My heart hurts every morning now. When I awaken at 5 am, I watch on television the demonstrations in Israel. In a strange way, the demonstrations are reassuring without being comforting, signifying to me that democracy is still alive in Israel. The polarization of left from right, secular from religious, and even modern Orthodox from ultra-Orthodox in the Jewish state, however, is agonizingly painful to me. And there is absolutely nothing I can do about it.
This intra-Jewish bitterness reminds me of the solemn fast of the 9th day of the Jewish month of Av (in Hebrew, Tisha b’Av) that began on July 26. We commemorate with a 24-hour abstention from food and drink the destruction of our First and Second Temples in Jerusalem by the Babylonians and Romans, respectively. The destruction of both temples was a result of what we call in Hebrew “sinat chinam,” baseless hatred of Jew against Jew. And I cannot help but fear that such baseless hatred could endanger the Jewish state in our time. Israel to me is a matter of both profound political conviction and passionate love of my people, the Jewish people, and indeed of my own paternal family of Polish Jews, a number of whom found refuge and survival in Israel after the Holocaust. I cannot be objective about Israel.
The political conviction is my belief in Zionism, the ideology that in a world where antisemitism is universal and enduring, we Jews must have our own state. The Holocaust brought home the tragedy of the powerlessness of Jews without both a state and a place of refuge from physical destruction. The establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, fulfilled the vision of the founder of modern political Zionism, the Viennese journalist Theodor Herzl, whose famous quote was, “If you will it, it is no dream.”
Israel has been an integral part not only of my life but that of New Jersey Jewry as well. The various Jewish federations in the Garden State play a most vital role not only in fundraising for projects in Israel but also in communicating the cause of Israel to both New Jersey political officials and the citizenry at large. Many Jewish parents throughout New Jersey will at some point send their children to Israel for a summer and even for a year of college.
That includes my son Neil, who spent his junior year at the University of Maryland as a student in the study-abroad program at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He stayed that entire year, 2000-2001, at the Hebrew University, although it was the year of the second Arab Intifada, the Palestinian Arab uprising that threatened life in Israel daily. For that, I will always be most proud of my son.
Israel has been almost universally a source of justifiable pride for New Jersey Jewry. Its valiant victories in wars against hostile Arab armies and terrorist forces who sought its destruction have earned Israel the admiration of free peoples everywhere.
In peacetime, Israel’s landmark achievements in science, technology, education, and economic development have enabled the Jewish state to attain the status envisioned by its founders as “ohr l’goyim” – a light unto the nations. In international economic circles, Israel has well earned the title of “start-up nation.”
It may be said that identification with Israel is the one commonality most New Jersey Jews have, regardless of their degree of religious observance or political inclination. While serving as assistant commissioner of commerce in the Whitman administration, I worked closely with both Israeli and New Jersey companies to forge strong and enduring trade relationships. In 2019, bilateral trade between New Jersey and Israel was valued at $2.27 billion. Let there be no mistake – the Jews of New Jersey will continue to be supportive of Israel. The perception, however, that democracy in Israel is endangered is most disturbing to them. During this crisis, I have been in continuous communication with a lifelong friend who has lived in Jerusalem most of his adult life. He and I grew up in the same suburb of Pittsburgh, and our families were close. We both have been involved in politics in Israel and America, respectively, as players on the center-right. My communication with him was critical to me because I do not fully trust the American media in its coverage of Israel. Also, although I am a Joe Biden supporter, I have been disturbed that he publicly upbraids Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for claims by demonstrators of repression of democracy while saying nothing publicly about similar demonstrations against Prime Minister Modi in India and President Macron in France.
There is indeed an irony in the way the American mainstream media is treating Netanyahu. While serving as Israel’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations from 1984 to 1988, Bibi was lionized and adored universally by the most prominent American organs of print and broadcast media. Today, he is a prime object of out-of-control American media demonization and vilification. Both extremes are over-simplifications.
As someone who devotes much of his life to the study of the history and politics of Israel and has travelled to Israel 18 times, I also am aware of two episodes in its history when the Jewish state was on the verge of civil war. Both involved massive national protest led by the then leader of the Israeli right, Menachem Begin, who became Israel’s prime minister in 1977.
The first episode involved the June 1948 sinking of the Altalena, a ship importing guns into Israel. The sinking was conducted by the Irgun, the irregular militia force led by Begin, which was then being absorbed into the Israel Defense Force. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ordered that the ship be attacked and sunk after negotiations with Begin and the Irgun foundered. Civil war was avoided only when Begin ordered the Irgun to lay down its arms.
The second involved the Ben-Gurion government’s 1952 agreement to accept Holocaust reparation monies from the West German government. Today, this decision by Ben-Gurion is viewed as a landmark accomplishment, which enabled the Israeli economy to survive and thrive and Holocaust survivors in Israel to begin new lives.
Still, many Israeli Holocaust survivors then viewed the reparations agreement entered only seven years after the end of the Holocaust as a mortal wound on the Israeli soul. Begin led a massive demonstration against the reparations in Jerusalem, which again resulted in the Jewish State approaching the brink of civil war.
Both Ben-Gurion and Begin were figures of greatness and heroes of Jewish history. I have always believed most strongly, however, that Israel was fortunate to have Ben-Gurion rather than Begin as its first prime minister.
One of the first questions I asked my friend was whether the divide in Israel now is as severe as the polarization at the time of the Altalena and reparation episodes. He confirmed that the present divide indeed is most serious.
As to one aspect of the current crisis, my friend was able to provide me some degree of comfort. It has been widely reported that more than 11,000 Israelis in the military reserve said that they would resign if the government’s judicial overhaul went ahead. My friend acknowledged the seriousness of this situation. But he assured me that if Israel was threatened by a hostile military or terrorist attack, every one of these reservists would report for duty.
My friend had supported, justifiably in my view, Bibi and the Likud coalition’s election to the Knesset ever since the breakdown of the Oslo Process of 1993. Oslo created the false promise of peace between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs and only resulted in more bloodshed and more power in the hands of Yasser Arafat, the PLO terrorist leader whose hands already were drenched with the blood of Israeli athletes murdered at the Munich Olympics of 1972.
A personal note. I have participated in three private meetings with Bibi Netanyahu and found him to be one of the most dislikable political leaders I have ever met. He is also an out-of-control voluptuary, which has in large part resulted in his present indictments.
Without question, however, Bibi’s accomplishments as both prime minister and finance minister in the economic, security, and diplomatic fields have been monumental. It is not for nothing that the Israeli electorate recognized the massive nature of his achievements by his being chosen under Israel’s parliamentary system to serve as prime minister for 15 years, making him the longest tenured prime minister in Israel’s history. Bibi indeed does have a proud historic legacy of accomplishment.
My friend, however, has not supported the election of Bibi and the Likud coalition for the past three years. I agree with him.
The latest legislation that the Likud-coalition dominated Knesset passed has destroyed any semblance of an independent judiciary that could act as a check on the arbitrary and capricious actions of Netanyahu, his cabinet, and the Likud coalition. The present Netanyahu cabinet includes two extremist thuggish leaders of the movement to expand settlements in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir. Bibi also attempted to appoint the ultra-Orthodox political leader Aryeh Deri, convicted of white-collar crimes including tax fraud, as health and interior minister, until the Israeli Supreme Court declared the appointment illegal.
The present Netanyahu government is a hostage to two extremist political movements.
The first is the settlement expansion movement. In the past, I have been sympathetic to the establishment of a limited number of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which after all was conquered by Israel from Jordan in the June 1967 war that Jordan started. But further expansion of the settlements now, if accompanied by annexation, will threaten Israel’s status as a Jewish state because of the absorption of a large Palestinian Arab population.
The second is the granting of certain privileges to the charedi community, including exemptions from the country’s mandatory draft and educational standards. Charedi families benefit from heavy public subsidies that allow boys and men to devote years to religious study instead of working and paying taxes in the mainstream economy. It should be noted that the modern Orthodox community neither seeks nor benefits from these exemptions and grants.
What has precipitated the crisis in Israel is the Knesset’s passing legislation specifically prohibiting Israeli courts from using what is called the reasonableness doctrine to review decisions made by the Israeli cabinet, government ministers, and other unspecified “elected officials, as determined by law.” For Netanyahu, this legislation was essential to protect his pro-settlement expansion and pro-charedi agendas from court interference.
There has been a need for judicial reform in Israel. The reasonableness standard often has enabled the left -leaning Israel Supreme Court to interfere in governmental decision making in a blatantly overreaching manner. What has been needed is an alternative standard for judicial review that will allow for court intervention against governmental abuse without allowing the current overreach of an ideological driven judiciary.
That is not, however, what the new legislation has done. It has eliminated the reasonableness doctrine without enacting a replacement judicial review standard. So Netanyahu will be able to proceed in an out-of-control ways to satisfy his coalition partners’ unlimited political appetites.
My friend accurately describes Israel as a strong democracy with a terrible political system. Extensive political reform is needed, particularly an end to the proportionate representation system that allows small extremist parties to have a stranglehold on legislative coalitions. Yet such vital reform is not on the horizon.
Ironically, the greatest hope for judicial and political reform may be dependent on the fall of the present government. My friend is hopeful that this will happen but surprised it has not happened yet.
Bibi is neither the savior nor the villain that the opposing parties in Israel portray him to be. It is clear, however, that for the good of both Israel and the Diaspora, it is time for him to go.
Republished with permission of the original publisher, InsiderNJ.com.
Alan J. Steinberg of Highland Park was regional administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and he also was executive director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.