Laura Wharton
Jerusalem City Councilor, adjunct lecturer in political science

125 Years On, What Does the Left Have to Offer?

Theodor Herzl began a revolution: the Left should be celebrating him today

At this time Jews all over the world are celebrating 125 years since Theodor Herzl convened the first international Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. In almost all ways, this revolutionary movement succeeded far beyond anyone’s wildest dreams: a thriving Jewish state has been established, with immigrants from all over the world, almost ten million citizens, a thriving culture and a renewed Hebrew language, with a powerful army to defend its borders.

Yet now more than ever, we are sent back to some of the debates that began with the movement. What exactly are the aims today?

From the outset, the movement called for moving to what was then called Palestine, for creating a safe haven, and for developing the land. Also from the outset, there were debates as to whether a state should be the aim, or simply a physical place of refuge. Much of the religious leadership resisted the idea of creating a state, since that was thought fit to do only with the coming of the messiah. On the other hand, the majority of the movement’s leaders, as well as the country’s founders, objected to any mention of religion; this was echoed in the debates over the wording of  the declaration of independence, which features no reference at all to a supreme being (albeit, with a minor concession, a referal to “the Rock of Israel”).

Today, many right-wing and religious Zionists and their parties speak of three critical values: the Torah of  Israel, the Land of Israel, and the People of Israel. I think it is time to re-clarify where we on the Left differ.

Now, as in 1948, the left supports the State of Israel. Torah and religion are a private matter, the Land of Israel has been divided, and the people of Israel share their homeland with all those who were here and who have come to live in the country as equal citizens.

The Left should be clarifying that.

The state of Israel is responsible for its defense. Not all share equally in that burden, and that should be changed. We should be proud that after 2,000 years scattered in the disapora we have come together and work together to make a safe haven. We have developed incredible intelligence capabilities, along the lines of those described in Utopia, that enable us not only to fight well but to deter and avert war.

The state of Israel collects taxes and redistributes both these and the nation’s resources for the benefit of all, or so we should aspire. Israel was and can be a social democracy that provides well for those who need extra support, including those with disabilities, the elderly, those beginning with or living with meager economic resources.  This will make the whole society not only stronger but more just, which adds moral strength as well.

The state of Israel was and can be a source of unity. All citizens, as promised at its founding, should be treated as equals, with equal rights and equal protection. The state was founded not as a religious state — Herzl wrote explicitly against the dangers of theocracy — but as a homeland for a people. That people, a majority, should know to share and respect all of its citizens, for that is what a modern, democratic state does. It may foster the culture that the Jewish people have developed, teach the history of the Jewish people and the region, but if it is to be part of the family of nations it must not only refrain from any sort of prejudice, it should prohibit it. Minority rights must be respected. These, sadly, seems less and less to be  principles that are upheld.

As Jews and Israelis celebrate 125 years of Zionism, the Left should take the opportunity to celebrate the state. While the parts of the right-wing coalition shirk their responsibility in defending the country and the settlers even endanger it by flouting its official borders, the Left should be clear in its stance as patriots. While the right wants to whittle away at the state by cutting taxes and social services, the Left should emphasize its belief in the importance of social service nets and promoting equal opportunity as a modern nation can and should. While the right emphasizes more and more the Jews and the religion, the Left should keep its distance from tribal allegiances and stand by the equality of all citizens in the state which we are so proud to have led in creating.

The Left should not be dragged into futile arguments about personal matters and certainly not engage in shouting matches with the many right-wing candidates with police records and under legal examination. We have a proud history, a great country, and we should focus on the Left’s vision of it for the future.

About the Author
Dr Laura Wharton is a member of Jerusalem's City Council as a representative of Meretz and an adjunct lecturer in the political science department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Born in the U.S., she immigrated to Israel after receiving a B.A. in the government department of Harvard University and then served a full term in the Israel Defense Forces. She subsequently completed an M.A. and a Ph.D. at Hebrew University. For research that later served as the basis for her book "Is the Party Over? How Israel Lost Its Social Agenda" (Yad Levi Eshkol, 2019) she was awarded the Prime Minister's Prize in Memory of Levi Eshkol. She is a mother of two and has been living in Jerusalem for more than two decades.
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