In this week’s Torah portion we see further evidence that nothing goes according to plan. In fact the entire Book of Numbers is evidence of this. Such is also the case with recent events and Israel’s raid on the so called, Gaza flotilla. Much of the Israeli press has expressed what I believe. Here is my view. The raid was right but not smart.
Here is why Israel was right. Israel evacuated the Gaza Strip. Hamas now controls the Strip and still fires rockets at Israeli civilians. Hamas refuses to recognize Israel and calls for its destruction. Despite this Israel still actively sustains Gaza. A few facts. Israel’s hospitals accept thousands of Gazans for medical treatment. It lets food and medicine through its checkpoints—of course, not too much building supplies because these could be used for constructing tunnels. It supplies Gaza with electricity and gas. No other country in the world sustains a government bent on its destruction in this way. (Gadi Taub, “S.O.S.,” TNR, June 9, 2010)
But the raid was not smart. The raid was all about PR and the world’s perception of the struggle. Israel’s actions played into the hands of those who wish to delegitimize Israel. Although the world is wrong, the world now perceives Israel as the aggressor and Hamas as the victim. This is what the flotilla was about and Israel played into its hands. Stopping a boatload of advanced weaponry is a different question—and this Israel has successfully done on a number of occasions.
This is the same problem with the settlements. I have always believed that there is an important difference between a Jerusalem suburb and a settlement in Hebron. But again right does not always make smart. The world is again wrong—but the expansion of housing in the West Bank erodes Israel’s standing in the world. Although I would very much like to say buck world opinion, we cannot.
Zionism is not just about power; it is about international legitimacy. It is about raising the status of the Jews to the family of nations. We can’t just say, “The world will always hate us, the world is wrong.” We must also be smart—most especially in how and when we yield power.
During Olmert’s tenure as prime minister there was a similar attempt to break the blockade. Olmert’s government let the ships pass through and dock in Gaza. The strategic equation was not altered. A few more rockets will not alter this equation. The world quickly forgot this event. And Hamas was robbed of an opportunity to portray itself as a victim. This is what should have happened a few weeks ago. Israel should have said, “We will not let them in” until the very last minute and then quietly let them in. Now Israel’s actions have further eroded its standing in the world and even more importantly, its relations with Jews worldwide. This greatly worries me.
The reflexive response of Israel defense organizations only further entrenches us in our own self-righteousness. You can’t reshape the discussion when there are hundreds more people than weapons on board these ships. Such responses do not solve the problem or offer solutions. We have to look at these problems anew.
Israel stands at a crossroads. It is struggling with how to be both Jewish and democratic. A few sobering observations about changes that are happening in Israel. There are six transformations and changes in Israeli society that you must be aware of. (Lecture by Moshe Halbertal, Jerusalem, February 2, 2010)
1. The transformation of the Haredi/ultra-Orthodox (“religious”) community. It is no longer a small percentage of the population. No longer does it not participate in the government—in fact it is part of the current government. Moshe Halbertal argues that these Jews are maintaining a sense of galut (exile) in Israel. They have no sense of Jewish pluralism; they do not believe in democracy.
2. The transformation of individual rights. Like people here, Israeli parents are more concerned with individual liberties than nation building. This makes for great difficulties in building an army and building a country. The notion of sacrificing for the greater good is, like many young people here, no longer a part of the general vocabulary.
3. Russian aliya. Today over 20% of Israelis are from the Former Soviet Union. 25% of combat soldiers are Russian. They are by and large nationalistic. Even more important these olim did not bring with them a legacy of democracy.
4. The weakening of groups that were once a bridge between the secular and religious. The weakening of Sephardic culture shapes this transformation for the Sephardim often served as this bridge. Ashkenazi culture is black and white; it is this heritage that sees things in categories of all or nothing. It is this culture that sees consistency as a primary value. The Sephardic culture by contrast is more fluid. You can go to services in the morning and play soccer in the afternoon. Tel Aviv and Jerusalem no longer look like different cities. They look more like different societies.
5. The transformation of the Israeli Arab. No more do they see themselves as a discriminated minority but as occupied. Their agenda is now to redefine the state. Their goal is to undermine Israel’s Jewish character. And Israeli Jews labeling the Israeli Arab as a fifth column undermines country’s democratic principles. Israel must figure out how to be Jewish and promote Arab culture.
Each of these five changes represents 20% of Israeli society. This means that 2/5 of Israel does not accept the Jewish-democratic vision of the state. The Haredi don’t accept democracy; the Arab population does not accept the state’s Jewish character. Both don’t serve in the IDF, the institution that continues to shape Israel society. One more final, sobering statistic. 49% of current elementary school students in Israel are Haredi or Arab.
6. Finally these transformations influence changing relationship between the diaspora and Israel. Half of the Jews today do not remember the 6-Day War and that righteous victory. Many feel history is boring and even worse, embarrassing. American Jews are by and large embarrassed by the wielding of Jewish power and young Jews seem uncomfortable with overt displays of Jewish particularism. In addition recent attempts to use the state’s power to disenfranchise non-Orthodox Jewry draws a further divide between diaspora and Israeli Jews.
The challenge is how does Israel maintain its Jewish identity while also remaining true to its democratic values. We are in this fight. We must be in this fight. This was the vision of Israel’s founding. The transformation of Israeli society and the recent blunders that we continue to read about erode this historic relationship between American Jews and Israel.
It is time we return to the principles on which Israel was founded. It is time that we lend our support not in defending every single Israeli action but by supporting its aspiration to be Jewish and democratic. Israel cannot sacrifice its Jewishness. Israel must not sacrifice its democratic principles. Otherwise we will be forever trapped in the Book of Numbers and continue wandering throughout the wilderness, repeating the mistakes and blunders of our ancestors, and never realizing the promise of the Promised Land.