Divided by a common goal

Most of us want a thriving Jewish state. Battles over how to get there shouldn’t make us forget it.

Jpost election debate panel 370 (photo credit: Sara Miller)
Jpost election debate panel 370
(photo credit: Sara Miller)
Here’s a pop quiz: Confronted with complaints that Taglit-Birthright, which brings young Diaspora Jews on free trips to Israel, “glosses over” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, who gave the following response? “The Birthright visit has nothing to do with the conflict. It’s a first meeting with Israel, and naturally what they get in it is the Israeli point of view. They don’t have to go and visit Ramallah on their first trip, too.”
Hint: If you guessed a right-of-center Israeli politician, a pro-Israel activist from overseas, or any other “usual suspect,” you’re wrong.
The actual speaker was Yossi Beilin – former chairman of the far-left Meretz party, indefatigable peace processer, and architect of the Oslo Accords, which I and many other Israelis consider the worst foreign policy disaster in Israel’s history. And also, as it happens, the person who dreamed up Birthright – because he loves Israel and cares about preserving it as a Jewish state, deems it vitally important “that [Diaspora Jews’] children remain Jewish,” and thought sending these kids to Israel would further both goals.
Beilin is a classic example of someone whom many on my side of the political spectrum unfairly demonize as “post-Zionist” or “anti-Jewish,” when in truth, he’s emphatically neither. Indeed, disastrous though he proved on the foreign policy front – where his Oslo experiment not only resulted in thousands of Israelis being killed by Palestinian terror, but also immeasurably worsened Israel’s international standing – he’s been a rousing success on the Jewish front: Studies show that Birthright, his other baby, has been effective in strengthening both Jewish identity and ties to Israel among Diaspora Jews.
But the unwarranted demonization of Beilin is symptomatic of a broader problem: On both sides of the political spectrum, too many people too often forget that however passionately we might disagree about the means, most of us agree about the goal – a thriving Jewish state. Consequently, people on the right are much too quick to accuse left-wing opponents of being “anti-Zionist” or “post-Zionist” or “people who’ve forgotten what it means to be Jewish”; people on the left are far too quick to accuse right-wing opponents of being “religious extremists” or “anti-democratic” or “racist” or even “fascist.” 
On this issue, both sides of the political map are equally guilty. I opened with an example from my side; here’s one from the other: the unconscionable charges of “fascist” and “totalitarian” hurled at a plan to have kindergartners open the school week by singing the national anthem. Regardless of its merits or demerits, this proposal would no more make Israel a fascist country than the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in American schools makes America fascist. Ditto for the equally unconscionable claim that a bill mandating Knesset confirmation of Supreme Court appointments is “anti-democratic”: Whatever the bill’s merits or demerits, something that’s standard practice in almost all Western democracies – political control of Supreme Court appointments – can’t reasonably be termed “anti-democratic.”
Granted, there are times when such harsh terminology is warranted; there really are post-Zionists, racists, religious extremists and so forth roaming around. But the vast majority of Israelis, on both sides of the political spectrum, are none of the above.
This vitriolic discourse does immense harm to Israel’s image overseas: Too many genuinely well-disposed people, including Diaspora Jews, know too little about Israel to discern the truth or lack thereof behind the verbiage, and it’s human nature to think that where there’s smoke, there must be fire. Thus when people hear endless accusations about “religious extremism” or “anti-democratic legislation,” for instance, they start thinking that Israel really is a benighted country. And undermining international support for our tiny country in a hostile neighborhood doesn’t further anyone’s vision of a thriving Jewish state; it only encourages our enemies to think that destroying us is an achievable goal.
Yet the damage this discourse does at home is far worse. For when we demonize our opponents as “post-Zionist” or “anti-democratic” or “religious fanatics,” it becomes all too easy to start thinking of them as genuinely evil – people who must be fought to the bitter end rather than people with whom we could find a way to profitably cooperate in pursuit of a common goal.
I don’t mean to minimize the importance of the tactical disagreements. There’s a vast gulf between someone who considers a Palestinian state essential to Israel’s survival and someone who considers it inimical to Israel’s survival, between someone who believes “swinish capitalism” is destroying our economy and someone who believes the welfare state is doing the same, between someone who believes a healthy Jewish society requires separating religion and state and someone who believes such a society requires more Judaism in the public square.
Nevertheless, these are still disagreements about how to reach a common goal, not about the goal itself. Our political opponents may be misguided, but they aren’t evil: They are striving, in their own way, to achieve the same end we are. 
Even in the best of times, Israel’s vitriolic political discourse makes it easy to lose sight of this. But it’s especially easy during an election campaign: With each party seeking to lure votes from its rivals, the focus is naturally on what divides us rather than what unites.
Yet with the campaign ending and a new government installed, we’ll have to go back to the all-important job of building our thriving Jewish state. In other words, we’ll have to live together, and work together, and compromise together – all of which will be much harder if we keep thinking of those who disagree with us as “post-Zionist” or “anti-democratic” or “religious extremists” or “people who’ve forgotten what it means to be Jewish.”
Thus if our newly elected politicians truly want to do something beneficial for Israel, refraining from demonizing each other – and getting their followers to do the same – would be an excellent place to start. Nothing would do more to help both the political class and the broader citizenry work together to build the Jewish state that most of us are united in wanting.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.