Israel isn't Canada, so we won't act like it - opinion

We, like you, treasure democracy, humaneness, justice, and civil and human rights. We are not asking for sympathy. But a lot more empathy and understanding would sure be in order.

 BENJAMIN NETANYAHU speaks to the media. Netanyahu has been a masterful portrayer and advocate of an Israel that, however successful, is always tenuous and under threat, says the writer.  (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU speaks to the media. Netanyahu has been a masterful portrayer and advocate of an Israel that, however successful, is always tenuous and under threat, says the writer.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Sometimes our “Aha!” moments come when we least expect them or when they were least intended. Such a moment occurred to me on Sunday in perusing this newspaper and seeing the headline of the day’s editorial: “Israel is not Canada.”

The editorial dealt with the potential for Supreme Court override legislation in the new government. What made me mutter under my breath, “you’re damned right” was not the substance of the editorial, nor the merits of its argument. Rather it was a straightforward, obvious and yet perhaps inadvertently profound message that was being communicated: Israel is, indeed, not Canada.

Israel finds itself in an existential embrace with neighbors and forces that are simply not relevant to Canada nor to its residents. And for that matter, the same could be said for any number of Western democracies, including the nations of Western Europe and Canada’s neighbor to its immediate south, the United States.

Ironically, our success as a nation has blinded others elsewhere to the tenuousness of all we have achieved. This classic “everything will be okay” mindset that defines the Israeli national outlook on life allows the rest of the world to see Israel as more or less of an extension of themselves.

By applying this perspective to us, it is a natural hop, skip and jump to assume and then insist that the same sensibilities and priorities that apply to the Western beholder should, of course, apply to us here. And somehow, when the complex reality of life here thwarts or disappoints such assumptions, the reaction is often dire, hysterical and unbalanced.

Israel's opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu is seen gesturing at the Knesset, on July 26, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)Israel's opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu is seen gesturing at the Knesset, on July 26, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Israel's new government and internal divisions

We are right now getting a huge taste of this state of affairs, as the rest of the West contemplates the new Israeli government that will in all likelihood soon be established. From the reigning Western perspective, there is nothing to like about this government. First of all, it will be headed by a leader who has, to many Westerners, worn out his welcome.

Benjamin Netanyahu has been a masterful portrayer, explicator and advocate of an Israel that, however successful, is always tenuous, under threat, and in critical need of vigilance and defense.

Many in the West do not relate to this, choose to ignore or even disbelieve it and therefore believe that Netanyahu has more than overstayed his welcome. For many of these Westerners, Netanyahu’s return to power is not unlike the sudden reappearance of a vampire in a horror film who was just seen to have been killed.

It is bad enough that Netanyahu is returning as prime minister but look at his wingmen: His coalition consists of the worst of Israeli society, as well as religious extremists and, come to think of it, just plain old extremists.

There is, to much of the Western mindset, absolutely nothing to like, admire or find common ground with the parties that were elected by the citizens of Israel and which will, in all likelihood, comprise the new government.

Truthfully, each of the new coalition parties has appeared more than once in past Israeli governments but never to the exclusion of other parties, nor with the popular support that they garnered in the recent election.

Many in the West thought that Israel ceased to exist as they knew it when the Labor Party lost power in 1977 and Menachem Begin became prime minister. Begin was... oh, a Jew and not just an Israeli. Forget that Ben-Gurion studied the Bible daily. Begin quoted Jewish wisdom and writings, and saw a spiritual connection between the historic destiny of the Jewish People and the land and state of Israel that put off many in the increasingly secularized West.

And now we have actual religious people who will be running ministries and setting policies. So, what should the world conclude other than that Israel is on the verge of being a theocratic, halachic state that is more reminiscent of Iran than, well, Canada?

Even worse, these aren’t just religious people, they are religious people with conservative (meaning reactionary, retrograde or Neanderthal) values that might threaten gender equality, sexual preference equality, and any other equality that West observers have just enshrined as the raison d’etre of Western life.

The irony, however, is that very little of this was what propelled these parties to power. The two issues in the recent election that elicited the most concern and undoubtedly drove the most turnout were security and economic issues.

By security, I am not referring to Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. I am referring to the sense that the country has been beset with lawlessness from within and with leadership more concerned with keeping a lid on problems that had passed the point of simmering and were, as the May 2021 riots showed, capable of boiling over.

The dramatic rise of the Religious Zionist Party, which basically almost doubled its vote totals from the prior elections, was a vote for a new sheriff and for those who would not just talk about but would tackle problems. In that sense of recognizing internal divisions, one might say that Israel is in fact very much like the other Western nations, each of which has its own share of internal stresses and divisions.

There is, however, one major difference called the margin of error. Western countries have lots of it but Israel has very little, many would say no margin of error. Israel cannot afford to tolerate festering internal divisions, because these are not actually just internal.

Our concerns about Arab lawlessness are inevitably tied to concerns with their potentially or actually making common cause with the enemies that surround us. Again, we are not only referencing what could happen within; we must always be keeping an eye on the larger neighborhood that surrounds us and is constantly seeking ways to undermine us.

So, dear Western friends, please do us the great favor of seeing us for whom we are; for where we actually live; for what is around us and for what is within us. We, like you, treasure democracy, humaneness, justice, and civil and human rights. We also recognize that we are applying all those similar values in a context very different from your own.

We are not asking for sympathy. But a lot more empathy and understanding would sure be in order.

The writer is the chairman of the board of Im Tirtzu, and a board member of B’yadenu and the Israel Independence Fund. He can be reached at [email protected]