Just before Passover, our son surprised us. After weeks in the army during these tense times, he was coming home! When I reached his base, I saw a sign proclaiming: “Follow orders: keep hametz – leavened bread – out.” While imagining far more threatening intruders to keep out of his base, I love living in a state that celebrates Jewish holidays communally, while respecting each Israeli individually.
That is the subtlety that Idit Silman, and the goons bullying her, missed. After extremists in her own religious Zionist community kept pummeling her for joining this extraordinary experiment in consensus-governance, she caved. Clearly, other factors mattered, including some unhealthy marital dynamics, journalists report. But the kosher-for-Passover fig leaf she chose was most unfortunate and combustible.
She claimed the last straw was Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz’s advisory to hospitals to follow the Supreme Court’s decision and not search visitors to Israeli hospitals during Passover, seeking contraband bread crumbs.
Clearly, Horowitz was playing to his base, showing that he – and this coalition – weren’t hunting down outlaws smuggling pita or pizza to loved ones in the hospital.
In a distasteful move – pun intended – Silman played the Holocaust card. She compared her stand to the heroic Jewish martyrs who risked their lives in concentration camps to avoid eating hametz.
This perverse association implied that her government somehow paralleled the Nazis running death camps. That ridiculous exaggeration undermined those of us demanding the Israel-bashers in universities and elsewhere stop Nazifying the Jewish state. We keep on insisting how offensive it is to make Holocaust comparisons – and she showed how easy it is.
Finally, Silman learned the wrong lesson! The Holocaust shows the dangers of giving the state too many coercive powers violating individual autonomy.
IT IS LEGITIMATE for Jews, as a majority in the Jewish state, to celebrate Jewish holidays in public, just as Christians celebrate Christmas as a national holiday in secular but majority-Christian states. And the way Israel’s army does Jewish holidays collectively is not just legitimate, not just charming, it’s downright constructive.
In the 1950s, a shared Jewish nationalism, meaning Zionism, united the avowedly secular prime minister David Ben-Gurion and the army’s chief rabbi Shlomo Goren. Proud of the first Jew-positive army in millennia, both wanted to model an Israeli Judaism that would avoid the sectarianism that often haunted Diaspora Jewry.
Imagine how problematic it would have been to follow Conservative or Orthodox or Reform kashrut rules depending on the army base you were assigned. Unlike the Diaspora, which lacks collective state-oriented Judaism, Israeli Judaism needed standards. And it was relatively easy, in army terms, to construct a standard whereby Jews who in their homes followed less rigorous rules, followed more rigorous rules on base. The sign on my son’s base controlled what he brought from home to base, not what he brought from base to home.
But it’s best to avoid bans. Instead, mount a public campaign encouraging tolerance and mutual respect. Let’s explain why it’s sensitive and patriotic to refrain from bringing hametz into a hospital room where you might have a religious patient.
State power is best wielded sparingly, especially regarding religion – or any other matters that might infringe on personal prerogatives. That should be a core ideal whether you are in the government or opposition.
Clearly, the big hametz controversy is a crummy excuse for Idit Silman’s behavior. Putting aside our shock that she prefers kowtowing to the goons bullying her instead of outing them and defying them, her flight from the coalition underscores today’s great political mystery: how come Naftali Bennett – and Yair Lapid – don’t get more credit for the political magic they pulled off?
We just passed an important milestone – celebrating a year without yet another national election. And despite Israel’s challenges, with Bennett as prime minister and Bibi Netanyahu in opposition, Israel’s mood is calmer. Just note Netanyahu’s despicable demagoguery whenever terrorists strike. Ignoring the unfortunate violence that occasionally erupted under him – and his predecessors – he usually seems more anxious to blame Bennett and Lapid than the terrorists and their enablers.
Consider the coalition’s accomplishments, from passing a national budget to handling constant, multi-border, security challenges maturely, showing that post-Netanyahu safety, security and stability are possible. That these achievements have barely shifted the political polls reflects the same paralysis that triggered Stillman’s rhetorical mugging.
Politics here – and elsewhere – are tribal. We think we talk politics with our brains, but we usually vote with our hearts. Tribalism has its place in a healthy democracy. It’s why I love Israel during Passover. But group identities should serve as gloves, not handcuffs. They should be fashion statements, broadcasting our taste. And they should be functional, warming us when things get cold and protecting us when we have hard work to do. But they become dangerous when they chain us to failing strategies – or flailing leaders.
Here, then, is the invisible challenge Bennett and Lapid have dodged. Without addressing deeper questions about Israeli identity, Zionist vision, and Jewish destiny, they will never break the impasse. Day-to-day, it’s hard for leaders to shift from problem-solving to existential agenda-setting. And you need to be a Menachem Begin – or a Ronald Reagan – to succeed.
For too long, Israelis have been addicted to reactive, in-the-moment, bottom-line-oriented leadership. Even with his slim and ever-more-fragile political lifeline, Bennett should use these upcoming nationalist holidays to try articulating a vision that goes beyond cliches, goes beyond today’s coalition politics, and articulate an updated Zionist vision that is more compelling – and eternal.
Gil Troy is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, and the author of nine books on American history and three books on Zionism. His book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, coauthored with Natan Sharansky was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.