During the first 50 years of Israeli statehood, in the face of military attacks from other sovereign nations in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973, the existential threat for Jews was whether Israel would continue to exist as a political entity.
Regardless of whether Israeli citizens were native to the land or had arrived from Europe, from other Middle Eastern nations, the former Soviet Union or North America; and regardless of Jewish Israelis’ level of religious observance, they reveled in the reality that there was at last, a Jewish homeland for a shared future.
After centuries of persecution, discrimination, and violence, Jews experienced a common bond of being Jewish and celebrating a freedom to exist that was unprecedented in the modern era. And so, to borrow from the liturgy of the Passover seder, the pain of existential threat was balanced by the joy of freedom.
Today, Jews today face a different set of threats: A right/left divide in Israel that feels far more significant than that of the past puts Jews everywhere on edge and threatens a unified peoplehood; extremist violence not from another nation-state, but from Gaza and the West Bank continues; and rising antisemitism against Jews as an identified people and anti-Zionism impacts both Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora.
It is shameful, that in the face of such threats to Jewish unity and peoplehood, Israel has a government that knowingly ignores the clear will and expressions of a majority of Israeli citizens.
The current Netanyahu coalition is a marriage of convenience. The far Right and Religious Orthodox forces have won the ability to shape policy and institutions to confirm to their views of what a Jewish nation should be; and Netanyahu has maintained the ability to stay in office and mostly immune from prison for himself and his family for violating financial laws.
But the marriage has nearly destroyed two fundamental pillars of original Zionism—democratic institutions and a society that invites pluralism as an example for the world.
Theodor Hertzl, the founder of modern Zionism, wrote in The Jewish State (Der Judenstaat, 1896): “Every man will be as free and undisturbed in his faith or his disbelief as he is in his nationality. And if it should occur that men of other creeds and different nationalities come to live amongst us, we should accord them honorable protection and equality before the law.”
By eliminating judicial review of governmental decisions that flout the Basic Laws—and the political and civil heritage that led to the formation of Israel—Netanyahu and his coalition dishonor our shared Jewish heritage.
The protestors realize what is at stake in Israel—nothing short of our existential identity.
Populism and movement toward authoritarianism is certainly not a new phenomenon over the past decade. But for Israel, the performative actions of the government undermine the integrity of the state. Israel should never surrender its right to defend itself. But the actions of the government only embolden and give cause those who would falsely claim that Israel is an “Apartheid State”, that the Jews are “colonizers”, and Israel is no different than any other geopolitical entity that oppresses minorities.
Israel—not its government—has a unique character, that can provide hope and light to the world in an increasingly dark period for democracy. The currently government does not reflect the promise for which Israel was founded. It is not too late to rekindle the spark.
Hertzl also wrote: “We shall not take others unawares or mislead them, any more than we shall deceive ourselves.” More than 125 years later, Netanyahu and his coalition have willfully ignored this sacred promise and have caused grave injury to Israel and the Jewish people.
The existential threat today is not whether a state called Israel will continue to exist, but whether that state will be worthy of its founding. It is up to the present and future generations to reclaim that mantle.
Perhaps, in a period of political history so marked by a drift toward authoritarianism, alienation, and apathy, this is the moment that the world has waited for. The Jewish people have been patient, and resilient, but have also demonstrated over time our ability to tap into what another crusader for unity, Abraham Lincoln, once called “the better angels of our nature.”
May it be so now.