Anyone familiar with the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict will undoubtedly be baffled by the question that forms the title of Carlstrom's book. As he notes, "Israel has never been more prosperous, more secure, or more accepted in the world than it is today." A nuclear-armed state boasting the most powerful military force in the Middle East, at peace with neighboring Egypt and Jordan and capable of deterring Iran, Israel at present does not confront any external existential threat. Nevertheless, the author insists that the question of Israel's future survival needs to be addressed because its very existence is being threatened by dangerous political, economic, and social forces from within.
Drawing on thousands of interviews with Israeli politicians, diplomats, army officers, and religious leaders, and on a variety of secondary sources, Carlstrom relied on his skills as a correspondent for The London Times and The Economist to catalogue the increasingly evident deterioration of Israel's polity, economy and society during g a three-year period beginning in 2014. The picture emerging from his keen observations is indeed ominous.
The book sheds vivid light on a variety of serious political, economic, religious, social and ethnic conflicts that are tearing apart the fabric of a society that was much more unified in its earlier years. The 50-year-old Israeli occupation of the West Bank has not only fractured Israel's political leadership and the country's Jewish electorate; it has also poisoned relationships between Jewish settlers and Palestinian Arabs, and between the nation and its army.
Carlstrom describes in painstaking detail numerous episodes of bloody violence between Jewish settlers and neighboring Palestinian Arabs, known as "price tag" attacks because they are intended to inflict or extract a price in human lives for Israeli or Palestinian actions against the settler movement. Amid the horrible mutual carnage, we are reminded of the murder carried out by two Palestinians of three Jewish teenagers who were hitchhiking home from their religious seminary in the occupied West Bank on June 12, 2014. Less than two days after their remains were recovered, three Jewish Israelis kidnapped 16-year-old Mohammed Abu-Khdair near his home in East Jerusalem and killed him by dousing gasoline on his body.
In addition to attacking Palestinian homes, mosques and churches, an increasing number of religious settlers have clashed with the army, one of Israel's most revered institutions. With growing frequency since 2011, Israeli soldiers have been attacked by settlers protesting the demolition of illegal hilltop outposts. A typical encounter occurred in April 2014, when hundreds of angry residents in the settlement of Yitzhar attacked a paramilitary force that destroyed five houses erected without the required permits. Protesting settlers injured six officers and trashed an army post inside the West Bank community.
The futile negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority have been moribund since 2014, thereby exacerbating political schisms between Israeli military leaders and the right-dominated government under Benjamin Netanyahu, and within the electorate. Carlstrom notes that an overwhelming majority of former IDF (Israel Defense Forces) chiefs of staff, heads of military intelligence, directors of Mossad (Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations) and leaders of Shin Bet (General Security Service) strongly support not only the immediate resumption of peace negotiations but also an end to the occupation so as to lay the ground for the emergence of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. But recent polls indicate that only a very slight majority of Israeli Jews favor renewed negotiations, yet less than one-third of the Jewish public believes that such talks would lead to peace.
Paradoxically, while it is a world leader in start-ups and entrepreneurship, Israel suffers from serious economic inequalities. Most notably, the economic gap between the six million Israeli Jews and and the two million Israeli Arabs has widened. In 2015, the unemployment rate for Israeli Arab men was 25 percent, double the rate for Jewish men. More than half of Israeli Arab families live below the poverty line, twice the national rate. Since 1948, the government has established some 600 new Jewish cities and towns, but not one new Arab community, making Arab towns twice as crowded as Jewish urban areas. Furthermore, in marked contrast to Arab areas, Jewish communities have benefitted from considerably larger per-capita government expenditures for education, health and general social services.
Carlstrom also describes various economic disparities and sociocultural conflicts within Israel's Jewish population caused by ethnic discrimination, racism and diverse degrees of religiosity. Intra-Jewish polarization between Ashkenazim (Western) and Mizrahim (Eastern, mostly from Arab countries and Spain) manifests itself in a number of ways. The average Ashkenazi's income is one-third higher than his Mizrahi neighbor's; most of the Jewish prisoners in Israel are Mizrahi, whereas more than 90 percent of the judges who sentence them are Ashkenazi. A lengthy report on Jewish education issued by a state commission in 2016 concluded that "the dominant stream in Israeli life still does not know the Mizrahi identity."
Many among the 130,000 Ethiopian Jews who arrived in Israel in the 1980s and early 1990s have been victimized by official and public discrimination. The salaries of Ethiopian families are 30 percent lower than the national average; only half of Ethiopian students pass their high school matriculation; and Ethiopian youngsters are generally encouraged to enroll in vocational curricula instead of university. Ethiopian immigrants frequently complain of unfair and brutal treatment by police.
Ongoing conflicts between a secular majority and a growing Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox minority lend additional evidence for the author's claim that "Israel often seems less like a state and more like an unhappy amalgamation of tribes." The Orthodox rabbinate has sole authority over Jewish religious rituals and personal-status issues, such as marriage, divorce and burial. Civil, same-gender and interfaith marriages are forbidden, and public transportation is unavailable on the sabbath in most localities. The religious communities control their own schools and seminaries and, in marked contrast to public schools, teach curricula with very little natural science, mathematics, social science or foreign languages. The Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community is exempt from military service, but approximately 2,000 men volunteer for army duty each year. Polls have consistently indicated that religious Israeli Jews are much more likely to support and vote for the more conservative political parties in Knesset elections.
Political and religious disputes have also deepened the chasm between Israel and American Jewry, the largest Jewish community in the Diaspora. Surveys indicate that most American Jews are secular or Reform in religious practice, and liberal in their political views.
Not surprising, American and Israeli Jews express different priorities and are concerned about different issues. While two-thirds of American Jews identify security and terrorism as the most significant long-terms challenge for Israel, only about one-third of Israeli Jews agree. Whereas most Israelis are deeply concerned about economic problems, most American Reform Jews identify gaining equal gender access for prayer at the Western Wall as a top priority.
The two communities are also divided by partisan preferences. While most American Jews consistently support Democratic presidential candidates, the majority of the approximately 250,000 American Jews living in Israel have backed Republican nominees. According to exit polls during the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump won 49 percent of the Israeli Jewish vote, in contrast to 44 percent for Hillary Clinton. However, Trump's share of the Jewish vote in Israel was twice as large as in the United States.
Tensions between American Jews and the conservative nationalist-religious Netanyahu coalition have intensified in recent years to unprecedented levels. Netanyahu's government has by and large ignored issues that are important to many American Jews, particularly equal access to the Western Wall and the refusal of the Orthodox rabbinate to recognize the validity of most religious conversions to Judaism performed abroad. In addition, American Jewish organizations that advocate a two-state solution have been treated as enemies of Israel. Ron Dermer, the current Israeli ambassador in Washington, has refused to meet with liberal groups like J Street, claiming that their members "are just smug advocates of Israel's destruction delivered from the comfort of their secure American sofas." Carlstrom concludes that "the Israeli government's embrace of a president (and his controversial political coterie) loathed by a vast majority of American Jews will only widen the chasm."
The author also documents and laments the steady erosion of democracy and civil rights under the Netanyahu regime. In recent years, several extremist Jewish groups have emerged that fan hatred and violence against Israel's Arab citizens. On election day in 2015, Netanyahu sought to encourage Jewish voters to come to the polls by falsely warning that left-wing organizations were busing Israeli Arabs to polling booths in droves. A 2016 poll discovered that almost half of Jewish high school students do not believe that Israel's Arab citizens should have the right to vote. Another survey found that a majority of Israeli Jews oppose having Arab lawmakers join a coalition cabinet, and that majorities of several subgroups agreed that the state should allocate more funds to Jewish communities than to Arab ones. Further inflaming ethnic hatred, right-wing education minister Naftali Bennett banned from schools the international bestseller and award-winning novel All the Rivers by Israeli author Dorit Rabinyan. The romantic relationship between the book's Jewish and Palestinian main characters allegedly threatened Jewish identity.
In words that could be readily applied to the current U.S. administration — Israel's closest ally — the author concludes that "Netanyahu and his allies have already chipped away at Israel's institutions: through growing control over the media, efforts to sideline the foreign ministry and silence dissent within the army. There has also been contempt for the Supreme Court, and rhetoric that casts principled critics as unpatriotic traitors."
Carlstrom is an astute observer of Israel's complicated politics and treats very timely and controversial issues with objectivity and abundant clarity. The careful reader, however, will without doubt be puzzled by several contentious statements in this volume. For example,
in the introduction, the author reveals that his personal politics "are very much on the left side of the spectrum." Yet he acknowledges that he does not support a two-state solution — a key plank on the left's agenda — and admits that he finds the overall views of right-wing settlers "to be more realistic and clear-eyed than those of the graying Labor 'peace camp' or the lifelong negotiators in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Washington" (page 2). In a similar vein, former Likud prime minister Ehud Olmert will surely chuckle at his description as a "center-left" politician. (page 17). Lastly, since it was waged entirely on territory that the IDF had conquered in the 1967 war, it is difficult to accept Carlstrom's contention that the 1973 Yom Kippur War "threatened Israel's very survival" (page 45).
Recent developments since the publication of this book reinforce Carlstrom's prescient warning that Israel's extreme nationalism and marked political shift to the right threaten the country's existence as a democratic state. On July 16, 2018, just before it began its summer recess, the Knesset empowered the minister of education to bar several groups that criticize the Israeli occupation of the West Bank from speaking in public schools. On the following day, the Knesset enacted a prohibition that denies Palestinians access to the Supreme Court in suits involving landed property rights. One day later, the legislature decided to prohibit single men and same-gender couples from having children through surrogacy.
The coup de grâce was delivered in two blows on Thursday, July 19. In the wee hours of the morning, the police awakened a Conservative rabbi at his home in Haifa and arrested him because he had officiated at a wedding of a Jewish couple and thereby violated the monopoly of the Orthodox rabbinate over the conduct of such rites (see David M. Halbfinger, "Israel Cements a Right-Wing Agenda with a Furious Week of Lawmaking," The New York Times, July 21, 2018, p. A6).
A few hours later, the Knesset approved by a close vote of 62-55 a Basic Law that enshrines the right of national self-determination as belonging exclusively to the Jewish people and declaring the state of Israel as "the nation-state of the Jewish people." The law designates Hebrew as the official state language and demotes Arabic to having "special status." It also declares the "development of Jewish settlement as a national value" and promises "to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation." It further identifies "Hatikva" (the "Hope") as the national anthem, designates the flag-bearing star of David and menorah as national symbols, states that Israel is open to Jewish immigration, and names "complete and united Jerusalem" as the nation's capital (see David M. Halbfinger and Isabel Kirshner, "Israel Enshrines Rights for Jews," The New York Times, July 20, 2018, p. A1; and Bret Stephens, "Non-Scandal Over Israel's Identity Bill," The New York Times, August 11, 2018, p. A21).
The nationality law has generated severe criticism from Israeli Arab and Jewish politicians and heads of civic organizations as well as from Jewish leaders of liberal and Reform organizations in the United States. Opponents have claimed that the legislation violates Israel's 1948 Declaration of Independence guaranteeing "complete equality of social and political rights" for all inhabitants regardless of their religion, race or gender. Yael German, a Knesset member from the opposition Yesh Atid party, called the law "a "poison pill for democracy." Dan Yakir, head legal counsel for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, has noted that, while the law is primarily declaratory, it will nevertheless "give rise to arguments that Jews should enjoy privileges and subsidies and rights, because of the special status that this law purports to give to the Jewish people in Israel."
Ahmed Tibi, a longtime Arab Knesset member, has warned that the bill ushers in fascism and apartheid. Adalah, a legal organization that defends the rights of Israeli Arabs, has claimed that the law "entrenches the privileges enjoyed by Jewish citizens, while simultaneously anchoring discrimination against Palestinian citizens and legitimizing exclusion, racism, and systemic inequality." The harshest condemnation of the law has come from leaders of the 140,000 Druse, loyal Arab-speaking Israeli citizens whose men are drafted for compulsory military service in the IDF, and over 400 of whom sacrificed their lives in defense of the country. Shakeeb Shnaan, a Druse former Labor party legislator whose son was killed in Jerusalem while guarding the entrance to the Western Wall, lamented that "the nationality law is a mark of Cain on the forehead of everyone who votes for it."
Speaking for an ever-increasing number of concerned American Jews, Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, has claimed that, with the entire recent coterie of anti-democratic actions, the Israeli government "appears to be tarnishing the sacred value of equality" and is "turning its back on Jewish heritage, the Zionist ethos and the Israeli spirit."
He has warned that in the future, American Jewry, particularly millennials, will find it more and more difficult to connect with an Israel that discriminates against non-Jewish minorities and non-Orthodox Jews ("Israel, This Is Not Who We Are," The New York Times, August 14, 2018, p. A21).
Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has championed various former versions of the controversial nationality law since 2014, has defended the new Basic Law. In his view, it finally restores a badly needed balance between the country's commitment to the values of Judaism and the principles of democracy. However, such a defense should carry little weight, as it can be argued that the new law is inconsistent with both democratic equality and the obligation of Jews to love the stranger. If Jews are required to treat the stranger with love — a commandment that appears 36 times in the Torah — with how much more than a loving embrace are Israeli Jews obligated to treat fellow non-Jewish citizens?
In the meantime, the Likud-led government's assault on democracy continues. Substantiating fears that the nationality law will legitimize discriminatory land allocations, a recent report released by the Israeli anti-occupation Peace Now organization indicates that since 1967, the government has earmarked only 0.24 percent of the so-called public land in the West Bank for use by Palestinians, who now constitute 88 percent of the West Bank population (Isabel Kirshner, "West Bank Land Grants Mostly Go to Settlers," The New York Times, July 18, 2018, p.A8). And during the past few weeks, several liberal American Jewish academics and journalists — all advocates of a two-state solution — have been detained and interrogated by Shin Bet agents before departing Ben Gurion Airport (Isabel Kirshner, "Israeli Airport Detention of Liberal Jewish Authors Stirs Uproar," The New York Times, August 15, 2018, p. A7).
Can Israel continue to survive as a democratic and Jewish state in the true sense and meaning of these words? Carlstrom wisely expresses serious doubts, mixed with hope but without offering any predictions. Indeed, only time will tell.