A note in my personal capacity.
Do Rabbis have personal capacities? I don’t know, I suspect that for some this will seem to be an abuse of my position, either as a Rabbi or as a ‘foreigner’ or both.
But there is something I feel, religiously, about the recent Israeli election that is, I hope, worth sharing.
It’s remarkable that Israel is a democracy.
It’s remarkable that there Jewish MKs, Arab MKs, and MKs representing a vast range of political positions elected to a Kenesset that represents a country whose capacity to engage in vigorous debate is exceeded by none.
It’s remarkable that an election is called, no-one dies, no-one levels accusations of vote-rigging and no-one doubts that had the will of the Israeli people been so manifest, elected officials would have packed up and moved out without tanks or protests. But that is not what happened.
What happened is that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s leadership and his electoral strategy were vindicated and while I respect the decision of the electorate, that makes me sad.
It makes me sad because the leadership and the strategy were driven by something I oppose – the creation of factions and the othering of those who disagree with me. Likkud’s election posters - banner headline ‘it’s us or them’ –captured the mood of the Netanyahu campaign perfectly. Who were the ‘them,’ was it the Palestinians, the Iranians, the Zionist Union, reds under the bed? All of the above, and more (possibly not the reds under the bed). Netanyahu accused outsiders of trying to bring down him and his government, ‘There is a huge international effort, with major money and also media figures, in order to bring down the Likud government,’ he said, ‘Whether legal or not, it certainly is not legitimate for foreign governments and all kinds of donors to meddle here.’ That’s the same Netanyahu whose most significant speech of the campaign was given in the US Congress and whose most significant supporter is the American media figure Sheldon Adelson.
On the day of the campaign the warning went out, ‘Arab voters are coming in droves to the ballot box.’ The message, again, is that someone else is the enemy. The Arab communist party twitter-feed captured the intent with a witty play putting Netanyahu into the mythology of the TV show, Game of Thrones.
If, in Game of Thrones, the enemy are flesh-eating zombies who will stop at nothing to breach a wall that is the only thing keeping the Kingdom from destruction, then the Arabs are ...
But perhaps the most significant moment of the campaign came with Netanyahu rejecting the two-state solution. In this new Kenesset, the Palestinians are not potential (if hard-to-win) peace partners, they are to be excluded, ‘othered.’
These last-minute otherings of Arabs and Palestinians brought the electoral cycle back in a full circle. The election had originally been called following a coalition fall-out over a bill that would define Israel as ‘the nation-state of the Jewish people.’ The row was predicated on a perceived abandonment of the intent of Israel’s Declaration of Independence which spoke of the foundation of a ‘country for the benefit of all its inhabitants [ensuring] complete equality of social and political rights irrespective of religion.’ The bill was designed to indicate to the Arabs that they were to be tolerated as ‘others,’ allowed to sit quietly on the fringe of Israeli society, but no more. More crucially it was designed to indicate to Netanyahu’s own right wing that he was ‘one of them’ and that the peace-mongers, the non-Jews and everyone else who harboured hopes for a two-state solution were other.
This is my religious point.
Othering people is not good. The central message of the Torah is, according to the Talmud’s dominant Rabbinic leader, Rabbi Akiva, loving your neighbour. As one teacher put it to me, if you only count as neighbours people you like already, you’ve missed the point. Another of the Talmud’s greatest teachers, Ben Azzai, disagrees with Rabbi Akiva. For him the central point of Judaism has something to do with recognising that all humanity is created in the image of God, Jew and Arab alike. The Bible itself, on 36 occasions, warns against oppressing the stranger, the powerless, those who sit on the fringes of society. We are, as the People of this awesome Book, commanded ‘to love the stranger,’ precisely because we, as Jews, profess an understanding of what it is to be treated as others, kept on the fringe and tolerated as outsiders – at best. Looking for opportunities to create division, even for the sake of political advantage, is not good enough. Creating a culture of ‘us vs them,’ when we are going to have to work out ways to live together one way or another, might be good short-term politics, but it’s counter-productive in the long term and religiously unacceptable.
The leader of one of those ‘foreign NGOs’ who Netanyahu so criticised in the run up to the election, Jeremy Ben-Ami of J-Street, sent out a disappointed, but unbowed, reflection on the election, calling on its supporters to continue to make the case for a two-state solution, for breaking down the culture of fear and otherness. It’s a call I echo, for religious and ethical reasons, as well as political ones.
Those interested in practical ways to do this work are invited to investigate further and support organisations such as
www.yachad.org.uk –educating and lobbying on a pro-Israel, pro-two-state solution.
http://www.newisraelfund.org.uk/ - supporting democratic, progressive, tolerant and inclusive NGOs in Israel.