From my apartment in Jerusalem, it’s a three minute walk to Gan Sacher, Jerusalem’s Central Park, located near the Western edge of the city. On Shabbat, the park’s big day, Gan Sacher is a vibrant jumble of ethnicities. While Orthodox families — modern and ultra-Orthodox alike — eat the Sabbath “third meal” in the shade of a pine tree, and young Jerusalemites from Nachlaot do acro-yoga on the grass, Arab families from East Jerusalem, three generations strong, spread out on the picnic tables, and Eritrean children, speaking fluent Hebrew, play soccer on an improvised field, pine cones serving to mark the goals. Shabbat peace spreads its magic over all of us.
This is Israel at its strongest and most delightful. It’s where Jewish life, like Shabbat in Jerusalem, is big enough to include others without seeing them as threat. And it’s this Israel that is being attacked by the Nation-State law, which is the latest in a series of statements and moves that the Netanyahu government has made in an attempt to create a new kind of Israeli politics, based on exclusion rather than belonging. In the process, it feels to me, Netanyahu and friends are spinning a dark aura of nastiness around what for me has always been a source of pride–Jewishness.
The State of Israel, until now, has been a miracle, within the context of the Middle East. All around us, multi-ethnic states such as Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq, have devolved into civil war, or been held tight, as with Saudi Arabia or Jordan, in an authoritarian grip. Israel has managed to keep a democratic society, imperfect but evolving, together – at least among its citizens. Israeli Arabs, as a whole, though discriminated against in some ways, have flourished economically and educationally. They have also participated in the often frustrating, but sometimes rewarding Israeli political process. It’s been a delicate balance, with Israeli Arabs caught between their ethnic identity as Palestinians, and their full embrace of Israeli citizenship. Yet with all the complexities and contradictions of Israeli Arab or Israeli-Palestinian identity, the fabric of society has not torn. Israel’s Arab population, and its Jewish one, have had enough at stake to value peace and coexistence over conflict and violence. And that is a very good thing.
But the ill wind which has been blowing through Israeli politics means that this might not last. Although Israel has been struggling with extremism from at least the days of Oslo, never before has the Israeli government dared to break democratic consensus. Netanyahu set the tone with his “The Arabs are coming out to vote in droves” remark in the March 2015 elections – the first time a Prime Minister so brazenly and openly used Us-Them language to divide between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens of Israel. The wind continued to blow as Likud and Jewish Home politicians whipped up fear and resentment of African asylum seekers, spreading lies about crime statistics and demography. Bibi himself fell into a trap in this regards – forced by those who have ratcheted up his divisive rhetoric one step further to go back on his word and reject a UN plan that would have provided an elegant and compassionate solution for both South Tel Aviv and the refugees.
That Nation-State law doesn’t change much legally in an immediate sense, although it could go on to serve as a basis for further legislation or court decisions. What it does do immediately, however, is to further the right wing agenda of creating a Jewish identity politics, a new and unnecessary melding of Jewishness with State power. The purpose is cynically electoral. Just like Bibi’s remarks on election day, just like the ugliness around the refugee issue, the only real purpose of the Nation-State law is to galvanize Jewish voters on the right. This new kind of politics wishes to make every election a referendum on how exclusively “Jewish” are a party’s concerns—and to redefine Jewishness by suppressing its universal and ethical elements, and bringing its xenophobic and exclusionary aspects to the fore.
But shaping the Israeli public sphere in this way is dangerous, in numerous ways. Firstly, the obvious one: Does Israel really want to make Arabs and other minorities feel that they are not part of our “nation-state”? That seems to me an obvious recipe for disaster.
Not to mention that we can know where exclusion begins, but can we ever really predict where it will end? What about Russians with one Jewish grandparent? Reform Jews? Secular Jews? Who is going to ultimately define the “Us” in Us versus Them? Once a politics of exclusion begins, an inherent and terrible logic can easily take over.
One other danger is perhaps less obvious, but no less real. To be an Israeli – mentally, culturally, temperamentally – is not the same , not exactly, as being a Jew, even for Israeli Jews. Israelis have a confidence, a swagger, a comfortableness in their own skin, that enables them to go anywhere and do anything. Jews are smart (I mean, sometimes), but Israelis know how to make things work. They know how to assimilate what can be known in an unclear situation and improvise on the fly. Israelis can move confidently in liminal zones and cross psychological boundaries that the average Jew would find daunting (and please forgive my stereotyping). The State of Israel, as is, with its idiosyncratic balance and interplay between democracy and Judaism, is what has produced Israelis. Tampering with that DNA, trying to define and enshrine Israel as Jewish, risks draining Israel of the strength and creativity that it is only just beginning to show the world.
Far better to leave some things undefined, perpetually in a state of creative becoming. Rabbinic sages resisted writing down the oral Torah for generations, until forced to do so because Roman persecution meant it would be lost. As long as the oral Torah was not written down, it could keep evolving. It was alive. Lets keep the relationship between the State of Israel and Jewishness evolving. Let’s keep it alive.