Tonight the Jewish world will light the first candle of Hanukkah, a holiday celebrating the Jewish rebellion against their Greek oppressors. Hanukkah has come to symbolize our everlasting struggle against oppression throughout our shared history.
Two weeks ago Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni of nonstop efforts to undermine him and his government. As a result Netanyahu fired the two senior ministers, an act that has forced Israel into early elections for the country’s 20th Knesset, which will be held in Israel on March 17, 2015. The elections will precede the scheduled elections by almost two years, but to most Israelis, this comes with little surprise.
Immediately following his announcement, Prime Minister Netanyahu opened his election campaign with a televised speech in which he described what it’s like to be head of an impossible government full of ministers who have insulted him, provoked him and plotted a “putsch” against him. Netanyahu’s speech followed some serious disagreements between parties in the governing coalition, particularly over the controversial “Jewish state bill.”
The “Jewish state bill” calls for Israel to be declared the nation-state of the Jewish people. The proposal caused a vocal controversy in the Israeli public and media, as well as in the Diaspora. Many believe this law will severely harm Israel’s democratic values and the rights of its minorities.
The proposed law raises difficult questions concerning the definition of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and it may upset the delicate balance between the state’s Jewish character and its democratic one.
Twenty percent of Israeli citizens are Arabs. To ask them to identify with the state’s most prominent symbols — the flag, the menorah emblem, the anthem, the Law of Return, the Protection law of the Holy Places, the Hebrew language, the Jewish calendar, Israel Independence Day and the Israel Memorial Day, the Declaration of Independence — is impossible.
Many others who agree with the basics of the bill, however, will argue against it being legislated now because of timing. Israel is fighting a very difficult and frustrating battle on the international front. We are losing this battle in many cases for old, classical anti-Semitic reasons. Israel’s image is suffering and this new bill is pushing some very important ideas that need to be grappled with at a very wrong time, detractors say. A new poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute found that almost 40 percent of Israeli Jews said a “Jewish state” law would damage the interests of the state, with a little more than 31 percent saying it would promote the country’s interests.
Jewish identity, Jewish values and preserving the Jewish tradition are what the Maccabees fought for. More than 2,000 years after the story of the Maccabees, we continue to face existential threats and persecution. And we continue to hope that our enemies will one day become our friends, or at least better neighbors.
This past year Israel was under severe, unprecedented and ongoing rocket attack from Gaza. In the 66 years since independence, Israel has had to continue its fight for existence. This summer’s conflict was just one more chapter in our story of perseverance. We are not giving up, even though it seems we cannot escape this challenging reality. Most importantly, we have not lost our faith in peace, in mankind.
The Jewish world stood with Israel this past year and demonstrated its commitment, belief and support. The grace of our Jewish peoplehood is a value most nations lack. This is our Jewish flame; the flame of unity, while not being uniform, allows us to stand together in many different places, literally and figuratively.
During the next few months of our pre-election period in Israel, we will be overwhelmed with statehood declarations and promises for a better future alongside pessimism about security and future threats. There will be a variety of religious, political and social opinions. Israel’s political map reflects our country’s very colorful diversity. These are the many different flames that illuminate Israel today. It is a reality that we both admire and argue with daily. Most of us are confused by it, and at the same time, proud of and willing to sacrifice for it. That reality is many-hued, bright and subdued mingling with the magical colors of all the flames from across the Jewish world. Hanukkah’s flames should remind us that although we differ, miraculously we can shine in one endless flame, a light to all nations.
Vice President, JCC Association Israel Office