Rabbi’s Essays

God, Torah and the State of Israel

Assessing the 2015 Elections (April 2015)


Elections are a superb way of raising and dashing expectations. The March 17 election in Israel turned out to be an excellent example. Most of the polls, news reports, and campaign talking points suggested that a revamped left-of-center coalition (the Zionist Camp) would garner the largest share of votes. The public was tired of five years of Netanyahu’s leadership and looking for a change. Much of the discussion on the morning of Election Day was whether the Zionist Camp could win enough mandates (seats in the upcoming Knesset) in order to be in a position to attract the smaller parties necessary for creating a government. Most expert observers thought that if Likud (Netanyahu) received an equal number, or even one or two fewer mandates, he would be able to form a new government more easily than Herzog and the Zionist Camp. That Likud actually came out of the election with six more mandates than the Zionist Camp was shocking.

Conventional thought now suggests that the new government will be a combination of right-wing and haredi-Orthodox parties. The rightist parties include: Yisrael Beiteinu and Bayit Yehudi, which tend to join with Likud in being mostly resistant to the territorial compromise necessary in order to allow the formation of a Palestinian State. Kulanu, a new party formed by a former Likud Finance Minister (Moshe Kahlon), is also mostly skeptical of a two-State solution. The haredi parties are United Torah Judaism (UTJ) and Shas. They are comfortable with the suppression of Palestinian national aspirations, but are principally concerned about maintaining control of power and prerogatives in areas of marriage, divorce, kashrut and burial.

These six parties – representing about 67 seats – can be stable, particularly because they can all benefit, at least in part, from the power they would be able to wield. This government can be held together for only so long. The reason for this assessment is quite simple. Most of the policies this coalition would promote or maintain are broadly unpopular. Ah, such is democracy.


A Brief Primer on How Israel’s Government Works

Before investigating the rickety structure of the next potential government, let me explain how Israel got to where it is. The first and most important thing to say is that Israel has a rich and robust democracy, in the best sense of the word. Its elections are not shams, and when a ruling party or individual loses in an election, the transition to the opposition is accomplished smoothly.

Israel’s government is based on proportional representation. There are no electoral districts, and with the exception of diplomatic personnel and members of the military posted abroad, only those present in the country can vote. There are no absentee ballots. An election ballot lists no individuals, only parties. Each party creates a list of candidates in some priority order. When the day’s voting is over, all the ballots are tallied, and the percentage of votes that went to each party is determined.

According to that percent, a party is eligible for a certain number of mandates; that is, seats they can fill in the upcoming Knesset. Win 50% of the votes, a party thus receives 60 mandates – half the number in the Knesset. (No party in Israel’s history has ever won an outright majority.) A new law went into effect for this year’s election: in order to receive any mandates, the party must receive at 3.25% of the total vote (a rise from 2%). In other words, either a party garners at least four mandates, or it receives none and is blocked out of the Knesset.

Once the allocation of mandates has been determined, the organization of the government follows parliamentary procedure. A ruling faction must command at least 61 votes, otherwise it would be subject to a vote of no confidence which would bring on a new election. As a rule, therefore, the party that received the most mandates is invited to form “the government” – the ruling coalition. The head of that party takes the role of Prime Minister. Portfolios representing Foreign Affairs, Finance, Defense, Interior, Education, etc. are bargaining chips that keep the leaders of cooperating parties within the coalition.

Party leaders occasionally have difficultly asserting party discipline, much less coalition discipline. It would appear that ruling factions are a house of cards, ready fall at a moment’s notice. Two socio-political forces tend to hold things together. First, the dominant party rarely attempt to assert much authority over the Ministries that have been given to smaller parties. As long as they can do pretty much as they please within that sector of government, they have little incentive to bring about a collapse in the government. Further, all the parties – especially the smaller coalition partners – genuinely fear provoking a new set of elections, lest they lose a proportion of the vote and find themselves on the outside in the next government.

Thus, votes of no confidence are pretty rare. Governments come to an end either because they reach their statutory limit, four years, or because the Prime Minister thinks he (she) has a pretty good shot at creating an even firmer ruling coalition.


The Fate of the Upcoming Knesset

Some of you might think that Israel’s system is dramatically different than the United States. Structurally, it certainly is, but as a matter of politics and governance, there are some striking similarities. Both the major American parties and Israel’s government are coalitions. Of course, in the U.S., the bargaining takes place before the election rather than after it.

The ramifications are, however, roughly the same. Republicans and Democrats represent a range of positions and interests that are, at best, only partially compatible. Often they are outright contradictory. Voters tend to respond to an individual personality; in the U.S., it could be the local candidate, in Israel it is the top name or names on a party list. They also might tend to support a party label. In Israel, with many parties, citizens can indulge in voting for a relatively specific political program. Americans also permit themselves to focus on those elements of a Party’s overall philosophy that they like without giving much thought to competing or contradictory elements in the same Party’s platform. Thus, in the 1960s, voters sent rather large majorities of Democrats to Congress, some of whom were the leaders in the civil rights movements and others who were arch-segregationists. Today, the Republican majority is stymied by being the home of deficit hawks and military hawks.

Note that even though there are clear divisions within today’s Republican Party, the Party itself is uniformly conservative; just very different elements of what it means to be ‘conservative’ are being emphasized. In the same vein, the probable ruling coalition that will be put together in Israel will also be conservative, yet in very different ways.

We can characterize three conservative strains – nationalistic, religious and economic (or free-market). Let me set the economic strain aside for the moment. Between the other two, the conservative religious stance is clearly the most unpopular. Shas and UTJ zealously promote a narrowly Orthodox rabbinic control over issues of personal status in the Jewish State. As a result, roughly a half-million putative Jewish citizens of the State, do not rise to their standard of Jewish identity. Thus, they – or their children or their grandchildren, etc. – are not legally eligible to have an official wedding ceremony in Israel. Full-time yeshiva students have always been able to acquire an exemption from serving in the military. This dispensation has led to a few hundred thousand men avoiding service altogether. A new law, passed in the last Knesset, is designed to reduce dramatically the number of exemptions. Certainly, a price that Shas and UTJ would exact for coming into a majority coalition is a repeal or drastic watering down of this provision.

The popularity of a conservative nationalistic stand is more convoluted. Israeli Jews are virtually all nationalists. Zionism has its origins in nationalism. At the end of the campaign, Netanyahu engaged in rather base nationalistic jingoism, some of it frankly racist. But it worked! Netanyahu’s personal popularity is sufficiently low that many former supporters of Likud were prepared to sit out this election, until they were reminded that a more accommodationist government might come into power.

Israeli Jews, as a whole, are quite devoted to the survival of the Jewish State. Further, they are very skeptical of the willingness of Palestinian leadership to establish a normal and peaceful State alongside Israel. The vote fairly reflected a distaste for territorial compromise now or any time in the near future.

Yet, continuation of the Israel’s current policy regarding the West Bank and Gaza is very expensive. Settlements beyond the “Green line” (the pre-1967 border with Jordan) are heavily subsidized, not only in terms of their rents in comparison with Israel proper, but in terms of extension of services – roads, utilities, etc. – and security. It is also expensive in political capital. The settlements, particularly when they are expanded, places extra strain on Israel’s relationship with allies.

It is precisely the expense that is placing an economic conservative position in a confrontation with the political. Strained foreign relations affects investment, thus putting pressure on the overall economy: unemployment rises as does the cost-of-living, especially rent. A few years ago, when Occupy Wall Street was massing a tent city in lower New York, Tel Aviv had its version of Occupy: a popular demonstration high-lighting the economic burdens being borne by Israel’s Middle Class. Netanyahu had to promise structural changes to the government’s management of the economy, but in reality very little was done. Until the very last days of the election, the dominant issue was the pocketbook, and Netanyahu was in trouble. He was able to steer the conversation toward security enough to secure himself another term. The middle-class burdens, exacerbated and distorted by settlement activity, is not going away.

So, Netanyahu will put together a nationalist-religious coalition, similar to the government formed after the 2009 elections. The three nationalist parties – Likud, Bayit Yehudi (headed by Naftali Bennet who has been forthright in his rejection of a two-state solution) and Yisrael Beiteinu (led by Avigdor Lieberman and representing the Former Soviet Union Jews) – and the two haredi Orthodox parties – Shas, still greatly influenced by the spirit of the late Sephardi rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, and UTJ – do not command enough seats. The balance will be made up by Kulanu, organized around a former Likud member, Moshe Kahlon, whose principal focus is Israel’s economy.

The concerns of the religious parties, particularly in upholding the prerogatives of the Rabbinate, is in direct conflict with the needs of the Russian Jews, many, if not most, of whom cannot claim a Jewish identity accepted by the Orthodox. The program of the nationalists, who want to preserve control of the territories, only serves to stymie the interests of Kulanu, who want a stable and growing economy. Oh, the coalition will hold together for a while, because nobody wants to risk loss in a subsequent election. It will not be a very stable government, and Israel’s overall well-being has a better chance of deteriorating than improving.


And Netanyahu

With this third consecutive term – fourth in all – in another year, Benjamin Netanyahu will be the longest serving Prime Minister in Israel’s history, surpassing the length of term of David Ben Gurion. Netanyahu is no Ben Gurion! One cannot stress enough that Bibi is not particularly popular within the electorate. He called for these elections well before the statutory limit specifically because he was confident that he could create a more workable coalition beneath him. As the campaign moved along, the principal opposition – Isaac Herzog’s Labor Party and Tzipi Livni’s Kadima now combined as the Zionist Camp – began to make serious advances against this plan by making Netanyahu himself the issue. Their election slogan was “Either us or him,” and it was working.

In the last few days before the election, Netanyahu was capable of turning the slogan on its head – “Either me or them” – by making a sufficient number or otherwise disaffected voters be scared that a Herzog-led government would compromise Israel’s security, particularly in a lack of concern for Iran (the great Satan?), and that worked. If my analysis is correct, Netanyahu won despite being neither personally nor politically popular, but rather stroking fears. We can fairly ask: What now?

Financial advisors regularly warn that past results are no indicator of future performance. Netanyahu’s past displays a person whose sole accomplishment has been the ability to get re-elected. And this feat seems to have been achieved mostly by asserting that it could be worse. Given Israel’s precarious international standing, sluggish economy and festering social divisions, it could very well get worse. Whether this will be Israel’s fate, however, is up to Netanyahu now.

The Prime Minister’s method has mostly been to promise little and deliver less. He has been particularly expert at distributing blame: to the usual suspects of Hamas, Iran, and the U.N., and occasionally to coalition partners with respect to domestic policies. Netanyahu, however, has not been a cowboy. He has mostly held the settler movement in check, and has shown restraint in dealing with rocket fire from Gaza. Neither 2012 nor the 2014 operations responding to Hamas provocation have resulted in any tangible reduction in international standing, despite the noise of the “blame Israel first” crowd.

With his actions and pronouncements during the last weeks of this past campaign, Netanyahu has given the impression of going off the rails. He was militant and divisive, and his Election Day race-baiting with respect to Arab Israeli citizens distressed even conservative American Jewish supporters. Was this the ‘real’ Bibi Netanyahu? And if it was only a campaign ploy, then what constitutes the ‘real’ Netanyahu?

The Election Day candidate was a proponent of a fortress Israel, willing to go it alone, even without unchallenged support from the United States; a leader will to bestride the intense division between haredi Orthodox and the rest of Israel’s Jewish population without any plan to resolve the tension. This is a dangerous path with a very high probability of failure; not in terms of an existential threat to the Jewish State, but rather simply an internal social and economic collapse.

There is, however, the possibility of another Netanyahu emerging. Many Israelis were prepared to give support to Netanyahu in 2009, on the grounds that “only Nixon can go to China;” that he was the best person to make a peaceful arrangement with Palestinians, and maintain Israeli support for it. Although, he has not evidenced any sign of it over the past six years, perhaps he is prepared now actually to become a Nixon. We shall see.

Postscript: Wind and Bombast

All of the analysis above represents someone who has been observing Israel’s society and politics for a long time. At heart, it is an amateur endeavor. The purpose of the exercise mostly entails attempting to inject some nuance and tension into a reading of the results of this election. My comments above are predicated on a number of assumptions:

  • The State of Israel is indeed, in the words of Theodore Herzl, an “Old-New State.” It is an ancient people with a long and continuous history, and yet with less than seventy-years of experience in statecraft.

  • The State nonetheless has a well-grounded set of institutions that contribute to the maintenance of a modern advanced democracy. The interaction of society, culture and politics is therefore not particularly different from that which is being experienced in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and the handful of other advanced democracies in the world.

  • As in the U.S., Canada and Europe, the role of the State is mostly the efficient management of State functions: maintaining infrastructure, providing defensible borders, protecting the rights of citizens. In the words of the historian, Howard M. Sachar, “all the rest is wind and bombast.” The State as a political entity is a national democratic construct; its Jewishness – outside of the identity of most of its population – is superfluous.

On the strength of these assumptions, I could apply this sort of analysis to elections in the United States, Great Britain, Italy, and the Ukraine, among others. There is simply nothing “Jewish” about it!

So, what is Jewish about Israel? Let me put this question another way: what is it that a rabbi is competent to say about Israel’s culture and society? The answer is Zionism. Israel’s politics and the actions of its government is post-Zionist; it is necessarily post-Zionist. Governing is primarily instrumental (taking care of business), secondarily self-perpetuating (getting elected, and then doing whatever it takes to get reelected), and in distant third, programmatic (implementing a vision). Israel’s leaders are simply too busy to be Zionists. But, Israel’s society and culture is Zionist. It is, after all, the product of the Zionist movement.

Zionism is the comprehensive vision that brings together the people Israel with the land of Israel. The March elections, just like all elections going back to 1948, and all future Israeli elections, represent snapshots in the nuts-and-bolts of the operating of Israeli society. Zionism, however, remains as the foundation on which that society exists. From its nineteenth century inception, there have been multiple Zionist visions. It is with this reality in mind, I wish to conclude my observations regarding the current challenges presented to Israel. I move from being an informed but amateur political analyst to a modern rabbi.



If you will it, it is no dream.

This assertion is probably Theodore Herzl’s most famous aphorism. What, however, is the “it?” Well, for one, it is a dream! Herzl’s statement resonates precisely because the Zionist project seemed initially so unattainable, a pie-in-the-sky ideal.

For Herzl, the dream was “Die Judenstadt,” a national home for the Jewish nation. While there were serious divisions among Zionists over details and tactics, Herzl was able to set in motion a movement that acquired land, organized settlement, developed social, educational and political institutions and put in place a viable economy. Herzl’s dream also entailed the notion that through nation-building, the place of the Jews would be normalized among all peoples as a nation among nations. The first part of the dream was fulfilled with the founding of the State. But, the second part…

It is time to dream again. The creation of the Jewish State did not result in the normalization of the Jewish people among the nations. What now? Let me propose two dreams. Both are idealizations, and are grounded in the expressed hopes and visions of Jews. Both, I believe, are viable, but only as the result of a collective will. Finally, they are mutually exclusive. The Zionist project – Israelis and their supporters – will either work toward one or the other. They are:

  1. In the face of ineradicable animus toward Jews among the preponderance of the world’s non-Jews, the State of Israel claims the land stretching from the Golan to Eilat, and from the Mediterranean to the Jordon River, and limits, with few exceptions, the rights and responsibilities of full citizenship only to Jews, as defined by a central ministry. A principal role of the State will be the physical protection of its citizens.

  2. The Jews will live freely and fruitfully throughout the historic land of Israel. The political entity, however, is not specifically a Jewish State, but rather one in which the rights of Jews, individually and collectively, are fully respected.

I am not concerned about how you get from here to there. After all, if you will it, it is no dream! I am also assuming the same set of borders for the land of Israel in both goals. In both cases, Jews should feel equally safe and secure living in Hebron as in Tel Aviv. Let us simply analyze what these two goals portend in terms of assumptions and visions.


Fortress Israel

The first goal is based on two reasonable assumptions: the reality of anti-Semitism and the need to preserve Jews and Judaism. Defense of Israel is the defense of Jews. In an unalterably hostile world, Jews need a secure refuge. Jewish identity is determined at least as much by external factors as by personal choice. History repeatedly shows that one cannot escape one’s Jewish identity very easily; further that being Jewish always subjects a person to potential danger. A secure polity run by and for the Jewish people, assures the continuation of the people.

In the final analysis, Jews must rely on themselves alone. But, then, who exactly are the Jews? Once more, the determination of one’s Jewishness is mostly external: it is biological and/or according to well-defined criteria of conversion. One need not understand these conditions in religious terms. Indeed, they are best appreciated in the context of a nation. One is a citizen of a nation either by virtue of being born to citizens, or by a process of naturalization in which a person demonstrates loyalty to the nation, usually by renouncing all ties to any other.

The Jewish State would clearly curtail some personal liberties, though not as dramatically as one might think. Citizenship would be limited to Jews, but anyone – regardless of background or birth – can technically become a Jew. The political circumstances would not be radically different from voices in many nations, including the United States, who wish to limit citizenship and be rather strict on the rules of immigration. As for the issue of just what the criteria for applying for citizenship as one not born a Jew, this is also a matter of internal (to Israel) political debate.


Nation Without Nationalism

Herzl recognized that nationalism was both the problem and the solution. Anti-Semitism arises from the Jews trying to live normally in a nation that is not its own. This observation can be re-framed as anti-Semitism persists as a problem precisely because it is exacerbated by nationalism. When political states rein in their nationalistic spirit, animus toward Jews as the “other” is reduced. For Jews “to be a free people in Zion and Jerusalem” (the words of HaTikvah), the fires of nationalism must be reduced, allowing the political state to manage a diverse population.

The goal is not Jewish political domination with certain borders, but rather the guarantee of Jewish communal rights in their historic land. For such a circumstance to come to be, one must believe that institutional anti-Semitism is not endemic; that Jews can indeed live securely in a society in which they do not have control of the political apparatus. Nationalism is probably inevitable in this era of industrial (and post-industrial) society, but it can be managed so as to discourage various forms of racism and xenophobia.

The Judaism of Jews living in such a society would then have to be generated mostly from within the communal-historical spirit of themselves. Not only would the hostility of the non-Jewish world be diminished as function of preservation, but so to would be the institutionally forced boundedness of the community. The challenge of preserving Jewish identity from one generation to the next in the land of Israel, would be roughly similar to the effort that have had to be sustained by Jews living in pluralistic societies, such as the United States and Canada. Internal arguments and debates over creativity, tradition and authenticity will be the norm.


The Choice

One can surely ask: are there not other alternatives? Of course there are, but I believe they are mostly points on the path that ultimately leads to one or the other of the dreams I have presented. Either Zionism is the refuge for Jews living in a hostile world, or it is the path by which Jews attain a normalized existence as a people among other people. We either build walls or we build bridges.

Both dreams carry risks. Can a miniscule sliver of the world’s population hold off the consistent animus of the rest of the world? Conversely, can Jews truly afford to move themselves into a circumstance in which they do not control their own fate, and actually rely on the civility and good will of others? The choice to be made, however, cannot be determined merely as a balance of risks. The people Israel have persisted through dislocation, exile, and persecution. Jewish history reaches back three thousand years, and only in the pit of an unreasonable despair should we doubt that it will flourish for centuries more. The choice is not a matter of survival. It is rather a determination in the depths of our soul of how we see the relationship of the Jewish people to the rest of humankind: is it a wall or a bridge?

And if you will it, it is no dream.