Opinion | How I Got Israel Wrong

It turns out pragmatism doesn't always win the day.
By | Sep 07, 2023
Fall 2023, Opinion

During the High Holidays, a writer must atone for past sins. And scanning the Yom Kippur Vidui prayer, where a long list of possible transgressions offers itself to the trembling Jew, I found my place in the last two items on the list: Tah-ee-noo, Teeh-tah-noo. We have gone astray, we have led others astray.

It’s not exactly what I was looking for, but it’s close enough to make for a proper opening of a request for forgiveness. The forgiveness of all Moment readers—and readers of my other columns in other publications—whom I led to believe that Israel was doing better than it actually was. A crisis such as the one we are going through in Israel is an opportunity for self-examination, for soul-searching. Why did I not see it coming? The answer is as painful as it is simple. I have gone astray. I tended to dismiss some of the warning signs as overhype, to interpret certain expressions of radicalism as showing off. I tended to believe that pragmatism would always win the day. And I was wrong.

What is it exactly that I got wrong? That’s not easy to pinpoint. But let me try. I did not pay enough attention to the grievances of Israel’s traditional, lower-middle-class Likud voters. There seem to be a lot of those, nurtured by their politicians, encouraged by rabbis and columnists, hyped on social media platforms. Their ultimate argument is that the country is controlled by elite minorities, in academia, in the media, in the courts, in the public service. They feel that they deserve to have more power than they do—and whether that’s true or false is beside the point. Their anger and frustration are a social fact that I underestimated, one that underlies the unprecedented crisis Israel must deal with.

I also overestimated the pragmatism and responsibility of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Of course, I knew he had his faults. I knew he was a manipulator, a demagogue, a political survivor. I knew he could be cynical and self-serving. And yet, he was also as smart and knowledgeable as they come, more experienced than most world leaders and ultimately a cautious prime minister. Netanyahu was not a gambler—or he used not to be one. He was calculating and careful. So, while I disapproved of many of his policies and actions, I trusted him to be reliable when grave matters were to be determined.

What happened to him is a question that many Israelis ask with no clear answer. I must ask myself additional questions: Was he always like this and I didn’t see it? Or did he change, as many of his past allies and current critics argue? Is it his trial, his age, his health, his inability to control his party or his family—or maybe simply a miscalculation from which he finds no way out? Whatever it is, misapprehending such dramatic change in the way a dominant PM handles his affairs, and his country’s affairs, is grounds for atonement.

And then there’s the good thing I did not see coming. Failure to understand a political or social dynamic can go both ways. One can be too optimistic, as I was about Likud and Netanyahu. One can also be too pessimistic—and that is certainly the case with Israel’s protest movement and its unyielding resistance to the government’s efforts.

I did not see it coming. And that’s no smaller sin than the sin of not anticipating judicial reform or coalition misbehavior. I did not understand that such energy and willpower could be found among the center-left, middle-to-upper-class, mostly secular, quite liberal group of Israelis. These Israelis feel that the battle they are waging is for the nation’s soul and for its only acceptable future. And again, whether that’s true or false is beside the point. Their apprehension and determination are a social fact that I underestimated—and it also underlies our current crisis.

I am guilty of both overestimating and underestimating Israel’s society. My sin is one for which I have good explanations: I was trying to avoid overstatement; I was attempting to stay calm and analytical amid the constant barrage of hype. I was blinded by my own style and habit and thus late to see that this government is different, this coalition is different, this opposition is different, and this crisis is very different.

And so, Moment readers, I ask for your forgiveness. I have little else to offer. Next year could be dramatic. It could be devastating. It could be fateful. And I can no longer offer you a calming message of yihye beseder—everything will be OK. Maybe it will be, maybe not. That’s a good reason for us to all join together these High Holidays in prayer for Israel.

Shmuel Rosner is editor of themadad.com and a senior fellow at The Jewish People Policy Institute. 

Opening picture: An anti-judicial reform protest in Jerusalem. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo credit: Hanay (CC BY-SA 3.0) / President.gov.ua (CC BY 4.0)

3 thoughts on “Opinion | How I Got Israel Wrong

  1. Allen Eli Segal says:

    After 75 years of preoccupation with existential threats from without and within, Israel is now poised to deal with a constitutional crisis due to lack of constitution. Add lack of separation of religion/state, tiny proportional representation, no term limits are all contributing to the crises Israel is currently facing. The only way to deal with this conundrum, is to form an emergency center/right coalition, that would be representative of vast majority of Israeli society. Highly unlikely to happen. Therefore, I share my feelings with Shmuel Rosner. But I would not bet against Israel, in the longer term.

    1. Daniel Ehrenreich says:

      Allen Eli Segal, right on the mark.

  2. hag says:

    Too busy feeling sorry for ourselves…

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