Donna Robinson Divine

Saving Zionism

Restored to the national throne after five elections in the last three and a half years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself in the midst of crises his election was intended to end: spiraling terror attacks, massive protests, and a standoff with the judiciary about whether Arye Deri, still in the probationary period authorized by his plea agreement, can serve as a minister in the government. But Netanyahu’s predicament is also a consequence of the November 1 Election—both because of the price he is paying to preserve coalition unity and the costly disunity that continues to hover over his opponents. At a time when it is fashionable to cast any political disagreement as a ‘threat to democracy,’ both the governing coalition and its opponents have followed what has become an all too standard conventional playbook with inflamed rhetoric about which side is dealing a mortal blow to this treasured system of government. The government talks as if democracy stipulates that its election victory produced a warrant for the urgency of its policy blitz. Of course, elections matter. But winning 48.4% of the popular vote does not confer a mandate for a radical realignment of institutional power; rather, it, in fact, signals a strong imperative for prudence.

The willingness of parties to band together to restore Netanyahu to the office of prime minister, achieved its goals partly because of the solidarity and discipline with which they campaigned. An election won by the narrowest margin of popular votes was magnified into 64 parliamentary seats because of an electoral threshold requirement that disqualified thousands of votes. Netanyahu’s bloc also benefited from an extremely ineffective campaign waged by the so-called change parties that had governed the country for a year and a half. While its parliamentary margin allows the coalition to steamroll its policies into law, the 30,000-vote spread between the governing parties and those in the opposition should logically place limits on its range of action.

Regrettably, the turmoil aroused by the proposed judicial reforms has not dampened the ambitions for other radical changes—regarding the expansion of West Bank settlements regardless of international condemnation and the reconfiguration of what has been viewed as an implicit consensus on distinguishing between religious and secular domains. Emboldened by their birth rates and the explosion of the orthodox population, United Torah Judaism, Shas, and Religious Zionist ministers are animated by what they view as an opportunity to colonize as many institutions as possible with their particular viewpoints on Israel’s national identity. Thus a newly formed Ministry for National Missions is committed to building Jewish settlements invigorated by its own hyper nationalist Jewish supremacist version of  Zionism. And a Deputy Minister for External Affairs in schools embraces a religious programing where gays and the disabled are shamed and where females are weaned off the desire for career and public presence instructed, instead, to return to their so-called proper gender defined domestic duties. Believing their demographic size can control the country’s destiny, Netanyahu’s coalition partners are convinced that stamping Israel’s national culture with an Orthodox Rabbinic template will shield the Jewish state from what are deemed the toxic changes blowing in the winds of other lands.

But to believe that a politico ecosystem can remain a zone untouched by time or by events beyond its borders is to believe in a fiction that deprives a society of its dynamism while consigning it to a very darkened future. More importantly, to consider that sovereignty can actually bar the entry of global trends is unworthy of the Zionism that fought long and hard for a Jewish state precisely to embrace the modern world and to contribute to it.

About the Author
Donna Robinson Divine is the Morningstar Family Professor of Jewish Studies and Professor of Government emerita at Smith College, where she taught a variety of courses on Middle East politics. Able to draw on material in Hebrew, Arabic, and Turkish, her books include Women Living Change: Cross-Cultural Perspectives; Politics and Society in Ottoman Palestine: The Arab Struggle for Survival and Power, Postcolonial Theory and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Exiled in the Homeland: Zionism and the Return to Mandate Palestine, and Word Crimes: Reclaiming The Language of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
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