Despite the dangers mounting all around us, as we approach Rosh Hashana 5775, for Jews in Israel, in many ways things have never been better.
On Sunday night, President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spoke at the 10th-anniversary celebration marking the founding of the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem.
In his remarks, Rivlin described the impact of what he referred to as the “revolution” Menachem Begin led in Israeli society.
Through his victory in the 1977 Knesset elections, which marked the end of the Labor Party’s monopoly on power, Rivlin explained, Begin began the process of expanding the definition of what it means to be an Israeli.
Until Begin rose to the premiership, entire sectors of society, Mizrahim from Arab countries, new olim, religious Zionists and haredim had been shunned by the establishment.
Begin changed that.
Begin opened the doors to everyone, facilitating their entry into society on their own terms, transforming Israel from a melting pot, where everyone was supposed to aspire to become a member of the in-group, into a multicultural society, where all expressions of Israeli-ism were welcome.
The goal of Begin’s revolution was to develop Israel into an open, dynamic and inclusive society. Begin ushered in its first phase – inclusion. He didn’t live to see the next phase, that of integration. In the first phase, the spurned sectors Begin embraced defined themselves more by what distinguished them from other Israelis than by what united them with their fellow Israelis.
Today, Rivlin explained, we are in the next phase of Begin’s revolution as we see the integration of more and more Israelis into a new, dynamic, inclusive model of Israeli-ism. This is a model based on what unites us, rather than what drives us apart.
In his remarks, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu also highlighted the sense of national unity that increasingly defines the Israeli experience. Netanyahu dwelled on its foundations – the shared Jewish heritage and values that form the basis of Israeli society.
Both men marveled at how far Israel has come in this direction over the past decade and a half by recalling the uncertain beginning of the Begin Heritage Center when, during Netanyahu’s first tenure as prime minister, the Knesset passed a law mandating its formation.
At the time, Israeli society was suffering from an unprecedented level of polarization.
Many Labor members responded to Begin’s rise to power by turning to the radical Left. In 1993, with the inauguration of the so-called peace process with the PLO, the Labor Party transformed itself from the party that encompassed the national ethos into one that undermined it.
The ethos that Labor had developed in its years in power was one of collective security and shared fate. The peace process, predicated as it was on Israeli culpability for the Arab world’s rejection of the Jewish state, subverted the national ethos. After all, if Israel itself was responsible for the absence of peace, and until 1993, Israel’s strategic posture was based on activist defense, then Israel’s strategic posture, and the social understandings it was rooted in, were responsible for Arab hatred and aggression, and therefore they had to be rejected.
After Netanyahu defeated Labor leader Shimon Peres in the 1996 elections, Labor and its partners rooted their strategy for returning to power on exploiting the sectoral identities cultivated by Begin in order to turn Israelis against one another.
The results of the 1999 elections demonstrated the strategy’s success. Likud and Labor – the big tent parties – were vastly weakened as sectoral parties rose in power and influence, reflecting the unraveling of society’s sense of shared destiny.
This disintegration, together with the so-called peace process’s subversion of the national ethos of collective security, brought about a situation where when the PLO rejected statehood and peace at Camp David in 2000 and Yasser Arafat turned to jihad, Israeli society was weaker than it had been since the early 1950s.
It took the efforts of Israelis from all walks of life, and from all sectors of society, who read the writing on the wall, to forge a new national ethos. The new Israeli ethos is built not only on security and shared fate, but on the far firmer foundation of a shared Jewish heritage.
Unlike what Israel’s many detractors claim, there is nothing fanatical about Jewish heritage.
To the contrary, being loyal to that heritage means not only that Jews of all walks of life can feel at home in Israel, but that Israel’s non-Jewish citizens can integrate into Israeli society without having to surrender their unique cultural and religious identities.
It is this new sense of national identity and purpose that enabled Israeli society to stand as one through the disasters we absorbed this summer. And as Netanyahu emphasized on Sunday evening, it is this inclusive unity, that Menachem Begin did so much to facilitate, that forms the basis of Israel’s ability to survive in a regional and international environment that grow more dangerous and hostile by the day.
As Israelis work to maintain our unity while embracing our diversity, American Jews find themselves divided and increasingly polarized across ideological and social lines. While what unites American Jews is more significant than what divides them, many key groups appear to have lost sight of this basic truth.
Radical groups that reflect the views of almost no significant American Jewish constituency, have jumped in to fill the void. And owing to the absence of a clear, strong message from key components of the community, they are making headway in their goal of unraveling and disempowering the Jewish community of America.
Consider the organized opposition to the Metropolitan Opera of New York’s decision to produce the harshly anti-Semitic opera The Death of Klinghoffer.
On Monday some 3,000 people attended the mass rally to protest the prestigious opera house’s decision to produce the opera that demonizes Jews and glorifies Palestinian terrorists. It was an impressive turnout. This is particularly true because very few of the major Jewish organizations agreed to participate in the protest. The American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Federation of New York and the Jewish Council on Public Affairs were particularly conspicuous in their absence.
It’s not that all these groups think that the Met’s decision to mainstream hatred of Jews, dehumanization of Jews and delegitimization of the Jewish state is acceptable.
In a press release published on September 19, the AJC for instance excoriated the Met’s decision to produce the opera and highlighted the anti-Semitic positions of the opera’s composer and librettist.
AJC Executive Director David Harris said, “Today, with increasingly virulent anti-Western, anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-Israel terrorism, all reminiscent of the cruelty perpetrated against Leon Klinghoffer, we should not rationalize or humanize acts of terrorism or terrorists.”
But then, at the end of the press release, Harris turned his guns on the Jews who organized the protest against the opera, which he refused to join.
Harris said, “We call upon all who are planning to protest the Klinghoffer opera to do so with civility, so that the focus of public criticism may remain, as it should, on the opera’s totally inappropriate and insensitive messages.”
Harris’s position regarding the opera is substantively indistinguishable from the positions of the 52 organizations that sponsored and participated in the protest. Those included StandWithUs, the Zionist Organization of America, CAMERA, Americans for a Safe Israel, JCCWatch, Endowment for Middle East Truth, several major synagogues and Jewish day schools, and the Catholic League, among many others. None of these organizations gave anyone the slightest reason to believe that they would do anything but focus on the anti-Semitic, pro-terror message underlying the opera.
So why did Harris treat them like irresponsible children who cannot be trusted? And why, given the commonality of views, and his own concerns, did he not ensure that the message would be effectively delivered, by delivering himself, as a participant in the rally?
By standing on the sidelines and drawing distinctions between the supposedly responsible AJC and the supposedly irresponsible organizations that participated, Harris weakened the campaign to fight anti-Semitism. Not only was this an irresponsible thing to do, it was deeply destructive, not least because it expanded the polarization of the Jewish community.
Peter Gelb, the Met’s director, is Jewish. And many defenders of the decision to produce The Death of Klinghoffer have argued that Gelb’s Judaism makes it unacceptable to point out that by producing an anti-Semitic opera, the Met is mainstreaming anti-Jewish bigotry.
But the sad fact is that a growing number of radical Jews, who reject the very notion that Jews have rights, including the right to support Israel and defend the Jewish state, are filling the void left by the Jewish leadership establishment that would rather attack activists whose agenda they share than cooperate with them.
For instance, next month, Harvard will host the first national meeting of “Open Hillel.” Jewish anti-Zionist luminaries including Haaretz columnist Peter Beinart, BDS champion Judith Butler and Rebecca Vilkomerson, the executive director of the Jewish anti-Zionist group Jewish Voices for Peace, will lead the discussions.
Open Hillel’s goal is to deny Jewish students on US campuses the right to defend Jewish rights.
Open Hillel emerged in recent years in protest against Hillel’s insistence that anti-Israel groups not operate under the umbrella of the national Jewish student organization.
Open Hillel claims that Jews, as distinct from every other group, have no right to insist that their rights be defended by a Jewish organization formed to do just that.
An apt analogy would be an African-American group that supported the restoration of Jim Crow laws demanding to be embraced by the Black Student Organization, and insisting that any claim that they should be denied the legitimacy of the black community is an act of academic and social ostracism.
Many Jewish organizations, first and foremost those who participated in the protest against the Met on Monday afternoon, are devoting massive efforts to counter the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish propaganda being disseminated on university campuses by groups like these.
But the overriding sense, cultivated by the Jewish leadership that treats unapologetic defenders of Jewish rights as suspect and undesirable, is that the Jewish community as a whole is uninterested in confronting and combating the haters.
In Israel, as traditional elites failed in the 1990s, new forces emerged to take up the charge of rebuilding Israeli society. Their success paved the way for the unity of Israeli society that today enables Israel to stand fast against a rising tide of military and diplomatic threats.
It is my fervent prayer for 5775 that the American Jewish community will take a lesson from Israeli society, and unify against the growing forces of anti-Jewish bigotry. May they embrace our shared Jewish heritage and stand with one another to secure the rights and freedom of the Jewish people in the coming year and into the future.