power to humiliate him and complicate his life by making the findings against him public.
Thus, a week that Netanyahu began as a leader, an orchestrator of bold military action, a statesman talking to Russian President Vladimir Putin, a restrained yet determined prime minister, appeared destined to deteriorate into a week he would end as a petty politician — chattering irresponsibly to party activists and stumbling into an unnecessary hitch with a friendly administration.
Then came Feb. 13. The police recommended that Netanyahu be indicted for taking bribes. Within three days he turned from statesman to petty politician to suspected criminal — from Prime Minister Netanyahu to Bibi the Huckster.
Netanyahu believes his coalition will survive the first round of bad publicity from the police findings.
Netanyahu had to deal with each of these developments separately. To the Americans he quickly apologized, clarifying that he did not really mean what he said, or maybe didn’t say what he meant. What he wanted to say was, in fact, a responsible thing: This is not the time to discuss and advance the annexation of West Bank territory, and he is not going to allow it. But since saying such a thing in such a blunt way is politically tricky — the prime minister needs to keep his right-wing flank quiet while dealing with his legal troubles — he utilized the Trump administration to make his position sound less dovish. Clearly, this was a miscalculation.
His legal troubles are another matter. In a long and hearty TV appearance on the evening of Feb. 13, Netanyahu rejected each of the allegations against him. The details are quite tedious: Did he support this or that legislation for this or that reason? Did he give favors in exchange for cigars? The one worthy piece of news from the evening was the fact that Netanyahu’s main political rival, Yair Lapid, is a key witness in the case against him. Netanyahu is likely to utilize this fact to his advantage, as any suspect would.
Netanyahu believes his coalition will survive the first round of bad publicity from the publication of the police findings. No party has reason to rock the boat, and no party will gain from having a new election. In fact, the opposite is true: Most of the parties can only lose. They lose if they have to renegotiate what they already have — because of a similar election outcome. They lose if they have to contend with a less friendly, less coherent coalition. So for the time being, while the attorney general ponders Netanyahu’s legal future, the prime minister seems politically safe.
It is impossible to know at this stage if Netanyahu’s coalition can survive until the regularly scheduled elections two years from now. The attorney general is expected to decide on Netanyahu’s case by the middle of this year. The prime minister could decide to pre-empt such a decision if he were to call for a new election and get re-elected. After all, in such a scenario he would be elected when the public would already be aware of his supposed crimes and would still want him as its leader. Preempting the legal process could mean a decision on a new election in early spring, and the actual vote in early 2019.
Or, Netanyahu could decide to withstand a decision to indict him and remain at the helm while standing trial. This has never been done before, and political pressure on his coalition partners could prove it futile, but Netanyahu believes it would be legal (only the Supreme Court could thwart such a belief) and maybe even manageable. Like him, the other parties read the polls and see that another election would apparently give the current coalition more than half the seats in the Knesset and would make it highly complicated for other coalitions to form.
Israel demonstrated how serious it is about preventing the establishment of an Iranian stronghold in Syria
1982 was the last year an Israeli fighter jet was downed by Syrian forces. 1982 was the last year Israel launched a large-scale attack in an area under Syrian control. 1982 was a year of war — the first Lebanon war — in a Middle East that was much different than it is now. Syria was still a real country with a real government. Israel’s main enemy in the north was still the PLO — the forces of Yasser Arafat. Iran was engaged in a long and bloody war — with Iraq. The Soviet Union was engaged in a Cold War with the much stronger United States.
There is very little we can learn today about the state of affairs to Israel’s north from what happened in 1982. Still, people have short memories but militaries have long ones, and thus the ghosts of 1982 live in the minds of some of those engaged in the current battle for power. Syria, by taking down an Israeli F-16 on Feb. 10, celebrated a small victory over the air force that downed 88 of Syria’s fighter jets in 1982. The Russians had their own reason for a small celebration: The 19 ground-to-air systems destroyed in June 1982 during one of Israel’s most brilliant military operations were Russian (or Soviet, as it was called then). The missile downing the Israeli jet last weekend was Russian.
A phone call between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin put an end to Feb. 10’s large-scale Israeli attack in Syria.
Before diving into an analysis, let’s recap the events. On Feb. 10, Iran sent a drone into Israel. Israel was well prepared, and an air force helicopter downed the drone. Then Israel attacked and destroyed the control vehicle for the drone, placed in a Syrian base in southern Syria, far away from the Syria-Israeli border. Iranian soldiers were killed.
Syria responded with a barrage of anti-aircraft missiles and hit one Israeli fighter jet. Its crew ejected over Israel’s Galilee, and one of the pilots was seriously wounded and is still in the hospital. Israel expanded its counterattack, targeting about a dozen Syrian and Iranian military installations in Syria. An Israeli air force general called this “the most substantial attack since 1982.” Then came the phone call from Putin. Israel pulled back. The sirens were silenced. The north quieted yet remained tense. The next round — as the cliché goes — is “only a matter of time.”
It is a matter of time because the issue at hand is not yet settled. Syria, after many years of civil war, is barely an independent country. And as that war winds down, a new war has begun — the one over future arrangements in this area. Iran — the country without which Syrian President Bashar Assad could not survive — wants its reward. It wants to establish a stronghold in Syria, right on Israel’s border. Russia — the country that enabled Assad’s survival — keeps a watchful eye over Syria to serve its own interests. Hezbollah, whose takeover of Lebanon is a prototype and a warning of what might happen in Syria, is freer today than it was during the busy days of the civil war.
Miscalculation that leads to a war with Syria or Iran is one thing. Miscalculation that leads to a war with Russia, when the U.S. stays on the sidelines, is quite another.
Israel vowed to prevent such developments. It vowed to prevent Iran from establishing another stronghold to its north. It vowed to prevent Iran from building in Syria an infrastructure that could serve to threaten Israel. Obviously, vowing alone is not enough. In the Middle East, one has to back words with action, one has to use power to make a point. And when Iran provided a pretext for attack, by invading Israeli territory with its drone, Israel jumped at the opportunity.
This was not a minor incident. Israel and Iran had been having a proxy war for many years, but this time there were no proxies. It was an Iranian drone, these were Iranian soldiers, it was Iranian equipment that Israel attacked. True — the Israeli jet was downed by Syria (acting, according to some reports, under heavy pressure from Tehran). Still, the shadow war is no longer shadowy. It is out in the open, with both countries — Iran and Israel — having to ponder the impact of their clashes on the many other components of an unstable situation.
The impact is never quite known in advance; there are only probabilities and educated assessments. Israeli investigative journalist Ronen Bergman, in his newly released best-seller, “Rise and Kill First” — a detailed book about Israel’s expert trade of targeted killings — recounts a few instances of miscalculations, some concerning Israel’s war with Iran. When Tamir Pardo, the head of Israel’s spy agency, Mossad, returned from a trip to Washington,. D.C., in 2012, he “warned Netanyahu that continued pressure on the United States would lead to a dramatic measure, and likely not the one that Netanyahu hoped for,” Bergman writes. Pardo believed that Netanyahu’s implied threat to attack Iran pushed then-American President Barack Obama to sign a deal with Iran. “Obama, fearing Israeli action, agreed to an Iranian proposal to hold secret negotiations,” Bergman writes. He speculates that “if the talks had begun two years later, Iran would have come to them in a considerably weaker state.” That is to say: Bergman assumes that Israel miscalculated in applying too much pressure on the U.S. to tame the Iranian threat.
Bergman’s argument concerning this incident can be a matter for debate, mainly because it doesn’t fully take into account Obama’s great interest in having a “historic” breakthrough with Iran before leaving office. But Bergman’s overall theme still stands: Israel makes decisions and takes action without always being able to rightly asses the ultimate outcome of its decisions. The alternatives — never to take action or to make decisions only when the outcome is predetermined — is nonexistent. In the rough business of war, a measure of risk is a given. Israel’s willingness to take risks is one of the tools in its arsenal of deterrence. In such context, its attack last weekend should be seen as a down payment of seriousness. If anyone was hoping that Israel would not have the stomach to get into a fight and risk a full-scale war in the north, one has to recalculate.
The shadow war is no longer shadowy. It is out in the open, with both countries — Iran and Israel — having to ponder the impact of their clashes on the many other components of an unstable situation.
Israel miscalculated many times, but so did its enemies. Quite famously — and here’s just one example — when Hezbollah inadvertently prompted the second Lebanon war by abducting Israeli soldiers. Had it known in advance that war would be the result, Hezbollah’s leader admitted later, the soldiers would still be alive and well. That was more than a decade ago, and its impact on Israel’s rivals might have faded. An aggressive approach is thus essential not to ignite war but rather to prevent one — make Iran understand that this is where the current path leads, make it realize that it cannot count on Israeli laxity.
Russia is the other addressee of this message of seriousness. For the past couple of years, since the Russians decided to jump into the Syrian mess — a bet that thus far proved solid and worthy (Obama’s grave predictions of “Russia’s Vietnam” notwithstanding) — Israel and Moscow proved meticulous in coordinating their actions in the region and prevented misunderstanding or an unintended clash. This was complicated and sometimes restrictive but mostly tactical: Israel lost flexibility in prompting combat; Russia left enough maneuver room for Israel to take effective action.
This worked, awkwardly, when the Syrian civil war was still going on, the players in Syria were busy fighting one another. It is less clear how Russia and Israel can manage this situation when the civil war is (almost) over, and when the battle turns to become one of Israel against any attempt at Iranian expansion.
This calls for strategic understanding, not just the tactical prevention of unintended clashes. But can Israel and Russia reach an agreement on the future of Israel’s border with Syria? For Israel, the goal is clear: to have no Iranian forces, and no forces under Iran’s control, near its border; and to be able to tame any attempt by Iran to turn Syria into an active front against Israel, Lebanon-style. For Russia, the goals are always somewhat murky: It wants Assad to survive, it wants its military bases in Syria safe, it wants to keep the Iranians happy (but not too happy) and quiet. Russia probably doesn’t want to have to take responsibility for a war between Israel and Iran.
Russia also has to take the U.S. into account. But how worried is it, considering the realities of the past couple of years? Not that long ago, Israel rarely questioned the basic commitment of the U.S. to contain Russia in the Middle East. The arrangement was clear to everybody: When the need arises, Israel deals with neighborhood sharks — small sharks and sometimes even with midsize sharks such as Iran — as long as the U.S. makes sure that no big shark, no great white shark such as Russia, interferes to tip the balance against Israel. In 1973, Israel fought against Egypt and Syria, and the U.S. was ready to clash with the Soviet Union in case of intervention. Regional power against regional power — superpower against superpower.
Putin on the one side and American presidents Obama and Donald Trump on the other side proved this assumption to be risky, maybe invalid. In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia. In 2014, it invaded Crimea. In the summer of 2015, it sent its forces to Syria. Obama was ineffective in his response. Maybe he just didn’t care. In 2016, Trump was elected, communicating a mixed message of standoffishness and aggressiveness. Unlike Obama, Trump made good on his word and launched a Tomahawk missile attack in Syria when reports of the use of chemical weapons tested his resolve. Like Obama, Trump steered clear of getting involved in the managing of postwar Syria and seemed to accept the Russian-dominated status quo.
This leaves Israel confused and unsure. Miscalculation that leads to a war with Syria or Iran is one thing. Miscalculation that leads to a war with Russia, when the U.S. stays on the sidelines, is quite another. Bergman, on a tour of the United States to promote his book, told me on Feb. 13 that Israel “has pleaded the United States to exert its influence over Russia, which is the only country that can pressure Iran, to prevent the stationing of permanent Iranian forces in Syria and the establishment of an Iranian military seaport. All in vain.” It also failed to convince Russia directly to tame Iran. Putin, Bergman told me, “is not interested in entering into a dispute with the Iranians and he has not interfered with their deployment in Syria.”
So, Israel is left with no choice but to up the ante and signal to all parties involved that war is an option. It has no choice but to signal to all parties involved that dithering and allowing inertia is not an option. “After it failed to recruit the Trump administration to convince Putin, Israel feels that it has remained alone, and in this situation it will respond very aggressively,” Bergman told me from New York. It already has, and is ready to act again. Worst-case scenario: This leads to real, long and bloody war, involving Iran and Israel, Syria and possibly Russia — a war that Israel’s military already has a name for: the first northern war.
No doubt, this will be a costly enterprise for all sides involved, the result of which is unknown. No doubt, it is a war Israel would like to avoid. And indeed, this is the best-case scenario: Signaling seriousness and readiness to go to war, Israel hopes to prompt Russian and possibly American involvement in halting Iran’s advancement. Such a move is the only one that will make a first war of the north obsolete.
There is an irony inherent to a scholarly attempt to convince you that we live in an era of “Truth Decay.” The phrase is the catchy title of a new Rand Corp. study that delves into “an initial exploration of the diminishing role of facts and analysis in American public life.”
The paradox is that the thesis — that we no longer trust facts — undermines the means — a study built on facts.
If this, as the study suggests, is an era in which “Americans are placing less faith in institutions that were once trusted sources of information,” then why would the same Americans trust the Rand Corp. and its findings?
If this is, as the authors argue, an era in which there is “increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data,” then why would they expect the readers to accept their interpretations of facts and data?
The authors, Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael D. Rich, clearly do have such expectations, maybe because they understand that there is no alternative to data and analysis. They also acknowledge that, alongside this decay, there is a tendency “in many areas of American society” to rely on “facts and data” today more than ever.
In other words, this is a time of both fake news and big data. It is a time of growing reliance on populist punditry “and opinion-based news,” but also a time in which “even baseball, football, and basketball teams increasingly rely on data to determine which players to draft.”
So, is Truth Decay just a polite way to describe the era of Donald Trump, whose long list of misstatements includes repeating more than 50 times the falsehood that his tax cut was the biggest ever (even after Treasury Department data showed it ranked eighth)?
It is and it isn’t. Complaints about the weakening of truth in public life intensified with the rise of Trump, and are clearly linked to it. But Trump is a result of this trend as much as its instigator.
There is hardly a shortage of articles lamenting the end of a supposed era of truth. Roger Cohen, writing in The New York Times two years ago, dated the beginning of this era to 2014, and to Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea. Russian President Vladimir Putin, he wrote, “a pure Soviet product, traffics in lies.” Putin was there before Trump, so “Trump is not alone. There is a global movement of minds,” Cohen wrote.
And Cohen was not alone. Last March, the cover of Time magazine presented the question “Is Truth Dead?” At about the same time, the magazine Democracy held a symposium to consider the question: “Can truth survive Trump?” No wonder that just last week, a political fact-checking website crashed during Trump’s State of the Union address.
The scholars of the Rand Corp. are clearly worried. It is hard not to agree with them that “Truth Decay and its many manifestations pose a direct threat to democracy and have real costs and consequences — economic, political, and diplomatic.”
In analyzing this situation, they identify four trends that together contribute to this time of decay: increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data; a blurring of the line between opinion and fact; the increasing relative volume, and resulting influence, of opinion and personal experience over fact; and declining trust in formerly respected sources of factual information.
Trump is a result of this trend as much as its instigator.
Some of these trends hardly need to be proven. A brief glance at the polls reveals the public’s growing distrust in institutions. And just watch cable news for a few hours and you’ll see how much time is filled with conversations that blur the line between opinion and fact.
Of course, this trend of mistrust in the media and nonstop punditry did not begin with Trump. Rather, it made Trump a credible presidential candidate. And now it haunts him. He is both an instigator and a victim of American’s distrust.
Other trends are more difficult to pinpoint. But the authors still make a decent effort to prove their case — by showing, for example, “the recent rise in skepticism about the safety of vaccines.”
The vaccine case reminded me of “The Influential Mind,” a book published in 2017 by Tali Sharot, a professor of cognitive neuroscience. (Full disclosure: I was the editor overseeing the Hebrew edition.) Sharot describes the September 2015 Republican presidential primary debate in which the moderator challenged then-candidate Trump’s assertions — contrary to scientific evidence — that childhood vaccines were linked to autism.
Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon who was then a candidate (now Trump’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development), replied that numerous studies “have not demonstrated that there is any correlation between vaccinations and autism.”
Not hesitating to respond, Trump asserted that, “Autism has become an epidemic … it has gotten totally out of control. … You take this little beautiful baby, and you pump — I mean, it looks just like it’s meant for a horse, not for a child.” He went on to describe a colleague’s young child who became ill after being vaccinated, and, he alleged, “now is autistic.”
Sharot writes about this moment with a sense of awe. “My response was immediate and visceral. An image of a nurse inserting a horse-sized syringe into my tiny baby emerged inside my head and would not fade away. It did not matter that I knew perfectly well that the syringe used for immunization was a normal size — I panicked.”
She recounts this moment to make a point she illustrates time and again in her book: Evidence does not work. In fact, as she later explains, “presenting people with information that contradicts their opinion can cause them to come up with altogether new counterarguments that further strengthen their original view.”
Sharot is not listed as a source in “Truth Decay,” but her sobering argument should serve as a warning. The Rand scholars portray our current era as different from previous times: Once, we were more prone to listen to evidence; now, we are less prone to do this. But is that really true? Were people really more rational in the past, making decisions based on evidence more than we do today?
The authors do not argue that today’s trend is unprecedented. In a chapter on past Truth Decays, they count three earlier periods in which truth diminished to make room for non-truths: the 1880s-90s, the 1920s-30s, and the 1960s-70s. Their aim is to provide these parallels to help explain what we see today.
In all three examples, the authors note, the media were changing. Yellow Journalism thrived in the Gilded Age; radio and tabloids emerged in the ’20s and ’30s; and New Journalism and the era of television were hallmarks of the ’60s and ’70s. As they compare these three periods to today’s supposed Truth Decay period, they carefully conclude: “Perhaps the clearest similarity across the four periods is that each offers examples of the erosion of the line between opinion and fact and of ways in which the relative volume, and resulting influence, of opinion over fact seems to have increased.”
And yet, historical parallels are a tricky tool, and the authors readily admit that “although each of the periods … exhibited a significant rise in disagreement over social, economic, and political policies and norms, there is little evidence that agreement about the veracity and legitimacy of basic facts declined in previous eras.”
What are “basic facts”? Americans, by and large, agree that the earth is spherical, that the sun rises in the east, and that water boils at a certain temperature. They disagree — and this is nothing new — on evolution, on global warming, on UFOs. In 2008, not all of them were convinced that Barack Obama was an American citizen. That was years before Trump’s election, and before Russia’s invasion of the Crimea.
Watch cable news for a few hours and you’ll see how much time is filled with conversations that blur the line between opinion and fact.
Today, they can’t agree on the facts — or “facts” — detailed in the memo released last week by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.). Was the FBI trying to assist Hillary Clinton? Was it trying to sabotage the election of Trump? The memo contains some facts that are indisputable and some that mean little without context. The context is often what makes facts more elusive than the Rand report tends to admit.
In analyzing the factors behind Truth Decay, the authors, to their credit, attempt to put these causes on a scale of those having more and less impact on how people debate truth and facts. Their conclusion: It is Facebook, Twitter and the other social media phenomena that make us easy prey for falsehoods: “Changes in the information system play an outsize role in the challenges presented by Truth Decay because those changes affect the supply of both fact-based information and disinformation.”
It’s not an earth-shattering conclusion, but it is an interesting comment on the human condition and on the human ability to process information.
Yes, our leaders tend to lie from time to time — some more than others. Yes, the current leader of the United States is especially flexible with the facts and especially bold in making unfounded statements. This boldness, it is worth saying, occasionally also gives him the ability to cut through vagueness and expose simple truths.
But leaving Trump aside for a moment, and reading carefully through the long Rand study, one realizes that Truth Decay — if you accept this analysis, and look at the historical parallels — is as much about too much information as too little. In other words, it stems not just from evildoers who deliberately hide the truth from us, but also from do-gooders who drown us in so much information that we no longer know what’s true and what’s not.
It is sometimes quite amazing to see how the Holocaust, 70 years later, is still a daily subject of discussion in Israel. Not a day goes by without it being mentioned in the public sphere. Not a week goes by without it becoming a point of contention. If you think the Jewish people will ever begin to get over this tragedy, think again.
Or just listen to how Israelis discuss their daily affairs. It won’t be too long before you also realize that this trauma is far from being healed. It is constantly on our minds.
Some things force this constancy on us. For example, the fact that from January to May, Israel marks not one but three Holocaust Memorial days. There was International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marked this week, and there is the religious Memorial Day, marked, along with other Jewish tragedies, on the Asarah be-Tevet fast, and then there is the actual, official Memorial Day, a week after Passover.
Yet in most cases, the Holocaust occupies us not because of special duty — a day that calls for a pause. In most cases it is us, busying ourselves with it because nothing has more power to grab our attention. We do not pause to remember the Holocaust; we remember it while on the move.
We do not pause to remember the Holocaust; we remember it while on the move.
Consider the past two weeks. The fierce public debate over a government plan to expel thousands of illegal migrants from Africa (opponents to their expulsion insist on calling them asylum-seekers and presenting them as people whom Israel must absorb) quickly descended into Holocaust-themed arguments. The ultimate weapon was pulled out when Holocaust survivors began voicing their views on this matter — implying a moral authority that trumps government considerations in such matters of conscience.
And as this debate rages, a famous Israeli writer and artist, who wrote lyrics for Israeli classics, compared a Palestinian attacker of soldiers to Anne Frank — prompting a harsh response from Israel’s defense minister. The minister demanded that the Israel Defense Forces radio station cease from playing all songs written by this author, and was then reminded by the attorney general that he has no legal authority to enforce such a demand.
The artist, Yehonatan Geffen, later apologized for his foolishness, as did another, less prominent Israeli writer who was even more vulgar in his use of Holocaust imagery. This artist said — you need to pause before you read this — that he would gladly sit on the roof of a death camp to see the smoke coming out of its chimney, provided it is novelist Amos Oz who is put to death below him. He is so angry with Oz for using “Nazi” to describe the action of right-wing radicals that he felt an irresistible urge to make his point clear, before apologizing to whatever followers he might still have.
Then there is Poland. If the memory of the Holocaust divides Israelis when they have an internal political debate, it often unites them against external forces. Such is the case with the Polish Parliament, which now plots to pass legislation that makes reference to Polish involvement in executing the Holocaust unlawful.
Of course, the story of Poland and the Holocaust is complicated. The Poles were victims of the Nazis. The Poles were not the initiators of the mass murder of Jews, nor invited the construction of death camps in their midst. Still, evidence of Polish participation in the execution of Jews is vast and irrefutable. The attempt by Poland to silence the voices demanding acknowledgment of such participation, or the scholars who dig for more evidence of how, where and why it was done, was met with unified Israeli condemnation.
The Israeli government was adamant not to let this Polish law pass without response. Israeli opposition was sometimes even more robust in its demand for retribution (while also needling the government for having ties with right-wing European parties). In a heartbeat, the Holocaust ceased to be a tool of nasty division and has become a tool of guarded unification.
Lessons are few: It would be better for Israelis to count to 10 before they use the Holocaust to score cheap points in a conventional, if fierce, political debate. It would be better for them to ignore artists who cannot properly think before they speak. It would be better for Poland to come to grips with its past and stop trying to mask it.
Most of all, it would be better for us all to realize that we are still a traumatized people. The evidence is all around us — at times in the form of cynicism or stupidity, at times in the form of serious discussion. The only remedy is time. A very long time.