Yom Kippur 5775: Jewish Liberals Are Running Out of Options

Yes, many Israelis have developed racist attitudes that are difficult to stomach. But it is irresponsible to disregard the great pressures and constant uncertainty under which they live.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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An Israeli child jumps from a protection cement wall that surrounds a kindergarten in Kibbutz Nahal Oz on the Gaza border with Israel. Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014.
An Israeli child jumps from a protection cement wall that surrounds a kindergarten in Kibbutz Nahal Oz on the Gaza border with Israel. Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014.Credit: AP
Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

Yom Kippur 5775. The tenor of Jewish liberal commentary, in Haaretz and elsewhere, has entered a downward spiral of pessimism and despair. A good example is Rogel Alpher’s article “Israel is my home, but I can no longer live here.” It didn’t say anything particularly new or surprising, it simply stated in personal terms that Israeli liberals no longer have a future here when the country is steadily becoming more right-wing and religious.

But the piece created a huge commotion and was widely shared online both in Hebrew and English. A number of respected Israeli liberals lambasted Alpher for jumping ship (even though he’s not actually leaving Israel) and giving up the fight.

But Uri Misgav doubled up with a thoughtful Rosh Hashanah op-ed asking how Israeli liberals could live here without contributing to the occupation. He pointed out something very simple: We are running out of steam. We have tried demonstrations, political initiatives, writing and speaking, but we keep losing ground. Surveys show that the next election will further increase the power of the right wing and religious parties, while the center-left keeps shrinking.

This pessimism is spreading through the Jewish liberal diaspora. One of the most hotly debated topics among American and British Jews in recent months has been whether liberal Zionism is dead for all intents and purposes. Pieces by Jonathan Freedland in The New York Review of Books and Antony Lerman in The New York Times have gone viral.

In a 2006 article in Haaretz, the late British-American historian Tony Judt was pessimistic about whether Israel’s democracy could be saved. It was viewed more than 150,000 times from July 20 to August 20, according to editorial sources at Haaretz.com. More than 45,000 people have recommended it on Facebook.

Why this surge in pessimism? How is this Yom Kippur different from those of previous years? I think there are two decisive factors.

The first is that in the 2013 election, the success of Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid party and Tzipi Livni’s commitment to negotiations with the Palestinians gave us hope – hope that was shattered when it became clear that the far right led by Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman was setting Israeli policy and Benjamin Netanyahu’s course. It was clear that Lapid and Livni could neither save the attempt at a negotiated solution with the Palestinians nor stem the chauvinist tide flooding the country.

The second factor was the surge in ferocious racism and nationalism leading up to and during the Gaza war. The streets and social media were flooded with calls to kill all Arabs, and sometimes to kill all Israeli leftists. The situation became frightening: Anti-war demonstrations by the left were violently attacked by right-wingers, and Israeli Arabs were wantonly attacked by Israeli youths in the middle of Israeli cities. For the first time, many of us felt that it was becoming dangerous to voice dissent except among friends.

Meanwhile, national-religious rabbis were competing with each other in racist pronouncements and rulings. We were utterly appalled that they could say, without being prosecuted, that it is permitted to kill Arabs in order to create deterrence, that Jews should not rent apartments to Arabs, and that secular Jewish judges should not be allowed to try Jews. And we watched helplessly how the young political stars of the right — Danny Danon, Miri Regev, Nafatli Bennett and Co. — were outdoing each other in hyper-nationalist, tasteless and vitriolic rhetoric.

Does this mean Israel is the moral monster painted by a certain type of left-wing commentator? I don’t think so. Yes, the country has moved to the right, and many Israelis have developed racist attitudes that are difficult to stomach. But you have very similar phenomena in countries like France and the Netherlands that are not under real threat, where the far right under Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders is gaining ground.

It is intellectually and morally irresponsible to disregard the great pressures and constant uncertainty under which Israelis live. The move to the right and the increasingly nationalist tone is to be expected in a country whose people feel as insecure as Israelis do between Hezbollah’s rockets, Hamas’ tunnels, the growing menace of much more radical Islamist groups like the Islamic State, and the threat of a nuclear Iran.

I often feel deeply torn. During the Gaza war I gave interviews to the foreign media. I never mindlessly and automatically defend Israel’s rightness in all it does. I think this is useless, often intellectually and morally dishonest, and it doesn’t convince anybody.

I do try to explain why Israelis feel as they do, as well as the pressures that push Israeli politicians further to the right. I try to take a balanced stance between mindless defense of everything Israel does and the Israel-demonization in many foreign media outlets — and I think I succeed in generating some empathy for ordinary Israelis.

But inside I am hurting. While I can humanly and psychologically understand why fear pushes many Israelis to the right, I cannot help feeling, along with many of my friends, that the country is moving so far away from our ideals and values that we are becoming strangers in our own land.

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