The deepening anti-liberal spirit is not going to disappear anytime soon and Diaspora Jews can no longer rely on Israel as a symbol that unites them
Many Jews in the Diaspora are in a state of shock over Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government. They would like to wake up from this nightmare to an Israel that is an exemplary state, a light unto the nations. But this nightmare will go on for a long time to come. Diaspora Jews will have to digest this bitter truth and learn how to cultivate their Jewish identity even if Israel loses its centrality as a unifying symbol, a beacon to the Jewish people.
For years, we learned to recite that the special relationship forged between Israel and the United States is based on common values: liberty, justice, morality, democracy, human rights, equality before the law, fair treatment of minorities, preventing the tyranny of the majority, battling racism, and Tikkun Olam. But over the years, the harsh reality has disproven what was once taken for granted. The internal ideological polarization has sharpened both in the United States and Israel and this has taken a toll on values that were once considered “shared.” Today, one part of America identifies with the values of the Israeli right while the other side identifies with the values of the Israeli left.
Consequently, a destructive rift has emerged within the Jewish people, one that is plainly illustrated by differing views of Donald Trump. Most Jews in Israel supported Trump, while most American Jews vehemently opposed him (70% voted for the Democratic ticket, more than half of them identify as liberals, and only 20% consider themselves conservative). Now, following the establishment of the new government, many American Jews see Israel as violating the shared values that formed the foundation of the alliance between Jerusalem and Washington – by its unequal treatment of Israeli-Arabs, by gender discrimination, religious interference in affairs of state and the life of the individual, by elevating Jewish values (in their Orthodox interpretation) over democratic values, by expanding the settlements and by completely avoiding any diplomatic process that seeks to bring an end to Israel’s control over another, disenfranchised people.
Demographic trends in Israel are diminishing the weight of the secular sector that holds liberal values, while the power of the sectors that see liberal values as a threat is on the rise. Demography, however, is not the only cause of the hobbled state of Israeli liberalism. Among many, liberal ideology is identified with Israel’s most vehement critics. Of course, lessons from our own history – exile, pogroms, the Holocaust – also have an influence. And so, the term “liberal,” which in Israel is associated with the secular population, is hurled at them with the same venom of the usual slurs – leftists, delusional, hegemons, self-hating Jews, those who “have forgotten what it means to be Jews,” in Netanyahu’s words.
Unlike the Jewish community in the United States, which as a small minority naturally supports an ideological perspective that protects the rights of minorities, in Israel the majority belongs to the Jews. Many Israeli Jews see nothing wrong with exploiting this status to ensure dominance over the Arab minority, including granting legal preference to Jews over non-Jews. The anti-liberal spirit that is deepening in Israel is not going to disappear anytime soon, and the works of John Stuart Mill and other liberal philosophers will not be best sellers in Israel in the foreseeable future.
There is an illusion that the Israeli body politic is divided into two camps of roughly equal size, but this mistaken perception stems from a temporary political conjuncture in which the main debate revolves around a person rather than an issue: for Bibi or against Bibi. Most of the Israeli public is on the center-to-right of the political map and therefore a significant number of the political players and their voters currently in the anti-Bibi camp would readily join a right-wing coalition if he were out of the political picture.
Demography, political sociology, the conflict with the Palestinians, regional threats, antisemitism, and international hostility are all pushing Israel in an anti-liberal direction. The Jews of the world must look at Israel as it is, without illusions and without glossing over the harsh reality. They should assist those Israelis who are trying to restore liberal values to their country and unhesitatingly express their pain to Israel’s government. Perhaps, here and there, they will find listening ears among the few ministers who still understand that in times of crisis, Israel is likely to need the help of Diaspora Jews and that it would be a strategic mistake to alienate them. At the same time, Diaspora Jews must formulate new strategies for maintaining Jewish identity and educating the younger generation that does not rise and fall according to the conduct of the government of Israel.
The Nation-State Law declares that Israel “shall act to preserve the cultural, historical, and religious heritage of the Jewish people among Jews in the Diaspora,” but this pretense of ours to “educate” the Jews of the Diaspora is nothing more than empty arrogance. Israel, especially following the establishment of the new government, is far from being perceived among world Jewry as an admired educational role model. Most of our Diaspora brethren shudder with horror at the idea that their children will be educated according to the visions of Ben Gvir, Smotrich, Deri, Goldknopf, and Maoz. All of us must face the truth: Present-day Israel is neither a light unto the nations – nor unto the Jews.
First published by ‘The Times of Israel’.