Sunday 30 July 2023

Protecting the essence of Israel (The Sunday Guardian)

 Israel was explicitly set up in 1948 as the homeland of the Jewish community, just three years after World War II, during the course of which Nazi Germany sought to eliminate the Jewish people from the planet. Given their history of persecution, the small slice of land marked out for the establishment of Israel was not in any way unreasonable. At the same time, a much larger area was marked out as the Palestinian state. However, the leadership of that community was opposed to any land being ceded to create a new Jewish state, and went to war with Israel, in which a large chunk of land was lost to the State of Israel. Doing away with what is still referred to in capitals such as Tehran as “the Jewish Entity” became a popular cause within much of the rest of the region, and in 1967, a coalition of countries led by Egypt went to war with Israel. In the process, each of the main military participants in the war against Israel lost even more territory.

Subsequently, the Sinai peninsula was handed back to the Egyptians in an agreement worked out between Begin and Sadat, and since then, Egypt has been at peace with Israel. In the 2011 “Arab Spring” and the consequent coming to power of a regime controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood (an ultra-conservative religious party), there again arose the dread that such a peace may once again be broken. As took place in Turkey since President Erdogan took over, ultra-conservatives in Egypt grew in strength and were beginning to change the post-Sadat contours of Cairo’s policy until the Muslim Brotherhood was removed from power by the Egyptian military. In Turkey, there was a failed attempt by elements of the Turkish military loyal to the legacy of Kemal Ataturk to overthrow Erdogan, but the attempt failed. The European Union backed Erdogan as he exacted revenge on the Kemalist elements, not just in the military but in the rest of the government as well as civil society. The narrow margin by which Erdogan retained power in the last poll shows that more and more of the Turkish people are opposing his plans to make Turkey a society more like Saudi Arabia in the pre-MBS days than what the country had been since the time of Ataturk. Had Turkey gone the Egypt way and the elected regime toppled, the country would have moved much closer to Europe than it is now. After his narrow escape from loss of power, Erdogan has sought to re-fashion his policies in a more Europe-friendly manner, but apart from a dash of outward symbolism, his project of making Turkey a bastion of religious conservatism endures.

A country that is experiencing internal turmoil during the present times is Israel. That Israel is a Jewish state is a given. What is in dispute is what the essence of this Jewishness is. According to the ultra-conservative parties that have given Prime Minister Netanyahu his narrow majority in the Knesset, only the Orthodox deserve to call themselves truly Jewish. The previous government took the unprecedented step of including Israeli Arabs into the ministry. The ultra-conservatives would like to see the elimination of any involvement of Arabs in any part of the governance system in Israel. They would like to pass legislation that would ensure the primacy of the Orthodox and the ultra-conservatives over other segments of the Jewish population of Israel. In their view, only a return to Orthodoxy would ensure that Israel remains what it was intended to be, the Homeland of the Jewish people.

The Jewish people, it cannot be forgotten, have gifted the world with much scientific discovery. While the overwhelming majority of such intellects are observant Jews and many are even conservative, very few indeed are from the Orthodox community. In that stratum, there is much ritual and routine that makes it somewhat more difficult to ensure the freedom of thought and broadness of vision that truly great minds demonstrate and indeed seem to need. Benjamin Netanyahu has made saving his government a priority, and it has not helped that his political opponents have been working hard to send him to jail should they return to power. The prospect of that has made Netanyahu make compromises that he may perhaps have avoided. On taking office, Trump gave Hillary and Bill a free pass, declining to seek their prosecution. A similar gesture has not been reciprocated by the Biden administration, and as a consequence, Trump is emerging as the most likely Republican nominee against President Biden. Those campaigning against the weakening of the Israeli Supreme Court on the streets of Tel Aviv believe that the essence of the Jewish state and faith is moderation and personal freedom. The Orthodox parties supporting the Netanyahu government do not agree. Israel seems headed for another election, and the result of this could decide which of the two sides win. As is the case in the US, especially in New York, the Orthodox Jewish community has to have the right to follow the practices and rituals that they believe define their age-old faith. What is at issue is whether they have the right to enforce their will through legislation on the rest of the Jewish population as well. Those who believe in greater individual freedoms and rights are willing to challenge the conservative government even if it be through the streets rather than the ballot box.

Protecting the essence of Israel

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