Israel needs hawkish liberals

For liberal values to succeed in today’s Israel, they need to be promoted on the Right.

American Jews marching in New York with Israeli flags. How can we bridge the divide between Israel and the Diaspora? (photo credit: REUTERS)
American Jews marching in New York with Israeli flags. How can we bridge the divide between Israel and the Diaspora?
(photo credit: REUTERS)
American Jews have long played a vital role in the development of Israeli society as we know it today, with each faction and denomination exerting its influence to mold Israel according to its vision of the Jewish state. The ongoing debate regarding Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state is of great consequence to the relationship between Israel and American Jewry, the voices of which are and will remain crucial in the debate.
However, Americans appear to share a common misconception in the understanding of the political landscape in Israel, rooted in a distinctly American perspective. The two-party system in the United States is characterized by a political dichotomy, whereby one’s position on any given political issue can reliably predict that person’s position on a whole host of political issues, from social and economic policy to defense and immigration.
Israel’s political DNA, however, is radically different and characterized by numerous tribal affiliations that create political cross-sections and hybrids. For example, a political party could push a hawkish agenda on matters of security and defense, and at the same time advocate for a robust social safety net.
The American perspective has led liberal American Jews to create an unnecessary – and harmful – link between typically liberal positions on domestic policy issues such as state and religion on the one hand, and typically left-wing positions on issues of security, namely the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, those American liberal Jews are doing a disservice to their own goal by dedicating their resources to organizations that would appear to promote a liberal agenda merely by virtue of their dovish positions regarding the conflict.
The conflict and its resolution are certainly central to Israel’s future; however, it is not the subject of much active political debate taking place in Israel today. Most political actors in Israel understand that there is not much traction for constructive discussion on the matter, much less a long-term solution to the conflict. The political drama in Israel is unfolding elsewhere.
The differing views of the liberal and conservative camps in Israel can be viewed through three main issues at the center of ongoing debate: (1) the issue of religion and state, specifically regarding the monopoly currently held by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, an exclusively Orthodox institution; (2) the balance of power between the legislative and judicial branches – the conservatives constantly attempting to undermine the authority of the courts, including current efforts to enable the Knesset to overrule the courts’ judicial review; (3) Israel’s economic policies – while Israel’s conservatives push for libertarian economic policies, its liberals promote careful interventions in markets to avoid monopolies and reduce inequality.
If liberal American Jews hope to bolster Israel’s liberal identity, they would be better served by devoting their resources to Israel’s “hawkish liberals.” Here’s why.
Seventy years after its establishment, Israel’s constitution is still being drafted by the Knesset. We are currently debating language for the “Nation State Law.” Some on the Right, led by the Kulanu Party, seek a balance between the exclusive right of the Jewish people to collective rights, and full civic equality for all citizens.
The governing party, Likud, however, put forth a draft asserting the primacy of the nation over individual civil rights, according to which any Jewish national concern would override individual rights in the event of a conflict. Kulanu vetoed this draft.
When the Nation State Law was debated among lawmakers, representatives of conservative think tanks presented their support for the original draft. Liberal voices, however, belonged to groups identified with the political Left, which currently wields no power, as left-leaning organizations are inherently oppositional movements. Ultimately, Kulanu achieved a hard-fought victory, as a more balanced bill was approved.
Several items of conservative legislation on synagogue-state relations have recently been passed by the Knesset. The mainstream American Jewish community was incensed. It was surprised, but it should not have been. Republican-affiliated donors do not shy from directly intervening in Israeli politics. They donate resources directly to politicians and fund media outlets, think tanks and various NGOs.
Conversely, liberal donors, especially the Jewish Federations of North America, eschew local politics. They invest in civil society and capacity building. Conservatives engage in politics and policy in Israel; liberals engage in political correctness.
Until the liberal majority of the American Jewish community understands the need to break the connection between liberal policies and dovish politics, it will continue, inadvertently, abetting the most extreme conservative political forces. For liberal values to succeed in today’s Israel, they need to be promoted on the Right.
To do so, liberal American Jews should be investing their resources where they can have an impact on Israel’s identity. They should follow the lead of conservative donors and promote liberal values in hawkish liberal parties, to preserve the bond between Israel and the liberal Jewish community in the US, and more importantly for the good of Israel itself.
The writer is a Knesset member and chair of Kulanu.