The Missing Middle Ground In The Debate About Israel
Israel is making international news these days.
Not because of some war it’s fighting.
But rather because it’s leading the world in the pace of its coronavirus vaccination program.
The plaudits are deserved — at least in my view.
Israel’s leadership has managed its response to the pandemic in a sometimes chaotic manner, with conflicting information often leaking to the media within hours of weighty cabinet decisions.
Small business owners have been critical about the lack of compensation offered as their businesses crumbled in the face of repeated and protracted closures.
The collapse of the government and the holding of the fourth elections in two years raises troubling questions about why Israel’s leaders seem unprepared to put cohesion and the national interest ahead of personal political expediency.
And yet .. when it comes to its vaccine rollout, it’s hard not to admire Israel’s ingenuity.
Its decision to buy vaccines from multiple providers was sensible diversification on a national scale.
It leveraged its small size to offer itself up as a test case to major pharmaceutical companies, exchanging anonymized medical data for preferential access to the potentially pandemic-crushing measures.
And the aggression with which it has swooped into 24/7 mode took advantage of its considerable expertise in logistics to inoculate its population with a rapidity that other countries could only dream about
“The Best In The World”: Reflexive Nationalism vs. Ungrounded Hate
Yet, amidst all the frenzied excitement about this good news, there’s been an unmistakable element of hyperbole and hubris permeating through the blogosphere and Twitter.
The vaccine rollout — which is about as untainted by politics as issues can get in Israel — is the perfect opportunity to trumpet Israel’s achievements. But some wonder why that needs to be — or why a reflexive instinct to counter bad news about Israel with developments that show it in a favorable light need to be taken so far.
Consider, as an example, The Jerusalem Post, which, a few days ago, carried an article claiming that “Vaccine rollout inspires Jews to move to Israel and Israelis to return.”
To which I — and many — feel compelled to respond: why would you want to live in a country just because of a vaccination push? And how will you feel about that decision when the pandemic is over?
Why I Think Hasbara Is A Waste of Time (And Resources)
Three days to go until 5780 becomes 5781. Out with the old and in with the new. So - as I'm particularly fond of airing…
Nestled among legitimate criticism of its policies, Israel receives a lot of unjustified hatred, some of it anti-Semitism cloaked in the disguise of anti-Zionism.
Yet, when it comes to Israel, and the polarized debate that surrounds it, it often seems as if the middle ground is taken off the table entirely. Israel cannot be approached rationally. You can’t be ambivalent about it. But seizing evidence to support your side of the argument is always considered fair game.
Before I moved to Israel, from Ireland, I was much more familiar with the hatred side of this formulation.
For many Irish commentators, Israel is the epitome of evil and any contrary qualifiers to that position are unwelcome. Israel’s vaccine rollout may be marvelous — but look at what it’s doing in Gaza! After a while, the arguments become circular.
But there’s another countervailing force to this blind hatred that it’s taken me longer to come to terms with. This is the force which uses hasbara to not only rebut the claims of the detractors but also to preemptively negate them.
Under this paradigm — echoed by many supporters of Israel and Israelis, many of whom are instilled with a ferocious sense of nationalism— Israel can do no wrong and any suggestion to the contrary, in any respect, must be met with aggressive dissent.
Silencing Criticism Doesn’t Help People Stay in Israel
Ignoring Painful Realities Doesn’t Help Retain Olim
It is this dynamic, I believe, which keeps Israelis beholden to political leaders who trumpet macro issues — like the security situation — at the expense of paying any attention to domestic concerns, such as the cost of living. Which — oddly, in a sense — perpetuates an unending “us versus the world” narrative. And this mindset which ensures that those leaders are continually re-elected.
Under this reflexive playbook, asking why Israel has the second most expensive real estate in the world is as weighty a moral turpitude as likening its rule in the West Bank to Apartheid. “That’s not true,” isn’t sufficient as an answer. Better to claim that Israel has the best housing market in the world.
For proponents of this approach, successes, like Israel’s vaccine drive or its survival in the Six Day War, are eagerly latched on to as proof of its superiority.
It’s not enough to merely rejoice in the success of our own vaccination program. Rather, its excellence needs to be heightened and then weaponized to push back against the arguments of those who would do Israel harm.
To illustrate: about a year ago, I posted photos from a shopping expedition to my local supermarket and showed that imported Spanish olive oil was cheaper than the Israeli brand. Why, I queried, would this be so?
People jumped in with some good reasons — economies of scale being a major one. But there was a not inconsiderate amount of voices insisting that the higher cost of Israeli olive oil was due to the fact that Israel produces “the best olive oil in the world.” A quick Google search confirmed that this position is not widely held. This kind of reflexive nationalism is the strange byproduct of unwarranted hate.
A Successful But Flawed State
The kind of black or white logic that many subscribe to about Israel is a lot easier to maintain living in the Jewish Diaspora, perhaps as an armchair supporter of the Jewish State, than it is actually living in the country.
While its vaccine program is marvelous, it should also be pointed out that:
- Israel is currently plagued by repeat elections which are wasting billions of shekels of taxpayer money
- Divisiveness between its population groups remains very high
- Israel’s cost of living, and cost of real estate, remain unaddressed issues
All these issues are a lot more apparent when one lives in Israel and knows more about the country than the wars it has recently waged or how its vaccination program is going. The latter — while fantastic and inspiring — is a short term dynamic and but a small part of the picture of what it’s like to live here.
Israel faces a lot of hatred both in international fora and from those opposed to its policies. But sometimes the response to the torrent of hatred comes out as bloated self-aggrandizement in which every positive must be magnified and used as an anchor in rebuttal.
For those who feel that Israel is a small country, with flaws, that sometimes does extraordinary things, the debate around the country can sometimes feel like a very lonesome space.