Arrogance tends to be protective, of itself and of other ills, says a Chinese proverb once quoted by Leo Tolstoy. ”It hates humility,” the proverb goes, “so it rejects the cure, and hides and justifies the sin.”
Countries, like people, can also become arrogant, and in their arrogance they become more confident in their self-righteousness, less motivated to cure themselves of their ills or respond well to criticism. They retreat into themselves, until their disregard for reality becomes a destructive, dangerous solipsism.
Under right-wing leadership, Israel has in recent years become an increasingly arrogant country, less interested in curing its own ills than telling the rest of the world – Jews, in particular – how to think, what to believe and how to pray.
We’ve seen two extreme examples of this recently: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s all-out, bitter lobbying war against President Obama’s Iran deal (particularly his attempts to recruit American Jews in this fight); and a new plan by Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry to fight the “weakening of the Jewish foundations of the family unit” abroad.
It is very easy to paint Netanyahu’s crusade against the Iran deal – which, instead of being a fight between Republicans and Democrat in Congress, is being branded as a showdown between the president of the United States and the prime minister of Israel – as a case of mere personal arrogance. (And many of his detractors have done just that.) With his political prestige and legacy at stake, Israel’s prime minister chose to butt heads with the most powerful leader in the world, appealing to American Jews as if they fall under his jurisdiction, not that of their elected president. Netanyahu has ignored internal and external voices in favor of (parts of) the deal, and oftentimes allowed himself to appear brash, cavalier, and standoffish – all of this seemingly predicated on the belief that he knows better than everyone else, and therefore has no need to work in cooperation with anyone else on reaching a better deal with Iran.
However, it would be a mistake to ascribe Netanyahu’s actions to personal arrogance alone. Netanyahu has never been much of a risk taker, putting survival above ideology at all times, but when it comes to Iran, he seemingly took on enormous risks, and he was only able to do so because he knew public opinion in Israel is largely supportive of his views, if not his tactics.
In fact, Netanyahu’s adamant resistance to the Iran deal largely relied on a larger, wider, cultural arrogance that has taken over the Israeli right wing, and through it over Israel’s political discourse as a whole. It is the same kind of arrogance that has allowed former defense minister Moshe Arens to declare in Haaretz that “all Israelis are surely in awe watching Netanyahu’s virtuoso performance,” his “courage,” his “bravura,” in his “unequal contest” against the U.S. president. It’s a national arrogance that hides a personal one, a belief the whole world needs schooling in the ways of militant Islam.
Israel isn’t just schooling Diaspora Jews on political matters. While Netanyahu was busy educating American Jews on the Iran deal, Israeli education and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennet has taken it upon himself to teach them how to be Jewish.
A new government program, launched by Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry under the banner of strengthening ties between Israel and the Jewish diaspora, attempts to address “the significant increase in critical discourse against Israel” and the “the ongoing erosion of Jewish identity” among Jews worldwide.
Described by the ministry as “a strategic solution to the challenge of young Jews who are becoming distant from their Jewish identity and from the State of Israel,” this public-private program aims to combat criticism against Israel by fighting Jewish “assimilation.”
In other words, Israel has launched a 500 million shekel (roughly $125 million) program designed to teach the rest of the world’s Jews how to be properly Jewish.
The implication: Criticism of Israel equals erosion of Jewish identity and values.
It is a program so arrogant, so condescending to the majority of the world’s Jews (who do not reside in Israel), that the Jewish Agency pulled out of it earlier this week, with figures familiar with the initiative telling Haaretz’s Or Kashti the program is “turning the complex ties with the Diaspora into a political fiefdom.”
Like Netanyahu’s arrogance in his fight against the Iran deal, this arrogance too hides within a larger cultural arrogance, the same one that allowed Religious Affairs Minister (and Shas MK) David Azoulay to declare a few weeks ago that Reform Jews cannot be considered Jewish.
Once again, Israel is sending a mixed message to Diaspora Jewry: You’re not Jewish enough, but supporting Israel can go a long way towards building-up your Jewish cred.
Israeli politics have been awash in this incredible arrogance and isolationist zeal in recent years. It is the same arrogance that has led Israel to reject every criticism directed at it, whether for its indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians in Gaza or its continued building in the settlements, and double down on its perception of itself as a righteous nation with the most moral army in the world.
To be fair, arrogance has always had a part in Israel’s conception of itself as the chosen country of the Chosen People. Both Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir were accused by the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations, respectively, of meddling in American foreign policy. Israel has always seen itself as home of the Jewish people, and therefore the bearer of the future of Judaism, leading it to be somewhat condescending toward Jews abroad.
But in recent years, the gap between Israel’s perception of itself as a beacon for all Jews and the grim reality it faces has become more jarring due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its arrogance might have been easier to stomach, if it weren’t a country hopelessly mired in a bloody conflict it has no idea how to get out of, constantly losing the battle against nationalist, extremist elements within it, staring into a moral and political abyss. Sadly, though, it is.
This solipsism, this arrogance, is the key to Israel’s current, increasing isolation, and the key to its dwindling support worldwide, even amongst its biggest friends. It is the key to the tragic predicament Israel finds itself in these days, almost-hermetic in its self-righteousness. Whether it’s Iran or Jewish faith, Israel knows better.
The problem? That self-righteousness goes hand in hand with hiding, and justifying, your own worst sins.
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