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Bad for the Jews

For Israel to represent our most noble Jewish values, it must pursue peace, and prevent racism, and xenophobia from having any foothold in the Jewish state

Defense Minister Benny Ganz is “bad for the Jews,” at least according to the opposition, due to his recent meeting with PA President Mahmoud Abbas. And Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his government are betraying the “Jewishness of Israel” for including Mansour Abbas and his Arab Israeli Ra’am party in the coalition.

Welcome to the new front line of Israel’s political divide. Where Yitzhak Rabin was branded a traitor for purportedly betraying Israel, the new “traitors” are betraying not only Israel, but its Jewish identity and the entire Jewish people.

Echoes of this distorted dichotomy began to emerge over the last few years. When Elor Azaria, the IDF soldier who killed a bound Palestinian terrorist, was put on trial for manslaughter, his defenders labeled themselves as “the lovers of Jews,” as opposed to those who were the “Arab-lovers.” When then-prime minister Netanyahu tried to mobilize his base on election day 2015, he warned that Arabs were “pouring out” to vote, threatening the Jewishness of Israel. And when some on the right made the case for deporting the asylum seekers and migrant workers from Sudan and Eritrea, here too the argument was made that they were undermining Israel’s Jewish identity — as if 35,000 people threatened the Jewish state.

Israeli discourse, much to the country’s detriment, allows ideological groups to dominate essential terminologies in our identity. The most damaging is “dati,” which means both “religious” and “Orthodox,” as though those terms were interchangeable. Everyone who is not Orthodox is incorporated under the category of “lo dati,” not religious. Former president Rivlin reflected this linguistic monopoly with his famous formulation of the four tribes of Israel: the ultra-Orthodox, the Orthodox religious Zionists, the secularists, and the Arabs. This mode of discourse has led to decades of Israelis being effectively categorized as principally Israelis, rather than Jews, for the latter is a religious category and they are, after all, “lo dati.”

Similarly, the simplistic language applied to the divide between the “peace camp” and the “Land of Israel loyalists,” has flattened much of Israel’s thinking and policies. Under the monopolies claimed by each, the left owns an exclusive commitment to peace while the right owns commitment to the land — as if the left were not connected to our historical homeland and the right had no aspirations for peace. The price of this false dichotomy is to deny the Israeli majority that does not identify with the left a language to articulate their vision for a future beyond the current stalemate.

What has happened to the foundational Israeli commitment to unconditional peace negotiations, anytime and anywhere? A commitment which we proudly declared as core to our Jewishness, for “no one is as committed to peace as the Jewish people.” A commitment which we argued is what distinguishes us from them.

One reason it has vanished is because, in the current discourse, a commitment to peace is no longer an expression of one’s core Jewish values, but a betrayal of the Jewish people. It involves acknowledging and engaging with “them,” a move that invariably signifies disloyalty to “us.”

Once a category is monopolized in public parlance, it can take decades to free ourselves from its imposed limitations. Only in the last two decades has Israeli society finally begun embracing the complexity of lo-dati religiosity, and making some place for complex “traditionalist” mesorati and liberal Jewish identities. But even today, lo-dati Jewish public schools (“secular schools”) still only receive 2-3 hours a week of funding for their Jewish studies, as compared to 10-15 hours in Orthodox schools. Even as Israel is finally breaking the state rabbinate’s monopoly over kashrut certification and conversion, the new options remain confined to the varieties of Orthodoxy.

We cannot afford to allow a new monopoly over Jewishness — a narrow and insidious version of the political right — to take hold in Israeli society. This version of Jewish, which claims to speak for Jewish interests, no longer speaks of Jewish values, certainly not Jewish ethics, let alone ethical responsibility for non-Jews. Instead, its primary value is unchecked power, nationalism bordering on fascism and racism. It advocates zero sum game, in which any concern for Arab rights is viewed as undermining Jewish rights, and concern for Palestinian suffering in Judea and Samaria and Gaza is antithetical to concern for the security of Israel and the wellbeing of Jews.

Paradoxically, even as it proclaims deep loyalty to the Jewishness of Israel, this version of the political right demands that Israel be allowed to be as morally flawed as anyone else. Jewish in its demography and in its Orthodox monopoly, but entirely secular and “normal” in its foreign policy and use of power.

This attempt to monopolize who is good for the Jews, and who is really committed to the Jewishness of Israel, is entering the mainstream and being manipulated for political gain. We cannot allow the political and moral discourse in Israel to become a dichotomy between Jewish loyalty and universal liberal values. Between those who love the Jews and those whose loyalty is to “them.” Between those who love Israel, the Jews and the land of Israel, and those committed to the so called self-destructive path of assimilationist liberal values.

In the homeland of the Jewish people we need to lay claim to a Jewishness which reflects our most noble values. Those values include the notion that all human beings are created in the image of God, and that what is hateful until you, do not do to others. That Israel is more Jewish the more it pursues peace. That Israel is more Jewish when Jew and non-Jew alike are afforded justice, rights and respect. That Israel is more Jewish the more it allows itself to be guided by its values and aspirations for a more hopeful future for Israel and our neighbors. That knows that racism, xenophobia and fascism are bad for the Jews, and cannot be allowed to reflect the essence of Judaism nor have a foothold in the Jewish state.

If there is a dichotomy between us and them, it is between those who embrace this dichotomy and those who reject it.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and the author of 'Putting God Second: How to Save Religion' from Itself. Together with Yossi Klein Halevi and Elana Stein Hain, he co-hosts the 'For Heaven’s Sake' podcast. 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 PhD in Jewish philosophy from Hebrew University, an MA in political philosophy from New York University, an MA in religion from Temple University, and rabbinic ordination from the Shalom Hartman Institute.
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