Israelis attending a rally marking 22 years since the assassination of late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, Nov. 4, 2017. (Photo/JTA-Miriam Alster-Flash90)
Israelis attending a rally marking 22 years since the assassination of late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, Nov. 4, 2017. (Photo/JTA-Miriam Alster-Flash90)

Peace in Israel depends on healing left-right rift

Between the current right-wing government in Israel rallying for annexation of the West Bank, the rising expression of anti-Arab sentiment and the recent drive to expel tens of thousands of African refugees as we passed the threshold of 50 years of occupation, it’s perhaps not surprising that a growing number of progressive American Jews want to give up on Israel altogether.

With the Trump administration and its allies wreaking havoc on everything our democratic and inclusive values stand for, why should we bother worrying about what’s going on in another country, especially one where things are being done in the name of the Jewish people that run contrary to everything we as Jews hold dear?

This apathy at best and outright rejection at worst is often understandable. But it is misguided: We have so much to learn from the activism propelling Israel’s moderate majority.

During David Ben-Gurion’s tenure as Israel’s founding prime minister, he cultivated a pervasive culture of mamlachtiyut, which has no direct English translation but amounts to commitment to the collective, to the state itself. It was the only way that Israel could forge a common identity in a country filled with European refugees fleeing the ashes of the Shoah and its postwar displacement and pogroms, as well as refugees forced out of Israel’s surrounding Arab countries, a native sabra population and even non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox. Mamlachtiyut entailed the commitment to Israel’s democracy and its norms of freedom of speech, religion and equality for all of its inhabitants as the ethos of what would define a Jewish state.

Despite the well-chronicled ways mamlachtiyut has come under assault, I witnessed the work of Israel’s robust civil society on the front lines during a trip to the country earlier this year. Darkenu (“Our Way”) is a nonpartisan organization mobilizing Israel’s moderate majority, both politically and culturally, in order to champion the values supported by the vast majority of Israelis across the left-right spectrum: Israel as a democracy and as the inclusive nation-state of the Jewish people. Darkenu encourages Israelis to make their values clearly known in the public sphere so that their views can be adopted and championed by political parties across the board.

To put it simply, Darkenu is driving a new type of politics, where Israelis are encouraged to fight for something, for their vision of what Israel can and should be, and not just against current Israeli politics and leadership.

Traveling with a field organizer to Kfar Saba, a relatively affluent city northeast of Tel Aviv, I witnessed Darkenu’s work firsthand. Following months of disturbing revelations and indictments by Israeli police, the organization set up a modest demonstration in the town’s central square to build momentum against government corruption. With large signs from the local Darkenu office and a handful of volunteers, Darkenu reached hundreds of people, all of whom were willing to sign up to support the anti-corruption campaign.

We have so much to learn from the activism propelling Israel’s moderate majority.

Some Israelis were surprised that such a campaign was even necessary. “Aren’t we all against corruption?” a passerby asked, before enthusiastically agreeing to sign up. But sadly, Darkenu’s campaign is sorely needed: There is an ongoing effort to discredit corruption charges as politically motivated when levied against members of the current government. The delegitimization of the rule of law continues to corrode democratic norms in Israel, just as we are seeing in a flooding swamp in Washington, D.C.

Fighting corruption and incitement are at the very core of Darkenu’s work. In partnership with Commanders for Israel’s Security, Darkenu hosted last year’s Rabin memorial rally. Attendance has waned at this event as the Israeli left has weakened, typically drawing crowds of 25,000 to 35,000. In addressing the core of what felled the late Yitzhak Rabin — the incitement to violence as a legitimized response to differing political beliefs — Darkenu brought back commitment to the collective drawing a decade-record 85,000 in attendance.

Darkenu even had settler leaders speak. Yes, you read that right: settlers, the very people associated with the entrenchment of the occupation and Rabin’s assassination, came to the large Rabin memorial in progressive Tel Aviv. What gives?

It’s worth remembering that settlers are a heterogeneous group. Though many may hold views that differ from mine (and a majority of Israelis, for that matter) on a two-state solution, they are Zionists who at the core believe that Israel must remain both Jewish and democratic in order to survive. A huge portion of settlers and their center-right allies in Israel proper are Israelis who put their commitment to the state, the embodiment of the collective, first. Only a minority of settlers wish to place dangerous messianic ideology above the Israeli people and the state itself. A great many are moderate, and we need them at the table.

Darkenu furthers dialogue based on respect and nuance, making it clear that while the organization believes that many settlements will have to be dismantled to ensure Israel’s continued existence, settlers have to be spoken to as fellow Israelis.

In that spirit, Darkenu recently launched the Charter for Israeli Discourse, an effort to establish new norms for how fellow Israeli citizens engage with each other in the public sphere. It’s a national program designed to create a culture of respect and restoration of public trust from the Shabbat table to the Knesset. Ever since the 2016 election, I’ve yearned for a similar conversation about what it means to be American.

Israel won’t be able to make peace with Palestine without overcoming the major schisms within its own society and rally around new leaders that place the collective common good above all else. With Darkenu’s top-notch political mobilization talents, I am instilled with a great sense of hope for Israel’s future during these dark and divisive times. As we come to terms with the challenges ahead, it behooves all of us who care deeply about Israel, the peace process, the Jewish people and self-determination for all to support Darkenu’s groundbreaking work.

Joe Goldman
Joe Goldman

Joe Goldman was most recently the public affairs and civic engagement manager for San Francisco at the Jewish Community Relations Council. He now works as the senior policy associate at the national headquarters of Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger in his native Los Angeles.