Rosh Hashanah 5773: The End of Liberal Zionism?

We can only hope that Israel’s majority will wake up in time to realize that it has been electing governments that, under the guise of ultra-Zionism, are single-handedly destroying the Zionist dream of the democratic homeland of the Jews.

Traditionally Rosh Hashanah is a time of “Heshbon Nefesh,” or soul searching; and doing so this year is not easy for Israel’s liberals. Politically we have become an almost insignificant marginal group. Our voice is hardly heard in the Knesset, and, as I have written repeatedly, the two state solution is slipping away, maybe irretrievably so.

I am completely aware that in doing so I have broken the liberal consensus both in Israel and among Israel’s friends throughout the world that we must defend the two state solution.   I would like to address the many readers and friends who have asked me time and again why I am doing this; whether my position is not defeatist, and whether I believe in the one state solution’s viability.

My answer is a simple, resounding no. I don’t think the one state solution is viable, rather that it is a recipe for catastrophe; Jews and Palestinians will fight for demographic majority; there will be no unifying ethos of any kind, and we can expect a new spiral of violence.

I am then often asked “so why do you say that the two state solution is dead?”

I do so because I take it to be my duty to diagnose the situation as I see it, and not as I want to see it. Given Israel’s internal composition; its struggle for identity; the single-minded determination of the settlers; the rise of nationalist sentiment; the demographic growth of the religious population; and most Israelis’ understandable aversion to take risks to safeguard Israel’s democracy in the long run - I simply do not see the two state solution happening. And I would like to explain my diagnosis in a wider historical perspective.

Israel is a young democracy, as young as modern India. Even though Israel is in many ways a highly advanced society, it is, like India, in the throes of building a national and political identity. In Israel’s first thirty years, an Eastern European political elite tried to impose socialist Zionism as a unitary ideology and identity. Since 1977, when the Likud first came to power, this unitary ideology proved to be a thin veneer covering up ethnic and religious divisions.

Menachem Begin won the 1977 and the 1981 elections by capitalizing on resentment against the Eastern European socialist elites of the state’s first thirty years. In doing so, he has set the tone of Israeli politics ever since: those who had felt disenfranchised during Israel’s first decades adopted nationalism as a guiding ideology. And Benjamin Netanyahu has continued to use this tactic skillfully and successfully.

One of the secrets of Israeli politics is that, while ostensibly about Israel’s great existential questions, it is really the expression of an ongoing culture war. And one of the undecided questions is: Should Israel be and remain a Western-style liberal democracy based on equal rights for all?

The answer is far from clear. National-religious and ultraorthodox ideologies do not consider Western style democracy sacrosanct; nor do many of them think that Gentiles, primarily Arabs, should have the same rights as Jews in Israel. A number of Israel’s right-wing parties have subscribed to racism and xenophobia, and they are gaining in power daily. And the parties for whom the principles of liberal democracy are indeed sacred have shrunk phenomenally: at this point they command hardly a quarter of the seats in the Knesset.

Israel is, of course, not the only country in the throes of a culture war. U.S. politics have become enormously polarized, with many conservatives seeing Obama as a foreigner who has taken away their country. We are not the only country in which xenophobia is rampant: think about the Netherlands, one of the bulwarks of liberal thought for centuries that is now empowering right-wing Islamophobes like Geert Wilders. Nor are we the only democracy that is in danger of becoming illiberal, as recent events in Hungary show.

Israel’s unique problem is that it is forced to make crucial decisions about its future in the midst of this culture war; and that political programs are no longer seen in their own right, but as the expression of an ethnic and cultural identity.

The tragedy of Israel’s liberals is that we are not seen as upholding ideals of universal validity, but as an arrogant Ashkenazi elite that has imposed foreign values on a majority that does not identify with them. Never mind that many of us are of Mizrahi descent; never mind that many of us have nothing in common with the socialist Zionism that ruled the country for decades: we are seen as an ethnic sector and the heirs of the hated elites of the past. This is why the bulwarks of liberal democracy in Israel, the legal system, the media and academia have been under constant attack as representing a privileged minority.

The same holds true for our political program: we Israeli liberals were defined by our defense of the two state solution for decades. And this political program, too, has come to be seen as an imposition of Western, “non-Jewish” values. The term “Oslo Agreement” has become an expression of contempt for arrogant elites of Tel Aviv, self-hating Jews, lovers of Arabs who are devoid of Jewish values.

Have we indeed been guilty of arrogance? We have certainly made mistakes. However our greatest failing is not arrogance, but rather that we have become a demographic minority in Israel.

“But if you no longer believe in the two state solution’s feasibility, what is your political program?” I am asked, time and again. Unfortunately I see no concrete way to salvage the two state solution. We are running out of political tools, because we cannot muster a majority. We are running out of time, because, with the approval of Israel’s government, the settlers expand the West Bank’s colonization. And the international community is preoccupied with its own troubles, and does not exert the type of pressure that could force the Netanyahu government to change course.

This is why I have written a number of times, that we Israeli secular liberals should declare ourselves a minority and demand minority rights. As opposed to the settlers, we will neither break the law, nor resort to violence. We will respect the democratic process; but we must make clear that Israel’s government policy does not represent us.

Yes, we have strong political values, and we have a cultural identity deeply tied to the values of the European enlightenment: equality of rights, representative democracy and the separation of state and religion. And we have a right to our values and identity no less than any other minority.

Even though we are a minority, we will continue doing what we can to defend the foundation of Israel’s civil society and its institutions, and we will fight against human rights violations, and stay true to our core-values.

We can only hope that Israel’s majority will wake up in time to realize that it has been electing governments that, under the guise of ultra-Zionism, are single-handedly destroying the Zionist dream of the democratic homeland of the Jews.