The Israeli government’s determination to increase the power of the legislature at the expense of the judiciary has touched a nerve so vital to the core of Jewish identity that the concept of Jewish solidarity, once taken for granted, is now being strained to breaking point.
Disagreements among Jews, whether in the form of religious disputations or political antagonisms, have traditionally been regarded as healthy. They are valued as the lifeblood of Jewish thought and seen as stepping stones towards the resolution of thorny issues. No matter how deep the divide, there has generally been a tacit understanding that all Jews everywhere beat with the same heart. The shoulder-shrugging Jew (“On the one hand….On the other hand….”)has often been the subject of affectionate satire. But this benign image of a uniquely Jewish approach to conflict is receding in the face of what is happening in Israel today.
In the never-ending war against antisemitism, Jews who are critical of attitudes which disrespect non-Jews run the risk of the accusation that they are giving aid and comfort to antisemites. They are even labelled as ‘self-hating Jews’, although I know of no Jew who would self-define as such. The term carries an implication of betrayal and makes a nonsense of genuine attempts to reconcile differences by means of dialogue. The problem is made worse by the escalation of populist rhetoric, which only serves to deepen the divide.
The problem of internecine conflict between Jews is one for both Israel and the diaspora. The future of Israel is intimately bound up with that of the international Jewish community which, ever since the establishment of the State, has unconditionally supported Israel. Now, however, a rift has opened up between those who see the determination of the Israeli government to weaken the judiciary as a necessary measure to preserve the Jewish character of Israel and those who believe that a regard for democratic principles should be a fundamental tenet of Israeli society, irrespective of its religious or ethnic composition.
A tragic history is repeating itself here. Centuries of antisemitic persecution, culminating in the Holocaust, have inflicted massive trauma on the Jewish people and left the survivors with a jaundiced view of humanity. A wedge has been driven between those who view the world as a battlefield and those who seek to extend the hand of friendship across religious, ethnic and national boundaries. Unfortunately, the latter are being represented as naive, even traitorous to the Jewish cause.
The current Israeli leadership is being driven by deep mistrust. At the root of this lies a fear for the survival of the Jewish people. This is an understandable fear, which no amount of military power or technological skill can assuage, but it leads to an impasse. Jews who espouse humanitarian principles are being labelled by other Jews as alien to the Jewish fold, thwarting efforts to engage in rational debate towards a compromise.
Simplistic views are being put forward about the futility of dialogue as a means of resolving disagreement. If Jews who look for ways of conciliating and compromising are being pushed into the camp of ‘the outsiders’, there is only a slim hope of achieving a democratic solution to the Jewish conundrum.
This is why I am pessimistic about the direction which Israel is now taking. George Santayana, the Spanish American philosopher, and Sigmund Freud, the Austrian Jewish psychoanalyst, both argued that anyone who chooses not to remember the past is condemned to repeat it. Those now in power in Israel would do well to reflect on this prophecy.