Populist extremism must be ditched for the sake of national resilience - opinion

Ex-MK Dan Meridor discusses his view of politics from the outside compared to when he was in Knesset.

 DAN MERIDOR (left) sits in the Knesset plenum when he served as intelligence minister, next to then-defense minister Ehud Barak in 2012.  (photo credit: URI LENZ/FLASH 90)
DAN MERIDOR (left) sits in the Knesset plenum when he served as intelligence minister, next to then-defense minister Ehud Barak in 2012.
(photo credit: URI LENZ/FLASH 90)

Former long-time Likud member and ex-Minister Dan Meridor has spent decades in the halls of Israeli power. He has played influential roles in multiple Israeli cabinets, with his last official position being deputy prime minister and minister of intelligence and atomic energy, from 2009 to 2013. A member of the Herut party, one of the forerunners of the Likud party, Meridor was close to the late prime minister Menachem Begin.

Today, nine years after leaving the political system, Meridor, 75, is more concerned than ever about what he describes as the “populist and extremist rhetoric” that has infected Israeli political discourse, and its toxic after-effects. In a wide-ranging interview with the Miryam Institute, Meridor sets out a comprehensive formula on how to rebuild Israeli national resilience and unity, based on a firm national liberal foundation.

Mr. Meridor, what do the words ‘national resilience’ mean to you?

“Let’s begin with terminology. What does the word ‘national’ mean? The word has different meanings and different contexts. In the American discourse, national means American, encompassing everyone from New York to San Francisco. It means all citizens who live in that country.

Israel is a nation-state, which is a different model. Based on the national self-determination vision of former American President Woodrow Wilson, the Jewish people formed a nation-state. So when we say national, do we mean Jews or Israeli citizens? There is an ambiguity here, and that ambiguity can be both constructive or destructive, depending on how it is used.

Dan Meridor (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)Dan Meridor (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Israel is a majority Jewish state with a minority of Arabs living in it, some of whom refer to themselves as Palestinian-Israelis. If the word ‘national,’ in our context, means all Jews, that might sound exclusive to Arab Israelis. To be sure, I am deeply invested in my Jewish identity. It affects all aspects of my life, as it does, I believe, for most Israeli Jews. Our Jewish identity is what we are all about. But the Zionist idea came along and said that we are no longer just a community. We built a state, and in it, we are the majority nation. So when we say national and refer only to Jews, we could sound like we’re excluding non-Jewish Israelis.

There are ways of addressing this constructively, but passing the Nation-State Law [in 2018] only exasperated this tension. Where does this law leave the Arabs? What should their state be? How can we demand allegiance from them and in the same sentence tell them that this is not their state?

This is why the term national is so sensitive. We have multiple definitions of national here. I am fully Jewish and fully Israeli. We have Arab Israelis who feel fully Palestinian and Israeli. We both belong to the State of Israel.”

How has this tension played out in other nation-states around the world? Is there anything we can learn from their experience in managing it?

“Europe is filled with nation-states in which specific peoples constitute the majority, living alongside national minorities. This is the case in Russia, Hungary, Poland, and other countries. The majority-minority issue, in fact, rose to the surface in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the Jewish people played a key role in doing that.

In early 20th-century Poland, Jews numbered three million people, making up 10% of Poles. They were fully Jewish and fully Polish, so what were they? This is not a new question.

Ze’ev Jabotinsky, whose theories and ideology deeply influenced me, was one of the first to write about optimal ways of dealing with minorities, penning down his ideas on this in Helsinki in 1906. He wrote that recognizing the rights of minorities is an essential part of the Zionist vision.

In his 1923 Iron Wall essay, Jabotinsky swears in the name of his generation and in the name of his descendants that the Jewish people in the Land of Israel will never violate the equal rights of minorities. This concept is part of the DNA of Zionism’s vision of a Jewish state.

Since the start of Zionism and to this day, we remain involved in a historic conflict between Arabs and Jews. On May 15, 1948, this struggle reached a turning point when the Jews succeeded in establishing a Jewish state, with a clear-cut Jewish majority. From that point onwards, we were no longer just a community. We were a state with a Jewish majority and an Arab minority.

THAT MEANS that norms that were once acceptable for a community are no longer suitable for a state. For example, in our pre-state reality, Jewish communities in the land said they preferred Jewish manual labor, as part of the Jewish struggle to rebuild the land. Once a state came into being, however, it is no longer possible to discriminate on that basis. Similarly, in the pre-state reality, the Jewish National Fund worked intensively to purchase and develop land for Jewish communities. Now, however, in the reality of the state, the land must be allocated proportionately for all citizens of the country. The land must be for everyone living here. When I say proportionately, it is important to keep in mind that Jews are a majority.

This creates in-built tensions. At the same time, a long process of gradual integration of Israel’s non-Jewish minorities into the state has been occurring. Non-Jews are fully-fledged members of Israeli society and serve in the armed forces, where there are large numbers of Druze personnel, and a growing number of Arabs, including Bedouin, Christians, and Muslims.

Immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish according to Halacha serve in significant numbers in the security forces.

When we speak of a national effort to fight terrorism, we need to remember that some of those doing the fighting, and some of those being killed in that fight, are not Jews. The Arab Christian police officer Amir Khoury who was killed taking on a Palestinian terrorist in Bnei Brak recently is the latest painful example.

So national resilience is based on creating unity, and that unity has to be built in an Israeli context. We are defending Israeli society here.”

In light of that, how do we define this Israeli identity, and how does it fit in with the Jewish identity of most citizens?

“Israeli identity requires a cohesive approach. First, it is important to note that the state’s Jewish identity is very clear. It favors Jewish education, literature, history, and culture. Now that we’ve established ourselves as a majority, we need to give minorities the same rights that we demanded for ourselves when we were minorities.

Druze and Arabs are in the security forces. To exclude them from the sense of Israeli national unity because they are non-Jews is both offensive and stupid.

Yet this is the dangerous place that the populist approach is leading us to. This is a discourse that is not based on values but on emotions. It is not based on ideology but on identity. It fosters the creation of groups in Israel and makes out that these groups must be in conflict.

THE FIRST step in rolling back this toxic discourse is to change the Nation-State Law, to add the basic principle of equality for all Israelis.

I have heard firsthand accounts of the pain that this law has caused patriotic citizens that come from the Druze sector. They have told me: We fight with you, we support the Jewish state, but this law alienates us.

Zionism was always about achieving a Jewish majority, based on the assumption that everyone votes in the political system. It never meant depriving non-Jewish minorities of their equal rights.

The Jewish communities that live in Britain or Switzerland accept the crosses on the national flags of those states and accept that they are minorities living in vast majorities that belong to a certain culture. So there is no reason that minorities can’t coexist justly among national majorities.

As Israeli Jews, our role in achieving this balance is to understand that we are a state, not a community, and a state belongs to all of its citizens. Because the majority of citizens here are Jewish, the state is therefore Jewish, and there is no contradiction between being a Jewish and a democratic state exactly because of this majority status.”

Now that we’ve defined what an inclusive Israeli national identity looks like, how do we in practice proceed to build it?

“Today’s politics is built on hating the other. This is a very dangerous trend, and we see it happening all over the world. The first step to strengthening unity is to understand that, as Israeli Jews, we are the winners here through the establishment of a Jewish nation-state, and in victory, we must be magnanimous.

Our Jewish heritage supports these very values. As the Book of Leviticus states: When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

THE WAY to advance these values is leadership. Today, unfortunately, people get elected because they’ve mastered the dark art of catering to the lowest instincts of voters. They ask the voters what they want to hear, and say it. That’s not leadership – that’s being led by the masses. Leaders show the people the way and find new ways of seeing things.

In 1948, David Ben-Gurion didn’t hold a poll before declaring a Jewish state. In 1977, Menachem Begin didn’t go to the people before deciding to give up every last inch of the Sinai to an authoritarian leader from Egypt. He even faced opposition from parts of the Left over this move, such as from Yigal Alon. Yes, he had to convince the country about the wisdom of this move. But he didn’t ask the majority the right way. He created the majority, but he did not follow it. 

At Mount Sinai, the people received the Ten Commandments because otherwise, people would have committed those sins. This is human nature. People need leadership to steer them away from their base instincts. Leadership can be elected today, or appear in the form of kings and prophets in ancient times. Anyone who has influence has a responsibility to wield it in a positive manner. 

When an Arab Israeli terrorist commits an attack, it’s up to our leaders to warn against generalizing against all Arab Israelis. The vast majority of Arab Israeli citizens have nothing to do with terrorism and reject it. Arabs fill our hospital hallways saving lives every day, and Arab and Jewish doctors fought against the COVID-19 pandemic side by side.

Only strong leadership can lead the people away from generalization, not only because it is morally wrong, but because it is unwise and harms the national interest. This is the basis of building unity, and only from there can we begin to talk about resilience.”

The writer is the in-house analyst at the MirYam Institute. He provides insight and analysis for a number of media outlets, including Jane’s Defense Weekly, a leading global military affairs magazine. Dan Meridor is a publishing expert with The MirYam Institute. He was deputy prime minister and Israel’s minister of intelligence between 2009-2013.