Israel's Founding Contradictions Haunt 75th AnniversaryRoundup
tags: Israel, Zionism, Middle East history
Bernard Avishai teaches political economy at Dartmouth and is the author of The Tragedy of Zionism, The Hebrew Republic, and Promiscuous, among other books. He was selected as a Guggenheim fellow in 1987.
Israel turns seventy-five this week: the ritualized celebrations of patriotic solidarity are, this year, unusually self-conscious and forced. The country is in an escalating culture war, and the festivity seems only a ceasefire. Not unlike America commemorating its seventy-fifth year, in 1851, one feels that a rotten compromise struck at the time of the state’s founding has produced, in effect, two societies in Israel, one passably liberal and bourgeois, one traditional and supremacist, and that the latter has finally encroached upon the former in ways that make live and let live—once justified as unity against foreign enemies—intolerable.
The showdown has been prompted by the fight over the judiciary, which brought the country to a standstill at the end of last month, when prominent leaders of the military, the business community, the universities, the media, and organized labor joined the movement that has brought hundreds of thousands into the streets to protest the package of legislative “reforms” that the justice minister, Yariv Levin, presented in January. It was, in effect, an assault on the High Court of Justice that would give Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government nearly despotic powers. For Benjamin Netanyahu, who is currently on trial for various charges involving corruption and bribery (he denies all wrongdoing), the package potentially offered a way out of legal jeopardy. More important, it could have provided a way for his allies on the religious far right to expand their powers in both the West Bank and in Israel proper (a distinction they do not recognize), and also for his populist allies in his party, Likud, to foment useful ethnic resentments within the base, by presenting the package as retaliation by poorer, less-educated Mizrahi Jews from Middle Eastern and North African countries against the Ashkenazi or European élites.
I like to imagine Alexis de Tocqueville visiting Israel: wondering, as he did about America, in the eighteen-thirties, as its crisis was brewing, how two such different worlds might continue in a single country, as each expands into shared space, resources, and responsibilities; wondering about the local dangers of what he called the “omnipotence of the majority.” As in America, moreover, the split began in a deliberate constitutional dodge: the coalition’s world was engendered by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s concession to the religious right at the time of the state’s founding. Ben-Gurion, professing a desire for unity (and, by the way, enhancing his personal power), shelved a liberal constitution that had been drafted by the Jewish Agency political secretary, Leo Kohn, and agreed, instead, to extend what was called the religious “status quo,” including allowing various orthodoxies autonomy in their own school systems. In the early nineteen-fifties, there were just a few hundred ultra-Orthodox youth exempt from the draft. He also agreed to official rabbinic control over marriage and divorce. (Although the “status quo” agreement was made before the state of Israel was established and therefore had no legal force, its guarantees have been perceived as binding.) Throughout time, the official rabbinate also came to preside over a large bureaucracy of paid supervisors certifying what is kosher, and, more important, certifying who is Jewish for purposes of immigration.
Since 1967, that world has been centered on Jerusalem and the settlements—a messianist, self-aggrandizing Jewish state running from the Judaean Hills to the Jordan River, expropriating Arab lands for Jewish settlement, making a sovereign claim on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, and rejecting any prospect of Palestinian self-determination. There are many in this theocratic world who feel on far more intimate terms with the Biblical Moses than with Jerusalem’s mayor, who consider the pieties (and the pathos) of observance to be equivalent to Jewish national consciousness.