Israel's Press' Political Leukemia

Packing for summer in New Hampshire is usually a disorienting time. We are leaving a place where we work to make anything grow for a place where we work, if at all, to cut things back. But this year it feels peculiarly difficult to leave, not because New England seems so ontologically generous, but because Jerusalem seems so morally precarious.

I've had four or five conversations over the past couple of weeks in which people volunteered, without prompting, that they feel they now know what it was like to live in countries on the verge of fascism during the 1930s. You ask them why and they talk about touch-points, not great events: an education ministry that mandates a history curriculum in which the Oslo Agreements are effaced, a high school mock election in which Lieberman triumphs, the mayor of Jerusalem threatening to displace Arabs to build a Jewish tourist park, a Sami Smooha poll that shows a precipitous decline in Israeli Arab faith in Israel as a democracy "for Arab citizens as well" (from 63.1 percent in 2003 to 50.5 percent today) while the minority that supports using "all means, including violence" to achieve political ends is growing (5.4 percent to 13.9 percent).

More and more, you hear that the whole world hates us, but this immediately raises official claims that the old Antisemitism is coming back worse than ever. For ordinary liberals, there are straws in the wind that, when they land, are breaking backs. This column by Uriel Procaccia, one of Israel's most distinguished corporate law professors--who teaches at the IDC in Herzliya, and is the husband of one of the Supreme Court's judges--seems tell-tale.

FOR MY PART, I find myself cringing not because of the way Netanyahu's people answer questions so much as because of the way mainstream journalists ask them, or fail to follow up--the implicit "consensus" this seems to imply. Israel is not unique in its rightists: fundamentalists, ultra-nationalists, professional militarists, people just afraid of attack or just lacking in intellectual poise and ready to flock. For God's sake, cognitive science tells you that when you put a red shirt on a baby, he or she will respond favorably to adults with red shirts, and fear adults wearing other colors.

But what seems most dangerous to me is that, in the face of virulent forces, Israeli democracy, and especially its mainstream press, seems not to be producing anti-bodies, and for reasons that have to do with the legal and institutional improvisations the state has been making since the beginning.

How will the mainstream press, now, resist the claims of 700,000 ultraOrthodox, 500,000 settlers, a political class infused with military leaders, Russian immigrants looking for their Putin, Mizrahim looking for the big warm family, young people eager to prove bravery and fidelity, and so forth, when ordinary notions of individual liberty seem at odds with the Jewish national privileges and grievances that are taken to be the reason for the state? How do you fall back on principles of civil society which have come to be called merely "leftist" or even anti-Zionist? (Don't be mislead by what you read in Haaretz; the paper goes to at most 100,000 readers and its elite demographics, while impressive, are not politically decisive.)

CONSIDER THE PRESS' response over the past month to both the flotilla and the Haredi school in the Immanuel settlement--you know, where Ashkenazi parents refused to abide by a Supreme Court order to sit their children in classrooms next to Sephardi children. The two things may seem unrelated, but when you think about it, they are both symptoms of the political leukemia I am referring to.

For how should a free press answer parents of those Haredi children if not by insisting that the democratic state of Israel has the responsibility to ensure every child being treated as an individual, whose birth is not his or her fate, and whose mind needs to be cultivated by free exposure to what has been thought, said and done--in short, by standards for critical thinking?

Yet how to make that case when the state undermines the legal structures that backstop critical thinking in order to privilege Jews over Arabs; when its Labor leaders, too, from Golda Meir on, have taken steps to prevent the emergence (as in the 1970 Shalit case) of Israeli national identity and have denounced the idea that Israel is a state of its citizens; leaders who have, instead, preserved all kinds of privileges for people legally designated as "Jewish" according to Halacha--leaders who've depicted challenges to this narrow and pathetic version of Jewish statehood as evidence for a permanent existential threat? We kill off the marrow and wonder where the immune system has gone. And the thing we seem most immune to the capacity to distinguish between diagnosis and defamation.

In the case of the flotilla, the press defaulted to an almost automatic willingness to depict the Gaza blockade as an preemption of terror, a matter of life and death (though hardly a word was spoken in criticism when Netanyahu began lifting it under American pressure); in this context, the commandos landing on the deck of the ship were subject to a "lynch," and the deaths of nine Turkish citizens justified. One would be hard pressed to think of an event that so underlined the pathos of Israeli attitudes: the apocalyptic thinking that even justifies undermining relations with Turkey; the cheapness of enemy life; the idea that strategy boils down to never showing weakness; the interlocking historical narratives that depict any criticism, except for tactical criticism, of Israeli policy as Jew-hatred or ultra-leftism, or both.

Which brings me to, correspondingly, to the Immanuel decision. I heard the news of the court's verdict driving to Tel Aviv, and the interviewer on Reshet Bet,the anchor of the noon roundup, began soliciting reactions from various people. One of the rabbis at the school put it this way, more or less: "The Torah is 3000 years old and is above any state law; what our rabbis decide to be the workings of Halacha is above any state law." The interviewer was dumbfounded. A moment later she was speaking with a leader of a Haredi party, and she asked about this response, wondering if it was perhaps unanswerable. He responded, more or less, that things should never have become so polarized, and what we needed was "a compromise."

Imagine the South Korean government lavishly subsidizing the Moonies for three generations and the press coming to think this natural. Oh, and no reporter even thought to raise the fact that this was a settlement from which Arabs are totally excluded. Eventually we got the compromise, which all chief rabbis hailed as a victory over the court.

In all of this Israeli liberals have one comfort, which is a terrible one, and can backfire, that the fear of the world hating this country will eventually sink in and engender new, bolder leadership; that politicians promising global Israel will trump those insisting on Greater Israel--that Israel is, (as Ambassador Michael Oren put it) just "a pixel" on America's world map, and Obama will eventually force the issue. Perhaps. Anyway, the degree to which this fear is indeed sinking in was revealed last month when Channel One's prime-time newscast devoted three full minutes to a "breaking story," which turned out to be culled from the Drudge Report and the National Inquirer, that President Obama had had an affair and would now be fighting for his political life.