Comment: Jewish and democratic is possible

It’s not too late to remind ourselves what it means to live in a democratic Jewish state

‘THIS IS what distinguishes nationalism from extreme nationalism. The former protects us from external enemies, whereas the latter focuses on enemies from within our own ranks.’ (photo credit: REUTERS)
‘THIS IS what distinguishes nationalism from extreme nationalism. The former protects us from external enemies, whereas the latter focuses on enemies from within our own ranks.’
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The first time I was invited to join a General Staff meeting was when I served as commander of the IDF Officer’s School. I had been called into the meeting in which they were planning to confirm the IDF’s first ever ethical code.
After the ethical code was presented by Maj.-Gen. Yoram Yair (Ya-Ya) and Prof. Asa Kasher, I gingerly asked, “And what about the value of love of the land?” Prof. Kasher answered me, “Love of the land belongs to a certain section of the population.”
One of the generals then said, “My old man, who loved the Land of Israel studies, would probably turn over in his grave if he heard me say this, but I support Asa Kasher’s position.”
I was shocked to my very core.
After the ethical code was published, I approached the chief of staff and told him that I did not know how to train IDF officers without teaching them to love the land, and so I received permission to use a modified ethical code.
Years later, when I was serving as the chief education officer, we drafted a new version of the ethical code, which of course included the words, “love of our homeland and loyalty to the state”. We used the word homeland (moledet) and not land (eretz) so that we would not be referring to any specific borders.
The unexpected and deafening silence of the rest of the General Staff made it clear to me that a new order had taken over the basic values of Israeli society and had turned them into the property of only one end of the political spectrum. Judaism sat on one side and on the other human dignity.
Values, which until recently had been espoused by the entire community, had been abandoned, and now only one section of the political spectrum held them dear to their hearts.
In recent years, Israeli society has undergone a process in which each branch has taken on different values. The Right has relinquished to the Left the value of human rights, and the Left has given up to the Right the feeling of attachment and fondness for Jewish tradition and the Land of Israel. If you are on the Right, then you are expected to attack the Supreme Court and undermine the entire judicial system. If you are on the Left, you are expected to support human dignity and deplore the occupation.
It’s as if the Right has taken ownership of the love of land and the Left has renounced its historical rights to the homeland.
We should not take any of this for granted. The Jewish tradition from which the national camp derives its feelings of righteousness is based on values of protecting the weak, upholding human dignity and the love of people.
I would like to mention that it was not the Jewish prophets alone who espoused these views. Up until a few years ago, MKs from the former National Religious Party and the Likud considered these social and humanistic values as an integral part of their Jewish worldview.
Only in recent years have political leaders on the Right thrown away the ancient Jewish commitment to human dignity.
Perhaps due to their eagerness to settle the land at any price, some mitzvot were pushed aside. In the same way, the value of purity of arms has been espoused by high-minded Leftists.
Whoever dares to criticize a soldier for shooting a terrorist against orders is looked upon with contempt and labeled a Leftist regardless of her or his actual political views, whatever they may be.
As far as I’m concerned, people who support Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria should have fought to keep this value alive. They have the burden of proving that the settlements can exist without having to corrupt our souls. They must ensure the dignity of Palestinians at IDF checkpoints, since our ability to remain there depends on this.
Unfortunately, due to the new Israeli arrangement, Rightists view things in quite the opposite way. Incidents in which the spirit of the IDF is not followed at all are used as a litmus test to uncover “hostile elements” for whom the ends do not justify the means. My friend, Prof.
Moshe Halbertal, has spoken out about this change that has emerged among the Right: It is searching out enemies from within – human rights organizations, minorities, the Left and the media.
This is what distinguishes nationalism from extreme nationalism. The former protects us from external enemies, whereas the latter focuses on enemies from within our own ranks. Unfortunately, a good number of people who used to be nationalistic have become extremely nationalistic.
Using an eclectic mix of laws, extreme nationalists spend their days from morning until evening checking the loyalty of Israel’s citizens and leaders.
The IDF’s greatest commanders and combat soldiers, including heroes who have spent decades of their lives on the battlefield, are being accused of lacking love for the land due to attitudes they expressed that are unacceptable to the Right-wing camp.
Their readiness to sacrifice their lives for their country doesn’t count for anything in this dichotomous discourse in which the Left and the love of the land are mutually exclusive.
Loyalty, from their viewpoint, cannot co-exist with nationalism.
It fits only with extreme nationalism.
While many on the Right abandoned the value of humanism, the Left wasted no time and abandoned their love of land and their Jewish identity.
When the Peel Commission gathered in 1936 to discuss the question of whether the Jews had a right to the land, it was David Ben-Gurion, the leader of the Left camp, who raised a Bible and declared vigorously: “This is our deed to the land.”
When was the last time we heard someone from the Left declare that our right to land is based on the Bible? Why do we no longer hear leaders from the Left espousing Jewish values? I’m greatly distressed that we no longer hear great leaders from the Left talking about our historical right to the land. Our desire to reach an agreement with the Palestinians no matter what the price has caused many leaders on the Left to forget that there can be no Zionism if there is no Zion. Many of them have forgotten that we yearned for this land for 2,000 years and that we returned here because this was the land of our forefathers.
We can support a future settlement with the Palestinians that will include territorial concessions, while at the same time tell our children stories about Shechem and Hebron and Jerusalem, which are the basis of our existence as a people. We can fight for the human rights of Arabs living between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River while at the same time fight for peace and the security of settlers in Judea and Samaria.
When I was in the IDF, I created a program in which soldiers would be brought to the City of David. I was subsequently criticized for this by Ha’aretz.
The City of David is an important part of our history as a people regardless of our political affiliation. I of course view the City of David as an integral part of Jerusalem, and I’m very sad to see that there are new factions in the Israeli Left who consider visits to the site as controversial.
My late mother, who survived Auschwitz, came away from that traumatic experience with two conclusions. The first was that it was incredibly important that there be a strong Jewish state that is capable of defending itself. The second was that all people are equal. She came out of that inferno with a compassion for all human beings, regardless of their race, religion, color or gender.
She also believed that we could not compromise when it came to the military and the security of the Jewish State. I have worked hard to instill these convictions in my children and grandchildren. These beliefs incorporate the values espoused by the Israeli Left, as well as those espoused by the Right. But this combination is found so rarely these days in our discourse. These values are not mutually exclusive and we can combine them together if we’re willing to make an effort.
I would like to take this opportunity to offer a new path. In the current discourse, we all end up getting hurt. Both the Right and the Left have given up fundamental values: democracy is being violated and the Jewish faith is being portrayed to the public as arbitrary, racist and alienating. Humanism has become a legacy belonging to the Left alone, while the Right has made a claim of ownership over the love of land.
Judaic studies teachers who cover their heads are being refused entry to secular schools out of fear that they will try to brainwash the children, and non-religious teachers are kept from teaching civics in religious schools for the same reason.
But it’s not too late to remind ourselves what it means to live in a democratic Jewish state. It doesn’t have to be either/or – it’s possible for Israel to be both Jewish and democratic. In fact, there’s no other way, because we believe in both Jewish and democratic values. We can love this land, which we’ve returned to after living in exile for 2,000 years, and also love all the people living in it, since we were all created in the image of God.
The author serves as an MK from Yesh Atid and served as an IDF major-general commanding the IDF Manpower Directorate.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.