On September 17th I Vote to Take Israel Off the Mantel

It was a split second decision, prompted by a friend back home through the Facebook Hive  – come home and vote, we need a beach day. Something deep inside switched on – I could not passively watch another Israeli election happen with baited breath on the other side of the world. So just like that, a ticket was booked – I am home to vote.

Maybe it’s because I have lived straddling two places in my heart and home my whole life as an Israeli-Canadian. Maybe it’s because when I made the painful choice to leave Israel just for a little while, the place I loved and left is nearly unrecognizable now.

Why? If only there was one answer. To show my children that we do not have to settle for governance that doesn’t mesh with our values? Perhaps to teach them that we can do something about it at the ballot box by not sitting silent, no matter where you are in the world.

Why? Because if you love something enough, you don’t put it on the mantel to stare at, you dust it off and dig deep and find the parts that make it shine again.

Israel did not get to this critical point by accident. It has always been a place where there are dissenting viewpoints that can reach a blaring pitch. But in the name of Jewish unity Diaspora communities including Israelis living abroad, have up until now have generally remained relatively silent on the internal divisions in the name of a higher priority to support Israel and its raison d’etre of existence even in spite of itself.

But while Israel has grown beyond its incubation,  the values that propelled it to statehood have been tragically lost in a noisy cacophony. At first glance from the headlines this  Israel is scarred by its wounds. It has seemingly allowed its leaders to foster and bubble new levels of racism and a myopic view of itself from the lens of existential survival. Its government has given permission to outwardly segregate and delegitimize the Arab sector population in the name of preserving Jewish nationhood at all costs under the Nation State Law; declaring Palestinian-Israeli citizens are equal, but not really.

The impact of these shifts can be felt daily within the ripples of Israeli life; from municipalities such as Afula attempting to create segregated public parks as part of their by-laws, to members of Knesset declaring that Arab citizens should accept video surveillance of their democratic rights to vote because” they are not Jews” and thus not part of the “special race” that makes up the Jewish State.

This Israel is unrecognizable to many at home and here in the Diaspora. The guiding principles that established it were ones that arguably fostered Jewish unity to create the democratic State of Israel. Paragraph 13 of the Declaration of Independence envisions that the State of Israel would be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex;

These are the values that my grandparents held when they arrived to British Mandate Palestine in the 1930s – a home for the Jewish people; modern and a nation among nations. Zionism is not a dirty word, it’s what drove Jewish unity to create the state. But its founders recognized that Statehood also comes with responsibilities, and that is why non-Jewish citizens whether they identify as Arab or Palestinian-Israeli is not a dirty word either.

While all of this noise of deep political divides were often brushed off as “this is what makes Israel, well Israel”, the deepening discomfort of witnessing it as it veers towards a deep and dark reality is actually a good thing. Why? Because we can all finally agree that at this moment in history the place that matters to all Jews is very far from where the founders of the State of Israel envisioned its civic society would grow into. Yes it is a Start-Up Nation,  It is also deeply divisive in its policies, and even more troubling is the drive to diminish the powers of justice, elevate the rule of leadership and not hold it accountable to corruption and embedded cronyism.

When I moved back to Israel in 1995 driven by both Zionism and prospects for peace, I brought with me a healthy dose of Israeli chutzpah along with Canadian humility (yes sorry).  “Armed” with a deep understanding of what multiculturalism and liberal democratic values can do to shape a diverse society. While not perfect, Canada over the years has recognized that it is in a constant state of growth and repair. Be it to apologize to the Jewish community for the government’s actions and embedded anti-Semitism in 1939 that turned away the refugees of the St Louis back to the horrors of the Holocaust, or to acknowledge and apologize to First Nations of its destructive policies that resulted in lost generations through Residential Schools. Canada is learning as it ages. Just as we all do.

Facing one’s history allows us to move forward, however the core values of our society create a foundation from which to grow democracy, equality and justice. These were the principles that guided my career in Israel through peace work during the Oslo accord years, to my time spent in Israeli politics learning from my mentors including a former Prime Minister.   A focus on values steers policies that are clear and that benefit all of its citizens, not only to maintain the existence of the State at their expense.

Many from within Israel have been frantically scrambling to get it back on track, while others see the efforts to steer the ship back to these values as naïve at best, traitors at worst.  Today more than ever, they need our help. Maintaining Israel’s Jewish identity does not contradict its democratic institutions that should and must protect all of its citizens.To state otherwise is to view Israel with a handicap of blindness.

In my home away from home in Canada I watch my children pouring over Hebrew homework from their Orthodox Jewish day school. Here they live in a mini version of the divisions of Israel, with a secular Jewish Zionist, Hebrew and Arabic speaking mother, and a religious Zionist Israeli father.  They are being educated in a system that often teaches the values of the Land of Israel rather than the State of Israel, while at the same time enjoying and studying the freedoms and protection of rights they enjoy and often take for granted in Canada.

They are being taught at school not to criticize Israel, to have a love for a place that they have only seen from a bird’s eye view. Taught to place value in prayer, study and Hebrew language above all else. In recent years I have found myself going into their schools to ask their educators why if they teach about the terrorism that so many Israelis endure, do they not name the “enemy” correctly – not as Arabs, but as Hamas, as Hezbollah? That if they wish to educate them on Gush Katif and the tragedy of the withdrawal that it is with the lesson that democratic governments make decisions on what is best for a society as a whole, that it takes risks for peace but at tremendous loss with mixed results. Yamit in Sinai was also a difficult uprooting of Israeli settlements, but it came with a cold yet stable peace with Egypt until today.

At what cost do we educate our children to love Israel but remain silent in the face of the elections today? How do we teach them that to love Israel, as a modern state isn’t only a matter of religion and Jewish identity? How do we show them that its future is layered in questions on equality, feminism, access to democratic rights, religious freedoms, justice AND peace?

At what price for a future Israel that my children wish to visit, live and thrive in do we chose Jewish unity and silence over what is right and in fact rooted in the deepest core of Jewish values? I, nor how I have taught my children, would tolerate deporting asylum seekers. We would not stand for hate crimes, nor would we allow for the limitations of one religious group over those of another. Whatever the virtues of preserving Jewish unity, it cannot come at the expense of addressing the real issues that divide and make connecting with Israel today profoundly uncomfortable.

For myself it is not only a matter of defending a democratic Israel that my children see today, it is the Israel of their future, the one that is standing the day after the elections. So I am home to vote for another way.

About the Author
Ya’ara Saks is a writer, communications specialist and political analyst. A Canadian and Israeli citizen raised in both countries, she has worked in Israel and Canada in politics as a consultant in advisory roles for policy, communications and project management. She holds a Master’s Degree from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in International Relations and Diplomacy on Israeli-Palestinian relations. Comfortable in both places but with ideas that sometimes don't quite fit anywhere her website Confessions of a Backbench Mom is a platform to voice those viewpoints. She is an active committee member at the New Israel Fund of Canada. Ms. Saks currently resides in Toronto with her two daughters.
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