Is Israel's Public Life 'Infested' With Religious Zionists?

Israel's left supports freedom of expression and political mobility - as long as it's only for fellow leftists.

Amiel Ungar
Amiel Ungar
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Amiel Ungar
Amiel Ungar

This week marked a success for the left in Israel's continuous battles over what constitutes legitimate expression. But the success may prove to be a pyrrhic one.

High school civics teacher Adam Verete, who used his position of authority to impose his extreme left-wing views on his students, and made a student who courageously challenged his views an object of ridicule, was reinstated. Popular music icon Ariel Zilber's lifetime achievement award (given by Israel's national performing artists' association) was downgraded to a mere contribution to music – figuratively, from a gold to a bronze minus medal - for uttering politically incorrect views that were no more inflammatory than those uttered by prize winners identified with the Israeli left.

As both stories were in the spotlight in Israel simultaneously, it naturally raised the issue why freedom of expression was upheld for Verete the leftist teacher and denied Zilber the rightist musician.

In Friday's Haaretz, Yossi Sarid made a valiant effort to explain why Verete was a martyred saint and Zilber beyond the pale, but aside from the true believers, I doubt if he convinced anybody. Sarid merely reinforced the obvious: The debate over the limits of free speech in Israel is not an honest one but merely a continuation of the political struggle by other means.

Israel's political left wants to frame the political debate by dictating what constitutes legitimate expression and what constitutes "racism" or "incitement." In this way it can monopolize the debate and exclude opinions that it disagrees with. One means of doing so is to punish the proponents of "incorrect" viewpoints. In December 2013, for example, we witnessed the grotesque spectacle of Haifa University retracting an honorary doctorate from Nobel laureate Professor Israel Aumann because it found his political views discordant.

But why wait for a person with incorrect views to make a name for himself and then blackball him? A better tactic is to adopt a Bolshevik prophylactic approach that will prevent entire categories of undesirables from achieving influence and renown. This was the thrust of Amir Oren's warning that the top ranks of the Shin Bet security service were becoming infested with religious Zionists the most dangerous carriers of incorrect thinking. In his words: "The Shin Bet is now filled with religious employees, much greater than their percentage in the population. Religious women doing national civilian service receive priority over secular women soldiers for interesting intelligence posts"

In Oren's view things were obviously much better when the Shin Bet was run by "gatekeepers" such as Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gilon, Ami Ayalon and Yuval Diskin who shared the Israeli left's political outlook. With the exception of Ayalon - who was an emergency appointment following Gilon's resignation - all the others came through the ranks and were appointed on the basis of their achievements in what Samuel Huntingon called the "objective model" of civil-military relations. Huntington believed that the best way of keeping the military out of politics and politics out of the military was to ensure that promotions were based on professional standards rather than on political views or personal friendship with a particular political leader. The current Shin Bet leadership– with or without head covering– moved up the same objective ladder.

One can understand the anguish of the left in seeing the representatives of religious Zionism advance to major positions in the IDF and the Shin Bet because these positions presage future corporate and political leadership roles. But if the left is worried that there are too many knitted skullcaps in the Shin Bet, it must beef up its own share of potential applicants.

In the 1990s, when the trend of increasing religious Zionist presence in the officer corps and elite units first became discernible, the left regarded it with derision. It merely provided further evidence that religious Zionists, with their disastrous sense of timing, embraced values such as settlement and meaningful army service after the left had junked them for more appealing alternatives. As the Shin Bet tends to recruit heavily from candidates who served in elite combat units, it was only natural that Israel's domestic security agency would turn to an excellent and highly motivated reservoir of religious Zionists.

I have further bad news for Oren. After years of essentially pleading no contest, the IDF is now actively competing for female graduates of religious Zionist high schools with the alternative, non-military option of National Service; the army correctly views these young women as a source of promising womanpower. This courtship is achieving success, as can be seen by the sharply rising military enrollment amongst religious Zionist girls, and the cries of alarm among those in the National Service.

If Oren and his friends want to impose what Huntington called the "subjective model", where correct political viewpoints would trump qualifications, they should ponder the consequences not only for the Shin Bet but for the Israeli left as well.

Israel's political and demographic trends in Israel are far from encouraging for the left, and as a minority it has more to lose from a politicized selection and rewards process. For example, the makeup of Israel's Supreme Court or the Political Science Department at Beersheva University would look a lot different if they had to reflect dominant political opinions rather than presumed objectivity. By denying Zilber and Aumann honors and seeking to block the career advancement of religious Zionists, the left is inviting a backlash and an overdose of its own medicine.

Dr. Amiel Ungar is a political scientist.

Illustration: IDF soldiers during a tour of The City of David in East Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman

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