Words. On the surface, campaigns and elections are about words, and much attention has been given to the words that were spoken. The clearest words were spoken at the ballot box, as Israelis clearly articulated who they wanted as the next Prime Minister. Many words were also spoken during the campaign. Hurtful words, angry words, aggressive words, arrogant words, and even racist words.
As Jews we believe that sticks and stones will break our bones, and words will harm us more. That said, the culture of political discourse has denigrated to such a level that a free pass has essentially been given to politicians. For the sake of victory, they are allowed to say anything, with the comfort of knowing that they will not be held accountable for their words.
When viewed from this context, while esthetically repulsed, I am neither shocked nor overly disappointed by the polluting words spoken during the campaign by our politicians in general and our prime minister in particular. Many of these words simply reflected their commitment to win.
Herein, however, lies a problem that must shock us into immediate action. Even if the words that were spoken were “merely” words, these words worked. They may not have represented the true beliefs of those who used them, but they did convince the population to vote because of them. The words say less about our politicians and more about us and what we have become.
Why does an “us-them” dichotomy between Israeli Jewish and Arab citizens motivate people to vote? Why does a campaign which designates half of Israeli society as outside the true Zionist camp inspire? What does it say about us when a leading party campaigns under the slogan, “No more apologies,” as if loyalty to Israel entails an assumption of its infallibility? What does it say about the way our society understands Judaism, when under its banner we advocate for inequality and xenophobia? What does it say about the value of peace and justice in our society, when rejecting a two-state solution outright, regardless of the circumstances, makes a candidate more rather than less attractive?
A common mantra over the last decade has been that Israeli society has rejected both the Right and the Left and moved to the center. But one of the clear lessons of this election is that this is no longer true. At the very least, 30 percent if not more of Israel’s Jewish citizens have adopted beliefs about Judaism and nationalism antithetical to core principles of liberal democracy and modern Judaism.
Israel has spoken, and it’s time to speak back. As Israelis and as Jews, we must understand we are in the midst of a cultural battle over the soul of our people, our country, and our tradition. This battle will not be won with words or by imposing policies which our citizens have rejected. This is not a battle between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. It is not a battle which will be won in the political arena, but an educational battle over the ideas and ideals which define who we are, who we want to be, and the democratic nature and moral fiber of the homeland of the Jewish people.
Is Judaism a religion which believes that the equal treatment of all Israeli citizens – regardless of their religious, racial, gender, and national identities – is the ultimate expression of the biblical idea that all humanity is created in the image of God? Is Judaism a religion which believes that if our legitimate security concerns can be met, our commitment to justice and equality must override our commitment to holding on to all of the Land of Israel? Is Judaism the maid-servant to nationalism, or rather its greatest critic, challenging it to ever-higher moral heights?
Is the Jewish idea of chosenness one that fosters a false sense of superiority, self-aggrandizement, and alienation from the world, or is it an idea that challenges us to be more, and obligates us to engage and contribute to the betterment of our world? Is Judaism a religion where one truth monopolizes God’s word, or are we a tradition where “these and these are the words of the living God”? Is Judaism a religion that embraces and incorporates the best of modernity, or do we believe that the more insulated we are, the more authentically Jewish we are?
Over the next few weeks, a coalition will be formed which represents the voice of the people. We need to create a new coalition which will speak to the people, and which will work to reclaim a place for a modern, moral, and liberal Judaism at the heart of Israel.
Good people, intelligent people, can reach different conclusions about many of the most contentious issues facing Israeli society. To believe that a two-state solution is not implementable today given the current political conditions does not entail a denial of the values of justice and equality. However, to cease to aspire toward it, and to undermine its possibility to be actualized one day through policies and legislation, does entail a marginalization of these values.
To believe that the Middle East is a dangerous place, and that the strengthening of Israel is a national priority, is a reflection of the highest values of our tradition. However, to believe that these interests are served by seeing Judaism and democracy, and loyalty to Jews and a commitment to equality for all, as zero-sum games, is to adopt the lowest values of our tradition.
We need a new coalition whose aim is to educate, a coalition that unites people from across party lines, which unites Jews and Arabs, which transcends traditional right-wing, left-wing distinctions, which combines Israel and World Jewry. The people have spoken. It is time for this new coalition to begin the slow educational work of speaking to the people and fighting for the soul of Israel.