Like most Israelis, I voted yesterday. Final percentages are not available, but most Israelis vote as if their lives depend on it – because it often does. I am filing this column Monday, unaware of the outcome, but confident of one thing: even if the electoral results disappoint me, I will not be disappointed in Israel – nor will I give up on it, as some have threatened.
Admittedly, this super-short post-holiday campaign was super-charged. The Right channeled Jim Carrey’s Liar, Liar, as Bezalel Smotrich suddenly noticed Benjamin Netanyahu’s ever-growing allergy to truth-telling. And the Left evoked Kevin Bacon’s He Said, She Said, as Labor and Meretz flirted without marrying.
More depressing, regardless of who won – or whether we’re stalemated again – this fifth election will be remembered as the unleashing of the beast. Even if Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir don’t sit in the cabinet, polls suggest that at least 10% of Israelis gave the nod to a party committed to giving the finger to 20% of our fellow citizens, the Israeli Arabs.
True, Ben-Gvir enjoys putting democracy defenders on the defensive by slime-balling. He claims he only attacks the “bad” Arabs, the traitors. But we Jews should know better. Subtext is text too. Our blood-stained history should inoculate us from falling for the bigot’s devious denials and sweeping smears. Anyone who cares about Israel’s soul must confront the prejudices that helped Ben-Gvir attract so many voters.
Simultaneously, we lions of liberty must not be ostriches, burying our heads in the sand, ignoring the justifiable fears Ben-Gvir exploits. Many Jews are still reeling from the May 2021 Arab riots in “mixed” cities. And Palestinian terrorists are targeting Jews daily, although most Israelis ignore it.
Simply soapboxing about a kumbaya need to get along – or be nice to minorities – will backfire.
FIGHTING BEN-GVIR’S Arabophobia requires a two-prong strategy. Democracy-building, indignation, and guilt-tripping won’t work without addressing some of the anxieties he exploits, and solving some of the problems he addresses – which too many politicians ignore.
Both Arabs and Jews need honest conversations about the Israeli-Arab paradox: I’d rather be an Arab in Israel – but I’d really rather be a Jew in Israel. Most Israeli Arabs know they are better off than most other Arabs in neighboring countries. They enjoy democratic rights and an increasingly middle-class society. But their liberty and prosperity come with a complicated identity. It’s hard being a minority, especially when Arabs expect to be a majority.
Arabs should acknowledge the good they enjoy; Jews should understand the challenges they face. Instead, Arabs like complaining about “how unlucky are we,” while Jews love emphasizing “how lucky you are.” Denying complexity helps demagogues from both sides stew tensions and spew insults rather than seek solutions.
Beyond that, Israeli Arabs should reject their short-sighted, spite-filled leaders who prefer demonizing Israel to delivering for their own constituents. Arab mayors are often pragmatists; their Knesset members are often arsonists – and terrorist cheerleaders. Meanwhile, Jews should help solve the Arab sector’s problems, from the crime epidemic to the housing shortage to their education and income gaps.
In short, while rolling up our sleeves to fix Israel, we should open our hearts and minds to think about it differently too. A new vision for Israeli Arabs should seeks win-wins for them and society, including two years of service in their communities after high school sweetened by education benefits for serving.
That’s my answer to those who, before the election, threatened to “give up on Israel if…” Patriotism isn’t probationary. Zionism isn’t a two-week campaign sprint. In our state-building marathon – and Jewish history’s even longer run – we don’t cut-and-run; we double down and stretch. Those so willing to wash their hands of Israel weren’t ready to get their hands dirty to make the state better.
Besides, in today’s insane world, who can afford to abandon their country because some neighbors are goonatics. Only about 10% of Israelis are Jew-natics – many more Americans are red-white-and-blu-natics.
Outsiders dismissing Israel as “racist,” “apartheid,” and “not the Israel I once loved,” should peek under the blue-and-white hood more carefully. For all the poison some Israeli politicians emit, the facts on the ground have never been better. Israel still passes the existential driving test – checking which direction are things heading. Israeli Arabs are far better off than they were 10, 30, 50 years ago.
Relations between Jews and Arabs, internally and externally, are better than they were 10, 30, 50 years ago. And just as Israel is not America regarding black-white relations, Israel is not America regarding Left-Right tensions. Israelis still talk to one another, celebrate with one another, and fight for one another. For all our electoral stalemates, I know few friendships that politics ruined; I know of few relatives who cancel each other for voting incorrectly.
Sunday night, my family hosted a parlor meeting for my old friend MK Alon Tal. Our living room was filled with neighbors from Left and Right, religious and secular. The conversation was spirited but civil.
Shimon Peres liked to recall that John F. Kennedy once asked David Ben-Gurion, “I know that I owe my election to your people; how can I repay you?” Ben-Gurion gave the statesmanlike answer: “You can repay us by being a great president.”
Today, the Day After, our leaders can repay us by being great leaders; fellow citizens can repay one another by being constructive voices; and friends abroad can help us by helping us, not giving up on us, or they weren’t real friends in the first place.
The writer is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, and the author of nine books on American history and four books on Zionism. He is the editor of the new three-volume set, Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings, the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People (www.theljp.org).