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Don't Be Right, Be Smart (Israel's Political Crisis) - A sermon for Yom Kippur Evening

10/03/2023 02:08:46 PM


Bruce Alpert

Some time ago, Israel ran a campaign to encourage safe driving.  The tagline for the campaign: al t’hiyeh tzodek, t’hiyeh khakham - Don’t be right.  Be smart.   There is something quintessentially Israeli about that phrase.  Israelis are, for the most part, not ideological.  They are practical.  Living where they do, under the conditions they do, forces one to look at things through the lens of practicality.  Clear demarcations of right and wrong, clear instances of victory or defeat are rarely achievable in that part .of the world

Consider, if you will, what happened there fifty years ago this very day.  On the afternoon of Yom Kippur 1973, sirens blared  and military messengers were dispatched to synagogues all over the country as Israel was surprised by simultaneous attacks from Egypt and Syria.  Eighteen days later, the Yom Kippur War would end with Israeli tanks within easy reach of the enemy capitals of Cairo and Damascus.  But in the strange ways of the Middle East, the end result of that war would matter less than what happened in its first days.  For what to the Egyptians were a few glorious hours, their tanks had powered through Israel's vaunted defenses and sent the Jewish state reeling.  That momentary advantage was enough of a victory that Egyptians could feel their pride restored after their humiliating defeats of 1948, 1956 and 1967.  And that, in turn, allowed their president, Anwar Sadat, to conclude a peace treaty with Israel six years later. 

Such is the strange world in which Israelis live.  A battlefield victory would come to be perceived as an agonizing defeat.  And that defeat would win for Israel the peace it could not achieve through military victory.

Thus the ethos, don't be right, be smart.  Would you rather crash the car as a matter of principle, or avoid the accident in the first place?  Israelis are surrounded by proud people who are certain of their righteousness.  Israelis have learned through life's hard lessons that in such conditions, it's better to be focused on achieving your goals than to be sidetracked by avenging your grievances.

Which makes the situation in which Israelis find themselves right now both highly ironic yet sadly believable.  For virtually all of its existence, Israel has been run by governments that have put practical considerations of the nation's survival and well being ahead of ideological dogma.  That focus has kept the grievances and the fears that run through Israeli society contained.  Now Israel has perhaps its most ideologically driven government, and with it, those grievances and fears are threatening to tear the country apart.

At the center of it all is Benjamin Netanyahu, a man who has become Israel’s longest serving prime minister precisely because he has always focused on being smart rather than right.   In doing so, he has forged a political consensus in Israel that broadly takes in 60-70% of the electorate.  But he has also, over his many years in office, burned bridges and created enemies such that he has alienated himself from the very consensus that he forged.  The result being that, when tasked to form a government last fall, his only option was to do so with one of Israel’s ideological extremes.  The extremity of that government has exposed the deep rift that runs through Israeli society.  And that rift is caused by half the country’s grievances about the past and the other half’s fears for the future.  Allow me to explain.

To do so, let me begin with a primer on Israeli politics.  Israel has a one house parliament, the Knesset, which is made up of 120 members.  To form a government, you must have the votes of a majority of those members.  Since Israeli politics has always been fractious, no single party has ever held a majority of the seats in the Knesset.  Hence Israeli governments are always coalitions of parties totalling a minimum of 61 seats.  And at least for the last fifty years, those coalitions have been balanced by parties that are sufficiently diverse that ideological compromise has played at least some part in actually getting things done.

The results of the most recent elections, which took place last November, paint a revealing picture of the Israeli electorate.  The largest block of seats - 32 - was won by Netanyahu’s Likud party - which has been the dominant, right-of-center party in Israel for the past 50 years.  But an additional 42 seats were won by parties whose leaders at one time or another served under Netanyahu during his previous 15 years as prime minister.  Some of these parties are to Likud’s right, and some to its left, but together they pretty much take in that vast center of Israeli politics.  Among them is broad agreement about the fundamental issues that face Israel - the economy, security, and the Palestinian situation.  While they have their differences, they largely adhere to the idea that it is better to be smart than right, and recognize that some amount of compromise is necessary for the sake of national unity.  So, for instance, if you look at what has gotten done under Netanyahu run governments, you will see his record is much more centrist than his rhetoric.

The problem is that, of the leaders of those centrist parties - all of whom, as I said, have served under Netanyahu in the past - every one has vowed never to do so again.  Every one of them represents a bridge Netanyahu has burned over his long career.

But Netanyahu had another means of forming a governing coalition and in doing so, he created the perfect political storm to tear open the rift between those who feel aggrieved by Israel’s past, and those who fear for its future.

First, he created a coalition driven by an ideological extreme.  14 seats in his coalition belong to the Religious Zionist party, which has been described as militantly anti-Arab and opposes any territorial compromise with the Palestinians.  They also favor increased state aid for religious education and oppose gay rights.  The party’s leader, Bezalel Smotrich, now Israel’s Finance Minister, is part of the settler movement that is expanding Israeli presence in the West Bank.  He also has a history of making homophobic and racist remarks.  Another party leader, Itamar Ben-Gvir, now Minister of National Security, is known as a provocateur who has faced charges of hate speech against Arabs.  He is known for keeping on his living room wall a picture of Baruch Goldstein, the Israeli terrorist who in 1994 entered a mosque in the West Bank with an assault rifle and murdered 29 Palestinians at prayer, wounding 120 others.  The Religious Zionist goal is to back the settler movement and to create facts on the ground that will make a future Palestinian state in the West Bank impossible.

The second thing Netanyahu did to create the perfect political storm in Israel was to add to his coalition the 18 seats controlled by the ultra-Orthodox parties.  The ultra-Orthodox or Haredim are the fastest growing segment of Israel’s population.  They are currently 13% of that population and, on current trends, will be 16% by the end of the decade, and 20% by 2040.  At the founding of the state, David Ben-Gurion exempted the 400 Haredi men in the country from Israel’s universal conscription and to this day, very few of them serve in the army.  Most of their boys study in yeshivas where they learn neither math, nor science, nor English. 150,000 do so with state sponsorship.  Only 56% of their men work, mostly at low paying, state-sponsored jobs. 44% of them live below the poverty line.  Their goal is to secure continued exemptions for themselves from military service, increase their share of state welfare, and broaden the control of religious law over state services and institutions.

So, in a country that values being smart over being right, Netanyahu has built a governing coalition of ultra-nationalists and the ultra-religious. This coalition has aroused everything from discomfort in Israel’s center to absolute panic in its left.  But then, its first act was the final ingredient necessary to create the perfect political storm to rend the country in two.  It proposed a series of judicial reforms that would fundamentally shift the balance of political power away from the courts and toward the government.  This is what has sent tens of thousands of Israelis into the streets every Saturday night in cities all across the country, waving Israeli flags and carrying signs that read Democratiya - Democracy.  

Israel has no constitution.  It has no supreme law that separates power by delegating it to the government’s various branches, thus creating checks on each branch's use of its power.  In fact, in Israel the only effective check on the power of the governing coalition is the ability of the courts to strike down its acts as illegal.  Commentators have noted that debates over the nature of the proposed reforms have turned Israel into a country of legal theorists.  Indeed, for a short time after these reforms were proposed, much of the debate in Israel centered around the content of the reforms themselves.

But as that debate has gone on and in fact has grown more desperate and more extreme, it has become clear that the fight over judicial reform is just a proxy for a much deeper argument: one that touches on past hurts and future fears.  According to the writer Micah Goodman, when you talk to people who favor these reforms, once they stop talking about the reforms themselves, they start talking about a long list of grievances against the government that begins in the recent past, but stretches all the way to the beginnings of the state.  These grievances share a common element: they are about an elite minority that imposes its will and its values on the rest of Israeli society.  

Israel was founded largely by socialist and secular Ashkenazi, that is to say European Jews who saw it not in religious but political terms.  To them, Israel was the state of the Jews - a political and cultural refuge for an oppressed, exploited people who could have no safety without a country of their own.  These Ashkenazim founded the institutions of the state - its hospitals, its cultural centers, and especially its army.  They still dominate these institutions even though they have become a minority of the Jewish population - surpassed in numbers by Mizrahi Jews from the Middle East, Africa and the Iberian peninsula.  And they treat these Mizrahim who tend to be more religious, more conservative and less cosmopolitan as second class citizens.  They resent them, if not for their darker skin, then certainly for their middle eastern ways.

On the other side of the debate are those who oppose the judicial reform; those who are out in the streets demonstrating every Saturday night.  According to Goodman, when they stop talking about the reforms themselves, they start talking about something different: not their grievances with the past, but their fears for the future.  Those fears encompass an ultra-Orthodox community that wishes to impose the stringencies of their interpretations of Jewish law on the entire society.  They also take in an ultra-nationalist movement that would annex the West Bank provoking a crisis of democracy as two and a half million additional Palestinian Arabs fall under Israeli sovereignty.  Could Israeli democracy survive such a change in its demography?  Or would Israel find itself having to choose between being a Jewish state or being a democratic one?  Would the ultra-Orthodox and ultra-nationalists even care?  Or are they more concerned with creating a Jewish state - that is, a state governed significantly by Jewish law - in place of the formally secular state of the Jews?

Thus the crisis in which Israel finds itself today; a crisis brought about by an ideology driven government that is giving vent to the pent up frustrations of half the population that feels itself ill used by an elitist minority, while at the same time stoking the fears of the other half that Israel is about to lose its identity as a free and open society; one that at least aspires to equality for all its citizens.  For those of us who love Israel, who take pride in its accomplishments while relying on it as a Jewish haven in troubled times, how this crisis will resolve itself is a matter of great concern.

There is also an oddly ominous aspect to all of this.  Israel this past Spring celebrated its 75th year of independence.  Twice before have our people exercised a united sovereignty over the land: in the 10th century BCE under Kings David and Solomon, and in the 2nd century BCE under the Hasmoneans.  In both cases, that sovereignty lasted about 80 years.  Is that as much as we as a people can manage?  Are we destined after a certain time to tear ourselves apart over old wounds and new fears?  

I, for one, do not believe so.  I believe Israelis of all political stripes see their country - in both its struggles and its triumphs - as a cause for all humanity; as a light to the nations.  Possessed of such a sense of destiny, a certain wisdom takes hold when they see peril ahead.  It counsels them to raise their vision away from that peril and toward their destiny.  In those moments, that wisdom says to them, “Don’t be right.  Be smart.”  I have faith that Israelis will, perhaps just in the nick of time, be smart.  And in so doing, they will show us what is right.

Wed, April 17 2024 9 Nisan 5784