Opinion |

Netanyahu's Crippling Lack of Confidence in Israel's Jewish Identity – and His Own

Self-confident Jews don't feel the need to push legislation for menorahs to monopolize the Israeli public square, to institute segregation, to marginalize other faiths and to celebrate exclusion and intolerance

William Kolbrener
William Kolbrener
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during the weekly cabinet meeting at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, June 24, 2018
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the weekly cabinet meeting at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, June 24, 2018Credit: \ POOL New/ REUTERS
William Kolbrener
William Kolbrener

Once again, Israel's government prompts divisiveness - in the name of unity. Those who embrace the proposed nation-state bill will claim that it cements the Jewish character of the state - making, for example, Hebrew the official language, and the Star of David one of its official symbols.

But the ostensible arguments for unity really serve to obscure an agenda of exclusion and intolerance.

According to a stipulation in the 7th clause of the bill, communities would be allowed to constitute themselves on explicitly religious grounds – kind of like Salem in American in the 17th century – but now in Israel, in the 21st. Another word for that is segregation.

The President of Israel Reuven Rivlin, in his now-habitual role as the official voice of sanity, asked, in a self-acknowledged "extraordinary" letter to the Knesset: "In the name of the Zionist vision, are we willing to lend a hand to the discrimination and exclusion of a man or a woman on the basis of his or her origin?"

According to the proposed law, every community would be able – in the name of a religious ideal – to establish a community without those who they disdain, whether Mizrahim, Haredim, Druze, Muslims, Christians or members of the LGBT community.

But the aim of a democratic state - even the Jewish one - should not be to legislate on behalf of community, but to protect the free public sphere.

To be sure, in the Jewish tradition, idealized conceptions of community, kehilla, are based upon more than "mere" tolerance in an impartial public sphere, the tzibur.

For example, the Netivot Shalom, a Hasidic master of the past century, writes that the community to which we to ought to aspire - counteracting the forces of "needless hatred" - is one based upon love.

That is, in this ideal world, the absence of dispute is not enough: respectful tolerance of others, preserving the peace, should be replaced by love for the other. The Anglo-American conception of liberal democracy – of just toleration – seems impoverished in relation to the more noble idea, a community based upon reciprocity and love.

Isaiah Berlin, another Jewish thinker of the past century, from a different philosophic tradition, distinguishes between what he describes as two kinds of political liberty: negative and positive.

Negative liberty is based on the protection of individual rights – on limiting state interference in the individual’s private realm. Positive liberty, however, more robust by nature, entails cultivating a shared set of commitments to realize the potential of individuals, but together in relation one to another.

Where negative liberty acknowledges, even cultivates differences, though often at the expense of common values, positive liberty encourages the possibility of a meaningful public sphere, shared symbols and values.

Yet, it was Hillel the Elder, who had advised, "Do not do unto your neighbor what you would not have him do to you," an advocate of negative liberty before its time.

But when you live in a time of exile, as Hillel did under Herod, you realize that negative liberty, the minimalist agenda of a world without unneccessary strife and friction may, in fact, be the ideal.

Israeli authorities order Palestinian businesses to close for the Jerusalem Day "March of Flags" through the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem. May 6, 2016Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Another of Hillel’s maxims, "Don’t judge anyone until you stand in their shoes," shows a reticence about imposing judgements on others.

Hillel understood that the dream of unity – the claim to an understanding of all points of view – is often just a pretext for exclusion, for trampling on the rights of others. Because unity is never complete and might exclude, in the name of love, or some other trumped-up ethical ideal, those who proclaim their differences.

Why does Israel need the nation-state law at all? And why would Israeli Jews, the demographic and political majority, living in a state that already prioritizes and privileges their needs and their forms of religious and national expression, support such a law?

Those secure in their identity as Jews can foster their own communities – kehillot. For that, they have no need of the endorsement of the state, nor the formal approval of the Likud or Naftali Bennett's HaBayit HaYehudi party.

Further, self-confident Jews will not feel the need to monopolize the public square with religious symbols, nor to marginalize other faiths, as if religion were a zero-sum game. They will not need to be reminded by a Knesset bill that the menorah has historical significance, that their language is Hebrew, that Israel is a Jewish State.

Israel is not America, I am told. Separation of Church and State is an unnatural import. Well, maybe, yes. But the Zionist ideal is a fragile, if not impossible, one. And in the strange paradox of Israel as Jewish democracy, we should err on the side of democracy.

Empowering the government to enforce a particular conception of Judaism or community through symbols and legislative acts represents yet another in a series of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempts to violate democratic norms.

For genuine religious identity develops organically, not from gratuitous administrative measures from above, but from commitment, even faith, exercised in the private sphere – our homes, our synagogues, our communities. There should be no such thing as state-sponsored and enforced Patriotic Judaism.

We can save the utopian vision of a universal community based upon love for when Messiah comes – whenever that will be. In our historical moment, we should pursue the pragmatic and more deserving ideal of a multi-cultural democracy for the State of Israel, in which toleration, not discrimination, should be enough.

William Kolbrener is professor of English Literature at Bar Ilan University. His most recent book is The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition (Indiana University Press). Twitter: @OMTorah

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