“In what way are we less Israeli than you?” asked Nafatali Bennett on his Facebook page Saturday night, after being blasted by longtime Yediot Aharonot columnist Nahum Bernea. Bernea had written on Friday that Bennett’s supporters were infused with nationalism, racism, and religious extremism. Bennet took exception, writing, “We will not be silent, we will raise our heads.”
He described the devotion of the national-religious public to “the land, the Torah and the nation” and said that no longer will it be silent when its slandered; “have we not sacrificed enough to get into the club?” Bennett phrased his debate as that between the majority and the elites in the academy, judicial system and media.
It isn’t the first time of course that Israelis have been presented with this cleavage of the “elites vs. the people.” It was this rising cry that fueled the 1977 and 1981 elections in which the “system” of Labor Zionist domination was overthrown by the masses of voters who Mapai secretary- general had once called a “cancer” that “endangers the existence of the state.”
One of the big disputes trotted out this year has been about who the “real Zionists” are. When Labor’s Isaac Herzog joined forces with Tzipi Livni last week they called themselves the “Zionist camp.” Readers of the left-wing Haaretz’s leading establishment-style columnists, such as Ari Shavit, are often treated to this dialectic of “Zionism.”
In a November column Shavit wrote, “The new anti-Zionists are trying to destroy Israel.” They are “dragging Jewish nationalism back to the ages of darkness.” Shavit claimed that “the savages of the anti-liberal Likud and the anti-democratic Bayit Yehudi don’t understand this. The lowbrows of nationalist populism don’t grasp the basic premises of the Herzlian movement.”
“Savages,” “low brow,” “anti-Zionist.” It isn’t like Bennett needed to go looking for evidence that the “elites” look down on his voters.
Uri Misgaz has also written that religious Zionist settlers are “are responsible for the destruction of Zionism,” and Uri Baram claimed in 2014 that “the Zionist Left is the real Israeli Left.”
On December 8 members of the group Scholars for Israel and Palestine and progressive Zionist group Third Narrative launched a call proposing personal sanctions, including visa restrictions and foreign asset freezes, against four Israeli officials who they claim support “unjust, unlawful and destructive policies… of permanent occupation and unilateral annexation.” They choose Naftali Bennett, Uri Ariel, Moshe Feiglin and Ze’ev Hever, the latter being the head of Amana, which builds houses in the West Bank.
Alan Jay Weisbard of the University of Wisconsin claimed the proposal was the “product of a group of progressive Zionists who have devoted decades to supporting the ideals of a Jewish and democratic Israel.” The list of supporters included such Zionist luminaries as Michael Walzer of the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton.
This is the new war for the heart of Zionism. In some ways it builds on the struggle elucidated in Yoram Hazony’s 2001 The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul. There is no discounting that these pugilists truly believe themselves to be devoted Zionists. In a 2012 article at The Huffington Post Walzer claimed he had been a Zionist since his bar mitzvah in 1948. He claimed that he had more friends in Israel than at home, and that he believed in the idea of “universal statism” by which each group should have a right to its own state. “My Zionism is a secular nationalism” he writes, explaining that he would prefer Israeli schools teach Jewishness, not Judaism.
What is interesting about this “I am more Zionist than you” debate among the “true Zionist believers” is how little it has in common with other nation states. Despite claims that Zionism has some parallel among nationalism in other countries, it doesn’t. At one time one might have compared Zionism to Irish nationalism or the megali idea in Greece or the national awakening of Bulgaria, or even Ataturkism and Turkish nationalism. But those national movements have sobered over the years. Zionism is boiling over in its internal disputes.
It is ultimately terribly self-destructive to Israel. The strife among the various sectors of Israeli society, particularly those claiming to be the “real Zionists” who should be holding the reins of the state, is not productive. There is a self-destructive exclusivist tendency to politics in Israel.
The theory that if you don’t belong to group X or Y you are not a “true” member of society, not a “good” Zionist. The debate over who “sacrifices” more for the country is not a healthy one. It is a debate that is akin to the law of diminishing returns even though it poses itself in high-minded terms.
The “personal sanctions” pettiness betrays how devoid of energy and ideas these groups are. They fear to draw a clear line between what they deem illegal and unjust, namely Israeli settlement over the Green Line, because they know that would require support for a real boycott of a massive number of people and governing institutions.
After all, many Liberal Zionists were involved not only in settling the West Bank, but in annexing the Golan and east Jerusalem. So it’s easier to point a finger at Bennett; a few years ago Liberman was the bogeyman of Israeli politics.
Diminishing returns because the debate over who is in the Zionist camp doesn’t really matter. When the central debating point is “they are not real patriots” is all that is left in the quiver, the archer should start to run for higher ground. After all, even Samuel Johnson understood that in 1775 when he noted “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” It isn’t that all these debaters on the Left and Right are scoundrels, it is that they haven’t come up with better talking points since the 1950s.