Israel’s 70th anniversary celebrations — petty displays of one-up-manship aside — were marked by a sense of achievement coupled with a heart-warming undertone of inclusiveness and a common quest for greater tolerance among the diverse groups that make up the human mosaic that is Israel today. Nothing exemplified this yearning for mutual understanding and renewed solidarity better than David Grossman’s and Miriam Peretz’s very different and profoundly moving speeches and their warm embrace at the Israel Prize ceremony that concluded the festivities. Each conveyed, in her and his unique way, a message of hope — one which embraced and celebrated Israel’s social and ideological diversity as a counterfoil to the acrid atmosphere that has permeated its society of late. Their appeal for a reassertion of basic norms of pluralism and respect for the other — issued out of love for the country and concern for its future — has left a deep imprint on so many.
The shift in climate promoted (and so widely shared) during the past few days requires a palpable change in policy. It cannot be realized by stubbornly clinging to a status quo that has failed either to bridge the rifts within the country or to improve Israel’s external standing. No amount of good intentions can substitute for the persistence of divisive measures and counterproductive moves that perpetuate misunderstanding, mutual suspicion and outright confrontation.
In the very few days since the heady speeches and elaborate performances, this is precisely what has happened. At home, the question of the fate of African asylum-seekers still continues to dominate the news — with little effort being made to find an adequate (and non-coercive) solution to their plight and to that of the residents of south Tel Aviv. Under the pretense of re-legislating the possibility of forceful deportation, senior members of the government seem bent on passing an override clause which will not only undermine the standing of the courts, but will also severely upset the delicate balance between the three branches of government. What purportedly bolsters the legislature in fact increases the power of the executive (which in Israel’s parliamentary democracy by definition controls the Knesset). An override clause by a simple majority in effect opens the door to the tyranny of the majority. It leaves the ordinary citizen with little recourse from the abuse of executive power. It therefore threatens to undermine the institutional foundations of Israel’s democracy and to sow further discord in what is already a highly contentious society.
Other heavily disputed legislation is also in the works. Some Members of the Knesset are advancing various versions of the controversial law on “Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People” — which adversely affects the standing of 25% of Israeli citizens who are not Jewish. Others have tabled bills limited or prohibiting contributions to certain NGOs, mostly civil society organizations operating in the area of human rights. And a move to depose a sitting MK (Hanin Zoabi) for political reasons is afoot. None of these initiatives exhibit tolerance for alternative opinions or for minority groups in the country. Neither do they evince any commitment to inclusiveness.
Israel’s existing regional strategies, far from exhibiting some necessary adaptations in a highly fluid context, are being pursued — so it seems — with increased vigor in the past few days. The lethal weekly confrontations along the divide with Gaza have exacted a heavy toll in Palestinians lives and hardly improved Israel’s defensive posture. They have exposed the Israeli government to intense international opprobrium for a situation in which the Hamas and others also carry responsibility, without pointing to any possibility for improvement in what is, by all accounts, an increasingly dire situation in the beleaguered Strip. What is true for Gaza also carries over to the West Bank, where reprisals by Jews against Palestinians have increased substantially during the past few months. The maintenance of such a status quo serves nobody.
On Israel’s northern front, the changing geopolitical situation remains extremely worrisome. The Turkish and Iranian presence in Syria under the umbrella of Russia leaves Israel exposed in ways that were inconceivable barely a couple of years ago. The simple reiteration of the Iranian threat, coupled with the ongoing insistence on “nixing or fixing” the nuclear deal with Iran only exacerbates the winds of war. What alternatives are being considered? How are these being promoted and with what vision in mind? To replace constant fear with some prospects for amelioration, these options must be designed and disseminated to a justifiably wary public — and these should take into account the limits of the use of force.
In this charged environment, the relations between world Jewry and Israel remain tense. Part of the problem lies in Israel’s inability to give pride of place to non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, nurturing alienation among large numbers of Jews abroad. Part goes much deeper: creating a growing rift between contemporary Jewish values and identification with the policies of the present government of Israel.
Natalie Portman’s refusal to come to Israel to participate in a prize ceremony with Prime Minister Netanyahu accentuates this growing divide, as does the response of senior government figures, some of whom have gone so far as to suggest that this act promotes the BDS movement and verges on the anti-Semitic. If a person such as Natalie Portman, with an extended list of pro-Israel credentials, is totally discredited for disagreeing with certain government policies, what can be expected of other Jews who have far less involvement with the country or commitment to its founding principles? And how is it possible, then, to draw a line between people who identify deeply with Israel yet disapprove of certain official moves and purveyors of the worst kinds of anti-Semitism?
Maintaining that all criticism of the Israeli government — from within or from outside — is akin to betrayal is decidedly counter-productive. It goes against that diversity which is the essence of Jewish tradition and the contemporary Jewish world, as well as the norms of pluralism, tolerance and mutual respect which have been so vigorously heralded in recent days. It also defies the values (deeply embedded in Jewish and universal sources) which support these norms: equality, justice, freedom, human dignity and, yes, the pursuit of peace.
Israel marked its 70th year by highlighting the theme of innovation. Remarkable accomplishments in a multiplicity of fields — ranging from agriculture and advanced technology to medicine and the ingathering of exiles — have yet to cement norms of social solidarity and enhance the values which allow it to flourish. This requires dedicating similar amounts of resources, innovative thinking and creativity to societal issues as to the requisites of physical survival — not simply expecting more of the same to yield different results.
Molding a vigorous society and polity from a tremendous array of contending views requires attention to both form and substance. To be better, Israel has to do better; to instill hope, it has to change. That is its primary challenge in the years ahead.