Last Tuesday, at the opening Remembrance Day ceremony at the Yad Labanim memorial in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared: “We shall not give up on reaching reconciliation with our enemies, but we must first reach reconciliation within ourselves.” Hear, Hear.
The problem is that as Aliza Doolittle said in My Fair Lady, it is all just “words, words, words.” Not only do we see no official efforts to reach reconciliation with our enemies, but Netanyahu does not appear to be doing anything to bring about reconciliation at home, either. On the contrary, again and again he fails to react when implicit and explicit incitement is carried out by one part of the population against another, and occasionally he ineptly actually joins the inciters.
Especially aggravating is that even when it is Mizrahim badmouthing Ashkenazim, or the religious trying to delegitimize the seculars, Netanyahu stays mum, even though to the best of my recollection he is both Ashkenazi and secular. And if we cannot expect him to come out against those who attack Ashkenazim and seculars, we certainly cannot expect him to come out against those who attack Arabs and left-wingers.
So what exactly does Netanyahu mean when he says “we must first reach reconciliation within ourselves”? First of all, he said “within ourselves” (betochenu), and not “among ourselves” (beinenu). “Within ourselves” implies that we are (or should be) a unified whole, and that internal conflict is thus necessarily a bad thing. That is basically a republican interpretation of democracy.
“Among ourselves” on the other hand would imply that the whole is made up of many, varied parts, and that for all the parts to live together in harmony we must encourage tolerance and discourage the delegitimization of those who are unlike us. Conflict here is in itself not necessarily a bad thing. That is basically a liberal interpretation of democracy.
Incidentally, one of the differences between the old version of the civic studies high-school textbook To Be Citizens in Israel, and the recently approved new version is exactly this. The old version was based on a liberal interpretation of democracy and the new one is based on a republican interpretation, where the legitimate “we” is viewed as Jewish, religious and right wing, and those who are not Jewish or are secular and left-wing are at best tolerated.
But while liberal democracy does not threaten the legitimacy of right-wingers and religious persons, republican democracy marginalizes Arabs and left-wingers, and places all seculars on the defensive. The facts that the Arabs have lived in this land from time immemorial and that secular socialists established the State of Israel do not seem to give either group any points of credit.
Many right-wingers and religious circles – especially when they constitute the majority – seem to disapprove of liberal democracy, which is why those who are trying to weaken the Supreme Court – the body which is most identified with the liberal interpretation of democracy in Israel – are all right-wing and/or religious.
Of course, it is perfectly legitimate for Netanyahu not only to be a republican with a capital R, but also a republican with a small r. However, if that is really what he is, he owes us an explanation as to what exactly he means by “reconciliation within ourselves,” and how exactly the officially endorsed civic studies book addresses the issue of reconciliation. And incidentally, what does he think of the fact that the new book devotes only four lines to the Mizrahim? How exactly does that tally with reconciliation, given that the Mizrahim feel that 68 years after the establishment of the state they are still being discriminated against? We also haven’t heard what he thinks about the anti-Ashkenazi cultural vendetta of Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, and her total silence on the issue of racist heckling by fans of the Jerusalem Betar football team against the Arabs, and (while they are at it) against Jewish left-wingers.
I don’t know what sort of music/theater/literature the Netanyahu family consumes, and I do not know which football team (if any) the prime minister supports. However, from the report in The Independent about Netanyahu’s wife Sara having allegedly hurled at former custodian of the prime minister’s household, Meni Naftali, that “we are delicate Europeans, and do not eat as much as you Moroccans do,” I gather that at least on the culinary issue the Netanyahus consider themselves Western.
I am the last to deny that Mizrahi culture and Mizrahi artistic activities should be funded as generously as Western culture and Ashkenazi artistic activities. I would even admit that the Ashkenazi attitude on these issues is haughty and discriminatory. However, there is a difference between rectifying a historical distortion and the reckless wave of overt anti-Ashkenazi hatred that is sweeping certain sections of the Israeli society.
In Haaretz last week there was an opinion piece by psychology professor Maya Bar-Hillel, in which she related an experience she recently had at a gas station. A young Mizrahi man was yelling at a petrified elderly Ashkenazi driver, of whose driving he disapproved. When Bar-Hillel and another bystander intervened, the young man looked them in the eye and said, “You should go back to Poland.”
Well, this wasn’t as bad as what happened to me, several years ago, when a young Mizrahi man I had criticized blurted at me: “Hitler should have finished you (plural) off.”
Regev must be familiar with this phenomenon, and ought to take it into account when she lashes out at Ashkenazim.
Apparently she feels exempted since her husband is Ashkenazi. But if Netanyahu is so mindful of the need for reconciliation, I would expect him to say something unambiguous and unequivocal on this issue.
But alas, when Brig. Gen. Yair Golan dared allude to manifestations of brutal hatred and intolerance in his Holocaust memorial speech, instead of Netanyahu just expressing displeasure with the occasion on which Golan chose to air his concerns, he told him off for what he had said, adding that his words were “outrageous.”
Doesn’t the prime minister see what many of us see? That a process of fascistization is creeping into Israeli society, one of the manifestations of which is cries of “death to the Arabs,” “death to the Lefties” and “Hitler should have finished you (Ashkenazim) off,” and that the answer is not to dismiss the perpetrators as “an insignificant, marginal minority”? They are not an insignificant, marginal minority.
Some might point out that the fact Netanyahu is currently negotiating with Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog about the Zionist Union possibly joining his government is proof that at least with regard to the Left I do him an injustice. This would be true if he were willing to negotiate real compromises regarding his government’s basic guidelines.
But he is not. All he appears to be willing to concede are a handful of secondary ministerial positions, with zero influence on grand policy. There is no real reconciliation in this offer.
The main problem seems to be that most of Netanyahu’s voters and potential voters are from population groups that are not interested in reconciliation, and that as long as his main driving force is his own political survival, he cannot really opt for reconciliation, even if he perceives the dangers of the current situation.
From this perspective perhaps Netanyahu deserves to be complimented for daring to say: “We shall not give up on reaching reconciliation with our enemies, but we must first reach reconciliation within ourselves.” Unfortunately it does not change the fact that what he said is nothing more than words, words, words.
The writer is a political scientist and a retired Knesset employee.