Israeli scholar offers advice to liberal Jews

Israeli scholar offers advice to liberal Jews

Ruth Gavison warned against the “false dichotomies” that are leading some to choose between liberalism and Zionism.
Ruth Gavison warned against the “false dichotomies” that are leading some to choose between liberalism and Zionism.

Delivering a lecture in memory of the late Rabbi James Diamond, an Israeli scholar of human rights warned against the “false dichotomies” that are leading some to choose between liberalism and Zionism.

Ruth Gavison, professor emerita of human rights at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, gave the Rabbi James S. Diamond Memorial Lecture April 30 in Princeton University’s Computer Science Building.

Diamond, the retired director of the Center for Jewish Life/Hillel at Princeton University, was killed in March 2013 when a speeding driver lost control of his vehicle on a residential street in Princeton. CJL and the university’s Program in Judaic Studies cosponsored the program.

Introducing Gavison, Michael Walzer, professor emeritus of social science at the Institute of Advanced Studies, called her “one of Israel’s best public intellectuals” and a “rare breed who actually talks to and has long conversations with people who disagree with her.” 

Gavison is also founding president of the Metzilah Center for Zionist, Jewish, Liberal and Humanist Thought in Jerusalem.

Gavison herself remembered Diamond as having a “gift of bringing various communities together, and more specifically trying to bridge gaps between Jews of all attitudes.”

Gavison described a feeling of malaise among liberal Jews about their identification with Zionism and Israel, especially in light of Israel’s control of the West Bank, stalled efforts to negotiate a two-state solution, inequality among minorities within Israel, and a dearth of religious pluralism. Seeing an apparent gap between their two identities, and what they see as anti-democratic trends in Israel, some liberals are embracing “false dichotomies that are misleading and also dangerous.” 

Instead, she said, Jews of all ideologies need to negotiate the tensions between apparent dichotomies in ways that will “enrich conversations between people and groups of people.”

For example, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2014 supported a successful effort to raise the threshold for representation in the Knesset, critics worried it would reduce Arab representation in the parliament.

“The Left said it was terrible because it was anti-Arab and anti-democratic,” said Gavison 

But what happened in the election was unexpected and, for Gavison, very positive: The Arab parties in Israel united in part to thwart the new threshold.

“What happened is fantastic, the most refreshing change in the Israeli political system for years,” she said. “It requires them to negotiate within themselves where before they were always so radical that there was no possibility of conversation.”

Similarly, the latest Israeli election was not the clear-cut victory for Israel’s Right that many assumed, she said. Voters did not give a mandate to the Jewish Home party, which supports annexing the West Bank, and they “gave a lot of power to the Left plus centrist parties.” She added that there is a consistent majority in Israel, even among Likud supporters, in favor of a two-state solution.

But what kept voters from ousting Netanyahu were the three things they feel Israel needs if it is to give up the territories: a guarantee that Palestinians will not seek a “right of return” to Israel proper, security guarantees, and recognition by the Palestinians that Israel is the nation-state of the Jews. 

Neither side has given Israelis credible ways of dealing with these real issues, she said; the Left talks about “hope and being nice to the international community” while the Right insists on the right of Jews to settle a “Greater Israel.”

“This is a failure of democracy, but not one easily remedied by seeking to impose a two-state solution through the UN,” she said, noting that such a solution is antidemocratic and does not require Palestinians to concede what Israel needs.

Gavison suggested that democracy in Israel has gotten stronger over time, though slowly. 

“I think democracy is the best mechanism to channel disagreements; it is respectful, usually nonviolent, and requires a long-term system of cooperation, compromise, and conversation that ultimately makes components of a society wish to live together,” she said.

Such democratic values are not in conflict with the idea of a Jewish state, she said.

The Israeli Declaration of Independence addresses three groups separately, she said: all the citizens of Israel, the Zionist-Jewish population, and the Jews in the Diaspora.

In her interpretation, she said, the Declaration suggests that “‘Jewish’ is the character of the society and the tradition that inspires the majority.” What makes Israel Jewish is that “it is the only place in the world in which Jews enjoy the right to answer questions about their collective welfare — constrained by democracy and human rights.” 

The Left also downplays legitimate concerns about the future of Judaism.

“Jewish continuity requires a frank, candid conversation,” she said, “and liberal Jews are afraid to talk about this issue because of an ambivalence on how to maintain equal dignity to all and respect for your distinct identity, and a wish to transmit it.”

Israel, she suggested, has something to offer in that regard to Diaspora Jews, many of whom “see their Jewishness as an ethical, cultural, and historical identity, and not a religious one.” 

“Israel is the only place that gives nonreligious Jewish identity a serious chance,” she said.

An emphasis on the Holocaust and Jewish vulnerability will not ensure a Jewish future, she said.

“We should not have a Jewish identity built on ‘Never again.’ We must have a Jewish identity that we treasure because it is good, enriching, and we want to transmit it to our children,” she said. “To have this kind of identity, [Israeli and American Jews] need to group our energies and benefit from the fact that we now have a dual Jewish existence between Israel and other Jewish communities.”

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