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As Israel marks its 70th birthday, where now for the Jewish state?

After taking pride in its achievements, Israelis and diaspora Jews owe both Israel and themselves a clear-eyed assessment of its failings

    Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (right) and future statesman Shimon Peres smoking cigarettes together in 1975
    Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (right) and future statesman Shimon Peres smoking cigarettes together in 1975 (Photo: Getty Images)

    Benjamin Netanyahu does not like to be reminded that his own father was not celebrating on November 29, 1947, when thousands of Jews were dancing in the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

    They were rejoicing at the United Nations resolution calling for the establishment of a Jewish state in their ancient homeland, but Benzion Netanyahu, then executive director of the United Zionists-Revisionists of America, had drafted and published a large advertisement in the New York Times titled “Partition Will Not Solve the Palestine Problem!”

    The UN resolution was castigated as “the end of the great Zionist dream” that would rob the Jews of their historic homelands of Judaea, the Galilee and Jerusalem.

    The Revisionists were convinced that accepting partition meant, in the words of their leader Menachem Begin, “giving up on the redemption hope of 90 per cent of the Jewish people.”

    And it wasn’t just the secular Zionist-Revisionists who weren’t dancing that night.

    On Independence Day in 1967, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, the head of Yeshivat Merkaz Harav and a spiritual leader of the Zionist-Religious community, recalled “that famous night, nineteen years ago, when news arrived of the positive decision of the rulers of the world to establish the State of Israel, when all the nation streamed out to celebrate in its masses their feelings of joy, I couldn’t join in.

    “I sat alone, and silent, bereft. In those first hours I could not reconcile with what had been done, with that terrible news.”

    Rabbi Kook — who would go on to inspire the settlers’ movement in the West Bank — could not contemplate a Jewish state without “every fold of earth, every piece, of...God’s land. Are we allowed to give up even one millimetre?”

    The initially dissatisfied: Menachem Begin as Israeli prime minister in 1977
    The initially dissatisfied: Menachem Begin as Israeli prime minister in 1977 (Photo: Getty Images)

    It is important to remember the dissatisfaction of people like Netanyahu Senior, Menachem Begin and Rabbi Kook with the foundation of Israel.

    Their complete rejection of the pragmatic decision of David Ben Gurion and the mainstream leadership of the Zionist movement to take what was on offer — a truncated state on 55 percent of the land west of the Jordan River, not even including Jerusalem — was for many a betrayal of the Jewish people’s birth right and of God’s promise.

    Even after Israel became a reality and prospered, the feeling lingered: that there was a betrayal, that this wasn’t the Israel they had yearned for.

    Begin’s Herut Party, the forerunner of Likud, clung to the demand that Israel assert sovereignty over both banks of the Jordan until 1965, when it was dropped from their manifesto out of political expediency.

    Rabbi Kook’s followers were ready to settle the West Bank two years later when Israel occupied it and have been there since, despite Israel never extending its official sovereignty beyond Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries.

    Begin would eventually make his peace with Ben Gurion’s pragmatism, reconciling with him in the Zaken’s last years.

    He would discover his own pragmatism as prime minister, returning all of the Sinai peninsula to Egypt in return for a stable, if cold peace.

    Ariel Sharon, who had joined the settlers in the 1970s when they challenged the Labour government by building the first West Bank outposts, was tasked as defence minister with dismantling those settlements in Sinai.

    It would be Sharon, as Likud leader, who acknowledged twenty-five years later that Israel could not continue the occupation of the Palestinians indefinitely and took the crucial step of pulling out of the Gaza Strip and dismantling the settlements there.

    Not so long ago, Israeli soldiers were evicting settlers from their homes in Gush Katif and it was overwhelmingly popular.

    Two-thirds of Israelis were in favour of the Gaza “disengagement” only thirteen years ago.

    Ariel Sharon praying at the Western Wall the day after his 2001 election victory
    Ariel Sharon praying at the Western Wall the day after his 2001 election victory (Photo: Getty Images)

    All the polls indicated that had Sharon not slipped into a coma on January 4, 2006, his new centrist party, Kadima, bringing together Likud and Labour pragmatists including even Simon Peres, would have won an unprecedented landslide in the elections in March.

    How easy it was in those days to buy into the idea that Israel was back on a pragmatic path led by, of all people, by the reformed warmonger Sharon.

    Twelve years later, Israeli centrists, left-wingers and those abroad who would like to believe in a more just and liberal Israel have never felt at such a low point.

    They see an Israel that is firing on unarmed protestors on Gaza’s border and whose defence minister justifies this by saying “there are no innocents” there.

    This is an Israel which, despite its increasing prosperity and record-low unemployment, cannot bring itself to accept a plan for 20,000 Eritrean and Sudanese refugees to stay as temporary residents.

    It is an Israel where a Strictly Orthodox minority wields control over the segregated Western Wall and vetoes civil marriage.

    This is an Israel whose leader publicly supported a campaign against the Jewish financier George Soros by Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban that was tainted with barely-concealed antisemitism. This week, he rushed to be the first foreign leader to congratulate Mr Orban on his election victory.

    How can those who believe in a different set of Jewish values continue to identify with Mr Netanyahu’s Israel?

    The fact is that nothing about Israel’s trajectory is inevitable.

    Just as it was an illusion to believe in 1993, when Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat were shaking hands, that the Oslo Process was irreversible, there is no reason to believe now that Israel is destined to be consumed by its current trajectory.

    It could happen, but there are too many of us who will fight for another vision of Israel to make that a likely outcome.

    Dissatisfaction with Israel and its direction of travel is older than the state itself.

    The revisionists and religious-nationalists abominated partition and Ben Gurion gave the religious another reason for resentment when he refused to include God’s name in the declaration of independence.

    Golda Meir inspecting Israeli troops on the Golan Heights in 1971
    Golda Meir inspecting Israeli troops on the Golan Heights in 1971 (Photo: Getty Images)

    Others too were marginalised and maligned by the pragmatic founding fathers. You cannot say you yearn for the Israel of Ben Gurion, Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan without acknowledging that Israel was a much worse place in their day for Mizrahi Jews, who were assigned to the lowest rungs upon arrival.

    Nor can you forget that under Labour’s leadership, Israel’s Arab citizens were subject to martial law for eighteen years and that their situation today, under Likud, is immeasurably better in every way.

    Likud governments of the last forty years may have refused to address the Palestinian issue but it cannot be forgotten that the displacement of 700,000 Palestinians — a figure that now stands at nearly five million — took place long before Begin ever had a sniff of power.

    And Ben Gurion’s heirs had ten years to figure out what to do with the West Bank and Gaza before Likud finally won an election in 1977.

    None of this invalidates the pragmatism and achievements in establishing a state and a democracy in incredibly difficult circumstances.

    Very few, perhaps none, of the states that gained independence in the post-Second World War era can point to similar achievements.

    But it should provide some context for our dissatisfaction with today’s Israel.

    So many visions of Israel have taken root, been betrayed, then resurrected. Netanyahu’s Israel is just the latest iteration and there is no reason to believe it will outlive his premiership.

    The incumbent: Benjamin Netanyahu
    The incumbent: Benjamin Netanyahu (Photo: Getty Images)

    The current Israeli prime minister may be a serial election-winner, but he has always done so by the slimmest of margins: Mr Netanyahu’s Likud has constantly received a smaller share of votes than any previous leader.

    His dissatisfied right-wing-religious coalition has never been larger than fifty-three percent of the Knesset.

    There has never been so much dissent in Israel as there is today, either. Despite the Netanyahu coalition’s efforts, large parts of the media have never been more combative.

    There have never been more Israeli civil society and human rights organisations working to hold the government to account. Questions are being asked on subjects that were once sacrosanct.

    Diaspora Jews too have never had more opportunities to get involved in and influence the Israeli debate.

    We saw this in recent months, when Israelis joined Jews from the US and Britain in trying to persuade the government to abandon its deportation plan for African refugees.

    It is an ongoing battle that is far from over, but there has been some success.

    At seventy, Israel is prosperous, secure and old enough for us to be honest about its flaws.

    Whether as Israelis, or as Jews who choose to live in the diaspora, we owe Israel and ourselves a clear-eyed assessment of its failings, as much as we want to take pride in its achievements.

    Commemorating the past, looking to the future
    Commemorating the past, looking to the future (Photo: Getty Images)

    As a people, we are a polyglot global nation of wanderers and converts. So many have joined over the millennia that we are not defined by genetics.

    Neither are we beholden by the laws of the Torah — which most of us do not observe but in which we do still find meaning, even for those of us who are completely secular.

    We are not confined either by the borders of a strip of land on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean.

    We feel connected to it — a large Jewish community maintains a Jewish state there — but most Jews have made a conscious decision not to live in it.

    But Israel cannot be meaningless to any Jew, no matter their opinion of its current policies and the state of its society.

    At the most basic level, however we frame our identities, our Jewishness means being part of a never-ending argument over ideas.

    The Talmudic discourse that never accepts the easy answer and questions every conclusion is our essence; it embodies our constant dissatisfaction.

    Israel will frustrate us and fail to live up to our standards.

    It has been part of that argument for the past seventy years and we must never stop arguing about it.

    We will always have different ideas of what it should be and never satisfied by what it is.

    How could it be otherwise?

    Anshel Pfeffer’s Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu is published in the UK by Hurst on May 17

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