From the first day of Israel’s existence as an independent state, its political life has been a vicious, zero-sum game, with its major players consistently seeking to delegitimize one another. When you consider that the great rivalry between two of the country’s iconic founding fathers, David Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin, included incidents of attempted murder (such as in the Altalena affair) and a mob to attack on the Knesset (surrounding the debate over accepting reparations from Germany), the current efforts by the left-wing opposition to topple the government of Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu through any means possible don’t seem that awful.
Future historians will likely engage in debates about Netanyahu’s policies and his personal foibles. But sensible people should hope that eventually the hysterical partisan attacks on him, as those in the past against Begin, will give way to a sober recognition, across the political spectrum, of his enormous accomplishments.
Right now, that day seems a long way off. As historian Gil Troy pointed out last week in Tablet Magazine, the extremist tone and tactics of contemporary politics is an attack on Israel’s democratic culture that may render such consensus impossible.
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Troy’s point was that while a superpower like the United States may be able to afford the kind of bifurcated society in which the right and left act like warring tribes, Israel has no such luxury. For all of its current status as a regional military superpower with a First World economy, Israel is still a small country with powerful enemies in the region and the international community.
While strong disagreements about how to govern the Jewish state are unavoidable, the emulation by Netanyahu’s opponents of the anti-Trump resistance, as I wrote in December, may have consequences to which many of those turning out for anti-Bibi rallies are oblivious.
Incitement against Netanyahu
We’ve already seen how the apocalyptic warnings about the government’s plans for establishing some checks on an out-of-control Supreme Court has led to extremist rhetoric, including death threats against Netanyahu. What is most concerning is that they are not coming from the Israeli version of tinfoil-hatted nutcases, but from members of the country’s establishment with distinguished records of military service. Such persons are merely taking to its logical conclusion the kind of analogies used by the likes of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who compared Netanyahu to Hitler (with a meme portraying President Isaac Herzog as Neville Chamberlain because of his desire to negotiate with Bibi) and opposition leader Yair Lapid, who drew a parallel between his political foes and terrorists.
This speaks to the anger that members of Israel’s liberal political establishment feel about losing an election to Netanyahu’s coalition of right-wing and religious parties. But they are being driven out of their minds by the prospect that the Supreme Court may no longer have the power to essentially nullify the verdict of Israeli democracy on any issue or controversy without reference to legal principles, acting solely on the basis of what it considers “reasonable.”
The claims that the proposed judicial reforms will shred democracy are risible, as this deep dive into the issue demonstrates. The government’s enacting of the policies on which it campaigned is being depicted as a “tyranny of the majority” by those who can’t stomach an Israel in which the concerns of Mizrachi, religious and other right-of-center voters are treated as equally important as those affecting the “enlightened” left.
The talk about the majority being tyrants is rich coming from people who claim to be defending democracy against the supposedly authoritarian Netanyahu. All the government wants is to move Israel’s judiciary into line with those of other democracies, in which the courts may be powerful but do not operate as unchallenged rulers of the country—not only with the unlimited power that they arrogated to themselves, but with the ability to perpetuate it by naming their successors. This is something that Americans wouldn’t tolerate in their courts, yet the Israeli left has convinced their foreign allies that preserving such a system is essential to safeguarding democracy.
The anti-Bibi resistance, therefore, is engaging in gaslighting.
Over-the-top rhetoric about the government may be in keeping with Israel’s tradition of gutter politics. What’s new is the way the current disingenuous arguments are being deployed to draft the Diaspora, and even the Biden administration, to bolster the resistance and bring down Netanyahu. Worse are the calls of some pundits, who previously played an important role in explaining Israel’s complexities to its foes, for the Jewish world to join their attack on the government.
A disingenuous appeal to the Diaspora
There have been some egregious examples of this sort of appeal in recent months. But none is more outrageous than the “open letter to Israel’s friends in North America,” penned by Matti Friedman, Daniel Gordis and Yossi Klein Halevi in The Times of Israel.
It is typical of much of the incitement published in English in the far-left daily Haaretz and TOI, the latter of which claims to represent centrist opinion, but in recent years has begun to emulate The New York Times. Once considered the “newspaper of record,” it long ago discarded even the pretense of objectivity in its news coverage to advance progressive political goals—such as the effort to topple the Trump administration via the Russia-collusion hoax.
TOI’s adoption of the NYT model has been reflected in its coverage of the Netanyahu government, with a narrative about a “war on democracy” that is every bit as fake as the promotion of Russia-collusion conspiracy theories.
It’s a shame that TOI has headed down the path of partisan propaganda. But it’s nothing less than a tragedy to see the trio of Friedman, Gordis and Halevi do the same.
Friedman is a journalist whose reporting about Israel has added immeasurably to the understanding of his audience. Gordis is a distinguished scholar, educator and advocate for Israel. His frank talk about the fraying relationship between Israeli and American Jews has been an invaluable addition to the debate about that issue, as has his willingness to debate and debunk anti-Zionists.
Halevi is a journalist and author whose book, Like Dreamers, is essential reading for anyone trying to understand Israel in the post-Six-Day War era. Similarly, his Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor was a good introduction to the conflict for anyone on either side of the divide about Israel.
Yet the good sense that characterizes the past work of all three is absent from their “open letter.” In its place is a farrago of misrepresentations of the issues surrounding judicial reform that constitutes more than just hyperbole from Netanyahu critics.
At its core is the sort of mindless partisanship that is instantly recognizable to those who followed “resistance” politics in America. Behind the noble phrases about democracy is a seething anger that the wrong person and the wrong people win elections in Israel, and why that can’t be tolerated.
As a classic example of gaslighting, it can’t be bettered. Everything they say about Netanyahu’s “stoking hatred and schism” is actually true about what they, and those who agree with them, are doing, not the prime minister.
As bad as that might be, the use of their prestige in American-Jewish circles to delegitimize a democratically elected government is worse. They’re not seeking support for democracy. Rather it is backing for mob action. This is not so much an example of the lawful exercise of the right of the minority to dissent as it is an effort for elites to use the media and various institutions, with the help of foreign allies, to overturn the results of an election. Far from preserving Israel as a democratic and Jewish state, as they claim, the trio are asking Americans to squelch Israeli democracy.
The irony here is that like Halevi’s book—written to persuade Palestinians to try to understand Jews, but whose real audience was American readers equally ignorant about the justice of Israel’s cause—this appeal is similarly misdirected. The ones most eager to lap up the trio’s slanders of Netanyahu are not so much liberal or centrist supporters of the Jewish state as they are left-wing foes of Zionism who will use the libels in their ongoing efforts to brand Israel as an undemocratic “apartheid state.”
The anti-Bibi resistance’s push illustrates a toxic element in Israel’s democratic culture. But the fact that some people who ought to know better are willing to play right into the hands of those who smear their country and seek its destruction is a shocking example of how this debate has gotten out of control.
American Jews who actually care about Israel—as opposed to the left-wing groups that can always be relied upon to rally against it at every opportunity—should recognize the trio’s deceitful arguments for what they are and ignore their request. We can respect these writers for what they’ve done in the past, but they don’t deserve a pass for this disgraceful act that will aid their country’s enemies more than it will hurt Netanyahu.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at @jonathans_tobin.