Dear Mr. Lieberman: Quite understandably, you didn’t ask me to run your campaign. But now, in this extended hiatus between the campaign and a new government, I’d like to offer you some unsolicited advice about the next stage of the message you convey to the Israeli people.
It’s no secret that you’ve aroused the ire of many, from religious parties on the Right to those on the Left concerned about civil liberties. Ironically, though, your message could easily have appealed to many religious people and to some of those committed to civil liberties. To do that, you would simply have had to craft your message slightly differently, which you still can do.
Let me explain. Ironically, of all the parties that received significant numbers of votes, yours is the only one that made a “splash” about increased civil liberties. How so? You did it by advocating the right to civil marriage. Many people saw this as an anti-religious move, but you could have spun it differently, stressing that despite your commitment to the Jewishness of the State of Israel (to which we’ll return), you endorse the right of citizens to make personal choices about the role that religion will play in their lives. Liberty, you could have said, is the issue.
The same with your promise to reform the conversion process. Even religious people here know that the conversion process has become abominably inhuman. The shameful treatment of Rabbi Haim Druckman last May, and the limbo into which the people he’d helped convert were placed, was inexcusable, but not atypical. You could have appealed to us religious voters, confident as we are in Judaism’s nobility and its capacity to shape lives of Jewish devotion and meaning.
Imagine that you’d advocated change in marriage and conversion not in order to undermine religion, but instead to protect it. What if you’d said “a magnificent religious tradition like ours will thrive most not when it is enforced by a small group of rabbis, but when it is permitted to compete in Israel’s marketplace of ideas.” If you’d said “let’s free religion from the chains of an antiquated rabbinate that allegedly protects it, and enable Judaism to compete for the loyalty and devotion of Israelis by making the best case it can for itself,” you would actually have attracted the interest of many religious voters.
THEN, THERE’S the issue of Arabs. Here, too, a positive campaign would have served you infinitely better. Instead of that “Only Lieberman Understands Arabic” slogan, which led many people to make comparisons between you and Rabbi Meir Kahane, and which drew too many teenagers shouting “Death to Arabs” to your rallies, what if you’d said that only Lieberman is looking at demography honestly?
There’s a basic truth about Israeli society that no one is addressing. For this country to remain both Jewish and democratic, it is imperative that it retain a significant Jewish demographic majority. That’s why all discussions of Palestinian refugees being returned are non-starters.
But as you well know, Palestinian refugees aren’t the only challenge to our democracy. So, too, are the country’s Arabs. If they were to become a larger percentage of the population – no matter how loyal they were to the state – they would by definition undermine Israel’s creation as a country, to paraphrase Lincoln, “of the Jews, by the Jews and for the Jews.” Yes, that is indeed why this country was created, and that does mean that our democracy can’t mimic America’s democracy. (More on this in my new book – I’d be happy to send you a copy.)
So say that the vast majority of people who live here want this to remain a Jewish country. By raising the question of how we’re going to maintain that Jewish majority – by means of moving borders, as you suggest, or by some other means – you could have initiated a conversation that we have put off for far too long.
WHICH LEADS me your “No Citizenship Without Loyalty” slogan. You’re right – the four manifestos by the country’s Arabs which call for ending the definition of Israel as a Jewish state are reason for worry. But what if, instead of oaths, you’d advocated universal national service? For Israel’s Arabs for haredim for the far too many secular Jews who now choose not to serve? What if, instead of being perceived as an alarmist, you’d positioned your party as the one restoring a commitment to patriotism, yes, even for Israel’s Arab citizens?
Oaths of loyalty won’t solve anything. They won’t actually get anyone to serve their state. And they will create a climate of suspicion and fear. Is there an oath that a haredi in Bnei Brak, a secular Jew in Ramat Aviv and a loyal Israeli Arab in Beit Safafa can all utter with complete conviction? I doubt it. That’s why I’d focus less on what people swore to, and much more on what they actually did and how they contributed to the country that you and I both love.
The last thing our country needs is a pervasive climate of suspicion, with commissions asking “who’s loyal and who’s not?” We dare not recreate the trauma that America suffered when Joe McCarthy, who was not wrong about the evil of communism, tore his country asunder by undermining its liberties in the name of saving it.
Israel still has no constitution because as a society, we don’t agree on the fundamental commitments that ought to lie at the heart of the Jewish state. Ironically, your campaign could have been one of the first to raise many of these pivotal issues. Now, with the government still forming, you have another opportunity to craft the message you want to share and the positions you want to advocate.
I, for one, am hoping that we might all still benefit from the campaign you could have run, and now can.