Dr. Moshe Dannis a PhD historian, writer and journalist based in Jerusalem.
The word “Jewish” appears many times in Israel’s Declaration of Independence; “democracy,” however, doesn’t appear once. The reason is that the drafters – while respecting democratic norms and values – wanted to protect Israel’s uniqueness as the “homeland of the Jewish people,” and Zionism. This priority has been questioned in the past by Israeli leftists, and has now become the raison d’etre of the current protest movement.
What has emerged as a protest movement against the government and judicial reforms is the extent to which the Labor Party and its affiliates control social and economic institutions. The Histadrut, for example, which controls nearly all labor organizations in Israel, wields enormous power and influence. Support for the protest movement by former and current military leaders who identified with the Left has created havoc in the IDF. The entire judicial system has been compromised. Most Israeli colleges and universities are complicit. The media is leading the bandwagon of disinformation.
The crisis in Israeli society was examined by Rabbi Prof Eliezer Berkovits in two important essays he wrote nearly 50 years ago: “On Jewish Sovereignty” (1975) and “The Spiritual Crisis in Israel” (1979) which are included in his “Essential Essays on Judaism” (2002) edited by David Hazony.
In the first, he wrote about the Covenant which links the Jewish people with God, and with Eretz Yisrael as the place where their destiny would be realized. “Those Jews who separate Judaism from Zion, Tora from the land of Israel, gives up both Tora and the land … They have surrendered, as a matter of principle, Judaism’s raison d’etre, which is fulfillment in history.”
In the second, he wrote: “There is a severe identity crisis in Israel, so severe that a majority of Israelis are not even aware of the “existential vacuum” (to use Viktor Frankl’s terminology) in which they live. This identity problem in Israel is, unfortunately, the direct outcome of a basic mistake in modern Zionism: “Normalization.”
“Zionism’s striving for ‘normalization’ implied the rejection of Judaism and required the reshaping of the Jewish people in an alien image. But this is impossible. A nation may grow, develop, renew itself from its own resources of the mind and spirit in a continuous process of loyalty to its own identity. But a people that refuses to understand itself from within, that cuts itself loose from the meaning of its historic course, that has no respect for its historic identity, is bound to fail.” In such a situation, he continues, Judaism and the Jewish state become “inauthentic;” both are “in exile.”
The danger of the protest movement is that it has introduced a form of paganism into its political goals. It is willing to sacrifice our common bonds and identity as a nation and a people for their apocalyptic vision of chaos and totalitarianism. Rage has become a substitute for reason. Blocking roads and transportation facilities is justified as “defending democracy.” In that case, “democracy” has no meaning; the protests are an end in themselves.
In a wonderful essay on law and morality, and taking responsibility for one’s actions, David Hazony writes: “If we really want to transform our world, then what we need is a discipline that trains us to excel as moral actors. In Judaism, this discipline is what is gained by trying to live one’s life according to Jewish law. This does not mean, of course, that every person who tries to live according to Jewish law turns out to be moral. But for those Jews who want to be moral, and who want to develop the habits of good behavior, the idea of bringing morality under law offers a method of training …that makes one strong enough to be good. In Judaism this is crucial, because a good person means not only having ‘meant well,’ but also having saved the day.” (from “Why Judaism Has Laws,” Azure, Autumn, 2006)
Participants in the protest movement might do well to ask themselves if their actions make Israel a better place, or not. Is tearing apart our society in order to prevent any and all judicial reforms a worthy goal? With calls for civil war, insurrection and mayhem, the protest movement is a threat to Israeli society, and those who support it should think about its purpose and alternatives. We need to focus on what unites us and strengthens us, not what is divisive and destructive.
There have been many attempts to define our national identity. Twenty years ago, for example, The Committee for National Responsibility at the Yitzhak Rabin Center published “The Kinneret Declaration.” In 2018, the Knesset passed a Basic Law, “Israel - the Nation State of the Jewish People.”
The protest movement can become an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the values and ideals that inspired generations to re-establish a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael, the homeland of the Jewish People. It’s about The Covenant, and the meaning of Jewish history.
As Hillel Ofen, the young soldier who died recently during a training exercise wrote:
I belong to a family, a community, a society, a nation.
I belong to the country, to the homeland.
I belong to humanity, to conscience, to honor.
I belong to history, to the future.
I belong to joy, to pain, to expectations, to fear.
Everything that has passed and will pass over me and my people, everything that has been created.
My identity, who I am, I belong to it.
And it is my duty to preserve, protect and maintain all of these.”
That Identity is what the protest movement seeks to undermine.