BDS (Bibi-derangement syndrome) and the myth of Israel theocracy

During his tenure, Benjamin Netanyahu has accumulated an impressive record of achievement in virtually every field of endeavor: economic, diplomatic, technological. So what explains all the vehemence?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a press statement at the Knesset on Sept. 15, 2019, a few days before the Israeli elections. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a press statement at the Knesset on Sept. 15, 2019, a few days before the Israeli elections. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Martin Sherman
Martin Sherman
Martin Sherman spent seven years in operational capacities in the Israeli defense establishment. He is the founder of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a member of the Habithonistim-Israel Defense & Security Forum (IDSF) research team, and a participant in the Israel Victory Project.

“ …  for most Israelis, the election results are signaling hope! … hope that we were saved from halachic state and messianic tendencies govern[ed] by a prime minister that undermined the fabric of the collectivity!”Professor Yossi Shain of Georgetown University and Tel Aviv University, in a Facebook exchange with me over the significance of the recent election results

“Israeli democracy this week was only a few inches from being Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey.” — Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Haaretz, Sept.  21, 2019

Let me commence with full disclosure on two matters: First, I am a non-observant Jew, with little to no religious content at all in my day-to-day life, and have little vested interest in defending the religious against criticism from secular circles. Second, I am far from an uncritical Netanyahu apologist and have severely castigated some his decisions in several columns in the past (see here, here, here and here).

Accordingly, although I have voted for him in recent elections, this was due far more to my concern regarding his major rivals than any unswerving affinity for him personally or for his policies, regarding which I have more than a few reservations. Thus, it would probably accurate to say that I voted against his adversaries, rather for Benjamin Netanyahu himself.

Perhaps another issue that nudged me into casting my ballot for Bibi was my deep distaste for the vicious and vitriolic excoriation of the man and his deeds—no matter what he did or did not do. Indeed, I have long been appalled and astonished by the toxic tirades to which his detractors have subjected him.

Of course, after decade of unbroken tenure—and almost a decade-and-a-half overall—as prime minister, a legitimate claim can well be raised that a change is called for. But in Netanyahu’s case, opposition to him goes well beyond legitimate concern over the need for an overdue “changing of the guard.”

Thus, more than five years ago, well before claims of an excessively long incumbency could be plausibly raised, I wrote of the anti-Netanyahu pathology: “The venomous ad hominem attacks on the PM by his political opponents have long exceeded the limits of rational criticism and reasoned dissent.”

Indeed, listening to the rabid rants of the myriad of “Bibiphobes,” an uninformed observer from another planet would be led to believe that Netanyahu is to blame for every misfortune and every malfeasance on the face of the globe—from a typhoid epidemic in East Asia to the cocaine industry in Latin America.

Absurd portrayal of Israel: The myth of Israel theocracy

Moreover, to judge by the derogatory diatribes directed at him, one might get the impression that he has made Israel a dark, backward, regressive backwater, tittering on the brink of tyranny and theocracy, combining the brutality of the Congo, the repression of Sudan and the religious intolerance of Saudi Arabia.

But for anyone familiar with reality in Israel, this is an absurd portrayal of the country.

Those who have experienced Israel know it to be a vibrant, albeit raucous, democracy, with a free (if often biased) press; a legislature elected by what are, overall, free and fair elections; a vocal, unfettered parliamentary opposition; and an independent judiciary. It has become a technological powerhouse, a global leader in innovation with internationally acclaimed achievement in art and culture, and on the cutting edge in most fields of human endeavor: computer science and IT, medicine, research-and-development, high-tech, water conservation, desalinization and  agriculture, to name but a few.

As for the claims of creeping theocracy: The highways have never been more congested on Saturdays, with huge traffic jams backed up for miles; shopping malls have never been more crowded with customers on the Sabbath; beaches have never been more crowded over the weekends; non-kosher restaurants, serving every variety of seafood, have never been more packed; weekend leisure activities—from mountain biking to windsurfing—never more popular.

With “gay-pride parades” in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem a regular annual feature of public life—with Tel Aviv dubbed by some as the “gay capital of the world”—Israel is hardly a state in the iron grip of religious zealots!

Anyone attempting to cast it in this light is clearly either woefully misinformed or willfully misleading.

Malevolent and mendacious

Recently, in an effort to delegitimize Netanyahu, political rivals have compared him to Turkey’s authoritarian leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (see, for example, here and here).

The charge is, of course, baseless.

Erdoğan has conducted widespread purges of the judiciary and other sectors of the legal establishment (see here, here and here). According to the Law Society, there has been “widespread and systematic persecution of members of the legal profession in Turkey” with countless suspects being convicted of terrorism “without credible evidence.

Quoting an international coalition of lawyers, The Guardian reported that: “Trust in Turkey’s justice system is being undermined by the systematic dismissal and jailing of thousands of judges and prosecutors. Judges’ and prosecutors’ independence has been systematically undermined in Turkey.

Moreover, Erdoğan’s Turkey has won the dubious title for jailing more journalists than any other country, reportedly “more than China, Russia and Egypt combined” (see here and here). Since Erdoğan became president in 2014, prosecutors have opened more than 1,800 cases against people for insulting him and a Dutch journalist of Turkish parentage was arrested while vacationing in the country for criticizing the Turkish president.

Clearly then, any comparison between the realities in Israel and those in Turkey are wildly distorted, hopelessly detached from reality and beyond reasonable doubt, deliberately deceptive.

Under Netanyahu, nary a judge nor a prosecutor has ever been charged with, much less convicted of, terrorism. Likewise, no journalist, however critical of him or his government, has ever been investigated, much less arrested for opinions he or she expressed in the media.

Accordingly, any suggestion of similarities between the two is manifestly malevolent and mendacious.

Acrid ‘ad hominem’ acrimony

In many ways, the acrid ad hominem acrimony against Netanyahu is puzzling.

After all, despite the specter of criminal indictments, he invariably tops the polls as the candidate most suited to be prime minister, usually outpacing his nearest rival, Blue and White’s Benny Gantz, by 10 percentage points or more (see for example here, here and here).

Surprisingly—indeed, astonishingly—even among Israeli Arabs, Netanyahu was designated the “best suited for the role of premier” (23.6 percent)—scoring well over double the approval rate of Ayman Odeh (9.9 percent), head of the Joint Arab List, who was just ahead of Gantz (9.6 percent).

This resounding public endorsement is not undeserved. After all, despite some undeniable shortcomings, during his tenure he has accumulated an impressive record of achievement in virtually every field of national endeavor: economic, diplomatic, technological.

Under Netanyahu-led coalitions, Israel’s economy surged, with GDP per capita climbing by more than 50 percent, equaling or surpassing that of France, the United Kingdom and Japan—a feat unimaginable just a few years ago. Moreover, by encouraging Israel’s pivot to the East, he considerably reduced economic dependence of an often less than friendly European Union.

On the international front, he managed to wait out the largely antagonistic Obama incumbency seemingly without major damage and established extremely amiable relations with the current U.S. administration, Russia, India and the once-hostile Brazil.

His resolve on Iran’s nuclear program helped induce the U.S. withdrawal from the atrocious accord struck with Tehran, in addition to the reimposition of punishing sanctions against it. In Eastern and Central Europe, he managed to forge a counterweight against an otherwise disapproving E.U. and made significant diplomatic inroads into Africa and South America.

With regard to security, under his premiership, the Israel Defense Forces have conducted highly successful operations in the north against the Hezbollah tunnel system and the Iranian build-up in Syria. As to his handling of terror, apart from periodic flare-ups and excessive restraint against Hamas, he has brought attacks down to almost imperceptible levels for the majority of Israelis—certainly, far less than was the case in the gory times of his predecessors when attacks were a regular feature of daily life in cafes, on buses, in shopping malls and on crowded sidewalks.

Thus, as I observed previously, after such an extended term in office as had by Netanyahu, a valid case for change can be raised. However, since under his leadership Israel has prospered significantly economically, enjoyed relative security and enhanced its international standing, the intensity and fervor of the “Bibi derangement syndrome” seems perturbingly inappropriate.

I have purposely avoided broaching the subject of the pending indictments against Netanyahu—as this is something I have dealt with elsewhere—and about which, I am convinced, that anyone, who is not an obsessive Bibiphobe, would tend to agree that “[t]he unrelenting drive to bring an indictment—any indictment—against Netanyahu has long exceeded the bounds of reasonable law enforcement.

Instead, I have focused on the issue of Netanyahu’s record of governance, rather than on his alleged personal misdeeds. It is here that his political opponents should exercise greater caution and restraint.

For in their unbridled assaults on Netanyahu and on what Israel has allegedly become under his leadership, they are playing right into the hands of the country’s most vehement detractors. It is difficult not to imagine them rubbing their hands in malicious glee, gloating over every caustic condemnation of Netanyahu by his domestic rivals.

After all, what more need they do to prove their case that Israel has become a fascist, racist state, run by xenophobic religious zealots, nudging it ever closer to totalitarian theocracy, than to quote the largely baseless barbs, hurled at him by those struggling to dislodge him from power?

By their own hand, they are laying the foundation for incalculable and potentially irreversible damage to Israel—damage that, even if they manage to remove and replace Netanyahu, they themselves will not be able to repair.

Martin Sherman is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
You have read 3 articles this month.
Register to receive full access to JNS.

Just before you scroll on...

Israel is at war. JNS is combating the stream of misinformation on Israel with real, honest and factual reporting. In order to deliver this in-depth, unbiased coverage of Israel and the Jewish world, we rely on readers like you. The support you provide allows our journalists to deliver the truth, free from bias and hidden agendas. Can we count on your support? Every contribution, big or small, helps JNS.org remain a trusted source of news you can rely on.

Become a part of our mission by donating today
Thank you. You are a loyal JNS Reader.
You have read more than 10 articles this month.
Please register for full access to continue reading and post comments.
Never miss a thing
Get the best stories faster with JNS breaking news updates