By Leah Garber
Last Thursday a new government was sworn in in Israel.
This 37th government is headed by Benjamin Netanyahu and marks his sixth term as prime minister—longer than any previous prime minister in the history of the State of Israel. (Unfortunately, Israeli law does not limit the number of terms or years one can serve in the position.)
It should have been a festive day or at least one characterized by relief and hope that Israel’s turbulent political system would stabilize. Despite the victory of Netanyahu bloc’s, the path to establishing the coalition was saturated with self-interest and concessions, further proof (as if we needed more) that politics is a conflicted and polluted arena.
At times like this, when Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government seeks to spotlight the negative and when media channels and Jewish leaders from across the globe express concern about the erosion of the democratic, pluralistic nature of the State of Israel, my task as the author of this blog series, is harder than ever. Especially amidst the challenges and divisions that are so tangible right now, it is important for me to try to put things in perspective, and I hope my readers are open to looking at things from different angles.
To the seers of darkness and the harbingers of the end of democracy in Israel, I say: Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, is a strong and stable one that has, in the past, proven its resilience in complicated realities. This is a democracy in which no one questions the credibility of the election results or claims fraud. This is a democracy that in the past judged and punished its elected officials when they failed. This is a democracy in which the previous government included, for the first time ever, an Arab party within the coalition. This is a democracy that just appointed, again for the first time, a speaker of the Israeli parliament who is a member of the LGBTQIA community. This is a democracy that, despite new laws that may be enacted, holds one of the world’s most important Pride parades and allows full religious freedom to all its citizens—even those who publicly undermine the country that offers them so much.
No, I am not concerned that our democracy is in danger. Regrettably, new legislation is challenging its values, but Israel’s citizens will guard the country’s orderly and stable system.
To those in the Diaspora who believe their relationship with Israel and Israelis is now in jeopardy, consider this: Is an authentic, meaningful connection with the country and its people dependent on the head of state and his ministers or on thousands of years of shared history and destiny that can in no way be measured or put at risk by the act or politics of a single man? The partnership of fate among the Jewish people, in Israel and around the world, is infinitely greater than the sum of its parts—and certainly greater than the politics of this (or any) moment.
As I follow the news and consider its impact on our national mood (and my own), I must remind myself that Israel’s greatness was never its politics. Throughout the history of our people, political disputes and divisions have been our reality—from our split into tribes to the royal houses of Israel and Judah and from the disputes among the sages of the Talmud right up until clashes around the Zionist narrative and our modern-day rifts. The Jewish people’s ethos of controversy has always been fertile ground for cultural and intellectual success, and the sages have already said that “the jealousy of writers breeds wisdom.”
It is these precise cultural and intellectual accomplishments that have made the State of Israel what it is and led to tremendous achievements—and pride—that are not contingent on any one government. These are the achievements of the people, the good and decent citizens of this country. I want to believe that reconciliation and renewal initiatives will take a new turn and that a vital sense of urgency to better the country, despite its politics, will rise from within. To those who view all of Israel through the country’s political lens and foresee the end of its relationship with the world’s Jews, I say: Lift your eyes and take a bird’s-eye view. You will see a great creation that flourishes despite—and perhaps because of—the conflicts within the country’s politics. Lift your eyes and focus on the good, the unifying, and the true essence of our thriving country.
Continue to use your eyes to find a country in today’s world that has exemplary politics, one that its citizens appreciate and in which they take pride. In all those countries where neither politics nor elected officials is a source of pride, do citizens disconnect and distance themselves from it? Or are they more motivated to fight to better their beloved country, their home?
This is the pendulum of democracy. While half of the voters celebrate their victory, the other half mourn their loss. There is hope in the eyes of many, a bitter sense of defeat in the eyes of others. The Israeli people had their say, and after two months of tiresome coalition negotiations, Netanyahu formed this newest government.
On Monday I attended the ministerial exchange ceremony at the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs. The outgoing minister, Dr. Nachman Shai, a dear and loyal friend of the JCC Movement emphasized that every decision made by the Israeli government affects Diaspora Jewry, making it vitally important for the government to consider the consequences of its decisions on global Jewry. He added that governments come and go, but the Jewish people remains and must unite regardless of the party in power.
I wish much success to the incoming minister, Mr. Amichai Chikli, who not only has especially large shoes to fill but also must pursue a mission that is more critical today than ever before: To unite the Jewish people—within Israel’s borders and beyond.
May 2023 be a quieter and calmer year than in the recent past and may we all find ourselves united—with pride and without reservations—around our beloved Israel.
Leah Garber is a vice president of JCC Association of North America and director of its Center for Israel Engagement in Jerusalem.