Yesterday in my review of Jonathan Spyer’s The Transforming Fire, I mentioned Roger Cohen and Peter Beinart as examples of writers who don’t have a clue about Israel. On cue, Cohen — who is actually worse than the others, really quite vicious — wrote his weekly Israel-bash in which he quoted Beinart approvingly!
I think I understand what the problem is with Beinart, Cohen et al. I touched on it yesterday when I talked about the new elite that is taking up the burden of maintaining the Jewish state, as the tired left-wing establishment contents itself with sniping from the pages of Ha’aretz (read the review, if you haven’t already).
Here in America the sniping comes from people like Beinart, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and of course J Street (also praised by Cohen this week). And what they are all saying is that Israel isn’t ‘liberal enough’ for them. They tend to focus on the conflict between the “Women of the Wall” and Orthodox Jews, Israel’s stubbornness in not bowing to Arab demands for settlement freezes, the alleged ‘racism’ of Avigdor Lieberman and his Russian immigrant supporters, discrimination against and mistrust of Arab citizens, the growing influence of ultra-Orthodox haredim, and the more prominent position of — gasp — observant Jews — in the army.
With all due respect, we’re missing a few things over here. First and foremost, Israel is not part of the US or Europe. Perhaps it was closer to that once, before years of war and massive immigration from Arab countries and the former Soviet Union made it something else — a very unique kind of nation, really, but now it’s becoming more Middle Eastern than European or American.
There is also the very important fact that Israel is tiny. Really, really tiny and vulnerable. If the US continues along its present path, it may well collapse, but it will take decades (it took the Roman Empire 500 or even 1000 years to entirely go away). Israel could be destroyed in a week. So we need to understand that Israelis may have different priorities than we do.
Try looking at some of the issues that so exercise the Beinarts and the Cohens through an Israeli lens. Most secular Israelis absolutely believe in women’s rights, and strongly dislike the Orthodox religious authorities. But they wonder why the Women of the Wall deliberately provoke Orthodox Jews at the Kotel. They are also bemused — much to the annoyance of the URJ — by attempts to interest them in Reform Judaism, which they view as even sillier than more traditional forms of Judaism. These issues are at the top of what American Jews want to talk about, and near the bottom of the list for Israelis.
More importantly, consider the mistrust of Arab citizens. Regularly, Jews are stoned or attempts are made to lynch them, forests set on fire, cars stolen, etc. by Arabs. Arab villages often don’t receive the same benefits from the government as similar Jewish towns, but tax avoidance is the rule rather than the exception in the Arab sector. Arabs don’t get as many building permits as Jews, but Arabs commonly (and sometimes massively) build without permits. And I haven’t even mentioned the subversive activities and violence of the Islamic Movement of Raed Saleh, or the nationalistic riots that periodically break out, or the calls for the “de-Zionization” of Israel from Arab intellectuals and groups.
Another issue is settlements. My local newspaper runs a news item almost every day which describes the struggle of our intrepid President to “get talks moving” between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), and how Netanyahu’s “hardline right-wing” coalition is preventing that by refusing to “stop settlement construction.”
This is far from reality. Most Israelis know that the PA isn’t the slightest bit serious about a ‘peace agreement’, and view the talks as something that Israel is going through because the Americans want them to. Most Israelis know that no new settlements have been built for years and that freezing construction within existing settlements, or, worse, Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, is just a way to make the statement that Israel is not sovereign in these places.
Most Israelis also know that if elections were held today, the resulting Knesset would probably be even farther to the right than today’s is. Although J Street, Beinart, and Cohen suggest that somehow Israeli democracy has been ‘hijacked’, the truth is that Israelis learned something (the hard way, in the form of more than a thousand dead Jews) from the serial failures of the parties that advocated concessions as a road to peace. The parties of the Left have democratically sunk into oblivion as a result, and all that remains of them is the constant din emanating from the university faculties and Ha’aretz — which every day grows more extreme.
There isn’t much to say about the make-up of the army. Today, draft-dodging among well-to-do Tel Aviv youth has reached 60%. The people who fight and die for Israel, as Jonathan Spyer made clear in his book, are more and more the national-religious youth — many of whom live East of the Green Line — the non-Jewish Druze and some Bedouins, Russian immigrants, and the descendants of the Jews kicked out of the Arab countries after 1948, the Mizrachi Jews who were often treated with contempt by the left-wing Ashkenazi elite.
It is possible that Israel is not the country that Cohen or Beinart wish that it were. But it is what it is — a Middle Eastern Jewish state, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. If by some magic they could convert it into the little Belgium or Berkeley that appeals to them, probably it wouldn’t last ten minutes in its neighborhood.
A young friend of Roger Cohen’s told him that Israelis were “unaware or unconcerned [about] Palestinian humiliation.” On the contrary, they are quite aware of the struggle that continues between Jews and Arabs over who will remain in the land of Israel, but focusing on “Palestinian humiliation” is like suggesting that the most important part of the history of WWII was the US internment of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast. It’s not that it didn’t happen, it’s just that the whole picture is so much larger.