By JONATHAN S. TOBIN
When planning for Israel’s 75th anniversary began last year, the assumption on the part of those preparing for events was that it would be just like every other Yom Ha’atzmaut or Independence Day if only a little more special. Seventy-five is considered one of those numbers worthy of special recognition, and that’s all the more true when you consider all that the Jewish state has accomplished since it came into existence fighting for its life against all the odds in 1948.
But those who thought the observance of the sacred civic cycle of Israeli life of mourning, closely followed by celebration, would carry on as usual without being marred by political disputes were wrong.
On Yom Hazikaron—Israel’s Memorial Day—the entire nation will still mourn the 24,213 individuals who have died while serving the Jewish nation as soldiers and pre-state fighters, as well as the 4,255 civilians who have been killed in terror attacks. At the conclusion of that day, the mood will turn to joy as the merrymaking of Independence Day begins. Both days, however, will be marred by political protests against the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and its proposals for judicial reform.
A Country Divided
The leaders of Israel’s parliamentary opposition who have been egging on the protests that have at times paralyzed the country in recent months have called for a temporary halt to the agitation for the national holidays. But it’s clear that a not insignificant percentage of those carrying out these demonstrations, which have spread to actions that undermine both Israel’s economy and national security, will not observe even a 48-hour ceasefire.
They believe that the half-truths, smears and outright lies about the government and judicial reform are true—and that Netanyahu and his colleagues truly are plotting to overthrow the country’s democratic system. So, it’s not surprising that the anti-Bibi resistance considers no actions undertaken to undermine his coalition’s authority and legitimacy to be out of bounds.
The persistence of the protests even after Netanyahu waved the white flag on judicial reform earlier this month has demonstrated that the goal wasn’t merely preserving the power of the Supreme Court and the judiciary to wield unaccountable power. Rather, it is an effort to topple the government that was given a clear majority by the voters last November.
Even more to the point, it is a manifestation of the anger and revulsion of Israel’s secular and liberal voters—and the elites who make up the legal, academic, business, security and media establishments—at the people who voted Netanyahu back into office. As the tenor of the protests and many of those justifying them on social media makes clear, the insubstantial arguments opposing judicial reform are largely secondary concerns. Just below the surface is the contempt a large portion of the Israeli population feels for their compatriots who identify as nationalists and religious, as well as those of Mizrachi background who are severely under-represented among the aforementioned elites.
Once this disturbing reality is acknowledged, it’s apparent that the political divide is not one that can be put aside for Israel’s national holidays. On the contrary, the link between their animus for Netanyahu and his voters is very much to the point for the protesters.
There Are Two Israels
These are, as the flags waved at the demonstrations and the presence of so many military veterans in their ranks testify, Israeli patriots. They love their country. But the Israel they love is rooted in the purely secular vision that animated the Labor Zionists and other left-wingers who ruled the country without challenge in the Jewish state’s first three decades. The Israel of the nationalist right and the religious parties, whose voters make up about half of the country and a clear majority of its Jewish population, is a country that they don’t like or want to live in.
The fact that the country’s demography is moving in a direction in which this nationalist/religious population is outgrowing the secular liberal sector, thus making it harder and harder for the political left to win an election is frustrating for them. It’s compounded by the refusal of many in the haredi sector to serve in the military or to participate in the economy. And it’s also why they want to preserve an institution that is not so much an independent judiciary as much as it has become a juristocracy. The demonstrators want to keep the current system in which the liberal judges who have veto power over naming their successors can guarantee that the right cannot actually govern the country, no matter how many elections they win.
This is problematic because, leaving aside the disingenuous rhetoric about democracy, the current dispute isn’t so much a political disagreement as it is a manifestation of a culture war in which many on both sides of this argument have come to see their opponents as part of an alien nation with which they have nothing in common.
That is why many protestors haven’t felt able to put aside their differences with the government, even to the point of disparaging the Israel 75 celebrations as, in the words of one Haaretz columnist, a “North Korean-style Independence Day.”
The point being is that if you see Netanyahu and his colleagues—the choice of half of the country’s voters only a few months ago—as no better than a Kim Jong Un-style dictatorship, then you think that a country in which the political right prevails in democratic elections as unworthy of your support. And, indeed, that is the upshot of the comments of many of those on the left about wanting to leave if Netanyahu isn’t toppled. That is especially true among those wealthy enough to afford to move someplace where presumably they will feel more at home than in a nation with fellow Jews who have different ideas about politics and religion.
The problem is that this willingness to treat political disagreements as justifying civil war disregards the reason why the Jewish state was created.
Israel is a miracle for many reasons. It was the culmination of 20 centuries of prayers for the restoration of the Jewish homeland to its people as well as a century of blood, sweat and tears expended by those who built it, in spite of the opposition of much of the world and even many Jews. Zionism made sense not just because it was an expression of the national identity of a Jewish people that refused to die despite the never-ceasing efforts of their foes to destroy them. It came into existence because of a recognition that a Jewish state was necessary. Experience had taught the Jews that they couldn’t continue to rely on the kindness of strangers to survive.
That in less than a century the Jewish people returned to their land in great numbers, re-established Hebrew as their national language and re-learned the ability to defend themselves was something few believed possible when Theodor Herzl established the modern Zionist movement in 1897. Few believed it even after the 1917 Balfour Declaration and subsequent establishment of the British Mandate for Palestine to establish a national home for the Jews.
Living With Each Other
The Jewish state that was reborn in 1948 didn’t exactly conform to Herzl’s personal vision. Nor was it quite the socialist paradigm to which the country’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion subscribed. From its start, it was a confounding mix of different peoples, cultures and ideas. Its first 75 years have been an unprecedented experiment in which Jews from throughout the world gathered in one tiny country and attempted—in a process strewn with trial-and-error tests of governance—to live together, and to build and secure a country. It hasn’t been easy for disparate and often warring tribes of Jews to coexist, let alone pull together towards the accomplishment of national goals.
Yet that is what they have done, and the result is that an impoverished and beleaguered small nation survived repeated efforts by the Arab and Islamist world to destroy it, creating a country with a First World economy and a military that has made it a regional superpower.
The Experiment Continues
The experiment, however, continues, and the process remains as bruising and divisive as it has always been, despite the positive spin its advocates have put on everything it does. And if there is anything everyone should have learned by now it’s that a country that seeks to be a home for all of the Jewish people must acknowledge and respect all Jews, even those whose ideology and practices are not akin to everyone’s individual tastes. That is an observation that cuts both ways as both the secular liberal sector and their nationalist/religious counterparts find it increasingly difficult to respect or even tolerate one another.
If Israel is to survive to see future Independence Day celebrations with special numbers, both sides and those who sympathize with them from abroad must remember that if you love Israel, it can’t only be the Israel of your political allies but one that encompasses all Jewish people.
The blessing of living in a time when there is a Jewish state is such that historian Gil Troy’s suggestion that we all eat ice-cream for breakfast on Yom Ha’atzmaut to celebrate it is quite apt. Yet that happiness at this great wonder must be tempered by the knowledge that the formidable forces still bent on the destruction of the one Jewish state on the planet have not given up and are only encouraged by the current domestic strife.
Enemies Don’t Care
Yet many on the left seem to be saying that Israel won’t be a legitimate state if its democratic system continues to produce majorities for the right. That reflects a failure to understand that Israel’s enemies don’t care who runs the Jewish state. Israel exists to protect the Jewish people against those who would victimize and subjugate them anew. We may not always like who wins elections, but the notion that Israel doesn’t deserve our devotion and support if its leaders pursue policies or ideas we don’t like is the sort of short-sighted partisanship that has unknowable and possibly disastrous consequences.
Israel’s 75th birthday is an occasion that ought to transcend the tribal culture wars that are dividing the Jewish people. Both sides must remember that and re-learn the difficult yet inescapable imperative to love and respect our fellow Jews despite our differences. The alternative is as unpalatable as it is unthinkable.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). He may be followed on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.