Thursday, 7 August 2014

Breaking down stereotypes from left to right - Dr Yoaz Hendel

Visiting scholar of The Shalom Institute and Sydney Jewish Writers Festival guest author Dr Yoaz Hendel arrives next week from Israel. As Chairman of the Institute for Zionist Strategies he is dramatically rethinking the political discourse in Israel and shattering typical stereotypes about right-wing and left-wing. In these difficult times, he brings some fresh, new ideas to a stalemated conflict.
Dr Yoaz Hendel wrote about the journalist, commentator, analyst, author and former Director of Communications for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Excerpts of the article are below.

Yoaz Hendel is undoubtedly a right-winger, having served as an adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and today chairing the Institute for Zionist Strategies, a right-leaning think-tank. His interest, the overarching theme of his voluminous writing and commentary, is Israel itself, its many identities, social fractures and shared future.

Left-wingers, he believes, are too quick to surrender both their particularism and self-criticism; right-wingers are too eager to cling to unexamined tropes and unthinking maximalist positions. The Jewish people’s future as a nation will depend on Israeli society’s ability to resist these centrifugal forces pulling it apart.

“Jewish kingdoms have a tendency to collapse not from external pressure but from internal pressure,” he told The Times of Israel in a recent conversation. “The second Jewish kingdom [under the Hasmoneans] stood for 80 years.” Israel, he notes, is already 65.

Hendel is one of the most active and visible of Israel’s political journalists. He is a ubiquitous presence in Israeli media. He may be the most widely-read right-wing voice in the country.

“Yoaz has an influential and unique voice in Israeli mainstream media, a voice that is not heard that often,” says Yaakov Katz, a former Jerusalem Post military correspondent who co-authored a book on the Iranian nuclear crisis with Hendel.

Slim, talkative and earnest, Hendel doesn’t seem to fit his resume. He served for years as an elite Flotilla 13 naval commando, and then for several years in undisclosed operational roles in the defense establishment. He holds the rank of major in the IDF reserves. He rarely adds the appellation “Dr.” to his name, so his readers are unaware that he holds a PhD in Hellenistic and Roman-era guerrilla warfare and intelligence gathering, including in the militaries of the Hasmonean Jewish kings commemorated on Hanukkah. And he rarely speaks of his service at the prime minister’s side, a relationship that imploded after Hendel turned to prosecutors over sexual harassment allegedly perpetrated by a member of the prime minister’s inner circle against a subordinate, an act that led to the sacking of the senior official — and a falling out between Hendel and Netanyahu’s closest aides.
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu with Dr Yoaz Hendel
His latest passion, which he tackles with the same energy evident in his military record and his media presence, is the Jerusalem-based Institute for Zionist Strategies. Since taking over as chairman in May 2012, Yoaz has shifted its focus to a complex, assertive effort at undermining the assumptions of Israel’s current political debate.

 “If there’s one thing you need to know about Yoaz, it’s that he breaks up monopolies,” an influential journalist said of him recently. “He wants to break up the religious monopoly of the rabbinate, the left’s monopoly on human rights, the right’s monopoly on Zionism.”

It’s a comment that summarizes succinctly Hendel’s political mission.

“The IZS tries to turn the State of Israel into both a more Jewish and a more democratic country,” Hendel explains, riffing off the common assertion that there is a tension between the two.

“We’re unflinchingly nationalistic. We have no doubts about our identity, even in a world that doubts the right of a Jewish state to be Jewish,” Hendel says.

“We believe the state was born primarily to be a home for the Jewish people, but at the same time we strive to make it more democratic.”

Democracy is not optional, he insists. “Jews have never lived in peace with each other without an external law.” Democracy is that set of rules required for Jews to live together.

 “The Zionist movement can’t be built on the denial of the other. My purpose isn’t just to teach the world [Israel’s side of the story], but to teach the Israeli as well, to teach parts of the left that not every statement that ‘smells’ nationalistic signals the end of democracy, and to teach the right that a national identity can’t be built on hate.”

One of Hendel’s first major steps when he took over the chairmanship of the institute was to establish “Blue and White Human Rights,” a group of self-identified right-wing activists who perform actions usually considered the sole purview of the far left, such as standing at roadblocks in the West Bank to ensure that IDF soldiers perform their duties according to the rules of the army, Israeli law and international norms.
Israeli border police officers check documents of Palestinian women who wait to cross the Qalandia checkpoint on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Ramallah. photo credit: (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
The right -wing Blue and White Human Rights group monitors IDF soldiers at roadblocks. 
The left’s “monopoly on human rights” has been damaging for Israel because it has given credence to the idea, not least on the right itself, that the right is somehow less responsible for or less interested in human rights, he argues.

We say that morality doesn’t belong to anyone. If anything, morality is on our side more than theirs, because some of the human rights organizations use human rights discourse for political ends, to oppose Israel’s existence. We deal with human rights without making them dependent on narrow politics.”

Most observers of Israeli politics believe the Israeli right is a triumphant political force that has ruled the country for the better part of the last two decades and faces a fractured, confused opponent on the left. But Hendel refuses to celebrate. The right, he argues, has failed Israel. Its electoral victories are not a function of its political message. In fact, he worries, the Israeli right barely has a political message.

As he seeks to break the left’s monopoly on human rights, Hendel devotes perhaps even more effort to liberating what he calls the “paralyzed” discourse on the right when it comes to the Palestinians.

The abysmal electoral failure of the left over the past two decades has created a strange mirror effect on the right. Since the right appears to be unable to lose an election, “it feels no need to speak to the mainstream or the center.”

“I don’t want to see Likud fail to form the government” in an upcoming election, Hendel insists, “but I also want Likud to stay in the Israeli mainstream. Without the liberal nationalist voice, without the appeal to the Israeli mainstream, which is patriotic but liberal, wants peace but understands its limits, Likud will turn into Jewish Home,” its more hawkish coalition partner.

Unlike others on the right, I think the status quo is damaging to Israel. We have to start finding our own answers as to how things should develop.” Instead, he says, the right has allowed itself to be dragged along by events.


Don't miss Dr Yoaz Hendel in person at the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival at Shalom College, UNSW. 

Full program details and ticket information are available at or call 9381 4160.

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