Emanuel Shahaf

Israel – Rekindling the Story

Israel has always had a story. Often enough it was a good one, at times it even was great. Our stories were compelling, got the people or most of them on the bandwagon, helped garner support of world Jewry and frequently that of many non-Jews as well. If it was the kindling of Zionism and the return of the exiles before the state came into being, if it was the actual building of community and founding the state against all odds and five Arab armies in 1948 to give a safe haven to the survivors of the Holocaust and of antisemitism in general, if it was the incremental formation of our very own national home and making the desert bloom, if it was breaking out against Arab aggression in the Six Day War in 1967 or upending a murderous Arab attack in 1973, the peace with Egypt in 1979, the Oslo Agreements in 1993 and the peace with Jordan in 1994, lately the formation of the start-up nation and just recently the Abraham Accords, we’ve always had a good story that inspired and carried us. And that really helped us to move ahead, to break through, win wars, innovate, succeed under adverse circumstances, to keep us on the right side of history, get world wide support, stay with the good guys.

Actually our stories were frequently so good and overwhelming and made us so proud of our achievements that they largely helped us and not only us, overlook, bypass, muzzle or simply ignore certain realities that really have always been there and should have been part of the stories but, if given their space, would have made them less compelling, likely a lot less. In reality, our stories were never ever complete. They always left something out, some minor or not so minor detail, a fact or two that should have raised issues, an unanswered question, a potential embarrassment, a red flag, or more. Sometimes a lot more. A whole lot more.

As I’m writing this, I wonder if you have a clue of what I mean. An idea, a thought, an inkling. Because we have become so attached to our version of the stories that in the last 5 Israeli elections, none of these omissions were mentioned by any of the political parties to any extent. In the last Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) interview, 5 former Chiefs of Staff didn’t raise them. Our stories remained unblemished and pure. Well, they aren’t.

Even though, when looking back at them and our achievements we cannot but be amazed and proud of what we have accomplished. At the same time we have to realize that we have been sloppy, careless, at times even ruthless and negligent in pursuing our story, the way we wanted to without looking left or right, sometimes even without looking straight ahead, certainly without looking back.

It is now that the chickens have come to roost. Avoiding the complete story every single time has cost us a price, a huge price – by accumulating omissions over 75 years and avoiding completing our stories, at any time we also have collected conflicts and serial denials. Whole segments of the population, Jewish and Arab. have systematically been ignored or sidelined. Their part in our stories has always been marginal, at best. Sidelined Jews, mostly Mizrahi in origin and traditional, have developed strong feelings against progressive policies (LGBTQ, Feminism) and have been aligning politically with the Ultraorthdox and Religious Zionism. Arab society, mainly by the state’s omission, has been unable to curb the development of criminal gangs within, gangs that have made personal security highly problematic in many Arab towns and villages. And, of course, last not least, we just don’t mention the Palestinian territories where we keep between 2.5 and 4.5 Million Palestinians (depending if you count Gaza in) without civil rights under a belligerent occupation for 56 years running, an occupation whose ugly characteristics have seeped into Israel’s society and to a not insignificant extent have helped to advance its non-democratic features.

On this background, politicians in the present government, some of them indicted or convicted criminals, have systematically abused social networks and their sway with voters and are now using their majority in the Knesset to attempt to materially undermine Israeli democracy by legally limiting the ability of the judiciary to review governmental decisions. Ever since Prime Minister Netanyahu is under criminal investigation for corruption and breach of trust there has been a strong public campaign supported by his cronies against the legal system and the courts. It has succeeded partially so far and the present Israeli government is actively pursuing a path that will lead, sooner or later, to an autocratic regime along the likes of Hungary or Poland.

Large nation-wide demonstrations protesting the government’s steps to disempower the judiciary have had some success and have prevented the worst. Nevertheless the government’s efforts are continuing and it is clear that it is making an all-out effort, via secondary legislation, to change the fabric of the state of Israel and turn it into a regressive, more religious and proto-fascist country. The recent attempts by the government to pick a fight with the defense establishment over the latter’s policy not to confront conscientious objectors to reserve duty who are proliferating in all branches of the IDF protesting the legislation, will make it difficult to continue much longer without resolving Israel’s constitutional issues.

While the outcome of this struggle is not yet certain, what is certain is that Israel cannot go back to the legal and constitutional situation before the present government took power in Nov. 2022. What has happened is shaking Israel to the core. The critical question is if Israel will be able to reconstitute itself and fortify democracy by writing and legislating a liberal constitution and quite possibly federate, or else, if it will continue to dither on the brink, between democracy and autocracy while slowly bleeding its economic potential away. One thing for sure, we are in for a long and bumpy ride.

About the Author
The author served in the Prime Minister’s Office as a member of the intelligence community, is Vice Chairman of the Israel-Indonesia Chamber of Commerce, Vice-Chairman of the Israeli-German Society (IDG), Co-Chair of the Federation Movement (, member of the council at and author of "Identity: The Quest for Israel's Future".
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