Israel’s War on Moral Authority
Since the Netanyahu government assumed office in January, it has been fighting an increasing number of real and figurative wars. The war on the judiciary or the war for judicial reform, depending on your point of view, is the most visible due to its prioritization by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition partners—Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee Chair Simcha Rothman taking the lead most prominently—but it is certainly not the only one.
The Israeli government is fighting a war on Palestinian terrorism, necessitated by terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians such as the ones that took the lives of Hallel and Yagel Yaniv, and Elan Ganeles just this week and manifested in Israeli operations such as the one in Nablus last week that killed eight Palestinian gunmen while also killing three Palestinian civilians. The Israeli government is fighting a war for Area C, driven by allegations that Palestinians are illegally taking over the territory and that the required response is to legalize illegal Israeli outposts in order to establish a permanent Israeli presence in more spots while also carrying out large-scale demolitions of unpermitted Palestinian houses and buildings.
But there is another war that the Israeli government is fighting, one that is undeclared but is out in the open for everyone to see. It is a war that is intentional, and that is not directed at Israel’s foes—real or perceived—but self-defeatingly against Israel itself. It is a war on Israel’s moral authority, and it aims to erase any vestige of the idea that Israel has an obligation to act differently from other states and groups that it commonly disparages.
When hundreds of Israelis descended on Huwara on Sunday following the Yaniv brothers’ murders by a terrorist gunman and committed their own acts of terrorism against Palestinians who were targeted for no other reason than being Palestinian, the Israeli government largely stood by and watched. It is true that many IDF soldiers did their jobs and rescued Palestinians from their homes engulfed in flames—the basic obligation of the state toward the non-citizens living in Area B, where Israel retains complete security control—and it is also true that other IDF soldiers did nothing to prevent the Israeli terrorists from rampaging through Huwara.
Despite hundreds of people taking part in this attack, resulting in one Palestinian killed, tens injured, and hundreds of homes, stores, and cars incinerated, only eight Israelis were initially arrested, and by Tuesday five had been released completely and three were released to house arrest. Another eight were arrested on Wednesday, with one immediately released and the fates of the other seven still to be determined. When a large group of Israeli settlers from the area—undoubtedly including some who had participated in Sunday’s terrorist rioting—returned to the scene of the crime on Monday to make their presence felt by standing in the middle of the street while singing songs about the return of the Messiah and the future rebuilding of the Temple, they were given free rein to do as they pleased. Any Israeli extremist participating in the attack itself, the effort the next day to intimidate already-terrorized Palestinians hiding in their homes, or the assaults on IDF soldiers that continued in the days after the rampage’s aftermath absorbed the unmistakable message that perhaps these types of things are frowned upon, but they are certainly not going to be stopped.
This would be shameful enough if it were only the government turning a blind eye to Jewish terrorism, but it was compounded by a series of vile statements and non-statements from Israeli officials who made it clear that they believe Jewish terrorism and reprisals against Palestinians are warranted and even laudatory. Otzma Yehudit MK Zvika Fogel, who chairs the Knesset’s National Security Committee—serving as the Knesset bookend to his party chief, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir—declared that the way to achieve deterrence against Palestinians is “burning villages when the IDF doesn’t act,” that Israel needs to stop adhering to proportionality and must embrace collective punishment, and tacitly acknowledged that the settler riot was indeed terrorism in saying, “They have understood in Huwara that there is a balance of terror that the IDF doesn’t manage to achieve.”
Finance Minister and Minister in the Defense Ministry Bezalel Smotrich is on the same page as Fogel when it comes to collective punishment, tweeting after the Yanivs’ killing that the IDF needs to “hit cities of terror and its perpetrators without mercy, with tanks and helicopters, in a way that will broadcast that the landlord has gone crazy.” Smotrich also liked a since-deleted tweet by Davidi Ben Zion, the deputy head of the Shomron Regional Council, that called for Huwara to be “erased” and declared “there is no room for mercy.” Apparently not content to suffice with endorsing someone else’s words, days later Smotrich called directly for Huwara to be “erased” by the Israeli government. As for Ben Gvir himself, he is apparently in an unmarked bunker somewhere, having said not one thing as of this writing about the lawlessness, anarchy, and lack of governance displayed by Israelis in Huwara and increasingly across the northern West Bank despite endlessly campaigning and inveighing against these very things.
The thread that unites these behaviors is the abdication of any pretense to a higher moral plane that Israel has long strived to inhabit. It is not only the actions themselves, but the philosophy animating them. It is striking to attempt to square Israeli ministers and MKs glorifying fascist-style violence by Israeli Jews against Palestinians and advocating merciless and disproportionate collective punishment on the one hand with years of declarations about Israel’s proud status as the only democracy in the Middle East and the IDF as the most moral army in the world on the other. It is head-spinning to square Israelis broadcasting open calls for revenge against Palestinians writ large with a history of Israeli appeals to its own moral authority as compared to its foes’ disregard for human life.
Too many Israeli government officials and regular Israelis have bought into the idea that might makes right, that the ends justify any means, and that even aspiring to a higher standard—even if achieving it is often difficult and sometimes impossible—is for suckers, or freiers in Israeli parlance. Read Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli’s interview in Jewish Insider this week, in which he plainly states that it is not enough for Israel to combat BDS—a tactic that Israel has worked to portray as amoral and beyond the pale—but that Israel should work to instead do the same to the Palestinians, and you see how this approach goes well beyond what happens in the West Bank. “They need to be named and shamed. The Palestinians are the ones who need to be banned, they are the ones who need to be divested from, they are the ones who need to be delegitimized—it’s ridiculous that we need to even explain this,” says Chikli, shedding any pretense that Israel will defend itself while simultaneously striving for the higher ethical principle of not emulating the bad behavior to which it is subject.
The founding fathers of Zionism and Israel saw the opportunity of a Jewish state as one in which Jews would not only exercise sovereignty and political liberation but wield those things in a way that would inspire emulation. You see this in Theodor Herzl’s writings, in David Ben Gurion’s words, and in the text of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. The State of Israel was supposed to be grounded in the ideals of the prophets of Israel and serve a higher moral purpose beyond providing a safe haven following centuries of Jewish oppression. The appalling and deplorable events of this week—from the Huwara rampage, to the reticence to take on its Jewish perpetrators, to the explicit and tacit support for massive lawbreaking in service of Jewish dominance over the land and anyone else who lives on it—demonstrate how elements of Israeli state and society have rejected any pretense to moral authority. Adherence to Jewish ideals of fairness, justice, and chosenness is no longer a calling, but asserted as fact that underscores an inherent birthright.
Watch Smotrich’s call to erase an entire Palestinian town, and try to make an intellectually honest distinction between that and the Iranian regime’s calls to wipe Israel from the map. Recall how many times you have seen those Iranian exhortations used as evidence that the Iranian regime’s genocidal intentions warrant its officials being prevented from traveling to New York for United Nations meetings, and try to construct a cogent argument for why Smotrich should not be denied an American visa to address an Israel Bonds meeting in Washington in two weeks. Whether or not Israel always lived up to a set of moral ideals, at least it tried and understood the importance of continuing to try.
People who believe that the Israeli government has an inescapable duty to always take the side of Jews in conflicts with Palestinians, or who think that preventing attacks on Palestinians and holding Jewish terrorists accountable are providing Palestinians with undeserved favors have it utterly wrong. When these things happen, it speaks to Israel’s character and to the core of what it means to have a Jewish state that uses power judiciously and responsibly. Israel’s failings in this regard do not brand it for extraordinary indictment above other states, but they do reveal a failing of Zionism and of Israel to live up to its self-stated commitments and ideals.
When looking at the different engines of chaos inside of Israel right now, it is becoming harder to determine which is the worst harbinger of what is yet to come, but to me, the increasing rejection of the aspiration for Israel to serve as a model for morality on the world stage is more disheartening than anything else that is unfolding.
This article was originally posted in Ottomans and Zionists.