The period following Passover is punctuated by the national holidays of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Memorial Day for Israel's Fallen Soldiers, and Israel Independence Day. These days, which focus on Jewish history in our day rather than in the ancient past, clearly reflect the link between Jewish and Israeli identity. In the following op-ed column, which originally appeared in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's largest daily newspaper, Prof. Yedidia Stern, IDI's Vice President for Research, points to several segments of Israel's population that denounce the national values of the State of Israel: supporters of “normalization,” ultra-Orthodox Jews, Arab Israelis, and a new and surprising group that has joined them—ultra-nationalists.
Most of the dates highlighted on the Israeli calendar mark events that took place thousands of years ago. An exception to this rule is the current time of year. At this time, our attention shifts from the Exodus from Egypt and other historical milestones in the process of becoming a people, to events from the recent past and the present—events commemorated during Holocaust Remembrance Day, Israel's Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers, and Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day.
At this time of year, along with Hannah and her seven sons of the Chanukah story, we remember Esther of Lodz, an elderly woman who was murdered during the Holocaust for being a Jew. Along with Judah Maccabee, we contemplate Joseph Trumpeldor, who died in defense of Tel Hai, and Eliraz Peretz, who fell in an exchange of fire along the Gaza security fence only a few weeks ago. Along with leaders such as King David and Mordechai from the Book of Esther, we pay tribute to David Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin. We are now approaching Israel's national holidays, days cloaked in blue and white, which stand out against a backdrop of mourning and ashes. These are the days, when our Israeli and Jewish identities meet, coming together as one.
Jewish-Israeli nationalism is denounced by a strange and powerful ad hoc coalition. First among its members are the proponents of normalization, who will not be content unless we weed out all distinctive Jewish characteristics from our existence. In the name of globalization, the rights of the individual, and liberal-fundamentalist worldviews, they expunge nationalist sentiments and eschew any group identity whatsoever. Second are ultra-Orthodox Jews, who view nationalism as a dangerous replacement for religion. "Our nation is only a nation by virtue of its Torah," they invoke, arguing that nationalism should therefore be rejected. Third are Arab Israelis, who are threatened by Israeli nationalism since it is emphatically Jewish. These three groups, which comprise over one-third of the population of Israel, see Judaism solely as a religion, not as a nationality.
This coalition has lately received a considerable boost from a surprising direction: the ultra-nationalists. This group uses patriotism to justify discrimination against Israelis who are non-Jews. They sometimes resort to racism out of national pride or to advance their own interests. They deride universal-humanitarian values in the name of ultra-nationalist values. They play into the hands of the enemies of nationalism by demonstrating the dangerous potential of nationalist might. Indeed, nationalist fervor is liable to pull the rug of legitimacy out from under 21st century Zionism, not just around the world, but even in Israel itself.
Unfortunately, those who lash out against Israeli nationalism also include certain segments of the national-religious community. Although this radical approach has not spread to most of this community, it has afflicted a significant minority - extremist settlers, soldiers who refuse orders based on their religious beliefs, ideologues who reject democracy on religious grounds—people who are generally held in high esteem because of their willingness to make personal sacrifices. Increasingly, this minority scorns democracy itself and the primary institutions of government—the Knesset, the courts and even the military. How do they permit themselves to belittle the most important Jewish creation in hundreds of years? How did they forget the tragic outcome of two thousand years in which the Jewish people lacked sovereignty? What would they say to those we remember during this time of year, whose personal sacrifice bequeathed us our national life?
The foreign fire that is burning in our camp today is fueled by religious nationalism. Our wayward brothers seek to redeem the Jewish people from itself. As they see it, they have good and noble intentions: They are prepared to refuse military orders in order to strengthen national resilience. They wish to supplant the Israeli court system in order to restore the religious judges of yore. A minority of them aspires towards a spiritual revolution that will do away with political Zionism and transform the State of Israel into a religious state that will enable Jewish sovereignty to "fulfill its historical role." Yet history can attest to the final stop of this route. It is called civil war, and its end result is devastation.
The national Zionist enterprise has not been completed. The generation of the War of Independence, the young boy and young girl of Alterman's silver platter, gave the people of Israel a sovereign framework. Our generation must fill it with content—content that is national, not nationalist. The Zionist public in Israel must join forces, in order to create a state that is not content with being a regular country, yet aspires to be part of the family of nations; a state that is not willing to give up its unique identity, but also wants to make room for the "Other" in its midst; a state that wants to be both Jewish and democratic.
Professor Yedidia Z. Stern is Vice President of IDI and former dean of the Law School at Bar Ilan University.
This article was originally published in Hebrew in Yedioth Ahronoth on April 7, 2010.