The third Israeli election in a year has passed and Bibi still is “Melech Israel”. Finally he got the votes he needed and is almost on the threshold of a majority in the Knesset. Sixty-one votes will allow him to form a coalition government, and although the one-member edge seems weak, it is not so: the Right block of the Israeli political system is tight and the coalition is well-knit. They’ve had 10 years of practice. Whatever challenge Blue&White represented, it has been neutralized for a long while. The Centre-Left block is too many seats short to even think of anything but being opposition. The truth is they’ll be too busy figuring out who will stick, who will lead, who will be in the front seat when the next chance arises.
In the meantime, what do we, Jews abroad, Jews who live outside of Israel, do? For many of us around the world the Netanyahu-led governments represent what we most dislike of Israel: the status-quo regarding the Occupation; the disdain for the Palestinian issue; the power of the Rabinate and the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox streams of Judaism; the introduction of more and more religious concepts into the educational system; the populist perception of arts, and the constant tension with the judiciary. On the other hand, we take as a given Israel’s military might, Israel’s innovation edge, the so called “start-up nation”, and the booming economy. Since we don’t live there, the issue of inequality of opportunities, the high cost of living, and the demanding challenges of an ever expanding society are not issues that directly concern us.
What we first should do is to know that Israel is no longer merely an interesting project to watch from the other side of the world but a full, complex country whose population has not only grown exponentially, but it has become socially more complex. The over six-million Jews now living in Israel represent a variety of “tribes” (to call the fragmentation with a familiar, biblical denomination) that render the challenges narrated in the Torah, regarding the repartition of land, small compared to what is at stake today. Understanding this is essential to understand Israeli politics and its electoral system. If Israel today leans to the right, there are many reasons for it: the trauma of the Intifadas, the lack of partners for a true negotiation, and its demographic composition. Israel does no longer represent the ideals of world Jewry, it stands for the best interest of its citizens as determined by its democratic electoral system.
How can you explain Trump’s triumph in 2016 in America? Even to Americans it is still, four years later and one election away of re-election, hard to understand. And still, it happened. Will the whole country be judged by its President and his voters? “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” (Gen. 18:23) Anyone knows there are many Americas in the United States. So it is in Israel.
There are at least two Israels. One who holds the Government tight, the other one who holds to its ideals. Not that the Government has no ideals, but they don’t coincide with those of the huge amount of liberal Jews in the U.S.A. and around the world. Those ideals aim at survival at any cost, prevalence of Jewish values, a more literal reading of our tradition, the subordination of ethics to Torah, and the concept of a greater national destiny not found since the rebellion of Bar-Kochba… On the other hand, the values of social justice, respect for the foreigner, universal peace, the condemnation of subjugating another people, and the limited freedom of cult, concern those on the Israeli Left as well as most liberal Jews everywhere. The issue is how to relate to a country that still holds for many of its ideals while in practice it behaves by others.
The risk of a schism in Judaism between unconditional supporters of Israel and unconditional detractors of the Zionist project has become, after March 2nd 2020, more acute than ever before. Israel will act and live by the values of the Right but it still holds within the values of its centre-left voters. For now, the bigger half belongs to Netanyahu and its associates, but the country belongs to all its citizens and potentially to all Jews. Are we to disregard Israel because of political circumstances, or are we to stand by it in spite of its Government? American Jews have the tools to do so. The risk is to disengage; while there’s a conversation, Israel and the Jews are in business.
One should come to Israel and walk the less trodden paths. Avoid Road #6 and take the side roads, through villages, Jew and Arab, through Kibutzim, even if they’ve become private neighbourhoods. Watch how the irrigation systems still sprinkle the fields, even if agriculture has lost its place to high-tech. Listen to conversations at Campus and find how different they are to those you can hear in Sarona or Machane Iehuda markets. See how population mixes in the shopping malls. Come to the Shalom Hartman Institute to listen to the many voices of Israel, its aspirations and challenges, through the words of our sources and tradition.
In his “History of the American People” British historian Paul Johnson opens with the following, challenging, blunt question: “can a nation rise above the injustices of its origins and, by its moral purpose and performance, atone for them? All nations are born in war, conquest, and crime, usually concealed by the obscurity of a distant past.” When I first read the book this question seemed to me taylor-made for Israel’s circumstances. There’s always a certain degree of injustice in the origin of a nation; the challenge is, “by its moral purpose and performance”, to atone for it. I believe Israel has stood to the challenge and will continue to do so because a moral cause is at the heart of Israel’s existence. Furthermore: “war, conquest, and (even) crime”, are not, in the case of Israel, “concealed by the obscurity of a distant past”: on the contrary, the past is so recent it is there for all to see, and judge, and condemn. Israel cannot conceal anything, it was born and has grown in an era of free-press, cable news, and now social media; it is exposed as “a patient etherized upon a table”, to use T.S. Eliot’s famous verse. The naked truth lays there for anyone who dares to watch.
Let us not give in to a kind of “synechdoque syndrome”: to judge the whole by a part, even if that part is the head; it surely is not the heart. The Land of Israel is at the beginning of our saga in Genesis 12: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” First comes the promise of the land, only afterwards come the challenges of the moral issues, and finally, and extensively, The Law. Today, the Land is The State of Israel, a product of history, negotiations, wars, status-quo, and peace treaties. As Jews, we can criticize Israel but we should not condemn it, and of course, we cannot disengage from it. It is at the foundation of our reason to be, and giving it up will not only mean a huge leap backwards in History, but the resignation of the major achievement of the Jewish people since the time of our Sages.