Donniel Hartman

It’s not who but what is good for Israel

Whoever we pick as leaders, our fate rests in the boldness of our ideas

Elections are about people and parties. Before, during, and even after, we struggle over the question who is worthy of our trust. Everything seems to become more personal, and consequently our debates with each other more strident.

The elections in the United States are now over, and while the argument over who is “better for Israel” is now moot, the emotional residue of such personal politics lingers on and continues to divide us. I fully expect this conversation to migrate to the Israeli election and to take the form of who is best suited to work with the current US administration. Its nascent form is already playing out in the context of analysis over whether President Obama will “punish” Prime Minister Netanyahu and by implication, Israel.

Viewing the present and future well-being of Israel through the lens of who is best, empowers the electoral process and gives to each individual voter a heightened sense of significance, as the answer to “who” is in their hands. It is however, a profoundly disempowering force once the election is completed. The act of voting along these lines is similar to placing money on a horse: once the act is done we become mere spectators in a drama played out by others.

As a Zionist and 21st century Jew, disempowerment doesn’t sit well with me. Israel is not merely a geographical place but an idea which propels the Jewish people to wake up every morning and to ask how we can and ought to shape our own destiny. To fulfill this challenge, however, we must stop the incessant conversation about who is best for Israel and begin to think about what is best for Israel. We need to shift from the question of personality to the question of policy.

As we think about policy, whether from the Left, Center, or Right, a new reality must guide us. As a small people, our strength is greatest when we are united and care for each other. If we have learned anything from the recent presidential election and the surveys of Jewish voters, it is that Israel at present is, at best, a secondary issue in the minds of most American Jews. I am not claiming that the 69-70 percent of Jews who voted for Obama did so because they did not care about Israel. In the politics of “who is best,” the Jewish community was deeply divided. Where we are not divided, is on the ever-decreasing centrality of Israel as a factor.

It is simply a fact that the crisis language of a nuclear Iran and the existential threats to which Israel is subjected, no longer generate the unity and mutual concern that our people need. If Israel is to be important (whether during an election or afterward) it needs to be associated with economic, religious, military, and foreign policies around which Israelis and World Jewry cannot merely rally, but identify. The day is over when we can expect American Jews to support our policies regardless of their content. Israelis need to ask themselves whether they are willing to factor this into their politics. If they are not, the consequences may be dire.

Apocalyptic narratives regarding Israel may inspire a small number of our Christian friends; they fall flat for most Jews outside of Israel. We have always been a people who care about ideas and the spread of justice. I am not sure who is at fault for the current stalemate between Israelis and Palestinians. The bifurcation of Palestinian leadership between the PLO and Hamas, as well as the apparent unwillingness of Palestinian leadership to engage in negotiations without prior conditions, is deeply troubling.

What I appreciated so much about Rabin, Sharon, and Olmert was their willingness to lead through ideas that had the potential to redefine our reality. While the Netanyahu government has innovated on many fronts, its foreign policy has focused primarily on Iran while being painfully passive with the Palestinians, where it has concentrated primarily on making the case that we are not at fault.

Despite our upcoming elections and possibly precisely because of them, it is time for us to lead again with ideas, even without the certainty of where this process will end. I am not asking for us to leap without looking; I am asking of us to dare to think in a world of uncertainty. An Israel which constantly puts forth ideas that balance our legitimate security concerns with the pursuit of justice, an Israel which believes that ideas can shape a new reality, is an Israel which instead of betting on a horse chooses to ride it. It is an Israel which can excite engagement and loyalty.

Let’s shake off the aftermath of the election in the United States and return to the consciousness that our destiny is also in our hands. We disagree about “what” as vociferously as we disagree about “who.” Let this debate, however, begin. Such a debate is natural in democratic societies and in a world which is so complex. Such a debate, however, will create new possibilities for mutual dialogue, connection, and concern and will rebuild our greatest strength – us.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and the author of 'Putting God Second: How to Save Religion' from Itself. Together with Yossi Klein Halevi and Elana Stein Hain, he co-hosts the 'For Heaven’s Sake' podcast. Donniel is the founder of some of the most extensive education, training and enrichment programs for scholars, educators, rabbis, and religious and lay leaders in Israel and North America. He is a prominent essayist, blogger and lecturer on issues of Israeli politics, policy, Judaism, and the Jewish community. He has a PhD in Jewish philosophy from Hebrew University, an MA in political philosophy from New York University, an MA in religion from Temple University, and rabbinic ordination from the Shalom Hartman Institute.