Some Calming Words

Hillel Halkin shouldn’t be so worried. Democracy is still alive and kicking in Israel. The Israelis who didn’t vote like him aren’t stupid. They’re no less wise, humanitarian, and upright than he is. They want what’s best for Israel, and want to see it progress no less than he does.

Voting for the Knesset and the government in Israel takes place not through articles in the press but through seven-by-ten-centimeter rectangular slips of white paper. The Israelis who stuffed them into ballot boxes sought, in their large majority, to enhance governability, to return personal security to terror-stricken streets, to correct distortions in the justice system, to deepen traditional Jewish identity, to solidify settlement in the central mountain range in the heart of the country, to strengthen economic liberalism and the free market, to impose law and order in the Galilee and the Negev as well, to end the rising cost of housing and living, to put an end to crime in the Arab sector, and to cope effectively with the Iranian threat.

In three and a half years there were five election campaigns in Israel. Only after the fifth, on November 1, when we finally arrived at the necessary decision, can we now look forward to four quiet years of a government working for its citizens. This is cause for us to rejoice—but we must do so carefully.

Why carefully? Because even if the aims of the government are correct, you can still shoot an arrow at a target and lop off someone’s head, scratch the elbow of someone else, and leave a red mark on a third person. The harsh texts denouncing LGBTQ people in Israel are, for instance, gratuitous insults, a poke in the eye. The goal is to strengthen family life in Israel? Faith and tradition? This isn’t the way, friends.   

I didn’t vote for any of the parties in this government—I voted for the former Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, who didn’t reach the election threshold—but I am a woman of the Right, a religious pluralist who believes in the inviolability of the land and the inviolability of the people. The agendas of the new Israeli ministers therefore delight me. But I don’t want to see them tear our people apart.

I understand the pain and fear felt by my friends on the Left. I remember the bitter feelings during the period when, in the bad summer of 2005, the settlements of Gush Katif and northern Samaria were uprooted. I hear today the worries about the new government expressed by my brother and his wife, a secular couple living in a city in the center of the country. I’m aware of the pain felt by my dear colleagues who are members of the LGBTQ community. And I think I understand what underlies the words of Halkin, who is angered by Israel’s abandonment of the political vision in which he believes.

I would, however, urge everyone to calm down. It is necessary to remember that the Right has no intrinsic monopoly on negative characteristics. Brutal and boorish people are divided evenly among all the political camps. And just as there is anti-Arab racism on the edges of my camp, one can spot racism against non-Ashkenazi Jews and negative stereotypes of the ultra-Orthodox on the fringes of the opposite camp. There are, I’m sure, good people on the Left and good people on the Right. The chief difference between the camps is in the degree to which they are more inclined toward universalism or particularism. The more leftist and secular you are, the more universalist your worldview. The more right-wing and religious you are, the more your worldview is likely to take into consideration spheres of identity and connectedness like nationality, community, and family.

When one takes a comprehensive view of things, one understands that it is possible to square the circle: each of us has a first name and a surname. One can be a conservative attuned to distinctive aspects of identity and also speak the language of universal values. One can be a secular liberal worried about individual rights—and at the same time speak, in Hebrew, of Jewish values. There is a way forward to reconcile the opposite poles.

I want to reassure the side that lost the recent elections and remains plagued, at best, by existential fears, and, at worst, feels tempted to leave the country: with respect to religion and state, only a very small part of the new coalition’s goals will in actuality be realized.

I would dare to say that the status quo in religious-secular relations will not budge by even a single millimeter. This because of a complicated and messy bureaucracy, nitpicking legal advisers, a combative opposition, and the secular community in Israel’s low threshold for mistreatment.

Beyond that, it is important to remember that Netanyahu is a leader who avoids confrontations. There are those who would say that he is “measured and responsible,” and others who would say that he is “hesitant and pliable.” Either way, his admirers as well as his detractors will attest that he’s a man who doesn’t like dramatic changes. He’s a good leader, but he’s not a revolutionary. Unfortunately, in my opinion, we can count on Bibi to thwart any possibility of meaningful improvement, change, or even, for that matter, to do any real harm.

Apart from the question of what can actually be done, the Right’s real intentions with regard to religion are much less far-reaching than people in the secular community would like to imagine. Netanyahu himself is a secular man who likes having shrimp on his plate. The heads of the religious and ultra-Orthodox parties have devoted their most recent speeches to calming people down, promising that they would be the public servants of the entire people, that they have no intention of curtailing individual freedom, and that there will be no religious coercion in the State of Israel. I would venture to predict that the most extreme dramatic change in matters of state and religion will be a prohibition on bringing bread into hospitals on Passover. This will not be an earthquake, or the intrusion of the state into citizens’ most private affairs, and it already takes place (although not in legislation) because people show consideration for one another, and most Israelis don’t eat chametz on Passover.

Is no chametz in hospitals for a week the end of democracy? It is a decree that affects only a very limited number of citizens for a few days a year, in a specific area, in a manner that is, in any case, acceptable enough to most people for a very good reason: a religious Jew cannot have anything to do with chametz on Passover, and a hospital isn’t a place where one can choose or not choose to go. It’s a question of avoiding secular coercion, not religious coercion.

The fear that the Israeli streets will be subjected to the dictates of the religious has been in the air since Begin rose to power in 1977, as Halkin notes, but it is utterly baseless. One only has to look at Guy Ben-Porat’s book Between State and Synagogue: The Secularization of Contemporary Israel in order to understand that, in recent decades, the status quo has been modified mainly at the expense of religious people.

With respect to the measures pertaining to national security that are now being proposed, such as the formal authorization of the most recent settlements in Judaea and Samaria, the imposition of sovereignty on strategically significant areas thinly populated by Palestinians (for example, the Jordan Valley, the area north of the Dead Sea, and Area C), the enforcement of law among the Bedouin population in the Negev, and tougher treatment of terrorists—improvements of this kind are acceptable in the eyes not only of the sixty-four members of the Knesset who chose Netanyahu but also in the eyes of an absolute majority of the Israeli public. These are precisely the things that the Israeli voters pine for.

Halkin thinks that an Israeli presence in the Samarian highlands means losing the state due to demographic reasons. I think that an Israeli retreat from those heights means losing the state primarily for security-related reasons—but also because the justification for Zionism will remain intact only as long as we hold onto the ancient cradle of our nation.

So which of the two of us is wrong? The one whose idea has already been tried and has been seen to fail. In Oslo, we tried the system of retreats and partitions of the land, and we tried disengagement. In return we got blood, sweat, and pillars of smoke. The novel idea of acting in the eastern part of the land as a sovereign in the land is something we haven’t yet tried. Honestly, I don’t know if it is possible. But I know what is impossible: to turn over a chunk of land to an enemy who wants to destroy us.

When all is said and done, the difference between me and Halkin isn’t so large. We are, in the end, divided over the question of where the eastern border of our country should lie: I’m in favor of the Jordan River, while he favors Israel having a slimmer outline. On most other matters, most Israelis are in agreement. I apologize if this sounds like a predictable political bromide, but it is the truth: our strength depends on our unity. Against the Iranian threat, against the looming economic challenges of the immediate future, and in the face of a society that again and again seems to be on the brink of internal rupture, we need to remember: eighty percent of Israelis agree on eighty percent of the issues eighty percent of the time. That includes me and Hillel Halkin.


  1. Phil Cohen

    Thanks for a calm analysis. I won't engage in any argument here, though I do not share your reading of the moment. I do want to point out that when you say, "The Israelis who stuffed them [their ballots] into ballot boxes sought, in their large majority, to enhance governability, to return personal security to terror-stricken streets..." unless you mean something other than the plain meaning of this sentence, you are incorrect. The ruling coalition did not elect this government by a "large majority." The coalition won 48% of the vote. That's not a majority, much less a large one. It's a minority government.

    1. David

      Something people rarely mention is it a significant majority of Jews. Now even I am not totally comfortable with how to process that, but unlike the US, it is a Jewish state...

  2. Shmuel Feingold

    You are whitewashing a significant issue. The question is not chametz in hospitals. The question is whether 61 Knesset members can determine that a law is constitutional even if the Supreme Court has said it is not. This effectively means that there is no check on the government.
    The question is not where the Eastern border will be. The question is whether Israel will seek to expel Arabs in either the territories or within the Green line.
    Ultimately, the question is this. Is Baruch Goldstein a national hero or a man who helped bring about the end of Oslo. I resent hearing from those who opposed Oslo from the beginning and worked to undermine now say "we tried that approach." No. We did not. We are as much to blame for sabotaging Oslo as the "other" side. The settlement movement was no less active in undermining that resolution than Hamas. But now that movement is essentially holding the ace of spades because Bibi is most interested in avoiding his criminal trial than reigning in his religious fanatics.
    Finally, it is disingenuous to write that a clear majority of Israeli voters wanted this government. In fact, if one includes the votes of those who voted for parties not making the threshold, we are talking less than a percentage point.
    The most dangerous people in times like this are those who seek to minimize the danger, claiming others are overreacting. They are the enablers. Some of them (like this author) may be sincere. But if we want to understand the significance of these events, we need only look to the words of those promoting change. They are proud to tell us that they want to take Israel in a new "bold" direction. They are proud to tell us that the left are traitors; they do not try and hide that the avert their gaze and refuse to look at the Gay speaker of the Knesset when he is speaking. They are proud to tell us that studying Torah is equal to serving in the army in terms of defending the State.
    In situations like this it is far better to overreact than underreact. And we as Jews should be the first to recognize that fact.

    1. David

      You have some valid points (though blaming settlers who wanted Oslo to fail with the actual failure given the majority support of the Israeli people and specifically the strong support of the government and military until the Second Intifada is disingenuous at best), but your Goldstein comment jumps the megalodon. It's a sign you're not ready to engage in civil discourse when you cast the evil/insane acts of that man on your political opponents.

  3. Michael

    Whatever the arguments, the use of the phrase "There are, I’m sure, good people on the Left and good people on the Right" is tone-deaf for an American audience....unless it was an intentional effort to signal to the far right in the U.S that the Israeli far right stands with them.

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