+972 Magazine » Dahlia Scheindlin http://972mag.com Independent commentary and news from Israel & Palestine Wed, 10 Feb 2016 22:09:54 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8 Israeli Polls: Jews want to ignore the conflict, Arabs think nothing will change http://972mag.com/israeli-polls-jews-want-to-ignore-the-conflict-arabs-think-nothing-will-change/116918/ http://972mag.com/israeli-polls-jews-want-to-ignore-the-conflict-arabs-think-nothing-will-change/116918/#comments Wed, 10 Feb 2016 15:58:16 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=116918 The majority of Jewish Israelis think the international community will impose some sort of ‘substantial pressure’ on Israel soon. But they are disinclined to let such criticism affect the country’s policy.

A section of Israel's separation wall in the West Bank. (Activestills.org)

A section of Israel’s separation wall in the West Bank. (Activestills.org)

A majority of Israelis see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an existential problem, according to January’s monthly Peace Index survey conducted by Tel Aviv University and the Israel Democracy Institute. Indeed, a stabbing a day and a war every two years is no way to live. Yet Israeli Jews regularly vote for parties who perpetuate the same policies, and rarely protest Israel’s military rule over the Palestinian people in any significant numbers.

Spoiler: recent surveys do not solve the puzzle. But they do highlight some of the competing attitudes driving Israeli political behavior.


When asked if the conflict can continue more or less like today without threatening Israel’s security or existence, 52 percent of the public disagreed in the Peace Index poll. Among Jewish respondents, fully 61 percent disagree that Israel can live with the conflict as it is today.

Arab respondents (the survey asked just a small sample) saw things very differently: over three-quarters think Israel can continue to live with the status quo. They probably base this on the last 50 years, when Israel has experienced regular injury to its security and existence in the form of wars, terror attacks and perceived international de-legitimization — and nevertheless essentially maintained its grip over the Palestinian people.

Indeed, the Jewish sense of the conflict as a grave threat barely translates into support for changing policies. The backbone of the occupation is Israel’s martial law over Palestinians in the West Bank, implemented through the army and the military courts, whereas Jews in the same territory live under civil law. But when asked about this “unequal application of the law” (referring to the U.S. Ambassador’s recent statement), half of Israeli Jews justify the situation; 40 percent oppose it (the 10 percent remainder who said they don’t know are unlikely to be agitating for change). Among the self-defined right wing, fully two-thirds justify this situation. More striking is that fact that among Jews in general, only 40 percent believe that “unequal application of the law” is the case today and a majority of 53 percent say this is not the case. Yet this is among the most basic facts of the situation – which are are not hidden, but apparently rarely seen.

International pressure

If Israeli Jews do not see the need to change policies of their own accord, will international pressure change anything? Half of Jews do not believe the world will treat Israel like South Africa; 39 percent say it will. Twice as many Arabs (50 percent) believe the world will soon treat Israel like South Africa as those who do not agree (24 percent), according to the Peace Index.

A slightly higher majority, 56 percent of Jews, think the international community will impose some sort of “substantial pressure” on Israel soon. But they are disinclined to let such criticism affect Israeli policy. The same portion of Jews – 56 percent — say Israel should not take international criticism too seriously, for an obvious reason: when asked if such international criticism takes Israeli and Palestinian interests into account equally, fully 82 percent of Jews say it does not. It’s clear which side Jews think the international community favors. Judging from Israel’s (lack of) policy change so far, the majority of Jews will get their wish.

Again, Arab respondents in the Peace Index express the opposite results: nearly 70 percent think Israel should take international criticism seriously, but precisely 70 percent see very low chances that significant pressure will actually happen. Once again, Arab respondents appear to interpret critical measures to date as toothless, and express low hopes for change, apparently based on experience.

What to do about the land?

What then do Israelis think should happen with the entangled people and territories? In recent months, the notion of annexation is increasingly part of the national and media discourse. Government ministers and settler leaders alike now discuss it routinely.

The Peace Index asked if Israel ought to finally annex the territories following nearly 50 years of occupation. Israeli Jews were in a dead heat: 45 percent said that it should, and 45 percent said it shouldn’t. The remainder simply didn’t know. The survey did not ask Arabs. But this general finding accords with a Makor Rishon/Maariv poll from early January showing that 44 percent of the full sample (Arabs and Jews, but only 500 in total) support the gradual extension of Israeli law to “the territories in Judea and Samaria,” although in that Internet poll, 38 percent were opposed and 18 percent didn’t know.

That percentage drops somewhat when the Makor Rishon survey gave greater detail, specifying “all territory in Judea and Samaria” and dropping the word “gradual” – 38 percent support that and nearly half (46 percent) oppose it. Similarly, the idea of annexing Area C (more than half the territory of the West Bank containing most of the settlements) is supported by 34 percent, and 47 percent oppose it.

Annexation is definitively viewed as a right-wing policy: 61 percent of the right in the Makor Rishon survey supported extending Israeli law to all the territory. Typically, young respondents mirror the trends on the right: 60 percent of them support this policy. Between 58 percent and 67 percent of the self-identified left-wing respondents, reported Makor Rishon, opposed applying Israeli civil law to the territories, depending on which specific question was asked.


If Israeli law were extended to all people in the West Bank, there would be de facto annexation. In that case, would Israelis support full democracy, including voting rights? The Peace Index didn’t ask. But it does show that that a strong majority, two thirds of Jews, said that Israel’s hold over the territories today does not prevent it from being a real democracy (76 percent of Arabs think it does prevent democracy). By this logic, one wonders if annexation of the West Bank without voting rights would bother Israelis either.

Even in the more democratic part of the region – “Green Line Israel” – the ingredients and values of democracy are waning. In a January survey for IDF radio among Jews only, 45 percent said they do not support equal rights for Arab citizens of Israel and just 43 percent supported equal rights. The two-point gap is within the margin of error but it does not bode well that more were opposed to equal rights than supportive. Perhaps one slight silver lining is that only about one-fifth (roughly 20 percent) of Israelis define themselves as left-wing in most surveys, and even fewer among Jews. Therefore, a large portion of equality-supporters must hail from the center or the right.

Jews are still apparently concerned for democracy. In the IDF radio poll, a strong majority, 69 percent, say that Netanyahu’s multiple ministerial positions harms Israeli democracy. Twice as many Jews prefer Israel to be more democratic than Jewish (33 percent), compared to those who wish it was more Jewish and less democratic (17 percent). But in a survey of Israeli Jews for the pro-Netanyahu paper Israel Hayom, over 90 percent supported some sort of action against Arab parliamentarians who met this week with the families of terrorists – either expelled from Knesset or prosecuting them. This week, the MKs were suspended, so the respondents (partially and temporarily) got their wish.

In my reading of public opinion, the various findings reflect a consistent central narrative in the Israeli (Jewish) public mind: the conflict is awful, but it is primarily the Palestinians’ fault and there is nothing Israel can do to change the underlying cause. We keep our sanity by trying not to think about it or know too much. Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. Settlements and politics have totally obscured the Green Line, but we can draw it again every time we wish to point out how democratic the country is, looking here and never there. We erase the line at all other times. There is some concern for the democratic institutions of society such as concentration of executive power; but the moment Palestinians or Arabs are brought into the debate, the principles related to democratic governance vanish.

In the coming days I will write an update of Palestinian public opinion based on recent surveys. The sample information for the surveys cited here as made available in media reports appears below.

Peace Index: n=600 (Jews and Arabs), telephone survey, 26-28 January 2016. Data collection: Midgam Research. Margin of error: +/-4.1 percent

IDF Radio: n=503 (Jews only), published 19 January, no methodology or margin of error reported.

Maariv/Makor Rishon: n=511 (Jews and Arabs). Data collection: Panels Politics.  Published 8 January 2016. No methodology or margin of error reported.

Israel Hayom: n=500 (Jews only). Published 8 February, 2016. No methodology reported. Margin of error: +/-4.4 percent.

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Stop asking whether Israel is Jewish or democratic http://972mag.com/stop-asking-whether-israel-is-jewish-or-democratic/116240/ http://972mag.com/stop-asking-whether-israel-is-jewish-or-democratic/116240/#comments Sun, 24 Jan 2016 17:47:08 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=116240 This isn’t a choice between ‘Jewish or democratic’ — the only question is whether Israel can still become a true democracy.

Supporters of Labor and Tzipi Livni’s ‘Zionist Camp’ at a rally calling to oust Prime Minister Netanyahu, Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, March 7, 2015. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Supporters of Labor and Tzipi Livni’s ‘Zionist Camp’ at a rally calling to oust Prime Minister Netanyahu, Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, March 7, 2015. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

For some years, the political center-left in Israel has committed itself to the idea of a Jewish and democratic state. For these mostly secular and traditional people, “Jewish” used to mean some sort of cultural character, and democracy meant free and fair elections.

This political camp is deeply committed to the balance between those two ideas and believes that when one overtakes the other, we are lost.


Thus if Israel is too “Jewish,” it risks becoming a halakhic caliphate that makes a secular or flexible lifestyle impossible. Sunday’s revelation that the Education Ministry froze funds intended for organizations promoting religious pluralism is one more worrying sign.

The center-left is just as worried about too much democracy, whose natural end-point is full equality of individual and political rights, representation and opportunity regardless of ethnicity. But liberal Zionists do want Hannukah and they don’t want an Arab prime minister, though they feel impolite saying so. So they support democracy but also its limitation to ensure Jewish political, institutional, cultural, and economic dominance.

To resolve this contradiction the center-left has embraced the cause of a Jewish majority in Israel. Some years ago I asked center-left focus groups what a “Jewish state” meant to them and a consensus quickly emerged: “it boils down to a Jewish majority” — since we agree on so little else about what “Jewish” might mean. Thus the idea of “Jewish and democratic” is more accurately translated to “Jewish majority and a democratic state.”

When it became clear that a peace process didn’t automatically translate into security, the “Jewish and democratic” narrative replaced “peace for security” as the Left’s major justification for the two-state solution, in which an end to the occupation and a return to 1967 borders would guarantee greater numbers of Jews in the state.

A Palestinian shepherd tends his flocks near the Israeli separation wall close to the Bethlehem checkpoint, August 25, 2012. The Israeli barrier and settlements have rendered 85% of Bethlehem Governorate's agricultural lands off-limits to Palestinian use. (photo: RRB/Activestills.org)

A Palestinian shepherd tends his flocks near the Israeli separation wall close to the Bethlehem checkpoint, August 25, 2012.(photo: RRB/Activestills.org)

Then the Right created one state. With some help from the Left over the years — especially when it came to settlements — the Right has erased the Green Line, and made it unlikely Israel will ever extract itself from the West Bank. The old ‘67 borders have stretched their limbs, normalizing the large settlements blocs outside of Jerusalem, extending conceptually to include Ariel, a settlement of 18,000 people located deep inside the West Bank. Not a day goes by without talk of annexing the West Bank’s Area C (under full Israeli military and civil control) – including from cabinet ministers such as the deputy foreign minister, education and agriculture ministers. It’s only a small leap to annexing everything.

Today Israel controls roughly 6 million Palestinians, but only 1.7 million of them enjoy full civil rights — on paper, at least. All the rest are under complete Israeli control  — including Gaza, as a UN Commission following the last war pointed out. The U.S. ambassador let Israel off easy by observing its different standards of law enforcement for Israeli citizens and Palestinian subjects. Physical segregation is the reigning ethos.

What’s odd is that certain voices continue to portray this present as if it is still in the future. An otherwise laudable New York Times editorial this weekend observed that the two-state solution might just be threatened due to the facts on the ground – in language so tentative that the writers appear to be describing some other land.

Similarly, the Israeli-Jewish political center and left-wing camps continue to address the fear of losing a Jewish majority sometime in the future. It is as if we are middle-aged folks who cannot look in the mirror to see that we’ve thickened at the middle and our youthful size six clothes have been slowly replaced. The body filling up the current size 10 has changed: the Jewish and Arab populations are roughly equal. It doesn’t matter whether we lament or celebrate this fact, and it hardly even matters who is to blame for how we got here.

What matters is the temporal truth: the Jewish majority is gone in the present, not the future. The distinction between the West Bank and “Israel proper” is gone.

So is there any way in which Israel is still a Jewish state? Absolutely. It is Jewish in terms of political, military, civic and economic power. It is Jewish in terms of narratives, through education and culture and the preferential treatment afforded to those born Jewish. It is Jewish in terms of those who makes laws and policy, Jewish in terms of who enjoys legal protections, and of course standards of law enforcement, as the ambassador correctly observed — a factual observation that Israel’s leaders do not wish to be spoken.

In other words, Israel is Jewish in all the ways that it is unequal. “Jewish state” no longer means Jewish majority. It has become a euphemism for permanent institutionalized inequalities, ethnic violence against Palestinians that flows directly from those institutions, and segregation.

The relevant question for the future is no longer whether the two-state solution is viable. It is whether the various territories under Israeli control will remain non-democratic – segregated and unequal – or turn to democracy.  There are still robust institutions of a democratic state somewhere between the river and the sea, but they are increasingly compromised. Unless political leaders embrace the erstwhile ambition of being a democracy in the Middle East, they won’t last.

This isn’t a choice between “Jewish or democratic.” That equation has become a psycholinguistic mechanism of telling lies to ourselves. The only question is “democratic or non-democratic.”

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How to mourn terror victims as a leftist http://972mag.com/how-to-mourn-terror-victims-as-a-leftist/116097/ http://972mag.com/how-to-mourn-terror-victims-as-a-leftist/116097/#comments Tue, 19 Jan 2016 17:56:16 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=116097 Leftists always worry that the Right will exploit violence to advance its political agenda, so we remain silent. The Left needs to learn how to mourn while rejecting the political programs of our leaders — and even the victims.

Israeli Jews at the scene of an attempted stabbing in Beit Shemesh, outside of Jerusalem, October 22, 2015. The two suspected Palestinian attackers were shot by Israeli police. (Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

The scene of a stabbing attack in the city of Beit Shemesh, west of Jerusalem, October 22, 2015. (Activestills.org)

On Sunday, Dafna Meir, mother of six was murdered in her West Bank home with three of her children nearby, allegedly by a 16-year old Palestinian stabber. On Monday, a young pregnant woman was stabbed in her West Bank settlement of Tekoa; she is in stable condition. These attacks against unarmed civilians are unambiguously, absolutely and completely wrong.

There is no international convention for war or peacetime to condone such acts, and no justification of human morality. Not even the brutal instrumentality of politics defends attacks that are guaranteed to set back any national or collective goals. The occupation did not cause this 16 year old to kill Meir; the proof is that the vast majority of people living under Israeli occupation are not doing such things. The victims must be mourned and the killings condemned on an individual basis.


But there is more than an individual human side. Like it or not, these acts do have political meaning as well and they highlight how key political actors think at present.

As often happens, the Jewish-Israeli Left becomes mealy-mouthed when faced with such violence. I know why: we already know how the violence will be manipulated in the service of the Right, exploited to entrench the conditions we deeply believe perpetuate violence in general. We feel the Israeli media has overdosed on Jewish victimization for as long we’ve been conscious and we see how this is destroying both sides. We hate adding to it.

I believe it is our responsibility to swallow these bitter truths and speak out anyway — Bradley Burston has done so nobly. Disavowing such acts must be part of our embrace of universal humanity as well as an affirmation of our own moral guidelines.

Both Jews and Palestinians who oppose the occupation must be very honest and resist any subtle legitimization of violence against settlers. The creeping sense that settlers are not civilians and they are legitimate targets for violence must be rejected.

I don’t mind being called all sorts of names related to privilege, violence against unarmed settlers is not defensible in any way. Settlement in occupied areas violates international law but it is also a violation of international law to harm people — including settlers – who are not in uniform, not armed, not actively engaged in battle, and who do not pose an imminent threat to someone’s life.

Both the Jewish and Palestinian Left could do better.

But the Israeli Right’s exploitation of the death is intolerable. The blood had not even dried before Israeli politicians have pounced on her memory to dismiss criticism, justify violence against Palestinians, perpetuate political wrongs, and deepen them.

Thus, when U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro points out that there are two standards of law enforcement in the West Bank, Prime Minister Netanyahu waved the attacks in his face like a flag. “On the day that a murdered mother of six is buried and a pregnant woman is stabbed, [the Ambassador’s observations] are not acceptable and not correct,” said Netanyahu’s office in a statement. If he didn’t want such statements on the very day of her funeral, the conference where the Ambassador spoke should have been canceled. Instead, every other kind of policy conversation was deemed acceptable on that day, just not ones the prime minister doesn’t wish to hear, about policies he wishes to perpetuate.

Naftali Bennett also shamelessly paraded the death around on his Facebook page to encourage settlement. “We are all settlers,” he crowed on his page, before laying the cornerstone for a new high school dormitory in Otniel where she died. “Do not talk. Take action,” he wrote.

Now, it is true that Dafna Meir politicized her life by living deep inside the West Bank. But I reject the idea that mourning her death demands adopting her political platform.

So do Israelis. Ariana Melamed wrote a powerful and simple truth in Haaretz: 95 percent of Israelis have rejected settlement with their feet, despite the most enticing temptations the government can offer: cheap land, numerous tax exemptions, a disappearing Green Line. So Bennett may spew sickly platitudes like “life is the answer to terrorism.” But for Israelis, life is not settlement.

Finally, Israel’s Right ignores Palestinians killed by Israel every day. If anything, it justifies those it kills at all costs. The deputy defense minister calls for the expulsion of the Otniel killer’s family, collective punishment just like home demolitions. These actions are unimaginable for Jewish perpetrators. (To be clear, I wish they would not be used for anyone).

In sum, the Right is using the violence to ignore or justify what is wrong, and make the political circumstances worse. More Israelis and more Palestinians will suffer.

The role of the Left is to maintain our humanity and integrity by mourning the violence while rejecting the political program of the victim and our leaders. There is no historical imperative to advance those politics to honor the dead. After all, the country mourned Yitzhak Rabin for decades while throwing his political program in the bin.

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Israel’s volunteer thought-police http://972mag.com/israels-volunteer-thought-police/115972/ http://972mag.com/israels-volunteer-thought-police/115972/#comments Fri, 15 Jan 2016 17:10:13 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=115972 Right-wing activists have been infiltrating human rights and anti-occupation organizations. The spies did do serious damage, but to a much bigger target than they intended: Israeli society.

‘Ad Kan’ undercover agent Amir Beit Arieh speaking to Channel 2 about infiltrating left-wing organizations. (Screenshot)

‘Ad Kan’ undercover agent Amir Beit Arieh speaking to Channel 2 about infiltrating left-wing organizations. (Screenshot)

Two weeks ago I wrote about a right-wing group trying to recruit people to a “top secret” mission: spying on left-wing organizations in Israel. The outfit was largely a one-man show. I thought it was a colorful but probably not very serious example of the latest “hasbara” antics – propaganda or public diplomacy – gone too far.


I was naïve. Two weeks later, we learned that right-wing impostors have been infiltrating, befriending and filming  left-wing organizations for several years. Israel’s vaunted investigative news program “Uvda” aired a damning story about far left-wing activist Ezra Nawi based on the documentation of such self-anointed spies. Breaking the Silence, the ex-soldiers’ testimonial organization, found another mole who had burrowed into its inner circle as well. The daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot ran a lengthy spread revealing (rather banal) details of a meeting the group held with former director-general of the Foreign Ministry and retired ambassador Alon Liel.

Amir Beit Arieh, the young man who had spied on Breaking the Silence, told Channel 2 this week that the goal was to trap those on the far left “who will stop at nothing,” he says, to end to the occupation.

So infiltration is no longer a threat but a reality. What do we need to know about this, and what does it mean?

Tripping themselves up

First, it’s important to understand who the spies are. Beyond their personal background, Walla news portal reported this week that their organization, “Ad Kan” is funded partly by the “Samaria Settlers’ Committee.” That’s the same group which in 2015 created an eerie youtube ad attacking the foreign funding of left-wing NGOs, replete with Nazi-era anti-Semitic caricatures and a gruesome hanging at the end.

The Committee is also a partially publicly funded organization – so Israeli taxpayers are likely paying to send citizens to spy on each other. How much? The Walla reporter didn’t know yet. Which is odd, considering how important financial transparency is for the Right.

This highlights the next point, that right-wing activists are turning out contradictions that could also be described as screaming hypocrisies. The arrest and indictment of murder suspects in the Duma case led the Right in Israel to express unprecedented concern for human and civil rights. Torture, it turns out, is a bad thing when right-wing suspects have to endure it.

The spy ring’s crowning achievement was to capture veteran activist Ezra Nawi boasting that he would turn over a Palestinian land broker to the Palestinian authorities, who he suggests might torture and kill the broker for selling land to Jews. Never has such somber concern been heard for the life of a Palestinian from the Right. Amir, the Ad Kan spy interviewed on Channel 2, spoke with gravitas how their people passed the information to the police. He seemed surprised nothing had happened. Why, I never knew you cared.

The right-wing organization, ‘Ad Kan,’ sent its employees to infiltrate human rights organizations and record their every move with hidden cameras. The man on the left is the ‘infiltrator,’ Ezra Nawi is on the right. (Screenshot)

The right-wing organization, ‘Ad Kan,’ sent its employees to infiltrate human rights organizations and record their every move with hidden cameras. The man on the left is the ‘infiltrator,’ Ezra Nawi is on the right. (Screenshot)

One must also be aware that nothing actually happened to the land broker, or apparently to anyone else, as a result of Ezra Nawi’s mouthing off. After two years, an undisclosed amount of funding and who knows how many moles, all the spies found were distasteful statements in a private conversation by a known lefty eccentric who has no trouble getting into trouble – and getting found out - all by himself. When asked if they had uncovered anything really unkosher about the organizations he spied on, Amir tried to gaze meaningfully at the interviewer as he said “not everything we’ve collected has been released yet.” But he looked like an acting student who hadn’t gotten meaningful gazes down well.

Meanwhile, the Right publishes videos on YouTube inciting violence against human rights workers, viewed by tens of thousands. Its extremists kill sleeping families with babies and murder teenagers through the preferred method of burning alive, while its spokespeople accuse the Left of “stopping at nothing” to end the occupation.

These irreconcilable contradictions lead me to wonder if the Right is starting confuse even itself. Several of the infiltrators stated on news programs that after joining left-wing activists they learned that the latter are genuine people who believe in their cause, not “monsters,” and that the IDF does some pretty bad things to Palestinians in the field as well. Lying and spying does not do wonders for their own credibility; what’s confusing is that they seem to know it. The Channel 2 reporter asked Amir why he should believe his statement that the infiltration has ended and Amir admits “you’re right. You can’t believe me.”

The vanity project and the boring Left

So the Left turns out to be more boring – and more genuine – than its detractors would have liked.

So are the spies. Far from showing any plucky Israeli genius or originality, they chose the oldest tactic in the book. The American civil rights and anti-war movements in the 1960s were riddled with infiltrators, mostly operated by the FBI and the military.

These are individual citizens – for lack of a better term, hacks. What did they hope to accomplish? Given that they are spying on organizations whose mission is to raise awareness about the occupation, and who irritate Israeli society primarily by refusing to shut up, the idea of exposing untold secrets seems an unlikely prospect in hindsight. And since the infiltrators weren’t sent or being handled by some actual spy agency, it looks an awful lot like these people are seeking adventure – and attention.

They got on national TV, knowing the power of grainy hidden camera footage to turn utterly boring sentences into headlines when backed by ominous music. For two years they stuffed their egos with the conviction that they were doing something important, something no one actually asked them to do. This is not a Zionist project; it is a vanity project.

These great big ideologues didn’t even take real risks. They hung out with a bunch of lefties.

Israel pays the price

So what harm did the spy-ruse actually do? And where will it end? It is easy to claim that if the Left has nothing to hide, it has nothing to fear. That’s naïve. The spies did do serious damage, to a much bigger target than they intended. The real victim is Israeli society.

Yes, the infiltrators can take some credit for adding another layer of stress for left-wing organizations. Everyone knows a quote can be taken out of context and we all speak cautiously when “on record.” Left wingers must now be permanently on their guard, triple check everything said in a private conversation, when telling jokes, blowing off steam, voicing irreverent opinions or anything else.

In addition to the herculean task of changing Israeli policy, activists must now divert attention and resources to ferreting out moles and responding to publicity about the moles instead of opposing the occupation.

But the most disturbing part of the story for me is that these are our people, civilians, not the government or intelligence agencies (who most of us assume already snoop). I view these spying antics as a new predator in the war on minds.

I have written before that hasbara is dangerous, not so much because of right-wing positions on Israel, but because in its name people are trained to think in constrained, persuasion-oriented, message-box mentalities that cannot be limited to the topic of Israel only.

The “top secret hasbara agent” project was an eerie extreme: it trains people just to insinuate the Right’s messaging in normal conversations in daily life, absent of any framework. So people willingly program their own conversational paths not only on hasbara missions, or as employees of the Foreign Ministry, but with friends, family and colleagues. At the dinner table.

The spying revealed this week gives us a glimpse of something even worse: a society of people who not only self-program their own thoughts, but willingly police those of others. A society in which anyone drinking coffee at a nearby table, sitting down the hall at work or on the bus or on line at the bank might be secretly filming your politically unpalatable words and who knows, maybe your thoughts, too, for that scandalous headline on the nightly news. All it takes is a grainy film and some ominous music. Who needs the headache? Perhaps it’s better not to think those thoughts at all.

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‘If I hadn’t been inside, it would’ve been over for me’ http://972mag.com/if-i-hadnt-been-inside-it-wouldve-been-over-for-me/115501/ http://972mag.com/if-i-hadnt-been-inside-it-wouldve-been-over-for-me/115501/#comments Fri, 01 Jan 2016 17:10:34 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=115501 Witnesses describe panic and near-misses when a shooter opened fire in central Tel Aviv killing two. News channels and social media were rife with rumors and speculation as police urged calm.

Central Tel Aviv’s posh Dizengoff Street was packed with weekend shoppers and people strolling, and drinking coffee or beers Friday afternoon when a gunman opened fire on a sidewalk pub, killing two people and wounded seven others.

The shooter, who had not yet been identified at the time of this report, was still on the loose. Heavily armed police and special forces were conducting house-to-house searches in the area, a search that only expanded into the evening.

Israeli police conduct house-to-house searches for the shooter who killed two people on Tel Aviv's Dizengof St., January 1, 2016. (Dahlia Scheindlin)

Israeli police conduct house-to-house searches for the shooter who killed two people on Tel Aviv’s Dizengof St., January 1, 2016. (Dahlia Scheindlin)

CCTV video of the shooting shows a group young people sitting close together at high bar tables as a man emerges into the frame with an automatic weapon and opens fire. Another video, filmed inside a health food store next door, shows the shooter ambling around, picking up some nuts and putting them back, and calmly pulling an automatic weapon out of his backpack, stepping outside and beginning to shoot.

Witnesses said they heard long seconds of rapid gunfire and bolted for cover.

Noga Keren, a 46-year-old investment manager for a philanthropic fund, was at the “Sidewalk” café on the corner of Dizengoff. She pointed to a wooden bench inside the glass-enclosed section of the café. A single bullet hole had pierced the glass. “I was sitting on the bench. If I hadn’t been inside, it would have been over for me,” she said. She and her companions saw a man with a weapon rush around the corner as they hit the ground, then a minute later they fled inside. “It’s a tough feeling,” she said. “you just can’t imagine yourself in a situation like this.”

“I was sitting on the bench. If I hadn’t been inside, it would have been over for me,” Dizengoff, Tel Aviv, January 1, 2016. (Dahlia Scheindlin)

“I was sitting on the bench. If I hadn’t been inside, it would have been over for me,” Dizengoff, Tel Aviv, January 1, 2016. (Dahlia Scheindlin)

Alexandre Lambez, a 27 year old visiting from France, said he was in another nearby café when he heard the gunfire, and he was still in shock. His family moved to Bat Yam, a suburb south of Tel Aviv, three years ago and he was here for a wedding. He worried about the implications: “It looks like a dark future,” he said.

An employee in a large drugstore across the street from the shootings said the shop was full of customers, who panicked. Catching her breath as she spoke, she related: “Everyone ran downstairs to the storage room, lots of them, many of them were young girls who started to cry, they were hysterical. What could I do? I gave them water and my phone so they could call their mothers.” A customer said about 15 people took cover upstairs in the pharmaceutical section as well.

About 20 minutes after the incident, shoppers who had hidden in the drugstore were still filing out with stricken faces. Other businesses were crowded with people who had taken cover, waiting among the turmoil of police vans, convoys of public buses that had frozen along Dizengoff, medics, ambulances, crowds of onlookers and photographers. Security forces ran up and down the street, cordoning off one section after another and imploring people to step behind police tape lines.

Police forensic officers, spokespeople and commanders at the scene of the shooting attack on Tel Aviv's Dizengoff's Street, January 1, 2015. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Police forensic officers, spokespeople and commanders at the scene of the shooting attack on Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff’s Street, January 1, 2015. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Helicopters flew overhead, marked and unmarked police vans hurtled through the small streets around Dizengoff Street, the city’s main drag as the manhunt got under way. A seige mentality set in as businesses shut down, frightened residents peered out of windows or wandered out in slippers trying to comprehend the situation, and scurried back inside. Police published numerous messages urging the public to go on with their routine as usual, however, dismissing rumors that they had ordered residents to stay indoors.

The shooter’s motive was still not known, and for hours police gave no formal indication about whether it was a criminal attack, or “nationalist” – the national term for a politically-motivated, or terror attack.

But security officials interviewed on Israeli media were inclined to treat it as terrorism, in part because the shooter did not appear to direct his fire at one specific target, as might be expected in an organized crime hit. One television reporter spoke of the influence of ISIS in the style of the attack — although a random street shooting might just as likely recall everyday incidents in the United States.

Later in the evening, Israel’s Channel 10 identified the shooter as an Arab citizen of Israel from the north of the country, adding that the man’s father turned him in to authorities when he recognized him on CCTV footage published in the media. There was no immediate confirmation of that report.

Amir Ohana, the newest Likud member of Knesset and the first openly gay lawmaker from the socially conservative party, did take a page from the U.S. gun debate and told Channel 1 that more armed citizens could have helped contain the attack. However, Haaretz quoted the owner of the bar that was hit, saying that several people on the scene carried pistols, but didn’t return fire for whatever reason. It is possible that the speed and shock left civilians, who are not trained to handle such situations, unable to react in time.

Police spokespeople and the Tel Aviv Municipality repeatedly communicated that residents can be outside but are advised to “be extra alert.” Many residents apparently wish to stay in, however, and one moviegoer told Ynet that ushers had told them to stay put after the film. However, despite the panic and buzz, a certain knowing atmosphere hung over the streets, below the heavy storm clouds and behind people’s descriptions, as if even residents of Tel Aviv – what some call a “bubble” – were not entirely surprised.

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Hasbara group wants you to infiltrate human rights NGOs http://972mag.com/hasbara-group-wants-you-to-infiltrate-human-rights-ngos/115376/ http://972mag.com/hasbara-group-wants-you-to-infiltrate-human-rights-ngos/115376/#comments Wed, 30 Dec 2015 22:50:32 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=115376 A private, low-profile ‘public diplomacy’ outfit is setting out to train ‘Secret Hasbara Agents.’ But don’t worry, it’s not propaganda.

Screenshot of an email from "The Centre for Public Diplomacy"

Screenshot of an email from “The Centre for Public Diplomacy”

A private Israeli hasbara – or “public diplomacy” – organization on Wednesday put out one of the weirdest responses yet to the incitement campaign by far-right group Im Tirzu of two weeks ago.


The original Im Tirzu campaign described Israeli human rights advocates as “planted” agents serving foreign agendas because the organizations they work for receive funds from European governments.

The response ad published on Wednesday called for — presumably right-wing — Israelis to be “planted” inside the “plants,” a reference to the human rights organizations Im Tirzu put in its cross-hairs.

The ad says that following Im Tirzu’s report, the “Centre for Public Diplomacy and Hasbara” is organizing a “reprisal action” against the human rights groups. It wants to encourage people to apply for jobs at the human rights organizations in order to “oppose the dissemination of their lies.”

Cadets in our secret hasbara agent training course will track the wanted ads of these organizations and publish them, with the goal of “planting” employees there who will oppose the dissemination of lies about Israel abroad.

Yes. The Centre for Public Diplomacy & Hasbara runs a program, according to its website, to train “Secret Hasbara Agents,” who become “certified” – it’s not clear by whom – to the “Secret Hasbara Agent Network.”

Participants of the course will be sent on “missions abroad.” Moreover, the website promises they will earn a “big reputation as graduates of an elite, prestigious and impressive program from the Centre…”

The “secret agent network” and the ad for the “reprisal operation” marked “top secret” were published on the organization’s web page, as well as its founder’s Facebook and Twitter feeds.

The organization is the brainchild of an attorney named Davidi Hermelin. The “contact us” section of the website lists his mobile phone number. Hermelin has served as chair of the Young Likud committee, he made a run for Knesset, and consults for certain government agencies.

Asked by phone what exactly the concept of “secret agents” means, Hermelin explained to +972 Magazine that his approach is not to engage in hasbara proper or even necessarily Israel-related forums. Instead, the workshops offer participants a range of topics about Israel that they can select for training.

The courses “stress complexity,” he emphasizes. They are not trying to convince participants or their future audiences of any given position. He just wants them to know the facts on any given issue, and have the skills to convey their own ideas.

His example is a lengthy explanation of why Jews in Israel have the exclusive right to settle all the land west of the Jordan river under international law — “by contrast to the other bon ton explanations in the media about international law. They’re just not correct,” he says.

Once participants have completed the course, Hermelin’s organization then actively seeks out any type of forum for the graduates — about 100 since he began in early 2014, he says — to attend abroad. The goal is for them to just interact at these conferences, seminars, or gatherings, to raise conversations spontaneously, prompt questions and then give the answers with the skills and facts they have learned.

Hermelin says that the “plants in the plants” initiative is not meant only for trained members of his workshops, but for anyone: “a broad range of people who don’t want Israel to be presented wrong.”

The ad is currently running links to the employment opportunities page of veteran Israeli NGO “HaMoked – Center for the Defense of the Individual,” which protects Palestinians from occupation-related human rights violations.

The ad also contains the sentence: “Our goal is not to sabotage the activities of the ‘plants’ themselves…but to prevent the false defamation of Israel, to the countries of the world, particularly with foreign government funding.”

The page also reminds “friends” of the organization to avoid breaking Israeli law.


It might tempting to dismiss the organization as an eccentric one-man show, but for some very serious implications.

First, the existence of this “Centre,” however off-grid, is part of a frenzy of private hasbara efforts. It is part of the national obsession with propaganda fostered and funded by the government through numerous bodies, public and private. The Israeli Foreign Ministry itself functions largely as a Ministry of Hasbara these days. As I have argued, this hasbara obsession is damaging to the national psyche, especially when presented as an educational endeavor to shape the thinking of young people.

Second, the idea that impostors might apply for jobs in a human rights organization — not as committed employees but to police their activities — is not impossible at all. And what do they mean by “opposing” the dissemination of lies abroad? Would such “planted” employees covertly record conversations? Testify for Im Tirzu’s next report? Create situations to make the organizations look bad, just as Likud MK Oren Hazan tried to do by giving a made-up testimony to Breaking the Silence? Why does Hermelin need to remind interested people to obey the law?

Third, the mechanism of disguise is like a mental double gag order to suppress what hasbara really is. Hermelin says time and again that left and right wingers alike are welcome, he just wants them to know facts — that is, right-wing facts taught by far-right-wing speakers. The ad itself may just be a gimmick, a distraction turning attention to this wacky initiative while the organization is regularly turning out people who are hasbara-ists, but who pretend they are not.

Finally, the whole thing reminds us how easily other groups are jumping onto Im Tirzu’s mission – a proto-fascist organization whose main activity is inciting and threatening civil society, academia and left-wing causes.

Im Tirzu’s report calls for shutting down those civil society organizations altogether. “If the state of Israel wants to continue to exist as an independent, Jewish and democratic state, it has no choice but to dismantle propaganda organizations that work among us and are funded by foreign money.”

Any new partners to this endeavor, eccentrics or not, strengthen the cause.

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Knesset passes dangerous settlement funding law — without a hitch http://972mag.com/knesset-passes-dangerous-settlement-funding-law-without-a-hitch/115318/ http://972mag.com/knesset-passes-dangerous-settlement-funding-law-without-a-hitch/115318/#comments Tue, 29 Dec 2015 11:12:17 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=115318 A new law formalizes the outsourcing of rural settlement activity in the West Bank. A boon to the settlements, a blow to democracy — and the taxpayer.

New housing units at the Israeli settlement of Shilo, Qaryut village, West Bank, June 6, 2015. (Activestills.org)

New housing units at the Israeli settlement of Shilo, Qaryut village, West Bank, June 6, 2015. (Activestills.org)

While Israeli society has been busy with incitement against human rights workers, a baby-killing celebration, and legislation attacking civil society, the Knesset quietly approved a new law last week formalizing the status of the notorious Settlement Division of World Zionist Organization (WZO).

The law authorizes the Israeli government to delegate its policies in the settlements to this outside, private body. Despite an opposition filibuster, the law for legalized policy outsourcing passed in the middle of the night between Wednesday and Thursday.


In February 2015, a damning report by Israel’s deputy attorney general on the shadowy body ordered the state to stop financing the Settlement Division through the national budget, arguing that it was not being held to any normal government standards of operation. Now that the law has passed, the government can fund the Settlement Division freely.

The new law stipulates the Settlement Division will be bound by practices of public bodies such as financial reporting and tender processes, and that it is subject to Israel’s freedom of information laws — but it cannot become a government body.

If that sounds boring and technical, it is meant to be. The Settlement Division has become Israel’s strongest symbol of the impenetrable bureaucracy that entrenches and expands settlements while making its work practically invisible.

It was established in 1971 within the WZO – itself a sprawling, antiquated “nominally private” but in fact quasi-governmental body that houses other major Zionist organizations. The Settlement Division is the vehicle for Israeli government funding and development of “rural settlement” in the West Bank, Golan Heights, and until 2005, Gaza. It is effectively the executive arm for all infrastructure and resource distribution for Jewish-only communities beyond the urban settlement blocs. Its website cheerfully describes its goals as “establishing and strengthening Jewish settlement,” and encouraging their “demographic, economic and social sustainability.”

Israeli right-wing activists are seen at an outpost built in the E1 area of the West Bank, just outside the settlement of Ma'ale Adumim. The outpost was erected in response to the murder of the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers on July 1, 2014. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Israeli right-wing activists are seen at an outpost built in the E1 area of the West Bank, just outside the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. The outpost was erected in response to the murder of the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers on July 1, 2014. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

In 2004, the organization added the Negev and Galilee to its portfolio, perhaps mainly to claim it works for “the periphery” — or underdeveloped areas of Israel proper. But its overwhelming influence is in the settlements. Haaretz‘s Meirav Arlosoroff explains:

The state has virtually privatized management of settling the West Bank (and the Negev and Galilee)…The division is fully responsible for… planning, land allocation, infrastructure, construction of public buildings, security and the allotment of resources to encourage industry or agriculture. In short, all settlement policy in rural Israel is in the hands of the Settlement Division, an agency that’s not a government entity.

Bradley Burston of Haaretz has called the Settlement Division “monumentally shady.” It was not widely known and there was zero oversight over massive public funding it received, which paid for the division itself and salaries of its staff. Arlosoroff reported that the government regularly funneled between NIS 50 and 500 million per year to settlements through this group. Money just poured in through a line item in the state budget without any specification on how to allocate it.

According to the liberal Israeli think tank Molad, the group went beyond settlement activity, using public funds to support Jewish proselytizing groups in Israel, and local branches of Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, including on election day.

But it was recent events that threw the Settlement Division into the national spotlight. In late 2014, Labor MK Stav Shaffir attacked the government for planning to pour NIS 140 million into the division in 2015 – more than doubling its 2014 budget. She was widely lauded for calling out the government’s ruse of hiding its settlement promotion from taxpayers. Weeks later, Arlosoroff reports, the police investigated the division for suspicion of an elaborate bribe-kickback association with Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party.

Labor MK Stav Shaffir (Photo by Activestills.org)

Labor MK Stav Shaffir (Photo by Activestills.org)

Then in February 2015, Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber issued the legal opinion elaborating on the deep secrecy and mismanagement within the division, calling it a “twilight zone” and suspending most of its funding. The report found that the government has essentially absconded from its duty to make and execute policy, an unprecedented situation nurturing what the authors called “structural pathologies” of governance.

The Right wasted no time launching a personal attack on Zilber. The bill that followed was a direct response, and a typical right-wing rejection of the justice system — which may change with Jewish Home’s Ayelet Shaked as justice minister.

Because the law legitimizes the status of this venal body and increases its transparency, it is being spun by sycophants as a valuable regulatory measure. There is even a possible left-wing angle: perhaps it is better to have the government’s true intentions declared in the open, rather than buried in hidden bureaucracies.

Neither interpretation is right. The ultra-nationalist MK who authored the bill, Bezalel Smotrich of the Jewish Home party, views it purely as a triumph of Zionism. Most likely, agriculture minister and settler Uri Ariel, also of the Jewish Home party, is behind the whole initiative, and there is no mistaking his agenda.

Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich seen in Jerusalem's Old City, October 7, 2015. (photo: Faiz Abu-Rmeleh/Activestills.org)

Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich seen in Jerusalem’s Old City, October 7, 2015. (photo: Faiz Abu-Rmeleh/Activestills.org)

The appearance of being more honest about the government’s intentions is a deception. Instead, the law lets the government pay its contractor for expanding the occupation while legally turning blind eye to how it does so. The Settlement Division can still do anything it wants, and receive funds — albeit for specific activities rather than open-ended lines in the state budget — as long as it doesn’t abuse those funds.

Increased transparency of the Settlement Division itself is the nastiest hypocrisy. The law specifies that finances, tenders, contracts are subject to Israel’s freedom of information law. The clause silently leaves out the division’s most important role of all: distribution of land. Why is this one aspect exempt from freedom of information laws? Smotrich was quoted (by an opposition figure, written into the Knesset protocol) as openly telling the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee that land distribution must remain secret – because he doesn’t want these decisions available to Peace Now, which tracks settlement building in the West Bank.

The law was intended to expand the breadth and quality of life for Jews in the occupied territories while keeping the stateless Palestinians of that land permanently imprisoned under martial law.

It was intended to legalize policymaking and implementation that bypasses all normal checks and balances that regular ministries would be subject to in a democracy. It replicates Netanyahu’s own style of governance: he holds five or six ministries depending on the day, and still uses clauses in the law to bypass government regulations — to appear democratic while acting authoritarian.

The public’s acceptance and downright silence on both aspects are perhaps the most troubling.

And the most ironic aspect is this: Israelis are up in arms about foreign governments funding left-wing groups. But they clearly don’t mind funding the extreme right, and permanent occupation, including its more violent elements, with their very own taxes.

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All I want for Christmas I found in the Tel Aviv market http://972mag.com/all-i-want-for-christmas-i-found-in-the-tel-aviv-market/115220/ http://972mag.com/all-i-want-for-christmas-i-found-in-the-tel-aviv-market/115220/#comments Sat, 26 Dec 2015 16:17:02 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=115220 A simple walk through the market is all it took to remind me what has changed over the years, why even walking through the market isn’t simple, and to stir up some surprising optimism.

Jewish Israeli friends were having a Christmas dinner, and I wanted to buy some good vegetables for my modest contribution. So I went to the shuk for the first time in ages yesterday, on Christmas.

In my first years after moving to Israel, I used to revel in the romantic grit of the Tel Aviv shuk. By contrast to Jerusalem’s renovated market, it is unreformed. The place has been wallowing in dirt for decades. The walls, shops, grills, grates, wagons and tables are all colored a crumbling gray-brown. The ground runs with a rotted vegetable muck.

It was a bright December day, the kind of mild loveliness that reminds me why I live here.

Against the dirty-bland palette, produce was bursting off tables like a color storm. Tomatoes glowed; light filtering in through the narrow line of sky above the alley turned yellow peppers into flames. Huge bushes of fresh green herbs created scented clouds of cilantro and basil. When I pass by these, I am prone to momentary fantasies of jumping inside the invisible cloud and inhaling forever.

Edging through the packed Friday crowd, the market became a landscape of nostalgia. In those early years, I embraced my move from the US by visiting the shuk regularly, although it was far from my first neighborhood. I was dazzled by the farm-to-table sensation before the term had been invented, having left a country where food felt frozen and soulless – symbolizing how I felt about the move in general.

I had been captivated by Israel because in general I felt life to be closer to nature and the spirit of things, more raw, less packaged. Just a few days after I arrived as an olah, I found myself talking with my then sister-in-law, about why we had moved. My ex and I spoke passionately about how the US felt plastic, and Israel felt real. His sister had also immigrated some years back; she though we were idealizing. We argued so vociferously that at the end, her toddler piped up: “plastic, plastic.” She laughed and hugged her kid. I remember thinking that she felt the baby saw through us, and that she thought the kid was right.

Back in the shuk, my mind was now reflexively mapping out the places that were once my regular stops: The lady who sells spongy Yemenite lahuh bread. The nuts, seeds and spices shop had a dish of candied pecans out for sampling – they used to be my greatest guilty pleasure, but they are too sweet now for my older palate.

Though I hadn’t planned to stop at those bygone  places, I got a wave of comfort to see that they were still there, even as hipster pubs and organic shops have opened up beside them. I don’t mind, actually. The market just feels more jolly.

But the soothing wave of familiarity made me realize how much else has changed – not the shuk, but me.

Of course I romanticized the country back then; I knew it on some level even then. I don’t blame myself. If not in my 20s, then when?

It’s not that I glossed over problems at that time either. But now I find myself treating even the great weather at Christmastime and mouthwatering produce as an unjustified indulgence. I had allowed myself to believe for a moment that at last here was something everyone in the region must be enjoying simultaneously –we share the sunshine and strawberries. But that reminded me that we share nothing at all. Mine is the joy of certainty and stability. Years go by, but on any given day, I can go where I want, do what I want, buy what I want, work or study as I want, and others cannot.

The price of my joy is that someone else may or may not be able to go where she wants – she can never know. Maybe she can travel, maybe not. Maybe there will be a destruction order on her house, or her brother will be detained indefinitely. Maybe a war will destroy her entire apartment building. Or perhaps none of these will happen and she’ll live sort of normally, developing regular dreams like taking a trip, studying in another part of the country, opening a business; only to have to fight bureaucracies for days, weeks, months and years, to do things I take for granted. Maybe she’ll give up.

Maybe one night a unit of six or seven soldiers in full battle gear will enter her family’s home at 2am, throw all their belongings on the floor searching for something – the soldiers themselves are not sure what – then photograph everyone, take down names and ID numbers, interrogate and record meticulous details of the family – knowing all the while that they are unrelated to terror or violent activity. That’s what Nadav, a Breaking the Silence leader, told an audience in Tel Aviv two days ago that he had done in the army. He rushed to his superiors with the photos he had been ordered to take, and waited for a commander to ask for the memory card. “I was sure we had Bin Laden on that memory card,” he said. No one cared. All the material was eventually discarded. The order had been part of a policy of “demonstrating our presence” – lehafgin nohahut.

They call me a bleeding heart for letting such thoughts mar a gorgeous Christmas day when I could be enjoying something that everyone here can enjoy – they have markets too – without worrying about the occupation.

We are called traitors, anti-Semites, foreign agents, terrorist supporters, mocked or threatened for remembering these things.

We are called those things no matter what we do or think about the problem. If we talk at home, no one listens. If we talk abroad, we are neglecting our own or airing dirty laundry. If we criticize, we are traitors or self-deluding occupiers; if we don’t we are just occupiers. If we criticize but we can’t solve the problem, we are useless, but all the solutions we propose – 1, 2 states or everything in between – are rejected. If we seek to advance these ideas politically, not enough people will vote for us, if we remain mainstream, the policy won’t change.

Those thoughts began to weigh heavier on me than 2.5 kilograms of beets in my bags. Then something about the sunlight and the colors, or maybe it was the fresh carrot and pomegranate elixir I had drunk along my walk, that made a different vision form before my eyes.

It was the same shuk. But I realized that the market is no longer just the Israeli version of the traditional Middle Eastern shuk from my early years. The subtle changes and additions I had been eyeing all along suddenly gelled into an oddball blend all its own: shopkeepers whining songs in Arab Mizrahi tropes, improvising funny rhyming lyrics designed to sell their wares, pressed up against grungy beer joints tucked in for the hipsters. The Asian food shop faces down the Russian place across the way that sells lots of traif meat. The nuts and seeds shop is run by a man with a Bukharin embroidered kippa, and the butcher is shouting to his Filippino customers about chicken, in English: “you want 1 kilo? Or two kilo? Which you want?”

It was a shuk stretching its limbs and expanding its borders. The cultural color now runs as rich as the blood-red pomegranate seeds. A stir of creativity fluttered briefly in my stomach. One day, I imagined, there will be room for all the cultures and people – even those who are already here.

]]> http://972mag.com/all-i-want-for-christmas-i-found-in-the-tel-aviv-market/115220/feed/ 5 The woman trying to make Israel equal http://972mag.com/the-woman-trying-to-make-israel-equal/115051/ http://972mag.com/the-woman-trying-to-make-israel-equal/115051/#comments Wed, 23 Dec 2015 13:17:07 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=115051 For the past eight years Equal Employment Commissioner Tziona Koenig-Yair has fought dozens of employers discriminating against minorities, rolled out creative new tools for fighting the gender wage gap, and much more. In an interview with +972, she discusses affirmative action, the role of societal racism in the labor market, and her hopes for equal opportunity in Israel.

Tziona Koenig-Yair (Photo by Yossi Zamir)

Tziona Koenig-Yair (Photo by Yossi Zamir)

Israel has identified more grounds of discrimination in the workplace than any other Western country — 16 in total. It’s not clear if that means Israel is extremely progressive in recognizing vast types of discrimination or if the labor market just reflects the country’s many entrenched social hierarchies.

Despite Israel’s myriad social and political divisions, workplace equality would seem to be a pragmatic and possibly even a bipartisan policy goal. The Left tends to support equality from a moral standpoint, and the Right could support workplace equality based on liberal economic values – but also for the benefit of international optics (“hasbara”).


And yet, Israel’s workforce is an arena where every single unresolved contradiction and conflict of Israeli life is playing out.

I sat down last week with Tziona Koenig-Yair, the country’s first-ever “equal employment opportunity commissioner.” For eight years, she has fought to change structural inequalities from within the government, a challenge that is either herculean or Sisyphean — it’s not always clear.

Speaking softly but extremely fast, Koenig-Yair explains that some forms of discrimination have hardly any objective measure. Koenig-Yair cites the case of an Ethiopian-Israeli who was not accepted for a job because, the interviewers said aloud, “we don’t want someone of that background.” A person with a Mizrahi-sounding name was rejected for a job interview, then offered one immediately after re-submitting his CV using an Ashkenazi-sounding surname. A would-be employer wrote that the rejected interviewee looked “fairly slutty and dark.”

But such clarity is rare.

In order to better understand where its attention is most needed, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) conducts surveys tracking both employer and employee perceptions of discrimination. Those findings are not always intuitive.

For instance, Arabs employed by Arabs report more workplace violations than those employed by Jews. An EEOC survey of the whole population found that older people perceive the greatest discrimination in the workforce (86 percent), followed by mothers of small children, and only then Arabs; Mizrahim report nearly the lowest level of discrimination (47 percent), just above army reservists. Interestingly, employers’ perceptions were very similar to employees’ — except for women and Mizrahim. Far fewer employers than employees perceive discrimination against those groups.

Food factory worker in Sderot. (Illustrative photo by ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock.com)

Food factory worker in Sderot. (Illustrative photo by ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock.com)

Where’s a commissioner to start?

Koenig-Yair is originally from Brooklyn and studied at the Yeshiva of Flatbush until her family moved to Israel when she was 11 years old. She grew up religious, “and to some extent I still am,” something that always surprises people, she says. Her appearance bears no drama; her personality is no nonsense.

When Koenig-Yair gets worked up, she thumps on the desk and leans forward with a piercing glare. During our meeting, she keeps a running email conversation with her staff to request pieces of data we are discussing, or calls them in to her office. She answers calls only from her daughter: “Nogoosh?”

Koenig-Yair was no newcomer to equality issues when the commission was established. An attorney with a law degree from Hebrew University, she worked for eight years at the Israel Women’s Network, a veteran organization advocating for women’s equality.

The legal department there had for years considered the establishment of a human right commission in Israel. “We realized there wasn’t really a political constellation to do that,” she says, diplomatically. The conversation turned to equality in the workplace, she recalls. In the mid-2000s, lobbying efforts and draft legislation reached the then-minister of industry, trade and labor, Ehud Olmert, who had designs on becoming prime minister. He promised to support the bill, she says, but only on the condition that the commission be established in his ministry.

The legislation passed on the last day of the Knesset in 2006 and Koenig-Yair was appointed to build the commission. In 2008, she recalls of the first days, “I had a computer. No personnel, no [formal] vision, goals, work plan, nowhere to call. I was establishing it from scratch; it was tabula rasa.”

A colleague told her: “’Tziona, leave now. You have a great reputation, but you won’t be able to get anything done in government. Leave now,’” she recalls.

Instead, she gathered outside experts and initiated a two-year EU twinning project with a Northern Ireland commission. She defined goals and got to work.

Eight years later, she does not boast but cannot restrain her pride. The Commission has handled over 5,000 requests for help and litigated 69 cases. It has won powerful precedents. In Abdulkarim v. Israel Rail, employees sued Israel’s national railroad company for listing IDF service as a requirement for positions they already held, and then firing them (most Arabs do not perform army service). The company removed IDF service as a qualification, and replaced it with requirements so specific that a only soldier would have them. With the EEOC’s legal opinion, the court ruled that those terms together amounted to discrimination against people who have not served. The employees were reinstated.

A train station in Israel. (Illustrative photo by ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock.com)

A train station in Israel. (Illustrative photo by ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock.com)

“We have been quoting that case for five years,” she says. “We’ll write to employers and say, you’re using army service as a requirement for employment, which is illegal, and look at this precedent. They change the criteria right away.”

The Commission also works on affirmative action, but its positions are not necessarily what you might expect. Israel has long had quotas in the public sector for women, Arabs, Ethiopian-Israelis and people with disabilities, but the issue is evolving. Unsurprisingly, Koenig-Yair has strong opinions. Populations ought not to get affirmative action if their underrepresentation isn’t due to discrimination, like ultra-Orthodox Jews — or if they are not underrepresented at all.

“Affirmative action is supposed to fix something,” she says, wielding the laser gaze. “Affirmative action in the public sector for people who have done the army is one of the worst propositions I’ve ever heard. All the people in public sector have done the army. They don’t need affirmative action.”

She is particularly excited about progress on the gender wage gap. Central Bureau of Statistics data from 2014 shows that women in Israel earn two-thirds of men’s income, on average. Hana Kupfer, the EEOC’s research director, observes that there has been a modest decline over the last decade. But over the last three years, there has also been a major rise in awareness. Nearly 80 percent of women now know there is a gap, according to the EEOC’s surveys.

The commission also recently launched an Internet tool for employers to use anonymously to calculate their own gender pay gaps, intended to encourage self-enforcement of wage equality. One thousand employers have used it in the six months since it went live, and thousands more have visited the website. And the Commission has been involved in an effort to have all government offices analyze their budget to consider the gender impact – “that’s revolutionary!”

Overall, Koenig-Yair believes that the discourse around workplace inequality has changed in the media, the Knesset and that even the government increasingly defines goals reflecting greater awareness. Compared to eight years ago, “it’s a whole different ball game.”

Still, obstacles abound. Koenig-Yair is aware that despite the fact that over 80 percent of Arabs in their surveys feel discrimination in the workforce, just a small portion of incoming requests are from Arabs. On the upside, since 2013, the proportion of requests received from Arabs has tripled, from 3 to 9 percent, and is rising annually. The EEOC’s survey this year found that nearly 40 percent of Arab respondents know about the EEOC.

And yet other problems are not improving, but deepening. If workforce equality was “a hard sell” in previous years, Koenig-Yair feels it was ultimately acceptable within the halls of government. There has generally been a “semi-consensus” around work equality issues in government, she says. “We want everyone to be economically independent.”

But the rising tide of racism and political persecution in Israeli society is also reaching the workforce. After the last war in Gaza, the Commission first encountered people being fired for their political views. I ask if there is general a rise in discrimination based on political outlook or party affiliation and she says “yes” before I have finished the question.

Government policies and attitudes in society cannot be divorced from workplace issues, she explains. “There is a direct correlation – the more the government commitment there is to equality in general, the more it will benefit the workplace.”

But that sounds a bit optimistic at a time when top Israeli leaders are legitimizing and participating in political persecution, a far cry from embracing an agenda of equality.

Political instability doesn’t help either. She has worked under five different ministers in eight years. All of them were men. How did that jive with their extensive focus on gender issues? “Some would say we focus a lot on Arab issues,” she answers.

Wednesday was Koenig-Yair’s last day, and her idea of taking a break is to lead a training course at Harvard. She is not yet sure what she’ll do next, but it will probably still involve public issues.

The next commissioner has not yet been chosen, and she hopes it will be a professional choice, rather than a political appointment. The budget is largely secured, but the minister of economy and the justice minister have the final say over the person. The latter is Ayelet Shaked, from the far-right Jewish Home party. The minister of economy is Benjamin Netanyahu.

So does she think the next commissioner will be committed to moving the needle, or able to? “I have to hope,” she says. As she expands her answer, she repeats the phrase “I hope, I hope,” several more times.

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There is no more ‘Israel’ today http://972mag.com/there-is-no-more-israel-today/114852/ http://972mag.com/there-is-no-more-israel-today/114852/#comments Thu, 17 Dec 2015 12:17:00 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=114852 What’s in a name? A lot, it turns out. Why the name ‘Israel’ alone just isn’t doing the job.

A Jewish settler attaches an Israeli flag to a tree in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, January 29, 2010 (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

A Jewish settler attaches an Israeli flag to a tree in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, January 29, 2010 (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

PLO Secretary General Saeb Erekat touched off a sizable media storm when he asked to remove an Israeli flag hanging above his head as he addressed the Haaretz conference in New York this week. Veteran journalist Dan Margalit from the pro-Netanyahu newspaper Israel Hayom called the conference organizer’s decision to comply a “burning and outrageous mistake.”


But I can’t get worked up about the flag. In fact, lately I have a hard time saying the name Israel at all. And not because I’m anti-Israel. Not at all.

It happened spontaneously, when concerned outsiders, Jews or others, ask me how things are in Israel since the escalation of violence these past few months. I found myself saying, “Well, in the region it’s like this…” or “In Israel and Palestine…” or “You know, in Israel-slash-Palestine…”  then fumbling apologetically, “you know, the Palestinian territories…” and rushing ahead to cover my confusion. Suddenly a word that I use hundreds of times a day – “Israel” – no longer seemed to be working right, to describe what’s happening.

The source of the violence is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Netanyahu’s incantation of “incitement” is a weird attempt to convey that it comes only from Palestinians, that Israel is not involved. The media treats spikes of violence as a nasty storm, capricious but passing – out of our hands.

But without Israel’s policies, incitement would have much less traction – and there wouldn’t be anywhere near as much of it. If we described the cause of the violence more accurately, we might make better decisions about how to avoid it.

That’s just one situation that prompts my mouth to grope for a better term.

In domestic politics, leaders prefer to talk exclusively about Israel. But Israeli voters have a remarkably sensitive internal sensor that detects where each party lies with relation to Palestinians. Left, center and right in Israel is defined almost exclusively by the conflict (or Jewish-Arab identity issues). Voters position themselves on that axis before anything else. Israel’s internal politics are thus encased in Palestine, gripped by it.

Israeli foreign policy is made or broken on the altar of Palestine. Israel would have an excellent relationship with Europe, for example, if not for occupation and the resultant violations of international law. Instead, that connection is deeply shaken by European labeling, boycott and divestment pressure, and the possible arrest of IDF officers. In turn, the EU is a background target of vicious campaigns against local NGOs who receive “foreign funding” – mostly by the EU or member states – branding the NGOs “implants” and by association, traitors. Germany, a stalwart ally, criticizes Israel only over its treatment of the Palestinians and growing public resentment there is due mainly to the occupation.

As for America, Israel’s best friend, tensions over Iran are receding for the moment. Now nerves are frayed solely by the conflict, which leads to elite scuffles and a growing partisan divide among American public attitudes toward Israel. The Israeli-Palestinian issue is poised to become the biggest – and only – threat to relations with Israel’s strongest ally.

Israelis feel traduced, but mostly they are shocked. That’s because they speak, think and experience Israel without considering Palestine. They cannot understand why outsiders don’t think of Israel this way as well.

But foreign policy isn’t just about the West. Israel urgently needs a regional approach, given the current mayhem in the Middle East. There, the occupation remains an angry flashpoint for Arab countries; potential allies will never normalize the current situation. Still, Israelis believe that those countries just hate Israel as if Palestine doesn’t exist, skewing their analysis of prospective regional alliances.

Finally, on the economic level, there is no Palestine without Israel. Or vice versa.

Palestine uses Israel’s currency, conducts the vast majority of its trade with Israel, needs Israeli approval for any imports, exports, travel abroad – all of which are restricted – and tax collection.

Israel’s domestic budget too is defined by its policy on Palestine. The country’s per capita investment in settlers is higher than in the country’s poorest communities. The massive military budget leaves less for all other areas of life. At the same time, whole sectors are invested in, and profit from, the occupation. It may not be not totally clear whether there is net financial gain or loss but there’s no question that the economy in Israel and Palestine is shaped by Israel in Palestine.


The term “Israel” simply isn’t accurate enough to describe the things that most affect our lives here. This isn’t an ideological statement against Israel or in favor of a confederated or binational state. It is the reality today.

While we were arguing about what happened in the past or where to go in the future, we failed to notice as the present took new shape. Two people and territories are intertwined and interdependent geographically, politically, economically, and socially, and that is not scheduled to change.

If we call the situation what it is, and stop pretending it’s temporary, could we take more accurate measures, or make better policy? Realize that Palestinians and Israelis are not the “other”– but a piece of the body politic called “us”? We all have family members we don’t like, but we understand and accept them more than those outside the fold.

Maybe then we would realize why Saeb Erakat wanted one flag removed. His people are locked together with our people, but only ours are represented. Perhaps Erakat wouldn’t have needed to take the Israeli flag down if someone had raised a Palestinian flag. That would have reflected reality – then maybe we could move on and start solving problems.

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