The Struggle for Israel’s Soul: Human Rights vs. Rampant Nationalism

The conflict between the center-left and the ultranationalist right isn’t about risk management.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett recently claimed that Israel shouldn’t worry about the implications of the occupation on its economy. Israel, he said, survived earlier boycotts and would survive future ones.

His view on the creation of a Palestinian state was different. Israel’s economy wouldn’t survive the constant shelling of Tel Aviv and Herzliya from a Palestinian state, or the shooting down of airliners flying into Ben-Gurion Airport by a terrorist waiting in the Judean Hills, Bennnett said.

His concern about what would happen if radical jihadist terror groups infiltrated the Palestinian state isn’t to be taken lightly, and these concerns play an important role in the negotiations with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Given the chaos in Syria and Al-Qaida’s role there – often literally at the Israeli border – it would be preposterous to dismiss Bennett’s scenario out of hand.

Then again, I see no reason to take Bennett’s assessment of the future as authoritative. Consider, for example, the six former chiefs of the Shin Bet security service interviewed in the documentary “The Gatekeepers.” They’re likely to be at least as informed as Bennett about the risks in establishing a Palestinian state, yet they’re all convinced that Israel’s only way to survive is to end the occupation.

There was some hope that Bennett, a successful startup entrepreneur, would put a modicum of sanity into the national-religious way of thinking. Alas, we were wrong. After all, a few months ago, he suggested that Israel rupture ties with the European Union, Israel’s largest trading partner, over the EU’s guidelines prohibiting any EU grants, loans or prizes from going to activities of Israeli entities in the West Bank, Golan Heights or East Jerusalem. That was an unbecoming statement for a government minister.

Bennett’s propensity for populist hyperbole may make him popular in his ultranationalist constituency, but very few others are likely to take him seriously when he talks about the impact of a boycott by the free world on Israel’s economy. Instead of Bennett’s tirades, I prefer the judgment of the many leading businesspeople who are warning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the consequences of continuing the occupation.

But let’s face it. In a place as volatile as the Middle East, the certainties are even fewer than in calmer regions – and even in the United States and Europe almost nobody foresaw the economic meltdown of 2007/8. In the end, the conflict between Bennett and the Israeli ultranationalist right on the one hand, and the center-left on the other, isn’t about risk management. It’s a struggle for Israel’s soul.

Bennett is enamored with a mythical Israel that relies on itself and God’s guidance alone. He dreams of reestablishing the Kingdom of David and Solomon, which he imagines as mighty and impressive. And he disdains the virtues of prudence and diplomacy as well as consideration of the rights of non-Jews.

The story of Masada is an inspiration for him. Bar Kochba, the leader of the revolt against Rome that led to the death of 600,000 Jews in the second century C.E., is a story of heroism for him. Hence we can slap Uncle Sam in the face and tell the EU to leave us alone; Jews no longer need to listen to anybody.

Jewish liberals in Israel and in the Diaspora look at this war-mongering mythology with surprise and sometimes shock. They know that the Kingdom of David and Solomon was nothing but an extended tribal chiefdom, and that there is very little to be learned about modern statecraft from Israel’s kings.

They know that Bar Kochba was a fool who brought nothing but suffering to the Jewish people. If anything, they want to connect to the humanist-ethical element in the Jewish tradition, not to the stories of misguided pseudo-heroism.

In addition, they know that the idea of an Israel that doesn’t depend on anybody is an adolescent fantasy. They know that Israel’s alliance with the West is a vital strategic asset, and that Israel couldn’t survive long without the backing of the United States.

But the alliance with the West isn’t just a matter of prudence and economic interest, it’s an expression of core values. Jewish liberals care about Israel’s soul. We recoil from Bennett’s vision of a brutal country that cares about nothing but itself. We feel morally bound by the story of Jewish suffering to a simple conclusion: We have known what it’s like to be devoid of rights, trampled on, disowned and displaced.

And Jewish liberals ranging from René Cassin, who was instrumental in crafting the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to the founders of the Anti-Defamation League, have been involved in the causes of liberty, equality and human rights around the globe. As Jews we want to fight injustice, not perpetrate it.

We care about Israel’s security as much as Bennett does. But when we look at the sheer brutishness of the behavior of many settlers, the callousness of their disregard for Palestinians, we simply say: This is not Jewishness as we understand it. This is not the dream of Theodor Herzl and Ahad Ha’am, nor does it correspond to the values of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which explicitly disavows discrimination based on religion and ethnicity.

This is why we are willing to take certain risks for the sake of salvaging Israel’s soul. We are not naïve. Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, Amram Mitzna, Meir Dagan, Ami Ayalon and Yuval Diskin served Israel’s security for most of their lives, and they all have thought the occupation is a greater danger to Israel’s survival than the dangers in retreating from the West Bank.

I trust their judgment on matters of security. But even more I’m filled with pride that despite their keen awareness of the dangers, their concern for Israel’s soul determines their vision for Israel’s future. For without a soul, Israel will lose the strength to continue renewing and reinventing itself and make good on the promise of being the democratic homeland of the Jews.

Right-wing Jews protesting against the settlement freeze in Jerusalem in January 2010.Credit: (Archive)

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