A Dose of Nuance: The question that may determine Israel’s future

A government that cannot make space for introspection, for self-critique, for engaging with social flaws is a government that will lead Israel to doom.

Moshe Ya'alon (R) shakes hands with Avigdor Liberman at the Knesset in Jerusalem (photo credit: REUTERS)
Moshe Ya'alon (R) shakes hands with Avigdor Liberman at the Knesset in Jerusalem
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A couple of years ago, I had occasion to sit at length with Bennie Begin and to discuss the biography of his father, Menachem Begin, that I’d written not long before. As was to be expected, there were elements that he liked, and others with which he disagreed.
Shortly before we wrapped up our conversation, though, he shocked me.
We were discussing the chapter on German reparations, which Menachem Begin had furiously opposed – so vociferously that he’d been briefly suspended from the Knesset. Begin and David Ben-Gurion had long had a hostile relationship of mutual disdain; some people still believe that Ben-Gurion actually tried to have Begin killed during the Altalena incident in July 1948. Their relationship thawed a bit in later years, but certainly during the reparations period, each was the other’s political and ideological nemesis.
Yet as we discussed the reparations, Bennie Begin said to me, “You know, you were too hard on Ben-Gurion.”
Stunned, I just looked at him for a moment.
And then he continued. “Of course, I think my father’s points were correct. But Ben-Gurion had a country to feed. He had hundreds of thousands of immigrants who needed roofs over their heads. This country was out of money, and the Germans were offering Israel an opportunity to get on its economic feet. My father was in the opposition – Ben-Gurion’s responsibilities weren’t his. What was Ben-Gurion supposed to do?” It was, for me, by far the most moving and memorable moment in our conversation.
It was a vestige of an era sadly largely gone from Israeli political life and public discourse, an era in which both the political Right and the Left were characterized – at least at times – by an openness to self-critique and self-reflection.
I was reminded of Bennie Begin’s comment earlier this week after his interview with Army Radio. “There are three types of Israeli right-wing politicians,” he said, “moderate, extreme and stupid.” While he declined to say that Avigdor Liberman was part of the third category, he had no trouble saying that some of those who supported Moshe Ya’alon’s dismissal do. Ya’alon was a serious minister, he insisted, intimating that his dismissal was uncalled for.
Begin is correct. Ya’alon was serious, level-headed and experienced. That he refused to silence critique of the army or the government (as in the case of the Hebron shooter, Sgt. Elor Azaria, who may or may not be guilty, or Maj.-Gen.
Yair Golan, whose Holocaust Remembrance Day speech was surely unwisely phrased, but whose worries about Israeli society are entirely legitimate) made Ya’alon more essential for Israel’s future, not less. A government that cannot make space for introspection, for self-critique, for engaging with social flaws is a government that will lead Israel to doom.
The same is true of the Left. Many Israelis decry the occupation, and believe it is either illegal or immoral (or both); and many of them are deeply committed to Israel’s future. But how many of them, as they decry Israel’s current policies, have answers to the questions that emerge from the Right? Were Israel to withdraw, what would prevent a Hamas takeover of the areas now controlled by the Palestinian Authority? Or what about the reality of the Palestinian street? A recent survey of Palestinians (in both the West Bank and Gaza) conducted on behalf of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy found that a mere 12 percent believe that “both Jews and Palestinians have rights to the land,” while more than 80 percent claimed that “this is Palestinian land and Jews have no rights to it.” Where does that leave us? If Israel’s political Right owes the country’s continuing decency a willingness to confront its moral flaws, does not the Left – both within Israel and outside it – owe Israel’s survival a willingness to be honest about the very people with whom Israel would make peace? Sadly, ours is an era in which most people are unwilling to reflect on the flaws of their own camp or their own position.
That was the greatness of Bennie Begin’s comment in defense of David Ben-Gurion. A Jewish state and a pro-Israel community in the Diaspora that cannot look themselves in the mirror will inevitably fail. To the extent that young Jews are walking away from Israel – and many of them are – it is in large measure because Israel advocacy has become a matter of histrionics instead of thinking. Do we truly expect the Jewish world’s best and brightest to be attracted to the kind of discourse we’re offering them? The events of these past weeks beg us to ask ourselves one central question: Do we still know how to embrace those who most vociferously challenge us to rethink our positions, to value them precisely because they get us to think? It is the answer to that question, perhaps more than any other, on which Israel’s future may depend.
The writer is Koret Distinguished Fellow and chairman of the core curriculum at Jerusalem’s Shalem College. His new book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, is forthcoming in October from Ecco/ HarperCollins.