"Israelis" vs. "Jews"
by Jonathan Rosenblum
September 16, 2005
The Gaza withdrawal laid bare some very deep divisions in Israeli society. In the wake of the withdrawal, the impulse of most Israelis has been to seek some sort of national reconciliation and to reaffirm that which is held in common. Some ardent supporters of the Gaza withdrawal, however, view it as the first battle in a cultural war, and they intend to push forward and build upon their opening victory.
The largely sympathetic media coverage of those evicted from their homes reflects the first impulse. Tali Lipkin-Shahak, a writer generally identified with the Left, described the Gush Katif settlers as "the real Israelis," and the last exemplars of the founding Zionist ideals. Novelist David Grossman, who viewed the Gaza settlements as madness from the inception, nevertheless called upon all Israelis to view the days of evacuation as "days of mourning for all Israelis."
There were, however, expressions of an opposite impulse as well. Lipkin-Shahak spoke of the "Stock Exchange crowd," which failed to find a place in its heart for the settlers of Gush Katif. Even Prime Minister Sharon, in an interview with a chareidi weekly, lamented the lack of empathy of those who spent the days of withdrawal at the beach or sitting around in restaurants and cafes. "You know, the talented and unique Jews also know how to hate. We have masterminds of hatred here," the Prime Minister said.
Two exemplars of that world class talent for hatred and vituperation were former Meretz Party leaders Yossi Sarid and Shulamit Aloni. Writing in Ha'aretz, Sarid poured forth his scorn on those "whose specialty is mending broken hearts, the professional conciliators," and other seekers after national consensus. He seemed almost disappointed that the feared civil war had not taken place. (Prior to the withdrawal, respected Left-wing figures, such as former Labor Minister Ephraim Sneh and columnist Yoel Marcus, championed the potentially purgative effects of a civil war.)
And Shulamit Aloni was chafing to lead the charge in the cultural wars. The actions of the settlers, in her judgment, constituted nothing less than the greatest embarrassment to the Jewish people in all its long history. Her outrage was principally directed at the appropriation of Holocaust symbols by the anti-withdrawal forces and those who called the soldiers and police executing the evacuation "Nazis." Neither complaint was without basis, but Aloni was surely an odd choice for defender of the IDF or Holocaust Remembrance.
When Arafat turned to open warfare, after rejecting Israel's offer of statehood at Camp David, Aloni rushed to accuse Israel of war crimes in Le Monde, and she nominated for the Israel Prize the late Professor Shaya Leibowitz, who counseled soldiers to refuse service in the territories. As Minister of Education, she opposed trips of high school students to Auschwitz on the grounds that such trips might arouse nationalistic feelings. In the past, she too has been rather free with Holocaust analogies, once terming Binyamin Netanyahu "a good student of Goebbels."
Besides Sarid and Aloni, a number of Knesset members from Shinui used a Knesset hearing on the roshei yeshiva of hesder yeshivot who counseled their students to refuse orders to evacuate Gush Katif, to call for dismantling the entire hesder system.
THE BATTLE THAT SARID AND ALONI wish to foment is one between Jewish identity and Israeli identity (Yisraeliut in local parlance.) The distinction between "Jews" and "Israelis" was first coined by Shimon Peres in the wake of his 1996 electoral defeat by Binyamin Netanyahu. Peres described his loss as a defeat for "Israelis." Asked who, then, had won, Peres replied, "The Jews."
But ambivalence about "the Jews" has deep roots within Zionism from the start. On the one hand, Zionism was a movement of national revival, whose goal was the creation of a Jewish homeland. On the other hand, as Shlomo Avineri has pointed out, virtually all of the original Zionist theoreticians came from assimilated homes, and had little, if any, knowledge of traditional Jewish life. They were products of the Enlightenment.
While Enlightenment thinkers held out to Jews the possibility of entry into the larger gentile society as individuals, they were virtually unanimous in their view of Jews as some form of degraded beings, whose humanity had been warped by their perverse religion. Acceptance of that critique was part of the entry ticket for Jews eager to join European society. That portrait of the degradation and deformity of contemporary Jewry, particularly the Torah-observant Eastern European Jews, runs throughout the early Zionist writers as well.
The Sarids of Israeli society have been dismayed to find that Torah Jews somehow hitched a ride on the Zionist boat and found refuge in modern Israel. Not only that, their influence would seem to be growing. One in every four Jewish births is chareidi, and the national religious population is also growing far faster than the secular population. If this tide is to be stemmed, the "Israelis" realize, the time is now, for time is not on their side.
The distinction between Jews and Israelis, of course, is not the same as that between religious and non-religious: There are clearly a lot more "Jews," in Peres' terminology, than shomrei Shabbos in Israel. Prime Minister Sharon, for instance, always describes himself as a Jew first and an Israeli second, and Yair Sheleg wrote recently that many of the national religious youth are culturally more Israeli than Jewish. Yet it is Torah that most raises the ire of "Israelis" like Sarid.
In his Ha'aretz piece Sarid tried to present the looming battle as one between democracy and theocracy – a favorite trope of the Left. Israel must decide once and for all, according to Sarid, between man-made law and halacha as the source of authority.
But Sarid surely knows that there are few would-be theocrats in Israeli. Not the chareidim – who relate to the state as they have related to sovereigns throughout history, according to the principle dina d'malchusa dina; and not the national religious. The vast majority of the latter decided that the pain of battling other Jews as far greater than that of withdrawal. As Lipkin-Shahak put it, who but the Jews of Gaza would "have stretched out their necks for the slaughter . . . in order to prevent the danger of civil war."
Sarid is not battling against an incipient Iran – his article was entitled, "Should we be like Iran?" Rather he seeks to delegitimize the participation of those motivated by strong religious beliefs in all public debate. Just as those calling for dismantling the hesder yeshivot are unnerved by the growing dominance of those wearing kippot serugot in the junior officer corps, so Sarid is unnerved by the influence of religious Jews in Israeli public life.
FOR THE SAKE OF "Israeli's" as well as "Jews," we better hope that the Jewish element of Israeli identity grows stronger. The greatest single threat to Israel's existence is the loss of morale – a point continually emphasized by Hamas propaganda. Hillel Halkin describes how the doubts about the "staying power of the Israel public" influenced Rabin and Peres at the outset of Oslo (and he might have added Ehud Barak at Camp David): "The danger seemed real to them that, weary of sacrifice and losing its morale, Israelis might 'crack' if the conflict continued, sapping the country's strength and ability to defend itself." Or as Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told a group of Jewish donors in New York recently, "We are tired of fighting; we are tired of being courageous; we are tired of winning; we are tired of defeating our enemies."
Unfortunately, given the quality of the neighborhood, Israel has no choice but to continue being courageous and continuing to defeat its enemies, if it wishes to survive. A purely Israeli identity, however, provides too little reason for bearing that burden. It lacks historical depth and commitment. If that was true when David Ben-Gurion met with the Chazon Ish in Bnei Brak, and accepted the analogy of Zionism as an unladen donkey compared to Judaism's laden donkey, it is even more true today when the original Zionist idealism has waned entirely.
When asked what remains of Zionism after it is stripped of its national elements, Shulamit Aloni once replied, "Hebrew." But as hundreds of thousands of Israelis living abroad have shown, it is still possible to speak Hebrew in New York, and Los Angeles, and Miami. And if one's children do not, is that really a tragedy worth facing all the demands of life in Israel to avoid?
Related Topics: Disengagement
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