Now is the moment: An open letter to Benny Gantz and Blue and White

How urgent is it that we say finis to Netanyahu and to a Netanyahu-led Likud, and to their partners, including the haredi parties?

June 6, 2019 21:43
4 minute read.
Blue and White leaders Benny Gantz (L) and Yair Lapid (R) embrace

Blue and White leaders Benny Gantz (L) and Yair Lapid (R) embrace during a campaign event, February 21st, 2019. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

It has now been revealed, though the news should surprise no one, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was negotiating the corruption of public space through introduction of gender “separation,” at the demand of the haredi parties – and that he was prepared to agree to this.

For anyone not familiar with the legal history of the idea of “separate but equal”: there is no such thing, never has been, and cannot be. As in the case in question in Israel, the parties pushing for this will never share the same status of those whom they wish to “segregate,” but will always have a privileged one instead. 
Indeed, the privilege is apparent in the demand itself, in the power to make it. There is no such thing as neutral separation. It is always hierarchical and, just as it was regarding school segregation in the US, privileges those pushing for it. That is why the US Supreme Court ruled “separate but equal” unconstitutional – in 1954. You know, before the computer age. Before cellphones.

It does not begin to be of enough for Yair Lapid to denounce Netanyahu for his readiness to slide us back into another dark age. Unless the Blue and White Party comes right out and says that what it seeks in this next election is a unity government with a Likud-minus-Netanyahu; a Likud which upholds all the statements and principles expressed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence; which stands for the rule of constitutional law, and for the separation of religion and state – Blue and White is saying that it, too, would sell these principles to the haredi bidder to form a coalition, no different than Netanyahu.

Only a broad-based government without those parties can lead a Jewish, constitutional democratic state, as you and we all know very well.

Take the lead and declare outright that this is what Blue and White seeks.

Undermine Netanyahu. Make it easier for the too-fearful would-be successors in Likud to break from him, for the good of their party, as well as the country. Put substance behind the slogan, “no Right, no Left, only the good of the country.”

Polls show that a unity government is what the majority of Israelis want. Lead with this.

Do you wish to actually win the next election, not just do well – and then watch reactionaries form the next government? Or, God forbid, do a re-do of what we just experienced, leading to yet another round of futile elections?

Say that Blue and White makes it a priority to address violence and unlicensed guns in the Arab sector – say that Arab citizens in this country deserve the same quality of life as Jews. Too bold? Too “Left”? Then at least say that the state will do whatever it takes, using police and/or the army, to address that horrific violence, get those unlicensed weapons out of circulation – which, after all, threaten Jews, too. Want Israeli Arabs to vote this time, never mind, for Blue and White? Give them a reason to. As you well know, the Arab parties in Knesset have not addressed basic, daily life issues of their constituency. You do it. Want to help heal this society, show that citizens are indeed, equal in rights – a message Jews, too, badly need to hear – as well as give Arab citizens the minimum they deserve? Do this.

Avigdor Liberman wants a war of religion. After all, he picked up three seats in the polls (more than half his party’s current five), since his stunt of last week (he’s been making deals with haredi interests for decades). The haredi parties, MKs Smotrich, Peretz, the Kahanists, are making that very easy: religious vs. secular serves them, too – riling their bases. Netanyahu will yet try to manipulate such strife for his benefit. After all, stoking social division is his calling card. The others have simply learned well, watching the master.

The vast majority of Israelis, however, do not want a war of religion (or any war). Those playing the war-of-religion card do so because they have nothing else to offer. That certainly describes Liberman.

We, the people, don’t want a war of religion; and we don’t want religious coercion. We don’t want a theocracy. The vast majority of us are religiously moderate, respectful of and with fundamentally positive attitudes to Jewish tradition, if not – definitely not – with a positive attitude to the religious establishment. We are, in short, moderate. Reasonable. Which is your calling card as a party, is it not?

“The haredim” are not the enemy. Religion is not the enemy. Religious people – in all our diversity – are not the enemy. Politicized religion, exactly as in Islamic contexts, is the danger. Distinguish between haredim and religious people altogether, on the one hand; and the haredi establishment, on the other. Respect the former; undermine the latter. That establishment is a vast patronage system, flowing with staggering sums of money that it seeks to protect. Keeping haredi men ignorant and impoverished is necessary to the maintenance of this system. The religious establishment is as much a threat to constitutional democracy in this country as Smotrich, Levin, Shaked, Peretz or the Kahanists.

Target this. You’ll have people stampeding to the polls to vote for you. Publish salary statistics for the chief rabbis of every town in Israel – never mind, of the state. No further commentary will be needed.

Lead, please! Certainly, come out of hiding! Where is the big address to the nation for which this moment shrieks?

The writer is an award-winning Jewish historian and professor emerita of Jewish Studies and History at Oberlin College.

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