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Debate over identity sparks the emergence of a “passionate center” in Israeli politics

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Yossi Klein Halevi (left) with Dov Waxman, director of the Younes & Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies. (Photo: Oliver Chien/ UCLA.)

At the inaugural Younes Nazarian Memorial Lecture of the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, writer Yossi Klein Halevi contended that mass demonstrations against the proposed judicial reforms of Prime Minister Netanyahu were reanimating the center in Israeli politics.

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, May 17, 2023 — Writer and journalist Yossi Klein Halevi, senior fellow at the Shalom Harman Institute in Jerusalem, delivered the inaugural Younes Nazarian Memorial Lecture to a full house at the UCLA Luskin Conference Center Ballroom on April 26.

The series was created by the Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies in honor of its benefactor Younes Nazarian, who passed away last year at the age of 91. Halevi spoke after Sharon Nazarian, Ph.D., president of the Nazarian Family Foundation and chair of the Israel Studies Community Advisory Board of the Y&S Nazarian Center, gave a touching tribute in honor of her father.

The event, “Israel at 75: A Crisis of Identity,” took place on Yom Haatzmaut, Israel's 75th independence day, and was cosponsored by the UCLA Leve Center for Jewish Studies, Shalom Hartman Institute, American Jewish University, Hillel at UCLA, Sinai Temple, Valley Beth Shalom, B’nai David-Judea, Leo Baeck Temple and IKAR.

Halevi is an award-winning writer of several books, including, “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land,” 2019; “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” 2018; “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation,” 2014; and “Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist,” 2014.

“To be a liberal Israeli these days is to experience an anguish that I’ve never known in the 40 years that I’ve lived in Israel,” said Halevi, who immigrated to the country from the U.S. in 1982. “I never recall losing sleep the way that I do now.

“What we’re experiencing in Israel is a convergence of assaults. This is the most corrupt, most politically extreme and most religiously fundamentalist government in Israel’s history. Any one of those assaults would be a formidable challenge. Coming together, [they have] really brought us to the edge of what feels like the abyss.”

A conflict over the meaning of Israel’s dual identities

Israel today is living through a dispute between the center and the right over what a Jewish state and a democratic state mean, said Halevi. Proposed reforms that would reduce the independence of the Israeli Supreme Court have sparked huge demonstrations nationwide by Israeli citizens, many of whom also object to the inclusion of extreme far-right politicians in the cabinet of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“The debate that we’re having today over democracy is: How do you define majority rule? Does a majority have the right to do whatever it decides if  [it] wins an election, as this government did? Does winner take all? This government is saying, yes, we won the election and to oppose us is to oppose the democratic process.

“The liberal understanding of democracy is that there’s a delicate dance between the rights of the majority and the rights of a minority. When the government says that the [Supreme] Court is an undemocratic institution, they’re right. That’s its purpose. Its purpose is to be a check on [the] runaway power of an elected majority. And so there’s a profound disagreement [over] what we mean by democracy.”

Israel is not and never well be a paragon of pure democracy because it must constantly mediate between democratic norms and serious security threats, observed Halevi. “What makes Israeli democracy so precious, and I would argue so important for the world, is [that we are] the test case of democracy under extremity.

“I fear this government would up-end precisely that delicate balance, that search for decency under conditions that I believe would have defeated almost any country in our place.

“The second identity issue that is on the table,” he continued, “and I believe [will] become more and more prominent in the coming months, is what do we mean by a Jewish state?

“The classical Zionist, mainstream answer to this question, going back to the founding of Zionism, [is] that Israel was meant to be the state of the Jewish people, all of the Jewish people.”

In Halevi’s view, Rabbinic Judaism succeeded in holding the Jews together for 1,700 years in the diaspora, but broke down in the face of modernity in the 19th century, when Zionism arose to offer an alternative version of a unifying Jewish identity.

“There is good reason for why almost the entire ultra-Orthodox world in… pre-Holocaust Europe opposed Zionism, because they understood just how radical, how revolutionary Zionism was,” he continued.

“Now, it’s true that Zionism and the secular state went a long way to accommodat[e] the camp that defines ‘who is a Jew’ in classical Rabbinic Orthodox terms,” he commented. “I would define Israel as a secular state with too many religious laws… maybe like Ireland or Italy of two generations ago.

“The one [law] that most defines Israel as the state of the Jewish people, and not the state of Orthodox Judaism, is the Law of Return. And that’s precisely what this government intends to amend. So the next great fight that’s heading our way is going to be over how we define admission into the state of Israel.”

The contending definitions of Israel as a Jewish state highlight the difference between a modern state and a people, observed Halevi, who argued that the ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionists confuse a community with a people, and do not have an expansive notion of a modern state.

“For me, the definition of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state is that… Israel is, first of all, the state of every Jew in the world, whether or not they are citizens of Israel. And secondly, it is the state of all of its citizens, whether or not they are Jews.

“This government wants to expand and expand and expand the Jewishness of the state. And that seems to be antithetical to Israel’s best long term interests, which require the absorption to whatever extent is possible of Arab citizens into some sense of shared civic Israeli identity.”

Despite the gravity of the current political situation, Halevi was ultimately optimistic. “This is potentially one of the most positive moments in Israeli history,” he said.

“And I say that because it has forced us not only to deal with identity issues that we must confront, but also to deal with the long-simmering distortions in the Israeli system.” Among those distortions, he identified both “the ultra-Orthodox state within a state” and settler violence, which he believes has moved from the farthest fringe of the Israeli right to the heart of Israeli power.

“What we’re experiencing today on the streets is the rise of a passionate center,” he concluded. “The center in Israel today is no less passionate, no less militant, than the extremes.

“[T]he center has …moved from a mood to an ideology. And that ideology is what I’ve tried to lay out here: a liberal understanding, a classical Zionist understanding of Israel as a Jewish state and a democratic state, and [an insistence] on the non-negotiable entwinement of these two identities.

“On the left, there is a wavering about a Jewish state. On the right, we’re seeing the erosion of support for a democratic state. It’s the center that will fight and preserve, I believe, the integrity of these two identities.”

Watch the video of Halevi's full presentation here.