When Asterix the Gaul and his fat friend Obelix ventured to the island of Corsica they found themselves in the midst of an election. One of the leaders explained that now that the people had voted and the ballot boxes were full it was time to get on with the election, with the leaders fighting it out to determine the Town’s government. Well now that the elections are over and the voters of Israel have expressed their democratic will, political leaders, old and new, will determine among themselves, who will govern the country. Amid the familiar horse-trading and power plays, it is to be hoped that vision and values will inform the process.
The future of the Jewish People depends on a commitment to the ancient and ongoing values which define our peoplehood. Young Jews upon whom the hopes of our people rest, in Israel and the Diaspora, are searching for meaning in their respective societies. The integrity of the political process in Israel will be an important factor if this generation is to be inspired to hold fast to this Jewish future, and play a role in shaping it.
Our long history has been built on both religious faith and a national identity tied to the Land of Israel. Throughout our exile it was mainly faith which preserved and nurtured our peoplehood until the Zionist movement burst forth in the late 19th Century to, as articulated by Chief Rabbi Sacks, turn a hope for a land into a practical vision for return to our land of hope. Core to both dimensions of our peoplehood was a set of immutable Jewish values. They anchored us, drove us and bound us together as a people, even in our dispersion.
Faith remains a powerful force, as demonstrated by the growth of the kiruv movements and the Haredi communities. But many of these communities eschew the rest of society. I don’t hold the view that Haredi communities contribute nothing to wider society. Yad Sara and Zaka are just two examples which show this view to be false. But the Haredi trend towards isolation in both Israel and in the Diaspora is wrong. You can’t be “a light unto the nations” if you refuse to engage with other nations, and even large sections of your own.
Zionism also remains strong. But I fear that here too the values which underpinned the movement, expressed so magnificently in the Declaration of Independence, cannot easily be recognised in the Settler movement and its supporters. While I recognise within it some of the forces which have sustained our People for almost three thousand years, I struggle to find the values which temper them and ensure that we are in harmony with society, democratic values and our spiritual obligations towards humanity. .
As Benjamin Netanyahu puts his coalition together, as a Diaspora Jew I am an interested observer, with a legitimate interest. After all, and as we are so keen to see recognised by the Palestinians and the Arab world, Israel is the nation State of the Jewish People – all of the Jewish People. But not being a citizen I offer merely commentary. And it is this. The coalition will inevitably be formed from the process of political compromise necessitated by Israel’s political system. Within this process, one would hope the protagonists would place at centre stage a vision for Israel and the Jewish People based on a coherent set of values; values which will capture the hearts and minds of young Israelis who expressed their will in the election and young Jews around the world who must hold Israel at the centre of their Jewish being.
I suggest three core values: Peace, contribution, dignity of Man.
The Jewish People first brought the value of Peace to this world. It is central to our age-old prayers and a defining aspiration. It allows mankind to fly with the angels. Peace with the Palestinians is an existential need. The conflict divides us and puts us all at risk. Israel is losing the battle of legitimacy and no matter how much we rage against the injustice of it, a boycott movement is on the rise. There is a real danger that unless we demonstrate that we are tirelessly pursuing peace, the boycott movement could achieve its malignant goal of isolating Israel from the Community of Nations, exposing it to pariah status, sanctions and exclusion. If this happens we will become fractured as a people as we inevitably condemn each other and our nation will be at risk.
The coalition must put peace at the top of its agenda. Not because we will all like the outcomes but because it is a value which sustains our people and which will draw in the emerging generation as we struggle for justice and a secure Israel. And however divisive our pursuit of peace could prove, that will pale in comparison with the long-term divisions caused by an absence of it.
We have to deal with the issue of settlements and the negative symbolism of the entrenchment of the status quo. We have to seek ways of establishing dialogue with the Palestinians. We should be prepared to take the inevitable risks to achieve the goal of Peace. The final status paradigm, in which everything can be discussed but nothing agreed until everything is agreed, is not working and provides too much room for stalling and stagnation. Let’s move from the obscurity of the future to the urgency of the present. Let’s talk about the things that can be agreed and implement them whenever they are agreed.
The Palestinian driven UN vote highlighted the danger of increased unilateralism. But PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad had previously invested a great deal in nation building and some might argue that the potential of that enterprise was not sufficiently harnessed by the Israeli government. Sadly, the Palestinian leadership chose to turn away from Fayyad’s constructive focus to the negative unilateralism of attempting to wrong foot Israel in international forums. Now, however, we should use the reality of the UN vote last year to place greater responsibility on the Palestinians to prepare their people for peace. And where necessary, Israel should act unilaterally but constructively to achieve this goal.
Secondly, the value of contribution where all citizens are obligated to ask what can I do rather than what can I have. The beautiful story in the Torah of the building of the Mishkan – the Temple – so well described the harmony of a nation when all see the need to contribute. The divisions which are so apparent in Israel today – secular versus religious, centre versus periphery, Jew versus Arab – are a cancer which will undermine and fragment the nation and are the enemy of prosperity. Divisions can be healed if all sections of the society embrace this value, and strive to contribute what they can. Both Bennett and Lapid, on opposing sides of the political spectrum, recognised and articulated this value. The next government should place this value at its core. All must contribute to the wealth of society according to their capacity and a brave Knesset must deal with the legitimate share that each section of Israeli society can claim from the whole.
Thirdly, the dignity of Man is at the heart of Judaism. Hillel of Old affirmed this and the Torah is replete with injunctions against injustice to one’s fellow, treatment of the stranger and care for the widow and orphan, the vulnerable and weak. The rest, as he said, is commentary. Equality before the law, favouring neither the powerful nor the poor but with a fair distribution of the nation’s resources, is in our DNA. If ministers and legislators are informed by this value then minorities will not be oppressed, refugees will be treated with dignity and compassion, and bigots will not be allowed to write the social agenda.
Finally, for these values to be resurgent there is an imperative of momentum. Israel’s political system celebrates democratic intent but stifles the democratic will. The future coalition must embrace the urgent need for action. Nothing must be allowed to get in the way of moving the agenda forward, and momentum needs to be harnessed not held back.
The Children of Israel crossed the sea to escape oppression, seeking renewed hope and peace in their Land. But fearful of change and risk they recoiled from crossing the river. It set them back a generation, wandering the wilderness. That is not a risk we can afford to take. Israel and the Jewish People continue to face hostility from outside, and divisions from within. To withstand those challenges, we need vision, we need values and we need momentum. Peace, contribution, the dignity of man: these values will be vital if we are to build a resilient, dynamic future for a Jewish People committed to each other, with the State of Israel at our heart.