By Larry Gordon
It might be a circular issue from the file marked “here we go again.” But that is what Israel doing: trying, after all these years, to define what Israel really is from its unique Jewish perspective.
It has been seven months since Israel’s April election. The country is split pretty much down the middle. For the last decade or so, under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu, things in and even outside the Jewish state have been stable. There has been peace, and the relationship with the United States is a sterling one, perhaps the best ever.
Maintaining the status quo on contentious issues has held Israel and the Jewish people together in difficult times. But now as a result of this vast division, that much-valued status quo is in jeopardy. As the years have progressed, the way Jews in Israel and the rest of the world define who is a Jew — and, more than that, whom the state of Israel should consider Jewish — has changed and is constantly shifting. This is not a halachic discourse or analysis; if anything, it is about the politics of halachah.
The good news is the issues that divide Likud and Blue and White are not about dividing Jerusalem or even creating a dangerous Palestinian state as once was the case with Labor and Kadima competing with Likud. Today there is little discussion about two states; thankfully, it is almost a thing of the past, President Trump’s “Deal of the Century” notwithstanding.
The key on this issue is no pressure from the United States. During the Obama years, pressure was on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians, as is the case with most Democrats today. Their goal and agenda is to pick up where Obama and Kerry left off and pressure Israel to give away parts of the country at a discount.
Elizabeth Warren delivered remarks at the J Street convention on Monday, and indeed it was a disturbing, outdated throwback to the Obama years. All she talked about was the Israel presence in the land and the need for Palestinian rights and the awful so-called occupation that most Jerusalem Palestinians prefer to live with as opposed to being governed by the Palestinian Authority, which is corrupt to the core.
Bernie Sanders, who is Jewish, might be worse than Warren when it comes to Israel. At J Street the other day, he said that Israel was racist and that if he were president he would take some of the $3.8 billion of U.S. aid to Israel and send it to the terrorists in Gaza. Of course he left off the word “terrorist” from his remarks.
This issue used to be the central focus for the state of Israel; today it is just a distraction. The vitally pressing matter is what kind of state Israel is. Yes, of course, it is a Jewish state, but what does it mean to be a Jewish state? That is the key question.
The center-left agenda as represented by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid of Blue and White is to marginalize the power and influence of the rightwing political parties, in particular the religious parties who have been the Likud’s natural partners all these years.
Fundamentally, the agenda of Blue and White is first and foremost to reinstitute the active process of conscripting chareidi youth and those previously exempted from military service into the IDF. It is important to understand that there are significant numbers of religious youth who serve in the Israeli military. And no, it is not, in most cases, about wanting others to fight for them while they sit safely in yeshivas around the country. The objection to serving is by and large about lifestyle and the potential piercing of the bubble that chareidi youth live in.
For the religious parties, this is a redline issue. It is important to note that this matter is not just about national service as these same youth are able to do alternative forms of national service to fulfill these potential obligations.
There are other possible transformative moves that will redefine Israel as we know it should Gantz end up leading Israel. One is the introduction of civil marriage, which essentially means removing marriage from the domain of the chief rabbinate where it has been since the country’s beginning.
Then there is the so-called “Supermarket Law” which was defeated in the Knesset last year by a one-vote margin. This law calls for businesses to be able to remain open on Shabbos. Certain types of businesses in Israel have been exempt from this law for many years. For example, you may have noticed that gas stations and the food shops attached to them function on Shabbos, as do many restaurants and movie theaters.
And there is the emotionally supercharged issue of egalitarian prayer at the Kotel, which means services with men and women together and recognizing the ability of women to read from a sefer Torah at the Western Wall. This, more than any other question, has American Jews divided.
So as with many other issues, while the religious parties are steadfast against the desecration of Shabbos in Israel, a policy many of us are supportive of, the reality is that it is impossible to impose absolute Sabbath observance on everyone nationwide.
Attached to this issue is the government policy on mass transit — buses and trains — running on Shabbos. For the most part, mass transit does not run in Israel on Shabbos. However, if you’ve walked the streets of Jerusalem I’m sure you’ve noticed that the second Shabbos is over, Egged buses are running on the arteries of the city. Let’s not delude ourselves: the drivers and others working in a support capacity arrived at work during Shabbos. This is too bad, and we wish things were different, but the government of Israel needs to deal with the situation as it currently exists.
In the same vein, the disputes between the political parties in Israel is about not adapting a policy that endorses or condones mass transit operating on Shabbos or that supermarkets and malls should be open as a matter of rule and law.
That brings us to the stalemate in creating a governing coalition. Of course none of this would be transpiring if not for Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, which scored nine seats in the September election.
Lieberman does not want to join a coalition that treats chareidim differently than other Israelis. At the same time, while he has signed on to the liberal policies that support civil marriage and businesses and transit operating on Shabbos, some of Blue and White’s positions on the peace process are opposite of Lieberman’s, so he it difficult to join a government led by either party.
A third election is looking more likely. A third election might persuade Blue and White voters to express their angst and frustration by changing their vote to Likud if they feel that it is Likud that has the best ability to form a government.
Some newspapers recently carried the story about then-100-year-old mystic and Kabbalist Rav Yitzchak Kaduri, who passed away in 2006. He is said to have expressed the idea 40 years ago that as a prelude to the coming of Mashiach there will be a unity in Israel that is highlighted by a pervasive inability to agree. The country will be unified by this inability to agree about anything.
According to the story in Israel Hayom, the rabbi said that in the year 5780 there will be elections in Israel but there will be no government. It looks like we have possibly arrived at that moment.