Unsettling Israel

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Yesterday I gave a public lecture at Bar Ilan University, by Tel Aviv, about Muslims in Europe and what that means for Israel. After the talk something very strange and very remarkable happened.

First the background. Speak with conservative Israelis or Americans about Europe, and chances are pretty good that even well-traveled and intelligent observers will volunteer the view that Europe’s overly harsh criticism of Israel is triggered by the growing influence of Muslims on the old continent. More Muslims in Europe, they think, mean more political problems for Israel.

Setting the record straight was easy, I thought. And Bar Ilan University, with its center-right audience, was the right place to do it. So: first, there’s no “flood” of Muslims in Europe — even in 40 years, believe it or not, there will be fewer Muslims in Europe than Hispanics in the U.S. today. They have neither a common language, nor common origin, not even a common goal. And most things they actually have in common make them politically weak, not strong: low labour market participation; lower-than-average education and social mobility; few competent leaders in business, culture, academia, and politics; poor organization and community leadership; little belief that they can affect change; and internal fissures and disagreements. Two things should be noted: all this is not good for European countries, but bad — and, as usual, if you zoom into a higher level of detail, the picture is more nuanced.

So what does all that have to do with Israel? Well, I argued, when it comes to foreign policy, British and German and French and Italian elites matter, not a relatively small number of scattered and disenfranchised immigrants — politicians, diplomats, and opinion leaders count.

And here it gets interesting.

Consider the context. In these days, the favorite shtick of center and right-of-center pundits and commentators in Israel is “delegitimization.” The left, particularly in Europe but also in the U.S. and elsewhere, is systematically undermining Israel’s legitimacy, as they see it. There is, by now, a seemingly endless supply of workshops and reports and talks that outline a shrewd EU-funded conspiracy of crippling boycotts and wicked distortions targeted against the hapless Jewish State. It can be quite shrill.

(I’d like to make sure I don’t appear unbalanced here: if you speak with experts in the Israeli security establishment about the country’s concrete problems with political violence — which I did extensively during the year I was in Jerusalem — you get an analysis that is much more down-to-earth, more pragmatic, and more nuanced. And highly professional and quite inspiring.)

So I concluded my lecture with a one-two-three-punch:

One — Those pesky Europeans, I said, actually have a “vision” of how to solve the conflict, although you might not think it’s realistic (neither do I, by the way; the two state “solution” is unlikely to solve the conflict, it would only change its form).

Two — Israel’s most extreme local enemies and the global jihadis have a “vision” for how to conclude the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and we all don’t like that one.

Three — Visions are important. Nobody appreciates this more than Israelis. Zionism used to be an immensely appealing vision for many, and not just Jews (seen in historic context, Herzl’s famous dictum “if you will it, it is no dream” continues to be awe-inspiring.) So what is Israel’s vision for the future today? — There doesn’t seem to be one. Not for the political center. No vision for the mainstream. The only ones who seemingly have a “vision” are hard-core, right-wing settlers.

Then I pointed to what I said might be “one of Israel’s biggest risks”: imagine you’re a young and patriotic Israeli, a Zionist, and you want to make a difference, do something for the future of your country — and all you hear from the mainstream and the pundits is complaining about how much the world hates us, whining in all shades and colours — of course you get annoyed, you start looking for the cool kids, the rebels with a vision. Then you meet them: proud, relaxed, self-assured, courageous, young, a close-knit group, with an alluring blend of styles — you can be a bit of a hippie, a bit of a cowboy, with a spiritual and religious bend, grow your own organic vegetables, carry a gun tucked under the belt, ready for action. Here you go. Welcome to the Shomron. You might want to join us in our hilltop outpost.

How do you think the audience reacted? I’m not sure what I expected. Very little clapping, nonplussed looks perhaps, no questions. What happened? Loud applause, lots of questions, and more than a dozen people lined up to thank me. One woman gave me the number of her son, now a settler in the Jordan valley. I might want to get in touch with him. “Encouraging,” one man said. One young journalist, from an outlet popular among settlers, even wanted an interview. His readers, he said, would love it.

I couldn’t believe it. Again. The audience had pulled it off and did to me what I wanted to do to them: I walked out deeply confused and unsettled.