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Israel is neither Bibi nor the United States

If you evaluate Israeli politics through the prism of American democracy, you will be disappointed (and embarrassed). You will also miss what Israel is all about
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and US Reps. Rashida Tlaib, center, and Ilhan Omar, right. (Laura E. Adkins for JTA/Getty Images via JTA)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and US Reps. Rashida Tlaib, center, and Ilhan Omar, right. (Laura E. Adkins for JTA/Getty Images via JTA)

Let’s begin with what we know with certainty.

On the domestic front, Benjamin Netanyahu operates according to two inviolable principles. He will do or say whatever he needs to do to get reelected, and he will do whatever he needs to do — no matter what the damage to Israel’s judiciary or press — to ensure that he is not indicted.

On the diplomatic front, he also has two basic principles. In the region, he intends to block Iran’s insinuating itself into Syria or acquiring a weapon of mass destruction by any means necessary. And as for the US, he will do or say whatever he has to do in order not to arouse the ire of a president who is wholly uneducated about the region, entirely un-strategic, unpredictable, narcissistic and vindictive. Israel, Bibi understands, cannot afford to be on Trump’s bad side, and there are therefore no depths to which he will not stoop in order to remain in the president’s good graces.

Kotel-gate (June 2017), in which Netanyahu capitulated to the Haredim on the mixed-gender prayer section at the wall, was an example of the first principle. He could either have insisted on fulfilling his promise and thus lose his government (in which case the egalitarian section was not going to happen in any event), or fold and keep his government. The compromise was dead either way, so he chose to stay in power. The crisis said a great deal about the Haredim, but nothing we did not already know. It said not a thing about most Israelis or their views of non-Orthodox Judaism, yet the reaction of American Jews suggested that they felt the entire state was rejecting them. It wasn’t.

Last week, in Congress-gate, Netanyahu operated in keeping with his principle regarding Trump. That the move was foolish and damaging to Israel is beyond doubt. That Israel is becoming a wedge issue in American politics — which bodes very badly for Israel’s future security — is also undeniable. That Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar would have badmouthed Israel upon their departure was also clear — but Israel has withstood that in the past and would have managed again. Netanyahu’s foolish decision, made almost inevitable by Trump’s tweeting that “it would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit,” says everything about Bibi’s Trump-strategy, but again, nothing at all about Israel as a state or society. Yet some American Jews responded by saying that they were disgusted with the Jewish state.

Nation-state-law-gate (July 2018) aroused the ire of American Jews because they felt that in declaring that Israel was the nation-state of the Jewish people, Israel was abandoning its commitment to democracy. But Israel had passed a Basic Law in 1985 (with essentially constitutional weight) declaring that Israel was a “Jewish and democratic” state. Israel’s Declaration of Independence begins not “In the course of human events,” but with, “The Jewish people was born in the Land of Israel.” Israel, unlike the United States, has never been about “teeming masses yearning to breathe free,” but instead, has always been, with apologies to Lincoln, “of the Jews, by the Jews, for the Jews.” The United States and Israel are entirely different projects: created for entirely different reasons, with entirely different standards for assessing success.

But we have lost sight of purpose, of our raisons d’être. We look at Israel through a narrow political lens, evaluating it by the same standard to which we hold America — and that is now destroying the relationship between us. In the days after Congress-gate, I watched with interest the fury that erupted on social media. On Facebook, for example, one woman who describes herself as an “independent Jewish educator, Talmud addict, halakhah geek” wrote “I’m now done with Israel” and “I see nothing in the Israel of today that represents me.”

Israel’s prime minister made a terrible, foolish and short-sighted decision last week. But, I asked myself, a person who so loves Jewish learning and is so deeply committed to the Jewish people “sees nothing in the Israel of today” that speaks to her? The revitalization of the Jewish people’s language? The largest and still fastest-growing Jewish community in the world? The explosion of Jewish literary and cultural creativity? The emergence of new religious modes of expression that are in many cases linking religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Mizrachi, in ways unmatched anywhere in the world? The fact that the Jewish people have founded a state in which every citizen, regardless of ethnicity, has full access to health care? None of this speaks to us, even when we’re angry? Israel’s extraordinary accomplishments vanish the moment we’re embarrassed?

I no longer live in America, but I remain a proud American citizen. And I am horrified by what is transpiring on the southern border, how children are being ripped from their parents and how people seeking safe harbor are sometimes dying in American custody. The demise of civility in American political discourse disgusts me. Still, would it make sense to say that I’m done with America, that there is nothing about America that represents me?

That is simply not commitment, that is not love. If we are fortunate enough to find someone to make a life with, that person will love us despite our many flaws. Were they to love us only when we met all their expectations, there would be no love. We bring children into the world with high hopes and great dreams, but invariably, are occasionally disappointed — sometimes terribly so. Do we give up? Do we walk away?

Kotel-gate has now been almost forgotten. Nation-state-law-gate has receded. Now it’s Congress-gate and in a few months, it will be something else. That would be true with Labor at the helm of Israel, or Blue and White. Very little of this will change when Bibi is eventually gone, because Israel faces different challenges and threats than other countries. And it exists for an entirely different purpose.

Yet no relationship can survive this cascade of continuing crises. Were we a couple, we’d be talking about divorce. But few of us want that. What we need to do, just like a couple, is to start talking. About how different we are. About the radically different visions of a Jewish future that lie at the core of all that we do. About how extraordinarily successful we both have been, and about the existential threats that each of us faces.

It is possible to be deeply committed to the Jewish people and to say that “I see nothing in the Israel of today that represents me” only if one views Israel exclusively through a narrow political lens, comparing Israel’s comportment to what we would expect of the United States. That approach will doom us.

Zionism, and then Israel, set out to do one thing: to save the Jewish people. With all its warts and all its flaws, with all the humiliating mistakes its leaders too often make, Israel has done just that. Could we perhaps first acknowledge that, so that even when we are appalled, we remain deeply committed, even reverent, of all that Zionism has wrought? We need to learn to do that, for the alternative is a rupture in our people from which we might never recover.

Daniel Gordis is Koret Distinguished Fellow and Chair of the Core Curriculum at Shalem College, Jerusalem. His new book, We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel (Ecco/HarperCollins) will be published on September 10.

About the Author
Daniel Gordis is Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His book, "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn" (Ecco/HarperCollins), won the 2016 Jewish Book Council "Book of the Year" award. His most recent book, "Impossible Takes Longer: 75 Years After Its Creation, Has Israel Fulfilled Its Founders' Dreams?" was published in April.
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