A more perfect Zionism

Israel is a wonderful country. It is easy to see why so many Western immigrants are still drawn here, despite the heavy economic and cultural challenges of remaining here. For many olim, the honeymoon period of the first six to twelve months is particularly bewitching: Hebrew is in the air, and it is a magical language, particularly on stage and in literature, but also in the streets, at the shuk, in the instant, fraternal rapport it gives you with your laundry delivery guy.

The sunsets over the Mediterranean, the spices that seduce your senses at Levinsky market, the crisp air in the North of the country and the je ne sais quoi of Jerusalem, whether or not you are religious. The ubiquitous fruit juice stands open till 4am on a summer’s night. The way people will affectionately refer to you as motek, sweetie, as if you are their son or brother.

Tel Aviv - the first Hebrew city

Anyone should be proud to live here, no matter what any BDS protester says. It is the Jewish nation, the start-up nation. Eyal Shani. David Grossman. Bar Refaeli. All the major tech firms have established R&D centres here. The beach culture. A world-class, high-quality, egalitarian health care system. Myriad restaurants and cafes everywhere. Israeli hospitals saving Syrian casualties of the civil war. And so on, ad infinitum.

There are some more questionable advantages to Israeli life. Some wax lyrical about the sublime beauty of the (segregated, strictly Orthodox) Western Wall, the sweet silence of the streets in Jerusalem on the Sabbath (many of which are illegally blocked off by haredi zealots), the peacefulness of the closure of public transportation around the country on sabbaths and holidays (effectively confining the economically disadvantaged to their homes), the wide availability of kosher food through the centralized rabbinate (which extracts extortionate fees from proprietors.)

It’s not just the religious incursions into everyday life, it must be said, but once you peel away the beautiful quotidian, you find a country that faces myriad challenges on a domestic level. Forget the UN, regional powers, the Arab Winter, all of them for a moment. Just between the River and the Sea, Israel is enormously challenged.

Let’s begin with the routine challenges of life for regular folks. The bureaucracy is inscrutable and unforgiving, and you have to fight every step of the way, for everything. Dealing with officialdom is harrowing enough, but it extends even to the pushing and elbowing that must be endured just to obtain your beer/coffee/movie ticket/gas mask.

When living in Israel, the everyday dearth of professionalism is the stuff of legend – shoddy workmanship, tardiness. Flouting basic work and safety standards is simply routine: yihye beseder.

The rule of law is loose; businesses, like West Bank settlements, establish “facts on the ground” and then expect the authorities to provide them with post-facto legitimation. Property owners build kombina illegal additions to their premises with impunity. And forget about basic policing – road rules are ignored to the tune of hundreds of road deaths per year and innumerable horrific injuries. Smokers pollute the air with abandon, with no fear of punishment under the laughably loose and poorly regulated anti-smoking laws; bars and clubs stay open hours past their official hours; and there is, needless to say, little interest in noise regulations. This is not to even touch upon the Harpaz Affair and other such breathtaking public scandals.

Several cultural norms underpin this state of affairs, and they are for the most part well-known. Israelis have little respect for authority and/or seniority, which has been advantageous in its military and high-tech culture but leads to a Wild West mentality in other areas of daily life.

Crucially, though, there is also an almost holy respect accorded to the “status quo.” There are so many deeply divisive rifts in this society – Jewish/Arab, religious/secular, haredi/non-haredi, Ashkenazi/Mizrahi, citizen/non-citizen, rich/poor, educated/uneducated, settler/non-settler/Palestinian – that the kind of policy-driven politics that characterizes much of the rest of the West has not taken form here. Instead, Israel has taken on some characteristics of the rest of the Middle East, dividing into tribes which have staked out their turf, and created de facto situations that are inevitably recognized, post factode jure.

In other words, that which is illegal is only illegal until there is critical mass enough to render it legal later down the track. Whereas in the US, Australia, the UK, Canada, and the community of democratic nations to which Israel claims to belong, it is policy that drives law and practice, not practice that drives law and policy (generally speaking.)

This is the backdrop to what has become of Zionism in this country over the last several decades. The pragmatic Zionism of the early Zionists and the great Zionist thinkers led to a number of compromises. The Altalena incident sticks out in history because it was one of the rare moments that the Zionists asserted a matter of principle with uncompromising force. More common were compromises and exemptions: Ben Gurion’s military service exemptions for yeshiva students, the Labor Party’s support for  then-limited settlement building in the West Bank and Gaza, and so on. All of which have taken on lives of their own.

This also explains why it is erroneous to believe that outrages like the exclusion of women, or religious legislation, or discrimination against Arabs, are matters of considered policy. Generally, they are not. They are a result of tribal infighting, political turf wars, and a race to establish and then maintain the status quo by, say, haredim or the far right.

Israeli democracy is far more fragile than many believe. Not only is there no separation of religion and state, but we now have a situation where the ultra-Orthodox control many aspects of citizens’ lives, including birth, death, marriage, divorce, and kashrut. There is no civil marriage. There is simply no mechanism for a Jew to marry a Muslim or a Christian, or to marry a Jew that the Interior Ministry (until recently controlled by the fanatical ultra-Orthodox Shas movement) deems insufficiently Jewish. An atheist cannot marry anybody except those who share the religion s/he was born into. Women cannot pray aloud at the Western Wall without being pelted with stones and heckled and spat upon by those holy men who profess to be the messengers of God. Anybody who wishes to run a food establishment in Jerusalem and many other parts of the country must pay a shakedown fee to the religious monopoly known as the Rabbinate – which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the State of Israel, only, in its case, the tail wags the dog.

The religious corrosion of civic institutions also means that laws mandate the shutdown of private businesses and public transport and other utilities on the Sabbath and other religiously designated holy days. Hametz, or unleavened bread, is actually forbidden by state law to be displayed publicly during the Passover. Laws restricting trade for legitimate rational purposes are one thing; but to the foreign eye it is almost incredible that Scripture is used to underpin civil laws that ban trade and effectively close down much of the country during certain times.

Women are forced to the back of public buses frequented by religious fanatics, and they risk violence at the hands of fanatical men if they do not comply with the “voluntary” gender segregation. And if they dress immodestly in those neighbourhoods, they will be stoned or spat upon and called whores.

Much of this is the result of actual state or city law. And the rest is just the “status quo.” Facts on the ground. And these are not just minor policy challenges – they are endemic, systemic problems that require serious scrutiny and treatment.

The same applies in the West Bank. It is all very well for my right-wing friends to oppose redeployments based on security grounds. It is even understandable that they claim Judea and Samaria is Jewish land that they wish to build upon. (Of course we have a deep connection to Judea and Samaria – it is the cradle of Jewish civilization.) But where Palestinians build, their houses are demolished. When settlers build, they set up caravans, then permanent structures, and the IDF expends taxpayer resources protecting these structures that were erected without permits (that is: illegal settlements). After a few years, the ministry responsible publishes a Master Plan for development of the previously illegal settlement, thus post-facto legalizing its existence. Facts on the ground, status quo. And so outlying settlements are built without any policy decision being taken as to whether they are in the interests of the state. Have you ever heard of an illegal Israeli Arab or West Bank Palestinian structure being post-facto legalized by an Israeli government? It is not the norm.

This is what happens when the rule of law is loose, when civil society is fragile. It is also the result of a culture war in which the zealots are far more organized than the moderates, and are only gaining momentum.

The issues are endless, but I’ll mention only another for the moment. How can we not see the folly of maligning Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers, of government members calling them a “cancer” in our midst, keeping them from obtaining work permits, refusing to process their refugee claims, and having the audacity to try to force them to return to Africa — all of this while Israel imports tens of thousands of Filipino and other Asian guest workers to perform unskilled labour? The Africans are expelled while the Asians are imported. Why? But this veers into questions of policy myopia, incompetence, and perhaps xenophobia, which are beyond the scope of this piece.

Herzl and Ahad Ha’am and Lilienblum would be at once delighted at the success of the Zionist project while simultaneously appalled to know that hametz is banned by state law from public sale over Passover, and that women are forced to the back of buses in the Jewish state half a century after Rosa Parks.

Their Zionism had nothing to do with the reactionary, irredentist, religious nationalism that has infected much of this country’s zeitgeist and is being championed by elements of this country’s far right. The actions and statements of the likes of Naftali Bennett and Ovadia Yosef would have seemed alien and mean to many of the great Zionists.

It may irk some readers, but even a cursory reading of classical Zionist texts leaves it indisputable that they envisaged an enlightened, secular, science-driven, humanitarian and humanities-driven Jewish democratic nation. Their Light unto the Nations was to be the pinnacle of Western civilization, a democratic utopia with state and religion thoroughly separated, gender equality, tolerance, education, and a pragmatic attitude to the political currents of the Middle East and to the country’s neighbours.

Not bread bans at supermarkets and women’s faces being scrubbed off billboards for being too risqué for the sensibilities of bearded men.

The few hundred radicals of Hebron, the “Price Tag” teenage Jewish terrorists who firebomb Arab taxis, and the extremist haredim of Beit Shemesh do not carry the true mantle of normative Zionism and they do not represent normative Israel. Zionism is rooted in the cosmopolitan secularism of 1940s Dizengoff Street, in the heroic democrats who signed the humanitarian document that is Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

Zionism is the resumption of Hebrew culture and discourse in the land of our forefathers, in the vibrant Hebrew dialogue in the pages of Davar and Haaretz, the theatre at Habima, ad hoc outbursts of lindy hop performances and swing dance on Rothschild Boulevard on a summer evening. It matters not if one is personally religious, traditional or thoroughly secular. But a perfected Zionism always aspires to be officially secular, forward-looking, progressive, liberal, tolerant, diverse and pragmatic. Dogmatism, intolerance and coercion are utterly at odds with the intention of the Zionist founders.

Yom Kippur begins tomorrow. It is time to take stock. Israel has much to be proud of. But the threats are legion – not just the external threats of Islamist terrorism and Iranian nuclear ambitions, but also the internal threats of misguided radicals who would turn the beautiful Zionist project into a radical irredentist theocracy.

Israel and the Jewish people cannot afford to simply defend Israel against the external threats. We must have the courage to look inward and acknowledge that the impressive country Zionism has built is faced by demons that Herzl and Ben Gurion could not have imagined, at least not the demons that threaten Israeli democracy and civil society in the way that they do.

The solution is straightforward. Israel must strengthen its democratic institutions, its civil society and civic education, and be zealous about respecting the rule of law in matters great and small. The country must shed its obsession with the status quo, and instead Israelis must decide what kind of society they want to live in, and create that reality through a change in the discourse and by enforcing the law rigorously. Moreover, I would argue that the country needs a constitution and bill of rights. But that is a matter for a later time.

This Day of Atonement, it is incumbent upon us to resolve to redouble our efforts to reshape Israel into the tolerant, liberal democratic Zionist state that our forefathers dared dream of, and went on to establish.

About the Author
Gabriel Sassoon is a Tel Aviv-based public affairs consultant and foreign media advisor to a Knesset Deputy Speaker. He served as English Campaign Coordinator for the Israeli Labor Party, and is a member of the Australian Labor Party. The views expressed above are his alone.