Op-Ed: Israel's Political Left: Between Judaism and Democracy
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedThe writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law, whose works include the series on Jewish law "Pininei Halacha" and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper. His books "The Laws of Prayer" "The Laws of Passover" and "Nation, Land, Army" are presently being translated into English. Other articles by Rabbi Melamed can be viewed at: www.yhb.org.il/1
The Left’s Claim: Withdrawal for the Sake of Jewish Identity
The main argument heard from the leftist Zionist’s justifying their parties’ political position is that Israel must withdraw from Judea and Samaria and establish a Palestinian state in order to preserve the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. In other words, by withdrawing, a clear Jewish majority will be kept, and along with it, equal rights will be given to the Arab minority living within the state.
If we continue to control Judea and Samaria, they say, then in keeping with democratic values, we must provide equal rights for Arabs living there, and the State of Israel will become bi-national.
This is what Israeli author Amos Oz said, explaining why he supports the extreme-left ‘Meretz’ party: “I am all for drafting yeshiva students [into the army], but what good will they do me, if we have an Arab state here? The [up-coming] elections concern an existential question” (‘Haaretz’, Tevet 29, 5773).
Is this Simply a Cynical Scheme?
For many right-wing people, it is strange to hear a Jewish argument coming from leftists. On the surface, leftists give the impression of being remote and even alienated from their Jewish heritage, always preferring the popular, Western point of view over the national-Jewish legacy, and now, suddenly, Israel’s national identity is their top priority!
Many are convinced that this is a cynical scheme, devised in the school of leftist propagandists. They simply are trying to play on Jewish sentiments in order to convince us that actually, it is in our best interests to betray the Tanach (Bible), give up parts of the homeland, turn our backs on morality, and grant territory to our enemy (from which they can fire shells and missiles on Israeli cities with greater ease). Many on the right feel this type of deception is similar to what Ehud Barak did in a previous election, when, in one of his campaign commercials, he cynically used an elderly patient waiting for treatment in a hospital corridor due to lack of budget allocations to welfare to promote withdrawal from Judea and Samaria.
Wishful Thinking with Nothing to Back Them Up
In my estimation, most leftists say this argument with all honesty. The Jewish identity of the State of Israel really is important to them. Nevertheless, I do not entirely believe them, because every time they encounter a real conflict between Jewish values and democracy, chances are they will choose the democratic, liberal values. Former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Aharon Barak, used to claim that there is no conflict between Judaism and democracy, because Judaism can always be interpreted as being in agreement with democratic values.
According to this approach, for 3,000 years we never really knew what Judaism was all about, until the liberal "philosophers" of the West arrived on the scene, and taught us. Incidentally, this is also how several of the assimilationist Hellenists of Maccabean days thought about Hellenistic culture.
An Illustrative Example
Here is an illustrative example: Up until the Oslo Accords, an Arab Israeli citizen who married an Arab partner living in Judea and Samaria, generally would not receive permission to bring the spouse into the State of Israel. It was clear to the Ministers and government officials that Israel is a Jewish state, and therefore, only Jews could receive citizenship in the country, and not members of any other nation.
As a result of the Oslo Accords, policy was changed, and, according to data from the Ministry of Justice, from 1994 till 2002 – within eight years – approximately 140,000 Arabs from Judea, Samaria, and Jordan who married Israeli Arabs, received Israeli citizenship. In consequence, the demographic advantage achieved as a result of the welcome immigration from the Soviet Union, was erased.
This phenomenon continued during the Rabin government, the first Netanyahu administration, and that of Ehud Barak.
The Conflict between Jewish Values and Democracy
In this case, a conflict arose between two values: in terms of the democratic view, one cannot tell an Arab man from Umm al-Fahm, (a village in the Galilee) who married a woman from Schem (Nablus), that he does not have the right to bring her and her children, to “his country”. In addition, she cannot be denied her right to receive citizenship of the country where she lives with her husband.
On the other hand, if we want the State of Israel to be the state of the Jewish people, we must avoid granting citizenship to Arabs who marry Israeli citizens, otherwise, the State of Israel will quickly become a sought-after destination for all Middle Eastern Arabs who want to improve their standard of living. What began with 140,000 Arabs naturalized in eight years, in a short time, will become millions, seeing as the living conditions in the State of Israel are infinitely better than all the Arab states.
The Oslo Agreements Breached all Barriers
Incidentally, it’s worth mentioning here that it was the cursed Oslo Agreements which caused the breach of all Jewish and moral barriers in Israeli society. Even before the Oslo Accords, tensions were apparent between Jewish values and democracy, with the left-wing parties and the Supreme Court frequently gnawing-away at the principles of Judaism. But from a national perspective, it was also clear to the Supreme Court that the State of Israel is committed to advancing the interests of the Jewish people.
However, the Rabin government, a minority government which the majority of the Jewish public was opposed to, and which needed the support of the Arab parties to survive and to advance the Oslo Accords, granted the Arabs rights that no other previous Zionist leader had ever dared to think of giving.
In addition to the rights previously mentioned, the “Oslo government” decided to equate the ‘kitzvat yeladim’ (child benefits) of those who did not serve in the army, to those of army veterans. Until then, an army veteran or a first-degree relative received a double allowance (the vast majority of hareidim also received a double allowance, because they had a first-degree relative who served in the army. As a result of the change in policy, the numbers of hareidim who do not serve in the army has increased).
Also from a moral perspective, the Oslo Agreements were a disaster. Many people in Israel and throughout the world began feeling admiration, respect, and often love, towards men of bloodshed and deceit, the most abominable of terrorists. Throughout the world, all terrorist organizations were given a boost of encouragement. To supplement this position, many leftists became haters of their own people, the settlers, accepting all slander against them with absolute trust, while using the same arguments that the greatest anti-Semites used against the Jews in the past.
The Government’s Re-evaluation
And now to the issue of the conflict between Judaism and democracy. When the Israeli government under Ariel Sharon realized that it must stop the flow of immigrants, out of economic and national motivation, it faced a problem. No longer could it claim that since the State of Israel is a Jewish state, it is permitted to deny Israeli Arabs the right to raise a family, and live with them here, with full rights. True, this was the prevailing view amongst the Zionist-left before the Oslo Agreements. But after the erosion that occurred in wake of the Oslo Accords, it was clear that the Supreme Court would reject a law denying this right from Arab citizens, just as it rejected the option of reinstating increased benefits for army veterans.
What did the government do? They employed a less important argument, stating that such immigration creates a security problem, as it became clear that some of the recipients of Israeli citizenship exploited their citizenship to carry out terrorist attacks. Therefore, as a temporary measure, the government passed a law denying Arabs married to Israeli citizens the right to obtain citizenship. Validity of this ‘temporary order’ law has been extended repeatedly, until today.
The Supreme Court’s Position
Of course, leftist organizations and Arabs petitioned the Supreme Court to invalidate the law, deeming it contrary to Israel's basic law on "human dignity and freedom". During the years between 2006 and 2012, the Supreme Court debated this issue twice, before an expanded panel of eleven judges, and in both cases, refrained from condemning the law by a single vote.
Five judges, including Chief Justice’s Barak and Beinish, supported banning the law. However, six judges determined the law should not be banned; several of them emphasizing their decisions were based on the law being a temporary one that eventually would be eliminated, when the security situation improved.
It should be noted that although the Supreme Court narrowly approved the law, the very fact that it seriously debated its invalidation caused significant changes that led to the granting of citizenship to nearly 1,000 Arabs a year, this because legal advisors felt that without these changes, the law would not pass the “test of the Supreme Court”.
In effect, according to the opinion of the majority of Supreme Court judges, the upshot is that without the argument of ‘pikuach nefesh’ (life-endangering situation), the State of Israel should voluntarily relinquish its Jewish majority for the sake of democracy.
Consequently, It is Impossible to Believe Leftist’s Claims
In this case, we have a real conflict between the vision of a Jewish state, and democracy. Are those who say they wish to withdraw from Judea and Samaria in order to maintain a Jewish majority, willing to openly fight in this matter against the Supreme Court? Even if they answer affirmatively, they cannot be believed. True, most of them want to preserve the identity of the State of Israel, but whenever there is a conflict between the values of Judaism and those of democracy and liberalism, they choose the latter.
Western Worldview vs. Jewish “Folklore”
The reason for this is that they studied and discussed at length the Western, liberal democratic values in all of the State of Israel’s school systems, whereas Jewish values are perceived as a nice, grandfatherly folklore, void of significant content. Thus, whenever there is real conflict between democratic values and Judaism, they will choose democracy; and in a gradual process, they distance and estrange themselves from their Jewish heritage. To appease their Jewish conscience, they reminisce about stories of affable, smiling rabbis, they cite verses and sayings supporting their liberal outlook, and thus, feel they have retained their Jewish identity.
They might attempt to soothe their consciences’ by supporting the Reform and Conservative movements. This, indeed, fits them well, seeing as the main endeavor of these movements is to adapt Judaism to fit the values of Western society. But even this will not endure, because if the motivation is not to preserve Judaism, but to find a way to adapt it to Western culture, it is far easier to integrate into Western culture without having the burden of a Reform or Conservative simulation of Judaism on one’s back.
It seems the only thing keeping Jewish identity as a significant consideration for them is the Arab’s war against us. Without this, they themselves, ‘l’chatchila’ (at first), would support a “country of all its’ citizens”, devoid of any national, Jewish distinction, just as the extreme-left “theorists” have already articulated today.
With God’s help, I plan on writing more about our approach, which views positively the values of democracy, human, and civil rights, and how they fit into the genuine, Jewish outlook.
I cannot conclude without expressing gratitude for the touching story by Shifra Rivkin – “MeHodi l’Yehudi” (From Indian to Jew), which related the wonderful story of the beloved, righteous converts, the physician Dr. Aaron Abraham and his family, who converted, and immigrated from India to live in Kiryat Arba. Anyone who did not read the story, should get a copy of last week’s “Besheva” newspaper, and read it.
I will quote the last lines, which, after reading, brought tears to my eyes: “The culmination for them as righteous converts was the renewed marriage ceremony held in the ‘Cave of Patriarchs’, by Rabbi Dov Lior, twenty-five years after their first marriage. But this time, it was done according to the ‘Law of Moses and Israel’. “We stood there under the canopy, hearts full of gratitude. I said to my wife: ‘Do you believe that we are now kosher Jews?’ And instead of answering me, she burst into tears. At that moment, I released a sigh of relief and said, ‘God, thank you! How good it is for me to be a Jew.”