Ostriches, Torah and Democracy

“There will come a day when the religiously observant Israeli citizen will be faced with a situation where he will have to choose between following the law of the State of Israel, or the law of the Torah, as he interprets it. The moment he chooses to follow the law of the Torah, is the day when Israel’s democracy will begin to crumble”. Thus spoke Zvi Kesa, a legendary Zionist thinker at a lecture I attended back in 1983. It was the time when Meir Kahane announced he was running for the Knesset. It was also the time that the settler movement (known then as Gush Emunim) began to consolidate its political power, with both Efrat and Emmanuel being established that year. I was deeply disturbed by his message, although at the time, I thought that such a dilemma was inconceivable. Today, I am devastated to admit that it was prophetic.

Efrat, West Bank. Est 1983.

We have borne witness to how this dilemma has played out; dati soldiers have preferred to adhere to their rabbi’s decision, choosing to disobey orders to dismantle an illegal settlement after a Supreme Court ruling. The Israeli public was split. Shock by those on the Left, who remembered how soldiers who refused to serve in the West Bank were publicly excoriated, and by those on the Right who expressed “understanding”. Then, when the Hilltop Youth suspects, suspected of the Dawabshe fire-bombing, told the interrogators and the court that they do not recognize the court’s authority to judge them, and that they only followed the laws of the Torah, I think all the public was shocked. We shouldn’t have been, it was a long time coming. In an attempt to avoid facing the truth, we dismissed these incidents as “aberrations”, committed by deluded extremists. But, are they?
One critic of my last article, an alumni from Columbia University and a mathematician, illustrates Kesa’s dichotomy: “The author assumes that Israel’s highest purpose is to be a liberal democracy where all people are treated exactly alike. But Israel has a higher purpose than that, which is to serve the Almighty God and follow wherever He leads, in return for which He promises to establish us in our land and protect us from our enemies. This covenant, sealed on Mount Sinai over 3000 years ago, sets the Jewish people apart from other nations and gives them a destiny that cannot be shared with other nations”. And then, “Israel’s great mission today is to redeem itself to God by correcting its past mistakes and following Him wholeheartedly…This redemption is much more important than creating another Western-style liberal democracy based on values that have nothing to do with Judaism”. He lives in the United States, enjoying living in a democracy, but for Israel he advocates theocracy.

Further, the Israeli elections in 2015, saw the formation of the most right wing government in Israel’s history, with almost half of the coalition members strictly Orthodox observant Jews. Although belief in democracy and being right wing are not mutually exclusive (Benny Begin is testament to that), in Israel today, the connection is becoming tenuous. While the coalition might not blatantly challenge the rule of law, they openly challenge the independence of the Supreme Court and wish to subjugate it to the whims of the legislature, where they hold a majority – thereby disturbing the delicate balance of the separation of powers in a working democracy. Not a small number of legislators in the coalition parties – who have the ability to topple the government, and are not afraid of using their power – certainly place the Torah before Israel’s democracy, and they are actively working to influence Israel’s laws so as to give the Torah greater influence in Israel’s jurisprudence, at our democracy’s expense. I guess that is not unexpected for the 13 MKs of Shas and United Torah Judaism, but when you have MKs like Motti Yogev, whose response to a Supreme Court ruling, ordering an illegal settlement to be dismantled, was that the D9 should be taken to the Supreme Court and not the settlement, because settling the West Bank is a dictate from God, Kesa’s prophesy has been realized. And, when more than 40% of the ruling coalition subscribe to this view – some perhaps in a more refined manner than others – then our democracy has a problem.

Israel’s Supreme Court

The Zionism I fell in love with, which I voraciously read about for endless hours, was far more than superficial loyalty and nationalism. It was an all-encompassing vision which allowed for a spectrum of expressions, with one thing in common: Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people. However, it was much deeper than that. It was a desire for Jewish redemption, through reconnecting with the land, thereby reconstituting the rebirth of the natural and inseparable bond between people, their land, their history and their heritage. But it did not stop there. It was to be a place where all Jews could feel they belong, regardless of their beliefs and convictions. All visions were integral to a belief of unity through the acceptance of diversity, “Kibbutz Galuyot”. It was not only about Israel’s existence, but the nature of the society we forged, a society which we could not only be proud of, but one which could be a shining example to the world, “Or LaGoyim”. A lighthouse of resurrection and tolerance for a world divided by conflict and enmity. For such a society to be built, it would need to be by definition, democratic, tolerant and accepting of minorities. I have unwavering belief that for this to happen, you have to make a commitment and take an active part in the process. Leadership by personal example. This is why I made Aliya, and made my destiny and Israel’s one and the same. This is my Zionism.

However, fundamental change is taking place in what is considered accepted Zionist ideology. It is transforming the ideological divide between Left wing Zionism and Right wing Zionism into an unbridgeable chasm. It is not just a struggle for the narrative, it is a battle to impose ownership on its very meaning.

What we are witnessing today, is that religiously fanatical extremists, dogmatically convinced of their rectitude, have appropriated the term Zionism, to mean only their narrow, superficial expression of the vision of what Zionism should be. As is characteristic with all fundamentalist religious ideologies, their belief that they are right, is uncompromising. There is no space for interpretation. If you don’t subscribe to their vision, if you dare to express dissent for their overbearing, browbeating tactics, in order to dominate not only the discourse, but other people, then your loyalty is suspect and you are unwanted. I am not kidding. I was told that if I didn’t support the settlements, I should leave – and I am not the only one. How did we get from “Kibbutz Galuyot” and the Law of Return, ensuring that no Jew would ever again be homeless, to encouraging a Jew to leave Israel, because he does not fit your ideological profile, even delegitimizing his Jewish identity?

The extremists among the Nationalist Religious Zionists, believe that the Land of Israel was given us by God. They believe this gives them divine entitlement, which is absolute. Their perceived privilege is the source of their conviction that as Jews, they have more rights to Israel than others, regardless of whether their ancestors lived here for generations, if not centuries. Regardless of whether they have proven their commitment to Israel and its survival, stamped and sealed in blood, like the Druze.

You don’t have to be deeply religious to believe in Jewish superiority, and that it gives you the right to an elevated class of citizenship. For Miki Zohar, Oren Hazan and others like them, they believe that it is derived from a superior culture. It may even be genetic!

Therefore it should come as no surprise that the drafting of the Nation State Law gave expression to this sense of entitlement.

For a while now, we have seen how the foundations of Israel’s democracy have been eroded over time. It is not a coincidence that it is directly correlated to the growing intransigence of the Settler movement. Free speech in Israel is in jeopardy.

Intolerant of criticism, which often goes hand in hand with feeling entitled to remain in power by virtue of being in power for so long, Netanyahu and his government have adopted the tactic of intimidating their critics into silence. There is not even an attempt to challenge the criticism or its veracity, they immediately attack the critics themselves, with the intent to undermine their credibility and to look for ways to shut them up.

Seeking to silence NGOs like Breaking the Silence or the New Israel Fund, through restrictions on foreign donations, is but one example of the coalition abusing its majority to bulldoze through legislation, without regard to the people’s right to freedom of expression. It is not about whether you agree with them or not. It is about whether they have the right to say what they say. A democracy is tested, not when everyone agrees, but when what is said is hard for you to hear, even offensive. But, what about when you stoop to seeking to ruin people’s reputations and their professional careers? Professor Yael Amitai is one of Israel’s leading brain science researchers. Thirteen years ago, she participated in a demonstration in support of soldiers who asked not to serve in the West Bank, for reasons of conscience. Now, Israel’s science Minister has blocked her appointment to a joint German-Israeli scientific committee in brain research, citing this incident as the reason. The petty vindictiveness is startling, but the message this act sends is like an arrow to the heart of one of democracy’s basic rights.

It is in this atmosphere, then, that silencing the government’s critics has been taken to a new level. A growing stream of critics of the government and Israel’s actions in the West Bank, are being detained and questioned at Israel’s ports of entry. We are not talking about terrorists. We are talking about human rights activists and volunteers. (Is Israel now opposed to human rights)? We are talking about the vice President of the New Israel Fund, a Zionist organization, albeit one which disagrees with Israel’s policy in the West Bank. We are talking about the President of Brandeis University, who has regularly donated to Israel. We are talking about a prominent journalist. All are Jews. All are coming to Israel for honorable reasons, and more than that, if they declared their desire to make Aliya, they should be allowed to do so, under the Law of Return.

It is Shin Bet, Israel’s legendary counterespionage and internal security organization who are detaining and questioning these people, on orders of the Prime Minister and the minister of Internal Security. This is extremely disturbing; first and foremost is the politicization of Israel’s security apparatus, turning this service, rich with heroic exploits into a political police force. But, more than that. This is an indication that if you do not agree with the government and its policies in the West Bank, you are seen as a traitor, a potential subversive, a person who can undermine Israel’s security. In other words, they equate one’s political stance with threats to Israel’s security. When the state’s security apparatus adopts the extreme Right’s narrative and propaganda – that if you are against the settlements and the actions Israel takes in order to maintain them, you are against Israel itself – it is a clear sign that democracy is the first casualty. For years, Netanyahu has been hinting that left wing views are traitorous, using euphemisms and innuendo. Only recently, in his characteristic demagoguery, he publicly said that those who opposed the Nation State Law, were not Zionists. Now, he has taken it to a practical level; the political harassment of critics.

Meyer Koplow, President of Brandeis University. Detained for questioning at Ben Gurion Airport.

The moment loyalty to the country is judged by your support for the government and its policies, is the precise moment when democracy starts to slide into despotism. Stifling critics and their criticism does not mean that it doesn’t exist. It only means that you don’t hear it. Ostriches know all about that.

About the Author
Paul Mirbach made aliya from South Africa to kibbutz Tuval in 1982 with a garin of Habonim members. Together they built a new kibbutz transforming rocks and mud to a green oasis in the Gallilee. He served in infantry during his army service, serving in both Lebanon and the West Bank, including on reserve duty during the first intifada. Paul still lives on Tuval with his wife and two sons.
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