Israel’s Secular Liberals Should Claim Minority Status

Political liberalism is floundering in Israel. But even if we cannot win at the ballot box, we have a right to our identity, and must begin to fight for it.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party has been sponsoring a bill that would finally fix one of Israel’s greatest anomalies: Jews in Israel are not allowed to marry whoever they want to, and even more incredibly, they cannot marry the way they want to. Jews cannot choose to wed without a Rabbi, and any non-Orthodox Rabbi’s marriage ceremony is not recognized as valid.

But the Civil Union Bill looks bound to fail. Once again, the Haredi stranglehold on Israeli public life will carry the day, and, as former Chief Justice Aharon Barak is arguing, Israelis’ basic human right to marry as they wish will be denied. Secular Israeli Jews unwilling to cave in to religious coercion will continue traveling abroad in order to wed, because the homeland of the Jews does not allow this most basic freedom of marrying according to their own preferences and beliefs.

This situation is symptomatic for a long-term development. Secular liberal Israelis are gradually squeezed into the status of a disenfranchised minority. Depending on the polling method and formulation of the questionnaire, between 22 and 35 percent of Israelis describe themselves as secular. Our relative size has been waning, and for almost four decades we have been politically ever more powerless.

As a result, growing numbers of Israeli secular liberals feel that the country is no longer theirs. Since 1977, when the Likud first came to power, Israeli politics have become ever more nationalist and religious – most dramatically in the settlement policy and the gradual de facto annexation of the West Bank led by religious settlers.

Israel is, as political scientist Charles Kupchan has argued, a special case that combines most elements of liberal democracy with distinct theocratic elements – such as the enormous role the ultra-Orthodox rabbinic establishment plays in public affairs. Israel is, in other words, only partially a Western country.

Israel’s secular Jews currently get the worst of all possible worlds: on the one hand, we have very little political power. On the other hand, to this day the national-religious and ultra-Orthodox feel free to attack us with the most bilious and derogatory terms – while at the same time demanding respect for their own creed and way of life. They continue to behave as if we secular Jews were an oppressive majority, even though we haven’t been in power for decades.

Many secular Israelis feel that the country is ‘naturally’ theirs and has been stolen from them. They feel that since 1977 the country has been slipping away, and often nostalgically yearn for the times of Ben-Gurion’s Mapai rule. But Mapai’s socialist Zionism is now essentially defunct. Its heirs, the Labor party and Meretz are social democratic along the lines of the European consensus, and most of Israel’s secular Jews are mostly far less nationalist than Ben-Gurion’s Mapai was.

Personally I do not decry this: I have never been a socialist, and socialism has proven not to be viable ideologically, economically and politically in its long history in the 20th century. Hence I am glad that Israel’s moderate left has moved from socialism to liberalism.

But Israel’s secular liberals are in a problematic position: Political liberalism is by its nature, definition and goal non-extremist. It doesn’t flout grand ideology, but believes in modest goals and pragmatic compromise. This is viable if the surrounding political forces are moderate as well, but in Israel this is not the case. Israel’s national-religious camp is follows a radical messianic ideology and the ultra-Orthodox adhere to a fundamentalist understanding of Judaism.

Secular Israelis need to realize that Israel is not ours, that our influence here is bound to be limited for demographic reasons: we will never reach the birthrates of the national-religious and certainly not the ultra-Orthodox. We need to stop feeling and behaving as if Israel is our country that was stolen from us. Instead we need to start acting like the minority we are: we need to fight for our rights the same way the ultra-Orthodox and national-religious are fighting for theirs. Even if we cannot win at the ballot box, we have a right to our identity.

Most of us hold Universalist values, and identify ourselves with core elements of Western culture. We disagree with Israel’s occupation policy, and we are against the ultra-Orthodox stranglehold on Israel’s public life. We should stop being apologetic about this; we should refuse any accusation from either right-wing nationalists that we are insufficiently Zionist (in their chauvinist version of Zionism, at least) or accusations from the Haredim that we are insufficiently Jewish.

We will continue to fight for an Israel that corresponds to our values – among other things by continuing to promote and argue for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. But we must face reality: hardly anybody believes that Kerry’s well-meaning effort to reach an Israel-Palestine agreement will succeed. The national-religious are bound to wreck this effort in the same way they are blocking Yesh Atid’s Civil Union bill.

We must brace for the possibility that the two-state vision will fail, and that Israel will go towards dark times indeed. If this should happen, liberal-secular Israelis will undergo a severe identity crisis and we will have to make more valiant efforts to define our identities vis-à-vis a majority that is pushing Israel towards a religiously colored chauvinism. This is not an easy task, and I intend to devote a number of posts to this topic in the near future.

A Haredi man walks by a graffiti reading 'Decent behavior preceded the Torah.' Jerusalem, July 16 2013.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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