Israel is holding its legislative elections on January 22 and, if the polls are any indication, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s joint Likud-Beiteinu Party is running away with voter support. Given Bibi’s nationwide popularity, this is not particularly surprising.
However, startling news of rapidly increasing right-wing acceptance, coupled with growing disarray among the center-left parties, warrants rising skepticism about the future of a democratic, Jewish state of Israel.
Not long ago, Jews both within and outside Israel expected great things from the country proclaiming to be our “homeland.” To borrow an idea from Thomas Friedman, Jews wanted Israel to be democratic, Jewish, and secure in its borders in what was traditionally the land promised to Moses’ followers. It was important to us that Israel maintained its progressive core, however, whether that be through its consistently secular leadership or its socialist, kibbutz-loving people. Over the last decade or so, though, Israel’s leaders have shed the mantle of democracy in favor of security, and lately, a stronger Jewish identity.
Orthodox Jews, once considered an afterthought in Israeli society, have made a surprising comeback due to a birth rate that is more than double that of secular Israelis. They have teamed up with religious Zionists who stress strengthening the state’s control over the lands of Biblical Israel at the expense of democracy. To much of Israel’s right-wing, Palestinians are considered sub-human and incapable of reason, Israeli-Arabs and African Jews are ostracized, and women are condemned to a life a separation and denial.
For American Jews, progressive or otherwise, this election will bring about an alarming realization: that the Israel of our youth, that of David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir and discos in Tel Aviv and inclusiveness and tolerance and progress and “Never Again!” is quickly fading away. Any day now, we will realize we no longer have in common ideals once shared across the American spectrum with Israelis, that of being a shining example to the world of our just political system, seeing value and potential in all lives no matter the creed.
This is not to say we should lose all hope for Israel’s future. Israel’s economy remains strong despite the global economic downsizing. Egyptians and Jordanians have lost confidence in their leadership, and Syria is crippled in a bloody civil war. Iran’s weakened economy, combined with the dire situation in Syria, will leave Israel’s terrorist enemies in Hezbollah and Hamas isolated. With turmoil raging in Israel’s neighbors and the growing success of Israel’s Iron Dome security project, the Jewish State’s safety has rarely been so undeniable.
The possibility remains that with Israel’s military and economic security ensured, its people will realize that it does not need to elect hawkish leaders like Netanyahu. There is a chance that if it can refocus its attention on social issues, helping save its middle class from despair, and provide a more welcoming environment to its religious and racial minorities, it can once again be the democratic beacon of hope in a region oft-maligned for its lack of freedom. Unfortunately, the zeitgeist favors the religious right-wing, and that will be reflected in the upcoming election. Only time will tell if Israelis are willing to return to their pro-American, liberal roots, or continue on its path towards entrenched theocracy that shares more in common with the ideology of its regional enemies.