Ten revolutions in Israel and one counter-revolution

Historically, revolutions are violent, are often a form of civil war between ruling regimes and the people, or between different factions; some are more evolutionary, but all are turning points.

Israeli flag (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israeli flag
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Since the 1967 Six Day War, Israel has experienced major political, economic and social changes that – for lack of a better word – may be called revolutions.
Historically, revolutions are violent (as in America, France, and Russia), are often a form of civil war between ruling regimes and the people, or between different factions; some are more evolutionary, as in England, but all share a common denominator: they are turning points that mark not only political change, but social and ideological transformation, a change in consciousness. In addition, revolutions are often ongoing in their effect: American democracy, French “liberte, egualite, fraternite,” and as Trotsky called it, “the permanent revolution,” Communism.
In Israel, revolutions have often been the result of wars as well as an internal dynamics which shaped and reshaped society.
A historical perspective of key revolutionary watershed events helps understand the dynamics of Israeli society and its role in fulfilling the Zionist vision, the third Jewish commonwealth:
1) The establishment of the State of Israel, its victory in its War of Independence and its recognition by the international community confirmed the Jewish people’s return to their homeland. Prior to the 1948 War of Independence and the establishment of the State of Israel, the term “Palestinians” applied to Jews. After the war, when Jews and Arabs living in Israel became Israeli citizens, Arab residents of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) were given Jordanian citizenship and many began to consider themselves “Palestinians,” a vague term of national identity which was rarely used before. Egypt occupied the Gaza Strip but did not extend citizenship to Arabs who lived there.
2) Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War was inspirational. Many thousands of Jews made aliyah and millions of Jews and non-Jews through the world renewed their support for Israel. Jerusalem was reunited and Jews returned to historic and sacred sites in Judea and Samaria, including Hebron and Gush Etzion. After 1967, it was still unclear to whom the conquered areas belonged, and the Israeli government offered to exchange them for peace treaties with Syria, Jordan and Egypt. These offers were rejected and, with assistance from the Soviet Union, the Arabs prepared for war.
3) The 1973 Yom Kippur War was devastating. Although Israel eventually won, it exposed the failures of the Left and eventually led to a new political leadership led by Menachem Begin.
4) The transition from dominance by the Labor Party to the ascendancy of Likud led to three mini-revolutions: (A) A change from socialism to a free-enterprise market-economy system; (B) The settlement movement, and (C) The rise of Religious Zionism as an ideological, political and social force.
5) The first Lebanese War in 1980 was really a war against the PLO, which had been ejected from Jordan and had moved to Lebanon. The failure to defeat the PLO decisively was a major strategic mistake; a decade later the PLO was invited by prime minister Yitzhak Rabin to return to power. The denouement of Israeli power was based on a new defeatist slogan: not only could Israel not win its struggle against the PLO, it should not win.
During this period two vital Israeli institutions were compromised: (A) A judicial coup led by Chief Justice Aharon Barak in 1992 and his successors, and (B) A political coup led by Meretz MKs Shulamit Aloni and Amnon Rubinstein to remove Jewish studies and nationalism from the educational system.
6) The collapse of the Soviet Union enabled more than a million Jews and many non-Jews from the FSU, many of whom were highly educated, to make aliyah. This increased Israel’s technological and scientific pool and had a political impact: having lived under Communism, most became Likud supporters.
7) The Oslo Accords, which recognized the PLO and accepted the Palestinian narrative, set a course for “the peace process” and was meant to secure a Palestinian state. Many were hopeful that the process, backed by US President Bill Clinton, would work; they were soon disillusioned. Handing power to a terrorist entity and Israel’s foremost enemy was an admission of defeat. It was accompanied by a PR campaign to convince Israelis that Arafat and the PLO were no longer interested in terrorism and would agree to make peace. Although delusional and despite waves of terrorist attacks, this defeatist message became part of a PR campaign led by Shimon Peres and his Peres Center for Peace, which he promoted when he became president, backed by state institutions, NGOs and the media. It was also coupled with attacks on religious Zionism, including accusations that it was responsible for the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.
This brainwashing was interrupted briefly by the “Second Intifada” in which thousands of Israelis were murdered and tens of thousands seriously wounded. Yet, Peres still spoke of a “peace partner” and victims of Palestinian terrorism as “victims of the peace process.” Backed by presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama, who enjoyed widespread support among Jewish voters, the idea became a staple of the international community’s position. In 2002/3 President George Bush presented his “Road Map for Peace” which – for the first time – included a specific reference to an intended Palestinian state. The support for a “two-state solution” and surrender to PLO demands led to a catastrophic mistake.
8) The “Disengagement” from the Gaza Strip and parts of northern Samaria (in 2005) gave Hamas a mini-state in the Gaza Strip and allowed them to increase their influence throughout Arab communities. Basic Israeli institutions which could have – and should have – protected the state and its citizens were overwhelmed by IDF military leaders and the international community, who promised a “new era of peace.”
9) The technological revolution, including access to new sources of water via desalination, enabled Israel to become a world leader in scientific and medical advancement and innovation
10) The ultra-Orthodox community became a political and social force and is a challenging potential. Their integration into Israeli society is an ongoing process.
A counter-revolution to the Barak judicial coup led by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, Bayit HaYehudi and members of Likud seeks a balanced judicial system, restraining the interventionist High Court, and asserting the primacy of Knesset. If successful, these judicial reforms will ensure a more democratic “constitutional” system, similar to other democratic countries.
THESE ONGOING revolutions, which are changing notions of Zionism, reflect struggles over the future of Israel. They are sources of conflict and controversy about the nature of Israeli society and national identity. That is what the newly passed “Nation-State Law” is about.
From a historical perspective, these conflicts are rooted in different notions of what Zionism means and the nature and purpose of the state. They impact the meaning of Israeli democracy, Judaism as a state-sponsored religion and the Zionist vision. They influence critical questions concerning borders, the status of Judea and Samaria and the relationship with Arabs who consider themselves to be “Palestinians.” There is also a theological debate about the meaning of the return of the Jewish people to its Biblical heartland and Israeli sovereignty.
Two related controversies drew in Jews living in the Diaspora as well. Is Israel, as the state of the Jewish people, the beginning of the “Redemption” or is it a political entity controlled by Jews and nominally Jewish? Are those who believe that Jews are entitled to live in areas conquered by the IDF in 1967 “messianic,” or do they represent normative Jewish Israeli nationalism?
For non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews, the state that declares that it represents the Jewish people means that it embraces all Jews regardless of their religious practices. As long as the state does not recognize non-Orthodox practices, they don’t feel fully accepted and embraced. Many condition their support for the state on its acceptance of all forms of Judaism and all Jews – equally and without discrimination. This was the principle behind the Law of Return, but not of the Orthodox rabbinate.
“Liberal progressive” ideas are not limited to personal issues; they also serve to oppose Israel’s expansion into areas that were once under Jordanian occupation: eastern Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria. These intra-Jewish controversies not only split Jewish communities, but also exposed a chasm that was exploited by the international community and anti-Israel organizations.
Antisemitism promoted by the UN, EU and Muslim countries exacerbates an increasingly troubled relationship between the Diaspora and Israel. Opposition to Israeli policies by US administrations widened the gap. The Democratic Party’s increasing hostility to Israel polarizes Jewish communities and threatens bi-partisan support. Jews who vote for and financially support the Democratic Party are pressured to make their support for Israel dependent on their local politics. This underlies the split between the Diaspora and Israel.
Pressured by high rates of assimilation – which some estimate at 80% – non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews seek to fill vacancies by converts, or even those who refuse to convert but are willing to stand in for Jews. In addition, cultural secularization turns Jews away from religious observance. In this context, Israel is expected to provide a safety net for those who reject Judaism. Programs such as Birthright can help alleviate the problem, but Israel’s purpose is not to make Jews out of people who don’t want to be Jews. Jews need to know how to create a Jewish home and be willing to make that commitment.
Judaism is based not only on faith, but on study, learning and commitment. In Judaism, the greatest sin is ignorance. Rabbis are teachers, not social workers or ritual advisors. They receive the title of rabbi because they have mastered texts and are committed to authentic Judaism. Jewish learning is the basis for viable and sustainable Jewish communities and communal leadership.
Non-Orthodox Jewish communities in the Diaspora will continue to wither as long as this is not understood. They will grasp the lifeline that Israel extends because without it they will drown. Ironically, it is precisely because Israel is the way it is that it can provide that lifeline. The more Israel resembles the Diaspora, the weaker it will become.
Rather than criticize Israel for its independence and adherence to traditional Jewish norms and principles, Diaspora Jews should be proud and supportive. We need to appreciate each other’s differences and accept what we cannot or don’t want to change. That is the basis of unity and solidarity. It’s a discussion usually postponed, but increasingly critical to both communities.
The future of the Jewish people increasingly relies on the State of Israel to defend its integrity as a Jewish state. Recent surveys of Diaspora Jewish communities document that the critical element in support for Israel is religious affiliation. Support for Israel and Jewish identity are interdependent. That requires more and better Jewish education in the Diaspora, with special programs for families and children in mixed marriages. This reality determines the future of the Jewish people and will help create Israel as the third Jewish Commonwealth, a Jewish civilization that includes all aspects of society, culture, history, language and nationality – a living covenant.
The author is a PhD historian, writer and journalist living in Israel.