You Can Take the Jews Out of Exile, but You Can't Take the Exile Out of the Israeli Right

For all that it sees itself as strutting in pride and glory, the Israeli right does not understand what it means to be here – physically, culturally or morally.

Gershom Gorenberg
Gershom Gorenberg
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MK Miri Regev, December 2, 2014.
MK Miri Regev, December 2, 2014.Credit: Emil Salman
Gershom Gorenberg
Gershom Gorenberg

I’m sitting in a cafe in Jerusalem almost on the eve of Independence Day, listening to the Ashkenazi and the Ethiopian waiters joking in Hebrew, in circumstances that existentially are a billion miles from anywhere that my great-grandfather in the Ukraine could have imagined a descendant living, and I’m thinking about the speeches that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will give over the next couple of days – and thinking that he actually does not get that we are independent. Not that I mean to pick on Netanyahu, except as a personification of the Israeli right, which for all that it sees itself as strutting in Jabotinskian pride and glory, does not understand what it means to be here – physically, culturally or morally.

It’s a reasonable bet that in one or more speeches Netanyahu will mention Iran, the perfidy of Western nations, our isolation, and our potential extermination. Last week on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Netanyahu gave a speech that was more about Iran and fear of a new Holocaust than honoring the memories of those who died in the actual Holocaust. Netanyahu’s entire public career consists of pronouncements that it is, right now, 1938, if not August 1939. His forecasts are detached from the physical universe but are wired directly into the neurons of enough of the electorate to win him elections.

For the literarily or religiously inclined, the words that best portray his constant mood are, “The life you face shall be precarious; you shall be in terror, night and day, with no assurance of survival.” The thing is, that’s a line from Deuteronomy defining how the people of Israel will feel in Exile.

Listening to the panicky spokespeople of the right, you’d never know that we have the strongest army in the Middle East, that we enjoy the back of the world’s only superpower, that Europe has not abandoned us but rather buys our products and sells us arms, that we are safe enough to stop being afraid of the dark. This is not the messianic age or even the first-flowering of redemption; if it were, we wouldn’t need any of those things. The lost tribes have not returned from beyond the River Sambatyon. But we do live at the existential far pole from my great-grandfather’s village.

The right’s attitude that we are still in exile dictates its domestic fears as well – the fear of non-Jews among us, of Arabs, of the African refugees whom Likud MK Miri Regev called “a cancer,” of assimilation. Let’s clarify: Assimilation denotes a cultural minority fading into a majority. In Israel, the people who must consider the costs and gains of assimilation are the non-Jews. Assimilation refers to when Arab citizens find that Hebrew words come to them more easily than Arabic words, to when foreign workers find that the most convenient day to hold religious services is Saturday. Were the children of Sudanese and Eritrean asylum-seekers given the chance to grow up here, assimilation would describe the moment when they would ask their parents to light Hanukkah candles. I can see why this would make some Eritrean parents uncomfortable even while they considered that it was a price worth paying for safety. If only we would give them safety.

Here lies a key case of how the right also refuses to accept the moral benefits, which is to say the moral responsibility, of independence. Human rights activists who demand asylum for African refugees understand Jewish independence far better than Knesset members, such as Ayelet Shaked, who want to keep the courts from interfering with the imprisonment and expulsion of asylum-seekers. The refugee-rights activists, even the most secular among them, resonate with the music of what a Jewish polity means in Jewish tradition – music to which the authors of the Jewish nation-state law from Likud and Habayit Hayehudi are deaf.

“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him,” says a certain Jewish book that Jews carried with them in Exile. “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens.” Please note: It says “in your land,” because this is how you will be able to act when you are a sovereign people in your country.

The anonymous medieval text Sefer Hahinukh, commenting on the commandment not to return a slave to his oppressor, says that it applies specifically in the Land of Israel, because, “God wanted for the sake of the Land’s honor (emphasis added) that one fleeing there should be saved from slavery.” The author was dreaming of what would be possible to do when Jews have independence. Even if he’d been able to imagine an airplane, he wouldn’t have imagined Jews taking refugees who had fled from the slavery-like conditions in Eritrea and putting them on planes to expel them.

For heaven’s sake, Mr. Netanyahu, Ms. Regev, Ms. Shaked, unfold lawn chairs among the wildflowers, pull a bottle of white wine from your cooler, pour some, and chill. And when the holiday is over, get up and act like responsible free people in your land.

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of “The Unmaking of Israel” and “The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977.”

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