In Israel, Zionism Is a Religion, and It Is Mandatory

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Joint List leaders Ahmad Tibi and Ayman Odeh.
Joint List leaders Ahmad Tibi and Ayman Odeh.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

The Joint List’s impressive, welcome achievement comes tempered with disappointment: The glass ceiling of Jewish voters was not broken. On the eve of the election, in certain circles it seemed that, thanks to Jewish voters, Ayman Odeh would be prime minister and Ahmad Tibi foreign minister.

That’s what happens when you live in a bubble. In reality, the picture was bleaker. Few Jews voted for the party. It’s hard to know precisely how many, because of the mixed cities. Tibi estimated that only 10,000 Jews voted for the Joint List. Ofer Cassif figured that close to one Knesset seat came from Jewish voters. In any case, despite the increase in number, it was still an insignificant minority.

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Arabs vote for Zionist parties more than Jews vote for the Joint List. True, the Joint List doubled its support in Givatayim, but we’re talking 316 votes compared to 179 in the September election – still less than one percent in a left-wing city with 48,500 eligible voters. Ramat Hasharon also showed an increasingly radical tilt: 149 voters compared to 74 in the previous election. Nice, but it’s still hardly anything. A curiosity. The kibbutzim, the leftist strongholds, also excelled: In Ramat Hakovesh there were four more voters for the Joint List, and in Ramat Hashofet, there were 10 this time after zero last time. It’s encouraging. But it also stirs gloomy thoughts.

Given the rightist character of Kahol Lavan and the pallid personality of Labor-Gesher-Meretz, one might have expected that many more Jews who call themselves leftists would give their vote to Odeh and Tibi. What other choice did they have? Orli Levi-Abecassis? Zvi Hauser? They chose them. I know some Israelis who agonized for days whether to vote for the Joint List, who talked about crossing the Rubicon and the end of the world, and at the last moment their hand betrayed them and they voted for Gantz or Peretz. They say they just couldn’t do it.

What exactly prevented them? After all, they support justice and equality and peace for two states – and the Joint List offers them all of this good stuff. But they found excuses for themselves: Balad is too nationalist, Ra’am too religious, Tibi too glib and Odeh too charming. Others who did vote for the Joint List after a lot of soul-searching, likened the feeling to coming out of the closet.

The Joint List leaders celebrate a historic gain in seats at the Join List Headquarters, Shefa-'Amr, March 3, 2020Credit: Gil Eliahu

This reluctance does not necessarily derive from racist motivations. The Arab character of the Joint List was far less off-putting than its being non-Zionist. That’s just going too far, an unforgiveable crime. Voting for a party that doesn’t have the Zionist banner flying over it is a painful, almost impossible step. That’s the result of 100 years of indoctrination that is practically unmatched. With the exception of North Korea, no other country has such a ruling ideology that is not to be doubted or deviated from. Aside from Iran, no other country has a mandatory religion. In Israel, Zionism is a religion, and it is mandatory.

A Jew who votes for the Joint List is still considered a traitor, or at least a person who has some kind of screw loose. In our childhood, this is how we viewed activists from Rakah and Matzpen, and we shunned them like lepers. The Rakah office on Maza Street in Tel Aviv was like a mysterious, menacing headquarters of an enemy army. You didn’t want to be seen anywhere near it. I remember the first time I went there: I was terrified.

These were the adolescent growing pains of a young country. But when a strong, thriving country disqualifies a legal ideology and makes it illegitimate, something has gone wrong with its democracy.

Zionism is a worldview like any other. One can see its attractive and unattractive sides. It is not a religion in which doubters are denounced as heretics – yet it is forbidden to reject Zionism. Why? Because Zionism is not sure of itself. It knows that it brought a catastrophe upon another people and it knows that the fire of evil and injustice is burning beneath the carpet upon which it treads. If Zionism were certain of its righteousness, it would put itself to the test like any other worldview and it would be permissible to doubt it. Israel in 2020 is not yet ready for that. A true left will only arise here when we wean ourselves of the addiction to Zionism and free ourselves from its chains.

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