Steve Kramer

Judaism v. Capitulation

Judaism v. democracy in the State of Israel, is a subject that many American Jews have been arguing for decades. I don’t get it. Could a country that has had five elections in less than four years, in which 71% of eligible voters cast ballots, be anything other than a democracy? All citizens of Israel, 18 years or older, are eligible to vote (period).

In the recent November 1 election, the plurality of Israeli voters chose the Likud Party, headed by Bibi Netanyahu, to form a new government. The second most popular party of this bloc is the Religious Zionism Party, which is the proponent of Judaism v capitulation (to those who deny our Zionism). This militant party to the right of the Likud can act as a backstop against caving to outside influencers who don’t credit Israeli sovereignty over its homeland. 

Israeli voters have elected a government whose potential coalition – we won’t know the exact coalition members for a few weeks – will hopefully not compromise Israel’s mission by giving in under pressure to its enemies, as the present government, led by Yair Lapid, has in Judea and Samaria. Previous Netanyahu-led governments have also not been as strong as they could be. The two Ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism are also in the Netanyahu camp, with their own demands (not to my liking).

Is it Israel’s mission to be a democracy or a Jewish State, or both? According to the founding document, the May 14 1948 Declaration of  Independence, “[We] members of the People’s Council, representatives of the Jewish Community of Eretz-Israel and of the Zionist Movement, are here assembled on the day of the termination of the British Mandate over Eretz-Israel and, by virtue of our natural and historic right and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.” Democracy isn’t mentioned in the declaration, it being taken for granted that Israel was to be a state governed by elected representatives. The People’s Council was comprised of secular and religious Jews.

Shortly before the polls opened on November 1 (there is no provision here for absentee ballots of residents), President Isaac Herzog asked voters to respect the results of the election whether they “liked” the result or not. The majority of the electorate are happy with the definitive result of the election, which gives the right wing/religious sectors 64 seats in the 120-member parliament. This is the strongest majority, for the right or left,  in quite some time. Nevertheless, the headline in the left wing Haaretz newspaper was, “A Quasi-fascist, Ultra-religious Government for a Country That Deserves Better.”

Besides the fact that Israel was definitively founded as the “Jewish State,” there is the glaring fact that the Jewish ethos must be paramount, albeit in a democratic setting. There are 19 Muslim states in Israel’s vicinity, plus Muslim, non-Arab Turkey and Iran, and only one Jewish country. None of those are democracies. Few nations in the West complain that these countries are Muslim. But they do take issue with Israel being Jewish – and being determined to remain Jewish.

David Horowitz, the editor of the Times of Israel, wrote: “The more fateful shift [to the right] marked by Tuesday’s vote is the elevation of the foundational principle of Israel as a Jewish state above that other foundational principle of Israel as a democratic state. The parties for which those two core values have equal weight, or for which the democratic imperative outweighs our country’s Jewish centrality, were soundly beaten, with Israel’s founding party Labor on the brink of obliteration and Meretz [ultra-left], at time of writing, wiped out.” Quite correct, in my opinion.

Why such a hubbub now? Because in support of Bibi Netanyahu’s Likud are the two hard right parties, which ran together as the Religious Zionism Party. It’s two leaders are considered “right wing reactionaries” by many: Bezalel Smotrich  and Itamar Ben-Gvir. Bezalel Smotrich is very fervent about Israel’s religious orientation, which affects traditional Jews like us. (But we can live with it, fearing the alternative of a non-Jewish “Jewish State.”) Itamar Ben-Gvir, a lawyer and one-time member of the outlawed Kach Party, is feared because he is a law and order-type candidate who means to put much more backbone into Israel’s policies against terrorists and for personal security.

While the West generally likes Israeli politicians who waver on support for Jewish/Israeli rights, it fears those who have a more zealous attitude towards maintaining Israel’s integrity as the Jewish State in its homeland. 

The Times of Israel opined, “Israeli politicians can be a burden on Diaspora Jews. It’s important for them that someone like Bezalel Smotrich not be an elected official because it’s more difficult for them to defend their Jewish and Zionist standing when he is elected. And that’s not hypothetical, that is already the case. And that’s why it troubles them,” (The Times of Israel, Jacob Magid 11/03/22) 

This is the choice of the Israeli electorate.

Naama Klar, a long-time researcher of the Israel-Diaspora relationship and the director of the Koret International School for Jewish Peoplehood at Tel Aviv’s ANU: Museum of the Jewish People writes: “[Diaspora Jews] don’t want [Israel to adopt] policies that harm minorities because they are minorities. They don’t want things that don’t match their Jewish values and standards because it damages their Jewish identities outside of Israel. That’s the situation that causes a lot of the frustration for Diaspora Jews about the elections in Israel.” 

Do Diaspora Jews live in Israel? No. Do Israeli Jews live by American values? No.

What about the current American administration? It’s no surprise that the Biden Administration looks askance at the potential Israeli government. There are lively discussions about how the administration would handle Ben Gvir’s presence in an Israeli government and that a continued caretaker government would be preferable (but now not a possibility). Additionally, a strong Israeli government is a roadblock to the administration’s plans for the Middle East. But administrations change….

The Jewish State of Israel is somewhat of a wunderkind among the Western countries. From a tiny, poor country of 806,000 people in 1948, it quickly doubled in size with the immigration of Jewish refugees from Europe, North Africa, and Arabia. Israel

has emerged as an economic and military powerhouse in its region, and even in a wider area of the Western world. The majority of Israel’s citizens are characterized as Center, Center Right, Right wing, and Religious. The Left wing is minuscule, with only five seats in the 120-seat Knesset. 

If Israel loses its Jewish character, its raison d’etre, it would become just another Western state. Without its Jewish character, Israel wouldn’t be the bulwark against Jew-hatred or existential threats against the Jewish people.

I didn’t vote for the Religious Zionism Party because its religious fervor is more than I’m comfortable with. But I’m happy that it will probably backstop the Likud Party to maintain Israel’s Jewish character. I expect the Religious Zionism Party to moderate its demands, because the business of politicians is to compromise. What politicians say before they gain power is not exactly what they do when they achieve it.

Israel’s leanings should be respected, even if not appreciated, by Israel’s allies and by Jews residing in the Diaspora. The Israeli electorate has spoken and its preference is clear: Judaism, boldness, and personal security over capitulation. Democracy is an important tenet of the nation, but it’s subordinate to the Jewishness of the State of Israel, according to Steve.

About the Author
Steve Kramer grew up in Atlantic City, graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1967, adopted the hippie lifestyle until 1973, then joined the family business for 15 years. Steve moved to Israel from Margate, NJ in 1991 with his family. He has written more than 1100 articles about Israel and Jews since making Aliyah. Steve and his wife Michal live in Kfar Saba.
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