NYTimes’ due fear for Israeli democracy adds some misconceptions

The New York Times published a laudable, bold editorial this weekend that highlights a number of creeping threats to Israeli democracy. The article is vital for reaching audiences who really care about Israel’s future. After three years of onslaught on Israel’s democratic foundations (which were already deeply flawed), the situation is now urgent.

Every day, truly scary signs of under-the-radar McCarthyism can be seen – just this morning Haaretz reported on the attempt to oust an official (Hebrew) in the Education Ministry responsible for civics education, who has come under a right-wing witch-hunt, despite protests by both left- and right-leaning colleagues. The legitimization of political persecution, combined with a pernicious tactic of hitting minor-seeming administrative, policy, and legislative targets, aids in the deception about the true effects of this government.

The Times is doing the right and responsible thing by reflecting this reality. However, I found three semi-small but semi-serious inaccuracies in the piece. They’re not flat-out errors so much as misleading points that paint a skewed picture of the debates they describe and it’s worth explaining them to limit any further confusion.

First, regarding the debate about the government’s failure to reach a new draft law, the article states:

…Mr. Mofaz proposed enlisting 80 percent of the ultra-Orthodox…Mr. Netanyahu sided with his right-wing allies and insisted on something more incremental. There was also talk of doubling army enlistment for Arabs. Israeli Palestinians are not required to join the army, and most do not. Many feel like second-class citizens and are deeply conflicted about their place in Israeli society.

This makes it sound like the debate about Palestinian-Arab citizens of Israel revolves around them joining the army; it does not. The discourse is almost entirely about having them perform some form of national (including local, community) service. This is a critical difference and much nuance is lost by mis-characterizing the dilemma. Something like this would have been more accurate: “there has been talk of encouraging Israeli-Palestinians to perform some form of national civic or community service. The topic is highly sensitive because they feel like second-class citizens, but also stands to further their goal of economic and social integration – by contrast to the Haredi goal of isolation.”

Next, when addressing the demographic issues in Israel, the article states:

The Palestinian population is also expanding, hastening a day when Jews could be a minority.

For many readers, this statement conveys an unnecessary measure of racial fear, which is not only morally, but demographically unjustified: Palestinian citizens of Israel are about 20% of the population, and roughly 15% of the adult (voting) population. That’s too small to produce anything like an Arab-Palestinian majority any time soon, especially if the trend towards economic integration and female higher education continues – this will ultimately slow down traditionally high birthrates to significantly lower than those of Haredim, for example.

The only imminent scenario of a Palestinian majority is through the extension of Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank. The article fails to make this distinction, which is imperative for readers to internalize.

The final problem is a description of Kadima’s role in the government that is uncritical and problematic at best:

Mr. Netanyahu’s past dependence on hard-line parties has manifested itself in aggressive settlement building and resistance to serious peace talks with the Palestinians — who themselves have not shown enough commitment to a solution. Without Kadima’s moderating force, these trends will continue.

“Moderating force” is indeed what Kadima would like its audiences and voters to think. But the last time Kadima was in power, it started two wars, failed at (admittedly serious) peace negotiations, and built or planned 9000 new homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Former party leader Tzipi Livni was complicit in the current government’s actions through her silence while in opposition; the current leader, Shaul Mofaz, may talk the two-state talk but there is little to nothing in the party’s record to indicate that it would do much to change the status quo.

Let the New York Times go one step further, and call things by their name instead of letting politicians mislead its readers.