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Politicians must stop asking what the country can do for them

Israel's next government will inevitably be a unity government -- but, given the current tenor of Israeli politics, who will be left to unite?
President Reuven Rivlin watches, as opposition leader Benny Gantz shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hours before laying claim to his job (AFP Photo/YONATAN SINDEL)
President Reuven Rivlin watches, as opposition leader Benny Gantz shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hours before laying claim to his job (AFP Photo/YONATAN SINDEL)

I used to love Israeli election campaigns. While they were often nasty, they nevertheless most often brought to the fore the central and critical issues facing Israel’s future. The issues were principled and of existential significance, and the debates and disagreements, real. While I obviously had my own opinions, I always recognized that the complexity of the challenges legitimized the presence of diverse and competing solutions. I understood that my political foes, no less than I, were compelled by a deep sense of obligation to the well-being and future of Israel. Citizens, parties, and leaders alike asked themselves, “What can I do for the country?”

I marveled at the stability of the country’s democratic foundations. Despite the existential consequences of our partisan differences, the democratic principles and the institutions of law and government were placed above the political fray.

Something has changed and not for the better. For 10 months now, as we have undergone two campaigns, and now potentially a third, the debate and discourse have rarely been about the issues confronting Israel. Each party has worked tirelessly to outdo the other in saying less. For 10 months now, we have not talked about “what,” but only about “who.”

Precisely because of that, the democratic process has been used to attack Israel’s democracy and governing institutions themselves. As the political impasse has continued, “who” will lead the country has itself been transformed into an — if not the — existential issue, and since only “I” can lead the country, what the country can do for “me” has become synonymous with what is good for the country.

Within this distorted worldview, the well-being and institutions which serve our country have been subordinated to the service of the “I.” In particular, anything and anyone who threaten the “I,” are delegitimized and attacked. Besides the obviously “evil” press, the entire judiciary system, police, attorney general — and every single figure in his office — are all engaged in a conspiracy, not against the “I” alone, but against the country itself. They have been forced and corrupted into becoming a so-called “Deep State,” engaged in nothing less than a coup against Israel, democracy, and the law.

While some may find solace in the similarities between Israel and another country, I do not. The lesson of Jewish history is that it is most perilous when we turn on each other, and when we fail to be guided by the larger question of what I have to do for my people or country.

We are not neophytes when it comes to ideological differences. As a people whose members build two synagogues when alone on a deserted island, we are often defined more by our debates than our moments of consensus. It is probably for this reason that rabbinic law expanded the parameters of the biblical prohibition against scarring one’s body to include the prohibition against scarring the body of the Jewish people through sectarian divisiveness. Disagreements in Jewish law are not merely allowed, but embraced as essential parts of a multifaceted Divine truth — on one condition. And that is that they do not undermine our ability to remain a cohesive collective. As a result, at times, individuals were expected to forego their own understanding of the tradition and follow the majority. At times, they were allowed to pursue their own paths, so long as they looked out for the opposing school of thought by informing them of the presence of anything that they would see as prohibited. And at times, all were allowed to pursue divergent paths on condition that they were committed to both truth and peace, with the latter taking precedence over the former, and, as a result, be willing to violate their own principles when following them would make social cohesion impossible.

To paraphrase the ending of the Book of Judges, “in those days, there was no government in Israel; everyone did as he or she pleased.” Months may pass before we have a government in Israel. A body formally responsible for the overall well-being of the country as a whole and of all of its citizens. In the current constellation of Israeli society, this government will inevitably be a unity government. The challenge we face is, what country will be left to govern? Will there be anyone with whom we can unite?

The current safety net is Iran, and the argument for unity goes essentially as follows: even though you are an enemy of the state in general, and my enemy in particular, we need to unify in the face of a greater and more imminent existential danger — Iran.

The problem is that, in the contemporary toxic environment, using Iran is interpreted as akin to the boy who cried wolf, and once the imminent threat is resolved by the development of an even more innovative missile defense system, we will be left defenseless in the face of the hatred that we have hurled against each other.

Chachamim, hiz’haharu b’divreichem. Pirkei Avot admonishes our leaders to be careful in the words they choose. Words can destroy, and more significantly, can build dangerous walls. While fences may make good neighbors, and walls protect us from outside threats, when they are used to isolate and protect us from each other and from our governing institutions, we are scarring the face of our country.

Before we can coalesce around a unity government, and even more significantly, before we embark on yet a third round of election campaigning, every single one of us must engage in a serious process of self-reflection and stop asking how the country can serve you and instead ask, “What are the consequences of our responsibility to serve our country?”

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is President of the Shalom Hartman Institute and author of Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself. Donniel is the founder of some of the most extensive education, training and enrichment programs for scholars, educators, rabbis, and religious and lay leaders in Israel and North America. He is a prominent essayist, blogger and lecturer on issues of Israeli politics, policy, Judaism, and the Jewish community. He has a Ph.D. in Jewish philosophy from Hebrew University, an M.A in political philosophy from New York University, an M.A. in religion from Temple University, and Rabbinic ordination from the Shalom Hartman Institute.
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