Ever since Hamas committed its horrific atrocities on October 7th, the Israeli public has rallied behind the Israel Defense Forces. Despite the threats of hundreds of reservists to refuse to serve in protest of the government’s proposed judicial reforms, these ultimatums disappeared into thin air in the wake of the existential threat posed by Hamas’s invasion and massacre. The societal division and real animosity engendered by the fights over judicial reform, while not forgotten, have been solidly relegated to the back burner of the Israeli psyche. This transition from abnormal division to unprecedented unity at times feels like a miracle of Biblical proportions.
The fact that it seems miraculous, however, does not indicate that this development is uniformly good. Let me cite, placing tongue firmly in cheek, our Talmudic sages from Masechet Shabbat 53b:
Our rabbis taught: it happened that a certain man’s wife died, leaving him a son who needed to nurse, and he lacked the funds to pay for a nursemaid. A miracle occurred for him, and he developed breasts like a woman’s, and he nursed his son. Rav Yosef said, come and see how great this man was, that a miracle like this was performed for him! Abaye said to him, on the contrary; how degraded this man was, such that the regular laws of creation were altered for his sake.
Abaye and Rav Yosef’s argument teaches an important lesson about that which appears “good”: that just because something seems good, does not necessarily mean, when all is said and done, that this good is unambiguously positive. That which is good, in other words, can potentially have a dark side.
In my opinion, the wonderful unity of the Jewish people is one such ambiguous good.
Let me first assert clearly that the unity of Israel is not only desirable, but the fulfillment of a divine mandate. When all of Israel looks toward the same goal, even as we disagree about the best way to fulfill it, we are imitating God’s own unity – and imitatio Dei, or, as it is put in Devarim 28:9, Vehalachta biderachav, “You shall walk in His ways,” is the foundation of Jewish ethics. Unity is more than a lovely idea; it is an ethical obligation.
But unity loses its luster when it is predicated upon falsehood, and unity forfeits its obligatory nature when it comes at the expense of other, equally important Jewish values. A totalitarian society which brooks no dissent, for example, is a unified society, yet because it tramples upon the divine image of its subjects and maintains power by way of falsehood and cruelty, its establishment fundamentally violates Jewish norms.
Israel’s current unity, while certainly not anything approximating the above example, is nonetheless not the unequivocal good that we have been told that it is by many of the powers that be – for many of those advocating unity are doing so in order to avoid paying the piper. While we celebrate the genuine unity that ties us together, we need to be wary of the unity that is a tool in the hands of the powerful to avoid accountability and maintain a status quo which, given the opportunity, we may want to change.
Most specifically, we have been told that for the sake of unity, it would be unthinkable to have new elections until the war is over – and that, given the sweeping military victory our government is rightly demanding, the war will not be over for a very long time.
Many of us have accepted this line of reasoning, yet it is predicated upon the fallacious claims that national unity is our most important value, and that an election campaign will undermine national unity. Regrettably, these assertions are propounded not in order to protect our soldiers, but in the service of allowing the people who are arguably responsible for the current situation to remain in power.
I’ll put my cards on the table: I want the current government out. I eagerly anticipate the day when our prime minister, along with his entire pre-war coalition, are no longer running our country. The worst attack ever against the State of Israel took place during this government’s watch; and in the long months before October 7th, the country was torn asunder as never before because the government attempted to make sweeping changes to our political system without a real mandate to do so. (I would readily say the same about the Labor-led 13th Knesset under Yitzchak Rabin and Shimon Peres, which similarly attempted to radically remake Israel without anything approximating a mandate.) Before October 7th, the government was composed entirely of the Likud party under the thumb of a prime minister who seemingly has no limits when it comes to maintaining power, and religious parties which, as they are currently constituted, are anathema to the requirement l’hagdil Torah ul’haadirah – to make Torah great and glorious. As far as I’m concerned, we should throw the bums out, and do it as soon as possible.
Many people, of course, strongly disagree with me, and wholeheartedly agree with the government’s policies and direction. As they see it, the government is functioning properly and efficiently, implementing policies which they approve, and prosecuting the war effectively. In their minds, the opposition is the problem, not the solution; the government headed by Naftali Bennett undermined Israel’s security, and the fruits of that government’s negligence became apparent to everyone on October 7th.
And perhaps they’re right. I can believe that Netanyahu’s supporters are very mistaken, and simultaneously acknowledge that my political analysis is far from infallible. Perhaps I am blinded by my dislike of certain members of the ruling coalition, and perhaps its supporters see current events through a clearer lens than I. Perhaps their desire for the current government to remain in power is, objectively, the better alternative.
Nevertheless, I still maintain that immediate elections are necessary, and that observers on both sides of the aisle should demand that the government consult with the voting public right away. Far from harming unity, elections alone will ensure that the positive aspect of the unity that we have achieved does not quickly erode.
Almost 110 days into our war against Hamas, Israel faces decisions that will affect the country’s future like almost nothing else in our lifetimes. How should the war be prosecuted from this point forward? Under what circumstances should a second front be opened against Hezbollah? Is the mission of utterly destroying Hamas, as righteous as that cause is, truly realistic, and if so, at what cost to Israeli lives? Is there a point at which we say that the damage to Palestinian civilian society, even as it is cynically exploited by Hamas, outweighs the military advantage thereby obtained? What happens to Gaza and the West Bank after the war is finished – and what is the definition of “finished,” anyway? Is there a plan for Palestinian self-government, and if not, what will there be in its place? What compromises should Israel make in order to achieve a permanent peace deal with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other Arab countries? Should Israel consider opening up another military front by directly attacking Iran before it acquires the ability to build a nuclear bomb? What sorts of calculations should be considered in balancing the lives of the hostages, and those of the soldiers sent to rescue them? Do we agree with the government’s claim that advancing the war is a means of helping the hostages?
Then, of course, there are the many social issues that are directly impacted by the events of the past few months. Should military service time for regular soldiers and reservists be lengthened, given the potential shortfall of necessary manpower as the war continues or potentially expands? If so, by how much? If not, should the qualifications for ultra-Orthodox exemptions be tightened so that additional Chareidi men are obligated to serve? Should Israel prohibit hiring Arab laborers from the West Bank? Should our government withhold tax funds from the Palestinian Authority, given the possibility of violence erupting as a direct consequence among a disaffected West Bank population? How much financial assistance should the government provide Israelis directly affected by the war, and for how long?
None of the answers to these questions and many others are easy. But Israel’s nine million citizens deserve to have a say in the decisions, as well as in who retains the authority to make these decisions. Not one person who voted in November, 2022 anticipated that these questions would be on the table in this context one year later; and given that Israel’s governmental system allows for early elections, withholding that option from an emboldened yet traumatized populace appears nefarious. Moreover, given that, according to a very large percentage of the Israeli voting public, the current government bears at least some responsibility for our current predicament, the notion that this same government should be able to make all decisions going forward without a new mandate is almost laughable.
As for the fear that the “disunity” potentially created by a political campaign will damage the morale of our soldiers: is this a valid fear? Did the United States’ army suffer in its fight against Germany and Japan as a result of the presidential election of 1944? And back to Israel: what would have happened if these attacks had taken place a month before scheduled elections – would the elections have simply been delayed indefinitely in order to avoid damaging national unity? Although many soldiers openly plead for societal unity, they also surely want to fight on behalf of a country that embodies values they care about, like accountability, democracy, and the rule of law… and the right to free and fair elections. Right?
Who is responsible for the mess we’re in? Who is best suited to carry us forward? Whose policies will lead us to the best outcome? People can and will argue about the answers to these questions on a theoretical level. But in terms of how to proceed, academic arguments won’t work. We need elections.
The ballot box is where those who approve of the government’s actions before and during the Gaza War, and those who disapprove and demand a different set of policies, can join together to decide the direction of a radically changed State of Israel.
An election will potentially foster a true national consensus, and represents the best path towards maintaining authentic and healthy national unity. The government is under no legal obligation to call new elections. It does, however, have a moral responsibility to consult with the electorate before making the most far-reaching decisions in Israel’s history. Refusing to do so by using the excuse of “unity” is a pathetic indictment of the government’s proficiency in another moral norm: simply to be honest with the public.