To what extent is ideology a part of the Israeli political process? Is ongoing ideological involvement in politics a good thing for the country?
Ideology is defined as a system of ideas and ideals, especially one that forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy. Examples of ideologies include conservatism, socialism, theocracy, totalitarianism and democracy. Since ideological principles may represent the fundamental framework upon which a particular type of government is established, the legality of these principles may be considered irrelevant to those involved in the political process.
Israel was founded on ideology. Akin to and in concert with the rise of European nationalism in the 19th century, secular Zionism developed an ideology that promoted a modern Jewish state in the biblical land of Israel. The importance and relevance of a Jewish homeland became blatantly obvious during the Second World War because of Hitler’s final solution to the “Jewish problem,” when Jews were rounded up and killed, and fleeing refugees, tragically, could not always find a safe haven.
Religious Zionism maintains that G-d promised the biblical land of Israel to the Jewish people as an a priori right. In the minds of its adherents, this justifies the settlement of Jews in Israel, particularly in biblical regions such as Judea and Samaria, even though this denies the political aspirations of the Palestinian Arabs who live there.
Palestinian nationalism evolved after the Six Day War in 1967, insisting that there be only a Palestinian state and denying Jewish sovereign rights to the land. The nature of the Palestinians’ representative authority has yet to be established. The two contenders, the West-Bank-led Palestinian Authority and the Hamas-led Gaza Strip are not in agreement. As neither appears to enjoy majority Palestinian support, it is unclear who – if anyone – truly speaks for the Palestinians.
Once a state is established, its nature is characterized by the way it blends ideology with the day-to-day running of its affairs. Russia, for example, is managed by an authoritarian ideology on a day-to-day basis. The rights of individuals, freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary are all subordinated to the authoritarian dictates of President Putin. The U.S., on the other hand, embodies a functioning democracy. This was best exemplified during the Trump administration, when the president attempted to wrest control beyond the authority granted him and dismiss all opposition. Although beset by hesitancy and divisiveness, institutions such as the press and the judiciary nonetheless continued to act independently and did not capitulate to Trump’s dictates.
Difficulties can arise when competing ideologies conflict. In Israel there are eight major ideologies: Jewish and Palestinian nationalism, right and left-wing political beliefs, right and left wing economic policies, and proponents of both religious and secular government.
Let us begin by examining Jewish versus Palestinian nationalism: the first advocates Israel as a Jewish political state, while Palestinian nationalism calls for its replacement by a Palestinian one.
The next conflict divides religious and secular Jews. Politically religious citizens believe that religious precepts should take precedence and be imposed upon the secular and the non-Jewish population. For example, for some of them it is not enough for observant Jews to refrain from using public transportation on the sabbath; they insist that public transportation on the sabbath should be prohibited for all. Secular Israelis, for the most part, are proponents of a “live and let live” approach opposing having their conduct dictated by the imposition of a religious government’s policy.
The third conflict is between the Jewish political right and left. The political left, while supporting the concept of Jewish nationalism and acknowledging the necessity of meeting Israel’s security needs, nonetheless believes that Palestinian national aspirations should be respected, and aspires to a mutually acceptable political and territorial compromise. In contrast, the ideological right – and the religious right in particular – believes that, as the Land of Israel was given to the Jewish People by G-d, sovereignty over the region, and over biblical Israel especially, should be exclusively Jewish.
The fourth conflict is between the economic right and left, with the right believing that people should be held personally responsible for the outcome of their actions, while the left contends that the state should financially assist its citizens, and particularly the disadvantaged among them.
One of the characteristics of ideologically dominated philosophies is their tendency to divide between “us” and “them.” We – that is, those who adhere to “our” ideology – are deemed the “good guys” in all regards, while “they” – those objecting to our views – are the bad guys and therefore entitled to less.
This division between us and them has a physiological and evolutionary basis. Primates, for example, can identify relatives and will cooperate with them, while viewing non-relatives as threatening. Human beings share similar autonomic attributes. When, for example, people are shown faces of others, their unconscious initial physiological response to those dissimilar from themselves differs from their response to those who resemble them. However, this difference can be overcome. Test results show that people who live in mixed neighborhoods, for example, do not demonstrate the same autonomic response when shown people dissimilar from themselves.
How has ideology interacted with modern Israel?
The Netanyahu governments were characterized mainly by coalition partners who are right wing both economically and politically. They also included ultra-Orthodox partners. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that the various Netanyahu led governments pursued a right-wing settlement policy and acceded to Haredi religious demands. There were three major consequences of this arrangement. The first was polarization, with adherents of government-opposition beliefs feeling neglected and rejected. The second was international criticism of some of the right-wing ideologically based policies. The third was relegation of non-ideological policy to a lower level of priority. A lack of a budget for three years exacerbated this problem, because without a budget a government cannot initiate new policy. Consequently, unaddressed problems tended to fester until they erupted, and required crisis management rather than implementation of carefully thought-out policy.
In contrast, as the Bennett government includes participants who are at political odds with one another, its strategy has been not to pursue ideological policies but, rather, to aspire only to common goals. This approach has led to a refreshing focus on previously neglected good governance initiatives. Examples include economic reforms and confronting violence within Israel’s Arab communities. A budget was finally passed. Even more contrasting and important was the removal of some of the “us versus them” barriers. Ministerial remarks such as “I don’t agree with my colleague politically, but I respect him/her, and we can work together on mutually agreed issues,” offered a refreshing change from the more polarizing statements commonly conveyed by members of Netanyahu governments.
Because of its diverse political make-up, many predicted that the government would not last more than a few weeks. Furthermore, some considered the idea of a coalition Arab political party unacceptable and a threat to the security and stability of the government. Indeed, this paradigm shift has not been easy for any of the present government coalition partners. Each has had to refrain from overplaying its hand when pursuing policies which conflicted with the views of other coalition members. Unlike the Netanyahu governments, the present right-wing coalition partners have had to contend both with the political and economic left along with an Arab coalition partner. Mansour Abbas, for his part, has had to cope with a right-wing prime minister and with belonging to a coalition government for some of whose right-wing members are anathema to the Arabs. It has been a delicate balancing act in which each partner was able and willing to restrain its demands only so long as its fellow coalition members did likewise. Until April, ten months after its establishment, the Bennett government managed to give running the country priority over ideological concerns.
Then came the Silman affair. With Passover approaching, the question of whether or not hametz (foods that contain leavening agents) could be brought into hospitals by non-observant Jews or non-Jewish families visiting their loved ones was addressed yet again, even though the issue had already been resolved by the High Court in 2020. The court ruled then that prohibitions against families’ bringing leavened food into hospitals were illegal. The present minister of health was acting on that ruling when he sent a letter to hospital administrators assuring them that they could permit families, often of non-Jewish patients, to bring in hametz. MK Silman objected to this policy implementation, and subsequently submitted her resignation from the government. She questioned neither the legality of the minister’s action nor that of the court decision but declared the authorization to be “damaging to our values and standards that are essential and pure.” The style and content of her declaration are clearly ideological.
MK Idit Silman’s resignation represented a pivot back to ideological dominance of a government issue. By putting ideology first, she tipped the delicate balance within the coalition, precipitating a cascade effect that led to further resignations, and we now have a minority government that could easily fall. As there appears to be no alternative government on the horizon, Israel may well have to undergo yet another possibly futile election.
Silman’s action illustrates that what may make sense ideologically does not necessarily serve the public’s best interest. Furthermore, an ideologically dominated approach also presents a mathematical difficulty. With four disparate ideologies, if party members are willing to support only their own particular view, it will be impossible to form a sustainable majority government.
Nor does a coalition of likeminded participants always assure stability. The Netanyahu led governments despite having a shared ideological background, experienced recurrent right-wing instability leading to four sequential elections.
In conclusion, for a government to function, ideological humility and compromise are necessary and should be the call of the hour. Let us not forget that Israel is beset by innumerable day-to-day threats and contentious issues that need to be dealt with even in the absence of a broad consensus. Without a scrupulously cautious and selective approach to ideological intervention, no government will sustain itself for very long. Does a government really have to fall because some hospital administrators permitted families to bring in unleavened food for their sick relatives during Passover? Shouldn’t responsible political participants be careful before making decisions which may lead to a dystopian situation of no viable Knesset majority possibility? Why not put ideological issues on the back burner for a while, for more than 10 months, and pursue cooperative and pluralistic good governance?