Israel’s recent policies threaten to undermine the very values upon which it was founded.
Over the past three decades I wrote more than two hundred articles about Israel, envisioning it to be a democratic state, independent and free, a champion of human rights, a force of unity for world Jewry, united in its citizenry, admired by its friends, envied by its detractors, and above all at peace with the Arab states and especially with the Palestinians. My vision for Israel was founded on my deep sense of the Jews’ tragic history and their yearning for a home of their own in which to live in peace and security.
As the years went by, I became increasingly disillusioned with Israel’s endemic political disunity, its inability to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians, the growing public complacency, the loss of the country’s unity of purpose, and the abandonment of its moral responsibility. Together, these factors threaten Israel as we know it, calling for new thinking and a recognition of what went astray and what can be done to rectify what has become the norm in order to save Israel from itself.
Israel was created to provide refuge to any Jew seeking to live without fear in a free Jewish state. This relationship with the world has strengthened over the years and Israel has been able to count on the unequivocal support of the American and European Jewish community. The nature of the relationship, however, has changed, especially during the past 10 years.
Given that the religious parties have joined nearly all coalition governments, they have accumulated political power far greater than their constituency warrants, giving them a monopoly on all religious affairs in Israel, and by extension on diaspora Jews. As a result, the gap between Israeli Jews (mostly the Orthodox community) and Western Conservative and Reform Jews living mainly in the US has become alarmingly wider.
The growing cleavage has further intensified because Prime Minister Netanyahu reneged, under the pressure of the Rabbinical institutions, on an agreement that would have allowed men and women to pray together at a designated section of the Western Wall.
While American and European Jews are focused on liberalism, equality and creating a more tolerant society, Israeli Jews remain preoccupied with the perceived threats to their security from Iran and Palestinian extremism. And while American Jews largely oppose the occupation and strongly bemoan the poor treatment of Palestinians, among Israelis, especially those on the right, Palestinians are perceived as a pestilential enemy and the occupation is seen as necessary for national security.
These developments have dangerously exacerbated the religious and ideological differences between the two sides while eroding Israel’s role as a unifying force for world Jewry. This has occurred despite Jewish survival over the millennia being largely attributed to solidarity among all Jews, regardless of their religious denomination and social milieu. One of the more visible effects of this development is the diminishing number of Jews immigrating to Israel, as they no longer view the country as a safe haven and believe that it has failed to embrace the ideals for which they stood.
In Israel itself, the gap between secular and Orthodox Jews has also become increasingly unsettling. The rabbinical institutions have assumed the responsibility of governing all aspects of religious life in Israel, including marriage, divorce, conversion, and prayer at the Wall. For example, Israelis who wish to have a non-Orthodox wedding must go outside the country to marry; otherwise, it is not recognised by the rabbinical authorities.
One other major controversial issue is the insistence of the Orthodox community not to induct their children to serve in the Israeli army and focus instead on the study of the Torah, when in fact military service is compulsory for all Israelis. Although legislation was passed to induct religious Jews into the army, it was subsequently rescinded under pressure from the religious political parties. This has raised the ire of the security forces who are required to protect all Israelis, including Orthodox Jews who live in ideological settlements deep in the West Bank.
The opposition of the rabbinical authorities to the institutionalisation of the Conservative or Reform movements has continued to sour the relationship between the two camps. While a majority of Israelis are ‘”secular” Jews, they reject any restriction by the Orthodox establishment on the practice of their religion.
Finally, Israeli policies toward the Palestinians have without a doubt contributed to the rise of antisemitism in recent years. Successive Israeli governments dismiss the notion that the rise of antisemitism relates in any way to the continuing occupation.
Antisemitism is on the rise everywhere, including in the United States – as we can see from Charlottesville, where young men with tiki torches chanted “Jews will not replace us,” and the slaughter at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Congregation in October. Even as hatred of Jews is growing on both sides of the Atlantic, radical Zionists claim that a multi-cultural Israel cannot thrive – some form of apartheid is the only viable alternative. But in the process, they effectively repeat the argument that was used in earlier European history against the Jews themselves. As the philosopher Slavoj Zizek pointed out, “It is as if Israeli extremists on the right are ready to acknowledge Western European intolerance towards the influx of other cultures if their right not to tolerate Palestinians is respected.”
This position serves to overlook the reality of the Palestinians in the occupied territories and the acuteness of their outcry, which resonates most in democratic societies, who believe that the Palestinians have the right to a state of their own. They argue that Israel has neither the legal nor the moral ground to deny them their right, providing the rationale for the eager antisemites.
Additionally, the Israeli settlements on the West Bank are seen as the face of the occupation and of Israel’s determination to maintain it. This gave rise to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israeli goods produced or manufactured in the settlements. The problem with BDS is not the extent to which Israeli exports are adversely affected, but that it is used by others to incite antisemitism, making it increasingly more difficult to divorce it from mainstream antisemitism.
The fact that the Jews, who had been oppressed over the centuries, are now seen by their detractors as the oppressors draws particular attention because the world, rightly or wrongly, has come to expect a higher moral standard from Israel. The occupation is a constant reminder of Israel’s failure to live up to these expectations and incites the less vociferous antisemites to become more vocal.
I do not believe that Israel faces an existential threat from any of its enemies, including Iran. The greatest threat to its future well-being and endurance emanates from within. Sadly, successive Israeli leaders have lost their moral compass and failed to live up to the promise and the purpose of Israel’s creation.
The new generation of Israeli leaders has a solemn duty to seek the unification of world Jewry, end the conflict with Palestinians and champion the causes of human rights and liberty. Unless Israel pursues these and other humanitarian causes, it will lose its very soul and forfeit its reason for being—a price that the Israelis cannot afford to pay.
Dr Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.
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