The Right Doesn't Own Jewish Values

When we on Israel's liberal left act on behalf of Palestinians, Bedouin and refugees, we should be as proud of upholding Jewish values as of universal ones.

Don Futterman
Don Futterman
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An illustrative photo showing Israeli right-wing activists attending a prayer rally for the recovery of Yehuda Glick, a far-right Jewish activist, in Jerusalem, November 1, 2014.
An illustrative photo showing Israeli right-wing activists attending a prayer rally for the recovery of Yehuda Glick, a far-right Jewish activist, in Jerusalem, November 1, 2014. Credit: Reuters
Don Futterman
Don Futterman

As we reach the 19th anniversary of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, in Israel violence still surrounds us. Left and right in Israel seem to be living in different realities. If we look at what drives the opposing political camps, we can begin to understand both this sense of parallel universes – with narratives that rarely intersect – and why Israel’s right wing is winning.

Three concerns impassion most of the liberal left: Fairness, caring and guaranteeing liberty for all. Those of us who identify as leftists or progressives are infuriated by acts that lead to the opposite poles of these three moral axes – doing injustice, harming the vulnerable, and oppressing the weak by negating their rights.

My own anger rises because these negations of liberal values pretty much describe our national policy. Israel’s government needlessly foists extremist settlers and pyromaniac ministers on East Jerusalem Arabs who already suffer from our discrimination; steals land from Palestinians to make sure the oppression of the occupation continues; demonizes vulnerable African refugees and incarcerates them; and bullies Negev Bedouin onto reservations simply because we are stronger than they are.

But in contrast to many secular Israelis who consider liberal values to be universal rather than Jewish values, I would argue that every one of them is rooted not only in my American upbringing but also in my Jewish heritage. The reason I give them primacy over, say, the pursuit of wealth – another American value – is because they are Jewish values.

When Ari Shavit or Peter Beinart report on how Israel’s land grabs or segregation of West Bank buses are alienating most young American Jews, it is because those young American Jews see Israeli policies as crushing the very Jewish values – rather than universal values – they hold most dear.

In his book "The Righteous Mind," social psychologist Jonathan Haidt terms these value axes – fairness/injustice, caring/harming, liberty/oppression – as three of the moral foundations, intuitions which direct the rational thinking which underlie our politics.

Do those on the right not care about justice, protecting the weak, and preserving liberty? Haidt argues that they do – think of President Reuven Rivlin – more than most leftists give them credit for, which means there is room for dialogue, as one can easily imagine with Rivlin. But they give these values less weight than leftists do, and when the right applies these moral foundations, the focus, for many, is much more squarely on fellow Jews; justice for Jews, protecting vulnerable Jews, preserving the liberty of Jews.

Right wingers – in fact, conservatives around the world (according to Haidt) – have predilections for the in-group, for the familiar, for maintaining order and sanctity, and see liberal values as threatening to lead to chaos, loneliness and degradation.

Leftists, and liberals globally, by contrast, are individualists, hungry for new experiences and drawn to diverse kinds of people; we characterize those who try to restrict our experience as narrow-minded, authoritarian or stupid.

For rightists, the fourth moral foundation – loyalty – trumps fairness, caring and liberty. In Israel this is expressed as a dual loyalty to the Jewish People and to the State of Israel, with its non-Jewish minorities a necessary evil.

Many on the right see the very groups the left appears to worry about most – Palestinians, Bedouin, refugees – most of whom are also Muslims – as threatening Jews and Jewish hegemony in Israel. They focus more on our vulnerability than on their vulnerability. Anyone who appears to be more concerned with them than us, is disloyal, guilty of betrayal.

So when Israeli leftist academics and artists encourage European parliaments to recognize a Palestinian state that doesn’t yet exist, or when the Obama administration spills its bile about Netanyahu to The Atlantic, the right sees them all as traitors. The Europeans and even Americans are suspect, and Palestinian President Abbas, well, he’s the enemy.

Rightists are also more likely to think and feel in terms of holiness (or sanctity as Haidt calls this) than leftists are, and they attach great feelings of holiness to Jerusalem. So while we see needless, frightening provocations in a city already shared by two peoples when settlers move into Silwan in the middle of night or the status quo of Temple Mount access for prayer is changed, the right sees our opposition as attempts to stop their holy work, as acts of degradation, undermining sacred Jewish hegemony.

Thus the right has several advantages over the left: They have two additional moral foundations – national loyalty and holiness – that the left rarely draws on, and their preference for order is appealing when violent chaos looms.

It’s easier for many Israelis to get fired up about loyalty and holiness – a potent and loaded double-axis – than justice, caring and liberty, but the right has the option to appeal to ‘our’ triumvirate as well.

And in an age of fast-spreading social messaging and sloganizing, it is a major help to the right that they are more adept at, and less embarrassed by, emotional manipulation in politicking than the left.

Liberal Zionists might have something to teach the rest of the Israeli left: The ability to frame our core moral foundations as Jewish rather than exclusively universal values. Perhaps those of us who have followed the words of Abraham’s journey from his homeland in Lech Lecha and left our birthplaces for the Jewish homeland can take this even further.

In a sense, we defy Haidt’s dichotomy, because we liberals have also embraced national loyalty and in-group identification (and for some, holiness in its religious sense as well) through the transformative act of making aliyah, but without sacrificing our commitment to justice, caring and liberty. Instead of thinking of ourselves as idiosyncratic, we might model a different kind of synthesis.

We are not going to be able to address the Israeli political center with empathy and expand our alliances if we don’t find ways to relate to in-group loyalty, order, and perhaps holiness, or recognize that these foundations are necessary to building communities and societies that function.

These values can coexist with fundamental liberal values to varying degrees, but by not even engaging with them or constantly disparaging them, we have ceded too much of this ground over the last 30 years to their most nationalist and jingoist partisans. In part, we are losing the country, any hope for a change in Israel’s direction and liberal Jewish Diaspora support as a result.

Don Futterman is the program director for Israel of the Moriah Fund, a private American foundation that has been working to build civil society in Israel for more than 25 years. He can be heard weekly on TLV-1’s The Promised Podcast.

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