Israel’s National Values: A Letter to Rabbi Dow Marmur

Dear Dow,


I am writing you this letter out of sheer frustration and because you are one of the few people I know who is capable of understanding what I am talking about. I am certain that what I have to say would never be published in a North American journal. So, if you want to pass this note on to your friends, you are most welcome to do so. Even more importantly, I would appreciate any input you or your friends may have.


In July, the Israelis invaded Gaza…again. The morning after the military operation began, I went through the reactions as they appeared in the media. Even in supposedly “serious” North American and European newspapers and journals, the reactions could have been written the day before the troops entered Gaza—or even five years ago.


It was clear that those commentaries were at one with the reasons given previously for the failed US mediation efforts to find a peace agreement with the Palestinians, the Europeans’ constant harping at Israelis for being nasty to the Palestinians, and the increasing obliviousness of Diaspora Jewry to what has been taking place in Israeli society.


Most of the beliefs and opinions that were expressed in the Guardian, in the New York Times, on CNN and virtually everywhere else, bore only a passing resemblance to reality.


From all that was said and written, it would appear that Israel has become a figment of almost everybody’s imagination.


As you know, I have been studying Israeli politics and social behavior—and the media’s coverage of that behaviour—for 47 years. But it was only, during July of this year, after the war broke out, and after listening obsessively to the Israeli talking heads on television, reading the leaks and statements coming out of Washington, watching the reaction of the Europeans, and sifting through the comments made by both so-called Progressive” and “right-wing” Diaspora Jews that I was finally able to comprehend why Israel is so misunderstood by the outside world.


Not only that, I came to the conclusion that, yes, as Peter Beinart claims, there is now a chasmic difference in priorities and perceptions between Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jewry that is leading to the development of two Jewish civilizations.


I do, however, differ fundamentally with Beinart about the primary reasons why this gap in mutual understanding is becoming a canyon. And that is why I have written this missive.


After I had stripped away the mountains of verbal roughage about the war being produced by the professional and amateur punditocracy, and after I had weeded out the often racist and otherworldly garbage being produced by the headline-grabbing extremists, and after I had discarded the usually vapid statements of Jewish Diaspora officialdom, what I was left with was fascinating and almost beyond belief.


As you may have guessed by now, I found that the foreigners had nothing new to say. Invariably, they merely repeated old, worn assumptions and opinions as though they were mantras or intellectual or emotional comfort blankets.


By contrast, this same festival of talking heads was being used by mainstream Israelis of all political persuasions as an opportunity to stop and evaluate something that no one outside of Israel ever talks about.


From everything that was said, this difference in approach was quite obviously due to the fact that much of the world, including Diaspora Jewry, has become fixated on three subjects, and three subjects only—Israel’s high-tech prowess, its occupation of the West Bank, and the behavior of its government.


I can understand the foreign media and foreign diplomats’ disinterest in Israeli common folk. When Israelis have something important to say to each other, they usually speak Hebrew, not English. Translating not only the language, but also the cultural language takes too much effort.


What I do find remarkable is that the Diaspora Jewish leadership and the Diaspora intellectual leadership also talk only about what the Israeli government says and does; and they rarely, if ever relate to what the majority of Israelis are saying and doing. So called “right-wing” Diaspora Jews spend most of their time issuing statements in support of the Likud-led government, AIPAC says that its mission is to support any Israeli government that is in office, and the so-called “Progressive” Diaspora Jews seem to put all their energy into opposing any current Israeli government policy.


The thing is: Israel is more than just assemblage of geeks, occupiers and loud-mouthed politicians. More importantly, it has become a truism that Israeli society is divided…between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, between the religious and secular, and between the rich and poor. However, no one ever talks about the deepest crevasse of all—the one that separates the majority of the Israeli public from the politicians they freely elect.


As polls about the workings of Congress in the US show, voters’ dissatisfaction with their elected officials is nothing new and is not confined to Israel.


The big difference between the two countries—and between Israel and most of the other countries in the world—is that mainstream Israelis are actively trying to do something about it. They have undertaken a number of self-help, self-awareness projects that have been invisible to foreign eyes.


To my mind, the most important of these is that many Israelis (but emphatically not a majority of their titular leaders) have embarked on a slow, but steady attempt to create a unique, national code of values. To the best of my knowledge no other country has ever embarked on such a project and involved such a high percentage of its people in it.


Many other countries claim to have a set of unique national values. But when you ask the citizens of these countries to delineate what those values are, all one gets are a set of generalizations or slogans such as “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” or, in the case of Canada, “Peace, order and good government.”


The Israelis, though, are doing something very different. Instead of acting top-down by taking a slogan and then trying to examine what its particulars should be, the Israelis have been building their code, incrementally…in other words, from the bottom­-up. In terms of style, the code is very Talmudic in nature—an evolutionary accumulation of detailed decisions made over time as discrete issues and problems have presented themselves.


However, as invariably happens with bottom-up processes, it is only as now, when a crisis occurs, when people look for precedents and for previously agreed upon anchors as guides to action, and when enough of these decisions can be brought up as examples of how people should behave under given circumstances, that these decisions can be collated into a coherent whole.


That is what made listening to the Israeli talking heads so special. Once those who talk incessantly had had their say over and over, the media began searching for fresh voices. These new voices brought up many issues and provided a great deal of information that had not been revealed or discussed in the popular media before. In other words, because the fighting lasted so long, the media, in the end, succeeded in assembling a broad cross-section of Israeli thinkers and original researchers.


When I carefully examined what both groups were saying, I found an important unifying theme in their remarks. Both kept referring to certain social values that they had obviously accepted and internalized. From their tone of voice, they made it clear that they assumed that these values had been internalized by many others. And from the comments and reactions of participants in panel shows, it became clear that those assumptions were correct.


For years, I have been carefully studying what has been said and written in op-eds, radio talk shows and other popular media. After discarding the piles of prejudiced junk, and when taken in sum, these remarks have demonstrated that there is clearly an ongoing quest for a set of nationally-acceptable and nationally-accepted values.


I suspect that this search has been driven by a fundamental weakness in Zionist politics.


The entire Zionist experiment was based on using a combination of political ideologies, dogmas, power politics, and political expediency in order to create a Jewish state.


By the second decade of the 20th century, most of the Zionist activists had become adherents of one of five very different, competitive, comprehensive ideologies—Socialism, European-style liberalism, Revisionism, Political Modern Jewish Orthodoxy and Communism. Each ideology produced its own political tribe, and each tribe had its own strict rules of self-governance. Up to the 1970s, it was not unusual for Israelis to refer to the political party of their choice as their “home.”


However, over time, each ideology collapsed and each tribe lost its ability to control people’s thoughts and behaviours.


The first to go were the communists, especially after the details of the so-called “doctors’ plot” and the excesses of Stalinism were revealed.


Liberalism died in the late 1960s when the Progressive and General Zionist parties joined together and then united with the Revisionist Herut party to create the Gahal and later the Likud parties in an effort to finally unseat Labour.


The various socialist parties underwent a slow collapse. The process began in the wake of their mishandling of the immigration of Jews from Asian and African countries in the 1960s; and socialism itself died when it could no longer provide answers to the challenges posed by the post-1973 Yom Kippur War period.


Modern Orthodoxy, in its original, comprehensive form, disappeared once the National Religious Party became fixated almost solely on settlement in the occupied areas…to the detriment of its prior concern with social issues and the rule of law.


Revisionism was the last ideology to disappear. Its last theorists and practitioners were Benny Begin, Dan Meridor and Mickey Eitan, (who were defeated in the 2012 Likud primaries), and Ruby Rivlin (who was kicked upstairs to the ceremonial presidency of the state in 2014).


In the absence of agreed, comprehensive ideologies, and as centralized political party and government control over people’s day-to-day lives waned, the politicians began to rely more and more on often-incoherent, narrow dogmas and pure political expediency in order to gain or to remain in office. The place of ideologically-based tribes was taken by special interest groups, which had little or no interest in the common weal. These groups included certain industrialists and financiers, works committees at state-owned enterprises, settlers in the occupied territories, and the ultra-Orthodox, among others.


This state of affairs then created a crisis among all those who wanted to be able to express themselves as individuals…and had chosen not belong to one of the special interest groups.


By the late 1970s these outsiders began a search to see whether and how the country’s citizens could find an adequate balance between individual rights and the need for community solidarity.


The answer to the question: “Do individuals have rights?” seems self-evident to most Westerners, but not to many Israelis. In the early days of the state, under Labour governments, communal rules were imposed, often stupidly, and invariably heavy-handedly, from above. For example, if you didn’t have a red Histadrut membership booklet, you were very unlikely to get a job in the civil service.


Tribalism, whether it took the form of membership in a kibbutz or in a Hassidic group, or more recently, going to live as a West Bank settler, has always been endemic to Israeli society—and it has even grown in recent years. But tribalism, by its very nature, needs to obliterate pluralism and individual rights in order to survive.


That means inculcating a disapproval or even a hate of anyone who is not a member of the tribe. Most of the divisions in the country stem from this “us” and “them” approach by the various tribal leaders.


When hyperinflation hit in the early 1980s, it quickly became clear to the majority that this particular economic disaster had been caused by these special interests over-feeding at the public trough. There had simply not been enough money available for defence and for satisfying the special interest groups’ hunger for cash.


A new format for setting national priorities and apportioning national assets was needed.


But this was easier said than done.


Despite free elections, but because of manipulative bloc voting by dogmatists and special interest groups in general elections, the Knesset was becoming less and less representative of the body politic as a whole. And coalition governments were increasingly becoming, in effect, federations of minority special interests. As part of this process, coalition cabinets had taken on all the features of and were now behaving very much like traditional tribal councils.


From then on and up to today, the needs and concerns of the majority were largely ignored… that is, until individual, highly-publicized crises—whether they were water shortages or the realization that there was insufficient equipment to fight forest fires—required that the government finally address them.


A vacuum had been created. There was an urgent need to find a vehicle or means that would foster reasoned discussion about those national issues that required principled and long-term solutions. Otherwise, it was clear to the rational majority, the state’s existence would be endangered.


The rabbinical injunction “Kol ha’yehudim arevim ze el ze” (Every Jew is responsible for every other Jew) has long been an Israeli cliché. However, as I noted earlier, as ideologies died, it was becoming increasingly evident that the special interest groups’ leaders were able to game the system of proportional representation, and then use the instruments of state to deliberately create major, self-serving divides in Israeli society through the use of hyperbole and the spread of totally inaccurate information.


That is why, during the recent crisis, Israelis actually shocked themselves by the way they united behind the war’s aims and acted, almost in unison to provide comfort, solace and practical aid to both the soldiers doing the fighting and the residents of the border with Gaza who were fleeing the constant mortar shelling and rocket fire.


Israelis were amazed that somehow, some way, despite the ability of the country’s politicians to use the huge and powerful instruments of state to foster national division, the majority of the public had managed to discover or rediscover a set of values that they held in common. And because these tenets were so deeply held by so many, they could then be used effectively to reinforce and maintain national unity.


I now want to use the rest of this note to trace how that body of principles was created.


In retrospect, it was almost inevitable that the impotent and virtually voiceless majority would eventually try to fill the values vacuum that had been created by the special interest groups, because Israel could not survive as a state without volumes of accepted rules and norms that could act as a glue to bind together an otherwise divided and divisive people.


Cooking up that glue was a Sisyphus-like task. The cumulative results of that effort only began to become apparent to the careful observer during the last decade. However, today, those results are clearly visible to anyone who takes the effort to cast off his or her preconceptions and examine the reality that has been created.


To be fair, it was only during the two years prior to the recent war that most Israelis were made aware of what they had wrought. And, ironically, it took the country’s most extreme neo-nationalist Knesset members to do so. That was because it was only after the Supreme Court was attacked by these Knesset members and their constituents for having supported those ideals, and it was only after those activists also tried mightily to pass legislation to limit those human and political rights that had evolved over the years, that the Israeli public understood what had taken place over time.


As I said earlier, I for one, find it truly remarkable that none of Israel’s friends or critics has made any effort to examine the process that is underway. For that reason, I can say without any shred of doubt that all of those who claim to be speaking from a humanist, ethical or moral position, whether they be so-called “pro-Israeli” Peter Beinart acolytes or the J-Street folks, or neo-nationalist Jewish Diaspora extremists, or whether they be those in the morality and ethics “business” such as rabbis who support Israel but find it morally lacking, or opponents of Israel such as the American Presbyterian Church or Canada’s United church are clueless panderers of ignorance.


A combination of laziness and self-righteousness may account for much of this thoughtless nattering. But I think a far more important dynamic is at work. It is becoming ever clearer to me that foreigners are simply incapable of comprehending the process that is underway.


That is because, seemingly without any guiding hand, individuals and groups seeking reasoned, not ideologically-based, dogmatically-based or expediency-based solutions to national problems, have adopted Kehilla-style decision-making.


Jewish Kehilla self-governance evolved after the destruction of the Second Temple. It is unique because it is the single most long-lasting and most successful non-tribal, non-monarchical form of government in human history. It has been the primary means by which Diaspora Jewish communities have ruled themselves for more than 1500 years.


It was only superseded by advocacy-based politics when the Zionist movement was formed. The founders of the movement, who were seeking to establish a nation-state for the Jews, believed that, if they were to succeed in this task, they needed to adopt the same format for self-governance that other democratic nation-states were using. That is because, unlike advocacy-based rule, Kehilla governance relies on often-excruciatingly slow consensus-building.


The re-adoption of Kehilla governance as a framework for decision-making by those seeking to end or limit the power of special interests in Israel is a development of extraordinary significance. The fact that consensus-based decision-making can and is being applied on such a huge scale in a modern nation-state—and not just in a closed ethnic and religious community—goes a long way to explaining why non-Israelis, who are familiar only with the advocacy-based, majority rule systems used in other democratic nation-states, do not even begin to know where to look to see what is actually taking place in Israel.


This blindness then helps explain, at least in part, non-Israelis’ fixation on the occupation as the sole criterion for judging Israelis’ ethical and moral values. It is unfortunate, but all too true, that the simplistic “for and against” debate that the occupation induces, when combined with a lack of concern for and a lack of interest in the complexity of Israelis’ day-to-day lives, too easily enables foreign critics to express their vain self-righteousness with such abandon.


In effect, most of Israel’s critics, from President Obama, through the leaders of the EU, to the various humanitarian NGOs such as Oxfam, have been saying to Israelis, “You are going to lose our support unless you start to think and act as we do,” instead of first asking “What’s really up with you Israelis?” and then surveying the material easily available in open sources and in the open mouths of most Israelis.


Had all these non-Israeli groups taken the effort, they might have discovered, as I have, that the wisdom of crowds in Israel is on its way to producing what appears to be a comprehensive, non-dogmatic, pragmatic alternative to those foreign ideologies that were the product of thinkers such as Marx, Hume, Locke and Burke, but which have proven to be inadequate political guides for most Israelis.


I would now like to look at what that alternative is in some detail.


One crucial aspect of the quest for common values that is particularly fascinating to me is that despite the fact that the Israeli value-code-in-the-making has been the product of multiple, independent contributors, working while widely different sorts of events were occurring, it is internally coherent.


But before I even begin to discuss what I mean by coherence, I first have to explain how the most basic premise of Kehilla governance—the need for decision-making through consensus-building—actually works in Israel.


Some of the initial consensus-driven contributions to the construction of the Israeli value system have been easily visible. Other ones have been more subtle. The most visible input came from a series of mass political protests that were initially directed solely at bringing about changes in very specific government policies.


The first exercise in consensus building took place in the most unlikely of venues by the most unlikely of people. The heroes of this particular, short-lived saga unoriginally called themselves the “Black Panthers.” The name was a takeoff from the group of young blacks of the same name who were active social protesters in the United States at the same time. The Israeli panthers were young, largely-uneducated, primarily Moroccan immigrants who, during the early 1970s, protested against the maltreatment of the Jews from Asian and African countries by the Labour Party hegemony. Lacking the political experience to build a large-scale movement, they focussed on publicity stunts such as stealing milk to distribute to the poor. Their protests were short-lived. However, the feelings the Panther’s represented and their ability to articulate them openly, did finally find successful expression when Labour was driven from office by Mizrahim, who, acting by consensus, voted en bloc and en masse for the Likud in 1976.


The second major figure in this extended drama was Motti Ashkenazi, who had commanded an outpost along the Suez Canal when the 1973 war broke out. When he was demobilized, he began a lone vigil outside the prime minister’s office demanding that the government take responsibility for its failure to prepare for the war. In Israel at that time, the idea was revolutionary. The Labour party and its affiliates had been in power, seemingly forever. And they fully expected to continue to do so.


Significantly, in Hebrew, to this very day, there is no equivalent for the English word “accountability.” When I queried the Hebrew Language Academy once about why this was so, their reply was “Nobody ever asked us.” In other words, Motti Ashkenazi was demanding something that could not even be conceived of because it could not be articulated by a native Hebrew speaker at the time.


The English-speaking Prime Minister, Golda Meir, who had previously labelled the Panthers “not nice boys,” was horrified by Ashkenazi’s effrontery. However, after Ashkenazi’s lone protest quickly swelled into an ad hoc movement of tens of thousands, she was forced to resign. For the first time, the public found that if it came to a consensus and then acted en masse, it could bring about major changes in political behavior…even when the protesters had to face the bureaucratic and political cudgels that could be and were wielded by those who had hegemonic control over the instruments of state. Labour should have been forewarned about the fate that awaited it. But by that time it was blind to the impact this new/old politics of consensus-building would have.


Later mass consensus-based protest movements were also directed almost entirely at making the government accountable for its actions or inactions. Among other things, these mass protests forced governments to tackle hyperinflation and to end Israel’s 18 year occupation of southern Lebanon.


One truly remarkable feature of this form of mass-participation policy-making is that it has been accompanied by the development of a series of rules that determine, in advance, who can be trusted to lead such a movement and how they should go about it. All the available evidence indicates firmly that anyone who breaks any of these popularly-delineated rules will fail to gain the support they are seeking. In other words, in order to prevent wasted energy and in order to save the time needed to launch an extended protest movement that might go nowhere, the protesters have built an efficiency mechanism into the overall concept of popular mass-protest policymaking. Today, if someone wants to launch a campaign to build a consensus around a particular issue, he or she must follow consensus-determined ways of approaching the task. Otherwise, he or she is doomed to failure. That is why, when a revolt by the middle class brought as many as half a million Israelis out into the streets during the summer of 2011, the rebels, despite their huge numbers, could not keep their protest alive and failed to accomplish most of their objectives.


Another phenomenon that has accompanied the exercise in effective mass mobilization has been a subtle, but monumentally important change that has taken place in the use of Israeli political language.


I have already noted the example of how protesters succeeded in imposing the concept of accountability on the Labour government even though the demonstrators didn’t have a Hebrew term for what they were doing. Here is an example of how just substituting one word for another brought about a change in the political culture.


For many, many years after the founding of the state, it was common for Israeli politicians of all stripes to declare that the Knesset was “sovereign.” In other words, that that body was the country’s ultimate source of authority. Almost invariably, wannabe and sitting Knesset members would then run their campaigns for office using the slogan Smoch Alai”—trust me. In other words vote for me because I am an authority you can rely on.” Today that slogan is almost never used in public.


And if the word “sovereign” is used at all, it is the “people” who are referred to as being the sovereign.


This change in perceptions, at least among the secular, about who or what constitutes the nation’s source of authority was particularly significant because it was that alteration in perceptions that gave the value-seekers the self-felt right and self-felt duty to look for ways of forming a consensus to mold solutions for critical national issues—some of which, as I also mentioned before, were even existential in nature.




The biggest initial boost to this process of building a national moral and ethical code based on consensus, though, came from two, wholly-unexpected, government-affiliated sources. The first source was the military.


Prior to the popular Palestinian uprising that began in 1987 and came to be known as the Intifada, Israeli soldiers had usually only had to be trained to fight on open battlefields. However, once the stone-throwing Palestinian youths took to the streets, the 18 year old conscript soldiers were forced to face a whole series of new questions and new situations which they had not been trained to confront. For example, what was a soldier to do when he saw a rotund woman, draped in the thick folds of a hijab, whose large belly might have been a sign of advanced pregnancy or a mound of explosives strapped to her waist?


After such confrontations became day-to-day occurrences, the IDF had very practical reasons for wanting to establish a code of conduct. Unlike other armies that are based on the employment of professional soldiers, the IDF’s core corps of fighters are conscripts who bring a civilian mindset to their task. And because they were not trained to cope with moral issues, soldiers’ morale and discipline—the key features of any successful army—were being affected.


For that reason, a public committee chaired by Prof. Assa Kasher was established in 1992, and charged with creating a formal ethical code for the Israeli military. The committee’s recommendations were amended and strengthened by another committee in the early 2000s, which also gave the final document the title “The Spirit of the IDF.”


The impact of the committee’s work cannot be overestimated. Unlike many treatises on ethics that are theoretical in nature, The Spirit of the IDF was written as a practical, day-to-day manual whose purpose was to help eighteen years old cope with humanitarian issues that they would likely be facing every day.


Just over a third of Israeli girls and two-thirds of Israeli boys serve in the army. I know of no other country where such a huge percentage of the country’s citizens are put through an intensive course in practical ethics at an age when they are most susceptible to formulating a worldview that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.


Incidentally, the recent television talk fest turned out to be a propitious time for instilling these same values in those who had not served in the military. For example, as the Hamas rocket fire on Israeli towns, and thus desires for revenge, grew in intensity, the IDF had to painstakingly explain why Israelis pilots were forbidden to bomb Hamas’s rocket launchers if innocent civilians were nearby. The discussions were often accompanied by real videos of pilots who talked approvingly about having had to abort missions because enemy civilians might have been hurt.


Several aspects of the IDF’s code of ethics are particularly noteworthy. The committee interviewed dozens and dozens of academic ethicists, generals and anyone else, regardless of their political leanings, who might have important input. The result was yet another consensus decision that could then easily be accepted and internalized by masses of people.


Another important consequence of the formulation of the ethics code is that the self-felt need by the military for the creation of such a code highlighted the fact that the very same people who felt free to criticize the Israeli soldiers for their actions or inactions in the occupied territories had failed to produce a practical codex of their own that the Israelis could simply copy. As well, international law, and especially the Geneva and Hague conventions, were also only a partial help because they are woefully out of date and fail to take into account the particular and unique, asymmetric nature of the fight against terrorism.


As the massacres in Syria and Iraq have demonstrated so vividly, even now, after more than a hundred thousand deaths and the displacement of millions, the international community has failed to take up the challenge of rewriting international law to cope with the questions of morality that terrorism has raised.


No less importantly, the Israeli committee’s focus was on how people should behave in situations of extremis…even when the other side refuses to obey the law. The committee’s recommendations, in effect, have now also delineated a suite of outer limits for Israelis, in all walks of life, on how they should behave in everyday life.


This is but one of very many examples of how force of circumstances has compelled Israelis to blaze ethical and moral trails in places no one has gone before. Of far greater importance is the fact that the cumulative impact of each of these actions has now led to the construction of a coherent matrix of ethics and morals that make the entire set of Israeli values unique in both their tone and subject matter.


Incidentally, for that reason, when Israeli publicists and propagandists insistently assert that Israel’s friendship with the United States is based on a common set of values, they are perpetuating a lie.


And by the way, I think that it is more than just interesting that when a committee of Knesset members tried to create a similar ethics code for Israel’s public’s representatives and other state officials, a majority of Knesset members refused to bring it to a vote so that it could become law.


Another totally unexpected development in the value-creating process came about as a result of what are probably irreproducible circumstances. A Knesset committee led by inveterate value-seekers, Amnon Rubenstein and Dan Meridor wanted to produce a Bill of Rights that would be incorporated into Israel’s constitution-in-the-making. Such a bill had been virulently opposed by the existing religious parties because it would have given legal precedence to man-made law rather than Halakha, and because it would have undermined the Orthodox religious establishment’s monopoly on Jewish religious life by declaring that freedom of religion (including freedom to practice the Jewish religion as an individual sees fit) is an inherent right.


Fortunately for those seeking a society more respectful of individual freedoms, Shas was totally ignorant of the history of the battle for such freedoms in the West. When Meridor and Rubenstein agreed to drop the sections dealing with religious freedoms and made a few other minor changes, two laws, Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty and Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation were passed by Knesset pluralities. I need to emphasize the word “pluralities” here. That is because, amazingly, despite these bills’ importance, a majority of Knesset members did not even bother to show up to vote for them.


No less important than the passage of laws themselves, these statutes were also given super-legal status, which meant that they could be used to invalidate other laws. When the Supreme Court began to use these laws for exactly this purpose in 1998, Shas leader Ariyeh Deri rued that agreeing to pass these laws had been the biggest mistake of his life.


However, the Supreme Court has been playing another, much more subtle, largely invisible role in formulating the Israeli national value code. That is because the Court is unique in one important respect. The Israeli Supreme Court is the only high court in the world that also acts as a High Court of Justice. As such, it is the only Supreme Court anywhere that is the court of first instance in cases involving the relations between the state and its citizens. Not only that, it is accessible to any and all citizens…and even non-citizens if they live in Israeli-occupied territories.


Unlike the Knesset, which can pass laws that create comprehensive codes of behaviour, the Court deals only with discrete petitions. Its impact on the national code of values, therefore, is the product of an accumulation of legal precedents that are set, and day-to-day decisions that explicate in detail how Knesset laws and its own precedents should be applied in practice.


In some cases, when no law can deal with the issue at hand, and the Court is reluctant to set a precedent, it sends the matter to the Knesset with a request that appropriate legislation be passed first. However, if the Knesset, for reasons of expedience fails to deal with the matter at hand satisfactorily, the Court has often returned to adjudicate the case so that justice can be done. The most recent, well-publicized example was the issue of whether ultra-Orthodox males could and should be given a wholesale exemption from national service. It took almost two decades of citizen petitions and backing and forthing between the Court and the Knesset before a final legal decision was handed down.


Because the court has been willing to deal with such a wide range of subjects, a very important popular, political process has now become well-established: An individual citizen or interest group, brings a matter for adjudication by the court. Once a decision is handed down, if there are no large-scale protests that lead to the Knesset passing a law that reverses the court’s conclusion, the resolution of the issue at hand is accepted by the public as a consensus decision by the citizenry as well—and is immediately internalized as yet another brick in the establishment of the common weal.


A superb example of this kind of value creation occurred after the second Intifada had begun and 450 Israelis were killed in one year by Palestinian infiltrators and suicide bombers. A national consensus demanding the construction of a fence separating pre-1967 Israel from the West Bank soon developed. The construction of such a fence was vehemently opposed by the Jewish settlers in the West Bank and their allies because it implied that the whole West Bank, especially the section to the east of the fence, might thereafter, not be considered to be part of the whole Land of Israel. However, a massive public protest, along the lines of the one that had led to the eventual Israeli evacuation from southern Lebanon, forced the government to construct the barrier.


The fence, and especially the concrete parts of it, was soon labelled “the Apartheid Wall” by Israel’s critics. Had they been able to navigate their way past their own sloganeering, these critics might have discovered that the building of the wall had produced something very special.


The job of planning and constructing the obstacle was handed to the Ministry of Defence, which, quite naturally, took only topographical and security considerations into account when it decided on the route that the barrier should take. A raft of petitions from both Israeli interest groups and individual non-Israeli-citizen Palestinian landowners protesting the route immediately ensued. For example, environmentalists protested that the fence would seal off natural paths used by wild animals in their search for food and reproduction, while Palestinian farmers remonstrated that the fence, in many cases, prevented them from tending those fields that were away from their homes.


After many years of handing down decisions in the discrete cases presented to them, and by using reasoning based on Israel’s real security needs, ethics, international law, Israeli law, legal precedents, the doctrines of fairness and proportionality, and, especially a huge dose of common sense, the Court not only decided what the final route of the fence would be, it effectively created, with a majority of the public’s consent, a corpus of criteria, based on a now-coherent value system, that can and should be used by negotiators when deciding where to place Israel’s final border with the Palestinians if and when final peace talks take place.


However, it is important to recognize that even a multitude of legal decisions does not make for a value system. There are two real tests that can be used to judge both the coherence and the objective validity of a value system based on multiple inputs. The first is whether the criteria which have been used in prior cases and which will be for judging cases that have not yet been brought up for adjudication can be proven to be objectively valid. The second is whether the judgments that are handed down cohere sufficiently so that they produce synergies and decisions that need not be brought before the courts for adjudication because they are “self-evident.”


The war with Hamas demonstrated clearly that at least those parts of the value system that could be tested by that violent conflict are coherent and can be applied in other cases as well. For example, during the war, a major, raucous, public debate that had developed died a sudden death when jurists discovered that a decision on one very important and controversial matter had already been made because two totally different and unrelated Supreme Court decisions had already created a synergistic “self-evident” resolution to the question raised.


As the number of rockets raining down on Israeli cities grew in number, many Israeli politicians, especially those in the extremist neo-nationalist camp, (I refuse to call them right-wingers because most of them are not true ideologues, but simply self-indulgent, populist, demagogic practitioners of political expediency) demanded that Israel cut off all electricity and water supplies to the Gaza Strip. Their demands were backed by a detailed, learned paper by a Bar Ilan university law professor who demonstrated beyond any shadow of a doubt that Israel was permitted by international law to cut off water supplies to Gaza. What Israel could not do, by law, he pointed out, was to prevent a third party from supplying this water by, for example, bringing in water in tanker trucks.


However, as other legal experts quickly pointed out on television, the Israeli Supreme Court had already come down with two ultra-relevant decisions that would prevent the Israeli military from halting the pumping of water to Gaza even if it wanted to. The first, which I’ll call “Decision A,” was essentially an extension of the Spirit of the IDF. The question raised was whether a soldier going into battle was bound only by the terms of international law and military law, or also by those of Israeli civil and criminal law. The Court held that the soldier was bound by all four sets of laws, even if he or she had crossed a national boundary.


In a totally different and wholly unrelated case, what I will call “Decision B,” a social action group had brought a class action petition before the court. A few years earlier, the Israeli government had taken water distribution out of the hands of the municipalities and had given that responsibility to 53 new state-owned companies because the municipalities had failed to use the money earned by selling the water to consumers to adequately maintain the piping system. Once established, these companies began to cut off the water of those who had not paid their bills—including the poor, the elderly and the infirm. The Court held that because water is a basic human necessity, the companies are forbidden to cut off supplies, regardless of the reason. When Decision “A” was added to Decision “B” the “Decision C” (whether it was permissible to cut off water to Gaza) became self-evident, and the demand was dropped immediately.


Incidentally, here is an example of the point I made earlier about Israel and the United States developing very different value systems. In Israel, by law, no one is allowed to deprive anyone of access to potable water. By contrast, at the same time that this judgment was handed down in Israel, about 100,000 blacks in Detroit had had their water supplies cut off after failing to pay their bills.


Of course, the creation of a truly comprehensive value system in Israel is incomplete. Most of the opposition to the quest for a comprehensive and internally coherent value system has come from those bodies that have a monopoly in the determination of what Israelis may or may not do. I am referring here specifically to the Knesset and the Chief Rabbinate. I would need another full-length article just to describe the ways that they have used to deliberately undermine and even abort attempts to develop criteria that could be used to fill in the missing holes in the currently-used value system.


Not all changes in or additions to the value system are initiated by the Israelis themselves. At times, the government has been forced by outside intervention and circumstances beyond its control to totally reverse what had been the political policy equivalent of holy writ. However, it is important to keep in mind that when such alterations are made to the value system, they still require mass validation before they can be implemented as long-term policies and not merely as short term expedient sops to critics.


For example, globalization, which is totally beyond Israel’s control, has forced the country to become export dependent or die a slow but inexorable economic death. No less a public icon than David Ben Gurion, though, had long ago established what had become an ironclad government dictum. He had declared that “It doesn’t matter what the goyim think, it’s what the Jews do that counts.” He also dismissed criticisms of Israel by the UN with the words “Oom-shmoom.”


For decades later, the Israeli public, taking Ben Gurion’s words as their cue, had disdained any foreign criticism of Israel as “disproportionate” or as an example of anti-Semitism. Invariably, when Israel was criticized for any moral or ethical lapse, Israeli spokespeople and the country’s politicians would seek out examples of why the criticism had been unfair, the product of a double standard or an act of anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Zionism.


The issue came to a head following the so-called “Goldstone Report,” a UN-sponsored, detailed listing of war crimes Israel had allegedly committed during its military operation in Gaza in 2005-2006. As was their wont, Israeli politicians immediately reacted to the document by calling it the product of a “self-hating Jew.”


In the past, the Israelis would have done nothing more than gripe. However, this time, the report, despite its innumerable inaccuracies and faults, led to a transformation in Israelis’ approach to the outside world. Like most Israeli consensus-based decisions, that transformation was the product of a long process of mass thought and debate, which, in this case, had begun as early as 1969. At that time, the then Prime Minister, Golda Meir, ordered the foreign ministry to see if it could negotiate a trade pact with what was being called the EEC, or European Economic Community—the precursor of today’s EU. At the time, she was not particularly interested in the economic value of the agreement. She was far more concerned about using the pact as a means to break Israel’s political isolation.


However, the agreement that was eventually signed became a keystone of Israeli economic development and survival; and it was soon followed by other free trade pacts with countries such as the US and Canada.


As globalization gained momentum, and as Israel’s economic ties with the rest of the world broadened and deepened, Israelis were gradually forced to reconsider whether they should and could afford to remain aloof from foreign criticism as Ben Gurion had counselled, or whether these new circumstances required a change in their country’s approach to the outside world.


Most Israelis, by the time the war with Hamas broke out, no longer scorned the international community. In fact, they craved acceptance and were even willing to tolerate a double standard by others if that was the price that Israel had to pay to gain that acceptance.


Following the publication of the Goldstone report, Israel’s primary trading partners in Europe increased their existing demands that Israel abide more strictly by the Geneva and Hague Conventions as the Europeans interpreted them. No such demands were ever made of the Arab states.


Nonetheless, in order to avoid possible international sanctions, the government decided that Israel would both obey international laws and abide by the European’s double standards, even if those laws and standards took little or no account of the harsh realities Israel was facing. To that end the IDF ended up posting experts in international humanitarian law in every divisional headquarters and in every air force command post. From that point onwards, no military operation could even be considered, let alone launched without it having been vetted first by the lawyers. In this case, the Israeli value system had, ironically, been strongly influenced by foreign demands that the Israelis actually disagreed with.


I found one outcome of the Israeli choice to abide by foreign entities’ double standards to be particularly interesting. During the recent war, those high standards were not always kept. Among other incidents, six UNWRA schools that were being used as shelters for Palestinians displaced by the fighting were hit by Israeli fire. In some places, the shelling can be attributed to errant artillery fire, and in others to the fact that Hamas fighters were firing rockets from near the schools. But the Israeli army could not provide adequate explanations in all cases. The Israelis promised to set up tribunals to investigate all the cases in question.


Nonetheless, President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron, both of whose armies had had been guilty of far greater offenses in Iraq and Afghanistan, felt free to criticize Israel for, in their words, “not living up to the standard it had set for itself.”


At times, the mind boggles.


This kind of hypocrisy is not new, of course. But what is particularly worrying to me is how this hypocritical behavior negatively affects Israel’s search for peace. I now have to provide you with what I think is an excruciatingly important aside.


Making peace is probably the greatest moral challenge Israelis face.


The fact is, though, that most Israelis don’t pay very much attention to the so-called “peace process,” an attitude that has led to heavy criticism from foreigners, including many Diaspora Jews.


The thing is: the Israelis do have very good reasons for acting as they do. In the past, the Israeli majority—the very group of value-seekers I have been discussing—has made a sincere effort to address some of the most crucial aspects of peace-making. Almost totally unknown to Diaspora Jewry and almost everyone else, is the fact that Israel’s wise crowds, as part of their search for peace, have produced one of the most extraordinary breakthroughs in the history of political science and international peace-making. The tragedy is that those insights have not only been totally ignored, they have been buried by would-be mediators because they challenge all the bureaucratic and institutional premises, and needs, of the foreign policy-making fraternity everywhere.


Here is what happened.


In 1977, Anwar Sadat announced that he would go anywhere, “even to the Knesset in Jerusalem” to make peace. After the Israeli government had accepted his offer, and had formally invited him to come, the first thing that the Israeli Chief of Staff, Motta Gur did… was to put the Israeli army on its highest state of alert.


Gur feared that Sadat’s visit was an elaborate ruse, and would be just a cover for another surprise attack by Egypt, as had occurred in such a devastating fashion in 1973. Gur was not alone in thinking that this was an act of deception—or at best, a bit of diplomatic theater. I won a bottle of Black Label from a senior Canadian diplomat, after we bet on whether or not Sadat would actually come. The diplomat was not alone in misinterpreting Sadat’s intentions. Had I made the rounds of most of the diplomatic community, I would have been able to lay in sufficient supplies to keep me in booze to this very day.


The reason was that Sadat’s announcement challenged all the conventional wisdom of its day. That so-called “wisdom” proclaimed that Egyptians, because of their hatred of Israel, were incapable of making peace. And, of course, you also have to remember, that, at that time, the Israelis were still recovering from the psychological burns they had suffered during the Yom Kippur War. Prior to the war, military intelligence had had all the concrete information, in the form of wireless intercepts and aerial photographs that it needed in order to judge that Egypt and Syria were preparing for war.


However, using their own “rational,” analysis, based on the reigning conventional wisdom, that Egypt would be foolish to go to war against Israel’s superior army, the Israeli analysts made the fatal assessment that war was not an option for Egypt or Syria.


They had failed for the same reason that so many intelligence assessments fail—an inability by analysts to get inside the mind of the opponent in order to judge his or her intent to use the assets at his or her disposal. Gur was determined that he would not be taken in by a WOG (a wily oriental gentleman) like Sadat, as his predecessor had been.


The twin embarrassments of failing to accurately assess both Sadat’s intent to make war and his intent to make peace, though, then set off an epidemic of soul-searching amongst the Israeli public. For a people who yearned for peace more than anything else, the very idea that they might blow an opportunity to resolve the Israeli-Arab dispute in the future was gut-wrenching.


What made this exercise even more extraordinary was that this same public engaged in this lengthy debate despite years of having been trained and badgered by Israeli and foreign politicians and diplomats into believing that only the elites were equipped with the specialist knowledge needed to judge the value of any peace proposal.


Nonetheless, the Israeli public persisted. And the results were nothing less than extraordinary because they were revolutionary in both their content and their approach. Even more significantly, their importance and validity were provable because they were prescient. In particular, they predicted the success of the peace talks with Jordan and the failures of other exercises in elite diplomacy, such as the Oslo accords, the Camp David talks with Yassir Arafat, and the Mitchell and Kerry peace-making missions that were to come.


In other words, the Israeli public was able to come up with a set of criteria for judging the intent of potential negotiating partners that has proven to be almost infallible over a period of three decades. The tragedy is that these criteria, as I noted, have been ignored by every so-called “peace-maker.”


I know from my own experience that every time I have tried to show policy-makers and think tank denizens in Washington what these criteria are, they have dismissed them as “unimportant” and “not relevant.” I suspect that that is because they believe that only self-designated elites like themselves are capable of providing insights and making decisions. To them, what can fairly be called the “Israeli moral majority” is unimportant and irrelevant.


And now I come to the last value system input that cannot and should not be ignored. Although the Israeli value system, as it has evolved, is strictly secular in nature, it would be absurd to expect that residents of the Jewish state would not also seek intellectual and ethical sustenance from the trough of Jewish tradition. It is therefore impossible to ignore the fact that Jewish tradition always plays an extraordinarily important role in fashioning the Israeli mindset—even among secular Israeli Jews. However, as so often happens in Israel, the use of the tradition is often reinterpreted in surprising ways that then lead to counterintuitive results.


Whenever a crisis in Israel arises, each of the warring camps invariably makes use of often-contradictory quotes from the Bible, the Talmud, or the Rabbinical Sages to justify the position it has taken. In fact, I know of no other country where ancient texts play such an important role—even among secularists—when the populace is seeking solutions to current issues.


For example, the religious settlers have always used Biblical texts to justify their activities. However, non-Zionist rabbis, including the late former Chief Rabbi, Ovadia Yosef, have responded with other quotes as proof that it is morally sound to give up land in return for peace.


The vehemence with which Israelis express their opinions about the settlement issue has led many Israeli to fear that should a final or even partial political agreement with the Palestinians require the evacuation of settlements, a civil insurrection by religious settlers defending their homes and their deepest beliefs could and would ensue.


Every Jewish schoolchild in Israel is brought up with the narrative that the two greatest tragedies in Jewish history were the Holocaust, and the destruction of the Second Temple. The Rabbis of old attributed the destruction of the Temple to “free hate” that led to civil war at the very moment that the Roman legions were already breeching the gates of Jerusalem. That lesson is driven home in almost every classroom in the country.


So potent is this fear that the majority of Israelis have given the settlers free reign to do as they please despite the fact that polls going back forty years have always found that 62-64 percent of the Israeli public supports the trade of land for peace.


However, in a situation that Israelis call “hafuch al hafuch,” which might be loosely translated as “the exact opposite of what you might reasonably expect,” polls also show that, if a real peace agreement can be negotiated, the rabbis’ injunction will produce an effect that is the polar opposite of what is currently feared. If the polls are correct, this very fear of a civil war, and the rabbis’ conclusions, would lead an overwhelming 85 percent of the Israeli public (including a majority of the settlers) to accept a final majority decision on the subject.




In sum, as can be seen from just the few examples I have given, almost unseen, the Israelis have made exceptional strides in developing a comprehensive and coherent national value system.


However, this missive should not be interpreted as an attempt to idealize Israel. Far from it. Not to be ignored or forgotten, the recent war also highlighted many of the most powerful, unresolved ethical and moral issues still facing the country.


One obvious one is the poverty in which many of those in the outlying areas of the country continue to live. Socialism failed in Israel for reasons that are too numerous to list. However, its replacement, virtually unfettered, rapacious capitalism has created its own problems, not least the fact that over half of the productive economy is controlled by only 20 families…and they have exhibited almost no social conscience.


Yet another, no less important difficulty is the so-far unresolved need to cope with the fact that the members of the three lowest socio-economic deciles, made up primarily of the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox, overwhelmingly support political parties whose policies actually prevent their constituents’ from escaping from the poverty trap.


And, of course, the need for peace remains an ever-present issue.


What I have tried to do with these few words is to examine a real phenomenon that has been totally ignored and to provide a partial corrective to the black and white, too often ignorant portrayals of contemporary Israeli society.


The issues Israelis are forced to face and to cope with at times seem endless; and so it is easy for foreigners to pick at and point to what has not been done.


What is important to recognize, though, is that even a casual perusal of the country’s newspapers indicates that almost all the important, outstanding issues are on the public’s agenda and are not being swept under the rug.


However, it is important to take into consideration as well is that the speed and manner by which Israelis end up dealing with these issues should not be judged by standards used in other countries that do not face the individual and the combination of the problems that Israelis do.


Foreigners make their biggest mistake when they assume that whatever the government says and does is representative of what the majority of Israelis say and want.


As I have noted, though, what Israeli governments say and do are not necessary reflections of the popular will because Israeli governments are federations of minority special interests. In almost all cases, government decisions are based on the lowest denominator of the coalition partner or the alliance of partners that is best positioned to bring down the government.


If recent history is any guide, resolving the multitude of problems Israelis face will take time. Most likely, the issues still not covered by the existing value system, will continue to be addressed almost invisibly by being dealt with randomly and one at a time as special cases in point. Only a retrospective survey, as I have tried to do here, will tell us whether the end result is the creation of a truly comprehensive and coherent value system.


But the thing to keep in mind is that, at least as of now, a process leading in that direction is underway.


All my best,




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