Thursday, July 30, 2009

In Israel: A Secular Diplomat Gives A Great Religious Lesson on Politics

There’s an old joke that asks: What's a Jewish holiday? The answer is a day on which we say: They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat!

Of course, that’s not precisely true. Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, could spawn its own joke: Only Jews have a day when you'e supposed to be depressed. Personally, it's hard for me to muster any extra depression since I deal with Middle East politics on a daily basis.

All kidding firmly put aside now, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon has written a fascinating op-ed piece on Tisha B’Av, in the Jerusalem Post of July 29. It’s worth analyzing because it tells a lot about Israel and the present moment.

Let’s start with Ayalon himself. He’s a brilliant, personable, articulate guy, a professional diplomat who's become a politician, elected as member of parliament and made deputy foreign minister. He is a senior member in the party of Avigdor Lieberman, rather inaccurately seen as an evil racist, reactionary, etc. (Lieberman is a demagogue on the election trail but fortunately not in office; he is also relatively dovish).

At any rate, Ayalon is none of these things of which Lieberman is accused. He’s not even right-wing. He is also pretty cosmopolitan and secular.

Yet Ayalon has also shown himself a man who respects Jewish religious tradition. And so on this day he gives a “drash”--what might be most closely approximated in the Christian world as a combination of intellectual lecture and sermon--on the meaning of Tisha B’av.

For those who don’t know, Tisha B’Av is the worst day on the Jewish calendar, the day when the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem (yes, they were in Jerusalem, Yasir) were destroyed and many other bad things happened.

Tradition holds that the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans because of needless hatred, strife among Jews. (It really might be traced more to the combination of a repressive Roman puppet regime; Rome’s dominating ambitions; and a heroic but hopeless rebellion.) Ayalon points out that the exile after the First Temple lasted only 70 years while the one after the Second lasted 2,000 years.

Now applying impeccable rabbinic logic—which by the way is every bit as rational and a basis for Western civilization as Greek logic--Ayalon points out that the sin of internal division must far outweigh all the sins that lead to the destruction of the First Temple. In making this argument, Ayalon quotes Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Halogen Kook, former chief rabbi and the intellectual father of modern religious Zionism.

Ayalon then says:

“The State of Israel faces many challenges that we can only overcome as a united people. We are presented with a growing nuclear threat from Iran, terrorist groups primed to strike once again into our city centers, rockets aimed at our towns and villages in the North and South, and the increasing hatred and delegitimization of Israel around the world.

"Today, the State of Israel is a thriving pluralist and multicultural society. However, recently we can see major strains of disunity of purpose, and discord. Many see the different elements in Israeli society as the "other" and frequently defame them. Many groups pull their weight as citizens for the good of the country, while others contribute far less. We need to achieve a national solidarity which pulls in the same direction to meet the rising challenges which we face as a nation.”

What’s he talking about here? The meaning is very different from what people might expect.

One group is the Haredim:

“It can surely only contribute to disunity when Israelis of some religions and backgrounds send their children to the front lines in the battles against our enemies and those who seek to destroy us, while others do not.”

Remember that Lieberman’s policy is not some “fascist” or ultra-right party but essentially an ethnic party of Soviet-origin Israelis who tend to be secular. Ayalon does not indicate enmity toward this particular religious community but urges them to engage in alternative service, helping the sick, disabled, aged, and poor.

Implied, too, is a criticism of both extreme left and right. By quoting Kook and addressing it in its own terms, Ayalon is reminding the settlers and right not to undermine the government.
The settler movement sometimes puts its own interests over those of the nation; the far left sometimes seems to show more concern and support for Israel’s enemies than its survival.

But wait! Isn’t there something strange here? Hasn’t Lieberman, through his hostile stance toward Israel’s Arab minority contributed to an atmosphere of internal strife? Yes. So is Ayalon just being a hypocrite? Well, first of all, since the election Lieberman has not spoken in such terms and has certainly not tried to enact any legislation along those lines. Then, too, Ayalon is suggesting that it is better to stop such talk altogether.

What reigns in Israel today is not a "right-wing" or "hard-line" government but a centrist coalition, bringing together the main left and conservative parties. "Well-wishing"observers in Europe; left-wing anti-Israel "Jewish" lobbies in Washington; extreme right-wingers in America may not comprehend this but it is quite obviously true in Israel itself.

Ayalon concludes with an appeal and appreciation o Israel’s democracy:

“In a free society like Israel's, every person is entitled to their own opinion. Nevertheless, this does not include inciting violence or hatred for other groups, and especially not for Israel as a whole. Such incitement will essentially lead to the breakdown of our vital national solidarity and weaken our resistance to those who seek the destruction of every one of us.”

Perhaps Ayalon himself might be a good candidate for prime minister some day.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.