Israel’s election campaign just began and we’re already exhausted. The issues are thorny; the candidates, prickly and silly. But while grumbling, nitpicking, arguing, handicapping and, ultimately voting – it’s worth dreaming too. What do we as Zionists want from the Zionist parties?
Yes, democracy is frustrating, even embarrassing. Sometimes, Prime-Minister-Defense-Minister-Foreign-Minister-Health-Minister-Religious-Affairs Benjamin Netanyahu mimics one of those traffic cops in I Love Lucy episodes who was also justice of the peace, the local mechanic, and the hotel proprietor – he just changed hats. Sometimes, General-Dr.-Rabbi-Bibi evokes “Tricky Dick:” Richard Nixon in his final Watergate days, sweating, muttering, fulminating, flailing. Meanwhile, Benny Gantz runs as the Sphinx – but candidates cannot be marbleized, they must move and speak. Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked forgot basic math – to win, you need addition, not division – bigger parties getting more votes. And Avi Gabbay illustrated why punishments should fit their crime – his treatment of Tzipi Livni was so vindictive, he made her look sympathetic while he seemed mean.
But voters beware: as usual, the candidate’s antics can’t mask the serious issues at play. Before picking a party, let’s ask what we want and what vision we hope a party has before addressing personality and policies.
True, Israel’s state of constant emergency prevents such theorizing, making every election a choice among imperfect candidates not lovely ideals. But ideological exercises are beneficial. They help us use the campaign for our own purposes, clarifying our values. In this rush-rush world allergic to contemplation and speculation, that’s most necessary. Israeli democracy is based on ideas and hopes. If we don’t check them periodically, they sag, and we do too. It also allows us to identify redlines: ironclad reasons to reject a person or party. Finally, it helps us articulate blue-and-white lines – what we really want – and should insist candidates and parties address.
Regarding a Zionist agenda for Israeli elections, A.B. Yehoshua’s definition works: Zionists accept “the principle that the State of Israel doesn’t belong solely to its citizens, but to the entire Jewish people.”
That definition yields defining redlines. First, a Zionist is committed to Israel’s survival as a Jewish state. Starting by addressing security issues. Just as many American Jewish voters vote pro-choice and anti-Trump more than they vote pro-Israel – which doesn’t make them anti-Israel – Israelis vote on statehood issues before peoplehood issues and existential survival issues before quality of life issues.
Parties which don’t recognize the threats from Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, the PA, Syria, delegitimization and the new antisemitism don’t get my vote. But parties which cannot also see the threat posed by always feeling threatened – and ignore the threat to Zionist purity posed by controlling millions of Palestinians – don’t impress either. Anyone who says the solutions are complicated within these values’ concerns makes sense. The over-simplifiers who would sacrifice Israel’s well-being or soldiers’ lives on the altar of their illusions don’t work – nor do those who would sacrifice Israeli democracy or Zionist ideals for their kumbaya peace delusions.
Clearly the State of Israel also belongs to its citizens, so anyone who disrespects the Arab minority – or any minority, or forgets that Israel is a democratic and Jewish state, loses my vote. And anyone who disrespects most of the Jewish people, especially those out of Israel who are non-Orthodox, also loses my vote.
Translating that into blue-and-white affirmations: a party should be ambitious enough to try elevating every citizen, and honest enough to tackle the challenges the Arab minority faces with extra sensitivity. Similarly, I seek a party Jewishly-positive enough to try healing the Jewish people, which in Israeli electoral terms starts with ending the anti-Zionist rabbis’ monopoly on civil issues, on conversion, on recognition of non-Orthodox forms of worship. I don’t want to cleanse the Jewish state of its Judaism – but we must cleanse the Zionist state of its official divisive, alienating, anti-Zionist elements.
This campaign in particular demands a sense of morality, of honesty. Beyond ending petty corruption we must confront the Big Lies: the right-wingers who deny any threat of Jewish terror; the left-wingers who only blame us and not the enemy for our troubles.
Finally, I seek a party that thinks about Israelis’ quality of life – in existential terms. We didn’t return to the land only to establish a high-tech Singapore. Reach back to Theodor Herzl’s novel Altneuland and ask what kind of a utopia would we envision today? What kind of values do we want to live by? What kind of community do we want to have? How do we want to fill our individual and collective lives with purpose?
So many have sacrificed so much to create this state – with 14 new victims in 2018, who generated hundreds of mourners. Giving Jews a home after thousands of years is impressive enough. Becoming an innovative high-tech powerhouse makes us proud. But we have not yet fully mined Israel’s spiritual and moral potential. Elections may be the worst times to ask such flowery questions: but if we don’t focus on Zionist poetry, not just Israeli prose, when will we ever start? So, we ask:
1. Who will keep Israel safe?
2. Who will keep the Jewish state democratic?
3. Who will champion Jewish peoplehood?
4. Who will keep us – and themselves – honest?
5. And, beyond all that, who will stretch us, playing to our hopes and dreams, not just our needs and fears?
That’s the Zionist agenda – of yesterday and today, for tomorrow.The writer is designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” and the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. He is also distinguished scholar of North American History at McGill University.
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