Days after penning an open letter to North American Jews with fellow thought leaders Yossi Klein Halevi and Daniel Gordis, journalist and author Matti Friedman reiterated his concerns about the Israeli government and the responsibility of Diaspora Jews to a Pittsburgh audience.
While his talk was originally billed as covering international media bias against Israel, the topic was changed a few days before the event to “Understanding Israel’s Political Crisis.”
Friedman spent most of the 75-minute program explaining misconceptions about Israeli politics while calling on Pittsburghers to act.
There are two primary misunderstandings about Israeli politics, Friedman explained.
First, North Americans have “a tendency to see other countries’ politics through the lens of their own,” he said. Although issues such as gun control, marriage equality and abortion can position one along the American political spectrum, those topics don’t create similar schisms in Israel.
“What makes you right and left is your approach to the Arab world, and not any of the internal issues that Americans think of as right and left issues,” he said. “It's really a question of your approach to the conflict and how to handle it.“
The second misconception, or “underlying issue,” according to Friedman, is Israel’s ethnic makeup. “We tell a very European story about the country,” he said, “as if the Jews who came here from the Islamic world are kind of a footnote.”
The reality is much different. About 20% of Israel’s population is Muslim, and of the remaining 80%, more than half have Jewish roots “in the Islamic world and not in Europe,” Friedman said. “It's a very Middle Eastern-style of tradition, and you can't really understand the country without understanding that.”
North American Jews of European descent and Israelis of European descent often see interactions with Muslims beginning in 1948. But that understanding doesn’t hold “for most Israeli Jews,” Friedman continued. “They had always lived among Muslims, and they bring that understanding to the state of Israel. And they also bring a very kind of strong tribal affiliation with Jews and a suspicion of Western naivete.”
Those backdrops shed light on the current “crisis,” in which Israel is being led by the “most extreme government in its history,” Friedman said.
The appointment of “racist hooligan” Itamar Ben-Gvir as Israel’s minister of national security, and formerly convicted Aryeh Deri as interior minister and health minister, were among several “warning signs” for centrists that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government “had come into power, really with, almost with a desire to avenge the year-and-a-half during which they weren't in power,” Friedman said.
The government’s recent attempts to “gut the judiciary,” by ensuring that 61 members of the Knesset can veto the Supreme Court’s rulings, reflects an approach by Netanyahu to buttress his power and avoid the corruption charges he’s facing, Friedman said.
The “breakneck” speed with which the government is trying to pass this legal reform is troubling, he continued.
“This is the kind of thing that should be a year of national discussion, with members of the opposition and people from the judiciary,” Friedman said. “Even if you think it's good — which it isn't — but even if you think it's good, this is a very dramatic change in the way the country is run and it needs to be presented to people. It wasn't presented to the electorate before the election. No one explained to the electorate that this was the plan. It was deliberately hidden and then pulled out after the election.
“The government has rejected calls for some kind of compromise talks, which are coming from the opposition, and they say they're going to pass it by the end of March,” he added. “So that is why the country has freaked out. That's why we're seeing this kind of activity on the street.”
For the past five weeks, more than 100,000 people have protested in Tel Aviv and across Israel.
Friedman has joined the Saturday evening protests in Jerusalem and tweeted his observations.
He told Pittsburghers that he has “always leaned left and centrist,” and that recent months have generated a distressing realization.
“I don't think there's any way — certainly not for me as an honest observer — to avoid saying that this is an extreme and reckless and irresponsible government that's come to power with less than half of the popular vote,” he said. “There's no sense that a national consensus is necessary…There isn't going to be an attempt at unity. There's not going to be an attempt to build some kind of broad governing coalition, which Netanyahu has always done.”
For Pittsburghers and others concerned about the future of Israel, though, there is a path forward, he said: “The end here, the correct approach, in my opinion for our friends, is to keep your eyes on Israeli society and remember that Israeli politics are not the whole story.”
There’s a tendency to equate one’s leader with its people — to assume, for example, that Netanyahu represents all of Israel, or that either Joe Biden or Donald Trump represent all of America — “but of course that’s not true,” Friedman continued. “These are people elected. America is something much more complicated than the presidents or Congress, and the same is true in Israel.”
Ideological debates will persist, but Pittsburghers should remember the “miraculousness” of Israel and continue its work, Friedman said.
“We can fight for Israel's image and we can defend Israel from this malicious campaign of libel, which seeks to turn it into a pariah,” he said. “And we need to do all those things, but at the end of the day, what really matters here is the society that we have in reality, and the Zionist approach has always been to build, don't talk, build another road, another school, another hospital. We're just going to keep building.”
Friedman’s talk was supported by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
Before concluding the program, Federation Foundation Community Scholar Rabbi Danny Schiff reminded listeners that the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat, which celebrates the birthday of trees, had begun in Israel and was soon to be celebrated in the States.
Given Friedman’s remarks, Tu B’Shevat serves as an apt metaphor, Schiff said.
“What could be more optimistic an act than in the darkness of winter, in the cold, going out and planting new seeds with the resolution and the optimism that from those new seeds something will blossom, something will sprout and come forward,” he said. “Some do and some don't, but even if you see this as a moment that is dark, the Jewish people always take moments that are dark and plant new seeds for a better, more verdant future. Let's hope that that's what this moment will represent in Israeli life.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.