(December 8, 2020 / JNS) The 2020 presidential election brought America’s fractured society into focus, as America is deciding whether to discard or restore its core societal values for the 21st century. Whereas Israeli Jews, from right to left, are overwhelmingly patriotic, American patriotism and exceptionalism have seemingly been stigmatized by the progressive left. Israelis will soon be going back to the polls, and the outcome will reflect where their society is headed. They are two democracies that share many similarities but also marked differences.
Was the Nov. 3 presidential election a referendum on the soul of the nation—a choice between either the stability of evolutionary change that has served America well for the last 250 years or a call for a revolution against an irretrievably flawed democracy?
Americans ask themselves what we stand for, what American freedom these days, and how to deal with disaffected minority populations? These are just some of the questions Americans and other liberal democracies, including Israel, face in the age of rising populism, identity politics, right-wing extremism and far-left radicalism.
Israelis struggle to find the right balance between being both Jewish and democratic in a hostile environment, where their Palestinian neighbors and much of their Arab citizenry’s ultimate goal is eradicating the Jewish nature of the state. Can Israeli Jewish particularism be reconciled with 35 percent of its population that are either non- or anti-Zionist—i.e., Palestinian citizens of Israel and the anti-Zionist factions of the ultra-Orthodox?
Americans ask themselves if their universalist exceptionalism is still a beacon of light for democratic aspirations of people worldwide, as it has been since the end of World War II, or a fading light in the 21st century. For some of America’s left that defines the origins of the United States as born in the sin of 1619, when the first slaves came to Jamestown, our nation’s soul is irredeemably corrupted.
Although Joe Biden has become President-elect, he was not given an overwhelming mandate for radical change. His victory primarily was a rejection of President Donald Trump’s ad hominem attacks, fabrications and handling of the coronavirus epidemic, despite his economic policy victories and voice against an entrenched government bureaucracy. The relatively small electoral success was not a mandate to destroy America through grievance-based identity politics, as the “blue wave” never materialized. The U.S. House of Representatives became “redder,” the Senate is likely to stay in Republican hands, and former President Barack Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder failed in his attempt to turn even one state legislative body from red to blue.
Both Israel and the United States need vibrant democracies for their experiments in democratic governance to continue to succeed. America’s true compass is 1776 and the Republic’s universal ideals, even if it doesn’t always live up to them. Israel’s national compass began more than 3,000 years ago with modern Zionism taking root at the end of the 19th century and fully realized in 1948 with Israel’s birth.
For Israel to fulfill its national vision and express its democratic national soul, it must reconcile how to be fully Jewish while enabling its minority population not to feel disenfranchised. It is a Jewish ideal to welcome the stranger, but it’s hard in practice when the Arab minority continually accuses you of having stolen their land. Israeli reconciliation is magnitudes of order more difficult than fixing a divided America, as Palestinian citizens of Israel do not believe that Israel deserves to exist, while most American minorities want to be part of an improved America, not eliminate it.
Israel is challenged today by allegations of corruption against its prime minister and a dysfunctional parliamentary democratic system that relies on compromise in a toxic political environment, not so different from America’s political stalemate. The gridlock in Israel generated three inconclusive elections, with a fourth on the way. Benjamin Netanyahu has done so much for his country, moving it away from socialism, creating an environment for an innovative economy and normalizing relations with Arab neighbors. His legacy should be one of reconciliation, not division, even if it means stepping aside if that is the verdict of the Israeli electorate or judiciary. No individual is more significant than their nation, even if he or she seems indispensable. A peaceful transition of power was the great legacy of George Washington, who could have been king for life if he chose.
One idea for American democracy might be learned from Israel’s experience. In Israel, citizens from all walks of life are brought together, forming lifelong attachments through mandatory community or military service. In America, this could take the form of a year-long community project—bringing young people of different backgrounds together, working for a common good to feel part of a shared national project. In America, our national service model, whether mandatory or encouraged, could be created with bipartisan support, based on the words of John F. Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for the country.”
Whether rich and poor, Israelis come together through their army service, which positively impacts their lives and contributes to a society transformed for the better. Today, small numbers of Arab and ultra-Orthodox young people join the Israel Defense Forces to do public service. Still, the challenge is to create legislation for all 18-year-old Israelis to participate, bypassing the implacable ultra-Orthodox and Arab leadership who intimidate their young from joining in the national project. Quid pro quo, no national service means reduced government services and financial support—just a thought, as it is for Israelis to decide, not Americans.
Biden has an opportunity to bring the United States together or choose to listen to the rising voices of “Justice Democrats” who want vengeance, not reconciliation, and revolution, not evolution. American democracy needs moderation, respect and tolerance—things that are in short supply right now.
American and Israeli leaders come and go, but a nation’s democratic values are eternal.
Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the U.S. Senate, House and their foreign-policy advisers. He is a columnist for “The Jerusalem Post” and a contributor to i24TV, “The Hill,” JTA and “The Forward.”
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