Center Field: Netanyahu as liberal reformer?

The rampant cynicism in Israeli politics threatens Israeli democracy’s legitimacy.

By GIL STERN STERN TROY
June 25, 2013 21:52
Prime Minister Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting, May 19, 2013.

Netanyahu looking determined 370. (photo credit: Emil Salman/Haaretz/pool)

 
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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 fast.

Able-bodied ultra-Orthodox 18-year-olds may be drafted. The chief rabbinate might turn Zionist or perhaps even be dismantled.

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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.

Many 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 “fulfilled.”

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.

The 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 force.

The rampant cynicism in Israeli politics threatens Israeli democracy’s legitimacy.

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.

At the 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.

Some day, 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! www.giltroy.com

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