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September 2, 2015 | 18th Elul 5775

Self evident truths

Galilee Diary #414, November 2, 2008

Marc J. Rosenstein


We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
     -Declaration of Independence of the United States, opening sentence

In the land of Israel, the Jewish people arose.
     -Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel, opening sentence

Watching Barak Obama's victory speech, I was filled with joy as an American, at this proof that the United States means what it says about freedom and equality and the principle that all persons are judged on their merits without respect to ethnicity, religion, or race. Obviously, I have no idea whether Obama will be a good president, or whether he was the "right choice;" (obviously, 48% of the electorate don't think so). But irrespective of these political questions, his election, on the symbolic level, makes an important statement. At the same time, as an Israeli, I felt a tinge of sadness at the conflict between the values I imbibed growing up in the United States, and those manifest in the State of Israel. The United States was and remains a unique experiment, in which identity is based on ideology, on values, on beliefs – not on color or national origins. Israel, on the other hand, continues the European tradition (against which the United States rebelled) of national identities in which religion and/or ethnicity played and play a major role. Instead of rebelling against the European division into nationality-based states at the beginning of the 20th century, when we Jews were excluded from the game, we accepted the model whole-heartedly, and went off to create our own national state in Israel.

What I realized, listening to the president-elect, was that our problem here is not that we don't have any leaders who speak as well as Barak Obama; it is rather that the rhetoric of inclusion, of unity, of building a better future together – is not a part of Israeli discourse. And this is not just because of Israel's fractious, at-large, proportional-representation political system, with its attendant culture of coalition horse-trading/extortion. It is more fundamentally, I think, because such rhetoric conflicts with our very conception of who we are as a state. Many, if not most, Israelis would read such language of universal inclusion and opportunity as some kind of betrayal of the purpose of Israel as the state not of all peoples, but of the Jewish people.

Once I attended a lecture by a Bedouin social worker, a graduate of a Canadian university, working to improve the lot of her people in the Negev. She is a remarkable woman, articulate, smart, charismatic, thoughtful. Leaving the hall, I commented, half facetiously, "Wow, I'd vote for her for prime minister!" To which a colleague responded – "Well, that would be the end of the Jewish state." I've been thinking about this interchange ever since: If England, an explicitly Christian country, can have a Jewish prime minister, can the Jewish state not have a Moslem prime minister? Is it all ethnic hegemony, or is there some basis in values that unite – or could unite – all the citizens of the Jewish state of Israel? Could we imagine a leader who would speak a language that all of us could identify with and respect, or are we destined to live in an eternal zero-sum game of competition for power, resources, and the moral high ground? It seems to me that this challenge, of finding the cultural and civil common denominator, is daunting, but represents the key to the sustainability of Israel, and so we cannot afford to walk away from it.

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