That Israel is a thriving democracy is reflected in the dynamic discourse of the day. The Im Tirtzu phenomenon is a reflection of that dynamism.Its name is from the Herzl quote “Im Tirtzu, Ain Zoh Agadah” – “If you will it, it is no legend.” It describes itself as a “the leadership and advancement of a second Zionist revolution in the Israeli public discourse.” It’s a private and not a public revolution. This subtle but crucial differentiation makes its demonizing of the President of the New Israel Fund acceptable. Any suggestion that Im Tirtzu is a kind of thought police is frankly anti-patriotic. Isn’t it?
The Education Minister gave the key-note address at the Im Tirtzu public event in March. But that doesn’t translate into official sanction. Does it?
The Education Ministry has now begun rewriting “Being Citizens in Israel”, the country’s main civics text book. This is because of the sentence: “since its establishment, the State of Israel has engaged in a policy of discrimination against its Arab citizens.” The chair of the Ministry’s pedagogical secretariat contends that “the textbook dwells too much on criticism of the state.” Of course if the book’s message is reflected in this sentence it must be expunged. The chair should also employ a hi-tech process – the kind in which Israel excels in creating – to erase all trace of the offending sentence from the minds of all students who may have read it and from all teachers who may have taught it. It’s a scandal to suggest that the Arabs of Israel faced any discrimination, either during the security-driven years they were rightly under military administration, or since, when they so obviously enjoy the freedom and equality our democracy guarantees them. Don’t they?
The refusal of 36 actors to perform in the spanking new culture hall in Ariel, a West Bank settlement town, divides Israeli society, according to the Culture Minister. Obviously this ‘boycott’ undermines our democratic foundations and is, as the Minister later declared, a totalitarian act. The Prime Minister deserves applause for finding time from his heavy schedule preparing for peace talks to announce that the companies employing these anti-democratic performers should have their state-funding cut, if the refusal is continued. It’s so obvious. Israel’s continued occupation is not a divisive matter, and those actors must be against us; they can’t possibly be for us. Sad?
In a democracy as vital as Israel’s, freedom of movement is as crucial a right as freedom of thought and speech. And of course no democracy can thrive without the profit motive and we have some fine examples of ‘knowing your market.’ One is the CEO of the new Jerusalem light rail company. A goodly percentage of his passengers will be orthodox. So he’s absolutely right to offer them ‘mehadrin’ coaches – every third or fourth coach of his trains will be ones in which orthodox men and women will be separated. The high court wasted valuable time and not a little money in producing a ruling forbidding further segregation on public transport, after the largest of Israel’s bus companies offered segregated buses on intercity and inner Jerusalem routes. The court had no appreciation of the need for profits from a light rail system as essential to the capital as this one. And the company was completely warranted in surveying Jerusalemites on whether having Palestinians as fellow passengers would bother them. Perhaps the CEO should install a fifth ‘Palestinians only’ coach. Just a suggestion?
The right to demonstrate is also an inalienable right in a democracy. But sometimes there is a worry that that can lead to Jews and Arabs associating. The Jerusalem magistrates’ court has opined that demonstrations in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood where orthodox Jews have employed Mandate documents to prove that Palestinians shouldn’t reside there, are legal. But concerned police and their efficient border police colleagues have zealously guarded against Jews and Arabs co-demonstrating, anxious over the consequences of dangerous fraternization. 24 hours before one demonstration, access roads to the neighborhood were closed and vehicles held at checkpoints. I was told by a policeman at a checkpoint nearby that I could go as far as the American Colony Hotel and could cross the intersection to get there. But his colleague, a dutiful and persistent policewoman decided that her consent was also necessary, equality of the sexes being essential to democracy too, so she urged me to reverse to the check point where I waited for another fifteen minutes before she felt it was safe for me to proceed. Thanks?
The Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal has an impressive Wikipedia entry. I listened keenly to him on Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet and learned much. Over a year ago I described myself as a “proud and obsessive supporter of Israel.” Halbertal provided many new – to me – perspectives which go some way to help me understand what’s been happening to erode my pride. (The obsession is too ingrained.)
What I hadn’t appreciated was the change in the character of religious parties in the Knesset. The moderate religious Zionist voice has been replaced by a raucous religious nationalism, much of it orchestrated by orthodoxy. In Halbertal’s view “ the neo-romanticism of the nationalist religious right” has no basis in the Torah of Israel. “They have imported the cesspit of European (nationalist) thought to the very heart of Judaism…the folkism, the idea of the organic linkage between land and people…so that if you are a humanist you must be influenced by alien sources.”
The right and the extreme right have added their strident ‘one-party rules!’ yell. The result is that middle Israel finds itself trapped in an echo chamber between religious and right wing nationalists bouncing their slogans off each other. One consequence is the muting of the secular critics of orthodoxy.
Halbertal commented that any wrongdoing, any crime, can be justified by a Pasuk – a verse from the religious texts; it just depends which Pasuk you choose. And what seems to have happened is that religious nationalism especially has adopted a full range of Pasukim to assuage, indeed wipe away, any need for Israeli accountability, fear or paranoia. Elokanu will take care of you – no worries.
A phenomenon that Halbertal describes as a “deadly combination, the most problematic” is the emergence of ‘Hardalnikim’. For those familiar with Hebrew, this is not a group of religious Israelis clamouring for the hottest mustard – ‘hardal’ in Hebrew. This is ‘Haredim Leumanim Datiim’ – Ultra Orthodox, Nationalist, Religious.
Halbertal links brutality and authenticity. He says that the more brutal you are, this will not bring you closer to the source, to authentic Judaism. That these two thoughts – ‘Hardalnikim’ and brutality and authenticity – are consecutive, is a deft way of issuing a warning. I am drawn to his honesty and skepticism when he admits he doesn’t always produce a positive answer to the question of whether there is a God. So when he says that “Israelis must break the monopoly of orthodoxy on Jewish traditional culture and I want to be part of that,”I want to join him.
Part of such a process must involve a new Israeli honesty. It is of little comfort to hear David Grossman and others saying that Israelis know the truth but are just too frightened to admit it. My own test when discussion descends into angry rhetoric is to ask “what do you see when you look at yourself in the mirror each morning?” And if the response is more anger, I believe that a truth has been revealed and painfully acknowledged. The fact that the revelation is so transient reflects the scale of the need for constant challenge.
Israelis are not in danger of having their state corroded from within. It is an ongoing daily reality. They are saying, even now, “No questions please. We know the answers and don’t need to be reminded of them.” Their greed for freedom, for an unalloyed existence that is not accountable to anyone for whatever acts, is part of that corrosion.
Time flies when you’re having fun – and even when you’re not. In restaurants and on promenades I saw too many unhappy faces. At one Jerusalem restaurant I saw very glum expressions and asked my hosts why that was so predominant, after all, coming to a good place to eat is a pleasure, a relaxation, no? I was told, after a quick glance at a watch, that perhaps those guests had just watched the news.
And when I ask Israelis about the latest peace process there is a shrug of the shoulders and a dismissive shake of the head. David Grossman described this as the first time leaders going to peace talks have talked them down and lowered expectations. They have done little to earn the approval of their constituents. At the heart of this malaise is fear, a fear that Israelis have lived with for so long, the fear of uncertainty; there isn’t long term thinking and planning because life in the Jewish state is day by day, not century by century.
One consequence is that there are two states of Jewish existence, and no longer one Beit Israel – House of Israel. In Israel there is a new struggle between religious nationalists and their nationalist partners and ‘humanists’ – Israelis of conscience – over what should be the values of the Jewish state. As long as the former have the upper hand – and they currently do – then Jews outside Israel have to re-examine what Jewish values are for themselves, no longer dependant on Israel to be their hub, their guiding light.
Lest, dear readers, you leave this with the impression that the two people who are me – Paul and Shaul (there’s a third, Boulos but that’s for another piece) – have combined in despair, take heed. Without question both are subject to their immediate context. They inhabit a body residing in a peculiar corner outside of Israel, in a minority. I know where Shaul would prefer to be – no longer sitting on someone else’s holiday beach, but on his own beach, staring out at his own sea, the only real border his land has that no-one challenges. Here in the minority, the game is to be as much like the majority as possible. To do that, as throughout the history of our dispersion, we have sought to represent the very best of our values, for they have been our secret guide to survival. More often than not we have struggled to prove ourselves better than the majorities amongst whom we have lived and in the worst contexts to prove that we can be better than our oppressors. When it came to Zionist aspirations, those beguiled by them imagined a Jewish state reflecting the best of us and the values by which we survived. What has happened in the Jewish state is that being a minority has too quickly been consigned to history books and TV documentaries. That the memory of the past is too painful to recall is perfectly understandable. But so easily to confine it to the past is an example of what happens when a people pursues the greed of liberty. Without the past there is no future and without the values we hoped to live by, our survival attracts a question mark.
I almost chose a verse from the Dag Nachash septet’s latest CD “6” with which to end. Here’s a taste, from the song Od Ach Ehad – Another Brother: “Life is vital and valuable ( Ba’alei Erech), Murder and killing isn’t the way.”
Yehuda Poliker the Israeli singer has a song entitled On The Other Side Of The Fence. There are many lines that talk about Israel today. One is “A fence for people inside themselves.” The occupation symbolizes, more than any other fact of Israel, the corrosion of this people. Ending the occupation is the first step in ending the process of being consumed from within. It is also the first step in taking back Israel to the values it was created to represent.