ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 150

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Israeli liberals have been compromising for 75 years. Enough!

A racist, chauvinistic and inciting leadership has adopted terms such as equality and democracy to mobilize Israel toward an anti-democratic religious state

Religious Zionism head Bezalel Smotrich (standing) with United Torah Judaism leader Yitzchak Goldknopf at the Knesset on November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Religious Zionism head Bezalel Smotrich (standing) with United Torah Judaism leader Yitzchak Goldknopf at the Knesset on November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The word “compromise” hovers alluringly over the battles now tearing Israeli society apart. If the two camps would only compromise, it is argued, the problems of the State of Israel will be magically solved. The torrent of discourse surrounding the word “compromise” suggests the stance of many that prior to the new Coalition’s wild legislative blitz, the Israeli liberals inhabited a democratic state that reflected their values. Hence, now, some compromise is called for to accommodate the camp that recently assumed power.

Four massive compromises

The truth, however, is that the Israeli liberal camp has been compromising continually since the establishment of the state, for 75 years. Three of these massive compromises took place in the early years of the state. The first was the agreement that there would be no separation of religion and state, and that the Jewish religion that would dominate as Israel’s state religion would be exclusively ultra-Orthodox – Judaism’s most anti-liberal domination.

The second compromise was the agreement that the education system would be divided into state and private yet subsidized religious schools and state non-religious schools. In practice, however, the latter schools that serve the children of the seculars were, and are, infused by religious and nationalistic content outlined by an Education Ministry usually controlled by an illiberal minister. At the same time, within the religious schools of the ultra-orthodox, teaching math and English that provide basic tools for integration into society, let alone basic democratic education, are extremely limited or completely forbidden.

Later, what began as an agreement to support a handful of religious scholars developed into another, fateful compromise, in which the liberal public financially supports the ultra-Orthodox public, despite this being an anti-democratic population with a birthrate far higher than the rest of the population. This group’s assertion of its mystical contribution to public wellbeing (that claim that studying the Torah saves Israel) is at odds with a rational and democratic logic that would obligate it to contribute to military or national service, economic productivity, or paying income tax.

We must not be misled by the fake ‘unity of the people’

A fourth compromise, largely repressed, grew since 1967: The liberal public willingness, by and large, to avert its gaze from the anti-democratic injustices done to Palestinians on a daily basis and to finance and protect the settlement enterprise despite its illegality and the trampling of basic human rights it entails.

Comfortable life in a bubble

For years Israeli liberals were held captive by an ethos of the “unity of the nation” that required compromises only from the liberal camp, by the absurd “status quo” argument on religion and state, and by the lie of the “empty cart” according to which only the religious have values ​​they cannot renounce. Later, the rightwing government and its Minister of Finance Netanyahu privatized the Israeli market under cruel neoliberal capitalism ideology. While this policy created extreme economic gaps, it brought many liberals intoxicating wealth. Many could now enjoy a higher standard of living than their parents, allowing a large population a comfortable life in the kind of socioeconomic bubble that does not offer a fertile ground for political engagement and moral activism.

The ongoing occupation and the many Palestinians who did not abandon the idea of ​​return also took their toll. Many abandoned the idea of ​​peace or, worse, became complicit in the notions of Jewish supremacy and in the profits the occupation yielded, deriving from, among other things, the military industry and a significant segment of the hi-tech sector. The great economic inequalities created and sustained by the Likud, and the injustices of the continued occupation, poisoned the liberal camp from the inside, turning most of it into an indifferent and hedonistic one, unmoved by the suffering of others.

Israeli liberals also found bypass routes for some of the impediments posed by their compromises, whether through civil marriage in Cyprus, a medical certificate that allows one’s son to escape combat military service, and service in intelligence units where the children not only escaper danger or face the horror of the occupation regime, but also get valuable human capital for the civil market. Liberals have deluded themselves that they can go on forever like this, crying as they shoot, occupying while remaining a democracy for Jews, and somehow assuming the other side will eventually see the light of liberalism, be convinced by feminism, and recognize the value, or at least the necessity, of participating on the labor market.

This did not happen.

Indeed, the liberal camp was forced to realize that not only are its values ​​not winning, but they are increasingly used by the other side in the service of justifying the exact opposite. Thus, a racist, chauvinistic and inciting leadership adopts terms such as equality and democracy, flavored with the schmaltz of faked brotherly love and the unity of the Jewish people, to mobilize Israel toward an anti-democratic religious state.

No more fake unity

The liberal camp cannot compromise anymore, not without forever losing its essence. It has been compromising basic liberal values for more than seven decades now, watching and even contributing to the collapse of the ideals of “liberty, equality, fraternity.” No democratic nation has ruled over another for more than half a century, does not allow civil family law, and has undertaken to fund an entire sector that refuses to contribute its share to this joint effort while sacrificing its children to poverty and ignorance.

There is no room for further compromise: liberals can scarcely recognize themselves as such after the compromises already made. Now it is the turn of the anti-liberals to compromise and preserve the remaining fragile democratic shell that sustains the State of Israel’s existence. Absent such compromise, those liberals who can will seek their destiny abroad, and all the rest will sink with their sinking state. Without this still large, educated and productive group, Israel would not only be a darker place, but one whose very existence is endangered.

Understanding the depth of compromises the liberal public in Israel has already made since the establishment of the state makes it clear what will happen if their invitation – their plea – to build a democratic constitution is not seriously taken up, or yields only a fake and temporary “compromise” that further shrinks Israel’s already shriveled democracy. We must not be misled by the fake “unity of the people,” which thus far has only rendered the liberal camp into the Messiah’s donkey.

Prof. Dafna Hacker (dafna@tauex.tau.ac.il) is a full professor in the Faculty of Law and the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at Tel Aviv University. Prof. Yael Hashiloni-Dolev (yaelhd@bgu.ac.il) is a full professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Ben-Gurion University.

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