“Israel is the only democracy in the region” – is an oft-repeated trope by those, like me, who were fighting for support for Israel in the face of raising criticism. Even with the uncertainty in Egypt’s unfolding changing political reality, it seems disingenuous to say this anymore. The reality in the region is changing, while the political winds in Israel are blowing in the wrong direction.

JNF is trying to plant forests in the Negev, which in some places has overlaps with Bedouin communities. While the Israel Land Authority provides justification for the destruction of homes and communities, citing land acquisition laws going back to the establishment of Israel, it fails to acknowledge the human toll of its aggressive and destructive actions. The Bedouins, who have been held up as example of “good” Arab citizens of Israel who often serve in the army, are being treated as enemies, or worse, as less-than-human, second-class citizens. The legal arguments are complicated, but the practical realities are not. Creating enemies out of your friends is bad politics, especially in a country that is fighting international criticism and global delegitimization efforts.

The complex realities of the refugees of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence have tested Israel’s strength, resolve and moral fiber.  Prophetic voices from within the Jewish world have been crying for a uniquely Jewish response to these challenges – one that responds to the Torah’s call for justice, compassion and mercy. Pragmatic voices have recognized that true and lasting peace can only come from reconciliation with our enemies. Yitzhak Rabin gave his life in the pursuit of this peace.

Today, opposing forces grip Israel. There are those who are fighting for justice and reconciliation. And there are those, represented, for example by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who view peace differently, through a lens of extreme self-defense. The mentality of the ultra-nationalists – both religious and secular — in Israel today that assumes superiority (we are stronger, smarter, or entitled because we are “chosen”) is a twisted reaction to generations of fear and isolation as Jews. The “ghetto mentality” perceives everyone as our potential or real enemy. It sees the world as continuing to irrationally victimize Jews without justification. It rejects all criticism of Israeli policies as anti-Israel or anti-Jewish. It believes that we, the Jewish people, or the Jewish state, are entitled to do anything and everything to secure our small corner of the world, regardless of what the world thinks, or regardless of the consequences to the “other” who live and among and beside us.  The moral consequences are breathtaking; the political outcomes are no less significant.

While Egypt was convulsing with revolution in late January and early February the Israeli leadership hunkered down. Many of us were worried about what this would mean for the region (and we remain so). But rather than voicing support for democracy, Israeli leadership is quoted as having counseled patience – anything that would keep the ally Mubarak in power and calm their worries. The threat of the Muslim Brotherhood and other virulent anti-Jewish Islamists seizing power and threatening Israel’s peace remains very real. But Israeli leaders may have squandered an opportunity for alliance and partnership with the secular pro-democracy youth who drove this revolution. We can only pray that they can recover while Egypt remains in transition.

A new mentality is needed in the Jewish world and in Israel. We cannot assume international support for Israel as a Jewish state. Tragically, in today’s environment, we may need to assume the opposite. We cannot assume that autocracies (as have been in Egypt and Jordan) will keep the region stable. While the youth of Arab nations struggle for democracy, even with the uncertainties and imperfections of this struggle, Israel would do well to reach a hand out to them.

But we also cannot assume that Israeli democracy will be held up as an example for the region and the world as a beacon of light in a sea of darkness. The situation is far more complex. Israel has work to do to clean up its own. The humanity, the rights and the needs of the “other” cannot be dismissed. Religious rights for all Jews, equal rights for Arabs and compassion for the myriad victims of displacement and conflict should characterize the democracy within Israel. Israel can be the “light unto the nations” that the prophets envisioned, a Jewish state with a moral and spiritual vision that befits our struggle as a people.

The redemptive aspirations of a new Zionism can be a renewed source of purpose for Israel and our people. Then we can speak with pride in the democracy that we have created, uniquely woven out of the fabric of Torah.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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