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Can the Israeli Left Save Itself?

When their own luminaries were caught behaving badly, Israeli progressives refused to admit any wrongdoing. And that’s very bad for democracy.

Liel Leibovitz
January 14, 2016
Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Leftist protesters during a rally on July 17, 2014, in Jerusalem. Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Leftist protesters during a rally on July 17, 2014, in Jerusalem. Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Is there any more valuable emotional currency for our moment than the condemnation? No matter what has happened, no matter who has done it, someone will rise and demand that someone else issue a public excoriation. Like Trump, like tweets, condemnations are perfect vehicles for an era enamored with being enraged, and both their sound and their fury signify nothing and mean even less.

Except, of course, when they mean more. These last few months, Israeli political animals of very different stripes have given us two distinct lessons in the politics of condemnation. If you want a clear view into the increasingly cloudy landscape of Israeli civic life, just look at who denounced what when violence erupted.

First, take the horrific murder of the Dawabsheh family. Reham and Saad Dawabsheh and their 18-month-old baby Ali died in July of last year after someone set their house in the Palestinian village of Duma on fire as they were sleeping. Because the wall of their house was emblazoned with a Star of David and with the Hebrew word Nekama, or revenge, Israeli authorities assumed that the perpetrator was a Jew.

Here’s what happened next: Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, published a post on his Facebook page, strongly condemning the murder in Hebrew and in Arabic alike. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the murder “a terror attack,” and promised to take every measure necessary to bring those responsible to justice. Dozens of rabbis affiliated with the traditionally right-of-center stream of Religious Zionism published a strongly worded declaration to remind their students and anyone who listened that “Thou Shalt Not Kill” was still one of Judaism’s core principles. When suspects were finally apprehended, they were dealt with harshly by the General Security Service, subjected to rigorous investigations, and in some cases tortured. Naftali Bennett, the minister of education and the leader of Israel’s largest right-wing party, Ha’Bayit Ha’Yehudi, made a public statement supporting these extreme measures, saying that the murders in Duma were terrorist attacks deserving the most determined response available. This won Bennett very few fans among his voters’ rightmost flank, for whom the notion of the Jewish state torturing Jews is inconceivable no matter the circumstances. Similarly fierce opinions were voiced by 50 influential rabbis, who also supported getting tough with the young Jewish suspects, stating the need to “uproot any instance of Jewish terrorism or else.” As condemnations go, these—in deed and in word, immediately and unequivocally, damn the political cost—sound mighty convincing.

Not, sadly, to the gentlefolk on the Israeli left, for whom Israeli democracy is always on its deathbed and the barbarians—the fascists, the religious fanatics, the readers of newspapers other than Haaretz—are always at the gates. Netanyahu et al. condemned the attack? They’re all talk, said the lefty politicians; no one will be arrested, just you wait and see. A thorough investigation led to several arrests? So what, bellowed the progressive pundits; they’ll never crack down on these boys as hard as they do on Palestinian terrorism suspects. The suspects were badly beaten and interrogated as harshly as possible? Why, cried Tel Aviv’s pious liberals, just more proof that the righties are all brutes!

Similar maddening, absurdist thinking was on full display this week, after key activists in two of Israel’s most famous left-wing NGOs were caught on camera admitting that they entrapped Palestinians interested in selling land to Israelis and then reported them to the Palestinian Authority, even though they knew that these Palestinians faced near-certain torture or murder at the hands of the P.A.’s secret police. As soon as the footage was broadcast on Uvda, Israel’s equivalent of 60 Minutes, the Israeli left closed ranks and went to war.

Rather than decrying the act of delivering innocents to their tormentors and collaborating with a regime routinely counted among the world’s most repressive, Gideon Levy—the Grand Old Man of the Israeli left—blamed the messenger, insisting that Uvda was airing right-wing propaganda in an effort to curry favor with the brownshirts in the government and save itself from imminent censorship. “This,” Levy wrote in his typically overheated style, “is what it feels like when the ground is burning underneath your feet.” The actor Makram Khoury—the first Israeli-Arab recipient of the Israel Prize, the nation’s highest honor—didn’t even bother formulating a response of his own. “My response is just like Levy’s,” he said, “word for word.” And the author A.B. Yehoshua, no stranger to idiotic pronouncements, said that if the Palestinian Authority chose to execute its own citizens for selling land to Jews, it was fully within its rights to do so. “It’s their prerogative,” he said. Other liberal eminences alternated among saying more or less the same thing, pleading ignorance of the news, or thundering that any crime committed while opposing the Israeli occupation is nothing compared to the crime that is the Israeli occupation.

This refusal to condemn members of their own camp caught in abominable acts would’ve been bad enough. A few days after the TV piece was aired and condemnations failed to follow, a fire broke out in the Jerusalem offices of the civil rights group B’Tselem, one of the two organizations whose key activists were incriminated. Almost immediately, the organization took to its Facebook page, all but alleging arson: “As you and I know,” read B’Tselem’s official statement, “it’s been getting harder and harder to be a champion for human rights in Israel. Ultranationalist groups who claim to ‘monitor’ NGOs or to ‘defend Zionism’ are creating a climate where terrible things can happen. Government officials at the highest levels have not simply refused to condemn this incitement, they have joined the fray.”

It wasn’t such a crazy conjecture: The organization has been the target of vigorous campaigns by critics on the right, and it was not inconceivable to imagine that someone might lose their temper and take to the torch. Forty minutes later, however, when it turned out that the fire was caused by a faulty fuse and not a fiery fascist, the organization took down its J’accuse. Others weren’t as decent: Over at Haaretz, senior columnist Uri Misgav wrote that “it doesn’t really matter why B’Tselem’s Jerusalem offices were burned. Israel’s democracy is on fire.” Feeling, perhaps, that such statements were too subtle for most readers to grasp, Misgav called on history to serve as his witness. “If this country spent more time studying general history and less time studying the Torah, Judaism, the history of the Jewish people, and Zionism,” Misgav wrote—neatly dividing Israelis into bright and educated cosmopolitans and benighted, apish people of faith—it would surely realize that it was headed the way of Italy or Germany circa 1934.

It’s tempting to dismiss such nonsense out of hand, but this collective refusal to move away from the party line and condemn what so obviously needs condemning is evidence of a real and deep crisis in the Israeli left. It’s not a crisis in which I take any joy: I came of age in Meretz and Gush Shalom and other liberal parties and groups, and was proud to consider myself part of a cadre that valued reason, practiced compassion, and championed liberty. Until it didn’t: Its prayers of peaceful coexistence met with Palestinian violence, and most of its voters having decamped for other, more sober camps, the Israeli left, shell-shocked, had two choices: readjust their analysis of reality or devolve into dogma. Catastrophically, it chose the latter. With its constant crowing about right-wing assaults on democracy—a handful real, the rest imagined; with its refusal to criticize the Palestinians for a growing list of very bad behaviors; and with its searing hatred for fellow Jews who think differently, the Israeli left isn’t just wrong—it’s worthless. Which, in a country that runs on robust debate and that is called frequently to make big, historic moves, is a tragedy. If the left truly wants to save Israeli democracy from descending into darkness, it should begin by saving itself.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.