What kind of Israel do we want?

The conversation has switched from external threats to internal divides, Hartman Institute’s Becker tells Conference of Presidents.

February 23, 2012 05:21
4 minute read.
Israeli flags

Israeli flags 390. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)


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“Israel was created to concentrate Jewish anxiety in one place,” Dr. Tal Becker told the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations convening in Jerusalem on Wednesday. “Some of us are afraid that crisis is the greatest thing that unites us.”

Becker is a Fellow at Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute and an International Associate at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

On a more serious note, he said that in Israel, as distinct from the Diaspora, “the conversation has moved away from how to protect the state from external enemies to the kind of society we want.”

The focus in the Jewish world has always been on threats to Israel’s existence, he said, and while Israel acknowledges that this crisis is real, the general feeling, especially with regard to peace, is that there’s not much that anyone can do about it. So now, Israelis are asking themselves more and more what kind of a society they want, Becker said.

“We like to talk about crisis because of our history. We are a people who have gone through a lot of trauma and the miracle of the creation of the State of Israel after the Holocaust. The guiding idea of Zionism was that the Jewish people needed a refuge – a safe haven.”

But now there is a need for a different kind of Zionism, Becker said.

“Our greatest moment is behind us. Tomorrow has come, and the first question we need to ask ourselves is not how to respond to the challenge, but with what values.”

Under the old Zionist flag, criticism of Israel was seen as a form of treason, but under the new flag – at least in Becker’s perception – “when you are focused on the kind of country you want, criticism becomes a vital part of the question.”

One of the reasons he believes in permitting criticism is because “there is nothing that makes a voice louder than trying to silence it. Outside of Israel, you either support Israel or you don’t. But in Israel the argument is about the kind of society you want.”

To illustrate how difficult it is to reach consensus, Becker quote the oft repeated statement that Israel is a democratic, Jewish state.

Personally, he has no problem with that, and can even present a convincing argument as to the lack of internal conflict in the definition. But he said that the general feeling is that to that extent that Israel is democratic, it isn’t Jewish, and to the extent that it is Jewish, it isn’t democratic.

In Becker’s opinion, there’s too much tribalism in Israel and not enough sharing of common space.

MK Einat Wilf, who chairs the Independence faction, said that she has been thinking a lot lately about whether there can be solidarity between Zionists and non- Zionist in Israel – namely mainstream Israeli society with Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews.

To have a generous welfare state, she said, “You need a high level of trust among the citizens themselves and the citizens and the government.

That level of trust must be developed in the formative stages of society.”

With hindsight, Wilf came to the conclusion that when Israel was formulating its policy of social justice, it didn’t ask the right questions. “The social justice mechanism was created by Zionists for Zionists to serve the solidarity of Zionists who were engaged in the insane effort to establish a homeland for the Jewish people in this region,” she said.

Two groups were excluded from the Zionist enterprise, Wilf said. One was the Arabs who regarded Zionism as a threat, and the other was the ultra-Orthodox who viewed Zionism as heresy.

However, the solidarity mechanism was extended to the Arabs and ultra-Orthodox on the basis that welfare would breed solidarity rather than that solidarity would breed welfare.

This was not a successful means of creating trust, said Wilf. “The Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox still have an ambivalent attitude to the state and say that it’s all right to take but not to give.”

Wilf suggested that the time had come to bid each other farewell and to allow the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox to lead their own lives without interference but also without the support of the state.

“That means we won’t have a socialist or a capitalist system, but a Zionist system.”

More significantly, it means that Arabs and ultra-Orthodox who don’t serve in the army or in community services will not receive free education, National Insurance or child allotments. Members of those communities who do serve will receive the same benefits as mainstream Israel.

“It may not be the most politically correct thing to do, but it will be the right and most sustainable thing to do if we are to go forward,” Wilf said.

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