Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

What Israel’s Left Gets Terribly Wrong – and How to ‘Right It’ (Part 2)

In my post last week, I argued that Israeli politics (similar to that of other countries) is driven first and foremost by “identity” and not necessarily policy. That’s the central problem of Israel’s shrinking, policy-driven Left-wing (and to a certain extent the Center too). The solution – one that will have to be carried out over the long-term (no immediate panaceas here) – is for the Left to reorient itself with the central identity issue in Israel today: Jewishness.

Note the term: “Jewishness” – not “Jewish religiosity.” Judaism constitutes a very broad national culture in which religion plays an important, but certainly not exclusive role. This is a critical point when discussing Israel as the “Jewish State.” Indeed, most Right-wing voters in Israel are not what is generally called “religious” (only about 20% of the country’s population are identifiably Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox) – but those on the Right do have great respect for Judaism and want to see the country, especially in the public sphere, imbued with Jewish symbolism and (to a more limited extent) Jewish practice.

What does this mean for Israel’s mostly secular Left? Must they become “religious,” even in some limited fashion? The answer is “no.” Do they have to identify much more closely with the Jewish heritage? Absolutely “yes.” In other words, the Left need not discard its values, but it does have to start expressing them more clearly in Jewish terms.

Here’s a central example among many. One of the most controversial issues of the past few years has been what to do with non-Jewish refugees who entered Israel (mostly illegally), fleeing war (Ukraine, Sudan) and starvation (Somalia). The Right (outgoing Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked in the forefront) has done everything possible to get them out of the country, and barring that (the Supreme Court standing in the way, based on international law), ensuring that they won’t want to stay without the chance to work for a living. Conversely, the Left has been supportive of these refugees, but such backing has been framed as a “universal” value. What both sides forget (or ignore) is that good treatment of the “stranger in our midst” is a Jewish value par excellence: the Bible warns us on four different occasions (Exod. 22:20; 23:9; Levit. 19:34; Deut. 10:19) to treat “gairim” well (foreign or non-Jewish residents, in the plural), because Jews also were once foreigners in a land not ours (Egypt – and of course, later still: Babylon, Persia and so on). In fact, throughout the Bible the word “gair” (in the singular) is mentioned another eleven times. One can’t get more central than that!

This obviously has ramifications for treatment of Israeli Arabs as well – the purest of “strangers in our midst.” Especially in an era when the Ben-Gvirs and Smotriches exploit them as political cudgels (“potential Fifth Column traitors”), the Left needs to fight such political pyromaniacs with their own source i.e., to fight fire with fire – showing how their xenophobia is antithetical to true Judaism.

One can find many such “biblical issues” that can form the basis of a recognizable and authentic “Judaic-Israeli Left” – from ecology (“bal tashkit” – not to destroy the environment) to social welfare (many Torah commandments to care for the poor, laborers, widows etc.). Jewish law can even be used by the “Left” for very specific issues e.g., should Aryeh Deri be allowed to serve as a minister in the new government, given his being found guilty more than once for criminal activity regarding misuse of public funds? The Jewish answer is most certainly a resounding “no” – as the Talmud talks about the “goring ox” (having caused injury in the past) that becomes the owner’s responsibility if it gores again. Netanyahu (the government’s “owner”) beware!

Indeed, Israel’s Knesset-legislated “Principles of Law” (1980), explicitly places Jewish law as it developed over the generations as the default source for the court’s ruling when a Knesset law has a “lacuna” (doesn’t relate to the matter at hand). In other words, the Left has a legal and even judicial basis for showing how Jewish Law supports its position regarding issues on the public agenda.

The problem, then, is not legislative or even judicial. It is intellectual. Over the past several decades Israel’s Left has “left” Judaism behind to the point that most secular Israelis today have extremely little knowledge regarding Judaism. This is almost ironic given the fact that the secular founders of Socialist Zionism knew their Bible and Talmud well, and weren’t averse to pontificate on public policy based on their knowledge of the Jewish heritage. For example, Israel’s (completely secular) national poet Chaim Nachman Bialik argued that in the public sphere Shabbat has to be different from the rest of the week.

No less than Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion called the Bible “the greatest ever creation of the Hebrew nation – the Book of [national] Life for us.” Moreover, he also recognized the great value of rabbinic literature (Mishnah, Talmud, Legends, and homiletical exegesis of the Bible). And B-G put into practice what he felt: he instituted a bi-weekly Friday “Torah learning group” that continued to meet in the State President’s residence under the stewardship of most subsequent secular prime ministers (over the past decade, very sporadically under Netanyahu’s leadership).

It’s not that Israel’s Left is totally bereft of Judaic knowledge. For instance, an interesting phenomenon that has evolved over the past several years is the (seeming) oxymoron: “secular Kollel” – a type of “yeshiva” for advanced Torah and Talmud study from a non-religious perspective. Thus, the Left’s intellectual wherewithal for such a Judaic approach to politics is not altogether lacking. What is needed, though, is the political will to start speaking the language of the other side to show that in fact the Left and Right are not adversaries but have a common “language” and culture that can underlie political cooperation and even “union.”

This approach is the best way to respond to the outrageous comments of Avi Maoz and his party henchmen ( Part of the reason that the Left has left Judaism is disgust at perceived religious coercion and intolerance of the ultra-Orthodox and more recently the “hardalim” (hyper-nationalist, Zionist, ultra-Orthodox). That’s a mistake; the way to counteract such attacks is what Shakespeare suggested: “hoist with his own petard” – use the attackers’ own sources to neutralize their argument.

One of the Talmud’s famous and most important sayings is “elu ve’elu divrei Elohim chayim”: this opinion and that opinion are both the words of God. Beyond the religious and political extremists from Left and Right, Israel’s “universalist” Left-wing as well as the country’s “national-parochial” Right-wing are really not at loggerheads. They are both correct from a Jewish standpoint as two sides of the same coin.  The more the Left internalizes this – and uses this truism as the basis of its political discourse i.e., the way it frames the issues facing the country – the faster it will win the hearts and minds of its present non-extreme “opponents” and start to emerge out of the political wilderness.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published four books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
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