Ben Greenberg
Rabbi & Coder. Solving one function at a time.

The Challenge of Identity Politics in Israel

If we're all supposed to cast ballots based on identity, what about those of us who don't fit in any one box?

If you are in Israel it would be hard not to know, but just in case, there are elections coming up in just a few days. These are municipal elections and so throughout the country people are campaigning, pundits are weighing in and the average citizen is being inundated with flyers, banners, mailings in their mailbox and more.

As a new citizen of Israel I am excited to be able to participate in Israeli democracy for the first time in my life. Thus, I have been trying to follow the local elections in my city closely. I’ve talked with candidates directly and attended campaign events. I’ve read the literature they have offered and thought deeply about who to vote for. Now, with only a few days to go, I am left with the same nagging question that I started this process with:

In a country where identity underscores political opinions and affiliations to a very large extent, where does someone who doesn’t fit comfortably in any one box go?

An example: This week I attended a Jewish learning event in Tel Aviv that brought together Israelis (mostly English speaking immigrants) and visitors here for the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly. At one session a speaker was presenting so compellingly and convincingly. It was as if she was speaking directly to my political approach. I wanted to know how she votes. Maybe, at last, I can find some resolution, since what she was saying resonated so much. Then, in just one moment, it all came crashing down. She declared:

Now everything I’ve said is true if you are secular, but Judaism is inherently against these ideas.

What ideas was she referring to? Freedom of speech. Tolerance for difference. Social equality. I very much do not believe that Judaism can be said to definitively hold any one position in contemporary politics, but rather, as a diverse and rich tradition, voices from that tradition can be found to support many divergent views. So, to say that “Judaism is inherently against these ideas” is as false as to say that “Judaism is inherently for these ideas”. But, what she did accomplish by saying that (and she continued to elaborate and implicate “the religious” in Israel as well) is to exclude me from her vision.

Likewise, the Religious Zionist political organizations speak in a way that is exclusive to those of us who live interstitially, between the parts. Within local city politics, the local Religious Zionist parties speak compellingly of the need to expand religious services in cities, such as more accessible mikvaot, better youth activity spaces and more. But, one also knows, that the local parties are representative of the national parties, which take on increasingly illiberal attitudes towards disagreement, towards critique, towards the judiciary, etc. Furthermore, the push to legislate and coerce public Shabbat observance runs against values of religious freedom and tolerance, and not to mention, nothing draws people farther away from Torah than it being coerced by the state on them.

So where does that leave someone who finds neither a home with the more liberal political organizations, who speak a language of civil rights and tolerance, except it seems for the religious and not a home with the Religious Zionist political organizations, who speak a language of Torah, tradition and Jewish values, but also keep on veering away from pillars of liberal democracy and social equality?

This is what I am finding to be the challenge of identity politics in my old-new home. Where does someone who deeply values Torah and tradition and civil rights, social equality, freedom of religious expression, respect for the role of the judiciary, etc. find a home in Israel’s political landscape? Or, if not a a home, at the very least, which slips of paper on election day will be most representative?

About the Author
Ben Greenberg is a rabbi, software developer and educator. He has worked as a campus rabbi at Harvard University and as a pulpit rabbi in Denver, CO. He currently works as a software developer in Tel Aviv. He lives with his family in Israel and is originally from San Diego, CA.
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