Israel’s latest election has made something clear to all but the most casual observer. We cannot smooth it over and speak of post-election unity, which under other circumstances would be expected.
In the current situation, this is not possible. We cannot ignore a political and psychological divide of enormous import. It is, I would suggest, a divide that cuts deeper than the left-right divide. To fail to grapple with it would be a disservice to the nation.
This divide is between those who view the State of Israel as first and foremost a Jewish state and those who see it first and foremost as a democracy. Obviously, we are meant to be both, but when the two values appear to come into conflict, which takes precedence?
The left, which maintains that the priority is democracy, advances an argument that promotes a universalist state. This is how the Ra’am Party—the anti-Zionist arm of the southern branch of Israel’s Islamic Movement—was considered an acceptable coalition partner in the outgoing government.
It is also how the idea gained traction that Israel’s national symbols should be revised in order to be more “inclusive.” This would mean, for example, adopting a new national anthem, because “Hatikvah” speaks of the “Jewish soul.”
Back in February, then-Foreign Minister Yair Lapid selected Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi as consul-general in Shanghai. The day after the appointment was made, Zoabi described her sense of alienation from the national anthem, saying she does not know the words by heart. “Israel is a democratic country and I want it to be more democratic,” she said. “I mostly want it to be more equal.”
Following her statement, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking as the head of the opposition, declared, “It cannot be that the person who will represent Israel in one of the most important powers in the world will be someone who doesn’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state and opposes our national anthem.”
Fortunately, circumstances intervened to prevent Zoabi from assuming her post, but Netanyahu’s statement remains pertinent. Members of a leftist government were prepared to embrace and advance someone who does not accept that Israel is a Jewish state.
This position is consistent with global progressive ideology. Those concerned about the Jewish identity of the state, by contrast, are nationalist in their perspective. Today, with the possible exception of Ukrainian nationalists, this is not in vogue.
Yet nationalism is the only way to preserve Israel as a Jewish state. This was well understood by the state’s founders. Israel’s Declaration of Independence, proclaimed by David Ben-Gurion on May 14, 1948, begins, “Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel] was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. … On the 29th November 1947, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz Yisrael. … This recognition by the United Nations of the right of the Jewish people to establish their state is irrevocable.”
“This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state,” the Declaration asserted.
When did the Israeli left lose sight of that basic idea?
At the time of Israel’s founding, all of the country’s citizens were ensured complete equality of social and political rights. This was extraordinary, given that the region’s Arabs had just sought to destroy Israel at the moment of her birth. To this day, Arabs with Israeli citizenship have full civil rights. They can vote and have representation in the Knesset, petition the courts, receive medical care and pensions and so on.
But for some, this is insufficient. Times have changed and progressive thinking has changed with it. Perhaps more important, there has been a growing alienation from Jewish tradition on the part of many individuals on the left who are not observant. David Ben Gurion was not a religiously observant man, but he was thoroughly immersed in the Hebrew Bible. He understood the connection of the Jewish people to the Land. Today, sadly, this is an exception. There is a disconnect from the all-important understanding that underlies the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state.
Some have become so confused that there is talk about whether the incoming government will establish a theocracy. Absolutely not. They will sustain a democratic state that is true to Jewish tradition, values and rights.
Whatever transpires in regard to the makeup of the new government, it is clear that the right-wing victory in the election has saved Israel as a Jewish state.
Arlene Kushner is a freelance writer, investigative journalist and author. She has written books on the PLO and Ethiopian Jews, and major reports on UNRWA. She is a co-founder of the Legal Grounds Campaign, which provides courses to law students regarding Israel’s legal rights in the Land of Israel. Her blog, focusing on political and security concerns in Israel, can be found at www.arlenefromisrael.info.