A recent Haaretz op-ed excoriating the National Religious community in Israel as being worse than Hezbollah has been making the rounds and mucking up controversy. The op-ed reminds me of a conversation I had shortly after moving to Israel, where I identified myself as left-wing.
“I’m left-wing too – but if you’re left-wing, how can you live in Jerusalem? There are so many ultra-Orthodox people and Arabs. As a left-wing person, I hate spending time with people who are intolerant!”
That was the moment when I first realized that, although I do have some very left-wing political views, the Israeli left might not be the right fit for me. I enjoy talking to and learning from people from different cultures — including ultra-Orthodox and Arab people. I know plenty of committed left-wing Israelis who feel the way I do, and who are doing great work promoting tolerance and human rights, fighting for a version of Zionism that I believe in.
But I still don’t feel at home in Israeli left-wing politics, in part because I have also encountered the three stereotypes below.
The intolerant are all in favor of equal rights, but would cringe at the the though of an Arab living on their street. Of course equal funding should be given to Jewish and Arab schools – but it’s vital that we maintain separate Jewish and Arab schools.
The intolerant are the most passionate advocates of a Palestinian state in the West Bank. They’re generally in favor of a divided Jerusalem. Their logic is clear: Israel should have as few Palestinians as possible, in order to preserve a Jewish majority.
The intolerant view the ultra-Orthodox – or sometimes the Modern Orthodox – as backwards, and have no desire to spend time with them. If you are Orthodox, and manage to say anything that reflects a passing knowledge with modern science or Western culture, they will be extremely surprised, and stare at you a bit as if you were a talking monkey.
Everything is Israel’s fault. Palestinian hatred, incitement, terrorism – doesn’t exist.
A terror attack against Israeli civilians? It’s Israel’s fault because of the Occupation. Palestinians, unlike other human beings, have no free will, so they had no choice in the matter.
Did you hear that yesterday an MK said something racist? No members of legislatures in any other countries ever say anything racist – it’s not fair, how come Israel is stuck being the only racist country in the world?!
Anti-Semitism doesn’t exist. The Holocaust? It happened decades ago, and everyone knows that 2,000 years of Western anti-Semitism can totally die out in a couple of years. Plus, they already paid us reparations!
When I ask, “Why do other nations have a right to self-determination, but not the Jews?” I’m told: “Jews aren’t really a nation. Nationalism is evil.”
What makes people a nation? If nations are constructed communities, a constructed community that is at least 200 years old should be legitimate. After all, Italy didn’t become a nation-state until 1861; before then, many Italians viewed themselves as residents of their region, rather than as members of an Italian nation. Also, since Palestinian nationalism was born in response to Zionism, it’s hard to argue for the legitimacy of the former while maintaining the illegitimacy of the latter. If nations aren’t constructed communities, you’ve resorted to a magical-mystical definition of nation that was favored by Hitler.
But I look at modern nation states the same way I look at gender: flawed socio-political-economic constructs. But completely undoing them would thrust the world into chaos and violence, possibly resulting in new hierarchies that would be even worse.I’m not utopian enough to believe that humans are capable of living, globally, as one people, without social divides. Today, it’s the nation. Take those labels away, and people will come up with something else.
As a left-wing person who is also religious, as someone who sees Israel’s flaws without believing it is the root of all evil, as someone who embraces Zionism while fighting for a more inclusive definition of the term, I feel extremely alienated from the Israeli left, even when I agree with many of its policies.
The recent Haaretz op-ed is not a one-off:
It’s part of a trend the Israeli left must combat if it wishes to reach out to new voters and win elections. I’ve heard from many left-wing people that there’s no point in trying to reach the religious community, or Mizrahi Jews, because they’re so intolerant, they’d never support a left-wing cause. Not only are such statements ethically problematic, but also, if you’ve given up on most of the Israeli population, you can’t complain that they’re not voting for you!
The Haaretz op-ed was simply another disheartening reminder of why I feel so alienated from the political camp I find myself naturally drawn towards, and another demonstration of the Israeli left’s current tendency to draw rifts between different segments of Israeli society instead of finding common denominators and seeking to work together for a better country and a better world.