I am struggling, and I am not alone. Having lived my entire adult life in Israel – almost 40 years – I have never had regrets about leaving America and choosing Jerusalem as my home. I have dedicated my life to making Israel a better place, based on my understanding of what it means to be part of the Jewish people, and based on our historical experience as Jews in this world.
I recognize that Israel is a profoundly divided society. There is a deepening gap increasing the sense of alienation between parts of our society. It is, perhaps what President Reuven Rivlin referred to in his famous “Tribes” speech in which he described four types of Israelis, secular, ultra-Orthodox, national- religious and Arab. These “tribes” certainly exist. They have different sources of news, information, education and points of reference about what is important in life.
I feel myself drifting away from a sense of solidarity with many parts of Israeli society – more than I have ever felt before. The cleavages are most definitely along the lines of religious identity, which tends to determine also positions on the future of the Land of Israel, relations between Jewish and Arab Israelis, relations between Israel and the Palestinians, and now positions regarding the asylum seekers from Africa.
On one side are those Israelis who see the failure of the peace process with the Palestinians, and the belief that no such peace can ever exist, as being divinely inspired. These Israelis, in fact, view this failure as a blessing. On the other side are people like me who see the failure of the peace process and the failure to partition the Land of Israel into two states for the two peoples who inhabit it as leading to the end of the Zionist enterprise and the demise of our democracy.
As I read the morning newspaper every day, is seems evident that my part of Israel is shrinking in size and in influence. I struggle to find a piece of news that I could refer to as being positive. Good news is rare. I have a sense that more and more people who share my viewpoint and value system are engaging in self-censorship. This includes deciding to avoid discussing politics in public, or in professional or social settings. Moshe Negbi, who died this week, said that self-censorship is one of the signs of deterioration in a democracy. When people are afraid to speak their minds or stand behind their values, the foundations of our democracy are challenged.
What is being said out loud today in Israel are things that once, if thought, were rarely vocalized. That sense of shame has long disappeared. I was in the Knesset two weeks ago for a meeting about Israel’s failing foreign service and Foreign Ministry. In that discussion, Oren Hazan, the only Knesset member from the coalition in attendance, made a statement regarding his wish to expel Israel’s Palestinian Arabs. One of the opposition MKs, who was chairing the discussion, noted that Hazan was expressing a legitimate idea when some participants attacked his words.
This was too much to accept and I turned in anger to Hazan and the other MKs and participants in the room: “Excuse me, but Israel expelling its Palestinian Arab minority is not a legitimate idea – and certainly not when spoken by a member of the ruling coalition in the Knesset.”
This idea, when presented by Meir Kahane, was boycotted by 119 MKs. Now it is supported by members of the government up to the level of the defense minister.
The entire discussion on the future of the African asylum seekers in Israel has shed more light on the divide within our society. It is unthinkable that we, the Jewish people, would expel thousands who even though they entered Israel illegally are seeking our protection to save their lives. These people, from Darfur and Eritrea, are recognized in all OECD countries as refugees. Israel’s religious and right-wing coalition, led by convicted criminals such as Arye Deri, a man who claims to be a rabbi, are leading the plan to expel them in the name of demographic threats – in order to keep the nation pure.
It makes me sick and I cannot stop myself of thinking of dark places in our history as a people in Europe in the late 1930s. I am appalled by this, as I am every day seeing news reports of Palestinian homes being demolished systematically, sick people on our border with Gaza being refused medical treatment, thousands of Israelis being denied the right to marry because their Judaism is being questioned, and more. This is not my Israel. This is not the Israel that I want to be part of.
There are so many things in Israel that we can be proud of. Amazing achievements have been made in the past 70 years. Israel is a miracle, Israel is a dream come true. But what we are witnessing today in Israel is that dream becoming a nightmare.
The author is the founder and co-chairman of IPCRI – Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives (www.ipcri.org). His new book, In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine, has been published by Vanderbilt University Press.