Tzipi Livni quit the Knesset this week and offered parting words of warning that Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state is in danger. Having lost the March elections for leadership of the Kadima Party, the former peace negotiator and opposition leader who had served in Ariel Sharon’s government, opted to leave rather than remain a deposed giant.
The warning she offered though, rings with a deeper meaning than mere sour grapes. Livni is a long time advocate who was once one of the country's most popular leaders. She founded the centrist Kadima Party with the hawk Sharon, and was foreign minister for three years, when she also served as Israel's chief negotiator with the Palestinians. This is not the resume of someone who would wantonly take a mean jab at the country she loves. The warning means a lot more and anyone who cares for Israel must understand just what Livni meant and heed the message which might be an inevitable product of the circumstances the young Jewish state exists with.
Can Israel survive as a Jewish state? That is certainly the plan, and the desired destiny for Jews around the world who care and advocate for it, and especially for those living in the land. Yet, with no prospects for an end to the violence and constant barrage of attacks on all fronts, physically, politically and verbally, Israel faces an existence of unyielding war and attrition, which eats away, not only at the resources of the country, but the collective psyche of those who just want to live “normal” lives. That, with the fast pace of Palestinian births outnumbering that of most Israelis, Israel can find itself being closed in by a Moslem population that already has exhibited low tolerance for Jewish neighbors.
If Israel does not find an end to the unstable backdrop it is surrounded by, then time, fatigue, and sheer numbers can just as well close ranks on the lonely state, and it will cease to be a Jewish state.
Still, Livni went further to include Israel’s precarious democracy with her warning. This ominous premonition was directed more at the internal state of affairs of the country, and speaks more to the divides that exist among the citizens of Israel itself. It is this piece that is more worrisome, as it highlights an issue that most American Jews do not pay as close attention to as they probably should.
Israel’s democracy is tenuous right now, as the incongruity of maintaining a Jewish homeland and a free pluralistic society pushes the limits of the unity and equality. Plainly speaking, if a citizen is not Jewish in Israel, he will not truly be granted the same considerations as someone who is – he cannot be if Israel is to remain Jewish; hence, the challenge. Yet, Livni was not even talking about that when she offered her parting advice. The warning she was highlighting was likely the sense that in order for the Netanyahu administration to maintain its coalition, it yields to a more religious faction that does not care for the external security as much as it wishes to see Israel’s governing laws reflect a strict interpretation of Jewish biblical law, and in many ways, reflective if Islamic Shariah laws.
You cannot get married in Israel legally without their rabbinical authorities granting permission. Whether they wish to dictate who is a Jew, or which rabbi is authorized to convert gentiles to Judaism, to imposing national Sabbath regulations to prevent any activity by everyone that might be in violation of one of the 39 forbidden actions on the Sabbath. The meaning of the 39 would also be interpreted by their own rabbinical mindset.
In Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first time at the mantle in the 1990s, he was adamant about reigning in the control that some ultra orthodox factions had on the state. This time around he not only tuned the spigot back on, but he increased the pressure for a forceful flow of social welfare and dominant laws to groups that are not really Zionist, avoid national service and are largely unemployed.
These groups have successfully navigated through every administration, helping the government of-the-moment stay in power by voting alongside contentious and unpopular legislation in exchange for major considerations with regard to “official” state religious policies as well as subsidies for their constituencies. While Haredim are still largely a minority, making up about 25% of the population (factoring in the collective groups, including Shas, UTJ and National Union, etc.) they have a government authorized hold on a major element of Israeli society.
As it stands, the ultra orthodox groups control the cemeteries and burials – for everyone. Secular Jews who wish to be buried in a certain spot can be rejected based on specific religious interpretations. Some require the burning off of the numbered tattoos that Holocaust survivors often still have.
Aside from the social welfare aspect, which is skewed toward the more fervently religious groups, these same groups want to be seen as the Sanhedrin of Israel, the entity that dictates religious doctrine to the entire country. Governments on the left and on the right have slowly yielded that power, and it has the potential to eliminate democracy.
Livni’s warning is worth considering. Israel itself is a paradox, but one that we accept as long as it is manageable. For Israel to continue thriving and building, something inevitably must give. It needs to be free of danger and threats, and it needs to truly deal with the needs of all of the nation of Israel.
Juda Engelmayer is an executive with the NY PR agency, 5WPR