Netanyahu’s Indictments Aren’t the Biggest News in Israel This Week

It’s not Madonna and Messi who can make Israel a more normal place

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Argentina's Lionel Messi fights for the ball during the friendly football match between Argentina and Uruguay at the Bloomfield stadium in Tel Aviv, on November 18, 2019.
Argentina's Lionel Messi fights for the ball during the friendly football match between Argentina and Uruguay at the Bloomfield stadium in Tel Aviv, on November 18, 2019.Credit: AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Sylvan Adams is a Jewish billionaire with an interesting strategy to his philanthropy. He believes that by bringing major sporting and music events to Israel, he can enhance Israel’s image as a thriving and most important, normal country.

Last year, he spent $80 million on bringing the first stage of the Giro D’Italia, the world’s second-most important bicycling race, to Israel, where it launched from the walls of the Old City. Earlier this year, he funded the performance of Madonna at the Eurovision contest in Tel Aviv.

And on Monday, he was one of the main sponsors behind the Argentina-Uruguay football game. But does the fact that, thanks to the largesse of billionaires, Israel hosts such luminaries, make it a “normal” country?

After all, Argentina’s last game, against Brazil last Friday, took place in the King Saud Stadium in Riyadh. So what has Adam’s money given us? A similar status to an absolute monarchy that murders journalists and enslaves women, but can still entice top football talent as long as it pays enough? Surely his money would be better spent in trying to make Israel the kind of country where stars want to perform for fee-paying spectators without having to be paid extra?

Madonna performs during a guest appearance at the Grand Final of the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv, Israel, May 19, 2019.Credit: Orit Pnini / KAN / HANDOUT / RE

Not that I’m comparing Israel to Saudi Arabia. We still have a semblance of democracy, at least within the pre-1967 borders. But all of Adam’s billions can’t obscure the fact that Israel’s leadership is trying to erode democracy and incite against a third of the Israeli public.

In Tel Aviv, on the night before the big match, Benjamin Netanyahu gathered his followers in an “emergency meeting” to incite against Arab-Israelis and the possibility that their representatives in the Knesset could support a government led by Benny Gantz, tarring them as “terror supporters.” He was right to be worried. The leaders of the Joint List had made a strategic decision, spurred on by the overwhelming majority of the Arab-Israeli community, to vote in favor of a Gantz government, if there was a chance of replacing Netanyahu’s.

But it was not to be. Three days later, Netanyahu’s greatest political rival, Avigdor Lieberman, said in the Knesset that he felt the same toward Arab Israelis, and would not join a government supported by the Arab-Israeli “fifth column.” Then he added that the ultra-Orthodox with their “increasing tendency to anti-Zionism” were just as bad.

Netanyahu the prime minister and Lieberman the kingmaker may hate each other’s guts, but they are united in hating entire communities in Israel. This is not a normal country, Mr. Adams. Perhaps you should spend your money on mending relations between secular Jewish Israelis, Arab Israelis and ultra-Orthodox Jews?

Of course Adams won’t, because his philanthropic strategy is based on pretending that all is fine with Israel. But on the other hand, things are not as bad as others want us to believe.

Lieberman, interestingly, referred three times during his press conference on Wednesday to the visit of Israel of the anti-Zionist Satmar Rebbe, but the truth is that Satmar has failed. The anti-Zionism that the founder of the dynasty, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum championed, was once shared by the majority of the Haredi community, in Israel and abroad. But it has long ago become a tiny minority, as nearly all the major ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel opted in to the system.

Today only a tiny minority, probably less than 2 percent, of ultra-Orthodox Israelis refuse to take part in the Israeli political game. Nearly all of them vote, pay taxes, and receive state benefits.

The founder’s successor and great-nephew, the current Rebbe Zalman, made a big show of distributing millions of dollars to educational institutions which don’t accept government funding, but they are irrelevant within the much larger government-funded Haredi system where the students all speak Hebrew, rather than Yiddish.

And as slowly but surely, more young Haredi man and women join the workforce and even enlist in the IDF, voluntarily. Since the Conscription Law is still stuck in the political deadlock, the ultra-Orthodox are integrating into the wider Israeli system. Their political representatives are playing a key role in propping up Netanyahu’s interim government; without them, he would not have held on for so long. And while Netanyahu’s longevity in office is not good news, the fact that at least one of Israel’s two most marginalized communities plays a central role in politics is positive.

It’s hard to see that positivity when the ultra-Orthodox have such a hold on so many aspects of Israeli lives, but at the same time, it’s actually weakening.

There have been so many big headlines this week in Israel. Iranian rockets on the Golan and in retaliation, Israeli airstrikes against Iranian Quds Force and Assad regime targets in Syria. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s meaningless announcement that the settlements are legal under international law, according to the Trump administration. The end of Benny Gantz’s mandate to form a coalition and the near certainty now of a third election, and then the announcement of Netanyahu’s indictments.

But perhaps the most important development this week is one that has received scant media attention within Israel, and practically none outside the country. On Wednesday, the mayors of Tel Aviv and the neighboring towns announced the launch of a new public transport network that will operate on Shabbat, a day when the regular bus lines have been forced to close down for the past 72 years as a result of the “status quo” deal on state and religion, agreed upon by Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion with the ultra-Orthodox leadership of his day.

A bus stands next to a petrol pump on the upper floor of the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv, Israel February 3, 2019. Credit: CORINNA KERN / REUTERS

Ben-Gurion had to promise the rabbis that the new Jewish state, while secular, would not provide services on Shabbat. It was one of the commitments necessary to ensure that they would not follow the lead of the Satmar Rebbe in protesting against the Zionist cause, and would silently support the establishment of Israel.

Ben-Gurion made what he thought was a necessary concession to achieve Jewish unity. And every Israeli government since has been too beholden to the status quo and to the political power of the ultra-Orthodox parties to change that.

This Shabbat however, those who don’t own cars and can’t afford taxis will be able to take a bus in and around Tel Aviv. The skies won’t fall and there is no government anyway which can be held ransom in order to stop the buses from running. Most interestingly, there are no plans for thousands of Haredi men to block the roads and stone the buses, as you may well have expected only a few years ago.

For years we’ve been told that Israel is becoming more religious, more racist, more closed-minded. Reality is much more complex. Despite the incitement from Netanyahu and Lieberman, Arab Israelis and ultra-Orthodox are making inroads in to society and themselves changing, as much, if not more, than forcing change on others.

This isn’t quite the normalcy Mr. Adams wants to project. Madonna and Messi won’t fix us. But real people are trying to make Israel a better and more normal place.

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