A letter to those fuming that I’m a ‘leftist’

So many people have responded to my article on our bloody summer with thoughtful criticism, serious questions and kind support that I’m still trying to read it all. To all of you, thank you. Thank you for being my readers, and for keeping me on my toes as I try to write clearly about complicated things and to teach sensitive debates without wasting your time by just taking sides.

But many people responded to this piece without reading it, or at least without bothering to distinguish between what I’m actually saying and what they want to get angry at me for saying. There were enough of you in this category that I decided to write a response.

This is not a left-wing polemic. There isn’t a single point or argument made in this article that is identifiably “leftist.” Try it. Read the piece again (or for the first time for many of you) and let me know which point the Israeli right, including the annexationist settler right, doesn’t agree with.

This piece does not argue for withdrawal from the West Bank. It even discusses at length why Naftali Bennett and Reuven Rivlin, two lifelong West Bank annexationists, are committed democrats. And why most annexationists are like them.

I don’t complain in this piece about the lack of a two-state solution. I don’t argue the occupation is illegal, or that the denial under explicit Israeli law of civic and national rights to the Palestinians is even Israel’s fault. In fact, I explicitly accept that those things may be unavoidable for now. None of those questions – which define leftist politics in Israel – are the subject of this article.

Instead, I’m worried about something completely different: Given a possibly unavoidable, now-48-year-old military occupation of a civilian population, the State of Israel has failed to focus on its responsibilities toward that civilian population.

I even note that this failure doesn’t necessarily stem from bad intentions or incompetence. It is a built-in failure for any bureaucracy that isn’t directly answerable to the population it serves. IDF officers simply don’t pay a cost for failing to protect Palestinians the way they do if they fail to protect Israelis, for the straightforward reason that Palestinians don’t elect the Israeli politicians who call the army to task.

This is built in to the occupation, an innate feature of nondemocratic regimes – and the military rule in the West Bank, according to Israeli law, is not democratic. Really. Ask a lawyer.

I have strong opinions about Palestinian statehood, about specific Israeli leaders, about the gas deal and the nuclear deal, about the Appropriations Bill and about the West Bank occupation. I vote in every election, even off-year local ones. But you cannot learn from this article anything about those opinions. You have no way of guessing from this article how I vote. I promise.

It is not “left-wing” to point out that there are now hundreds of recorded violent incidents by Jews against Palestinians in the West Bank (and also inside the Green Line), and that the IDF governorship in the West Bank has failed to prevent, disrupt or meaningfully punish these. This point is the opinion of the IDF itself, of the Shin Bet and of the large majority of right-wing politicians who currently lead Israel. Sometimes a failure is just a failure, and it isn’t partisan to point it out and try to fix it.

I’ll say more than that. If you’re right-wing, if you want to annex the West Bank because it is our ancient Jewish homeland and a founding pillar of our national and spiritual identity – then you need to worry about the lawlessness of the West Bank and the wellbeing of Palestinians more than leftists, not less. For the leftist, the occupation is temporary – no matter how long it lasts. It ends with separation, with severing our rule over the Palestinians and therefore our responsibility for them. For you, it does not end with separation; it ends with integration of one sort or another. You who want Jews and Palestinians to live together are doubly responsible for ensuring their wellbeing.

Those who have raged and fumed about this “leftist” polemic are fools. And your foolishness is dangerous. You let your partisan resentments blind you to the responsibilities you undertake for your politics. As I note with some care in the article itself, it’s no accident that people like Rivlin and Bennett talk so much, and so vehemently, about democracy and tolerance. They grasp that these are the costs of their right-wing politics, and accept them wholeheartedly.

As for Haredim, the story is similar. I’ve received many emails complaining that Schlissel was one “madman,” and therefore not indicative of anything in Haredi society.

I agree. And I explicitly wrote in the article that I agree with you.

I don’t agree that he’s a “madman” – both a Prisons Service psychiatric evaluation and a court-ordered civilian evaluation ruled he was entirely sane, driven by ideology, not mental illness. But I agree that his attack does not reflect Haredi society. In fact, as you’d know if you read my article, I explain that his attack is viewed by Haredi society as a double crime, against the victims at the parade, and against the Haredi community he tarnished and misrepresented.

My point was not about Schlissel, but about what we learn from the Haredi response to his crime. Schlissel’s extreme obsession with gays, and his resort to extreme violence, is an almost unique case in Haredi society. But Schlissel’s abhorrence of gays, and even his hatred of them, is not. Schlissel’s crime is the direct fault of Schlissel himself, and of the police who failed to stop it despite explicit intelligence that he might attack.

But the Haredi response to Schlissel’s crime – the response was my subject, not the crime – shows that Haredi society has failed at something equally important: it has not explicitly tackled the prejudice in its ranks.

Silence in the face of prejudice is not the same as incitement to commit violence – that’s almost a literal quote from my article, oh critics – but it is an abrogation of responsibility. Schlissel’s is the most horrible crime committed by a Haredi individual against gays, but it isn’t the only one. Gays within the Haredi community – I have some personal familiarity with the group – suffer daily and profoundly from acts of ostracism and rejection, milder forms of violence (Can you really argue, Haredi critics, that you do not have a problem of violent young men who the rabbis cannot meaningfully rein in? Ask Aryeh Deri about last week’s Haredi riots in Jerusalem over the YES Planet movie theater opening on Shabbat; he called the rioters “thugs.”), and even suicides driven by the guilt and frustration that develop in silence.

I suppose you can argue that the rabbinic leadership of the Haredi community do not bear responsibility for this silence, for the inner turmoil and real suffering it engenders among that small minority of Haredim, and for failing, in their silence, to tackle head-on prejudices in Haredi society. But if you argue that, we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

I don’t argue Israel committed Duma. I argue its acquiescence to the long litany of past violence makes it responsible for Duma – if you think that’s a leftist argument, then you equate “rightist” with irresponsibility. I don’t argue Haredim murdered Shira Banki. I argue Haredi society’s decision to ignore the challenge of homosexuality has meant it has failed to tackle very real suffering and very real prejudice, the sort that drives many acts of unkindness and even violence against gays that are not telegenic enough to force themselves onto the front pages of Israeli newspapers.

If you’re angry at me for raising these failures of our society, you’re not right-wing, you’re just jittery. I’m Israeli, born and raised. I know Israel isn’t going anywhere, that its craven, ignorant critics abroad cannot meaningfully harm us. I’m not worried about airing my society’s ills in public, because I’m daily overwhelmed and inspired by its strengths. Most of my articles are about what overseas critics misunderstand in our discourse – for example in the Israeli debates over the nation-state bill or the Supreme Court’s powers. Sometimes, I also write about our own internal failings, which are as numerous and diverse as any nation’s. As that infamous leftist Naftali Bennett likes to say, the greatest dangers we face are not the dysfunctional and imploding enemies on our borders, but our own internal failures, our own shaky resolve.

Israel has screwed up its responsibility to ensure Palestinians in the West Bank are safe from a small coterie of ideologically-driven Jewish terrorists. That remains true even if you believe Israel is completely right and just in every other aspect of this conflict.

I don’t demand that Haredim change halachah or a single letter of their theology in the face of the gay rights issue; I only ask that they openly acknowledge that there is real suffering there, and that it deserves conscious attention, even if, like many sources of human suffering, it is not immediately soluble.

Thanks for your time. If that cleared up some of the points in the article, I’m glad. If not, I hope your continued fuming at least makes you happy. It’s a sad, broken world. We deserve every ounce of happiness we can eke out of it.

About the Author
Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.