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Biggest Threat to Democracy in Israel Comes From Within

When will we learn that violence won’t end this war?
Emma Davies, Israel news, Israeli policies in Palestine, Benjamin Netanyahu news, Benjamin Netanyahu premiership, Zionism news, Israel far right, Hamas news, Hamas attacks on Israel, liberal Jews position on Israel

Benjamin Netanyahu, Jerusalem, Israel, 9/9/2019 © Gil Cohen Magen / Shutterstock

June 01, 2021 05:34 EDT

Dear Mr. Netanyahu, 

What’s the end goal? 

Many in the Jewish diaspora feel we should never publicly criticize Israeli state actions regarding the country’s defense. I disagree. I’m writing this to call for a change of heart before it’s too late. My fear is that anti-Semitic attacks in the diaspora will continue to rise while one of the biggest long-term threats to the democratic state of Israel grows from within.  

Rebalancing the Power Asymmetry Between Israel and Palestine


I grew up in London, in an Ashkenazi Jewish family where the horrors of persecution lived on through the generations. My bubbeh (grandma), like your zayde (grandad), was born in Poland. She ran from the pogroms and was agoraphobic until the day she died. Mum didn’t know what happened to our family living in Berlin in the 1930s. From a young age, I was taught the horrors of anti-Semitism, including the Holocaust. For many years, it was drummed into me that you stay in your group because, when push comes to shove, no one but Jews helps Jews.  

Defensive Violence

As a child in the 1970s, I joined Habonim-Dror, a Zionist youth organization that encouraged Jewish kids in 20 countries to live on a kibbutz in adulthood. I was taught to love the idea of the socialist community where the means of production and property were shared equally among members. I was sold a colonial dream of the muscular sun-tanned Sabra working the land to turn desert into lush agricultural land.   

My group leaders framed Israeli violence as purely defensive. War training games in the dark, at camp, were exciting. We were woken in the middle of the night to “attack” the other group in a thrilling game of chase in which no one got hurt. The endgame as kids was hot chocolate by the campfire. It was fun as an idealistic teenager to design utopian communities on a Sunday afternoon, to learn about the children’s houses on kibbutzim, depicted like an Enid Blyton novel with midnight feasts and limited interference from parents. We spent hours creating songs and improvising skits that a couple of my youth leaders turned into the successful television show, “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”  

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I spent a year in Israel at 18, following the path that my Zionist youth movement had encouraged me to take since I was nine years old. Though I loved meeting loads of people from around the world, the parochial realities of living on a kibbutz didn’t match the hype.  

It was 1982. Israel invaded Lebanon in the misguided belief that it would enhance the security of Israeli’ citizens. My boyfriend on the kibbutz was called up to fight. We stood amidst a million Israeli citizens in Tel Aviv, protesting. I can still picture standing in a huge demonstration among Israelis’ placards with Hitler on one side and Sharon on the other. At 6 a.m. the following morning, my boyfriend left to participate in a war he didn’t believe in. This unedifying war killed thousands of innocent civilians. It seeded the birth of Hezbollah.  

Don’t get me wrong, Mr. Netanyahu, I also fear Hamas and Hezbollah firing rockets on my family across Israel. They’ve made their anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic goals clear. The following excerpt from Hamas’s charter is worth repeating: “The Islamic Resistance Movement aspires to the realization of Allah’s promise, no matter how long that should take. The Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him salvation, has said: ‘The day of judgment will not come until Muslims fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jews will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say ‘O Muslims, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.”

While this stance may make negotiation feel like a futile tool today, political compromise between Palestinian and Israeli leaders is the only route to peace. What’s your strategy to prevent the ongoing substantive conflict over land from continuing to escalate as an intractable holy war? Israel’s actions fuel recruitment to this ideology. Support for Hamas is increasing, even from those who are usually adamantly against what they stand for. 

Screaming at Each Other

I watch in horror as Palestinian gangs attack Jews as Jewish gangs attack Arabs, both marching in the streets with placards screaming death to the other. The Zionist dream sold to me didn’t mention endless evictions of Palestinian families from their homes or police trampling over prayer mats during Ramadan. I was taught that Israel’s control of Jerusalem was in the interests of religious tolerance. But you know that’s not what many hard-line Jewish settlers want. One of the biggest threats to human rights and democratic, Western values of Israel might come from within.

Successive Israeli prime ministers have tolerated the extremes of Jewish fundamentalism. You, Mr. Netanyahu, were even prepared to go into coalition with an openly racist Jewish party to hold on to political power. In essence, Jewish racism is no different from anti-Semitism. As the chair of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance stated recently, “We strongly condemn the antisemitic violence and hate speech that has taken place in response to the recent escalation of violence in the Middle East. While freedoms of speech and protest are essential pillars of all democracies, nothing can justify hate speech.” That’s right: Nothing justifies hate speech in Israel either.  

Mr. Netanyahu, you were quick to urge French Jews to come to Israel after the deadly anti-Semitic attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris. Do you bear any responsibility for the rise of violent antisemitic attacks in the diaspora now?   

In Israel’s version of proportional representation, a political party only needs to secure 3.25% of the vote to achieve representation in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. The consequence of this in a highly fractured society is a politic where the tail too often wags the dog in political decision-making. Disinterested in the state of Israel in its inception, Jewish religious fundamentalists have grown and organized politically.

Only 13% of Israel’s Haredi ultra-orthodox boys take school exams that guide university entrance, rendering their belief systems devoid of secular education. Their political representatives are guiding government policy that drives settlements on occupied land, thereby preventing a two-state solution that many of them don’t want. Israel’s Haredi community grows at three times the rate of the rest of the Israeli Jewish population and twice the rate of the entire population. Forming a stable government has been impossible, with four elections in two years, and a fifth looming. Could the incoming Israeli prime minister use his political capital to take an honest look at Israel’s political system toward further electoral reform? 

I hope that the next Israeli government will hear the Arab and Jewish voices in the Knesset seeking peace. Approximately 21% of the Israeli population are Arab or Druze, the majority of whom identify as Sunni Muslims. Perhaps there’s something to learn from New Zealand. Indigenous Māori comprise about 17% of the population; seats in Parliament are reserved exclusively for Māori in proportion to the percentage of the population. 

Dehumanizing the Other

For now, we have a ceasefire. It worries me that you may have ramped up the violence in your own political and personal interests. There was a range of political and military response options to Hamas firing rockets into Israel, given the effectiveness of the Iron Dome as a protective shield. One could forgive the cynic for wondering whether part of your strategy is images of blown-up buildings underpinning the next election campaign to harness the fear and anger of Israeli citizens.  

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas appears to have little influence or control in the West Bank, and Hamas has successfully exploited the horror in Gaza to win the hearts and minds of the world. They are willing to sacrifice the lives of civilians in Gaza because they think that the ends justify the means. From where I sit, the Israeli state did a great job of helping them by the extreme nature of your retaliation, not to mention your settlement policies and conditions in Gaza.

The world watched the Israeli army destroy the building that housed the Associated Press and other media organizations. Even if some of the current Hamas leadership were killed and the infrastructure for attack on Israel destroyed, the Israeli state also demonstrated its willingness to sacrifice other people’s children as collateral damage. Surely our history has taught us the importance of not dehumanizing the “other.” Increasing the numbers of traumatized extremists eager to take the place of the leaders killed today looks like a disastrous strategy long term. When will we learn that violence won’t end this war?

In Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s words, “Military cemeteries in every corner of the world are silent testimony to the failure of national leaders to sanctify human life.” You know that Rabin, a warrior turned peacemaker, was assassinated by an individual Jewish extremist in Tel Aviv in 1995 in opposition to the Oslo Peace Accords. The extremist ultranationalist views of the perpetrator are far more visible under your watch than Rabin’s legacy and search for peace.  

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Emboldened by President Donald Trump, your government has tried to remove resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from the domestic political agenda. Palestinian leadership remains divided and weak. Jewish fundamentalism has flourished in its bubble of righteousness. You have ignored peaceful protests while Palestinians are evicted from their homes. You have condoned expansion of illegal settlements on occupied land, and you’ve invested much more in Jewish communities than Arab ones, within the legal bounds of the state. What options do Palestinians have? Yitzhak Rabin’s words again resonate today: “No Arab ruler will consider the peace process seriously so long as he is able to toy with the idea of achieving more by the way of violence.”  

The vacuum of visible wise leadership on all sides is dispiriting. The China-Iran Strategic Partnership is likely to secure Tehran’s funding of Hezbollah for years to come. The challenge is for moderate Israeli and Palestinian leaders to build the political capital to compromise over legitimate needs and conflicting rights to land and resources. Perhaps some young Mizrahi Jews (descended from North Africa, Central and West Asia) and Israeli Arabs and Druze serving in the Knesset will help to bridge the gaps.

Perhaps Israelis and Palestinians will reinvigorate the peace movement as they circle the wall of the Old City of Jerusalem in the peace chain. Perhaps more peacemakers will also emerge in the Palestinian and Jewish diasporas. They’ll need wisdom and charisma, skilled international facilitation and ongoing economic development.  

Options to establish a Palestinian state are already on the table. Both sides have tried to compromise before. But as you well know, ramped-up fear and anger are powerful. Cynicism and hopelessness among moderate Israelis and Palestinians, alongside the determination and political power of Jewish and Islamist fundamentalists, is alarming.  

We’re all relieved to see a ceasefire. Nevertheless, your decisions have not only killed innocent civilians, but also traumatized the next generation so that they are more likely to find refuge in ultra-nationalism and religious fundamentalism. Neither will solve this conflict. Thoughtful people, religious and secular together, hopefully will.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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