An Error in Israel Advocacy Reasoning by Phil Cohen

I’m writing this post in response to a piece written by a Swarthmore student that appeared in yesterday’s Algemeiner regarding the arrival on the Swarthmore campus of a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine that launched a BDS campaign.

The student, Matthew Stein, identified as a CAMERA fellow, writes passionately and impressively about the errors of the SJP reasoning in favor of BDS. But in his argumentation Mr. Stein himself commits an error which leaves his argument open to a powerful rebuttal, and it’s his error I wish to focus on.

This is not because I wish to duel with an undergraduate who wrote well enough for his piece to be accepted by the Algemeiner, but because the error is characteristic of a certain fallacy among Israel advocates’ reasoning when defending the Jewish state. I am also writing this piece to elicit responses, as what I am about to discuss is, as one hears about Israel-Palestine all the time, complicated.

Mr. Stein writes, “Many speakers repeatedly slandered Israel as an “apartheid state.” This claim was made dozens of times, and its total lack of veracity becomes apparent with the most cursory attempt to investigate it. Israeli Arabs, the supposed victims of “apartheid,” have a political party called the Joint List that is the third-largest in the Knesset. They also have full and equal legal rights — the same rights as all Jews. Furthermore, an Arab judge sits on the Israeli Supreme Court, and Arabs and Jews interact with each other every day, side by side, as equals.”

Good enough as far as it goes. Anyone acquainted with of the lives of Israeli Arabs knows well how there remain serious inequities between Jews and Arabs on most societal levels, though there have been important, positive changes in the lives of Israeli Arabs in recent years. It doesn’t do much good to paint the picture as rosy as Mr. Stein does, as if full equality between Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis has been achieved. Nonetheless, Israeli Arabs are Israeli citizens who do sit in the Kenesset, on the High Court, who work in the professions and study in Israeli universities, and so forth. One can envision a day when full equality will be achieved.

The real issue between Jews and Arabs lies beyond the Green Line and into the world of settlements and Palestinian towns and villages on the West Bank. There, the picture of Arabs and Israelis is muddy, and it is there that the argument of Israel as an Apartheid state might gain traction and therefore it is on those grounds that Mr. Stein’s interlocutors need to be met with a solid argument.

As I say, the picture is muddy. We all know stories of Israelis abusing Palestinians, taking land, destroying olive groves, creating difficulties at checkpoints, committing occasional acts of physical violence with impunity, and more.

Were Mr. Stein to address that situation and come away with the quite possible but nuanced conclusion that Arab and Jewish life on the West Bank does not constitute a case similar to South African Apartheid, he would do the cause of Israel advocacy a terriric service. But since he did not, since he chose instread, to focus on the lives of those Arabs who live in Israel proper he’s left himself open to a mighty rebuttal by his SJP interlocutors. Fortunately for him, such an attack is unlikely to come from an Algemeiner reader.

I conclude by sincerely congratulating Matthew Stein for his thankless labors as a CAMERA fellow on the Swarthmore campus, and wish him all the best in his future writings.

My question to the readers of this blog is: How best to respond to the Apartheid claim? Perhaps we can generate some conversation on the matter.


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The Old Double Standard Argument by Phil Cohen

You’ve probably heard that some 200 Airbnb spaces that lie west of the Green Line can no longer be part of the wildly successful international lodging company. The good folks at Arbnb Central have excluded the West Bank.

This doesn’t seem like a particularly good idea. The action is a political statement that gives both sides another reason to become self-righteous. Apparently, Airbnb faced intense lobbying that forced the company to make this decision. The good folks at Airbnb capitulated to pressures from the BDS folks or some other types and now no one requiring lodging beyond the Green Line can avail themselves of and Airbnb space. Anyway, what’s 200 units, management thought, compared to whatever boycott-type threats were leveled against the company. Airbnb issued the following statement justifying their action: “Companies should not profit from lands where people have been displaced.”

So in a recent Algemeiner article cited above, Ben Cohen proffers an analysis of the type quite common when someone criticizes some aspect of the Israel-Palestine situation.

Essentially, his argument goes like this: Airbnb Central has not dismissed Turkish-controlled Northern Cyprus, and everyone knows how terrible the Turks have been in Occupied Northern Cyprus. When Turkey invaded the northern part of the island, women were raped, people displaced, thousands of Turks moved from the mainland and settled there. Yet one can find Airbnb rentals available in Northern Cyprus. Also, Airbnbs can be rented in Tibet and Western Sahara, too, terrible places these, no doubt, with the deep taint of being occupied.

The nub of the current argument is: Why doesn’t Airbnb Central not cut out these terrible places (along with likely dozens of other countries) along with their dismissal of their franchisees on the West Bank? There are places that do awful things, yet Airbnb is available.

In this Algemeiner article, Ben Cohen is arguing, yeah, there are controversial things about the Israeli presence on the West Bank, but Israeli behavior is nothing compared to those awful Turks in Northern Cyrus. If they’re gonna ban rentals on the West Bank, they gotta do it over there, too, or else it’s just not fair. It’s a double standard, yo.

Thing is, it’s a terrible argument, some version of which is trotted out regularly whenever Israel is criticized for something, asserting that another country does more of or worse of than Israel. Israel’s bad, the argument implies, just not as bad as this other guy, and he’s getting away with it, so why can’t Israel? It’s the old double standard argument. If so and so can do it, why can’t Israel get away with it, too? It’s very eight years old and should be banned from the realm of Israel advocacy forthwith.

I’m not suggesting anything at all about the West Bank. I am suggesting that the argument carries with it the aroma of guilt. We’re guilty, but they’re a lot guiltier than Israel. Forget about Northern Cyprus and the Sahara. The ban on Airbnb on the West Bank is wrong and, simply, a bad business decision made due to what was likely unremitting political pressure.

Happy Thanksgiving

ps An article in today’s The Times of Israel quotes several members of the Israeli cabinet to the effect that Israel is close to taking strong action on Gaza by either assassinating Hamas leadership or invading Gaza and remaining in it until Hamas can be neutralized.

I have no idea if this is serious or is a carefully orchestrated warning to Hamas that Israel is prepared to take drastic action if the current ceasefire does not hold; or if it’s a public announcement prior to action that is certain to take place; or if it’s an announcement intended to gauge Israeli public opinion on the matter. One way or another, this announcement is an expression of the extraordinarily deep frustration in Israel as to how to resolve matters with Gaza.

One way or another, stay tuned.

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The Bewilderment of Gaza by Phil Cohen

I confess to a cavernous bewilderment at the events in and around the Gaza Strip. The Great March of Return has succeeded in shining a light on Gaza and bringing opprobrium on Israel. It’s also resulted in 200 dead Gazans and an intensification of the misery that already afflicts the place. They reached an apparent crescendo in these past two days with an exposed Israeli mission deep into the Strip that resulted in the death of one Israeli solider and seven Palestinians, one of them a Hamas leader. This resulted in Hamas retaliation.

Over the weekend the Netanyahu administration was instrumental in facilitating the delivery of $15 million in cash to Gaza from Qatar to pay workers who haven’t seen a salary check since the PA shut off the spigot some time ago with promises of more. This transfer of funds was supposed to have been accompanied by a ceasefire. But the IDF mission into Gaza precipitously ended the ceasefire and resulted in the release of hundreds of Hamas missiles into Israel. Israel responded by firing upon scores of specific Gazan targets.

Today, November 13, another ceasefire has been announced, which has been met by fury among Israeli residents of towns near the Gaza Strip.

Hamas can continuously claim victory over Israel, since the terror organization succeeds in keeping Israel on edge, burning cropland, frightening residents of nearby Israeli towns, in this instance killing two people (one of whom turns out to be a Palestinian from a village near Hebron), and injuring several more. But this victory Gaza continually touts would seem the very definition of a Pyrrhic victory. The gains in optics, one would think, are more than overwhelmed by the destruction and death wrought by the Israeli response to Hamas’s missiles. As long at there’s no war, it seems, Hamas believes it can claim victory.

Netanyahu declared this week in Paris that this situation beggars solution, and it would seem so.

Yet Israel has no stomach for a full scale invasion to recapture the Gaza Strip. It has little stomach for another short-term war, either. However, in the face of today’s ceasefire, with residents of Sderot angrily protesting, replete with burning tires (I never understand the utility of burning tires), we know what their choice of action would be were they asked.

A full-court invasion would force Israel to govern two million hostile residents. A war like Protective Edge (2014) would stave things off for a while, but only for a while. Beside the optics of such a war, a few Israelis killed against hundreds, perhaps thousands of Palestinian dead, not to mention the material damage such a war always brings–it’s war, stupid. Everybody loses something in a war.

Still, it’s a dreadful situation, which, to repeat, beggars a solution that Israel could tolerate.

How long will the current ceasefire last? How many more flaming kites and assaults on the border can Israel tolerate?

What about the residents of what’s commonly called the largest open air prison in the world? The residents of Gaza themselves seem able to endure the humanitarian crisis that is their daily existence: poor sewage, a few hours a day of electricity, an enormously high unemployment, undrinkable water, and God knows what else. Endure? What other choice do they have? But how long can such a condition be tolerated?

My bewilderment is genuine. Hamas’s radical neglect of the people it purports to govern is bewildering. My mind is bewildered by a mindset that believes hatred of Israel trumps everything else, that the wellbeing of their citizens is at best a second thought, that fighting Israel always unsuccessfully by any rational objective measure is nonetheless a victory. For this latter, the word “Orwellian” was invented. Defeat is always victory.
Yesterday in The Times of Israel David Horovitz wrote of the situation with Gaza, “Sooner or later, he said, “Hamas must be faced down. And in the battle between a sovereign state that is obligated to ensure security for its citizens, and a ruthless, cynical terrorist organization… committed to Israel’s destruction, there can and must be only one winner.”

Horovitz’s anger and frustration hang over the piece like fetid air. But it appears that that face-down is not happening today, perhaps not in the near future. Today this absurd and destructive status quo remains, a ceasefire almost certainly to be broken in a day, a week, a month, and more people killed, more crops burned, more destruction, more evacuations, more misery. It’s bewildering.


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You might be interested in a recent podcast found on Rabbi Richard Address’s Jewish Sacred Aging website where Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin and I have a go at the Nation-State law and a few other related issues from the perspective of a couple of aging Reform rabbis. The podcast can be found if you scroll down at bit at

You might also be interested in the October essay at Mosaic magazine, a thoroughgoing analysis of the Nation-State law. “Why All the Outrage Over the Nation-State Law?” by Moshe Koppel and Eugene Kontrovich takes a close look at the bill, its history and its purposes. One need not agree with their arguments, but I think anyone opposing the law has to be prepared to respond to their many well-considered points. Is it possible that the law is not a democracy-destroying, Bibi supporting, apartheid developing bill that leads Israel to the brink of autocracy?,
Rabbi Phil Cohen

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Dana Milbank in the WaPo

So let’s begin with the fact that Netanyahu’s not everyone’s favorite Israeli PM, that he’s done things that many liberal Israelis and liberal American Jews disapprove of. But let’s also note he’s been democratically elected and, with all the corruption swirling around him, polls consistently show he continues to have a high favorability rating. (I know that the counterargument might well be that all this indicates is an unsavory trend among Israelis, but I won’t entertain that at the moment.)

That said, in Saturday’s Washington Post, columnist Dana Milbank wrote an anti-Israel screed that begins with a YK sermon by Danny Zemel, Milbank’s rabbi. The article can be found here.

I try not to be a knee-jerk defender of the Israeli status quo, but I find pieces like utterly, and I mean utterly, devoid of proof, consisting entirely of a familiar laundry list of accusations against Netanyahu from the usual suspects, i..e, Haaretz and J Street. From this sloppy journalism Milbank attempts to draw apocalyptic conclusions regarding the Israel-Diaspora relationship. Apparently Milbank was not among the 18,000 folks at the AIPAC policy conference in March.

Here’s my response to the piece.


A close read of this article will reveal shabby reasoning, the kind I don’t expect from the WaPo in general and Mr. Milbank in particular.

His rabbi, Danny Zemel comes from Zionist royalty, adding rhetorical force to his words. Milbank then goes on to rehearse all the by-now familiar arguments, quoting Rabbi Zemel, an article from Haaretz, Israel’s far-left daily, which can always be counted on the criticize Netanyahu, and a university sociologist, again without any proof.

So, first note, none of the accusations is supported by any argument, only generalized quotes.

Second, note the accusation of alliances with unsavory governments. Hmm, isn’t the job of a government to make alliances when possible? The author fails to mention Russia and China, two other unsavory countries with which Israel has alliances. Why the ones he does mention? Doesn’t America have alliances with unsavory governments? Don’t governments ally with other governments?

And then, third, let’s drag John Hagee into the mix, a well-known evangelical, and let’s mention something stupid he’s said. But let’s not mention that he started a remarkable Israel advocacy group that works enormously hard on Israel’s behalf in Washington and around the US, regardless of who’s in charge in Jerusalem.

Fifth, let’s refer to Israel as an ultra-nationalist, apartheid state without one iota of proof.

Sixth, let’s wrap this up in the notion, again without any proof other than a rabbi’s Yom Kippur sermon, that American Jews are, as the title stipulates, watching Israel with horror.

Put it all together it spells utter nonsense.

Mr. Milbank should be ashamed, though I doubt that’s going to happen any time soon. Though he is to be congratulated on attending religious services on Yom Kippur. Good going Dana. Next YK come to my shul.

Rabbi Phil Cohen Ph.D.

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Professor Levine in the NYT

In today’s Times, a UMASS Amherst philosophy professor, Joseph Levine, an academic advisor to Jewish Voice for Peace, published an article arguing in favor of BDS.  You might wish to read the article:

Below is the response that I sent to Professor Levine. I hope you might forgive any excessive snark.

Dear Professor Levine,

Congratulations on authoring this week’s NYT anti-Israel article!!

You’re right on calling out Schumer for his Torah-based argument for Israel’s legitimacy. Happily, the Zionist project, for the most part, was anti-religious and therefore not Torah-based. (How the settlers use Torah is another story.) Mr. Schumer was either engaging in rhetoric knowing his AIPAC audience, or ignorant of Jewish history (no surprise, if so), or both. Your obligation, if you were being honest, would have been to make the point in your article that I just did. But instead, you, a philosopher, a man of reason, chose to hit below the belt because you could. (You’re a philosopher, not a historian, I know, so appeals to history are out of your ken.)

You, too, however, seem ignorant of Jewish history, it would appear. The Jewish presence in Palestine throughout the ages was constant, and the Arab presence, until the Jews began settling the land and produced employment opportunities, was fairly shallow (though always outnumbering the Jews). So the image of a mass of citizens being overwhelmed by rampant colonizers isn’t exactly in accord with reality. Your enthusiasm in making a (problematic) Rawlsian argument (and the likely ignorance of Rawls on the part of the editor you worked with) overshadowed your need to check out history.

You probably didn’t have space enough (though this did seem to be a longer than average op-ed) to point out the various attempts to accommodate the Jews or the Arabs. (No fewer than five serious peace offers over a span of nearly sixty years.)

Nor did you bother to point out the historical and sociological complexities of the Israeli Arab situation. But you might have pointed out that, in theory at least–as it is a firm principle of Israeli democracy, that Arabs in Israel possess equal rights.

Any limitations on that fact are to be protested and adjusted. Some of this is happening even under the Netanyahu administration. Meanwhile, it would certainly have been worthwhile to point out the rising standard of living of Israeli Arabs and the constancy of polling among them that shows a surprisingly high degree of satisfaction with their lives in Israel. But the fish you have to fry are too big for subtlety.

Meanwhile, I’ve recently been informed of a new BDS movement seeking to delegitimize a different government due to real genocide and radical displacement. A worldwide effort to force this country to disband due to its illegitimate founding is gaining traction, especially in Europe and Massachusetts. However, the United States of America is resisting this BDS movement with all its (considerable) strength, and the likelihood is that the US won’t return the country to its original owners. Obviously a fiction for a point, nonetheless, Professor, you might consider championing this far more legitimate cause. Might make it to the front pages of the NYT again.

How in Hades is it even possible to question the legitimacy of a reasonable democracy that has just passed its 70th anniversary? Do you actually believe it “reasonable” to imagine the dismantling of a thriving nation of 9 million people?

And although an argument from authority is one of the worst of the philosophical fallacies, I note that you are an academic advisor for Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization that I and many of my rabbinic colleagues find utterly reprehensible in its irrational and angry views of the situation in Israel-Palestine. Your membership in this club betrays the innate unreasonableness of your thinking on these matters.

So, again,Professor, I congratulate you on your presence on the front page of the Newspaper of Record, (your mom’s kvelling, I’m sure) and wish you a happy and healthy new year.

Rabbi Phil Cohen Ph.D.

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A member of IfNotNow speaks

On Thursday, August 2, 2018, Tablet Magazine published an article by Amy Stein. Entitled “Losing Hope in Israel, Looking to Jordan,” it makes the outrageous claim (among others) that shimmers of democracy in Jordan compares favorably to Israel’s, whose government, the author argues, is in steep decline, this based on a two-day trip to Jordan She also spends time in this article defending the IfNotNow agenda.

I decided to annotate the article.

The article and my comments appear below.

ps I’ve been posting regularly lately and have received no response.  If you’re reading this and have a reaction, I’d love to hear from you



It was the second Friday night of July, my second Shabbat in Israel this summer. I had just finished services at Kol Haneshama, one of the only[1] Reform synagogues in Jerusalem. I was with a group of fellow rabbinical students, all of us studying at the Hartman Institute as part of the annual Rabbinic Torah Study Seminar (RTS), where 170 rabbis from all over the world gather for 10 days. We had taken to calling ourselves the “Young Girls Club,” three rabbinical students from different progressive schools in the United States, and myself—a half-Israeli, former Hasidic rabbi.[2]

As we walked down the street, someone with us mentioned one of her friends who was currently staffing a Birthright trip, and was having a hard time with a few participants who she said “kept on challenging her” with questions about Palestinians and the Israeli occupation. The consensus among us is that the Birthright guide’s “hard time” is clearly a result of what happened earlier that week: Eight Birthright participants walked off two different trips to meet with Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Five other Birthright participants had walked off their trip a few weeks earlier. We all agree that the credit for these walk-offs goes to IfNotNow.[3] My friend wondered out loud: “What do they want? What is their goal? This is not the way to go about it,” and so on. I’d heard these arguments dozens of times.

For the first time at Hartman I “outed” myself. I said: “Well, I am myself a part of IfNotNow.” I heard a silent gasp from a member of the group, but I continued, “I have followed this campaign since its inception. While I’m personally not as involved as I would like to be, I wholeheartedly support the Birthright: #NotJustAFreeTripcampaign.”

I went on to explain my position. Birthright simply cannot credibly claim to be an “apolitical” free trip to Israel while it shows its participants a whitewashed, sanitized version of Israel, erasing and avoiding the occupation. That is political. Our generation cannot afford to be silent.[4]

My friends were skeptical, but they listened, and nodded along as I said my piece. This is something I find more and more with rabbinical students in the United States: People who are not part of IfNotNow seem more and more open to our ideas.

That was one of many times throughout my 10 days at Hartman, and my month in Jerusalem, that IfNotNow was mentioned. Some rabbis agreed partially, some were terrified, some demonized us. But everyone agreed: The American Jewish landscape is changing.

It’s not hard to see the proof of that change from the leaders of the American Jewish establishment: Steve Wernick, the head of the Conservative Movement, compared Israel’s anti-Democratic actions to that of Saudi Arabia and Iran in a public statement about the “canyon” between Israel and the Diaspora. Rick Jacobs, the head of the Reform Movement, feels so much accountability to millennials that he responded to an open letter from a 17-year-old Union for Reform Judaism member within 24 hours; and the theme for the Jewish Federations of North America’s annual conference—happening in Israel for the first time in five years—is, “We Need to Talk.”

I can talk more about all that is wrong with Birthright, with Israel’s increasingly right-wing government, the Jewish establishment approach, the occupation, and more. The amount of articles and op-eds written on that in the past few weeks and months and years are numerous. I am not one to follow the crowd, because if I was I would still be wearing a shtreimel today.

I want to share a more personal reflection.

Toward the end of my four weeks in the Middle East, I took a two-day tour of Jordan, which I call the only stable country in the Levant. I have been following Queen Rania of Jordan, and her work to advance the rights and lives of women and children, for a while. I have been reading about how a country that is an absolute monarchy—in a region where that is usually synonymous with theocracy and dictatorship—is moving toward democracy, led by an ambitious king and queen. I followed their de facto legalization of LGBQ relationships, and the rise of Jordan’s own LGBTQ publication, My.Kali.[5] There is one clear feeling that one gets from reading about and going to Jordan: The country is moving in the right direction. Far from perfect, but getting there.

On the way back from Jordan, I told my friends, the same ones from above: It feels like Jordan is moving toward more democracy, while its neighbor Israel is moving further and further away from it.[6] This time, even they agreed in dismay. Israel is on the wrong track. The effect of years of discrimination against Palestinians—51 years of military occupation—is slowly making its way inside the Green Line.

I would have loved to love Israel.

I might not be religious, but I love Judaism. I love our culture and spiritual traditions. I love our foods and languages. And I really wish that I could love the country where all of this is visible on the streets.[7]

I am angry at the Israeli government for not allowing me, and us, to love the country.[8]

I am half Israeli. My father was born in Jerusalem, my grandmother was born in Jerusalem. My family’s roots in the city go back to my great-great-great-grandmother who lived in Jerusalem and is buried on the Mount of Olives. Several of my direct ancestors going back to the 17th century—whom I can trace my lineage to in my sleep; I grew up hearing their names—lived, and are buried in the Galilee. My family’s connection to the land predates Zionism by many years.

A few people told me I shouldn’t get into Israel-Palestine-related activism, because it would hurt the work I am trying to do to advance LGBTQ rights. But I can’t be silent while Israeli democracy is dying[9] and the occupation grows ever more entrenched. [10]Not because I hate the land, but because I love it and the people that live there.[11]

There are those who claim other countries in the region are worse, who talk about how Hamas and Iran kill LGBTQ people. There are those who say the leaders in China, Russia, and North Korea are all more oppressive than Netanyahu. [12]I agree, there is injustice everywhere, and I speak out against these abuses—even as I roll my eyes at the comparison and how low it sets the bar for Israel, often referred to as the only democracy in the Middle East.[13] But I have no personal relationship to those other countries.

I call out abuse wherever I see it, but I will fight most fiercely when it is my own home.

I used to have hope in coexistence between all the people who have righteous claims to the land: Jews and Muslims and Christians, Israelis and Palestinians. Israel was never a utopia, but now I am losing hope.

And for that, I mourn. [14]


[1] “One of the only”…How many are there? And “only” seems to imply a lack of them, as if there’s a clamoring for more and, what? the state prevents them from happening? I am not fully knowledgeable of the number of liberal synagogues live in Jerusalem, but I know of “only” five, but I suspect there are several more.

[2] Okay, so the article’s not about the journey from Hasidic rabbi to one of the “Young Girls Club,” but, c’mon, don’t you think we ought to know something about who the author is?

[3] This is the heart of the article, that Birthright Israel, according to the author, does not adequately address the totality of the Situation, and this summer some thirteen Birthright participants made some appropriate noise about it. After all, we deservedly claim to be askers of questions. This might become a more interesting problem for Birthright, but thirteen out of many tens of thousands hardly seems noteworthy.

[4] So how does she know that it’s a whitewashed, sanitized trip? I suppose a problem inherent in an article with likely a severe word limit is that the author cannot explain all claims. But somehow she knows, and doesn’t share, that the standard Birthright itinerary allows no opportunity to ask the difficult questions. The implication is, of course, that the trip is largely a propaganda arm of the “establishment” Jewish community.


Very nice, and good for Jordan. Do you think what’s happening there regarding LGBTQ rights has any relationship in reality to gay rights in Israel? Was there a Gay Rights parade in Amman I didn’t hear about? What? One magazine of gay interest?

[6] Come on. Are you telling me that Jordan, with a hereditary king as benevolent as he may be, is yielding to democracy? This is a clear setup. A rising of some democratic elements in Jordan, does this make Jordan the only democracy in the Middle East. Meanwhile, where’s the decrease in Israeli democracy?

[7] Perhaps you’ve visited the Israel in an alternate universe, or perhaps you’re in the habit of making unsubstantiated claims.

[8] Does this mean someone representing the Israeli government came to you and ordered you not to love Israel?

[9] So here we go again. This latest round of criticism of Israel that asserts self-evidently and unequivocally that democracy in Israel is going downhill. But, and, again, this may be a consequence of a word limit, where is there evidence of this occurring? The fact that a democratically elected legislature passes laws one doesn’t like does not mean democracy is dying. It means that a law YOU don’t like has been passed by, ahem, a democratically elected legislature. You don’t like Bibi? Okay, then, he’s a right-wing fanatic and he does no good. But show me how. You don’t like the territories? Okay, get in line, but while you’re at it show me how Israeli democracy within the Green Line at least has been impacted, apparently in recent times quite severely.

[10] Like the occupation or not, I don’t see how it could become “more” entrenched.

[11] Hold on, now. Didn’t you just say you’re not allowed to love Israel? Which one is it?

[12] Well, yeah. Last I heard Bibi was, umm, democratically elected. Just because you don’t like the guy doesn’t mean his role in Israel compares in any way to dictators.

[13] Which as far as I know remains true, unless you’re going to count Jordan for reasons I can’t comprehend

[14] Okay, but at the risk of being repetitive, I haven’t seen why you’re in mourning. All you’ve managed are several somewhat repetitive assertions with no proof of any of them.

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What Ben Gurion Said

I imagine we’ve all heard that great line attributed to David Ben Gurion upon the surprising conclusion of the Six Day War, something to the effect that, “We have to give all of the territories back, save for Jerusalem.  Retaining them will be disastrous for Israel.”  Something like that.
The sentiment lying behind the quote has historically provided ammunition to those believing the territories have had a negative effect upon the Jewish state: If our greatest Israeli leader believed that holding on to the territories is a bad thing, that’s one more for our side.
But what if that quote is one of our great urban myths, that Ben Gurion never said anything of the sort?
According to Martin Kramer of the Shalem Center, that’s exactly the case.  Tracing the origin of the story to Arthur Hertzberg and a talk given by Ben Gurion to a group of Conservative rabbis not long after the conclusion of the war, the speech, exists in a transcript and on audio tape.  And nowhere in that speech does B-G utter that famous line.
Beyond the assertion that nowhere in that speech does Bv-G make such an assertion, Kramer shows that nowhere in subsequent policy statements does he make any claim remotely resembling what Hertzberg alleges.
What this says about Hertzberg, who was a pretty fair historian, I am not certain, but it sure don’t sound good.
This link will get you to Kramer’s piece. To my mind, by the way, although the research required to learn what Kramer discovered was not terribly complicated, nonetheless I’m impressed by the work Kramer did to learn what he learned about the famous (nonexistent) quote.
Shalom u’v’racha,
Rabbi Phil Cohen
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Gray Lady Down

In today’s NY Times there appeared an article by Omri Boehm, who’s identified a philosopher, who teaches at the New School and is a specialist in early modern philosophy. Entitled “Did Israel Just Stop Trying to Be a Democracy?”Boehm argues that the primary function of the new Nation-State law “is to build a formal foundation for Israel’s annexation of the West Bank — and for a Jewish state eventually to stretch over the whole of Palestine.”

About this, I wish to make two points, one about the law itself, the other about the New York Times and the letters that follow upon any Israel article.

In my last post, I quoted Professor Emmanuel Navon who teaches at Tel Aviv University. In an article in the JPost, he argues that the main reason for the law is to balance the dialectic between the “Jewish” aspect of Israel and the “Democratic” part. In his article he notes that in 1992, the Israeli High Court under Aharon Barak made a decision regarding the use of the term “Jewish” in adjudicating cases brought before the Court, “In case of a conflict, the word “Jewish” shall be interpreted by the court “with the highest level of abstraction.” In other words, it shall be ignored.”


I couldn’t immediately see how the phrase “with the highest level of abstraction” could mean ignoring the Jewishness side of any equation. So I wrote to Prof. Navon and this is how he answered me (knowing I would quote him):  “My point is that Barak tried to solve cases of contradiction between Jewish and democratic values by interpreting the word “Jewish” so as to make democratic values always prevail.  “The most abstract” level of interpretation is, in fact, a way of having democratic values always prevail over Jewish ones and, thefore (sic), to ignore the latter.”


This seems eminently arguable, and, indeed, is likely the divide between left and right on this matter in Israel. The framers of the law feared the diminution of the “Jewish” side of the equation in the Jewish-democracy dialectic that Israel has always faced, and the Nation-State law wrote in protections against that possibility. How the law can be used to prepare the ground for eventual annexation of the West Bank and Gaza is unclear to me. I am not persuaded by Boehm’s argument. How this law unpacks in the near and more remote future, we can only wait and see. But as I wrote in my last post, it’s difficult for me to see in the wording of the law itself all of those claims about the erosion of democracy, racism, and now final conquest emerges immediately from the actual text.

But I have another fish in the frying pan I wish to serve up.

When an article about Israel appears in the Times it is predictably followed by a swamp load of letters, all vetted. (By contrast, the Wall Street Journal does not vet letters.) And, indeed, there is at the very least a modicum of civility in these letters I presume assured by the vetters. Alas, “modicum” cannot be applied to the intelligence of so many of the authors whose letters accompany an Israel article. Terms and ideas get tossed about that indicate the writer is thoroughly ignorant of the country they are loudly complaining about. I have four examples.

One Gordon Hall wrote, “Thank you for writing this! As an American Jew I am so ashamed of what has become of the state of Israel. The victims have become the perpetrators and the world is right to shame them for it.” (100 recommendations)

Kirk writes, ”You can’t be a democracy and a theocracy. Israel used to brag about being the only democracy in the Middle East. Now that they’ve given up on that why should we keep paying their bills?” (112 recommendations)

Jason Shapiro receives 51 recommendations for his comment, “When you cut through all the verbiage and rhetoric one is left with an inescapable conclusion. Israel can do whatever it wants because it has Nukes and the full backing of the United States.”

Pilot receives 51 recommendations with his comment, “I never understood why America openly supports a “nation” that derides all other faiths and proudly discriminates against those same people within and outside its borders. Isolation through hubris and perceived superiority will simply hasten one’s humbling.”

I could comment endlessly, but I’ll restrict myself to a few sentences. Clearly, these authors know little about the status of religion in Israel. (Not a theocracy). Or international relations (that Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons somehow permits Israel to make its internal laws as it wishes. Or freedom of religion in Israel (with whatever religious issues obtain, Israel is a pluralist’s dream come true concerning religion).

It’s Mr. Gordon’s contribution, the Jew who’s ashamed of Israel for becoming powerful, that bothers me the most. Not knowing this fellow, I cannot claim to understand the deeper source of his shame regarding Israel. I am always wary of someone who in print purports to have had an Israel conversion experience. Nevertheless, that a Jew (another one, if not this Gordon fellow) can declare from these shores that he or she is ashamed of what’s become of the Jewish state these 70 plus years bespeaks an ignorance that is distressing.

Now I suppose one can sigh and say that this is the level of discourse in this country on most matters among most people. We live with tweets, talking points, inaccuracies, fake new (the real fake news), and that no one reads anymore (if they ever did). Or one can sigh and remind oneself of the numbers of folks who gathered at the AIPAC meeting in March or the recent Christians United for Israel meeting, or that polls continually show significant support for Israel among Americans, and relax knowing that a mass of cranky letters in the Gray Lady doesn’t amount to anything worth more than a blog post.

Or one can do what Jews have done from time immemorial, viz, worry. That’s what I choose to do, worry that this is all going somewhere not good. In particular, I am concerned about those who purport to represent Liberal Zionism and what they have to say about that status quo.

But that’s another post.



Rabbi Phil Cohen









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The Nation State Law and its Detractors

The Liberal Zionist/Jewish world is outraged by the passage of the Nation State law last week in the Knesset.

Rick Jacobs released a statement, immediately after its passage it seemed, as if someone at the URJ had their hand on the “send” button directly after the bill’s passage late into the evening. His statement reads in part, “This is a sad and unnecessary day for Israeli democracy. The damage that will be done by this new Nation-State law to the legitimacy of the Zionist vision and to the values of the state of Israel as a democratic—and Jewish—nation is enormous.

“The Israeli nation is deeply divided. But, there are millions of us who are united in our opposition to this new law and fortified in our determination to continue to fight for an Israel that will be true to its own founding declaration of equality for all within its land, with the freedom to worship and to live with true hope for the future.”

J Street’s lengthy response reads in part: “A woman must not be forced to the back of a bus anywhere in a democratic Israel. An LGBT Israeli must not be excluded from any part of public life or barred from living or working where they please. A Mizrahi Jew must not be denied housing because she is “incompatible” with the ethnic identity of a village. Any Jew must be allowed to pray at all of Judaism’s holiest sites, regardless of her adherence to Orthodoxy. A Palestinian citizen must be respected and acknowledged as a minority nationality in the state, including respect for her native Arabic language. Muslims, Druze, Christians, and other religious minorities must not know exclusion and discrimination unbefitting a modern, democratic state.”

Joshua Weinberg, head of Arza, wrote in his weekly blog, “Jewish Nationalism was meant to be a beacon, a source of pride, and a foundation through which we join our tradition with modernity to create an enlightened and ideal Jewish society. It was not designed to shove our Nationalism down the throats of others, or to create a selectively democratic State.”

Saeb Erekat, long-time and well-known player among Palestinians said, “”The ‘Jewish Nation-State’ [law] officially legalizes apartheid and legally defines Israel as an apartheid system,” Erekat tweeted from the PLO Negotiation Affairs Department account. “[It is] a dangerous and racist law par excellence. It denies the Arab citizens their right to self-determination to instead be determined by the Jewish population.”

Okay, so a couple of initial observations.

From Erekat we would expect even a law regulating changing oil in falafel fryers to be viewed as contributing to apartheid, a racist law par excellence. His grave concern for his fellow Arabs living on the other side of the Green Line who now live in an Apartheid state is laudable.

Rick Jacobs’s statement suggests that this law finds Israel “deeply divided”, the Zionist enterprise itself in mortal danger. Millions, he says, millions of people oppose this law and the effort to rescind it is already underway.

The J Street comment suggests that of all of those elements mentioned is its statement, things that characterize a robust democracy, all of them, each and every one of them, are now endangered by this law. Gays, Mizrachim, women, Arabs, Christians, well, just about everybody who’s not a male Ashkenazi Jew, is about to be written out of the Israeli common weal.

Joshua Weinberg’s brief criticism would have it that very original, idealistic purpose of Jewish Nationalism (sic) is now at the precipice of collapse due to the passage of this law, which has been shoved down the throats of the population of Israel, this latter despite that the law was passed by a majority in the Knesset.

These statements all assume a powerful, innate anti-democratic, hence anti-Arab, anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-liberal Judaism, a right-wing Israeli prejudice that presages the onset of a disaster for the Jewish state has now been implemented.

However, though all of these statements’ prediction of what is to come, not one of them goes behind the inflammatory rhetoric to explain what in fact is so calamitous in this addition to Israel’s Basic Laws.

So I had a look at the law ( to see what’s so horrifically objectionable and perilous to the very existence of the Jewish state.

The law consists of twelve rubrics, too many to parse entirely in a short blog post. Let me focus, then, on what I think may have gotten the world of Liberal Zionism up into such a grand lather.

To begin #2 of the law, that asserts specific national symbols, the flag, the Menorah, Hatikvah as being fixed in the Israeli constellation, seems reasonable. But one senses the rumblings of dissatisfaction with assuring, e.g., that Hatikvah, which speaks specifically of Jewish millennial yearnings may somehow threaten a democracy of many different peoples.

Perhaps #3, that declares the unified city of Jerusalem Israel’s capital, raises a problem. Yes, it’s possible to see how those advocating East Jerusalem as a future capital of Palestine might be upset by a law claiming Jerusalem to be undivided and Israeli. To that possibility, I acquiesce, save to point out that should the day ever arrive when reasonable Palestinians willing to enter into a full peace agreement emerge from the current morass that this would have to be negotiated. Meanwhile, I cannot see how declaring Jerusalem the undivided capital of Israel leads to anything remotely threatening to democracy.

The issue of the status of Hebrew and Arabic in #4 distresses the law’s opponents. In it, Arabic is changed from being an official Israeli language (apparently a remnant from the British Mandate era) to a language with “special status.” The prolixity of this rubric bears all the hallmarks of a law written by an overwrought committee. For this reason, I quote this entire section:

The Language of the State of Israel
a) Hebrew is the language of the state.
b) The Arabic language has a special status in the state; the regulation of the Arab language in state institutions or when facing them will be regulated by law.
c) This clause does not change the status given to the Arabic language before the basic law was created.

The second two-thirds of section (b) are incoherent. I haven’t consulted the Hebrew original where it may be clearer, but as translated, I cannot understand what it means. And section (c) appears to obviate the first part of (b). For if (b) is not changed by the status of Arabic through history (“does not change the status given to the Arabic language before the basic law was created”), then what’s the point of the “special status?”

Meanwhile, how many Israelis speak Arabic? Between Arabs and Mizrachim, quite a few, I would reckon. Consider Spanish in the US, or Catalon or Basque, or the innumerable languages spoken in China. The speakers of these languages have to be accommodated. Though the alteration of the status of Arabic might conceivably lead to policy complications, but I don’t see how. That is might be insulting to Arabs is clear. But what, practically, could happen under this new position. Can one imagine street signs no longer in Arabic, or the banning of Arabic on Israeli media, the cessation of the publication of books in Arabic? In the event, it’s impossible to see how this alteration in the status of Arabic can remotely be characterized as destructive.

For purposes here, this leaves #7, the one about settlement, which I also quote in full. “The state views Jewish settlement as a national value and will labor to encourage and promote its establishment and development.” Now, it’s possible to see something insidious in this, a veiled support of THE settlements, which I imagine is how the many perturbed opponents of this bill likely see it. But its ambiguity is too, well, ambiguous. Another possible reading would have it that the old Zionist dream of settling the land is now instantiated in law, and no court could deny Jews’ rights of settlement, as has in fact happened.

It’s difficult to see how the collectivity of these parts of the law lead directly to a drastic an erosion of Israeli democracy so dire that the law’s detractors can make the frenzied statements quoted above, much less Erekat’s hysterical claims. Still, I have wondered what brought this law about, why, over the course of so many years, versions of this law have been bandied about until this, by all accounts, watered-down version finally came to pass last week. What were the issues that concerned this law’s framers and supporters?

Thanks to a piece in the JPost by Emmanuel Navon (, I now have a better idea.

As much press about this law has indicated, Israel has from its beginning struggled with the following dialectic: how to be simultaneously Jewish and democratic. There is a delicate balance between the two. Navon argues that, due to judicial activism on the part of Israel’s High Court going back to the end of the 20th century, there had arisen serious concerns that various provisions of Israel’s Jewish self-understanding might be endangered. Navon writes:

“[Certain] laws and symbols related to Israel’s Jewish identity are not immune from petitions at the High Court of Justice. The “law of return”… might one day be struck down for being discriminatory; Israel’s national anthem…and flag… could be challenged in court for ignoring the feelings of the Arab minority; and taxpayers could petition the court against the spending of their money on the preservation of Jewish identity in the Diaspora. Until the passing of the basic law on Israel as a nation-state, the court had no constitutional basis to reject such petitions and to protect Israel’s Jewishness. Now it does.”

That is the nub of the issue the Knesset faced last week: Protecting the Jewishness of Israeli institutions in the face of very real situations that might be brought to the High Court. To guard against, e.g., Hatikvah being removed as Israel’s national anthem, the Knesset passed the nation-state law.

The provisions of this law are a far cry from provoking the ending Israeli democracy. There may be good reasons to dispute this law. But if so, the law must be debated on the rather subtle dialectical balance between “Jewish” and “democratic”, not according to a series of simplistic and frequently distorted talking points that are shared in common by the so-called Liberal Zionist world that apparently has failed to give the law itself even a simple read. Instead, as shown, we’ve witnessed an avalanche of superficiality, some of it hateful. Have a look at Ira Stoll’s article in a recent Algemeiner on the New York Times’s treatment of this story.

The Nation State law has now become the sixteenth of Israel’s Basic Laws. Whether its provisions protect Israel’s Jewish character only time will tell. The end of the Zionist dream, much less the onset of Apartheid are clearly hyperbolic. Meanwhile, it would behoove the opposition to address the law’s meaning and implications with a greater degree of thoughtfulness than we have thus far witnessed.

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