Israel Is Not America, Far From It

Misguided overseas reactions to the Likud primary are a preview of likely responses to the January election.

This week's Likud primaries were an intriguing subplot to the wider narrative of the elections. The results were clear-cut and easily summarized - the moderate Likudniks were pushed off the Knesset list and the right-wing extremists got in. But while the bare facts are clear, the wider implications are far from that.

There are two ways of reading the primaries. Seventy thousand party members voted in the primaries, less than one percent of Israeli citizens. Many of them were not there for political reasons. A large proportion are either friends, family or work colleagues of local Likud chieftains, often their membership dues have been paid for them and they are simply there as fodder for the horse-trading that goes on in the months leading up to the primaries.

That is certainly true for thousands of Israel Aerospace Industries employees who turned up to supply bargaining power for the head of their union, MK Haim Katz. Likud's lurch to the right is not so much an ideological shift as a by-product of internal party machinations.

By this reading, the Likud members do not reflect the wider public (the party got less than a quarter of the popular vote in 2009 ), they don't represent all those who vote for the party in the general elections, and they don't even represent themselves. The media are blowing the message of the primaries out of proportion.

The opposite interpretation sees the Likud primaries as yet another pivotal moment of Israel's history in which the rapidly disappearing mask of respectability slips further down, revealing beneath it the true face of Israeli society in all its intolerant, xenophobic and superstitious ugliness. This is the prevailing spirit across the land, one of chauvinism and religious parochialism, and the Likud list is an accurate snapshot of our aspirations and beliefs.

Competing narratives

Surely there is a way to decide which of these competing narratives is right. In seven weeks, come the elections, we will all see whether the majority of the Israeli public rejects the new Likud style of politics and that of its allies. As the polls stand right now, and as they have for much of the last four years, Likud and its satellites will control the next Knesset, thereby proving that even if the majority of Israelis do not actually harbor racist and undemocratic tendencies, they have no problem voting for politicians who appear to do so.

Immediately following Netanyahu's reelection on January 22, the hand-wringing will start and a long list of Jewish pundits and commentators in the United States and Britain will publish columns under the collective headline of "Do Jews in Israel and the Diaspora Share the Same Values?"

Let me save them some time by answering that question now: No. We do not have shared values and it has little if anything to do with politics. We simply never have, not even when a left-wing government ruled Israel.

Here are just three areas in which our values sharply differ: Democracy. While in America, Jews are part of a culture that has enshrined democracy and civil rights for centuries, instilling it in each new generation, most voting-age Israelis were either born or are the children of someone who was born in a totalitarian country. As a result, Israeli democracy has developed in a patchy and uneven fashion and many elements of it are still far from consensual. Democracy as we are seeing now in Egypt is far from an automatic condition and the idea that the Jewish State would necessarily be a liberal democracy just because it is a Jewish state is ridiculously naive. America fought hard and sacrificed much to become the democracy it is today. Israel is still struggling.

Capitalism. The procession of young American Jews from school through college to gainful employment is swift and orderly. Israelis, by necessity and choice, take a lot longer. Military service, wandering around Asia and Latin America, meandering through university studying useless disciplines, they join the workforce much later. And when they finally get to work, Israelis make much less and pay higher taxes. All their children go to public schools and they get most of their health care from socialized funds and in government-owned hospitals. Israel is no longer a socialist state - it encourages private enterprise and has privatized some sectors - but its economy does not even resemble the American model and that has a profound impact on citizens' values.

Service. By the age of 21, the vast majority of Israeli Jews will have been through the army or some other form of national service. For better or worse, you cannot compare the values of citizens who have served in a military to those who have never worn a uniform, and few American Jews have. Even when they reenter civilian life, a much higher proportion of Israelis will find themselves employed as civil servants or in other parts of the public sector, which also engenders a certain set of values.

Shared values?

I could carry on, but everything I have stated here is obvious (or at least should be ). It has to be said, though, to dispel the nonsensical concept of Diaspora Jews and Israelis sharing the same set of values. We don't and there is no way that a secure and prosperous minority living in the greatest country on earth can have the same values as a disparate collection of first- and second-generation immigrants from six continents precariously existing in the Middle East. Israelis don't share values among themselves; how could they do so with others?

This is not to say that American Jews should stop supporting Israel or at least feeling an affinity for it. Neither am I making excuses for the lack of democratic values in Israel. But for Israelis to be able to become more liberal and democratic, it would be useful to recognize first the many ways in which they are not. Likud's rightward tilt and the almost inevitable outcome of these elections are reasons for concern over the direction Israel's society is taking, but not for despair.

Here is another value Israelis don't share with American Jews - political stability. While American Jews continue to award every Democratic candidate with at least two-thirds of their votes, for the last 40 years Israel has alternated between right, left, centrist and national-unity governments on an average of every two election cycles. The same Israel that is about to reelect Netanyahu gave his Likud only 12 Knesset seats less than seven years ago.

Israel may be becoming more Americanized in some ways (not all of them good ), but the truth is we never shared the same values. Americans just like using that term because it sounds politically correct (yet another value we don't share ), while they actually love Israel for many of the reasons that it is not America. And many Israelis yearn to be more like their American brothers and cousins precisely because they have different values.

David Bachar