By DONNIEL HARTMAN
Since the meteoric success of Avigdor Lieberman and his party, Yisrael Beteinu, and the steady increase
in racist rhetoric and anti-democratic opinions amongst Israeli Jews, I have been struggling to understand. What is happening in Israel? Why is it becoming xenophobic? Why are we deviating from the well-trodden path of our tradition and our people which teaches the fundamental equality of all human beings created in the image of God and the responsibility to treat with compassion and dignity all those who come to reside within our community? The lessons to be learned from our history, and the Jewish legal obligation to turn our past into a catalyst for becoming advocates of the downtrodden, are known equally to us all.
As in every case there are always multiple causes. The trauma of the Holocaust, the loss of trust that the Palestinians, both in Israel and the West Bank, will accept Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, and the loss of hope that peace will ever prevail are certainly reasons enough for Israelis to feel embattled and insecure.
There is, however, a deeper and even more fundamental cause. It is a given amongst most Israeli Jews that we as a people deserve and in fact need our own state to call our home. While Jews around the world can at times question the significance of Israel in their lives, Israelis have no such dilemma or luxury. For Jewish Israelis, the Jewishness of Israel is an existential need and a self-evident right. For them, Israel’s Jewishness is expressed first and foremost in the makeup of the majority of its citizens. It is Jewish in the sense that "Jewish" is the identity of the nation which constitutes the State. For them, an Israel which is not Jewish in this sense threatens their existence both nationally and individually.
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As a result, if one asks many Israelis what comes first, the Jewishness of Israel or its democracy, the answer is the former. The former is a necessity, while the latter is an aspired-to luxury. One of the lessons of our past and the calling card of Israel is, "am yisrael chai" – "the Jewish people live." Our first and primary obligation is to live.
Here, however, come the profound consequences of our ignorance and educational failure. This ignorance has led too many Israelis to believe that they have to choose. They have bought into the post-Zionist and anti-Zionist rhetoric which posits that a Jewish and democratic state is an oxymoron and that Zionism, if not racist, is necessarily discriminatory in favor of Jews. We have failed to educate our citizens toward the moral and political coherency of our right to a Jewish nation-state and our possibility of governing that state in accordance with the highest democratic principles.
I am not claiming that Israel is always a paragon of democratic virtue. It is not. And wherever it fails these failures are inexcusable and must and can be rectified. I am simply restating that the Jewish nation is no different from most other nation-states. And, as the latter can be democratic, so too is the case with regards to the Jewish nation. To claim that our nation alone cannot be democratic is simply intellectual nonsense and political dishonesty bordering on anti-Semitism.
Like many other nation-states, the desire to maintain and protect the particular identity and culture of one’s state and to preserve the status of one’s majority as a majority, are fully congruent with democratic principles. The problem is that most Israelis don’t know this and believe that their commitment to maintaining the Jewishness of Israel is fundamentally undemocratic. For them, a Jewish and democratic state is not an integration of principles, a commitment that democracy be the form of government for the Jewish nation-state, but rather as a compromise whereby it is at times Jewish, and at times democratic.
The consequences of this ignorance and accepting of post- and anti-Zionist claims have not been the rejection of the Jewishness of Israel, as is the case with the post-Zionists, but the willingness to limit its democratic aspirations. This is the paradoxical coalition in Israel – that of the far Left and the far Right. The real power behind the support from the Right is the broad acceptance of the arguments of the far Left.
Israelis have unnecessarily relinquished the aspiration to be fully democratic and have accepted the loss of the moral high ground on the altar of survival and necessity, and in so doing, fall into the welcoming arms of non-democratic parties and ideologies. Once democracy is no longer relevant when contemplating issues pertaining to the Jewishness of the Jewish State, truly undemocratic policies become acceptable as well.
We have unnecessarily relinquished our moral compass and the tools to distinguish between legitimate legislation to preserve the Jewish majority through preferential immigration for fellow members of the Jewish nation and the patently immoral and illegal suggestion to limit where Arab minorities can live or to transfer lands with Israeli Arabs to the Palestinian Authority. Ignorance has caused us to believe that we have to choose between Israel as a Jewish state and Israel as a democratic one and to believe that the Jewish values dictate the treatment of others were luxuries of the Diaspora which a people responsible for their survival can no longer afford.
Israelis must learn that they have the right and indeed the obligation to aspire toward and maintain the moral high ground. When we overcome the ignorance and return Jewish moral aspiration to its true place in our society, we will begin to move in a new direction. The challenges of a Jewish and democratic State are not to choose between Judaism and democracy, or between our national survival and our moral principles, but to recognize that it is in our fidelity to our values and in the maintaining of our aspirations that we find both the greatest security and nobility.