I have bad news for the naysaying sourpusses, especially the Haaretz
doom-and gloomers who twice on one recent op-ed page predicted Israel’s demise:
Israel is going strong and improving. Daylight Savings Time seems on its way to
being standardized, rather than tailored to the Yom Kippur
Able-bodied ultra-Orthodox 18-year-olds may be drafted. The chief
rabbinate might turn Zionist or perhaps even be dismantled.
And Israel is
rapidly becoming a natural gas superpower. So for all those ideologues who spend
their time caricaturing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as a hidebound
conservative, this week’s headlines suggest that, after this term, Netanyahu
might be remembered as a liberal reformer.
Yes, I am using the term
aspirationally – emphasizing “might” – and mischievously, hoping to rile many of
Netanyahu’s friends, who ignorantly reject liberalism, and his enemies who
foolishly fail to appreciate Netanyahu’s complexity. In today’s polarized
political culture, too many right-wingers see “liberal” as synonymous with “bad”
and too many left-wingers see “liberal” as synonymous with “good.” But we need
to liberate “liberalism” from the Far Left, while Netanyahu, along with the
Likud Party’s Menachem Begin-Ze’ev Jabotinsky old guard, has a great liberal
tradition to defend – and fulfill.
Liberalism is the political movement
championing “universal equality” and “individual liberty.” Liberal nationalism
believes a democratic, rights-based nation state is the best way to organize
individuals and maximize their individual and collective potential.
traditional liberals wanted a “minimalistic” state, “interfering with the
individual’s freedom only where an essential defense has to be enacted.”
Although majority rules, a minority should never “be rendered defenseless” – and
in Israel “equal rights for all Arab citizens” must “not only be guaranteed” but
Ze’ev Jabotinsky (1880-1940), the ideological founder of the
Likud’s revisionist Zionism, whose words are quoted above, understood that
Zionism and liberal democracy were as intertwined as Americanism and liberal
democracy or Judaism and God. In words that ring so true today as Netanyahu
leads an Israeli chorus of condemnation repudiating the despicable “price tag”
crimes, Jabotinsky asked: “How does the withdrawal of God from a people begin?
Apparently it begins when that nation dares to maliciously desecrate what is
sacred to others.”
Given Jabotinsky’s elegant reasoning, price tag
terrorists are neither religious nor patriotic.
No matter how big their
kippot might be, no matter how pious – or nationalist – they might think they
are, they are sinning against Judaism and Zionism, trashing our most cherished
Jewish and democratic ideals.
In that spirit, Netanyahu said the recent
attacks violate “the values of our people and our country” – we all must undo
the criminals’ work by reaching out to the victims.
If the price taggers
reflect the Israel we must never become, the Daylight Savings issue reflects the
more mature Israel we want to see. Especially this year, with Yom Kippur in
mid-September, losing so much summer daylight to make one 25-hour fast feel
shorter would have been absurd. Israel needs a standard Daylight Savings Time
period so businesses and especially airlines can plan properly.
ultra-Orthodox draft issue is no longer simply a question of creating a fairer
Israeli social contract wherein more people participate equally, it has now
become a test of governmental credibility. This question goes far beyond the
coalition agreement. A thoughtful, successful, constructive solution to the
Draft Issue Standoff could be one of those symbolic moments that boosts Israeli
selfconfidence and restores Israelis’ faith in politics as a constructive
The rampant cynicism in Israeli politics threatens Israeli
Israelis need to see that consensus opinions such
as the desirability of a broader base for national service can create change.
That is the essence of the democratic promise, that leaders will not just hear
the people’s voice but actually listen, respect, and follow it.
same time, while we should never rejoice in anyone’s scandals, wouldn’t it be
great if the Chief Rabbi Metzger mess led Israel to dismantle the chief
rabbinate and the broader state-based religious bureaucracy.
(Yes, I know
I am dreaming here, but it never hurts to press your advantage – or articulate a
vision). At the very least, Netanyahu should lead a major push to get Rabbi
David Stav selected as chief rabbi – with a mandate to change.
a leading rabbi with impeccable credentials is going to do a damage assessment,
detailing how much Israel’s religiously coercive parties have harmed Israelis’
Jewish identity. The analysis will ignore the financial frauds and instead focus
on the spiritual corruption that resulted from having a state prop up one stream
of Judaism in an age of pluralistic diversity and democratic voluntarism. The
rabbi will show how many Israelis were alienated, believing that Judaism was a
sclerotic system of medieval laws rather than a dynamic worldview with eternal
and still compelling moral insights.
The study will detail the harm done
by reducing Jewish complexity to a simplistic “religious” versus “secular”
dichotomy, when there are many ways to be “religious” and there are few Israeli
Jews who are truly “secular,” which my dictionary defines as “not... concerned
with religious or spiritual matters.” Secular Israelis are “secular” in their
refusal to be “controlled by a religious body,” which is the other half of the
definition – and suggests the great turnoff achieved by religious arm-twisting
in the 21st century.
So let’s jump ahead to the end of Netanyahu’s
mandate. Imagine he cracks down on price tag criminals, and leads Israel from
religious coercion to religious liberty, from selective service to fairer
burden-sharing, from anti-democratic pessimism to democratic optimism. We won’t
just call him a “liberal reformer.” We won’t just all him “great.” We will also
continue calling him “Mr. prime minister” for another term or two.The
writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman
Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His latest book, Moynihan’s
Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism was recently published by
Oxford University Press.Watch the new Moynihan’s Moment video!